IN THE HEARTS and minds of Mets fans, every baseball season ends twice. There's the moment when it's officially over -- mathematical elimination -- and the moment when, in retrospect, we should've known it was. On paper, the 2021 Mets weren't eliminated from postseason contention until Sept. 25, but that was just for the coroner's report. According to FanGraphs, the Mets' odds of making the playoffs on June 16 were 89%, leaving a mere 11% chance for the Mets to Mets away the season. It was more than sufficient.
By the time the Mets were done, they'd pulled off an ambitious achievement even by the lofty standards of a franchise renowned for its face-plants: They finished with a sub-.500 record despite leading the NL East for more than half the season, despite being among the most-bet-on clubs to win the World Series. The Mets have long specialized in doing things no team in the entirety of MLB's expansion era has ever done, and in 2021, by golly, they did it again.
For much of the season, until deep into the summer, I was a snob about this particular Mets collapse. You call this a collapse? This isn't even remotely our best work. You see, I'm sort of an expert on Mets collapses. You might even say I wrote the book on it. It's called "So Many Ways to Lose: The Amazin' True Story of the New York Mets -- The Best Worst Team in Sports," and it came out before this season. A season that -- just so you understand the gravity of the delusion here -- I was certain would end in a World Series championship.
It did not. And because this is the Mets, it gets worse: The season could yet end with a World Series championship for the Atlanta Braves or the St. Louis Cardinals. The worst-case scenario was avoided, but suffice to say, the three most detestable franchises in baseball made it to the playoffs, again, and again, the Mets did not. As far back as April, I'd been getting texts, tweets, emails from friends and various other mean people in my life: When's the sequel coming out? You could do a whole book about this season! You could call it "The MRI Came Back Clean." Or maybe "We Did Our Due Diligence."
Pish-posh. I'd crack my knuckles after a blown Edwin Diaz save and share the legend of a man named Armando Benitez.
What took me so long to realize something truly special was happening here? When precisely should we have known that this season would end like so many others? The light in my eyes went out on Sept. 13 at Citi Field, in the bottom of the first inning, when the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright decided to stage an impromptu revival of my lowest moment as a Mets fan by catching Jeff McNeil looking for yet another crushing three-pitch whiff. After the game, which the Cardinals won 7-0, Wainwright took out his salt shaker, stood over the open wound and started pouring: "I like nostalgia," he told reporters. "I felt Mets fans in a bases-loaded situation wanted to see me throw two curveballs and a changeup ... I gave the people what they wanted." Sept. 13 also happened to be my birthday. I said no gifts, Adam Wainwright.
But really, the Mets were already toast by then. Another candidate is Aug. 29: One, two, three, four, Javy Baez declares a thumb war! The whole saga unfolded in 100% predictable fashion: a silly 24-hour hyperventilation cycle, followed by curtain calls from the Citi Field faithful within two weeks. Thumbs down ended with two thumbs up, in other words, so this isn't the day, either.
Moving on: The 2021 Mets were an above-average team with a fragile lead in a weak division, and then on July 17, they lost the best pitcher on Earth (Jacob deGrom) and their most gifted everyday player (Francisco Lindor) in a span of 93 minutes, with a stretch that included 13 games against the Dodgers and the Giants, the NL's two best teams, looming. The Mets went 2-11. Seven of the losses were by one run. By the time it was over, the Mets were five games under .500, third in the NL East, 7½ games behind the Braves, who'd won nine straight.
July 17. That was the day.
Except ... this is the Mets, which means this was a trick question all along. Their season ended before it started. And as fate should have it, the precise moment is captured on film. March 10: Deesha Thosar of the New York Daily News posts footage of the Mets completing a 27-out fielding drill by simulating a World Series victory celebration. They screamed and whooped, tossed their gloves, mobbed one another, the works. It was a visualization exercise, the kind that pro athletes do all the time. But you're supposed to do visualization exercises quietly, in your head, not on camera, in unison, like Little Leaguers who hear an ice cream truck turn the corner.
"Just high expectations for the team," McNeil told me before a game in Boston, by way of explanation. "And that's where we want to be at the end of the year, so." McNeil is a rational sort. He speaks in the language of expected slugging percentages. He doesn't do karma. "Just an idea I think somebody had. I forgot who it was."
