By Mike Steffanos
Almost everything in the papers today that isn't about Brian Bannister's hamstring is about the Mets' venturing back into what has been the franchise's House of Horrors, Turner Field in Atlanta. With Mets fans still smarting from the last two games of the Mets-Braves series at Shea, you can feel a little apprehension in the air as the Mets begin a 3-game series in a place where they just can't seem to win. Still, it's a new team, and a new year, and hope for Mets fans once again springs eternal. Could this be the year the Mets don't just roll over and die for the hated Braves on their home turf?
Depending on who you listen to, the Mets either feel that no matter what, they have to prove they can beat Atlanta (Cliff Floyd), or it's really not that big a deal, and the Mets need to keep their eyes on the big picture (Pedro, Willie Randolph). As it usually does, the truth probably lives somewhere between those two extremes.
The Mets come into this series with something that they haven't had before this season -- they came in as the superior team. Despite the spin put on this by Atlanta writers and other Braves apologists in the media, this superiority goes beyond the Mets outspending the Braves by $7-1/2 million, which is less than Kaz Matsui is making this year, and chump change when you consider that the Braves are outspending the Cardinals by $4 million, the Blue Jays by over $20 million, and the Brewers by over $35 million. Don't play the small-market card, boys, no one that is really paying attention is buying it.
What sets this Mets team apart from any Mets team of the last 15+ years is the core of young players that have been assembled. There is an embarrassment of riches here with David Wright, Jose Reyes, Aaron Heilman and Brian Bannister that have been nurtured through the Mets much maligned farm system and have made their marks in the majors. Add to them Xavier Nady, Anderson Hernandez and Duaner Sanchez -- all young players that the Mets obtained in trades. Mix in exciting prospects that are close, such as Lastings Milledge, Mike Pelfrey, Henry Owens and John Maine, and others farther down in the system. The national media can try to paint these Mets as all about free agent signings, to my mind they are all about the kids. What you have here is a recipe for sustained success we haven't seen in these parts since Crockett, Tubbs and mullets all defined cool.
Does having a better team mean that Mets fans should feel cocky? I'm not saying that. The Mets were the best team in the National League for a 5 year period in the '80s and have two playoff appearances and one title to show for it. Being the better team guarantees nothing. If the Mets get their asses handed to them again by the Braves this weekend, there will be much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth by us jaded Met fans that have seen this too often. As they did after taking 2 of 3 from the Mets in, we'll again have to watch the Braves snicker about their superiority over the Mets, and that will certainly suck.
But, at least to my mind, there is a different feel to this whole familiar drama this season that goes beyond who wins and who loses this weekend. Two familiar feelings are gone that have been my constant companions as the Braves have been a thorn in my side for over a decade -- the Braves are not the better team this year, and the Mets organization is not the team's own worst enemy any more. Even the cockiest baseball writers in the world seem to realize things are changing.
All of this will be small consolation if the Mets fail to get it done on the field, and I'll be as frustrated as anyone, believe me. The undeniable thing is, however, that the gap that always separated the Braves from the Mets, on the field and as an organization, has narrowed to the point of invisibility. This is a Mets team that has youth and fundamentals, two things that haven't been on this side of the rivalry. Meanwhile, we have a Braves team that wins 2 of 3 in New York, brags about how they've righted their ship, and then proceed to get spanked 4 out of 5 by the Nats and the Brewers.
Newsday: Xavier Nady
This feature is my pick of the day. Getting away from Bannister's hammy and another visit to the House of Horrors, David Lennon offers up a great look at the Mets' new rigth fielder. According to Cliff Floyd, Nady has been as good in the clubhouse as he's been on the field:
I don't know what he did over there in San Diego, but he's one of the best dudes I ever met in my life. Honestly. I mean, Cam's my boy for life, but I like this guy a lot.
It's not even funny. You ask anyone in here, and the first thing they'll tell you is that he's one of the best guys they know. He just has an aura about him that makes you want to be cool with him. He's quiet, but he keeps you loose. Hates when you talk negative.
Lennon also quotes GM Omar Minaya on the rationale behind the trade that brought him here:
We just thought he needed an opportunity to play. If we don't trade Cameron, we don't get Delgado, so we thought we had to go for a young, up-and-coming guy that could give us numbers close to Cameron at a much lower rate. We're very happy how it turned out.
I wasn't crazy about this trade when it happened, but understood why Omar wanted to clear Cameron's salary. Cammy was making $6 million a year, and that was based on his value as a CF. Omar coveted a big bat, and needed salary flexibility to get it. When Nady was obtained, I opined that he was a chip in another deal, and would never play an inning as a Met. I was WRONG. Still, I wonder if Omar really did always intend for Nady to be the RF, or if there was another deal that didn't go through. In any case, Nady has been a really solid contributor, both on the field and to the clubhouse karma.