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This Is Where We Came In

Six years ago today, the Mets were proactively pulling the plug on one era in hopes of jump-starting the next one. At Shea Stadium on Sunday, October 3, 2004, the Mets were severing ties with their manager, inaugurating a new front office administration and putting the latest in a string of disappointing seasons to bed.

Beyond the finality of sending off Todd Zeile, kissing off John Franco, waving off the Montreal Expos and — with limited affection and maximum awkwardness — blowing off Art Howe, we were welcoming Omar Minaya home to Queens. The former assistant general manager of the New York Mets took over the top job at the very tail end of 2004 as the team he had been running was expiring. Montreal was moving to Washington and here in New York, there wasn’t a moment to waste. Omar had to commence general managing at once.

As Closing Days pitting fourth- and fifth-place teams go, the one from six years ago was genuinely transcendent [1]. Zeile homered on the final major league pitch he ever saw; Franco, in relief of Heath Bell, popped up Ryan Church with final Met pitch he ever threw; Endy Chavez made the final out any Expo would ever make; Joe Hietpas made his first, last and only appearance as Zeile’s defensive replacement behind the plate in the bottom of the ninth…Zeile hadn’t started and departed a game as catcher in fourteen seasons, but he ended his career catching one-third of an inning from the all-time leader in saves by a left-handed pitcher. The last time Todd Zeile was legitimately a catcher was 1990, the first year John Franco was a Met closer.

Amid all that backglancing and foreshadowing, with Omar trotting in from the braintrust bullpen to take the ball from a struggling Jim Duquette, there was also the faint hum emanating from the sealed fate of Art Howe. He was as gone from the Mets as the Expos were from Montreal the moment Jeff Keppinger fielded Endy Chavez’s grounder to second and tossed it to Craig Brazell (filling in at first base for Mike Piazza). The Mets had enjoyed a surprisingly good stretch under Howe earlier in 2004 — 34-25 from May 1 through July 7, propelling them to within a game of first place — but their contender status proved fleeting. Nobody recalled the success by September. They only noticed the failure that had taken hold since.

Howe was fired before the season was over, but the Mets didn’t remove him from office for 17 more games, asking him to finish out the season despite his being the lamest of incapacitated ducks. Ownership took a typically clunky route [2] to arrive at the correct ultimate decision, but either way, we knew for sure the next time we returned to Flushing to watch our team, somebody else would be managing it. Yet despite the finality in the air on Sunday, October 3, 2004, there was no acknowledgement of or reaction to the impending departure of Art Howe. Nothing on DiamondVision, nothing on the scoreboard, nothing from the stands.

Six years ago today, the Mets were doing what they’re about to do again. They’re even doing it while the team that used to be the Expos is in town.

This, then, is where we came in.

You could almost plot the path of the 2010 season on the same graph as 2004’s: there was an invigorating stretch of 39-24 baseball from April 19 through June 27; there was growing confidence or at least hope regarding the team’s ability to complete for a playoff spot; then there was a bottom that fell irrevocably out. In 2004, the Mets sputtered (16-22 from July 8 to August 21) until they simply went splat! (2-19 directly thereafter). The 2010 Mets’ extended moment of doom was a 7-17 sag between June 28 and July 25 that sucked all significant signs of life completely out of them. They’ve been sputtering ever since.

Just as Duquette (traded Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano) had to go, so does Minaya. Omar didn’t swap a top prospect for a pitcher of suspect health, but he did lavish extravagant, overlong contracts on Luis Castillo, Oliver Perez, Francisco Rodriguez and Jason Bay, each now a symbol of the 2004-style disaster the 2010 Mets have become. Just as Howe’s team evaporated when exposed to light, so did Jerry Manuel’s. Howe had to go, even if he was mysteriously invited to stick around a couple weeks longer. Manuel, meanwhile, says he hasn’t been told anything about his Met tenure beyond Sunday…which at this point him makes him the only person in the universe yet to be duly informed of this foregone conclusion.

Jerry knows just as we all know. When he created some bizarre rationalization [3] for using R.A. Dickey out of the bullpen Saturday — “if anybody is here in the future, they can use his throw day to save an inning” — it was essentially his white flag in the face of the inevitable. Strange yet also appropriate that Dickey, whom we at Citi Field gave a nice ovation as soon as we saw him come on in unforeseen relief, would serve as vessel for Manuel’s and probably Minaya’s imminent bon voyage.

R.A.’s acquisition ranks as one of Omar’s greatest late-period successes, and nobody did more than Dickey to help keep Jerry’s ship from completely sinking as the promise of late spring gurgled into the reality of mid-summer. But R.A. emerged as a rotation mainstay primarily because Oliver Perez crapped out so absolutely thuddingly after Minaya threw too much money and too many years at him. Maybe Ollie is beyond handling, but Jerry quite clearly tired of trying. Perez was relegated so far to the back of the bullpen that on the second-to-last day of the season, when the manager needed somebody to soak up one lousy inning, he went with Dickey the starter, not Perez the pariah.

