Looking back, you could see that as the last moment when the sports business was at human scale, a club where everybody knew who was who.
—Richard Ben Cramer, Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life 
Why wouldn’t you want to be around baseball in December? It’s so much better than everything else December has to offer.
Tuesday, December 14, offered biting winds, stubborn patches of snow and a fistful of Mets whose job for a couple of hours consisted of
1) Handing out gifts to kids.
2) Dispensing thoughts to writers.
That’s what I call a good Tuesday in December.
The Mets held their annual holiday party for children yesterday, the event best known specifically for Anna Benson giving new meaning to the word “elf ” in December 2005 and, more generally, presaging some form of eventual doom for most every Met who dresses up as Santa Claus (like Kris Benson, traded to Baltimore in January 2006). As part of the Mets Bloggers Perceived Legitimacy Tour, I accepted an invitation to cover the festivities at Citi Field. I took it to mean there’d be some standing around and watching David Wright’s lap covered in tots, if not Anna Benson.
It was more than that. Spiritually, it was a lift. It was December and baseball people prowled the baseball premises as if it was June. I was on the 7 to Mets-Willets Point, a trip I don’t make as a rule after (early) October. I walked in the VIP entrance dubbed “Seaver” and couldn’t help but feel terrific.
Directed vaguely toward the Acela Club from an unusual starting point — hang a left, there’s an elevator somewhere — I rose to the Excelsior level and attempted to rise to the occasion. I opened the door to the swanky establishment that’s usually expertly guarded, and there was everybody…as much everybody as a baseball fan needed for a hint that this was no ordinary winter’s day in a deep and dark December. There was Marty Noble from mlb.com; Steve Popper from the Record; Andy “Speedo ” Martino from the News; ESPN’s Adam Rubin in the lobby, but not lobbying  anybody; Ed Coleman and Sweeny Murti from WFAN (Murti was on assignment for MLB Network); Channel 4’s Bruce Beck; Channel 11’s Lolita Lopez…
And that was just the media, or the people most people wouldn’t notice. I was there in blogging form, being even less noticeable, I suppose. I found my Mets contact, who told me what my kind and I would be doing for the rest of the day: not standing around watching kids gets presents, but standing around waiting for the players. We were Group Three — the bloggers (me; Steve Keane of The Eddie Kranepool Societ y; Matt Artus of Always Amazin’ ; Rob Castellano of Amazin’ Avenue  (with his brother Mike working the video camera); and Jim Mancari from Mets Merized Online ). My Mets contact didn’t call us Group Three, but that’s what we were. The Mets who would talk would rotate from Group One (print and radio) to Group Two (TV) to us, when they got to us.
So there’d be some waiting around, but not without a purpose.
As David Kringled and Ike Davis, Carlos Beltran Jason Bay elved — and while Mr. Met silently absorbed the children’s’ cheers — we waited behind a black curtain in the area of the Acela you can press your nose to if you’re in the Left Field Landing. The print people were fed Collins, the TV cameras Alderson. Then vice-versa. We had each other, along with an outstanding view of the field, which was glazed in frost, its cushiest home plate seats blanketed by a tarp. Baseball wasn’t out there Tuesday. It was in here.
After a few minutes that went on forever, we were presented with the jolly man all dressed in red and brimming with good tidings. No, not a stray elf, but the twentieth manager of the New York Mets.
That stuff you heard about Terry Collins being full of energy? It’s an understatement. If Terry Collins could have been safely drilled by British Petroleum, the Gulf of Mexico would be a cleaner body of water today. Terry Collins is all the energy source you could ever need.
He wore a holiday red shirt with a decorative tie to match. Given that Cliff Lee was in the air if not the room, somebody couldn’t help but kidding Terry that he was wearing Phillies’ colors.
Terry Collins refuted that instantly, on the off chance somebody meant it. It’s not Phillies red, he said. It’s Christmas red. It was selected pre-Lee. Terry Collins was not just energetic. He was prepared. And he had answers.
Terry Collins wasn’t scared of Cliff Lee and the Phillies, at least not exclusively. The Braves? They have daunting pitching, too, but nobody here is scared. Collins told us he’d address the past with his players — they’d had some collapses here, he knew — but it’s a “brand new day” in Flushing,
The brand new day the day before brought the naming of several brand new coaches, so I asked Terry how he would work with them, specifically, what does a manager delegate and what does he take upon himself? I like to ask questions about things in plain sight that nobody ever usually takes the time to explain, and Terry was happy to explain that he and his coaches are all in this together, and that if somebody sees something that isn’t necessarily his department, he’s gonna say something.
