Saturday, May 15, 2021

My Nightmare Ended Last November

The New York Post
headline writer
I dislike it when some self-appointed expert tries to make a blanket characterization about what a New York Mets fan thinks. I'm a Mets fan, of course, and I know plenty of others. If there is one great truth about us that I've learned over the years, every Mets fan is different. Sure, we all start with our shared love of New York's "other" baseball team, but I'd rather try to herd cats than find a consensus among a large number of Mets fans on all but the banalest of topics. I even met a Mets fan once who didn't like David Wright — seriously. That's equivalent to a kid disliking dessert.

If there is one common characteristic of Mets fans, it has to be the ability to maintain an abiding hope. Watching this team stumble around through one inept season after another, only to occasionally give the fans a real playoff run, requires a strong dose of "ya gotta believe" that persists despite what logic and reason argue to the contrary. I've been a fan for more than 50 years. I would have packed it in a long time ago if it wasn't for that illogical, stubborn optimism that things would someday turn around and get better.

I've known or heard of a handful of Mets fans who have lost the faith over the years. Some moved on to other teams, some turned away from baseball completely. But the vast majority of people I've known that have been Mets fans have stayed Mets fans. Given all of the losing seasons, that's astounding. Being a fan of this club just gets in your blood. As hopeless as things have looked at times, it was always the hope of seeing this club go all the way one more time that keeps me hanging on.

A couple of events this week reminded me just how bleak things were, particularly in the last decade or so before the team's sale last November. The first one was Matt Harvey's return to Citi Field on Wednesday. The other was the Major League debut of Jarred Kelenic last night.

It's hard to overstate just how bleak things were for the Mets when Harvey burst on the scene in 2012. Since their second straight September collapse in 2008, the Mets had spent three straight years finishing fourth. They would finish fourth again in 2012. Jason Bay was playing his last pathetic season for the club. Josh Thole was the starting catcher, putting up an anemic OPS+ of 64 — still better than Bay's 48 OPS+ in more than 200 plate appearances. Other "notable" OPS+ numbers were backup catchers Mike Nickeas (32 in 122 PA), Kelly Shoppach (71 in 87 PA), and Rob Johnson (65 in 58 PA). The Mets weren't getting a lot of offense from their catchers that season. Other notable players on that team were all-time greats Kirk NieuwenhuisAndres TorresJordany ValdespinZach LutzJosh Satin, and Vinny Rottino.

On the pitching side, Johan Santana came back from a year lost to injury to throw a no-hitter that June but faded quickly after that. By August, Johan was done and would not pitch in MLB again. The real bright spot in the rotation was R.A. Dickey enjoying his Cy Young season, but you knew R.A. wouldn't be sticking around long. The 37-year-old knuckleballer would undoubtedly be traded away for prospects by a club not even close to contending. The bullpen reeked of has-beens or never-were types like Frank FranciscoJon RauchManny Acosta, Miguel Batista, and Elvin Ramírez.

When Matt Harvey first took the mound for the Mets at Chase Field against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Thursday, July 26, 2012, the Mets were 4 games under .500 and already 11-1/2 games behind the first-place Nationals. It was clear they would not contend that year. That wouldn't happen for another 3 years. Any hopes that the Madoff fiasco would force the Wilpons to sell the team had faded, thanks to a bailout from their buddy Bud Selig and the other owners.

Honestly, as someone who weathered the extremely tough years from 1977 - 1983, this era in Mets history felt almost as hopeless, albeit with a few more wins. Rather than tear things down and do the full rebuild that was clearly called for, the Wilpons desperately wanted to convince the fans that the club was near contending to sell tickets and pull in some revenue. The result was a series of 90-loss seasons and a growing sense that things weren't getting any better.

Harvey electrified that late July night, and his outings became much-watch for any Mets fan looking for a reason to hope for the future. In all, Matt Harvey started 10 times for those 2012 Mets, going 3-5 despite an excellent 2.73 ERA. He struck out 70 batters in 59.1 innings, holding opposing hitters to a .200/.293/.338 slash line. His last outing of the year — a tough-luck no-decision vs. the Phillies at Citi Field in which Josh Edgin would blow both the save and the game in the ninth — Harvey went 7 innings, allowing only 1 hit, a home run by Jimmy Rollins leading off the game. The Mets didn't invent failing to support their best pitcher for Jacob deGrom.

By the next season, R.A. Dickey had been shipped off to the Blue Jays. The Mets tried to fill the void left by signing Shaun Marcum. That did not go well. Harvey was a mainstay of that rotation from Opening Day. In 26 starts, he was even better than he had been in 2012. His ERA was 2.27, holding hitters to a .209/.248/.282 slash line. That's right, hitters slugged below .300 against Matt that season. Harvey Day had become a real thing with Mets fans, and the sense of hope grew a little more when Zack Wheeler was called up to join Harvey in the rotation in late June.

But hope had a tough time sticking around Citi Field in those days. Matt had a rough outing against the Tigers in late August, allowing only a pair of runs but ceding 13 hits in 6.2 IP. Sure enough, Mets fans were devastated by the news that Matt Harvey had a torn UCL and would undergo Tommy John surgery. There would be no Harvey Day celebrations in 2014.

