After a brutal stretch for most of the first month after the All-Star Break, the Mets have two weeks’ worth of comparatively easier games ahead of them. They’re in the middle of a home series with the last-place Colorado Rockies and afterwards will face the cellar-dwelling Houston Astros and underachieving NL East foes of Philadelphia and Miami. This represents New York’s best chance to at least get something out of the 2012 season, and if all goes well the Mets should be hovering near or above .500 by Labor Day.
But what if they’re not? After dropping the first two against Colorado with lousy defense and little offense to boot, it’s looking even bleaker for the once-promising season. A poor showing over the next four series could mean the Mets finish up the season sleeping in the basement of the NL East.
As much as we feel we identify with this team, it is much easier for us as fans and writers to put aside all the losing and move on with our lives. Can you imagine how the players must feel? To go out and try your best and just not be good enough day after day, week after week, for over a month must be unbearable. And to look ahead and see another month left in the season, facing the possibility that this will keep going on day after day, week after week, it’s understandable that even a team that had gelled as well as the Mets had in the first half of the year would be discouraged and on edge.
So how do you fix that? How do you keep all the negativity of this awful downward slide contained and stay positive in the face of these crushing circumstances? Perhaps the thing to do is to bring the players back to the simple joy of playing the game at its most basic level.
As most boys in America did at some point, I played Little League Baseball for two years in elementary school. You know how some guys will max out at the Double-A or Triple-A levels in the minors? I peaked after they made me switch to live-arm pitching from hitting off a machine. Love the game I do, but I was a lousy ballplayer, and after one more year of Pony League in 6th grade I retired with (relative) grace, destined for the sportswriting and hopefully sportscasting path. My team at the live-arm level in 5th grade was just about as good as I was; we won maybe three games the whole season. But I didn’t mind it because of all that happened off and around the field: getting to play ball with my grade school pals, parents and other friends rooting on in the stands, the whole shebang. And after each game, win or lose (and lose and lose), our coaches would buy us one treat from the concession stand (the nachos were my usual). The record and my poor skills didn’t matter so much because it was just fun playing baseball.
One guy who has figured this out is Justin Turner. When I was in Cincinnati for games last Wednesday and Thursday, the team was coming off a tough loss and was in a down mood. But there were Mets supporters from all over the Midwest waiting by the dugout for autographs, and someone had to come over and oblige them. Who else was it but Le Grande Orange Jr., who had the day off and wanted to make sure the fans went home happy (not to mention meet some of his many female admirers). He would’ve done it again the next day had he not actually been the starting second baseman, but even coming off the field after warm-ups he trotted past the line of fans and, with a brilliant smile, tossed them a baseball to take home.
What makes Justin Turner so popular with fans is that he just loves being a baseball player. After brief trips to the bigs in 2009 and 2010, he finally made the full-time major league roster last year. By making that final leap to the majors at age 26, he knows both that he’ll never be a superstar and that it could all end tomorrow. So with that in mind, even though he’s gotten limited playing time in 2012, he shows up to the ballpark every day with a winning attitude and a smile on his face, happy that he just gets to play baseball for a living.
The joy of the game is what the New York Mets must rediscover if they want to make the rest of this season not just easier to swallow but actually fun. There are two ways to make that happen. First, Terry Collins could take the whole team out to Carvel at the end of games for ice cream. It shouldn’t be too hard to fit 25 guys and a handful of coaches in Mrs. Collins’s mini-van, right? But second, and more realistic, the Mets could adopt Justin Turner’s attitude, remember that they’re getting paid to play a boy’s game, and be thankful that they have come as close as any man can to having an endless childhood. What could be more joyous than that?