Less than an eighth of the season is gone, which isn't anywhere near enough time to draw conclusions about a player, team or pennant race. But we're fans — what are we supposed to do, turn off the set and take the long view? Nah, we draw conclusions every night, shifting our stances until eventually all is said and done and what happened looks inevitable. (And more often than not we say we knew it all along.)
The conclusion about the 2008 New York Mets, fresh from Game 20? It's that they're stupendously average.
Yeah, they beat up on bad teams — particularly teams as punchless and inept as the Nationals, who right now are trying Manny Acta's much-revered patience with their complete inability to do anything. Yet they then, in turn, get beaten up by better teams — witness the recent manhandling by the Cubs, and the earlier unpleasantness inflicted by the Brewers. That's a classic sign of an average team. So too is the complete inability to have any kind of momentum — the Mets went from playing tight, taut ball against the Phillies (albeit the Jimmy Rollins-less Phillies, who are a very different club) to looking mopey and confused against the Cubs. That too fairly screams “average.” And — again, like average teams since time immemorial — they make it all but impossible to think that all will be fine once Problem X is solved, because Problem X keeps mutating. One night it's the crappy middle relief. The next night it's the thin bench. The night after that it's all those aging regulars in extended spring training. Give it another night and it's all the nagging injuries. And more and more nights, it's thinking that moving Castillo and Delgado around in the batting order just obscures the real possibility that the best spot for them both is in someone else's batting order. (Except Delgado is untradeable and Castillo is untradeable and will still be untradeable in fucking 2011, when he'll likely be playing second base by dragging himself around on his hands in a box, like Eddie Murphy in “Trading Places.”)
Yet every fifth day things are different. Every fifth day we know there's a good chance Johan Santana will remind us how above-average baseball players can be .
Tonight while I was hustling Joshua through some part of his bedtime routine, I heard Emily yelp, “I love Johan Santana!” Why? I couldn't guess — because there were too many answers to that question. Was he cutting through Nationals like a combine? He did that. Was he making a superb fielding play? He did that too. Was he helping his own cause by cracking a double? Hell, he did that twice.
Watching Santana, you feel like Met fans of a different generation must have felt watching Tom Seaver in '67 or '68 — a great player willing a less-great team to keep up with him, daring and all but demanding they be great as well. Which is fine, except we aren't supposed to be watching the '67 or '68 Mets. The '08 Mets supposedly have greatness within them. They're supposedly the class of the National League. Maybe in the Lake Wobegon League, but not here, not so far.
This isn't to say the new season is without its pleasures. There's baseball on a warm spring night, which is one of the grander parts of life whether you're 11-9 or 9-11 or 3-17. (OK, maybe if you're 6-14. Let's not overdo it.) There's the sharp, smart play of Brian Schneider and Ryan Church, which hasn't erased wondering why Lastings Milledge was exiled, but has lessened the sting. There are the feel-good stories of Angel Pagan and Nelson Figueroa and Duaner Sanchez, though one hesitates before proclaiming the rest of the chapters will be so uplifting. There's Billy Wagner, literally unhittable so far. (Though you know one of the next three guys he faces will get a hit. He's a Met, ain't he?) There's watching David Wright become an even better baseball player than he was last year, and wondering just where his ceiling lies.
All of that is nice. But it's not the same here-we-go oomph of watching Johan — and there's the problem. Every fifth day may be something to look forward to, but the other four were supposed to be must-see stuff too.
(Too gloomy? Quite possibly. Greg will be along by morning with a first-person report from D.C., which might be more cheerful. Though I doubt he'll be able to shed any light on that weird home-plate camera angle we kept seeing tonight. Kind of like watching baseball from a low-flying plane or a Tom Clancyesque spy satellite, wasn't it?)