That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore

How do teams wind up getting stuck with silly memes? Laziness, mostly, but it's not just that.
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It goes without saying that being a fan of the New York Mets can be trying, although there are many ways of saying it, and it gets said fairly often. It could be said, for instance, that being a Mets fan “sucks worse than dragging a severe white wine hangover into an August wedding in a church with no A/C and an extended homily built upon the deeper meaning of Corinthians 13: 4-7.” Which is not quite to say that being a Mets fan is worse than any other wayward organization; the “woe is us” dick-off for which fan base has “suffered” the most is one of the more unctuous and unbearable arguments of the internet age. It's equally bad for fans of any crappy squad. Watching a lifeless club game after game until the games become an afterthought makes for a long, dreary summer. The extra significance and subtext and so on are just an elaborate way to excuse continuing to talk about baseball.

In a sense, the 2013 Mets have been admirably up-front with their fans by allowing the familiar late-summer futility to kick in before Memorial Day; we now have nearly an entire season in which to enjoy Keith Hernandez’s tips for grilling lamb chops and to watch the low-stress development of Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler. But with the early-season dive, the Met-eulogies have come, like pollen, to bury us all this spring. Or maybe they're more like cicadas, rousing themselves from a long slumber like clockwork to make awful noises. Anyway, they're annoying. Grantland got into the act with "Metropolitan Homesick Blues,", by Jay Caspian Kang. I read it, although I'd already read it many times before in the last few years, and Tweeted wearily, as I have also done many times before:

To which the fine comedy writer Brock Mahan responded:

I hadn’t really thought about it before, but Brock is right. The Mets—and this is almost unique, even if their suffering isn't—have their own bleak shorthand, and that shorthand is Bobby “retired since 2001 but still getting paid$$$ by the Mets” Bonilla. This sucks even worse than a team that ranks last in the National League in hits. But it is also a different kind of suck.

Back when the mouth-foamier Red Sox Nation was still wallowing in pathos and Busch Light 30-packies, Captain Beantown wrote about “enduring” the infamous Billy Buckner clip for the umpteenth time. Before 2004, Simmons would flog this rigor-mortised horse without mercy, but to be fair, the man made a good point. The groundball-through-the-legs was the Red Sox’s own bit of shorthand for years, shoehorned into seemingly every game, game recap, or fartwinded essay on the "heartbreak" of baseball. The higher the stakes, the more frequently Buckner’s gimpy gait was rolled out after a commerical break. As a Mets fan, it never got tiresome, and there’s no reason for anyone to not enjoy some Boston-baked schadenfreude. But Simmons was right about shorthand. It gets old. Quick. Even when narrated by Vin Scully.

***

It doesn’t take long for shorthand to become the crutch upon which hackdom rests, in baseball as in no other sport. So many media keepers-of-the-flame spend so much time comfortably inside the sport’s scrupulously maintained sepia-toned asshole that one single moment readily and regularly becomes a given franchise's Bill Buckner Thing. It’s cheap and it’s easy, but it’s also shopworn and lame. It’s the path of least resistance, and it’s also all your dog’s balls.

This is because no single moment defines a franchise and different seasons, eras, and squads have little, or nothing, to do with one another; if these Mets sometimes seem to have something in common with the '62 model or (more accurately) one of the sinus-headache teams of the early 1980s, it's mostly because they wear similar uniforms and are awful. But when the Cubs are on Sunday Night Baseball or profiled in Parade magazine, it’s Bartman or The Goat. The Rangers are saddled with Nelson Cruz. The Pirates get clomping mustachioed Sid Bream over and over. And the Padres are haunted by that time the San Diego Chicken fought Barney the Purple Dinosaur.

And so if a writer is covering the Mets on deadline, or just lacks the “do not say the same tired shitty thing as everyone else” instinct, out comes Bobby Bo, the long-retired ex-slugger with the temerity to cash the paychecks from a contract negogitated with upper management that seemed a sensible, or at least defensible, deal for both sides at the time.  To paraphrase probably-woulda-been a Mets fan George Bernard Shaw, “If Bobby Bonilla’s skeleton is in your clubhouse, bring it out and let the wretches dance.” But, man, what a tired old tune. What a goofy dance.

***

In one of my other gigs, I interview authors for Biographile, a website for all things memoir and biography. One guy I’ll be speaking to soon is Turney Duff, who wrote The Buy Side: A Wall Street Trader’s Tale of Spectacular Excess. It’s the time-honored tale of a small-town kid with humble roots who amasses millions in the hedge fund game, becomes the life of the party, creates a hip-hop alter ego named Cleveland D, snorts the nightlife too hard, loses everything, family included, and ends up on one those Ray-Liotta-in-Goodfellas-up-for-a-week-watching-the-helicopters-while-making-meatballs-and-driving-to-pick-up-an-unlucky-hat coke binges. 

Duff’s downfall is par for the course, if not quite thrilling in its debauchery. But what's most fascinating about The Buy Side is how easy it was for him to get rich, once he was a made hedge fund guy. I dug the detailed insiders take, even when I wasn’t always sure what was going on; I never played the game and don't quite get it, but Duff does make it clear that it's a game. Dude got so flush that he and some other Titan of the Mastered Universe bought a row of killer World Series seats at Yankee Stadium strictly for the two of them, just so they could go outside and smoke a few between-inning butts. It wasn’t Wharton that got him where he was, either. Duff’s greatest asset seemed to be that he wasn’t a full-throated asshole, which allowed him past the ropes to wheel, deal, steal, and ultimately kneel before his fates. All Duff ended up with after his Gekko years is a measly $250K book deal.

