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Hope Spirals Eternal for the New York Mets

The Mets lost the division at the 11th hour and now enter a wild-card series in which they face more questions than answers. But there’s still a chance they can tap into their early-season magic—and surprise even their most cynical of fans.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Here’s a sentiment about the 2022 Mets that every New York fan has heard, or said, or bickered about by now: If I told you this spring that the Mets would win 101 games and make the playoffs, you’d be thrilled! It’s impossible to really argue with that; after all, this is only the second time in Mets history that the team finished with more than 100 wins, and they hadn’t made the playoffs since 2016. But my realistic sense is that most actual New Yorkers, if ever confronted with this line on a crisp spring day, would not “be thrilled.” No, they would simply narrow their eyes and counter: OK, wise guy. What’s the catch?

For these Mets, the catch was that this objectively sweet scenario—a 101-61 record and a return to the playoffs for the first time in six seasons—arrived in the form of a real bummer.

The Mets had the NL East wrapped up all season … right up until they didn’t. New York featured two extraordinary aces in Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom … neither of whom could come away with one measly division-clinching victory during the team’s final series against the defending champion Atlanta Braves. The lineup that had popped off for months with style—10th inning walk-offs, plural, including on Keith Hernandez Day! Back-to-back-to-back jacks in the first inning against the Nationals!—fell flat when postseason-like pressure was applied. The sound of trumpets went from being a beloved symbol of joy to being declared, by no less than Jerry Seinfeld himself, a curse.

Jeff McNeil won the batting title, and is therefore owed a new car by Francisco Lindor. (“It’s rare when McNeil’s upset,” Lindor said the other day, explaining how he struck the deal on a day earlier this season when the utility player was feeling down. “And I say, ‘If you win a batting title, I’ll get you a car.’ That was a long time ago, and everyone has made sure I haven’t forgotten.”) The Mets won those 101 games. But in the end, the Atlanta Braves won the NL East. And so the Mets now begin the playoffs in an uncertain, and thus unfamiliar, position.

Are they a rising team with its best days ahead of it, a group that can maintain the gleeful abandon that made this season one for the ages for months on end? Or are they a tired squad in the midst of coming back down to earth, a team that doesn’t have the extra oomph required to win multiple playoff series? For now, the New York Mets carry with them neither the wacky momentum of an underdog nor the smug serenity of a league leader. All they have is themselves—which, knowing this team, may very well wind up being enough.

A week and a half ago, I sat in a tiny chair at my sons’ Back to School night while a first-grade teacher explained an educational tactic she called “spiraling.” Always be circling back, was the gist of it. Sure, your kid may have seemingly moved beyond some basic counting game, or Phonics Book no. 37, but that material shouldn’t be left behind. Instead, it should be dipped into every now and again, like a visit to an old familiar mental haunt.

Play the hits! Mrs. Smith seemed to be saying, encouraging us to let our kids luxuriate in the simple pleasures of A-is-for-apple before hammering them with Phonics Book nos. 38-40. Making mental homecoming loops is good for comfort and confidence, she said, and there are cognitive benefits too: spiraling is good for the memory.

This was all compelling, empathetic, and actionable stuff that I was happy to learn from a veteran teacher. Unfortunately, my memory of the lesson will forever be linked, childishly, with the Mets. That night, right after (fine, right before) leaving Mrs. Smith’s presentation, I snuck a peek at the score of a Mets-Marlins game on my phone, saw the third L in less than a week for New York, and thought darkly: OK, now this is the spiraling I know.

At the beginning of June, the Mets had a 10-and-a-half-game lead over the Braves in the division. On August 8, they were still up seven. It was a startling and joyful season, too good to be true, defined by both power and whimsy. The Mets played the hits, and how! Summer felt like baseball, and baseball felt like summer: a festival of long, silly, sunburned days, filled with corny music and the occasional wild visions. (Mrs. Met pantomiming the trumpet? All shot in the style of … The Wizard of Oz? Sure!)

Pete Alonso and Lindor traded ecstatic plate appearances (a grand slam here, homers from both sides of the plate there) with the casual demeanor of two buddies playing backyard horseshoes for cash. Luis Guillorme was a defensive marvel. The Mets won Scherzer’s first five starts. DeGrom returned from a lengthy injury and was so good that it looked like no time had passed. Brandon Nimmo didn’t just deliver go-ahead home runs, he stole them. Eduardo Escobar hit a single, double, triple, and home run against San Diego. Edwin Díaz made a case for being the best closer in baseball.

But September? September was stressful, with the Braves surging and the Mets having to win six straight at one point just to hang on to a tenuous one-game lead. By the time I wandered the school hallway last week, looking at rad handmade Pete the Cat interpretations in the style of Picasso (suck it, Dall-E!), the happy summer felt hazy as hell and far away, and that one-game advantage was all gone.

As if to demonstrate Mrs. Smith’s lesson, I regressed in that moment to material with which I felt familiar: harping on old historic late-season collapses. Same old Mets, I thought. 2007 all over again. But even as I said it, I knew it wasn’t quite right.

