Friday, May 23, 2008

The Mets Go Through the Motions
I'm the rare Phillies fan who doesn't hate the New York Mets, probably because I live in NYC and I know and like too many people who suffer when the Mets falter. (This didn't make last September's reversal of fortune--when the Phillies roared back from a seven-game deficit with 17 games left to win the NL East by a game--any less sweet, but my joy didn't have that nasty edge to it of reveling in others' pain... the way I do when, say, the Eagles beat the Cowboys, or indeed when the Cowboys fail in any big circumstance.) So I'm not taking particular delight in the mess the Mets seem to be in these days.

There are two related components to their troubles. Most obviously, the team isn't playing well. The Mets enter play tonight a game under .500, in fourth place in the NL East. They're coming off four straight losses in Atlanta and have dropped seven of their last ten. And they're not facing the bad times with unity or resolve: closer Billy Wagner is taking shots at his position-playing teammates (a weird circumstance in itself, sort of like a football kicker calling out the offensive linemen), and manager Willie Randolph got in trouble last week for suggesting that he comes under extra scrutiny in New York City as an African-American manager. He's been backtracking from those comments all week, but they provided another distraction at a time the Mets really didn't need any more.

Yesterday the Mets' best player, 3b David Wright, spoke out:

"I can accept losing," Wright said. "Not easily, but every team loses here and there. But to go out and give the effort we're giving, to go out and lose without a fight ..."

His voice trailed off in much the same way his team has.

"I just don't think we have the fire I would hope we'd have," Wright said.

Standing at his locker, most of his teammates already departed, Wright pointed toward manager Willie Randoph's office, then to the room where the coaches dress.

"The problem," he said, "isn't there or in there. ... The problem is with us, in here."

Without any other pointing, he wondered aloud about the general confidence of a team that now has 22 victories, 22 losses and more problems than solutions. The Mets had been beaten by a team with less talent and, now, with more injured key personnel.

"Losing like this, I hope, would ruin their nights," Wright said of his departed teammates.

He didn't appear to think that it had.

"I want them to take it personally when we lose," he said. "I want them to be ticked off.

"If it was a matter of talent, it'd be different. If we just weren't any good, I could put my head on the pillow at night and sleep. But to got through the motions every night ..."

Tim Kurkjian said last night on ESPN that since the end of May last year--basically a full season's worth of action--the Mets are 76-79, three games under the break-even mark. This suggests pretty conclusively that attitude, fire in the belly, will to win, and other unquantifiable traits don't really explain the club's difficulties. The Mets' lineup is old and, other than Wright, somewhat undermanned, with outfielders Ryan Church and Carlos Beltran the only other dangerous bats this season. Shortstop Jose Reyes, who looked like a superstar in the making a year ago, has been just okay this year. They're in the bottom half of the National League in runs scored, home runs, and on base percentage plus slugging. Age and fragility are issues with the pitching staff as well: number two starter Pedro Martinez has made just one injury-shortened start since 2006, and number five Orlando Hernandez hasn't yet pitched this season. These were problems for the Mets when they blew their big lead over the Phillies late last season, and despite adding the outfielder Church and a legitimate ace in Johan Santana, they remain problems.

It's difficult to look good when you're losing. With their failure to meet expectations and clubhouse dysfunction--deepened, perhaps, by a rumored divide between Hispanic players and whites--the 2007-2008 Mets somewhat resemble the club's teams from the early 1990s, when a high-priced roster couldn't get its act together and the team stumbled to disappointing sub-.500 finishes. But it also wouldn't entirely shock me if these Mets follow the path laid out by their 1999 predecessors. That team sat at 27-28 on June 5, six games out of first, after an eight-game losing streak; a couple coaches got fired, and manager Bobby Valentine was rumored to be in big trouble. Then the Mets won 40 of their next 55 games, finished at 97-66 after beating Cincinnati in a one-game elimination contest for the wild-card berth, and won a playoff series before falling to the Braves.

So my phellow Phils phans shouldn't dance on their grave quite yet.

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