PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – The pathetic team-to-beat banter having survived yet another year, David Wright groaned at the mention of it Thursday afternoon.
He'd just lived a day in the uniform for the first time since September. He'd attended the introductory buck-up, play-hard, play-together speech from the manager. On a breezy day in this coastal city, he'd manned the left side with Jose Reyes and hit with the Carloses.
Afterward, on the four televisions suspended from the clubhouse ceiling, Manuel's core message of smart and selfless baseball ran ceaselessly. Opposing pitchers threw to the outer half, and Mets hitters laced those pitches to the opposite field, scoring runs, putting runners in scoring position, playing the game.
The players in this clubhouse lost a 3½-game lead in the NL East last September, and lost it big. The September before, they'd lost a lead twice that size.
This, the televisions told them, is what is expected of you. This, Jerry Manuel insisted, is what will restore your dignity. Because, he didn't have to say, Cole Hamels was right when he said the Mets had choked again. Indeed, Manuel laughed at a reference to Hamels in his daily meeting with reporters and on his way out of the room said in that gravelly, got-it-all-together voice, "Cole Hamels. My man."
Whether for its makeup or leadership or both, the Mets are not winners. They are stars, but not winners. They are rich, but not winners. Not yet.
And so this team-to-beat stuff, oh, Wright could barely believe it had come up again. From Jimmy Rollins to Carlos Beltran to Francisco Rodriguez, he could only hope Rodriguez – 3,000 miles away when all this started and played out – had no idea what he was stepping in.
"Talk is cheap," he said. "Talk is really cheap in February and March."
So, here he is, here they are, all of them given to throwing away baseball seasons. It's about character, of course, as much as it is about a bullpen. It's about playing every inch of the game as much as it is about Willie Randolph's demeanor, or Jerry Manuel's, or Rollins' guarantees.
The Mets haven't been that, haven't done that, not every day, not since Adam Wainwright back-doored that gorgeous curveball on Mets fans' souls.
There isn't much in the way of competitions here. Daniel Murphy and Fernando Tatis will probably platoon in left. Alex Cora will be the utility infielder. Freddy Garcia, Tim Redding or Livan Hernandez will be the fifth starter. So Manuel could look into the eyes of his 25.
The real work will come from within the hearts and heads of the men who have been here, the ones who are sufficiently motivated by the events of the past two Septembers. Or who were scarred by them.
Manuel shoved them out the door on the first full-squad day with notions, he said, of "cohesiveness, cooperation, altruism, unselfishness."
"Basically," he said, "about championships, and how difficult it can be to play as an individual in New York."
What he need not have reminded them, one collapse is a fluke. Two is a personality flaw. Three, and they burn down the organization.
There'll be time for all that, though. For the moment they carry those Septembers on fresh legs, and with fresh spirits. They do still seem to believe in their potential, despite the evidence against it, perhaps because Rodriguez and Putz are expected to be massive upgrades.
They'll choose to believe in Carlos Delgado's second half, not his first. And they'll honor Luis Castillo's newer, lither body. And they'll buy in to Manuel's plan to bat Castillo first, Carlos Beltran second and Reyes third. And they'll try to assume it'll all work, because, damn, the alternative would be unbearable.
The plan is for a quiet camp. A festive opening to their new ballpark. And then a slow, steady advance on the Phillies. Of course, no matter where it stands along the way, September awaits.
By then, they'll have to be something different than they've been. Manuel smiled. Of the last two falls, he said, "Everything we've gone through is preparation."
That's one way to look at it. They said a lot of the same stuff last year. They were going to learn from it. They were going to come out fighting. They were, oh yeah, the team to beat. Oh no, Wright said.
"It's good you have confidence in your team," he said. "Rivalries are fun. But, it's to a point where enough's enough with the talking."
- Jerry Manuel