Meet the Mets (and Marlins)

The champions of baseball’s offseason were the Miami (née Florida) Marlins, who not only got a hip alliterative name and fresh uniforms, but also moved into space-age Marlins Park this week. To complete the makeover, they made a host of pricey upgrades, adding the twin loose cannons of Chicago, manager Ozzie Guillen (of the White Sox) and pitcher Carlos Zambrano (of the Cubs), as well as pitchers Mark Buehrle (another exiled Chicagoan) and Heath Bell (to whom the Marlins gifted a cool $27 million). Then, despite already having a very good young shortstop in Hanley Ramirez, they pulled off the coup de grace—signing away the Mets’ best player, the thrillingly talented Jose Reyes, for $106 million.

In Miami, of course, nobody much cares; there’s little need for hot-stove chatter (or a stove of any kind) when you’re eating sushi on the beach in January. But Mets fans care year-round, and with most of the local news of the depressing, damage-control sort—where would Reyes go? Would the Madoff case force Fred Wilpon to sell the team?—we spent the winter with our eyes turned southward.

The Marlins have been menacing us for years. On September 28, 2008, the Florida Marlins knocked the Mets from the playoffs on the season’s last day—in the last game ever played at Shea Stadium. The exact same thing had happened in 2007. In neither year were the Marlins in contention; in both, they played as hard as they could to spoil our Series dream.

Taking Reyes from us, though, may be Miami’s worst offense yet. Not just because of his impact on the win column (which is marked), but because of the beautiful and hyperathletic way he plays, the sense you get that anything can happen when he’s on the field. He’s a product of the notoriously corrupt Dominican baseball industry, signed by the New York Mets as a 16-year-old in 1999. He grew up without either a baseball glove or a television (or, for that matter, an indoor toilet). Reyes made his major league debut at Texas on the day before his 20th birthday, and he’s played against the grain for nine years, using his speed to reframe what had become a fatso’s sport of sluggers.

The second-to-last game of the 2011 season was the last I attended, and it turned out to be Reyes’s second-to-last as a Met. Paid attendance was 30,027, but the crowd was certainly smaller, due to the threat of rain and secondhand tickets still listed on StubHub. Almost all of us were seeing Reyes for the last time, but there wasn’t much buzz in the crowd. He hit two home runs, oddly—he only had seven on the season—and went 3-for-6. After each at bat an update on the batting title (for which he was competing with eventual National League MVP Ryan Braun) flashed on the scoreboard: Reyes .336, Braun .335. This contest (which Reyes wound up winning, at .337) overshadowed the game; it didn’t matter whether the Mets would win their 77th or the Reds their 79th. Even those two home runs, such un-Reyes-like occurrences, interested the crowd mainly for their effect on his batting average.

In the field Reyes stands straight up, his feet nearly touching until the pitch is thrown, when he crouches down a bit. His dreadlocks bounce as he scoops and throws. In the batter’s box he’s a switch hitter. Regardless of which side of the plate he’s on, his knees sink a little deeper than seems natural, but after contact he takes off toward first—with third always on his mind and ours—as quick as anyone I’ve seen.

Home runs aside, the vintage Reyes sequence of the night occurred in the bottom of the ninth. The game was tied, and nobody was on base for the Mets. Reyes tapped the ball softly down the third-base line, and after he rounded first the pitcher, the Cuban rookie Aroldis Chapman, threw wild, allowing Reyes to advance to second. A few pitches later, he stole third. Meanwhile two of the Mets’ worst hitters, Jason Pridie and Justin Turner, made outs. Reyes took a big lead off third base. I thought he was going to steal home, and, to my eye, he induced a balk from Chapman. But the ump didn’t call it, and Jose never made it home.

In the top of the tenth, improbably (since he’s best known as a washed-up pitcher), Dontrelle Willis pinch-hit for Chapman. He struck out; the inning was over; the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” (the song I listened to more than any other in 1996) blared out of the Citi Field stereo system. Reyes trotted in from short, his cap in his hand, his dreadlocks visible, and some of us stood up and clapped. It wasn’t the heartiest ovation ever, but there was such an ambiguity to what was going on—when the game would end, whether he’d be back next year—that I can’t really blame the crowd. I knew it was time to go; I lingered to smoke a cigarette outside the Rotunda, the radio broadcast sounding loudly in space, and then I walked to the 7 train. Reyes wears number 7, and it’ll always be hard to forget him en route to the stadium. The game lasted 13 innings, another loss for the Mets.

