Before Tuesday’s demi-classic took flight, I was slightly amused to read of the significant impact one of the Mets’ off-season acquisitions was having on the team. No, not Mr. Perfect, Francisco Rodriguez, but erstwhile afterthought Alex Cora. Yessir, Ben Shpigel wrote in the Times, Alex Cora has been quite the addition and a heckuva teammate. He’s exactly what the Mets were missing, as evidenced by his determination to play in the face of the torn ligaments plaguing his right thumb:
Cora’s thumb has become a symbol for a team that, at various times, has been criticized for a lack of gumption. General Manager Omar Minaya said he signed Cora as much for his swagger and baseball acumen as for his middle-infield talents, and Cora’s toughness will be tested in the difficult week ahead [...] manager Jerry Manuel said he would need Cora’s patience, solid defense and cerebral approach every day.
I’m all for off-day happy horsespit articles like this in the course of a season. In their way, they’re as essential to the rhythms of baseball as peanuts and Cracker Jack. The coverage from our most recent off-day was not necessarily unmerited either. Alex Cora’s aching thumb hasn’t stopped him from displaying Big Nut Bars, à la the Citi Field scoreboard ad for Planters, and if the Mets are really rallying around his ligaments, swell. Furthermore, I don’t doubt for one second that the ex-Red Sock is as important as Shpigel and everybody around the team says. We saw it again Tuesday night when he singled home the fifth run, ensuring Santana’s double wouldn’t go to waste, and we watched him hang tough against Jimmy Rollins’ hard slide (the kind Marlon Anderson was once called out for, but that’s another Mets-Phillies gripe from another, darker time). Gary Cohen mentions Cora’s contributions every chance he gets and Ron Darling seconds that emotion. He is surely one of those players easy to overlook when the season begins and impossible to not notice as he makes himself indispensable through his on- and off-field presence.
The slightly amusing — maybe bemusing — part is over the last two decades I’ve read a variation of Shpigel’s story every couple of years. It inevitably features some veteran coming to the club and infusing the Mets with not just performance but professionalism, not just hits but heart and head. And leadership. Always with the leadership. The thread that has run through all of these reports — from John Franco in 1990 and Rick Cerone in 1991 to Robin Ventura in 1999 and Todd Zeile in 2000 to Mike Cameron in 2004 to Julio Franco in 2006 to Alex Cora right now — is the Mets really needed the veteran leadership these fellows (and others, though these are the guys who stick out in the mind’s eye) provided because as previously constituted, the Mets so sorely lacked it.
What’s up with that? Why are the Mets always so desperate for some dude to come in from somewhere else and set them straight, teach them the facts of life and light a fire under them?
This trend transcends any given managerial administration, because it was going on late in Davey Johnson’s term and it’s going on today. Mind you, this isn’t just “useful player plugged in, shows grit” or whatever other teams’ beat writers write about on off-days. This is always about the Mets missing something not necessarily related to ability. Whatever the talent level on a given Mets roster, the collective is almost always aching for somebody to take charge. The incumbent players are inevitably portrayed as frightened turtles who can’t find their way out of their shells or down the first base line until a man like Cora who’s seen it all — on some team that Knows How To Win far better than the Mets do (“excuses were not tolerated in Boston,” Shpigel writes, implying alibis are all the rage in Flushing) — comes along. Some of the Veteran Leaders stay longer than others, some put up better numbers than others, some impact the won-lost totals more tangibly than others, but the one thing they’ve all had in common is none of them changes the Mets culture for more than an instant. That’s why the same story keeps getting written.
If you’ve watched the Mets these past two decades, it would be tough to dispute this recurring, almost constant portrayal. Every franchise is going to have good streaks and bad streaks. The Mets making the playoffs only thrice in the past nineteen complete seasons isn’t really the indictment here. It’s not even the way they’ve managed to miss them when coming so close on several occasions. It’s just the way the Mets — whoever the Mets are in a given year — go about their business and the way so many of them seem to sag. It’s no wonder they so easily fall under the sway of This Year’s Leader, whoever he is in a given year.
How is it the Mets, dating back to the dissolution of their last championship edition, have been regularly constructed and reconstructed without enough heart, pulse, cojones or whatever it is so that it requires emergency injections from elsewhere? Why do the existing Mets always have to take their cue from someone who just got here? How come we never hear about a player who comes in and picks up on the Met way of doing things in a positive sense? Is there a Met way of doing things that doesn’t involve moping, assuming, dawdling and a paucity of fundamental execution?
Shouldn’t there be?
Taking not a blessed thing away from Alex Cora’s baseball-courageous response to what has afflicted him and his team in 2009, how is it that Alex Cora of all Mets has emerged as the embodiment of swagger, acumen and cerebral approach? I’ve been hearing and reading these types of qualities applied to newcomers for nearly twenty years. I never seem to read it or hear it about those who work their way up the Met ladder or those who become Met mainstays. When was the last time somebody came to the Mets and said, particularly of an entrenched position player, “I really learned something from [blank] — he really knows how to play the game and took me under his wing and I’m better off for it”?
It never happens. Never. There is often admiration for the talent and production and work ethic of a Wright or a Beltran or a Reyes or a Piazza or, going back a ways, a HoJo. But where’s whatever it is the Mets have to keep attempting to import from the outside? Why isn’t it cultivated within?
Inevitably, as the Cerones, Venturas and Camerons depart, the default tone reverts to quiet. When things are going well, it’s presented to us as quiet professionalism. It’s Delgado or Gl@v!ne or Leiter (or John Franco, whose fiery persona burned off by the time he was elected captain in 2001, which was more an honorary degree than indicative of anything useful) and it’s fine when the Mets are winning. But when they aren’t, it represents a crisis of confidence from which nobody dares to speaks up. No wonder, hence, there’s always a void for an Alex Cora to fill.
Maybe I’m just taking an off-day article for more than it’s worth, but I don’t think so. If I hadn’t read it so often over such a long stretch of time, I’d take at face value that a utility guy with some experience has been pressed into service, has played with pain and is proving valuable in different ways. Instead, I take it as a sign that things are never quite right with the Mets. If they were, would the season really hinge on Alex Cora’s thumb?
Gotta love our good friend Mark at Mets Walkoffs. He devotes the fourth anniversary of his sublime Minutiae-fueled blog to his favorite score…or at least the most Metsian he could think of. That score is 6-5, made famous by Bill Buckner, Lenny Dykstra, Paul Lo Duca and many others since 1962. Then the Mets go out and win 6-5. The only thing that would have made it as perfect as Frankie Rodriguez would be if yesterday’s date had been 6/5. Here’s sending fistbumps Mark’s way for four years of Mets Walkoffs and hopefully many more Mets walkoff wins to come.
METSTOCK: 3 Hours of Pizza and Baseball is coming to Manhattan on Thursday, June 18, 7:00 PM. Meet the authors of A Magic Summer, Mets By The Numbers and Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets, talk baseball with us, watch the Mets beat the Orioles just as they did in ’69 with us and have a generally great time. Details here.