Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Breaking With the Past

Yesterday, I started writing a piece on the opening of spring training. I had a bad cold that limited me to a few short hours of heavily interrupted sleep, but I sat at my computer for a couple of hours and knocked out several paragraphs of thoughts. At the time, I felt like I had an excellent start. I took a couple of hours off. By the time I sat down again, I still felt tired, but was also more clear-headed. I read through the words that I had written earlier, and I'm pretty sure that the look on my face was reminiscent of Edvard Munch's famous painting. I decided that, while it felt a little like slacking off to not post something on the first official day of workouts for the whole squad, it was the right move to table those thoughts for a day. So, belatedly, some thoughts on the opening act of the first Mets squad of the post-Wilpon era.

Baseball has been my consuming passion for many years. I look forward to the start of every baseball season, even when I knew my team wasn't equipped to compete. As I'm sure you know, that was all too often the case for the last few years. What was frustrating during this time was that there was usually enough talent in place for the Mets to make a playoff run if everything went their way, but years that the fates smiled on the New York Mets in that manner were few and far between.

Most seasons went downhill quite quickly in a disturbingly familiar pattern: an injury here, some underperformance there, a bullpen not deep enough that began to wither away around Memorial Day. Then the injuries would start sapping the roster of talent. Almost inevitably, by the Fourth of July, I realized that only a miracle would save my team. By the time August rolled around, I knew it was all over. All I had left was hoping that some kid would come up in September and give me a reason to believe that next year would be different. Such was the cycle of my baseball life for more years than I care to tabulate at this moment.

For all that, I never believed that rooting for the Mets substantially harmed the overall quality of my life. I've had good years and bad, but I feel like I've been pretty lucky. I'm lucky enough to have lasted for more than six decades on this earth and reasonably hopeful that I can continue on for more. The Mets were often a source of disappointment and some personal frustration, but I never let what happened on a baseball field spill over much into the rest of my life. And there were, even in the darkest seasons, some small rays of light and odd moments of bliss courtesy of the New York Mets that kept my love of baseball from being sapped away by all that losing.

I've spent a lot of time writing about the Wilpons this year. You have to give them a sort of reverse credit; they had a remarkably terrible run with this franchise, especially over the last couple of decades. Fred Wilpon's legacy with the Mets ultimately was his lack of the vision and imagination required to successfully helm a modern sports franchise, along with a glaring blind spot when it came to his son. The best thing that any Mets fan can do with the Wilpons is simply turning the page on them. Before I do that, however, I'd like to take a moment to look back once more.

It's hard for me to work up much anger towards the departed Fred and Jeff Wilpon. There was a certain level of arrogance in the endless bumbling at the helm of the team that made them a little darker than your standard comic relief, but it's still amazing that they could run a baseball team for so long and learn so little. But really, they were just true to themselves, small men in over their heads and unable to change and adapt. Mostly I'm just happy they're gone. Watching what just went down with Kevin Mather in Seattle briefly caused a personal flashback to the lack of self-awareness and basic common sense that characterized the Wilpon era in New York.

There is one thing for which I won't ever forgive Fred and Jeff Wilpon. It's how their failure in running the Mets was complicit in stealing away most of my sense of optimism when it came to my baseball team, particularly in the last decade or so. There were some ugly times since I started rooting for this franchise in 1969, but there was always a level of hopefulness that rose above the club's circumstances. You could call it the "Ya Gotta Believe!" syndrome, where it always seemed that the Mets were going to turn it around and enjoy a remarkable if improbable success. As frustrating as my Mets fandom could be at times, it never felt hopeless until recent years.

The Madoff mess was the turning point in all of that — not the original story, but the blind, stupid way the Wilpons refused to accept their new reality and do something creative to adjust to it. It became clear that Fred and Jeff's answers to their misfortune were going to be rooted in ignorance and denial rather than adapting and making changes that, while uncomfortable for them, would give them and the Mets a chance to turn things around.

When I stopped blogging a decade ago, it was because my life became so crazy for a time then I simply didn't have any time to put into it. When things eased up a few years later, I considered picking it up again many times. I missed writing quite a bit. Until March of last year, what always stopped me was my lack of optimism for the club's chances. I didn't feel it, and I didn't want to be the guy writing about why he didn't believe things were going to go well for the Mets.

That's a primary reason why I'm grateful to Steven Cohen for buying the club. It's not because I believe him to be a person without flaws. I'm too old for heroes, anyway. I'm thankful because he's implemented changes that allow me to feel optimistic towards baseball and the Mets. Same with Sandy Alderson and Zack Scott. While I haven't agreed with everything they've done, it's all made enough sense that I feel positive about the direction of the team even when I don't love the move they just made.

