In October 2010, Fred Wilpon, owner of the New York Mets, and his son Jeff sat at a dais explaining, for 40 minutes (a shockingly long amount of time for a professional sports owner to take questions from the media; James Dolan, for example, hasn’t given an interview about the Knicks in five years), why they had just fired general manager Omar Minaya and manager Jerry Manuel. It was an impressively, almost uncomfortably forthright press conference, with Jeff saying, flat-out, “We failed.” The firings were less personnel moves than they were public cleansings, an acceptance, at last, that the Mets needed to start over. At one point, Fred, a septuagenarian who has owned part of the Mets since before David Wright was born, nearly broke down. “The last four years have been the most painful and disappointing of my 30 years with this team,” he said. “We thought we were on the right track.” The Mets were about to reboot, and the Wilpons were out in public to show Mets fans just how serious they were about starting over. Just bear with us, they said. We get it now. It won’t get worse than this.
Early last week, Fred showed up at Mets spring training in Port St. Lucie to chat with the media, wearing the hangdog visage of a man who is far from convinced his ordeal, and that of his team, is over. Sixteen months ago he assured reporters and fans that he would be ushering in a new Mets era. Now, he was merely assuring them he won’t be thrown out of the building, insisting he will own the Mets “as long as I can.” The sad thing for many fans is that he’s right: It has become obvious that you’ll have to pry the Mets out of the Wilpon family’s cold, dead hands, no matter what happens with the impending Madoff trial later this month (the Madoff victims are seeking to recoup more than $300 million from the owners).
The Mets are turning 50 years old this year. (April 11 marks the 50th anniversary of their first game, an 11-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. Stan Musial went 3 for 3.) This season should be a yearlong celebration, a rollicking ongoing remembrance of one of baseball’s most endearing and eccentric organizations. Instead, it’s yet another year the Mets brass can’t wait to get over before it even starts. This 50th birthday is a grim one. This is a birthday for a 50-year-old who lost his entire 401(k) and is now collecting unemployment while working part time as a greeter at Wal-Mart.
It is worse than it has ever been for Mets fans. They are starting over. Again. The question now is how long will it truly take to turn this around. And just how much suffering will be involved?
Even for a franchise whose fans have always secretly cherished their pain as the sign of the true believer, the last six years of New York Mets baseball have been cartoonishly cruel. It began with Carlos Beltran freezing on that Adam Wainwright curveball. (In a surreal, grueling twist, those two are teammates now, on a team that has won two World Series since that game.) Since then, the Mets have:
• Endured one of the worst late-season collapses in baseball history (2007).
• Lost, with decades of Mets legends watching in the last game at Shea Stadium, the final game of the season, costing themselves a playoff spot and setting up the most depressing commemorative postgame summary imaginable (2008).
• Logged a 92-loss season in the first season of their shiny new stadium (2009).
• Signed Jason Bay, the hottest free agent on the market, to a four-year, $66 million deal, then watched his talent evaporate in front of them on a nightly basis. Also, Johan Santana, to whom the Mets will pay almost $50 million plus over the next two years, had another surgery (2010).
Comparatively speaking, last year’s placid mediocrity was a dream. The Mets spent the 2011 campaign essentially waiting for the season to end so they could drop roughly $53 million from their payroll. Considering the Madoff disaster, this drop in payroll was a sad necessity, but it also happened to be good business. The Mets wouldn’t be winning a World Series this year even if Mitt Romney owned them. There was no need to throw good money after bad, so the financial constraints probably ended up saving the Mets from themselves.
The problem is that the plan for this season is exactly the same: Wait for it to be over. After this year, the contract of David Wright—with Jose Reyes gone, the most marketable Met—could go off the books, if the Mets refuse to pick up his $16 million option or trade him. That please-end-this-season-as-quickly-as-possible plan? That’s the agenda for next year too. After that year, Santana’s and Bay’s guaranteed contracts expire, saving another $40 million plus. Wait until next year. Then wait again. Then wait some more. This is the Mets’ strategy.
