The family of Cliff Curtis, who pitched in the Major Leagues between 1909 and 1913, met with Anthony Young before his start against the St. Louis Cardinals on June 27, 1993. Curtis had died fifty years earlier, but he still had a spot in baseball history thanks to a fantastic spate of failures during his stint with the Boston Doves, in the last years before the First World War. Curtis lost a record 23 straight decisions during that stretch, and on June 27 Anthony Young had a chance to break that record.
"They wanted [the record] to stay in their family," Young told Sports Illustrated in 2015. By that point, he had been out of baseball for nearly two decades, and was managing a warehouse near Kingwood, Texas, and coaching 13- and 14-year-olds. "[I wish] they could have kept it."
Young lost that game against the Cardinals, 5-3. As with so many of the losses he absorbed during what would ultimately wind up being a streak of 27 straight losing decisions, he pitched just well enough to lose on a Mets team that was not nearly good enough to bail him out.
Young's streak began in 1992, but the bulk of it came during the Mets' world-historically nightmarish 1993 season. "I've never been more nervous before a start," Cardinals starter Joe Magrane said after the record-setting game. "I didn't want to be the answer to a trivia question: Who lost to Anthony Young? I would have rather been facing Dwight Gooden, or Bret Saberhagen."
The game in which Young broke Curtis's record was the team's "fifth consecutive loss, 11th in 12 games, 17th in 19, and 27 in 35," Newsday's Marty Noble wrote. "Since April 17, they have lost 48 of 63 games, never winning twice in succession." In doing so, the Mets set a record for the longest stretch in history without back-to-back wins, which blends into the background of the broader fiasco of those years; it's down there in the mix, somewhere below Bret Saberhagen using a SuperSoaker to shoot bleach at reporters and Bobby Bonilla menacing a reporter by offering to "show [the reporter being menaced] the Bronx." Young is down there, too, and while he made history during his stretch, he was just about the only player on the Mets to fail with anything like distinction or dignity.
When Young died on Tuesday night, at the age of 51, the streak was mentioned in obituaries, but never by itself. Young happened to pitch fairly well during that time, and his 3.77 ERA and 109 ERA+ in 1993 made him one of the Mets' better pitchers. He converted 12 straight save chances during the streak, and at one point threw 23 and two-thirds scoreless innings. In what wound up being his 26th straight loss, Young held the San Diego Padres to three hits, retired 23 straight batters between the first and eighth innings, and lost 2-0.
The broader joke and injustice of it was that Young handled all that failure with a grace that stood out on a spectacularly graceless team in the moment, and stands out even more in retrospect. Those Mets teams squabbled and fumed and failed and fought and absolutely deserved their legacy as The Worst Team That Money Could Buy; they were in every way the fully realized broken-brained hangover at the end of a reckless and unsustainable era. They were terrible, and while Young's losses were a part of the team's total, they seemed to come from a different place. He took the ball when it was handed to him and did his best; he was, more often than not, good enough but not nearly lucky enough to win.
"It just happened to happen to me," Young told the New York Daily News in 2009. "I don't feel like I deserve it, but I'm known for it. Everything that could happen, happened."
Young rather humbly laid out his blessings elsewhere in that interview: kids and grandkids, a wife he loved, a chance to coach kids in a game that clearly mattered a great deal to him. There is gratitude for the ride that he had, which added up to five big-league seasons spent with three teams, and there is somewhere down in the subtext a certain wry understanding that the course of that ride was not really his to choose.
To say that this recognition is a rare thing among elite athletes is true, but it is not nearly sufficient. This is something that the superhuman specimens who play baseball for a living have in common with the mortals on the other side of the screen—not just the fantastic and forever thwarted delusion of control but a willed forgetfulness that makes failure seem like an outrage and a surprise. The reckoning with losses fair and unfair, not all the way into surrender but at least enough to afford a little bit of shade and peace and understanding, is part of the work of being alive. Losing and loss are different things, or at least far apart on a long continuum, but both are a part of life; both are paths to and tests of grace, and each has another side. "It's not embarrassing," Young said after his 24th straight loss. "Someone has to win, someone has to lose."
When the Mets finally ended the streak on July 28, 1993, on a walk-off double by the baleful ghost of Eddie Murray, the team reacted in the way that baseball teams do, bounding and bopping and exchanging bro-grabs at home plate. The camera finds Young, walking and looking more or less as he usually did—imperturbable, or at least unperturbed, poker-faced and tough. Just before the broadcast cuts away to the crowd, we finally see him smiling.