Thumbs down for honesty? The Mets may be too interesting for their own good

At the time, it felt appropriate that Steve Cohen’s stewardship of the New York Mets began with a public relations event. The billionaire hedge fund owner and rabid fan was seen as a savior for a franchise that, under the Wilpon family, underachieved on the field and overstimulated its beat writer corps off it.

That first chat in November 2020 felt like a revelatory unveiling of the Mets’ future — spirited and ambitious, but buttoned up in a way the meddling Wilpon clan never allowed for. Cohen told the assembled onlookers, “I am not in this to be mediocre. I want something great,” invoking plans to modernize a lagging front office and build a baseball behemoth.

“Perhaps nothing defined the Wilpons’ failed Mets ownership like their obsession to win the press conference — and their incredible losing record nevertheless,” New York Post scribe Joel Sherman wrote at the time, noting that Cohen had soared over a low bar amid high expectations.

Turns out, everyone can crush batting practice lobs. Reversing the patterns of a wayward team has proven more difficult, and arguably was not approached with nearly enough rigor.

The trouble started with serious missteps. Cohen brought back Sandy Alderson as president, and the duo hired Jared Porter as general manager. Only weeks into his tenure, a woman came forward with disturbing sexual harassment allegations against Porter and he was fired. Later reports also indicated the Mets turned a blind eye to alleged lewd behavior by former manager Mickey Callaway and allowed a “toxic workplace” to fester during Alderson’s previous tenure running the team.

Even in the less dire realm of clubhouse drama, the supposedly refreshed Mets of 2021 seem to be afflicted by the same curse that has hovered over Citi Field for years. Undulating between wide open, ill-advised transparency and bumbling attempts at controlling runaway narratives, the Mets School of Public Relations has long been characterized mostly by a baffling lack of awareness that the eyes of the public are upon them. At every turn, they seem to forget that the baseball-obsessed fans and media of New York City have eyes and ears and minds of their own.

Add voices to the list now. Trade deadline acquisition Javier Báez sparked the latest uproarious fiasco by telling reporters Sunday that the thumbs down sign he, Francisco Lindor and Kevin Pillar have used recently is their way of booing the fans who have booed them during a catastrophic August. And Alderson fanned the flames by issuing a statement — in the style of a WFAN caller with an MBA — that made the situation far more serious than it is.

The Mets are, in many ways, a joy. They have the big personalities, bold style and a certain bravado baseball desperately needs. They coin catchphrases and allow fans to get a glimpse inside their sometimes hilariously wholesome world — remember the Cookie Club? But in less joyous moments like August’s free-fall from first place to NL East also-rans, they also exhibit signs of being in over their heads, of lacking the wizened leadership to manage the ups and downs of a 162-game grind.

The campaign they do appear capable of waging successfully is a pitch to star in the baseball version of “Hard Knocks.” You would just have to come up with a new name given this hit-averse roster.

With the team barreling toward an offseason of almost inevitable upheaval, it’s worth considering the timeline of how the not-so-new-look Mets have descended into a familiar form of self-inflicted crisis.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 22:  Javier Baez #23 of the New York Mets reacts after hitting a double against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the seventh inning at Dodger Stadium on August 22, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Mets infielder Javier Báez probably could have avoided a firestorm by not mentioning the inspiration for his thumbs down celebration. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

January: Steve Cohen briefly deactivates Twitter over GameStop tiff

The first inkling that Cohen didn’t quite understand the minefield he was entering was … well, starting the Twitter account at all. But the second inkling was his rapid descent from sparring with Reddit investors and supporting bloggers over the GameStop stock frenzy to shutting off his account when things inevitably got too heated.

March: Cohen takes Lindor extension negotiations to Twitter

By March, he was back on the social media platform and discussing a different sort of investment. After trading for star shortstop Francisco Lindor, the expectation was that the Mets would extend him as the Los Angeles Dodgers did with Mookie Betts.

That ultimately happened, but what played out first was a strange public negotiation that effectively put Lindor’s financial future and value to the team up for public debate before he even played a real game with the team.

May 7: Francisco Lindor tells tall tale about tunnel skirmish

Struggling off the bat, Lindor’s contribution to Mets PR strategy came when he clearly had a confrontation with second baseman Jeff McNeil in the tunnel between the dugout and the clubhouse.

