It was vintage National League baseball, and it was a trademark Reyes-manufactured run—precisely the sort of thing that used to get Mets fans excited. But there was only a faint smattering of applause. The crowd barely noticed.
THE PROBLEM IS that the team hasn’t been capable of producing that sort of good play consistently. It’s as if after two spectacular unravelings of good teams on Randolph’s watch—a last-pitch defeat in the 2006 NLCS and the implosion of 2007—the Mets have finally lost the ability, or the will, to be exceptional.
“What we know about this team over the long haul is that they’ve been roughly, roughly, a .500 team since June 1 last year, and they’ve behaved exactly how .500 teams behave,” said Howie Rose, the WFAN play-by-play announcer and longtime Mets media fixture. “They’ll play well for a week, and then they’ll have a week full of disappointments.”
“They don’t have the talent they think they have,” said Marty Noble, a Mets beat writer since 1971, currently writing for MLB.com. “They haven’t been a great team since they beat the Dodgers [in the playoffs, in October 2006].”
“Throughout Willie’s tenure, it seemed like it was building toward something,” said Rubin, the News reporter. “His first year [in 2005], I vividly remember they were flirting with the wild card before they had a miserable stretch in early September, and Willie was in St. Louis walking back to the hotel with David Wright. And Willie said to him, ‘You’re gonna learn from this moment.
When we get there in future years, you’re gonna build on this and you’re gonna know how to win.’”
That never happened.
“It wasn’t like a life cycle like the Yankees with four championships,” Rubin said. “It was a life cycle with one NLCS appearance in four years.”
THE TEAM’S BEAT writers—like its fans, really—have bounced back and forth between explanations for this year’s underperforming. First they blamed Willie; then the inexplicable decline of shortstop Jose Reyes; then it was Billy Wagner, the loudmouth closer who suddenly couldn’t close; and now, it’s the fault of the executives of the team, who built a fragile roster and unceremoniously dumped their victim manager after letting him twist in the wind for days and days.
The story of the weekend was all about Randolph, who was in the surreal position of a man attending his own funeral.
After a victory on June 13, he walked into the interview room and made the shape of a cross with his fingers and pointed it toward Sports Illustrated’s Jon Heyman, who reported earlier that day that Randolph was on the verge of getting fired.
Randolph sat down, and then suddenly PR director Jay Horwitz said he had to leave Willie alone for a moment—he would be right back.
“You sure, Jay? I’m hoping that’s not what I think it might be,” said Randolph, with the entire room erupting into laughter. “We won tonight, Jay!”
Suddenly, Heyman peeked out the door after Horwitz.
“Oh, shoot, there’s the grim reaper over there waiting!” said Randolph. “He’s making sure he’s the first one to know about it. Wow! Go-lly!”
Then he went all over the room, pointedly making note of each of the nonregulars in the larger-than-usual press contingent.
“We have the great Chris Cotter [of SNY] here tonight. Wow. Boy, who else we got? And we got Curly [Chris Carlin of SNY] back there. What’s Curly doing back here? Golly, I bring out the best. I feel all the love, I really feel it. And my favorite, Bart [Hubbuch, of the Post], over here, Bart’s my favorite. I’m glad to have him, too. I’m feeling lots of love tonight. Hey, Jay, hurry up! Let’s get it over with. God.”
Ben Shpigel, the beat reporter for The Times, smiled in a can-you-believe-what-he-just-said way. The next day reporters all wrote about the new and loose Willie. He’s funny!
Randolph kept it up all weekend, long after the shtick got weird and embarrassing. Was he really joking about his fate, still?