On Overreaction: What We Scream About When We Scream About Gary Matthews Jr.

Posted in Baseball at 2:01 am by

Gerard noted the Mets’ acquisition of extravagantly well-compensated journeyman Gary Matthews Jr. when it happened last week, and the two bemused grafs he gave it almost certainly qualified as giving this ultra-minor trade its due. There are things to say about the deal — how historically terrible Matthews has actually been over the course of his $50 million contract in Anaheim, how his acquisition fits into GM Omar Minaya’s predilection for older, useless-er, comparatively expensive backups.

But the good thing about actually having people in your life is that these things don’t actually get said: start talking about Gary Matthews Jr. — this doofus, a guy Baseball Reference rates as most similar to Chad Curtis and Michael Tucker — and watch even ardent baseball fans’ faces fall with the direst disinterest, and you change the subject. I have over-reacted to this sort of thing in this space before — here, wincingly, I am getting huffy about Gerald Williams in the comments of a CSTB post from 2005 — and will do so again, but, by and large, I keep this to myself these days.

Except… yeah, obviously what you’re reading. What GC noted in that long-ago comments section — “there are some good teams with completely useless 25th men on their rosters” — still holds, and the last few seasons of Mets-related masochism have done much to bully me into a more distanced perspective. Unlovely and unlovable, uncommonly hard to watch and improbably poorly managed, the Mets are still the Mets, and I can’t imagine my life without them. They wear the same hats (on Sundays, at least) as guys I grew up idolizing, and that fact, dishearteningly, overrides everything reasonable in my brain to the point where — even when I have other things to do, and other things due — I still get pissed when they deal a barely average relief pitcher for a guy who is, in a way that poor Gerald Williams never really was, surpassingly, spectacularly un-valuable.

Here is what Buster Olney reported about the centerpiece of this deal — a deal strange enough that people are writing about it despite its almost ostentatious insignificance. Okay:

After the Mets completed their trade for Gary Matthews Jr. on Friday, committing about $2.5 million and a middle reliever to land him, one talent evaluator dug into his team’s scouting reports, wondering if maybe his general impression that Matthews was a player in decline was wrong.

The reports for his team were clear: Matthews is a player to be avoided. Slow bat. Declining range. And above all else, a player who wants to be a regular and will be an unhappy distraction in your clubhouse when he’s not in the lineup every day.

Said an executive with another team of the Mets’ efforts to acquire Matthews, which have been extensive, including the discussion of one possible four-team deal this winter: “Baffling.”

Much has been made of Omar Minaya’s supreme backwardness as a General Manager, by a great many people. And yet there’s a head-scratcher buried in this otherwise straight-ahead forehead-slapper. That is: the Mets have been trying to pry The Least Valuable Player in Baseball away from the Angels for some time now. Omar doesn’t like advanced stats, and by all accounts believes Moneyball is a minor John McTiernan credit, but damned if he isn’t doing some ‘tardoid Moneyballing here. That is, he evidently thought he had identified an undervalued commodity in Gary Matthews Jr. — a guy whose Fangraphs page is basically a Saw sequel in statistical form — and tried his damnedest to get him. An undervalued commodity who, in Olney’s words, “might get a $500,000 non-guaranteed minor league deal with an invitation to spring training” from any other team.” That.

So, the challenging part — why, how can something like this matter? At some level, it obviously doesn’t: the Mets don’t really have much of a chance at making me or anyone else happy next year, for reasons that begin with keeping Minaya as GM but have more to do with the ownership that made that choice and pitching and defense and hitting and etc. Matthews will not be the only or greatest reason for this; honestly, I doubt he finishes the year with the Mets. There’s also the question of how much I or anyone else should care about how the dollars of the Mets’ Hapsburgian owners get spent. The team’s array of well-compensated 30-something replacement-level reserves is objectionable, because it looks silly and because it’s a waste, but it’s fundamentally abstract to me. I don’t have to pay Chris Coste a dime, which is a good thing because fuck that dude.

And yet at a level that transcends the actual (irrelevant) deal itself, there’s a reason why this deal stinks. (And a reason, beyond the obvious everyone-there-comments-on-everything, that the first report of the deal elicited 754 comments at Amazin Avenue) It is, I think, the reminder that we Mets fans are investing our emotional energy in an organization that seems absolutely, spookily absent from itself.

No one involved involved with the Mets can explain anything that the team does in a way that seems compelling or honest or even coherent; the bits of what-were-they-thinking reportage that leak out of the front office suggest nothing so much as the astrology-fixated Burmese junta, abruptly deciding to relocate the nation’s capital or undertake a purge because of what house Jupiter’s in (or because Jason Bay played center field seven years ago). Players play well or don’t; executives make good decisions or they don’t; but the whole goofy enterprise of caring about baseball is somehow being laid bare in a deeper way by the hilariously inscrutable “triumphs” of this baffled, baffling organization. Every organization bafflement is, simultaneously, somehow also a goal achieved.