Inviting further scrutiny toward what may have otherwise been an easily brushed off moment of in-game intensity between teammates, Lindor claimed he and McNeil were arguing over whether an animal in the tunnel was a rat or a raccoon. The lie, admittedly, was delightful. But it remains a bad tactic for handling the New York media.

Aug. 8: Pete Alonso implores Mets fans to ‘just smile’

Back when the Mets were merely slipping out of first place, jolly slugger Pete Alonso raised eyebrows by shrugging off the team’s nosedive after being shut out and swept by the Philadelphia Phillies.

“Just smile,” Alonso said. “You get to watch baseball.”

This on its own says nothing about anything, but the attitude became a cloyingly common one among Mets players as they allowed a promising, postseason-bound season to slip away.

The Mets' playoff odds took a tumble in August. Via FanGraphs.
The Mets' playoff odds took a tumble in August. Via FanGraphs.

Aug. 10: Zack Scott blames the players

Just days later, acting GM Zack Scott made comments that likely only ramped up the combative feelings in the Mets clubhouse. Proclaiming that the team had played “very mediocre baseball” for most of the year, Scott seemed to blame injured and underperforming players for not following team instructions.

Coming off a shortened 2020 season in which then-GM Brodie Van Wagenen managed to imply that disgruntled slugger Yoenis Cespedes was missing and, separately, bash commissioner Rob Manfred's response to racial injustice protests in a leaked video, Scott is keeping his head comparatively under the radar. But this didn’t help.

Aug. 18: Cohen bashes Mets hitters on Twitter

(Whispers) The booing is coming from inside the house.

Sunday: Luis Rojas says Noah Syndergaard has ‘non-baseball injury’

In the grand scheme of things, this is not a big deal, but it illustrates how the Mets condition their fans to doubt even the most basic information.

Rojas said that rehabbing starter Noah Syndergaard was scratched from a planned minor league start with a “non-baseball injury.” That vaguely alarming, accusatory phrase — which called to mind Cespedes’ ill-fated encounter with a wild boar — was put out to pasture within actual seconds as reporters discovered the vaccinated Syndergaard had actually tested positive for COVID-19.

Also Sunday: Báez explains players are booing the fans

The anger toward fans is both understandable and poorly calibrated. It’s not a surprise the Mets are upset about the turn the season has taken. It was, as noted, odd when they didn’t seem upset!

It’s not a problem that players use criticism or perceived slights to motivate themselves — that’s been athlete fuel for as long as there have been athletes. And it’s not revealing of some larger rot. Lindor, tied to the Mets for more than a decade still, is capable of handling New York media or appreciating fans. He said all the right things just a few days prior.

Where Báez erred was failing to read the room, failing to foresee how poorly the sentiment of reprimanding fans would go over in New York. Basically the entire history of baseball players speaking to reporters is a story of sidestepping questions with intriguing answers. We should, on one hand, applaud him for uttering the truth instead of following Lindor down a rabbit hole of misdirection. But was it a truth that likely should have been obscured for the benefit of a team that will now follow up a two-game winning streak with a massive negative distraction? Yes.

(Don't believe absurd posturing over how this reflects poorly on Báez or could cost him in his upcoming free agency. Look to the on-field production for the actual effects of import. His time in Queens could cost him, but it will be because of the uncontrollable wave of strikeouts.)

Still, this was ultimately a LOLMETS moment — a controversial but fleeting quote — until Alderson’s stern, Angry Dad statement turned it into a capital-I Issue.

“The Mets will not tolerate any player gesture that is unprofessional in its meaning or is directed in a negative way toward our fans. I will be meeting with our players and staff to convey this message directly,” the statement said.

Alderson chose to vilify the team before speaking to the players. And amid all this, Rojas — the manager — said he didn’t know the meaning behind the thumbs down gesture, which appears to have been deployed as early as Aug. 6. That really gets at the heart of the Mets’ PR strategy: There is none.

There are no guardrails, no filters. There is just a series of individuals stepping into the frame to speak directly to the camera. The end result is often a team that’s too interesting for its own good, posting a disappointing season and unintentionally doing its own post-mortem in real-time.