1999 Project: Post-Mortem

Thumbnail image for mora_cedeno_rocker.jpgWay back in September, a reader emailed me and asked if I could collect all of the 1999 Project posts (so far) into a handy doc for non-web reading. So I did it, and in doing so discovered all the words I’d typed so far added up to 142 single-spaced pages in Word. At the time, the Project had only covered the regular season. I’m sure the postseason games I’ve chronicled since then would add another 25 pages to the total, bare minimum.

For a moment, I had a crisis of conscience. I still can’t finish my latest novel, and I haven’t seriously tried to get anything of mine published in traditional media since my daughter was born. And yet, I’d written the equivalent of 300 book pages on the 1999 New York Mets, a project with seemingly no purpose but to feed my own unquenchable nostalgic jones.

Take a peek at the sports section of your local book store. You’ll find precious little ink devoted to non-championship teams The 1999 Mets didn’t even make it to the World Series. Why did I waste so much time detailing the every move of a team that was ultimately a failure?

I suppose that depends on your definition of failure. In the sense of Sports as Warfare, a zero-sum game where there can only be one victor, then yes, the 1999 Mets were a failure. But by that definition, every team but the Yankees was a failure in 1999. To me, the idea that anything less than a championship is a failure is a Yankee organization/fan attitude. Is that who we should emulate, really?

I prefer to think of sports as entertainment, and seasons as productions. Some are more successful than others. Some are unbridled triumphs and some are flawed but courageous. Some are depressing, some are disappointing, and some are unadulterated shit-shows. But you can still love films that are less than perfect. If your favorite movie didn’t win any Oscars, do you have to stop loving it because it “failed”?

Of course, the difference between a movie and a baseball season is you can watch a movie over and over. You can’t really do that with baseball, not even a little bit (especially since MLB does everything in its power to prevent fans from posting/sharing old game footage).

Not to mention the ESPN-ification of sports coverage, wherein any game/season/sport is reduced to a few highlight reel plays. That format suits basketball and football well, but every baseball season–every baseball game–is a marathon, not a sprint. Distilling it down into bite sized chunks, and declaring only one victor, does the game a disservice. Whenever I see a game that I watched covered in roughly 90 seconds on SportsCenter, I see nothing but the glaring omissions necessary for such a cheap format.

Many fanbases have teams that didn’t win it all but are still beloved. Case in point: The 1982 Milwaukee Brewers. If you’re a cheesehead baseball fan, this is your favorite team of all time. Harvey’s Wallbangers are celebrated constantly at Miller Park. The Brewers still regularly wear the ’82 style uniforms. A documentary about them runs in heavy rotation on MLB Network. They lost the World Series to the Cardinals that year, but that almost seems beside the point.

The 2000 Mets were more successful than the 1999 version, in the sense that they went one step farther by making it to the World Series. But the 2000 team lacked a certain something. They had some awesome games that year, particularly in the NLDS against the Giants. Unfortunately, the Mets saw some key players leave the team after 1999 for one reason or another, and almost uniformly replaced them with guys who had decidedly less bite (a totally ephemeral quality, I realize).

They lost John Olerud to free agency and replaced him with Todd Zeile, another in a long line of players the Mets acquired for the sole purpose of making him play out of position. They lost Rey Ordonez to injury and replaced him with Mike Bordick, trading away Melvin Mora in the process. In Mora’s absence, professional malcontent Derek Bell patrolled the outfield for most of the season. And they traded away Roger Cedeno and Octavio Dotel to get Mike Hampton, who pitched them to the World Series, then abandoned them in the offseason because Denver’s schools were so much better than New York’s. (On the plus side, the compensation pick the Mets got when he left was used to draft David Wright.)

There’s also the fact that the Mets (as an organization) don’t respect their own history at all. They have only four retired numbers, and only one of those represents a man who took the field for them (Tom Seaver’s 41). They have a moribund Hall of Fame that has inducted no new members since 2002. They built a new ballpark but forgot to include any mementos of triumphs past. I went to CitiField a lot last year, but I didn’t see a single mention of the magic of 1999, not even on the scoreboard between innings (they needed that precious time for the Cascarino’s Pizza Pass contest).

So I guess I did this for the same reason that Greg Prince at Faith and Fear in Flushing often writes about the 1999 Mets: to keep that season from “disappearing down the memory hole”. As I wrote in my roundup of game 6 of the NLCS, even though the Braves won that game and were on their way to the World Series, the NBC cameras spent an incredibly long time lingering on the “losers”. Neither Bob Costas nor Joe Morgan would stop talking about them. Anyone who witnessed the 1999 Mets, at the time, recognized how special they were. I don’t want that to be forgotten.

For months, the Mets walked a tightrope between ecstasy and doom. Eventually, they fell, but they put on a hell of a show before they lost their balance. I don’t think I’ll ever see a better season, and if I do, it will have to be an even crazier combination of the monstrous and the sublime.

The 1999 Mets were a success. I feel sorry for anyone who’d think otherwise.