Mets-ing intensifies.
Photo: Michael Reaves (Getty Images)

The Mets lost to the Marlins on Saturday afternoon by the score of 5-2 in front of one of those weird rustling Miami baseball crowds. Distant conversations and hoots rang out like whalesong from the prevailing underwater murmur, and the Mets did little to disrupt the ambient soundscape, hitting maybe four balls hard all day long; their two runs came on solo homers by Jose Bautista and Todd Frazier in the first and sixth innings, respectively. Jacob deGrom allowed three earned runs in six innings and took the loss, bringing his ERA up to 1.84. He is the only qualified Major League pitcher with an ERA under 2.00 and has been worth 5.1 wins above replacement by Baseball Reference’s figuring in just 17 starts. He is now 5–4 on the year. The Mets ended the month of June with a 5–21 record, the worst record for a month in the team’s history.

The Mets have lost 11 of 15 games, and have now played with a strikingly dreary and dreamlike inertia for two months. Manager Mickey Callaway said the team had hit “rock bottom” after a May 30 loss against the Braves, which left the Mets just a game over .500 after that hot start. They were 16 games under by the end of June. There is a whole dreary daisy chain of ways to express how badly the Mets played during that stretch—10–of–11, 22–of–27, a 110-loss pace since opening the season 17–6, barf-de-barf—but you get it. Everyone gets it. Or almost everyone gets it.

The people that own the Mets do not get it. Anything that “it” might mean in this formulation is a thing that they do not get. When Mets fans criticize the team’s owners, which is more or less whenever those owners come up, it generally resolves to ownership’s cheapness; “Wilpon” and “Coupon” do line up pretty well, as Mets fans started noticing more than a decade ago. That isn’t wrong, exactly, but it’s more complicated than it seems at first. The team’s payroll is officially ninth-highest in baseball, although that doesn’t take into account the insurance payouts that cover almost all of broken star David Wright’s $20 million salary. The Mets are paying a number of players decent MLB salaries, and many of those players are not producing at commensurate levels. This is why the team has, and pardon my baseball jargon here, sucked major ass since the end of April.

But the numbers don’t so much lie, in this case, as obfuscate. The team is spending money, but only in ways that reflect the crusty antique values of the team’s strange ruling family. After more than a decade-and-a-half in charge, it is clear what the Wilpons are willing to pay for and what they are not. They like veterans of a familiar, established, broadly Caucasian type; they do not value younger players or those whose personalities are too large or oddly shaped to fit within ownership’s idea of what a ballplayer should be. As a result, the team has been run like the sort of family business in which the shelves are dusty and everyone behind the counter seems a breath away from attempting to strangle each other. Sandy Alderson, who became GM as a sort of league-appointed caretaker, hired intelligent people and made intelligent suggestions, but even the most minor decisions have invariably been micromanaged by the family in charge. There is no reason to think any of that will change now that Alderson has left the team. Because of ownership’s bizarre practice of not giving their GM a budget, every move must be vetted by and sold to a bunch of prickly Long Island grumps; because of the Wilpons’ armchair romanticization of Playing Hurt, the team regularly mishandles minor injuries into major ones and disdains even using the disabled list. None of this works.

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But the Mets are not failing because the Wilpons are cheap, or because they lost all their money to Bernard Madoff’s scamming—although as it happens they did, and it’s hard to see how that could’ve helped. The problem with the Mets isn’t that their owners’ finances have made them a small-market team in America’s biggest city. The problem is the extent to which they have failed to act in the ways that smart small-market teams act.

It’s worth noting that “small-market team” is in practice mostly a euphemism for “team that takes vigorous advantage of the iniquities built into the league’s collective bargaining agreement.” There’s no small grossness inherent to this, and pulling for a team to more effectively get over on players in its employ. But it’s worth noting the ways in which things might be different if the Mets were, say, the Portland or Tulsa or Richmond Mets and owned by people who were just a little less strident in their dopiness. The team would likely already have locked up one or both of Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard to contracts that bought out their remaining arbitration years, which would help Portland/Tulsa/Richmond both by locking in some roster and cost certainty for the future and, if it came to that, making those pitchers more valuable in trade. That team would invest heavily in the sort of unsexy and invisible places where comparatively small expenditures go furthest in the long run—domestic and international scouting, player development, conditioning—not just because it’s smarter but precisely because it’s cheaper. It might have responded to aberrational developments like the implausibly deniable capital strike that defined the last offseason by moving more aggressively in pursuit of potential bargains.

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There is no reason to take the Wilpons at their word when they claim not to have any money problems; there are just too many reasons to believe the opposite. But even presuming that the Mets don’t need to have a Milwaukee Brewers-sized payroll, it’s worth noting how different things might be if they actually did. There’s no guarantee that the Mets would have done as well as the Brewers did last offseason, because there is every reason to think that the doofs making the final call authentically just think that Jay Bruce is a better player than Lorenzo Cain. But the Brewers committed themselves to a longer-term plan and a specific core, and then went out and got the players to match; the Mets, at about the same price, pursued short-term fixes for longstanding problems. They’re battling to stay ahead of the Marlins in the standings in part because they picked the wrong fixes but also as a result of their organizational dedication to building rosters out of store-brand duct tape and the sort of veteran free agents that the owners would want to have a beer with. There is no discernible plan and no longterm core, either. Beyond the deferred money owed to Bobby Bonilla and Bret Saberhagen, the Mets currently have zero dollars in salary committed to the 2021 roster.

There are still a handful of MLB teams that are run in ways that reflect the preferences of the rich weirdos in charge, but none that are run quite like the Mets. The Wilpons, like the Trumps, are a family of Queens real estate millionaires who have not let dubious taste and questionable candlepower hold them back. The team they own conceives of itself and sells itself as something like a luxury product, because that is the default for people with Real Estate Brain, but it habitually cuts corners wherever and whenever possible, seemingly as a matter of principle; they do things their way not because it works, but because they believe it should work. Of all the things a fan experience might resemble, living in an expensive rental apartment with massively fucked-up plumbing is surely among the least appealing possible options, and yet that is where the Wilpons have left their team. The location is great and moving is always a supreme pain, but the landlords will have only themselves to blame if fans start thinking that, all things considered, the rent is just too damn high.