Monday, April 10, 2006

One Week

Games 4 & 5 – Mets

Mets 9, Marlins 3
Marlins at Mets, PPD (Rain)
Mets 3, Marlins 2
Record: 4-1

I don’t how many baseball games = 1 foot, but I am willing to go on record as saying that the New York Mets have gotten off on the right foot this season. Rob and I are both experiencing the same early-season rock/hard place squeeze, caught between excited, optimistic enthusiasm and rational, tempered restraint. For him, this is familiar territory; I’m still looking around in wide-eyed intrigue at this alien land.

Ay, here’s the rub. The Mets have gone 4-1 in five-game stretches dozens of times in the last few wretched 162-game run-throughs. They’ve actually done even better, rattling off hot streaks of some note ‘twixt fortnights of futility. Mathematically, what the Mets have accomplished thus far is akin to winning the first half of the first NFL game of the season, so full-on rejoicing isn’t even in the conversation. It’s just a couple of things that have me nodding enthusiastically at all things Mets right now; one, they haven’t started a season this well in recent memory, and two, even objectively speaking, they appear to be a team that warrants a bit of reckoning.

Pocketing the rose-colored specs for a sec, winning two series at home against a pair of clubs that are projected among the league’s worst isn’t but so impressive. Now the Mets hop aboard the Metroliner to kick off a wicked . . . three-game road trip in the nation’s capital before coming right back for six more at home against Hank Aaron’s old teams. Perhaps the league’s schedulers had as much to do with the Mets’ fine start as anything else. Either way, I’ll take it seven days a week and twice on Sunday.

Speaking of twice on Sunday, the Mets will be playing twice on a Saturday in July thanks to some April rains over weekend. It’s a mildly unfortunate occurrence for New York; as much as the Mets are playing solid ball, the rookie- ridden, no-name Marlins are taking this premier stint in the season to evaluate themselves, gain some experience, and develop some confidence in these young players. In April that’s hard to do, but this team does have talent, and by July they may well put forth a far greater challenge for the Mets.

Meanwhile, the Mets took advantage of these Marlins this weekend with a Friday night drubbing and a Sunday afternoon comeback. Veterans Steve Trachsel and Tom Glavine both impressed during their respective six-inning outings. Through Week 1, the starter who has struggled the most is a certain wiry Dominican closing in on 200 career wins. He can rectify that on Wednesday in Washington – so long as last week’s plunk-athon doesn’t linger and distract.

And then there’s David Wright. There’s so much right about David Wright, I don’t know what to write. He hits singles or sac flies or home runs – just tell him what you need. His plays at third range from solid to surprisingly so. He says all the right things. He’s personable. He’s from southeastern Virginia. He’s almost too good to be true, prompting my brother-in-law to cynically say, “He’s probably gay.” (The rumors swirled around Piazza when he seemed too good to be true, too.)

Jose Reyes, Xavier Nady, Paul LoDuca, Carlos Delgado. All first-rate first weeks. Cliff Floyd, Carlos Beltran, Anderson Hernandez -- coming around? Starters starting well, middle relief looking very sharp, closer glossing over a blown save. All is well, right?

Very nearly. Jorge “Coolio” Julio had another fantastic voyage Friday night, nearly steering the erstwhile laugher into serious territory. He got himself into another quagmire (2-for-2 this season) all by himself, but he needed a little help getting out of it. After getting two called strike threes, Julio allowed a two-run single with the bases loaded, but youngster Jeremy Hermida foolishly tried to go first-to-third on the play. Nady had other ideas: he gunned him, killed the mini-rally, and saved Julio from further trouble. Stay tuned to Jorge’s big adventure.

Such is the story with these fresh-faced Fish; with a bunch of games under their belt, they might surprise some doubters . . . for a few games here and there. You can’t really expect this equivalent of a AAA All-Star Team to contend, can you? They’re relegated to spoiler from Game 1 of the 2006 season because of baseball’s deservedly maligned economic “system,” but in an odd twist, it’s not so much the lack of a league-imposed payroll maximum as it is the lack of a payroll minimum. The total payroll on their current roster is $14,998,500. That’s startling.

1. It’s several million dollars less than half of the next-lowest payroll (Tampa at $35.4M).
2. The Yankees have five players who each earn more than the Marlins’ whole team.
3. The Nationals have no owner and can legitimately gripe about MLB purse strings, but their payroll is over four times that of their division opponents in Florida.

While baseball’s financial lunacy is anything but limited to the Marlins’ situation (hey, Jorge Julio makes nearly seven times what David Wright does), Fire Sale II: In Breaking Training warrants more negative press than it’s received. Maybe it’s because the Marlins execs were more shrewd about the prospects they received for the top-tier guys they dealt this time. I don’t know. But Wayne Huizenga was appropriately vilified in 1998-99 for the torpedo job he did on his team to make back some bucks after buying the trophy; meanwhile, Jeffrey Loria, who’s been dealing from the bottom of the deck since his days in Montreal, seems to be escaping the wrath of baseball’s talking heads for duplicating the effort. (Actually, it’s worse, since this payroll is lower while the median salaries MLB-wide have risen.)

Several years ago, Major League Baseball tried to contract Loria’s Expos, as well as Carl Pohlad’s Twins. It was a poorly-orchestrated sneak attack on many fans (most of them Minnesotans) and failed miserably. The next collective bargaining agreement eliminated the possibility of future such efforts for a handful of years, but that contingency expires soon. If there were ever an obvious plea for mercy killing, one exists in southern Florida. Wipe them out, and take out the Devil Rays, too. Baseball can exist in Florida – in February and March. That’s the only time of year it’s been a viable business.

Bob Costas wrote a book called Fair Ball: A Fan’s Case for Baseball six years ago. Buy it. Read it. It made sense then, and fortunately for his book sales, baseball has taken nearly none of his advice, so it still applies today. There are still too many teams, there is still no salary cap, and this is still no payroll minimum, which he strongly advocates. He pleaded for a new system that reduces the highest salaries, raises the lowest, enhances revenue sharing, and puts teams on a significantly leveled playing field. By his own admission, this isn’t revolutionary dogma. It makes sense from a fan’s perspective, and though my team is indeed one of the lucky few who can buy their talent at more than market price, I’m all for it.

Until that day comes, however, the ludicrous, lopsided nature of the league will not lessen my loyal love of these Mets. Only continuously inept play, poor decisions, and a lackluster effort from key players can do that to me. And while those elements are far from eradicated, let me reiterate my optimistic outlook at this early juncture.

4-1 after one week. Just one week, but it was a good one.

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