NEW YORK -- Mets general manager Sandy Alderson was dancing a fine line of logic -- and not very convincingly -- as he stood against a cinder-block wall near the indoor batting cage at Citi Field a few hours before the Mets' Opening Day game Monday against the Washington Nationals.
The subject for a good part of his 13-minute talk with reporters was Alderson's spring training contention that the Mets are a 90-win team. The source of his mild irritation?
Alderson insisted it wasn't the robust skepticism that his prediction caused. Rather, it was the fact that the number leaked out publicly at all.
And the longer Alderson talked, the more it felt as though Alderson needs someone to tell him he can't have it both ways.
If Alderson's goal was indeed what he took such pains to portray it as -- a show of leadership, a conscious decision (as he described it Monday) to "change the conversation" and the losing culture of the Mets' organization -- then Alderson can't turn around now that his 90-win goal leaked out and say, "Oops. There it is."
That move undermines any real bold agenda setting.
Yet there Alderson stood anyway, tersely admitting: "I'm never thrilled when private conversations are disclosed publicly, which happens all too frequently in connection with the Mets. [But] shame on me. Let's put it this way: Any time anything is said -- anything of an interesting or somewhat controversial nature -- it tends to become public. So shame on me for assuming that it wouldn't. And, actually, I didn't assume that it wouldn't. Around here you have to assume that everything that's said eventually becomes public."
The truth is, if these Mets win 90 games or more, the summer wouldn't just be a whole lot more fun around here, Terry Collins would be the front-runner for manager of the year and Alderson would be in the running for NL executive of the year. They will have turned straw into gold bricks.
Godspeed to them both if it happens. It just probably won't -- especially not in a division that also includes the Nationals and Braves.
So while it's fine for Alderson to stand up Monday and confess his weariness with past years' talk that the Mets will run out a "competitive" or scrappy team, Alderson also has to shelve the self-serving chagrin.
The Mets can't expect their fans nor the media to go ahead and lap up the 90-win prediction wholesale -- not even on an occasion like Opening Day, when hope is supposed to spring eternal -- when they're a large-market team that swears it's beyond the Bernie Madoff disaster, and yet still sports, at $89 million, just the 22nd-highest payroll in the majors. That's about $114 million less than the crosstown Yanks are spending, and tens of millions less than the Nats ($134.7 million) or Braves ($110.8 million) are dishing out.
As Alderson also surely knows, hanging up a specific win total that high for a Mets club that won only 74 games -- even with the benefit of ace Matt Harvey in Cy Young contention most of 2013 -- was always more of a rah-rah stunt than a real-world probability.
Alderson also did manager Collins no favors.
And New York being New York, 90 is sure to remain a yearlong measuring stick or reason to buggy whip and mock the Mets.
Bet on both.
Monday's game was a microcosm of why. The Mets were genuinely fun to watch as they rode home runs from two unlikely sources -- left fielder Andrew Brown and center fielder Juan Lagares -- to a 5-4 lead entering the bottom of the ninth. And still, it was telling when closer Bobby Parnell walked the first batter he faced, and then fell behind Adam LaRoche 2-1. The crowd moaned and groaned with every subsequent off-target ball Parnell threw.
At Citi, easily triggered doubts and nightmarish flashbacks are hard things to shake for good reason. Parnell then completed the deed, blowing the save by allowing the game-tying run to score. In fact, nearly everyone else Collins trotted out of the bullpen struggled to avoid walking the Nats' batters (this though as Collins noted, "Hitting's hard"). And the Nationals finally turned a three-run homer by Anthony Rendon in the top of the 10th into a 9-7 win.
Stop me if you've heard this before: "It started out great," Mets third baseman David Wright sighed.
Parnell, who is coming off neck surgery, wasn't mentioned when Alderson volunteered before the game that this year's bullpen needed to be better than last year's disappointing group. And after being gently reminded that 90 wins looks especially shaky since the Mets aren't exactly thrilled with shortstop Ruben Tejada or their unresolved platoon situation at first base, the GM smiled a tight smile and answered a reporter's question about his 90-win goal with another question: Do you think I didn't anticipate the skepticism?
Alderson added he was unconcerned with how the "optics" look.
"It [90 wins] wasn't a guarantee. It wasn't a prediction. It was a challenge, OK?" Alderson said. "A challenge to all of us internally."
Yet the words "90 wins" sit in full view anyway.
Oops. There it is.