I don’t doubt Terry Collins knows his baseball or that he’s been waiting for a do-over off his awful Angels experience (which he brought up, indirectly, invoking names like Gary DiSarcina to illustrate injury epidemics that your opponents don’t feel sorry for you over), and goodness knows he’s got the energy…but listening to Terry Collins seemed surprisingly familiar to me despite having never met the man before. Then it hit me: Terry Collins is every peppy entrepreneur I ever interviewed at a trade show. I’d have a list of booths to cover, and now and then I’d get someone who really believed in his product. This is the best ready-to-drink tea on the market! This will have the finest distribution any new product could possibly have! We are pumped!
There’s worse things than having an entrepreneurial manager selling you on his team. Or himself.
I might have followed up about coaches, as I was wondering how much input a new manager has on staffing, especially in the brand new world in which this front office has a reputation for knowing what’s best, but Mets PR came by to cover Terry’s red shirt in a COLLINS 10 jersey and he was whisked away to pitch his wares elsewhere. Instantly, he was replaced in our midst by Sandy Alderson.
Maybe it was the bloggers conference call  the previous Friday or his hour-plus with Mike Francesa Monday or that he has literally become the face of Amazin’/Alderson Avenue, but I’ve gotten very used to Sandy Alderson being around as Mets GM. In almost no time, he’s come to fit like a comfortable pair of shoes — no, make that a comfortable vest, like the vest Sandy seems to always wear when not manning a podium. Sandy was vested again Tuesday. Tanned, vested and ready, you might say (except for no particular sign of a tan).
It isn’t just the vest that makes Sandy an easy fit. He seems like a normal person. Omar didn’t. Steve Phillips didn’t. They always seemed to be performing when interviewed (granted, I made this judgment from a distance). Jim Duquette didn’t seem abnormal, but he also didn’t seem altogether at ease with talking to total strangers about the details of his profession. Alderson, in the early going, has. We were strangers and we wanted details, and he didn’t have to struggle to provide them. It was like we were talking to a person who didn’t mind talking back.
With Lee’s signing  still haunting the proceedings, there was a question about pitching, and Sandy reiterated some points from the other night about looking for pitching, and how he figured there’d be better stock available later than now. Then he elaborated in a way I don’t think Minaya or Duquette or Phillips would have. The Mets, Alderson explained, would have to be “passive-aggressive” though they’d like to be “aggressive-aggressive”. He then likened the process to car-shopping, and how you test-drive a model, but sooner or later, you have to decide whether you’re actually going to buy.
For the first time in a lifetime spent monitoring the activities of Met general managers, I really got a sense of what must go through your head/gut when you’re making those decisions. I hated having to buy a car so much, I’m still  driving a model purchased from before Brett Favre began his just-ended starting streak (unlike Favre, it can still go). Baseball players cost more than cars. And it’s not your money. The Mets wouldn’t be buying a Leemobile, but it was quite a commitment to sign a pitcher, I realized.
The pitching conversation masquerading as car talk revved my motor, so I asked a pitching question. What, I wanted to know, was the deal, with GMs who say they’re going to look for a “fifth starter”? Omar always said that and it drove me crazy. Thus, putting aside the Mets’ need to be contingency-oriented/passive-aggressive because there’s relatively little time remaining before Spring Training (I tend to overqualify my questions in the hope my interview subject won’t feel compelled to answer them twice), I wondered in as pleasant a way as possible whether this wasn’t just cheap loser talk for the most barely passable pitcher on the market and how do you build a rotation under optimal circumstances while avoiding “fifth-starter types”?
I ask questions like those in other businesses and I usually get a long stare followed by “I’m not totally sure I understand what you’re asking…” but Sandy compressed whatever confusion I may have elicited into a couple of seconds and flowed right into an answer. Yes, he smiled, that’s become “almost a cliché” among general managers; he’s had “two or three” clubs mention their desire for a “fifth starter” lately and that it’s basically code for not wanting to trade prospects to get a pitcher. On a broader philosophical spectrum, Sandy says he’s not likely to identify pitchers numerically as a 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 starter.
