“Why the Mets? Why not the Mets?”
"Why the Mets? Why not the Mets?...my goal at the end of all of this is that we make this organization the greatest organization, and everybody wants to come play for the New York Mets"@Lindor12BC on his goals for the next 11 years: pic.twitter.com/OUgDy2iH96— SNY (@SNYtv) April 1, 2021
This is the response that Francisco Lindor gave when asked about his decision to sign a 10-year, $341 million contract extension with the team last week. It is unclear whether he knew that he was posing the existential question that keeps many die-hard Mets fans like myself awake at night. As he continued, he laid out a vision for the Mets that defies their unlucky history: “My goal at the end of all of this is that we make this organization the greatest organization, and everybody wants to come play for the New York Mets.”
Why not the New York Mets? Well, the New York Yankees, for starters. Or maybe the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, San Francisco Giants, and St. Louis Cardinals. (It’s big of me to include that last one. I’m working through some stuff.) These are marquee MLB franchises that have won the World Series since the turn of the century, several of whom have track records of spending big to acquire superstar talent and others who have a knack for supplementing elite player development systems with competitive splashes in free agency to create a general aura of competence. That’s why not the Mets.
Since their debut season in 1962, the Mets have four distinct eras of organizational success. Each one begins in storybook fashion, and each one ends in a tire fire of spectacular proportions that somehow outdoes the last. The first such era stretched from 1969 to 1977, after the Mets did the baseball equivalent of stumbling like a baby deer through their first seven years of existence only to sprint into one of the most improbable World Series runs that baseball has ever seen. At the time, the National League consisted of just 10 teams. Prior to 1969, the Mets had never finished higher than ninth, nor had they even finished above .500. The ’69 team rode the immaculate arm of Tom Seaver, who won 25 games that year alone, to a 100-win season and a title.
Then, in 1977, the Mets traded Seaver to the Reds in a move so unthinkable that it was dubbed “the Midnight Massacre.” Seaver, nicknamed a schadenfreude-laden “The Franchise,” is so far and away the greatest player in Mets history that he’s still 15.3 fWAR clear of Dwight Gooden, the next pitcher on the list, for most value created in a Mets uniform. He had three top-five Cy Young award finishes after they shipped him to Cincinnati in exchange for Pat Zachry, Steve Henderson, Doug Flynn, and Dan Norman. (Any Zachry&Henderson&Flynn&Norman T-shirts out there in the wild?) The Mets weren’t great every year Seaver was on the team, but they weren’t embarrassing again until he was gone. Original sin? Check.
The second era of success—remember, it’s about to get worse—came during Gooden’s peak: 1985 to 1990. The Mets finally sat atop the league after winning the 1986 World Series on the strength of the best young core in franchise history. This group was built around stars who looked like the future, right up until they suddenly weren’t. There were Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, who were 21 and 24 years old, respectively, in 1986. There was 24-year-old Kevin Mitchell, who was traded to the Padres after the 1986 season and won MVP for the Giants in 1989. There was 25-year-old Ron Darling, who was out of a Mets uniform by 1991; 26-year-old Wally Backman, a fan favorite who ’86 Mets hipsters will claim was the real MVP of that team; and 23-year-old Lenny Dykstra, who … well, the less said about him, the better. All told, the 1986 Mets amassed 31.5 WAR from players who were age 27—widely considered to be the peak of a baseball player’s career—or younger. By comparison, the tank-a-thon 2017 Astros and 2016 Cubs amassed 28.7 and 30.6 WAR, respectively, from players age 27 or younger. The downfall of this Mets era can’t be pinned on one transaction as in the case of Seaver, but the collective failure was far worse. This was organizational ineptitude never before seen in Queens.
Then came the millennium team, a veteran group that didn’t have quite the firepower to capitalize on its brief foray into World Series contention, as made obvious when its run was brought to a screeching halt against the crosstown rival Yankees. The only serious contributor to that team under age 27 was Edgardo Alfonzo, who was—and remains—a lord. Patrick Mahomes Sr. threw 94 innings in relief with a 5.46 ERA (that arm talent gene, though). This was a roster full of good-but-not-great players, and it started a 34-year-old Al Leiter in Game 1 of the World Series (arm talent gene alert!). These Mets had no intentions to compete for longer than the one season they made the World Series and lost a gentleman’s sweep to the Yankees, of all teams. Hey, it’s cool they’re bringing back the black jerseys, though.
Finally, there are the brief and so painfully unhealed wounds of the era from 2005 to 2008. The Mets were building around a core anchored on the left side of the infield. David Wright and José Reyes were the most exciting young third-base-and-shortstop pairing in the game. The front office brought in Pedro Martínez, a veteran with just enough left in the tank to win when it mattered most. Perhaps most importantly, the 2005 team signed exactly the right guy to supplement a legitimate contender’s core: Carlos Beltrán. The Lindor parallels are not insignificant. Beltrán, an easy-to-root-for switch hitter who excelled at a premium position, hit 16 home runs and stole 17 bases in his first season after being acquired, and he finished fourth in NL MVP voting a year after that.
