Of course I thought of Buckner. As I watched slow-motion replay after slow-motion replay, I thought of Bob Costas' line that the Bill Buckner play, October 25, 1986, is the Zapruder film of American sports. The Luis Castillo dropped pop fly was now the ball through Bill Buckner's legs for the 21st century.
I thought of the Billy Wagner game from three years ago, May 20, 2006, how helpless that felt, how commanding Pedro Martinez was for seven innings — and Duaner Sanchez for an inning beyond that — and how all Wagner had to do was come in and not give up four runs to the Yankees. He gave up four runs. We lost after he left, in eleven.
I thought of Armando Benitez. I could have thought of a dozen Armando Benitez games, but I thought of one of his last appearances in a Mets uniform, a Subway Series Sunday night, walk after walk, destroying a Mets lead and creating the platform for an extra-inning Mets loss at which point everybody in the house had heartburn. Armando saved a lot of wins for the Mets but blew a lot of saves, too. Each blown save felt bigger than any ten he didn't blow. On that occasion, June 22, 2003, Stephanie, sitting up and battling fierce indigestion that got her out of bed, asked, “if he keeps doing this, why do they keep him?”
I thought of Looper, Pittsburgh, July 8, 2005. It wasn't the Yankees. It didn't have to be.
I thought of and sputtered on as part of my post-Castillo pillow-throwing rant (hey, they're throw pillows) to Stephanie about the Jets. The Jets? Why on earth the Jets? Because this was pretty Jetslike. This was January 3, 1987, the Jets with a ten-point lead on the Browns, some four minutes from going to the AFC championship. Then Gastineau roughs Kosar and Cleveland has new life and two overtimes later, it's the Browns who will move on to face the Broncos and it is the Jets who I will never, ever again trust with a lead until 0:00 is on the clock.
They're not the only ones.
I thought of earlier in the evening, being out at a local Italian restaurant for my brother-in-law's birthday, a man thoughtful enough to have reserved me the seat that faced the TV. I watched the Mets take a 6-3 lead on Sheffield's fifth-inning blast and celebrated for about a minute and then turned dark. “Y'know what the problem with my mind here is?” I said to my baseball-oblivious sister. “I can't enjoy the Mets having a lead because now all I can do is worry that the Yankees will come back and before I know it, we'll be losing 7-6.” Which we were shortly after we got home and Jon Switzer became a Met.
And I thought of Francisco Rodriguez who, it was being noted by Gary Cohen as the Yankees celebrated their improbable…no, impossible comeback, had technically blown his first save as a Met. At that instant I didn't ache for myself as a Mets fan and I didn't ache for the Mets. I ached for K-Rod. This CANNOT be a blown save for Francisco Rodriguez! I squealed. How? How? I'm used to saves being blown by Mets closers who were congenitally incapable of closing consistently — Wagner, Benitez, Looper, the grand old man Franco — but that wasn't this. Frankie Rodriguez did his job. If Omar Minaya has done anything exquisitely in his almost five years as general manager of the New York Mets, it was sign this man, this closer, this bastion of perfection who has flourished in a pool of incompetence all season long.
A BS for K-Rod? BS, indeed.
I thought about Luis Castillo, but not out of empathy. I was empathetic toward Luis Castillo in 2008, even as I wished to see him remain sidelined for his and our own good. Luis Castillo was a one-man Mets bullpen last September. You did not want to them in a game and you did not want to see him in a game. That's why we got Damion Easley until he could no longer trudge out to second. That's why we got Argenis Reyes and Ramon Martinez even though one was woefully undercooked and the other was practically done. If Omar Minaya has done anything abominably in his almost five years as general manager of the New York Mets, it was to sign this man. In 2007, Luis Castillo was ineffectual. In 2008, Luis Castillo was a sad sack. In 2009, as he soared to bare adequacy, I could have sworn Luis Castillo was a Comeback Player of the Year candidate.
Now he is no longer barely adequate.
I imagine Luis Castillo comes to work Saturday and greets Ryan Church and Daniel Murphy, among others. I imagine their conversation will be self-satisfying to all involved.
“Guys, you think I'm in trouble?”
“Gee, Luis, I missed third base to cost us a game, but nothing bad happened to me. I got to keep playing.”
“Yeah, Luis, I dropped several fly balls, but nothing bad happened to me. I got to keep playing.”
“That's good, fellas. Because I just committed as egregious sin on the baseball diamond as could be imagined, but I guess I'll get to keep playing, too.”
“Of course you will, Luis. This is the Mets. There are no consequences for failure to execute the easiest and most vital steps that are part and parcel of winning baseball games. Maybe on other teams those miscues are frowned upon, but here only the fans get worked up about them. Our supervisors look the other way.”
