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Vladdy to Manny to Citi

It was but five cold winters ago that the Mets didn't sign Vladimir Guerrero. They had a chance, it would have been a popular move, it seemed like it could get done, but it didn't happen [1]. A fair swath of Metsopotamia was disgruntled yet probably not surprised.

Five cold winters later, the Mets don't seem to be signing Manny Ramirez. They have a chance, it would be a popular move, it seems like it could get done, it's not happening [2]. A fair swath of Metsopotamia is disgruntled, yet probably a bit surprised.

My, how times have changed.

There was a Million Manny March on SNY's studios last week. Well, thirty or so guys, but word is they're gonna try it again [3]. Hail to thee, marchers. You're not going to change the mind of Minaya or a single Wilpon, but it is the Metsopotamian way to express oneself in the face of overwhelming odds. As Stanley Cohen wrote in A Magic Summer [4], “Let's Go Mets” was chanted hardily at the Polo Grounds with the Mets down thirteen in the ninth during one game in 1963: “It was a simple and joyous act of defiance, the declaration of a will that would not surrender to the inevitable.” You can draw a straight line from the “'Go!' Shouters” Roger Angell immortalized [5] in 1962 to the Manny marchers who are urging management to ante up for Ramirez.

The Mets weren't going anywhere in 1962. And, unless his price tag is severely reduced, they're not going anywhere near Manny Ramirez in 2009.

Funny thing, I think, is that a lot of us keep believing the Mets might sign him anyway. It's funny because of where the Mets were five years and one month ago — in a similar situation. That winter's hot free agent megastar was sitting out there in an ice-cold market and the Mets were the kid in gym class who's among the three left on the dodgeball court because everybody else has gotten himself knocked out through self-defeating aggression or a desire to sit in the bleachers and chill. Five years and one month ago, the Mets waited out all others' disinterest and found themselves with the ball.

A lowball. That's what Jim Duquette lobbed at Vladimir Guerrero. His people caught it, forcing the Mets out of the game. Then Vladdy became an Angel [6].

It felt like folly to think the Mets could have signed the great Guerrero, because the Mets of January 2004 didn't do stuff like that. It was possible, but highly improbable. Now, as Matchbox Twenty put it before every home game last year, let's see how far we've come.

We've come to the point where the Mets sign high-profile free agents you've heard of (a category that never included Kaz Matsui, inked in that Guerrero-free off season). We've come to the point where the Mets don't leave you with the impression they have considerable budgetary constraints. We've come to the point where we don't wish and hope the Mets would someday sign a player the caliber of Manny Ramirez. We've come to the point where many of us expect and demand the Mets right now sign a player the caliber of Manny Ramirez.

The Mets have acquired — since passing on Guerrero — Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Billy Wagner, Johan Santana and Francisco Rodriguez. These are not the Shane Spencer/Karim Garcia Mets. It's a sea change in both reality and perception. Five years and one month ago, were you honestly shocked at who your right field platoon turned out to be?

Five years and one month later, aren't you a little shocked that some combination of Muprhy/Evans/Tatis (M/E/T for short) will probably be your leftfielder? When Manny Ramirez and all those RBI remain unclaimed? Isn't this what the Mets of this era [7] do, get their man? Don't they make men like Manny their man?

Manny Ramirez is not an unalloyed page of good news in anybody's joy book. You remember how he lifted the Dodgers on his shoulders? Do you remember why he was suddenly so available, how he was suddenly making no effort no disguise his lack of seal for the proverbial dodgeball game in Boston? Do you remember seeing him play much left in any of his many seasons technically playing left? Do you care that nobody has ever accused T-E-A-M of being spelled with M-A-N-N-Y, regardless of the letters they have in common?

I'm not saying you should care or remember what is potentially unappealing — or extravagant — about signing Manny. Manny Ramirez is an extraordinary offensive player. The Mets could use some extraordinary offense. There are reasons to willfully cast aside the doubts and pick up a player like this who sits today without a team, just as there are reasons to willfully cast aside visions of run production and avoid him so as not to bring on Excedrin Headache No. 99.

What strikes me, whether they get him or not, is that it doesn't seem insane to think the Mets would sign Manny Ramirez, not as insane, sadly, as it seemed to think they might have signed Vladimir Guerrero.


But when you bring the latest chapter of the Citigroup saga into it, maybe it is.

I was in an early Tuesday morning fog when I noticed a blurb scrolling across the bottom of the Channel 4 news informing me that the Wall Street Journal was reporting [8] America's favorite corporation was giving some thought to not plastering its name on the front and sides of the Mets' new ballpark. It was in such a fog from the same scroll that I learned Willie Randolph had been fired [9], so I rubbed my eyes and began paying attention.

