The biggest question about the 2009 season is why is this season being perceived as a disaster and not a misfortune?
It is a misfortune, isn’t it? No team in my memory has ever been hit as badly by injuries as this one. If it weren’t for the injuries, we’d at least be contending for the Wild Card, wouldn’t we? If the team was as healthy as it was last year, and if the performance level of the players was roughly the same, the addition of Frankie Rodriguez would be enough to push our win total up into the 90s, wouldn’t it?
There are those that say that a good major league organization has enough depth that it can compensate for injuries, even a rash of injuries as catastrophic as this one. To these people I say that if fewer players were injured, and we had gotten the fill-in performances we’ve gotten from Angel Pagan, Gary Sheffield, Livan Hernandez, Cory Sullivan, Alex Cora, and Omir Santos, we would have been quite happy with each of them. We are unhappy with the Met’s depth not because the Mets weren’t deep enough, but because nothing can make a whole team of worthy subs look as good as a real team. We may not have as many first-rate almost ready young players as we should, but that’s not why this particular season has been a disaster.
This season has been a disaster because in the midst of our catastrophic misfortune, we lost our faith. Having lost our faith, we were unwilling to cut the team any slack. We don’t feel badly for the Mets. We are unhappy with them. An enormous core of us remains loyal to the franchise. But we are in a moment of crisis, because we are floundering in our efforts to imagine what we are remaining loyal to. For the moment, we are unsure about what the Mets are. Things will not be right again until the Mets address this problem with intelligence and imagination, and not just with good baseball sense. We need to see signs that the Mets have enough intelligence, imagination, and good baseball sense to pull us through this difficult moment. This is where we can help them. We will not help them by being blandly and blindly supportive. We will also not help them by jumping the gun and making assumptions we don’t have enough evidence to make. We must make our voices heard. We must give them a chance and we must help them restore our faith in them.
Part of our loss of faith has to do with the straightforward issue of having a roster of players capable of getting to the playoffs. I continue to have faith that the vaunted core (Wright, Reyes, Beltran) is sound. I know that many are beginning to doubt that Reyes is all we thought he was, but I think it is more accurate to look at Reyes as a Strawberry-type player: a first-rate major leaguer who may or may not acquire, in his youth, the maturity to achieve his historic potential. Even if some doubts have crept in, I think most Mets fans still have faith in this core. Where most of us have lost faith is in the guys who were supposed to be our rotation. Pelfrey’s slump, Maine’s fragility, and Ollie’s many mysteries have left us with a starting rotation of Johan Santana and four players to be named later. No one can win a pennant with this. Of course, we could win over 100 games if Pelfrey, Maine, and Perez could ever pitch all together as each of them at certain points have pitched. But this is nothing to count on. As everybody knows, to even have a dream of contention, the Mets will have to purchase a bat who can replace Delgado’s and a starting pitcher who is not mainly imaginary.
Another loss of faith has been at the level of manager and general manager. Jerry Manuel, with his wit and intelligence, won us over last year by doing more with the team than Willie Randolph was able to do. The sloppiness of the Mets’ play this year, however, has made us wonder if he was, last year, simply the lucky beneficiary of the remarkable runs of Pelfrey and Delgado. Omar squandered years of good will, for no purpose, in the most embarrassing news conference I have ever seen anyone give. While there aren’t enough reasons, I think, for anyone to blame this season’s misfortunes on Manuel or Minaya, there simply aren’t enough Mets fans who feel that either of them needs to stay. We’ve lost faith in them. And the ownership must therefore know that getting rid of them would be a relatively easy (and inexpensive) way of making it look as if they are addressing the team’s problems.
I think it is fair to say, as a fact, not as a judgement, that the fans have lost faith in the baseball skills and capacities of the ownership and higher levels of management. I have been, over the years, a supporter and an admirer of the Wilpons as the owners of the Mets. I have never considered them cheap, I have never wanted owners like George Steinbrenner, and I have felt that they have made the right moves in three separate periods (the 80s, the late ‘90s, and the mid ‘00s) to bring the team back from the dead (I can’t determine to what degree they could be blamed for the team having died in the first place). But many, many, probably most fans have lost faith in the Wilpons. They must restore our faith or they must sell the team. Right now, fans doubt that the Wilpons have the money necessary to provide what the Mets need to compete with the Phillies next year. All economies are being interpreted as signs that the Wilpons are broke because of the Madoff swindle. I myself doubt that they are broke and I believe that the Mets are capable of paying for themselves if enough is invested in them. I am not making any judgements about the Wilpon’s solvency until I see what they actually do in the offseason. If they are broke, I beg them to sell the team. If they are not, I ask them to put their money on the table.
