Sunday, October 25, 2015

An Ode to Everything Great About the Pennant-Winning 2015 Mets

The Mets won the pennant. The Mets won the pennant!!!

The Mets are going to the World Series.

I keep telling myself that in utter disbelief. In the days since my beloved New York Mets clinched the National League championship last Wednesday, handily dispatching the Chicago Cubs in a relatively anti-climactic four-game sweep, I keep finding myself reviewing all the events of this unbelievable postseason, trying to remind myself that it's real. Ya gotta believe. It's almost Halloween and the Mets are still playing baseball.

I've long felt a deep connection to this team and now they're in the midst of one of the most exciting stretches of baseball in the franchise's history. They've won three pennants in my lifetime, the first when I was 1, second when I was 15, and now a third during the year I turned 30. This has been a year of Mets fanhood I will never forget.

With a few days before the World Series starts, right now we can simply savor the Mets' incredible run to the National League pennant, and so I'd like to compose an Ode to the 2015 Mets.

The Season in Review

The stories, historic feats, and colorful characters on this team abound. No matter what happens in the World Series (and Mets fans have every reason to expect the best outcome), this is a team that will inspire many books to be written in the future. Oddly, even before the unforgettable 2015 season began, this team inspired a book, Baseball Maverick: How Sandy Alderson Revolutionized Baseball and Revived the Mets.

Since Sandy Alderson, the Obi Wan to Billy Beane's Luke Skywalker, took over this organization in 2011 (coinciding with my arrival in Austin) I've followed them with an unprecedented level of hope and trust in the plan. A string of sub-mediocre seasons brought those of us who follow the team on a daily basis more pleasure and enjoyment than their record would suggest, as we were treated to the rise and development of exciting young players (Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Lucas Duda, Juan Lagares to name a few), a resilient stewardship led by Terry Collins who kept the team from capsizing through frequently stormy seas (rashes of injuries, terrible lineups), the development of one of baseball's top farm systems, and shrewd if occasionally cheap decision-making from the respectable braintrust in the front office.

Coming into this season, I was optimistic about the team, pegging them for 87 wins and a spot in the Wild Card hunt on the strength of their stellar young pitching and further development from young hitters like Duda, Travis d'Arnaud and Wilmer Flores. They got off to a hot start the first two months then slipped into a brutal two-month malaise, the depressing ineptitude of which was very familiar to Mets fans. Injuries to key players and disappointing performances from the healthy ones had them at the very bottom of the league in offense, sending out lineups filled with Triple-A fodder. Yet they still hovered around .500.

The gusty windbags of the New York sports media had been raging all year long about how the team needed to fill in their holes in left field and shortstop, now the offense stunk largely because of gaping holes at left field and shortstop. Two of the team's best hitters, David Wright and Travis d'Arnaud were sidelined with injuries, and Alderson's attempts to patch his lineup's holes using duct tape and bubblegum were hardly preventing the ship from sinking. Shortly after losing seven straight games in late June, the team embarked on a West Coast road trip. They were at the halfway point of the season, sitting exactly at the .500 mark at 41 wins, 41 losses. Thanks to the Washington Nationals' extremely disappointing performance, they were just 3.5 games out of first place.

Three weeks later, after witnessing his flawed and depleted team play just well enough to hang in the mix in a weak division, Alderson went to work on a series of transactions that set in motion one of the greatest turnarounds in baseball history. As Jayson Stark points out in his excellent column, the Mets became the first team in National League history to score the MOST runs in the league over the final two months after scoring the FEWEST over the first four months.

It all started on July 24th when the team called up 22-year-old outfield prospect Michael Conforto from Double-A. Later that day, they completed a trade with the Braves to bring in veteran utility men Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson. The additions gave the team an immediate shot in the arm as they went out and beat the Dodgers 15-2 in their next game, then won on a Juan Uribe walkoff double the following day. That was on a Sunday. The week that followed was one of the craziest weeks in Mets history (covered in full by Jonah Keri at Grantland), a roller coaster of emotions brought about by the sudden influx of serious playoff hopes converging with the imminent pressure to make a splash at the trade deadline.

