AFTER THE worst week of the worst month in the history of the New York Mets, assistant general manager John Ricco decided it was time for some group therapy. The 39-year-old Ricco is one of those young baseball executives trained to read contracts and prepare arbitration cases. But he also took enough psychology classes at Villanova to know about the different ways people cope with loss. � So, after the Mets blew a seven-game lead with 17 to play last September, Ricco composed a memo for his devastated front-office colleagues entitled "The Five Stages of Grief." With the help of a Google search Ricco typed a description of each stage—denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. Then he provided an amateur psychoanalysis of each of his fellow workers, specifying which were stuck in denial and which had moved on to anger, depression or bargaining.
To most Mets executives the memo was artful jest, designed to lighten the mood at a difficult time. But to Jeff Wilpon, the Mets' chief operating officer and the son of principal owner Fred Wilpon, it would prove to be a useful document during a long and therapeutic off-season. Wilpon kept it tucked inside his desk, and he would pull it out to scribble notes in the margins or update the emotional state of his staff.
The memo stayed in Wilpon's desk until Feb. 7, the day after the Mets' introductory press conference for 28-year-old lefthander Johan Santana, whom they acquired from the Minnesota Twins for four prospects and signed to a six-year, $137.5 million contract. To celebrate, Wilpon marched into Ricco's office at Shea Stadium with the memo and said, "You can take this back now. We're moving on. We are starting the five stages of redemption."
SANTANA, A two-time AL Cy Young Award winner, believes he's coming to New York to headline the Mets starting rotation, ease the burden on their bullpen and hoist the team to its first world championship since 1986. And while all that is true, he was also acquired for another, equally significant reason—to help the organization move past its historic collapse and ensure that nothing like it ever happens again. "It's like we were on the Titanic and he is our lifeboat," says Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson. "Someone is coming who can rejuvenate us, who can help us heal."
Santana's spring training entrance was inconspicuous by New York standards. When he arrived at the Mets' complex in Port St. Lucie, Fla., on Feb. 13, there was practically no one there to greet him. A tropical storm was soaking the grounds. Most of the players—and all of the catchers—were gone for the day. But Santana wanted to work, so Randy Niemann, the rehabilitation pitching coordinator, grabbed a catcher's mitt. Peterson found a dry mound that had been covered by a tarp, and for 15 minutes, as Santana's father, Jesus, napped in his car, the Mets' new ace threw in the rain. "That wasn't rain," Peterson says. "It was healing water."
Given what the Mets endured last fall, they may be a little prone to hyperbole these days. Santana views himself not as a symbol of hope and renewal but as a catalyst for a comeback. He insists that the Philadelphia Phillies are still the favorites to win the National League East this season, while acknowledging that the Mets are uniquely motivated. Riding in a golf cart through the Mets' complex, Santana studied his new surroundings. He stopped at a souvenir stand, already stocked with items featuring his number 57. "I'm not going to go out there and try to be a hero," says Santana, the AL's leader in strikeouts for three of the last four seasons. "I'm just going to be myself. And hopefully, with my help, we can make everyone forget what happened last year."
Santana does not know exactly what happened in September, nor does he need to. He was not around when the Mets made six errors against Philadelphia on Sept. 16, or blew a five-run lead against the Washington Nationals on Sept. 26, or gave up seven runs in the first inning against the Florida Marlins four days later. He was not in the clubhouse that final day, after the Mets' sixth loss in seven games, when manager Willie Randolph was teary-eyed and outfielder Moises Alou was enraged. "I hate baseball right now," Alou said as he cleaned out his locker after the season, a sentiment shared by most of Queens.
For the next four months the Mets tried to recapture their love of the game. Peterson read Eastern philosophy and drew sketches of his players. Third baseman David Wright worked out at Shea Stadium, using bad memories to push through drills. "We have a lot of those memories," Wright says. "They are training tools." General manager Omar Minaya read encouraging notes from friends and commiserated with other G.M.'s, reminding himself that the Mets were not alone in their agony. The San Diego Padres had been one strike away from making the playoffs, when Tony Gwynn Jr.—of all people—hit a game-tying triple off Trevor Hoffman to open the door to a key San Diego defeat. Minaya called Padres G.M. Kevin Towers to offer his condolences, but Minaya knew hard work was the only thing that would really help.
The last time the Mets swooned down the stretch, finishing 12--29 in 2004, they reacted swiftly and dramatically. They fired manager Art Howe and demoted G.M. Jim Duquette, hiring Randolph and Minaya and then signing pitcher Pedro Martinez and centerfielder Carlos Beltran. This year, they had to make a similarly drastic move to vanquish the gloom that had descended on the team.
When the Mets' front office convened on Oct. 1 to analyze the breakdown, it was at first unclear if Randolph would be back. But it soon became apparent that they did not need a new manager. Rather, they needed a new starting pitcher, someone who could take the ball with a four-game losing streak and make certain it did not reach five.