Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Paging Mr. Hagman

So I'm hanging out in Patrick Duffy's bathroom (don't ask), and he comes out of the shower and asks me how I'm doing.

"Not bad", I reply. "How are you?"

His response: "It's the damnedest thing. I went to bed last night certain that Theo Epstein left the Red Sox 3 months ago, walking away in a gorilla suit mumbling something about Misery Loves Company being dormant. Then, I wake up this morning and find out that it was all a dream; Theo's the GM and Executive VP of the Sox, and Whitney's in mid-season form."

"Huh. Guess you picked the wrong time to stop sniffing glue."

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Clearing the Cobwebs

My hibernation is over, sooner than I’d hoped and expected. It wasn’t a gentle rousing that woke me, but a horrific nightmare whose lasting image still shakes me.

I dreamed that Jorge Julio was a Met.

It’s curious, even to myself, that this particular transgression, er, transaction was the one to stir me to dust off the keyboard. As I’ve written before, I consider Major League Baseball’s offseason to be mine as well, and I appreciate the time away from all things New York Mets. Half my year is filled with the dashing of hopes and the gnashing of teeth; the other six months are mine own to fill however I choose, says I, even at the expense of this blog’s dedicated readership.

After every baseball season ends – with the Mets and me on the outside looking in, naturally – I prefer to scale back my constant focus on the squad and the damage such focus incurs upon my being to merely occasional, supervised visits into my subconscious, always accompanied by court-appointed grains of salt. Cursory scans of the Transactions column in the sports section; quick trips around the horn of Mets blogicians to ascertain as much of the Township’s vibe as I can in a 6-4-3 instant; the briefest of glimpses at the current roster and a flash of a thought of what the Opening Day lineup might resemble. That’s all I’ll permit myself, and that’s why there’s little to warrant a post at MLC in the wintertime.

Why don’t I invest more in the hot stove chatter? There’s certainly plenty of offseason observation and speculation among baseball analysts, salaried and otherwise. It’s can’t-lose time for predictions and definitive statements; with any sort of result months away, misguided assumptions and blowhard assertions – basically putting the "ass" in "assessments" – will be long forgotten by the time they’re disproved. Meanwhile, dead-on forecasts can be easily retrieved electronically later, so egos can be self-stroked with a few strokes of the keys. (The jury finds the defendant Whitney guilty on all charges.) And baseball is baseball is baseball, so even if there aren’t plates being crossed and scorebooks being inked, surely there’s enjoyment to be extracted from daily discourse on the subject.

Though there is some truth in all of this, it’s just not enough to shake me from my routine of slumbering through the winter months and warming up sometime during Spring Training. Consider what I seemingly slept through, unperturbed. The Mets:
  • Dumped Braden Looper, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Kaz Ishii. This move eliminated a bundle of frustration for me in ’06, mostly via not having to type Doug’s last name.
  • Sent Mike Cameron to San Diego for Xavier Nady. Seemed like a precursor to something, but apparently not.
  • Received Carlos Delgado for Mike Jacobs and Yusmeiro Petit. This deal chafes like leather chaps; the Mets nearly claimed Delgado last year in free agency, but now they have to deal two of their finest prospects for him after Florida rented him for one year of a heartily back-loaded deal. The Fish ate the Mets’ lunch on this one, and here’s hoping Mike Jacobs’ swing isn’t achingly "beautiful" (as the Mets announcers waxed) as he punishes the Metmen 19 times a year.
  • Signed Billy Wagner to a high-priced, overlong deal with questions about his long-term health. And I couldn’t be more pleased. The Mets have needed a stopper since pre-decay John Franco. My doctor has advised me against it, otherwise I’d also mention Armando Benitez here.
  • Damn.
  • Nabbed Paul LoDuca from the (not-long-for-) Florida Marlins for a couple of as-yet insignificants. This one might be redemptive for the Delgado swindle.
  • Signed Jose Valentin, Julio Franco, and Bret Boone. In an unrelated comment, Jerry Garcia’s old bluegrass side band Old and In the Way is worth digging up if you have half an inclination.
  • Traded Jae Seo to L.A. for a couple of middling relievers. Sorry, that should read "middle relievers."
None of these additions – and additions by subtraction – spurred me to comment. The New York Mets have thrust themselves into the forefront of the National League outlook for 2006, and I have little to say about it. I’m sorry.

There are a couple of things at work here. First of all, my chatter during months April through September is idle enough, but MLC content outside that timeline is beyond idle. Speculation about the possible outcomes of baseball season when we’re so far away from Opening Day simply seems silly. The Mets’ moves have made them a January contender, and my further analysis of it isn’t worth the paper that technology has made obsolete. I can’t get excited about their prospects yet, as too much can happen between now and the first pitch of the season. Meanwhile, the venom I usually have at season’s end has now faded. I currently possess neither the na├»ve optimism nor the bitter cynicism that do battle every day amid my in-season posts. And so this site, at least my half of it, becomes blatantly outdated while the rest of the Mets ‘sphere carries on diligently. (Even our comrades at East Coast Agony updated their site, promising more action, and I couldn’t be tempted to follow suit.)

