FORT MYERS, Fla.
Edwin Diaz could have suffered a freak knee injury while doing almost anything at this time of year.
Walking his dog. Putting groceries in the trunk. Tying his shoelaces.
Maybe even closing a Grapefruit League game for the Mets.
But somehow the harrowing scene that unfolded Wednesday night at loanDepot Park in Miami — with Diaz crumpled on the artificial turf after tearing the patellar tendon in his right knee during a postgame celebration, his Puerto Rico teammates gathered around him in shocked disbelief — made this unfortunate incident significantly worse.
And that’s not meant to be a knock against the World Baseball Classic, which is baseball’s attempt to capitalize on a World Cup-type fervor for a sport with limited international appeal beyond a handful of core nations. It’s a fun event, and this year’s collection of All-Star rosters, the best ever, was a coup for MLB.
As a concept, the WBC is a great idea. The darker reality, however, is that what happened to Diaz and the impact of that injury — he’s likely lost for the season — can’t be tossed aside as a bizarre accident that could have taken place anywhere. The fact is that he wasn’t hurt just anywhere — his knee buckled as he was swamped by exuberant teammates celebrating Puerto Rico’s huge 5-2 victory over the Dominican Republic.
MLB can’t outrun the brutal optics of that scene, nor the terrible toll on Diaz, the Mets, their fans and, really, the upcoming regular season, which will proceed without the sport’s most electrifying closer from a year ago.
That’s a big price to pay, and why more players — and certainly those players’ teams — are likely to re-evaluate their participation in the years ahead.
The WBC puts these players and teams in a rough spot, trying to balance the pull of playing for one’s country, a deeply meaningful experience for many, with the obligation of doing a highly paid job for the next six to seven months. These are not mutually exclusive roles.
The majority of these players — fingers crossed — will return to their clubs intact and ready to go for Opening Day. But the Diaz incident is particularly crushing on a number of different levels, not the least of which is his arduous climb from Flushing pariah to beloved closer — serenaded by trumpets, no less — that culminated with cashing in for a record five-year, $102 million deal in November.
You could say Diaz is lucky that this didn’t occur as he was entering his walk year, but already being set up financially is almost beside the point.
Diaz certainly understood the risk, though no one could have imagined Wednesday night’s grief-stricken spectacle.
He had just struck out the side to punch Puerto Rico’s ticket to the WBC quarterfinals, his teammates rushed the mound and he briefly was jumping around in the scrum before suddenly collapsing.
From there, it was a horror show. With Diaz sprawled on the turf, players waved to the dugout for medical assistance. When Diaz couldn’t limp off the field with help, two teammates tried to carry him, each holding up a leg, but he instantly waved them off, apparently in too much pain.
Finally, Diaz was placed in a wheelchair, tears streaming down his face. Fellow Met Francisco Lindor remained frozen in a crouch a few feet away, his head bowed.
Lindor’s despair certainly was shared among greater Metsville, as their World Series dreams were dented by a nightmare that some would argue could have been avoided.
The Diaz incident is precisely why Max Scherzer and Brandon Nimmo passed on going to the WBC, the latter after signing a new free-agent deal — just like Diaz — for eight years and $162 million.
“That’s my most important thing right now, the Mets,” said Nimmo, who decided not to play for Team Italy. “I want to win a World Series. Maybe that makes me a bad person, but I’d rather win a World Series than a WBC.”
Mets owner Steve Cohen spent more than $482 million in the offseason on free agents, including Diaz, in raising MLB’s highest payroll to $374 million — nearly $100 million more than the second-place Yankees. Maybe Cohen can’t straight-out buy a title, but that wasn’t going to stop him from trying, and locking up Diaz — one day after last year’s World Series ended — was a massive piece to that championship puzzle.
The freakish nature of Diaz’s injury is no consolation to either Cohen or his now-despondent fan base, which had been anxiously counting the minutes to Opening Day (to say nothing of Diaz’s own personal anguish). Aside from his incredible talent, Diaz is a stand-up guy and is well-respected in every clubhouse he’s put up residence. He’s been a tremendous asset for the Mets, and now it appears he is gone for the season.
That’s a massive L to take in mid-March, when games don’t technically count, and that goes for both spring training and the WBC.