Call me melancholic—or at least nostalgic—but during some days I feel the ghosts in everything. I see them in kites hung in trees and sneakers thrown over power lines. I hear them in bands long broken up and lead singers long passed. And since I think about baseball all the time, I find them in the games that I watch, the articles I read, and the box scores I examine.
Both good and bad ghosts wander around all the baseball I see and hear, coloring the interactions that I have with the game and the things I see and write. Sometimes, during the rare transformative events, those ghosts rise one last time, then dissipate and make room for something new. For me—and for the Mets—the 2015 season was one of those transformative events.
At the start of 2015, they were a team in something close to a despair spiral. Sure, there was hope in the young and great rotation, but putting your faith in pitching tends to let you down. There were the Wilpons, greatest of all the Mets-related dark clouds, and a recent history of failure. Unexpectedly, light broke through, and this latest Mets team emerged with a National League pennant and a brighter tomorrow.
To me, 2015 was a point of change, and the end of the old era and start of the new. It’s only appropriate that I share with you—on this first day of Baseball Prospectus – Mets—how I considered the special 2015 season through the lens of all the ghosts that have been banished.
I will never, ever forget Paul Wilson minor league rookie cards, and what they did to me. I’ve never really gotten over “Generation K.” For those less scarred, or perhaps too young to remember, Gen-K was the trio of “can’t miss” prospects that the team looked to in the mid-90s, hoping that they’d lead the team back to the glory days of 1986 or, even better, 1969. Jason Isringhausen was the lead dog, a hard-throwing righty who was the most advanced prospect of the team’s talented troika. Bill Pulsipher was there too, and of course the 1994 first-overall-pick Paul Wilson. As a kid who loved Doc Gooden, the thought of another flame-throwing starter in the Gooden mold—young, exciting, talented—was exactly what I wanted. Everything I heard in the media was that Wilson could shove (not their words, it was the 90s, remember), and that Izzy and Pulse were almost as good. It was hard not to imagine something like the ‘69 Mets about which I’d heard so much.
This was supposed to be my Seaver, Koosman, and Matlack. My Gooden, Darling, and Fernandez. It wasn’t. Pulsipher came up, did okay, then got injured. Isringhausen came up, did okay, then got injured. Wilson came up, then immediately got injured. These guys weren’t Seaver, Koosman, or Gooden. No, they were like a different Mets pitcher: Sidd Finch. They didn’t even really exist. In the end, Wilson gave the Mets 1.3 WARP, Pulsipher about 1.4 WARP, and Isringhausen gave them 4.1 WARP…with almost a full win coming in 2011, fifteen years after his advent.
Long before TINSTAAPP was an actual saying, these three pitchers taught me that spending too much time and hope on young pitchers was a fool’s errand. So when the Mets called up Matt Harvey in 2013 after he shined in the minors, my excitement was tempered. When the Mets called up the unheralded Jacob deGrom, I didn’t expect much of anything. And when the Mets summoned Noah Syndergaard in 2015, I was hesitant to put too much stock in his righteous right arm. Of course, all three of them—Harvey, deGrom, and Syndergaard—flourished in 2015, and helped carry the team to the World Series.
By now, those three pitchers have earned over 20 WARP over their careers, almost three times as much as Pulsipher, Isringhausen, and Wilson earned in New York. They’re the type of foundation teams dream on. Harvey has survived the type of injury that wiped out each of the throwers from the 90s version of this group. And even though the team couldn’t take the last step in 2015 to win a World Series, and guys like Syndergaard and Steven Matz haven’t truly proven themselves as healthy over the long term, we’ve seen this unit perform at the level which you can only dream any rotation to throw. These guys may suffer injuries or ineffectiveness in the future, but they’ve already delivered on the promise.
We asked too much of Generation K, made expectations that they could never deliver on. And that’s how I know their spectre is gone. I don’t expect the world of Harvey, deGrom, Syndergaard, and Matz…but I also don’t expect them to fail. The pain of Generation K is long gone.
A couple months ago I heard that an old friend had died, cut down by a senseless, cruel lack of consideration on the part of another. Tom was an old friend, perhaps never a close friend, but I thought of him often, even though we no longer spoke. We’d drifted apart after college (I have a tendency to do that, one of many mild character flaws), but he remained one of the truest, kindest men I’d ever met, not to mention one of the most talented writers I’d ever known. When I found out about his passing, the cut was deep, and long, but I felt little loss for myself. I hurt for his wife, his family, the closest of his friends more than I hurt for myself.
The ghost that came of this wasn’t a regret of not spending more time with him—I’m not so vain to think that he would’ve been happier if we had—but rather the regret that I never shared how much I admired the man that he was, that he didn’t understand how much I respected him and the simple, uncluttered way he had a smile for everyone. Maybe that would have brought him some small bit of joy, and I wish I had expressed that more fully.
Now there’s a pain sometimes that reminds me to tell people how much we appreciate them while we can, and a warmth when I remember him as an example of how kind people can be.
During the middle of the 2015 season, I (too hastily) eulogized David Wright’s career. I’ve followed the Mets in some form since 1986, and yet no player has been more of a signature player for the franchise, in my head, than Wright. When his spinal stenosis diagnosis came out, I clumsily attempted to tie my own appreciation of his talents to the sense of loss for his career.
By the end of the season, Wright was back with the team, reaching base as if it were 2009, and showing perhaps his signature skill: perseverance through trial and pain. He’s been a complete player over his career, with power, speed, contact ability, and approach. More than anything else, though, I’ll remember the way he constantly seemed to be battling some sort of injury…and most of the time thriving in spite of it. But in 2015, he overcame his spinal stenosis to post a .315 True Average. That’s just a hair over his career mark (.310), a career that may put him in the Hall of Fame when it completes. And he did that when his team truly needed it, during the late-season run-up to a playoff appearance.