It's just talk right now. Citigroup and the Mets have already knocked it down [10] as untrue, which I take to mean as it is untrue…for now. Citigroup is a far less popular, far less sympathetic entity than it was two months ago [11] when it was first getting bailed out. The private jet caper [12] (if you want a good non-baseball laugh, by the way, read this spirited Mom & Apple Pie defense of private jets [13]) didn't help, nor has the deepening economic mess made Taxpayers to Citi to Mets look nothing remotely like Tinkers to Evers to Chance. I still don't care for the simplistic political demagoguing [14] — is there such a thing as complex political demagoguing? — but I like less, for our purposes, the damage this deal is doing to the Mets brand.

The Mets, I feel in my heart, would name their ballpark any wretched old thing short of Yankee Stadium if there were $20 million a year in it for them. As we've said time and again, who wouldn't? It's how business has been conducted [15] in sports and America for years. What's more, there is a signed contract that declares the Mets shall play in a facility called Citi Field. Citigroup and the Mets are still using a very relevant term, “legally binding [16],” to describe their agreement. And sports franchises in big cities with large payrolls could sure use $20 million a year. Some of us march on SNY to emphasize it.

But this isn't good. This is no way good, and I don't mean philosophically anymore. There's lot of not good going around these days, but in the realm of Met, this pairing of our beloved team with this far less than beloved financial organization is just plain bad news now. Is it $20 million a year bad? I don't know how to measure that, but we're plainly seeing that all publicity is not necessarily good publicity. If the Mets get out to a 12-2 start and lead the East by 15 games at the break, maybe nobody will care. Maybe somebody will care, but we won't. We'll be too busy thrilling to what's going on inside Citi Field (whether each of us is there or not) to worry over brand-identity niceties.

Yeesh, though, and not philosophically. This isn't the 2006 discussion of whether it's right and proper to slap a company name on a ballpark. This is 2009 and there's a fierce recession in progress and there are companies that are taking our money after years of horrendous management and one of them is the company in bed with our team. It just doesn't work in the public eye — and the public eye is where it has to work, because the whole reason Citigroup should want to sponsor a baseball stadium for $20 million a year for 20 years is to market its brand to a public with less than firm confidence in its ability to run its affairs.

Big ol' Citi Field signs are not going to help in that regard in 2009. Whether it will be beneficial in 2028 is not relevant. The Citigroup image as it stands on the precipice of the next baseball season is a canker sore for both Citigroup and for the Mets right now and for however much of the future is foreseeable. Waving a ginormous Citi banner atop and around a decidedly upscale facility (which has been built on municipal land with New York City infrastructure investments and tax-free bonds, as the Journal points out) isn't going to make anybody look community-minded or particularly brilliant in the prevailing climate.

No way the Mets are blind to this. No way Citi is blind to this. No way we're going to a place called Citi Field for very long. Somebody might as well pay somebody off and figure a way out of this before the sore festers out of control. The Mets should and will get paid something substantial for their troubles. They are subject to that legally binding agreement, but they shouldn't have to cast a pox on their own house to cash in. From what I've seen, they've acted in good faith. They've done everything except insert the Citigroup Center tower into the skyline logo. At a time when the Citi mark looms as an overwhelming negative in the public's mind — even discounting chronically histrionic sorts [17] and their hackish [18] colleagues, is anybody applauding Citigroup these days? — it is ridiculous to ask somebody to nakedly embrace it. To do so, within the context of facility naming rights, is something approaching insanity.

The Mets don't have to bail on Citigroup altogether. They can still bank with them. They're welcome to advertise on the outfield wall. They can maintain a relationship. But the HEY LOOK! nature of Citi Field isn't going to do either partner any favor at a delicate juncture. There is legally binding and then there is the kind of face-spiting that costs you your nose. Surely there is a third way.

If the Mets don't get their 20 mil for 20 years, what will it mean to us? Oh, probably nothing good of a material nature. Books probably get cooked to the point of deep-frying in baseball, and there's no way a team that charges $15 for a simple parking space is going to be impoverished (especially with so many brand spanking new parking spaces coming to a former stadium near you), but the days of “just sign him” when a Manny Ramirez wanders by may have to be put on hold. Combine a potential alteration of the Citigroup deal with whatever the Wilpons have endured via the venal hand of Madoff (one assumes there can't help but be baseball fallout) and the Mets may have to think more than twice about how they build their team. What that means on the field is anyone's guess. The Tampa Bay Rays won a pennant last year with one of the lowest payrolls in the industry. Before that, they were one of the worst teams around. Money is both not everything and pretty good to have a lot of anyway.

The philosophical piece is, as noted, not top of mind, but you know what? Not one square of sod grows up dreaming of being planted in a ballpark named for a multinational conglomerate. You can fill in all the potentially pleasing replacements yourself; I'd vote for Shea Field, considering Bill Shea hasn't done an iota less to bring National League baseball to New York since September 28, 2008. If only that would be the silver lining. We're probably past that phase of innocence, however. Brace yourself for Petco East or worse.