Baseball: The New York Mets' no-win situation exerts a morbid fascination: The story of the fall of a once-mighty baseball team is hogging the US headlines. Rupert Cornwell reports

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The Independent Online
IF Graham Gooch needs a reminder that all things are relative, he might take a day or two off and drop by Shea Stadium, home of baseball's once-mighty New York Mets. 'Can't anyone here play this game?' Casey Stengel, the first Mets manager, used to bellow in despair. But that was back in 1962, when the team was an expansion franchise and no one expected much. Stengel's views now would be unprintable. The 1993 Mets are bad enough to cheer up even England's cricket selectors.

They went into last night's game against the St Louis Cardinals no less than 281 2 games out of first place in the National League East, and it is still a fortnight to the mid-season All-Star break. They have not won two consecutive games since 17 April. The Mets have the worst batting average, the worst on-base percentage and the fewest hits in the major leagues. Their 21-49 record puts them on pace for 113 losses in 1993.

As Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bull's third straight NBA title becomes a memory, the fall of the Mets has taken over as America's summer sports story. This is no dowdy, financially strapped team from the Midwest. In football parlance, the Mets are Manchester United. But if baseball had relegation, the New York's erstwhile pride and 1986 World Series champions would be heading for the GM Vauxhall Conference.

So egregious is their awfulness that the Mets have moved into that curious realm where failure exerts its own morbid fascination. Going to Shea these days has become a cult. Just as England wallows in the agony of not knowing if its cricketers will ever win again, the Bronx secretly thrills to the plight of the Mets starting pitcher, Anthony Young.

Can he break the major league record for straight defeats? A limp performance in Tuesday's 6-3 loss to the Montreal Expos tied a 0-23 mark set by Cliff Curtis, of the Boston Braves, in 1911. On Sunday, Young is due on the mound at Shea to try and escape a solitary place in history.

His unwanted celebrity is a cameo of the team. In mid-May, only six weeks into the season, things were already so bad the manager was sacked. Alas nothing changed - so this week the chief executive, Al Harazin, was given his marching orders. Within hours though, Young had notched up No 23, and the Mets' woes were fodder for talk show hosts across the nation. The Daily News made over an entire front page to the team logo, with one huge caption: 'The New York Mess.' This week, even the staid New York Times was giving the Mets page one treatment: the crisis had gained an official imprimatur.

But while the Big Apple (or that part of it which does not support the Yankees) bays for blood, the rest of the country is revelling in a sporting enactment of hubris and nemesis. The once-swaggering, dollar-dripping Mets, their dollars 39m (pounds 26m) payroll fuelled by the richest media market in the US, are the NL club everyone loves to hate.

'They would have to improve to be merely considered a disaster,' the Los Angeles Times sniggered the other day. On paper, the Mets cannot but improve. They have after all two Cy Young award starting pitchers, as well as a host of big name hitters led by outfielder Bobby Bonilla, whose five-year contract is worth dollars 29m. Unfortunately, they play as if they had never been introduced.

In fact Anthony Young (no relation to Cy, baseball's all-time winning pitcher) has a respectable ERA this season of 4.08. The trouble is, if he has an off night, the Mets hitters cannot lay bat on ball; if he throws well, an error-prone defence will make little leaguers look like All-Stars. 'You saw me pitch,' he plaintively asked reporters after the Expos game, 'am I that bad?' No, but the Mets are, and they look like staying that way.