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A Monster Season From Our Unlovable Losers

It was the night the Mets scored eight runs against the Braves in a single inning. Six of them actually crossed the plate after two men were out. Met hitters were working the count full, fouling off pitches, forcing three different Braves to throw unambiguous strikes. OK, so Atlanta's bullpen (apart from Smoltz) is their one weakness. OK, so the mighty Joneses (Andruw and Chipper) weren't playing. That inning remains one bright moment of amazin'ness in a season of torture. Later that night, the SportsCenter wiseacres showed highlights of the Mets' 10-4 win and capped it with the comment, "Who is this team?"

I will tell you. They are Frankenstein.

The 2003 Mets are currently pieced together from rookies, reserves, Triple-A call-ups, waiver claimees, and utility men. The few remaining stars look vulnerable (Tom Glavine), gimpy (Cliff Floyd), or just plain over-the-hill (Roberto Alomar).

Perhaps Shea was constructed over the hellmouth. How else do you explain the plagues? First, the plague of mediocrity that turns an Alomar, perennial All-Star and Gold Glover, into a lackluster error-prone enigma who dropped 70 points off his batting average somewhere between Cleveland and Flushing. He might blossom again if they trade him. Think Melvin Mora, Terrence Long, Desi Relaford, and others who have benefited from leaving the vapors that now emanate at Shea. Then there's the plague of injury. Something's awry. Even with the oldest opening-day roster in baseball, the Mets should not have already had more than a dozen players on the disabled list. And that's not counting Glavine, who developed elbow miseries last week.

Taking his place on the hill was Pat Strange, a kid with a 19.80 ERA who has trouble throwing strikes. What if Glavine's disabled? The team is already without a fifth starter, and will probably fill that spot with Mike Bacsik, who was 0-5 with a 6.19 ERA—at Triple A Norfolk! How do you spend $120 million and end up with such a patchwork rotation? Is $7 million a year really the going rate for a pitcher known to have a torn labrum? (That would be Pedro Astacio, currently contemplating surgery from his spot on the disabled list.) It's witchcraft, the same bad spell cast over the Met brain trust when they saw Mo Vaughn as an intimidating Red Sock instead of a damaged Angel.

OK. Complaint registered. There is no crying in baseball.

It is just so demoralizing to be a fan of this. Steve Phillips created a monster, and the team seems enveloped in a permanent Gothic gloom, only enhanced by the spring's dank weather, long residence in the NL East dungeon, and the vultures currently circling the front office.

Here's a sobering stat: Last year, a season in hell, the Mets were 29-25 after two months. This year, they were 25-30 after two months.

They've morphed from underachievers to underdogs, but maybe this is a good thing. At least, I choose to think positive, for their current state jibes with the ur-myth of Metness: underdogs who overcome. Because they "believe."

This team is not spectacularly bad, just struggling to escape mediocrity. They are mostly journeymen, after all. So these are not the '62 Mets, the legendary mutts who set a new standard for failure, breaking many a major league record along the way. (Most games lost, most home runs allowed, most errors committed, most strikeouts by team, and many more.) Still, Jimmy Breslin's famous account of that season, Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?, contains solid anthropology applicable even now to Met culture. This was a team for the little guy, Breslin asserted. "The Yankees? Who does well enough to root for them, Laurence Rockefeller?" The terrible '62 Mets were lovable losers. The team drew nearly a million fans, who did not come to boo.

In effect, an aspect of the long-lamented Brooklyn Dodgers, "Dem Bums," had been reincarnated in Queens. They had a certain humble quality still detectable in the team ethos—the dorky mascot (Mr. Met), the cornball rituals (Banner Day), the homely confines of Kiner's Korner.

But losing isn't what it used to be. Not when the losers are millionaires. Not when the lowliest schmo on the bench makes at least $300,000, major league baseball's minimum wage. When Roger Cedeño catches a fly in right and forgets how many outs there are, allowing the Braves' runner on second to advance to third—that's not lovable. One just expects a millionaire to keep his head in the game.

Met management never seems to learn. The team went sour for the first time in its history in 1992, when they made Bobby Bonilla the highest paid player in baseball, had the major leagues' biggest payroll, and ended up losing 90 games. That team looked great on paper, but had no chemistry, no grit, no passion for the game. And those are things fans respond to, even if the team is made of no-names and has-beens.

The Mets have become the most fun to watch when they use all their interchangeable body parts. In that first home stand against Philly (May 20-22), I thought I could see Art Howe figuring out how to work with this mess. He used 19 players in the first game, which the Mets lost thanks to another bullpen meltdown. But the notable moment came when Steve Trachsel went in as a pinch runner. Then the Mets won the next two games—the first with 18 players, and the next with 16, including Jae Seo as a pinch runner. That's a lot more pinch-hitting and double-switching than most National League teams do, but why not? There aren't any big stars or expectations left here.

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