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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Brodie Van Wagenen, Mets know safety is No. 1 priority as baseball returns

Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen during a

Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen during a spring training workout on Feb. 19, 2020 at Clover Park in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Brodie Van Wagenen, like the other 29 GMs around the league, didn’t sign up for this. How are they supposed to keep a team hermetically sealed from something like coronavirus? Or even worse, continue to play when people do inevitably get sick, inside the clubhouse and out?

These are not baseball questions. Despite MLB putting together a 108-page operations manual for this crisis, it will take more than guidelines to soldier through a three-week summer camp, a 60-game regular season and an entire month of playoffs.

Like everyone else, I want to be convinced that it’s all possible. And for a big chunk of Van Wagenen’s 42-minute Zoom conference Monday, the Mets’ general manager tried his best to get us on board. But to have any shot at succeeding, these teams have to execute the type of behavior we haven’t witnessed on a larger scale in this country, a selflessness that’s been in too short supply.

Maybe a clubhouse is the perfect environment for that, insulated from the exterior perils, as long as it has the right gatekeepers on the roster. But Van Wagenen, being the players' guy that he is, made a potentially dangerous assumption in assessing the threat level waiting for clubs in the months ahead, beyond those clubhouse doors.

“We want people to respect themselves and we want to respect people's free choices,” Van Wagenen said. “We're not going to create penalties or fines for players when they leave the ballpark. But we trust them. They trust us, we trust each other. And that's how we feel like we're going to get through this the best way possible.”

It’s a noble idea. And trust is a key ingredient in teamwork. But when I pushed Van Wagenen a bit on this concept, saying that trust hasn’t worked as a national policy in attempting to contain COVID-19, he finally got around to the most important factor. The Mets, just like the other clubs, are going to need voices that the players truly listen to and follow. Can those voices be effective in a way we’ve never seen before?

“You used the right word — leadership is everything here,” Van Wagenen said. “Leadership really is going to be the difference maker for the teams that are able to best handle this, and best cope with the challenges that we face. And that really is the accountability that needs to be shared by all of us — not just baseball, but our whole society. We need to exhibit leadership for what we know at this point in time is the best possible way of avoiding the virus and and keeping it from spreading when inevitably it does affect people.”

In MLB’s manual, there is a sizable paragraph devoted to player behavior, and how one individual could single-handedly take down a team, or destroy the season entirely. That’s a message Van Wagenen will no doubt convey to the Mets, as will new manager Luis Rojas. It certainly has been already to some extent.

But how about Robinson Cano? Or Pete Alonso? Or Wilson Ramos? Or Jacob deGrom? Can the most respected teammates effectively seal off the leaky spots? Are they exempt from being a potential problem themselves? To stay this airtight is going to require incredible discipline, in every aspect, across a number of road stops.

The margin of error is so tiny here that it won’t take a major screwup to sabotage the season. A series of small missteps will do. Or even willful ignorance to the life-and-death consequences of their actions. Van Wagenen explained how the Mets — from the top down — have talked about preventing an outbreak. “Let's police each other,” Van Wagenen said. “Don't let each other lapse in our judgment. Don't let each other fail to behave in a way in a manner in which we know is in our best interest. Player leadership is important in our clubhouse. We have a good blend of veteran leaders, who've been part of successful teams, and we've got a young core group players that want to win.”

I agree with Brodie on that. The Mets seem to have the right chemistry for these challenging times. They also are fortunate to be playing in New York, which already has been through hell and back over the past four months. It’s a city that realizes the extraordinary measures needed to combat the coronavirus, even as the rest of the country has learned some of these lessons too late. Most of the Mets weren’t in New York during the darkest period. Their offseason homes are elsewhere. But they’ll have to channel that same resolve, and even more so outside the city’s borders. MLB’s 108-page manual is only as effective as the players choose to make it.

“We’re committed,” Van Wagenen said. “We’re committed to the process. We’re committed to educating ourselves and each other, and we will do the best we possibly can to protect everyone involved. And to do so with the intent to win baseball games.”

Committed is a good start. Convincing will take time.

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