The New York Mets will begin this season with the identity they've often been associated with, what they've mostly been deep down in their heart of hearts in their five decades of existence -- the underdog. They're celebrating their fiftieth anniversary in 2012, and while the New York Yankees have the championships, legendary Hall of Fame players and the most successful brand in American sports, what the Mets have is a certain indefinable "Metness." They've only won two World Series, they often can't get out of their own way and other teams' fans love to laugh at them, but they have their own unique charm and characteristics that are all their own. To paraphrase Linus Van Pelt, "Out of all the New York Mets in the world, they're the New York Metsiest."
What do the Mets have that no one else does? The 1962 Amazin's. Has there ever been a more storied expansion team? Have books been written about the 1969 San Diego Padres? The '62 Mets set the mark for losing, but they were loved nonetheless. Ralph Kiner/Bob Murphy/Lindsey Nelson. This trio worked together for 17 years, and they were more successful than all but a few of the players they covered. Some teams have one legendary, identifiable voice: The Mets had three. And now Gary Cohen, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez are carrying the torch for the originals. The Miracle Mets. The biggest upset in major league history, when the '69 Mets defeated the 109-win Baltimore Orioles, as they authored one of the most memorable seasons baseball has known. Gil Hodges took a seemingly ragtag bunch of misfits and taught them how to win.
Ed Kranepool. Until David Wright and Jose Reyes came along, Kranepool was the all-time Met leader in just about every offensive category, and he's still on top in a few. Who else can claim (or would want to claim) a platooning first baseman/sometime outfielder/pinch hitter as their crème de la crème? Ya Gotta Believe. A catchphrase created by lovable, flaky reliever Tug McGraw that not only summed up the 1973 season, when they went from last place to first in the blink of an eye, but it captures the spirit of the whole franchise. And that's not all -- there's also the Sign Guy, Mr. Met, the Apple, "Meet the Mets," the Bad Guys Won, Kiner's Korner, the Franchise, Jane Jarvis, Joe Pignatano's tomato plants in the bullpen, Turk Wendell's resin-bag slam and the Grand Single. Even their bad moments come with names and unforgettable labels: Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?, I'll Show You the Bronx, The Worst Team Money Can Buy, The Worst Owners Who Almost Lost the Team in a Ponzi Scheme.
And, yes, we once lived in a world where the Mets were more popular than the Yankees and they owned the city. Sure, when thinking of the Mets' reign over New York, it's like turning on the Turner Classic Movie channel and watching a quaint black-and-white film of times gone by but it did actually happen (of course we also lived in a world where cigarette smoke filled restaurants, bars and airplanes -- and we liked it -- where O.J. Simpson made us laugh and where mullets and the 1982 Vancouver Canucks' uniforms made sense, so things do change). There's no arguing that this is a Yankees town nowadays, but in the half century that the Mets have existed they have weaved in and out, over and under, and all around the Bombers popularity-wise.
For many decades, New York was a National League town, but in the 1950s, which was a golden age of baseball in the City on the field, with all three local teams winning the World Series, and eight of the 10 champions being from New York (and one of the out-of-towners was the '59 Los Angeles Dodgers), the Yankees ruled at the box office. And with the Giants and Dodgers drawing flies, they left town.
When the Mets appeared from the void left by the pair of off-to-California National League teams, they were an instant fan favorite, despite their bumbling style of play. When they moved into Shea Stadium, they overtook the Yankees in attendance also. And when they miracled their way to the 1969 World Series, they became kings of New York. The CBS-owned Yankees were an afterthought, and in 1972 only drew 966,328 fans to Yankee Stadium, while the Mets brought in 2,124,195 supporters. But when free agency and George Steinbrenner roared their way into the mid-'70s, the Yanks went up and the Grant's Tomb Mets went down. Despite regular-season success in the '80s, the Yankees stopped collecting championship banners, while the Mets became baseball's model franchise, and were no doubt the toast of the town, eclipsing the Yankees on the field, in the stands and in Q rating. One can't think of the 1980s in general without including the New York Mets. But it was all downhill for the Amazin's from the '90s on (except for three playoff-filled seasons and one World Series appearance). With Steinbrenner suspended from baseball, the Bombers pieced together another dynasty, while the Mets were fielding a last-place calamity featuring Bobby Bonilla, bleach-throwing and firecrackers. And since 1995, New York has been all about the Yankees, with the bandwagon fans joining the many diehards in the Bronx.
The Mets went from lovable underdogs, to the ultimate underdog champion, to Ya Gotta Believe underdogs, to unlovable, losing underdogs, to swaggering champions, to overpaid, bloated losers, to Bobby Valentine's overachieving underdogs, to the seemingly broke, bumbling Fred Wilpon's folly of a team that everyone takes a turn kicking while its down. But those are the New York Mets. Mainly losers, sure, but a one-of-a-kind, incomparable, head-scratching, hair-pulling, thrilling, always-an-adventure franchise that is like no other.
From the outside it may seem like a futile, Herculean task to root for a team like this, but Met fans' obsession and loyalty doesn't come in the form of wins and losses or pennants waving on a flagpole or heroic all-time great players but instead takes the shape of Al Jackson. And Rod Kanehl. And Ron Swoboda. And Ken Boswell. And Tommie Agee. And Rusty Staub. And Felix Millan. And Ron Hodges. And Mookie Wilson. And Sid Fernandez. And Edgardo Alfonzo. And John Olerud. And Benny Agbayani. And Dennis Cook. And Endy Chavez. And R.A. Dickey. And . . .