During a Wednesday night game in Queens, word spread around quickly that the Mets had agreed to a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers to bring in star centerfielder (and ex-Met) Carlos Gomez. Leaving the Mets would be shortstop Wilmer Flores and recuperating starting pitcher Zach Wheeler. Flores heard the news from some fans while still playing in the game against the Padres and became national news when he could be seen weeping on the field, sad that he had to leave the Mets team he'd been with since he was a teenager.

Incredulous as everyone in Mets Nation was as to why Flores wasn't removed from the game, the shock amplified when Alderson later told reporters there was no deal. It had been called off on account of a hip injury revealed in Gomez' medical records. The next 24 hours would be a dark day for the Mets. A bizarre swirl of emotions hovered over Flushing, the disappointment of losing out on a huge addition to the lineup was mixed with anger for the team's embarrassing treatment of Flores, as well as a deep empathy and newfound love for the shortstop who just wanted to play for the Mets. Wheeler, too, made his feelings known, contacting Sandy Alderson personally to ask not to be traded away.

Dark clouds hovered over the team during their Thursday afternoon tilt with the Padres that day, July 30th. After building up a 7-1 lead after six innings, they allowed the Padres to get back into the game and went into the 9th clinging to a 7-5 lead. Closer Jeurys Familia secured two quick outs and started off batter Derek Norris with a strike before the skies opened up, pouring down rain so heavily that the umps stopped the game for a rain delay...when the Mets were one out away from ending the game. After a 45-minute break, the game resumed and chaos ensued on the diamond. Two singles and a three-run bomb from Justin Upton suddenly put the Mets behind 8-7 before it started to rain down heavily yet again. After a three-hour rain delay this time, play finally resumed and the Mets went to the plate for the bottom of the 9th and quickly sat back down without a fight.

That loss put them at 52-50 and with the trade deadline less than 24 hours away, the pressure was on for the Mets to make a big acquisition to make up for the failed Gomez deal and take advantage of the team's unexpected and quite fortunate position in the standings. Deadline day brought about rumors of the Mets being attached to a whole slew of outfielders (Jay Bruce, Justin Upton, Gerardo Parra), but going into the final hour before the deadline, no deal had been made. I followed Twitter closely while at work, sweating out the final moments and imagining the pressure looming over Mets' management to finalize something before the clock struck 4 PM in New York.

With fifteen minutes until the deadline, I couldn't take the tension anymore so I went out for a walk. I hadn't made it very far from the building before checking Twitter again and learning that the Mets had done it, they officially completed a deal to bring in a star hitter. In exchange for a couple pitching prospects, the Tigers were sending the Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, a Cuban slugger famous for destroying baseballs and making unbelievable throws from the outfield.

The additions of Conforto, Johnson, and Uribe exactly a week earlier were huge but Friday July 31st is the day when this Mets team officially prepared for liftoff. Not only was Cespedes acquired that day, but Travis d'Arnaud returned from his second stint on the disabled list. The hopes of Mets Nation were now at an all-time high, just in time for the 1st place Nationals to arrive in Flushing for a weekend series.

When I texted my friends in New York about the Cespedes trade, they replied with pictures from outside CitiField. They were there getting ready for that night's game, my friend's baby son dressed in a Batman cape* in support of the Dark Knight taking the mound for the Mets. I told them to make sure they gave Wilmer Flores a standing ovation.

*They actually ended up on TV during the Washington broadcast of the game, Smitty and Son:

That night ended up being the one I'll remember most fondly from this season. It became Wilmer Flores Night. The 23-year-old shortstop's outpouring of emotion endeared him to Mets fans and he had become a folk hero. In the opening inning, he made a diving stop at second eliciting a standing ovation from the crowd, then received another ovation when stepped to the plate for the first time, and a third round of raucous appreciation when he laced an RBI single in the 4th. I was walking home from the movies with my girlfriend when I noticed the game was tied 1-1 going into extra innings. I texted my friends at the game, "You know Wilmer is gonna win this thing."

