— We all know it’s dangerous to draw conclusions about a baseball season from the results of the season’s first month. So we’re not going to do that. But it doesn’t mean we can’t spot trends that aren’t going to go away quickly.
In New York, the story lines are pretty well set, and they’re not exactly the ones we came into the season with. When the year began, we thought that the local team that was going to be angst central was the Yankees. The Mets had a veteran outfit whose biggest problem — the bullpen — had been fixed in a major way. We figured they’d be right up there fighting for the NL East, and the real suffering wouldn’t begin until September, when the Mets would have to face their late-season demons.
We were wrong. One month into the season, the trend is already clear. It is the Mets who are team turmoil, struggling along under .500 and near the bottom of a tough division and with a pitching rotation that is in shambles. The Yankees aren’t lighting up the AL East, but things are starting to go right for them. Meanwhile, the Mets just keep getting worse.
This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. The Yankees were the team with the bazillion-dollar starting pitchers, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, who were going to have to prove they could stand the heat. Alex Rodriguez was going miss the first six weeks. And with the Red Sox and Rays to battle, a slow start could have buried them before they had a chance to get everything working.
We were sort of right about the Yankees and sort of wrong. The starting pitching has been an issue and middle relief has at times been non-existent. Chien-Ming Wang was a disaster area who had to be put on the disabled list not because he was hurt but just to save him from himself. Sabathia isn’t off to the hottest start ever. The offense has struggled at times, but it’s still scoring nearly 6 runs a game.
And for all the teeth-gnashing and garment-rending in the Bronx over a rough start, the Yankees on May 3 were two games over .500 and in third place in the AL East, a manageable 3.5 games behind the Blue Jays and 1.5 behind their archrivals, the Red Sox. Phil Hughes came up from the minors to show he’s regained the pitching prowess he demonstrated two years ago. Joba Chamberlain has been okay. Sabathia hasn’t been great, but he’s pitching a lot of innings and he tends to get better as the season goes on. And A-Rod is just a week or two away from what promises to be a tumultuous — and long-awaited — return.
In short, there is hope in the Bronx. In Queens, there is only despair and chaos.
The Mets’ new ballpark, Citi Field, is turning out to be a hitter’s nightmare. The geniuses who approved the design for some reason thought that epic distances in right, right-center and center field would be a great idea. Great for whom is another question. So far, all the enormous distances to the outfield walls have done is keep the Mets from scoring runs they desperately need.
The Yankees are getting A-Rod back. The Mets are getting nothing. So bad have things gotten that the home fans have taken to booing All-Star third baseman and former golden boy David Wright. Playing as if the weight of the entire team is on his shoulders, Wright has become famous for failing in the clutch.
In the offseason, the Mets lavished $36 million on starter Oliver Perez for the next three years. After putting up a 9.97 ERA in his first five starts, Perez is out of the rotation already. Johan Santana has done his part, pitching to a 1.10 ERA, but the other starters have been disasters. Mike Pelfrey is 3-0 but his ERA is 6.00. Livan Hernandez’s is 6.75 and John Maine’s is 5.75. And unlike the Yankees, the Mets have no one on the farm ready to step into the breach.
The fans are losing patience and pointing fingers. The first culprit singled out is general manager Omar Minaya and after him manager Jerry Manuel. But the fans also know there’s no hope of either going anywhere. The Mets’ owner, Fred Wilpon, lost hundreds of millions of dollars to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and although the Wilpon family has said it has other money to run the team, they don’t have money to keep paying ex-managers and ex-GM’s who still have years left on their contracts, not when they’re still paying former manager Willie Randolph, who got fired early last year for fewer sins than Manuel has already committed this year.
Nor are the Mets likely to add payroll in a trade to make things better. Mets’ fans know they may be looking at a very long season, a season in which the September collapse could be accomplished by the end of May.
While the Mets may be the bigger disaster, the news cycles still revolve around the Yankees. That’s one preseason prediction that never changes. No matter how well or how badly the Yankees play, there will always be controversy surrounding them.
It’s not the Bronx Zoo like the maniacal outfit that gave birth to the name in the 1970s when Billy Martin was the psycho whip-cracker, Reggie Jackson was the main attraction, George Steinbrenner was the demented owner and the fractious clubhouse was loaded with bigger-than-life personalities.
Today’s Bronx Zoo has just one exhibit. That would be the A-Rod cage, where the nation’s most famous specimen of Jockus Egotisticus is gawked at and hooted at — and even cheered — by more than 40,000 visitors a day.
For the Yankees — and the tabloids — that’s enough.