Harvey Day came back with a vengeance in 2015, as Harvey's return and a deadline trade for Yoenis Céspedes keyed a stirring playoff run that unfortunately fizzled in the World Series. In a year when you would expect the Mets to limit Harvey's innings to protect him after his return from Tommy John surgery, Matt Harvey made 29 regular-season starts and 4 more in the playoffs. He pitched 216 innings in those starts.

Harvey got off to a rough start in 2016. He struggled with his mechanics and command and was never the same pitcher. Harvey needed shoulder surgery that June. His days as an elite Major League pitcher were over. 

I remember the events of those years quite well. I thought for sure the Mets would delay Harvey's return from Tommy John in 2015 until May or June, ensuring that the Mets wouldn't run into a situation similar to what happened with Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals in 2012. Instead, they allowed Harvey to start the year normally, virtually ensuring a usage controversy before the season was over, particularly if the Mets were contending.

Why was this allowed to happen? I believe the answer is pretty simple. The Wilpons were — always the case post-Madoff — desperate for the turnstiles to click and the revenue to come in. No one believed those cheapskates would do what it takes to keep Harvey a Met long-term, least of all said cheapskates themselves. They felt no urge to protect an investment they knew they weren't holding onto. They didn't want to miss out on higher gates in April and May when Harvey pitched at Citi Field.

I can't offer proof-positive that Matt Harvey's shoulder problems in 2016 were directly related to overuse in 2015, but the anecdotal evidence is quite strong. While no one claims to know exactly how much a pitcher should be limited when he's coming back after a lost year+ from Tommy John surgery, there is some consensus that there should be some limiting. Instead, Matt Harvey was allowed to pitch by far the highest innings total of his career.

Watching Matt Harvey's last years with the Mets, from 2016 through his trade to the Reds in 2018, was the last straw for me with the Wilpon regime. By the time it was over, I had no illusions that things were ever going to get better while Fred and Jeff were calling the shots.

When Sandy Alderson's tenure with the Mets ended, they elected to bring in Brodie Van Wagenen, an agent with no front office experience. I just shrugged my shoulders. No outstanding executive was going to take the Mets job with the Wilpons in control. Those two were never going to allow the club to modernize its operations while they were signing the checks. Four meager playoff experiences in the first two decades of the century spoke volumes about just how bad everything was.

When Van Wagenen made that ridiculous deal for Robinson Cano and Edwin Díaz, I knew immediately that it was a terrible mistake. That the Mets would take on most of Cano's money for 5 years was absolutely unforgivable. That they included their best overall prospect and also one of their top pitching prospects took the deal from bad to unimaginably terrible.

A lot of folks faulted Van Wagenen for this folly. His arrogance certainly was to blame for allowing him to convince himself that he was smarter than everyone else. I had a different take on it. Trades like that one aren't made without consent from ownership and input from the baseball lifers surrounding Van Wagenen in the front office. I've read that the prospect people were dead set against the trade. We never really heard what the others in the front office had to say. I'm not sure why anyone would have advocated for it.

Cano was a 36-year-old middle infielder coming off a half-year PED suspension. His numbers were noticeably in decline leading into that suspension. MLB has been testing for steroids long enough now that we all understand that players remaining productive after age 35 was no longer something that could be counted on. Seattle was desperate to move Cano, quite understandably. The Mets not only took on Cano and 5 years of $20 million per year but overpaid in prospects to get Díaz in the deal.

I'm not surprised the unqualified Van Wagenen went for the trade. What shocks me is that after running the Mets for so many years, Fred and Jeff had learned so little about the game that they signed off on it. We've been told that they wanted to make one more run at the playoffs before selling the club. Did they really believe Robbie Cano was the key to that run? I'm just a self-educated fan, and I knew exactly why this deal was terrible, yet decades inside the game had not taught the Wilpons such basic insight.

And the rest of the front office — including respected baseball lifers such as Allard Baird and Omar Minaya — did they not tell Van Wagenen in no uncertain terms that the deal was idiocy? At the very least, did they not try to convince him that Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn were just too much to give up in return?

The New York Post has made sure to use the word "nightmare" in every headline this week about the newly called-up Jarred Kelenic. The media needs us to believe that Jarred Kelenic and his likely successful MLB career is the nightmare of every Mets fan, mostly because they think it will get more clicks and sell more ads on the site. The laughable lack of subtlety is reminiscent of listening to first graders trying to needle each other. It's almost embarrassingly obvious: nightmare this, nightmare that. It's kind of slimy, really, but understandable.

If you're a Mets fan — and really, why you be reading this if you weren't — Jarred Kelenic might really be your nightmare, I don't know. I'm certain some Mets fans feel that way, and the New York Post and other local sources certainly seem to have a vested interest in convincing you that he is, so you'll click on their stuff.

As for my nightmare, it came to a happy end last November. My nightmare was the team I spent my whole life rooting for owned by a clueless man who spent most of his adult lifetime in the game but failed to learn much of anything. My nightmare was that the team would be handed down to a son who, if anything, spent more time in the game learning even less than his father. My nightmare was the same failures happening time and again because the folks who had the final say in the matter imagined themselves as much, much smarter than they actually were.

As for Jarred Kelenic, it certainly seems like he'll be an excellent player. It will sting more than a bit to imagine what could have been if competent adults ran the show a couple of years earlier. But he won't be even close to my nightmare. That horror ended when Fred and Jeff took the money and ran.

Please stay safe, be well and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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