Can a season be satisfying if your team doesn’t make the playoffs?
Anybody in uniform will say no, particularly on the last day of the season, when athletes are shedding that uniform for the last time until “next year” – if “next year” ever comes, athletically.
But fans can afford to remember the good times, even as they wish there had been more of them.
My team is going home after Sunday but I will take away memories of Dominic Smith's three-run homer that ended the season with a 7-6 victory in the 11th inning over the Braves, who are going to the post-season.
There were so many moments like this -- Jacob deGrom’s superlative pitching (with shockingly minimal support) and Pete Alonso’s 53rd homer Saturday evening, giving him the most ever by a rookie.
Smith's homer was the perfect way to end a season -- make 'em scream for more. He had missed two months with a foot injury, and spent his time tootling around on a scooter, to take the weight off the mending foot. He was the perfect teammate -- cheering for his mates, including his pal Alonso, who took away Smith's platoon time at first base.
But my biggest cumulative thrill this season was watching Jeff McNeil prove himself as a high-end hitter, despite the mental barricades from the analytics nerds in baseball these days.
Jeff McNeil’s wrist was broken by a pitch Wednesday night, as the Mets were eliminated from the race. .
The wrist will heal, and McNeil has made this a memorable season, in its own bittersweet way.
McNeil finished with 23 homers and a .318 average – and was hit by 21 pitches. With his perfectionism and tossed equipment and grimaces and a major league red ass, he was a latter-day Ron Hunt, an escapee from the minors.
McNeil is a throwback to hitters who hated striking out, who took what the pitcher gave them, and put the ball somewhere. The Mets brain trust was throwing out suggestions that McNeil did not have the proper “launch arc” to be a slugger in these days of the souped-up ball and televised hysteria when sluggers swat the ball over the fence or skip back to the dugout after striking out.
McNeil also played four different positions, switching virtually inning by inning.
The fact is, McNeil might never had gotten a real chance with the Mets if Yoenis Céspedes and Jed Lowrie had been healthy enough to play this season. He might be in the minors, or on some other team. Instead, he put bat to ball, and showed up the stat doofs.
Day after day, the little triangular Jeff McNeil Fan Club was buzzing on my phone – Jerry, my pal who played infield in the minors, saw McNeil as an alter ego, texting me after the latest opposite-field hit or daredevil catch in the corner. Somebody named Dave would text me with similar raves.
Mets fans – like fans everywhere – will look for reasons their team did not make the playoffs. The Mets have one major reason: the bullpen blew 27 saves, three below the league leaders, the Dodgers, who won their division, for goodness’ sakes.
The Mets’ major scapegoat is Edwin Diaz, who has blown seven saves and had a 2-7 won-loss record, although somehow it seems much worse. I cannot summon up any malice toward him. He stunk.
Are they going to bring back Diaz next year? The real question is whether they going to bring back Mickey Callaway, who stayed with Diaz too long, and the reforming agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, who has been taking on-the-job training as general manager? I don’t want to think about it right now.
As a pensioner-geezer, who spent a lot of time watching the Mets, I had misgivings about Robinson Canó but he came back from injuries and was clearly an Asdrubal Cabrera-like leader. Ahmed Rosario improved more than I thought he would. Michael Conforto was earnest and powerful. I liked watching Dominic Smith and Marcus Stroman lead cheers from the top step of the dugout. Wilson Ramos was a liabilty as a catcher but he hit well. Brandon Nimmo still raised his finger to heaven whenever he earned a walk. Seth Lugo was solid in the bullpen.
Right now, there is no next year. Thanks to those Mets who made this year enjoyable, if not often enough.
* * *
(My concept of “wait til next year” comes from the old Brooklyn Dodger annual motto. I remember a sermon by Red Barber, the Brooklyn Dodgers preacher-broadcaster, on the last day of 1950, when I was a tyke. The Dodgers had hoped to tie the Phillies, but Dick Sisler hit a 3-run homer in the 10th and ended the season for The Bums. Barber, on the radio, talked fans like me out of deep mourning by reminding us that you can’t win ‘em all. How did that work out? The next year, the Dodgers’ season was ended by Bobby Thomson of the Giants, in the classic final playoff game.)
* * *
(Let’s give Major League Baseball some respect for the most restricted playoffs – MLB calls it “the post-season” – of any major pro league in North America. The WNBA allows 67% of its teams into the playoffs. The NBA and NHL democratically admit 53%, MLS 52%, and the NFL us 38%
But MLB is a relatively exclusive 33% -- 10 of 30 teams, with two wild-card spots in both leagues keeping marginal teams like the Mets in the hunt until the final Wednesday, making for tense games in September.)
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.