Reality isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but it eventually gets the best of us all, baseball teams included. After reality overtook the New York Mets as decisively as the Phillies, Braves and Marlins have since the last time the Mets contended, it seems as if the Mets themselves have finally gotten select doses of reality.
In light of the net progress represented by their ongoing eye-opening, Faith and Fear in Flushing chooses as its Nikon Camera Player of the Year — the award bestowed to the entity or concept that best symbolizes the year in Metsdom — Realization.
This, the Mets organization has acknowledged through their actions in a series of telling if not necessarily connected situations, is what’s going on around us…we may as well realize it, deal with it and move on.
The temptation is to say it took them long enough. It’s tempting because it is accurate. At the end of the 2009 season, the Mets transmitted every impression they were insular and out of touch with the circumstances that were defining their reality. They didn’t seem to hear their fan base; they didn’t seem to notice the standings; they seemed intent on existing in their own diminishing state of being.
They’ve changed their approach on several fronts, surely for the better in some cases, hopefully for the best in terms of what we can’t yet fully measure. All told, the Mets may have slowly U-turned toward a happier destiny.
There’s a long way to go before Metropolitan nirvana fully materializes, but it’s better to be heading incrementally in that direction than floating helplessly away from it.
Following are six instances in 2010 — presented in chronological order — in which our baseball team stopped doing what it had been doing to its undeniable detriment and took a different tack after realizing there was no winning in staying the course.
1) The Mets Hall of Fame & Museum Opens
If opening a new stadium with the barest of nods to the team-in-residence’s past was a boneheaded move (compounded by the overwhelming de facto homage to another team altogether), the Mets’ rectification of that original sin stands as Citi Field’s play of the year. The Mets Hall of Fame & Museum is everything a Mets fan and baseball fan could ask for. It shines an accurate light on the franchise’s colorful and textured history; it tells a complete (if mostly success-skewed) story to visitors in easily digestible chapters; it offers lessons remedial and advanced to fans of all Met-knowledge levels; and it puts anybody showing up for a Mets game in a great mood for the day or night at hand.
There might be a bit too much space devoted to selling high-end Objets d’art (what’s with the pricey decadent batting helmets?) and it’s a little obnoxious that you have to bull your way through almost all of the team store to exit, but those logistics don’t detract from the overall presentation. Impartation of information has never felt sunnier. The Mets, in this space, have rarely come across warmer.
In the same vein, the eight-year absence of Mets Hall of Fame selection and induction came to an end in 2010, and what a welcome sight it was to see four new members of the Hall receive the recognition they long ago deserved. Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Davey Johnson and Frank Cashen formed a formidable class and were the exact right group to kickstart what will hopefully be an ongoing tradition in the summers to come.
2) Ike Davis Replaces Mike Jacobs
Perhaps it was inevitable. Perhaps it was just a paper move, keeping top prospect Ike Davis, who had earned the starting first base job in St. Lucie, at Triple-A to start the season. Limit the kid’s service time, maintain control of him longer: that’s how these things are explained.
But what a message the Mets sent by trying to kill time at first with an over-the-hill Mike Jacobs for two full weeks of the 2010 season. That position was supposed to be Daniel Murphy’s for the short term (a questionable enough decision considering Davis emerged as the clear choice in Spring Training), but Murphy got hurt and the Mets turned to Jacobs to begin the season, a period in which the Mets went 4-8. Six starts at first for Jacobs, five for Fernando Tatis, one for the instantly forgettable Frank Catalanotto (in which the pride of Smithtown mysteriously batted cleanup)…all while Davis was tearing up the International League, with an OPS of 1.136 in his first ten games.
Ike sparked the Mets upon his April 19 recall, helping to key a 10-1 run and a rise into first-half contention that was unimaginable with Jacobs soaking up plate appearances. If the Mets didn’t maintain the 39-24 pace of Jacobs’ first two months in the majors, his presence at least provided him his necessary big-league baptism and the rest of us a chance to hope. Neither was insignificant.
The Mets were caught a little in-between in the first half of the season. If 2010 was going to be a year devoted to rebuilding, then there was no reason to not give Davis every possible shot to succeed. If 2010 was going to be viewed as a genuine opportunity to compete, there was nothing about sticking with Jacobs (or Tatis) that was going to help that cause. There was little to recommend Mike Jacobs, and it took the Mets not months but weeks to figure that out.