(It was Tony Tarasco, the Mets' new first-base coach. I feel duty-bound to point out that Tarasco was drafted by the Braves and came up through their farm system, and while he played for six other teams, including the Mets ... once a Brave, always a Brave.)
"I didn't partake -- I forget where I was -- but I remember what you're talking about," said catcher James McCann in mid-September. "Matter of fact, I hadn't even thought about that until you brought it up. But I don't think the players, as a team, we're going to look back and say, 'Oh, we shouldn't have done that.'"
This is how you know that McCann was new in town. He didn't know yet. He was so naive then. Me? The first time I saw that video, I knew for certain that I would be trolled with it in October.
ON SEPT. 14, less than 24 hours after Wainwright had micturated all over their freshly dug grave, the Mets players were back out on the grass at Citi Field for pregame drills, and goodness, they sure were cheerful. Goofing around. Taking grounders at positions they don't play. J.D. Davis and left fielder Dom Smith took turns seeing who could wing the ball the farthest into the black seats in center field. Davis went first, then laughed as Smith took a 15-foot running start.
Look, nobody likes the Intensity Police. Nobody needs to be flipping tables in the clubhouse or cussing out teammates, but couldn't they at least perform some fury? Some disappointment? Here I was, a grown man with two kids, just a dopey fan, and I'd been in a funk all day. People's jobs were on the line. Manager Luis Rojas, who they'd professed to love, was about to get fired because they couldn't hit. Right fielder Michael Conforto, who cracked two home runs as a rookie in Game 4 of the 2015 World Series and in a just universe would retire a Met, might be playing somewhere else next season. This was bad, fellas.
This Mets team is not lazy. They love to play, and they love to win. Lord knows they have flaws, but a lack of hustle isn't one of them. They played 66 one-run games, and their extra-inning record was 11-7. For three seasons now, a hallmark of this team has been battling to the last out, sacrificing your nasal cavity to get on base and tearing off the jersey of the hero who wins it. Following a walk-off victory in May, not one but two Mets, Pete Alonso and pitcher David Peterson, fell on their faces trying to hurdle the dugout rail. One of the reasons those boos so offended Baez, in particular, is because it's not like Lindor wasn't trying. This isn't about effort. It's about temperament. The 2021 Mets just didn't have a mean streak. They're a bunch of swell guys who got along great and had a blast playing baseball. Some nerve, right?
It's heartbreaking to love a team that's just not good enough, which is why Mets fans feel more gutted than usual this time of year. We don't expect rings, obviously. A fun ride that gives us some laughs and thrills and groans -- that'll do just fine. Chaos surrounded this team, but on the field and in the clubhouse, they were easy breezy, lemon squeezy.
If anything, this group of Mets liked one another too much. Folks in sports tend to speak about leadership in facile ways. Winning clubhouses don't have one leader; they have three or four, each of whom leads in their own style. The Mets' clubhouse is filled with leaders, but temperamentally they're all like-minded. Alonso is positivity incarnate. Brandon Nimmo is the happiest man ever to wear a Mets uniform. Lindor had a huge smile even while cutting me off to end an interview. ("Brother," he said, with a gentle hand on my shoulder, "I gotta go.") Everyone loves Dom Smith, and Dom Smith loves everyone. Marcus Stroman, an absolute warrior, a student of pitching, a superb athlete and the MVP of this Mets season, will block you on Twitter if you bring any bad vibes into his feed. (Please don't block me, Stro, I love u.) It was a sealed cocoon of optimism and self-belief, and they had such faith that chemistry equals winning that at times they didn't seem to notice their season was slipping away.
As the 2021 Mets crumbled on the field, fans were feasting on a new 30 for 30 series about the 1986 world champion Mets, "Once Upon a Time in Queens," and at times I felt like I was watching a four-hour MRI on the spinal column of the current Mets. Who is the Keith Hernandez in this bunch? Where is the Gary Carter?
"I think that's probably the one guy we might've been missing this year, is the [guy who says] 'OK, that's enough, it's time to get down to business,'" reliever Aaron Loup told me. "Because we all know everybody's trying, and you always get the rah-rah, 'next game, you got this' stuff. But at some point you need, 'OK, enough. It's time to go, now.'" In the delicate balance of clubhouse construction, guys like Loup, who played in the 2020 World Series with Tampa Bay, who loves Busch Light so much he's got the T-shirt to prove it, are as indispensable as the Keiths and Garys. His season out of the bullpen was downright deGromian -- 0.95 ERA over 65 appearances. This is about what the Mets were missing, not what they had.
