Wednesday's Featured Met About Whom All Must Write was Carlos Beltran, with a side of Bret Boone. (Thursday's will be Carlos Delgado, which ranks as the single least-far-out-on-a-limb prediction I'll make all year.) Meanwhile, the first week has provided another old story in a new bottle: Willie being Willie.
The first-day ritual for every player returning from trials and tribulations is that the player try to make sense of last year. The last week of February is the time for admitting things that couldn't be admitted last year, a confession that always begins with having had an offseason to reflect. Add in a columnist or two to echo this confession and you've got conventional wisdom — which swiftly hardens into the foundation for whatever will be accomplished in the new season.
Exhibit A: Carlos Beltran and 2005. Now Beltran admits plenty of things: He was pressing in New York, he and his wife couldn't settle down (they moved four times), and most important of all he hurt his leg badly at RFK in late April and should have gone on the DL instead of playing hobbled for months. Now (here comes the conventional wisdom, and the turning of the page to '06) he and his wife have settled into a house they've built on Long Island, he's more relaxed, his pal Delgado is here, and this time if he hurts himself he won't try to be a hero.
All according to the script, except Willie Randolph decided to ad lib: “All great players play with pain and play hurt. So you really can't look at it and go, 'Well, we should have maybe put him on the DL,' because I want players who want to go out there and scratch and claw and get the job done. I think it's great that he understood his responsibility.” (That's to Don Burke of the Star-Ledger.)
And earlier in the week we got another case of deja vu, this time over what the Mets' default starting lineup should be. Everybody from stat geeks to amateur psychologists seems to want Beltran to hit second (where he had such success in Kansas City and Houston) and Wright to hit third. Except Willie seems determined to hit Lo Duca second and Beltran third, with Wright in the fifth hole between Delgado and Floyd.
Willie isn't one for stats (more on that in a bit), and the case has been made that it's important to have the right-handed Wright breaking up the lefties Delgado and Floyd. But earlier this week Willie offered a counterargument that seemed stunning. He didn't argue for Beltran hitting third. Instead, he argued against Wright hitting third, intimating that he might not be ready to carry that load.
“I guess I'm a show-me guy,” he told Bob Klapisch. “I want to see that David can keep making the adjustments.”
Making the adjustments? The kid hit .306 and drove in 102 runs last year! You can just hear Met fans wondering if Willie will go back to musing about hitting Wright eighth.
I'm not a Randolph hater by any means. Sure, last year I moaned about everything from the lineup to the starting rotation to the bullpen to the bench at various points, wondering all the while how many misdeeds should really be laid at Omar Minaya's feet. But at the same time I didn't think Randolph got enough credit for proving a solid clubhouse manager, one who did a good job bringing the kids along, keeping the veterans motivated and playing hard and in general staying calm and keeping the team pulling in the same direction. But I confess there are things about the man that baffle me, and that apparently are going to keep on baffling me.
The least-baffling thing is that Willie's just not a stats guy. Much as I'd like to be a stats guy myself, I think this criticism is a bit overblown. Infuriatingly, I now can't find the blog post I'm thinking of, but some stalwart among our blog brethren (I think it was one of the Metsgeeks) crunched the numbers in the offseason to see how many wins Willie cost us by hitting Wright too low in the batting order and found it really didn't make much of a difference. I can appreciate the statistical case for Beltran/Wright/Delgado/Floyd, but I wonder if when wins and losses are tallied, the difference between that and Lo Duca/Beltran/Delgado/Wright/Floyd will really be worth getting worked up about. And anyway, I don't think it's Willie's allegiance to the latter lineup that gets people so mad — it's that he's so Flat Earth about it. Talk to him about splits (let alone OPS or VORP) and you half-expect to see his elbow pumping.
Which brings me to Willie and the beat reporters.
What is it about Willie and reporters, anyway? The man's Cheneyesque in his disregard for them — obviously not interested in letting them into his thinking, and apparently not above misleading them for his own purposes. As the season was dying last year I wrote that I thought I'd finally figured out what Willie was up to with Reyes and Wright. Reyes' continuing tenure in the leadoff spot and the idea that Wright might hit 8th were Met media firestorms last year, and I decided what Willie had been doing in both situations was distracting the press, making himself the story so he could teach Reyes better pitch selection and take the pressure off Wright, respectively. As it turned out, Reyes did have better at-bats in the second half (though thank goodness that hasn't stop the Mets from importing Julio Franco and Rickey Henderson for further tutoring), and Wright didn't need the coddling, though Willie didn't know that in March.
So is that what Willie's doing again? Maybe. If so, I suppose that's vaguely defensible (if awfully conservative) with Wright, who is just 23, after all. But it doesn't make any sense with Beltran — why stir things up about the leg and whether or not he should have let it heal when everybody else is trying to stop talking about it?
So now, with Willie saying odd things again, I wonder if the truth isn't simpler. Maybe Willie simply has no use for the whole circus of media and fans that surround a New York ballclub, doesn't care what their opinions are about him, and doesn't hesitate to send them off on any number of wild-goose chases so he can get about what he sees as his real business.
Which will be fine — if we win.