It took a little longer to give up on the viability of Gary Matthews, and then a few others who didn’t fit into sharp long-term planning, but the Jacobs/Davis tangle was the most vexing to sit through and the most satisfying to watch get sorted. Ike’s promotion and Mike’s designation for assignment was a bellwether for Met progress.
3) Mets Reach Out to Bloggers
Admittedly this is a boutique concern within the greater universe of Mets priorities, and certainly something of more specific interest to the likes of yours truly than to all Mets-lovers, but I wouldn’t undersell its significance. What are we Mets bloggers except fans who channel their passion with constancy, intensity and an audience? Very few of us make any kind of living from wielding this particular megaphone. We express ourselves about the Mets because we care too much not to. You read us and interact accordingly for the same basic reason.
Those who write these blogs and those who read them form a critical mass of what in marketing are called heavy users. The loosely knit blogging community — which very much encompasses the reader population (you there on the other side of this screen included) — are the Mets fans who are going to watch the most Mets games, who are going to attend the most Mets games, who are likely to invest in the most Mets stuff and are most readily going to offer their opinions, their applause and their criticism of everything about the Mets.
Somewhere in the past year, the Mets picked up on what had become a thriving segment of the media that covers their product. We started our blog in 2005. It wasn’t until 2008 that we learned anybody associated with the Mets knew (or acknowledged) we existed. It wasn’t until 2010 that anybody tapped us on the shoulder in an official capacity. By traditional media standards, it wasn’t much: press releases e-mailed to us; limited credentials issued to cover batting practice a couple of times; and the assurance that if we had a question, somebody somewhere would try to answer it. This would be no big deal to the guy at the Times or the News or ESPN New York. It was a huge deal to us, because we are not traditional media. We’re fans. None of us, I suspect, started our blogs as an entrée to working for the Times or the News or ESPN. We do it because we’re into the Mets in ways that transcend professional niceties like a paycheck. We’re into the Mets in ways that beat reporters probably couldn’t fathom while trying to meet their deadlines.
The relationship between our community and the Mets organization is a work-in-progress on both ends. I’d like to think because there is a relationship that I’m learning a few things that will inform what I write and that you’re a little better served as a result. But that’s the detached media analyst in me speaking. The fan in me thinks it’s cool I got to go on the field a couple of times, got to interview a couple of players, got to write about the experience because it was something different. But the thing is I’m still a fan. I don’t really want to have “sources” and cultivate “access”. I like that the Mets reached out to me and about a dozen of my blolleagues — talk to us, you’re talking to every Mets fan who reads our work. I suppose the same equation goes for talking to beat reporters, but with us, the proverbial middleman is eliminated. We process what we see, hear and learn as fans. Otherwise, because it’s not our job, we wouldn’t be doing it.
It couldn’t hurt, I’m almost certain.
4) Omar Minaya and Jerry Manuel Are Shown the Door
This was the most obvious manifestation of the realizations that defined 2010. The general manager whose machinations had once led an organization to the cusp of greatness was no longer receiving the benefit of the doubt. The manager whose teams’ shortcomings didn’t all necessarily land on his shoulders was allocated, at last, a good share of blame for all that had gone wrong on his watch.
Nobody was making much of a brief for retaining Minaya or Manuel for 2011. But few were banging the drums on their behalf after 2009, and they received full votes of confidence from ownership. To be fair (even though I had no desire to see either of them again after the disaster of ’09), it wasn’t out of the question that they couldn’t have joined forces to revive the franchise’s fortunes in 2010. They were given the opportunity. Revival didn’t occur. They were removed. It had to be done, and it was done.
That’s not always how it goes with the Mets. Let’s be glad this time it was.
5) Mets Recalibrate Ticket Prices
While the new general manager took off on his lengthy search for a new manager, the Mets went to great pains to announce they were cutting ticket prices. Some ticket prices, not all ticket prices. Some they’d be raising, but not that much. Others would be reclassified for a better buy. It may not have presented a perfect solution for everybody’s pocketbook or desires, but it was, I believe, a huge moment for the organization. It was when humility was penciled into the starting lineup as hubris was sent to the bench.