"We don't really have one guy who's getting after people," McNeil told me. "Maybe it's something we do need." Is it essential to win? Maybe, maybe not, he said. He hasn't won anything yet. He knows this much: "I've never really had that on the Mets. Three or four years, I've never really had that."
In 2019, under hitting coach Chili Davis, the Mets' offense was among their best in franchise history. Alonso dumped 53 home runs from the sky, an MLB rookie record. Four other Mets topped 20. All but one are still on the team. Heading into 2021, the knock on the Mets was pitching depth behind deGrom, and their defense behind the pitching. Scoring runs, though -- that wasn't going to be a problem.
And so, of course, scoring runs turned out to be a huge problem. In the season's first month, the potent Mets topped five runs just three times. Lindor batted .182 with one home run and three RBIs. Then on May 1, after the Mets' offense briefly busted out, a new character entered the stage: Donnie Stevenson, a mysterious hitting instructor whom Alonso, and then Conforto, and then Nimmo, credited with fixing the Mets issues at the plate.
Donnie Stevenson, you see, did not exist.
He was the fictional creation of a goofball clubhouse, and for a few days, he kept everyone smiling, until the Mets' bats faltered, and the Mets' impatient new owner fired Davis, and suddenly Stevenson wasn't so funny anymore. Alonso said he wept when he learned of Davis' firing. Davis worried aloud that Lindor's slow start cost him his job; Lindor didn't disagree. Davis was replaced with minor league hitting coordinator Hugh Quattlebaum, whose splendidly Metsy name conjured memories of J.J. Putz, and whose data-driven approach was a wild pendulum swing from what Davis had been preaching. For the rest of the season, most of the lineup looked lost. As spring turned to summer, and the runs still weren't coming, the Mets' stubborn self-belief started to seem like self-delusion. For the season, they finished 27th in runs and 29th -- next to last in baseball -- in hits. That's not an aberration. That's just lousy.
"I guess you have to take a look at: has this group won games?" Conforto said in a quiet voice before a game at Fenway Park, where the Mets got trucked twice and surrendered a humiliating Little League home run. "Over the past three, four years, we haven't won a whole lot of games, not enough to make it to the next level, and that's something that you just have to be honest about."
The easy breezy vibe goes for deGrom, too, at least when he's not pitching. Getting up in grilles is not his style. When healthy, he has a perma-smirk, as though amused by the foibles of normal humans. That smirk vanished in the second half as the setbacks piled up, replaced by a scowl.
"This is getting really old," he all but spat at one point. During a terse early-August update on his condition, he shifted into past-tense mode ("I feel like I was having the best season of my career"). A few weeks later, Alderson let slip that contrary to what the Mets had disclosed at the time, one of deGrom's many MRIs from this summer did not, in fact, come back clean. It showed a minor UCL sprain in his elbow, and yes, technically, Alderson noted, a "sprain" is a "tear." Jacob deGrom, in other words, had a torn elbow ligament. But everything was fine now!
"I know what was said," deGrom later told reporters, visibly seething, "but my ligament is perfectly fine. I wouldn't be throwing if I had a compromised ligament."
It was hard to tell whom deGrom was more mad at, us for constantly pecking at him, or Alderson for sticking him with another mess to clean up. It was clumsy, needless.
"At times you do wish it would just be baseball," Conforto said before a late-September game at Fenway Park. Conforto was a rookie with the Mets in 2015, so he's seen some things, but 2021 seemed to break him. "You wish you could just come to the park and just focus on what's going on on the field."
"Look at all the successful teams," J.D. Davis told me a few days earlier. "You look at the Dodgers. You look at Boston. The Yankees. We've gone through, what? Three managers, three GMs, two owners now in some three years, four years? The craziness is -- yeah, sometimes we talk about it. Of course we do."
He laughs in that mordant Metsy way.
"I mean, it's hard not to. We're just like, 'All right, I guess that's what happened today.'"
