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Francisco Lindor and the Reawakening of Mets Fandom

New York’s trade for Mr. Smile and Carlos Carrasco energized Mets fans to believe not only in the team’s new plan, but in the very nature of fandom

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The biggest surprise of Thursday morning’s news that the New York Mets had acquired electric Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor and beloved Cleveland pitcher Carlos Carrasco wasn’t so much that the trade itself happened. After all, such big swings, so to speak, were broadly and almost definitionally expected when the team sold last fall to longtime hedge fund magnate Steven A. Cohen, an owner who combines the rare megabillionaire’s darkly-acquired resources with the common fan’s search for transferred salvation.

And the surprise wasn’t even that the Mets “stole” Lindor, as the New York Post’s Mike Mazzeo quoted a rival MLB executive as saying, with a move that resulted in both a legit superstar and a longtime righty stalwart joining New York in exchange for a respected-yet-replaceable foursome of prospects and young talent. After all, that kind of yield is practically table stakes when you combine an unabashedly frugal team like Cleveland with a bold stated goal like Cohen’s: to win a championship in “three to five years,” as he put it in his ambitious introductory press conference last fall.

No, the biggest surprise about the big trade was how much it truly came as one, tiptoeing right up behind us all and leaving hearts physically pounding. In a baseball world where most pending moves, particularly in high-viz, constant-drama markets like New York, are leaked and twisted and debated days/weeks/months before they (often don’t even!) occur, news of the transaction was uncommonly sudden. As of Thursday morning, there hadn’t been all that much recent scuttlebutt about the market for Lindor—a Golden Glove winner and four-time All-Star who came *thisclose* to a Cleveland championship in 2016 and who will be a free agent after this season—as many MLB teams grappled with the financial and operational uncertainties of both the unexpected 2020 and the upcoming 2021 seasons. That is, until abruptly we were all learning not only that Lindor-to-the-Mets had legitimate potential, but that—touches earpiece—it was already in the process of happening. And really, the escalation was somehow even sharper than that! I personally was already deep in optimistic-texting-with-the-groupchat mode before any of us had even seen that Carrasco was also involved.

What’s more, the trade feels not like an end unto itself, but a momentum-gathering beginning. Not only did the blockbuster trade not take the Mets out of the running for acquiring a pricy free agent this offseason, it essentially enhanced their pitch. It elevated the team into the competitive, high-expectations tranche of legitimate World Series contenders. It served as a signal from the team’s new leadership—from Cohen to back-again president Sandy Alderson to newly-hired GM Jared Porter—that the franchise’s elite aspirations are backed up by its capabilities. And it underlined the Mets’ intentions of establishing not only a new(ish?) look, but a new order of operations.

Lindor, just 27, is a truly sparkling player in a sport that, for all its physical splendor and literal loftiness and razor’s-edge feats of financial and strategic optimization, can sometimes have all the effervescence of an old soda left out overnight. Nicknamed Mr. Smile, he is winsome and patient; individually thrilling yet by all indications also the consummate teammate. A year after his painful World Series loss, he helped his team pile up a 22-game win streak and he hit a memorable grand slam in the postseason against the Yankees. In 2018, he recorded a career-high 38 home runs on a Cleveland squad that won 91 games despite being notoriously and even kind of unabashedly unwilling to spend big money on its stars.

It’s likely, though not certain, that the Mets expect to re-sign Lindor; unlike many other MLB teams, they have both the budget and the desire to do so. But the trade was also one intended to focus on a more immediate future. Carlos Carrasco, satisfyingly nicknamed “Cookie,” is a man whose long career as a reliable starter in Cleveland that included a comeback from leukemia last year. Carrasco is expected to be a depth boon to a talented Mets rotation that already includes Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom and 2019 acquisition Marcus Stroman. (There’s also Noah Syndergaard, who hopes to return in June after undergoing Tommy John surgery in March 2020.) The trade defined a couple of key aspects of what to expect in a Cohen era that has already revved up Mets fans.