Sure enough, up stepped Flores to lead off the bottom of the 12th and he launched a walkoff bomb to deep left-center. When I watched it happen, the combined ecstatic joy of Gary Cohen's emotive call of "It's outta here!!!" with Flores' proudly flaunting the Mets logo on his jersey, the rapturous celebratory flailing of Daniel Murphy's whole body as he ran on the field with the whole team to celebrate, and the seismic roar of the home crowd all brought me to shed a tear of joy. Even though it was only a big regular season win on July 31st, it was probably the most excited I've ever been as a Mets fan. A truly cinematic sports moment.

The rest is history. The newly revamped team reeled off seven straight wins, then eight straight shortly after that, beating teams handily. Team captain David Wright returned from a career-threatening spinal injury and promptly homered on the first pitch he saw. They shot up the standings, snatched first place away from the Nats and never looked back, eventually finishing with 90 wins, seven games ahead of the Nats. The playoffs have just been one giant blur of excitement and elation.

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The Supporting Cast

The Mets' return to relevance brought some of their more famous fans into the spotlight. Led by the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, the Mets boast an All Star lineup of comedians who are devoted followers of the team. From Jared Diamond's coverage of this phenomenon in a recent Wall Street Journal article:
“The essence of comedy is failure and things not working out and the guy slipping on a banana peel. That’s the Mets,” said lifelong Mets fan Michael Price, a writer and co-executive producer for The Simpsons. “I can’t imagine somebody who has a sense of humor being a Yankee fan.”
Among the team's notable fans are Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Bill Maher, Hank Azaria, Kevin James, and Adam Sandler. Former SNL star Jim Breuer frequently posted videos of commentary and celebration throughout the season and even made an appearance in the Mets broadcast booth. And perhaps most memorably of all, in one of the final episodes of The Daily Show, longtime Mets fan Jon Stewart had a hilarious segment celebrating the Mets' ascent into first place as an ultimately redeeming event amid the world's doom and gloom.

No matter the team's fortunes, Mets fans can always take solace in their team's consistently top-of-the-line broadcasters. The regular presenters of Mets baseball, on both television and radio, are widely considered among the very best in the sport. Play-by-play man Gary Cohen is a Mets demigod (his poorly timed Daniel Murphy criticism aside, of course), surpassed perhaps only by Vin Scully in his game calling prowess. He's been joined by the lovable if occasionally annoying '86 Mets, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez, for ten years now, forming an always welcome trio of companions for the daily trek of the baseball season.

Equally fantastic is the Mets radio broadcast duo of Howie Rose and Josh Lewin. The silver-voiced Rose has been a staple of New York sports broadcasting for many years now and he's our special gem. A Queens native, he's got that distinct New York City flavor to his persona (when listening, I feel like I know him because I know people exactly like him) and his expertise in Mets history can only be matched by Gary Cohen's. My time living in Austin has featured many spring and summer Greenbelt hikes with the Mets radio team along for the walk. Last week, while driving around running errands I was privileged to be able to hear Rose calling Daniel Murphy's NLCS heroics. It's unfortunate that the national TV broadcast precludes Gary Cohen from getting a chance to call any of these games, but we can take solace in the continued presence of Rose and Lewin. I very much look forward to hearing them broadcast this World Series.

Aside from the throng of comedic minds attracted to the Mets and the franchise's knack for having great broadcasters, they also inspire beautiful prose. One of my favorite writers ever, Roger Angell of The New Yorker, is a longtime Mets fan who has written many excellent pieces about them this year. His latest is simply titled "B.M.W.D." for "Beyond My Wildest Dreams." 

One of the finer scribes of the new generation of sportswriters, David Roth of Vice Sports, is a Mets fan who has eloquently described the quirks of this team's stumbling ascent into excellence over the last few years. 

