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The Sorrow and the Pity

The Mets are bad and will continue to be bad for the rest of the season. That I’ve basically made my peace with.

They have the second-worst record in the National League. Since winning seven of their first eleven games, they’ve lost 17 of 24. Nobody’s scored fewer runs among N.L. teams dating back to the Sunday one month ago that the Mets were chased out of Minnesota by freezing rain, while only the Dodgers have allowed more runs. The Mets’ run differential of -43 over this period is the league’s worst. That indicates a team that doesn’t hit, doesn’t pitch and doesn’t field not doing all of it at once over a statistically significant span of the season.

On the season as a whole, the Mets are 6-2 when Matt Harvey starts, 8-19 when somebody else does, including 0-7 when Monday night’s starter, Jeremy Hefner, takes the mound. The last time the Mets began a season 14-21 was 2003, when they finished 66-95. The last time the Mets posted a worse mark through their first 35 games was 1993, when they commenced 12-23 and concluded 59-103.

Yet I watch these bad Mets. Their telecasts are entertaining because of their announcers. Their postgame shows are mesmerizing because of their excuses. Terry Collins can be counted on to mention how close the scores of these losses generally are, as if being “in it” is akin to winning. Hefner, whether he’s a genuinely emotional fellow or just has a vocal tic he can’t help, always speaks after he doesn’t win with a crack in his voice. When I first noticed how upset he sounded [1], I felt terrible that he takes the game so hard. Now I wonder if he’s Jerry Seinfeld’s girlfriend in the Bette Midler episode, the one who, as Jerry put it, didn’t cry when her grandmother died, but a hot dog made her lose control.

The name of that episode [2] is “The Understudy,” which was supposed to be Hefner’s role in 2013. He’s pitching every five days instead because the Mets have no depth behind their Midler, Harvey. Hefner sometimes pitches well enough to win, but he never does. The Mets are often close to winning, but rarely right there.

It’s not an excuse — that’s another one you’ll hear when you listen in on the sorrow and the pity emanating from the postgame clubhouse. Rick Ankiel, the latest utterly random face to come tumbling out of the pack of cards [3] Sandy Alderson uses to create his 14-21 roster, showed up in St. Louis to give the Mets a proven glove in center field. Except Ankiel — who surely isn’t here to pad the team’s on-base percentage — didn’t think to stash a glove in his carry-on luggage [4]. So the former lefty pitcher used a current lefty pitcher’s glove (Jon Niese’s) and it wasn’t quite the proper length to snare Ty Wigginton’s sinking liner that Ankiel was going to make a very good if not great catch on. It’s not an excuse, Ankiel said, but no, it wasn’t the proper glove.

That was in the seventh, after Hefner had done all he could (6 IP, 3 ER) and, presumably, had taken all he could take. Wiggy, a Met from the last season the Mets lost 21 of their first 35 games, just kept going, just as he has in the nine years since he stopped being a Met. Indefatigable Wigginton hustled into second after Niese’s glove betrayed Ankiel. Next up was Matt Adams, who shot a ball off Scott Rice’s foot that clanged into foul territory…the ball, that is, not the foot. While Rice trailed behind John Buck in pursuit of the ball, home plate went wholly unoccupied. Wigginton raced by David Wright at third (returning the favor from 2004, you might say) and occupied home plate before Rice could evacuate him. A longstanding 3-3 tie was broken in favor of the Cardinals on a trip around the bases reminiscent of 2005 at Shea, when Dae-Sung Koo improbably stroked a ball to center off Randy Johnson and more improbably scored from second on a bunt when Jorge Posada couldn’t get back to the plate to tag him. Except then it all worked out for the Mets.

Monday night, nothing worked out for the Mets. Scott Atchison came in after Scott Rice and allowed a two-out, two-run homer to Matt Holliday that sealed the Mets’ 6-3 fate [5]. Atchison’s been pitching nearly every day and his fingers were numb and he’ll probably be on the DL soon but, the pitcher said manfully in the clubhouse, it’s not an excuse.

No excuses. No wins, but no excuses. Ankiel was an unequipped center fielder trying to make a very good catch…and the Mets lost. He’s supposed to share time with Juan Lagares, a much younger, much more promising center fielder who made a spectacular catch Sunday…and the Mets lost. Adams didn’t hit his ball very far, but it bounced off somebody’s limb…and the Mets lost. The day before, Lucas Duda hit a ball that took a stranger bounce, one off the first base bag so high into the air that there was no way it wouldn’t become a two-out RBI that would pull the Mets even with the Pirates. Except the ball bounced into a Pittsburgh glove and Duda was forced easily…and the Mets lost.

And the Mets lost. It’s a familiar refrain. They’re in close games Sunday and Monday. They’re blown out Friday and Saturday. The starters who aren’t Harvey are fixing arm angles and gaining velocity and if they haven’t kept games close, well, the coaches are sure they’ve picked up something in their respective bullpens that are going to turn them around. The hitters who don’t hit with men in scoring position or at all for innings at a time…it’s just a matter of approach and patience…or is it approach and aggressiveness? The players who act a little too happy because they personally achieved something? Well, let ’em get whacked on the arm by an opponent. That’ll teach ’em to enjoy themselves. Better yet, let ’em get used to being Mets. That’ll flush the joy out of their systems altogether.

I don’t just watch Mets games and postgame shows. I listen to their flagship station sometimes when I hear their general manager will be on to explain just why the Mets are 14-20 going on 14-21 [6]. The GM, Alderson, told Mike Francesa Monday that this wretched start bothers him, too, as if he’s a fan, as detached from the process of roster construction as any of us. He said something about Zack Wheeler not being here because he’s not ready (which may be true) not because it will affect his contractual status (which is truth-shading at its shadiest [7]). He said in all practicality Shaun Marcum is still going through Spring Training, except he’s using major league games that count to get the hang of pitching again. Marcum’s understudy was first Hefner, then Aaron Laffey. Alderson is out of understudies. Excuses he can find.

