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COMMENTARY

Overvalued Mets Pay Few Dividends

May 04, 2003|Johnette Howard | Newsday

The Mets can go ahead and fire General Manager Steve Phillips, who was lucky to outlast Bobby Valentine this long.

They can hurry 19-year-old prospect Jose Reyes up to the big leagues, as if a kid shortstop who's hitting .247 in Triple-A can spark the team when potential Hall of Famers Mike Piazza and Tom Glavine cannot.

They can light a few votive candles and secretly hope that 35-year-old Mo Vaughn really meant it when he told The New York Times on Wednesday that he'd retire rather than take the $29.3 million he's owed through next season if he keeps playing as lousy as he has.

But the worst thing about this Mets' team is that none of that matters right now.

There is no silver bullet that can save this mostly untradeable, defensively inept, mysteriously weak-hitting, $117-million assortment of players. Just themselves.

"This is the team we have," Met Manager Art Howe has said, blandly.

If there was any doubt about what to do about the quartet of Mets who were trying to bounce back from awful debut seasons here last year, the verdict now looks carved in cement.

Vaughn is dead weight (no pun intended). Jeromy Burnitz and Roger Cedeno are overpaid journeymen.

And second baseman Roberto Alomar? He's inexplicably turned into a Tin Man since coming to New York. No heart.

Of all the Mets, Alomar is by far the most grievous bust, mostly because his failures appear to be attributable to a lack of desire or passion, not talent.

When Mets' management said during the offseason that they would force Alomar to play out his contract this year before offering him an extension, Alomar reacted by saying all the right things.

But he now plays second base as if he's made of crystal. He doesn't make the fielding plays he used to. He doesn't hang around the bag when a baserunner is bearing down on him. And some irked teammates have noticed.

A nadir was established Wednesday night when Howe sent shortstop Rey Sanchez -- a guy with a bum elbow -- to pinch hit for Alomar in the eighth with the Mets trailing 13-2 because Alomar was mired in an 0-for-20 slump.

If that indignity was Howe's way of sending a message to Alomar, it's unlikely to work. Alomar is a natural-born ballplayer wrapped inside a loner stuffed inside an enigma.

It's just another reason the Mets' outlook is grim and Phillips will get pink-slipped.

The moves he hasmade have gone bust while the Mets' payroll has boomed. But once -- just once -- you wish Howe would abandon that tight little smile of his and the "we'll get 'em next time" remarks and turn over the clubhouse buffet or rant the way Lou Piniella, the manager the Mets tried to hire first, has been known to do.

If nothing else, the tantrum would be cathartic.

For us, I mean.

Instead, after the Mets' 6-5 loss to the Cardinals in 10 innings Thursday in St. Louis, Howe said, "This is one you can live with."

Huh? Now he's heartened when the Mets play better in their losses?

A few hours before the Mets absorbed their fourth consecutive mind-numbing defeat Wednesday night -- a streak during which they were outscored 39-11 and dropped balls as if their gloves were made of lead -- Howe called in for his weekly radio show.

He endured a predictable pummeling like a helpless kid who can't stop himself from getting dunked in a swimming pool.

Nothing personal against you, Howe was told by co-hosts Mike Francesa and Chris Russo, but that team you've been handed -- it stinks!

"Aw, geez, guys, cut me a break," Howe pleaded more than once, forcing a stiff laugh. At one point Francesa boomed that Howe is stuck starting four DHs -- four DHs!! -- and Howe calmly said that while it's true he's locked into a certain lineup, it hurts only when they're not hitting.

Which isn't true.

In just one month, this Mets have turned into a fumbling, bumbling, fragile-looking crew whose resolve snaps like a breadstick.

The Mets were a last-place club in 2002 and look even worse this year.

They now drop routine throws. They don't get to routine pop-ups.

Anxiety -- not just a lack of talent -- is what's making them heavy-legged and rendering their bats slow.

The damning part isn't just that they're losing, it's how they're losing games.

Even if Phillips is canned, the Mets' shortcomings have been exposed in exhaustive detail.

The players now are the problem.

So far, they seem helpless to transcend it. No help is likely to come riding over the ridge, and it's only May.

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