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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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On Message Discipline or Lack Thereof

In the aftermath of the Mets’ failure to sign Michael Bourn (or their success at retaining the 11th Draft Pick), I wondered if the resolution would have struck me as so disappointing had not so many details of its progress emerged during the process leading up to it. The Mets were talking to Bourn…the Mets were talking to MLB…the Mets were maybe going to get a favorable ruling on the draft pick…the Mets and Bourn were getting closer…

Then nothing. Nothing but a barren pasture masquerading as a big league outfield (or a landscape of opportunity for the as yet unproven). Bourn, a legitimate pro in his prime, never loomed as a savior, but how good does a legitimate pro in his prime sound right about now? Right about the beginning of April? Either way, he’s Cleveland’s asset/burden for the next few years.

But back to my disappointment, which I think was many times magnified by how public the process of not nabbing him was. I don’t think I would’ve been nearly as bothered had the Mets come up empty quietly. If it had become known eventually that they looked at all available options, even made a run at that really excellent center fielder who sat on the market longer than expected but it just didn’t work out, then I have a feeling I would’ve thought, “at least they were trying, can’t fault them there.” Instead, being given the impression that Bourn was kind of, sort of within their grasp and then having him slip away wound up detracting from my goodwill toward Mets.

So when I had the chance to play the Mets blogger’s version of Howard Stern’s old “One Question and One Question Only” game via conference call with Sandy Alderson last week, I chose to ask not exactly, “Where’s the frigging outfield at?” but about trying to get a deal done — which I assume requires massive amounts of discretion in addition to money — while indulging in what seemed like play-by-play of the entire affair while it was still in progress.

In less polite terms, and even taking into account that the baseball media is a voracious beast that requires constant feeding, why didn’t/couldn’t you guys just shut the bleep up and sign him or not sign him?

Sandy’s answer was, in so many words, that there are too many words out there for quietude to prevail.

“You have to realize that it’s next to impossible to keep a transaction of that type confidential,” the GM said. “It’s just not going to be possible with the number of people involved from our side and the number of people involved on the agent’s side. [And] there are other teams that are involved. There can be communications with Major League Baseball. There’s just so many different entities that you just have to assume that these things are going to eventually become known and become public.”

Implicit is an acknowledgement of the media’s role, specifically that of the Mets beat reporters who talk to Sandy Alderson because their vocation is secular rather than spiritual (and it’s their job to find something to report). They have ways of making people talk, which may be as simple as repeatedly asking “so, what’s new?” and taking copious notes. Word does tend to get out and, from there, Alderson seemed to be telling me, it becomes pretty close to impossible to manage.

Dissemination of what intuition would tell you are delicate negotiations is “difficult to avoid,” he admitted, unless a deal can get done very quickly and thus relatively quietly. “Sometimes I’m just not available rather than no-commenting,” Sandy explained. “Even a ‘no comment’ conveys a certain amount of information; probably being unavailable does too, but rather than provide misinformation, sometimes I just go radio silent. That way it’s just the best of, possibly, several bad options.”

“The best of several bad options” sounds like another of Alderson’s outfield punchlines, but I appreciate the thoughtful answer he gave me. As a consumer of baseball news as well as a citizen of the United States of America, I appreciate openness and honesty from those in charge of the institutions we cherish. As a Mets fan, I mostly care about having a good team, and if I need to be purposely misled so we could wake up with Giancarlo Stanton batting cleanup, well, to borrow a phrase a former co-worker enjoyed attributing to an executive neither of us liked, “lie to me — tell I’m beautiful!”

Sounds practicable in theory, but really there’s too much truth out there, starting with the box scores and the standings, let alone honestly observed impressions, to airbrush actual circumstances. When the Mets try to spin 16-1 defeats with bright-side Tweets that inform us, “No fatalities evident as Mets come up short,” we rightfully mock them. Baseball’s an enormous business, but you can’t view the Mets as a corporation. Baseball’s full of anglers and operators (what isn’t?), but it would be a mistake to think of someone in Alderson’s position as purely a politician. The parameters of message discipline just don’t apply as easily here. Stories take on their own lives. There is no single page on which everybody can be expected to gather. And there’s no credible medium through which a desired message can be filtered cleanly. The best way for the Mets to have prevented the Johan Santana hysteria of recent days from whipping up ever frothier frenzy wasn’t retaking some step missed in overall organizational image cultivation — it was having Dan Warthen or whoever check in regularly with Johan Santana from Christmas on and asking, “How’s the ol’ left arm doin’?”

