Monday, June 10, 2019

From the Archives: "Rivalry?"

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 10, No. 45
June 11, 2018

I was flipping back and forth between Sunday night’s Yankees/Mets game and the season finale of “Billions,” which is why I had my TV sound on and was able to hear ESPN’s Matt Vasgersian refer to the baseball matchup as a “rivalry.”

Is it, though? Chuck and Axe are...well, were...rivals. The Yankees’ rival, however, is the Red Sox. Outside of the 2000 World Series, and George Steinbrenner’s obsession with the defunct Mayor’s Trophy Game, the Mets have been an afterthought for the Yankees and their fans, the little brother occasionally making good. It’s like with USC, my alma mater; UCLA’s rival is USC, but USC’s rival is Notre Dame.

I don’t think it makes much more sense from the Mets’ side, either. Who is the Mets’ rival? Probably the Cubs, although it could be the Securities and Exchange Commission, or maybe just the concept of human frailty. The relationship with the Yankees isn’t a rivalry, even in the era of interleague play. A rivalry isn’t just about geography, although it helps. The Dodgers and Giants were rivals in New York, and they ported that out west, helped along by the established rivalry between the two flagship cities in California. The Cubs’ rival isn’t the White Sox, it’s the Cardinals. You build a rivalry by competing directly with another team for championships. Nebraska and Oklahoma were rivals for decades, but come 2030, a generation of Huskers and Sooners will have grown up not thinking of the other at all.

The Yankees and Mets have not only never had that, pace a week in 2000, but they’ve rarely been good at the same time. The history of New York baseball since the Mets came into being in 1962 is the two teams mostly trading off periods of superiority. They’ve participated in the same postseason just four times in more than 50 years, and only twice, in 1999 and 2000, have they both reached the LCS round in the same year. They’ve finished over .500 in the same year less than half the time. The Mets have six players on their active roster who weren’t alive the last time the Yankees finished under .500.

The most recent of those periods was 2015-16, when the Mets won the NL pennant and then a year later returned to the NL Wild Card Game. The Yankees won a wild-card slot in ’15 and then missed the playoffs in 2016 with an 84-78 mark, making their first present-for-future trades that season in close to 30 years. If you’d taken a snapshot of the the two teams at the start of the 2016 playoffs, you would have seen the Mets with an exciting, young starting rotation, with a strong farm system, with their relatively new ballpark, with an ownership group seemingly inclined to once again spend money. They’d been to the playoffs and to the World Series more recently than the Yankees, who seemed content to focus on lowering their luxury-tax payments and waiting for their own farm system to turn around.

Less than two years later, it’s a Yankees town again. Even that’s a misnomer. New York is always a Yankees town, one that makes room for the Mets when the Mets warrant it. There’s some geographic fudging around that idea, with the Yankees more the team of Manhattan, the Bronx, and New Jersey, and the Mets more popular in Queens, Brooklyn, and Long Island. Apart perhaps from the 1980s, when the Mets had an incredible group of young, exciting stars and the Yankees had Steinbrenner ruining my adolescence, there’s never been equality or anything like it.

The Mets failed to keep those starting pitchers healthy. Since 2015, Matt Harvey’s career foundered due to injury. Noah Syndergaard has made 18 starts since Opening Day 2017. Steven Matz has 258 innings in just shy of 2 1/2 seasons. The 2015-18 Mets have shown both the potential upside of building around a young rotation, and the potential downside; the similarities to the 1984-90 Mets, in that regard, are uncanny.

Across the East River, the Yankees did a better-than-expected job of developing their own homegrown talent. Aaron Judge became one of the most famous players in the game, the poster boy for the Statcast Era. Luis Severino, Gary Sanchez, and Jordan Montgomery helped push the Yankees to within a game of the World Series while the Mets slipped under .500. This year, the Yankees took advantage of the Marlins’ fire sale to add Giancarlo Stanton, and are on pace to set the MLB record for home runs in a single season. They have the best record in baseball, and last night’s result aside, have once again buried their neighbors to the east.

The Mets started 2017 looking to build on two playoff appearances and an NL pennant. They’re 98-126 since then. Syndergaard is on the DL, as are Juan Lagares, Wilmer Flores, Travis d’Arnaud, Yoenis Cespedes, and Jeurys Familia. Amed Rosario, their top prospect coming into 2018, has a .275 OBP. Michael Conforto, arguably rushed back from shoulder surgery, is hitting .215/.335/.359. There’s more talk about the Mets dumping a starting pitcher than about them contending. You look ahead, and you wonder if a team whose best contributors this year (save Brandon Nimmo) are all at least 30 years old is going to be able to compete with the young talent of the Braves and Nationals in 2019 and beyond. The Syndergaard/Cespedes Mets may already be done.

If so, New York will return to its natural state, the sounds of Severino and Sterling and Sinatra blasting from sports bars and car radios from Parkchester to Park Avenue, Woodlawn to Wall Street. The biggest games won’t be against the blue and orange, but the red and white, as they’ve been for a century. That’s what a rivalry looks like.