David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — The timing must have felt especially cruel for Sandy Alderson. Only days after the Mets clinched the National League East title in September, a climb as unexpected as it was exhilarating, Alderson was told that he had cancer.
And yet, through it all, the subsequent five weeks that culminated in a five-game loss to the Royals in the World Series, Alderson never blinked. The GM didn’t let on publicly about his illness, nor did the Mets, until the team’s COO Jeff Wilpon finally revealed the diagnosis in early December at a Citi Field news conference.
Discovering what Alderson was dealing with personally during the Mets’ improbable October run — and the stoic manner in which he tucked it aside — made us respect the GM that much more for what he accomplished. For anyone to have their world knocked off its axis by cancer, and still help pilot the Mets through the organized chaos of playoff baseball in New York, that is an amazing feat in itself.StoryAlderson ‘upbeat’ about the 2016 MetsStoryConforto wants to face lefties regularlyStoryMets' Walker getting used to new home
When asked Wednesday about the initial cancer diagnosis, Alderson, who will need to leave his Tradition Field post occasionally during spring training for treatment, answered with his typical dry humor.
“It was a little surreal, you know?” Alderson said. “Having not been to the World Series in 25 years [since he was with the A’s], and having never been diagnosed with cancer, it was a little bit odd. But the great thing about the postseason was, it was a distraction at that time. And distractions are always nice.”
Looking back, two images in particular stand out during that time, now that the entire period has been shaded by cancer. The first was Alderson being drenched with champagne by his players in the visiting clubhouse at Dodger Stadium, jumping with joy, hands over his head, like a frat pledge. The other was at Wrigley Field, where Alderson sat alone in the darkened grandstand, watching the Mets celebrate the NLCS sweep of the Cubs on the field.
Months later, Alderson returns to Tradition Field without a World Series ring, but after a productive offseason, he has his team extremely well-positioned for a repeat as NL champs. Given the circumstances, with Alderson trying to balance his health issues with preparing the Mets for hopefully another World Series trip, there’s probably no one better equipped for this particular role.
For as much as we’ve criticized Alderson since he took over the GM title in 2011, and questioned the glacial pace of the Mets’ rebuild, he’s been consistent in his methodology. And when the Mets got to within striking distance of a division title, Alderson made the necessary moves to finish the job — and push them to a place we never thought they’d get to.
Alderson was the same person we’ve always known when he showed up Wednesday. Everyone just sees him differently now, the view colored by last season’s success, and, truthfully, the battle with cancer that is going on beneath it all. When Alderson said Wednesday that he hasn’t “been this upbeat about a team in a long time,” the GM did so knowing full well there will be obstacles along the way. The unanticipated hazards, perhaps a setback or two. It’s never smooth sailing from February through October.
“The first day of camp, everybody throws 100, everybody hits a 500-foot home run,” Alderson said. “There are a lot of twists and turns along the way. But just being able to start from that position, as opposed to where we have been the last couple of years, that’s a great feeling.”
Last season, the Mets’ young pitchers matured at the right time, and Alderson deftly covered for David Wright’s serious back injury with a volley of midseason moves. The unconventional call-up of Michael Conforto from Double-A combined with the trades for Kelly Johnson, Juan Uribe, Tyler Clippard and Yoenis Cespedes. We can’t know yet if the Mets are going to require a similar retooling in July to get back to the World Series. But Alderson has proved to us he’s just as capable of urgently fixing things on the fly as he is planning for the long haul.
“I don’t see anybody taking anything for granted,” Alderson said.
After what Alderson’s navigated through, we believe him.