I continue to be intrigued by something I saw when I attended the Mets’ holiday party in December, the day R.A. Dickey made his unbilled farewell address to New York. The event was supposed to be fairly innocuous yet it turned into news: the Cy Young winner copped to contract talks stalling enough to dismay him badly. That’s not what players in Santa hats usually do at these luncheons, especially on the employer club’s home turf. As I watched it unfold, I instinctively waited for someone from the Mets to step forward and put an end to this utterly off-message episode, somebody to say, “thank you, ladies and gentlemen” and all but unplug the power cords. Instead, I noticed someone who works for the ballclub helping a camera operator on the edge of the media knot surrounding Dickey get a slightly better shot of the guy who was, however articulately, pointedly criticizing the ballclub’s actions.

There was no press secretary steering the proceedings to a halt. There were no functionaries trying to tell you what you just heard wasn’t what you just heard. This was baseball, and in baseball, people talk, sometimes at odds with an organization’s best interests, sometimes at odds with other people, sometimes at odds with other people standing a few feet away saying something else even if, theoretically, they’re all on the same side.

When I don’t take into account, as Alderson plainly has, that that’s the way baseball is, I’m somewhat gobsmacked it works that way as often as it does. And it’s not like 29 teams are message-disciplined and the Mets are a mess. This seems to happen to varying degrees everywhere in the sport. People go on and off the record to air their grievances all the time. Sometimes it makes a club look amateurish, but if the players play like professionals, it’s more colorful than harmful.

Baseball folks like to talk baseball so much that they can’t or won’t stop themselves. I was going to say that maybe they talk too much for their own good, but that’s probably an overstatement on my part. Baseball fans like to talk baseball, too, and we can’t hear about it or read about it enough. It’s when nobody wants to talk baseball that somebody should be worried.

Big thanks to Amazin’ Avenue for the transcript of the February 27 blogger conference call, particularly ace transcriber Steve Ferguson.

And speaking of people who like to talk baseball, I highly recommend a listen to a conversation between Matthew Callan and myself regarding the Metropolitan events of October 3, 1999, a.k.a Melvin Mora Day. If there’s a place where two Mets fans can rivet each other (and hopefully you) for 80 minutes over a 13-year-old game, it’s Replacement Players.

10 comments to On Message Discipline or Lack Thereof

  • Andee

    The best way for the Mets to have prevented the Johan Santana hysteria of recent days from whipping up ever frothier frenzy wasn’t retaking some step missed in overall organizational image cultivation — it was having Dan Warthen or whoever check in regularly with Johan Santana from Christmas on and asking, “How’s the ol’ left arm doin’?”

    Or maybe they shoulda just snuck into his house and installed a bunch of Johan-cams disguised as a smoke alarm, because taking Johan’s word for it that he’s physically “fine” has already burned them a couple of times, and Johan has never copped to being hurt without there being radiographic evidence of it. So even if they did ask, and repeatedly, I wouldn’t assume they ever got a straight answer from him. No pitcher ever wants to admit he might be toast, and especially not him.

  • Eddie Wilkowski

    I think the bashing on Johan is the typical Met orchestrated attack the player to take attention away from our own ineptitude tactic that the front office employs time and time again. Here we have three general managers who failed to address a position of need all off season and all they can do is go after Santana who when healthy does nothing but play hard. Why not address the fact that every decent player the Mets leak interest to is miraculously signed or traded to another team shortly after the Mets show interest or that the Mets always have a predetermined reason for failure prior ready prior to the pursuit of any free agent. Why don’t they ask the Three Wise Men about the Marcum signing? Or how about a Marcum sighting?

