Can Roberto Alomar rescue himself from the self-doubt which harpooned his batting average last year? After hitting just .266, Alomar is more than just a test-case for the Mets' 2003 re-design. He could be the difference between winning the NL East and another fast sprint to nowhere.
Alomar insists, "I'm going to have a great year" now that he better understands New York's day-to-day surcharges -- the tabloids, the talk-radio, and Mets fans' massive impatience for a winning team.
Alomar admits he was unprepared for such a fast-paced baseball culture, and spent the summer of 2002 looking for a breakthrough hot streak. Instead, the second baseman posted his lowest average since his rookie year in 1988, failing to make it to the All-Star team for the first time since 1989 and saw his streak of three straight Gold Glove awards come to an end.
Somehow, Alomar slipped from being one of the game's top 10 players to just another mysteriously underachieving Met. No wonder club owner Fred Wilpon had dinner with Alomar recently, asking what -- if anything -- the Mets can do to make him comfortable in 2003.
Actually, the question has long-range implications, since Alomar is eligible for free agency in 2004. Thing is, the Mets still don't know what to make of this talented, but skittish star.
All they know is, they're sunk without him.
"I've done a lot of thinking, and I know I'm ready for New York now," Alomar said the other day. "I know what to expect now with the fans, the media, just New York in general. I'm not just going to have a good year, I'm ready to have a great year."
For this to happen, Alomar makes only one on-field request of new manager Art Howe. He wants to bat in the same spot in the batting order every day -- a complete break with former manager Bobby Valentine's philosophy that a fluid lineup produces better offensive results.
Alomar wouldn't mind batting second ahead of, say, Cliff Floyd, but it remains to be seen who GM Steve Phillips will find to play third base. Alomar was mildly critical of the Mets' decision to let Edgardo Alfonzo leave as a free agent, and says, "whoever we get to play third has to be able to hit in the middle of the lineup. We need another right-handed bat."
Alomar is the first to admit he was practically invisible as a right-handed hitter last summer, batting just .204 with only nine extra-base hits in 162 at-bats. Much of the problem, he admits, was self-induced, or as he put it, "putting too much pressure on myself.
"I know what I'm capable of and I tried to do more than that," he said. "I was never able to totally relax."
His anxiety contributed to an overall sense of unease in the Met clubhouse, one the club is finally addressing. Not only did the Mets sign stand-up professionals like Tom Glavine and Mike Stanton this winter, but they traded Rey Ordonez to the Devil Rays -- his fate sealed when the shortstop called Mets fans "stupid" at the end of the 2002 season.
Alomar said, "Rey offended everyone" with his comments. But the Mets still have work to do. After all, Armando Benitez joined Ordonez in refusing to sign autographs during a fan appreciation day last September. Two other players admitted smoking marijuana after a game. And recently, Roger Cedeno was arrested for driving under the influence.
Alomar would like the Mets to hire a liaison to counsel their Latin players. Incredibly, the club doesn't have a Spanish-speaking coach or front-office executive on its staff, and Alomar says, "guys are afraid to speak because of the language problems, and that's not right."
For that reason, Alomar is pushing hard for the Mets to hire his close friend Ray Negron, who's currently serving as the Rangers' cultural liaison. The Mets have received permission from Texas to interview Negron, who is of Puerto Rican descent, and a meeting has been set for Jan. 15 with Phillips.
Wilpon acknowledges Alomar's point about clubhouse-chemistry.
"We have talked about bringing in a person who could be helpful to the players and in their lives," Wilpon told the New York Times. "It certainly is one of the ingredients we think makes for a championship club."
Alomar has a vested interest in the Mets' decision, since he was helped by Negron in Cleveland in the late '90s. In fact, Alomar's best year -- 1999, when he batted .323 with 24 home runs and 120 RBI -- was on Negron's watch.
The Mets would probably balk at the idea of hiring Negron just to be Alomar's guru. Or would they? They desperately need Alomar to return to his All-Star status, and if they're looking for a precedent, the Mets only have to look across town.
The Yankees hired Jason Giambi's personal trainer as a batting practice pitcher last year -- just because Giambi insisted on it.
Of course, the Mets can't assume Alomar can lift them out of last place by himself. They need Mike Piazza to hit closer to his .321 career average, and Mo Vaughn has to do better than last year's .259, his lowest average since 1992. And someone has to replace Alfonzo.
But if Alomar believes he's ready for the high RPMs of New York's baseball engine ... well, the Mets are dying to believe him.
Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.