They stink the body electric

AlfredHitchcockMets

Some say this season came out of Stephen King. Others might think the Mets are Alfred Hitchcock Presents The Outer Limits of The Twilight Zone.

Dysfunctional organisations are about as alien to baseball as a pack of cigarettes rolled into a T-shirt sleeve once was to a 1950s greaser. But then there are the New York Mess—er, Mets—whose 58-year history has had several administrations that could give lessons in chaos to any given White House.

On Sunday, the Mets’ game against the Atlanta Braves had just gotten underway, seemingly, when a statement from the Mets hit the ground running like the Flash: Yoenis Cespedes, who’d homered for their only run in an Opening Day win against the same Braves, was AWOL.

As of game time, Yoenis Céspedes has not reported to the ballpark today. He did not reach out to management with any explanation for his absence. Our attempts to contact him have been unsuccessful.

In due course Sunday it transpired that Cespedes opted out of the rest of 2020. For COVID-19 reasons? For dwindling plate appearance opportunities as the Mets’ number one designated hitter this year? For both? Inquiring minds wanted to know and, seemingly, almost didn’t want to know, at the same time.

The only thing everyone in Mets Land and elsewhere seemed to agree with for long enough on Sunday was that Cespedes’s absence scared the Mets and their observers alike.

When Yoenis Cespedes didn’t show up today, the Mets sent security to his room,” tweeted ESPN writer Jeff Passan later Sunday afternoon. “They found it empty. He had taken his belongings, just up and left, and through his agent informed the team mid-game that he was opting out, according to Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen.”

UPDATE: Yoenis Céspedes has decided not to play the remainder of the season for COVID-19 related reasons,” tweeted MLB.com writer Anthony DiComo around the same time as Passan’s tweet.

The Mets-inclined Twittersphere wavered between wondering whether Cespedes’s none-too-glittering stats since that opening day home run were one factor, whether Cespedes possibly losing interest was another factor, and whether the Mets not exactly burning up the league was a third. One or two even contemplated aloud whether the injuries that originally took Cespedes down and cost him all 2019 were legitimate after all.

Already rehabbing on his Florida ranch after surgery to remove calcification on both his heels, Cespedes suffered multiple ankle fractures last May when he hit a hole on his grounds—revealed in due course to have happened while tangling with a wild boar he tried releasing from a trap.

Sure it sounded absurd on the surface. Haven’t enough baseball players and other professional athletes gotten themselves injured in some of the craziest, most hare-brained ways? Yes, they have. They’re funny to everyone except the injured.

A Hall of Famer, George Brett, once suffered a toe fracture . . . because, on a day off, he was just that anxious to get back to the television set to watch his buddy Bill Buckner take a turn at bat and smashed the toe against a door jamb. Another Hall of Famer, Rickey (The Man of Steal) Henderson, fell asleep with an ice bag on his ankle and woke up with a nasty case of frostbite. In August.

Once upon a time, last year’s World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg might have had murder in his heart if you’d known he struggled through a rough outing after getting a little Icy Hot balm on his family jewels accidentally. His method of your execution would have depended on whether you serenaded him with a certain Jerry Lee Lewis oldie.

Cespedes fracturing both ankles in multiple places after a tangle with a wild boar is nothing in the absurdity department compared to those. And that’s without remembering that freshly-crowned Cy Young Award winner Jim Lonborg, of the 1967 “Cinderella Red Sox,” tore up the knee on his landing leg when he was or wasn’t chasing movie star Jill St. John down the ski slopes that winter.

Lonborg’s mishap compromised his pitching career; when he returned, he inadvertently altered his motion to go easy on the landing knee and caused himself shoulder issues for the rest of his pitching days. It also inspired adding the “Jim Lonborg Clause” to the universal players contract enabling teams to bar players from “dangerous” off-field activities.

Whether the Mets looked askance out of the public eye about Cespedes’ battle of the boar is anybody’s guess. But the New York Post‘s Mike Puma and Joel Sherman say that, twice during this truncated regular season’s first nine games, Cespedes complained that he may have been kept out of the lineup a few times the better to block him from reaching certain incentive bonuses.

One of those came Saturday, when Cespedes first talked to [manager] Luis Rojas and then [general manager] Brodie Van Wagenen about his playing status and bonuses. Then Cespedes knew before the buses left for Truist Park on Sunday he was not in the starting lineup and he never showed for the game against the Braves, triggering a bizarre day even for the Mets.

Cespedes might have been struggling since his Opening Day launch, but this wouldn’t exactly be the first time a team has tried playing cute with a player over performance bonuses. It probably won’t be the last, either. But it doesn’t often happen when the team’s general manager just so happens to be the player’s former agent, either.

