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The Metness Protection Program

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I’m already worried about how the Mets will blow the 2013 All-Star Game. They’re supposed to host it. Nothing official, but that’s been the word [3] from the last two ASGs. It’s the Mets’ turn. It was probably the Mets’ turn around 1988, but better late than never.

(I once read Al Harazin quoted on why the Stars never came out at Shea after 1964: too much bother, he said in just about those words. Apparently a team that hosted 81 baseball games a year was flummoxed by the prospect of opening its gates for even one more…which might explain why Al Harazin strenuously steered the Mets away from the playoffs as GM.)

If you’ve watched All-Star Games in recent years, you know the host team, working in conjunction with Major League Baseball, usually has something special planned to honor one of its own. Stan Musial was a focal point of the celebration in St. Louis. The Yankees made a big deal of Yogi Berra last year. The Giants did the same for Willie Mays in 2007. Ted Williams crowned the All-Century festivities at Fenway in 1999.

What will the Mets do when they get the Midsummer Classic four Julys hence? How will they blow off their own history and make us feel insignificant yet again?

Forgive the fatalism, but look who we’re dealing with. If this same ownership group and management team are in place come 2013, I have three guesses as to what might serve as the commemorative backdrop for Citi Field’s first and perhaps only All-Star Game.

1) Jackie Robinson, American Hero

2) A Salute to International Baseball

3) Derek Jeter’s Fortieth Year on Earth

Tom Seaver, knock wood, will be 68 years old in the summer of 2013. It will be the 40th anniversary of You Gotta Believe and the reams of transcendent baseball lore (including Willie’s and Yogi’s) it gave birth to. The Mets will be marking their 50th season in Queens. And, knock more wood, David Wright, who was called up from Norfolk five years ago today, will be lining up for his ninth consecutive All-Star appearance, having earned by deed and desire his place as Met for Life [4]. There are several Met angles one could objectively envision being played up when the Mets get their chance to shine.

To whatever extent the host team gets a say in constructing the MLB showcase of showcases, I imagine…no, I believe the Mets will add as little Mets flavor to the occasion as possible. If they help out at all, it will be to tip another cap to Jackie or applaud stars from around the world or be good neighbors and make the event all about an All-Star who plays in New York, but not for them.

The Mets don’t care about the Mets.

Repeat: the Mets don’t care about the Mets. By extension, they don’t care about their most committed fans either.

Everything you need to know to understand the mindset of this organization was spelled out explicitly this past weekend when two different stories, one in the News [5] and one in the Times [6], appeared and asked the same question: When might the Mets bring back Old Timers Day?

The answer was consistent in each story: Never. The subtext was clear as well: Why are you even asking?

The Mets think you should be happy they opened a new ballpark where you can give them your money and have a pleasant few hours. Then they hope you’ll go home and forget the context of what you saw…but remember to come back again, with your money.

This is not a winning formula for sustaining long-term interest in your product or brand or sports team. The strongest ingredient in any such winning formula is consistently winning on the field. Do that and everything else is a sidebar. But the Mets aren’t doing that, so we can’t help but notice when they’re veering off stride in other areas.

If the Mets were in first place right now, we probably wouldn’t be so offended when their top business executive scoffs at the idea of reviving Old Timers Day. The Mets, however, aren’t in first place.

We are offended.

Without a compelling backstory, the Mets are just another a suitor for your entertainment dollars. Without acknowledging that they are part of something that came before what’s unfolding between 7:10 and 10:00 or 10:30 on a given night, they are a mercurial experience. They are an evening at a Cyclones or a Ducks game, but far more expensive. They’re the New York Liberty even. Stephanie and I went to our annual Liberty game Sunday because we were quite fond of the local WNBA franchise when it was new and regularly contended for a championship. We felt we were a part of something ongoing [7]. Now a Liberty game feels like an excuse for the Garden A/V squad to test its volume controls (rest assured they go to 11). Yet we return in 2009 because we loved them in 1999. That’s the appeal of spectator sports at its best. That’s why it reaches above the level of novelty. That’s why you more readily invest your time and money in it than in a random trip to the movies.

Mets management, by most indications, isn’t particularly concerned whether you view their product with that kind of commitment. They want to make your evening or afternoon a fine time, no doubt, but it’s makes no nevermind to them if it’s one that connects you to absolutely nothing about the Mets. They want you to drop in, buy some food, maybe a sweatshirt and leave. If you’d like to watch the game and cheer, they’re not gonna stop you. But the idea that there are Mets fans who see each Mets game and Mets season as a precious thread in a rich and compelling tapestry of a lifetime of loving and caring…it doesn’t penetrate their thought process.

Dave Howard’s statements to the papers that Old Timers Day was “unpopular” when discontinued as an annual promotion after 1994 and therefore should never be revived reeks of anachronistic thinking. That it’s not worth reinstituting because it’s expensive…well, that’s just galling. Your tickets are expensive. Your concessions are expensive. Almost everything about going to a Mets game is expensive. The only thing that isn’t expensive is the lineup you’re putting out there lately. (Please let us know when we can expect our Alex Cora Overuse rebate checks.)

