The death of the lovable loser
Of all possible feats in the wonderful world of modern sports, being a lovable loser dwells right next door to impossible. This thought occurred to me in the wake of manager Willie Randolph's ejection into the old can-eroo this week by the New York Mets.
Randolph's firing was hardly unexpected, but the way it was done -- in the dead of night after the man had rotated in the wind for weeks while his team lost ugly -- only reinforced the notion that the Mets have long shed their old, extremely rare association with losing with grace, humor and, yes, charm.
Now, I'm not laying anything on the Mets that isn't shared by other teams in any major sport in this age when obscenely paid athletes can't be bothered to actually hustle, but the franchise's history makes it a bit of an exception. To fully appreciate what I mean, you probably have to be older than ESPN and a lifelong New Yorker.
The Mets came into this world as perhaps the ultimate lovable losers. Every expansion team is granted a grace period, but the Mets had the good fortune of being born in the perfect storm of goodwill, patience and tolerance that included New York's joy at the return of National League baseball, a certain disaffection for the cold and perpetually-winning Yankees, and manager Casey Stengel's goofily iconic status, plus a memorable cast of characters.
If you're going to lose, it really helps to have a funny, quotable manager and bad players with names like Marvelous Marv Throneberry, Choo Choo Coleman and Hot Rod Kanehl. That legendary inaugural squad in 1962 set the gold standard for ineptitude, losing 120 games in a grand comedic style that forged the franchise's early identity and was brilliantly captured by Jimmy Breslin's hilariously droll classic for SI entitled Worst Baseball Team Ever.
Stengel's plaintive question to his bungling team -- "Can't anybody here play this game?" -- stands as a classic of baseball lore although those Mets may not have been quite as easy to endure as legend suggests. Only 992,530 people actually paid good money to go to the Polo Grounds and watch them finish last in pitching, hitting, fielding and the National League, but the Mets soon became a beloved symbol of ragtag hope. Their losing continued for another five years, but attendance climbed and an embraceable underdog quality remained after their 1969 miracle championship and through the '73 Ya Gotta Believe campaign that ended with a loss in the World Series.
Alas, with winning comes expectation, and with expectation comes far less tolerance for failure. Sports have since become a grim business, and winning is the bottom line with stakes, salaries, and ticket prices sky high. When you're paying $16 million to a slugger who is batting .237, or $100 to watch him from a box seat, it's hard to see any charm in failure. But for sheer entertainment value, watching Carlos Delgado misplay first base is nowhere near as amusing as, say, Ed Bouchee, who while subbing for the monumentally inept Throneberry against the Giants in '62 dropped a pickoff throw from pitcher Roger Craig that had Orlando Cepeda nailed. Two pitches later, Craig threw over and had Cepeda nailed again. Bouchee dropped the toss.
"What are you trying to do, steal my fans?" Throneberry asked Bouchee.
Any levity by the manager, players or front office is sure to be taken as a sign of less than serious commitment to excellence. I mean, can you imagine the 1988 Orioles (54-107) or 2003 Tigers (43-119) trotting out a midget to pinch-hit in a game the way Bill Veeck's St. Louis Browns did during their 52-102 season in 1951?
These are extreme examples, of course, and by no means are the current Mets in that class. Though it may yet redeem itself, this year's star-laden crew has merely been another overpaid, underachieving, lifeless bunch that's still giving off the fumes of last season's epic collapse. But during the past 20 years or so, the Mets have been like any other franchise, their warm, fuzzy early persona steadily fading. Their '86 Series championship team was notoriously arrogant and their worst squads have been dispiriting stews of garden variety front office bungling, occasional scandal and surly malcontents, the most memorable being the 1993 squad of Vince "Firecrackers" Coleman, Bret "Bleach Gun" Saberhagen, and Bobby "Smile on My Face" Bonilla that finished 59-103.
Appealing schmoes have been cheered elsewhere, of course -- the Cubs, certainly, although they and the seemingly star-crossed Indians are now contender caliber and there is more romance and real pain than bellylaughs in the experience of rooting for them. Now that the Red Sox are a dynasty and the White Sox recent champions, they've forfeited their appealing martyrdom.
Elsewhere, the NFL's Tampa Bay Bucs, who lost the first 26 games of their existence, qualified as at least somewhat lovable, thanks to coach John McKay, whose deadpan press conference pronouncements made all that losing memorable, and palatable enough that fans actually mounted a perverse "Go-for-0" campaign in the final weeks of the team's second season. Of course, the Bucs denied them that satisfaction by winning their last two games of 1977.
The New Orleans Saints went 3-11 in their first season (1967), actually setting a record for most wins by an NFL expansion franchise, and during the next 11 years became synonymous with futility, but star quarterback Archie Manning was more gallant than Peyton Manning-funny. Revealingly, the famed bags worn by "Aints" fans did not appear until 1980 -- after the team's first .500 campaign, in 1979 -- when modest hopes were dashed by a 0-14 start. Still, the Saints carry a slight, oddly warm aura from those days.
Every franchise has low-water marks and an indentity that gradually evolves over time. The current Mets -- as well as the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays, who also made managerial changes this week, albeit in more dignified fashion -- have merely been disappointingly mediocre in the customary deathly serious manner that is expected in such times. I realize that losing is no laughing matter, but thinking back to those early Mets, it just seems a shame that there is so little room for warmth and even humor in defeat these days. It's actually a little easier to take when there is.
In the wake of Tiger Woods' heroic victory in the U.S. Open, readers weighed in with responses to Mad Mike Milbury's charge that Tiger is a wuss who can't hold a scented candle to the play-wtih-pain abilities of NHL players. The following epistle sums up the prevailing sentiment:
Do you think Milbury regrets his words at all, especially in light of the news? First off, Milbury said Tiger took three months to get over his surgery, and it was actually less than two before he was PLAYING in the U.S. Open. Second, Milbury wasn't skilled enough at anything to understand the power and finesse required for Tiger's swing, as Mike was at his best when beating fans with their own shoes. Third, I wonder what Mike would say at the knowledge we now have that Tiger had a double stress fracture and will require reconstructive ACL surgery, and STILL won against the best in the world in a sport that requires the most minute of details to be correct. It's nothing short of amazing, and will be a legendary moment in sports for generations of sports enthusiasts. By the way, when is the last time hockey had a "water-cooler" discussion moment like Tiger getting to and winning the playoff on Saturday, Sunday, and into Monday? I'd like to see what the playoff ratings would have been like without Tiger...
And one final thought:
Speaking of hockey being the butt end of jokes, the other night I saw a rerun of "Who Wants to be a Millionare?" and the $300 question was: "Which of these animals has no teeth?" The answer was A, an earthworm, but choice D was "a hockey player!"