Monday, December 10, 2007

Or, not really

Sorry, Jeff Pearlman, I'm not sure I can get behind this.

I'm going to start with your lead - a quote from a Met fan on a blog, chosen as the problem in a nutshell:

"I remember back in the early and mid '80s when the Mets were getting a bit "white" under Frank Cashen's rule. Personally, I did not like that, but compared to what Omar Minaya is doing today, that was nothing! Minaya is simply looking for the best Latin players available, not the best players available."

Now, he doesn't link to the blog or quote the fan, or the name of the blog. This may be policy, but it would be nice to have some context here, to be able to look up the source material ourselves. For one thing, we have NO IDEA whether or not said fan is white, black, Latino, Martian, or Klingon. Yet Pearlman's entire premise for the article is that we naturally tend to root for people who resemble us. So right away, I don't know what to make of things. I think it's probable that it's some race-based observation that he is observing; it could also be that the fan in question wants Omar Minaya to get great players regardless of their ethnicity: in other words, the fan isn't betraying a problem with race so much as a problem with watching the Mets disintegrate like an ice cube in a blender.

Pearlman takes over from here:

During their club's 45 years of (largely mediocre) baseball, Mets fans have endured a lot. They've seen their first team lose 120 games. They've seen Tom Seaver traded for Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson and Dan Norman. They've seen Doug Sisk's sinker, and Lee Mazzilli's outfield defense, and John Pacella's ever-cascading cap.

They've seen Mets jerseys draped over the unworthy shoulders of George Foster, Gregg Jefferies, Vince Coleman and Bobby Bonilla. Just this past season they saw a listless, pride-starved club engage in the worst down-the-stretch collapse in the history of the sport.

Two things:
First, if you're really getting into the Met fan's POV, you have to mention the Dallas Green Mets. Those teams nearly killed my heart for baseball, in a way that even this season's self-immolation did not. Coleman and Bonilla were only the beginning. Eddie Murray, Carlos Baerga, Bret Saberhagen, and Anthony Young have to be included. Gregg Jeffries, on the other hand? He was a decent hitter (at least for his first six or seven years), and was at least OK defensively at four different positions. I'd rather have seen him than Baerga, who rarely walked and was a mild threat (at best) on base.

This was NOT the worst down-the-stretch collapse in baseball history. In fact, it's not even the worst collapse in MET history. Losing to the Cards in 2006 was arguably worse. The '06 Mets had superior production from six of the eight positions, a better starting staff, and a much more solid bullpen - and they lost to the Cards, a far worse team not only than them, but worse than the '07 Phillies. The '07 Mets, on the other hand, played .500 ball from June 1 on. They were giving away the division since BEFORE the All-Star Break; in fact, the Phils nearly caught them in early September. Only David Wright improved from '06 to last year; set against an off year from Jose Reyes, a sharp drop from Carlos Delgado, a normal crap year from Paul LoDuca, a small decline from Carlos Beltran... plus the weaker pitching and the injuries all over the place... let's just say that it wasn't a terrible surprise that they couldn't hold off Philadelphia. Even when they pushed the lead back up there was little relief.

So I would probably put them fourth, maybe fifth (California to Seattle in 1995 was pretty bad too). Then the '64 Phils, giving up practically the same lead (6½ games to 7) in far less time (only 10 games to 17) than the '07 Mets. Then there's the '06 Mets blowing the pennant, and on top of the list, the '04 Yanks spitting the bit when up 3-0 AND with a ninth-inning lead in game four against Boston in the ALCS.

In other words, Mets fans can handle a lot.
But can they handle Livan Hernandez?
OK, OK -- not Hernandez, per se. But what the portly right-hander stands for; what his potential free-agent signing (which appears likely) would stand for.

What he stands for? To me, he stands for a team unwilling to take a major chance to add a lockdown ace to the rotation. It IS rather difficult to handle, thank you.