With the team unable to contend now anyway, and the financial situation in such turmoil, this is really the Mets’ only play. But after the torture of the past six seasons, asking fans to stomach still more—to come out to the ballpark, to buy their hot dogs and $9 beers and souvenir Josh Thole No. 30 jerseys—is pushing loyalty to its extreme. The Wilpons seem to know it. When Fred made his remarks about owning the team for a long time, he couldn’t hide a wan smile. “Whether [fans] are happy about that right now or not, I don’t know.”
For a guy who is dramatically overqualified for this job—a job whose bottom fell out within months of his taking it in 2010—Mets general manager Sandy Alderson has a refreshing sense of gallows humor about all this madness. Alderson is a fascinating man: a Vietnam vet, a Harvard Law School grad, the architect of the Bash Brothers championship Oakland A’s team, and a man who had for years been considered a potential replacement for Bud Selig as MLB commissioner (assuming Selig ever gives up the job, which is unlikely). Alderson took over the Mets, after working as an MLB executive for almost a decade, largely because Selig encouraged him to help fix a signature franchise. He’s under contract until 2014, so he won’t confess to any regrets. But this can’t be what he thought the job was going to be.
Not that he’s not having fun with it anyway. Alderson signed up for Twitter last month (@metsgm) and immediately started tweeting jokes about his employers’ financial situation.
“Getting ready for Spring Training-Driving to FL but haven’t left yet. Big fundraiser tonight for gas money. Also exploring PAC contribution.”
“Prepping for trip. Bought 4 like-new tires at chop shop across from Citi. He threw in free wiper fluid. Better than the Wheeler deal!”
“Will have to drive carefully on trip; Mets only reimburse for gas at a downhill rate. Will try to coast all the way to FL.”
The jokes speak well to Alderson’s ability to stay sane in this crazy job. Considering the scrutiny Mets G.M.’s typically face—Minaya, Jim Duquette, and Steve Phillips, the last three, all left town with their reputations in tatters—Alderson has enjoyed a relatively free ride from the media so far. He is seen as the victim of the Mets sinkhole rather than one of its architects and, at this point, the only person (along with old Moneyball cohorts J. P. Ricciardi and Paul DePodesta, the inspiration for the Jonah Hill character in that film) who can save this team.
Which is why another news item Wilpon dropped in his spring-training pseudo press conference stood out. Wilpon said that even if the Madoff mess weren’t happening, if that were all settled and the Wilpon family had billions of dollars … the Mets still wouldn’t be spending any money right now. This, according to Wilpon, was Alderson’s plan all along. “When [Alderson] came in [he said], ‘I want to do some things; I want to have some flexibility.’ And that’s what he’s doing.”
Even if that’s after-the-fact spin, the strategy is still sound and, to some extent, reassuring. The Mets and Alderson have a plan, and they’re sticking to it. Tear everything down, build up the farm system, stop making those signature Mets huge contract mistakes, and basically pretend you have the resources of the Oakland A’s. This strategy might look familiar because it’s the exact one Brian Cashman has been instituting with the Yankees for the past few years. The difference, of course, is that when the Yankees decide they want to stop pretending they’re the A’s and start spending huge money on free agents, they have the resources to go ahead and do that (this off-season’s relative inactivity notwithstanding). Wilpon and the Mets claim that once this “period” is over, they will have the same opportunity. One can forgive Mets fans, and Alderson, for their skepticism.
So what can Mets fans look forward to this year? How do they keep themselves entertained? If new right-fielder Lucas Duda is what the Mets think he’ll be, he’s gonna be the oversize, thunder-sticked Agbayanian fan favorite that your kid will want you to turn in his Jose Reyes jersey for. Johan Santana will try to justify at least 30 or 40 bucks of the $24 million he’s owed this year. With Tim Wakefield retired, R. A. Dickey will stand as baseball’s last knuckleballer. David Wright will swing for the newly brought-in fences every time he’s up, even if it’s just to build up his trade value. But the sad truth is, the Mets could be better than they were last year and still finish last in the NL East, thanks to the massive improvements from the Marlins and Nationals and continued excellence of the Phillies and Braves.
Perhaps the goal of the Mets fan, then, is to not get too discouraged. With this, I wish you good luck. “Check Back Next Year at This Time” isn’t much of a slogan. But right now, it’s all the Mets have.