NEW YORK – On a Tuesday evening in Flushing, New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson knelt next to the dirt around home plate and combed the grass for an errant earring. Losing things, like baseball games and the support of a fan base, has been a problem around here lately.
It certainly wasn’t all his fault, but things had taken a turn for the worse ever since they added Javier Báez at the trade deadline. And now, it almost looked like the embattled infielder had found both of those again with one aggressive walk-off slide. But the balance was precarious. Another loss, in a season with 67 of them as the Mets stare down September, might tip the whole thing back into chaos. So, yeah, the team president squatted and sifted. This day was going to be about wins.
By then, Citi Field was quiet, emptied quickly of the 8,000 ticketed fans who showed up for a midweek 1 p.m. resumption of a game started back in April against the Miami Marlins and were sent home happy by the same guy they’d booed before the game even started.
“We're New Yorkers and that's how he's gonna be received if he plays bad,” a 15-year-old Mets fan, Will Gregory, said about Báez outside the stadium a few hours before first pitch. “If he doesn’t want to be booed he should play better.”
Gregory himself never booed the hometown team. Not yet, anyway.
“I mean, the way they're playing right now maybe I should,” he said.
Báez had struggled in his first 17 games with the Mets, a slump that coincided with the team’s plummet from first place to barely part of the postseason picture. But if the team had frustrated fans in defeat, it was their behavior in victory that really frayed the relationship.
“I think he should just be striving to [win] to please us, please the fans. But instead, he's doing that to kind of shove it in our faces,” Gregory said.
Báez had said as much Sunday night. Asked to explain a thumbs-down celebration flashed by several players, he essentially said they were giving the finger to the fans.
“To let them know that when we don’t get success, we’re going to get booed, so they’re going to get booed when we’re a success.”
That was not what the city wanted to hear from an underperforming rental amid a season that was swiftly slipping away. The comments kicked off a media maelstrom and elicited a stern condemnation from Alderson that sided with the paying customers over the players, who are probably getting used to being thrown under the bus.
For a day and a half the controversy straddled the line between surrealist #LOLMets spectacle and an honest window into the disaffection and dysfunction that has followed the team into what was supposed to be a new era. Given an off day to get their story straight and a team meeting about which everyone remained tight-lipped, the party line seemed to be that it was all a misunderstanding. But also, that they were sorry.
“I didn't mean to offend anybody,” Báez said, speaking to reporters in front of the dugout as a few fans in the seats behind him flashed thumbs in both directions. “If I offended anybody, we apologize.”
“I apologize to whoever I offended,” said Lindor, Báez’s longtime friend and another thus far disappointing addition to the lineup who “booed” back with a thumbs down. “It was not my intent to offend people.”
Experts would say contrition is best expressed without conditions. But surely, if they see the error in their ways, they can at least understand why fans might have been offended?
“No. I mean, I don't know,” Báez said. “Like I said, I didn't mean to offend anybody.”
Manager Luis Rojas called it a learning experience. Báez and Lindor just wanted to put the whole thing in the past. The concept of accountability came up repeatedly.
“I have always told the guys how accountable we’ve got to be,” said Rojas, who explained that he didn’t know exactly what the players were doing or what it meant until he saw the comments from Sunday night’s press conference.
As for his team: “I’m just going to talk about today, that’s where I want to keep things right now, that’s where we want to be,” Rojas said. “Guys were accountable today, from my knowledge.”
The upshot, though? No more thumbs down. Rojas said he didn’t even have to ask his team to nix the gesture.
“We’re gonna stop it for the love of the fans,” Báez said, back on the field.
Behind him, one of them yelled, “Javy, we just want to win, bro!”
For much of the afternoon, that looked like too much to ask for. Lindor, the $341 million man who has a 90 OPS+ in his first of many seasons in Queens, was booed in each of his at-bats. Báez didn’t start the game, but was booed when he pinch-hit in the eighth.
The Mets trailed the Marlins — the Marlins! — 5-1 entering the bottom of the ninth. But by the time Báez came to bat, there were two on, two outs, and two runs had already scored in the frame. This time, with the game in reach and the rally driving everyone to their feet, the fans chanted his name.
Call it an olive branch or just another form of retribution, but of course Báez slapped an RBI infield single. Michael Conforto followed with a single to drive in the tying run, and when the ball was bobbled in the outfield, Báez dashed home. A safe slide and a dropped ball and suddenly the fans could only cheer as the Mets mobbed the object of their passionate ambivalence.
Somewhere, in all the commotion, Báez lost an earring. And perhaps it served as a sacrificial tribute to Citi Field gods, because when the fans returned for the nightcap, they gave him a standing ovation in his first at-bat. Behind home plate, a fan raised two thumbs high overhead.