Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Five Stages of Watching R. A. Dickey Get Traded

In the big picture of world events, especially this week, the transfer of an athlete from one team to another is just a small blip on a small screen way over in the corner. But for Mets fans, the trade of R. A. Dickey is a thoroughly traumatic event, bringing back memories of the day that "The Franchise," Tom Seaver, was exiled to Cincinnati. The death of Dickey's Mets career has been a drawn-out ordeal, and I find that over the course of its demise, I have experienced the "five stages of grief" described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her groundbreaking book On Death and Dying, published, just by coincidence, in the greatest year in Mets history.

Stage 1: Denial. A few months ago, at the first suggestions that Dickey might not pitch for the Mets next season, the notion seemed incomprehensible. If the Mets wanted to sign the best starting pitcher available in the free-agent market, it would cost them far more than the $5 million they'd have to pay Dickey in 2013. He was already under contract. They didn't have to negotiate with him, they just had to leave him alone. When he won the Cy Young Award and the response in some quarters was "This just enhances his trade value," it seemed like screwy logic. All it did was enhance the desirability of keeping him at that bargain salary. They already had the best pitcher in the National League! When they threw $17 million a year at David Wright in a long-term contract, that seemed like one more reason to keep Dickey. If they were willing to make that kind of financial commitment, it meant they weren't going to break up their current strengths, didn't it? Why commit to your best everyday player and not to your best pitcher? Every way I tried to apply logic to the situation, the answer came up the same:  there's no reason to trade Dickey. Yes, there was the theoretical notion that "The Mets aren't going to win next year with or without Dickey, so why not get value that will enhance their chance of winning a few years from now?" My answer to that led me to the next phase of the process.

Stage 2: Anger. Why keep Dickey even if you're not going to win the pennant? Accepting that assumption made it even more imperative that they keep him--for the fans. A year ago, they let Jose Reyes, the most popular player on the team and the one player fans would go to Citi Field to see perform, walk away without an offer or a protest. I think I'm an average life-long Mets fan, and a year ago I wondered whether I'd even want to watch the team without him. But the season began, baseball returned, and I started watching. For half a season the team stayed in the pennant chase, for one reason only. Their starting pitching was very good, and specifically R. A. Dickey was terrific. Starting pitching is the great equalizer, and for a fair chunk of the season it kept teams with weak offenses like the Mets and Pirates in the chase. Dickey emerged as the new most popular player on the team. He was the one guy whose turn on the mound I didn't want to miss. It was fascinating and exhilarating to watch him flummox opposing lineups with a pitching style unique in baseball history. He was one of a kind, not only aesthetically but personally as well. There was the wonderful confluence of events in his life--climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in the off-season, writing a well-received book, revealing a character of strength and persistence that endeared him to all Mets fans. Here was one guy we could root for not only because he was pitching spectacularly but also because he was a good guy who wanted only to excel. We had seen him pitch nearly as well in 2011 while getting virtually no support from his teammates and enduring an undeserved losing record with grace and determination.

So my anger grew at the notion that Mets management would be so indifferent to their own fans' enjoyment of the team that they would get rid of the player we most wanted to root for. Over the past few years, Mets fans have watched the Wilpons abandon the team's interests while crying poverty because they were ripped off by Bernie Madoff. The $138 million contract they gave David Wright put the official lie to that notion long after the fans stopped believing it. The Wilpons have turned the Mets into a franchise with a small-market mentality at the same time that they reaped the benefits of an extravagant new ballpark. Then they somehow latched onto one player their fans could celebrate no matter how bad the rest of the team was, and all we heard was how his unprecedented performance in 2012 simply made him better trade bait. Who the hell could the Mets get for him that would give their fans more pleasure than watching him pitch 30 more times in 2013? It became infuriating to think that the Wilpons, hatchet man Sandy Alderson, and the other people making the decisions would deny their fans the pleasure of seeing what Dickey does next. Of course, it didn't have to happen, I kept telling myself as I entered the third stage.

Stage 3: Bargaining. Even the pundits were weighing the possibilities without calling it a no-brainer that the Mets would trade Dickey. Alderson declared that they'd be happy to have Dickey return in 2013, and Dickey said that he wanted to return. The Mets were the franchise that had stuck their necks out and given him a chance, and he wanted to stay. The Wright contract seemed encouraging on that score. There was plenty of time to extend the contract. It didn't even have to happen this winter. The Mets could start 2013 with Dickey on hand, see how the first half went, and unload him at the trading deadline if need be. Dickey himself could declare that he wouldn't sign an extension and would take a chance on having a good enough season to bring a much bigger price on the free market after 2013 than he could get from the Mets now. The biggest element of risk seemed to involve his age--38. That was a red herring, folks. Even though he throws the hardest knuckler in history, and sneaks in an occasional fastball in the 82-84mph range, it's still the knuckleball, and its masters have historically defied the normal laws of baseball longevity. As I write this, would anybody be surprised if he keeps up current his performance level for five more years? Or longer?

So bargaining seemed like a good proposition. As long as the Mets and Dickey kept bargaining, hope remained that he might spend those next five--or ten--productive seasons in a Mets uniform. The team unveiled new uniforms in November, and I joked that what they really needed was not a new design but different names on the backs. But as a selfish Mets fan, I found myself thinking that my only concern was being able to watch Dickey pitch all of his games next season. That was my own bargaining with the growing prospect of losing that opportunity. Screw the pennant chase. Screw the contract terms. Just let me watch Dickey for one more season. See what happens. Maybe he'd anchor a starting rotation that would keep the team in the race. Maybe he'd wind up like he did this past season, a lone shining star in a Mets firmament of futility. Maybe it would all turn sour and the pressure of putting up big pre-free agency stats would crumble his numbers. But at least we'd know, at least we'd be able to watch and root and see for ourselves, instead of being left to wonder what if. What kind of legacy could he have established by joining Wright as "a Met for life"? I retained every vanishing shred of hope that we'd fine out, but bargaining, it turns out, is nearly as unrealistic as denial.