The Marlins-Reyes courtship started at midnight on October 30th, a bizarrely snowy night in New York. At the precise moment the free-agency period began, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria (a Manhattan art dealer best known for the way he ran the Montreal Expos into the ground) walked into the Hotel Carlyle on the Upper East Side—which, as an ESPN article claimed, is “famous for hosting President John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe a half century ago”—with a Jose Reyes Miami Marlins jersey under his raincoat. According to Marlins president David Samson, as quoted on ESPN.com, “A few other people in the bar thought that this was some sort of strange, freaky show, because the owner of the team stood up and literally went like this [flashed open his coat], and underneath was Jose Reyes’s jersey.” It was Halloween season in New York, but Reyes may be wearing his costume for the next six years. More likely, given the Marlins’ history of trading away every good player on their roster every few years, he’ll finish out the contract somewhere else. Reyes doesn’t have a no-trade clause; the Marlins don’t allow them. He’ll almost surely be shipped off to the highest bidder circa 2015.

Historically, all of the Mets’ best players have either arrived or left in the middle of their careers. Tom Seaver, Tom Terrific, was traded to the Reds at 32 in the Midnight Massacre. Darryl Strawberry left for the Dodgers at 29, and his career fizzled soon thereafter. But the Mets have acquired several other teams’ homegrown stars: Keith Hernandez via trade with the Cardinals, Carlos Beltran through free agency, Mike Piazza through a strange series of events that also involved the Marlins.

Knowing all this, fans rallied at Citi Field throughout last season as trade rumors flew, often clogging the Shea Bridge in right field, imploring the team to keep Jose. Darren Meenan, a t-shirt designer who runs the website The7Line, was the face of the movement—we saw him on TV, on blogs, in the papers. It was hard to tell whether he genuinely cared or was trying to drum up shirt sales—perhaps both—but after Reyes signed with Miami, he posted a picture (previously published in the Daily News) of himself holding a “Don’t Trade Reyes” sign as Jose walked back to the dugout, with Reyes’s autograph on the print. It’s treacle, it’s self-promotion, but it’s also the salient image of Jose’s departure, and it makes me sad.

WAR (wins above replacement) is the best single way to measure a player’s “value.” Developed by statistician Tom Tango, WAR approximates how many wins a player adds to his team’s total, over and above what would be expected of a hypothetical journeyman. According to FanGraphs, Reyes earned the Mets 6.2 wins in 2011, more than Albert Pujols (5.1, though he gets more than 8 in a typical year) or Prince Fielder (5.5), despite losing almost a quarter of the season to a hamstring injury. (Pujols and Fielder both signed $200+ million contracts this winter, with the Angels and Tigers respectively.)

Though Reyes does great in this totalizing stat, he does it differently from other players. He uses his speed, though stolen bases have been viewed skeptically by the statistically minded since the early days of Orioles manager Earl Weaver and the writer Bill James. Because he legs out so many doubles and triples, his slugging percentage, .493 last year, is very high for a nonslugger. His raw batting average lead the National League at .337, lifting his on-base percentage to .384 even though he walks infrequently. His exuberant post-triples celebrations are really felt, and after watching the 15th halfway through the 2011 season I made up my mind that I’d rather the Mets lose with Reyes than win a World Series without him. Now that he’s gone, we’ll surely get neither.

I don’t think we watch baseball only to see a winning team—the World Series is won by so few teams, usually the Yankees or the Cardinals. What’s great about following a team, in my case the Mets, is that there’s a new beginning every year. The age-old baseball slogan “just wait till next year!,” to my ear, could be rephrased as one of the Occupy Wall Street chants: “We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!” We’ll win, someday. We want to see statistically unlikely things; we want to be surprised. If we could measure players by this sense of open possibility, the sense of play, I suspect that Reyes would lead the league. The late Gary Carter, recently dead of brain cancer, had a similar exuberance, and right now it feels like we’ve lost them both.

