It is no small irony that perhaps the most uplifting moment the New York Mets have offered their fans over the past four years involved team COO Jeff Wilpon uttering the words “We failed.” When Jeff and his father, Fred Wilpon, faced a media horde mere hours after firing general manager Omar Minaya and manager Jerry Manuel, they looked sad, they looked beaten, they looked … well, they looked like they’d watched the Mets for the past four seasons. It is rare to see the owners of a professional sports franchise sit and take questions for 40 minutes—you could threaten him with castration and Jim Dolan would still never do that—and rarer still to see them so openly emotional. Everything else about the Mets was stripped away: no dissembling general manager to curse on sports radio, no bumbling manager to mock every time he stepped out of the dugout, no players to boo for not running out a ground ball. Just two men, admitting, at last, to the catastrophe. You almost felt bad for them. It was honest, searing, and more than a little disconcerting. The Mets have decided, once and for all, to completely start over. It’s an admission as stunning as it is welcome. The Mets have stopped pretending.
Before we completely sprint away from this Mets era, it’s worth remembering the good times, and there were good times. The emergence of David Wright and Jose Reyes, two legitimate superstars (when healthy, not a small caveat). The postseason heroics of Carlos Beltran (other than that Game 7), Carlos Delgado, Endy Chavez, heck, even Oliver Perez. A television station that is producing stronger revenue numbers every season. A Mets team that surrounded young talent with veteran know-how, one that closed an ugly old Robert Moses nightmare and opened a quirky, fun curiosity with terrific food. As far as Mets eras go, we’ve had far worse. It’s another reason it was so difficult to say good-bye for the Wilpons, why they looked more doleful than angry; it was supposed to be so much better, and it almost was. That was sort of the problem.
One of the many issues that the Mets have had in recent years, since Beltran was left there slack-jawed on that rainy night in October 2006, is the false belief that they were this close to winning a title. The franchise has operated as if it can’t chew gum and walk simultaneously, as if it only had to take care of one problem at a time. After the collapse of 2007, they traded for Johan Santana but didn’t address growing bullpen problems and a manager who was beginning to lose his team’s faith. After the collapse of 2008, they brought in Francisco Rodriguez to anchor the bullpen and kept on Manuel to secure the dugout, but didn’t provide the necessary depth for an aging, injury-prone team and didn’t account for what their massive new ballpark would do to their power hitters. After the implosion of 2009, they signed Jason Bay to boost the offense but failed to notice the decay and rot creeping in everywhere else. The Mets ran out of sandbags for the levee, and it finally broke.
This is a symptom of a team that constantly feels it is just a player away from a championship, rather than one that is forthcoming and aware of its fundamental limitations. It was the curse of Beltran’s Strikeout—a team that was so close to immortality that it refused to admit that it was, in fact, mortal. Omar Minaya, who had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, could never rebuild: Whether he was fighting to make that last step to the World Series or whether he was fighting for his job, he had the same strategy and the same fundamental premise: This team is almost there. It wasn’t. And now it’s over.
It’s a relief. As recently as two months ago, Fred Wilpon answered a reporter’s question about whether Minaya would return by asking, “Is the sun going to come up tomorrow?” (In the press conference last week, Fred apologized to the reporter and said he misspoke.) With Minaya still under contract for the next two years at about $1 million per, the fear was that the Mets would fire Manuel but keep Minaya around to see if he could squeeze one last run out of his charges. Considering the Wilpons’ reluctance to acknowledge problems in the past, it wasn’t a crazy notion. But with two swings of the ax, the Wilpons faced reality and an uncertain future. Fred said during the press conference that “the last four years have been the most painful and disappointing of my 30 years with this team. We thought we were on the right track.” In that light, that he reversed course and fired Minaya is a happy surprise. The Mets are no longer stuck. That fact might not sell tickets just yet, but it might, down the line.