THE AUDITORIUM AT Citi Field where Mets executives conduct news conferences, upstairs from the Gil Hodges Gate, overlooking the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, is one of the few rooms at the ballpark that isn't named for anyone. Given the agenda of the day, this was probably for the best. It wasn't worth the risk of being forced to alert reporters that the funeral for the 2021 Mets would be conducted at 5:30 p.m. in the Hernandez Auditorium.
Alderson is as admired as Mets executives get, which is perhaps a backward compliment, but the truth is he'd be a legend in any front office. He built the Oakland A's dynasty of the late 1980s. He's always been the steady baseball man who pulls the Mets back from the abyss, whether it's Bernie Madoff or the Wilpons, and the reason the Mets have such a likeable and talented core is he assembled it. Oakland's current executive VP of baseball operations, Billy Beane, whom the Mets drafted out of high school, reportedly worships him, which might offer hope that Alderson can succeed at luring him. This is his final mission: shepherd the franchise again into a safe pasture. He has always been a reluctant custodian for the Mets, so perhaps he deserves that context before we enumerate the humiliating personnel disasters, one after another, that he has presided over since returning to the Mets last September.
First, there was manager Mickey Callaway, who lasted two feckless seasons and whose lewd behavior toward women was an open secret at previous stops. Then there was Jared Porter, whom Alderson hired in December 2020. Porter lasted a month before he, too, got fired for a pattern of unwanted sexual advances. Alderson replaced Porter with Porter's deputy, 44-year-old Zack Scott, who was arrested on a charge of driving while intoxicated at 4 a.m. following a charity event at Cohen's house. And now Cohen has entrusted Alderson to get it right on his fourth try.
Then there's the attempted hire that fell through: Trevor Bauer, the 2020 NL Cy Young Award winner, who Alderson and the Mets believed they'd landed in free agency back in March, until he chose the Dodgers at the last minute. The horrifying accusations against Bauer were still months away, but even after Callaway and Porter, Alderson blew through the existing red flags about Bauer. "There were lots of questions about Trevor Bauer that we tried to answer, and ... I think the process we went through was a good one," Alderson said when I asked if Mets brass had come away with lessons from that experience. "We had lots of feedback, including from our own employees, male and female. So, that's an unfortunate situation. And the good news is it didn't happen on our watch."
The good news is it didn't happen on our watch. This isn't even one of those cases where a front office is saying all the right things and now it's a matter of holding them to account. They're not saying all the right things. He offered no regrets. No reflection on why the warning signs were ignored, no reason to believe they'll be heeded in the future. If Alderson thinks any good news came out of the Mets' Bauer pursuit, that is very bad news.
One after another, current Mets lined up in the season's final week to say that, despite it all, they'd love to return to New York next year. Baez called these Mets "a special group" and said he'd gladly play with Lindor forever. Stroman, who is from New York and seems to thrive here, said he'd gladly play with Baez forever. Athletes always say this sort of thing at this time of year, but the Mets seemed to be going out of their way to italicize their words.
Alderson, though, kept hinting at major changes to the roster. Asked if he still believes that this Mets core can compete for a World Series, he pointedly did not say yes. "Well, it depends on how you define our core of young players," he began, "and I think that that core is eroding." Conforto and Noah Syndergaard, he noted, are already free agents. "I'm not sure that we have the core of players that would allow us to reach that level."
As for Javy Baez's future in New York, Alderson's reply plays very differently on paper than it did in the room. On paper, here's what he said: "Is it possible? Yes. Is it realistic? Maybe." The transcript, though, is missing Alderson's almost comically pregnant pauses before each one-word answer. Put it this way: I went in thinking Baez would be back, and I left forlorn. It almost got worse as Alderson went on. "But to say, 'No, there's absolutely no way that Javy Baez can be part of the Mets next year,' no, I wouldn't be prepared to say that at this point."
What could major changes mean? McNeil and Smith were prime under-performers in 2021, but they're also cheap and under team control; deployed wisely -- 400 well-curated plate appearances, versus 700 -- they can play crucial bench roles. Aside from Stroman, the entire 2021 Mets rotation is already under contract for 2022. The bullpen was a strength all year, so that'd be a peculiar place to dynamite. Mets fans are bracing for heartbreak when it comes to Conforto, and by all appearances, so is he. But if Conforto decides to return, too, then what exactly will be different in 2022?
