My daughter Mirabelle asked a part logistical, part philosophical question as we left the garage and drove to Citi Field for a Mets-Giants game on a recent Monday afternoon.
"I know Mr. Met can't talk," Mirabelle said, our customary ballpark trip playlist blasting "Meet the Mets" from the car stereo. "But how can he listen if he doesn't have ears?"
"It's a design flaw," I answered. "Like how the Mets don't have a left fielder."
The joke was reflexive, indicative of the past half-decade of Mets watching. My first daughter was born in 2010, and the reality ever since has been to wonder if there was a point to teaching her about most of the players wearing a Mets uniform.
Knowing whom ownership could afford to keep around (spoiler alert! almost nobody) was impossible. And the young players coming through the system didn't inspire much confidence, either -- or else, they were a good bet to get shipped out of town.
So as Mirabelle and I enjoyed a succession of Mets games in her first four-and-a-half years, she absorbed, but lightly. And I didn't push. What was the point of getting her attached to Josh Thole, to Miguel Batista, to Scott Hairston?
My wife, too, who once adored Lucas Prata's "(And We Say) Let's Go Mets" (extended play version), and could identify such tertiary 2006 Mets as Guillermo Mota, Chad Bradford and Mike DiFelice, lost the thread of the team as well. The games ran together, just as the placeholder players ran together. Citi Field has been a dead place for most of its existence, and some wrongly place the blame for that on the venue.
Shea Stadium was no palace, but it seldom felt dead in my lifetime (note I did not live through the 1970s). Get interesting players to Flushing -- not even great ones, necessarily, just interesting ones -- and the crowd will turn quickly.
That's what I noticed Aug. 2, watching Jacob deGrom carry a no-hitter into the seventh inning against Jake Peavy. And that's what it felt like on Monday afternoon, even though the Mets ultimately lost, 4-3, dropped three of four to the San Francisco Giants and made a long shot playoff run even more unlikely.
But with Mirabelle asleep -- and a subsequent conversation revealed our summer trip to the Berkshires has her convinced the Mets' rookie hurler's name is Jacob's Pillow -- Rachel and I did something we hadn't for quite a while. We watched the Mets with something larger than the game in mind.
There was the epic catch of the day from Juan Lagares, now a full season-plus into proving he can hit just enough to allow fans to watch him patrol center field for years. There was Travis d'Arnaud, breaking up the scoreless tie as his second half of production slowly drags his season line to acceptable levels behind the plate. There was Lucas Duda, hitting booming home runs and taking ownership of the first base job. There was Daniel Murphy, lacing another in a series of hits in this all-star season. And as I explained to Rachel, there was Dilson Herrera, still offstage in Binghamton, putting up the kind of numbers that could eventually make Murphy the 2004 Ty Wigginton to Herrera's David Wright.
The fans, that Monday, had also mostly dispensed with much of the negative feeling one got whenever a Citi Field crowd expressed itself much in these post-Madoff years, aiming their ire over what kind of baseball they had to watch at the players who couldn't help but be the best the Mets could afford.
There's been a kind of dawning on the fan base at all levels this summer, it seems, that they are no longer banking their hope on ownership spending money it won't. Instead, there's hope to be gleaned from Sandy Alderson's farm system developing enough talent that the Mets may not even need ownership to spend.
This isn't some kind of inevitability, the way a team in the New York market with the farm system the Mets have put together ought to be. Even for the Mets, the best comp for this team is the 1995 Mets team that finished 34-18 behind Generation K, had Paul Wilson looming, and finished 1996 at... 71-91.
But it's not empty hope, either, and Mets fans are a smart enough bunch to recognize the difference.
I don't know how the Mets get from here to there, exactly, but I do know that it no longer felt foolish to talk to Mirabelle about Lagares patrolling center field, to point out the beauty of watching him range in the gap to run down a fly ball. His throw to keep the go-ahead run from scoring in the seventh inning against the Giants gave Mirabelle a chance to hear what Citi Field could sound like, with a winning team, if only for a moment.
Still, Rome wasn't built in a day. Mirabelle enjoyed the throw, loved Daniel Murphy's home run (I didn't tell her about his looming free agency after 2015, or Herrera waiting in the wings). But Mr. Met, for now, is still her primary reference point for the team.
And that's probably as it should be, for now. She's four.
But I'm writing this book about the Cardinals, and so I keep seeing these tiny children in St. Louis, not much older than Mirabelle, who can describe in great detail the experience of rooting for the 2011 World Series winner. And I see their older siblings, kids who are, say, 11, who can pat them on the backs and say, "Sure, that was great, but let me tell you about the World Series we saw way back in Aught-Six."
And we don't choose who our families rooted for, and we don't even choose for our children -- I've never pushed Mirabelle to choose a team, but recently at an ice cream parlor with all 30 MLB team helmets, she didn't hesitate before selecting the orange and blue of the Mets. Nor do I believe she needs a constant winner to discover a love of baseball -- as previously mentioned, I grew up rooting for the Mets.
But there's got to be some players, some young talent, some guys she can identify with who stick around on the team long enough to bring her back to the ballpark once Mr. Met's waving his arms -- and let's be honest, not doing all that much else -- isn't enough.
That's starting to happen. As we searched for a postgame souvenir (Mirabelle chose the all-mascots Chutes and Ladders), I heard a saleswoman tell a disappointed boy a few years Mirabelle's senior: "I'm sorry, we're all out of Medium and Large for Lagares."
If that doesn't translate to pennants, so be it. Maybe this is just the greatly reduced expectation that comes from knowing how leveraged ownership is, and wondering what that would mean every time I brought my family to the ballpark.
But it feels like progress. And not just to me.