That same Saturday just so happened to be the fifth anniversary of the day Cespedes first arrived in New York and flipped the switch all the way up on the Mets’ season turnaround, the turnaround that took them all the way to the World Series they lost—thanks mostly to the porous defense they finally couldn’t out-hit—to the Kansas City Royals.

Cespedes may be rolling glandular dice with his opt-out. He becomes an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. It’s difficult if not impossible to fathom him getting even the kind of money he agreed to take for this year, after he and the Mets negotiated it from $20 million down to six. Even the Mets’ apparent dysfunction doesn’t leave him with a great look now.

“There is no way to defend Cespedes on this, at all, if we are to believe multiple sources,” writes another Post columnist, Mike Vaccaro, “and on two levels: Not just using the COVID opt-out as cover—think about that one for a minute—but also, given how much of a fiasco his four-year contract . . . has been, that he would make this kind of stand over money.”

Fair play: Cespedes’s mother is ill and at-risk. He does have legitimate health concerns. He also did say goodbye to several Mets teammates Saturday night, but he told his agency, Roc Nation, about his decision, and either Cespedes or the Roc Nation group didn’t tell the Mets’ brass right away. Is that so Mets, or what?

This coronavirus-truncated and mishap of a season has already been described by yet another writer as something straight out of a particularly literary Red Sox fan named Stephen King. I’m more convinced it’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents . . . The Outer Limits of The Twilight Zone. With the Mets’ latest mess (or is that the Mess’s latest mets?) as the episode called “I Stink the Body Electric.”

It’s deja vu all over again for the Mets

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Cespedes went into the seats in his return but deGrom added just more evidence for a non-support case Friday.

Pandemic delay or no pandemic delay, the 2020 season finds the New York Mets picking up just about where they left off last year. Not that beating the Atlanta Braves 1-0 on Friday was a terrible thing for them, of course. And not that Yoenis Cespedes, too long among the Mets’ living dead on the injured list, going long his first day back was terrible, either.

But their neglect of theirs and the National League’s best pitcher two seasons running, pending Jack Flaherty’s continuing maturation, continues yet. He’s too much a team player to say it, but surely Jacob deGrom thinks of games like Friday’s and thinks to himself, “It’s been lovely, but I have to scream now.”

Defending back-to-back Cy Young Awards, pitching like a future Hall of Famer, eight strikeouts in five innings, one walk, and one measly hit. (The innings limit was the Mets taking no chances after deGrom’s back tightness last week.) And nothing to show for it other than an ERA opening at zero.

Last year, deGrom had twelve such quality starts, averaging seven innings per, and came out with nothing to show for those. If his team played the way he pitched, he’d have been a 23-game winner and the Mets might have ended up in the postseason. Him definitely; them, might. As a former Mets manager once said, it was deja vu all over again Friday afternoon in Citi Field.

The Braves’ starting pitcher, Mike Soroka, got a grand taste himself of how deGrom must feel at times. He pitched six innings and, while he wasn’t deGrom’s kind of strikeout pitcher Friday afternoon, he did punch out three, scatter four hits, and come away with nothing to show for it but handshakes from the boss and whatever equals a pat on the back in the social-distancing season.

His relief, Chris Martin, wasn’t so fortunate. After ridding himself of Michael Conforto to open the bottom of the seventh on a fly out to deep enough center field, Martin got Cespedes to look at a first-strike slider just above the middle of the plate. Then he threw Cespedes a fastball just off it, and Cespedes drove it parabolically into the empty left field seats.

The piped-in crowd noise at Citi Field drowned out the thunk! when the ball landed in no man, woman, or child’s land. It was the game’s only scoring, but the Mets’ bullpen had a surprise of their own in store once deGrom’s afternoon was done.

They left the matches, blow torches, gasoline cans, and incendiary devices behind. They performed no known impression of an arson squad. They cleaned up any mess they might have made swiftly enough.

Seth Lugo, maybe the Mets’ least incendiary reliever last year, shook off a double to left by newly minted Brave Marcell Ozuna, and his advance to third on a passed ball, to get Matt Adams—signed but let loose by the Mets and scooped up by the Braves—to ground out to third and Austin Riley to look at strike three. Crowning two innings relief in which Lugo also made strikeout work of Alex Jackson and Ronald Acuna, Jr.

Justin Wilson, taking over for the eighth and looking like he was finding the right slots last year, shook off Dansby Swanson’s leadoff single to strike Adam Duvall out looking, before luring pinch hitter Johan Comargo into grounding out to second and striking Acuna out for the side.

Then Edwin Diaz, the high-priced closer who vaporised last year, opened by getting Ozzie Albies to ground out, shook off a walk to Freddie Freeman, and struck Ozuna out looking and Adams out swinging for the game.

Already freshly minted Mets manager Luis Rojas looks like a genius, or at least unlike a lost explorer. And Cespedes—about whom it was reasonable to wonder if he’d ever play major league baseball again—made sure any complaints about this season’s universal DH were silenced for this game at least.