A recent piece by Zach Lowe at Grantland, while presenting the alternate perspective of a fan who gave up on following the team years ago, nevertheless contains a perfect description capturing how I and other Mets fans feel right now:
"Real fans draw the deepest satisfaction from living and growing with the players: forgiving their failures, watching their growth, rejoicing in small achievements that only the diehards notice during a random game in June, and finally basking in it with them — very much with them — when it all clicks."
I must also mention here the phenomenal artwork of Joe Petruccio, a painter who posted hand-drawn cartoon images summing up each Mets game on his Mets Journal blog throughout the season, in vibrant watercolors when they win and black-and-gray when they lose. This man does truly amazing work and I feel privileged as a Mets fan to have such an artist so passionately invested in the team. Here are several examples of his work:

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The Stars of the Show

To conclude this Ode to the Mets, here is a rundown (in no particular order) of the main players on this wonderful Mets team and why I love them.

Terry Collins - TC is the oldest manager in MLB, had the longest active streak of games managed without a playoff appearance, and won the pennant on the day of his parents' anniversary. He's a competent strategic manager, an apparently excellent leader of men, and I thought his admirable stewardship of this team through rough times inspired plenty of confidence. He's now got the third most wins among managers in Mets history. When Alderson finally gave him a deep and flexible roster to work with this summer, he seemed to employ its versatile pieces quite capably. And I love him because he's an emotional guy who went out and hugged Mets fans in the stands after they eliminated the Dodgers:

MURPH - Daniel Murphy is the quintessential New York Met. He joined the team right as they started plummeting into a stretch of six straight losing seasons, providing plenty of frustrating moments during that time while also solidifying himself as a useful major league player. The ultimate blue collar player, he had a strong season this year before suddenly turning in one of the greatest playoff performances in MLB history. Murph not only set a new record for homering in six straight postseason games, he did it against the league's three best pitchers, including going deep twice against southpaw Clayton Kershaw, the consensus best pitcher on the planet. Murphy's success is a microcosm of the Mets season as a whole. His solid start to the regular season (.715 OPS through July) metamorphed into a dominant finish (.853 OPS during final two months) and was then compounded by one spectacular October moment after another. Call it Murphtober. Can't wait to see what he does in the World Series.
"The new Murphy's Law: anything that can go wrong for a Mets opponent will involve the Mets second baseman." - Josh Lewin, Mets radio announcer

BARTOLO - One of baseball's most unique and enjoyable players, the rotund 42-year-old veteran dart tosser Bartolo Colon is the heart and soul of this Mets team. He's been more meme than man the last couple years and had a sub-par regular season, but provided frequent entertainment, pitched well out of the pen in the playoffs and, most fittingly, earned the win in the pennant clincher against the Cubs. Long live #BartYOLO!

Lucas Duda - Mets fans have adored The Dude right from the start and Alderson was smart to eventually choose him over his competitor for the 1B position, Ike Davis. He's a streaky hitter with power and patience who can carry the team when he's hot. During one incredible stretch this summer he hit 9 home runs over a span of 8 games, including 8 straight hits that were homers. He slumped for most of the playoffs but finally rewarded Terry Collins' patience and confidence in him by exploding for 3 hits (including a first inning three-run bomb) and 5 RBI in the pennant-clinching Game 4 against the Cubs.

Yoenis Cespedes - The straw that stirs the drink. A Cespedes for the rest of us. Probably the second biggest trade deadline acquisition for the Mets in their history (behind Mike Piazza), he erupted over the final two months of the season with one loud home run after another. As Jayson Stark notes, "he tied for the league lead in extra-base hits and finished in the top three in home runs, slugging, RBIs and total bases." I did a lot of yelling and cheering during the playoffs, but I don't know that I ever screamed louder than when Cespedes hit a ball to the moon against the Dodgers in Game 3 of the NLDS, the first ever playoff game at CitiField, immediately following the Chase Utley debacle. I love having this guy on our team.

