Bandwagon, Anyone?

It's time New York got more excited about the Mets

The Mets have just gone through their first bad stretch of the season, and if this is the worst it's going to get, it's still going to be a great year. You can probably gauge the relative strengths of the Mets and Yankees this way: The Mets were the last of the six current division leaders to lose four games in a row (June 3-7), while at the same time the Yankees were on the verge of winning four in a row (June 5-8) for the first time this season.

We'll see if the Yankees' momentum continues. Meanwhile, we have no doubt that the Mets we saw in the first two months of the season are the real ones. As of Saturday, June 2, they had reached a season-high won-lost percentage of .636, just 31 points less than the 1986 World Series champions—and it's worth noting that the Mets have gone through their recent slump with a sub-par Carlos Beltran and Jose Valentin and entirely without Shawn Green, Moises Alou, and, of course, Pedro Martinez. More on that shortly.

Despite the best record in the league, though, the Mets have yet to make the cover of Sports Illustrated and are being treated with curious indifference by fans in their own circuit. They are averaging attendance of just over 33,300 a game outside of New York, only the seventh-best road-attendance record in the NL, which, considering the team's speed and power—exemplified by Jose Reyes, the most exciting young player in baseball—is a puzzle. More puzzling still is that five of the teams who are bigger draws than the Mets in other NL parks—the Cubs, Giants, Rockies, Reds, and Pirates—all have losing records. And speaking of losing records, the Yankees are pulling in an average of about 2,200 more fans on the road than the Mets. The Yankees were bigger draws as losers than the Mets are as winners.

The biggest puzzle of all, though, is why the Mets aren't lighting bigger fires in their own hometown. While the Yankees are fighting to keep out of the cellar of the AL East, they've averaged 6,200 more fans per game at home than the orange-and-blue; the Yanks play to an 88.4 percent capacity, the Mets to slightly under 78 percent. Why, one wonders, doesn't the combination of a far better team and a ballpark with more convenient parking—to use Reggie Jackson's expression—put more meat in the seats?

Alex Belth of the Bronx Banter website suggests that tabloid coverage has something to do with it. "Most of the time, in the Daily News and Post," says Belth, "the Yankees get the back page. Not a lot more often, but more often. You open the paper, they get about the same amount of game coverage. Let's face it, the Yankees are still the team you want on the cover. The Yankees inspire more passion. Now that they're losing, more people want to see them losing. In New York, the Yankees don't get more coverage for losing than the Mets do for winning, but they do get more coverage for losing than the Mets get for losing."

Novelist and New York baseball historian Kevin Baker points out that the Yankees' off-the-field coverage outstrips the Mets by a huge margin: "Giambi on drugs. Should Torre be fired? A-Rod at a strip club. Is Clemens worth a million dollars a start? The Yanks are an ongoing freak show. That sells papers, which sells tickets. With the Mets, all you get is baseball." That used to be enough.

It may well be again before this season is over. If the Yankees fade once more, it's doubtful that attendance will hold up even if (a) Jason Giambi goes to prison, (b) George Steinbrenner fires and rehires Joe Torre, and (c) they sign Sandy Koufax. New York is a Yankees town, but only when the Yankees win—and right now, despite the June swoon, the Mets look like the potential big winners. Like the '86 Amazin's, this year's Mets have the best hitting in the league. The Mets are currently fourth in the league in runs scored, but that's in part because the three teams ahead of them in runs—Florida, Philadelphia and Atlanta—play their home games in much better hitters' parks. Baseball Prospectus, which calculates park factors, currently ranks the Mets offense as the best in the league. And remember, that's with nearly half the regulars missing significant game time.

Like the '86 team, the strength of the 2007 Mets may actually be pitching. Even many Mets fans haven't caught on to this fact yet, but that may be due in large part to the shakiness of last year's staff (or at least the perceived shakiness—the 2006 Mets were actually third in the league in ERA). The revamped Mets staff is currently second in the National League in ERA to San Diego, but with Billy Wagner, Pedro Feliciano, and Joe Smith—who have combined for a ridiculous ERA of 2.02 in 82 games (as of Sunday)—the Mets have a better bullpen than the Padres. And when Pedro Martinez returns, they just might have the best starting rotation in the NL.

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