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March 19 2013


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

December 09 2011


Moneyball and Sandy Alderson's Mets

When Sandy Alderson, speaking as the newly-arrived Moneyball guru of the New York Mets, openly mocked All-Star shortstop José Reyes with a line about sending the free-agent a box of chocolates to show  himhim he was loved, he signaled that the Mets future was a lot dimmer than it has been for decades. Alderson, it seems, got the job to run the Mets in order to disassemble the other major-league team in baseball's largest market. A year ago, Alderson promised Mets fans that the budget for the team would closely resemble (with a few cuts) what it has been for the last few years. He claimed that the Madoff scandal affecting Fred and Jeff Wilpon and their partner sol Katz the ownership group of the New York Mets would not change baseball operations in a significant manner.

He was not telling the truth.

Thus under Alderson's orders the Mets made no offer to one of the top homegrown star players in the team's 50 year history.

In the last 10 years  no Mets player has been as bright a spark on the field as  José Reyes. Signed by the Mets at age 17 out of the Dominican Republic, Reyes has been the rare baseball talent who publicly delights in playing the game at its highest level. The long triple. That cannon arm from deep in the hole. The race down the first base line on a dribbler past the pitcher. The sprint to short center field to grab a pop-up. The spark, the smile, the crazy hand gestures. The flying dreadlocks and sheer exuberance, and the love of baseball. All gone to Miami.

The Mets never made an offer to Jose Reyes, the greatest shortstop in the history of the franchise. And on the National League side of town, the Wilpons now own a small market baseball team in a new with no hope of competing and a quickly dwindling fan base. Here in Casa Watson the generation of fans that I usually take  to the ballgames has informed me in no uncertain terms that they do not wish to visit Citi Field on a regular basis in 2012. They perceive that the business entity known as the New York Mets does not care about retaining their business, that it does not care about their brand, that chooses not to compete for the entertainment dollar in New York area. But mostly, they are sad. They will miss their favorite player. And they realize that the team they call their own simply did not want  one of its greatest homegrown stars back.  And they know that the team across town would never let one of its star attractions get away. 

This is New York Mets baseball. In 2012, the team will celebrate 50 years. But  how closely will these Mets resemble the initial team of 1962 in the loss column, only without the lovability, without Casey Stengel, without the sheer joy of beingthe upstart New York National League baseball club.  Somewhere Dick Young is applauding Sandy Alderson, and slapping his buddy M. Donald Grant on the back.

Tags: Baseball

February 14 2011


Catcher's Card X Meets Lineout Max

Back in the gauzy wilds of the early 1980s in the neighorhood of Morningside Heights, four callow underclassmen decided the day's lectures held no interest and so piled into a brown sedan and rode to Glen Head, Long Island. Their mission was a simple one: arrive at the office of the Strat-O-Matic Game Company as the cards for the previous year's Major League Baseball season were released. The directions weren't the greatest, delivered as they were in those days not by handy smart phone or GPS unit but by a gruff voice at the end of pay phone line. The trip meandered along the North Shore. Yet the transaction eventually took place, and the four young men spend the ride back poring through the coded performance charts on a tall stack of white index-sized cards. The evening yielded yet another marathon session of play, the latest of many on that particular campus.

Strat-O-Matic turns 50 this week (a year before I do) and it's worthwhile to pause and recall all that wonderfully wasted time rooting for dice rolls and split card results. The Times had a piece this weekend on the anniversay and the Strat-O phenomenon, which is stubbornly anti-technology despite an online game that's a poor cousin to the original; heck, the biggest innovation in the company's history was the replacement of split cards number 1 to 20 with "the unique 20-sided die." That was nearly 30 years ago. The company's 75-year-old founder, Hal Richman, who may well have been the voice on the phone, told the Times that “Strat-O-Matic isn’t a religious experience for these people, but it does have tremendous meaning in their lives.”

I remember when Lenny Dykstra won a game with a homerun for the Mets back in 1986 and told sportswriters: "the last time I did that was Strat-O-Matic!" There's an alterative reality to the game that comes closer to the rhythm of baseball than any of the uber-realistic video titles. And the players felt that, as the celebration this weekend clearly showed.

Among the 600 aficionados was the former major league center fielder Doug Glanville, who spoke at the event.

“There’s a lot of pressure when you roll the dice on your own cards,” Glanville told the crowd.

He said that one year, he complained to Richman when his defensive rating dropped. Now an analyst for ESPN, Glanville said he sometimes studied players’ cards like scouting reports.

“I just saw an Ian Kinsler card today and saw he was an ‘A’ bunter,” he said. “I didn’t realize he was that good.”

Strat-O-Matic, in which rolls of the dice correspond to results on cards that mirror players’ real-life statistics, has survived in an age of high-tech video games.

“Like Othello or chess, you can learn the game swiftly, but you’ll never tire of the strategies,” said Glenn Guzzo, a former newspaper editor and the author of “Strat-O-Matic Fanatics,” who has been playing since he asked his mother for a set for his 12th birthday in 1963.