Sandy Alderson, the Mets’ GM since late 2010, attended Dartmouth and Harvard Law School, but self-identifies as a Marine. When the Mets hired him during the 2010 World Series, a blog at The Military Times said “He faces a challenge in Queens, with the Mets’ roster featuring broken-down stars playing with bloated contracts.” There’s some truth there, but the language seems to echo conservatives’ calls for fiscal austerity in Europe. He was a bit player in the book Moneyball, a mentor to Billy Beane, whom he preceded as the GM of the A’s. The Mets blog Amazin’ Avenue temporarily renamed itself Alderson Avenue, and we hoped that his prudent approach would allow the Mets to win even with a declining payroll. Alderson’s a smart guy; I was happy when the Mets hired him.

All this hope, though, amounted to little while Mets owner Fred Wilpon’s involvement in his friend Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was dominating the headlines. Fred Wilpon, along with his real estate partners at Sterling Equities, has had control over the Mets since he bought out his partner Nelson Doubleday Jr. in 2002. But he and his Sterling partners lost $550 million in book value the day the Madoff swindle was exposed, and it’s affected the team. Wilpon’s real estate fortune and Mets ownership were in many ways dependent on the steady 10-percent returns Madoff gave him. That money isn’t available anymore, and in a real estate market that hasn’t recovered from its 2007 highs, with the Mets apparently having lost as much at $70 million in 2011, the team’s payroll is slated to fall from $140 million in 2011 to $90 million this year—a record drop. Almost half of that $90 million will go to recovering-from-surgery Johan Santana and broken-down Canadian leftfielder Jason Bay, who may or may not be contributors this year.

Irving Picard, the Madoff liquidation trustee, and Judge Jed Rakoff effectively ran the Mets’ front office this winter. The Mets job was supposed to be Alderson’s first chance to have a little money to work with since the pre-Moneyball Athletics, who won three straight pennants and the 1989 World Series, but instead he’s spent his time with the Mets dodging questions about when star players will depart or when injured guys will start throwing or running again.

According to a settlement between Picard and Wilpon entered into on the day a jury trial was set to begin, Wilpon must pay back $162 million in fictitious profits, none of which will be due for several years; he’ll also stand on line with other net-losers to recover the $178 million that he lost. According to experts, he could end up getting back 60 cents on the dollar. None of this, however, solves the problem of replacing the income that Wilpon had expected year after year from Madoff.

The Marlins’ management, meanwhile, has had its own troubling brush with the law. This past December, the Securities and Exchange Commission opened an investigation into Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami’s issuing of $500 million in public bonds to fund the new retractable-roof stadium in Little Havana. Did the Marlins need public funding? Of course not—but they expected and received it, just like every other professional franchise in the country. At issue is whether the local government did its due diligence on the team’s finances in an era of municipal budget cuts—but even if they had, and balked, the Marlins would have gotten their money from some other desperate city.

It turns out that neither city nor county looked at the Marlins’ books before they agreed to put up the bonds; neither did they disclose to their investors (i.e., the buyers of the bonds) that they’d likely be facing a big tax bill on the parking garages the city agreed to build next to the stadium. The subpoenas are an attempt to figure out what was going on: were there bribes involved, or what? It’s possible that a civil suit could be filed by the SEC, if securities laws were violated—or if something more sinister is revealed, the case could be referred to the Department of Justice to file criminal charges. What certainly won’t happen is a lowering of ticket prices, and if the city faces a multimillion-dollar tax bill for the parking garages, budget cuts will follow, spreading pain to fan and non-fan alike. As with all new stadiums, the deal was stacked in the Marlins’ favor: while the team will be getting nearly all of the revenue from the ballpark, the local government put up 80 percent of the cost of building the place.

Loria has a singularly awful reputation—killing baseball in Montreal, refusing (until now) to spend any revenue-sharing money on the team. But the SEC’s investigation won’t really tell us much. While the team may have flouted the rules in a more obvious way than others, all public-private stadium deals are basically appalling. It’s like the world of finance more generally: Madoff got a million years in prison and ended up getting talked about more than the people who do the real damage to Americans’ well-being.

