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When Your Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’ll Be the Mets

Recently there’s been talk of WAR and CHONE and the first attempts to figure out what we might expect from the 2010 Mets. Amazingly, despite the three-years-early Mayan apocalypse of the 2009 season, I keep finding myself hopeful — or at least desperate for baseball to move off the winter back burner and return to its accustomed place in my brain and heart. But every time that hope begins to blossom, some horrid Metsian thing happens to tramp it back into the dirt.

No sooner was I getting used to Jason Bay and thinking about the Mets as an 83-win team that had six or seven additional wins within front-office reach than the whole Carlos Beltran disaster arrived, with the usual double whammy of terrible news and evidence of front-office incompetence.

Next came the mysterious Gary Matthews Jr. trade, for which the other shoe never dropped — but once I calmed down a bit and managed to look past the inert bulk of Luis Castillo and his continued presence on the roster, I realized it wasn’t an awful deal, not for that money. Ditto for re-signing Fernando Tatis. I still don’t understand why Tatis kept playing over Nick Evans in last year’s cruelly extended garbage time, but Jerry Manuel’s myopia isn’t his fault, and I wasn’t being fair to him. The contract is reasonable for a player who can play several positions and still hit.

But then, there was this [1] from Ken Rosenthal: “[Joel] Pineiro identified the Mets as his No. 1 choice, but instead signed a two-year, $16 million contract with the Angels. He got tired of waiting for the Mets to sort through their other pursuits, tired of waiting for them to raise their initial offer, sources say. As negotiations intensified, the Mets were prepared to match and perhaps top the Angels’ offer for Pineiro. But by the time they turned aggressive, it was too late.”

Follow that with this [2], from David Waldstein in the New York Times: “John Smoltz, who turns 43 in May and would like to extend his Hall of Fame career, has received 2010 contract offers from several teams, his agent, Lonnie Cooper, said Wednesday. The Mets, however, are not among those clubs, Cooper added, even though they have expressed some interest in Smoltz … The lack of an offer does not necessarily mean the Mets have only passing interest in Smoltz. It does signal that the Mets are continuing their off-season negotiating posture, which, for the most part, has not been an aggressive one. Although they are widely viewed as a team in need of starting pitching, they have let other clubs outbid them for free agents like Ben Sheets, Jon Garland and Joel Piniero. In each instance, they did not appear to put up much of a fight, or any fight at all.”

Our team’s problem this off-season hasn’t necessarily been being outbid, though there are questions there, too. Rather, it sounds like it’s been basic communication and organization. Which is where Gary Matthews becomes an interesting bellwether.

No, not Junior, back for second tour of Met duty. I’m thinking about his dad, the Sarge — the ruthless outfielder who helped sink the 1984 Mets and liked slamming into Gary Carter at the plate and ripping him in national magazines.

Matthews has another infamous distinction in Mets history. He was one of the members of the inaugural free-agent class, post-McNally and Messersmith, and the player who seemed to interest the Mets the most. So in late 1976 Joe McDonald and M. Donald Grant made that interest plain — by sending Matthews a telegram asking him to contact the team. (He wound up signing with the Atlanta Braves.)

Another offseason, another front office that appears not to know what it’s doing, calls that don’t get made, players who move on. And the exact same name in the middle of it. Then it was the father, now it’s the son. I’m not much for superstition, but that doesn’t strike me as a good omen.