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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Kaz and Effect

Not to spread out the debate about Kaz and his departure over yet another post, but I keep thinking about this one. Why was Kaz Matsui's tenure in the orange and blue such a debacle? Why was he such a lightning rod for the fans? And should anyone get the blame?

What happened to Kaz? Was he just hurt all the time? Did he get old early? Was he too sensitive for New York? Was he too sensitive to leave the routine he knew in Japan? (Those last two aren't the same thing — there are baseball creatures of habit for whom dozens of little cultural and game differences would be intolerable. I'm guessing Steve Trachsel would be a disaster in Japan, as opposed to an annoying enigma here.)

Compare his Japanese stats to his American ones and you can't believe it's the same player. Were we expecting too much? If we're just talking raw stats. almost certainly: I dug up an interesting post by Aaron Gleeman, who wrote before his arrival that “Kaz Matsui sounds like a mix of Ichiro's speed and Hideki Matsui's power, all wrapped up into an outstanding defensive shortstop.” Gleeman then crunched the numbers, looking at what had happened to Ichiro, That Other Matsui and Tsuyoshi Shinjo in their first U.S. campaign in an effort to predict Kaz's numbers.

One question that came up then looks a lot more critical now: In 2003, Kaz had put up a .305 AVG, .368 OBP and .549 SLG while hitting 33 dingers, driving in 84 and swiping 13 bases in what would be his swan song as a Seibu Lion. A nice year, but a step down from his 2002 campaign: .332/.389/.617, 36 HR, 87 RBI, 33 SB. So which season to use as the baseline? Using 2003, Gleeman predicted American numbers of .275/.325/.445; extrapolating from 2002, the prediction was .299/.345/.499.

As it turned out, Kaz's first-year numbers in New York worked out to .272/.331/.396, suggesting 2003 hadn't been a bit of an off-year but the start of a decline. Kaz's power went off a cliff (Gleeman's SLG prediction would undoubtedly have been lower if he'd known Kaz would play in pitcher-friendly Shea), but the AVG and OBP wound up exactly as predicted. Kaz was incapable of taking a walk as a Met, but he'd been incapable of taking a walk as a Lion, too.

If the numbers had been examined more rigorously, Kaz might never have arrived at Shea. Jose Reyes might never have been asked to switch positions, with who knows what effect on his own development. Or if Kaz had been signed anyway, the expectations at Shea might have been tempered.

Well, except for that “outstanding defensive shortstop”. It would take something akin to willful blindness to suggest Kaz was anything more than average in the field, and even that might be too kind. And here, the mystery of what happened to him can't be quantified away. (Or at least I don't have the statistical chops to try it.) He had little range and bad hands, but he also didn't hang in on pivots and showed poor instincts. That's not an outstanding defensive shortstop. Yes, Kaz deserves credit for switching to second without undue fuss and worked hard at a new position — he looked dramatically better there this year. But let's not go overboard praising a player who changed positions after proving he couldn't cut it at the one of his choosing.

As for how the fans reacted, there were different aspects to it — some of them understandable, some of them inexcusable, all of them unfortunate:

• First off, let's not overthink this: Kaz was bad. Yes, there were flashes of ability. Yes, he battled injuries. Yes, he worked hard. Yes, he seemed to be a good teammate. Those things deserve to be taken into consideration. But they don't change the bottom line: For three straight seasons, Kaz Matsui was a well-paid liability to a team with high aspirations. You may not deserve boos for that, but you're certainly not going to get cheers.

• I have no doubt that part of the convulsive booing of Matsui was a frustrated restatement of that original question: What on earth happened to this guy? We were told we were getting the Japanese Cal Ripken Jr., and the guy who showed up was the Japanese Russ Adams. Nobody's happy feeling they got sold a bag of goods.

• As our commenters have noted, you can't boo management, so you boo its proxy. That's not right, but it's not so mysterious. (Hell, I think the GM should have to be on the field and announced to the crowd before at least one game each month. I remember how thrilled I was a few years back to get the opportunity to boo the living shit out of Steve Phillips. Hurt my throat. Felt like victory.)

• Now throw in some bad body language: When Kaz looked bad at the plate he looked horrendous, taking weak hacks, bailing out and then trundling morosely back to the dugout. Not fair, but you see how it happens: Bad body language didn't help Carlos Beltran last year, either.

• Kaz's failures were inevitably paired with Ichiro's heroics, having to see a player with the same last name become an iron man for the Yankees, and wondering why the Mets never seem to have any luck fishing in Japanese baseball waters. Not fair, but not astonishing.

• I think the language/cultural barriers made things worse: Kaz's teammates all seemed to genuinely like him and expressed support, but players nearly always close ranks, so the reaction was, “So what?” And if you're going bad, deference doesn't play well in this town: Cliff Floyd is loved here unconditionally in part because he's candid to a fault, first and foremost about himself. And I maintain that Beltran won over Shea when he refused to come out for his curtain call, finally replacing blank-faced stoicism and monotone stay-the-course recitations with a flash of real anger.