“The funny thing is I joked with him before the game,” deGrom told reporters postgame. “I said ‘why are you hitting for me?’ He went out and hit a home run for us which was big. I was inside doing some shoulder stuff, my normal after pitching routine and yeah I was really happy for him.”

It didn’t work out quite that well for the Braves, with Adams going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts on the afternoon. Neither side mustered an especially pestiferous or throw-weight offense other than Cespedes’s blast.

But you half expected a low-score, low-hit game out of both deGrom and Soroka considering the disrupted spring training, the oddity of “summer camp,” and perhaps just a little lingering unease over just how to keep playing baseball like living, breathing humans while keeping a solid eye and ear on social distancings and safety protocols.

In a sixty-game season it all counts even more acutely than it would have on a normal Opening Day. The Mets and the Braves were each expected to contend this season before the coronavirus world tour yanked MLB’s plans over-under-sideways-down. They’re not taking their eyes off that just yet.

Before the game began, the Mets and the Braves—like the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals in D.C., like the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants by the Bay Thursday night—lined up on the baselines and held a long, long, long black ribbon. This time, with nobody kneeling before “The Star Spangled Banner” was played.

Maybe athletes can remind people that it’s dead wrong for rogue police to do murder against black and all people without running into the buzz saws of explicit national anthem protests and fury over the protests, after all.

The Braves have other alarms, though. Freeman, of course, is recently recovered from COVID-19 but two of their three catchers—Tyler Flowers and former Met Travis d’Arnaud—showed COVID-19 symptoms and went to the injured list. The good news: both catchers tested negative for the virus.

But lefthanded pitcher Cole Hamels hit the IL with triceps tendinitis. Not good. Every live arm counts in a short season, especially for legitimate contenders. Just ask the Mets, who’ll be missing Marcus Stroman with a calf muscle tear, even if Stroman historically heals quickly.

You hope both teams recover swiftly enough. You also hope the Mets find a way to make deGrom’s won-lost record look as good as he pitches and fast. Those non-support filing papers don’t take that long to draw up.

 

Lay off Cespedes

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Yoenis Cespedes on his Florida ranch.

Among all the Mets who aren’t there because of injuries, Yoenis Cespedes seems to draw the most witless derision by fans about whom you can no longer say they should know better. Because Joe and Jane Fan too often regard injuries on and off the field as the product of some moral flaw almost regardless of how the injuries were incurred.

That is why there are analysts who believe Joe and Jane Fan are bigger boneheads than a lot of the ones who earn six or higher-figure salaries to write cracks or columns condemning  players like Cespedes. Or, who blog about them.

Cespedes’s Mets tenure hasn’t exactly been unhazardous to his health as it is. He was already on the injured list since last year, rehabilitating after surgery to remove calcification on both his heels. And while rehabbing at his Florida ranch, Cespedes suffered multiple ankle fractures last weekend when he hit a hole on the grounds, requiring surgery to end a season that hadn’t even begun for him.

To look at some of the comments on assorted forums as well as some of the headlines in the press you’d have thought Cespedes was some sort of mental case.

“MORON!” went a small passel of fan comments from forum to forum. “Folly Rancher” hollered the headline on the New York Post‘s back page. “Like a soldier who shoots himself in the foot to avoid combat,” went another fan comment. On Twitter, Slam Central Station, which describes itself as “the official banter account for the 27 times World Series champion New York Yankees,” wrote “Yoenis Cespedes after signing a 4-year, $110M contract with the Mets” to describe . . . a video of a young woman falling over while walking in a pair of highly elevated shoes.

Maybe I’m out of line but I can think of a lot more bizarre ways in which professional athletes have spent their disabled time rehabilitating. And if you think Cespedes owning, living on, and rehabilitating on a Florida ranch makes him a candidate for the rubber room, I’m afraid of what you think about Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan. Who’s divided his baseball retirement between baseball administrative activities or on his Texas ranch.

If Ryan hasn’t incurred any strange injuries during his ranching life, perhaps he’s fortunate. Another former pitcher, Ross Ohlendorf, lives the rancher’s life. “Ohlendorf is sympathetic to Céspedes’ plight,” writes The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark, “because he has been there and done almost every ranch thing imaginable, right up to his current case of nasty poison ivy.”

It may be a better thing that Cespedes suffered multiple ankle fractures. If Joe and Jane Fan, Joe and Jane Headline Writer, and Joe and Jane Blogger/Tweeter can mock, rip, and ream him for hitting a hole on his grounds the wrong way, don’t ask what they’d do if Cespedes came up with poison ivy instead. Would you rather he broke his ankles on the dance floor of a New York hot spot trying too hard to impress a few females?

