By Mike Steffanos
Despite signing the checks of a payroll that has increased substantially over the past four seasons, Mets owner Fred Wilpon is being accused of being a cheapskate again.
I have my problems with the Wilpons. I think they're often guilty of thinking smaller than their team's market. A prime example of this is the decision to build a stadium with more than 10,000 fewer seats than the one that it replaces while bragging about how much it will push up demand for the tickets. My ideal owner would have built a 50,000+ seat replacement with the confidence that the product would be good enough to create the demand. I often think that the Wilpons would have been much better off owning a small market team.
For all that, Fred Wilpon strikes me as a decent guy who genuinely cares about putting a winning team on the field. Only the Steinbrenners spent more in an effort to do that. That should probably preclude being christened Freddy Coupon by angry fans but, hey, New York is a tough town.
To my mind, the biggest problems with this club are a lack of clear direction, a tendency to try to solve most problems by throwing money at them, and the weakness of worrying too much about what is written about them in the press.
The Mets franchise has floundered badly at times during the Wilpon regime, which began when he and partner Nelson Doubleday bought the team in 1980. The success of the club in the mid 80s under Frank Cashen proved the exception rather than the rule, and the previously mentioned lack of a clear direction has plagued this club since.
When the Mets parted ways with Steve Phillips in 2003 and announced a commitment to building from within, there was a general consensus among Mets fans approving this decision. Sadly, this commitment lasted barely a year, as the Mets inexplicably traded top prospect Scott Kazmir for the wildly inconsistent Victor Zambrano.
I think you can argue that a lot of the club's biggest problems now can be traced back to then. Omar Minaya was hired before the 2004 season was over, and the mandate became the contradictory "build the system, but also win now."
We'll get more into Omar's plusses and minuses as we get further into this, but for now there are a couple more events that contributed to the schizophrenic way this franchise is run that are, to my mind, important to understanding what's going on now.
The first happened in year two of Minaya's regime. A lot of good moves by Minaya helped the Mets overcome the loss of Pedro Martinez before the playoffs. Then El Duque, who had been pitching like an ace, went down with a calf injury right before game 1 of the Dodgers series.
The Dodgers should have dispatched a Mets squad whose starting rotation featured an over-the-hill Glavine and Trachsel and in-over-their-heads Maine and Perez. Instead, the Mets swept their way to a NLCS meeting with the Cardinals.
Again, pitching would seem to favor their opponents, but the Mets took game 1 behind a gem by Glavine and jumped on Cardinals' ace Chris Carpenter with 3 in the first of game 2.
John Maine wasn't great, either, but the Mets still managed to be up 6-4 with 3 innings to go. Sadly, the series tipped away from the Mets at that point, culminating with Beltran's futile AB in game 7.
If the Mets had held on to win game 2, they almost undoubtedly would have taken that series. Then they would have faced the Tigers, and perhaps beaten them for a title. How much different would the direction of the franchise had been in that case?
But the Mets marketing department promised us that 2007 would be our year. We all know how that turned out. Then they went out and got the best starter in baseball and still came up short in 2008. To add insult to injury, the little boutique stadium they elected to build is now ready, necessitating a huge increase in ticket prices.
I've been a fan of this team for 40 years now, and there have been plenty of low points, but I have never witnessed a fan base this angry. Every move that gets made or not made is picked apart, and the Mets don't seem to win these discussions too often. The press seems only too willing to feed off the anger of the fans with sometimes outrageous pieces that only serve to inflame more.
When the Red Sox came back from the dead against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS and went on to win the Series, it can be argued that they were somewhat freed as a franchise from the incongruous needs to win now and build for the future. The Mets failure in 2006, compounded by the late-season failings of the past two years, have only solidified their existence in a purgatory where both are demanded. Now it seems that many of their moves work against both goals.