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How the $445 million Mets crashed and burned

It was May, barely a month into the Mets season, and the visiting clubhouse at Comerica Park was silent. The typical frenzy of a getaway day had been replaced by introspection, players sitting at nearly every locker, heads down as they scrolled through their phones.

In a span of 27 hours, the Mets had been swept by the lowly Tigers, their ninth loss in 11 games pushing them back to .500. That final loss in Detroit was punctuated by something that rarely, if ever, had to happen during a charmed 101-win season in 2022:Buck Showalter called a postgame team meeting.

Showalter has long viewed the clubhouse as the players’ sanctuary, trusting a veteran squad in Queens to police itself. One day prior, in the midst of getting swept in a doubleheader, those players had held their own meeting. The simple gist, according to a veteran: “We’ve really got to play better.”

Showalter’s message that Thursday was, according to those there, “words of encouragement.” The perceived need for action, however, spoke volumes about the early direction of the 2023 Mets.

“We’re still good,” one player told himself, “…but I’m not 100 percent sure.”

This was when doubt first germinated in New York’s clubhouse — when they first diverged from the smooth sailing of 2022, hit choppier waters and learned that perhaps they lacked the instruments to navigate them.

“That series was kind of a wake-up call,” reliever Adam Ottavino said.

“Detroit was the highlight of, Hey, things are not really going the way we would like,” said Brandon Nimmo.

“It wasn’t just Detroit,” said another player — and that was the problem. The debacle against the Tigers would be the third in a run of five consecutive series losses, four of them to teams not expected to contend. June would go down as one of the worst months in franchise history. July would include a once improbable sell-off of established talent. And August would see them drop to last place.

Now, even this deep into the season, they struggle to come up with a satisfying answer to the main question that matters: How?

After nearly two dozen interviews with people who have experienced the failure firsthand, this is the inside story of how the $445 million Mets, the most expensive team in major-league history, crashed and burned. His inability to live up to his own high expectations weighed heavily on Pete Alonso. (Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)It was late in June, and Pete Alonso had ducked his head into Showalter’s office — again — trying to explain himself. The month had unraveled into a nightmare for Alonso, a nightmare for the Mets. There had been a slump and a losing streak, an injury, a deeper slump and more losing. As Showalter would later recall, in those meetings, Alonso looked like he wanted to apologize for not driving in every run, for not hitting every home run.

Alonso would plead to his manager, “This isn’t who I am.”

“Pete, I know,” Showalter would kindly respond. “You don’t need to tell me this.”

Looking back in late August, Showalter said it was important at the time to just let Alonso talk.

“I guess it was more so for me,” Alonso later explained, “just showing that, listen, I am working, I am doing the best I can and I feel bad for not playing (well) — everyone has internal expectations, but for me personally, I pride myself on being as consistent as possible, and I wasn’t that.

“Especially doing all I did to come back early and do what I could to help, and I just failed. I was healthy. I was just failing way more than I was helping the team.”

Alonso’s presence in Showalter’s office served as a microcosm of a team struggling to perform under intense pressure owing to a huge payroll, high expectations and a trade deadline getting closer and closer. While Alonso’s woes received top billing, he was far from alone. Almost to a man, the Mets were underperforming.

The Mets finished June with a 7-19 record. The three teams ahead of them in the National League East standings (Atlanta, Miami and Philadelphia) combined during the month to lose just 20 games. In 30 days, New York lost 14 1/2 games in the NL East standings to Atlanta.

As Tommy Pham, the perpetually intense veteran outfielder, bluntly put it in a recent interview, “We had a terrible f—ing June.”

Often after games or during meals on the road, players discussed how they could turn things around.

After a devastating sweep in Atlanta, Pham, infielder Eduardo Escobar, catcher Francisco Alvarez and star shortstop Francisco Lindor talked about small things that the Mets needed to improve in between bites of food at a Brazilian steakhouse, Fogo de Chão, in Pittsburgh. Pham, 35, has played on seven teams, and organizations know when negotiating with him that he brings an edge, strong work ethic and little tolerance for lackadaisical effort.

For weeks ahead of the dinner, Lindor had held himself accountable after every crushing loss during a prolonged slump of his own, answering every question from every reporter every day. Pham respected Lindor’s accountability as a leader, how he worked hard and never placed blame on others. As The Athletic reported earlier this month, the conversation started with Pham explaining that he wanted New York to roll out more than one batting-practice group because he used the time to work on live reads in the outfield. With Lindor, Pham felt comfortable sharing something that roamed in his mind after observing how often some players in the clubhouse played games like pool.

Pham says he told Lindor, “Out of all the teams I played on, this is the least-hardest working group of position players I’ve ever played with.”

Opinions varied on the subject. Per Pham’s recollection, the players at the restaurant seemed receptive to what he had to say. In further explaining his comment later, he added that he held a lot of respect for the work ethics of the team’s leaders: Lindor, Alonso and Brandon Nimmo. And Lindor told The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal that before Pham left in a trade to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Lindor said to Pham, “Hey man, thank you for teaching me how to work hard again.”

“Guys are super professional around here,” Jeff McNeil countered. “We go about our business, and everybody comes ready to play and does what they need to do.”

“Each person needs to assess that individually,” said Nimmo of the club’s work ethic. “You can only lead a horse to water; you can’t make him drink. Ultimately, a lot of this comes down to individuals and what they’re willing to do.”

Nimmo and others hesitated to place too much blame on any one thing. Presented with Pham’s comment, one player understood the perspective “because the team results weren’t there.” That said, “There’s a lot of reasons you could point to,” he said. “I don’t know which one is it.”

Maybe that was the problem.

One night after a loss, pitchers Justin Verlander, Brooks Raley, Adam Ottavino and others assessed where the Mets could improve. The conversation veered in too many different directions.

“We weren’t good in any facet of the game, honestly,” Ottavino said. “What’s been the challenge this year is explaining it, because there’s no one thing that broke the system. Everything underperformed all at once.”

Citing Starling Marte’s health issues and poor performance, the first-half struggles of Lindor, Alonso and McNeil (the league’s batting champion in 2022) in addition to the pitching problems, some people around the club wondered: Has any group regressed this much from one year to the next?

“That’s what makes analytical people scratch their heads,” one person said, “and realize that the game is played by human beings.”

In the span of 30 days, the Mets went from a team looking to contend for a championship to one lacking a competitive timetable — with a lot of big decisions to make ahead of the trade deadline.

While the losses in May opened their eyes, Nimmo said, “June was the killer.”

The loss of Edwin Díaz, who appeared at the Mets home opener on crutches, was a blow the team’s bullpen never recovered from. (Thomas A. Ferrara / Newsday RM via Getty Images)It was March 15, and Showalter was getting ready for bed. In the arduous, embryonic days of spring training, Showalter typically goes to sleep early, so he didn’t have the World Baseball Classic on his TV when his phone started buzzing. He ignored…