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Make believe

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Baseball means nothing in the grand scheme of things, but sometimes we need to pretend it's the most important thing in the world.

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Of course it doesn't matter. The Mets have clinched the National League East and will play in the postseason for the first time since 2006 and yes this means nothing in the grand scheme of things. The fate of a sports team pales in comparison to The Big Problems. The Mets' woes of the previous nine years were not true woes and the suffering of their fans not true suffering.

We concede this now because any pain seems endurable once it has left us. This miraculous Mets season has dulled a near-decade of disappointment and given us the perspective only possible when you are looking down from the very top. It allows us to take those years that felt like agony and admit they were not agony at all. All a fan really wants is an excuse to pretend their devotion is important. All those pangs that felt like pain were really a longing for something worthy of pretending.

I saw a lot of pretending in my house as a kid. On summer evenings I would wander into the kitchen and see my mother clad in red bathrobe and smoking along with Bob Murphy on WFAN because most games had decamped to Sports Channel and cable was a luxury we couldn't swing. Listening to the Mets on the radio was her nightly escape from Life's Troubles.

Except this was in the early 1990s, which means her "escape" required her to silently cheer on the monstrous Worst Team Money Could Buy and the bland mediocrities that followed it in the hopes that men like Jose Vizcaino and Tim Bogar and Jeff Kent—when he was known as Jeff Can't—could transmit some reflected sunshine into her life. Imagine praying for an angel to deliver you and receiving Joe Orsulak.

Most evenings there would come a point when my mother realized no miracles were forthcoming. This is when she would smack the kitchen table as if banging a judge's gavel and proclaim "I'm never listening to those STUPID Mets again" and storm off to bed.

The following night she would be found in the same spot listening to the same team. Whatever torture she'd endured at the hands of John Franco or Jason Jacome or Pete Harnisch the night before was a distant memory. None of those STUPID Mets could have taken away her problems even if their incapable hands had somehow wrung out a victor,y but for three hours a day for six months a year my mom pretended they could because what else was she supposed to do?

I did not truly understand any of this until I progressed into adulthood and readopted my baseball fandom and found I too had a need to pretend. Even in the absence of the traumas and failures and losses that punctuate everyone's lives—pause here to contemplate your own—the relentless grind of daily existence demands distraction to fend off insanity. I chose to distract myself with the Mets, though considering the maternal example I grew up with I don't think it was ever a true choice to make.

Pretending the Mets were important was great when the Mets were David Wright and Jose Reyes on the left side of the infield and Pedro Martinez pitching through raindrops and the two Carloses slugging back-to-back. It was less fun to pretend when pretending required the hope that Jorge Sosa and Brian Lawrence could be mashed into a fifth starter that would somehow stave off the surging Phillies. Or that sudden power from Damion Easley and Fernando Tatis was not only sustainable but could somehow inspire all their slumping teammates. Or that a two-hit day from Jason Bay was the sign that his comeback was just around the corner. Or that individual hardware collected by R.A. Dickey and Jacob deGrom was almost as good as watching either of them pitch in a playoff run. And pretending was nigh impossible when all pretending rested on the baseline pretending that the Wilpons were willing and able to pay for major league talent.

I remember a game against the Marlins in that miserable autumn of 2007. It doesn't matter which game because they were all of a piece: The Mets would tease us all by taking a lead in the late innings only to entrust that lead to a Jenga tower bullpen. As Scott Schoeneweis or Ambiorix Burgos or Carlos Muniz or whoever handed Florida a win on a silver platter, I wailed I want to go into that locker room and tell them they know how to play better than this.

My wife gave me a look one normally reserves for the pitiful insane. She repeated my statement back to me in the same tone Bart Simpson once used to mock Lisa's nerd dreams ("I want to help you, George Washington?"). Even as the words came out of my mouth I knew they were childish and I realized it was stupid to care so deeply about something so inconsequential and doomed. And yet I wanted it all to mean something. I'm pretending this matters. Can't they pretend, too?

I performed mental gymnastics to conjure paths by which Mets teams of recent vintage could somehow defy everyone's predictions and Do Something. If John Maine can figure out... If Ike Davis can regain... If Jeff Francoeur can oh god why am I doing this... I don't know if I really believed any of these scenarios were possible. I do know that I needed to pretend they were to get through these seasons and my day and my life.

Watching the Mets this summer felt like all those ridiculous what-if fantasies converged in one glorious supernova like a fireworks display intended to last a half hour that goes off in one blinding minute. What if the Mets trade for a bona fide slugger who plays out of his mind for two months, and what if the Mets win seven games in a row, and what if they win eight games in a row too, and what if they sweep the Nats twice, and what if they clinch with a week to spare, and what if they have a shot to earn home field advantage in the first round, and what if there are also racoons and parakeets.

The origin of the rallying cry Ya Gotta Believe! has many variations. This is the one I like best: Hated Mets team president M. Donald Grant was giving a clubhouse pep talk to his last-place charges late in the summer of 1973, and said charges were tuning it out because the essence of Grant's speech was If you guys just believe in yourselves..., which as inspirational speeches go is less Vince Lombardi and more Kindergarten Teacher. Irascible reliever Tug McGraw seized on this idea as a source of mockery and said, "Yeah guys, c'mon, ya gotta believe!" When called on to explain himself, McGraw insisted his pronouncement was sincere and not meant to deride his boss in anyway no siree.