If one pays attention to the New York-based sports radio stations or the New York-obsessed baseball bloggers, it's only a matter of time before Mets general manager Omar Minaya officially petitions MLB to rename his ballclub "El Equipo de Latinos" (The Team of Latins), replaces french fries with platanos (plantains) at Shea Stadium's concession stands, and insists Mr. Met don a sombrero.

OK, you're losing me. Nobody needs the English translations for Equipo de Latinos or platanos. I'm surprised he didn't put "(hat)" next to "sombrero."

I also love this whole Disparage the New Media thing. Let's pay attention to bloggers when they make utterly no sense, but when they argue baseball using statistical analysis and comparison - and make us look like curmudgeonly idiots - let's ignore them geeks! They're just bloggers! (Unless they prove our point, right?)

In his three-plus years as New York's GM, Minaya has earned rave reviews for his gutsy approach to building a team. He sees gold in other teams' manure (John Maine, Oliver Perez), life in the given-up-for-dead (Jose Valentin, Endy Chavez), and passion in the overlooked (Willie Randolph). When Minaya was hired, the Mets were coming off a dreadful 71-79 season. They haven't won fewer than 83 games since. Minaya is, without question, the organization's best general manager since Frank Cashen.

Agreed, except that Cashen helped build one of the best pitching staffs in baseball: Gooden, Darling, Ojeda, Fernandez, and Aguilera; with McDowell and Orosco from the pen. That's a team WHIP of 1.22 and ERA of 3.11.

Yet, despite the on-field success, an increasing number of Mets fans are griping about their team's continued (and apparently all-encompassing) determination to bring in as many Latin-American ballplayers as possible.

My theory is that they don't care about the Latino part of it... at least, the fans who love baseball don't care. The games two premier hitters are named Rodriguez and Pujols. The big catch of the current offseason is a pitcher named Santana. A dude named Cabrera was the centerpiece of the winter meetings' biggest trade. If the Mets were bringing any of those guys aboard, the fans would be pulling over on the BQE to randomly high-five each other.

Nearly five years ago, when Jose Reyes debuted as New York's spark plug of the future, fans were excited. When, nearly three years ago, the Mets added Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez, fans were elated.

OK, so you do see it.

When, however, Minaya added Perez and Chavez and Valentin and Ambiorix Burgos and Orlando Hernandez and Eli Marrero and Julio Franco and Ricky Ledee and Jose Lima and Sandy Alomar Jr. and Jorge Julio and Duaner Sanchez and Geremi Gonzalez and Miguel Cairo and Jorge Sosa and Ramon Castro and Luis Castillo and Jose Offerman and Carlos Delgado and Ruben Gotay and Guillermo Mota and Moises Alou and ... well, the bloom is off the rose.

Or not.

Let me ask you a question. Let's say that your team offered me Reyes, Beltran, and Martinez... and it would cost me every last player on the list above, from Perez to Alou. Who backs out of that trade first, me or you?

Let me give you a hint - right now, Oliver Perez and Ambiorix Burgos are the only guys on that list I'd hesitate over. Maybe also Duaner Sanchez if he's healthy. Delgado isn't going to suddenly hit 45 homers again, the year he turns 36... and I can pay his salary to other people. Castillo is replacement level, essentially, though he's a "name." Castro has already been replaced by Johnny Estrada. So what am I missing by giving up the family-size pu-pu platter for those three guys?

Unless you want to keep Pedro, and let me keep Perez and Burgos. Then I think you'd have a deal from my point of view.

Wrote one blogger: "I've been a Mets fan since I saw them win in '69 and I have to say, I've never seen such blatant racism in baseball in the last 40 years."

Wrote another: "Minaya needs to be careful about signing too many Latino players. He has to make sure that he is not overdoing it. Latin players are great, but he does show a tendency to give too many of them chances at the expense of white players and black players."

OK, so this is kooky. It's also not universal. And even then, are these guys racist, or do they think that Minaya is hurting his team by not bringing aboard talented non-latino players?

