Sprinting to the Finish: The Culture of Losing

Six weeks ago, an unidentified Mets executive – and really, how many are there – told Mike Puma of the Post that the front office was pleased with the work of Terry Collins and his staff. Then he said this:

“I think they’re doing a good job of sprinting to the finish line.”

Sure, if the runner in question is Ramon Castro.

The Mets are sprinting nowhere, once again. They’re tumbling, scuffling, tripping to the finish line, another dreary soul-crushing fourth place finish, another dispiriting September, acres of empty seats in the cool Flushing air.

They call the top deck at Citi Field the “Promenade” but that suggests movement, as in quantities of people moving around, promenading to and fro, while top quality baseball unfolds on the greensward below. Static, empty green seats and old Nathan’s wrappers blowing like ghost town tumbleweeds does not a “promenade” make.

I’m not sure what to make of the insistence that Terry Collins has created some sort of miracle with the low-rent talent Sandy Alderson has given him. Isn’t that narrative either a vicious indictment of Alderson (who has seemed as checked out at times as any New York sports general manager this side of Glen Sather) or the very faintest of praise for Collins? I’m not a Collins hater. I admire a gritty baseball lifer as much as the next Wilford Brimley fan, but I simply have no understanding of this movement to keep him at the helm as the team slips further into irrelevance. It’s not that he’s been a disaster. In some ways I agree with Michael Baron of Metsblog, who repeated on Twitter once again the line that “we will just be having the same argument about the next manager. In the end, it really doesnt matter too much.”

You could almost hear Baron (who has great eye behind the lens, by the way) sigh in frustration.

Yet I think it does matter, at least a little bit. When Gil Hodges took over a losing franchise in 1968, he changed the culture. Old-timers will remember that it was like flipping a switch. The Mets didn’t win right away, but losing became unacceptable and the man in the dugout was clearly the man in charge of what happened at Shea Stadium. Davey Johnson‘s arrival – one Mets generation later – had a similar effect, and Johnson had managed many of the young players who formed the core of the juggernaut Mets of 1986.

One of those young wallbangers was Wally Backman, a knock-about second baseman who would do anything to win. Backman is finishing his second year managing the Mets AAA affiliate, making the post-season despite the revolving door on his bench, as the big club filled its empty slots and shuttled players between Vegas and Flushing like a partially inebriated blackjack player flicking his chips between hands. Backman is a hot head, a brawler, and the kind of character that gets the attention of young players. He’s had Flores. He’s had Lagares. He’s had Wheeler and the rest.

The party line seems to be another year of Collins. But why not Backman? Why not the brawler with the dirty uniform? Yeah the talent level doesn’t (yet) indicate a winner in Queens – but can’t the manager at least be obsessed with not losing? I think so. Time for Wally-Ball.