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The Thumb of All Jeers

After Javier Báez revealed the meaning behind some Mets’ recent fan-directed gestures, backlash came swiftly and forcefully. But the frustration that underlines all sides of this story stems from a much deeper place.

Getty Images/AP/Ringer illustration

All Javier Báez had to do was lie.

After Sunday’s win against Washington, the Mets infielder was asked to explain the thumbs-down celebration he and a few teammates had been using over the previous few weeks. He could’ve said, “We watched Gladiator on the team charter,” or “It’s about how the other team is going down,” or something anodyne and forgettable. The reasoning didn’t have to be particularly credible—ballplayers come up with weird inside jokes all the time.

But the two-time All-Star instead decided to drop some baking soda into the vat of vinegar that is the 2021 New York Mets.

“It feels bad when I strike out and I get booed,” Báez told reporters. “It doesn’t really get to me, but I want to let [the fans] know that when we’re successful, we’re going to do the same thing, to let them know how it feels.”

As soon as that quote went out, a baseball-watching nation put its palm on its collective forehead and prepared for the Discourse. Many Mets fans, who were already pissed off about the team’s tumble out of first place, did not react well to the news that the thumbs-down was not only directed at them, but that it was code for a different digit in a different orientation. Team president Sandy Alderson quickly released a statement on Medium—a press release on Medium is the Cadillac of Notes App apologies—to denounce Báez’s behavior and reaffirm the fans’ right to boo their own team.

“These comments, and any gestures by him or other players with a similar intent,” Alderson wrote, “are totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated.” Alderson also used the word “unprofessional” later in his statement.

New York’s famous tabloids jumped on the story like a hungry dog on an unattended bratwurst. The same night, ESPN’s Buster Olney wondered out loud whether Báez’s behavior would affect him in free agency. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay—a man who knows a thing or two about PR disastersinvoked the “What About the Children?” clause. No one captured the absurdity of the situation better than Mets owner Steve Cohen, who mused: “I miss the days when the biggest controversy was the black jerseys.”

Too true, Steve. Too true.

If the Mets were still in first place, we probably would still be talking about the black jerseys. Because this controversy isn’t really about Báez, or even the fans. It’s about the fact that the Mets have gone 8-19 in August, and within four weeks went from having one hand on the division title to being out of the race altogether. That’s why Cohen is bad-mouthing his players on Twitter. That’s why, when Marcus Stroman criticized Daily News writer Deesha Thosar for being negative about the Mets, Thosar was able to say she was reporting the truth about a disappointing team. That’s why the fans are booing. And that is the main reason the players are so frustrated.

The Mets came into this season with huge expectations and have failed to meet them. Of course everyone’s frustrated. But the level and universality of that frustration didn’t have to reach the breaking point we saw on Sunday.

As inexplicable as Báez’s admission was, I have a lot of sympathy for him and the other Mets players who have been making the thumbs-down gesture.

Professional sports occupies an unusual place in the American cultural environment, in that it’s a consumer good that gets baked into people’s identity. If the neighborhood doughnut shop starts putting out an inferior product, customers will go somewhere else. But if the local baseball team stinks, most fans will continue to support it.

That uncommon loyalty is what has made MLB and its teams so significant. But part and parcel of loving something is—or at least should be—criticizing it when it goes off the rails. Unceasing positivity in defiance of fact isn’t love or support, it’s Stockholm syndrome. People who love the Mets want the team to succeed, to feel pride from that association. And right now, the team isn’t holding up its end of the bargain. So fans have the right—within certain bounds of decorum—to voice that displeasure where the team can hear it.

The thing is, as pissed off as Dan from Staten Island is that the Mets are four games under .500, Báez must be all the more frustrated. It’s not like he doesn’t know he has a .258 OBP since being traded to New York, or that he doesn’t appreciate the impact that performance has had on the team. If there was something he could do to turn his fortunes around in time to save the Mets’ season, you have to think he would do it. Because a slump must be even more soul-sapping to live through than it is to watch from the stands.

In that respect, I understand why Báez, Francisco Lindor, and Kevin Pillar would get upset when their own fans get on their case, and why they would want to slyly vent some of their frustration. Getting booed or criticized sucks, even when it’s justified by performance. Maybe it was a petty act, but Alderson’s characterization of it as “unprofessional” is a little precious. If it had remained an inside joke, it wouldn’t be a big deal.

But now that it’s public, it’s hard to imagine this being nearly as big a story under other circumstances. Athletes get into it with fans all the time. Once a week, some MLB team commits an inexplicable PR own-goal. And there are plenty of other teams playing their way out of the playoff race. The Padres have been just as rake-stepping-ly shambolic since the trade deadline as the Mets. And while morale could be higher in San Diego, at least the Padres aren’t giving their crisis communications team as many reps as the Mets are.

Which is the real problem here. Maybe Mets fans are extra frustrated because the greater New York area has more people with dyspeptic dispositions than other regions of the country. Maybe there are—as James Wagner of The New York Times pointed out—just so many Mets fans that the boos seem louder. Maybe these fans, whose team has had a broadly average existence since its founding almost 60 years ago, have simply embraced haplessness as a matter of brand identity. Or maybe there’s legitimately a lot to gripe about.

