In our third installment of “The New York Mets 2007 Season: What Went Wrong?”, we’ll address the issue of attitude — which is a bit complex.
We’ll call it “attitude” but also take the liberty of extending the definition to include “cockiness”, “overconfidence”, “disrespect”, and “defeatism”.
Overconfidence / Cockiness — and Defeatism
The 2006 Mets were very similar to their 1986 brethren — they steamrolled over the competition, locking up the division by a landslide early in September. It was hardly a race after the All-Star Break, in fact.
At the beginning of 2007, I mistakenly believed that the return of most of the 2006 squad was a good thing. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? I was also under the false assumption that the core group — guys like the Carloses, Jose and D-Wright, Glavine, Heilman, Wagner, and LoDuca — would be extra-motivated to return to the postseason, and “get it right” this time. While everyone else in the NL East was revamping their roster, I thought the continuity would be an advantage for the Mets (if you missed it, it’s here: Continuity Is Key).
Boy, was I off the mark.
As it turns out, the return of the core guys only caused the team to be overconfident. They won by a ton last year, so they figured they could put it in cruise control and blow the doors off everyone in 2007. There was a long stretch during June that the Mets simply lost interest in putting in an effort — if they were losing by two or three runs by the fifth inning, the game was effectively over.
Back in mid-June, I accused the Mets of tanking — i.e., not putting forth their best effort — both here on MetsToday, as well as a commenter on MetsBlog. At the time, I was poo-pooed for such a silly evaluation. Body language? Facial expressions? They mean nothing. The Mets were simply in a slump, a bad run. Willie Randolph had a slew of explanations, most of which sounded something like ” … we just gotta get it going … gotta turn the page … gotta tip your cap to your opponent sometimes … blah blah blah … ”
Willie wouldn’t admit it, but the Mets would give up — they’d accept defeat early on in ballgames. The ironic thing is, they gave up because they felt they’d have no problem getting a win the next day — so why overextend yourself in a seemingly lost cause? Down by four? Heck — let ’em take the game, there’s always tomorrow. An indifference to losing, which now weighs heavily for a team that needed only two more wins to take the division.
And now, after the season, the truth comes out — from two of the Mets’ veteran “leaders”:
â€œWeâ€™ve got so much talent, I think sometimes we get bored,â€ said first baseman Carlos Delgado.
Um …. WHAT ?????
â€œSometimes when you’re a team as talented as we are – I don’t know if I’d use the word ‘bored,’ but I guess you can get complacent at times,â€ said veteran pitcher Tom Glavine.
Oh, gee … thanks for clearing that up, big T!
In addition to the cockiness — and perhaps connected — was the disrespect shown toward both the game and the opponents from a few choice players. Omar Minaya has his own “synonym” for it — he calls it “exuberance”. Strangely, that “exuberance” doesn’t always translate to “effort”, and you’d think it would.
Perpetrator number one is Jose Reyes. And I’ll be the first one to admit that I LOVE watching Jose smile, laugh, and express emotion on the field. He’s one of the very few ballplayers who shows how much he purely enjoys the game. But, when his enthusiasm extends into dances, flamboyantly complex high-five combinations, and similarly taunting outbursts — well, a line has to be drawn. There’s a fine line between enjoying the game and showing up your opponent, and on many occasions, Jose crossed that line. Willie Randolph made a big stink punishing Reyes for not running out a ground ball, but he never did a thing about the over-the-edge exuberance (perhaps not his choice, though). And Reyes is old enough to learn the difference and control himself.
