CHICAGO – On Jan. 11, 2005, the New York Mets became a real baseball organization again. Though they already had signed Pedro Martinez to a $53 million deal, a bold if not risky move, the Mets still were a team with no identity until that afternoon, when an unassuming kid from Puerto Rico sat in front of a microphone and coined an ethos.
The New Mets.
That's what Carlos Beltran declared that day when he and his $119 million contract were introduced: These were the New Mets, different Mets than the ones who had lost 90-plus games in back-to-back seasons, Mets who would win like it was 1969 or 1986 – Mets worth rooting for.
Now, this is not to say a catchy turn of phrase imbued some newfound character into the Mets. Since that day, it has been more about attitude than words, and these Mets – the best assemblage of talent in the National League – happen to believe they are not only different, they are better for now and the long haul.
"I meant what I said," Beltran said, less bombastic with his words today as he plays the role of a little pig protecting his house from the Mets' National League East rivals, though each is at least a dozen games back.
Why, the fairy-tale analogy stretches even further: Beltran is taking the whole not-by-the-hair-of-his-chinny-chin-chin thing seriously.
Perhaps those who don't scrutinize every step of third baseman David Wright, not a New York creation by any stretch, or shortstop Jose Reyes, Wright's likeness in age at 23 and superior in pure excitement, have noticed that Beltran these days sports a goatee. There had to be a reason, as there always is with Beltran's idiosyncrasies, like his insistence upon his wife, Jessica, cooking ham-and-cheese sandwiches for breakfast during the 2004 playoff run with Houston in which Beltran smacked eight home runs and solidified his standing among the game's elite.
"He has 25 home runs, and probably 19 of them are with the goatee," said Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca, whose word we'll have to trust seeing that the Elias Sports Bureau, baseball's official statistician, does not keep track of HRWFH (home runs with facial hair).
"Then he shaved it and he'd go in a slump. I told him he needed to grow it back, and I told his wife he wasn't allowed to shave it."
When asked about Lo Duca's request, Beltran blanched.
"I did it for him," he said.
Such small indulgences make the Mets run with the efficiency of a hybrid car: They get great mileage out of little noise.
What could have happened – what almost happened – was the Mets devolving into a bootleg version of the New York Yankees, who continue to throw dollars around as a substitute for building a team from within. For every Beltran, there has been a Wright, for every Pedro a Reyes, for every Carlos Delgado a Lastings Milledge or Mike Pelfrey. Substance exceeds style with the Mets.
Which is why when they're on the road and trailing by three runs, as the Mets were Sunday going into the sixth inning against the Chicago Cubs, they shelve the panic. Entering the game, they were 54-37, better than any team in the NL. Winning feels preternatural, and with the wind blowing out of Wrigley Field, the Mets decided to win the ballgame.
Forty-one minutes later, the top of the sixth inning ended. The Cubs had thrown 70 pitches, three of which settled in the bleachers and two of which came with the bases loaded. In this season of bad seasons, the Cubs became the seventh team ever to yield two grand slams in one inning, and in this season of heartening seasons, the Mets set a franchise records with 11 runs in one frame and won 13-7.
Forgotten were all of the headlines of the past week: Wright's second-place finish in the home run derby and subsequent charming of David Letterman, and Reyes' nagging finger injury that has kept him on the bench, and Martinez's body that seems to be breaking down – first the bothersome hip that landed him on the disabled list, then a case of food poisoning that landed him in the hospital. Beltran hit one grand slam, his 26th homer of the season, Cliff Floyd hit another and added a second home run to break a slump, at least temporarily, and Wright finished with the Mets' fifth homer of the day, an opposite-field shot.
"We don't react [to distractions]," Mets manager Willie Randolph said. "We're a team that feeds off each other and leans on each other."
He took a deep breath.
"Pedro's gonna be fine."
So he hopes. While frittering away a dozen games takes the same kind of concerted effort it does to fail an open-book test, the Mets' rotation without Martinez starts with Tom Glavine, moves to Steve Trachsel, lurches to Orlando Hernandez and settles with John Maine, he of the 6.08 career earned-run average, and Pelfrey, who has started one big-league game.
"Just as quick as we've got a 12-game lead, we can lose it," Wright said. "These last couple weeks, we've played .500. If we do that and anyone in the NL East gets hot, we could lose that.
"Getting swept in Boston and losing two of three at Yankee Stadium opened our eyes and showed us we're not exactly where we want to be, and we've got a ways to go until we get there."
Wright's assessment seems to be in line with another tenet of the New Mets: What the public sees isn't necessarily what the Mets do, whether it's a clear path to the playoffs, a straight shot to the World Series or the thickness of Beltran's goatee, which seems a bit holey.
"You're not going for looks," Lo Duca said. "You can look like a Sasquatch and we'll love you."
In New York?
Of course. These are the new Mets. And they really are different.