We're going to have to go all the way back to Oct. 21, 2000, to get the full extent of the New York Mets' constant disregard for baseball fundamentals, intelligence and hustle. What took place on that date was, of course, game one of the World Series between the Mets and New York Yankees. And in three consecutive innings, Met players just flat-out refused to run the bases. In the fourth inning, Todd Zeile hit a dribbler that started out foul but rolled fair.
Zeile stood like a statue in the batter's box, as Scott Brosius threw to Tino Martinez for the second out of the inning. When Jay Payton came up to bat the following inning with Benny Agbayani on second and no one out, did he take note of Zeile's mishap? No, because he did the exact same thing. He stood and watched as Jorge Posada scooped up a ball that was clearly in fair territory and tagged him out. And the icing on the cake came in inning six, when Zeile belted a ball that bounced off the top of the left field wall, as Timo Perez celebrated and happy-assed his way around the bases until he was thrown out at home by Derek Jeter on a play where he should have easily scored a run.
On opening day of 2002, Mike Piazza cue-balled a blooper past first base that landed on the line and spun its way to the stands, where a fan reached over and grabbed the souvenir. Was Piazza hustling his way around the bases? Did he end up at second with a double? No. He took a few leisurely steps toward first with bat in hand, and didn't come close to first base let alone second. Fan interference was called and Piazza turned a double into a ground-rule single. And on it went, highlighted by 2009's blooper reel of a season where the Mets invented new ways to lose: Not touching bases, attempting to catch pop-ups with one hand, and so on and so on and so on.
For years, the New York Mets have not hustled or come close to playing any type of fundamentally sound baseball. They've turned triples into doubles and doubles into singles. Going from first to third? They can barely get from first to second. They can barely get to first in the first place. Perez thought Zeile's shot was a home run and Zeile, Payton and Piazza thought their assortment of grounders and bloopers were foul balls.
But they were all wrong, and that's why you run. You never know. The ball may not go over the wall, it may end up in fair territory or it may go through a fielder's legs. A certain segment of stat-heads scoff, point and laugh at concepts like "intangibles," "hustle" and "grit," and talent surely trumps those concepts, but the Mets lost a World Series game (and maybe a whole series) because of a lack of hustle. I repeat--they couldn't bother to hustle in a World Series game. The World Series! How many games over the years have the Mets lost due to their insistence on taking the easy way out and ignoring the details of the game?
When Willie Randolph first came to the Mets, he tried to instill a corporate, no-facial-hair, Yankee-type structure to the team. That worked to a certain extent as they did reach the NLCS with the former second baseman at the helm. Jerry Manuel came along and talked about gangstas and cutting his shortstop with a blade. Did his style work? Not so much. I don't recall what Art Howe tried to bring to the team--a soothing Zen-like calm? Which brings us to Terry Collins. His mantra for the 2011 Mets is this: Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals.
It's sad that a manager of a Major League team would have to go back to the basics of Little League, but that's exactly what the Mets need. Over the years, they've expended copious amounts of energy on creating handshakes, making "we're-the-team-to-beat" pronouncements, beating up family members and sleepwalking through games instead of concentrating on running out batted balls, using two hands to catch fly balls, touching all the bases, getting in front of ground balls--all the little things, all the right things, that add up to winning baseball games.
Collins has been emphasizing "playing the game the right way" and "respecting the game" since his first day on the job. So many things have gone wrong for the Mets over the last decade, on and off the field, that it's time they put their heads down and start from scratch, and work on the details of playing the game of baseball. Collins is a baseball lifer, with the game flowing through his veins. He's passionate, he's intense and he's just what the team needs. His communication skills have already been proven effective, with the Carlos Beltran situation taken care of and wrapped up in a big bow with still a full month left of spring training.
After the new manager's opening speech to the team last week, Jason Bay said, "It's no slight to anyone else I've ever had, but the way [Collins] talks, you feel like he means it. That's not saying other managers didn't mean it. It's just that he gets things across a different way. You don't find a lot of guys like him at this level. It's kind of cool."
And David Wright said of his new manager, "He's just that excited about baseball and that excited about this season. He gets all fired up and it's like a snowball. He starts up with a normal voice and it picks up a few decibels and then a few more and by the end of it he's yelling and screaming and sweating and red in the face. It makes it fun, and those are the type of guys you want to run through a wall for."
When was last time Mets ran through a wall for anything? They usually can't even lower themselves to run to first base. It's about time the Mets focused on playing a competent, hustling, intelligent brand of baseball. Terry Collins will try where other men have failed before him. But at least he's going to try. And that's a first step in the right direction.