“Yes, Luis, it's true. They are either very forgiving or have exceedingly low expectations where results are concerned. In fact I'm assuming that like almost every day here, we won't have to take infield or do anything other than go through the motions for a few hours before we can shower and leave.”
“We still get paid, right? I'm due $15.5 million over the next 2½ years and I have all kinds of uses for my absurdly high salary.”
“Luis, I'm surprised you'd ask these questions. You were of virtually no help to the team last year — most would say you were a detriment — and I'm guessing you didn't miss a single paycheck.”
“That's true, Ryan. I was compensated in a timely and lucrative manner.”
“Then relax. We're very good at that here.”
“I know. But what I did last night — drop a most simple popup that our closer worked so hard to generate for what was supposed to be the last out…and against the one rival who our fans so hate for us to lose to — I thought there might be a penalty.”
“Despite my near-rookie status, I don't think that's a problem, Luis. Maybe you get moved to a new position…”
“No Daniel, unlike you, I don't have even perceived versatility working for me.”
“Then I think you just get paid and everybody acts like nothing ever happened.”
“Isn't it, though?”
Not cool. Not cool the way most of the Mets play. Not cool that Castillo was fooled by a most guileless ball. Not cool that once he got his footing and was under it, he used exactly one hand — half of his quota — to secure it. Not cool that he did not secure it. Not cool that instead of grabbing the ball and firing it home, he tossed it mindlessly to second base where there was no play. Not cool that as a Mets fan I thought the trail runner on the play would only be at third base. As a Mets fan, after all, I know very well that a player who is on first base when a ball is popped to shallow right/deep second with two outs isn't going to run very hard.
I forgot it was a Yankee running all the way from first base. Of course Mark Teixeira scored. The Yankees do that. The one thing I'll never take away from the Yankees is that somebody somewhere instilled that ethic into them. You run, you run, you run. Teixeira ran on an impossible play and thus scored because somebody teaches him and his teammates that nothing's impossible in baseball.
Not when you're playing the Mets.
The dismalness of this experience was a thousand percent enhanced by the fact that it was the Subway Series, that we wound up losing a game we were about to win to the Yankees, but the Castillo dropped pop fly transcends even the opponent. We've grown up since the early days of Interleague play when making a stand in the face of the pinstriped propaganda apparatus seemed paramount. This wasn't that Friday night, not in 2009. We're supposed to be a big-time contender as a matter of course, whatever city we're playing our road games in on a given weekend. This wasn't about attaining braggin' rights or a Mayor's Trophy. This was about winning a baseball game, something the Mets did not do. You can't win 'em all, you've heard, and that is true. But you can operate in a manner in which attempting to win every single game you play in is your most obvious priority.
The Mets aren't in that business, which is a bad fit considering they're a baseball team.
What business are the Mets in exactly? I ask that quite seriously. If the Mets are in the business of winning baseball games rather than putting on airs to project an impression that they are interested in winning baseball games, then Omar Minaya releases Luis Castillo before today's first pitch. Then, when that is done, Fred Wilpon releases Omar Minaya and Jerry Manuel. And if a commission could be convened to find the Mets a new owner, that wouldn't be the worst idea in the world either.
Break up the Mets. For their own good, break up the Mets. Break off a piece of the Mets at any rate. Dismiss the most blatant offender. Dismiss Luis Castillo. Tell some lucky Buffalo Bison or Savannah Sand Gant he is now the second baseman in Flushing. Tell Luis Castillo, however, that he no longer plays for the New York Mets. Tell him and his erstwhile teammates that there have to be some minimal standards for maintaining membership on this team and that not catching a catchable pop fly for the final out is that standard — a standard that could be overlooked this one time if he had made good on his Pee Wee League error and thrown home. But he didn't do that either.
What does it take to not be a Met? Is this enough? Is not making that play enough? He doesn't make that play in the second inning against the Padres, or even the Yankees, we say, well, OK, these things happen. But c'mon, this is crunch time. You don't have to be Wise, the Official Potato Chip of the New York Mets, to understand the concept of crunch time. You, Mr. Veteran Second Baseman with three Gold Gloves gathering dust on your mantel, are paid to catch that ball.