They’re already less than empathetic with the likes of Albert Pujols, whose career decline phase has been accelerated all too much by the series of leg and heel injuries he’s incurred since the first season he played for the Angels on a mammoth contract.

You hear them talk about his inability to do just about anything other than continue to hit home runs as if he was nothing more than a useless bum. You don’t hear them talk about the injuries that reduced the Hall of Famer-in-waiting to the performance level of a reserve player in the first place.

And they’ve been long less than empathetic with hapless Yankee outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who’s been the poster boy for almost epidemic injuries almost from the moment he became a Yankee in the first place. Remind them that Ellsbury’s injuries came entirely from, you know, playing the game, and you might be reminded not to let those pesky facts get in the way of their comforting biases.

They see the money and forget these men are only human, too. And the minute you suggest to Joe and Jane Fan, Joe and Jane Headline Writer, and Joe and Jane Blogger/Tweeter the plain truth that professional baseball isn’t just a matter of suiting up and playing a game, that it requires work and lots of it and comes with risks and lots of them, they’d sooner sign your deportation papers than ponder the depth of what you’ve just told them.

You’d have thought by some of the comments, brickbats, and slanders that Cespedes’s entire career has been one marked by recklessness. Stepping wrongly into a hole on his ranch grounds may actually be the only injury he’s incurred when not playing the game. He’s had more than his share of baseball injuries already, and a few times he exacerbated them while actually—what a concept, albeit a foolish one—trying to play through them.

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Yoenis Cespedes, when he’s a healthy Met.

(Don’t even go there about the time the Mets asked Cespedes not to play golf while he was rehabbing an injury a couple of years ago. You could probably win the pennant with the players who’ve enjoyed golf off the baseball field even when they were on a baseball disabled list. Hall of Famer Tom Glavine to fellow Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, when they went into Cooperstown together: “You made me better by watching you pitch, and you made me wealthier with all the money we took from Smoltzie on the golf course”)

Earning eight figures a season doesn’t make baseball players any less prone to the slings and arrows of the game on the field and life off it, unless you really are dumb enough to think $29 million a year immunises you against illness or injury.

And Cespedes’s ankle isn’t even close to the most bizarre injury any baseball player has suffered. Listen up, Joe and Jane Jackass.

Cespedes didn’t put his false teeth into his hip pocket and then get a bite in the butt while sliding into second base. (Nondescript pitcher Clarence Bethen thought of that in 1923.)

He didn’t break his ankle chasing (it was alleged) Jill St. John down a ski slope. (Cy Young Award-winning Red Sox pitcher Jim Lonborg managed that after the 1967 season.)

He didn’t take up an exercise routine involving running backward and step subsequently into a gopher hole causing a back injury. (That was 1980s pitcher Jamie Easterly’s idea.)

He didn’t try demonstrating a slam dunk technique on a storefront awning and catch his ring in the awning to shred ligaments in the hand and lose a season. (Braves closer Cecil Upshaw did that in 1970.)

He didn’t spend a day off running too fast from his kitchen back to his television set and busting a toe out of desperation to see a buddy batting on a baseball telecast. (Hall of Famer George Brett did that because he couldn’t bear to miss a Bill Buckner at-bat.)

He didn’t strain or injure his back pulling on his cowboy boots. (Hall of Famer Wade Boggs did.)

He didn’t fall asleep with a bitter-cold ice bag on his foot to give himself a case of frostbite in August and cost himself a few games. (Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson did.)

He didn’t get a sunburned face on a tanning bed. (Marty Cordova did.)

He didn’t decide that if a motivational speaker could tear the thickest phone book in half then he could, until his dislocated shoulder told him, “No, you can’t!” (Relief pitcher Steve Sparks learned that the hard way.)

He didn’t think he could get away with hauling a full heavy side of deer meat up a flight of stairs until the venison-to-be won the weight division and sent him flying down into a broken collarbone. (Clint Barmes did, also in 2010.)

He didn’t tear his left meniscus trying to smoosh a pie in a teammate’s face during said teammate’s postgame television interview. (Marlins utility player Chris Coghlan did, trying to nail Wes Helms in 2010. An accident, you say? What do you think happened to Cespedes, then, a premeditated plot?)

He wasn’t the genius who forgot to look in all directions while reaching for a sock under his bed, until the suitcase his wife fiddled with on the bed fell over and injured his hand, an injury he tried to hide until even the blind saw he couldn’t grip his bat properly. (Earth to Jonathan Lucroy, 2012.)

And he didn’t injure his ankle while jumping a trampoline, with or without a son. (Joba Chamberlain jumped into a dislocated ankle while trampolining with his then five year old son, also in 2012.)

If you still think Cespedes suffering ankle fractures on his ranch during a surgery rehabilitation makes him a moron, I have some land to sell you cheap. On Bizarro World.