A WEEK or so ago all the great media organs of New York were bellowing at Wurlitzer volume about the decline of the New York Mets. The baseball team that had pleasantly surprised its clientele by challenging the Atlanta Braves all season for first place was suddenly losing one game after another, and the critics were implying--through their sudden ruthless dissection of the Mets' management, play and essential character (all of which had been praised through most of the season)--that this end-of-season plunge had been foreseen and was in fact a sad situation working itself out with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. And then the Mets won four in a row and went to the playoffs.
So ends another attempt to give form and meaning to a major league baseball team's season, an exercise about as fruitful (we have become convinced over the years) as attributing motivation to the Ping-Pong balls in the lottery machine. Oh, no doubt a team's character--or the manager's or players'--decides a game now and then. But as the season runs on--from April into October, through 1,500 or more innings played nine at a time, day in and out through an endless procession of cities--it becomes increasingly likely that what it will really have illustrated is simply the workings of the laws of probability, or in some cases improbability.
For nearly a half-century now, one of the most celebrated tales in baseball has been of Bobby Thomson's home run in 1951, which won the pennant for the New York Giants and concluded a disgraceful "fold" by the Brooklyn Dodgers, who blew a 13-game lead in the final weeks of the season.
Little noted anymore is the fact that Mr. Thomson's heroic blow, had it been hit in just about any other ballpark on earth, would have been a routine out and the object of little more than a scornful paragraph in the next day's papers--remembered no longer than the Dodgers' "collapse." But because it was in the Polo Grounds, an oddly shaped place where a short fly ball down the line could clear the fence, Bobby Thomson's hit became legend, as did the miserable Dodgers.
There were more than 20,000 empty seats in the park that day, but every one of them has since been filled many times over thanks to the imaginative recollections of fans richly blessed with one of baseball's most prized gifts: a fine retrospective sense of destiny.