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Death Spiral

I’m at my low point as a Mets fan.

It seems crazy to say it, but I really think it might be true.

There have been disasters before, of course.

I became a Mets fan in 1976, not knowing the team was about 14 months from becoming the baseball equivalent of North Korea. But I was a child in the late 1970s. I had hope, even if it was a child’s irrational hope. I thought the Joel Youngbloods and Lenny Randles and Craig Swans of the world were the basis of a championship team. I thought we would win the NL East until the math said we could not. I’m glad I thought such things at the time, because my fandom might never have taken root if I’d known better.

I was a Mets fan in the early 1990s, when sour free agent signees threw quarter-sticks of dynamite at children [1] and Dallas Green watched the horrors on the field with his mouth hanging open. But that team had money. The horrible free agents got traded and money was spent more wisely and by 1995 there were reasons to hope.

I was a Mets fan in the early 2000s, when Mike Piazza was asked to play first base and Jason Phillips was allowed to play baseball. But that team had money. It eventually was able to escape its own mistakes, and by the mid-2000s there was hope.

I’m a Mets fan now. The team is horrible. It’s astonishingly horrible night after night after night. The stat’s being repeated ad nauseum, but it deserves to be: Since the break the Nationals and Braves both have more wins at Citi Field than the Mets do. No one can catch, no one can play the outfield, and no one can hit. The team is an embarrassment off the field too [2], so craven and corporate that it won’t even stand up to MLB suits in defense of its own admirable homegrown tradition about honoring local heroes by wearing their caps during one game a year.

None of this is any fun, but how is this disaster different than previous disasters? Because this time there is no money.

For Exhibit A, consider David Wright. What we’re hearing right now through the media is an almost note-by-note re-enactment of the Jose Reyes drama, in which the Mets said blandly hopeful things and then let their star shortstop go to another team. I said then and I maintain now that letting Reyes go was the right thing to do — the Marlins’ contract was insane, and a pretend offer from the Mets wouldn’t have made me feel any better. But Wright is different — not just a more valuable player but also the face of the franchise, or at least the only bit of star wattage left. And the Mets are making the same noises, forcing poor Sandy Alderson to mouth reassurances while others offer evasions and non-answers to rudimentary questions about payroll.

Losing Reyes was sad but understandable; losing Wright would be both symbolic and symptomatic.

The Mets’ ownership escaped a death sentence in the Madoff affair, but they seem to have crawled away from it bleeding out instead of decapitated. At least that’s how I now read the state of affairs — that Howard Megdal has been right all along [3], even while saying things [4] I didn’t want to believe. Really, the tipoff should have been the team’s typically amateur-hour effort to smear and disenfranchise [5] Megdal: The Mets are never more shrill and self-righteous than when someone has revealed a truth they wanted to keep hidden.

In the absence of even vague candor from ownership, the Mets’ strategy seems to be to tread water next year while they clear the Omarpalooza contracts of Jason Bay and Johan Santana, sign Wright and R.A. Dickey to 2014 deals, and build around those two players and pitching prospects such as Matt Harvey, Zach Wheeler and Jeurys Familia. But even that relatively meager plan depends on a whole lot going right. And I don’t think enough of it will.

Harvey certainly looks very impressive, but prospects have a way of turning into suspects. Go check the price of a Paul Wilson rookie card if you don’t know what I mean. And even if the Mets do get good results from their young arms, what about the rest of the team? What about the spaghetti-against-a-wall bullpen? What about the pathetic inability to field a major-league outfield? Harvey was terrific tonight, but it didn’t matter [6] — his feckless teammates did nothing to support him, he lost, and the fans who bothered showing up at all trudged home in misery or apathy. It’s a familiar outcome and sight: These days SNY’s broadcasts are a showcase for not only horrific baseball but also acres and acres of unoccupied green seats. The Mets are touting increasingly desperate ticket plans — you can get into Citi Field for a steep discount by bringing a child, a Pepsi can, enthusiasm for R.A. Dickey or, quite possibly, a white flag. None of this matters, because StubHub is cheaper if you actually want to go. And why would you? Harvey has one more start before he’s shut down. Dickey is two wins away from 20, which suddenly seems like an iffy proposition. Those things aside, what possible reason is there to watch this team lose? I’ve often said baseball’s beautiful no matter what, but the baseball played by the Mets for the last nine weeks has been anything but: The team is inept and listless, sometimes aggravating but mostly profoundly boring and unwatchable.

It’s not a new pattern, and it’s killing this team and its fanbase. The Mets’ 2011 second-half collapse and silent offseason hurt their attendance and bottom line this year; the disaster of this year’s second half and another do-nothing winter will hurt 2013’s attendance and bottom line; a season of watching Harvey and Wheeler lose 3-1 and 2-0 games will hurt 2014’s attendance, and in the middle of that year a mountain of debt comes due. (Here’s Howard Megdal again [7].)

If you’re David Wright, why on earth would you sign up for that even if an offer were forthcoming? Why would you choose to grow old unprotected in a lineup of minimally paid has-beens and never-will-bes? If you’re R.A. Dickey, why would you agree to throw to interchangeable terrible catchers and lose 2-0 games when you could win somewhere else?

Over the last month or so watching the Mets has become a chore. For the first time in my life, I find myself thinking that I have other things to do — things that won’t leave me angry or sad. My kid, raised in a rabidly blue and orange household, increasingly doesn’t watch at all. He’d rather read, or play with Legos, or do anything else. I don’t bother arguing — watching Andres Torres once again forget how many outs there are isn’t exactly going to make him back into a fan. Joshua goes to sleep under a framed picture featuring shots of Reyes and Wright. We haven’t replaced the Reyes picture, because who would the replacement be? When Wright is also an anachronism, I suspect the picture will just come down, with no replacement at all.

I know, I know: The end of the 1982 and 1993 and 2003 seasons were just as bleak. But, again: This time there is no money. The plan, to the extent there is one, appears to be more about survival than resurrection. I doubt even that will work. Eventually the math will finally catch up with the Wilpons, Bud Selig will be finally unwilling to extend them another lifeline, and they will sell. But when will that be? 2014, maybe. But what if it’s 2015 or 2016, or later than that? How much more damage will have been done to the franchise? How long will it take to fix it? And will the new owner even care to do so? What’s going to bring my kid back to the fold, to reignite his guttering fandom? And what about me — probably the second-biggest Mets fan you know?

The Mets are caught in something that looks very much like a death spiral, and for the first time in 36 years I find myself wondering whether it would be better not to go down with them.