The question for longtime Met observers is not whether Mike Piazza needs to trade in his catcher’s cup for a first baseman’s mitt, and it’s not whether Mo Vaughn will take the (insurance) money and waddle into the sunset, never again to threaten Shea Stadium as a weapon of mass obstruction. It’s also not about how much we’ll miss Bob Murphy or how little we’ll miss Roberto Alomar and Armando Benitez—combined. It’s not whether Jose Reyes’s ankle injury—his third leg-related problem in a year, by the way—will have any long-term impact, or whether Jason Phillips is really as good a hitter as he seems to be. No, the real question that needs to be pondered is this one: Is Fred Wilpon merely myopic, or completely delusional?
As the Mets were busy putting the finishing touches on their second consecutive NL East cellar-dwelling season, their owner held court last Wednesday in manager Art Howe’s office for a lengthy impromptu session with reporters that led one to believe that Wilpon, basically unseen at Shea since he announced the firing of general manager Steve Phillips back in June, had perhaps spent the past three months on a planet other than earth.
“My people say it’s doable for us to be very competitive for next year—and I underline next year,” said Wilpon, in a sudden, glaring attack of Steinbrenner-itis. “I know we made mistakes in evaluation the last few years,” he said (take that, skill-set boy Stevie), but he claimed, “We’ve learned a lesson. We are not going to sign free agents to big contracts or sign people to long-term contracts.” He added, “There’s players out there we’d love to have that want 10 years. I guarantee, no matter who the player is—Babe Ruth could walk in and we’re not signing anybody for 10 years.” Apparently that meant, and still means, you, A-Rod.
Wilpon further asserted that the Mets would try to trim their payroll for ’04 from its current stratospheric height of $120 million (second only to that damn Yankee payroll) to down under the nine-figure mark. That would occur, he promised, because of wiser personnel decisions, made by . . . well, no, interim GM Jim Duquette has not been given the job permanently, so Wilpon can’t really say just who will make them. (Of course, son Jeff Wilpon is the Mets’ COO.) The elder Wilpon implied that the veteran route (the veterans, that is, who haven’t been tendered big deals to stay with their clubs) seemed a likely way to go. (Why couldn’t we have gotten Bill Mueller? Oh, we could have? Really? Then how come we ended up with Jay Bell?)
Granted, most of us were picking up a newspaper and seeing, in black and white, that the Mets were in the process of nailing down a 66-95 record that made them the fourth worst team in all of baseball this year. (Want to be judged by the company you keep? Only the Padres, the Devil Rays, and the bedeviled Tigers lost more games.) Granted, most of us look at what the Mets now have—both on the major league level and in the farm system they were forced to “showcase” throughout the second half of the season—and see that there are basically blank spaces at second base, center field, right field, the entire bench, the closer’s spot, and the back end of the rotation. And that’s not to mention real question marks for 2004 at first, catcher, left field (reminder to Cliff Floyd: guys who’ve been injured get injured), the front end of the rotation (both Al Leiter and Tom Glavine will be 38 next year), and, yes, the manager’s seat, where Art Howe has yet to demonstrate even a pulse as a game strategist. All Met fans can do over the winter, then, is hope that they won’t have to spend next season going to the Bob Murphy commemorative videotape to remember what a happy recap is all about.