The New York Mets finished the 2022 regular season with 101 victories, the second highest total in franchise history. They are in the postseason for the first time since 2016. They are hosting the first round of the playoffs…with all three games at home and no road games.
Then why does it feel like the team finished in last place? Since when did earning a wild card spot become the booby prize? Why have the fans and media lost faith in this team?
For 100 years, baseball teams played games during the season, and whoever won the most games was declared the champion of their respective league. During that time, when the two “major leagues” were separate and individual entities, someone came up with the brilliant idea to have the two league champions play head to head for bragging rights in what would become known as the World Series.
And that was the “post season.” Two league champions duking it out for the back page headlines. Until 1969. That was the year that, partly due to expansion, Major League Baseball divided each league into two divisions and created the division playoffs, with two teams vying for the opportunity to get to the World Series. So for the first time, it could be that the team with the best record wouldn’t make it to the World Series, they could be knocked off by a team with a lesser record.
Baseball purists didn’t like that…making the argument that the “best” team in each league should represent that league in a championship series. When each league had only eight teams, it was tough enough for the teams with nothing to play for near the end of the season, it would be even worse once the leagues expanded to 12 teams in ’69. The addition of two teams to the post season mix would surely lengthen the excitement during the regular season and create a buzz with the playoff atmosphere.
As expansion continued, so did the need to include more teams…getting us to the point where we are today…30 teams with five in each division…and a new wild card system with a total of six teams from each league…12 total…vying for a berth in the World Series. It’s a bit watered down, but it also generates more interest and keeps teams in the hunt for a hell of a lot longer.
So why the history lesson? Because it’s a wonder why New York Mets fans seem to have lost faith in this team - fan base that loves to throw around that phrase “Ya Gotta Bee-lieve!”
Let’s take a look at that 1973 New York Mets team.
On August 5, the Mets were 12 games under the .500 mark at 48-60, buried in last place in the National League East, 11 ½ games back. Beginning with the start of a three-game winning streak on August 6, they would go on to slowly climb up the standings and erase the 11 ½ game deficit and finish the regular season in first place up by 1 ½ games.
The Mets had some pretty good players on that team, led by a starting rotation of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Jon Matlack, along with relief ace – who else – Tug McGraw. While Seaver had a typical “Seaver” year, the rest of the staff was hit with nagging injuries and had not been their usual stellar selves.
Some of the other names on that team? Cleon Jones, Jerry Grote, Bud Harrelson…all hit with injuries that hampered their play. Rusty Staub was the team’s offensive leader…with 15 homers and 76 RBI. Oh, yeah, there was Willie Mays…WILLIE MAYS! But Willie was long past his prime and was a mere shell of himself.
None of that mattered. It didn’t matter that the Mets finished with a paltry record of 82-79. This 12-year-old kid didn’t care what the record was...he just wanted them to win.
It didn’t matter that the Mets would face the Big Red Machine in the NL Championship Series, a Reds team that won 99 games…bludgeoning opponents with a powerful offense and that would feature three future Hall of Famers in Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, and Joe Morgan, as well as some other guy named Pete Rose.
In my mind, although I was a Mets fan, as I lived and breathed, I knew, realistically, statistically, and mathematically, that the Reds were the better team. But it didn’t matter. I wanted the Mets to win…regardless that they would go to the World Series with not the first, not the second, not even the third…but the fourth best record in the National League that season.
After knocking off the heavily favored Reds, the Mets would then go on to tangle with a true dynasty, the Oakland Athletics, appearing in their second of three straight World Series. Those A’s had some future Hall of Famers of their own in Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, and Rollie Fingers.
Again, regardless of how superior the A’s were, and that the Mets, at least statistically, didn’t justify being on that same field with them, I wanted the Mets to win. And the Mets would actually have a 3-2 Series lead before falling short and losing in seven games.
The Mets were not the best team in 1973.
The Mets were not the best team in baseball. They weren’t the best team in the National League…heck…they weren’t even the best team in the Eastern Division. The Mets just happened to get hot and, having the best starting rotation, along with a closer who caught fire, they were able to make a great run in post season play.
When the teams go through spring training, whether the performances are good or bad, once the regular season begins, everything is forgotten and everyone, every team, starts from scratch. Like you have new lease on life. It’s now no different with the post season. While it’s not as diluted as the National Hockey League, it’s certainly has a lot more participants invited to the party.
So regardless of how many games you win during the regular season, regardless of whether you come in first (Braves), second (Mets), or even third (Phillies), you are playing for the chance to make it to the World Series. And it might not be the best team, it may not be the team that came in first place, it may just be the team that got hot at just the right time.
In 1973 the Mets proved that a great rotation with a reliable closer, along with a clutch offense, could overmatch teams that were maybe just a bit better than they were. A rotation of Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, and Chris Bassitt, with the 2022 version of Edwin Diaz, as well as a lineup featuring Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor, and Jeff McNeil, certainly give this team a chance to get deep into post season play.
And…for everyone who is so disappointed in this team…they wouldn’t even be the worst team to make it to the World Series...not this year, anyway.