Fans put themselves in a vulnerable position when they decide to cheer for a team — I’ve written about this before as regards the Mets, and there’s nothing in this post that really improves on what I wrote previously. But the Matthews trade — Omar getting “his guy” in a deal that everyone else in the entire freaking world thinks is incomprehensible — is a reminder of how bizarrely bleak it is to be a Mets fan right now. The moves arrive out of nowhere, reflect no philosophy beyond an anarchically da-da absence of internal logic, and allow almost no commentary but this. That is, maundering, meandering wonderment. That is, bafflement, more than any sort of disagreement or — because it’s not 2005, and I’m not 26 anymore — aggrieved grief.

There is, in me, the hope that Omar has gone crazy and is kind of Putting the System On Trial — that he’s going to sign Todd Hollandsworth to a $155 million deal next month, and then trade Johan Santana for a 1991 Eagle Talon and a bunch of yarn, and then reveal the whole thing as a conceptual art piece, at which point we will all applaud and he’ll sell the last three years of Mets baseball at the Gagosian Gallery. But the one thing that all this is definitively not is conceptual, art-wise or otherwise. It’s just fucking Gary Matthews Jr., somehow and for some reason. It’s just business — inexplicable business — as usual. It just kind of sucks, if you can bother to care about it.

14 responses to “On Overreaction: What We Scream About When We Scream About Gary Matthews Jr.”

  1. J T. Ramsay says:

    You’re right, but how many Mets fans were mollified by the Bay signing? My sense here in Philly is that plenty of them are willing to look past whatever else Minaya’s doing right now and just believe that everything will be okay.

  2. Jeff says:

    A 1991 Eagle Talon would be starting at second base if the team’s front office were taken over by the KLF.

  3. GC says:

    “You’re right, but how many Mets fans were mollified by the Bay signing?”

    seriously? How about zero?

  4. Rog says:

    Gary Matthews Jr is my second-least favorite Jr who is an offspring of a pretty good 80’s player, my least favorite being Jose Cruz Jr. But maybe that’s only because I’ve never seen Matthews play everyday. My earlier prediction that Minaya might try to sign Benito Santiago or Sandy Alomar seems like more of an eventuality than a snarky comment now.

    Bonus points for the awesome headline.

  5. itsmetsforme says:

    “the front office suggest nothing so much as the astrology-fixated Burmese junta”

    this is my new go-to description. thanks.

  6. David Roth says:

    Sorry I couldn’t give you something wordier or more over-the-top, Prof. Forme.

    While JT isn’t correct about Jay-Bay’s psychological repercussions, he does kind of highlight what I was talking about in the piece — the bizarro-world disconnect of the front office that expected that deal to magically make everything okay. The same front office was expecting to be crucified for not locking up Bengie Molina’s ectomorphic, surly mediocrity, and was apparently surprised that no one cared (and that everyone in fact seemed pretty cool with it) when they didn’t. There is such an amazing disjunction between the front office’s inscrutable (and dubiously extant) strategy and what knowledgeable fans want/hope that every transaction winds up being the baseball equivalent of russian roulette. There’s a chance the Mets might sign Ben Sheets tomorrow, and we all applaud; there’s also a chance that Omar announces the team will wear shorts next year, “because it gets so hot in the summer, and the fans, they like to see knees.” Every day brings the possibility of something totally irrational, and with it the sick certainty that the front office will view that irrational move as an instance in which they’ve outfoxed everyone else.

  7. Kent Austeroberts says:

    I think you all do not realize that Gary Matthews Jr. is a gold glove level CF and had an OPS of over .900 last season from Sept. 8-October 15th for the Angels. The guy can play. The Angels went and signed Torii, otherwise this guy is an all star for several years.
    All the Mets need to do is make a few small moves. Sign Garland, Smoltz and Maya (remember him for Cuba in the WBC, filthy). Oliver Perez is due for a Cy Young type year now that he is healthy and Pelfrey will be a 15-18 game winner. Dan “hitman” Murphy is an all star very soon, watch. Reyes is healthy and ready to salsa baby! 95 wins for the Metros. Book it!

  8. Rog says:

    Without getting too specific, David, I totally feel your pain. There’s more than one place in NYC that does ZERO market data research before making a big decision based on gut instincts.

  9. Rog says:

    Kent, you are qualified to write blog entries for SNY.com. Your logic is that screwy.

  10. kt says:

    and had an OPS of over .900 last season from Sept. 8-October 15th for the Angels. The guy can play.

    if only he could play against september call ups all year round. i mean outside of playing for buffalo.

  11. David Roth says:

    I think what Mr. Austeroberts is giving us falls under the “satire too devastating to be funny” heading. Either that or I need to know who’s selling him mushrooms. Jon Garland goes 22-4 next year for the Mets, watch.

  12. kt says:

    his post should have been attributed to “paul aufiero”.

  13. J T. Ramsay says:

    I guess the Mets fans I know are hopeless romantics for Jason Bay.

  14. LeiterWagnerFasterStronger says:

    I want some of Kent’s mushrooms. I think I’d enjoy this team a lot more.

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