I had a discussion a while back with someone (not a Mets fan) questioning whether success would "ruin" Mets fans. Apparently, I guess there is some sort of cute, cuddly aspect to rooting for a team that has been so painful to watch for so long. "Humor," at least in some circles, is derived from posting pictures of miserable Mets fans watching their team lose and finding it all hilarious. The gist of it all seems to be that there is fear that not rooting for a perennial underachiever would rob us Mets fans of that cute, cuddly aura and rob others of the opportunity of laughing at our unhappiness. Would we instead become a version of Yankee fans, insufferable, entitled, and firm in believing that our team should win every year?

My simple answer is I would love to have an opportunity to root for a successful ballclub that would tempt me to flirt with irksome entitlement. Don't get me wrong, I think I'm smart enough to avoid that trap, but if my choices are starkly delineated as between "hopeless loser" or "obnoxious winner," I'm going to have to choose the latter. At least I would be hopeful and optimistic while alienating all of my friends who root for other teams.

So, a day belated thanks to my cold, here's to the new era of the Mets. May optimism continue to rule, and may all of those out there who would begrudge Mets fans that long-overdue optimism just suck it.

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Good piece by Justin Toscano on NorthJersey.com yesterday about Mets backup catcher Tomás Nido. Nido worked with a swing coach before the start of last season to remake himself as more than just a fringe Major League player. Unfortunately, thanks to COVID-19, Nido only had a brief but promising 26 at-bats last season to showcase his new swing. Toscano interviewed Lorenzo Garmendia, the guru who helped Nido overhaul his swing. As quoted in the piece, Garmendia was really quite bullish on his pupil:
"I think if Nido can string some games together where he gets a good amount of playing time, I think everybody is going to be shocked. You're going to get to see what you saw last year. That wasn't by accident. What happened last year, and that sample size, isn't by accident. That’s going to be him."

James McCann was quite obviously signed to be the starting catcher here. However, McCann is unlikely to be the sort of catcher who can give a club 140 starts behind the plate. There will be ample opportunities for Tomás to prove to all of us that he can contribute enough offense to justify 40 or so starts backing up McCann. I'm sure that nothing would make the Mets (and myself) happier than to have Tomás Nido live up to Garmendia's praise in the article.

One area where I still have some worries about with the 2021 Mets is catching depth. I would like to see the Mets sign a veteran backstop, not only as insurance that Nido doesn't fade offensively, but to cover for injuries. However, in fairness, I understand that any decent backup catcher who the Mets might sign is looking for some guarantee of playing time. If you're running the Mets and sincerely believe that Nido is good enough to be the primary backup, you can't promise that playing time. That simple fact, even more so than the money it would take to sign someone, could well be the reason that no one else has been signed. I get it, but I'm still concerned.

Currently, the depth behind Nido consists of lightly-regarded prospect Patrick Mazeika, 19-year-old prospect Francisco Alvarez, journeyman Bruce Maxwell, and a couple of other minor leaguers. It's probably between Mazeika and Maxwell as to who might be next on the depth chart. Mazeika is a bat-first prospect who struggled in Double-A in 2018 before bouncing back to middling numbers in the same place in 2019. Maxwell is a great story in that he's back to pro ball after a really rough ride, but I don't think the Mets want to see him getting many Major League at-bats in their uniform this season. If I had to guess, Maxwell is probably next up if McCann or Nido go down. Alvarez is a couple of years away in the rosiest of scenarios.

Along with the bullpen, the catching situation is something that I will be paying a lot of attention to this spring. Here's hoping that what I see only increases my optimism for the season.

Thanks for stopping by today. Please stay safe, be well, and take care.


 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

5 comments:

  1. "Obnoxious Winner"? I think that's the NyQuil talking. I need to see an awful lot proven before I can elbow my way into that category of front runners :)

    Regarding a catcher, I think that a veteran better than Rene Rivera is needed just in case the magic swing lessons with Nido didn't take root or didn't stick for the long term. Nido is still young enough to be a backup receiver in the future. Right now it's a HUGE dropoff from McCann.

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  2. Yeah, I'd like to try that feeling that a few years of winning would bring. I think I could get over my lovable loser syndrome pretty quickly.

    Arguably, the longest run they had was the mid 80's. I actually thought the '87 and particularly the '88 teams were actually better than '86, but. . . I know I wasn't feeling very cuddly about those losses.

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  3. I agree Reese, but it might be tough to sign a decent one at this point.

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  4. R1969, I thought the 88 club was the most complete team the Mets have ever had

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  5. I'm guessing that Nido is getting a really hard look this spring an by about March 20th of so, they will figure out if they want to circle back to a Wieters or Flowers.

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