Tuesday, September 1, 2015

It's been a while. Please be gentle.

The Mets are in first place. It's September. These are two sentences I haven't been able to say successively in nearly a decade. In fact, September 19, 2008 was the last time the Mets could say they held the best record in the NL East in the final full month of a Major League season. That's a span of 2,539 days. Or 60,936 hours. Or 3,656,160 minutes. Or 219,369,600 sec--

Look. You get the point.

It's been a long time since the Mets were in first place or even close to first place with a realistic shot at the postseason. The last time New York was in a pennant race, 23-year-old me was pulling his hair out watching the motley crew of Luis Ayala, Aaron Heilman and Scott Schoeneweis fritter away game after game after game. It was a distinctly different era in my life, where the immediate post-college years filled themselves with booze and frivolity, refusing to acknowledge that at some point the summer camp period of young adulthood ends and you have to figure out your future. Now, at 30, things are so different.

I mean, yes, I still work for the same company, live in the same apartment and I'm still a bachelor. But they're different, I swear.

That season, even as I watched a mediocre bullpen torpedo what should have been a World Series contender (The Mets, who lost the division by three games, would have won it by 12 if all games ended after eight innings instead of nine), I was safe in the naive notion that a big-budget club from the World's largest media market with a burgeoning super star third baseman and the best pitcher on the planet in Johan Santana was certain to stay competitive for years to come.

In fact, the next season when the Mets brought in K-Rod and J.J. Putz to shore up those bullpen concerns, Sports Illustrated went so far as to tab the Mets as its presumptive World Series favorite in its 2009 MLB preview issue. They finished 70-92.

The nearly seven years since the Mets last touched first place in September have been an extensive psychological experiment in the limits of masochism. There was the disastrous signing of Jason Bay, the fallout from having your ownership group bankrupted by a massive pyramid scheme, the embarrassment of giving Bobby Bonilla $25 million for no real reason, the implosion of Santana's shoulder, one member of the front office challenging a bunch of minor leaguers to a fight, Omar Minaya inexplicably accusing beat writer Adam Rubin of lobbying for a front office job, and the list goes on.

Oh, the Mets also went 453-519 from 2009-2014.

The reason I dredge up all this negativism is this: I'm wounded. I've been hurt in the past. When I was young I watched the Mets fly close to the sun only to return with nothing but burns, and since then I've watched my favorite team tumble into something that is almost worse than being notoriously bad. They became comically irrelevant.

It's been a while since this team has mattered, and in many ways, I've forgotten what it's like to actually have optimism or hope or any of those positive feelings baseball fans are supposed to have once every few seasons. The concept has become almost mythical, much like former Mets "prospect" Sidd Finch, with whom I caught up last week. Unlike Finch's 168-mile-per-hour fastball, though, the psychological wounds of Mets fandom are real and omnipresent.

There is hurt beneath this self-deprecating facade. And as much as we might poke fun at the last tragic decade of Mets baseball, the hurt is real.

Seven years after the fact, even as the Mets hold what would appear for most teams as an insurmountable 6.5-game lead, the ghosts of 2007 and 2008 linger. Our emotional wounds are still fresh. This morning, with one month left in the season, Baseball Prospectus has the Mets' chance of reaching the postseason at 93.9%. Fangraphs has it at 87.9%. The odds, decidedly, are in the Mets' favor.

In the face of something irrational, however, cold numbers are cold comfort. Being a fan of any sports team, at its core, is an irrational concept. It is based on irrational hopes and thought processes and brings with it irrational fear. There is no good reason to think the Mets might collapse as they did the last two times they were invited to the dance, but the psychological damage persists. At the same time, the Mets-centric Twitterverse has been counting down New York's magic number since the last week of August, a sign, perhaps, of just how desperate the team's fans are to experience playoff baseball once again.

We are willing to put ourselves out there. To be vulnerable. Perhaps the worst thing about sports is how involuntary that choice is. But with the anxiety this scenario is heir to so prevalent, I only ask the Mets themselves, the only ones who control this situation, please be mindful. It could take us some time to be comfortable. Please be gentle. Take it slow.

And for lord's sake, make sure the bullpen doesn't blow 15 ninth-inning leads.

If the Mets can hold this lead for the next 34 days, if they can bring postseason baseball back to Queens after a nine-year absence, if they can put the most likable team they've had in recent memory in that randomized lottery for a World Series title... if they treat us like we deserve to be treated, well, maybe, just maybe, those wounds will start to heal.

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