Spring, to me, means the start of baseball season. With two sons who play and a husband who is pretty much obsessed with the game, it feels like I spend about 40% of my waking hours during the months of April-July watching baseball, talking about baseball, and planning my life (and meals) around, you guessed it, baseball. As if my life hasn’t already been taken over by the sport, why on earth would I want to read a book about baseball now? This isn’t just any baseball book though. So Many Ways to Lose is Devin Gordon’s homage to those “Lovable Losers” the New York Mets: a team whose particular talent, as the author puts it, is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. I grew up with two brothers who were and still are die-hard Cubs fans, and I married a man whose blood runs Cubby blue, so if anyone has witnessed first-hand the utter joys and heartbreaks, often during the same game, that come with cheering on a team that has made an art form of losing, it’s me. What is it about the Mets – the Mets! – that would inspire such a level of devotion in a fan that he could get his heart chewed up, spit out, and stomped on time and again and still go back for more with a smile on his face? I had to find out.
“The mental state of your standard-issue Mets fan is to be simultaneously certain of humiliating defeat and pretty darn sure there’s a miracle brewing. It’s not bracing for the worst, exactly. It’s bracing for something. Something awful, surely… but maybe not! Mets fans have the capacity to believe in both outcomes with equal commitment. This is very hard to do.”Devin Gordon in So Many Ways to Lose
It’s not surprising that the Mets’ origin story is just as interesting as the team’s history. In 1957, both the Dodgers and Giants decided to pick up and move their teams out west leaving New York, the largest metropolitan market in the U.S., with only one baseball franchise. Two-thirds of New York’s baseball fans were outraged that the only team left to root for was the Yankees. As a matter of “civic pride,” the mayor of New York immediately convened a panel and called mover-and-shaker Bill Shea to power broker a deal to bring another team to New York. While Shea’s name is and forever will be associated with the Mets, having negotiated them into existence along with a $15 million commitment for a new stadium that was named after him, the forgotten player in the history of the New York Mets is Mrs. Joan Whitney Payson. The heiress – a patron of the arts, sports enthusiast, and first woman majority owner of a major league team – had everything to do with shaping the Mets. Author Devin Gordon spends part one of his book attempting to right her erasure from Mets history, a wrong that, let’s just say it, feels like historical sexism. The Mets would not be where they are today without Payson’s humility, prescience, guidance, and, yes, her money. It’s about time she is given her due.
Here’s the thing about the Mets, though. On paper, they look like a successful team. They’ve made it to the postseason nine times. Five of those times, they went all the way to the World Series. They won the whole shebang twice, in 1969 and again in 1986. Along with the moniker the “Lovable Losers,” they’re equally famous for being the “Miracle Mets” and winning a World Series just 7 years after their start as the worst team in baseball. A specialty of theirs though is winning when they should lose and losing when they should win. Author Devin Gordon argues that they’re not a “bad” team… they’re just particularly gifted at the losing part of the game. In case you didn’t know, there’s a difference between being just outright terrible and losing in terrible fashion and the rest of Gordon’s book is spent revealing all of the spectacular ways the Mets have used this superpower to great effect.
- What about when Mets chairman M.Donald Grant got into bitter contract negotiations with the face of the Mets, legendary World Series pitcher Tom Seaver? Their dispute played out in the New York papers and culminated in the release of Seaver and Dave Kingman, another Mets legend. This 1977 event came to be known as the “Midnight Massacre,” and it ushered in the beginning of the Mets’ darkest era. That year, the Mets finished in last place and they did not have another winning season until 1984.
- How about when the Mets traded away pitcher Nolan Ryan? …only to have him become Nolan Ryan: The Greatest Pitcher of all Time. The man who has played in more seasons than any other major league player in modern history; the player who is ranked first in strikeouts in the league; the pitcher who has thrown SEVEN no-hitters, three more than any other pitcher. Yeah, that Nolan Ryan.
- What about the time that the Mets negotiated the worst contract buyout in history? Or, the best if you’re Bobby Bonilla and Dennis Gilbert, Bonilla’s agent. To get rid of the reserve outfielder and free up the remaining $5.9 million left on his contract, the Mets agreed to his terms to walk away with none of the money he was owed; but, ten years later, starting July 1, 2011, the Mets would pay him $1.19 million a year for the next 25 years – a grand total of $29.8 million when you factor in interest. And that is how Mets fans came to call July 1st Bobby Bonilla Day. Why, you ask, would the Mets make such a deal? They were, at that time, invested in a Bernie Madoff account which promised double-digit dividends if everything worked out. Spoiler alert, it didn’t. You can’t make this stuff up.
There are many, many other stories. Oh, so many. Through it all, Devin Gordon and Mets fans everywhere have borne it all with aplomb, and, if not grace, then humor. Though Gordon makes an undeniably strong argument that the Mets, in particular, have an extra special talent for losing, any sports fan who is invested in a team can recall a time their team lost an important game they could’ve, or should’ve, won. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of all that I need to get done before I attend my son’s baseball game tonight. His team may win; or, they may lose. They may even lose in Metsy fashion, which is to say, just when victory seems imminent. But I’ll be back the next day, and the next, cheering the team on. After all, sports lovers everywhere know that there is no thrill of victory without the agony of defeat.