In 2012, the Mets avoided the infuriating controversies that had come to define them in previous seasons. A respectable first half and franchise milestones—Johan Santana's no hitter, R.A. Dickey's Cy Young campaign—generated some genuine goodwill from fans and press alike in what was an otherwise forgettable season. Naive types (like myself) might have assumed the organization had turned a corner from the embarrassing latter days of the Omar Minaya administration and would now begin conducting itself like an actual baseball team.
Instead, 2013 has proven a return to bad form. The Mets' dismal start has inspired many followers of the team to harp on the team's perceived deficiencies. And to be sure, there's no shortage of awful things to harp on. But rather than denounce the dreadful bats of Lucas Duda and Ike Davis, or the thorough regression of Jon Niese, or the still-useless bullpen, for some reason the hottest topic of conversation remains backup outfielder Jordany Valdespin.
The Valdespin Saga came to a head last Friday after he hit a towering solo shot against the Pirates at Citi Field. Valdespin admired his shot after clubbing it, despite the fact that the Mets were still trailing Pittsburgh by a large margin. Or at least Valdespin was said to have Cadillacked things a bit; this clip of the shot doesn't contain any egregiously showboat-y behavior, as far as I'm concerned.
In any case, Valdespin's theatrics (whatever they were) violated one of baseball's many unwritten laws—Thou shalt not enjoy hitting home runs for some reason—and thus marked him for retribution. This would not be worth noting, except that it was his own team who marked him. After the game, the Mets went out of their way to apologize for his actions and make sure he received what was coming to him, because Valdespin mattered less to them than the possibly hurt feelings of the pitcher he took deep, Jose Contreras (who, last I checked, did not play for the Mets).
The next day, with a pinch hitter needed in another lopsided game, manager Terry Collins sent Valdespin to the plate, knowing he was virtually assured of being hit by a pitch, then sounded positively pleased once Pittsburgh obliged. "I would have been bothered had it been somewhere up in the neck area," Collins said after the game. "If nothing else, he grew by it, and that's the most beneficial thing that could happen." So basically, Collins would only have been upset if the Pirates fractured his skull. Otherwise, he was cool with an opponent using one of his players as a punching bag.
Even David Wright, normally diplomatic to a fault, told Valdespin to take his medicine. "We all knew coming into today that the Pirates could have taken it one way," Wright said after Valdepin's plunking. "I think Jordany understands that." When Valdespin returned to the dugout after his plunking, not a sliver of visible support was offered by any of his teammates. Since then, more details of Valdespin clashing with teammates have trickled out, including a juvenile feud with rookie Juan Lagares, suggesting that his teammates are falling over themselves to be the first to leak damaging Valdespin tidbits to the press.
We've now reached the point in this news cycle where the Mets are playing damage control. Like everything else they attempt of late, they've done a poor job of this, chafing at accusations they hung Valdespin out to dry while readying the clothespins for all to see. In a USA Today article by Bob Nightengale that paints Valdespin as History's Greatest Monster, Wright told the reporter he resented the implication that the Mets didn't support their teammate. "To read these reports how we don't have his back and how we don't care about him is absolutely ridiculous. It couldn't be further from the truth." And yet the very same article has Marlon Byrd and LaTroy Hawkins going on at length about the heinous nature of Valdespin's crimes, calling him "boneheaded," among other things. Hawkins's reactions in particular are over the top, and have the cranky vibe of OLD MAN SHAKES FIST AT CLOUD.
I'm not in the clubhouse every day, so for all I know Valdespin really is a profoundly unlikeable human being who deserves this treatment. Maybe he's even—dare I say it?—Gregg Jefferies bad. However, in recent years there have been plenty of awful baseball players who have done awful things on the field, and yet these players invariably receive token support from their clubs. This follows another one of baseball's sacred unwritten rules, which says Thou shalt stick up for thy teammate, no matter how much of a dirtbag he is.
How rare is the complete disowning of Valdespin? I looked back at some of the more egregious on-field crimes from the previous decade-plus to see how those incidents were addressed by the teams of the offenders. While I'm admittedly cherry picking here, in all of these cases, the offender received far more support than Valdespin has to this point.
Miscreant: Carlos Quentin
Crime: On April 12, the San Diego Padres outfielder was plunked by Zack Greinke of the Dodgers. For reasons that remain murky, Quentin assumed intent and charged the mound. During the ensuing melee, Greinke suffered a broken collarbone that knocked him out of action for more than a month.
Official Punishment: Eight-game suspension
Team Reaction: When Quentin's suspension came down, San Diego manager Bud Black thought the punishment was a tad harsh. "We expected the worst and hoped for the best," he said. "We know it varies from case to case. I think eight was on the high side." While appealing the decision, Quentin suffered a dreadful slump at the plate, which Black sympathetically brushed off by saying, "Carlos has a lot going on." Quentin eventually dropped his appeal right before he would have had to play at Dodger Stadium." Black seemed to loath the situation far more than the player responsible. "I think the underlying thing was let's get this behind us," the Padres' skipper said. "Let's start playing baseball. Let's get this distraction away from our club as quickly as possible. That's something that's been talked about for the last four days." Black also expressed relief that the suspension allowed Quentin to nurse some nagging soreness in his knees.
