Psychologists call it "learned indifference." Shock a lab rat 20 times, and it reacts to each jolt. Shock it again and it remains motionless. It accepts its fate. It is a form of numbness.
By late Wednesday, the Mets had been shocked far more than 20 times in a season gone bad. Indifference had been learned weeks earlier. Numbness had taken effect. You can't hurt if you can't feel.
For four years running, the Mets and their support system have endured untold disappointment. Until the 2009 season, though, the disappointment was late developing and acute, caused by a final-day shortfall that undermined all that had been achieved previously and washed away almost all sense of accomplishment.
The 2009 season was quite different, disappointing in an alternate and sickening way. Long before Dukes dashed the Mets' 158th-game hope, any semblance of group accomplishment had been washed away by pile upon pile of adversity. Indifference had to be learned as a defense mechanism. Numbness was on the Mets' bench and their buses, beginning in June. It had a locker in their clubhouses for weeks. The Novocaine of regular defeat had anesthetized them.
But because of it, they couldn't feel good either.
And that is part of what the Mets will have to overcome next season. With a few exceptions, the game hasn't been fun for them for weeks. Whether it is accomplished by time away, the acquisition of a high-caliber player and a change of leadership, the Mets need be renewed. They need to wash off 2009. They have to be cured of the indifference they learned as much as they need to recover from the all-too-regular episodes of unsound baseball.
Otherwise the 2009 season will infect next season, and the first ugly defeat -- all teams endure unbecoming losses -- will prompt "here we go again" thoughts. "Turn the page" is a popular baseball mantra. But pages sometime resist.
Until the Mets are cleansed -- brainwashed -- 2009 won't be over. So much of baseball is about personal self-deception -- the pitcher who convinces himself he can deal with Albert Pujols or the batter who tricks his mind into thinking he can handle Roy Halladay. But a team isn't readily brainwashed. Memory can be an albatross. And what memories of '09 can the Mets have that are positive?
The season was dreadful and potentially harmful beyond itself.
A examination of what made the Mets' 2009 so tough follows:
Record: 70-92, fourth place in the National League East.
Defining moment: The instance that best represents the Mets' season happened neither on the field nor in the clubhouse nor on the dugout steps where Luis Castillo twisted his ankle in August, but rather on the disabled list. There Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Johan Santana, John Maine, J.J. Putz and Alex Cora spent weeks. But what defined the Mets' season of multiple medical maladies that was the team's primary undoing was that Delgado strained his right oblique while rehabbing his right hip. He suffered a disability while disabled.
Now that was piling on, the equivalent of your wheels being rear-ended after you've been T-boned. Reyes also endured a similar double-jeopardy experience last week when he tore his right hamstring while trying -- not successfully -- to overcome a torn tendon in the same leg. But his problems were limited to one leg. Delgado's suffered a second unrelated injury as he was nearing the end of his DL assignment.
What went right: Very little. In almost every instance, a dark cloud accompanied a silver lining. Or no silver lining existed at all. Castillo produced a renaissance season, though it had little impact, Pedro Feliciano performed rather well in many brief opportunities and the acquisition and performance of Jeff Francoeur was without drawback. Omir Santos was a revelation until the league threw him breaking balls. Daniel Murphy was a better first baseman than he was a left fielder, but so was Dave Kingman. Cora did all he could until his thumbs betrayed him. Tim Redding finished well. And Wilson Valdez performed at a level thought to be beyond his skill. But those were mostly modest developments in the grand scheme.
What went wrong: Thank goodness this is cyberspace. Injuries, poor play, the tendency to make the grand misplay, too many walks by the pitchers, too few home runs from the hitters, so many mindless plays and mistakes on the basepaths.
The Nationals' lack of quality pitching is all that stood between the Mets and last place. In a season of decline, the Mets lost:
More games than they had in any season since 2003
A player to an ankle injury suffered on the dugout steps
A run when a player didn't touch third base
Twice on walk-off grand slams
Three straight games to the Nationals
Fly balls in the twilight
Five of six games against the Yankees
The middle of their batting order
Fly balls in the lights
A game when a former Gold Glove winner dropped a 27th-out popup
Runs and baserunners when players didn't slide
Fly balls in the sun
Most of their starting rotation to injury
A game when they hit into a ninth-inning triple play
Three straight to the Pirates
The biggest question heading into 2010 -- so many uncertainties developed in 2009 that if the Mets are limited to one question, it must be, "When will it all end?" It applies primarily to injuries and the unconditional availability of Reyes, Santana, Beltran, Maine, et al. But the question applies as well to Wright's diminished production, Mike Pelfrey's regress and the regular indications of a stunning lack of fundamentals. The overriding question involving one player concerns Reyes' leg. A repaired torn hamstring may require months to mend.
Biggest surprise: That the current administration has survived this season. The way the team performed in the final 10 weeks reflects on manager Jerry Manuel and, to a lesser degree, general manager Omar Minaya more than record and standing do. Poor baseball -- fundamentally flawed performance and lack of concentration -- was pervasive and, though acknowledged, it seemingly was tolerated as well.