It felt like more than any other Met, David Wright deserved a chance to play in a World Series. I was legitimately concerned that he’d never have that opportunity, since he’d tied his fortune to that of the team indefinitely. I was (mildly) haunted by the idea that this baseball lifer would never have the opportunity to enjoy the game’s biggest stage, thanks to his devotion to a team that simply hadn’t given quite enough glory back. Or that his body would fail him one last time, and he’d be pushed out of the game where he gave so much.
During the bottom of the first inning of Game 3 of the 2015 World Series, David Wright hit a two-run home run to give the Mets a lead they’d lose, regain, and hold to win the only game of the series they’d get. (That day was my 33rd birthday, which meant nothing to Wright, but his actions meant quite a lot to me.) With that, he at least banished the ghost of being one of those great players who never made it to the World Series, and he added an exclamation point to this sentence: “I’m not done just yet!”
One day he will be a ghost in the annals of Mets history. But it won’t be today.
There’s no question that the turning point of the Mets’ season was the combination of the failed Carlos Gomez-for-Wilmer Flores trade and acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes, both of which occurred slightly before the July 31 trade deadline. Cespedes’ arrival buoyed the team, and he posted a ridiculous .604 slugging percentage, demonstrating power that the team hadn’t seen since Mike Piazza’s heyday. The catch? There was no way he’d stick around in Flushing, as his performance and reputation would earn him a king’s ransom during the offseason. The expectation was that the Mets would “let Cespedes walk” in free agency, a term I abhor; it implies a release from servitude that does all parties involved a disservice. Recently, this team has been characterized with a marked lack of willingness to spend big on free agents, due in no small part to the ownership group’s dire financial mismanagement.
The collective imagination of the Mets fanbase ran wild, expecting Cespedes to sign with a team such as the rival Nationals, taking with him not just his copious skills, but also the energy and spirit he brought to a team almost wholly without swag. Yoenis Cespedes is not like every other baseball player, and it may be fair to say that he’s not like any other baseball player. He has physical gifts that make him stand out despite an industry populated by the best and brightest athletes in the world. His narrative comes pre-loaded with an escape from an oppressive regime, unmistakeable verve, and also Jake and Jordan.
Instead of doing the expected—watching Cespedes go to his fifth team in three seasons—the Mets worked hard to find a way to keep this part of their pennant-winning team together. They offered Cespedes a competitive contract, giving him over $25 million in each of the next three seasons while giving him the option to opt out and get a new deal at the end of this season. The team could have moved on without their new star, but they didn’t. They went for it.
Any Mets fan of a certain age worth his or her salt remembers 2006. I really, truly thought this would be it for the team. It was a squad packed with talent: Carlos Beltran had one of the best seasons of his career, Jose Reyes and David Wright were emerging as world-class talents, and the team had just won 97 games en route to the playoffs. The Dodgers were barely a blip on the team’s radar during the NLDS, and the team cruised to a confrontation with the Cardinals.
By the end of the NLCS, I was devastated. I’d watched the previously-dominant team struggle against Jeff Suppan, of all pitchers. The Carloses (Beltran and Delgado) hit, but no one else seemed to. Steve Traschel pitched poorly, and took FOREVER to do so. During Game Seven, I was exhausted, mentally and emotionally. It was over, and then Endy made The Catch, and then it was still over. I remember sitting and thinking that it stung, but it wouldn’t be so bad next year. There was still hope.
Over the intervening decade, several things happened that caused my Mets fandom to change slightly. I think part of it was the devastation of that series loss, and the 2007 collapse that followed. But part of it was also a combination of other factors: growing older and more comfortable with myself, starting to become something of a national baseball analyst made me more likely to.
The run-up to the 2015 World Series was thrilling, but it also came at exactly the right time for me. I was feeling my relationship with the team I’d followed for so many years fade into something of a dull ache, despite the fantastic starting pitchers and Wright and Duda and all the rest. The tremendous start to the season, which included a team-record 11-game winning streak, stoked the fires and reminded me what it was like to root for a team that could thrive. The fade during the middle of the season, culminating in Justin Upton’s homer and Wilmer Flores’ breakdown, brought with it the necessary lows to remind you exactly what you were missing when the team was down.
Then there was Cespedes, Wright’s return to the team, the improbable series win over Kershaw, Greinke, and the Dodgers—a team that seemed to be an accelerated, better version of this Mets team. It would be the 2015 NLCS where the Mets really needed to succeed in order to best the memories of 2006. Unbelievably, everything possible went right in that series. The Mets won four straight. Daniel Murphy hit home runs in every single game of the series. Each of the team’s four talented starters shined. There was no moment of existential despair like there was when Beltran whiffed against Adam Wainwright’s insane breaking ball 10 seasons prior. There was just joy. By the end of that series, the World Series itself was just the icing on the cake.
That run didn’t end in total victory. As you know, the Mets lost to the Royals in the World Series. It didn’t matter to me all that much, but not for the reasons I thought it might seven months ago. Back then, I was thinking that I may not care enough for the team that was one of the only constants through 32 years of life. After that Series run, it stopped being about not caring, it was more of a release from the disappointment and expectations that came with being a fan of the team.
In hindsight now, 2014 was the end of one chapter in Mets history, and 2015 was the start of a new one. The last eight years had been the story of a team struggling to live up to expectations, when 2015 was the start of a different turn, a brighter future. And with the renewal, came the exorcism of the ghosts of such lofty expectations on Generation K, on David Wright, on the 2006 team that should have done better. Those ghosts are gone, and though new ones will come and take their places, it feels good to be free of some of the past’s burdens, while not losing sight of the memories. Sometimes the little hurts can fade, and leave us looking forward.
Photo Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports