David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - This was a scene we thought could happen in late May or early June, with the Mets off to a lousy start, a restless fan base, and swaths of empty seats beginning to multiply at Citi Field like a virus.
But not on March 9, seven games into the Grapefruit League schedule. When Fred Wilpon went directly to the manager's office after Monday's unsightly 13-2 loss to the Marlins -- an ugly defeat even by spring training's low standards -- it beat our most cynical projections by weeks, if not months.
By all accounts, the elder Wilpon has been more hands-on since the Mets arrived here and has remained in Port St. Lucie the entire time rather than shuttling back to New York, as he always had in the past. We're getting the sense it's not to avoid the winter chill back home.
Wilpon talked with Collins in the manager's office for roughly 25 minutes -- hardly a routine event, and especially coming immediately after the game, when Collins usually has his daily briefing with the media.
The purpose? Collins flat-out told us that Wilpon wanted to discuss the Mets' problem areas, and perhaps more importantly, what is being done to fix them.
"He expects it to be a much better team," Collins said, "there's no doubt about that."
This would seem like a good time to remind everyone that Collins is in the final season of his contract, the back end of a two-year extension he was given after a 74-88 finish in 2013. Last year, Collins got the Mets to 79 wins -- the high-water mark during his four-year tenure -- and earned himself the chance to prove he could do better.
As much as spring training is supposed to be an evaluation period for players, Wilpon's short leash with Collins suggests that the manager is being monitored closely, as well. Said Collins: "He told me two weeks ago, he said, 'Look, I'm going to be here a lot -- a lot.' Where in the past, he'd come in and then he'd be gone for a week or 10 days.''
When Collins was hired in November 2010, the Mets were entering a rebuilding stage, with Sandy Alderson brought in for what seemed like a custodial role as general manager. Collins was the Mets' former minor-league field coordinator, had wide-ranging knowledge of the organization's young players and figured to be the perfect guy to pilot them through the transition.
In the Wilpons' eyes, despite their reluctance to spend like a big-market team, that period is over.
The Mets' payroll is estimated to be about $100 million, which places them in the bottom third of MLB clubs. Their only deal of consequence during the offseason was signing Michael Cuddyer to a two-year, $21-million contract, but ownership clearly sees the return of Matt Harvey from Tommy John surgery as similar to adding an elite free agent, without the exorbitant cost.
Wilpon hasn't addressed the media in spring training for going on two years now, and he didn't intend to do so Monday. He strolled by reporters with a pleasant greeting after leaving Collins' office and didn't stop for questions.
In January, at the owners' meetings in Paradise Valley, Arizona, Wilpon said he was more "optimistic" about the Mets than he had been in recent years and believed they have the "horses" to win. Much of that comes from the Mets' stable of talented youngsters in the rotation, but there is plenty of uncertainty beyond the reach of those arms.
As for Alderson -- the architect of this roster -- he came through the clubhouse, asked if Wilpon was behind the slightly ajar door of the manager's office, then kept walking down the hallway. Apparently, his attendance wasn't required.
The GM, after all, just signed a new three-year contract.