This brings me to what I consider to be a crucially important yet somewhat intangible reason for the widespread loss of faith in the Mets. I believe that the transition to Citi Field has prompted an identity crisis that needs to be addressed as much as the problems created by the weakness and uncertainty of the current roster. I think that a crucial, reason why Mets fans are so unwilling to cut the team, management, or ownership any slack is that there is a widespread unhappiness with the experience of the new stadium.
Even those of us who stubbornly adored Shea were looking forward to the new stadium. It has not been worth the wait. We were promised that we would be closer to the field and that we would have better sightlines. For those of us who are unwilling to pay more than double to see a game at Citi Field than we paid to see a game at Shea, the sightlines are worse and we are further from the field. We were promised a stadium that was a beautiful piece of architecture. The architecture is beautiful. We got to see how beautiful it was last year as it was being built. Once you put up immense and particularly unattractive ads everywhere you possibly can, however, the stadium’s beauty is lost. Shea, at least, had its sublimity. You saw the stadium and you saw the neon sculptures as you approached. Your spirit was lifted. When I approach Citi Field from any direction, I cannot avoid a disappointing sense that it looks like crap, that it is a little lovely stadium buried under a pile of ugly billboards. My spirit isn’t lifted. I am kind of embarrassed.
The worst thing about Citi Field, and the most trying for the faith of a longtime fan, are the many opportunities it affords for being excluded and even humiliated. It seems, at points, as if every few feet you run into people whose job is to tell you that you cannot freely walk past them. I find it humiliating to not be able to go to the vast, virtually empty area behind the dugouts to watch the players up close in batting practice the way I did for more than four decades at Shea. I hate having to plead to no avail with the men in the green jackets, just doing their job, to just get in there and take a picture or two. I hate the fact that all of the stadium below the Promenade Level and behind the infield (hey, that’s where I always used to sit at Shea! In an affordable seat with a great view of the field!) is turned over to luxury boxes and clubs for the rich. I hate seeing the emptiness of the best seats in the house, waiting there for the crowds of people, who never materialized, who were projected to be both rich enough and dumb enough to spend more than $200 for a ticket to see a baseball game. Citi Field leaves a bad taste in my mouth and the superior food from the Shake Shack and Blue Smoke and Catch of the Day is not enough to get it out.
Citi Field must also leave a bad taste in the mouths of the many middle-class people who paid more than they wanted to pay for a season ticket and who justified the expenditure to themselves by thinking that they would be able to resell the tickets they would not use. They can’t resell their tickets. They must take a big loss, in this economy. They cannot be happy. And those of us who look ahead to the period when the Mets will be good again, and season tickets holders will be able to sell their seats on the secondary market, are not happy with the stadium’s unforgivably tiny capacity.
Add to this that most Mets fans are still unhappy with the fact that in the three or so years they had to plan and design the new stadium, the Mets organization did not figure out how to present the place as the home of a proud and storied team that had been in existence since 1962. They did not anticipate the attachment that millions had to the heritage and history of that team even though their profits were dependent on the actual existence of those millions. They seem to have thought that the money would come as long as there was “good product” on the field. They did not understand the magnitude of what they were entrusted with. They did not understand the scope and scale of their responsibility. They didn’t even get a few display cases together. They didn’t even take the trouble to set up the Mets’ measly Hall of Fame. And they do not yet deserve any credit for having belatedly stuck up a few pictures without captions that appear to be nothing more than Nikon ads. I will resist the tendency I have to go on and on about my astonishment at this degree of obtuseness. But I will say that for a very significant number of Mets fans, this insensitivity has generated a great deal of bad will. In combination with the high ticket prices and the disappointments of the stadium and the season, it is a contributing factor to the fact that many Mets fans have lost their faith in the team.
The Wilpons can salvage much of this situation by looking us in the eye and listening to our voices. They can invest in another powerful hitter and another reliable pitcher. They can make Citi Field feel more like the home of the Mets. They can make it into a repository of our proud traditions, a place people can be fond of, a place where old timers can teach kids about what they have inherited. They can make the stadium more fan-friendly and less exclusive. They can stop telling us over and over how fan-friendly and wonderful they think it is. They can let us back into the area behind the dugouts for batting practice. They can let us into the club areas with a reservation. When somebody says that it would be nice to see an Old-Timer’s Day again, or a Banner Day, they can have somebody thoughtful and interested saying, “well, let’s look into that, fans might enjoy it.” The face and style of this franchise need to change. The organization should not behave like a bunch of corporate board members. They should behave like passionate fans, anxious to serve a loyal public.
Right now, Mets fans are unhappy because they don’t know who the Mets are. They don’t like what they see. They don’t recognize anything. Yet they are sticking with the team because they have no place else to go. Let the rebuilding of the Mets begin. Let’s get out of the woods and find our way back home. There is a lot of work to do. And the work that needs to be done is a lot more complicated than signing a few checks.
Check out my just-published book: The Last Days of Shea: Delight and Despair in the Life of a Mets Fan