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The Post-R.A. World

The Mets have made what seems like a very good trade. But I hate that they’re making it.

After David Wright was re-signed, I wrote [1] that I was happy but not particularly celebratory — retaining Wright struck me as a no-brainer, the kind of thing a franchise in decent working order would of course do. Back then the R.A. Dickey trade talk was a worst-case scenario, and I lumped Dickey in with Wright: 20-game winner, just won Cy Young Award, beloved by fans, not looking to break the bank, should be good for more years than his age should indicate. Of course you re-sign a guy like that. If you don’t, something’s really wrong. Right?

Well, sorta. As the unimaginable worst-case scenario turned into a maybe and then a probably and now a near-definite, my thinking changed a bit. Dickey is a knuckleballer and knuckleballers tend to pitch deep into their autumns, it’s true. But one of the most interesting things of the many interesting things about Dickey is what makes him different as a knuckleballer. Dickey subscribes to the Zen of Knuckleballing, yes, but he also does things with the pitch that few if any knuckleballers have. He changes speeds and locates it with far more precision than we’re used to, turning its fundamental chaos into a smaller-scale tactic.

The point is that having celebrated all the ways Dickey isn’t a conventional knuckleballer, it’s lazy to assume he is one when we discuss how he’ll age. He’s 38, throws harder than typical knuckleballers, and famously lacks an ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing arm. He might age like Hoyt Wilhelm or Phil Niekro, in which case 38 is nothing — but he also might age like a more conventional pitcher, in which case 38 is nearing the end. Anyone who tells you for sure is either from the future or full of it. In this as in so many things, R.A. Dickey is unique.

The Mets, meanwhile, have on-field problems to go with their copious off-field woes. Yes, they’ve re-signed Wright, but besides the Jekyll-and-Hyde bat of Ike Davis, he’s basically naked in the lineup — and when Wright’s trying to do too much, things get depressing in a hurry. No prospect is a sure thing, but baseball folks generally agree that Travis d’Arnaud projects pretty soon as a solid defensive catcher and a 20-HR bat, potentially turning a difficult-to-fill position that had been a black hole into a big positive. We’re still left with an outfield that actually makes you yearn for Agbayani-Payton-Hamilton, but it’s something. And that’s without considering the rather wonderfully named Noah Syndergaard, who also impresses generally sober-minded talent evaluators. The Mets may have sold as high as possible on a 38-year-old pitcher, which is a pretty good trick.

And yet perhaps they’re throwing away years of magic. Because whatever the outcome, the Mets are trading R.A. Dickey.

It’s horrible to write, horrible to read, horrible to think about. And it lands us right back in the depressing morass that has engulfed this team — the inescapable reality that the Mets are broke, an insolvent club being kept afloat by the commissioner of baseball’s shameful willingness to abrogate his responsibilities in order to protect his cronies. Supposedly there’s a plan to escape this mess, one that impressed Wright enough to buy in. But if you’re a mere fan of this team you don’t get to hear about it — you get denial and dishonesty. No one connected with the Mets seems interested in countering the dour analyses of the Mets’ current situation, which makes me conclude they’re fairly accurate. No one will tell us when this will end or if it will end. And nobody seems to care that it is doing corrosive, lasting damage to this franchise and its fanbase.

The Dickey trade is a fascinating one [2] — you could argue about it at the bar until the glasses are polished and every other stool is upside down atop tables and still not have come to a definitive conclusion. But it can’t be argued about as just a baseball move, because nothing with the Mets these days is just a baseball move. Everything comes overshadowed by the stuff we’d rather not think about or explain to our kids.

And it’s R.A. Dickey we’re losing.

I’ve written [3] that if Dickey didn’t exist, bloggers like us would have had to make him up. But he does exist — and he turned out to be much more interesting than the W.P. Kinsella character we would have created. Candid, reflective, philosophical, goofy — he’s everything I dreamed athletes could be while accepting that they generally aren’t. He names bats after Tolkien weapons and is a Star Wars dork and talks about baseball the way we like to talk about it. And, on top of all that, he’s a world-class athlete, a ferocious competitor who fought his way through countless travails to succeed on a huge stage. Few Mets have ever filled me with as much anticipation and wonder and simple joy as Dickey did, and it is beyond awful to have all of that taken away.

So what are we to do? Where does this leave us?

If you’re coolly calculating and rational about the trade, I’m reluctantly with you. If you’re heartbroken and furious, I’m with you too.

All I know is I desperately want to cheer for a normal franchise again. I want to root for a team that doesn’t require me to learn about debt obligations and amortization to guess whether we’ll be competitive in 2013 or 2015 or never. I want to root for a team that allows me to presume electric batting champs and cerebral Cy Young award winners will be kept, or at least let go for pure baseball reasons.

And, well, one more thing. I want to root for a team that doesn’t send players out the door with switchblades sticking out of their backs. The Mets’ sliming Dickey for answering reporters’ contract questions at a media event was deplorable [4] — as was the normally rational Ken Davidoff deciding to audition [5] for the role of the Twitter age’s Dick Young. (Next time I want to mock Wright for being deliberately bland after a game, I’ll remember what happened to Dickey for being candid and interesting.) And this isn’t the first time anonymous sources have done such things — the Walter Reed media hit [6] on Carlos Beltran, Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo is one of the more shameful episodes in franchise history. I don’t know who’s behind this stuff, and frankly I don’t care. Whether it’s someone on the business side, ownership, or some ambitious Carvel sprinkle applier, I just want it to stop. It’s ugly and amateurish and embarrassing, and we’ve got plenty of that as it is.

So, again, what do we do? I suspect we’ll do what we always do — we’ll watch the games and grouse and fret, but over time that will recede, because baseball is the highest art form yet created by humankind, so that not even humans can utterly screw it up. I’m genuinely excited to see a full season of Matt Harvey, and to see if Ike and Ruben and Murph can build on intriguing years, and to wonder if poor Lucas Duda can figure something out, and to applaud David’s well-earned C, and pretty soon I’ll be able to recognize Travis d’Arnaud from some little thing in his batting stance, and Zack Wheeler will be burning it up at Las Vegas, and maybe Noah Syndergaard will have been just promoted to Binghamton, and we’ll be enmeshed in new storylines.

But if that doesn’t work, well … the Toronto Blue Jays somehow now employ R.A. Dickey and Jose Reyes. It’s a great city. The intersections with the Mets are few and far between. You can still hate the Yankees. Adultery is wrong in baseball as in everything else, but we can all make a convincing case for alienation of affections.

Jays fever — temporarily catch it!