You are paid to not allow a blown save onto Francisco Rodriguez's ledger if Francisco Rodriguez did not blow the save. Frankie will blow a save eventually. He will blow several over the course of his contract, and we will deal with that reality when it occurs. But you, Luis Castillo, committed not just an error, but a sin. You did not support your teammate. I don't mean you didn't issue some worthless stream of quotes after the game. You didn't back him up with your glove. Not in the second inning, but in the ninth inning. We have Frankie Rodriguez so we don't have those Wagner, Benitez, Looper moments. The frustration of watching a solid to spectacular start swirl down the drain is immeasurable. It was unspeakably deflating when Pedro would be no-decisioned because of Looper or Wagner, or Johan came away empty-handed because of Billy the Kid…and never mind their W-L. The team W-L took a hit. Frankie's the barrier to that happening more than rarely between now and 2012.
Yet you, Luis, you conked Frankie over the head with that barrier. He did his job. One out, a single to Jeter, another out, Jeter steals second, 3-1 to Teixeira, an intentional ball four, then Alex Rodriguez, Mr. Clutch. K-Rod popped up A-Rod. That's doin' the job. That's exactly why K-Rod was such an acquisition. Wagner and Looper and Benitez and sleepless nights extending back to John Franco…it was no sleep 'til K-Rod. But he did exactly what he had to do.
You didn't. You did the opposite.
The other night Carlos Beltran misplayed a ball in center field that led to some Phillie runs. It did not occur to me that Carlos Beltran should be released. You don't weigh one misplay against a portfolio bulging with sensational catches and bountiful hitting. Luis Castillo is not Carlos Beltran. Luis Castillo is usually adequate. Once in a while he is adequate-plus. Thursday night he collected three hits and scored three runs and flashed a bit of leather. That was very nice, but it's not enough to counterbalance Friday night. Friday night was Monster Chiller Horror Theatre and our second baseman was Count Luis, sucking the blood from victory. His act must be cancelled.
This is not a call for Jihad against Luis Castillo per se. I've got nothing against him personally. I felt bad he was such a target for boos in 2008 partly out of sympathy and partly out of utility. I don't think booing a Met will help a Met and we tend to need all the help we can get. But it doesn't help the Mets, plural, to continue to foster a roster of zombie players who make some of the most embarrassing, unprofessional and deleterious mistakes a baseball player can make. Everybody who makes them — like Church, like Murphy, like Fernando Martinez — is essentially patted on the back and/or the head and is told that's all right, you get to keep playing for us.
Is that the plan for Luis Castillo? Is he, like everyone else on this team, given a pass for what has bulleted to the top of the Worst Play Ever charts? Are the New York Mets in the business of winning baseball games? Or are they just putting on airs?
While I was thinking about Buckner and Wagner and the Jets blowing it in Cleveland, I watched the postgame show on SNY. Bobby Ojeda, Darryl Strawberry and Chris Carlin at once closed ranks and praised Luis Castillo to the hilt for standing at his locker and speaking to reporters. I feel bad, Castillo said. I thought I had it, Castillo said. I have to catch that ball, Castillo said.
He looked very sad. He's a human being and you can't help but wish a human being who is not in the opposition's uniform not look that sad. But honestly, I don't care that he stood at his locker and admitted culpability. Geez, are our standards for performance that low that blowing it and then saying “I blew it” earns you credit?
Not here it doesn't. Make a vital mistake in building a car so the car breaks down, you shouldn't be on the line any longer. Make a vital mistake with a prescription or a ligament, then mister, you shouldn't be a doctor. Be the Met who can't catch the game-ending popup against the Yankees, you can't be a Met in the next game. You just can't. I'm trying to be reasonable and not hair trigger in recommending this course of action, but sometimes it's reasonable to do what appears drastic.
Next week, when Luis Castillo shouldn't still be a Met but probably will be, the Tampa Bay Rays will come to Citi Field. Every beat guy will write a Scott Kazmir story, even if Scott Kazmir is on the DL. You'll recall the trade of Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano raised a firestorm of dismay and disgust among Mets watchers in 2004. It was nothing but bad in most eyes (not mine; I reflexively concluded Kazmir was an overblown Mets pitching prospect in the tradition of every Mets pitching prospect for a decade) but later its narrative got a fresh coat of rationalization. Yeah, Scott Kazmir was a bad trade, but it moved the Mets to act positively. It brought in Minaya who brought in Martinez and Beltran and we all began to live happily ever after.
Could a dropped pop fly, a mindless toss to second and two hustling Yankee baserunners have the same effect in 2009 that Jim Duquette's front office bobble in 2004 had in terms of righting the ship? Could this be, to cross over to football again, the baseball equivalent of the most infamous moment in Giants history, the one from November 19, 1978 when Joe Pisarcik muffed an unnecessary handoff to Larry Csonka? Remember or at least read about that one?
