Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Unprecedented Excitement of the 2015 New York Mets

In a few moments, my beloved New York Metropolitans will begin a series with the Chicago Cubs to decide the National League's representative in the World Series. In the aftermath of the Mets' improbable, incredible, unforgettable defeat of the Dodgers in the NLDS, I've been reflecting on what this team means to me.

My move to Austin in 2011 coincided with the Mets organization bringing in a new general manager to steer the organization back toward success after years of embarrassment and futility. This was the first time in my history as a Mets fan that I had trust and confidence in their decision-makers. New Mets GM Sandy Alderson was the original mentor to Billy Beane in Oakland and after joining the Mets he immediately brought in former Beane confidant and Moneyball co-star Paul DePodesta to help reshape the organization.

Now that I was living in a city with no major league team, in a state whose only MLB teams I had zero rooting interest in, I found my Mets fanhood deepened and intensified. My first summer here in 2011 was one of the hottest in the city's history and I didn't have many friends in town at that point, so I spent my days and nights following the Mets. They became a close companion. Of course they lost and lost some more as they would for the next four years, but I fell in love with this team unlike I ever had before.

My rooting interest in the Mets dates back to the mid-90s when I was captivated by switch-hitting catcher Todd Hundley chasing home run records (he hit 41 in 1996, breaking the record for most by a catcher and set a new franchise record for the Mets, although he never hit more than 30 in any other season). My dad had been a devoted Mets fan since their inception in '62 and the team's announcers have always been far more tolerable than those obnoxious hacks calling Yankees games. So I became a Mets fan. Throughout the 2000s I went to many dozens of games at Shea Stadium, including attending Game 2 of the NLCS in 2006 (described in detail here for a guest piece at Jay Jaffe's blog).

In all these years of following the Mets, I've never loved a team as much as this one. The division winning 2006 version was fun, but I disliked many key players and frequently disagreed with the manager and general manager's decisions. The 1999-2000 version comes closest as they had plenty of fun players to root for like Mike Piazza, Robin Ventura, Edgardo Alfonzo, Turk Wendell, Al Leiter, etc.  Mostly what separates this Mets team from the pack is that so many of the players are either homegrown or were acquired as prospects and subsequently developed in the Mets farm system. I've been able to follow their whole careers, suffer through their growing pains and celebrate their achievements.

The finest hour for the 2015 Mets so far has to be Daniel Murphy's heroics in the deciding Game 5 on Thursday night, when he was responsible for all three runs (including the game-winner on a solo home run) in a 3-2 victory in Los Angeles. Murphy, or Murph as we call him, is for me the quintessential New York Met. Originally drafted by the Mets in the 13th round in 2006, he climbed the ranks and joined the team as a rookie in 2008 just in time for when they suffered a crushing late season collapse for the second consecutive year. He played solid-to-average baseball at a variety of positions through five seasons of almost entirely meaningless games, gaining a reputation for occasional hot streaks at the plate and a notoriety for awful plays in the field that seemed to embody the team's ineptitude as a whole.

Beyond Murphy's playoff heroics, the season's greatest moment had to be Wilmer Flores' walkoff home run against the Washington Nationals in his first game following a bizarre, typically embarrassing Mets debacle two nights before. Flores had heard he was traded, then could be seen crying on the field in the middle of a game. The trade never went through and the Mets came out of it looking stupid.* The 24-year-old Flores had been signed by the organization out of Venezuela at age 16 and clearly loved playing for them. His display of emotion deeply endeared him to fans and he became a folk hero whose legend was solidified in his next appearance. That night, unofficially dubbed "Wilmer Flores Night" by Mets announcer Gary Cohen right at the start, featured numerous highlight reel plays for Flores, four different standing ovations, and the team's most emotional home run of the season when Flores blasted a game winner against their division rivals and then proudly grabbed the Mets logo on his shirt before being mobbed by teammates at the plate.

*That entire week was a wild one, including the blockbuster 11th hour deadline trade to bring in star outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. Read about it all here.

Nobody, not even myself, envisioned the Mets winning their division this year yet they snatched it away from the heavily favored Nats pretty early on (they took 1st on August 2nd and never looked back). A second place finish would've been seen as a success. I'd have been happy if they'd won 85 games. They won 90. I would've still been content with their performance had they lost to the Dodgers in the NLDS. They won, twice knocking off two of the game's best pitchers in Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke (mostly thanks to dragon slayer Daniel Murphy).

Now they will open a series for the National League crown with the Chicago Cubs. If they cannot manage to overcome the Cubs' imposing collection of young sluggers, I'll be momentarily disappointed but will still look upon this season as a rousing success. After four years of futility, the Mets in 2015 outdid themselves over and over again, surpassing our highest hopes over and over again, providing magical moments over and over again. And the way this team is constructed, with a rotation full of young pitchers and a lineup of maturing hitters, it's not unlikely that they'll be able to do this again.

I can't offer an NLCS prediction here because I'm completely biased. The Cubs have an incredible team, one of the deepest lineups in all of baseball and a historically great pitcher atop their rotation. The Mets are led by flamethrowing starters, a balanced lineup, and a solid bullpen. They can win this series. The Mets can win the pennant. Who the hell saw that coming six months ago?

No matter what happens, I'm just glad we get to continue watching this amazing Mets team for at least another week or so.

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