Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Fear and Loathing on the Seven Train

If you've read my sporadic updates on this here fair blog you've probably gotten a clue that I am a New York Giants fan. As a result, well, this month's been pretty good, and my mindset has followed accordingly. But if anything can drag me down from these Monrovian few weeks it's the unsettling news that baseball season is just over a month away.

Don't get me wrong.

I like baseball. Love it even. I try to see at least part of all 162 games live on TV each season (provided I'm in the country), and I've actually seen my favorite team play in person in 14 different stadiums around the U.S. If making multiple trips to Milwaukee and driving from Chicago to Detroit and back in a day to see your team isn't evidence of love, I'm not sure what is. There's one problem with all of this, though.

My team is the New York Mets.

Don't blame me for this. I sure don't. I'm pretty sure the responsibility for this lies with my father, who took me to my first baseball game ever at Shea Stadium in 1991, got my name on the scoreboard because it was near my birthday and then hung a framed picture of the message above my bed for my entire childhood. Waking up every morning and seeing this left me no choice. All I could think every day was, "Wow, maybe this Bud is for me."

The ultimate irony in all of this, of course, is that my parents are actually Yankees fans. The fact that my first game was a Mets game was for me random chance, but not them. They had a choice, they chose poorly, and now I pay the price for six months every year.

On the plus side for me, this season the price I pay probably won't be that high. With what's looking like a potentially disastrous and certainly unpleasant season in Flushing, I can expect prices for tickets to torpedo pretty significantly on the secondary market -- beyond the five-game package I so foolishly bought already. I should note though that even the Mets acknowledge their tickets won't exactly be the most desirable on the market. My package breaks down to about $12 per ticket, which is pretty much what it costs to see a team in a small market like Pittsburgh, where I'm going to be in April for roughly the same price -- and standing room tickets at that.

It makes sense that the Mets would be priced out similarly to a small market club because this season it appears that, well, they are one. Far be it from me to assume that a team in the media capital of the planet is a "small market" club -- I wouldn't want to insult the Royals and Brewers of the world, though both have more promising seasons ahead than the Mets do. Still, it's hard for people not to bandy the "small market" phrase about. After all, this is a team that has slashed its payroll this season by a record $52 million. This of course was brought on both by the club losing approximately $70 million in the 2011 season, and a Greece-like austerity-driven payroll philosophy as a result of what are, uh, considerable financial restraints on the owning Wilpon family.

While the team's likely disaster of a season has made them the butt of endless jokes by no less an authority than the team's general manager, it's enough to leave a lifelong fan like myself wondering why he or she should even bother investing time, energy or emotion into their team. After all, gone from last season are Francisco Rodriguez, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran -- whom Mets fans will miss far more than they ever thought they would. Granted, K-Rod's track record was streaky and Reyes' massive contract in Miami will likely be more albatross than asset by the time it's in its final seasons, but the message is clear. A tremendous amount of money and talent has gone out the door with not much coming back in return, so much so that even pitcher R.A. Dickey has stated that some pleasant surprises will have to happen for the team to stay competitive.

Throw into that the popular notion that the team's lone bonafide home grown star, David Wright, is rumored to be on the midseason trading block -- though GM Sandy Alderson denies this -- and there is nothing but negativity radiating from Flushing.

So is this what it's like? To be a farm system for the rest of the majors with no bullets in its chamber? I hesitate to call the Mets a small market franchise for several reasons. First of all, doing so teeters on a delicate line between reality and arrogance. Yes, New York is a market that enables a team to typically spend more than any other could, but I stray from implying that consistent competitiveness is the rich team's birthright. To assume that implies an obnoxious level of self-confidence I wouldn't want. After all, the biggest big market team of them all has just as many championships since the Mets' last World Series appearance as the Diamondbacks, Marlins, White Sox and Giants with fewer than the St. Louis Cardinals. Clearly, money doesn't buy everything.

But there is the unavoidable truth that money does buy something. Right now this team has none, and its financial situation is so dire that one can't imagine them spending on any significant free agent any time soon. Personally, I'm not quite as concerned as everyone else -- not when I try to be rational anyway. I'm a big believer in odds and statistics and the Mets' recently-built front office brain trust of Alderson, J.P. Ricciardi and Paul DePodesta is virtually unmatched in its moneyball bonafides. It will be a hard slog, but I have faith that this is a team that can guide the Mets to competitive rosters by fiddling with the margins on talent.

But that's when I'm rational. Sports are not rational.

If sports were decided by the odds, the Shot Heard Round the World never would have happened, the 2007 Patriots would still be perfect and my Northwestern Wildcats might have actually made the NCAA Tournament once in the last seven decades. Sports are great specifically because of the fact that they're irrational. There is no reason to care if we've seen the story before. But that irrationality is driven by the hope that your team can achieve the unexpected, and without it investing time, energy and emotion in any team is a pointless endeavor. The great fear in Flushing is that with its current financial straits this may be where the New York Metropolitan Baseball Club is headed, hoping that its cheap minor leaguers can provide a few shots at a title before they head for pastures that are greener in more ways than one. The chance of capitalizing on that hope is so unbelievably thin, particularly in the pressurized boiler room of New York where the media and your American League rivals magnify your own failings on the regular, that it is almost like having no hope at all.

I have been a Mets fan for 21 years now, and in that time they have dealt me a variety of debilitating gut punches. In 1999, they lost an excruciating NLCS against Atlanta that saw them erase a 5-0 deficit in the first inning of Game 6 before Kenny Rogers walked in the pennant-winning run. In 2000, they suffered an ignominious World Series defeat against the one team with a shadow they can never escape. In 2002, they completely fell apart after loading the lineup for bear with high profile flops like Mo Vaughn, Jeromy Burnitz, Roger Cedeno and Roberto Alomar. In 2006, they had the most wins in baseball before watching the 83-win Cardinals win a championship after Carlos Beltran watched Adam Wainwright's curveball end Game 7 of the NLCS. In 2007 and 2008 the Mets crafted back-to-back September collapses of an historic magnitude -- when I had already bought playoff tickets for both years no less. In 2009, they came nowhere close to being competitive despite being picked by Sports Illustrated to win the World Series, and on one afternoon became the first team in National League history to lose on an unassisted triple play, a moment I witnessed in person.

All of those punches hurt. But at least then I had the hope that things could turn around. To say that this team is now a small market club may not even do justice to the obstacles it faces financially. There is no money, a farm system almost bereft of talent and a vicious cycle of a team hemorrhaging cash because of a drop in attendance that has no reason to end with nothing worth buying tickets for. This is worse than simply being a small market club where smart drafting and a key free agent signing will give you a brief window in which to compete. One can simply look to Milwaukee or Cincinnati to see what's possible with the right resources. Those fans have something to be optimistic about. They can hope.

Right now, most Mets have no reason to hope. That is the gut punch that truly stings most.

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