On July 20, as the Mets, then two games back in the National League East, prepared to play the division-leading Nationals, Andrew Marchand, a fine writer for ESPN New York who knows about such things, tweeted, “Mets may be most despised team that is playing a series for first place in history.”
Marchand was tapping into something he felt from the Mets' own fan base: A cultivated disappointment, frustration and anger that had roots in the team’s playoff loss of 2006; its pennant race collapses of ’07 and ’08; the unraveling of its finances due partly to its owners’ losses in the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme; a run of six straight losing seasons that began in ’09 when the team moved into Citi Field (a development, incidentally, which helps explain why you see fans at Mets games wearing shirts reading “I’m Calling it Shea”); and, most saliently, a 2015 shoestring-budget team all but incapable of taking advantage of its strong young pitching because of an excruciating offense that had produced league-worst numbers in batting average, OPS, stolen bases and, by extension, runs.
A great deal has happened since that day and the start of this week, which the Mets began in a virtual first-place tie with Washington. There’s been so much churning as to make the environment around even such dramatically trade-active teams as the Blue Jays and Astros seem like still waters.
To wit, beginning July 24: The Mets called up their top offensive prospect, Michael Conforto, and on the same day acquired veteran hitters Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson. They won a game 15–2. On the 27th, they traded for a late-inning reliever, Tyler Clippard. That was a good thing, because the next day, reliever Jenrry Mejia was suspended for 162 games after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs—again. On July 29, they lost a game in which one of their players, the bear-like Lucas Duda, hit three home runs. That same night, they swung a big deal for the Brewers’ All-Star centerfielder, Carlos Gomez, creating a social media outpouring that included one of Gomez’s teammates posting, from the team plane, a photo of Gomez and wishing him farewell. But later in the evening, the Mets called off the trade, citing medical concerns about Gomez’s hip.
The next day, the Mets lost a game that they had led 7–1, and they lost it in the most bizarre and soul-ripping fashion. With New York clinging to a 7–5 lead over the Padres and with two outs in the top of the ninth inning and one strike on San Diego’s Derek Norris, rain suddenly fell so biblically upon Citi Field that the game had to be stopped. After about 45 minutes, play re-started, and Mets closer Jeurys Familia gave up a bloop single to Norris, then a single on a ground ball that bounced slowly and tragically through the left side of the soaked infield, and then a home run. The 8–7 loss dropped darkness on Metsdom. The feeling to a Mets fan was as if, at some point during that deluge, he had been swallowed by a whale, and inside the beast’s belly had encountered figures of Mets agony past: Terry Pendleton, Armando Benitez, Luis Castillo and the others.
But then the day after that loss, and only 13 minutes before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, the Mets completed a deal for the Tigers’ superb Yoenis Cespedes, who arrived with more home runs (18) than any other midseason acquisition the Mets have made in their 54 seasons. And then this past weekend, the Mets swept the Nationals at Citi Field. Baseball Prospectus now says they have a 43.7% chance to make the playoffs.
And yet whatever happens between now and the end of this season, whatever pains and pleasures may follow, the most important story, by far, is the story of Wilmer Flores crying. You have certainly seen the clip or read about this, but there are crucially relevant nuances and points of emphases that have often been overlooked and that explain why, however the final standings look on Oct. 4, 2015, this is a happening that Mets fans will remember for many years.
The word of that Gomez trade that traveled through the stands during last Wednesday's home game against the Padres included the suggestion that Flores, an infielder, had been sent to the Brewers. And when he came up to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning, fans at Citi Field, who had gleaned this information through their smartphones, gave him a standing ovation. Flores wasn't playing poorly for the Mets, but at the time, he was batting just .249, and he had been booed back in April. The ovation now was part apology, part appreciation—a spontaneous, genuine embrace by fans of one of their own.
At that point and throughout his at-bat, Flores had no idea why the fans were clapping. But between innings he found out the reason, and when Flores went out to play second base in the top of the eighth, he was crying. He kept wiping his eyes with the sleeves of his uniform, and his face was red. He felt very sad about having to leave the Mets: Flores is 23 years old and was raised in Venezuela, and the Mets had signed him when he was 16.
The Mets lost the game, 7–3, but the bigger development came afterward: the news that the Gomez trade had fallen through, and Flores was not in fact going anywhere. "It was my worst game as a manager,” Mets manager Terry Collins said. Collins has managed 11 years in the majors, winning more than 800 games and losing more than 825, and he is the oldest active manager in baseball. But he was not talking about strategy decisions when he said it was his worst game; instead, he was talking about how hard it was to see Flores go through what he went through. For a moment, even some of the most jaded Mets fans, those who will carry on about the slightest Collins misstep, had to acknowledge this: Their manager was a mensch. New Yorkers don’t take that for granted.
So after all of that, every time that Flores came to bat in the following game, the fans gave him a standing ovation again. And then on July 31, against the Nationals, in the bottom of the 11th inning of the first pennant-race game the Mets had ever played in six years at Citi Field, do you know what Flores did? He hit the ball right over the wall for a walk-off home run. And as he rounded third and came into home plate, to all of his teammates out there laughing and screaming and cheering and waiting for him to arrive, Flores pulled on the logo on the front of his jersey—I'm a Met!
Thinking about the tweet that Marchand sent on July 20 puts in mind a study published a few years ago by researchers at University College London that got some popular attention. By scanning the brains of 17 volunteers under different circumstances, the researchers discovered—and this is something that Shakespeare, for one, and you, for another, already kind of knew—that the brain circuits for “hate” and for “love” are identical in structure, and that both of these emotions activate the same regions of the brain. In other words, there is a very thin line between hate and love. And in baseball, in Metsdom anyway, all it takes is a few trades, a few wins, and a few honest tears, for that line to disappear completely and for the truth to emerge.