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Valley of the Ashes, 2013


As Levi Asher will tell you, Mets culture is built upon the best-known ash heap in Western literature.

This is a valley of ashes -- a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.

None of those ash-gray men is named Duda or Nieuwenhuis or Cowgill or Baxter in Scott Fitzgerald's version, but those names and others will patrol what Art Rust Jr. used to call the "outer gardens" when the Mets outfield was several hundred feet to the west in old Shea Stadium.

 At Citi Field, the General Manager's office overlooks the broad outfield through the girders of "Shea Bridge," the pedestrian walkway that links the leftfield stands with the big concessions concourse out past centerfield. Looking down from those shiny windows like a modern-day Doctor T. J. Eckleburg is Richard "Sandy" Alderson, a veteran attorney and West Coast baseball executive now in his third year as Commissioner Selig's mandated dismantler of the New York Mets as a high budget, big market sports operation.

...his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.

The dumping ground that the dour Alderson broods over is the Mets outfield, once a place of almost literary exploits - the ground where Tommie Agee roamed and Cleon Jones excelled, where Rusty Staub played one-armed and Darryl Strawberry went yard. It's territory that belongs to Mookie and Lenny, McReynolds and Beltran, Maz and Swoboda. Heck, Ellis Valentine, Bruce Boisclair and Steve Henderson would look pretty good right now.

But Alderson joked his way through the winter months, minimizing both his respect for the Mets fan base and his own ability to secure a Major League outfielder. Oh sure, he signed Marlon Byrd, the 35-year-old journeyman with a .278 career average and a 50-game suspension for PED abuse last season. That'll bring a vast over-capacity to what has increasingly been an emptier ballpark in this, the Alderson Era.

Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight.

Take a look around. Duda is big lug who can hit a ball a long way way when the lumber catches it. But he's 27, he can't field (first base is his "natural" position) and the coaching staff doesn't love his work ethic. Baxter is a local product with hustle and fire who saved Johan Santana's ill-fated (for him, and us) no-hitter - and who remains a great fifth outfielder to have on a gritty, winning team. Cowgill is an over-achiever imported from Oakland, a quadruple A Lenny Dykstra wannabe who will clearly grace the "More Cowgill!" 7Line T-shirt by Opening Day. And Nieuwenhuis? Well, we can't help but nod along with the Wall Street Journal's Tim Marchman, who argues that "Captain Kirk" (as some of the faithful call him) personifies the Alderson-led New York Mets. On the one hand, "there is a long list of things not to like about Nieuwenhuis's game." And on the other, "He doesn't do anything that well, but he also isn't terrible at a variety of things. Not being terrible counts for a lot."

Oh boy, get me the season ticket office on the line - and hurry! This Mets outfield isn't bad. It's historically bad. Darkly bad. Tragically bad. Just not - as Sandy Alderson seems to believe - humorously bad. Casey Stengel's not around any more. Howard Megdal wrote in the offseason: "This is not to say the 2013 Mets will be worse than the 1993 or 1962 Mets. But their outfield probably will be."

The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their irises are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away.

In truth, there's a kind of eternal blindness required by sports fandom. To root, we must forgive. And certainly, we should forget. The Wilpon family's Madoff troubles obscure a long-term problem with how management ran a big market franchise. The Mets haven't won since 1986, when Nelson Doubleday owned half the team. They came close with an over-achieving team in 2000 and not as close with an under-achieving squad in 2006. And then they faded like the oculist's sign out on Roosevelt Avenue, and despite a spiffy new stadium, many fans forgot them and moved away.

Sandy Alderson let Jose Reyes - the greatest shortstop in Mets history and half of the team's famed Core Two (with David Wright) - walk with no formal offer and a nasty little barb about a "box of chocolates." His disdain was obvious. He traded Carlos Beltran for a high-end soup bone named Wheeler, who may make it to Queens later this year. And then he moved the team's lone bright spot last season, Cy Young winning knuckleball philosopher R.A. Dickey, to the Blue Jays for an oft-injured 24-year-old catching prospect who can hit named d'Arnaud. There seems to be a lack of fellowship with the fans on the part of the Mets GM, a bit of cold distance.

Yet even as polite an eminence as prolific Mets blogger Greg Prince came oh-so-close to asking of Alderson, "where's the frigging outfield at?!" during a recent conference call with bloggers. So pronounced is the Mets outfield wont that even Alderson - who staged faux "interest" in the likes of B.J. Upton and Michael Bourn during the winter - didn't try to layer any lipstick on that snout. In every interview, he's basically stipulated that the Mets outfield will stink. No apologies. No real plan for improvement. Buy your tickets and shut up.

The Aldersonian motto seems to be simple. Zero. Fucks. Given. The perfect 7Line T-shirt for this upcoming season, by the way.

The valley of ashes is bounded on one side by a small foul river, and, when the drawbridge is up to let barges through, the passengers on waiting trains can stare at the dismal scene for as long as half an hour. There is always a halt there of at least a minute, and it was because of this that I first met Tom Buchanan’s mistress.

The dismal scene may include an Opening Day non-sellout, as Shannon Shark has been busy chronicling on his happily revived and re-clawed Mets Police blog. Shark's at his best when the Mets are at their worst (happy solicitude and an endless parade of jersey porn don't really suit his considerable talents), and he's been laying into the team with the highest low-end ticket prices for an Opening Day tilt in Major League Baseball. His quickie investigation last week (ice cream cone included) shows that lo and behold, you could easily purchase blocks of Mets tickets to opening day a dozen at a time - in every section of the ballpark for the April 1 game with the visiting Padres. Bring the kiddies, bring the wife, bring the whole church choir. [And do yourself a favor and pick up Shannon's excellent Mets memoir, Send The Beer Guy.]

But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg.

The gray land and bleak dust of Citi Field are broken by few beams. Matt Harvey is one of the best young pitchers in the big leagues, tough and throws hard and inside. Ike Davis can hit when healthy. David Wright is David Wright, part third-baseman, part Mets marketing plan. Jordany Valdespin is talented and (perhaps) maturing. He may even play the outfield. The rest is backup infielders, old prospects, third and fourth starters, comebacking relief specialists, veteran bench players.

This will be a long season. Opening Day is less than two weeks away. There is no outfield. Alderson's front office lies quiescent and faded like the oculist's sign. And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into fourth place.

Tags: Baseball

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