NEW YORK -- The New York Mets do not need a durable arm or a dangerous bat nearly as much as they need a game changer, a culture shaper, a figure who can impose his will on a big-market franchise with a small-market heart.
Bobby Valentine was that figure once, driving the underdog Mets to the World Series with a carnival barker's approach. After Valentine lost his voice, Omar Minaya drove the Mets to a Game 7 of the National League Championship Series by changing the terms of offseason engagement, convincing Fred Wilpon to fight the good free-agent fight in George Steinbrenner's backyard.
Now that Minaya's magic has worn as thin as the line separating his team from irrelevance, the Mets must find a player, a coach, a manager or an executive who can dramatically alter the dynamics of an organization dealing in the currency of false hope.
Hint: That person isn't Jonathon Niese, Tuesday night's conqueror of the great Adam Wainwright, the very man who froze Carlos Beltran into an ice sculpture in that forever Game 7. It's not Dave Jauss, the bench coach who claimed the 8-2 victory over the Cardinals at Citi Field in the absence of the suspended Jerry Manuel.
It's not Ted Lilly or Brett Myers or Wally Backman, and it sure as hell isn't Bob Melvin. The Mets won't be spending the $100 million in change required this winter to beat the Yankees to Cliff Lee, and they don't have any room for Carl Crawford now that they've handed over left field to the concussed Jason Bay.
Joe Torre could be the one free agent on the board who is affordable, soaking wet with credibility and capable of elevating the Mets with the singular power of his presence.
A blowout victory isn't often the occasion to address a managerial change, even if the resident manager wasn't dressed for that blowout victory, but big-picture facts are big-picture facts: At best, Jerry Manuel is a long shot to be running the Mets on Opening Day 2011.
Manuel isn't the worst manager in creation, but over time he's done almost nothing to leave a footprint, to make this team his. If you can't imagine your manager winning a World Series -- and how many Mets fans can honestly picture Manuel leading this franchise into the Canyon of Heroes? -- the posse will catch the man before the man catches the parade.
So the Mets must take a broad survey of a landscape low on options. They won't lay out nine figures for a franchise pitcher or player, but they do have the means to offer a 70-year-old free agent $20 million over three years and take their chances.
Of course, Torre could choose to sign a new deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and hope the live scrimmaging between owner Frank McCourt and wife Jamie -- both sides are expected in full pads Aug. 30 for trial -- won't leave next year's team with a payroll that makes Pittsburgh's look positively Steinbrenneresque.
Only that doesn't appear to be the smart bet. Torre called off contract negotiations in the spring, and when Cubs manager Lou Piniella announced he's retiring at season's end, the four-time champion with the Yankees didn't rule out Chicago as the next stop on his one-for-the-thumb tour.
"I don't anticipate managing anymore if I'm not doing it here," Torre said then, "but you're certainly crazy if you don't listen to things. I'm not saying that as a come-on to anybody, trust me. I'm just doing that so I don't say, 'I'm definitely not going to do it,' and all of a sudden I'm a liar somewhere down the road. I don't want to be that."
Torre doesn't want to be a liar, and he doesn't want to do something crazy like turn a deaf ear to prospective employers with bigger payrolls and healthier front-office marriages.
The Cubs have become the preferred potential destination for everyone and his brother -- Torre, Joe Girardi and Bobby Valentine either have been mentioned as candidates by others (Torre, Girardi) or have done the mentioning themselves (Valentine).
The Wilpons have been there, done that with Bobby V., and Girardi isn't dumping the Yanks to manage the Mets. That leaves Torre. Yes, he's under contract. But Torre more or less declared his free agency by suspending the earlier talks and announcing he'd let the Dodgers know his intentions in the coming weeks.
The Mets would be wise to express interest in Torre through the back channels that shape every major deal in professional sports. If they don't know how it works, call Pat Riley.
Torre still owns his home in Westchester and still pushes enough of the appropriate human buttons to be worth his price. The Dodgers had gone 19 years without winning a postseason series before Torre advanced them to the NLCS in his first two attempts.
Fired by the Mets in the dawn of his second career, Torre should know a return to Queens makes all kinds of full-circle sense. It doesn't matter that his temperament mirrors Manuel's and that firing teams usually court replacements with opposite styles.
Joe Torre is Joe Torre. He'd be the most qualified candidate the Mets ever hired.
Tuesday night, after Beltran solved Wainwright almost four years too late, the Mets weren't in any mood to discuss a regime change. "We needed that very badly," said Manuel, benched for bumping the bill of an umpire's cap.
Before the game, Manuel's giddy replacement joked about the reeling Mets to PR man Jay Horwitz. "It's a well-oiled machine," Jauss said. "It can score zero runs with anybody at the helm."
Or eight runs with Howard Johnson teaching guys how to hit.
In his pregame news conference, Manuel stepped in front of the freight train heading Johnson's way by saying of the disastrous West Coast trip, "You have to put it on the manager."
One hundred games into the season, and more than two years into Manuel's stay, you have to put the identity-free Mets on the manager's desk.
This franchise needs a franchise player, and here's the thing:
Joe Torre is the only one it can afford.