For two seasons of Citi Field, the Mets have positioned their ballpark as something we are lucky that they let us enjoy. They’ve priced their tickets accordingly. When it sunk in that the park was good, not great, and that the team was bad, not good, the tickets went largely unsold and/or unused. Facing a season in which competitive aspirations will likely be modest, the Mets realized their inventory needed to be moved in a more realistic manner. So the pricing came down…in many cases.
I don’t expect 2011’s marketing theme to be “We’re Not Very Good, But Come Out Anyway.” I understand there’s probably a segment of fans that just as soon have their hopes raised in December rather than have their immediate future honestly portrayed. But the Mets did the right and realistic thing by inching away from that overbearing vibe of We’re Great, Everything We Do Is Great, Give Us Your Money In Vast Quantities Immediately. It didn’t work. It hasn’t worked since 2006. It’s taken until 2010 to admit it wasn’t working. What matters is it’s been admitted.
They’ve improved the pricing. They seem intent on genuinely improving the product. The business will follow. Offering a better ballclub is a far more promising proposition than strongly implying we have one and you’re the idiots for not grasping it.
6) Sandy Alderson Sets the Stage for 2011
Hisanori Takahashi’s versatility as a starter, a middle reliever and a closer was the brightest pitching surprise of 2010 this side of R.A. Dickey. Pedro Feliciano’s been the pitching equivalent of a theater’s ghost light — always on. Chris Carter showed signs of developing into a lefty pinch-hitter deluxe in the dependable mold of Kranepool, Staub and Harris. Sean Green is still young, still live-armed and turned in some very decent outings toward season’s end. And John Maine started the last postseason win the Mets ever celebrated.
They all had something to recommend them for 2011, yet they’ve all been let go by Sandy Alderson since he became the head of baseball operations for the New York Mets. What’s more, Alderson has declared that two of the roster’s cornerstone players entering next year, Dickey and Jose Reyes, will not be approached for contract extensions in the coming months. And, oh yes, don’t expect any big-name, big-money signings any time soon.
You know what? Great. Not because I don’t want good players on the Mets, or players I like to stay with the Mets, but because Sandy Alderson deserves every chance to ascertain what this team needs. If it means saying goodbye to one of the staples of Met life in Feliciano because Alderson doesn’t want to commit too many years to his well-worn pitching arm; or not being swayed to an expensive, multiyear commitment to Takahashi based on a relatively small sample; or writing off one of the good guys in Carter because maybe we can do better than a one-dimensional batter taking up 1/25th of the roster; or not nailing down a careerlong agreement with my favorite player in Reyes because who knows if we’ve seen the best of Jose, I can live with that.
The Mets need more whole than parts. There have been some nice parts who played some nice games these past few years, but it hasn’t added up to anything positive along the Mets’ bottom line. Similarly, I was juiced to welcome Jason Bay last winter and Francisco Rodriguez the winter before that, but I don’t always have to have a new toy for Christmas (especially considering how quickly both of those items turned defective).
It’s not thrilling to think of the Mets in terms of budgets and financial maneuverability, but it is their reality for 2011. Constructing an optimal jettison strategy for Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez is part of the Mets’ agenda. I’d be happier if Alderson would simply make them disappear this instant, but there is logic to getting them to Spring Training and seeing what they can do and who they might entice. If this sounds like a double-standard…we’d be steaming at Omar for not dumping them once and for all…that’s OK, too. Omar expended his benefit of the doubt. Sandy’s has only just begun.
This isn’t a perpetual bargain with the current powers that be, mind you. If everything a year from now amounts to poor-mouthing and rationalizing and cutting ties with beloved figures, and it all come out as some mutated form of Moneyball executed for saving’s sake, then Alderson & Co. will be held to the same standards as Minaya’s or any other regime. For now, though, the new front office represents the most crucial Met realization: that what came before wasn’t making the Mets better and that it’s time to try something else that stands a chance of doing exactly that.
It’s as if Realpolitik has replaced magical thinking.
FAITH AND FEAR’S PREVIOUS
NIKON CAMERA PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
2005: The WFAN broadcast team of Gary Cohen and Howie Rose
2006: Shea Stadium
2008: The 162-Game Schedule
2009: Two Hands
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