Monday, September 29, 2008

I'm Not Sure Anyone Can Dislike the New York Mets

But I do know what my immediate response was when the Mets failed to make the postseason again this year: BWAAAAAA AHAHAHAHAH AAAAAAAHA HAHAHAHA.

Then I felt guilty.

Two years ago, Endy Chávez robbed the Cardinals of a potential game-winning home run, only to see another Cards player hit a freak homer, followed by the Mets' best hitter striking out while looking at a curveball. Last year, on the last day of the season, the Mets lost their final game to the Florida Marlins. Just weeks earlier, with 17 games left, they had a seven-game lead on their division before embarking on a historic collapse. The loss eliminated them from the playoffs.

During the offseason, they traded for AL pitching ace Johann Santana, hoping to close off a major chink in their armor. Instead, Santana got little run support, winning far fewer games than expected. He routinely delivered incredible pitching performances that gave his team easy win opportunities that went unrealized. Often, a matter of one run made all the difference. On the last day of this season — indeed, the last game ever in Shea Stadium, the Mets' longtime home — the Florida Marlins again eliminated the Mets from playoff contention.

It's hard to say why it's funny, though. On one hand, there's the intense degree of consecutive collapses, something so severe (at least in baseball terms) that you almost have to make a joke of it. Otherwise, thinking about the human beings invested in the team and suffering with them dampens whatever thrill you might have in watching exciting baseball or in seeing your team prosper. On the other hand, it's hard not to immediately respect and like die-hard Mets fans. Elementally, they're good people. After all, they had every opportunity to become Yankee fans, and they somehow still resisted the temptation to give in to evil.

The easiest explanation for mockery probably lies in terms of money. The Mets benefit from having over 10 million local fans, from having several local TV and radio markets bidding for the rights to broadcast their games, from millions of nationwide fans exposed to them via their prominence as a New York team and from having all of these people or groups buying their merchandise. They're rich, mostly due to an accident of geography.*

* — Take away New York's bedrock and make it limestone instead — or take away its latitudinal proximity to Europe — and suddenly the population density plummets because you can't build up and you're not the nearest city to trade with. Skyscrapers and tall apartment buildings create the population density that enables the team to generate that revenue. If Manhattan Island were little more than a sandbar, the Yankees would earn little more than the Marlins. Consider, too, the economy that would vanish if the city were landlocked or inapt for deep-hulled shipping. In that case, it can't sustain its position as a world financial and trading hub; all that traffic goes to someone else on the eastern seaboard, and we're talking about Boston or Baltimore as the number-one city on America's east coast.

It's unfair, and fan's don't like unfair. Especially when some of that unfairness comes from historical luck and plate tectonics.

For more unfairness, just look at the payrolls for baseball teams in 2008:
N.Y. Yankees $209,081,579
Detroit 138,685,197
New York Mets 138,293,378
Boston 133,440,037
Chicago White Sox 121,152,667
Los Angeles Angels 119,216,333
Chicago Cubs 118,595,833
Los Angeles Dodgers 118,536,038
Seattle 117,993,982
Atlanta 102,424,018
St. Louis 100,624,450
Toronto 98,641,957
Philadelphia 98,269,881
Houston 88,930,415
Milwaukee 81,004,167
Cleveland 78,970,067
San Francisco 76,904,500
Cincinnati 74,277,695
San Diego 73,677,617
Colorado 68,655,500
Texas 68,239,551
Baltimore 67,196,248
Arizona 66,202,713
Minnesota 62,182,767
Kansas City 58,245,500
Washington 54,961,000
Pittsburgh 49,365,283
Oakland 47,967,126
Tampa Bay 43,820,598
Florida 21,836,500
At first glance, the natural reaction to the numbers on this list is probably, "BWAAAAAA AHAHAHAHAH AAAAAAAHA HAHAHAHA. Look at what you blew!!!" But look at the underlined team names. As of this writing, each team with an underlined name has clinched a postseason berth. One team, Minnesota, can potentially do so later today. They're ranked sixth from the bottom in payroll. The Tampa Bay Rays clinched the AL East, easily the toughest division in baseball. Their payroll is one-third that of the Mets'.

At first glance, of course it's funny. The Mets spent more money than all but two teams in baseball, hoping to buy a shot at a championship, and the organization just one team removed from the very bottom in expenditures — a team whose statewide market is probably the same as the Mets' five-borough numbers, a market that the Atlanta Braves initially pioneered and still poach from; a team, moreover, that can draw only a handful of sellout crowds per year because they play in The Baseball Crypt, a cold, wet, ugly thimble set starkly along one of the prettiest coasts in America — just won the toughest contest in regular-season baseball. Why not laugh at the hubris? Goliath Junior, Gotham Junior, just lost to what was a minor-league team twenty years ago. The empire just lost to the colonials. USA! USA! USA!

If you've read Michael Lewis' excellent Moneyball, though, it's not nearly so surprising. In it, Lewis recounts a scene wherein Billy Beane — general manager of the notoriously cash-strapped Oakland A's — gave a speech to Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. Beane's message was simple: baseball needed a salary cap and revenue sharing to level the playing field; otherwise, his teams couldn't compete. Of course, he lied. Beane wanted a level playing field to make his job easier, but he could still beat better payrolls by making more rational economic decisions. In 2002, the A's won as many games as the Yankees, with the sixth-lowest payroll in baseball. The Yankees outspent them by $89 million: the disparity between their payrolls was twice Oakland's total. Had there been a salary cap, Oakland might have run away with a World Series title by spending the money more wisely. As it was, they still came within nine games of winning one.