Sometimes, revisiting the foundational building blocks of one’s fandom feels like pressing a bruise: painful, but also nice to feel something. Conjuring up memories of the Mets’ 2007 collapse, in which the team squandered a seven-game lead with 17 games remaining, is as reliable as it gets: You know you’ll wince, but you also know that if there’s another Mets fan in the vicinity, you’ve just made a new friend. For those interested in further tapping this vein, there’s plenty to choose from: the 2008 disintegration (love a good back to back!), the Bernie Madoff years, the end of David Wright’s career, the words “Bobby Bonilla.”

None of those things really relate to this season, however, no matter how tempting it is to crank up the dial on woe to an 11. The franchise’s new-ish owner, Steve Cohen, has proved he’s willing to spend, even if not every move has panned out. For most of the season the Mets did just fine in high-pressure moments. Lindor shone brightly—far from being one more expensive bust. The Mets didn’t careen out of control the way those mid-aughts teams once did; they were bested, fair and square, by one of the tippy-top teams in baseball, the Braves, who played at an absurd 113-win pace since June 1. “They just flat out beat us this weekend … tip your cap,” said Alonso, who set a single-season Mets RBI record this season, after being swept. “Hats off to them,” outfielder Brandon Nimmo added.

Baseball is at its best when there are lots of hats being tipped or thrown high in the air. It is at its best when it incorporates a good romp—when it breaks into a gallop and clambers over itself to deliver a group hug. It is at its best when it makes people look up from their score cards and laugh in spite of themselves.

Being a fan of a winning team has the effect of holding you in that feeling for a good time (if maybe not a long time). You get invited to move on down to the sweet seats. The beer tastes colder, the laughs last longer, the band keeps playing one more song. Daniel Vogelbach, or someone that looks and acts exactly like him, becomes your new best buddy. Spiraling doesn’t have to mean unraveling. It can be accretive, a virtuous circle, the kind that sweeps everything up and up, that takes a young kid like Brett Baty and gives him a first at-bat of a lifetime, or turns Mark Canha into sauce, or covers Alonso in mustard and ketchup, as if to please some hungry baseball gods.

That’s how I felt in 2015, the season an overlooked and chaotic Mets team anchored by Matt Harvey and Yoenis Céspedes shambled all the way into the World Series. Did that season end poorly? Oh, of course it did. But for some reason, when I circle back to it, I only remember that I was nine months pregnant with my oldest son, and that the minutes sometimes stretched on for lifetimes, and that the Mets’ stretch run and those playoff series were what made my day, again and again, for weeks on end. This summer felt like that frequently. Same old Mets, you might say. 2015 all over again. That one sure was fun while it lasted. That one fits way better, I think. Well, I hope.

Friday is the first day of the wild-card round of the MLB playoffs, a day on which I once hoped, then later feared, the Mets would find themselves busy. How one chooses to contextualize or rationalize the way everything shook out down the stretch in the NL East is a personal choice. One fan’s “outlier-level triumph by the defending champion Braves” is another fan’s “elite fuckup by the same old Mets.” On the one hand, it comes back to that dreaded If I told you this spring they’d win 101 games … hypothetical. On the other hand, the Mets’ final series against Atlanta was effectively a playoff series in which New York needed to win only one game to advance, and they failed. So now they’re just gonna go out and win two?

Whether you’re an optimism merchant furiously trying to peddle good vibes, or a gloomy, doomy superfan forever fixated on Carlos Beltrán striking out looking (guilty), the cold hard facts do remain that going forward, New York’s path through the postseason did grow a lot thornier over the past week. Winning the division would have given the team a bye and about a week of much-needed rest, which would have benefitted players like Starling Marte, who has yet to fully recover after having his finger broken by an errant pitch a month ago, and deGrom, who returned earlier this season after missing more than a year with a shoulder injury and who is said to be currently irritated by a blister.

Instead, the Mets now face the Padres in a best-of-three series over the weekend, with the Dodgers waiting (with this smile, in my mind’s eye) to take on the winners. There are the usual fun roster decisions (hello, 20-year-old catcher Francisco Álvarez!) and pressing questions remaining. Who will start in the infield between Guillorme and Escobar? How far is Marte, whose name appeared Friday morning on the wild-card roster, from being 100 percent? But with such a jammed-up schedule, the biggest issue for Buck Showalter is that managing New York’s aces will require some creativity and luck. Scherzer will start Game 1, and according to reports, Showalter might decide his Game 2 pitcher based on that outcome. Expect Chris-Bassit-and-pray-for-the-sweep if the Mets win the first game, deGrom on the mound bearing the full weight of a season on the brink if they don’t.

Is it ideal? Not even a little. Might it spell the end of a magical season? It very well could. But if the Mets are able to take a step back and return to what’s worked, they’ll likely find they have plenty to work from. All it takes is a few kind spirals, and a trip around the bases, and before you know it, maybe you’re home.