Amid Matt Harvey crisis, Mets fall back into bad old days just as Yankees rise again
It wasn't that long ago—October of 2015, to be exact—that the Mets appeared to be on the verge of doing something previously unimaginable in their five decades of existence: overtake the Yankees. Fresh off the franchise's first pennant in 15 years and a close World Series loss to the Royals, the Mets looked like a team on the rise: young, exciting, and—most importantly, given the seemingly endless stretch of stupidity in which they had been mired—competent. The Yankees, meanwhile, were yesterday's news: old, uninteresting, and with cracks in the foundation built during their last sustained championship run.
Those days seem far away now, after a weekend in which New York's natural order seems to have been reasserted. On Sunday night in Chicago, the Yankees finished off a three-game sweep of the defending world champion Cubs; at 20–9, they have the best record in baseball and are in first place in the AL East. Back in Queens, the Mets were on the losing end of a 7–0 beating from the Marlins, who held them to one hit and lit up spot starter Adam Wilk—a 29-year-old journeyman lefty with all of 26 1/3 career MLB innings to his name—for six runs and three homers in 3 2/3 innings. The loss dropped the Mets to 14–16, already 6 1/2 games back of the Nationals in the NL East; Wilk was the sacrifice offered up in place of Matt Harvey, who had been handed a three-game suspension earlier that day by the team for reasons that remain nebulous.
The Harvey fiasco—the righthander reportedly ran afoul of the front office by failing to show for Saturday's game, though he blamed his absence on a migraine after a golf outing that wasn't communicated to the team—is the latest misstep in what's been a crash course of a season for the Mets. The butcher list so far: injuries to superstars Yoenis Cespedes and Noah Syndergaard, among others; the mess surrounding Syndergaard, in which he missed a start with a tight biceps, refused an MRI on his right arm and then tore a lat muscle in his next outing; Harvey unexpectedly taking Syndergaard's turn, getting battered and then blaming his fatigue on a heavy workout the day prior; the continued absence of team captain David Wright, whose once-Hall of Fame career looks over thanks to chronic back problems; and, most amusing of all, a sex toy prank that found its way to social media and ensnared backup catcher Kevin Plawecki in easily the year's dumbest controversy (if it can even be called that).
Such is the toxic cloud currently enveloping the Mets, one built out of consistent miscommunications, bad feelings, mismanaged injuries and uneven results (take, for example, last weekend, when the Mets took two of three from the Nationals, but with the one loss being a 23–5 laugher in which Syndergaard was hurt). In some ways, this is merely an extension of last season, when their hopes were derailed by injuries (most notably to Harvey) and they were bounced from the playoffs after just one game. But this particular kind of miasma is one that Mets fans have lived in since 2007, when the team blew a seven-game division lead with 17 games to play. The team has been a combination of disasters since then—a bankrupt ownership that was suckered into the ultimate Ponzi scheme by Bernie Madoff, a front office frequently blinkered into short-sighted trades and overpriced free agents, a roster full of malcontents, has-beens and never-weres. And while the last decade is its own source of frustration, the reality is that the Mets have bumbled their way through the better part of 50 years, constantly playing second fiddle to the Yankees, whose success sucked up all the oxygen in the five boroughs.
The 2015 season looked like it was going to change that. The Mets had finally stopped tripping over their own feet long enough to assemble the kind of rotation that most general managers don't even dream about, it was so outlandish: power arm after power arm, young and cost-controlled. The team could hit; the big expensive acquisition—trading for Cespedes at midseason—was finally made; the bullpen wasn't going to send you running for the Mylanta. That year's Mets roared through a red-hot August and September, stole the division from the Nationals, took out the big-money Dodgers and silenced the upstart Cubs, and brought the World Series back to Queens for the first time in nearly two decades. They were the talk of the town, and it was finally for the right reasons. The stench of the last 10 years seemed to be fading.
That was the moment—the first chance since the team's last championship, in 1986—for the Mets to take center stage in New York, right as they were ascendant and the Yankees were awash in mediocrity. But they have squandered that good will and then some, falling back into the bad old days of dirty laundry being aired nonstop and of fraying relationships with their stars. Instead, it's the Yankees who are once again New York's No. 1 option, with a squad of talented and fun players like Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez and Michael Pineda and with a farm system overflowing with talent. After just a few lean years (and relatively lean at that; most franchises would kill for a better-than-.500 season to be termed a failure), the Bronx Bombers have come out ahead; after a brief taste of competence and success, the Mets look to be wandering back into the desert.
This isn't to say that the Mets are careening back to the days of Marvelous Marv Throneberry flailing at first base and the superannuated Casey Stengel falling asleep in the dugout. The pieces are still there for the team to be successful. But the era of mismanagement and mistrust was supposed to be over. Legitimacy had arrived in the form of Harvey and Syndergaard and Cespedes. If the Mets were going to land on the backpages of the Post and Daily News, it would be for last night's win, not for the latest easily avoidable scandal that they had stepped in. Things were supposed to be different now; instead, the Mets are a circus once more.
Maybe the Mets were never supposed to last; a franchise carried on the arms of young pitchers is baseball's house built on sand. And for as hot as the Yankees have been to start the season, a .690 winning percentage is hard to keep up. But for now, the Yankees are back on top, and it's not hard to imagine the Mets and their fans looking back on 2015 and wondering if, instead of being the start of something new, that's where the wave crested before it began to break.