None of this means that the Mets won’t wind up with the most barely passable pitcher they can find, but I appreciated having a little GMspeak broken down for me. “So that’s what they mean when they say ‘we’re looking for a fifth starter…wow.” Another baseball fog had lifted inside my head.
One other nugget I noticed from Sandy: To a question about the emphasis the Mets might or might not put on speed, he noted “we” led the league in stolen bases last year. When Collins mentioned collapses, it was “they”. Neither of them was here for the situation in question, but it was a good lesson: Take ownership of the positive, don’t touch the negative.
Half-nugget from within the speed dialogue: Jose Reyes, according to Sandy, ought to get his on-base percentage up.
Alderson got whisked, and we started getting players. First up, Ike Davis, whom I had no idea how much I missed. Except in passing, I hadn’t thought a lot about Ike Davis since October 3. He was a name on a projected lineup for two months. Now, if only in civvies (draped by DAVIS 29), he was a Met again. A Met in the flesh, no more than three feet from me.
In December — a better month than it’s given credit for being.
How about Cliff Lee? Ike’s “not nervous” at having to face the most newsworthy lefty in the game.
How about Terry Collins? Doesn’t really know him, looks forward to playing for him, but he’s totally into his old Buffalo manager, Ken Oberkfell, coming aboard as bench coach. A great guy, says Ike — he has an “old-school mentality” (Ike’s 23; what wouldn’t be old school to him?).
Second base? This was my question because in my heart of hearts I want Ruben Tejada playing on Ike’s right come Opening Day. The sensible thing is to wish Tejada more seasoning, like a steak, but the best part of 2010 to me was watching those two sizzling before the season commenced to fizzling. I wasn’t seeking an endorsement of new-school Ruben (who turned 21 recently) but some insight on what a first baseman thinks of having so many different second basemen nearby. Ike has less than a year of service time, yet he’s already lined up alongside six different second basemen and more are supposed to be on the way. So Ike, does it matter?
To my mild surprise, it does, at least to Davis. “Every person plays it with a different character,” he said. Some are “quiet”. Some are “vocal”. If Ike had his druthers, he’d play next to a vocal second baseman. He likes the communication.
I never knew that was a consideration, though I can infer which under-contract second baseman seems a little too quiet.
Ike is not too quiet nor is he too loud. He’s just right (if not Wright). After five or six minutes of being part of a multi-blogger chat with him, I remembered my appraisal of him from midseason. I fell in baseball-love with this kid early on for how, like Sandy Alderson’s vest, he seemed to fit so perfectly. He was the rookie who was slapping and clapping and seemed seamlessly in the middle of things. At the time I noticed it, he was hitting up a storm, so who wouldn’t be happy? But on TV and from the stands, I got a sense of cool about the kid — not Arthur Fonzarelli aaaayyyy (talk about an old-school reference), but self-assuredness. I loved watching Ike Davis. I liked talking to Ike Davis. I will relish his return to a full Mets uniform in a couple of months.
Then he was gone and replaced by Carlos Beltran, and I must confess that if there was one Met who gave me a couple of seconds’ pause, as in OMG, CB RIGHT HERE!!!!, it was this one. Internally, I wasn’t cool at all that this was Carlos Beltran entering our ad hoc baseball circle. I was dumbfounded…CARLOS BELTRAN IS GOING TO TALK TO US! I was even impressed that Carlos Beltran’s mole showed up. I never noticed the mole until the smart-ass set pointed it out some years ago, but once you’re aware of it, you stay aware of it.
This also crossed my mind: I watched a Mets winter event much like this one not quite six years ago — introducing their new star center fielder — and I was struck that Carlos Beltran was a good-looking man, perhaps the best-looking Met I’d ever seen. It’s not a distinction I’d ever personally tracked, but not only were we getting power and speed and defense in January 2005…we were getting handsome.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Beltran’s mole. Beltran’s style. Beltran’s All-Star appearances and Silver Sluggers and Gold Gloves and all that glittered until he was injured in 2009. As I came back to earth and decided he’s a Met like Ike and everybody else here, I could think of only one thing to ask:
“How are you feeling?”
