Crafting stories. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
At this year's All Star break, the Mets are six games over .500 and widely seen as one of this season's feel-good stories. At the same point last season, the Mets were one game over .500--worse, if I have my math right, though not by a huge amount. And yet, if you asked the average Mets fan, I'm sure they'd tell you this year's team is light years better than the 2011 edition. They're scrappier, they'd tell you. They fight harder. They're more fun.
Proving any of this is impossible, of course, and almost beyond the point when fans believe it so strongly. What I find more interesting is how quickly our perception of this team changed, and how the media has both reflected and shaped those perceptions.
This time last year, though the Mets owned a decent record, the prevailing mood around the team ranged from DOOM to SLIGHTLY LESS DOOM. In pure baseball terms, despite a winning record, the Mets were not in great shape at the All Star break in 2011. Jose Reyes was shelved with a hamstring injury, and David Wright was dealing with a broken back (!). It was still unclear if either Johan Santana or Ike Davis would take the field again in 2011. (Spoiler alert: They wouldn't.) Most pundits urged the Mets to not mistake their record for contending, and the front office listened, as they openly shopped around Carlos Beltran and Frankie Rodriguez, and gave serious thought to doing the same with Reyes (though his DL trip precluded that). The Beltran sweepstakes constituted a public admission of defeat, the kind the Mets hadn't dared voice in many seasons.
Off the field, things were even worse. The specter of Bernie Madoff loomed on the horizon. The sting of Fred Wilpon's idiotic comments about his players in the New Yorker still echoed. The team was shown to be hemorrhaging money, and a deal with investor David Einhorn to purchase a minority stake fell through under mysterious circumstances. This last detail floated under most people's radar, but was perhaps the worst sign of all for those who cared to notice. It was an indication that if the Wilpons were about to be pushed off a cliff, they just might take the franchise with them.
Flash forward to July 13 of this year, and everything seems to be going just dandy, thank you very much. Watching the Mets play no longer requires blinders or a commitment to masochism. We talk openly of their playoff chances (thanks to that second wild card) without fear of being branded maniacs. Things are going so well, in fact, that those prophecies of doom from 2011 are barely a whisper now.
This sudden turnaround is even more amazing when you recall that the DOOM described above got even worse after the 2011 All Star break. Beltran and K-Rod were traded, prompting angry "back up the truck" pieces from many of the same papers who urged the Mets to deal in the first place. Without Beltran, the Mets almost immediately regressed to the mean, and their financial problems showed no signs of abating. The nadir came in the last game of the season, when Jose Reyes hit a bunt single to start off the bottom of the first and immediately removed himself from the game to preserve his batting title, rendering an historic event a deflating one (and making his last at bat as a Met a real downer).
Then came the off season, where the once high-spending Mets saw one of their best home-grown players ever get snatched up by the Marlins, Jeff Loria, and his custom-made jerseys. Though most people saw Reyes as a goner all year (I was one of the few dopes who didn't), it was still a shock to the fanbase when it happened. Almost as shocking was the Mets' failure to make any real FA signings beyond Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch. For a team that used to do everything in its power to win the backpages in December, this was interpreted as the sign of a team giving up before the season even began. As recently as spring training, the vibe around the Mets remained extremely negative, with most observers assuming they'd lose 100 games or more.
A few short months ago, the Mets' prospects seemed grim, not just for the season but for the continued existence of the team. Since then, they've done a complete 180. Obviously, this largely because the Mets are truly competing; winning can ward off an awful lot of criticism. It also helps that the Madoff issue has finally been resolved, and it looks like the Mets won't be casualties of it.
Beyond this, though, I honestly feel that one of the biggest reasons it's fun to watch this Mets team is because the press covering them isn't filled with wall-to-wall misery. This time last year, it had already become exhausting to read/watch any coverage of the Mets, and that was before the bottom fell out. Would we still love this team if the media wanted to rain on our parade? Probably, but it would make it so much harder to do so. None of us live in a vacuum, and the media is not something you can really escape in this day and age. If they collectively decided to continue to preach doom, we'd have little choice but to hear it.
Luckily for us, the media have eschewed doom altogether. This is evident in pure game coverage, but it's also clear in the way certain aspects of the team are discussed. Back in March, after being annoyed by some question-dodging from Sandy Alderson on the subject of Ike Davis' ankle injury, Adam Rubin launched a Twitter assault on the team and its horrific track record on medical issues.
Now, the take on injuries is quite different. Concussions suffered by Jason Bay and Josh Thole were discussed with almost no mentions of the team's idiotic handling of Ryan Church in 2008. As devastating as Dillon Gee's blood clot issue might be personally and professionally, it hasn't become another folder in the LOLMETS case file. Instead, it's covered soberly and seen as just another obstacle to surmount--with the implication that the Mets might be tough enough to surmount it. The Mets, seen as tough enough? Really? (Granted, a guy in triple-A named Matt Harvey helps.)
The same goes for the Mets' current deficiencies. They obviously need another right-handed bat and bullpen help, but the discussion of these needs in the press is relatively straightforward, lacking the screeching WHAT ARE THEY GONNA DO?! tone it would have had last year. Even the idea that the Mets might not acquire anybody and hang on to their prospects is mentioned matter-of-factly, rather than pointed to as a sign of weakness (or cheapness). The press even seems to have come around to the idea that it might be okay to trade short-term success for a chance at competing in the long term. If you've paid attention to the way the New York press traditionally stands on this issue (WIN NOW! THEN WIN NOW AGAIN!), this last change is nothing short of remarkable.
The reason for this, I have to think, is due to the way in which the Mets are winning this year, and the unlikely events that have happened along the way. Johan's no-hitter removed a huge monkey off the franchise's back. The unprecedented dominance of R.A. Dickey bolstered the pitcher's already amazing comeback tale. The team's tendency for comeback wins and two-out rallies made people believe it was possessed of some kind of magic/mojo/what-have-you that only "winners" have. And its largely home-grown composition make them easier to root for than hired guns.
Aside from making the Mets fun to watch, all of these things are stories. The press lives for stories, and this is the first time since 2006 that the Mets have really had stories to latch onto. Stories can be sold. Stories can be summed up in a highlights package. Stories can catch the eye of national media who don't follow the team on a day-to-day basis. Some writers seriously argued that R.A. Dickey should have started the All Star Game because he was a much better story than Matt Cain. When you make stories, you get writers on your side.
You could say that the media is merely echoing the fans' belief in this team, but this presents a chicken-or-the-egg scenario: Did fans embrace this team because of the positivity of the press, or did the press's positivity reflect the fan's embrace? I'm inclined to say the press's seeming enjoyment of the team lagged behind that of fans, but I can't say that for sure, and we've already passed the point where the truth matters.
Unlike most other beats, sportswriting includes chronicling the fans and their feelings; it is almost as much a part of the job as capturing what happens in game. But the relationship between fan and press is as much a feedback loop as a mirror. Fans feel good about the team, so the press writes good things about the team, which fosters more good feelings about the team among the fanbase, which makes the press write even more good things about the team...and so on, the power of positive thinking in action.
How long this symbiosis lasts is contingent on how long the Mets are able to continue these stories, or spin new ones. If we're all lucky, they can keep doing it into October. If not, the media seems to accept that "wait til next year" is an acceptable response. Will wonders never cease?