The Giants were about to put away the Eagles. All they had to do was take a knee; fall on the ball. Inexplicably, the order was sent down from the press box not to do what every team did with the clock running down — hand it to Csonka, that's the ticket. Pisarcik handed the ball to Csonka's hip instead. The ball fell to the Meadowlands turf, Herman Edwards picked it up for Philadelphia and romped into the end zone. The score went from 17-12 Giants to 19-17 Eagles in an eyeblink. The subsequent scream, when prorated to 2009 Mets levels, may have been the harshest I let out until 8-7 Mets became 9-8 Yankees on June 12, 2009.
The Giants, who hadn't made the playoffs since 1963, were on the fringe of the NFC Wild Card race until that football slipped free. When what happened happened, their competitive aspirations died yet again. What followed was a firestorm that made the Kazmir controversy look like Cap Day. Bob Gibson, the Giants offensive coordinator who was pressured to call the handoff from director of football operations Andy Robustelli, was let go the next day. Fans — which is to say people who had been with the team for generations — burned their season tickets in the Giants Stadium parking lot. Most memorably, a plane was hired to carry a banner: 15 YEARS OF LOUSY FOOTBALL — WE'VE HAD ENOUGH.
Enough was enough. Robustelli, a great old Giant from their last glory epoch, was fired. Head coach John McVay was fired. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle stepped in and facilitated the hiring of GM George Young. Young hired head coach Ray Perkins. They drafted Phil Simms (who replaced Pisarcik early in the 1979 season). Perkins' defensive coordinator was Bill Parcells. I realize this is a digression about football from thirty years ago, and more Mets fans are Jets fans than Giants fans, but I'm guessing you can see the point: from utter disaster came deliverance. Parcells would succeed Perkins. Young would steer the organization to a series of successful drafts, including that of Lawrence Taylor. There would be growing pains, but there was a powerhouse rising in the swamp. Eight years after Pisarcik couldn't hand the ball to Csonka, Simms brought a Super Bowl trophy home to East Rutherford.
The Giants were far more of a mess in 1978 than the Mets are presently, but the Mets do not appear to be heading in a super direction for the long term. The Minaya era has peaked. Jerry Manuel has peaked. Luis Castillo has peaked. In the time it took Alex Rodriguez's pop fly to peak, descend and bounce away — 15 seconds of lousy baseball at most — it became crystal clear to me that this is a Pisarcik moment.
This is a team that needs to start being saved from itself at once. This is an organization that needs a modern-day Gil Hodges to march out to second base and tell Luis Castillo that his leg isn't quite right, you're leaving the game. Except Luis needs to leave the clubhouse and keep walking. Don't cry for him, Lou Castillo — he'll still get paid his $15.5 million whether he's here drifting uncomfortably under pop flies until he's not catching them with two hands or not. We're getting Sheffield for almost free, so look at eating Castillo's contract as good financial karma.
In late April, I pondered the future of this team and wondered if it was being well-served by its core. I now realize my concerns were misplaced. The Mets' core is not Beltran, Wright and Reyes. The Mets' core is complacency, ineptitude and unaccountability. That trio is locked in here unless something is done to remove them. If Wellington and Tim Mara could be made to understand they weren't doing themselves any favors by keeping those who had failed them around, Fred and Jeff Wilpon can, too.
Omar Minaya can no longer be graded for what he did between December 2004 and January 2006 when his deals yielded Pedro, the Carloses, Wagner, Lo Duca, Sanchez, Nady and Maine. It is 2009. He brought in Frankie Rodriguez. That's one big check mark in his favor. He also constructed a roster and a depth chart behind it that was ill-equipped to handle adversity and injury. That's a huge minus. He has run an organization where slothfulness is nurtured and tolerated. That's an outsized minus. He has created a team of four or five stars and as many as seventeen or eighteen journeymen. Mark that a minus, too. Omar Minaya isn't helping the Mets win baseball games.
Jerry Manuel? Isn't Jerry Manuel responsible for the way his team plays? For not touching third and not catching flies and not running to first and not sliding home and not knowing enough to use two hands or to throw to the right base? Why don't they take infield every day? Why don't they make it around the bases when they're on the bases? What was Jon Switzer doing in there against Hideki Matsui besides a Mel Rojas impersonation? Jerry Manuel isn't helping the Mets win baseball games.
Luis Castillo? Until Friday night, not the Mets' biggest problem. But he's bearing the brunt now. Luis Castillo did not help the Mets win a very big ballgame. In fact, he lost it for them not because he isn't good enough but because he didn't play well enough. There's a difference.
If you're not helping us win baseball games, you're hurting us. If you're hurting us, you shouldn't be here. I don't know why anyone would run a baseball team any other way.
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