Mets in the 21st century: Never a dull moment

Carlos Beltran struck out looking in Game 7

Carlos Beltran struck out looking in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS to end the season against St. Louis Cardinals closer Adam Wainwright. (Oct. 19, 2006) Photo Credit: Newsday/Audrey C. Tiernan

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How fitting that it was Al Leiter on the mound, pitching his heart out in Game 5 of the 2000 World Series. Leiter grew up a Mets fan in New Jersey and knew as well as anyone the challenge of an uphill struggle.

He acknowledged the underdog strain in the Mets' DNA, adding the personal irony: "I think it's kind of funny. I have a perspective because I was a Yankee at a time when it was a Mets town -- '87, 88, 89." Despite his 142 pitches, the Mets fell short that night and never did reclaim the top spot in the city.

What's more, it led to heartache for Mets fans, who still have not see their team return to the World Series, or get close.

To be sure, there were moments of which the Mets could be proud: The club was at the heart of helping New York regain its equilibrium after 9/11 -- particularly in that first game back at Shea Stadium, with Mike Piazza's home run finally giving people something to cheer. The Mets were ahead of just about all other pro sports franchises by hiring a minority general manager, Omar Minaya, and manager, Willie Randolph.

There was a solid playoff series win over the Dodgers in 2006. The franchise staged a moving farewell to Shea Stadium, featuring the return of Dwight Gooden and a gate-closing goodbye wave from Tom Seaver and Piazza. Citi Field opened to good reviews on its mix of old-time architecture and modern amenities.

Not bad, for an underdog.

But the Mets were one of the major leagues' top dogs, financially. They used that status to acquire, through trades and free agency, some of baseball's big-money players: Roberto Alomar, Mo Vaughn, Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Billy Wagner, Johan Santana and Jason Bay.

It didn't work. Beltran stood and took called strike three against the Cardinals, obscuring the inspired catch that Endy Chavez had made earlier in that Game 7, spoiling the hope of another World Series.

From there, things grew worse, with 2007 ending on a historic collapse. When Randolph appeared at a function without his mustache, he joked that he was fortunate the razor hadn't found its way to his neck. The Minaya-Randolph partnership ended in odd, controversial fashion, with the manager having flown to Los Angeles for one last game, then being fired at 3 a.m., New York time, on June 17, 2008.

The switch to Jerry Manuel did not prevent another September nosedive. Neither Manuel nor Minaya could save their own jobs.

Other problems surfaced, too. As nice as Citi Field looked, fans were irritated that there was too much homage to Brooklyn Dodgers history and precious little about the Mets. Plus, the fences proved too far away for hitters.

Then the most damaging bombshell hit, revealing that Mets ownership was deep in the Bernie Madoff scandal. The reverberations cost the club credibility, vast resources and, perhaps, Jose Reyes. New president Sandy Alderson and manager Terry Collins entered with a landscape that was utterly different from the one with which the Mets began the millennium.

By circumstance and necessity, the Mets marked their 50th anniversary season by relying on young players from their own system. The fences were moved in and there was at least some fresh air for a franchise that began again to embrace that old underdog role.

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