A healthy deGrom changes everything.
THE RARE SIBERIAN tiger only emerges from his den once a day, in the late afternoon, to get some sun, stretch out his long tensile legs, and shag flies in center field. He might kibitz with a friend on another team, or take grounders at shortstop, but he will make sure to keep on his side of the invisible barrier between the infield grass and the dirt in front of the home dugout, a safe distance from the caravan of onlookers with their cameras and notebooks.
In order to return to his lair, though, he must cross through the dugout, and there are but two dugout gates, so depending on which one he heads for, the caravan will drift in that direction, measuring his gait. Is he slowing? Is he speeding up? He won't stop. To stop is to die. He might answer a question or two as he glides by. He might say six words combined.
He's wily, though. Once I watched him amble down the third-base line toward reporters only to skip over a low fence in left field and scamper away back into his den, grinning as he ghosted them. Another time, I witnessed a beat writer try to slow him down. "Can I ask you a question, Jake?" "Nope," deGrom replied without breaking stride. "Please?" the writer pleaded, but deGrom just shook his head extra hard, like a kid refusing his vegetables.
Between 2018, when deGrom won the first of his back-to-back Cy Young awards, and the beginning of 2021, the Mets had a losing record in games in which he started. It was our Metsiest stat for three solid years: somehow the best pitcher on Earth made us worse. In the first half of 2021, though, deGrom was so historically unhittable that even the Mets couldn't find a way to waste it. On July 7, when deGrom threw his last pitch of the season, he was 7-2 with a 1.08 ERA, the Mets were 46-38 and wielding a 4½-game NL East lead. His average fastball velocity was 99.2, a number that made me giggle in awe this summer and now makes me wince. He was chosen to start the All-Star Game for the NL, but he opted to rest, and then never came back. A healthy deGrom wouldn't merely have tacked on five or six second-half wins, like some garden-variety ace. He spares your bullpen, relieves your relievers, a crucial boost in a baseball age when many starters max out at five innings. He gives his teammates that rare sensation of participating in living history. Your senses get heightened. Your focus narrows. You'll do anything not to be the guy who screws it up.
Would the Mets have made the playoffs if deGrom hadn't gotten hurt? You're damn right they would've.
For the first three months of the season, deGrom wasn't just the best pitcher on Earth, he was also the Mets best hitter. This is only a slight exaggeration: He batted .364 this year. Deep into June, he'd driven in more runs than he'd allowed. Of course, because these are the Mets, he twinged a lat muscle in late April. That led to his first IL trip of the season. But then he came right back and gave up two runs -- two -- over his next seven starts. I was at Citi Field on June 16, when he struck out eight of the first nine Cubs he faced, and for the first and only time in my life, I was certain we were about to witness a no-hitter. Then he didn't come out for the fourth inning, and my heart sank. A month later, his season was over, and the Mets were just another team that couldn't buy a hit.
"If we've just lost three games in a row and it's Jake's turn to pitch, you knew the stopper was in," Loup told me. "He's there. He's coming to save the day." Davis called it "more than a punch to the gut." The margin for error was gone. "We needed to be at full strength when we were playing L.A., San Francisco," McNeil said. "Yeah, it was tough. That was the biggest trip of the year."
For the duration of the second half, the Mets teased us with the possibility that deGrom might return before the end of the season, even though we could read a calendar and do the math. This was also bigger than a playoff race. In a matter of weeks, deGrom had gone from a likely three-time Cy Young winner to a 33-year-old power pitcher coming off a (very small) UCL tear who can opt out of his already-below-market deal after the 2022 season, and who may be wondering if this franchise will ever get its act together.
For a highly visible superstar who's played in New York going on nine years, deGrom is something of a cipher even to Mets fans. He doesn't do extended interviews, or Pepsi commercials. He grew up in a part of central Florida so rural that it's considered country even for central Florida. He enjoyed wrestling baby gators with his buddies and going to keggers with giant bonfires. Former Mets manager Bobby Valentine once described him to me as a "free spirit," which is maybe not the phrase most people would associate with deGrom, but when you watch him prowl around the outfield, you see that tiger itching to be a tiger again and losing his mind that he can't.