    • Andee

      Marcum pitched today in the B game against MIA (2 IP, 0 ER).

      And it’s pretty easy to come up with an explanation of how they’ve played FAs the way they have: Sandy is not allowed to get into any bidding wars, and they’re not coughing up any first round draft picks with their farm system still in rebuild mode. The reason they didn’t move sooner on Bourn is because his market didn’t soften until after the first of the year.

      What I seem to be hearing people say about the Mets’ handling of Santana is that they should have lied and said everything was wonderful. When you lie about your own situation that’s deceiving the fanbase, but when you lie about someone else’s, that’s called “protecting your players.” We know that Jeffy is notorious for trying to get players to play hurt and minimizing the extent of injury, and he should be rebuked for that early and often. By no means am I letting him off the hook.

      But that doesn’t mean that Santana couldn’t have fucked up on his own, or lied about what was happening (not a first for him) even with the FO calling to monitor his progress — and if he did, then he deserves to be aired out for it, asshole owner or no asshole owner. He has a very, very, VERY expensive contract, and he’s been on the DL for a good half of it. Maybe what Sandy was trying to say obliquely, because he couldn’t say it any other way, was, “We fucked up. We recommended a regime that didn’t work out, because there isn’t a lot of precedent here to work with.” It’s very possible that it’s Jeff who was being aired out here by Sandy as much as Johan — or at least, as close to airing out his boss as he is allowed to get.

  • 7train

    If talking to Bourn hadn’t gotten out then fans would have been screaming that Alderson wasn’t doing anything as they were from the GM meetings in Nov through the winter meetings and right on up to when the dickey trade occurred. Then it started up all over again.

    For a team in the Mets situation a lot of what you can do is dependent on what you were able to do elsewhere. For instance signing Hairston ends the idea of hanging around on Upton. Hanging on Upton precluded the chance to sign Hairston.

    Looking before you leap has a price to pay as well. No where near the opposite but when you have a limited amount of worthwhile candidates to trade, little money to work with and a scant few reasonably decent players to go after making the best decision is vital and sometimes the best decision is to not do anything.

    I can think of hundreds of instances we would have been much better doing nothing than what we did over the last couple decades

  • Joe D.

    Hi Greg,

    I have to question how much the Bourn situation was theatrics more than seriousness.

    We know the Mets could have petitioned MLB from day one to get a ruling on the CBA dispute but didn’t. Then, Sandy insists that they would not sign any free agent if it meant losing an unprotected first round draft slot.

    If that was the case, how could they be serious about Bourn? They would either have to take their chances and sign him or don’t. No middle of the road. Boras would certainly sign no memorandum of understanding based on the MLB ruling – no agent the stature of Boras would do that and quite frankly, Sandy has to know that too.

    And since the decision was going to be handled by an independent arbitrator, there was no way Sandy could get advance notice of what a ruling might or might not be.

    So could it be that the Mets wanted that talk about Bourn to get as much public notice as possible thus manipulating the media? The benefit would be tremendous by trying to spin the image that they were out to spend money even if it meant a four year contract for a 31 year old outfielder that many thought was too much.

    I will admit that while he might be a nice guy personally, business-wise I do not trust what Sandy says publicly about circumstances and situations based on him getting caught up in his own words of deception. So I do believe the answer he gave did not touch upon all the self-serving leaks to the media that were planted by the organization that were and dealt with subjects he says he would want kept confidential but allowed the opposite to occur instead via the famous un-named source.

    Of course, you being the gentleman I am sure prevented you from following up with that answer with the assertions I just made. With me, that wouldn’t have mattered – I would have been too much the coward to have asked myself.

  • The fact
    that there exist so many entangled issues regarding whats the fact and what is the fiction,that it appears that even the spin doctors forget what the tack is…”are we being simply disingenuous today , or are we just witholding the truth”?…”did
    depodesta say starboard or port yesterday, what did I say yesterday even”?
    …its like juggling blindfolded…the,Front office should just decide whats more valuable, our loyalty as fans and the generators, or does the end justify the means and let the fans be the fools

    • Joe D.

