PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Orange T-shirts, with a blue "U" printed on the front to match the logo Underdog wore in the old television cartoon, were placed in every player's locker at New York Mets camp Monday.
Without explanation, they probably meant little. After all, 41-year-old Miguel Batista, the oldest player in camp, was all of 2 years old when the cartoon went off the air in 1973.
The T-shirts, conceived by chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon and endorsed by manager Terry Collins, were meant to convey this: The Mets can be motivated by outside skepticism -- or, as Collins put it, that 29 clubs feel they are better than the Mets.
The comedy of the whole thing, though, is a New York team using the concept of being an underdog as a rallying cry. Even face-of-the-franchise David Wright seemed a bit uncomfortable with the idea.
"I don't really like using the whole underdog thing," Wright said. "I don't like really playing that card.
"I think it's just a way to remind everybody in here that the outside expectations aren't the expectations that we have for ourselves. And I think Terry did a good job of kind of conveying it today, because obviously the expectations from the outside are low, and understandably so."
Principal owner Fred Wilpon addressed the media for 22 minutes Monday, the day of the first full-squad workout. He attempted to suggest a projected $52 million payroll drop was not primarily the result of becoming entangled in Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme.
He insisted the Mets had tried the high-payroll way but the team made bad investments in players' contracts. (Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo, anyone?) Now the Mets will go the patient, farm system route, Fred Wilpon said. When they are close to a title, they will make that big investment to push them over the top, either via free agent or trade, as the organization did when it acquired Gary Carter before the 1985 season, which set up a championship the following year.
Yet in saying general manager Sandy Alderson's fiscally conservative principles were the reason for what is expected to be the largest one-year payroll drop in major league history -- about $52 million, to $91 million -- Fred Wilpon was hardly convincing.
The Mets very well might have been outbid for Jose Reyes' services in the end by the Miami Marlins. After all, the Marlins were so determined to have the shortstop that they might have kept bidding higher than the six-year, $106 million offer that was required to land Reyes if the Mets were more active. But the Mets capped what they were willing to bid at five years with a vesting option and never even formally submitted it to Reyes' agents. Only if Reyes stayed healthy and in the lineup would an option for 2017 have kicked in that would have raised the value of Reyes' contract in Queens to $100 million.
The Mets are not the Yankees, but do they really have to be the Pittsburgh Pirates?
If nothing else, it is inarguable that the Mets could have picked up a righty-hitting catcher to complement Josh Thole, a bona fide second left-hander for the bullpen, a lefty-hitting backup outfielder and some sort of middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher if only another $10 million to $15 million had been made available. That could be the difference between a 90-loss season and perhaps flirting with wild-card contention. To suggest Alderson would not willingly have taken the payroll to at least the $100 million or $110 million range had the constraints imposed on him not been so tight seemingly denies reality.
Instead, the Mets printed up T-shirts with "U" on the front. And quickly on Twitter the jokes started flying.
One fan suggested "I" and "O" be printed on the other side of the T-shirt. Another suggested printing just one letter on the side opposite the "U," although it is certainly not repeatable.