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.
So what now? There is no shortage of candidates for the general-manager position, one the Wilpons vow will be hired first and then allowed to pick his—or her, if oft-mentioned Dodgers assistant G.M. Kim Ng is truly a candidate—own manager. (This is surely sad news for Brooklyn Cyclones manager and Mets icon Wally Backman, who has been lying in wait for the job all year.) The Wilpons have vowed to hire someone outside the organization, which is encouraging. The hot veteran names are Sandy Alderson, the architect of the champion A’s teams of the eighties and the mentor to Moneyball hero Billy Beane, and John Hart, a former Indians and Rangers G.M. who’s now an intelligent daily voice on the MLB Network. Josh Byrnes, unjustly fired by the Diamondbacks earlier this year, would bring an infusion of energy and a welcome sabermetric bent to the Mets, though he might be afraid he’d run into the same front-office interference that plagued him in Arizona. This month’s playoffs will show off two other intriguing candidates: Tampa Bay senior vice-president Gerry Hunsicker, a former Mets minor-league director, and the sentimental favorite, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, a 33-year-old wunderkind who just happens to have grown up in Bayside.
The Wilpons promise autonomy, but they don’t promise to stay out of the baseball side of operations entirely, which has led to communication issues in the past and will certainly be the biggest concern of any new hire. It was a little disconcerting when Fred Wilpon felt obliged to remind reporters that “this is a good job.”
It still is, if whoever takes over is willing to wait awhile. For all the talk that the Mets still have plenty of resources and a clear—and reinvigorated—desire to win, next year’s Mets won’t look all that different from this year’s, no matter who is hired. When you allow for arbitration raises for a few prominent Mets—including knuckleballer R. A. Dickey, who improbably might have been the team’s best pitcher this year—the payroll could be at $130 million before the Mets even think of signing any free agents. (Which is its own blessing; it’s considered the weakest free-agent crop in years.) The new G.M.’s immediate priority won’t be to make over the big club; that won’t be possible until after the 2011 season, when the contracts of Beltran, Luis Castillo, and (finally!) Oliver Perez expire, dropping the payroll by nearly $40 million. Instead, it’ll be exercising organizational control, top to bottom. It’ll be determining the futures of young players like Fernando Martinez and Wilmer Flores, protecting priceless assets like starter Jenrry Mejia, putting in place a plan for the lower levels of the system that might take years to pay off but will be more than worth it when it does. Mostly, the Mets need someone who is distinctively and indubitably in charge—and someone with a lot of patience.
The Mets need their fans to have patience, too. After the last four years, it’s perfectly understandable why that might be asking a lot, but the notion that the Mets should go out and start doing whatever it takes to win immediately is exactly what got them into this mess in the first place. This is going to take a while, and it’s going to take the same painful downward adjustment of expectations from fans that the Wilpons just went through. That the team is lowering ticket prices next season is a welcome start and another tacit admission. We’re all gonna go through this together.
What the Mets and their fans needed was this clean break. The Mets will not be disappointing the next year or two: They will just be a mediocre work-in-progress. That might not be the most inspiring slogan on the season-ticket-renewal packages, but it’s a lot more inspiring than a picture of Minaya still plodding forward like nothing is wrong. The Mets had a little run there, with a few highs and a lot of heartache. It’s over. That everyone now understands it, and is willing to do what it takes to fix it, is the first sign of genuine hope the Mets and their fans have had in several years. It’ll be hard, what’s ahead of us, but hey, ya gotta believe.