Woke Springs Infernal

Review: So Many Ways to Lose: The Amazin' True Story of the New York Mets—the Best Worst Team in Sports

NEW YORK - APRIL 03: Mr Met gets the crowd going during an exhibition game between the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox on April 3, 2009 at Citi Field in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. The game marks the first time the Mets play in their new ballpark. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
April 4, 2021

In the summer of 2016, National Journal reporter Josh Kraushaar stumbled upon the scoop of the century. Nationals left fielder Jayson Werth's seven-year $126 million contract appeared to contain an unknown perk: His own private security force dedicated to protecting his fragile, fragile ego. These Blackwater-esque foot soldiers patrolled the stands under cover of regular old ushers to neutralize the threat of "WEEEEEEERTH-LEEEEESSSS" chants.

The Washington Free Beacon had stumbled upon the story when two of its reporters were escorted from the stadium by police on May 23, a 7-1 Mets victory—their second expulsion in a three-game stretch. Werth is not the only one to take umbrage at the particular way that Mets fans express themselves. Leslie Brett, wife of Hall of Fame Royals third baseman George, called us the worst around, which made their World Series victory—and our agony—all the sweeter.

"The reaction of the fans was kind of awesome because there were some pretty obnoxious ones that just were riding the players. And it felt like it was good karma for us," she told the New York Times. "I got a kick out of it."

If Mrs. Brett wanted to know why Mets fans are as surly as we are cocky, she could ask her husband to tell her about the Pine Tar Incident. Brett had to deal with the pin-striped embodiment of smugness for one July afternoon in 1983 and lost his mind. Imagine if he had to spend every moment of his baseball existence surrounded by this mindset.

What she should not do is pick up a copy of So Many Ways To Lose: The Amazin' True Story of the New York Mets—the Best Worst Team in Sports by former GQ editor Devin Gordon.

"It's incorrect to say our dear boys invent new ways [to lose], because ‘invent’ implies volition," Gordon says. "The Mets discover ways to lose like the Titanic discovered an iceberg."

Look no further than the "Yo La Tengo" ball, which should be in the Hall of Fame, but has instead been lost to history. The inaugural Mets of 1962 are famous for being the losingest team in baseball history. Nothing better illustrates the 40-120 record than center fielder Richie Ashburn's frequent collisions with Venezuelan shortstop Elio Chacón. Ashburn's attempts to call the shortstop off of flyballs never seemed to work because Chacón didn't understand a word of English. The centerfielder took the initiative and picked up some Spanish. The next time a fly went into the gap, Ashburn sprinted toward it yelling "Yo la tengo!" (I got it). The shortstop backed off. Ashburn settled under the ball only to get flattened by left fielder Frank Thomas, who did not know what "Yo la tengo" meant.

The book is at its strongest when it functions as an oral history of fandom for America's most lovable franchise, one that combines success and swagger with heretofore unknown levels of incompetence—impossible rallies, followed by walk-off walks. Gordon's section comparing the plight of Mets fans to the beleaguered fans of the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions—the titleholder of the "worst worst team in sports"—is genuinely enjoyable.  The problem is that Gordon—whose fandom cannot be doubted over the course of 400 pages—too often veers into accusations of structural racism or privilege theory or whatever radical chic theories have taken hold. He treats every bone-headed trade or sports page squabble through the sensitivities of a Twitter resister.

Hall of Fame manager and legendary wit Casey Stengel gave Gordon his title when he said of the 1962 Mets, "I’ve been in this game a hundred years, but I see new ways to lose 'em I never knew existed before," but he must be lashed for making a player cry. Gil Hodges, the man who welcomed baseball integration and was in the words of Jackie Robinson, "the heart and soul of the Dodgers," is portrayed as a duplicitous racist for marching star outfielder Cleon Jones off the field in '69 for his lack of hustle on a flyball. The sin was made mortal, because he was well aware that "Jones played through chronic pain in his left knee." Gordon reduces the incident to "a white man branding a Black man lazy in front of an entire stadium." Jones remembers it differently: Hodges pulled him out of concern for a bum ankle. They had spoken earlier in the day about whether the hot-hitting left fielder was healthy enough to play. The frog march of the star hitter lit a fire under the Mets, Jones said in 2019. He was a willing participant in the narrative.

"He had a purpose and a plan, and it worked. So I don’t mind being part of that purpose and plan," Jones said. "I’m telling you guys that he is a great manager and one of my favorite people."

Gordon is being paid to write a book about his favorite sports franchise, but he manages to sap the enterprise of any sense of joy. He can be a funny writer, but too often reverts to the lazy snark that passes for humor on Twitter and internet memes: "The press conference thing blew up in their faces, because of course it did"; "We needed the baseball gods ... the gods replied right away and their message was clear: New number—who dis." At least he didn't use any "ugh" jokes. Mets living legend José Reyes—the man who taught me Spanish!—appears in 10 of the book's pages; Donald Trump makes 11 appearances.

The only saint he sees in Mets history is that of original owner Mrs. Joan Whitney Payson—"Whitney as in the Whitney Museum of American Art, Payson as in Charles, the lawyer she married," stopping just short of "Joan as in of Arc." He recounts her flawless lineage, the relatives in the Lincoln, McKinley, and Cleveland administrations, her father’s good luck at being the heir to a childless great uncle’s fortune. Payson sounds delightful, because she was delightful; just as M. Donald Grant sounds like a "blue blooded prick." It is not enough to rake the Mets executive who squandered Cleon Jones's career, traded Nolan Ryan, and let Yogi Berra manage. No, M. Donald Grant's biggest offense is that he was driven by "power, control," the "unquestioned authority that men like M. Donald Grant have enjoyed, have expected, since the founding of America." Grant was Canadian, the son of a hockey player, grandson of a blacksmith. He owed his Wall Street career not to pedigree, but to the connections he made hustling as a hotel night clerk. 

Here’s a good way to vilify M. Donald Grant, grandson of the world’s first blue-blooded blacksmith: He ruined Gil Hodges’s funeral. On the day the Mets manager was laid to rest after suffering a massive heart attack at age 47, Grant leaked word of a major signing and Yogi Berra’s elevation to manager. And Gordon does include that ugly, thoughtless episode. It’s just that he’s spent the pages leading up to the tragedy painting Hodges as a racist monster.

Grant was the architect of the Midnight Massacre that unforgivably traded away Tom Seaver. I, a Mets fan, am forced to defend a man I despise all because Gordon distorts history to fit a fashionable narrative.

Baseball fans looking to commemorate the start of the first post-pandemic season with an appropriately irreverent read should look elsewhere.