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By Jon Friedman

Sparky Lyle, the fabled New York Yankees relief pitcher, said in 1978 of the then long-suffering Boston Red Sox, “I don’t feel sorry for the Red Sox. But I pity them.”

That’s how I feel about the fans of the New York Mets, the subject of New York’s most neurotic sports fans, hands down.

There are several stages to being a REAL Mets fan. Mets Nation believes so much that it kills them when their team doesn’t come through. They somehow feel a little responsible when their guys fall short. They wish they could have done more. They gnash, they mutter, they curse, they grieve. Finally, their self-hatred is passed on to the ballclub and its penny-pinching ownership, which spends tens of millions less than the Yankees do to acquire free agents. Self-hatred becomes full-fledged hatred.

Then it passes and the good old fashioned self-loathing returns.

Oh sure, followers of the Jets, the Knicks, and other local favorites also have their moments at the bottom of the barrel. Even the perennial powerhouse Yankees are feeling the brunt of the fans’ frustration during this season of discontent.

Still, the Mets’ fans have them all beat. They remind me of Charlie Brown, as he determinedly charges forward to kick the football, only to have that miscreant Lucy snatch it away just at the point of attack. You can call fate the Lucy in the anecdote. Just as it looks like the Mets are on the verge of a breakthrough, fate intervenes and pushes the team and its heartthrobs a little further down in the rat hole.

As I write this, the Mets are riding high, having handily dispatched of their ancient oppressors, the Atlanta Braves in a series this week at Citi Field. Naturally, sports-talk radio stations in New York suddenly feature callers who excitedly proclaim good time for the Mets. Finally.

Maybe, just maybe, that will actually happen. It would be the culmination of a maddening decade that Mets fans remember all too well.

In 2006, the Mets fulfilled the promise of their young players and canny veterans by running away with the National League and waltzing into the playoffs. Fate intervened there, as the long-hated St. Louis Cardinals basically punched the Mets in the stomach and got no response. The Mets tried to get by on ability alone but the gritty Cardinals showed that toughness trumps talent every time.

In the most excruciating denouement in Mets history, Cardinals pitcher, Adam Wainwright, with the Mets’ winning runs in scoring range, threw what may be remembered as the greatest curve ball in major league history and struck out Mets slugger Carlos Beltran for the final out of the playoff series. Beltran was so flummoxed that he was left standing in the batter’s box with the bat on his shoulder. Wait till next year, Mets fans chanted.

In 2007, the Mets had a commanding seven-game lead over the Philadelphia Phillies with a mere 17 games left to play. Clearly it would take a Herculean effort for the Mets to screw it up, but the team sank to the occasion and blew the lead, It marked one of the most epic collapses n the history of the sport. The following year, the Mets again squandered a September lead to the Phillies, but in a slightly more pedestrian fashion.

Since the 2009 season, the Mets have been among baseball’s worst teams, year in and out. Making matters even worse, it appears that the team’s owners, the Wilpon family, might have had to keep down spending on free agents. That’s because of possible losses incurred by investing with longtime Wilpon friend Bernie Madoff, the Babe Rurh of Ponzi schemers.

Mets fans must feel a little like those pathetic laboratory rats. They can’t escape their surroundings yet they can’t find happiness, as they’re always scurrying around.

The great New Yorker baseball writer Roger Angell once wrote of Phillies fans, “They’re like long-suffering hay fever sufferers. They may feel better but not for long. Mets fans can’t even feel better for long.”

Yes, I know. The Mets have won the World Series in 1969 and 1986. But does anybody even remember anything before Wikipedia came along? I’m talking about the 21st century.

I pity Mets fans.

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