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Omar Raised the Bar

I have fairly mixed feelings on the tenure of Omar Minaya, reflecting, I suppose, his fairly mixed record as general manager. But one thing Omar has given us with more regularity than his predecessors had — which tilts the Omar arrow definitively to the good — is general manager access to the Sterling Mets checkbook.

There's a Bernie Madoff joke in there somewhere, but let's take at ownership's word its pledge that the Mets still have money to spend. If we do that, then let's be glad that for all the money we as individuals and as a fan base give them, they spend it.

They spent it on Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran and (via Florida) Carlos Delgado and Billy Wagner and (via Minnesota) Johan Santana and Francisco Rodriguez. They also spent it on securing for the long term the services of Jose Reyes and David Wright.

You can argue the dotted i's, the crossed t's, the number of years and the risk of injury where buying up and locking down expensive baseball players is concerned. You can make the case that allotting money is way easier than scouting and trading, and that Omar's regime hasn't scouted brilliantly or traded altogether successfully. You can find a dozen examples of Minaya mania run amok and into the ground. And I'll be the first to suggest that the man should never give another press conference after the way he mishandled the aftermath of the Three A.M. Firing.

But Omar apparently knows how to operate internally. And Omar got Fred Wilpon and Jeff Wilpon to do something they had been reluctant to do before Omar came back to the organization. He got them to pay for talent, a not inconsiderable skill given where the Mets sat before Omar.

Where did we sit before Omar? We sat in the distant precincts of fifth place, fifth place and fourth place consecutively, but more insidiously, we were subject to some of the worst and most unnecessary perceptions a Major League team playing in the largest market in the nation could be. It was perceived that the Mets were a bunch of pikers who just didn't matter. Oh, they mattered to me and they mattered to Jason [1] and I know they mattered to you, gentle reader, but you know what I mean.

A few weeks ago, FAFIF mainstay Kevin from Flushing and I were having a conversation that harked back to the marvelous Subway Series sweep of 2004. I went to the Times archive to dig up a wonderful picture they ran on the cover of Sports Monday after it was over, a very large capture of Ty Wigginton, from the back, rounding first after the second of his two Sunday home runs. The message I inferred from that angle was that the Yankees could kiss Ty's trotting ass.

I could not find the shot, but I did find Tyler Kepner's telling text [2]:

There has not been much joy for the Mets since Bernie Williams dropped to a knee on the Shea Stadium grass, the final out of the 2000 World Series tucked safely in his glove. The Mets have hardly sniffed contention, struggling to stay relevant in George Steinbrenner's New York.

For one dizzying weekend, everything changed. It took eight seasons of interleague play, but the Mets finally swept a three-game series and won a season series from the Yankees. They blew out the Yankees on Friday and outlasted them for one-run victories the next two days, proving a point across the boroughs.

''We probably earned a lot of respect from those guys,'' the Mets' Cliff Floyd said. ''Does it mean anything? Probably not. But it means a lot to us.''

Misty, water-colored memories, to be sure, but does that sound like us anymore? Beating the Yankees is brilliant stuff [3] because, you know, it's beating the Yankees, but is a dizzying weekend all we live for anymore? Is that what we measure ourselves against anymore? Do we feel like outcasts in our very own Metropolitan Area anymore?

I say no. I say 2004 feels a lot longer than almost five years ago now. I say the concept of “trying to stay relevant” in New York is as relevant on the eve of 2009 as any Bush-Cheney or Kerry-Edwards campaign paraphernalia you have lying around from that period. I bring this up because I've already detected the fairly predictable drumbeat of newspaper columns [4] and blogs [5] that suggest the Mets have to keep up with the Yankees by rushing to sign Manny Ramirez.

Signing Manny Ramirez might not be a bad idea. It might be a swell idea. It might be a disaster. I'm not sure. But I am certain that there is no reason for the Mets to sign Manny Ramirez purely as a response to the Yankees signing Mark Teixeira [6].