      Hi meticated,

      Exactly. I mean, if after their initial shock the Wilpons came clean – in a general sense – we would all have felt different. All they really needed to say was yes, “we were indeed victimized by Madoff and that has suddenly affected our ability to operate on the financial level we want to at this time – and on the level that the fans deserve as well – and we will make every effort to get ourselves out of this mess that was thrown upon us as quickly as is possible. But it is going to take time”.

      What they think they might have lost in public relations affecting box office admitting such to the fan base would have been more than offset by the goodwill and trust it could have instead generated.

      How much, I don’t know. They were already behind the eight ball when Citi Field opened with the turn-off of it being a shrine to the Dodgers and those blocked views of left field – not to mention the gigantic increase in ticket prices with only a relatively small percentage of seats being made affordable to those with limited means.

      This kind of reflects my feelings about bringing back Banner Day which I know many are so happy to see revived. I don’t share that enthusiam because I remember when it was a genuine show of affection between the fans, the players and indeed the owners as well and not a manufactured self-promoting gimmick as it is today. Banner day originated and sustained itself because it was indeed not a promotion that the Mets originated as it was in response to us – the original new breeders – who suddenly draped the Polo Grounds in 1962 and early 1963 with a humongous amount of banners – and well thought out ones as well – to the surprise of everyone for banners in other parks were few and far between. Just like the original chant of “lets go Mets” – it came from the fans and was not therefore originated being prompted by a loudspeaker or scoreboard,

      Banner Day was an outgrowth of the sudden and completely unexpected genuine love and adoration us new breeders had for our new team. It didn’t bother us at all that we had a former Yankee manager who before that time was viewed as self-promoting – to us he was suddenly seen as the lovable Casey. And his inept players we simply saw as guys who played their hearts out every day who were a lot like us – losers. And by that I do not mean “losers” in a derogatory way as it was more a reflection of the hard life most middle class people had to then deal with – struggling paycheck to paycheck, working hard and made to feel different than those more fortunate. I did not understand this when I was a kid but I can now look back in hindsightand recognize those traits in both myself and my family at that time. As you alluded to, Greg, in Jimmy Breslin’s classic “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game”, we “losers” suddenly had something of our very own.

      I’m just sorry that no written description or video/audio replay will enable anyone not old enough to have been a part of it to fully appreciate how special those first, early years were, putting aside all the sociological explanations that we have today. And while the stories might have become exaggerated over time, the essence of what one will find is 100 percent true.

      What happened 50 years ago occured during a less cynical – and obviously more naive – time that would not happen today. The times have changed and the groundwork that helped foster that uniqueness just doesn’t exist anymore. If we had a team like that today, they would not be seen as lovable and forgivable and trying so hard – they would be seen the way Howard Cossell talked about about them back in 1963 when he said the Mets were a disgrace to the game and a fraud and that people should not pay their money to see them. We’d all look at Marvelous Marv and Choo Choo with resentment making so much money. We would be writing things that never would have been put down on paper then like, for example, my own self not praising Wheeler or d’Arnaud beyond anything more than their potential and resenting the circumstances (not their fault) that brought them over to the Mets to begin with.

      Too bad Cosell couldn’t see it then but the Mets were no fraud. They were beautiful for they gave us back something much more valuable than winning ball games. They made us feel good about ourselves and that included everybody – from the elementary school kid that I was to my father who had to work two jobs to my grandmother who spent the last years of her life confined to a wheelchair.

      Let those who cherish those moments have fun with Banner Day today. I think it is a generatinal things because for many of us who were there from the beginning, it is a parade that has long ago passed us by because of what the front office has conditioned us to become something that is so much more different than what we were raised to be – cynical.

      And thus that is why I tied Banner Day into Greg’s piece about the media – we have no trust in the manner in which the front office deals with us via their manipulation of what is reported in the press. Because we have the advantage of our years, we remember the time when it was different, thank you Mrs. Payson. And it’s a shame for us who were brought up in such a less cynical time, for if we weren’t, maybe we would be more apt to shrug it off and accept that as a part of life as easy as others who were raised under those circumstances are able to today. Too bad we can’t.

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