Management demonstrated a cavalier attitude at season’s beginning when it was challenged regarding the stunning lack of Metsiana in Citi Field; Howard glossed over it to Mike Francesa on WFAN and Fred Wilpon was vague about it [8] when reporters asked him where all the Mets stuff was. Their answers then hint at a certain passivity toward Mets history in the planning of Citi Field, that it simply never occurred to them that a Mets ballpark should be bursting at the seams with Mets identity. This business with Old Timers Day, on the other hand, seems aggressively clueless to the point of self-hatred.

Or intense dislike for their most passionate customers at any rate.

I’m trying to think of another business in which the enthusiasm of its most loyal customers is regularly disregarded. I’m trying to think of another corporation that is content to watch its hard-earned brand equity blow by in the breeze. I’m trying to think of another entity that willingly tamps down its patrons’ expectations by promising to not deliver on some of the easiest consumer wins it can score.

I’m trying to think of one, but I can’t. Meet the Mets. They’ve got their finger on the pulse of not having their finger on the pulse of the core of their fan base.

Yet buried somewhere in Howard’s unfortunate statements, I get what he’s saying. I get that in the early to middle 1990s Old Timers Day wasn’t selling out Shea Stadium. Neither was anything else. But they were high points in the schedule. I attended in 1992, 1993 and 1994. ’92 (billed as Upper Deck Heroes of Baseball, featuring Davey Johnson and Buddy Harrelson making their first returns to Shea after each had been let go as manager) drew 39,000 on a Saturday night. ’93, in an absolutely horrific season, brought in almost 32,000 for a salute to the 1973 Mets and A’s — minus Tom Seaver, Willie Mays, Yogi Berra and Reggie Jackson. It was another Upper Deck affair and it was another Saturday night.

1994’s Old Timers Day may have been the most disappointing event I ever witnessed at Shea that didn’t involve T#m Gl@v!ne and the final game of a season. It was the 25th anniversary of the Miracle Mets. Again, no Seaver or Berra (or Nolan Ryan). It was scheduled, for the first Old Timers Day in memory, on a Sunday. Worst of all, the “festivities” kicked off at 11:45 in the morning. No more than 5,000 people could have been in the stands at that hour. Paid attendance was a shade under 25,000.

I have a theory (less celebrated [9] than my Yadier Molina theory [10]) that posits Mets management has never quite shaken off the aftereffects of the disastrous 1993 season. While Omar tried — and failed — to craft a team that was going to build on its truncated 2006 success, the business side of the club is forever haunted by recurring thoughts that no one intrinsically loves, wants or needs their product. It doesn’t stop them from overpricing tickets and creating unnecessary enclaves of exclusivity like the glorified Logezzanine [11] they call the Caesars Club level, but it does stick in their collective subconscious when it comes to selective memory.

Their selective memory where Old Timers Day is concerned is stuck in 1994, which is now fifteen years ago. In 1994, CDs were our most efficient music delivery system and the Contract With America was all the rage. Fifteen years is a long time. But that’s the reference point, apparently, for proving Old Timers Day, a cherished Met tradition dating back to the Polo Grounds (the Mets’ first ballpark, should the question come up in another CitiVision text poll [12] any time soon), is unpopular.

The Mets were unpopular in 1994. The Mets were unpopular in 1994 because it was the year after 1993. If divisional races were conducted like political campaigns, the Phillies’ media consultants would just air footage of the 1993 Mets to scare the voters. The Mets’ genuine strides as a baseball enterprise in 1994 (a nearly .500 record after plummeting through the N.L. East floor with 103 losses) weren’t going to lure fans back to Shea Stadium. Three Fireworks Nights (because the one Fireworks Night held in 1993 was practically the only painless evening at Shea all year) weren’t going to lure fans back to Shea Stadium. Inaugurating the DynaMets Dash and opening Nickelodeon Extreme Baseball and conducting tours of Shea Stadium — all of which happened in 1994 — weren’t going to lure fans back to Shea Stadium. And Old Timers Day wasn’t necessarily going to do the trick in such a post-toxic atmosphere.

So instead of reasoning it was a bad year to be marketing the Mets no matter how many runs Jeff Kent was driving in, no matter how few batters Bret Saberhagen was walking and no matter that not a single firecracker unauthorized by the Grucci Brothers was exploding in anyone’s direction, the Mets decided Old Timers Day itself was the problem.

And they have apparently maintained that stance for fifteen years. Despite the fact that it is no longer 1994. Despite the fact that the Mets’ attendance base has rebuilt itself when the team has given people the impetus to attend regularly. Despite the fact that fans of a team with nearly 50 years on the books tend to feel connected to that team’s history and want to celebrate it.

