Thursday, December 16, 2004

Be careful on this one, Mets

If you read and hear the rumblings around talk radio and baseball message boards nowadays, the Mets are walking a very thin line with their fans after their recent signing of Pedro Martinez.

Martinez, known as much for his idiosyncrasies as his devastating curveball, has drawn plenty of negative press in New York over the last few years, and knowledgeable fans seem justified in wondering what impact Pedro's signing will have on team chemsitry and the clubhouse.

But most seem willing to give Pedro a pass, based on his Hall-of-Fame numbers, his relatively young age (33) -- compared to Tom Glavine (38) and Mike Piazza (36) -- and the celebrity status he'll almost certainly bring to the club.

Will they be willing to do the same for Carlos Delgado, the power-hitting first baseman to whom the Mets are about to make a four-year offer?

Hard to say.

More so than the oft-abrasive Martinez, Delgado has drawn criticism from New Yorkers for his refusal to stand for the singing of "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch of Major League games. The visibility of this protest would be exacerbated playing for a New York team, where the patriotic anthem is linked directly to the hearts of thousands affected by the September 11 tragedies.

As the Mets' pursuit of Delgado has intensified, fan reaction has been mixed. Some have said they respect and support Delgado's right to peaceful protest. Others say they would never support Delgado -- nor even the Mets franchise -- should he join the club and continue his demonstrations. Still others have said they would be willing to live with Delgado's political positions as long as he is a good citizen -- and equally important, a successful ballplayer.

It's a tricky topic. The laws of common sense and history, though, tell us that more likely than not, success on the field will be the biggest determining factor for Delgado's fan support. Fans have always supported winners, no matter how flawed or questionable their character. If Delgado can help the Mets win games, it's hard to believe the fans wouldn't support him.

But do the Mets really want to commit to someone who will come to New York with so much added pressure? How many home runs will Delgado have to hit to mollify his fans and detractors -- 30? 40? 50? 80??? How many games will the Mets have to win? How much extra charity work will he have to do to prove he's commited to the benevolence of his new city?

It's a lot to ask. For a team that is treading water in terms of fan support and has already this winter added one of the game's most egocentric personalities, it's a move that would only ramp up the tensions and expectations of its supporters. Expectations go higher, pressures grow larger. Pressures grow larger, tensions rise. When tension rises, some teams can buckle under.

Is Omar Minaya willing to put that kind of pressure on his impressionable youngsters and pacific veterans? Does he believe the Delgado experiment is a worthwhile risk if it puts the Mets back in the limelight?

We're going to find out a lot about the Mets and Mr. Minaya in the next few days. We'll find out just how committed -- or perhaps, obsessed -- they are with winning. Signing Delgado would be an indication, far beyond a reasonable doubt, that Minaya & Co. are willing to stop at nothing to make the Mets winners again. But is this group of players -- in particular Martinez and Delgado -- the right mix to lead the team back to the playoffs? If not, there could be some serious hell to pay at Shea Stadium this year.

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