I don't hold against Billy Wagner his sudden rediscovery of his inner Brave any more than I'd fume at Brian Schneider at this point for remembering what a Phillies fan he'd always been. This is what ballplayers who aren't Chris Coste do when they go to a new ballclub. They find a reason to have always wanted to be where they suddenly are. I'm sure Billy comes closer than most to meaning it when he says stuff like, “I remember Bob Horner hitting four home runs in a game.”
Billy wasn't quite 15 then and not actually on the Braves when Horner's four homers went to waste in an 11-8 loss to the Expos in 1986, so I don't know whether he hung Atlanta starter Zane Smith (4 IP, 8 ER) out to dry the way he did Oliver Perez when Ollie gave up a ton of runs against the Pirates in '08. Perhaps there's a school paper somewhere in Southwest Virginia with a damning quote along the lines of:
Zane Smith honestly has got to step up and know that we've just used every guy in the bullpen the night before. He can't come in and come out there and decide that he doesn't have it today, and so be it.
That's actually what Billy said on April 30, 2008 about Ollie after Ollie didn't have it. Kind of turned me against Wagner based on my concept of what a teammate should be. Not that Ollie wasn't particularly Ol-ful that day, but there's a difference between taking it up with your starter and taking it to the press.
Wagner would now and again spout off like that. Part of his roguish charm, I guess. There's a lot to sort through in the Billy Wagner Met legacy, some of it that was helpful to the greater cause, some of it that was less so, yet seeing him rematerialize as a free agent this winter brought to mind one particular image:
When Billy Wagner first got here.
There was an eleven-day period covering late November and early December 2005 when most of our problems were solved. We traded for an established first baseman with power. We obtained a catcher with legitimate offensive credentials. And we signed one of the best closers in the game.
Delgado. Lo Duca. Wagner. It was fantastic. It has to represent the best eleven-day period any Met hot stove has ever cooked up. In three significant swoops, the Mets weren't so much made over as successfully built upon, which made it an all the more incredible feeling. We went from a pretty good team with five pillars from 2005 — Pedro, Floyd, Reyes, Wright and, despite a lousy introduction to New York, Beltran — to a potentially very good team with eight pillars. All it cost was a barrel of money; four minor leaguers who were never missed; Mike Jacobs; and one first-round draft choice (which the Phillies received as compensation for losing Wagner and turned into top pitching prospect Kyle Drabek, a kid there's no guarantee the Mets would have taken had they kept the pick).
I don't know if it was a plan, but it sure sounded like one. Better yet, it worked like one. Thanks in large part to contributions from that trio of acquisitions, the Mets raced off to their fastest start ever in 2006, 10-2 with a five-game lead on April 17. After twelve games, Delgado had five homers and 14 RBI; Lo Duca was batting .368; and Wagner notched four saves. Two other off-season finds, Xavier Nady and Duaner Sanchez, were sizzling as well. The Mets never looked back from that launch of launches and 2006 became, in the best sense of the phrase, 2006.
It all made sense then. Omar Minaya made sense then. Between the end of '05 and the start of '06, he had jettisoned some solid veteran performers from the year before, the kind I was convinced would have gotten two-year contracts or three-year extensions from previous regimes. Mike Piazza, Mike Cameron, Kris Benson, Marlon Anderson and Roberto Hernandez were among the jettisoned. A case could have been made to have kept any or all of them, but Minaya cut cords sentimental and otherwise. Sense trumped sentiment. Julio Franco was a Minaya favorite and Endy Chavez had once been Met property, but bringing them in for '06 made sense. Even where it seemed debatable (starter Jae Seo for reliever Sanchez), deplorable (Benson for Jorge Julio and John Maine) or largely inconsequential (Darren Oliver, Chad Bradford), it all clicked. Omar's most useless pickup, it seemed for the first month of 2006, was flailing pinch-hitter Jose Valentin. By June, Valentin was as valuable as anybody, taking over at second base and filling the last glaring gap on the field and in the lineup. Just about every addition Minaya made worked and just about every subtraction Minaya made worked.
What happened to that general manager?
I have no idea, not really. We know there was an ill-fated cab ride that sent too many dominoes tumbling, and we know some guys aged better than others. We know that the wizardry of 2005-06 was not repeated the following winter, when trusting Omar became an ever dicier proposition, and it has yet to be reconjured. Omar was a free spender with decent judgment of the obvious when he got here, signing Pedro and Beltran in '04, but he was an absolute baseball genius the second year. There was Delgado just before Thanksgiving, Wagner just after it and Lo Duca not a week later. There were also those smaller moves. What followed was a divisional romp and the appearance of the Mets being set for years to come.
Then Omar Minaya became, in the worst sense of the phrase, Omar Minaya. Not every subtraction was a bad idea; not every addition was a disaster by any means. But the ratio grew frighteningly out of the Mets' favor, and Omar the Alchemist wasn't in residence any longer. He revealed himself an increasingly clueless Met GM…or a Met GM whose clues led him down ever more futile paths. Thus far this winter, we've been led to Alex Cora, Chris Coste and, now, 38-year-old, seven-team catcher Henry Blanco. Blanco will join a backstop scrum that encompasses Coste, Omir Santos, Josh Thole and, for all we know, Junior Ortiz. Then again, Henry Blanco can't be much less effective than Brian Schneider was as a Met. If he is, there's not much point to his existence.
There will be more players to whom the GM leads us before the 2010 season commences. Some will actually inspire confidence, a commodity yet to emanate from Flushing. We know from Cora. We have a sense of Coste from his frequent visits. And Blanco…well, that guy's been around, hasn't he? Omar, according to Adam Rubin's book, tried to sign him for 2005, but Henry turned him down. As did Craig Counsell. Undeterred, Minaya went out and nabbed Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran.
Talk about your Plan B's.
Meanwhile, in December 2009, Billy Wagner's a Brave, which is fine. Carlos Delgado may or may not get a one-year Met reprieve, which may or may not constitute wishful thinking on the part of both parties. Paul Lo Duca's a former big leaguer who wants another shot somewhere, which appears improbable, but good luck to him. Y'know, a couple of days before Wagner appeared on TV trying on the uniform of his new team, I caught a moment of Lo Duca decked out in the uniform of his old team. MLB Network was running an All-Star Game marathon over Thanksgiving weekend. When I saw they were airing the 2006 contest, I tuned in. I was briefly excited because I remembered how six Mets made the N.L. squad that year. Pedro didn't show because of an injury and Reyes, voted in at shortstop, was sidelined, but the Met presence was formidable nonetheless. As the game was about to get underway, they set the defense: Beltran in center, Wright at third, Lo Duca catching.
Ichiro Suzuki stepped in to lead off. Paul Lo Duca was clearly visible behind the plate. Paul was hitting .302 at the time. He'd finish at .318. The Mets were in first place by twelve games, exactly where they'd wind up at season's end. That was three years ago.
Like I said, I only caught a moment of it. I couldn't bear to watch anymore.