- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

At Long Last, No Half-Measures

George H.W. Bush, one of six U.S. presidents to have served while a Wilpon has been running the Mets, once attempted to combat perceptions that he was oblivious to people’s problems by declaring, “Message: I care.” Bill Clinton, the president who succeeded him when that message proved unconvincing, famously empathized with Americans, “I feel your pain.”

Constituencies don’t want to hear that you get it. They want to know that you get it.

Fred Wilpon and Jeff Wilpon, as of yesterday, seem to get it.

Monday morning, the Band-Aid that inadequately covered the wounds inflicted by every Mets mishap that has transpired since the night of October 19, 2006 was ripped from the Body Metropolitan in one quick (if you’ll excuse the expression) yank. The manager was removed. The general manager was removed. As twinbills go, this was a double beheader sweep [1].

You of course recognize the concomitant firings of Omar Minaya and Jerry Manuel as a big story, but you may not realize that it’s essentially unprecedented in these parts. The Mets have dismissed skippers before and they’ve axed GMs before, but they’ve never done it on the same day before — never. Changes in front office and on-field administration have occurred in close proximity a couple of times, but they had never previously been coupled like this.

It’s not a trivial distinction.

I don’t believe the ownership of this baseball team, when given time to prepare, uses any words it hasn’t chosen extremely carefully. Fred Wilpon sat in front of a room full of cameras, microphones and notebooks Monday and said these past four years have been the most “painful” he’s experienced in the three decades he’s been an owner of the New York Mets. Jeff Wilpon added, “We failed.” Those words were designed to leave no room for interpretation. Neither were their actions.

There were no rationalizations, no paeans to patience in the face of a crying need for urgency. An organization that has reliably hobbled itself with half-measures…

• not sacking Davey Johnson when it was clear Frank Cashen was itching to deliver the pink slip;

• waiting so long to split GM duties between Joe McIlvaine and Al Harazin that McIlvaine slipped away to San Diego;

• replacing Harazin with McIlvaine seven weeks after Dallas Green replaced Jeff Torborg;

• supplanting McIlvaine with Steve Phillips while leaving McIlvaine’s manager, Bobby Valentine, firmly in place;

• allowing Phillips to undermine Valentine by taking away three of his coaches;

• bouncing Valentine while retaining Phillips;

• attempting to lure Minaya back from Montreal after one year away with an offer to share responsibilities with Jim Duquette;

• getting rid of Art Howe without actually sending him away;

• flying Willie Randolph across the country and giving him one more game before telling him at midnight local time (3 AM in New York) that he was being let go;

• and steering Minaya out of the spotlight after his embarrassing attack on Adam Rubin’s character, but letting him linger in his high-profile job for more than a year

…went the distance this time.

The next general manager won’t be saddled with a manager he didn’t hire. The next manager won’t have to wonder quite as much what dysfunctional situation he’s walking into. The next GM and the next manager will be coming in together, as close to arm-in-arm as they possibly could. It may not represent an instant formula for winning, but it’s worth trying.

Everything before this did fail. And it was painful.

If Fred Wilpon carefully chose to call 2007 through 2010 the worst of the worst of a tenure that’s included oldies but goodies like 1993 and 2002, it may have been for effect (message: he cares), but it wasn’t without cause. The Mets have played worse under previous Wilpon-approved regimes, but in ways tangible and otherwise, they may never have been worse than they’ve been lately.

Somewhere on a legal pad at Citi Field, it’s quite possible someone jotted down the notation that 79-83 was the best losing record the Mets have ever posted; that at four games under .500 — a net difference of two — they weren’t really that far away; that they did contend until the All-Star break in 2010; and that we sure have had a run of bad luck that is bound to change. If everything’s gone this wrong for this long and we didn’t completely disintegrate into the Pittsburgh Pirates, then maybe we’re doing something right, and what we need to do is make a few adjustments and otherwise stay the course.

That would have been a half-measure. A half-assed measure, at that. It’s what I would have expected out of the Mets after 2009. It’s what we got. It led us in 2010 to the best losing record the Mets have ever posted.

Which isn’t progress. Which isn’t close to progress. Progress is admitting that the Mets have failed for four consecutive seasons. It’s not a selling point, but it is reality, and since selling points weren’t exactly filling the new ballpark, truthfulness as a first step toward genuine progress — along with maybe not failing in a fifth consecutive season — is most welcome.

I’m guessing what’s made 2007-2010 most painful to Fred Wilpon is that the Mets so seemed to be on the right track in 2005 and 2006. This — collapse, collapse; debacle, debacle — wasn’t supposed to happen to them again, certainly not so soon. Almost every team endures up cycles and down cycles. The Mets’ up cycle, however, stalled after only two seasons. In the four seasons that followed, the Mets averaged 81.5 wins per year, but nobody who has watched them closely (or even casually) since Called Strike Three could possibly call them winners over that span.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Omar Minaya was supposed to prevent this. A high payroll, supported by the revenue streams provided by a heavily viewed proprietary television network and a well-attended state-of-the-art 21st century stadium, was supposed to prevent this. 2006, when the Mets won the National League Eastern Division, SNY debuted and Citi Field began to rise, was supposed to be a launching point…a template. You would have figured your only October press conferences for years to come would be the kind MLB makes managers and starting pitchers do before and after postseason games.