So many of the team’s problems predate not only Báez—who’s been around for only a month—but the rest of the roster, as well as Alderson and Cohen. Cohen arrived on the scene this year with tens of billions of dollars in his pocket and talked a big game from the start, suggesting that his wealth would give the Mets a leg up on teams that were cutting payroll during the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s not like the Mets had a bad offseason—the Lindor–Carlos Carrasco trade was an absolute coup, as was retaining Stroman and signing Taijuan Walker. But the club also brought in James McCann instead of J.T. Realmuto and Trevor May instead of George Springer. When Carrasco got hurt and Lindor struggled out of the gate, they never quite put the even more dysfunctional Phillies and Braves to bed, leaving the door open for the late-season collapse we’ve seen this year.

And off the field, things have been even worse. In January, the Mets fired their new GM, Jared Porter, after a reporter said that Porter had sexually harassed her while he was working as the Cubs’ pro scouting director in 2016. A day after that report came out, Cohen promised to put a stop to that kind of behavior within the organization. Then, fewer than two weeks later, The Athletic reported that five women who work in sports media said former Mets manager Mickey Callaway had sexually harassed them. The Mets said they knew about an incident and investigated it, but they did not reveal the results of the investigation or whether Callaway had been punished. A follow-up report in April detailed numerous further harassment reports about Mets higher-ups in multiple departments that the team had failed to act on.

This summer, amid a leaguewide reckoning over wages and working conditions for minor league ballplayers, the Mets came under fire for offering low pay and no housing stipend in the team’s minor league system. On July 3, Cohen promised a response to these issues by “late next week.” The Mets eventually quietly started reforming the program, but no comprehensive report has yet been published.

In the meantime, the Mets received a tremendous stroke of good luck when Kumar Rocker, one of the best pitchers in this year’s draft and perhaps the biggest star in the class, fell into their laps with the no. 10 pick. But they not only reneged on giving the Vanderbilt righty an over-slot signing bonus, they also failed to pick any other players worth reallocating their bonus pool money to, therefore doughnut-holing their entire draft class. The club cited balky medicals in Rocker’s case, but the Blue Jays seemed happy enough to sign Ole Miss righty Gunnar Hoglund for around slot with the 19th pick, despite Hoglund’s Tommy John surgery. And in 2015, after the Dodgers found out that Vanderbilt first-rounder Walker Buehler needed Tommy John surgery after the draft, they signed him anyway and had their confidence paid back 10 times over.

Finally, as the big league club was dropping in the standings like a penny thrown from the Empire State Building, star pitcher Jacob deGrom was shut down for two weeks with elbow inflammation that turned into a monthlong IL trip and now a likely season-ending injury. Noah Syndergaard, who was an elite starter when he last took the mound two years ago, is also lagging behind an optimistic rehab timetable, and it’s quite possible he has thrown his last pitch with the Mets. The very morning of the Great Báez Thumb Incursion, the club couldn’t get its story straight about whether the big right-hander had contracted COVID or suffered a “non-baseball injury.”

Every team has embarrassing moments, frustrating losses, and instances of moral failure. The Mets could have weathered the thumb incident, the August collapse, and perhaps even the reports about the organization’s leadership and overall culture.

But only if these incidents were anomalies.

Instead, it took me 1,700 words to get to this point because it takes that long to even list a representative sample of the ways the Mets have embarrassed themselves—and by association, their fans—in the past few years. Why should the fans continue to give the team the benefit of the doubt? Why shouldn’t they boo?

Like most Mets cataclysms, this incident will fade into the background. Báez’s free-agent stock won’t be affected. Lindor and the fans will make up because, with 10 years left on the shortstop’s contract, they really don’t have any other choice. But blowups like this will keep happening. Not only because they happen all over sports, but because the Mets’ senior leadership keeps pushing blame downstream. Fixing a problem requires proactive leadership at all levels, not just appointing a fall guy.

Again, the relationship between fan and team is an emotional attachment. And as in any relationship, trust, once lost, must be earned back. In this case, that can happen through winning, through good community outreach, and by doing right by those within the organization.

Sure, the Mets’ players could stand to be a little more circumspect in front of the public going forward. But it seems that every time Alderson responds to a crisis—whether one as petty as the thumb incident or one as serious as the team’s toxic workplace culture—he takes a screw out of his Hall of Fame plaque. And while Cohen continues to talk a big game, his Twitter bravado can’t mask the fact that his very expensive team is fatally flawed, and he has more power than he lets on to fix both the roster and the corporate culture.

Alderson and Cohen alone have the ability to paint over the Mets’ legacy of curious self-sabotage. A legacy that, for all its staying power, fans would be willing to forget in an instant if “count the rings” became available as a motto. Maybe after such a tumultuous season, they’ll take that opportunity. If not, the fans in the stands know how to react. They’ve had plenty of practice.