Jonathan Yardley -- Don't Worry, Nats Fans. We'll Always Have the '62 Mets.
Are the 2009 Washington Nationals the worst team in Major League Baseball history? Going strictly by the book, if the Nats continue to play at their present pace -- is "pace" really the word for it? -- they will lose somewhere around 120 of 162 games, the number lost by the New York Mets in 1962, which means it's possible -- unlikely, but possible -- that they will be tied for worst, statistically at least.
Still, rest easy, Washington baseball fans. The '09 Nats aren't even half as bad as the '62 Mets. I know. I was there, a newly minted New Yorker who arrived in the city a few days before the Mets played their very first home game, a 4-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and who attended at least 40 of their subsequent games that season at the Polo Grounds, almost all of which they lost.
I was working for the New York Times then, just a year out of college and starry-eyed about finally, at the age of 22, living in a big-league city. I had a small apartment at Central Park West and 97th Street, which put me a mere seven subway stops on the B line from 155th Street and the Polo Grounds, the ancient park where the Mets played their way into infamy; one more stop took me to Yankee Stadium, but I loathed the occupants thereof and visited it infrequently, always to root for the visiting team.
I had to admit, though, that the Yankees -- Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford -- were what made New York a big-league city. The Mets might have been competitive in one of the shabbier AA minor leagues, but in the National League of 1962 -- the league of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Frank Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks -- they were pipsqueaks. The previous winter they had been cobbled together (along with the Houston franchise) in an expansion draft, and they had chosen a veteran lineup -- Gil Hodges, Richie Ashburn, Frank Thomas -- that was entirely, irreversibly over the hill.
They lost their first nine games, but they didn't panic and fire their manager. They couldn't. Their manager was Casey Stengel, who had led the Yankees to seven World Series titles between 1949 and his abrupt dismissal in 1960. Smart, irreverent, funny and endlessly quotable, Stengel was loved by fans and sportswriters alike, and everyone hated the Yankees for axing him so heartlessly after such a long, brilliant run.
The Mets took him on at least as much for public relations as for his baseball savvy. He put a familiar, thoroughly human face on the team, and his presence was crucial in drawing some 900,000 fans (a good figure in those days) to the Polo Grounds, which was ancient and utterly deficient in the most basic creature comforts: the bathrooms were tiny, the aisles were narrow, the seats were cramped.
I loved it.
The thing about the Mets was that "their incompetence somehow became endearing," writes Robert W. Creamer in his superb "Stengel: His Life and Times." Creamer mentions a "big, powerful but not very good first baseman named Marv Throneberry," who was quickly dubbed Marvelous Marv; he hit a few homers, "fielded ineptly and made extravagant mistakes," but soon "became a huge favorite with the crowd, the lasting symbol of the hapless but lovable Mets." In the grandstands at the Polo Grounds -- I usually sat upstairs, along the left-field line -- we cheered Marv on and shouted "Let's go, Mets!" while we knocked back cold ones and laughed ourselves silly.
The "ace" of the pitching staff was an elderly journeyman named Roger Craig, who won all of 10 games -- and lost 24. Al Jackson, a much better pitcher, managed to lose 20, and Jay Hook tossed in another 19. Throughout the season the Mets employed no fewer than seven catchers (Stengel: "You have to have a catcher, or you'll have a lot of passed balls"), among whom my favorite was Clarence "Choo Choo" Coleman, who played only 44 games that year as second- or third- or fourth-string catcher, but always hustled, always smiled, always gave his best, which needless to say wasn't very good; he was only five-foot-nine and 165 pounds, and to me he was the quintessential Little Engine That Could. Well, actually, Couldn't.
The 2009 Nats don't have a Marvelous Marv or a Choo Choo, but on the other hand they do have a core of promising young players, some on the roster and some rising through the minor leagues. Their exemplary young third baseman, Ryan Zimmerman, is the kind of player a championship ballclub can be built around, although he did have three errors in Tuesday night's loss to the Marlins. Another Zimmerman, well, Zimmermann, this one named Jordan, could be the anchor of a first-class pitching staff. And John Lannan already is well on the way to being just that. Jesus Flores may well be an All-Star catcher someday, if he can stay healthy.
Then there are two even younger guys who probably hold the key to the Nats' future: Stephen Strasburg, the uncommonly gifted pitcher whom the Nats chose first in this year's draft, and Bryce Harper, the 16-year-old -- yes, 16 -- whom the Nats are likely to choose first in next year's draft. Strasburg may or may not be the reincarnation of Cy Young -- depends on which sportswriter or blogger you consult -- but he has all the raw materials. The redoubtable Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated says Harper can be baseball's version of Tiger Woods, LeBron James or Wayne Gretzky.
Both Strasburg and Harper are represented by Scott Boras, the toughest agent in the business. Will the Lerner family, the famously parsimonious owners of the Nats, pony up the necessary dough to sign these two? To say that Nats fans are praying is putting it mildly.
Among the Nationals, comparisons with the '62 Mets are scoffed at. "I know we're better than the '62 Mets," Lannan said after the Toronto Blue Jays crushed the Nats 9-4 on June 21. "We're not going to go down as the worst team in baseball history, that's for sure." But in the win-loss column there are some painful similarities. The Nationals lost 50 of their first 71 games. The Mets lost 50 of their first 69.
The Nats also aren't likely to turn around in the next two or three years the way the Mets finally did -- they went from 73-89 in 1968 to a world championship in 1969 -- but even now they are a better team than their record indicates. In fact, it's tempting to say they're too good to be lovable. The 1962 Mets, by contrast, are even worse than their dismal record. Stengel called them "amazin'," and it's amazin' that they won a single game.
Jonathan Yardley is book critic of The Washington Post.