• There's a rancor that's drifted into the stands at Shea in recent years that's just plain ugly. The idea that home fans never boo is a bit too St. Louis for me — hell, I've leather-lunged a hapless Met or two myself. But these days you hear willfully coarse, self-congratulatory booing. It's not just the meathead element, which will always be there, but fans who've somehow bought into the notion of New York as a tough town where “we” boo, leading them to let loose for most anything and to see booing as necessary hazing awaiting any new guy. (Booing Jorge Julio during player introductions was just astonishing.) Yes, this is a tough town, but the flip side of that has always been that it's a smart town, one in which hitting behind the runner gets cheered and a bases-loaded sac fly when three runs down with one out in the ninth doesn't. I don't know how this crept in and I don't think there's a way to escort it out again, but it's ridiculous. And where one commenter sees it as a sign of creeping Bronxness, I see it as something even worse: This reflexive, mean-spirited booing is Philadelphia stuff, the self-consuming vitriol of the longtime loser who turns on the home team at the first intimation that he'll be disappointed again.

None of us — not even Kaz himself — can say what effect the rough treatment had on Kaz, but it was seriously overdone and it didn't help. And ultimately, none of us will ever be able to say definitively what happened to Kaz.

Maybe it was everything: We signed a player whose decline had already begun and put him in a pitcher's park where that decline accelerated, he had trouble adjusting to some aspects of the game, was hampered by nagging injuries, never connected with management and let the fans' frustration and disappointment get into his head. A perfect storm, in other words.

I wish Kaz the best: Given all his hard work and his dugout demeanor, it would make me happy to see him bounding in and out of the Rockies' dugout during a lengthy hot streak, embraced by the fans and just having fun playing the game he presumably loves. (Doesn't apply when he's playing us, but that's just self-preservation.) But he's going to have to turn around a pretty astonishing decline to do that: Even in Colorado, he'll be the guy who arrived in New York as a hugely touted, $8 million man, but left in a deal for a utility player and didn't even get assigned to his new team's major-league roster.

Can he reverse all that? I don't think he can. I'd like to be wrong. But I think he has a far better chance of proving me wrong in Colorado, making it the right move for him and for us. The 2006 New York Mets are better off with a utility guy who can catch and has surprising speed than with another underwhelming choice fighting for time at second. Whether it was his fault or our fault or nobody's fault, in the end that's what Kaz Matsui had become.

11 comments to Kaz and Effect

  • Anonymous

    I think the answer with Kaz is the simple one; guys “lose it” physically at their own pace. Some, seemingly, lose it all at once. Usually, in our case, it's middle infielders from Cleveland, not Japan.
    I'm in total agreement about the environment at Shea. I think talk radio, to a very large degree, is responsible. I was thinking recently about the '85 team. Funny how we seem to embrace teams that just missed more than teams that go farther ('85 team vs. '88 team, '99 team vs. 2000 team).
    Anyway, I was thinking about their return to Shea late that year after dropping the series finale in St. Louis. It was all but over, two out with three to play. And all I can remember was the warmth from the stands, the love the crowd showed for those guys who battled so valiantly and yet came up short. It's sad to think those days and that spirit may be gone for good when “it's all about the rings, baby.”

  • Anonymous

    I would add to Albie's point that the sports media in general underwent a culture shift in the 1990s. The papers used to lionize underdogs. Now they have no use for them. It's all about paying homage to the established elites. The Steinbrenner way worked and therefore it became the ideal. The Mets were built on lovable loserdom gone good, caterpillar to butterfly. That they had to Metamorphose all over again more than once was no longer charming. They were just chumps. By the same token, in the late '60s, it was a great story that there was an uprising, a veritable rebellion in sports. The Mets, the Jets even the Knicks (not nearly as much the establishment as the Celtics) were celebrated in the spirit of peace, love and a new world coming. In the more recent past, we are told how marvelous tradition is. Every time a Yankees or a Packers or a Notre Dame is on the rise, we're told that's the way it should be. Anything else is somehow inauthentic.
    Then the pack mentality takes over, fueling the notion en masse that we need a dynasty, a Big Daddy to watch over our titles; when one of those teams actually does something, order is allegedly restored as if order is everything. In the '60s, the '70s, even the '80s, the Marlins winning the World Series the way they did in 2003 would have been held up as a great example of overcoming odds and the little guy slaying the giant and all that. Instead, it was almost considered impolite that a team that wasn't “real” won. Heaven forbid somebody new comes along and succeeds. Give us a pedigree. Give us atrophy. Please God, have someone like Derek Jeter emerge. We'll paint him as DiMaggio reincarnated and he can protect us from what is hard to predict. We must have order at all costs.
    Re: Kaz and the booing, it's noteworthy to me that one of his second base predecessors, Alomar, whom the true Metsoscenti sniffed out pretty soon after his arrival as a dog, never got anything close to the brutal booing Matsui absorbed. There were many to choose from for ire's sake in 2002-03, I suppose, but if you're gonna chalk up negative reaction to subpar performance, Kaz should have gotten a ticker-tape parade before Alomar heard a single pair of hands go clap, at least by mid-May 2002.

