I can’t be the only person who takes cues for my emotional well-being from Mr. Met. Yes, fine: Technically Mr. Met is incapable of showing emotion, given that his head is a baseball, and his face that has been stitched with the rictus grin of the eternally doomed.
But you can still tell what he’s feeling. When the New York Mets, whom he has loyally supported despite the sort of sustained abuse you’d never allow anyone you love to suffer through, are losing — as has usually been happening during the 59 years of his existence — he looks sad, forlorn … lost.
Occasionally, Mr. Met loses his temper. Spending one’s entire life as an avatar of such a beleaguered franchise is a crazy-making enterprise, after all.
These days, though, Mr. Met is not hanging his head in shame. These days, Mr. Met, alongside Mrs. Met, is taking selfies on the field, playing the trumpet atop the dugout, and generally making it feel like life’s worth living — like everything’s going to turn out all right.
Despite a mostly deserved reputation for mediocrity and strangely bad luck, the Mets have had some terrific teams since their last World Series title in 1986. (The ninth-longest championship drought in baseball, for what it’s worth.) The Bobby Valentine years were delightfully nutty; some of those mid-aughts teams, particularly the 2006 team, were juggernauts; they reached a World Series just seven years ago, which, it must be pointed out, is more recently than the Yankees have been there. But I’m not sure things have looked better in Flushing at any point over the last 36 years than they do right now. While it’s understandable that Mets fans might be afraid to admit it — to look success square in the eye — this team is probably the best since 2006, when they lost in agonizing fashion to the Cardinals, a game away from the World Series. For Mets fans, the glory days are now.
Few could have anticipated the path they’ve taken here. Despite the Mets’ struggles over the last half-decade — they’ve had only two winning seasons since that World Series season of 2015 — fans had some hope before this season for two primary reasons: The almost unhittable (but frequently hurt) Jacob deGrom and his fellow ace Max Scherzer, who was signed in the offseason by ever-aggressive owner Steve Cohen. That optimism vanished quickly when deGrom went down with a shoulder injury in April and Scherzer strained his oblique muscle in May.
But the Mets, somehow, just kept winning, thanks to impressive rotation fill-ins like Chris Bassitt, Carlos Carrasco, and Taijuan Walker; a deep and persistent lineup spearheaded by brawny Florida bro Pete Alonso and suddenly worth-all-the-cash shortstop Francisco Lindor; and an all-time closer performance from Edwin Diaz, who was once mocked as overpaid but has now turned into the most unhittable pitcher in the sport — with a fantastic theme song to boot. The team was smart and savvy at the trade deadline too, attacking their weakness with surgical precision by bringing in Tyler Naquin, Mychal Givens, Darin Ruf, and the gloriously rotund Daniel Vogelbach. The Mets have been in first place every day of the season but one, way back on April 11, somehow keeping their head far above water without their two stud starting pitchers … just in time for them to return.
Both deGrom and Scherzer are back now, both in excellent form, and the timing is perfect: The defending champion Atlanta Braves got within half a game of the division lead on July 23 before the Mets rattled off seven straight wins. And this weekend, the team had its most giddy stretch in nearly a decade, winning four of five from the Braves and securing a lock grip on first place in the National League East. Fangraphs currently gives the Mets a 92.1 chance of winning the division and a 91.6 percent chance of securing a coveted first-round bye in the playoffs — a new feature for 2022. That would mean a fully rested deGrom and Scherzer for the playoffs — a terrifying prospect for any division-series opponent.
The weekend even gave Mets fans a psychological boost specific to them. It raised their record to 70-39 … the same record as the Yankees. Success is always a little sweeter for Mets fans when it’s accompanied by Yankees pain.
The players have wildly overperformed to expectations, and manager Buck Showalter, the former Yankees skipper, has instilled a sense of calm and professionalism in a franchise that has rarely been known for either. But Cohen should not be underestimated in all this. It’s a little unseemly to feel grateful to a hedge-fund billionaire, but he’s exactly the sort of owner any sports franchise should want: incredibly rich, desperate to win at any cost, and more than a little bit crazy.
One of the primary sticking points in the rancorous negotiations between the owners and the players this offseason was what came to be known as “the Cohen tax.” The measure establishes a new tax tier for teams that spend more than $290 million on their payrolls. As its name implies, it is meant specifically to curb Cohen, who had said he’d spend whatever it took to get the Mets a championship. “It’s better than a bridge being named after you,” Cohen said in response, adding that he was sure he’d go over the $290 payroll anyway. In an age when a first-place Milwaukee Brewers team trades their best player at the deadline just to save a couple million bucks three years from now, that’s exactly what you want the owner of your team to be saying. Whatever the Mets need, Cohen will try to get it to them. What more could you ask for?
There is, of course, collapse potential. There always is for the Mets. The implosions of 2007 and 2008 — the latter of which featured the most awkward good-bye to an iconic baseball stadium imaginable — will forever be fresh in fans’ minds. The Mets have a long history of getting their fans’ hopes up just to crush them in the most brutal fashion possible. It is sort of their thing.
But if you’ve been to Citi Field this year — if you’ll forgive the appropriation of the Mets-aganda phrase — you sorta gotta believe. Unlike its counterpart building in the Bronx, built the same year, Citi Field is both intimate and majestic, a place that holds 42,000 people but can feel, in the best way, like a raucous and rowdy hockey arena. As much as a place that has a “Coca-Cola Corner” that everyone still calls “the Pepsi Porch” can, it feels like a neighborhood ballpark. It is also, as we learned during that postseason run in 2015, an incredible cauldron for October baseball. And it’s set up to be the center of the entire baseball universe this year. The place just has vibes. It makes you want to believe.
No matter how it all goes down in the end, this is as fun as it gets. No wonder Mr. Met is smiling. Even if he’s always smiling, this time he means it. And if Mr. Met can experience joy … well, isn’t there hope for us all?