Catching up with the Mets’ unintentional savior

Smiles all around 

Note — With the videos below, you might want to use headphones. The audio came in a bit low.

In response to Ed Randall’s question on Tuesday night about potentially adding another Wild Card team to the playoff scenario, Sandy Alderson furrowed his brow and said, “Well, I haven’t actually given it much thought…”

He paused, and a wry smile crept in at the corners of the Mets’ new general manager’s mouth.

“Given our situation, I think I’d be in favor of it.” Fifty or so baseball fans nodded and chuckled.

The 63-year-old Alderson — who was participating in a Q&A to benefit Randall’s prostate cancer awareness charity, Fans for the Cure — is perfectly contoured to the impatient New York sports world in that he’s kind of above the fray. He’s the son of an Air Force Pilot, he’s a Marine and he did a tour in Vietnam.

He constantly appears bemused, confident in his methods, track record and reputation.

*****

Ed asked me to work the door; I was glad to help out a good cause, and also for the opportunity to see Alderson in person. I was pleased when Anderson got the job, I like his demeanor in his media appearances and I was particularly amused by his attempted ambush at the hands of Mike Francesa, who likes to fancy himself the smartest guy in the room — somewhat difficult when you’re across from a Harvard law grad.

The main take from Tuesday’s event, the aspect that made the back page of the tabloids, is that Alderson almost certainly would not have gone after this job on his own. We all knew Bud Selig wanted Alderson to get the position, but I didn’t know quite the extent that Selig pushed him to get involved with the interview process.

It goes to follow that Alderson has always run parallel to Donnie Walsh in certain regards. Walsh was David Stern’s hand-picked candidate to turn around the Knicks, also a landmark New York team bereft of recent success amid a terrible atmosphere. Walsh changed the way the Knicks operated, much the same as what Alderson surely has in store for the Mets, who he called “an iconic franchise.”

The difference is that running the Knicks was a dream job for Walsh, a New York native. Alderson has no such motivation. In certain ways, Alderson is still working for Selig; he’s just cashing checks from someone else — someone whose finances are famously very much in doubt because of Bernard Madoff.

Alderson admitted with a laugh that he “didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the Mets over the last few years” — understandably so — and that he previously had a “vague understanding of the problems they were facing.” He also said he didn’t expect the Wilpons to have to sell the team, though who really knows?

(Alderson said that though he doesn’t expect the Madoff situation to affect the way he operates, he expects the currently all-time high Mets payroll to come down in future years, but to the $120 million level, which would leave just five teams spending more than they would be according to the 2010 numbers. That would be more than enough to field a winning team, and certainly more than he’s ever had at his disposal.)

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I have no doubt that if given enough time, Alderson’s going to turn things around. I think he enjoys his work and have to believe he fully has his heart into continuing to build his legacy. He’s built winning teams with limited resources in Oakland and San Diego, so it’s easy to imagine him doing the same thing with the financial advantages he’d have with the Mets.

Much like with the pre-Walsh Knicks, what the Mets have sorely needed is to replace their short-sighted thinking with a coherent plan for future solvency. They need to change the culture. That’s where Alderson comes in.

Improving your team isn’t just about throwing money at free agents. It’s also about scouting, it’s about player development. We have a great operation in Latin America with the Dominican Republic, signing players from Venezuela and other places. We’re going to be a lot more aggressive in the way we scout and sign players. We want to be a lot more systematic and provide a lot more continuity in our player development system.

Sounds good, right? It gets better.

To develop players, to allow themselves to develop at the Major League level, sometimes you’ve got to give them an opportunity. Certain places, some big market areas, that opportunity isn’t afforded to them. There has to be immediate performance. So what we need to do is to be able to introduce our own players as time goes on, but at the same time supplement that with free agency. I use the word supplement because I think that’s what you have to look at. It can’t be your primary source of talent. It has to be something that is complementary with what you’re doing with the farm system and player development.

These comments, a sea change from previous regimes that operated like the poor man’s Yankees, aren’t of the sort that get your typical caller to the Francesa Radio Network riled up to buy season tickets. But it’s the line of thinking that leads to a self-sustaining organization. Winning speaks for itself, and it sells better than anything else.

*****

Alderson knows his job is not just to build a long-term winner, but to mend bridges with scorned fans. That’s the subset he’s tasked with winning over — people whose skepticism and neuroticism has been bred by years of disappointment and perceived alienation, and yet who braved frigid temperatures and icy conditions to check out the latest savior who purported to lead their team back to the promised land.

Over the course of two hours, Alderson said what you’d figure he’d say about extending Jose Reyes — “It makes sense to actually see him play before we make those kinds of decisions.”

He said the right things about New York — “It’s a baseball town. That’s a big difference from Oakland and San Diego. … I like the fact that baseball’s talked about 365, it’s always a topic. That’s energizing.”

And he took the time to shake the hand of every last fan who made the trek — looking them in the eye, thanking them for coming and listening patiently to their ideas and questions.

Alderson doesn’t provide the instant gratification of flashy free-agent signings that serve as band-aids on an axe wound. What he does offer is honesty and legitimacy, refreshing traits for a fan base that often has felt as if the team does not listen to its needs and desires.

During the media portion of the event, someone asked Alderson if this job had been more than he had bargained for. Alderson flatly said no, adding, “You never know. When I went to the Dominican Republic, 1,000 people demonstrated outside my hotel the first week.”

Alderson’s done it all, been it all, seen it all. Mets fans should be patient, knowing they’re in good hands, but it won’t deter Alderson if they’re not. Given time, I have no doubt he’ll set the Mets up for the same sort of success he’s personally accustomed to.

Even if taking the job wasn’t his idea.

Esoteric

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