  • Anonymous

    I think the harsh treatment of Kaz vs the relatively tepid response to Alomar is the difference between 2002 and 2006. I think Kaz would have gotten more slack in '02 and Alomar would get deservedly excoriated at Shea today.
    I can't imagine the '06 fury that would be vented on poor, hapless Roger Cedeno given the treatment the asshole element felt he deserved upon his ill-fated return engagement in '02.
    We'd see him burned in effigy, I suppose.

  • Anonymous

    Roger Cedeno Effigy Night would have been sponsored by Sleepy's, The Mattress Professionals. You can burn Roger, but you can set our beds on fire!
    No doubt managment would know a revenue stream when it saw it.

  • Anonymous

    Jason's right; Kaz's implosion was due to myriad factors and it may or may not have been inevitable. His misery-inducing reception should have been avoidable, but again, it had roots beyond the stoically hapless infielder.
    Bottom line: You should never boo a Met for his performance. Boos are deserved for actual mistakes and bad attitude. Jose Offerman's baserunning miscue to rob (you guessed it) Kaz of a basehit last year–that deserves booing. It was just plain stupid. His reaction with the press afterwards was even worse. Not running out grounders, especially when you have great speed (Cedeno), deserves booing. Getting caught stealing third with two outs and your best hitter at the plate, deserves booing. Not throwing a single strike to Kelly Stinnett with the bases loaded in the ninth then drilling Bernie Williams with your next pitch, deserves booing. Reyes popping out on the first pitch (fastball above the letters) with runners-in-scoring-position-right-after-the-pitcher-just-made-an-out might even deserve boos. But simple lack of production or “stuff” or speed or range does not.
    Not doing the least you can do, what is entirely within your power if you are a focused major league baseball player, deserves booing. That and being on the other team.

  • Anonymous

    I feel bad for admitting I probably would have been at Roger Cedeno Effigy Night with matches. By all accounts a hell of a nice guy, but he zero baseball instincts. His return engagement was just painful for the poor approaches at the plate, Family Circus routes to balls and general, all-encompassing dopiness.
    But he was no Robbie Alomar. Baseball gods willing, we'll never have another player I detest so thoroughly.

  • Anonymous

    I once characterized Cedeno as being just like Dave Kingman, only without home run power.
    In all honesty I likely would have liked to own the gasoline concession at Roger Cedeno Effigy night. I look back with regret at how I viewed a player who's only transgressions were sucking at baseball at being given a ridiculous contract by M. Donald Phillips.

  • Anonymous

    I believe Kaz was booed so unmercifully because he was seen as a typical overhyped/underperforming acquisition/prospect.
    As usual, the Mets didn't sign the best players available (Vlad and Tejada). Instead they paid a lot of money for a second-tier at best guy and hyped him up to be a potential all-star while the Evil Ones in the Bronx acquired the real stars.
    As for the general booing, I think fans, especially New York fans, have little to no tolerance for paying $50 for mezzanine seats to see eight-figure salaried players not get the job done, even when it's impossible to do every time out. When you can only afford to go to a couple of games per year and players don't get the job done, you feel cheated.
    Going to a Met game is no longer just a fun way to spend an afternoon (that's what Cyclones games are for), it's now a serious investment with sometimes unreasonably high expectations.

  • Anonymous

    for what it's worth, i do recall the fans booing both cedeno and alomar, and at the same game. it was one of the first i took my son too, and he asked why we were booing our own players.
    well, i murmured, there's a question about how much effort these guys were putting into their games. but even then, the booing seemed wrong.
    which is not to say that i didn't think they deserved it. just that i don't take part. what's the line from bang the drum slowly? “from now on, i rag no one.”
    except nonmets.

  • Anonymous

    Seats are over-priced. And players are over-paid. And owners are greedy. And the Mets franchise is too insecure and stubborn to give Brooklyn a real minor league team (although I think it would be benefit everyone involved). So Shea is what we've got to work with–but it's not always a rip-off. I tried the $5 upper-deck seats that are available during so-called “value games.” They were actually pretty good. I had a perfect view of Milledge's flaming shot to third.

  • Anonymous

    I was also in the upper deck for that game with Milledge's throw, and I'd actually go so far as to say that being in the first few rows of an upper-deck section behind home plate is better than being towards the back of the mezzanine or even the loge (provided the weather is decent, of course – I also had upper-deck seats for the rain-soaked game against Pittsburgh and sorely missed the overhang for once). Nothing above you to block your view of the game, and being able to see Pedro pitch for a mere 5 bucks is quite the treat.