A player’s been hurt, that’s what you ask. Years ago I read A Player For A Moment , a great book by John Hough, Jr., a writer who was a Red Sox fan masquerading as a Red Sox reporter. This was before there were blogs, so it was even weirder for him then it was for us yesterday. The Red Sox manager, John McNamara, had no real use for him — or all that much for the regular writers. But one subject could always break the ice.
“What can I do for you, gentlemen?” he says softly.
“What the news on Crawford?” someone says.
These sessions almost always begin with a medical question. McNamara doesn’t mind medical questions, and it’s a way to get him talking, to get the conversation off the ground without ticking him off.
“Crawford’s on the DL,” McNamara says graciously. “He said he felt something like fire in his elbow when he threw in Seattle. He threw a slider, I think it was.”
Everyone scribbles. Some hold their thin notebooks in the cup of their palm; others bend down with their notebooks laid against their thighs.
“What the word on Stanley?” someone asks.
“Stanley’s throwing normal. He’s fine.”
Everyone takes it down, and after this cordial beginning silence shoulders up between the manager and his audience.
I thought of that exchange as Beltran answered how he was doing by telling us he was “doing good,” that he’s “not 100%” but he’s “better” than he was last year. He’s training hard, and it’s a good sign his knee is holding up.
Carlos was friendly while telling us this, but I figured this is one of the two things he’s been asked about all day — his health when it comes to playing ball, and whether he and the Mets are figuratively playing ball. The last GM did not distinguish himself  when word came down about Beltran’s unauthorized surgery last winter. Wrapped within everyone’s curiosity about his relations with the organization that owes him one more whopping sum for one more season is where his knees are going to patrol: center as they always have, or right as might (might) make sense.
Two responses, delivered without rancor and amid confirming he’ll do what’s best for the team:
1) “I’m the center fielder of the New York Mets, I haven’t heard anything different.”
2) “I’m an employee of the New York Mets.”
There was a question about his running game maybe returning with the health of his knee. He’s not 22 anymore, he said.
Carlos Beltran isn’t yet 34. He’s still good-looking, but after six seasons of a seven-year contract, he seems so much older.
Next, Jason Bay, whose first question also had to be about health. To be honest, I’d almost forgotten about Jason Bay being a Met. He was concussed in July, a victim of the Dodger Stadium left field bullpen gate, and, in that “he’s day-to-day” world of Met injuries, was never seen again in 2010. When our PR contact mentioned “Ike and Carlos and Jason” would be here, I had to wrack my non-concussed brain.
Jason? Jason Who?
Good to be reminded of Jason Bay on Tuesday. We asked him if his head was back on straight. He’s over what ailed him, he said. All better now — hasn’t felt any aftereffects since September. The recovery was slow because they told him if he had headaches, stay away from the ballpark. He had a headache throughout August. It was bad enough to keep him from playing with his kids, let alone his teammates. I inquired into what approach he’d take toward left field walls, if that’s going to be different in light of his miserable experience, and he said it can’t be. It’s all “instinct” chasing fly balls. It’s not like a hamstring with which you can, theoretically, be careful. A ball needs to be chased and caught.
I hope that level head of his remains undisturbed not just because he’s a big part of any Met offense that’s going to be generated in 2011 (“it’s not about me hitting home runs, it’s about us winning games”) but because he issued the line of the day. Steve Keane asked about media and pressure and listed all the potential noisemakers in a player’s life — TV, print, blogs…at which point Jason interrupted him.
“You guys consider yourselves media?”
Jason Bay made me laugh.
On the other hand, David Wright, still dressed as Santa (sans hat), made me think. I’ve been rolling my eyes for years at the David-addiction everybody who is considered media seems to have. Based on available evidence (what I read and what I watch), the beat guys must stream straight to David’s locker after every game. And the Daveotronic 5000, by my reckoning, spewed quotes for every occasion. He wasn’t painfully bland about it, but he was just so…ubiquitous. I’ve wished for years somebody else could take the weight off David’s postgame shoulders. I thought they had assembled an ideal crew for that task last year, but Bay went out, Barajas and Francoeur were traded and by season’s end, it was David not so much against the world but left alone  to cope with it.