Because Reyes “got away” with it, Lastings Milledge did too. Milledge is immensely talented, we know, but unfortunately he knows it better than we do. He’s a ballpark frank developing into a foot-long — a dyed-in-the-wool, authentic hot dog. At first it was innocent and cute — even I, one of the most critical of LMillz, thought the high-five around the stadium was a fantastic and refreshing act of genuine, kidlike enthusiasm. But it’s not cute anymore when Milledge hangs around to watch homeruns, initiates disco dances at home plate with Reyes, and openly taunts the opposition. It’s also not cute when he lollygags after balls in the corner, allowing opposing pitchers to stretch doubles into triples. And it’s not cute when he doesn’t run hard to first on a grounder back to the pitcher, then stands on second base on a popup with two outs. His inexcusable string of actions (and inactions) of games 161 and 162 were not independent — but rather, representative of his “maturity” in 2007. But you can’t get on Lastings until you first get on Reyes — and whether that happens remains to be seen. Already, Omar Minaya has released them both from responsibility, excusing their disrespect as “exuberance” and being “what young kids do”.
Before we single out Milledge and Reyes, let me extend the point to Paul LoDuca, who does not have the excuse of youth. Ninety percent of the time, I like Paulie’s emotion — at some points during the season, he seemed the only Met with a pulse. But he needs to cut down on the dramatic complaining to umpires on balls and strikes. First of all, it’s bush and disrespectful to the umpires. Secondly, whining about calls doesn’t do anything to help your team — neither the pitchers nor the hitters. And a catcher, of all people, should know better.
Oh, and for those who say “it’s OK, Omar’s right” and “what’s the big deal?”, may I refer you to game 162, which might have been a different contest had the Marlins not been externally motivated. Think it’s hogwash? Then I suggest you spend more time with the sabermetricians, who are convinced that the human element has no bearing on wins and losses. And root for the Athletics. People — whether they’re baseball players or janitors — don’t like being kicked when they’re down, and most will find a way to regain their pride at the expense of the kicker. This isn’t the NBA (thank god), so childish antics, finger-pointing, and trash-talking don’t have a place on the diamond — because amped-up emotions tend to be detrimental to execution in baseball.
Additionally, the players who tend to tend to be exuberant when going well also tend to brood and sulk and hang their head when things are not so good. Or get violent (i.e., Milton Bradley). It’s dismissed as immaturity, but it’s more than that — it’s the inability to control and temper emotions. If a 23-year-old kid learns that it’s OK to have extreme highs and lows, what would make him change as a 25, 26, or 27-year-old? That kind of emotional rollercoaster may work in football or basketball, but it’s not the best way to approach a 162-game baseball season. The highs and lows have to be balanced from April through October if one wishes to be successful. Willie Randolph is an example of the extremely level-headed drone, and Milton Bradley is an example of the extreme opposite. Ideally, a player would be somewhere in between — but closer to Willie than to Milton. Otherwise, we’d we’d be seeing daily pep rallies before games instead of batting practice.
How To Fix It
The first issue of overconfidence will fix itself — the one good thing (if there could be such a thing) to come out of the monumental collapse. The aforementioned comparison to the 1987 Mets grows — those second-place finishers learned from their underachievement and came back roaring in 1988. Many from the 2007 team will return in 2008, and we can be fairly certain that effort is one thing that won’t be a question next season. Thoughts of unfulfilled promise and wasted talent will weigh heavily on their minds all winter — and they wouldn’t have made it this far without self-respect and pride. Both need to be regained in 2008.
On the other hand, the second issue could be a chronic problem. Minaya’s “exuberance” stance is a step backward, and handcuffs Randolph — who I think could “fix” the problem if given the go-ahead. Unfortunately, Willie isn’t much more than Omar’s sock puppet, which is part of the reason his ideas on how the game should be played falls on deaf ears. Say what you want about his in-game management, his handling of the pitching staff, and other technical issues — but the guy is a straight-shooting, old-school ballplayer who knows how the game is supposed to be played. He respects himself, his teammates, his opponents, and the game itself. As a player, he played hard, always hustled, always knew what to do with the ball and on the bases, and focused on the task at hand — and expects his players to do the same. It wouldn’t be the worst thing if the Mets players chose Randolph to emulate. Whether that will ever happen, though, is another story.