From the Books: SO MANY WAYS TO LOSE

NY Mets win 1986 World Series

Image: NY Daily News

It’s been my experience that any baseball fan will hate at least one of New York City’s two teams, either the Yankees or the Mets. I’ve never really hated either, which makes me an outlier, I suppose. I just like New York City too much to hate on its teams (though that can’t be the only factor, as I adore Boston the city and yet I’d like to see all of its teams fired into the sun*). Back when there were only four divisions in Major League Baseball, the Mets were in the same division as my team, the Pirates, and for a couple years there, the Mets were a thorn in the side of the Pirates as they strove to win three division titles in 1990, 1991, and 1992. Since then they’re all in different divisions, though, so the Mets don’t figure too much. And the Pirates are usually terrible, so what’s to root against? Fifth place?

One of my best friends is a Mets fan, which might seem a bit odd living in Buffalo, where all baseball fandoms basically boil down to a whole lot of Yankee fans, some Red Sox fans, and then a fan or two of everybody else. My friend came by his Mets fandom honestly: he grew up in the days of 1980s cable television, when every local provider had a couple of indie stations from NYC (WOR and…another one), and on one of those stations resided the Mets. Since they were what my friend saw most often, that’s what he came to love, and to this day he roots as hard for the Mets as he ever has, though I’ve noted over the years a certain jaded amusement at the Mets fortunes (which are more often misfortunes) and a general feeling of “Hey, what did you expect” when the Mets flirt with something wonderful only to end up losing.

I’ve seen this same attitude from other Mets fans I’ve known: a certain even-keeled acceptance of their likely fate, which oddly allows them to have more fun in the face of their team losing than other fandoms out there. In all honesty, it’s my sense that a lot of sports fans could learn from Mets fans. They get as deliriously happy when their Mets win, obviously, but they avoid the soul-crushing despair and rage that comes of losing. (Mostly. I mean, it’s still sports, and when you lose the NLCS four games to two because your pitcher walks in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth in Game Six, well, no amount of baseball zen is going to keep you from wanting to take a chef’s knife to every teddy bear you can find.)

The Mets are that odd duck of a sports franchise: they haven’t won a ton (two World Series titles, and five total National League pennants), but still, they’ve won enough in their nearly 60 years of existence to make them rank just a bit above the “lovable losers” thing that the Cubs once managed to hold down for over a century. Mets fans aren’t long-time sufferers the way, say, Bills fans are. Because they’ve won, and because Mets fans seem to choose not to suffer in the first place.

When we traveled to New York City for Thanksgiving in 2015, I thought I’d grab my friend a Mets souvenir when we went into this big NYC gift store in Times Square. Place was huge, loaded with every NYC-related gewgaw and tchotchke you could want, including stuff for the Yankees, the Rangers, and the Knicks. And there wasn’t a single Mets-related item to be found anywhere in that store. Which was really weird, because the Mets are still a NYC team, they have some lore, and they had just won the NL pennant that year. Just six weeks before our visit, the Mets had hosted World Series games in New York City, and this gift shop didn’t have anything. Not a single pennant, shot glass, poster, snow-globe with Citi Field in it, nothing.

In America’s biggest and most important city, one of two resident Major League Baseball teams is a beloved institution of American sports history, and the other is a niche interest, like indie comic books. Weird.

Anyway, a new book came out earlier this year called So Many Ways to Lose: The Amazin’ True Story of the New York Mets, the Best Worst Team In Sports, by Devin Gordon. That’s a great title that sets up the tone of the book to follow: Gordon’s walk through Mets history is (mostly) warm and humorous. It’s Mets history not as a scholar would relate it, or a sportswriter striving for “objectivity”; this is the history of the Mets that you would hear from a Mets fan, and that’s what makes the book special.

Gordon, like my friend, adopted the Mets as his favorite team from an early age, and he’s been with them since their rise to late-80s powerhouse and beyond. Gordon is also an experienced writer, and not just about sports, so he knows his way around telling stories with flare and a good viewpoint. Gordon writes like what he is: an erudite fan who can spend a couple of pages breaking down just why Willie Mays’s “Catch” is as great a baseball play (for many, it’s the greatest baseball play) as it is, while at the same time using chapter titles like “Fuck the Yankees”.

Buffalo’s own sportswriting market is awash in talented writers and journalists who undermine their own work by beating everyone over the head with their heated insistences on their own “objectivism”, so it’s frankly a relief to find a book like this where fandom is admitted and embraced and allowed to shine.

I honestly had a great deal of trouble selecting a passage to quote from So Many Ways To Lose, because it’s packed with great passages. I thought about his lengthy breakdown of the Willie Mays catch, which he uses to prelude what he considers an even greater outfield catch (by Endy Chavez). I considered some of the passages in which Gordon speculates on why discussion of Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden tended to focus on drug use when the topic of other players’ drug use never seems to come up much (you don’t really need to think too long to figure that one out), and there’s a passage about the design and construction of Shea Stadium that is helpful because it’s frankly always helpful to remind ourselves what an asshole Robert Moses was.

