How the Mets' season broke down and fell apart

A team trainer tends to the Mets' David

A team trainer tends to the Mets' David Wright after he was hit in the head with a pitch from the Giants' Matt Cain during the fourth inning. (Credit: Photo by David Pokress)

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MIAMI - Coming off two straight September collapses, as well as facing the anticipation of a new $800-million stadium and the extra scrutiny of a payroll second only to the Yankees', the burden on the Mets this season was enormous.

Something had to give, and with 13 players now on the disabled list, including six former All-Stars and all four members of the reputed core, it seems that the Mets' roster paid the heaviest price.

Players and team officials alike have talked about the "pressures" to stay on the field this season, maybe even more so than other years, perhaps to their detriment. Although there has always been a clubhouse code - one that outlines the difference between "hurt" and "injured" - the Mets pushed that envelope with a dizzying number of cortisone injections and delayed trips to the disabled list.

Carlos Beltran, seeing a lineup without Jose Reyes and Carlos Delgado, extended himself to a dangerous point with the expanding bone bruise beneath his right knee and may even require micro-fracture surgery after this season.

Johan Santana, finally shut down on Tuesday, has pitched more than a year with bone chips inside his left elbow and continued to do so for most of this month despite his deteriorating condition.

David Wright's concussion - an infamous topic after the fiasco with Ryan Church last season - was a freak incident that was handled correctly by the Mets. But too many of the club's DL cases this year seem to have been victimized by questionable maintenance, poor communication or a combination of both.

 

Looking for answers

The Mets admit there have been lessons learned, and fixing those medical issues remains as important as anything they will do to improve their roster this offseason. But it's not a simple task, balancing the health of a player with the championship aspirations of a $139-million baseball team. And other than a stretch of bad luck, the Mets still aren't sure who or what is to blame.

"I don't know," general manager Omar Minaya said. "That's a good question. I don't have that answer. But I think we're going to have to search for that answer - and I don't think there is one answer. I think you have to look at a lot of different things."

These problems were supposed to have been solved back in 2005, when the Mets ended their corporate sponsorship with NYU's Hospital for Joint Diseases, which had won a bidding war to become the team's medical caregiver. It was then that the Mets switched back to the Hospital for Special Surgery with its staff headed by the highly regarded orthopedist David Altchek.

But not much has changed. The Mets have had 19 players on the DL this season (tied for the most in the majors with the Reds) and the baker's dozen now on the list is costing them roughly $87 million. That staggering sum alone is more than the entire payroll of 16 teams.

 

Laughter best medicine?

As player after player heads for the operating table or another rehab assignment in Port St. Lucie, it has become a running joke with the Mets, who either choose to hide the real diagnosis or downplay its severity.

On numerous occasions, even Jerry Manuel, who is asked daily to provide injury updates, tries humor to break up the mounting tension - at the expense of the team's medical staff. It usually goes something like this, "They're calling it a muscle cramp - surgery Thursday."

So why has this Mets' season degenerated into one endless "Scrubs" episode without the laugh track? That can depend on whom you ask. In talking with a dozen people, both inside and outside the organization, from players to management types, each person's perspective is shaped by his own experience, some good, some bad.

A good place to start, a number of people suggested, was the immediate pressure these Mets were under. Delgado was basically a ticking bomb with the torn labrum inside his right hip. As soon as it went for good, he was done. But when that happened, others pushed to stay on their feet to fill that void.

Multiple sources said Reyes had been playing with a slight tear of his right hamstring tendon, not simply tendinitis behind his right knee. So with the reliance on his legs, the Mets were kidding themselves trying to get him back without a prolonged period of rest.

When the tendon ultimately ripped for good June 3, weeks after he was placed on the DL, not even cortisone shots could keep him on his rehab schedule. Now he is likely headed for what the team believes is "minor" surgery to fix the problem when the season is over.

It was a similar scenario with Beltran, who tried to play through a bone bruise just below his right knee, again with the help of cortisone shots. Two sources said Beltran was unhappy with how the injury was handled, but when asked about agreeing to the shots, Beltran said it was he who accepted the risk.

So did J.J. Putz, who knew a shot was the only way he could try to pitch with a bone spur in his right elbow that the Mariners' medical staff discovered at the end of last season. Oddly, the Seattle doctor told Putz there was no need for surgery, then he was traded to the Mets roughly two months later.

John Maine, in rehab limbo in Port St. Lucie, had three cortisone shots in the back of the shoulder before the Mets chose simply to rest him.

"While that cortisone was in there, I was great," Putz said. "But cortisone is nothing but a Band-Aid anyway. It masks the problem. That's all it really is. With me there was really nothing structurally wrong, so I don't know if anything really got worse.

"But if you're getting cortisone to cover up a torn ligament, or a slightly torn ligament, then yeah, it can get worse, because you don't feel the stress."

That's what happened with both Reyes and Beltran, with a long offseason of rest seemingly the best medicine at this point. But those two already are signed for 2010, which puts them in a different category than players such as Delgado and Putz, pending free agents. Same with Alex Cora, who did what he could playing with torn ligaments in both thumbs before he finally stopped earlier this month.

With the Mets out of the playoff hunt, that convinced Cora to finally get the surgery.

"Let's say spring training starts Feb. 15," Cora said. "When you hit the field that day, you're not going to be 100 percent anymore and you've got to find ways to be ready to play."

 

A new approach

Only now are the Mets trying to be more straightforward with the media in addressing injuries, with assistant GM John Ricco used in conjunction with Minaya. But there are not likely to be many changes to the medical staff. The Mets have had a 14-year relationship with Dr. Altchek, who is frequently used by teams in other sports, and trainer Ray Ramirez was praised by a number of players, even Manuel.

"Ray was important," Manuel said. "Ray was very critical for us this year. But I do think because of the number of injuries that we had, and what appeared as indecisiveness, things will probably be looked at differently moving forward. We've got to get better at it."

Consider it progress that the Mets put Wright on the disabled list less than 24 hours after he suffered a concussion. But what if the Mets were three games ahead of the Phillies in the NL East rather than 13 behind? What if the Mets were headed for a make-or-break September rather than a meaningless one? Would they still have been as careful with Wright, the face of the franchise?

"Um . . . I would assume so," Wright said. "I don't think the doctors were so much concerned with where the Mets are in the standings. I think their primary concern is that, from a medical standpoint, they get the players back to where they can't injure themselves further."

Reyes and Beltran didn't have the same luxury as Wright when it came time to assess their injuries, which wound up knocking them out for most of the season. Incredibly, the Mets initially suggested that both would be back by mid-July. Clearly a miscalculation, or maybe more like wishful thinking rather than clear-headed medical evaluation.

"I don't want to say it was bad luck," Manuel said. "In all of those circumstances, the worst-case scenario happened. Hopefully, we have paid our debt for years to come. I don't care what kind of manager you got, those guys have to be on the field in order for you to have any success. That's just the way it is."

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