Which brings us to Fred and Jeff Wilpon. 

Like any Mets fan not named Wilpon, Selig, or (perhaps) Koufax, I wish these cretins would jettison the Mets, so they could go off and do what they really love, which is probably watching 42 on a continuous loop at the Fresh Meadow Country Club. They’re awful—pardon me, but SELLLLLLLLLLLTHETEAM—but, that being said, it’s ridiculous to heap scorn on them for paying Bobby Bonilla more than any current Mets outfielder. Not with all this other scorn to go around.

Based on this 2012 report by Mark Winegardner in ESPN’s “Money” issue—of course they went with Floyd Mayweather for the cover, such a wasted opportunity to reintroduce A Boy Named Sue from Swingers—Bonilla's LOLContract makes solid business sense.

“The $5.9 million went into a [Bernard] Madoff account, which was theoretically supposed to collect a double-digit interest rate over the life of the agreement. Only about an 8 percent return would have been needed to pay Bonilla his $1.2 million a year from 2011 to 2035. The Mets did the math and figured they'd be able to turn a $60-70 million profit on the arrangement.” 

To quote Duff, “Everybody says they want to know how Wall Street works, but the truth is, all they really want to hear is how much money I make—or how much I can make for them.”  Why would the Wilpons be any different? All they heard was the sweet ch-ching sound of their close personal friend Bernie Madoff’s annual 10% returns; they, like a great many others, didn't mind or want to mind the underpinnings. Super-rich dudes beget super-rich dudes, and different rules obtain up there, so why not cash-grab the $5.9 million owed Bonilla? It was guaranteed (by a dear friend) to turn into $70 million later. That’s a shrewd investment, especially since there was talk of a work stoppage. It also makes sense because these types of investment always work out for those people. The rich aren’t like you, me, and Mr. Met. Why would they be? The Wilpons expected, without crossing their fingers, to make more than double what they would ultimately pay Bobby Bo. Get him off today’s books. Tomorrow’s will be brighter. 

I hate to take the side of the enemy twice in once stanza—to reiterate: SELLTHEGODDAMNTEAM—but as mush-brained and thick-skulled as the Wilpons often seem to be, it's tough to fault them for trusting Bernie Madoff, and not just because he was a buddy. They got grifted, sure, but what kajillionaire ever stops to think they're making too much money? The well-heeled never think the spigot is going to turn off, and they think this because at a certain level of wealth it never does. If not for Duff’s violent bloody nasal drip, he’d probably be making huge cash hedging some other guy’s cash against the Mets $700 million-plus team debt. Smart play. Put me down for SELLTHEFUCKINGTEAM!

***

So, the Bonilla contract makes perfect 2001 financial sense, even if it didn’t make a whole lot of baseball sense to sign a declining, paunchy slugger. Keep in mind, though, that the Mets were winners at the time. In 1999, the only year Bonilla was in uniform for a second go-round, the New York Metropolitans were skilled at baseball. Bonilla’s .160BA/.277OBP/.303 SLG/.579OPS contributed little, or more precisely nothing, to the cause, but it didn’t matter. They made the playoffs with one of the more entertaining runs in Mets history. It was the season of Al Leiter’s one-game mastery of the Reds, Todd Pratt’s walk-off NLDS homer, and Robin Ventura’s “Grand Slam Single.” If Kenny “Coward of Queens County” Rogers had been able to throw strikes when it mattered, Bonilla might have been playing cards in the clubhouse during the World Series. 

Another thing about making the Bonilla contract debacle The Designated Mets Thing? They aren’t alone. The almighty Red Sox are paying Manny Ramirez more than $2 million a year through 2018 , the cagey Reds are on the hook for Ken Griffey Jr. until 2025 , and the world’s greatest organization in the history of baseball, the St. Louis Cardinals will be sending Matt Holliday a check for roughly $1.5 million every July from 2020-2029 . This doesn't tend to come up much.

***

This is maybe a picayune thing to focus on, but, to be fair, the current franchise is a disaster. Beyond the everyday presence of David Wright and the possibility of Harvey and Wheeler becoming—and here the Wilpons moan in ecstacy—a Drysdale/Koufax combo for the 21st-century, there ain’t much. Yet the fans persist. Attendance is down for this lousy team, unsurprisingly, but I’m headed out to Citi Field this very eve, and not just for Celebrate Israel night and the potential for a free leftover Yarmulke. We suck, what of it?

I’m not even that worked up about lazy media folk using Bobby Bonilla’s yearly lottery winnings as shorthand. It's old, it's expected. What makes me sad about the whole thing is that it’s such a wasted opportunity. These are the Mets, there are things to talk about here beyond the old laff-lines and off-the-rack observations on Front Office Turmoil and Sad Fans. The Mets, and the best you can come up with is a salary footnote that matches what they’re paying former Birmingham Black Baron LaTroy Hawkins? The Mets will make more than a million bucks this year on Pastrachos alone.

There are so many other superior shorthand options, too—for starters: this year is the 20th anniversary of John Harper and Bob Klapisch's book "The Worst Team Money Can Buy," which is rich and involves Bobby Bonilla humor; the Mets also opened a store-ish space in CitiField for Amway, the evangelical dish-soap pyramid scheme, in part to offest the Judaic future earnings Ponzi scheme. These are good, lacerating, much more current. But I'll bet that the hacks will keep hacking at Bobby Bonilla’s contract until the Mets win the World Series. It may be awhile, but at least we can get away from the shorthand at CitiField and enjoy our chosen misery—FORTHELOVEOFALLTHATISDECENTPLEASESELLTHETEAMPLEASE—in relative peace and quiet.


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