I absolutely cannot believe Dave Howard would say Old Timers Day is unpopular based on evidence gleaned from nearly a generation ago. Thank goodness NASA didn’t follow the same thought process in the days leading up to July 20, 1969 [13]. You can’t put a man on the moon! I have a study here from 1954 that says it’s impossible!

The hidden-in-plain-sight secret is the Mets have run several Old Timers style events since giving up the ghost in ’94. They had a thirtieth anniversary get-together for the ’69 club — one of two Mets teams to win a world championship in case you’ve somehow missed that piece of information at Citi Field — in 1999. It drew more than 37,000, pretty good numbers for pre-2006 Shea. It had Seaver on hand, but it also got underway late on a Sunday morning, and its starting time wasn’t well-publicized. Thus, the stands were emptier than the tickets sold would indicate.

Then the Mets got smart. They began moving the event times to what was supposed to be first pitch. By making this simple shift, people began showing up in time to witness some of the most grand spectacles Shea offered in the past decade. That includes the 2000 Ten Greatest Moments celebration, the 2002 40th Anniversary All-Amazin’ Team presentation, the 2006 reunion of the 1986 Mets and 2007’s Ralph Kiner Night. All were huge attractions in their summers and all benefited from a boisterous, supportive crowd that was at its seats and on its feet for each of those respective happenings.

(The 2008 Shea Goodbye ceremonies were both a triumph and a fiasco that should probably be judged apart from all other events like it because there was nothing like it, but you can’t say people didn’t want in to the ballpark that day.)

Those weren’t traditional Old Timers Days. There was no Old Timers Game. Nobody put on full uniforms. Y’know what? That’s fine. We don’t need to see over-the-hill Mets, besides the ones under contract, trying to huff around the bases without injuring themselves. We just want to see them and cheer them. We want to connect to them because they, by their very presence in our midst, connect to us. We want nights like August 22 when the Mets will, despite trying to avoid association with the dreaded OTD phrase, gather their ’69ers, Ryan included at last, to toast the miracle of forty years ago. We want something in 2010 to commemorate the last Mets pennant winner from 2000 (and, if we live in a perfect world, their Wild Card predecessors from a year earlier). We want something come 2011 or 2012 for the 50th season or 50th anniversary of the franchise. And we’ll want the only Mets-hosted All-Star Game most of us are ever going to witness to have a Mets feel, a Mets flair, a Mets heart. Most of us aren’t going to manage a ticket for the 2013 All-Star Game, so we’d sure like something in-season to commemorate it besides pricey merchandise.

That stuff about these events being expensive to produce? Boo-bleeping-hoo. I’m sure it’s more expensive to fly in your retired players from around the country and world than it is to have 25,000 whatevers printed up (don’t get me started on the stunning cheapness and contempt the Mets continue to demonstrate by limiting their giveaways to fewer than two-thirds of the house). I’m sure each Old Timer needs accommodations and many require delicate handling and a few are probably outright prima donnas and pains in the ass.

And yet I don’t care. You’re charging us a nominal egg, as they say, 81 games a year for everything. For one night, suck it up. It doesn’t have to be a super grand buffet of Mets the way other teams bring back dozens and dozens of alumni (though that would be in order for the 50th anniversary). It doesn’t have to be called Old Timers Day if you really can’t help but have flashbacks to the vacant seats of 1994 by calling it that. You can make it relatively simple on yourselves by remembering that you used to have a Mets Hall of Fame ceremony almost every year. Those were hit and miss in terms of how they were promoted (the last one, Tommie Agee’s in 2002, was an embarrassment, held with no Mets in the dugout), but learn from what you’ve done right and repeat those aspects.

Ah, the Mets Hall of Fame…what’s wrong with you, Mets? How did it not occur to you to include one in your new ballpark? How could you stop inducting members? You’ve honored nobody since Agee and you managed to wait until he was gone. Are you afraid you’ll commission sculptures for Davey, for Darryl, for Doc and they won’t show up? I think they would. Are you hesitant because the committee that did the deciding isn’t any longer active, that the men who comprised it are either too far along or no longer with us?

Appoint a new committee. There are other writers, other broadcasters and, dare I say, some very serious bloggers who would be thrilled to help get this thing back on its feet. I’ve long maintained [14] the Mets should make Citi Field the repository of everything New York baseball that isn’t the Yankees. The Mets should be the ones honoring Jackie Robinson, but not exclusively. Again: the Dodgers, the Giants, the Cubans, the Bushwicks, the high schools, the colleges, the local little leagues…but most of all, the Mets, the Mets, the Mets.

Make Citi Field about the Mets as an eternal entity, not just an interchangeable leisure option. Include in every season a weekend to absolutely revel in what the Mets mean to Mets fans. Stop acting as if this stuff doesn’t matter to us. It does. Stop fearing that if you build it, hold it, make a big thing of it, we won’t come. We will.

We’re the ones who give a damn.

Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets is available from Amazon [15], Barnes & Noble [16] or a bookstore near you. Keep in touch and join the discussion on Facebook [17].