David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Ever remember feeling this good about the Mets in January? Nearly three weeks before pitchers and catchers report in Port St. Lucie? And a full two months before Opening Day, which features a World Series rematch against the Royals at Kauffman Stadium?
We can’t. Roughly 72 hours after the Mets delivered Yoenis Cespedes — and yes, this signing did feel a bit like rewarding the relentless public lobbying — the team announced Monday that Mike Piazza’s No. 31 finally will be retired during a July 29-31 series against the Rockies.
Other than guarantee another trip to the Fall Classic in October — and winning it this time — there’s not much else the Mets could have done for you so far this winter. By now, losing out on Ben Zobrist feels like it happened a few years ago. And $56 million for a super-utility guy who will be 35 in May? It stung a bit at the time but hardly anything to kvetch about at this point.
Dare we say that odd, unfamiliar, fuzzy sensation percolating among Mets fans these days is confidence — a serious upgrade from cautious optimism and light years from the usual angry winter skepticism. Before Friday’s late-night Cespedes agreement on the three-year, $75-million deal that contains a player opt-out after the whopping $27.5-million first season, most of the old narratives still were in place.
The top three being, of course, payroll, payroll and payroll. Regardless of the Mets’ return to respectability last season, as long as Cespedes remained available, and they weren’t bidding on him, Sandy Alderson and the Wilpons would continue to be blasted for sitting on their wallet. The Mets had made some incremental improvements — replacing Daniel Murphy with Neil Walker, adding an everyday shortstop in Asdrubal Cabrera, giving $12 million to lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo — but none of those truly moved the needle.
Or satiated a demanding fan base that never took its eyes off Cespedes. When Alderson dismissed the Cespedes obsession as “populism” — at Piazza’s Hall of Fame news conference, no less — the Mets didn’t really believe they’d have a legitimate shot at getting him. They were holding out hope the Cespedes market would continue to slide, and fortunately for them, he actually did come back around to the Mets.
That, in part, was lucky. The Mets were very fortunate no team apparently was willing to give Cespedes what he originally was seeking, six years for around $150 million, and he had affection for Flushing. But even with all that, the Mets still had to pony up serious cash to keep him away from the Nationals’ five-year, $100-million offer. And with a little creative thinking, they were able to do just that, coming up with the kind of money they hadn’t spent on a player since inking David Wright to his eight-year, $138-million contract in 2012.
The simple act of writing that check for Cespedes, and pushing the ’16 payroll to more than $140 million, felt just as important as bringing back the guy who raked 17 homers with a .942 OPS in 57 games last season. Call it a gesture of good faith for the paying customers, and there’s little doubt it will be reflected in ticket sales during the coming weeks.
In some ways, stepping up for Cespedes is not all that different from hanging Piazza’s beloved No. 31 above the leftfield Party Deck this season. All along, the Mets were only waiting for Piazza to get his inevitable Cooperstown nod, and the planning for his July weekend was well underway months before the Hall announced he had made it with 83.0 percent of the vote.
Just like with the “Sign Cespedes” drumbeat, Mets fans had been clamoring for years to have Piazza’s number retired, a very exclusive club for this franchise. Piazza becomes only the fourth Met to be so honored — joining Tom Seaver, Gil Hodges and Casey Stengel — and it could be a while for the next one.
The Mets obviously hold many others in high regard, and are acutely aware of how their fans feel about ’86 stars such as Keith Hernandez and the late Gary Carter. But for now, the team feels comfortable with Piazza, especially as just the second Met to wear that cap on his Hall of Fame plaque.
And isn’t that plenty for what already is shaping up to be a special season at Citi Field? Even a January blizzard couldn’t wreck the good vibes. Admit it. The Mets, for once, have you just as excited about the future as the past.