When the Mets win a couple games, everything is great. Fans cheer and newspapers herald the team's long-awaited turnaround. Willie Randolph's job becomes secure and nobody doubts Omar Minaya. After the Mets took two in the Bronx this weekend, fans are breathing sighs of relief and columnists are singing songs of praise.
But when the team loses -- and the team will lose again -- the sky will fall. Fans and writers will bandy about terms like "underachieving," and talk about the team's obvious lack of hustle, heart, desire, killer instinct or some combination thereof. "Same old Mets," we'll say. But are they really the same? And how are those same old Mets the team that torched Yankees pitching all weekend?
In his book, Art and Illusion, E.H. Gombrich discusses an ambiguous drawing:
We see the picture as either a rabbit or a duck. ... The shape transforms itself in some subtle way when the duck's beak becomes the rabbit's ears and brings an otherwise neglected spot into prominence as the rabbit's mouth. We are compelled to look for what is 'really there,' to see the shape apart from its interpretation, and this, we soon discover, is not really possible.
After most of the Mets' 22 wins this season, we've perceived them as energetic rabbits, a team full of good hitters, solid defenders and great pitchers. After most of their 19 losses, they've been ducks, an unfocused squad that's not all it was, ahem, quacked up to be.
People claim that the players don't care enough to win. Nonsense. Go try to find a player in the Major Leagues who doesn't want desperately to win every single game he plays in. You won't. You don't make the big leagues if you don't care.
That myth and others like it are merely the perceived concerns that develop when a team is playing poorly. The results on the field are what matters, nothing else. When a team is winning, we see them hustling and ignore their slipups. When they're losing, we see the slipups and ignore the hustle.
After a loss to the Dodgers a couple of weeks ago, Newsday's David Lennon wrote:
As the Mets prepared Tuesday, [Oliver Perez] played the arcade game, "Street Fighter," with Aaron Heilman only a few feet away from teammates watching video on laptops. That's not to say Perez should have been doing something else. It just seems as if playing video games wasn't doing much to help him for his next start.
Last season, when the red-hot Rockies were playing video games in the same L.A. clubhouse, reporters everywhere wrote about how loose and fun-loving they were. You play video games when you're losing and you're wasting your time. You play when you're winning and you're blowing off steam. I'm not targeting Lennon here, since it's certainly unintentional. He's seeing ducks, too.
The bottom line is that the Mets are not performing up to the expectations we set out for them before the season, the ones levied upon them on Jan. 29 when they got Johan Santana and everything was new and wonderful and not at all like 2007. Now that we know everything's not all great, we look for answers -- it's the manager, it's a lack of focus or desire. But those are just easy explanations for a complex situation that, quite frankly, no one knows everything about. We're not in the players' heads or in the manager's office behind closed doors. We know relatively little about the team chemistry. We see what we see, and our minds create reasons to rationalize it.
There's no one guilty party here. Fans spit the sentiments on talk radio and in blogs, the media echoes them in columns and on television sets, and even the players themselves occasionally get into the action. This is one of Gombrich's central points: we see things the way we've been trained to, and we allow our prejudices to skew the events materializing before our eyes.
We came into 2008 looking for one of two things: A team like the one that dominated in 2006 or a team like the one that collapsed in 2007. A rabbit or a duck. Because the 2008
Mets have appeared as ducks too often, we search for a way to change how we view the team. Everyone's looking for a spark, a breath of life, some motivation, something to make us put the memories of 2007 behind us so we can move forward.
A growing number of Mets fans and reporters seem to think the answer is firing Randolph. Fine. There are plenty of reasonable arguments for parting ways with Willie. But I wonder what difference a new manager would make to the 2008 Mets.
Because at some point, we need to see past our perceptions. And I deeply fear that when we can look beyond the illusion of a team not trying hard enough, we might find a team that's not as great as we hoped it would be.
The Mets have won two in a row, at the very least buying their manager some time. They could go on a 10-game winning streak that puts them into a healthy lead atop the division and shuts everyone up for good. Stranger things have happened, especially in baseball. But even the most optimistic fan must admit at this point that it doesn't seem likely.
Look up and down the lineup. The Mets went into the season with no strong contingency plan for their 41-year-old, injury-prone left fielder or their aging first baseman coming off the worst season of his career. They put faith in an inconsistent 26-year-old lefty with more failure than success in his career and slotted into their rotation a 36-year-old who spent large parts of the past two seasons on the disabled list.
Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran have started to come around, which anyone with access to the backs of their baseball cards could have expected. But those same people must admit that Brian Schneider won't maintain a .380 on-base percentage and Ryan Church, though a good hitter, isn't this good a hitter.
The truth is, when you look for what's really there, the Mets are neither a rabbit nor a duck. They're a 22-19 baseball team, one certainly capable of winning its division but not one likely to do that in August. Can they turn it on and pull away? Sure. It's still early.
The safest bet, though, is that the Mets will be up-and-down all season, and the easiest way for us to deal with that will be to realize that this is a good, but not great, baseball team. We had reasons to expect better and we've had reasons to believe worse. But until we put our preconceived notions of what this team would be behind us, we'll never be able to objectively determine why the Mets really win and lose and how they can actually get better.