Greg Prince's "The Happiest Recap" reminds us that even in the worst of times, Mets fans have plenty to cheer.
If I had to pick an overarching theme for the stuff I write here on Amazin' Avenue, it would be this: Baseball's supposed to be fun, right?
The facile answer to that question is yes, of course baseball is supposed to be fun. But I think we as Mets fans often forget this, or are constantly told to forget it. Events of the past few years, on and off the field, have leeched a lot of joy out of the fan experience. There is also a relentlessly negative media covering the team spreading rampant LOLMETS-ism and raining on our few parades.
Add to this the tendency in modern sports fandom to celebrate suffering. Time was, fans would try to prove their superiority by pointing to the triumphs of their chosen team. Now, fans prefer to compare their scars to see which of us has been through the most pain, and is therefore the "truest" fan.
I'm far from a cockeyed optimist in most matters, but when it comes to baseball, I prefer to not approach it as a masochistic slog. That's why I thoroughly enjoyed Greg Prince's first volume of The Happiest Recap, a multi-volume look at 500 choice Met victories. I recommend it for any Mets fan, not simply because it's written in the same absorbing style Prince shows at Faith and Fear in Flushing, or because it provides a much needed lesson in team history. I recommend the book because it reminds us of something that we, as Mets fans, desperately need to remember.
It's telling that the series takes its title from a phrase coined by Bob Murphy, the relentlessly upbeat radio voice of the Mets. There is no mire-wallowing here, only reminders that there is joy even in the murkiest depths of Mudville.
The initial book covers the first 12 seasons of Mets baseball, and while there is plenty of content concerning those triumphant years of 1969 and 1973, I found the chapters on the very first Mets teams the most fascinating. They give context and life to an era of Mets history that shaped everything that came after, and defined the folkways of the fanbase. Prince's work is important because this time is often glossed over or rendered in anecdotes that resemble tall tales more than they do actual baseball.
When mentioned at all, the early Mets years are summed up by the ironic achievements of "Marvelous" Marv Throneberry, or the clowning of Jimmy Piersall. Prince's descriptions of these games remind you that they were played on actual fields by actual ballplayers. Pretty awful ballplayers, for the most part, but ballplayers nonetheless. The awfulness of these players is what makes their wins, and the fans who cheered them on, so remarkable.
Take the 1962 Mets, for instance (please). If ever a worse baseball team takes the field, it will have to be engineered in a lab. And yet, Prince devotes the first 14 entries of the book to games they somehow managed to win, or 35 percent of that team's total number of victories. He doesn't mince words about the baby Mets' wretchedness, which makes his accounts of these wins that much more compelling. Reading them, you can barely conceive of how a team this bad could win anything, and yet even they stole a win every now and then. It makes the struggles of the current Mets look positively tame in comparison, and reminds you that the state of the team could always be worse.
The Happiest Recap also does a tremendous capturing of the true feel of the fanbase of those early teams. We're often told that the Mets were an instant hit, salving the broken hearts of Dodger and Giant fans. In truth, those initial teams often struggled to put up five-figure attendance numbers at the broken-down Polo Grounds. The earliest screams of LET'S GO METS and waving of banners (or "placards," as Casey Stengel dubbed them) were done by audiences that were miniscule by today's standards. The Mets didn't have a fanbase so much as a cult, a small but rabid group of maniacs who cheered for things no sane person would stomach.
Prince writes an account of a 1963 game against the Cubs that was won in the bottom of the 14th inning on grand slam by Tim Harkness, a professional nobody hitting .208 at the time. The remaining fans gathered at the foot of the clubhouse in center field, demanding an appearance from their hero with shouts of WE WANT HARKNESS. He obliged, as stunned as anyone that he was the hero. "I couldn't believe it was me that hit that," Harkness said. "It doesn't seem like good things happen to me."
The Mets have one of the few fanbases in baseball that has to justify itself on something other than geography, whose choice of favorite team is a statement of something more than civic pride. I believe Prince's recap of this game demonstrates this statement as well as any: A small but vociferous crowd cheering for a player who himself cannot believe he did anything good. A group of people who have chosen to celebrate the gold rather than the dross.
There was misery in 2012 for Mets fans who wanted it, and in all likelihood there will be more in 2013. But we also just witnessed the franchise's first no-hitter, and its first 20-game winner and Cy Young Award recipient since Doc Gooden. Cheering for this team is not a complete horror, and there does seem to be a glimmer of hope on the horizon in the farm system. Even if the team just traded away that 20-game/CYA winner for prospects. And even if ownership's finances mean pricey free agents are out of the question for the foreseeable future.
Those considerable roadblocks to happiness aside, Mets fans have another invaluable asset: 50+ years of history that tells us that the most miserable Mets teams manage the occasional triumph. For those who forget that, read The Happiest Recap and remember that it's our banner days, not our bruises, that define us.