Stage 4: Depression. "The damp drizzly November in my soul" soon turned to depression as December dawned on the Dickey trade-watch front. Not even alliteration helped. The carping in the press began, always a bad sign. The Mets reportedly offered him $10 million a season and became publicly upset when he told the press that he didn't think that was a fair offer considering his 2012 performance. The figure he reportedly wanted--$15 million--didn't seem out of line to me, though I have to admit that I do my best to tune out contract offers and details. Everyone in baseball makes an obscene amount of money--apparently except the Wilpons--and the details don't matter. If you want someone, you sign him. So it was depressing to think that the Mets, who lavished a $36 million, three-year investment on freakin' Oliver Perez's high-outside fastballs and 55-foot sliders, couldn't come up a paltry $25-30 million to secure three years' worth of Dickey's enchanting knuckler. Yeah, the Perez deal was Omar Minaya's folly and he had ultimately taken the fall for it, but it didn't automatically follow that Alderson shouldn't take a chance on Dickey. If Alderson was "upset" with Dickey for taking his case to the public, it could only mean that: (A) the parties were truly so far apart that the gap couldn't be bridged (which still could mean that they would bring him back as a "cheap" $5 million starter); and/or (B) Alderson was laying the groundwork for deeming him ungrateful and expendable.

That brought back the memories of Seaver in '77, when team spokesman M. Donald Grant encouraged Dick Young's scurrilous campaign against Seaver's character and added his own disappointment about the pitcher's greed at wanting to earn whatever a three-time Cy Young Award winner could make in those days. That had been the ultimate gruesome death-watch for Mets fans, one that I hadn't recovered from for years. Losing Dickey couldn't be as bad as losing Seaver, but that was then and this was now--and right now it offended, disturbed, and depressed me to think that the Mets, after experiencing a 4.7% drop in attendance in 2012, would so cavalierly dismiss their biggest drawing card (for the record, home attendance was 8.3% higher when Dickey started). Despite Alderson's spreading smokescreen of needing to build for the future and feeling compelled to make a trade if it would address long-term issues, it remains the case that for a team's fans to believe in that future, they must feel that whoever is running the team now cares about the fans' desires. It has been several years since the Wilpons gave Mets fans any indication that they cared for much else besides their own net worth. Despite Wright's windfall, nothing in the Dickey negotiations made us feel that that had changed, and it was simply depressing when the trade happened. Suddenly we were asked to celebrate the promise of a catcher coming off knee surgery for a torn ligament and a 20-year-old who pitched at the Single-A level in 2012. That's like trading a freezer full of filet mignon for a couple of calves. But it happened, and we have no choice but to accept it.

Stage 5: Acceptance. R. A. Dickey is no longer a Met. A year ago I mourned for the departure of Jose Reyes, yet I got enjoyment from the Mets in 2012, and the 2013 will be played (barring the cosmic last laugh by the Mayans later this week). Matt Harvey proved eminently watchable over the last two months this season, at times reminding Mets fans of the early Tom Seaver. Maybe he'll lead the new edition of the starting rotation, joined by a rejuvenated Johan Santana, a maturing Jonathon Niese, and other promising young arms. Maybe it could be 1969 all over again, with a young but suddenly invincible group of pitchers supporting a lineup consisting of a couple of guys having career years and platoon combinations providing decent production from half the lineup. Maybe Travis d'Arnaud will blossom instantly and make us forget the what's-his-name who caught the majority of Dickey's floaters in 2012.

The acceptance, for me, is helped by having two fallback plans. One is that the Mets have always been my #2 team, behind the Cincinnati Reds. My father was from Cincinnati, so it's a congenital defect, but the Reds are in ascendance these days and figure to contend for awhile in a weak division. My policy over the years has been to root harder for whichever team had the best chance of making the post-season, and it worked pretty well last year right up until the minute the Reds failed to sweep the Giants in the playoffs. It certainly came in handy in 1977, when they were the lucky team that landed Seaver. When that trade happened, I abandoned the Mets completely, refusing to put any energy into rooting for them and not returning to the fold for seven years, until the arrival of Dwight Gooden. I'll have no qualms this time around about letting them fend for themselves without my daily devoted rooting. I'll wish them well and watch them at least at the start of the season, but not with all my heart. That belongs to the Reds for the foreseeable future. Fallback plan #2 is that I can, and will, still root with all my heart for R. A. Dickey. He has earned the loyalty of any good baseball fan. During the last couple of months, I've read a lot of the articles and blogs about the Dickey situation, but sometimes just the headline was enough. One headline read "Dickey Deserves Better From Mets," and I thought yes, that's certainly true, and I don't need to read any further. But now I've decided that the Mets have done him a favor. He'll spend at least the next three years with a team that clearly wants to win and to restore its status as a big-attendance franchise. Maybe he'll love it there; I hope so. He's enough of a free spirit and his own man to wind up spending the rest of his life there and becoming a Canadian citizen. The team that gave him the opportunity of a lifetime might now have given him a lifetime of opportunity. I want him to thrive.  I want him to win another Cy Young Award and to win a World Series MVP, too, so I can watch him pitch all the way to late October. Of course, he should be the Series MVP despite his team losing to the Reds or the Mets. That I will gladly accept.