Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Dark Cloud

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that I've been writing a series of posts on the 2005 New York Mets. That was the year I began my original blog, and also it was a pivotal year in the history of the club. Besides, it was chock full of interesting things to write about, particularly when you find yourself in a year without baseball.

I've written nine pieces for the series so far, including a two-parter. I've written about heroes and goats, great games and a nagging enigma. I've written about significant players who take a piece of your heart with them when they leave, and others who fell short of eternal glory. I enjoyed writing every one of these pieces, and I look forward to writing more of them.

However, there is one that I have made a couple of failed attempts to write. I wanted to write about pitcher Victor Zambrano in the context of his 2005 season. I finally just decided to abandon the idea, but rather than just move on I thought it might be interesting to write about the reason why.

Victor Zambrano's 2005 season was certainly not a success. By the numbers he was just slightly worse than a league-average starter, but what was clear from the start was that he completely lacked the self-confidence and swagger to handle all of the repercussions from a trade in which he had no say. Plus, as we would later find out, Victor came to the Mets as damaged goods with an injury that would end his career shortly.

From the time of the original trade, I've always felt that you had to look backwards to understand it. On its own, the decision to trade for Zambrano was terrible, but it was also just a piece of a longer running tragedy stretching back decades.

There was a time in the history of the New York Mets when things were done right. When Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon bought the club in 1980, they hired Frank Cashen, the architect of the great Orioles teams in the previous decade. Over a period of a few seasons, Cashen carefully assembled the club that would win it all in 1986. Then, even though key members of the team were already approaching the end of their careers, we were promised that it wouldn't be a one-shot deal. There was going to be a dynasty.

To a fan like myself, everything seemed possible in the fall and winter following that great achievement. It did seem that the Mets were still on top of the game. Surely, more championships would follow.

But 1987 featured Doc Gooden's rehab and tons of injuries, and the Mets missed the playoffs completely. They bounced back in 1988, and looked like the best team in baseball again. They were clearly better than the Dodgers club they faced in the NLCS, but the Dodgers had Orel Hershiser and some luck on their side. They went on to the World Series, and the Mets were left wondering, "what if."

I always looked back to the failure of the 1988 Mets as the key turning point for the franchise. It really was time to turn things over and build something back up again. Team leaders and key lineup cogs Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez needed to be replaced. Gooden continued to battle substance abuse and injuries, and never be close to what he once was. Ron Darling was very much on the decline, and the 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation had became quite ordinary.

I can't help but wonder where the Mets would be now if they had won again in 1988. Maybe the second title would have given the team a chance to rebuild. Instead, there was a feeling that the club "owed one" to the fans, and they decided to retool rather than restart. It would not work, and doomed the club to years of other questionable decisions.

There were several problems with this. Frank Cashen and Davey Johnson never had the best relationship. Cashen wasn't a fan of some of the more problematic players on the team, wanting to replace them with better citizens. I think the biggest problem, however, was that Cashen was passionately against signing free agents. With so many holes to fill, that was likely the one chance he had to retool at a high enough level to compete again. Instead, he made curious moves like the Juan Samuel trade, and the Mets sunk quickly into mediocrity.

I feel as if the decades between 1988 and now are all part of very much the same story for the Mets. Teams that are successful over the long haul adhere to a process. The process may change some with changing times, but there is always a clear plan. It doesn't depend on the whims of fate. One win or one loss doesn't cause a well-run club to toss a Hail Mary and run wildly in a different direction.

But that's how it feels like with the Mets. The 90s were a blur of desperate changes and failed decisions. When they finally achieved success at the turn of the century it proved unsustainable. By the time 2004 rolled around, the Mets had plunged downward past mediocre to being just plain bad again.

At that point, with a team languishing far below .500, and no large infusion of talent available down on the farm, it was clearly time to say, let's start over and do it right. Let's implement a strong process and stick to it. Let's stop the nonsense.

But again, as had happened so many times since that 1988 NLCS, the Mets elected to take a weird middle path to nowhere. They traded for a pair of starting pitchers, Zambrano and Kris Benson, that had absolutely no chance of pushing them into contention. That the Zambrano trade was a total fleecing was just the icing on the cake. That Zambrano came to the club with the elbow damage that would end his career, and the Mets didn't do their own due diligence with the medicals, that was par for the course back then.

When a gambler hits a losing streak, the worst of them will continue to double down on bad decisions rather than rethink what they're doing. They'll try increasingly illogical methods of getting back to even, betting on the longest of longshots as their desperation grows.

The Mets have been in that position for so long, mistakes like trading for Victor Zambrano seem like par for the course. You could blame Jim Duquette and the rest of the bunch that were making the decisions at the time, but it feels moot to me. The names keep changing, but the stink of desperation always seems to hang over the decisions that they make. That's why I just don't have the heart to spend a whole post talking about poor Victor Zambrano. Here's a really great piece from Deadspin that is a more interesting take on the subject than the standard we've all become familiar with, if you're interested.

I hope the Wilpons sell the Mets. It's obvious to say that I want someone running the show that's not broke. As much as that, however, I want someone that isn't tied down to the endless spiral of failures to find a magic shortcut to the Promised Land.

My hope is that we get someone willing to throw out that tired Playbook. Put good people in charge, implement a strong process and stick with it. Then, just maybe, the next three decades look a lot different than the last three.

Thanks for stopping by. I hope to see you back here tomorrow. In the meantime, please stay safe.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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