Friday, May 27, 2011

Say Something Nice About The Mets

by Patrick J. Walsh

Like so many other fans of the game, and particularly, fans of the team, I was disappointed to hear the recent comments that Fred Wilpon, the patriarch of one of the families that own the New York Mets, made recently about several of his team’s star players.

In perhaps his most revealing and most discouraging remark, Mr. Wilpon said of his long-time star outfielder Carlos Beltran:

“We had some schmuck in New York who paid him based on that one series. He’s 65 to 70 percent of what he was.”

He is referring to himself, of course, as the “schmuck” who proffered a seven year contract worth $119 million to Beltran after Beltran hit eight home runs and scored 21 runs in 12 post-season games while playing for the Houston Astros in 2004.

It is not entirely difficult to understand or even to sympathize with Mr. Wilpon’s frustration as an employer whose company has underperformed, or as a baseball fan who has a particularly acute desire to see his team win a championship.

But his dilemma in the first instance, as the ultimate authority responsible for the direction of a business enterprise worth hundreds of millions of dollars (a recent published estimate put the Mets current value at $747 million), pretty severely mitigates against any sympathy he might be due in the second.

And yet it is difficult not to feel some measure of sympathy for Mr. Wilpon, even if it is far easier to sympathize with the players about whom he had such “interesting” things to say.

To begin with, his comment about the foolhardiness of signing a player based on one particularly productive period undercuts the positive aspects of the particular signing he’s talking about, while at the same time revealing how huge, long-term contracts can result in frustration and disappointment even for those who are most responsible for making them a de facto part of the modern game.

It is of course ridiculous in a team sport to bemoan the fact that one good player cannot ensure a team’s success. Even a star player making an extraordinary salary can do little beyond working hard, playing honorably and doing the best he can to perform as well as possible -- regardless of how well the team performs as a whole.

In the particular case of Carlos Beltran, it is important to note that Beltran has played well during his time with the Mets despite several serious injuries, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that he has been injured because he has consistently tried to play at a level that honors the commitments implied by his contract.

He has also played with great courage, and his struggle to stay on the field has been one of the most inspiring -- and least recognized -- stories in the recent history of the team.

Beltran’s ability to perform well when injured has provided a fine example for anyone struggling to overcome infirmity or fear, and those in a position to view the larger context of his time in New York would do well to comment on that aspect of his performance as well as on his stats and his contributions to the team’s successes and failures.

Of course Mr. Wilpon’s fortunes are more intimately intertwined with his players’ well being and performance than those of anyone observing the results from a distance, so it is also not unreasonable to interpret his “buyer’s remorse” about Beltran’s contract as a comment on the state of the game as a whole.

I suppose it might even be charitable to interpret his opinion as implying some recognition that he, as an owner of one of the highest spending teams in the sport during the past few years, has been part of the problem inherent in the creation of contracts whose terms sometimes seem absurd, given the risks involved in any given player’s ability to avoid injury and to perform at a consistently high level over an extended period of time.

But it is finally in the second part of Mr. Wilpon’s remark -- the notion that Carlos Beltran is now “65 to 70 percent of what he was” -- that the real sadness of the owner’s odyssey intersects with that of his players and the team’s fan base.

Time does after all march on, and even the greatest player must face the eventual weathering of his skills by the passing seasons, hastened further by injuries large and small and by the successes and failures of his teammates and the management and support personnel whose work ultimately provides the context in which he asserts his own abilities.

Carlos Beltran -- like Jose Reyes, or David Wright -- or you or me, for that matter -- is after all seven years older than he was when he signed that very lucrative contract with Mr. Wilpon’s team seven years ago.

On the other hand -- and to the credit of all those who recognize the fact -- even if Beltran is indeed “65 to 70 percent” the player he was at that time, he is still far more skilled than a vast majority of other players who are now employed by major league clubs, or who have been so employed in the history of the game.

Both issues -- the big contract and the diminution of a player’s skills over time and as a result of injury -- really bespeak the absurdity of the business side of the sport.

If a team’s executive management is willing to concede the necessity of offering long-term contracts worth tens of millions of dollars in order to sign a given player, those individuals who make or approve those decisions must also take ownership of them.

If they are unhappy with the idea of paying players that much money in order to be competitive, they can invest instead in younger, less expensive prospects, or simply offer less money and accept the risk that they may as a result be less competitive. Or they can simply sell their interest and pursue some other business endeavor that has different requirements and different risks.

But it is shameful to blame players for the injuries they sustain while trying to play the game at a level that honors the terms of the contract they have been given, and it is unrealistic to assume that the skills of any player will not diminish to some degree with the passage of time. These are the obvious concerns of any scout and any front office personnel in any sport, and it is odd to think that anyone could misunderstand the risks that they represent, for the ownership as well as for the player.

It is also tiresome to hear fans blame players for signing astronomical contracts whose terms are ultimately decided by those owners who are willing to approve such arrangements in the first place, and it is troubling to hear that sort of thing from as prominent, well-respected and fundamentally decent an individual as Mr. Wilpon.

Consider this: for any employee to make “too much” salary, isn’t it a given that there must be an employer willing to pay that salary?

In the final analysis, it may well be that the best thing a fan might take away from this recent episode is simply the recognition that the frustration he or she feels about the club’s fortunes during the most recent arc in its history is shared in even the most unexpected quarters -- including the offices of the team’s owner.

Such realization leaves one saddened less by the harshness of Mr. Wilpon’s comments than by his unstated incredulousness that the team has not performed better, even with players as exceptional as Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes and David Wright -- about whom his disparaging remarks may well be interpreted as a comment on the abilities of the team’s executive management as well as on their own.

© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh

Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets   New York Mets: The Complete Illustrated History

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