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Laughter is the best medicine

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 10, 2001

ST. PETERSBURG -- Somewhere in the next life, Casey Stengel breathes easier.

Somewhere in a world safe from popups, Marv Throneberry can relax.

For now, the legend is safe. For now, the glory, such as it is, belongs to them. For now, no one can measure down to the Mets of old.

Not even, it seems, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

The Rays, of all teams, are on a winning streak, of all things. Amazingly, they have won two in a row, and they have clinched a series, and you can debate which occurrence is more unexpected.

And now the bad news: Alas, when it comes to catching the '62 Mets, the Rays have fallen off the pace. (A brief pause will be made in this column in order to allow the reader to sigh heavily).

There for a moment, the Rays were falling so fast, they had even the old Mets nervous. Coming into this series, the Rays were 16-43, the identical record of the Mets after 59 games of their expansion season. That, however, was before the ghost of Elio Chacon possessed Rey Ordonez Saturday, and suddenly, the Mets have a two-game lead.

Could it happen again? Could a modern team really challenge the Mets' 120 losses?

No, common sense says. It couldn't. It can't happen. It won't happen. There are too many bad teams, too many bad pitchers, for it to occur.

Then there are days you watch the Rays and you think: maybe.

Oh, no one lost like the old Mets. They were something out of James Thurber, as interpreted by the Keystone Cops. And no one cared! They couldn't field, couldn't throw, couldn't hit. And everyone thought that was swell! They were the the worst team in history. And they made losing fun!

The Mets were the first team to treat a ballgame a lot more as if it was a comedy than a tragedy. They dropped popups and they overran bases and they missed signs. It's a wonder someone didn't take the field without pants. They lost 120 games in a season, and if you believe the literature, New York loved every one of them. Every night, New Yorkers, weary of a day of waging the Cold War, would laugh themselves to sleep over the Mets, their knees sore from all the slapping, their ribs aching from all the tickling.

Of course, losing was different in those days. It was warm and fuzzy. Fans understood. They accepted. They waited till next year.

They were, of course, chuckleheads.

Nevertheless, it was a sweet time, an innocent time. Losing came without shame. We swallowed our disappointment. Why not? Disappointment was all around us. Gilligan never got off the island. The Fugitive never caught the one-armed man. Wile E. Coyote never gave up on ACME and ordered a pizza instead. Every time Hamilton Burger had a case won, someone in the courtroom confessed. Little Joe kept losing fiances to strange diseases.

Failure taught us lessons. Losing built character. Being No. 2 made you try harder. At least, this is what lore tells us.

Lore, and the history of the New York Mets.

The Mets were grand fun, you see, because up to that point, everything in baseball had been perfect. No fielders ever missed the cutoff man, and everyone could hit and run and no one ever hit a home run off a bad pitcher. Power hitters bunted, and they were darned proud of it, thank you very much. We know this because of lore, too.

Then came Springtime for Stengel, and fans noticed that losing was fun, too. Of course, at the time, there were no skyboxes, and no labor problems, and you could buy about a thousand tickets for a quarter. Cracker Jack cost a nickel a ton, which you could find as you walked to school barefoot through the snow.

And so everyone loved the Mets, because if you didn't love the Mets, it meant you didn't get the joke. Fans threw grand nicknames at their players. Throneberry was Marvelous Marv. Rod Kanehl was Hot Rod. Frank Thomas was the Big Donkey. Across town, the Yankees only won. If the old Mets had catwalks, just imagine the hi-jinks that would have ensued.

All of this is important to remember, of course, because this weekend, the Rays seem to be playing two sets of Mets at once. Today's and yesterday's.

Hang on to your hat, Choo Choo Coleman, because here come the Rays.

Okay, okay. It's difficult for a team to lose with such regularity anymore, no matter how many catwalks it has. But the Rays are a special case. You could make the argument that no team has suffered as much for two months as this one. Hey, the old Mets didn't have to worry about ownership spats, or the reports of money shortage, or the threats of contraction even though they drew fewer than a million fans. They didn't fire a manager. They didn't run third basemen out of town.

So far, there are five seven-game losers in the American League. The Rays have three of them.

So far, the Rays have given up 10 runs or more 13 times. In '60, the Mets did it 23 times.

So far, the Rays, just like the Mets, have shown they deserve to be paid in '62 wages.

There are times you'd swear you can hear Throneberry cackle and say, "Hey, you guys trying to take my fans?" There are times you swear you can hear Stengel say, "Can't anybody here play this game, either?"

What's the lesson? Maybe the fans should be having more fun, too. Maybe they should appreciate the majesty of mediocrity.

Maybe fans should give these guys nicknames: Fabulous Fred and Jumpin' Gerald Williams and Graceful Ben Grieve and the rest. Maybe they should laugh at misplayed popups and baserunning gaffes and a bullpen full of doubles. Maybe they should get Rusty Meacham to write a book.

And then fans will laugh. And laugh, and laugh, and laugh.

As far as winning streaks? Eventually, they'll learn to deal with those, too.

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