Thursday, April 05, 2012

Opening Day

There are so many reasons to be discouraged on this, the most hopeful day of the year: Major League Baseball officially opens the 2012 campaign.
See, I'm a Mets fan.
As a DISH Network subscriber, access to even the SNY network, the home of the Mets, is unavailable. Now, I could look at the positives to this, not least of which is it forces me to go sit in a bar to watch the ballgames, but as I'm currently trying to correct dietary deficiencies, this is suboptimal.
It also helps me be in denial about just how bad this team will be this year. After all, if I can't see it, it can't frustrate me and make me ache to my bones.
How bad is this team? Let me put it this way: based on my performance last year in a softball league-- slow pitch, no less-- I entertained a half-baked fantasy of trying out. At age 54. With all the accumulated injuries that entails.
I suspect I would have been a plus for the side.
This is a team that has a starting pitcher who's arm was sewn back on, a la a rag doll, a third baseman playing out his contract, a left-fielder who can't even hit his weight (and isn't even morbidly obese), a right fielder so monstrously large that he has a phobia about running, a shortstop who could arguably make more errors than assists this season (plus he's replacing one of the best players in the game)...
...And an owner group so inept, they actually managed to make money with Bernie Madoff!
How are the fans reacting to all this? Well, for the first time in the 50 year history of the team, Opening Day at home is not sold out. Indeed, the Mets are actually discounting tickets. The 15, read that correctly, 15,000 fans who buy the remaining seats for today's game will get free passes to either Friday or Saturday's game, too.
This is all very discouraging.
When, in the handful of times the Mets have been legitimate contenders over their storied 50 year history-- for a team with a really shitty record, they have some pretty remarkable achievements to their credit-- it's been fun to be a fan.
In 1969, when the team literally went from worst to first over the course of three seasons, the city had an electricity that put Mets baseball front and center in a national spotlight, it was that powerful.
In 1973, when the team went from worst to first in eight weeks, and took the vaunted dynasty of Oakland to seven games (that the Mets really should have won, but that's a different story), the addition of the legendary Willie Mays at the end of the regular season seemed like an after-thought, an unnecessary distraction.
And in 1986, when the Mets swaggered through the rest of the season only to receive a wake-up call in the World Series, the team reflected the city: arising from the shambles and debris of a lost decade, soaring like Icarus, only to be reminded that we too are mortal, saved from crashing only by the bats of Gary Carter, Kevin Mitchell, Ray Knight and of course, Mookie Wilson (the one possession I have that I know I will never auction or sell, no matter how dire my woes, is a ball autographed by Wilson and Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner at the same time: one of only a half-dozen or so such known balls.)
Those were all fun, exciting times.
This year is, well, remember the old Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times"?
This year is interesting. But it's also a great time to be a wonk-fan, because it gives you the opportunity to observe the mettle of a team in dire straits: with no money, and no prospects of getting money anytime soon (five years, I figure, before the Madoff stuff settles out) how will this team even try to compete in a division where all four other teams maked marked improvements, and contains two perennial playoff contenders?
You can mark time, and play it for laughs the way the Original Mets did in the early Sixties, but there's too much money at stake now. You can hunker down and cut costs, trade players and hope for a miracle. That was the way of the late 1970s Mets, who shed arguably the greatest pitcher of my lifetime along with some really solid ballplayers, and got the least possible return for them.
Those were dark days, the days of de Roulet.
Or, you can grit your teeth and double down on the effort. The pressure's off, because no one, and I mean NO ONE, has expectations for this team. Winning half their ballgames would be a miracle, and would require a collapse on the part of at least one other team ranked ahead of them, and some pretty sloppy play by the others.
I'd like to see that. I'd like to see David Wright get his uniform gritty and dirty (he's playing out a contract, so at least he has incentive.) I'd like to see Johann Santana yell at a pitching coach for trying to take him out of a nothing game (he could be playing for a trade to a contender.) I'd like to see Jason Bay be cagey and get hit by a few pitches to get a baserunner or start a brawl (he has nothing to play for. It shows.)
What I don't want to see is a team metaphorically looking at their calendars and working out tee times for October. I mean, they'll need them to be sure, but focus on the game in front of you, is what I'm saying.
Put in that kind of effort, and the fans will come. I know I've sat at Mets games where there were more umpires on the field than fans, where the ushers offered us field level box seats just for walking in, where the vendors would stand and chat with fans for innings because its not like they were going to make money anyway.
Those were dark days, the days of de Roulet.
The players owe this to the people who work at the stadium, to make that effort to bring the fans in: the vendors, the ticket sellers, the ushers. These folks make next to nothing, and it would be nice to save some jobs even at that level of compensation.
And if someone at the Mets is reading this, please settle the deal with DISH. At this point, you need every rooter you can get your hands on. You're cutting your nose to spite your face.