Half the fun of Opening Day is pretending that it matters. It doesn't, of course, at least not more than any other game in the season that follows. The difference between a game in mid-July and Game Number One is that the former has half a season's worth of context. On Opening Day, small sample sizes work their magic on stats and emotions alike, and thus any event can seem fraught with limitless potential or doom, depending on how your day goes. There is a roulette player's thrill in pretending a hitter will continue to bat .750 or a pitcher will maintain a 0.50 ERA. It also means the losses feel worse than they really should, but after being without baseball for so long, it can be enjoyable to remember that you care so much.
In this sense, the Mets' sloppy loss on Opening Day doesn't really matter. But there's a larger reason the loss doesn't matter, and this fact matters a great deal.
No one expected this year's Mets to compete, and an afternoon of strikeout-prone batters, lousy defense, and miserable relief pitching did little to prompt reassessment of this opinion. The team's presumed crumminess in 2014 isn't the issue. The issue is that the 2014 already looks an awful lot like 2013 and 2012 and several years before that, and that there's little reason to expect different from the immediate years to come.
The roster of Opening Day payrolls shows that the Mets are being outspent by all but eight major league teams. Spending money is no guarantee of success; if any team has demonstrated this principle over the years, it's the Mets. For a truly sobering sight, you have to take a look at the teams they're barely outspending. With the exception of the Cubs (who are embarking on a rip-it-up-and-start-over job), the teams are all small-market squads who have no choice but to skimp on salaries.
The Wilpons can profess financial health at regularly appointed intervals if it makes them feel better, but actions speak louder than words. Or in their case, a lack of action: their unwillingness to expand payroll beyond the invisible barrier of $90 million. They once again limboed under that mark this year, spending a relatively small measure of cash on Bartolo Colon and Curtis Granderson, then hibernating for the rest of the winter.
In 2013, spending virtually the same amount of money as they are this year, the Mets' payroll was a hair below Atlanta's. This year, it's just below the Padres, and only a few ticks away from the Twins. As salaries continue explode, an unwillingness to spend beyond an arbitrary watermark compromises the team's ability to field a competitive team. And it will continue to compromise that ability a little bit more each year.
This is the traditional quandary of the small-market team, which is what the Mets are now, and what they will remain for the foreseeable future. It's a state of affairs that engenders fan malaise, an ennui that casts anything the team does in the cold light of pointlessness. The fan comes to expect failure and finds him/herself unable to enjoy success, knowing the team won't be able to sign or trade for players that could get them over the hump and break the cycle of mediocrity. And even in the extremely rare instances of sustained small-market success (Oakland, Tampa Bay), fandom necessitates never getting too attached to your best home grown players, because these players will inevitably be flipped to teams with deeper pockets in the hopes the prospects they bring back will sustain a white-knuckle grasp on relevance.
If Samuel Beckett never wrote a play about this, he should have.
To make matters even worse, there is a particularly cruel bit of Mets Exceptionalism at work here. Other small-market teams play in actual small markets. They can rely on a mixture of civic pride and guilt to maintain a fanbase, confident in the knowledge that they are quite literally the only game in town. The Mets play in New York, with another baseball team a few subway stops away. The Mets do not have the luxury of a baseball monopoly.
This makes the Mets a unique case in baseball, and renders their continued inability to compete all the more catastrophic. You and I may stick with the Mets out of loyalty, out of a sense of emotional investment, or out of persistent nostalgia for a childhood spent at Shea. Others—particularly young folks without a lifetime of memories to draw on, and no grounding in a Mets team of any relevance—won't feel that pull. If they're not turned off to baseball entirely, they'll drift off to That Other Team In Town.
When the Yankees began to "take the town" in the mid-1990s, the Mets made any attempt to stem the tide by acquiring impact players such as Mike Piazza. The result of the 2000 World Series cemented their "little brother" reputation in everyone's minds, but they earned an A for effort. Their current grade would have to be Incomplete. Or perhaps a simple DNP: Did Not Play.
What's particularly upsetting about the Mets is not the fact that they're bad at baseball. Plenty of Mets teams have been bad at baseball. It's that they don't even look like bad Mets teams of old. They're not the bumbling old timers of Marvelous Marv or the overmatched toddlers of the Magic Is Back years. They're closer to the Horace Clark Era Yankees, undistinguished squads who trotted the same players onto the field year after year to the Washington Generals to the rest of the league's Harlem Globetrotters.
In the case of those Yankees, the unchanging mediocrity of those teams stemmed from owners (CBS) who didn't really want to run a ballclub. In the Mets' case, it's clear the Wilpons want to run a ballclub. It's also clear they can't, or shouldn't, but thanks to Bud Selig, they will surely continue to do so.
It's not the fact that the Mets didn't sign Stephen Drew. It's the fact that they will never be able to sign him, whoever winds up being the Stephen Drew of 2015 or 2016, at whatever price he commands. It's the fact that they wouldn't have needed Drew if they'd had the financial means to keep Jose Reyes. It's not the fact that Matt Harvey won't pitch this year. It's the fact that if he comes back and is as awesome as before, and if Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndegaard dazzle, ownership won't be able to give them any help, because the Mets have yet to prove their farm system can produce any impact offensive players, and because these days a lineup that can score runs will cost you more than $90 million.
We endured a brutal winter. It would have been wonderful to watch the Mets lose and feel angered by it. Or feel annoyed, or irked, or mildly perturbed. It would have been wonderful to feel something from a team that offers little more than a numbing sameness, a fan experience that's been robbed of all emotional nutrition. A former Mets manager might call it déjà vu all over again. Chances you'll be feeling it the same time next year, if you call that a feeling.