We don’t laugh about losing anymore. That’s a pity, actually. There was a time when we could, when losing not only amused us but gave us something to feel good about.
There came a day early in 1962 when Casey Stengel, managing the Mets, observed that Chris Cannizzaro, his catcher, a man who made the major leagues because of his defense, wasn’t especially gifted at catching baseballs and was even worse throwing them. Those are not good qualities for a defensive catcher.
“This makes a man think,” Stengel said one day. “You look up and down the bench and you say to yourself, ‘Can’t anybody here play this game?’ ”
Jimmy Breslin wanted to hug him. Breslin had contracted to write about the ’62 Mets, and now, at the least, he had a title. All he needed was the season to play out in a manner befitting Stengel’s quote. He needn’t have worried.
“The Mets did not lose merely because they played badly,” Breslin would write in the book that made him a star. “Never. The Mets lost because they played a brand of baseball which has not been seen in the Big Leagues.”
But there was a kicker.
“And in doing this they warmed the hearts of baseball fans everywhere.”
Breslin is the talk of newsrooms again this week because on Monday HBO aired “Deadline Artists,” a documentary detailing his career and Pete Hamill’s, and for working journalists that’s the equivalent of showing a double feature of “Bull Durham” and “The Natural” to a room of baseball fans.
Before Breslin reinvented the newspaper column, however, there were the ’62 Mets, the muse that brought him to the bestseller list and to the New York Herald Tribune. And it is worth wondering what he might have thought about this year’s Knicks, who on Wednesday fell 114-90 to the Dallas Mavericks, their 11th straight loss, 19th out of 20, 24th out of 26, 12th straight at home.
The Knicks are now 10-40 on the season. That’s a winning percentage of .200.
The ’62 Mets, who for 57 years have held the title of the worst pro sports team anyone ever saw, had a winning percentage of .250. This makes a man think.
“You see, the Mets are losers, just like nearly everybody else in life,” Breslin wrote. “This is a team for the cab driver who gets held up and the guy who loses out on a promotion because he didn’t maneuver himself to lunch with the boss enough. It is the team for every guy who has to get out of bed in the morning and go to work for short money on a job he does not like.
“And it is the team for every woman who looks up ten years later and sees her husband eating dinner in a T-shirt and wonders how the hell she ever let this guy talk her into getting married.”
Knicks coach David Fizdale put all of that another way: “[We’re] taking [our] lumps. That’s fine. Somebody has to be in that spot right now and that’s us.”
It was probably easier to retain your good mood when, in 1962, you could get a good seat at the Polo Grounds for $5, a beer for a buck, and watch Marvelous Marv Throneberry play first base like he was wearing a strait jacket. It is less thrilling to pay $95 for the worst seat at Madison Square Garden, fork over $10 for a Budweiser, and watch moss grow on Easy Enes Kanter as he calcifies on the bench.
Still: there is a kinship between our most awful baseball team and the basketball team that is trying to make us forget them. The biggest attraction at the Polo Grounds in 1962 wasn’t Richie Ashburn or Frank Thomas, but any of the Dodgers and Giants who came back to New York that season after a five-year absence. In 2019, Knicks fans come to the Garden to cheer road players, too, like Luka Doncic and Dirk Nowitzki, who both heard the loudest cheers Wednesday.
Both teams also saved their best futility for the highest achievers. James Harden dropped 61 on the Knicks last week and maybe there was a sense of: well, who couldn’t do that? But Sandy Koufax pitched the first of his four no-hitters against the ’62 Mets and nobody asked him to give it back.
Said Breslin: “So the Mets are a bad ball club. All right, they’re the worst ball club you ever saw. So what? The important thing is they are in the National League and they are familiar.”
Well, the Knicks are certainly playing a brand of basketball familiar to the Garden in recent years, and that’s not all. Nobody here can much play this game, either.
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