The leading indicators and the great vibes that were in such evidence in October 2006 turned out, alas, to be an aberration. Everything that went wrong before 2005 and 2006 started going wrong again after 2005 and 2006. The New Mets were at best a passing phenomenon…a mirage. The Mets bought a bunch of the right players while they were still capable of performing at something approaching their best; they mixed them with the only two star players they’ve managed to produce in the past generation; and they sprinkled in a few key ancillary parts. The results were wonderful.

Then they were over with. On the surface, the Mets proceeded after October 19, 2006 in the same manner they had before. They weren’t afraid to spend, they sought complementary components, they continued to nurture their two homegrown stars. It just didn’t work as well. Then it worked hardly at all. The Mets who were going to be special deteriorated into disappointments, heartbreakers, buffoons and, at last, utter ordinariness. The afterglow of 2006 was snuffed out by the way 2007 ended. The midyear revival of 2008, under Manuel, evaporated as that season’s déjà vu conclusion doubled down on the previous year’s devastation. 2009 was an avalanche of awfulness that 2010 could never quite dig out from under.

Attendance remained strong in 2007 because 2006 raised the excitement level around Metsdom to stratospheric. The final season of Shea Stadium provided a one-time extraordinary boost to the gate in 2008, and 2009’s advance ticket sales couldn’t help but be plentiful with the debut of Citi Field. But the seats grew emptier and emptier as the annus horriblis ensued and they never refilled in 2010. The logical conclusion was the gaunt final month we just lived through in Flushing.

Nobody was home.

The back catalogue of Met disasters is voluminous, and the Tal-Met-ic scholars among us can spend hours debating and dissecting why any one of them was worse than all the others. But even if Fred Wilpon’s designation of this particular now-completed blue period as the most painful was a line massaged to let us know he feels our pain, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t an accurate assessment. The Mets as an organization really tried with this arrangement, this era. They really thought they had something. They did, for a while. 2006 was really something. As a veteran of the good times as well as the bad, I can vouch for 2006 as a member in good standing of the pantheon. Never let Yadier Molina’s last swing — or Carlos Beltran’s last take — obscure the joy that emanated continuously from those Mets that one magical season. It was a sensation so strong that while it was in effect, it would have been positively unfathomable to believe it would be the only magical season of its time.

But it was. Once the Reds, the Rangers, the Giants and the Braves take the field this week, there will have been 19 different baseball teams to have played a postseason baseball game since October 19, 2006, the night the Cardinals defeated the Mets for the National League pennant. Two nights later, the Cardinals were playing the Tigers in the World Series. One year later, an entirely different cast of characters was competing in the postseason. And so it’s gone until we’ve reached this point at which the following clubs are the only ones to not play a meaningful game in October after 10/19/06:

The Orioles. The Blue Jays. The Royals. The Mariners. The Athletics. The Padres. The Astros. The Marlins. The Nationals. The Pirates.

The Mets.

That’s the company we keep. Four years since the future couldn’t have appeared any brighter, we are consigned to the shade with the also-rans and the have-nots. We’re still a big-market team, we’re still a high-payroll team, but we are also a go-nowhere team.

Which is why Fred Wilpon and Jeff Wilpon had to go to their offices Monday and tell two men they hired and they liked that they would be relieved of their roles. It’s also why the Wilpons will have to figuratively leave the organization themselves to find a new general manager who, in turn, will have to find a new manager. That’s the way it has to be: new blood, fresh perspective, whatever you want to call it.

The Mets haven’t reached outside their own frame of reference for a head baseball man since Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday reached out to Frank Cashen on February 21, 1980. Before that, the Mets, in the days of Payson and Grant, hadn’t picked an outsider to lead them since November 14, 1966, when they lured Bing Devine from St. Louis to succeed George Weiss. Weiss, hired as Mets president on March 14, 1961, also came from outside the organization, but he had to, as there was no Mets organization to that moment.

You might say there isn’t one now, at least not in the sense that the Mets are organized for what lies ahead in 2011. No general manager, no manager…I wouldn’t say “no problem,” but this is the necessary next step. This is the starting-over point. The Mets need to start over and they are, as Weiss’s most famous hire liked to say, commencing to do just that.

Even if the search for new leadership in the autumn of 2010 is not as invigorating as it might have felt on September 29, 1961 — the day Casey Stengel came on board; or makes being a Mets fan as thrilling as it was on this very date in 2006 — the evening Willie Randolph managed the team Omar Minaya constructed to a 2-0 NLDS lead over the Dodgers, it’s still pretty exciting. I don’t know who the GM will be and I don’t know who the manager will be, nor do I have a favorite for either spot beyond a fervent hope that the right people will be selected. I’m just gratified there will be a selection process. I’m relieved that the owners of the New York Mets recognized this had to be done.

Now, of course, I hope they don’t screw it up. Today, with nobody yet having made any obvious mistakes we know of in the selection process, I will cling to that hope. The Wilpons spoke their version of truth to pain, truth to failure yesterday. In an October when the Mets again have no games remaining, after a fourth consecutive season that guaranteed that paucity of meaningful baseball, it’s all we’ve got.

It’s something.