From Tug McGraw's "Ya Gotta Believe" that gave hope and fired up the 1973 Mets on their way to the National League pennant to Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter's veteran presence that helped the Mets win the 1986 World Series, there have always been players who were ready to carry the team on their backs when they needed that push.
Players like Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and Mike Piazza have all carried the team for long stretches and helped the Mets win pennants and championships. The 2006 team that fell one game short of a World Series appearance had numerous players (Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, David Wright, Carlos Delgado) carry the team for extended stretches.
However, if an alien spacecraft landed at Citi Field today and its inhabitants asked to be taken to the Mets' leader, who would they be directed to? Not only is there no clear cut leader, there are very few candidates who even appear to want the job of ambassador to the creatures from outer space.
David Wright is too busy trying to say the right things to be a true leader. Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran haven't learned how to lead from the trainer's room.
Johan Santana is the closest thing the Mets have to a true leader. On the next-to-last day of the 2008 season, he took the mound on three days rest with a later-to-be-revealed torn meniscus and pitched a complete game shutout against the Florida Marlins to keep the Mets alive in their attempt to make the playoffs. This was done after throwing a career-high 125 pitches in a victory against the Chicago Cubs. He took the struggling Mets and carried them into that final game. Without his gritty performances, the final game wouldn't have been relevant as far as postseason hopes went.
Even in the forgettable 2009 season, Johan displayed his leadership skills over the first two months. Carlos Delgado went down in early May, followed by Jose Reyes. Carlos Beltran was playing with an injury. Somehow, the Mets were in first place on May 27. How was that possible with such a depleted squad? Two words: Johan Santana.
Over the first two months of the 2009 season, Johan Santana made ten starts for the Mets. In those starts, he was 7-2 with a barely-there 1.77 ERA. He was on a Gooden-esque strikeout pace (86 Ks in 66 innings) and was practically unhittable. Opposing hitters were hitting a measly .208 against 'Han the Man and slugging .316 against the Smooth One. That slugging percentage would have been a poor on-base percentage, which, since we're on the topic, Santana held opponents to a .270 on-base percentage.
As a result, the Mets held a half-game lead over the Phillies after Santana defeated the Washington Nationals on May 27. However, since the gods above gave us The Four Rainouts to back up Santana in the rotation, not even Sir Smooth could keep the sinking ship afloat.
For as much as Johan Santana tried to lead the Mets, he can only lead them on the field once every five days. That leaves 125-130 games where he can only lead in the clubhouse. Unfortunately, pennants are won on the field and not in the clubhouse. (Only poker games are won there. Right, Mr. Bonilla and Mr. Henderson?)
In Dana Brand's book, "The Last Days of Shea", there is a chapter about Dr. Brand meeting Hall-of-Famer Reggie Jackson. The self-proclaimed "straw that stirs the drink" approached Dr. Brand and struck up a conversation on the 2007 Mets. According to Dr. Brand's book, Mr. October went on to say:
"What was it, they only needed to win one more game? You know, people used to call me egotistical , but I tell you, if I had been playing for (the Mets), I would have won that one game, even if I had to do it all by myself."
The Mets don't really have an everyday player who has the fire of a Reggie Jackson. They have players who can fill up a stat sheet, but can any of them truly carry the team? Can any of them be counted on to drive in the winning run when the team needs to win one game? Is there a pitcher on an opposing team who fears any hitter on the Mets?
The 1986 Mets had swagger. When they were down, you always expected someone, whether it was Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter or Darryl Strawberry to come through with a clutch hit. Even in 2006, David Wright seemed to come through with many a walk-off hit. (The Mets had 11 walk-off wins in 2006, but only had four such wins in 2009.)
The closest thing the Mets have to a leader is Johan Santana. But he can only lead on the field 34 or 35 times a season. Kirk Gibson won an MVP Award in 1988 by leading the Dodgers on the field and in the clubhouse. His numbers weren't typical MVP numbers (.290, 25 HR, 76 RBI) but he had the uncanny ability to come through when the game was on the line.
According to baseball-reference.com, when Gibson came to bat in a tie game situation in 1988, he hit .306 and had a .424 OBP. In 239 plate appearances in those situations, he didn't hit into a single double play, thereby not squelching potential rallies. In late and close situations (defined by baseball-reference.com as plate appearances in the seventh inning or later where the team is tied, ahead by one or with the tying run on deck), Gibson hit .321 and compiled a .423 OBP in 97 plate appearances. Since Gibson amassed 632 plate appearances in 1988, the above clutch situations made up for more than half of Gibson's appearances in the batter's box.
The Mets have never had an MVP. If they're ever going to get one, they need a team leader. He can't pad his stats by hitting home runs when the team is already up by six runs in the eighth inning. He must come through in the clutch. He must be fundamentally sound. He must be able to pick up his teammates when they fail between the white lines.
Do the Mets have someone who's willing to step up over the entire 162-game schedule? They're going to need one if they're going to reverse the trend that began when Carlos Beltran looked at Adam Wainwright's curveball. Otherwise, the fans will be doing the leading, but it'll be towards the exit gates at Citi Field.