Now that, to steal from “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story,” was a bold strategy for Francisco Lindor.
Let’s see if it pays off for him.
The Mets’ $341-million man enjoyed his best game with his new team, slamming a game-tying, two-run homer in the seventh inning as the Mets registered arguably their biggest win of the season, 5-4 in 10 innings over the Diamondbacks at Citi Field. Yet following the game, the result became secondary to an out-of-sight disagreement, dutifully documented by the Mets’ own regional sports network, SNY, between Lindor and his double-play partner Jeff McNeil in the middle of the seventh inning.
That disagreement, a laughing Lindor told reporters a few minutes after the Mets prevailed on a swinging bunt by rookie Patrick Mazeika (his first career RBI), entailed whether Lindor and McNeil, situated in the tunnel that connects the home team’s dugout to its clubhouse saw a rat or a raccoon.
“I told [McNeil], ‘Hey, I’ve never seen a New York rat,’ ” Lindor explained. “So we went down sprinting to go see a New York rat. And he got mad at me. He’s like, ‘No, it’s not a rat, it’s a raccoon.’ I’m like, ‘Hell, no, man.’ … Crazy, because we were going back and forth whether it was a rat or raccoon.”
Crazy, because was Lindor, his historically excellent media relations skills giving him a sixth tool of sorts, blow-torching his credibility on the same night he (at least temporarily) silenced the boos?
The answer can be no, as long as whatever happened with McNeil — something that obviously was more consequential than an intense debate over animal type — doesn’t reoccur, like a raccoon making another run at your garbage can.
“It’s great,” McNeil said of his relationship with Lindor. “He’s fantastic to be around. I enjoy working up the middle with him and I look forward to working with him all year.”
Critically, McNeil backed up Lindor on his ludicrous story, embellishing it with his own touch: “To be honest, I thought it was actually a possum.” If McNeil had chosen to no-comment with his best stone face, or simply blow off the media — a choice far easier now in this pandemic time of Zoom access only — then he would have set off alarms.
The alarms went off when Michael Conforto, after catching Daulton Varsho’s flyball on the warning track to end the top of the seventh, and fellow outfielder Dom Smith sprinted into the dugout, down the stairs, out of view, with other teammates, including Pete Alonso, following.
At that point, a different play from the top of the seventh became critical: With Lindor shaded more toward third base and McNeil positioned to the left of second base for the Diamondbacks’ righty-hitting Nick Ahmed — that’s right, blame the shift — Ahmed slapped a grounder to the shortstop hole. Lindor hesitated before pursuing the ball, and his throw proved too late, giving Ahmed a gift single.
“We were a little upset,” McNeil said. “It was a miscommunication.”
And not the first one this season. How much that frustration built up to lead to the ensuing encounter, only the two men know.
Mets manager Luis Rojas, who desperately wanted to discuss the game itself (and it was a heck of a win), said he didn’t know exactly what happened, although he refused to play along with the “Rat vs. raccoon vs. possum” story.
“The family concept is alive here,” Rojas said, and as the father figure in the clubhouse, it falls on him, bigly, to ensure that the two men are good to go moving forward.
Lindor’s news-conference performance — his choice on how to address his first real controversy — was jarring simply because we don’t know him that well yet. A no-comment, or a misdirection (“All that matters is that we won”), or a vow of confidentiality (“What happens among us stays among us”) would’ve been safer avenues there.
Because no matter what happens with Lindor, his 2021 OPS now up to a still-underwhelming .549, moving forward as a Met, we’re unlikely to forget this night. Can he pull off this maneuver by regaining his All-Star form and embracing the absurdity of his rat tale? Or will his struggles and tensions reemerge, his storytelling turning into a point of mockery?
As if this Mets season needed any more drama, right?