Jerry may have been kidding (in that Jerry way of his) that he might use R.A. again Sunday to create another curtain call opportunity for New York’s most beloved knuckleballer, but maybe what he’s doing is projecting. Maybe Manuel wonders where his ovation is. He took over a team in turmoil in June 2008, snapped them out of their tight-assed Willie Randolph funk for a spell, guided them to the cusp of redemption for the previous year’s collapse, fell just short of the finish line and then…well, nothing good. Jerry’s Mets foundered at the first hint of adversity in 2009 and couldn’t maintain their impressive first-half pace in 2010. No team looks particularly good when it’s not contending, but this team has specialized in looking atrocious for the bulk of two bitter seasons.

Still, while it was always something with these Mets — always some injury or controversy or overwhelming distraction — it generally wasn’t Manuel’s doing. His abysmal 2009 team lost 90 games. His less abysmal 2010 team might win 80 games. Somewhere in there, it could be interpreted that Jerry made his wisecracks and charmed reporters and took heat off his often inadequate roster and maybe he deserves some credit for the whole thing not being tangibly worse than it conceivably could have been. Perhaps that’s what Jerry will be thinking today.

He’ll be thinking it alone.

There will be no prefab storyline to stoke our sentimentality at Citi Field this afternoon. No Zeile, no Franco, no Expos. We’ll be seeing the last of various fringe Mets and we’ll be hoping we’re seeing the last of a couple of glaringly lost causes. Maybe someone will rate an extra hearty round of applause this Closing Day, but unless somebody actually does something noteworthy — like no-hit the Nationals — we’re probably not going to overdo the emotion.

We didn’t do it for Art Howe on a day that was wrought with sentimentality. We’re not about to do it for Jerry Manuel. It’s nothing personal. Unless it’s a Bobby Cox leaving on presumably his own terms, we don’t really do anything for managers. We expect them to manage our team to wins. When they don’t win, we expect them to get going. That’s all we’ll be looking for out of Jerry Manuel once the team that is about to be no longer his completes its business today.

Business. Nothing personal.

Omar Minaya will have no reason to appear in public this afternoon. GMs rarely step on the field in full view of the fans. Their professional life takes place behind the scenes. That’s where we heard six years ago that this guy was going to do great things for us.

And this is indeed where we came in: the Minaya era, begun for the record as the 2004 season burned off its last innings; begun in earnest as the succeeding offseason got underway; begun for keeps when the 2005 Mets assembled in Port St. Lucie for Spring Training. Our blog came into this world that very day, February 16, 2005. We, like the Mets, began limbering up for this distinct era that will forever be attached to the name of Omar Minaya.

This GM has been GM of the Mets longer than every one of his predecessors except Frank Cashen. We don’t really think of 1980 to 1991 as the Frank Cashen Era. The Omar Minaya Era, however, is different in that respect. Omar may have made his mark behind the scenes, but he did wander out onto the stage quite a lot. He was the one tabbed to change the culture of the Mets as 2004 became 2005, and that he did — in multiple ways.

The Mets became a consistent spender under Omar Minaya. They reignited their presence in the New York market under Omar Minaya. As one or two observers may have noted in the past six years, they gained a decidedly Latin tinge under Omar Minaya. And, instantly, they improved immensely under Omar Minaya.

Twelve more wins in 2005 than in 2004, with the general manager’s first significant acquisition, Pedro Martinez, generating heat as well as outs. Fourteen more wins in 2006 than in 2005, as the Omar Corps played an outsized role: Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Billy Wagner, Paul Lo Duca, Jose Valentin, Julio Franco, John Maine and that most lovable refugee of October 3, 2004, Endy Chavez. Fourteen more wins and an additional several weeks of Mets baseball, clear to October 19.

The Mets won a division and a round of playoffs. Then they almost won another. They said this guy was going to do great things for us, and he did. The Omar Minaya Era was yielding epic results after only two years in existence. There was little reason to believe the best wasn’t yet to come.

Omar was still a genius in early 2007. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated, hailed as a Mix Master [4], creator of the Melting-Pot Mets. His genius was more competitive than demographic. In the summer of 2006, he had turned the necessity of replacing the doomed Duaner Sanchez into a mother of a live young left arm belonging to Oliver Perez. Great move! In the run-up to 2007, he filled the void left behind by the perpetually hobbled Cliff Floyd by securing the dependable veteran bat of Moises Alou. Another great move! True, not everything he was doing could be classified in such lofty terms — Jon Adkins and Ben Johnson weren’t doing much after coming for washout reliever Heath Bell — but the Mets were in first again, they had great chemistry again and they were a lock to land in the playoffs again.

That’s where the story takes its turn from the cover of the June 18, 2007 issue of Sports Illustrated to, most likely, the back pages of the New York tabloids shortly after October 3, 2010. There won’t be much of a window for the Mets to get that kind of coverage in the coming week. Another local baseball team will be taking up residence on the back pages for the foreseeable future.

The Mets will replace their manager. There will be some sort of shakeup involving their general manager. It will be noted that the Mets have strung together a couple of terrible seasons, that things had spiraled out of control under the previous management and that the team had faded into unacceptable utter obscurity in the market at large. Thus, a change will be explained as necessary. We will be told we are in dire need of kicking off a new era, and we will surely agree with that assessment.

Like I said, this is where we came in.