Instead, I’ll go with this, from early in the book, when Gordon is making the case why the Mets are “the best worst team in sports”, even though they have done something at least twice that a lot of other perennially losing teams have not, i.e., actually win.

Now, there may be some fans of trash teams out there who have read this far and who think I’ve been too cavalier in dismissing their body of work. They’re wrong, but I suppose they deserve a fair hearing, so let’s go through the top contenders, if only to condemn them to yet another defeat.

The Detroit Lions might be the worst team in sports, which is to say: they’re not even good at being bad. They’ve never won a Super Bowl, never been to a Super Bowl. They’ve played (lost) in a conference title game once, and that was before we all had cell phones. I don’t have to consult the Internet to know that the Lions have never had a memorable postseason moment, because if they had, I’d remember it. It’s been nothing but decades of cold, slushy, uninterrupted losing. Even their uniforms, bluish-gray and grayish-blue, are colorless. Playing for the Lions is such a demoralizing experience that the two most gifted players in team history, running back Barry Sanders and wide receiver Calvin Johnson, both retired in their primes rather than spend another season with Detroit. They didn’t just quit the Lions, they quit football. They ghosted. After Johnson walked away in 2016, at age 30, the Lions’ front office demanded that he return a $3.2 million roster bonus, which is sort of petty for a team owned by the Ford family. It also means the Lions now have a frosty relationship with at least 50 percent of their franchise icons.

The Cleveland Browns have a better claim to the “best worst” throne, because unlike the Lions, they are easy to like, and unlike the Lions, their postseason defeats are so infamously excruciating that they have names like The Fumble and The Drive. The Browns have only made the playoffs once this century, despite starting 29 different quarterbacks over the course of 20 years. For three years in the 1990s, the Browns ceased to exist because their greedy, heartless owner, Art Modell, may he rest in peace, hated it so much in Cleveland that he tried to move the team to BaltimoreNest he fired his head coach, Bill Belichick. Now that’s some first-rate ineptitude. The problem with the Browns’ case may be Cleveland itself. It’s too grim. The 21st century hasn’t been good to the city, and every unlikely defeat, every clumsy failure is cut with rust and resignation. You can laugh at the Mets all you want. If you take pleasure in the Browns’ misfortune, you’re a dick.

Same goes for all of Minnesota’s crappy teams, the Vikings in particular, who have been waiting decades for the chance to lose another Super Bowl. In 2020, the Minneapolis-based sportswriter Steve Marsh compared the NBA Timerwolves’ Mets-ian flair for comic incompetence to a night of experimental dining–“Maitre d’, surprise us!”–but even he admits that in a city famous for its losers (the Vikes, Walter Mondale), the Wolves can’t get no respect. Their losing, while admirable, is just too small-time. Ditto for the Cincinnati Bengals, another small-batch loser, whose principal resume for “best worst” champion is the Icky Shuffle.* In order for the Bengals to be the Mets, Cincinnati would have to be New York. This is yet another case of small-market franchises getting overshadowed and disrespected, to which I can only say boo-hoo. To win at this level of losing, you need a big canvas.

Gordon goes on a bit, discussing why several other prominent never-winners in American sports can’t beat out the Mets for “best worst team ever” status, but curiously, he doesn’t mention a few other franchises known for their relentless losing. Surely the fact that the Chicago Cubs won a single World Series a few years ago doesn’t blot out their entire century of losing from our collective memory, does it? Or how about the Arizona Cardinals, a team that until its single Super Bowl appearance (which they lost in heartbreaking fashion despite a superhuman effort by their Hall of Fame quarterback and one of the greatest receivers ever in that very game) had to admit that its greatest moment in franchise history was a fictional moment that happened in the movie Jerry Maguire? And how about the Buffalo Bills, whose four consecutive Super Bowl losses from 1990 to 1993 still boggle the mind of sports fans to this day?

The Mets have done a lot of losing, sure–but they’ve done some winning, too. I’m not ready to grant the Mets the title of “best worst team” just yet, but Gordon does make a compelling case for his team, and that’s what it’s all about, anyway. And really, one of the great subgenres in sports writing is when gifted writers take on bad teams.

In the last year, I’ve read two great baseball books. First was Roger Angell’s iconic The Boys of Summer. Now I have So Many Ways to Lose.

I wonder if it’s time to start watching baseball again.

Endy Chavez makes amazing catch

Image: Metsmerizedonline.com

*This is a metaphor.

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1 Response to From the Books: SO MANY WAYS TO LOSE

  1. I started writing a response, and then I realized it was turning into a blog post. I’ll say here that THIS year for the Mets was brutal. They were leading their division but ended well below .500

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