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A THUMB WAR IS A DUMB WAR FOR BAEZ AND THE METS
Nothing could be more tone-deaf in 2021 than blaming fans for a team’s collapse, but that’s what Javy Baez has done, shooting double-thumbs-down gestures at the stands in a city that won’t tolerate it
And to think Javier Baez brought his son and held him on his lap, perhaps to soothe his spiteful message at a cold media gathering. But how could a 3-year-old spread any childish charm when, in truth, he was more mature and grounded than his father?
If he had just a smidgen of perspective, Baez would grasp the meaning of life and sport in 2021. He should be thrilled, above all personal insecurities, that paying customers have returned to baseball stadiums. They could be investing dollars on other entertainment options or simply staying safe at home, given the soaring infection rates of the Delta variant. But they’re still showing up, by the millions, across a fraught American landscape.
Thus, if a family of four wants to spend $500 to watch the Mets at Citi Field, or a singular fan wants to spend $50 in the cheaper seats, it’s their sacred right to boo when their team sucks. No one is throwing dangerous objects from the stands. No one is setting fires. No one is jumping onto the field and attacking players. All the fans have done this summer, as the Mets have lost 20 of 29 games and faded from the National League East race, is use their throats to voice disapproval and disgust. A pandemic doesn’t change the terms of the fan contract at a ballpark: Boo until your larynx bleeds, as long as you don’t put players in harm’s way.
When an underachieving newcomer such as Baez has the audacity to lead teammates in flashing thumbs-down gestures at the spectators — as a means of retaliation akin to flipping the bird — the moment begs for a pause and a question: Why would anyone root for these Mets and attend their games? As it is, folks are risking their health in superspreader settings. Why deal with players insulting YOU because of their failures? What’s the deal, Javy?
“To let them know when we don’t get success, we’re going to get booed, so they’re going to get booed when we have success,’’ said Baez, whose 444-foot home run Sunday barely helped a dismal slash line (.210/.258/.414 with 22 strikeouts) since the Mets acquired him from the Chicago Cubs. “We’re not machines. We're going to struggle seven times out of 10. It just feels bad when ... I strike out and get booed. It doesn't really get to me, but I want to let them know that when we're successful, we're going to do the same thing to let them know how it feels.
“In my case, they’ve got to be better.’’
So we have this straight, Baez and the Mets don’t need to be better — the fans do. This is the pathetic dance of the entitled. Baez and teammates who have joined him in the digits-down crusade, including $341-million straggler Francisco Lindor and journeyman outfielder Kevin Pillar, actually think the New Yorkers in the seats are partly to blame for their collapse. “If we win together, then we’ve got to lose together, and the fans are a really big part of it," Baez said. "I play for the fans and I love the fans, but if they're going to do that, they're just putting more pressure on the team. And that's not what we want."
If he’s waiting for a hug, he’d better be prepared for a punch in that city. Pitcher Marcus Stroman was among those chiming in, blaming the local media for riling the fans. “They always are searching for anything to cause controversy,’’ he tweeted. “Stop playing into these narratives."
Narratives? Or the harsh realities of a profession that most big-leaguers grasp when they sign up for the gig? Baez wants a nine-figure contract this offseason as a free agent. What franchise in its right mind would sign him, knowing Major League Baseball is facing record-low broadcast ratings and decaying relevance and doesn’t need one of its flashiest stars inciting the fan base? Baez stopped short of calling himself a slave, and let’s be thankful he didn’t go there, knowing MLB must work hard to retain every fan who still cares. What’s fascinating about this Mets Mess is that the new owner, Steve Cohen, is a longtime fan who took apart his struggling team on social media, writing recently, “It’s hard to understand how professional hitters can be this unproductive. The best teams have a more disciplined approach. The slugging and OPS numbers don’t lie.’’ Rather than heed the boss’ scolding, Baez and the boys have buried themselves in a bunker mentality that doesn’t work in New York or, for that matter, anywhere else in sports.
All you need to know is that Mets president Sandy Alderson, the most old-schoolish of executives, has no interest in protecting his cowardly players. He lashed out at them in a statement, writing: “Mets fans are understandably frustrated over the team's recent performance. The players and organization are equally frustrated, but fans at Citi Field have every right to express their own disappointment. Booing is every fan's right. The Mets will not tolerate any player gesture that is unprofessional in its meaning or is directed in a negative way toward our fans. I will be meeting with our players and staff to convey this message directly." Cohen also weighed in, tweeting that he missed “the days when the biggest controversy was the black jerseys," referring to the club’s use of black uniforms.
Next month, ESPN will air a docuseries about the last Mets team to win a World Series, the party animals of 1986. No New York team should wait 35 years to seize a championship. The curious twist is that the mighty Yankees, who haven’t won the Series in 12 years and appeared to be crumbling again last month, have rallied amid palpable local criticism to position themselves for a postseason berth. No one in the Bronx ever complains about boos. The Yankees get it.
The Mets don’t. Leave it to manager Luis Rojas, who likely will be fired if the Mets don’t reach the playoffs, to voice sensibility. “Especially Mets fans, New York fans, this market, this city knows baseball probably more than any other city," he said. “They have the right to react however they want, and we’ve got to understand where they're coming from. Our job is to be ready every day to give them the best baseball."
On any list of fan disgruntlement and woe, Mets supporters rank among the most aggrieved in sports. Baez should understand the pain of longtime futility, having played in Chicago when the Cubs rebuilt in the early 2010s — around him, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant — before finally breaking a 108-year curse and winning a World Series. After the Cubs salary-dumped their icons, how interesting to see Rizzo contribute to the Yankees’ resurgence while Bryant has augmented the majors-best record of the surprising San Francisco Giants. But this is what people don’t understand about Chicago: It’s a softer town than New York, especially on the North Side. Sure, Cubs fans boo at times. But romance always is somewhere in the air at Wrigley Field, effectively spoiling the likes of Javy Baez.
In the more demanding and pressurized environs of Queens, he has been a common denominator in the team’s slide with base-running mistakes and wickedly bad swings in the batter’s box. His response, somehow, is to wage war against the world. “THUMB WAR!’’ blared the back-page headline of the New York Post, beside a photo of his double-thumbs-down gesture.
For perspective, he might want to flip to the front cover.
“MONSTER!” screamed the headline, referring to Hurricane Ida.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns for Substack and a Wednesday media column for Barrett Sports Media while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.