Clearly, spending the most money is no guarantee of making the postseason. Making the right decisions with the money makes all the difference. So in that respect, certainly some schadenfreude at the Mets' expense creeps in. On the other hand, look at so many of those other underlined names: they spent an awful lot of money. Boston and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Which Is Near Los Angeles have three world titles between them in the last six years. The Cubs, while lovable losers, unashamedly intend to buy a championship. Beane's tactics, outlined in Moneyball, spread amongst the league, and the richer teams have narrowed the gaps of market inefficiencies. Also, taking gambles on players found in those gaps doubtless carries less risk when a team can afford to pay other players to supplement disappointing gambles.

Luck also plays a huge factor. The Minnesota Twins, who might make the postseason, have batted insanely well with runners in scoring position (RISP), far above the norms. Meanwhile, the Angels have outperformed their Pythagorean Record.* By rights, they should have won something like ten fewer games.

* — The Pythagorean Record is a statistical model created by baseball guru and sabermetrics Founding Father Bill James. He named it after the pythagorean theorem due to its mathematical resemblance to it. Essentially, take the square of the number of runs a team has scored and divide it by the square of runs scored plus the square of runs allowed. This should equal the team's win percentage. Mathematically: RS2/(RS2 + RA2) = WIN %.

It sounds eggheaded, and it is, but it's also eerily accurate very, very often. It tells you what a team's win percentage should be. If a team has a higher win percentage, chances are that it has won games in an improbable, i.e. "fluke" manner. If you're an Angels fan, you should worry about performing in the postseason against superior hitting and pitching. Your team likely lost a handful of games in which they were utterly dominated but also eked out fluke 1-0 and 2-1 wins that reflected luck over performance.

As much as "moneyball" might exploit the gaps, no remedy or formula has been found for serendipity. And, the Yankees' and Mets' examples aside, money tends to buy more serendipity than poverty can. We might easily note teams like the '08 Rays, the '03 Marlins (who beat the Yankees in the World Series) and the Oakland A's, but much of that notice feeds a kind of confirmation bias. We want to believe that Big Money Doesn't Always Pay, so we latch onto the exceptions and attempt to normalize them. What's normal, though, is that Big Money Pays. Every year. It may not buy the ultimate prize every year, but it almost always buys a seat closest to it. Which is why the Cubs acted like the Yankees in the offseason.

Given that understanding, it's hard to fault a team like the Mets. Any fan of any team in any sport would probably delight in their team being able to spend more than others' and have a greater probability of winning it all. That's why you play the game. Wouldn't you want to have the best chance of all? Like every other form of socialism, almost everyone with a conscience loves the idea until they think that some form of unregulated capitalism will give them a little more than the other guy. Unlike the moron who votes for tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans in the deluded hope that one day he will become a billionaire and not want poor folk and "messicans" taking his slice of the pie, the sports fan generally has a reasonable expectation of his team eventually becoming wealthy, Yankees-like, commanding more money than anyone else and essentially buying a new championship each year. And unlike the moron who thinks that trickle-down economics actually benefits the economy more than regulation and shared prosperity, the selfish baseball fan can always point to the cheap Florida Marlins or the Oakland A's and see poor teams spend when it counts and hit the big bucks and miss the whammies and convince himself that the exceptions prove the rule.

You can fault the Mets for falling apart for two years. You should probably laugh at it, too, because it's okay to enjoy an embarrassment of riches becoming a legitimate embarrassment. You can fault them, too, for making poor decisions.*

* — Mets GM Omar Minaya, while the GM of the former Montreal Expos, famously traded Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and Cliff Lee for Bartolo Colon. Sizemore was an MVP candidate this year, and Lee should win the AL Cy Young Award. Colon took time off from being ineffectual to be injured. If you were to analogize this trade in Hollywood terms, Minaya traded Matt Damon, Heath Ledger and Jude Law for David Caruso.

But all the Mets really tried to do was win. Every fan wants that, and fans of the game would excoriate any team who made an attempt to do anything less. We might deplore the disparity in payrolls, and we should. We should deplore that baseball is an illegal monopoly. We should deplore that it lacks oversight and that its overseer is a feckless dishonest toady elected by the same people he allegedly oversees.

We should deplore that our national pastime strives endlessly to preserve income inequality, to promote coastal regions and economic markets that far outstrip the competitive monetary capabilities of much of the country's interior. While "moneyball" concepts illustrate the ingenuity of American enterprise, they do so by illustrating how desperate cleverness and innovation must be to overcome entrenched economic dominance and privilege. The Oakland A's, after all, are from Oakland, and the Yankees' revenue stream gushes from the largest market in America. "Moneyball" didn't get pioneered in a market of ten million with dozens of TV stations bidding higher and higher for broadcast rights. It came from the needy fringe.

But we can't and shouldn't deplore Mets fans. The authentic locals can't be blamed for the region in which they were born. Their privilege is not their fault, and it's brought them little. In a few years, a generation will have passed since their last championship. Look, again, at the picture atop this post. Endy Chávez, his iconic leap to rob a home run, saving the game for the Mets' chances to go to the 2006 World Series. They lost just innings later, and have lost late in the year for two years hence. The catch was brilliant — is brilliant: it's one of the greatest catches in baseball history — and poignant beyond itself. (The slogan he leaps beside belonged to AIG: the world's largest insurance company, collapsed, bailed out by the government.) You can't help but think it was the high-water mark for the Mets. He fell back to earth; so did they; so they have; so they will, annually, it seems.

Regardless of the bitter (and deserved) jealousy and resentment one might harbor for their money and opportunity, they sought what every other fan and team seeks. Profit, sure, but profit from pleasing millions, even if they might rake money from them too. AIG, in comparison, pales. No one who sells insurance wonders if it makes you happy. Ballclubs might be billion-dollar corporate entities, but ultimately they hope to remain so because you are happy. That's all Mets fans really wanted.

And besides, at least they don't root for the fucking Yankees.