If you think that the fact that something has never happened before means that it is therefore unlikely to happen, you may be comforted by this. Here are the facts:
In the 37 years of divisional play, the New York Mets have won 5 division titles. In 1986, 1988, and 2006, the Mets won their division by blasting away their competition early, building an insurmountable lead, and holding it.
In 1969 and 1973, the Mets won their division by coming from far behind and passing everyone else with an unbelievably strong final month.
In 1970, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1989, 1990, 1999, 2000, and 2001 the Mets were in contention for the division title into at least the final month, and often the last few days of the season, but they never held a first-place lead of more than two games after April in any of these seasons, and of course they did not win the division title in the end.
So. The Mets, in their 45 years of existence, and in the 37 years of divisional play, have never built a significant lead in their division and then lost it. Never. This is very unusual, as fans of many other teams can tell you.
The patterns you see in these pennant-winning or pennant-racing seasons have had an influence on the collective personality of Mets fans. Mets fans know the experience of greatness (which they value because of its rarity). They know the experience of coming from behind, which if you’ve ever had it, never leaves you. And they know the experience of fighting the good fight, hoping with all their might, and losing with dignity in the end.
Mets fans don’t know, and they do not therefore fear the choke, the collapse, the bottom falling out of the universe. They are not like fans of the Phillies, or the Red Sox, or the Cubs, or the Dodgers, or the Blue Jays, or the Giants, or the Angels, or even the Yankees. The Mets have never actually done anything like this. Not in the regular season nor in the postseason.
Okay, this isn’t entirely true. Mets fans do remember those September collapses of the puzzling tired-Piazza, crazy-Valentine teams of the late 1990s. In 1997, we could have had the Wild Card, but we fell just short. In 1998, we should have had the Wild Card, but we fell short again. We had had a Wild Card lead but we lost it. In 1999, we won the Wild Card, after losing another Wild Card lead and then having a miracle comeback. But we still should have won the division title. In 2000, we won the pennant. That’s great, but it didn’t feel as good as it should have because we fell short of winning our division by a single game. And after losing the first three games of the 1999 NLCS, and losing the 2000 World Series to the Yankees in five, we didn’t, well, feel so hot. The Wild Card seasons, to be honest, have had their moderately choke-suggestive aspects.
But who knows how to feel about a Wild Card anyway? Wild Cards aren’t things you fight for. They’re things you settle for. They’re consolation prizes. I don’t think that the Wild Card seasons have taught Mets fans anything about the psychology of collapse any more than they have taught them about the psychology of triumph.
Let’s talk about winning division titles. This is the task at hand. The biggest first place lead the Mets have ever had in their division in a year in which they did not win the division was no more than a game or two, in 1970 or in 1985. That’s nothing. We’ve already had a six-game lead this season.
I’m telling you right now that we will not break whatever our record is for a blown first-place lead. We will win our division this year.
But right now, we’re relying a little too much on miracles. Too many of the most impressive players on our team this year thus far are too old or too thinly established to take us all the way to the end. What we need is our core: Reyes, LoDuca, Beltran, Delgado, and Wright, the guys who are established and who aren’t too old. They must all stand and be counted. Because we don’t yet know if our sparkling rotation of Glavine, Hernandez, Maine, Perez, and Sosa is real or if it is a mirage.
When this season started, I said that the Mets would win between 85 and 105 games this year. They had a very big range of possibility. What is strange is that in mid-June, they still do. And I still think that the range for the Braves and the Phillies is no better than 85 to 95. My gut math tells me that we have a 50% chance of a real pennant race and a 50% chance of a commanding victory.
We must be strong for the Mets. We must not be crybabies. We must not freak out. The 1986 or 1988 team couldn’t have lost eleven out of thirteen because of the more balanced and secure ways in which they were constructed. They weren’t depending on old guys or second-chance phenoms. Yes, we could lose it this year. This team, unlike the 1986 or 1988 Mets, can lose. But this team can also win big. Unlike the earlier greatest Mets teams, they could build a gigantic lead and they could also choke. But I still say they’re not going to.
Why? Because that is what I want to believe.
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