Cohen lately has attempted in earnest to position himself as an affable posting king full of dad jokes who is ready and willing to engage with Mets fans, perhaps in part to distract from his long-established reputation as a notoriously implacable and contemptible trading-floor goon. Ever since he purchased the Mets, it’s been clear that his obsession with the team is no front, and that he understands the vantage of the everyday enthusiasts, the ones with 14 billion fewer dollars in the bank. Cohen is well aware that acquiring Lindor scratches an itch that can’t necessarily be reached by more nerdily esoteric roster moves (although he certainly understands the importance of the latter, too). And similarly, Alderson has long understood that baseball isn’t just a game, it’s a show; what makes Lindor so special is that he encompasses both. In Thursday’s press conference, Alderson admitted that it wasn’t only Lindor’s technical prowess that had made him a top trade target: His ineffable charisma and star quality “was a factor,” too. “There are many players that you watch and you appreciate,” Alderson said. “There are other players you watch and you smile.”

In the same presser, newly-hired GM Porter described the team’s M.O. as “creative and opportunistic,” sounding a whole lot like something you’d find in a hedge fund investor letter. To call this a year of significant market dislocations would be the understatement of the century, which means that, in baseball as in life, savvy behemoths with the capital and the stomach to deploy it can swoop in to make some lopsided transactions indeed, particularly when the counterparty is frugal. In a way, the trade resembled Cohen’s purchase of the Mets franchise itself; these sorts of opportunities don’t come along very often.

In one fell swoop, the Mets managed to address two needs, in the infield and on the pitching mound, without really sacrificing the farm. (None of the players headed to Cleveland are on MLB Pipeline’s top 100 list.) And looking ahead, there are several intriguing players available, including the likely top target, outfielder George Springer, as well as another former Cleveland player, pitcher Trevor Bauer, who posted a video on his YouTube page on Thursday in which he wore a Mets cap and described his former (and future??) teammates Lindor and Carrasco in glowing terms.

In a 2018 conversation with Alex Rodriguez, Lindor explained how he got so much out of his 5-foot-11, 190-pound frame. “It comes from my lower body,” he laughed as Rodriguez loomed over him. “My upper body is just like a regular guy.” Of course, there’s little about Lindor that is regular; he’s a genuine star. Which is why, on WFAN on Thursday, callers were comparing his acquisition to that of some of history’s most cherished Mets. Some of the old heads spoke of getting guys like Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez back in the day, while many others called up Craig ’n’ Evan on the FAN to reminisce about how they’d never forget the day the Mets signed Mike Piazza. Though I didn’t call in, I was one of those types, which meant I bristled at another genre of caller: the jacked-up Mets fan who merrily explained that since they weren’t old enough to remember Piazza, this was officially the biggest Mets moment of their life since the team played in the World Series in 2015.

This sort of backward-looking grasping made sense to me, even if it also made me feel old. It’s corny as hell to say this, but also true: Thursday’s trade felt like one of those sports memories that I can only hope I’ll want to remember. It was the kind of morning where I waged that internal battle between basking in preemptive nostalgia for what’s taking place in real time and allowing for bleaker reminders of what I’ve already come to know. The move energized old jinxy fandom synapses in my brain that I’d long assumed dead—or at least unworkably fried for the foreseeable future. The move was a salve!

It connected me with a former home base that amid the pandemic I haven’t been back to for what feels like ages upon ages and that I miss more than I try to let myself stop to consider. It encouraged me to think about the very nature of fandom, and to ponder good times large and small not just in a speculatively grand future tense, and not just with rueful, comforting hindsight—though both tendencies certainly reared their heads; I even texted an ex—but to also bask in the murky, middling madness of the right-damn-now.

It—well, it and the never-in-doubt Knicks!—inspired me to turn to/on my old pal New York sports radio, which I admittedly haven’t listened to in far too long. Craig Carton made fun of Evan Roberts’s classic Mets fan tendency to consider the dark side: When Roberts remarked that he would miss the finer prospects, Carton exhorted him: “You’re not celebrating enough!” On The Michael Kay Show, meanwhile, the fellas considered a truly chilling scenario: What would they ever do, they joked, and what would the woe-is-me fans do, if both the Mets and Jets were to become good at the same time?! Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, guys, I thought to myself, and then thought about how great it felt to be back in this familiar position, mentally responding to men with whom I carry on parasocial and skeptical one-sided relationships. For the first time in awhile, I felt just a little bit like my old dumb self again.