I know this isn’t the type of thing people like to hear around these parts, but honestly: This city has been absolutely spoiled by success. The Yankees won a World Series just three years ago, and already there’s talk of a Bronx championship drought. The Giants won two Super Bowls in five years—in the most dramatic ways imaginable, I might add—and all anyone wants to talk about the summer afterward is whether the quarterbacks of the freaking Jets are going to be friends. We’re handed the most organically thrilling sports story of the year in Linsanity, and just a few months later, we’re complaining about the guy wanting too much money. (Already.) In a couple of months, this town is getting a whole new team. Amazing things are always happening here. Forgive Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Seattle for not having much pity for us.
But there’s one sports story I think might top them all. The Jets might have more years between them and their last title—44 and counting, heading into this season—but I can’t imagine anything bigger in this city than the New York Mets’ winning a World Series this year, their 50th anniversary of existence. It would be the most unlikely, ludicrous, transcendent bit of sports business this city has seen in a generation. It would make the 1969 Miracle Mets look like the sun coming up in the east; it would make Mr. Met’s head pop off. It would be the most jaw-dropping baseball story in a decade.
No one’s talking about this, because this is the Mets, and fans, quite justifiably, have been through enough the past few years. The Mets’ success heading into the All-Star break—they are among the top contenders for one of the two wild-card spots and, lo and behold, are leaving those hated Phillies in the dust—has been applauded, but cautiously so, like a parent whose child gets his or her first base hit after a whole season of strikeouts: We’re happy for the kid, but that was a lot of strikeouts. Nobody wants to make this harder on everybody than it has to be. The shoe has to drop soon, right? Protect ourselves while we can.
But this season is more than half over, and the Mets have shown no signs of fading. They’ve had a winning record each month. The young pitchers are improving and rounding into form. The lineup is getting healthier. The rest of the division (particularly Washington) looks due for a regression. The Mets could really do this. I mean it. It could actually happen. It sort of takes my breath away to even type it.
Think about where this franchise was as it came into this anniversary season. The ostensible plan for the Mets was similar to the plan last year: Wait for it to be over. The Mets had just dropped a staggering, record-breaking $48 million in payroll from their 2011 level, in part by letting All-Star and fan favorite Jose Reyes go, and with the team undertaking a full-fledged youth movement, the idea was to get David Wright’s $15 million off the books after this year. The odd thing was that this was sort of the plan for 2013 as well, when even more, $43 million, could be dropped from the payroll thanks to Johan Santana and Jason Bay. Many attributed the salary-dumping strategy to the financial struggles of the then-unsettled Madoff-Wilpon case (which certainly did its part to dampen fan enthusiasm), but all told, it was mostly just good business. The Mets needed to overhaul their entire operation, stop spending money as if the lack of overpaid, past-their-prime veterans were the problem (uh, it wasn’t), and repair an organization that was diseased at its core. The new, wizened, intelligent management staff—from general manager Sandy Alderson to former G.M.’s Paul DePodesta and J. P. Ricciardi—soberly assessed how much work had to be done and called only for patience.
Fans—again, for entirely justifiable reasons—were more than a little skeptical of all this and certainly not thrilled to wait around. The Mets failed to fill their home stadium for the season opener for the first time since 1997. (Santana was pitching for the first time in a year and a half. The Mets even offered free tickets for the first weekend of the season to fans who bought opening-day tickets. No dice.) Attendance was down 10 percent from last year’s numbers after twenty games. That’s particularly impressive because 2011 attendance was down 8 percent from 2010, which was down 19 percent from 2009, which was down 21.6 percent from 2008. Mets fans had had enough, yet they were being asked to do this for two more years. At least.