I’ve maintained faith that patience has been the better part of valor since Alderson and his all-star advisory council took the post-Minaya reins. I couldn’t get intensely upset about 2011 because whaddaya want from the guy? That was the deal in 2012, too. It’s the deal in 2013. But the product which Alderson has crafted and Collins shepherds gets progressively worse, not better. I convinced myself to the best of my ability — and cynicism is a tough obstacle when you combine reaching 50 and being a Mets fan most of your sentient life — that the Mets were building a foundation upon which the crown jewels of the pitching staff would be placed carefully and then, with completive standing enhanced and financial wherewithal no longer an overriding issue, we’d be on the cusp of a golden age. Or at least a less tarnished age.

Even after spending eight delightful starts salivating at Harvey and being encouraged by the reports of Wheeler’s progress, I really don’t believe that anymore. I look around and wonder, to paraphrase the GM, “What foundation?” There is little splendid about these Mets individually. There is plenty that is ordinary at best. What always bothers me about puffing up the guys we see day after day is forgetting that other teams have shortstops and first basemen and lefthanded starters. They have prospects and crown jewels. We sucker ourselves into believing ours are the most sparkling, rarely pausing to consider that fans of those other teams probably believe something similar about their inventory, and we can’t all be absolutely correct in our assessments.

Maybe I’m not supposed to be unduly swayed by 35 games or 24 games or a four-game losing streak, but the sum total of consuming as much Mets as I do has left me about as dismayed as I’ve been since dismay became my reflexive reaction to everything I witness. I thought we were putting that era behind us. Either we’re in darkest-before-dawn territory or the era will just keep on extending.

Which brings me back to Alderson, who is a human being, not a caricature, but that may cut both ways. He may just not be succeeding at producing a decent Mets team in the interim and he may not succeed at producing an enduring Mets contender in the long term. It happens. We just spent a weekend with the Pirates, who continue to haul around their two-decade stone of shame until further notice. Maybe this is their year to post a winning record, make a run at the playoffs and validate the love and loyalty shown by Buc-loving people (though not, I hope, the Western Pennsylvanian who sat behind me on Sunday constantly imploring Andrew McCutcheon to “C’MON ’CUTCH!”). Maybe some year soon will be the year of the Indians and their acolytes who have had little to cheer [8] in this century and nothing to celebrate of an ultimate nature since the first half of the last one.

I bring up Cleveland because Alderson’s tenure brought to mind something I read about Gabe Paul several years ago. In Roger Kahn’s October Men [9], a revisitation of the 1978 Yankees, he mentions Paul’s resignation from George Steinbrenner’s employ prior to that season and the job he accepted as president of the Indians. This was the Tribe as it was reaching the 30th anniversary of its last world championship. Why, Kahn had asked the about-to-turn 68-year-old executive, would he take on the challenge of reviving an eternally moribund franchise, especially after building the 1977 world champs as GM of the Yankees? “Cleveland used to be a great baseball town,” Paul told him, “and it will be again. Right now it’s a sleeping giant. I’m going to start making some good deals for Cleveland and build another winner.”

Kahn, writing some 25 years later: “He never did.”

It happens. Or it doesn’t happen. Or it takes forever. Who the hell knows? If you’re an organization that seems to know what it’s doing, you’re never down for long. You lose your immortal first baseman to free agency and your Hall of Fame-bound manager to retirement and, if you’re the Cardinals, you find your way back to within one game of the World Series anyway. You lose your closer for the year the next year, you just pluck someone else from the ranks and you don’t miss a beat. St. Louis won a World Series without Adam Wainwright. They’re in first place without Chris Carpenter and Jason Motte. It’s downright icky the way Keith Hernandez swoons over them, but his admiration is not misplaced.

The Mets are not an organization about to be accused of knowing what it’s doing. No visiting broadcasters are marveling over their excellence or even competence. They’ve been down far too long. Barring a 68-59 turnaround, the Mets will file their fifth consecutive losing record in 2013. Whatever little goodwill lingered from their last decent spurt has disappeared. It probably disappeared for you an eon ago, but I tend to cling to anything positive and try to make it last. The Mets who won more than they lost every year from 2005 through 2008 (one division title and one playoff series victory plus two historic September collapses, a.k.a. the good old days) at least made me think 2009 and 2010 were maybe aberrations. Jaunty, spunky play for extended intervals of 2011 and 2012 made me think they were renewing themselves for something better.

I’ve ceased shopping at that theoretical store because I simply can’t buy that stuff in 2013. I’ve seen too much bad, blah baseball. I’ve seen the Mets play worse in recent years but I’ve never seen them quite so bad and quite so blah at their essence, not since I was too young to be so cynical about them. The players I trusted to form a foundation strike me more as the players you cycle through to get to the players who will be around when winning replaces losing. If it ever does.

Sunday I saw jerseys in the stands and on the escalators and all around Citi Field that reminded me of who have come and gone in the relatively recent past: REYES 7; DELGADO 21; BELTRAN 15; MARTINEZ 45; DICKEY 43; SANTANA 57. I wasn’t necessarily missing any of those individuals of late — a couple of them are long retired already — but the onslaught of their names and numbers struck me as positively ghostly. Remember good players? Remember thinking the Mets were going to win? Remember being surprised when they lost?

I actually do. It was a while ago and a similar state is probably a while ahead.

As for the games that make one glad to be a Mets fan, there is The Happiest Recap [10], a subject I was happy to discuss in depth with premier blogger Alex Belth. Read our discussion of Mets wins that stand the test of time at Bronx Banter [11].