Travis d'Arnaud - If one must pick a favorite amongst this collection of fun players, mine would be d'Arnaud. A key piece in the R.A. Dickey trade with Toronto, d'Arnaud joined the Mets as a highly touted catching prospect whose only blemish was a propensity to get hurt. A strong defensive catcher noted for his pitch-framing ability, he's also a fantastic hitter with patience and plenty of power. An oft-overlooked contribution is his handling of the young pitching staff. In other words, he's an essential component of this team. Two different arm injuries (broken hand and hyperextended elbow) kept him off the field for roughly two-thirds of the season but when he plays he mashes. And thankfully for the Mets, he's done both this postseason.

Michael Conforto - The 22-year-old rookie skipped Triple-A and has done nothing but prove himself worthy of the aggressive promotion, displaying a disciplined approach at the plate with plenty of power in his line drive swing. I love watching this kid's at-bats because he hardly swings at anything out of the zone, works the count, and often makes solid contact. When Alderson made the call-up he likened Conforto to fellow 2014 draftee Kyle Schwarber of the Cubs. Their offensive numbers were eerily identical---.841 OPS for Conforto, .842 for Schwarber and both had exactly 23 extra-base hits---but thankfully for the Mets, Conforto can actually play the outfield, unlike Schwarber.

Jacob deGrom - The rail thin flame thrower has been a godsend for the Mets. Despite never appearing on any prospect rankings, he's turned into one of the best pitchers in baseball. His shoulder length locks and long lanky frame give him the ideal look of a punk rocker, but he's a quiet, unassuming guy who simply knows how to pitch. His two starts in the NLDS will be forever immortalized in Mets lore as he bested Tom Seaver's strikeout record in his first ever playoff game, then gutted his way through a pressure-filled outing with the escape artistry of MacGyver in the thrilling Game 5 clincher in Los Angeles.

Matt Harvey - The Dark Knight got himself in hot water with the whole silly innings limit controversy late in the season, but managed to put it all behind him rather quickly. He took the mound in the first ever playoff game at Citi Field amid all the insanity of New York's bloodlust for Chase Utley and pitched a gutsy game without his best stuff. Then absolutely dominated the Cubs to make a strong statement in Game 1 of the NLCS. As amazing as deGrom is, I'm happy this guy will be on the mound for the Mets when the World Series kicks off.

THOR - There is something so uniquely special about watching Noah Syndergaard pitch for the Mets. I remember watching his very first start and getting a giddy feeling because here was a 22-year-old giant Texan with perfect mechanics whipping the ball at nearly 100 mph with a deadly curve (to wit, The Hammer) and he literally looks like Thor. He also has a beautiful Scandinavian name. And he's ours. I feel safe putting all my hopes into the Mets when they have someone like Thor around. Plus he's got a great sense of humor:

Wilmer Flores/Ruben Tejada - It's incredible how Mets fans' feelings for this shortstop duo made a complete reversal over a span of six months. Coming into the year, fans wanted to kick both of these guys to the curb. By the end of the season, they both became fan favorites, heroes in their own right. I admired Sandy Alderson's decision to stick with this flawed young duo at the season's outset instead of bringing in some crappy overpaid veteran to appease the impatience of fans and the media. Turns out they did a perfectly average job, combining for nearly 3 WAR with slightly below average offensive production (combined 95 OPS+). Tejada has a more disciplined approach at the plate and better defense while Flores has a lot more power, making for a fairly complementary duo. They're young, cheap, homegrown, and now both will probably receive standing ovations every time they play in New York.

The Captain - For most of this season, we had no idea when David Wright would play baseball again or if he would even make it back at all. Then, in the midst of their meteoric rise into first place, suddenly Wright was back in a Mets uniform again. For those wondering if his spinal stenosis injury would significantly impede his ability, he blasted an upper deck homerun on the first pitch he saw. He's the longest tenured active player with any one team, has been through it all with this Mets organization, and deserves to be in the World Series as much as anybody. I can't wait to see what he does on the big stage.

