When the Mets manage to make the covers of all three New York City–area tabloids, as they did on Tuesday morning, it is seldom because they’ve done something good. Some of that is because of how New York City’s tabloids work and most of it is because of how the Mets don’t work, but if the Mets are on all the covers in mid-to-late May, it’s safer to assume that it’s because of something Mets—a failed attempt to cover up the news that the clubhouse has been overrun by wolves, say—than it is because of a stirring win over a divisional rival. The Mets have two of those already this week after taking the first two games from the even more incandescently dysfunctional Washington Nationals, but that’s not what put them on the covers any more than last weekend’s abject three-game sweep at the hands of the Marlins did. It was the Mets Things that did it. It always is.
There is a period during every Mets season when Mets Things start happening and then just kind of keep happening, and honestly even those of us that follow the team closely for professional or personal or clinical reasons are hard-pressed to keep up. At some point in this otherwise quite interesting and predictably Mets Daily News article about the team going behind MLB’s back and signing a deal to create its own independent team-centric news service with Yahoo and Verizon—it was supposed to appear around Opening Day, and still hasn’t—I realized that I simply did not have it in me to care about it. The team is DFAing players in fits of pique and signaling furiously that they intend to fire overmatched manager Mickey Callaway while publicly asserting that they do not intend to do so; the third baseman is in an opaque, years-spanning beef with the Nationals’ rightfielder; and the team’s best hitter and best-paid player just obliterated his ankle after falling off something-other-than-a-horse on his ranch, and the team is hinting that it hopes to void his contract as a result. I simply cannot care about the team’s weird failed app at this juncture!
But amid all the usual slapstick tabloid carnage, a bit of actual Mets news—an institutional idiocy long suspected but never previously confirmed or reported as such—passed more or less without notice. Here it is, as reported by Ken Rosenthal in The Athletic:
[Callaway] has proven too small for the job, too limited strategically, too lacking in his message. But the Mets, sources say, also have turned him into a literal puppet, telling him what to say and influencing who he plays.
Why isn’t Tomas Nido catching Jacob deGrom when the ace’s ERA is 0.43 with him and 5.33 with Wilson Ramos over a similar number of innings? Because the Mets are paying Ramos $19 million over two years. Why won’t Callaway take a stand on Canó? Because he probably is not comfortable challenging one of Van Wagenen’s former clients and principal offseason acquisitions.
Rosenthal’s story is one that, like “Mets Downplay Clubhouse Wolf Infestation,” gets written every year. The most persistent and most damaging problems that the Mets have are Fred and Jeff Wilpon, the team’s uniquely meddlesome and toxic principal owners. While the wild rabbit-eared pettiness of those owners has successfully cowed many of the publications on the Mets beat, Rosenthal isn’t the first (or second) writer at The Athletic to point out that the Wilpons are responsible for most of what’s small-time and stupid and strange about the team, and for creating a broader culture that runs on impacted grievance and inverted M.C. Escher anti-logic. But, in the bit quoted above, Rosenthal comes very close to saying something that has long been suspected but never quite articulated—that the Wilpons micromanage not just the team’s roster construction, but its actual day-to-day lineups.
There were reasons to be optimistic when the team brought on the high-powered player agent Brodie Van Wagenen as general manager before the season, but most of those were of the far-fetched, double-bank variety—that Van Wagenen’s personal relationship with Jeff Wilpon might get the team’s failson owner-in-waiting to chill out with his power-tripping Executive Boss: Junior routine, or that the owners’ familiarity with Van Wagenen and Van Wagenen’s personal charm might buy him a bit of space within which to make baseball decisions on his own, or at least persuade the owners to extend Jacob deGrom. The last one even happened, although the early returns on the rest of Van Wagenen’s busy but revenue-neutral offseason, most of which was spent acquiring players that he represented in his previous career, have been less positive so far.
But while Van Wagenen has seemed nearly as over his head in his job as Callaway has been in his, he is really just failing slightly less quickly, but in the same ways and for the same stubborn reasons. The vinegary dopes in the owners box do what they do, and then blame the people they’ve hired when those moves don’t work out. The Wilpons arrogate decisions that are by rights those of the general manager and manager that they’ve hired, and then when their shortsighted, reactive, WFAN Caller–grade decisions reliably land the team in crisis—when all the players encouraged to play hurt wind up too hurt to play; when the owners’ towering inferiority complex and world-historic grudge cultivation skills invariably put them at odds with their players—the owners find that they have no choice but to humiliate and eventually fire the managers and general managers and players who have failed them. It’s about accountability—not for the people in charge, but for the people they pay to take the fall when that meddling leads where it always leads. This happens every year, too.