Smash-cut to a soul-incinerating 2006 NLCS loss to the Cardinals with Beltrán frozen on a called strike three. A year later, the Mets blew a seven-game NL East lead in a span of just 17 games. And in 2008, they gave up back-to-back eighth-inning home runs to Wes Helms and Dan Uggla to lose to the Marlins on the final day of the regular season and miss out on a wild-card spot. By 2011, the Mets were bad enough to dump Beltrán to the Giants. Oh, and there’s the Ponzi scheme that (allegedly) came close to bankrupting the owners, who then did something akin to receding into their shells for the better part of a decade, only to pop their heads out long enough to meddle in baseball operations and give Jason Bay a four-year, $66 million contract. I know I said that I’m working through some stuff, but I’m not yet ready to talk about growing up in Philadelphia during the events mentioned in this paragraph.
Your mileage may vary on whether the book is closed on the 2015 Mets. After the departure of Steven Matz to Toronto this offseason, there are just four players—Jacob deGrom, Michael Conforto, Noah Syndergaard, and Jeurys Familia—from that roster who still don the orange and blue. That’s enough of a core that it feels like we’re still in the same era (albeit without the storm cloud of the Wilpons hanging overhead), but don’t get it twisted: Mets fans haven’t forgotten about the rug getting pulled out from under a team with a self-described “five ace” rotation made up of cost-controlled, homegrown stars, and they certainly haven’t forgotten the manner in which that rug was pulled. The 2015 World Series brought a comedy of errors, including but not limited to: Daniel Murphy allowing a flurry of balls to pass through his legs; Familia blowing three saves; and the coup de grâce, franchise savior Matt Harvey demanding to come back out in the ninth inning of Game 5 only to melt down and end the Mets’ season.
How do you fail so grandly that the baseball gods cast the “lolMets” curse on you? Well, that’s how. The Mets play in the biggest sports market in the United States. They have never made the playoffs more than two seasons in a row. They have never played in the World Series twice in the same decade. They have never produced an MVP, nor built anything worth a damn that sustained itself longer than the time it took for the sun to melt its wings—and in this case, the Mets are the sun, wings, glue, and architects.
Which brings us to Lindor. It was one thing for the Mets to trade for him. Any franchise worth its weight in salt could say yes to getting Lindor and Carlos Carrasco for Andrés Giménez, Amed Rosario, and prospects. And the newly cash-rich, Steven Cohen–owned Mets had been linked to myriad stars: Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, and briefly Matt Chapman. But trading for Lindor felt especially exhilarating, not only because he’s MLB’s best shortstop by WAR since his 2015 debut, but because he’s one of the most magnetic people the game has to offer. If you want to be like the Dodgers, the line of thinking went, the first step is to copy the Mookie Betts trade to a tee. The Mets had done the hard part: finding the superstar that was promised. Now all they had to do was dot the i’s, cross the t’s, and add the zeroes.
Of course, Mets weirdness ensued. On March 29, Cohen and Lindor met over allegedly bad ravioli and allegedly good chicken parm to discuss a contract extension. But as the hours ticked away the following night on the eve of Opening Day (the artificial deadline Lindor had set to agree to an extension), the nauseatingly familiar feeling of organizational incompetence burst through the door like the Kool-Aid Man. At 10:31 p.m. ET, ESPN’s Jeff Passan tweeted the Mets offer was “parked at 10 years, $325 million”—an offer Lindor and his agent had reportedly already rejected earlier in the day.
But then, 45 minutes later, it happened. The deal was a declaration of intent so clear that even the most fatalistic Mets fans couldn’t ignore it. Lindor’s contract is more than twice as large as the previous record deal given out by the franchise. He is a breath of fresh air, a Face of Baseball in Queens if there ever was one. He joins a roster that is teeming with young stars in Conforto, Dom Smith, Jeff McNeil, and Pete Alonso—the kind of core that, dare I say, could rival even that of 1986. If the Mets do this right, the greatness the franchise enjoys will no longer be fleeting, confined to tentpole moments that crop up from dumb luck, player development, or both. It will be—for the first time in Mets history—sustainable.
Lindor will make his home debut against the Marlins on Thursday in front of a limited-capacity crowd. Such is life in 2021. He’ll get a standing ovation from Mets fans, most of whom are happy to wait for the moment he blows the metaphorical roof off a sold-out Citi Field—which, if you know anything about Francisco Lindor, won’t take long. In the meantime, I’ll settle for the soothing certainty of watching him smile after he turns a nifty double play, or seeing him chat up David Peterson after a rough first inning. Just having him around every day brings a level of inner peace to my fandom, the likes of which I haven’t experienced since David Wright was at his peak. Lindor is one of just a handful of players in the world with the potential to ease generations of Mets fans’ pain. And now he has 11 years to do it.
In the words of Lindor: Why the Mets? Why not the Mets?