The Grandy Man - Curtis Granderson quietly led this Mets team in WAR, played nearly every game, and had posted one of his best seasons in years. He was a stalwart in the leadoff spot all year with 91 walks to go with 26 homers and served as a sparkplug throughout the playoffs. We're starting to see a bunch of articles pop up praising former Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long for his work with the Mets hitters this year. Reuniting him with Granderson especially worked wonders and we mustn't overlook Grandy's importance to this team's success.

La Familia - The man with 97 mph splitter has gone from a precociously dominant setup man to an almost unhittable closer in the span of one season. In a season with so many stories and superlative performances, the 26-year-old Familia tied the Mets franchise record for saves with an arsenal described as "unfair." He keeps 9th innings mercifully uneventful, racking up loads of strikeouts and grounders to elicit more faith in the Mets endgame attack than any closer they've ever had.

Juan Lagares - 2015 wasn't quite as much of a highlight show for Juan but he remains one of the team's most beloved players for his otherworldly ability to track down flyballs in center. A lingering elbow injury kept him from gunning down baserunners at the historic rate of 2014, but he's still an elite defender. He struggled at the dish for most of the season before turning it on along with the rest of the streaking lineup over the final two months, posting a .790 OPS in limited action. His defensive excellence and continued offensive development will present the team with an interesting conundrum going forward as he's signed long-term in a crowded outfield.

Kelly Johnson/Juan Uribe - When this duo joined the team, it seemed to rejuvenate an exhausted bunch. They both stepped in and showed immediate power, blasting a combined 11 homeruns over 50 games, and their defensive flexibility suddenly opened up all kinds of new possibilities for this Mets lineup. It also gave them a strong bench for the first time in forever. The barrel-chested Uribe is a particularly fun player with a knack for the big moment and he's actually the only man on the roster with any World Series experience. Here's hoping he's healthy enough to play.

Kirk Nieuwenhuis - What a journey this guy had. The useful fourth outfielder got off to an absolutely atrocious start with the Mets until they had no choice but to put him on waivers midseason. He got picked up by the Angels, played terribly to the tune of a .136 average, got dropped yet again and was returned to the Mets. Given another chance, he came up with some huge hits including the first ever three homerun game for the Mets in Queens and the game-winning bomb in a dramatic comeback against the rival Nationals. He started out the year with an unthinkably low .257 OPS for the Mets, then was reborn in his second stint, crushing at a .922 mark.

Michael Cuddyer - He's the one guy on this team I don't like. Didn't agree with his signing at all and he had a sub-par year at the plate while playing his standard crappy defense. On a positive note, the grayhaired veteran has taken his 22-year-old replacement Conforto under his wing which can only be a good thing.

Steven Matz - In a season with one magical moment after another, we had Mr. Matz, a lifelong Mets fan, make his major league debut in Queens and become the first pitcher in major league history to knock in 4 RBI in his first game. The kid went 3-for-3 at the plate and pitched into the 8th inning for a win over the Reds. The astounded celebrations of his granpappy went viral and became symbolic of all Mets fans this year:

The Bullpen - This had been a sore spot for the Mets for a long time before Alderson got it under control last year. He made two big acquisitions toward the end of the season to firm up the back end with Tyler Clippard and Addison Reed, but my favorite guys in this bunch are the dependable lesser lights like Hansel Robles, Sean Gilmartin, and Carlos Torres. Robles is an imposing flamethrower with the steely nerves of a future closer, Gilmartin's a soft-tossing young lefty with excellent control, and Torres is relatively obscure player but has been one of my favorite Mets for the last few years. He's a versatile arm who can pitch a long outing if needed or step into a bases loaded late inning jam. His specialty has seemed to be pitching at length in extra innings. I'm disappointed the rubber armed righty didn't make the postseason roster but he'll always be on every 2015 Mets highlight reel for this amazing play:


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