"Jake is always moving around," Conforto told me. "It's kind of who he is." All Mets fans know the origin story that deGrom is a converted shortstop, which is why he was such a late bloomer as a pitcher, but the truth is he's never really stopped wanting to be a shortstop. Shortstops get to play every day. For a guy like that, being injured is excruciating. "It's boring. It's tedious," Conforto said, who spent a long stretch of contract year on the IR himself with a hamstring pull. "You've got all this time where you're not getting ready to play a game. It's not a great place to be, and Jake's definitely bored." Said McCann: "I think when he goes nine innings and throws a shutout, he's super bored." DeGrom is a world-class athlete, and world-class athletes need competition like the rest of us need air.
Now imagine going without it for two years.
IT WAS COLD and damp at Citi Field, a lousy night for baseball, and some-20,000 scattered fans in attendance for a meaningless late September game against the then-last-place Miami Marlins were on their feet, going bananas. This is how it works when you're a Mets fan: The moment after we get eliminated from the playoffs, we begin casting around for reasons to get delusional all over again about next year. So much about 2022 seems in flux right now. Alderson said it himself: the core is eroding. The fan base is as gutted as I've ever seen it because we all know there must be consequences this time. We've reached the limits of chemistry.
It was going to take a doozy, in other words, to restore our unearned faith this time. Like clockwork, the Mets delivered: the Return of Thor.
Once upon a time, it was Syndergaard, and not deGrom, who was destined to become the two-time Cy Young winner of the Mets rotation. That both of them have turned out to be as gifted as advertised, and the Mets still haven't been back to the playoffs since 2015, might turn out to be the real crime of a decade that began with Madoff fleecing the franchise. For Syndergaard, it's been a much bumpier road. He's been mesmerizing, he's been infuriating. But mostly he's been hurt. He's been so bored the past two years he launched a book club through his Instagram feed.
Thor and deGrom have been clubhouse neighbors since they came up together in the mid-2010s, and we learned to distinguish them by their flowing manes: Syndergaard was Norse god blond, deGrom was backwoods brown. Thor still has the locks. DeGrom got serious once he started racking up Cy Youngs. DeGrom has turned out to be the one chasing the ghost of Tom Seaver, but among Mets fans Thor will always have our heart. His legend began during the 2015 World Series, when the Royals objected to him going up and in on their hitters, and he responded by informing them they could "meet me 60 feet 6 inches away." He loved antagonizing Jeff Wilpon, and we loved him for it.
On Sept. 28, in the next breath after announcing via Zoom that deGrom would be shut down for the season, Rojas informed the assembled media that Syndergaard would start the second game of that night's doubleheader. He'd pitch one, and only one, inning. Given Rojas' expressed rationale for shutting down deGrom ("there's no sense" bringing him back now), the logic of bringing back Syndergaard for a single inning was hard to square. The human factor, though, was obvious. Syndergaard is a free agent. He has spent most of his career in the Mets organization, and more than any current Met, he has hurled himself into the experience of being a New Yorker. He and deGrom belong in the same clubhouse and, for years, Mets fans have been bracing for him to ditch us for a more competent franchise. Instead, he's the one hoping we'll give him one more shot.
Sending him out to pitch that night, in other words, was a needless act of kindness, no matter how Mets management described it. This might be his last chance to pitch in New York. If he's going to audition for a job next year, might as well let him do it in front of the home crowd, let him feel that love one more time. The day before, a Mets fan on Twitter chastised Cohen for not coming down harder on this team, and every now and then, the wizard behind the curtain responds. "At this point in the season," Cohen wrote, "can you think of something to say that will matter. I'm thinking forward." And so now here we were, thinking forward.
Just after 7 p.m., for the first time in two years, Syndergaard took the mound to the sound of "Carmina Burana" by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and, dear reader, I got chills. This is what it's all about for us -- moments like this, when the return of our guy, our Thor, somehow means more to us than a title ever could.
Syndergaard threw 10 pitches, nine for strikes. He was under a strict no-breaking-ball rule, but his fastball hit 96. He struck out two, retired the side in order and strode off the mound to the ecstatic cheers of every Mets fan here at Citi Field, at home, wherever they were, all of us thinking the same sad, silly, Metsy thought: It's happening again.