The New York Mets recently promoted Bobby Abreu from their team's Las Vegas affiliate to the big leagues. Abreu, 40, was for many years one of baseball's best, and most underrated, hitters. Abreu will be the second oldest Met on a team that also features the seemingly timeless, and endlessly fun to watch, Bartolo Colon. Abreu and Colon are joined on the 2014 Mets by a cast of players who are well past their prime, Jose Valverde, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kyle Farnsworth, poorly thought out free agent signings, Curtis Granderson, highly rated prospects who are approaching the point where they need to start making good on their potential, Zack Wheeler and Travis d'Arnaud, and a legitimate star, David Wright. The team's other legitimate star, Matt Harvey, is likely lost to injury for most of the year. Change the names a bit and this could be one of many Mets teams from the recent past, or for that matter, pretty much any fair but not terrible team.
The Mets are hoping to have their first .500 season since 2008 and in the not too distant future their first playoff berth since 2006. This year is not just about the numbers for the Mets. Given not just the lack of success, but the lack of excitement around the team in recent years, Matt Harvey's fantastic but injury shortened 2013 season notwithstanding, as well as the tremendous success of the Boston Red Sox in the last 10 years, the Mets are in real danger of being eclipsed by the Red Sox as New York's second favorite team. This should give even the most dedicated Yankee fans a reason to root for the Mets this year.
Some of the Mets' recent woes can be attributed to team owner Fred Wilpon losing a substantial chunk to the chicanery of Bernie Madoff. This, however, is only a partial explanation for not just the last several years of mediocrity, but the longer term inability of the Mets to build a consistent winner. The Mets clearly demonstrate that not all big market teams are destined to be permanent contenders able to spend as much as needed on free agency, international signings or player development. In many respects, the Mets do not seem like a big market team at all. They rarely sign high-profile free agents. Curtis Granderson, their biggest signing this off-season was very much a second tier free agent even in the context of last year's relatively week free agent class. The Mets have made relatively few high profile ventures into the international free agent market of the kind that has recently brought Yasiel Puig to the Dodgers or Masahiro Tanaka to the Yankees. While the Mets occasionally retain their most talented players they also trade them or lose them to free agency with some frequency.
In their more than half a century of existence, the Mets have had an interesting history and, in some respects, a more interesting narrative. The Mets went from a laughingstock expansion team to World Champion in only seven years. While this is more time than it took the Florida Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks to win their first World Championship, by the standards of the 1960s, this was quite an accomplishment. Of the ten teams added to the major leagues between 1960-1980, none won a World Championship quicker and only one team, the Toronto Blue Jays, came close. The Mets also were a very good team from 1984-1990 and again in some of the years between 1998-2006. For most of the last 15 years or so they have also had some of the higher payrolls in baseball.
Despite their four pennants and two World Series victories, the Mets have embraced the lovable loser narrative. This is a difficult thing to define; clearly Mets fans to prefer their team to win, but the existence of this narrative, even though its relationship to reality is more tenuous, gives the Mets a more forgiving environment than some teams. This dynamic is, of course, exacerbated, by the more successful, wealthier and, according to most Mets fans, arrogant, team that plays in the Bronx. The Yankees are a great foil for the Mets. The Mets can explain away failure by saying they can never compete with the more wealthy and ruthless Yankees, but can also cultivate a following as New York's kindler and gentler team.
In contrast to the Steinbrenner family-led Yankess that made the win now a pathology that has undermined the Yankee's ability to build for the future, led to an increasingly untenable strategy of dependence on overpaid veterans and prevented the team from adapting to baseball's new strategic context, the Mets have suffered from a lack of urgency. We may be in for an interesting few baseball years in New York, as the two teams are both decent, but somewhat aimless and reliant on outdated narratives that are unlikely to bring a World Series back to New York anytime soon.