There is no reason for the Mets to do anything because the Yankees do something. Maybe…maybe in 2004 there was a market-driven motivation to be divined in keeping up with the Moneybags; maybe it was cause for embarrassment that the Mets planned to announce the signing of ex-Yankee reliever Randy Keisler to a minor league contract the day the Yankees were introducing their new third baseman Alex Rodriguez (it was one of those 'FAN “how sad are the Mets?” contretemps du jour); but do you really think the Mets aren't standing on their own two feet these days? That things haven't changed drastically on our side of town since 2004?

The Mets sold more than 4 million tickets in 2008, on top of more than 3.85 million in 2007 and nearly 3.4 million in 2006. The Mets will sell out their new ballpark — all 42,000-odd seats and few-thousand SRO gym spots — in 2009 and probably 2010. The Mets will continue to gather eyeballs around SNY and sell loads of Mets merchandise and be relevant as hell to a large mass of New Yorkers next year and the year after and, probably, for a while to come.

There's an intriguing book out called First To Worst [7] by Jacob Kanarek. I'm still reading it, thus it wouldn't be fair to fully review it yet, but I can tell you that if you are an intense Mets fan who grew up in the mid-'70s, you'll get a Nino Espinosa's Afro-sized [8] kick out of it. It is the story, told through relentless detailing, of how the Mets went from National League champs to National League doormats in the span of five seasons. It's intriguing, but it's not pretty.

It's also history, just like the Mets who went gun-shy on free agents after the Coleman-Bonilla splurge backfired, or the Mets who crawled back into their cocoon after assuming the contracts of Alomar and Vaughn proved an awful assumption. At least twice since taking partial or full ownership, Wilpon has washed his hands of the whole high payroll thing and thrown in the towel where spending for quality players was concerned. Robbie Alomar [9] and Vince Coleman [10] will do that to a fellow, but it wasn't the mere act of buying high that got under ownership's thin skin; it was what was bought. Early '90s GM Al Harazin made more mistakes than right calls. Early '00s GM Steve Phillips made right calls but obliterated them with huge mistakes.

Omar's still in there swinging with a pretty good on-base percentage to his credit. Alou was an overestimation of an old man's longevity, and the extra year given some chump reliever instead of simply bringing back a proven reliever undermined the bullpen, and there wasn't nearly enough depth to go around at crucial junctures these past few years, but Minaya has shown the requisite skill sets at handling salary, starting with receiving from his employers the permission to pay it to those who lifted the Mets into what has become regular contention.

September nosedives notwithstanding (believe me, they never withstand for long around here), there is much to be said for regular contention. Regular contention, not some hallowed tradition bullspit, is why the last version of Yankee Stadium sold out as a matter of course in its final seasons. Regular contention sells a lot more shirts and caps than does a Final Season or an Inaugural Season patch. You can swap out pregame hosts [11] and air all the cool Classics a Mets network can bring itself to scrape together, but regular contention is the golden key. I feel better about being a Mets fan when we're in contention. Jason feels better about being a Mets fan when the Mets are in contention. You feel better about being a Mets fan when the Mets are in contention. We'd feel much better if they'd follow through at the end, but anybody with a memory of the Mets not being a contender understands what it means to go wanting. And it doesn't matter a whit what the Yankees do or don't do, or who the Yankees sign or don't sign as long as we've got our team in it to win it.

That we have, and that is clearly a result of Omar Minaya's imperfect but ultimately effective stewardship of this franchise. He ain't Santa Claus, but he's somebody to feel good about this holiday season.

Enough back-patting. Go get us a reliable starter [12] and maybe Manny if he makes sense…for us.

P.S. I have received the greatest holiday present I can think of: Stephanie told me she dreamt last night that she was marching in a community parade in which the participants chanted “YANKEES SUCK!” over and over as I cheered on the procession from an open window. I guess everything I've been whispering in her ear while she's slept has finally embedded itself in her subconscious.