Another substantial reason that my enthusiasm about the bevy of acquisitions isn’t sharper is the vague uneasiness I’m increasingly feeling about the whole direction of the team. It’s not that the Mets aren’t improving the talent level (at least outside of the rotation) and dedicating themselves to winning; they are. It’s more that they’re doing it as if following a particular blueprint that has not only proven fallible, but also makes me cringe at its very mention. Meet the Mets: your new New York Yankees.

There’s a Catch-22 associated with the new era of economics in Major League Baseball. You bemoan the inequity of the system, vilify the haves, and romanticize the have-nots. Then your team decides they’ve had enough of this messing around and ponies up some cash to contend, and your team becomes everything you thought was wrong with the league.

[Well, truth be told, the Mets have long been a "have" in this league, but their ineptitude with all those millions of dollars made them the court jester instead of the evil emperor. It even gave some sort of pseudo-credibility to Yankee supporters who pointed to the Mets as an example of why big bucks don’t automatically buy you a title. Then the Yankees unwittingly gave themselves all of the support for that claim they needed by failing to secure a trophy since the Clinton administration.]

So the Mets, like the Red Sox before them, realized that for all of the outcry about the need for a financial revolution in this sport, such change is not even on the distant horizon. With SportsNet New York gearing up for this season (more on this soon), Mets ownership will find itself even more solvent, hence the shopping spree before the holidays. But as any fans of the game can tell you, there is smart spending and then there is the formula that has gotten the Yanks into – and bounced from – the playoffs for five straight years. Fat, lengthy deals with big-name, big-question players; more egregious, the trading off of future stars for a boost to the current club: this is what looms over Shea for me, and it tempers the excited anticipation of the new season.

These are the ponderous ponderings that have bounced around my brain in these chilly months, but they and I have lacked the focus to make them meet the pages of Misery Loves Company until now. One piece of news has crystallized things for me, however. It made it all so clear and refreshed my outlook entirely.
  • Acquired RHP Jorge Julio and RHP John Maine from the Orioles in exchange for RHP Kris Benson.
In one fell swoop, the Mets went from the new M.O. of freely mortgaging the future to acquire the brightest stars of the present to the old school routine of bungling deals and misreading the needs of the team. Kris Benson, selected more than once by Peter Gammons as a pre-season Cy Young winner, has never lived up to his billing, but he was still a very solid #3 pitcher in a not-very-solid Mets rotation. He and his charming wife depart for the Charm City in favor of John Maine and Jorge Julio. I’ll let Maine off the hook with a simple "minor league hero, major league zero" barb and say that his future is clouded at the moment. Meanwhile, Jorge Julio . . . deserves his own paragraph.

The scouting report on Jorge "Boo" Julio tells most of the story. His numbers have worsened with some regularity over the last few years. He throws hard, but painfully straight. The only mention of "movement" when it comes to his fastball refers to the pants-soiling he encounters in nearly every tight situation. And that’s what the reports don’t usually relay, what I’ve witnessed for several years while watching the pitiful Orioles. The bigger the game, the bigger the amount of pressure, the bigger Jorge Julio’s collapse. Baltimore hasn’t even had that many true pressure situations in recent years, but he’s left his mark on many of them. Here’s my interpretation of a Jorge Julio outing:

9th inning, up 2 runs.
1st batter:
2nd batter: Walks on 4 straight pitches.
3rd batter: Bunts to pitcher, who fires it into center field. Runner scores, runners on 1st and 3rd.
4th batter: Strikes out swinging. One out.
5th batter: Flies out to deepest center. Runner scores, tie game, two out.
6th batter: Puts 0-2 fastball into the mezzanine.

As Julio hits the showers, the PA belts out the usual refrain, "Me and Julio Down By Two Runs."

Maybe I’m being overly harsh, but he just reminds me way too much of a certain other reliever the Mets acquired from Baltimore once upon a time. Threw hard, crumpled under pressure, drove me to the brink of insanity. You remember him.

Anyway, I’m sure it’s not inherently obvious how another acquisition that’s sure to beget regret can brighten my stance on the Mets. I guess it comes down to the notion that the Mets have now placed themselves in not one but two positions which make me happy: they are in a definite position to challenge for the 2006 World Series trophy, and I am cautiously optimistic that their pursuit of that goal will enthrall me all the way; meanwhile, they are just as much in a position to receive even greater ridicule than we’ve hurled their way in a long time. If they do stumble and fall short of the goal, there’s so much fodder amidst that portly payroll that we’ll have scathing sarcasm and sardonic smiles a-plenty. Nobody will be immune, and lambastings will occur daily. It’ll be like Life of Brian. ("Crucifixion? Good. Out the door, line on the left.") You can poke but so much fun at the Kansas City Royals these days. But the marquee, hundred-million-dollar Mets? Oh, yeah.

Either way, it looks like fun for 2006, doesn’t it? Happy New Year, everyone.