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Orwell at the Ballpark

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Some falls hurt worse than others.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Some falls hurt worse than others. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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The Mets are definitively out of the playoff hunt now, and have been well before this point in the season for three seasons running. And yet, the wild card races involve them tangentially, as the precipitous failures of both the Red Sox and Braves have brought up comparisons to the 2007 Mets. That is the gold (?) standard against which these collapses are being judged, as that team never fails to be mentioned alongside what Atlanta and Boston are currently doing (or failing to do, if you prefer).

During last weekend's series against the Red Sox, YES polled its viewers on what was the worst regular season collapse in baseball history. Unsurprisingly, the 2007 Mets edged out the 1978 Red Sox. (I wonder what would have won if that poll included the postseason?) Fox's game of the week also dredged up that bitter memory, though they put a positive spin on it by concentrating on the "greatest comebacks" in baseball history (the 2007 Phillies were listed in this pantheon). David Wright now finds himself having to answer questions about the Red Sox, as if he wants to relive that debacle, or as if anything he says could be of use to the teams going through this right now.

It's a tad unfair to ask Wright, or any other member of that team, to chime in at this time. There are some clear parallels between the Mets and the teams struggling to maintain their grip right now. But the narrative around each of them is very different. Because all collapses are equal, but some are more equal than others. Orwell would have said that, if he'd only known about baseball.

For one thing, I notice a great deal of sympathy for what Boston is going through right now. To be sure, there is also plenty of reflexive Soxenfreude out there, born both of traditional rivalries and a perception that Boston fans have become nigh-insufferable. Not to mention, the back pages of Boston have been relentless in their condemnation of the team's performance during September, dredging up the Shaughnessian love of misery of years gone past.

Still, there is enough sympathy for them out there that you don't need to dig to find it. (Just look at Wright's comments.) When the Mets were going through the same thing back in 2007, I don't recall much of this. In fact, I don't recall any of this. Perhaps it's just a reflection of what it felt like to endure such torture, but it seemed that every single non-Mets fan was sending a Nelson Muntz in their direction.

The reason for this difference is because of a fundamental difference in the narratives that are deemed acceptable for these teams. The Red Sox still have a deeply ingrained idea among its fanbase--two World Series trophies in the last seven years notwithstanding--that they have made an art form out of suffering. An occasion like this allows them to prove it and insist that their suffering is far superior to yours. That there is something noble about cheering for a team whose failures are the stuff of Greek tragedy and Shakespearean drama. That a season wouldn't be worth watching unless it went up in flames and you could write great, florid, tragic tomes about it. Watch Ken Burns' Baseball if you doubt me.

The Mets' "suffering," however, is not noble. It never has been. It goes back to them being the spiritual ancestors of the Brooklyn Dodgers, another team whose historic inability to Win It All was always seen as comedy rather than tragedy. In their earliest days' the Mets' colossal ineptitude was a source of fun for the rest of the league. Ever since then, their missteps have always been looked upon as a setup in search of a punchline.

When the Mets do win, it too comes in ridiculous, almost comic fashion. Coming out of nowhere in 1969. Going from last to first in record time in 1973. Game 6 against the Astros in 1986. Bill Buckner. The Grand Slam single. All of it is so unbelievable, even in retrospect, that you almost have to laugh. So even during their brief periods of Not Losing, everything the Mets do is a joke, whether it's funny or not.

That's why, if the Sox manage to miss out on the playoffs, 2011 will be placed alongside that cursed year of 1978, writ in the cold, stony New England granite, to be gazed upon on long winter nights and pondered with grizzled, hard-bitten world-weariness. Whereas the 2007 Mets are pictured in most people's minds wearing clown shoes.

In pure substance these teams are extremely similar--that Robert Andino inside-the-park-home-run on Monday night in Baltimore gave me the chills, because it reminded me of Cody Ross's trip around the bases against Tom Glavine in game 162 of 2007. However, nothing happens in a vacuum. One team's failure is noble, the other's is comical. Them's the breaks.

What about the Braves? Aren't they in a hideous freefall too? I keep hearing that the Braves should be thankful for the Sox' freefall, or otherwise they would be hearing it from all sides. I disagree; even if the Braves were alone in their collapse, they would not be seen in the same way as the Sox. You can see it already, in that no one is speaking of the Braves' failures in the same breath with the Sox. That's not because the Sox have a bigger fanbase or are deemed more "important" by ESPN et al. It's because the Braves are one of many teams who lack the baggage of a narrative.

If the Braves ever had a negative narrative, it was the one that followed them throughout the 1990s: they could win all those division titles with their unworldly pitching staff, but only one championship. One never got the impression, however, that this was a great weight sitting upon their shoulders. Even if it was, it's not one that's carried over to the current team; only Chipper Jones remains from those years. Do you think Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla feel the same "burden" that John Smoltz and Greg Maddux did? I doubt it.

If the Braves do choke away a playoff spot, it'll hurt for their fans, and it will make a long winter for the team. (Based on this tidbit from 2008 that Mestradamus reminded me of, I can't say I'll feel all that bad for them.) But they'll return in 2012 without having to field questions about if they're cursed like the Sox, or if they think they can do anything right, like the Mets. They'll be able to shrug it off and get on with the business of baseball, in a way the Sox and Mets won't.

In recent years, there's been a surprising glut of teams who have tanked down the stretch, and only the Mets have had to suffer under the yoke of an oppressive narrative. The Padres fell apart in 2007 and lost a one-game playoff to the red-hot Rockies. Then, just last season, they were in first place virtually all year before being overtaken by the Giants in the final days. The Tigers stumbled in late 2009 (remember how well Miguel Cabrera conducted himself during that mess?), then had to play a play-in game at the Metrodome, one they nearly won several times (and was affected by more than one bad umpiring call) until they didn't.

I'm sure all of this sucked mightily for Padres and Tigers fans. I'm sure the local papers wept and gnashed their teeth. And I'm sure the suffering of fans and the teams themselves wasn't any less painful than that suffered by anyone else. But I'm also sure they didn't have their respective collapses shown on TV every time a first-place team went on a three-game losing streak. The creators of clip packages go elsewhere first. Namely, to Bucky Dent and Tom Glavine '07.

Is that fair? Of course it's not fair. But life ain't fair, and baseball even less so. I believe that's a quote from Animal Farm.