April 4, 2010 § 1 Comment
I have some reservations posting this image of Luis Castillo. When the New York Met’s second baseman fumbled this pop-fly and Mark Teixeira crossed home plate, little did we know it represented a ball dropping on an entire season. In 2009, plagued with injuries and bad fundamental baseball, the Mets finished in 4th place in the NL East missing the playoffs by a long shot. They weren’t bad in the futile, comical way the 2010 New Jersey Nets epically string together loss after loss. The Mets were bad in a frustrating, ruin-your-warm-summer-evening way by losing games using the most inexplicable means. Dedicated sports fans are used to being strung-along by the promise of better tomorrows, but the Mets reached a breaking point where every promise crumbled to injury and failure. There was a sense that last year should have been our year. The team and management just lacked the resilience to push through the hard times. That’s why this photo of Castillo dropping the ball burns. It represents things that shouldn’t have been, but, nonetheless, were.
In yesterday’s column, George Vecsey writes, “It is growing late. Too much cable money is being squandered. Jerry Manuel’s laughter has run out its novelty. He is probably set up to fail, waiting for the next era, whatever that will be. In theory, it’s always nice to have a new baseball season, but at Dante Alighieri Stadium, abandon hope.”
Vecsey’s pessimistic message, in many ways, is more than fair. Unlike any number of other teams (Braves, Phillies, Dodgers, etc.), the Mets have no tangible entity to spark our enthusiasm. Coming off not one, NOT two, but three disappointing seasons and without exciting young players there aren’t too many reasons to believe. Although we managed to pull in one of the few good offensive free agents in Jason Bay, the pre-Opening Day injuries to Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes are sobering. In his column, Vecsey does a good job of representing the bad. He stacks up the problems and, in the end, there are no reasons to even watch Mets baseball. Down their backwards path, Vescey’s Mets have reached the 8th circle.
But Dante made it to Paradiso. Unfortunately, this is no medieval allegory. Although sports team’s inevitably fluctuate between good and mediocre, it doesn’t necessarily mean a championship is just a matter of statistical calculation. Unlike Dante, the Mets aren’t promised paradise.
Still, baseball season’s April promise gives us enough reason to keep faith. Vecsey mentions gritty veterans and sweet summer nights. Excuse the sentimentality, but we should never forget how baseball is as much about those sweet summer nights, listening to the radio on the back porch tuned to the Met’s broadcast, as it is about new stadiums and payrolls. Whether they win or lose, if we don’t let baseball’s ephemeral problems sour our taste, every season will be rewarding (albeit at different levels). Vecsey’s final message to “abandon hope” is only conceivable if you’re in the strict business of measuring baseball by its finances, cable contracts, wins, and losses. Although I care about the well-being of my team and if they don’t win it’s a shame, I would never tell a whole readership to abandon hope. This is out of line with the spirit of the game.
I have several friends who have told me they won’t be following baseball anymore. To them, the game has been tarnished by the steroid-era. They genuinely mistrust the players and their management. This too, I believe, is letting baseball’s transitory issues obscure our greater perspective. It’s easy to become frustrated with things we can’t control. It’s much harder to keep believing in the principles at the core of an institution. I struggle with this myself (afterall, the institutions are often broken). But the worthwhile institutions are set-up to allow re-interpretation as times change. Even if times are bad, the re-evaluation process includes turning back to the things that made them great in the first place. For baseball season, the game day ritual that brings people together, watching the gritty players continue to play hard day in and day out, and the sweet summer nights will go on even if the best player’s are talking with federal investigators.
For those of us who still (want to) believe in the MLB institution, we should not sweep the failures of the recent past under the rug. With the image of Luis Castillo burned in my skull, I stay skeptical this season will bear the ripest fruit for the Mets. But I choose to confront these problems as a baseball fan. Viewed in a positive light, win or lose, the summer nights will be as sweet as ever.