Obviously, paying athletes (or anyone) upwards of $25 million a year is obscene, but we have to remember that it would be the owners getting that money otherwise. So we may as well support the people we’re there to watch. It’s still hard to forget, though, just how much money athletes make: the paychecks of the most coveted baseball players often approach one thousand times their fans’. So where does Reyes stand in relation to the 99 percent? It’s an ambiguous position. In the music video for his recent reggaeton number, “No Hay Amigo” (a very sad title in Spanish), he’s depicted driving around a suburban landscape in a white Ferrari. He complains about people using him for his money, but we also see him teaching kids in the Dominican how to run the basepaths, and we remember that he must have been one of those kids not much more than ten years ago. And while he may make nearly as much as a CEO, at least he’s providing something of value. I’ll take triples over collateralized debt obligations any day.

So how will the Mets do this year? Well, there are few standout teams in the NL, and now that commissioner Bud Selig has added an extra playoff team in each league, it’s not inconceivable the Mets could make the postseason. But all up and down the lineup, we see only question marks, poets, and freak injuries. Start with slick-fielding first baseman Ike Davis, who—after missing most of what could’ve been his breakout season in 2011 after a freak ankle collision with David Wright—contracted “Valley Fever,” an obscure Southwestern fungal infection of the lungs, at his off-season home. Ex-ace Johan Santana, meanwhile, will be trying to rebound from anterior capsule surgery on his shoulder, never an easy task, while the Mets pay him $55 million over the next two years. And star third baseman David Wright has an abdominal tear that could linger into the early part of the season. (Meanwhile, Wright’s struggles at Citi Field inspired Alderson’s biggest move of the off-season: the shrinking of Citi Field. The wall in left has been moved in and halved in height, and some of the random quirks in right have been ironed out, to make the park more hitter-friendly.) Speculation about trading Wright could dominate this Mets season as speculation about Reyes did the last.

Reyes’s replacement, the Panamanian Ruben Tejada, is a great fielder. His face looks like Rafael Nadal’s, and he covers the dirt in Queens like Nadal does the clay in Paris; when he ranges into left-center field and nabs a ball you’d expected to fall in, it’s hard not to think of Nadal’s tough saves against Federer. He’s not fast like Reyes, and he’s an average hitter—but average, for a sharp-fielding shortstop, is pretty darn good.

R. A. Dickey, the Mets’ best pitcher, is a knuckleballer from Tennessee who sometimes rides the subway to games, even on the road. He climbed Kilimanjaro for charity this winter, despite the team’s objections. He’s unique among knuckleballers: he mixes in fastballs regularly. He wasn’t always throwing the knuckleball. He was drafted 18th overall in 1996 by the Texas Rangers, but after the Rangers discovered that he was born without an ulnar collateral ligament in his right (throwing) elbow, he bounced between minor and major league teams before eventually turning to the knuckleball. Dickey has a strong poetic streak: he describes the knuckleball as “a ball that looks like a butterfly in a windstorm.” As he wrote for the Tennessee Alumnus, “Although I was an English major at the University of Tennessee, I must admit that the bulk of my knowledge, when it comes to literature, is self-taught.” His pitching style—even if he did learn a lot from watching Tim Wakefield and Phil Niekro—is similarly autodidactic.

Perhaps the quintessential 2012 Met, however, is pitcher Jon Niese, a talented young lefty from Defiance, Ohio who just signed a five-year deal, and whose Roman nose ex-teammate Carlos Beltran (now of St. Louis), liked to poke fun at. Beltran offered to pay for a nose job, and Niese took him up on it. The new nose doesn’t look much different, but Niese claims to be breathing better. Let’s hope this augurs good post-surgical health for the whole team.

The Marlins, meanwhile, have made Reyes cut off his signature dreadlocks. Loria demands it of all “his” players. They were snipped by a Bronx barber during a broadcast on the MLB Network. We watched as he sat in the barber’s chair on the set in New Jersey, shaking his head. “It’s painful, man, believe me,” Reyes said, laughing, but you could tell he didn’t like it. The network posted an unedited feed of the haircut on MLB.com in which you hear Harold Reynolds, near the end of the cut, say, “Don’t get up, Jose, when he’s finished.” Jose nods, says OK. “We got to take pictures of you and all that.” The hair was authenticated by Major League Baseball and auctioned on eBay for $10,200.

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