He said the game’s combination of playability (it can be completed in a half-hour) and realism were essential to its longevity. “There are also an infinite number of ways to keep your imagination fertile,” he added.

I haven't played Strat-O-Matic in a while, but I find myself on Long Island quite a bit for business these days. Maybe I should light out for Glen Head one early spring morning.

Tags: Baseball

March 12 2010


Reyes of Sunshine

Over at A Train Baseball (where you really should be a regular) the Mets Fans Suicide Hotline is now open. Shortstop Jose Reyes has a hyperthyroid condition and long-suffering fans have a hyperpanicked reaction: "...the Mets season appears to be headed toward another broken tumble into the baseball region known as lower mediocrity. Some call it Pittsburgh…but expensive."
Tags: Baseball

March 04 2010


The Baseball Quotient

A long hard winter followed a long and difficult year, and - as Lance Mannion so eloquently puts it - stress takes its toll: "When our thinking gets un-well, our bodies feel it.  We get sick."

And so we turn to baseball, that game of inches and carefully measured feet that perfectly branded its rules and rhythms on us as children. The simple and basic plays, the sounds and smells of the game (even in upscale new stadiums), the thinking and strategy between pitches and innings.

And spring. Pitchers and catchers. Intrasquad games. Exhibition tilts. That sure-fire prospect or the comebacking starter who all the writers say "is throwing the heavy ball this spring." Sandy Koufax trying to fix Ollie Perez's delivery and his psyche - the mission impossible. Yet we're back and despite the gathering darkness on the landscape, we're pulled toward the game once again - even the steroids and supplements and salaries can't turn off the baseball habit.

This year, Jason Chervokas and I are adding a new pitch: we've soft-launched A Train Baseball, a new blog dedicated to New York baseball, from the turn the 20th century to the match-ups for tomorrow's game. Here's how the pitch arrives:

A Train Baseball is a new website dedicated to New York baseball, from 1900 to tomorrow’s game. If you like Oscar Gamble, Cleon Jones, Strat-O-matic, real stirrups, stories about John J. McGraw, Reyes triples, Jeter professionalism, Seaver fastballs, Ruthian clouts and pinstripes in two shades – well, pull up a bar stool and join the conversation.

We're not completists, and we're not stat hounds or hard-core fantasy gamers; you can get that elsewhere. In some ways, we're romantics when it comes to baseball - we actually, kinda, sorta believe in the daily redemption available at a distance of sixty feet six inches. So expect a range of posts.

We'd love to see you over there. And that pic? That's our blog mascot: one Charles Dillon "Casey" Stengel, circa 1914 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Says it all.

Tags: Baseball Blogs

December 18 2009


Mad Men Mets

I love this video - the 1963 Mets promotional video, featuring Casey Stengel, Ed Kranepool, Duke Snider, Lindsay Nelson, Ralph Kiner and Bob Murphy. It says as much about the New York of the early 60s as it does about baseball. There was real optimism in the air. Shea Stadium ("the most modern edifice ever constructed for the game of baseball") was going up in Queens and the Polo Grounds saw its last games. George Weiss talked about the farm system that would soon produce Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Cleon Jones, Bud Harrelson, Nolan Ryan and Jerry Grote. And dig those New Yawkah man-on-the-street interviews. Just brilliant, and in such contrast to the doom and gloom downer (until the last episode of season three) of everyone's favorite costume drama, Matt Weiner's Mad Men.

That optimism is in stark contrast to the attitude Mets fans in this off-season, though I'd argue that the hour Jose Reyes did with Mike Francesa this week on the FAN was like a brief summer win blowing across the frozen tundra of Citi Field. If Reyes's evident love of the game - not to mention his speed - makes its return at the top of the Mets order, we may avoid the horror of last summer, a baseball dead zone capped by the Metsies' worst-choice World Series match-up.

The Mets haven't made a big off-season move as yet, banking on comebacks from the Season of the Surgery (unless yesterday's signing of Japanese set-up man Ryota Igarashi counts as big-time); they've an offer into slugger Jason Bay, and another for aging catcher Bengie Molina. All these moves are incremental and could improve the on-field product next season. Certainly, the Mets - if reasonably healthy - should return to a team that plays well above .500.

But they don't (at present) have enough to challenge the Phillies' growing Eastern hegemony. That's a team built for the present and the future. The Mets' biggest hole is their rotation, and Citi Field's capacious pastures demands a herd of rawhide arms like the Metsies produced in the mid-60s. Right now, the Mets have a come-backing Johann Santana and a possible inside straight of 20-something head cases. The rotation simply won't make it.

Across town, meanwhile, it appears that the Yankees had a better team in the parade up the Canyon of Heroes than they do entering 2010. Trading out Damon and Matsui for Grandersn and Johnson is an obvious net loss, despite the gains in average age. Matsui was underrated for his entire Yankees' stint, and Damon in the two-hole was absolutely vital to last year's production. Both will be missed in the extreme.

Tags: Baseball
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