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Metropolitan Homesick Blues

Matt Harvey, the Mets’ loss of identity, and life as the lone bright spot in gloomy Queens.

Matt Harvey

Matt Harvey looks like Don Draper’s chinless younger brother, and in the Citi Field clubhouse — after yet another quality start and another Mets loss — he dressed the part. Harvey wore a gray vest over a silky tailored shirt and a pair of charcoal suit pants that straddled the line between Wall Street and Goodfellas. His hair was slicked back with Draper-ian flourish. Sometimes you just want to become the better-looking version of yourself, I suppose, and who can blame anyone for trying? In his last start against the White Sox, Harvey flirted with a perfect game for 6⅔ innings and struck out 12 batters on his way to a nine-inning, one-hit no decision, and yet the crowd of reporters at Harvey’s locker stood only two or three bodies deep. Clear-eyed and a bit bored, Harvey did his best post–Crash Davis Nuke LaLoosh impression and spat out a bunch of boilerplate about the team’s yearlong struggles. “I needed to put up zeroes today and I wasn’t able to do that,” Harvey said, before adding, “I was happy I went seven innings today and gave us a chance to win.”

If the writers seemed as bored as Harvey it’s because there’s just not much to say about the Mets these days. On Sunday, the only other story at Citi Field revolved around Jordany Valdespin, the team’s fourth outfielder, who has made a habit of breaking a few of baseball’s unwritten rules. On Friday night, with the Mets down 7-1, Valdespin hit a home run and preened a bit while rounding the bases. On Saturday, he was drilled by a pitch and slammed down his helmet upon reaching the dugout. Some people said the team should have supported Valdespin, whatever that means; others said that Valdespin needed to grow up, whatever that means. The fact that this incident was written about at length in every outlet that covers the team should tell you all you need to know about these Mets.

So let’s not mince words: The 2013 Mets are a boring, life-sucking disaster. Their roster boasts the third-worst combined Wins Above Replacement in the major leagues, leading only the Marlins and the Astros — two teams that, by year’s end, could be among the five worst teams in baseball history. The Mets don’t hit for power, they don’t walk, they don’t run. The only value they seem to have gotten out of their current roster comes from the number of players with cool names the Mets have managed to sign for $1 million per year or less. (LaTroy Hawkins is an all-timer. Lucas Duda and Jordany Valdespin are pretty good, too.) Outside of David Wright, it’s barely worth analyzing the position players on the Mets — just know, they are both bad and entirely expendable. No one else, except catcher John Buck, is signed past the end of this season. The pitching side is more of the same — of all the non-Harvey Mets starters, only Jonathon Niese has been signed to a long-term contract. The other starters in the rotation — Jeremy Hefner, Dillon Gee, and Shaun Marcum — are neither particularly young nor particularly good. Together, Niese, Hefner, Gee, and Marcum have combined for a 5.73 ERA this season.

But the 2013 Mets do have Matt Harvey, who, as of Thursday, held the third-lowest ERA and the lowest WHIP in the National League. Nothing props up a struggling franchise quite like a pitching prospect gone good. Pitching is the most solitary endeavor in team sports, allowing the promising young pitcher to float around in his own orbit. Matt Harvey: Mets :: Gwen Stefani: No Doubt, or something like that. In 1976, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, then a rookie, became one of the most talked-about players in the major leagues. His team, the Detroit Tigers, went 74-87 that year. A little more than 20 years later, Tim Lincecum became every baseball fan’s favorite pothead and won the Cy Young on a 72-90 Giants team. There have been dozens of other examples, from Roger Clemens to Felix Hernandez to Stephen Strasburg. The pitching prospect gone good quickly becomes the face of the franchise. His team inevitably launches a PR campaign that basically comes down to the following: Hey, we suck, but at least come watch the future?

The Mets’ problems extend beyond the roster and the win-loss record. Ballpark attendance continues to fall, as it has every year since 2008, the team’s last season in Shea Stadium. The team’s payroll reads like a cruel joke. Johan Santana will not pitch in 2013. He will make $25,500,000 to do so, almost as much as the combined salaries of the Mets’ eight starting position players. Jason Bay, who will make $18.125 million this season, is the highest-paid outfielder on the Mets payroll. Bay, of course, plays — badly — for the Seattle Mariners. Second to Bay on the money list among outfielders is Bobby Bonilla, who, despite not having played in a major league game in 13 years, will make $1.193 million from the Mets thanks to a bizarre contract deferral that will pay Bonilla through 2035. The team’s gate receipts from 2012 totaled $82 million, down $62 million from their last season at Shea, despite escalated ticket prices, club seats, and luxury boxes.

How these numbers affect the team’s future is anyone’s guess. There is always talk about free-agent dollars down the road, and although it’s hard to sympathize with the Wilpons, whose involvement with Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff has proven about as thorny and confusing as our government’s performance in Benghazi, you don’t have to look much further than the Mets’ own payroll to find some pretty good arguments against reckless free-agent spending. The Mets are still the sixth-most valuable franchise in the major leagues, according to Forbes, and revenue from SNY, the team’s dedicated television station, rose between 2011 and 2012. Over the offseason, the team signed third baseman David Wright to an eight-year, $138 million contract extension. Wright, well on his way to a Hall of Fame career, still has enough good years left to factor into whatever the team has planned for the future. Yes, the Mets didn’t bother even offering shortstop Jose Reyes a contract and traded away last year’s Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, but from a pure baseball perspective both of those moves were defensible, especially for a team so far out of playoff contention. Locking up Wright and starting pitcher Jon Niese, betting on Harvey and hard-throwing farmhand Zack Wheeler, and saving up money for a potential free-agent splash when Harvey, Wheeler, and a handful of other promising prospects developed wasn’t such a terrible strategy.

