Frustrated Fans Staying Away from Shea

Three seasons ago, the Mets were the toast of Queens. They had qualified for the postseason in two consecutive years thanks to unbelievable infield defense, late-inning rallies, and the star power of Mike Piazza. Once they defeated the upstart Cardinals in the 2000 National League championship series, residents around the borough were proudly dressed in Mets apparel as they roamed the streets and freely expressed their love for the team.

Following their disappointing five-game loss to the Yankees in the World Series, bragging rights were shipped to the Bronx, and the Mets, led by co-owners Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday, did little to bring a championship-caliber squad back to Flushing for 2001. First the organization turned down a long-term contract with Alex Rodriguez, Seattle's All-Star shortstop and a lifelong Mets fan. Steve Phillips, then the team's general manager, claimed Rodriguez was demanding selfish luxuries for himself that would create a "24-and-1" feeling on the roster and leave little wiggle room on the payroll. Yet the Mets not only refused to negotiate with Rodriguez and Mike Hampton, the left-handed pitcher who had been named the Most Valuable Player in the N.L.C.S.; they also failed to bring in any fresh talent via trades or free agency. The result was a horrible 82-80 finish in 2001 that drove most fans away from Shea Stadium for good.

Hoping to get the crowds back, the Mets went on a spending spree before 2002, obtaining high-profile veterans Roberto Alomar, Jeromy Burnitz, Mo Vaughn, and Roger Cedeño in the offseason. They then went 75-86 last year, their first finish without a winning record since 1996. The franchise subsequently made a major personnel change - firing explosive manager Bobby Valentine and replacing him with the complacent Art Howe - and signed free agents Tom Glavine and Cliff Floyd.

Since April, however, Alomar (White Sox) and Burnitz (Dodgers) have been traded, Vaughn has spent over 90 straight days on the disabled list with bone spurs in his knee, and Cedeño has become Public Enemy No. 1 due to his low production. Glavine has suffered with inflamed left elbow and strained right ribcage injuries and, when able to play, is not nearly the ace pitcher the organization thought they were getting. Floyd will undergo season-ending surgery at the end of August to alleviate pain on a sore Achilles tendon that has hindered his performance this year. With the injuries taking their toll, the Mets are wallowing in last place in the National League East.

Impressive rookies Jose Reyes, Jeff Duncan, Jason Phillips, and Ty Wigginton have helped bring some excitement back to Queens, but it just isn't enough to convince the fans. Following their three-game series against St. Louis in early August, home attendance this season is down 25 percent from last year with the average number of fans per game decreasing from 36,537 to 27,583. Only four games (all losses) have been sellouts: the home opener versus Chicago and the Subway Series games against the Yankees.

The first-year ticket plan devised by Wilpon has put less people in the seats. Starting this season, all games were sorted into four categories (gold, silver, bronze and value) based on their level of fan interest. Most games against the Yankees, Braves and other playoff-contending clubs, for example, are classified as gold and range from $16 to $53 per ticket. The only contests in the value category, with a range of $8 to $38, feature lowly teams such as Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Florida.

Jim Duquette, the Mets' new general manager, has told the media that the team will be "restructuring" next season instead of entering a long-term rebuilding stage. There is no doubt that the youngsters will still get significant playing time, and minor-league prospects will have the chance to impress in New York. Yet Duquette's comments imply that the team will also try to sign a few major free agents in the offseason, perhaps in an effort to keep hope alive for an improbable playoff push in 2004.

Most fans would prefer the Mets pursue five-tool right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, according to a recent poll on the team's Web site. Nearly 60 percent of those who voted lobbied for the Expos' Guerrero, with Phillies right-hander Kevin Millwood (21) and Athletics shortstop Miguel Tejada (9) placing second and third, respectively. In past weeks, Duquette has traded away disliked closer Armando Benitez and light-hitting shortstop Rey Sanchez in order to free up funds and please the fans.

Although the fans have somewhat strayed from the team, one good season will likely bring them all back. For now, a night at Shea is just not what it used to be.

This article first appeared in The Forest Hills/Rego Park Times

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