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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Improvement of Mets' Jason Vargas doesn't trump his classlessness

Jason Vargas of the Mets delivers a pitch

Jason Vargas of the Mets delivers a pitch against the Phillies during the first inning of a baseball game at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday in Philadelphia. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Rich Schultz

PHILADELPHIA —-  Before Jason Vargas decided to threaten a reporter, he was virtually invisible on his off days. And before this season began, it seemed like most people never wanted to see Vargas in a Mets’ uniform again. Period. 

Even when Vargas made it back, the public still clamored to have him swapped out for Gio Gonzalez in April. But Vargas’ one champion was his former agent,  GM Brodie Van Wagenen, who showed faith that the 36-year-old lefthander might have something left.

And Vargas did. Not only that, he’s rebounded to become the second-best starter in the Mets’ underachieving rotation. On any other day, that’s a great story.  

But not Wednesday, when Vargas took on the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. 

Sure Vargas dominated into the seventh inning, and matched a career-high with 10 strikeouts. The Phillies  touched him for only three hits, and Vargas allowed just two earned runs in trimming his ERA to 3.66, trailing only Jacob deGrom’s 3.25 in the rotation.

Vargas was right on track for his fourth victory — until the Phillies went to work on Seth Lugo and flushed the "W" with three runs in the seventh inning en route to the Mets’ 5-4 loss in 10 innings. 

Tough break.  

We could have kept this all about the pitching with Vargas, but he pulled everyone into a whole different conversation last Sunday, the last thing his free-falling team needed. That’s because Vargas thought it would be better to step outside his pitching lane and instead step toward Newsday’s Tim Healey, threatening to “knock him out” in the tiny visitors' clubhouse at Wrigley Field.

Healey, as well as other eyewitnesses, maintains there was no provocation. And only moments earlier, Mickey Callaway had cursed out Healey and barked at the Mets’ PR staff to have him removed from the clubhouse — apparently ignited by the reporter saying, “See you tomorrow Mickey.” 

Before Wednesday’s first pitch, Vargas refused to address the situation, offering only a 34-second statement as one of the Mets’ seven — yes, seven — impromptu news conferences Monday. But Vargas finally did take questions on the matter as part of Wednesday’s postgame wrap, and when I asked him to explain what happened in Chicago, he stopped short of giving his version of the events.

“It was an unfortunate confrontation,” Vargas said. “I don’t think all the information is really out there. I don’t think this is the time to get into that. But I think that anybody that knows me or anybody that’s played with me through the duration of my career, knows there’s never been a situation like that. So to think that it just happened out of the blue would be foolish. For the info to be out there like that and for one side to be told, is just not it.”

Duly noted. But when I asked Vargas again why he hasn’t told his side of the story — because he claimed it was different— the pitcher still deferred.

“Because it’s over,” Vargas said. “Our organization made a statement. We put an end to it. But I think it’s pretty obvious that all the info wasn’t out there.”

Not exactly an airtight defense, but that’s what we’re left with in the aftermath of the Mets’ stumbling series of mea culpas since Monday. At least a few members of the organization tried to show remorse for that Wrigley disgrace, as awkward as some of those attempts were.

It actually doesn’t take much to say you’re sorry for unacceptable, bullying behavior. To do the right thing. Maybe it took Callaway two tries to make amends in the public forum, but he also apologized to Healey in a private conversation beforehand. Vargas has yet to do so.

The entire Mets’ production Monday felt lacking. Callaway sort of copped to setting a bad example, but Vargas’ act of defiance that day spoke to the authority void that exists in the manager’s office. Nobody in the clubhouse fears the manager when they all assume Van Wagenen is calling the shots anyway. And as a players’ GM, there’s really no worry of being disciplined by Brodie, either.

“I understand that I can’t control the actions of others or the words of others, but I can always control my reaction to those things,” Callaway said Monday. “I think everybody deserves respect, regardless of job title or role and I hope people can understand that this is a tough game played by passionate competitors.”

Sounds more like excuse-making, or ducking responsibility. The classic symptoms of a failing, desperate team.

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