When the Mets began their improbable climb out of the cellar, the press promulgated the Grant-McGraw incident as the reason. To them, Ya Gotta Believe! was an expression of faith. But this version of the story adds a different wrinkle to it. Ya Gotta Believe! is really a joke that has the power to become real in spite of itself.

To me, Ya Gotta Believe! expresses that feeling that creeps into our lives as we get older day by day and realize most of our chances are in the rearview. It's that whisper that sibilates in the dead of night when you're lying awake and staring into a collection of what-ifs like Charlie Brown.

Psst...it's not gonna work out. What's not gonna work out? None of it. Nothing? Nope. Not a thing...But wouldn't it be great if it did?

I had no more hope for this year's Mets than most of us until we were well into the season, but I can tell you the moment I wanted to have hope again. It was May and there was a chill in the air and the sky had the cast of a glass ashtray and I was standing on the 7 train platform at Woodside because I had to go out to Flushing to get yet another MRI. I've had a slew of health issues in the past year-plus that have ranged in seriousness from annoying to terrifying and which include the same spinal condition that felled David Wright for most of this season. The only enjoyable feature of this was that every time one of my hip sockets felt like it had burst into flames I could think, Well, me and David Wright have something in common...

The platform began filling up with fellow travelers in Mets gear because there was a game that night and it occurred to me that I had never taken the 7 train as far as Shea Stadium/Citi Field while a game was happening and not gone to that game. I would be forced to keep going past the Mets so I could squeeze myself into a plastic tube and have magnets scream at my brain instead.

I've jittered with anticipation on my way to playoff games and Subway Series games and big divisional showdowns but I've never wanted to go to the ballpark more than when the 7 train pulled in at Willets Point and disgorged a stream of men and women in WRIGHT and HARVEY jerseys while I had to continue on to something that was not the Mets.

When I got to the medical office I was told to get ready in this little waiting room the size of something between a pantry and a closet where I unwrapped my MRI smock from its sterile plastic package and stripped down and put it on and then sat semi-exposed in an upholstered waiting-room chair as if this were a comfortable thing to do. The little waiting room had a TV tuned to one of eight billion cooking channels, but the remote was nearby and I was the only person around so I punched in SNY and there the Mets were.

I only saw a few glorious pitches from Matt Harvey before my name was called. I halted for a moment because the count was 0-2 with two outs and a man was on first and yes this was only the second inning of a game in May and with the opposing pitcher at the plate this hardly qualified as a jam.

But as my name was called over and over I stood up as slowly as I could with my eye on the Mets so I could see Matt Harvey collect his K. At that moment I needed to pretend that this strikeout was the most important thing in the world. And after I watched that strikeout and I was led into the MRI room and settled onto a gurney and had my head wreathed in a plastic cage, I kept pretending to drown out the pounding of the magnets. If Harvey keeps it up... If d'Arnaud and Wright come back... If they call up Syndergaard and Matz and they make good...

I often listen to old radio shows by Jean Shepherd, who used to do nightly monologues on WOR. (He's now best known for writing and narrating A Christmas Story.) I came across one recently I'd never heard before in which he described a visit to the Polo Grounds to watch the inaugural Mets in April of 1962. He took in a doubleheader against the Phillies, who in 1962 were better than the Mets only in the way that the flu is better than pneumonia, and he talked about how witnessing such awful baseball was so much more instructive than watching talented teams slug it out.

Shepherd talked about watching an infielder make an amazing diving stop on a grounder only to whizz his throw 45 feet wide of first base. He mentioned Harry Chiti (the man famously traded for himself) and Don Zimmer, who he likened to "an insane beaver" whose style of play was "like watching Mickey Rooney act." Shepherd also captured the sight of a Mets pitcher named Roadblock Jones, who was removed from the game after getting shelled and had to take the long trudge across the entire field because at the Polo Grounds the clubhouses were placed beyond the outfield wall, and who climbed the long steps to that clubhouse and at the summit opened the door and paused and looked back out over the field for a good ten seconds, drinking it all in before he retreated into the darkness.

Shepherd often painted word pictures of everyday life like this to convey the idea that the seemingly trivial might say more about life than supposedly Important Things. During this show he seems to recognize that his audience (which skewed toward the high-school-smartass-with-intellectual-pretensions set) would need some more convincing that baseball might be important.

I think the thing that makes baseball the perfect thing that it is...It truly is a kind of amalgam of all the human frustrations...All the frailties, all the hopes, the desires, and the beautiful moments of instantaneous victory, to be followed only by The Inevitable....

I think almost everything we do in our lives, if you wanna analyze it, is trivial. And yet, nothing is trivial...In the end you have to come to the realization that it's all for kicks. So what do all the Socratic dialogues do in the end if we all wind up fist fighting on the beach at Anzio after all? What difference does it make when we will continue to do it anyway time and time again?

As a veteran of World War II (see Anzio reference above) Shepherd had ample life experience to convince him that baseball was quite trivial. Yet he came to the conclusion that yes baseball is silly but so is everything else. We are all pretending at importance in a universe where a million years is a nanosecond and our galaxy is less than a cork floating in an ocean. Therefore you should pick something silly and pretend it means something because that's all any of us are doing anyway.

I agree. The Mets are in the playoffs and it doesn't matter even a little bit but no one can prevent me from pretending it's wonderful.