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With the Cespedes opt-out debacle, the Mets fanned the flames

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The circumstances surrounding Yoenis Cespedes’s opt out are indicative of the organization-wide dysfunction we are all too familiar with from the Mets.

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MLB: JUL 31 Mets at Braves Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What transpired during Sunday’s game was a frustrating spectacle even by Mets standards—and I’m not talking about the events on the field during the team’s five-game losing streak. As usual, a phenomenon that has gone on without incident for other teams—a player opting out of the 2020 season—became a circus for the Mets, who once again found themselves the subject of national headlines for all the wrong reasons.

As fans sat down in front of their living room TVs to enjoy another day of Mets baseball while there is still baseball to watch at all, they heard the unexpected news that Yoenis Cespedes, who was not in the starting lineup, was reportedly missing. The cryptic statement from general manager Brodie Van Wagenen read:

As of game time, Yoenis Céspedes has not reported to the ballpark today. He did not reach out to management with any explanation for his absence. Our attempts to contact him have been unsuccessful.

Absent any further context, wild speculation and worry ensued. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, it is especially concerning when the whereabouts of one of your players are completely unknown. The Mets later clarified—while the game was still happening—that they had no reason to believe Cesepdes’ safety was at risk. It wasn’t until the postgame press conference that we learned that Cespedes had opted out of the 2020 season due to coronavirus concerns and that the Mets were apparently completely unaware of his decision prior to releasing their initial statement about his absence.

To be frank, nobody looks particularly good here, as Marc Carig articulately spelled out in The Athletic in what is probably the most well-reasoned take I have seen about the situation so far—at least among the baseball media. If the Mets are to be believed, Cespedes acted unprofessionally. But I would argue that the Mets’ conduct is outright inexcusable and much more deserving of skepticism and scorn, both because it is not their first offense in acting irresponsibly when the organization should be the adult in the room and because it represents a disturbingly blasé attitude towards a player’s well-being. Predictably, however, it is Cespedes that has seemingly been the overwhelming target of the media and the fanbase’s ire. That was, and always has been, the Mets’ intent.

One of two things is indisputably true here: Either the Mets are straight up lying about how much they knew and when they knew it for the sole purpose of dragging Cespedes through the mud or they put out that vague initial statement without knowing anything about their player’s safety just to shame him under the guise of “transparency.” Either one of these actions is a gross mishandling of the situation at best. During the hour or so between the time when the initial statement was released and the time when the team hastily insisted that there was no reason to fear for Cespedes’ safety, one contingent of the Mets community was worried for his well-being while the other was cracking jokes and harkening back to the time Matt Harvey went AWOL.

This was by design. Despite the direct comparisons, the Mets did not make Harvey’s absence public in 2017 until the following day, after the team had already performed a welfare check and had a better understanding of the whole situation. Harvey also acted unprofessionally by not keeping the team informed on the reason for his absence, but he was spared the online rumor mill and public circus. Why was Cespedes not offered the same courtesy? The Mets claim the answer is “transparency,” but given the Mets’ previous track record on “transparency,” I can’t help but be skeptical that the organization suddenly values open communication on these matters. So what was the point of the statement issued without proper information other than shame and character defamation?

Either way, the Mets’ desired results are already in motion. Fans are back to calling Cespedes selfish, lazy, and entitled. Bob Nightengale made a point to tweet about how much money Cespedes is making. Todd Zeile tore into the Cuban slugger on SNY’s postgame show on Sunday for “disrespecting” the team and Jon Heyman tweeted similar sentiments. Mike Puma and Joel Sherman promptly published a piece in the New York Post, reporting that Cespedes was disgruntled about playing time—a rather thinly veiled attempt to suggest that he had ulterior motives for opting out. This is all a callous minimization of very real concerns during a global pandemic; we have since learned that Cespedes has a high-risk family member in his mother, who is in bad health. Not only that, it also plays into the same (often racially motivated) tropes we’ve been dealing with since Cespedes has been a Met—that he is a diva who doesn’t “play the game the right way.”

Even if I do question Puma and Sherman’s motives for publishing their piece, I don’t necessarily have any reason to doubt the accuracy of their reporting. If Cespedes was indeed “disgruntled,” doesn’t he have reason to be? The Mets have a lengthy rap sheet here—not just with Cespedes himself in the way they mishandled his injuries and constantly painted him as the bad guy in the eyes of the press and the fanbase during his Mets tenure—but with other players as well. Just last year, the Mets very pointedly and purposefully designated Adeiny Hechavarria for assignment the day before he was due a bonus. Between grievance-worthy moves like that and the organization’s already robust history of mishandling their players and aggrieving their stars, it’s hard to blame Cespedes’ skepticism with respect to his playing time. This is all notwithstanding the fact that the outfielder leaves much more money on the table by opting out than he would have by falling short of his performance bonuses.

Regardless of how you feel about how Cespedes handled the situation, a well-run organization wouldn’t be in this situation to begin with because a well-run organization wouldn’t have antagonized its player enough that he feels the need to ghost the team. Maybe Cespedes did “disrespect” the Mets, but respect is earned. What has the team done to earn his respect? It seems to me that Cespedes is giving the Mets a small taste of their own medicine by simply treating the organization the exact same way it has treated its players for decades. And the organization responded by letting the door hit him on the way out, as they have done so many times before, rather than issuing a statement about his opting out to the public after they understood the complete picture, which could have easily diffused the situation.

I’m not going to outright accuse the Mets of lying here because, as of right now, there is not enough evidence to credibly do so. But there are several fishy details about the events on the Mets’ end that do not add up, including the convenient timing of the Billy Hamilton trade. We already knew from reporting in The Athletic that Cespedes did apparently inform some of his teammates of his intentions to opt out after Saturday night’s loss, but we’re supposed to believe this never made its way up to the top, even after he did not show up to the ballpark the following day. We also know that Brandon Nimmo says that he and his Mets teammates heard that Cespedes’ agents did in fact inform the Mets that he was opting out before Sunday’s game, despite the team’s claims of ignorance. So either Anthony DiComo’s reporting is inaccurate, Brandon Nimmo is lying, Cespedes and his representatives are lying, or the Mets are lying. Reader, I think you know by now which party I think is playing fast and loose with the truth here.

Either way, this is now how Cespedes’s time as a New York Met comes to an end. And unfortunately, this will now likely be his legacy. Instead of remembering the dynamic player who almost single-handedly lifted the Mets to the 2015 postseason and played a key role in their 2016 success as well, fans will enshrine him as the undedicated player who walked away. I think that’s a shame. And I also think it’s exactly what the Mets intended.