By Mike Steffanos
Note: This article in its entirety has already been published on the Mets Today web site earlier this week. It is published here for archive purposes.
Since coming up a whisker short of making it to the World Series in 2006, the Mets have had a way of failing to meet expectations. They collapsed historically in 2007, and then the bullpen imploded the following year. The 2009 season was lost to injuries, while last year's campaign featured a maddeningly slow fade to irrelevance.
Losing has consequences. The fan base eroded as the casual and trend-following fans drifted away. Among the diehards who stayed anger, discontent and disillusionment became predominant emotional baggage.
A winter of endless stories about ownership's financial missteps added hopelessness for the future to the mix, and the almost overwhelmingly negative coverage of the Mets on and off the field only intensified all of these feelings among the faithful.
The challenge for new manager Terry Collins and the 2011 Mets was to diffuse this unhealthy miasma of emotions. While some fans were so disgruntled that nothing short of a miracle season would win then back, for most of us the bar was relatively low. We would have been happy with a team that played hard and smart and won somewhere around half their games.
The early results in this regard have been abysmal. Yesterday's win over the Braves allowed Mets fans to take a collective deep breath, but the Mets have still lost nine of their last eleven games. Moreover, they lost them looking progressively more nervous and sloppy. Even the most patient fans are beginning to wonder what we've gotten ourselves into.
With sixteen games played, the Mets have completed ten percent of their schedule. Their pitching has been pretty awful, but when they do get respectable results the offense disappears. In games where the bats look good the pitching comes up short or the defense gives runs away. Poor baserunning has also been an ongoing concern.
As a fan, how you've reacted to the disappointing start is most likely reflective of what you felt heading into the season. Since you're bothering to read these words you're clearly not one of the casual fans who have already tuned out the Mets and moved on.
If you numbered among the completely disgruntled heading in, the 5-11 start has simply confirmed what you felt all along. Sandy Alderson and company tried to retool a broken team with inexpensive parts, and their stumbling start is the natural result. Two Rule 5 guys on the opening day roster? What are we, the freaking Royals? Fire the Wilpons! Break up the core!
If you are a relentlessly incurable optimist, your rose-colored glasses see the first sixteen games as a small blip on the road to better days. Soon the Mets will right the ship. Brad Emaus is Dan Uggla light. Mike Pelfrey really is an ace. Chris Young has 25 starts in that arm. The bullpen is better than people think. The wildcard is within reach!
While I know folks in both categories, I think it's fair to say that most of us inhabit that grey-colored region between both extremes. We are the fans who were hoping for hard and smart and a finish somewhere north of break-even. We wanted to see some progress away from recent disappointments that would instill hope for the future.
Ten percent is a small sample size. There is still plenty of time for the Mets to be a reasonably entertaining team to watch this season and start building something better for the future. Still, I found this early season stumble to be troubling in one regard.
Since their historic collapse at the end of the 2007 season, the Mets have shown a disturbing tendency to allow a bad stretch to snowball into something far worse. Poor roster construction, injuries and just plain bad luck have played a part in this, but after watching this team closely over the past several seasons I feel like I can see these stretches coming. What happened to them over the past week was all too familiar.
It's a given that the Mets organization could use some semblance of a playoff push this season just to sell some tickets. I believe that it's also important to redefine the character of this team. I'd like to see them react to an adverse stretch with something more than deer-in-the-headlights panic.
The Mets took quite a few punches in 2006, and yet made it oh so close to the Promised Land. I very much enjoyed rooting for a team for which I felt a level of respect and admiration. I still love the Mets as much now as I did back then, but I can't say that I respect their toughness and level of fight.
No matter how smart the front office might be, I don't believe the Mets will move forward as an organization until they shed this reputation as a soft team. That will never happen until this team can convince their fans and themselves that they can take a good punch and stay in the fight. There's still plenty of time to do that, but the early returns are unsatisfactory.