Monday, August 3, 2009

Are The Mets The New Knicks?

[Here is a guest post I did for River Ave. Blues last week, and figured the off day would be a good time to re-post it here.]

The similarities go beyond just the blue and orange. Both teams are owned by father/son duos and have been plagued by recent failures despite having payrolls near or at the top of their respective sports. Each franchise has only two championships in their history and has made the playoffs exactly one out of the past eight seasons. They both have had their front offices' dirty laundry aired in the New York tabloids in recent years.

Not that Jose Reyes ever asked a Mets intern if she was going to "get in the truck" or Omar Minaya sexually harassed a fellow member of the front office, but there is a big distinction between having an unsuccessful franchise and having the details of why your organization is a disaster printed for the world to see. At the center of these two debacles are two executives who have/had close relationships with the owners of their teams but terrible ones with the media.

While serving as President of Basketball Operations for the Knicks, Isiah Thomas spoke with the placid monotone of someone who was heavily medicated, spouting off cliches and dropping wincers such as "To me, it’s win or die. And I literally mean death. I don’t mean walk away. I mean death. That’s how I approach it". Omar, on the other hand has a penchant for mixing metaphors, inaccurate tensing ("He has lobby myself") and verbal tics, you know what I'm saying?

Initially credited with making the Mets an attractive destination and recruiting players like Pedro Martinez, Carlos Delgado and Billy Wagner, Omar's track record is tainted by severely overpaying for Luis Castillo, giving Moises Alou $15M for 414 plate appearances and locking up Oliver Perez, (who is currently humming along to the tune of a 7.42 ERA) for three years and $36M. The Johan Santana trade alone puts Minaya ahead of Thomas in terms of transactions that turned out favorably for their team, but the number of playoff appearances and dollars each team has spent speak for themselves.

Back on March 12th, 2007, with Knicks holding a record of 29-34 and sitting at 8th place in the Eastern Conference, James Dolan singed Isiah Thomas to a three year extension. Nine months earlier, Dolan had issued an ultimatum, saying the Knicks would have to make "evident progress" in order to Isiah to return as coach the following year.

The team had gone 23-59 under Larry Brown the year before, so they did improve, but the timing was curious. Dolan could have waited to see how the season turned out, but instead said "the improvement needs to be recognized now and not wait". The team responded with a horrid 4-14 stretch and finished 7 games out of the playoffs. Thirteen months later, Thomas was "reassigned" and banned from having any contact with the team, effectively ending his tenure as Knicks GM and coach.

Immediately following the conclusion of the 2008 season, the second one in a row which concluded by the Mets getting nudged out of October on the last day of the season after holding a significant lead with less than three weeks to go, Jeff Wilpon extended a three year contract extension to Omar Minaya. The timing again was questionable, as the GM had a full year left on his current deal, but Wilpon said "we think he deserves another chance to keep getting us to where we want to be".

The Mets are currently in 4th place in the NL East and behind 7 other teams in contention for the Wild Card, 5.5 games back. Unfortunately for Minaya, the on-the-field performance can be largely explained away by injuries, but the power structure of the Mets organization has come under fire as of late. First with the clumsy axing of Willie Randolph last year but most recently the zany antics of Tony Bernazard and the ensuing unsuccessful attempted public sacrifice of beat writer Adam Rubin's journalistic integrity, the team has become a punching bag for the New York Media. Rubin wondered aloud how he could continue his duties as a reporter covering theMets after the incident, but one has to question whether Omar can continue running them.

Even since they hired Donnie Walsh to head their basketball operations back in April of last year, the Knicks have had an air of credibility around them, even though their play on the floor was still sub-par. A well-respected veteran of the Pacers' front office, Walsh is candid with the media and his Wikipedia page doesn't have to have a separate section for "Controversy". Could the Mets benefit from a similar move?

It's quite unlikely that the Mets leapfrog 7 teams (or three in the NL East) and sneak into the playoffs this year. Since Minaya's new contract doesn't even start until the end of this season and won't end until 2012, keeping him around would be a prudent financial move. Rob Neyer doesn't think that will play a role in the decision, though.

Has Omar passed the point of no return?

I personally don't think so and don't feel certain that his successor would necessarily bring a new direction to the franchise, other than the symbolic overture of axing Minaya. That said, public perception and fan placation is a big part of being a successful sports team in New York, and theWilpon's have to be prepared to deal with a lot of backlash if they stand by their man.

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