Miscreant: Brett Lawrie
Crime: In the bottom of the ninth of the Blue Jays-Rays game on May 15, 2012, the Toronto third baseman found himself ahead in the count 3-1 against Fernando Rodney. Home plate umpire Larry Miller gave two questionable strike calls to turn a promising at-bat into a punch out. Lawrie completely lost it, dropping his bat and pointing furiously at the plate. Once ejected for his insolence, Lawrie ripped off his helmet and bounced it off the turf, whereupon it nailed Miller in the hip. This was probably not Lawrie's intention, but touching an umpire in any way, even accidentally, is one of baseball's inviolable rules. Also, Lawrie did not help his case by acting like a complete maniac, continuing to scream at the ump until he was dragged off the field.
Official Punishment: Four-game suspension
Team Reaction: Toronto manager John Farrell, who was himself ejected for trying to restrain Lawrie during his tantrum, excused Lawrie's behavior by insisting Miller's faulty strike zone was the true culprit. "The bat was completely taken out of Brett's hands," Farrell snorted later, "not only the 3-1 pitch but the 3-2 pitch. Those were not strikes."
Miscreant: Johnny Cueto
Crime: Bad blood between the Cardinals and Reds boiled over on August 10, 2010, when Brandon Phillips and Yadier Molina exchanged words at home plate. The instigators were soon forgotten, however, when a bench-clearing fracas grew into an enormous rugby scrum that pinned several players against the backstop screen. Reds hurler Johnny Cueto, in a move he later insisted was self defense, kicked kung fu style against the crowd of brawlers before him. Cueto nailed Jason LaRue in the head with one of his kicks, dealing the Cardinals catcher a concussion. LaRue experienced post-concussion symptoms so severe he was forced to retire from the game. Like many catchers, LaRue had probably suffered many smaller concussions over the course of his career, but Cueto's kick was the straw that broke the camel's back.
Official Punishment: Seven-game suspension
Team Reaction: Reds manager Dusty Baker seemed more annoyed by the distribution of punishment than what Cueto did. In a clear reference to Molina and pitcher Chris Carpenter (who were both fined but not suspended), Baker harrumphed, "There were things said that got escalated. A few statements caused the escalation. I don't know what the umpire's report says. Something must have been left out." When Cueto returned from his suspension (essentially missing just one start), Baker took the opportunity to praise his work ethic and his ability to stay in shape over the break. "This guy trains, this guy runs," Baker said. "This year's success—when you ask a kid to do something and express what benefits he may have from it and then has success from it—it's easier for him to keep doing it. This guy runs the stairs. He runs and runs."
Miscreant: Julio Castillo
Crime: The class-A Peoria Chiefs and Dayton Dragons played a wild one on July 24, 2008, with hit batters and hard slides eventually escalating into a near on-field riot. The wildest part by far came when Castillo, a Peoria pitcher, hurled a ball at Dayton's dugout to keep their players from storming the field. His weird move failed in the extreme when the ball skipped into the stands and nailed a fan in the head, giving him a concussion. The Cubs farmhand was arrested and charged with felonious assault.
Official Punishment: 60-game suspension, 30-day prison sentence
Team Reaction: Castillo's parent team seemed more concerned with the idea that a felony conviction would all but end the pitcher's career, since it would prevent the Dominican native from receiving another visa to return to the U.S. "He acknowledges he made a mistake," pleaded Mike Loran, Cubs general counsel and vice president for community affairs, "but a felony conviction and the weight that carries with it is disproportionate for a 22-year-old whose hope is to play baseball."
Miscreant: Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers
Crime: On April 22, 2000, things got a little chippy at the new Comiskey Park. It started in the sixth inning, when Jeff Weaver hit Carlos Lee with a pitch, and Lee stared down Weaver while taking his base. One inning later, White Sox pitcher Jim Parque returned the favor by nailing Tigers batter Dean Palmer with his first pitch. Palmer charged the mound, and the benches cleared. What followed was not your ordinary ballpark slapfight, but a prolonged, bloody battle. Among the wounded was Sox reliever Keith Foulke, who took a sucker punch and suffered a gash under his left eye that required five stitches. Despite myriad ejections, another bench-clearing brawl broke out in the bottom of the ninth. Chris Osgood of the Red Wings remarked, "It was a pretty good fight for a baseball game."
Official Punishment: In what one MLB official asserted was "the largest mass suspension ever," the league handed down a total of 16 suspensions between the two teams. Palmer got the worst of it, with an eight-game suspension and a hefty fine, but both managers (Jerry Manuel for Chicago, Phil Garner for Detroit) were also suspended for eight games. Tigers coach Juan Samuel received a whopping 15 games on the shelf for throwing punches during the brouhaha. MLB's vice president of on-field operations Frank Robinson put his foot down unequivocally: "Major League Baseball wants to send a message...that participation in these sorts of incidents will be handled in a swift and serious manner."
Team Reaction: Despite tough words from Bud Selig's minions, most of the participants saw the incident as a romp-em-stomp-em lark, as did their employers. "I know our club would rather go out and just let the best team win," White Sox GM Ron Schueler said. "We don't have to prove anything by going out fighting anymore. But knowing these bunch of kids, if somebody gets hit, you never know what's going to happen." Manager Jerry Manuel, meanwhile, only regretted it as a distraction. "This is obviously somewhat of a distraction," he sighed (as you can hear on the ol' CNNSI.com site in wav form), "but if we are to be a good team, these are some things we have to get over."
In other words, by not mounting even a tepid defense of Jordany Valdespin, the Mets are essentially saying he's worse than guys who break collarbones, attack umpires, attack fans, end careers, and turn baseball fields into UFC octagons. So either Valdespin really is that horrible of a human being, or the Mets are completely inept at handling personnel issues in-house before they turn into media poop-storms.
I believe the last few seasons have demonstrated which of these explanations is more likely.