When it gets late enough in any long baseball game and every long baseball season, it is natural to start looking for omens. The baseball stuff is usually failing pretty badly by that point, or at least dramatically eroded by all the innings and incidents that have washed over it in the preceding months. It’s natural to search for something outside of or over all that baseball that might tighten that mess up.
Which leaves the dorkiest possible shit that could still qualify as somehow supernatural—odd bounces that hint at some hidden hand’s preference for one team over another, managerial moves or outwardly minor micro-bloopers that read as having been made in brazen defiance of some grouchy sports god. It is all still probably going to go roughly the way it looks like it’s going to go, but also there is still the sense that If Only some thing happens then other things might follow. This is not the same thing as actually understanding what’s going to happen, and is in fact maybe the opposite of that, but it’s a way to feel like it, and a way to enjoy what’s left. Rational, reasonable people do this. I do it, too, about the Mets.
Paradoxically or not, this is easier to do in a game is as obviously, overtly insignificant as Sunday’s season-ender between the Mets and the Braves. Everything but that particular game’s outcome was settled before first pitch. The Braves were locked into home-field advantage in the NLDS and the second-best record in the league; the Mets had taken a bunch of weird MC Escher staircases en route to what was more or less their expected win total and a spot just outside the playoffs. Even people capable of believing in The Baseball Gods would be hard-pressed to imagine those gods caring about this game. The gods were probably running errands, or guiltily watching a few minutes of Vikings-Bears and feeling grateful not to be football gods. If the gods were at a cookout, they would not even have checked the score of this one on their phones. Naturally the game went to extra innings.
People stayed until it became unreasonable. In the top of the 11th, Mets pitcher Walker Lockett gave up homers on consecutive pitches to Adeiny Hechevarria, a journeyman infielder that the Mets had cheesily jobbed out of a roster bonus before releasing earlier this year, and Adam Duvall. This deep in a season, every player trails a bunch of footnotes; Lockett was the return the Mets received from Cleveland in a trade for Kevin Plawecki, continuing a longstanding team trend of wildly overvaluing players based on some isolated metric. Lockett’s pitches spin at an unusually high rate and somehow still travel unusually long distances. The homers that looked likely to end the Mets season were the fifth and sixth he’d allowed in 22 and two-thirds innings of work this year. Chris Mazza, a 29-year-old that the Mets had signed out of the independent Pacific Association—the writers Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh ran a Pacific Association team for a year and wrote a fun book about it; the late Tony Phillips was a perfect two-for-two in stolen base attempts there at the age of 56—finished the inning.
Ending a season late in the day and amid a hail of pyrotechnic homers from a divisional rival’s bench goofs would have been a suitably disappointing outcome for the Mets. But after going into the All-Star break 10 games under .500, the Mets were not quite themselves. They were spirited and mostly healthy and seemed to have figured some important things out. Pete Alonso hit more homers than any rookie ever has and established a confident and jarringly positive clubhouse culture; Jeff McNeil, an erstwhile organizational soldier that the team hired over multiple times last offseason, became a brilliant all-around hitter; Amed Rosario cashed in enough of his considerable potential to emerge as an actual asset; J.D. Davis, another of the isolated-metric guys the Mets targeted in one of the team’s patented Genius Trades, turned out to be a proper big league hitter. The starting pitching was excellent and available; the trade for Marcus Stroman, which looked at the time like a move that would Give The Team A Chance, did just that. Thanks in part to a giddy run through the worst teams in the league, the Mets won more games after the break than any non-playoff team since MLB’s Wild Card was instituted.
Which brings us to the supernatural stuff. The Mets were down to the end of their bench, and down two runs to the best team in their division; the ending seems straightforward enough from there. When the Braves replaced one former Mets reliever with another in the bottom of the inning, it felt like a bit much; when they brought on their third reliever of the inning just as the game crossed the four-hour mark, it was a clear attempt to either anger the sport’s gods or prove once and for all that they didn’t exist. The Mets sent up Dominic Smith, who hadn’t had a plate appearance since July 26, against that third Atlanta reliever with two runners on and two outs. (The footnotes on Smith: a soft-bodied ex-bust transformed into a limited but useful bench bat after belatedly receiving treatment for his sleep apnea; while out with a foot injury, he’d scooted around the Mets dugout giving out high-fives.) I will not say that I thought the Mets would win when Smith came in against that third reliever, but it was the first time the thought crossed my mind.
“It wasn’t about me,” Smith said afterwards, after his game-winning homer cleared over the fence in right center and after his teammates stripped his jersey off his back in a celebration at home plate. He did an interview outside the dugout, beaming, a tattoo on his arm of Jesus helping a young man with his batting stance. “It was about this team,” he continued. “We grinded all year, we fought all year, and waw fuh,” which was the point at which a full red cooler of Gatorade was dumped over his head and back. Manager Mickey Callaway allowed after the game that the win was emblematic of his team, which is true in ways he intended and ways he probably didn’t. The Mets really did play as if they enjoyed their work and believed they’d win during the second half, and won some games at least in part as a result; they also did not win quite enough to get to the playoffs, or to quell familiar uncertainties about where they might go from here. As Tim Britton noted at The Athletic, the good Mets teams that come along once every couple of Presidential terms have generally had these kind of promising on-ramp seasons; he did not have to note the other promising teams have just slipped back beneath the waves after such years.
The people in charge of the Mets are not very patient, or very astute, or very eager to commit to the detailed work of building a resilient and effective baseball organization. They really do want to win, which puts them up on more than half the league’s owners, but not intensely or intelligently enough to do the things that might get them there. Their history suggests that they will look at what the Mets did down the stretch and simply expect it to continue over the next 162 games, or that they will try to move things forward from those faulty assumptions early in the offseason and then proudly take several months off. This has never worked out, for them or really any other team, but the laziness of management’s faith is matched by its stubbornness. They won’t change, and there is no real mechanism for making them change. This is frustrating—if you think about it too long, or start looking for metaphors elsewhere, it’s enraging—but it’s also not the end of the story. The Mets, and every other team, will have a chance to defy projections and expectations because of factors that inherently cannot be factored into projections or expectations, and because of the game they play.
There are still the omens and signs and the whims of those hazy and checked-out gods. This is what most fans, of the Mets and the many other similarly mismanaged teams in the sport, have at season’s end. For all its abstraction, it is not nothing. Major League Baseball is not healthy at the moment, and has not been for some time; its most powerful people are as cynical as ever, but more gleefully brash in their dereliction and avarice than at any time in recent memory. Game by game, though, baseball seems to be doing more or less fine—as capable of awe and surprise and brilliance and beauty as it has ever been. The owners are determined to take and take and take everything that they can from the game without killing it, but they can’t touch what they can’t touch. That’s in the game itself, and in what the people who care about it can write over and into those games; it’s the bright stuff that’s latent in these moments of insignificance, the silly and unreasoning and essential element that makes otherwise reasonable people keep caring all the way through to the very end, just in case something surprising or new happens. It’s a thin hope, but it’s real. It’s the realest and most valuable thing about the game, and it’s not something anyone can sell, or own.