AND AGAIN - how about some attribution? Don't worry, dear leader - I have Google (so you don't have to!) and I found this page. If you read carefully you will see that two of the three of Pearlman's quoted sources are from this single page. The third is a comment here in Ted Robinson's online colum - and he neglects to mention that Robby D from Brooklyn made nine other points. (The one quoted was tenth of ten.) The other nine were about clubhouse discipline, the pitching staff, the bench, and other piddling baseball stuff.

Maybe Pearlman didn't attribute because he had no time, given the astonishing breadth and depth of his research.

For the record, I do not believe such sentiment to be true.

Neither do I. He did bring in LoDuca, Shawn Green, and Jeff Conine. He gave Mike Pelphrey and John Maine major roles, brought in Scott Schoenweis and Chan Ho Park (heheheheh). He recently dealt Milledge for Church and Schneider - decidedly non-latino players. The real problem is that, with the exception of Maine, none of these guys is what they actually need. Minaya's blind spot isn't race, it's pitching. He hasn't got enough of it. He's got a team of roto mashers and he needs to part with a little of that offensive depth to grab a good-to-great pitcher, not a washed up Livan Hernandez. (Or, for that matter, a washed-up anybody else.)

Yet oftentimes perception is stronger than reality. And in New York City, the perception of a Mets' Latino bias is strong. Really strong. Just listen to Mets fans gripe on WFAN. Or, for that matter, sit in the Shea Stadium stands and listen to the crowd when the announcer bellows, "Now pitching, Ambiorix Burgos ..."

At the end of last season, any pitching change was a cause for the faithful to commence watching the game through their fingers. (And Burgos is one of the guys I think they should keep.)

Why, just last week I attended a reception where one man, knowing I'd written a book about the Mets, approached me and said, "I still love the team, and Livan Hernandez wouldn't hurt. But how about adding an American or two?"

Well, Mr. One Man, Livan Hernandez would likely hurt quite a lot. His ERA is dead-average, he strikes out only 2 guys per walk, he hocks up a dinger once per nine innings, and puts 3 baserunners on every two innings - and do you want THIS bullpen trying to strand all of those baserunners? Why waste money on this guy when you can deal existing assets for a guy like Dan Haren?

As an unapologetic dyed-in-the-wool liberal, there's a part of me that feels the instinctive need to vehemently condemn such talk; to spout the ol' people-are-people, we-are-the-world, give-peace-a-chance mumbo jumbo. Yet, to be honest, I get it. Growing up in Mahopac, N.Y., I worshiped at the altar of Steve Ratzer and Ross Baumgarten -- Jewish ballplayers I could empathize with.

The operative word there is GROWING UP. When you were a kid. When you loved a player for no other reason than you loved him. When I was growing up in Lindenhurst, NY, I loved Bob Bourne and Wayne Merrick. But I knew darned well (even at nine) that it was Bossy, Trottier, Potvin, Smith, Gillies, and Tonelli who paid the bills. Bourne and Merrick weren't lousy or anything, but even fans realize that fan favorites aren't always the guys who win the games for you. I rooted for Chico Resch even after he went to Colorado - but I knew that the Isles had kept the right goalie.

For me, the bottom line isn't WHY Minaya hasn't upgraded the pitching. It's that he isn't doing it, reason be hanged. I mean, if he could grab Johan Santana, his alleged latino-crush wouldn't be an obstacle... it must be something else.

White Mets fans will support Livan Hernandez (even cherish him), but many of them will always -- always -- prefer a guy like Paul Lo Duca, the scrappy Italian boy with the swagger.

Can't stand Lo Duca. Had one good year with the stick, doesn't walk, hurt Milledge and Reyes with his poor attitude and "what, you called a strike on ME?!?!" mentality. Is now 36. Estrada is five years younger and half the cost, so even if he's no better a player it's a net gain.

Bottom line is that if Minaya brings in a front-line starter, the way he brought in Pedro in 2005, nobody will talk about this, or care one way or the other. People are grasping at straws to try to explain last season, when the more likely explanations make for boring columns. (Bob Klapisch, for example, makes some good sense here, but will people froth over it or fisk it?)

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