And yet it’s worth asking if a better roster and an improved record would actually cure what ails these Mets. They have seen their average attendance dip in each of their first four seasons at Citi Field. It’s still early in 2013, but all indications show that attendance at Citi Field will dip down even further this season. Matt Harvey might be the team’s new golden child, but brilliance hasn’t been able to bump up ticket sales. On Sunday, an announced 28,404 showed up to Citi Field for Mother’s Day, a number that more or less matched the dismal average attendance figures from 2012. More importantly, interest in the Mets seems to be waning in New York, and many fans who identified strongly with the city’s “other team” have been turned off by the failure of the brand-driven, corporate identity the Mets took on in 2004, when they began a five-year free-agency assault under general manager Omar Minaya.

For many Mets fans, Minaya’s reign, which resulted in one trip to the postseason and two late-season collapses, signaled a sea change from the lovable losers at Shea to the overpaid losers at Citi Field. Again, it’s difficult to blame the Wilpons or Minaya for signing big-name players to long-term contracts — by 2006, interest in the team was rising and all those Madoff dollars coming in to the Wilpons were getting spent on Carlos Delgado, Billy Wagner, Pedro Martinez, and Carlos Beltran. Attendance and ratings boomed in the last two seasons at Shea Stadium, despite a pair of epic late-season collapses that ultimately derailed the core of players Minaya had put together. This followed a distinct pattern in the Mets’ history — since the ’70s, the team has built itself up through its farm system, gotten overambitious, reached for big-name free agents, and then flamed out. But given that the team was moving to a new stadium and had finally seen attendance numbers rivaling the crosstown Yankees, it still made sense to try to build the best version possible, regardless of expense. It wasn’t so much that the new Mets were a bad idea as much as that the idea happened to fail in such large-scale, seemingly impossible ways.

“Team identity” has always been one of those slippery, manipulative terms used by sportswriters to arbitrarily praise or defame a franchise, but it comes out of the sincere desire of fans to have a franchise that resonates with their civic values. A franchise’s history in a city really isn’t much more than the feeling it evokes — for the Yankees, it’s the peerlessness of New York City; for the Steelers, it’s Pittsburgh’s blue-collar history; for the Warriors, it’s the fast commerce and fun times of the Bay Area. The veracity and appropriateness of that identity will always be open for debate, but those vague feelings that tie the franchise to its fan base will ultimately be the team’s legacy. When you think of the Boston Red Sox, a certain type of fan comes to mind. The same can be said about the Cleveland Indians, Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs, and St. Louis Cardinals. The Mets fan used to be the jealous, braying, and always doomed little brother in New York, and although none of these words is a particularly positive way to describe oneself, the Mets fan wore them with pride. It’s impossible to blame the Wilpon family and Omar Minaya for trying to drive up interest through high-priced free agents that would bring the team into a new era at Citi Field, but when the model of the Mets-as-Yankees failed and left the fans with nothing but a soulless husk of a stadium and a roster of minor leaguers and David Wright, a new, uglier disaffection set in.

All of this is impossible to quantify, of course, but it’s rare to find a Mets fan these days who regards his or her favorite team with anything but bitter loathing. Winning, of course, will solve these problems, but franchises don’t need those sorts of touchy-feely things like “team identity” when they’re playing in the postseason. They need them when they’re losing.

Matt Harvey
Tall, blue-eyed, and sabermetrically sound, Matt Harvey is everything you could ask for out of a young pitcher. He has already been on the cover of Sports Illustrated and occupies more than his fair share of column space in the New York tabloid dailies. For the most part, the success or failure of the 2013 Mets will be irrelevant as long as Harvey continues to pitch well. He, like all the other pitching prospects who floated in their own orbit around bad teams, will become the main story line at Citi Field, distracting a jaded fan base from the truly boring mediocrity around him. But Harvey’s popularity and success don’t mean that the Mets will stay comfortably in a holding pattern until the team around him coalesces. New York is not Minneapolis or Houston or Pittsburgh, where any reason to go to the ballpark — especially the handsome kid who throws in the mid-90s — will suffice. Something has been lost in Flushing, and it’s worth wondering if the boisterous, self-deprecating, but ultimately humane crowd that used to fill Shea Stadium will ever fully move over to Citi Field.

On the concourse in front of the press box, I watched a woman in her fifties watch the ballgame with her husband. They both fit the bill of longtime season-ticket holders — they had their own Mets seat cushions, weathered canvas caps, and they talked with the ushers with a warm familiarity. In the eighth inning, with both the tying and go-ahead run on base, Ike Davis, whose .532 OPS has pushed the boundaries of the old baseball cliché “mightily struggling,” walked to the plate. He, of course, struck out. The woman turned back to the usher and, perhaps to the row of reporters sitting behind her, yelled, “I can’t take this shit anymore. I’m trying, but I can’t. What is this team? What are they?”