Believe it or not, there was a time in history when Bartolo Colon was not constructed like an overstuffed dirigible. He was just a 24-year-old pitching prospect with a slingshot of an arm back in 1997, one of several dynamic talents on a Cleveland Indians team seeking to erase years of ignominious history; and in the end, he and his teammates came up a few pitches short of breaking the curse.
Eighteen years later, Colon is still here, a miracle of alchemy, a hurler tipping the scales at nearly 300 pounds, a pear-shaped 41-year-old savior seemingly conjured from the pages of Philip Roth’s Great American Novel who might also be the key to the New York Mets finally swallowing and digesting three decades of heavy-duty comic futility (luckily, Bartolo is more than willing to provide comedy of a different sort).
As I write this, the Mets have won 11 games in a row and head into this weekend’s Subway Series with the Yankees as the best team in baseball, which is one of those clauses that immediately comes across as a Letterman punch line waiting to land, because the Mets are never the best team in their own city. The Mets are the team that gets caught up in bad trades and Ponzi schemes; the Mets are the team that has come to represent the overriding angst and neurosis of living in New York City.
There is a dichotomy to baseball in New York that echoes the notion of New York itself: If, at any moment, you’re feeling like you’ve made it here and that you truly can make it anywhere – if you’re vibing with the broad arrogance of a Yankees fan – someone will come along and throw an elbow into your chin on a Sixth Avenue sidewalk. That elbow to the chin is what Mets fans have felt since 1986, when a collection of misfits and malcontents formed one of the most iconic teams in baseball history. Ever since they perpetuated the Red Sox’ own curse for another 18 years, the Mets have suffered Bonilla fatigue and Madoff fatigue and everything in between; the Mets flounder, and the Mets lose their best toys (see: Harvey, Matt) to injury at the moment they seem poised to capture the attention of the city.
All that has changed in the early days of this season. Harvey is back, and looks great; Colon has defied the laws of nature and a former ninth-round pick named Jacob deGrom might also be the real thing. And Mets fans are wary, of course, because Mets fans have learned to embrace wariness, the way one does when one enters a completely empty subway car, expecting to eventually be confronted by a smell that could suffocate a small canine.
And sure, some of this angst is overblown, and is based on geography and tabloid energy and the sheer amount of writers per capita. But the Mets are the New York franchise (even more so than the Jets) that seem to capture what it means to live in a 200-square-foot studio apartment above a nightclub while working a job that pays $12 an hour. The Mets are the equivalent of traffic on the George Washington Bridge. And this is why I’m not sure how I feel about the Mets actually being good, for real; this is why I wonder if New York is better off when the Mets are a hot mess, if only to serve as a reminder that this city is not the be-all, end-all of modern human existence, that is a place full of suffering and self-loathing. Now that Woody Allen is filming movies in far-flung locations (and sullying his own reputation), the Mets are the closest thing New York has to a true nebbish. And I sort of dig that.
I have no idea if there will be a collapse this time around, but if there is, I’ll kind of look forward to it. And deep inside, I think a lot of Mets fans will, too. It’s easier when you already expect the worst.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb