The New York Mets, buoyed by an extraordinary quartet of young starting pitchers, are back in the World Series. This Mets team, in addition to their starting pitching, has a strong bullpen, balanced offense and a very good manager. The Mets may or may not go on to beat the American League representative in the World Series, but they are a legitimately good, and for what its worth, exciting and fun team. This will mark the Mets fifth National League (NL) pennant since joining the league in 1962.
As a baseball fan who lives in New York, but who has no strong feelings either way about the Mets, one of the most puzzling and enduring paradoxes about the team is the image that their fans have, and that is frequently cultivated by the media, of the team as a hard luck group of lovable losers for whom a trip to the fall classic is nothing short of a miracle. The data, however, tells a very different story. This will mark the Mets fifth NL pennant since joining the league in 1962. When the Mets were founded the NL had 10 teams; today it has 15 teams. Similarly, in 1962, there were 20 Major League teams; today there are 30. Five pennants in 54 years in a league of between 10-15 teams is about what could be expected if pennants were randomly distributed. Moreover, since 1962 only the Giants, Cardinals, Dodgers, Yankees, Orioles and A's have won more pennants, while four teams, the A's, Reds, Phillies, Braves and Red Sox have won the same amount. The Mets have not been one of the most elite teams in the game for the last 54 years, but they have done better than many, including teams that also began their existence in 1962 like the Astros, Angels and the Senators/Rangers, teams that predate the Mets like the Indians, Cubs and Pirates, as well as newer teams like the Padres or Diamondbacks.
This is the first pennant the Mets have won since 2000. A 14-year absence from the NLCS is a lot. A child who was in 8th grade when the Mets won their last pennant could have gone to high school, college and graduate school since this last occurred. Nonetheless, in a league with 15 teams, a 14-year gap between pennants is hardly a pennant drought of Cubsian proportions. Many teams, often with little fanfare, experience much longer gaps between pennants. For example, although younger fans may find it hard to believe given their recent success, the San Francisco Giants did not appear in the World Series for a period of 26 years between losing to the Yankees in 1962 and to the A's in 1989. More dramatically, the Houston Astros, who came into the NL with the Mets in 1962, but who now play in the American League, have won exactly one pennant during their entire existence.
The narrative that the Mets are a perennially bad team is driven almost entirely by the Mets constantly comparing themselves to the Yankees, the team with whom they share a city and a rivalry. The Yankees have been baseball's preeminent franchise since they acquired Babe Ruth from the Red Sox in 1920. The Mets accomplishments pale when compared to the Yankees, who have won thirteen pennants and eight World Championships since the Mets first played, but that is true of almost every team.
During the 54 years the Mets and Yankees have shared the New York market, and all the financial advantages that go with that, the rules that govern baseball have moved the game towards greater parity. The introduction of the draft, compensation for free agents, luxury taxes for high payrolls, the presence of more teams and multi-tiered playoffs are just some of the reasons it is harder for any team to dominate their league the way the Yankees did from 1923-1964. Nonetheless, the Yankees have exploited being a New York team to build a brand that is more valuable than that of the Mets. That is the fault of the Mets, not of the dice being loaded against them or some cosmic streak of bad luck. Despite that, they have had a reasonably good half century.
The narrative that the Mets are lovable losers has probably been seen by people outside New York as one of those strange New York things like saying "on line" instead of "in line," walking fast or knowing a good bagel from a bad one. Outside of New York, the Mets are not compared to the Yankees all the time, but are just another baseball team. Today, they are not just another team, but one of the very best. Perhaps Mets fans will grow to prefer that storyline and recognize that compared to many teams they've had it pretty good.