Our final ten minutes, spent with David Wright, made me think that if I had a job that demanded I gather quotes from Mets, of course I’d go to this guy’s locker. David dripped niceness yesterday. He could have been dripping sweat from the Santa Claus outfit, since he’d been wearing it quite a while, but I’m pretty sure it was niceness. He’d been answering questions for kids on the other side of the curtain, he’d been answering questions for (undisputed) media in other clusters, now he was with us. And he didn’t break stride. We, who could do nothing for him, received the same kind of treatment he gave everybody.
Steve Garvey was said to be like that, but it was also discovered nice Steve Garvey was at least a bit of an act . Gary Carter was said to be like that, but Gary Carter, when you listened between the lines, transcended niceness into relentless self-promotion. My first-hand evidence is scant (it’s all from yesterday, sprinkled with here-and-there anecdotes I’ve picked up over the years), but I’d say David Wright seems genuinely nice.
That’s not a small thing, whatever outfit you’re in.
We had to ask Wright about the Phillies and Cliff Lee. He affirmed they’re good. We had to ask about Terry Collins and Sandy Alderson. He praised Terry’s “passion” and Sandy’s “vision”. I had to ask what it’s like to be on his third regime-change, having lived through Art to Willie, then Willie to Jerry, now Jerry to Terry.
“Four,” he said (nicely). “I was here for Art Howe.”
I didn’t argue the semantics between regimes and regime-changes, but that charmed me. Don’t forget Art Howe.
(As if we could.)
He mentioned feeling bad that good people lost their jobs because the team didn’t do well. When asked about Howard Johnson no longer being hitting coach, he doubled down on the sentiment: that HoJo meant a lot to his career. It wasn’t said with bitterness, but he wasn’t so quick to simply brush aside one coach for the other .
Somewhere as he talked, he mentioned “seven years,” as in seven years a Met, soon to be eight. Young David Wright was now in-his-prime David Wright. David Wright had indeed been here since Art Howe. He had indeed been here for the lousy Mets, the improving Mets, the super Mets, the devastatingly disappointing Mets, the deteriorating Mets and, sadly, the lousy Mets again. Nevertheless, here was the third baseman who halted forever the Mets Third Basemen Count (it’s 143 now, but nobody actively tracks it); the hitter who regularly drives in more than a hundred runs annually; the Met who will, 270 safeties from now, have more base hits than any Met in the half-century that there have been New York Mets. By first persevering and then excelling, David Wright has edged toward becoming one of the best Mets ever.
I asked him if he had any thoughts about being two seasons away, “God willing,” from the hit record.
He laughed as if I’d asked if he would like to spend more time on the bench. The record, held since 1976 by Ed Kranepool , is not on his radar. He never looks at his stats on the “JumboTron,” he said. Seriously — it was practically the craziest thing he’d ever heard!
So I reframed the question: You said yourself “seven years,” which is a long time, and you’re “one of the best players we’ve ever had here” (as I used first-person plural, I was quite gratified to not consider myself media). In so many words, I was asking, do you understand your place in the history of this organization?
First, he thanked me in a real taken-aback way that I (some dude off the street, for all he knew) would tell him he was one of the best Mets ever. And he did say “sometimes you have to pinch yourself” that you’re mentioned among all-time greats, including players he grew up idolizing himself as a Mets fan. But he made clear that he’s kind of “pessimistic” about his performance, that he dwells more on the hits he doesn’t get than the ones he does (which truly makes him a Mets fan).
He could have left it at that, but he kept going, referring to “unfinished business” for the team. He hasn’t won “anything” in his time here (though he did acknowledge the 2006 division title in passing), so there’s not that much to enjoy for him, no matter his personal accolades. The city, he judged, is not impressed by “individual performances,” and he didn’t blame them at all. At that moment, I could imagine him jumping into a cab, heading to LaGuardia and hopping a plane to St. Lucie, all without shedding his Father Christmas get-up.
I can see why the Mets ask David Wright to play Santa Claus. Nobody seems better suited to give of himself.
A manager, a general manager, four key players — the Mets gave us plenty. A year ago they wouldn’t have given us the time of day, but as Terry Collins said, it’s a brand new day. As I wound my way out of the Seaver gate and back to my mundane non-baseball existence down the 7 tracks, I was reminded by the wind off Flushing Bay that Tuesday was also a too damn cold day.
But you can’t have everything in the middle of December. Otherwise what would Santa do with himself come the 25th?