The New Mets – Same as the Old Mets

As the club visits St. Louis this week, the story of the New York Mets, as always, is about everything but baseball.

Writers, artists and storytellers gravitate to New York City for its rich history of characters: gangsters and molls, densely packed blue collar families in crumbling brownstones, a panoply of immigrant stories, and the preening peacocks of high society. Take any two or three elements, add money, ambition and a healthy dose of hubris, and you have the makings of a sprawling masterpiece, like Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America.

All of which makes the Mets a writer's dream. They have all the dramatic elements of the Yankees, except with more dirt, more flaws, more pathos.

Their very existence is hyperbolic, needing very little writerly embellishment. The franchise began as The Worst Team Ever (a must read), but emerged from its losing like a butterfly from its chrysalis in 1969, becoming the Miracle Mets. The 1973 Mets nearly reenacted the entire cycle of worst to first, spending a full third of the season in last place before suddenly catching fire (think 2007 Colorado Rockies), making a dominant run through the playoffs despite a mere 82 regular season wins (think 2006 Cardinals), and seeing their upset bid finally fail in Game 7 of the World Series. The "Pond Scum" Mets of the late 80s didn't just win, they brawled and bawled and boozed like a coked-out Gashouse Gang.

(On a personal grooming side note, this team remade and subsequently destroyed the baseball moustache, and for both acts we should thank them.) 

As payrolls skyrocketed in the ‘90s and the Yankees authored yet another dynasty, their brethren New Yorkers were in perfect position to play a misguided game of "me too," and end up fielding the most overpaid, out of shape, malcontented team in baseball history: the 66-96 Mo Vaughn Mets of 2003.

In any other venue, a team that horrifically bad would be avoided like church on a Monday. But the 2003 Mets drew better than two million fans – all there, presumably, hoping for a chance to have a lead in the ninth so they could boo their own closer, Armando Benitez, and go home happy.

Both winning spectacularly and losing spectacularly are cherished here. The bane of the Mets is mediocrity.

And mediocrity is the curse that recently took the jobs manager Willie Randolph and two of his staff – first base coach Tom Nieto (who is remembered fondly, if fictionally) and pitching guru Rick Peterson – and is still keeping the seat uncomfortably warm for GM Omar Minaya.

Despite having the same essential core as the team that played mighty Goliath to our David in the 2006 NLCS, despite importing the most dominant and most decorated pitcher of the last five years in free agency, despite having the left side of its infield anchored by two terrific young players, this Mets team has not found a way to get off the schneid. While the Florida Marlins caught fire early, and their tormentors of last season – the Phillies – have caught fire of late, the Mets have been tooling around, at most a three-game series better or a four-game series worse than .500. 

Their only offensive player having a career year was new outfielder Ryan Church (acquired in the trade that sent besmirched prospect Lastings Milledge away), who promptly got concussed on the basepaths against hated rival Atlanta. Jose Reyes, David Wright, and Carlos Beltran have all been disappointingly very good, as opposed to transcendently good as they each have been in the past. And the team's aging lions – Pedro Martinez, Carlos Delgado, and the corpse of Moises Alou – are now nearly toothless.

The trouble with mediocrity is that it does not breed great drama. The sportswriters of New York can make no hay on a field that sees neither sunshine nor rain. So they must manufacture drama wherever they can.

The trouble with these Mets, they say, is a racial divide in the clubhouse that may or may not exist between its Hispanic and non-Hispanic players. 

But, they can all agree that the trouble with the Mets started when Jose Reyes lost his mojo last July.

Then, the trouble with these Mets was that they were distracted by the possibility of their manager being fired. Now of course, that's one less thing to worry about.

Now, the hope for the Mets is their new pitching coach, who is not a weird hippie who wanted to turn pitchers into clones.

These are all juicier or flashier stories than the simple truths around this Mets team: Oliver Perez is broken again; Delgado has been clearly declining for years; the role players (including the long-lost Fernando Tatis!) have been unproductive; the middle relief stinks; and the team defense is generally immobile and ineffective.

But it's baseball in New York. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

 

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