On assignment in the “Land of Steady Habits,” I’ve been watching my New York Mets during a period in which they’ve lost seven of their last nine. Let’s just say that when you have an underachieving team in the Big Apple, the temperature rises quickly. Two weeks ago, after a tough loss, closer Billy Wagner lashed out in the direction of Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado’s lockers, yelling “Can somebody tell me why the closer’s being interviewed and I didn’t even play?…Why they’re over there not getting interviewed? I get it. They’re gone. Shocker.” And last week Willie Randolph wondered aloud whether the portrayal of him as an aloof do-nothing manager has something to do with his race. Of course it did. (What was “stoic” for Joe Torre is “passionless” for Randolph.) He was scourged from pillar to Post for broaching the subject.

And the sports media isn’t much of a help. At night Steve Somers (his show is a treasure) begs the media-darling third baseman David Wright to “step up” and lead the club. In the morning on 1050 ESPNradio, Max Kellerman insists that “there is no racial divide in the clubhouse” and recommends the team hire Barry Bonds.*

Finally, one New York sportswriter had the courage to join the conversation Mets fans were already having. Writing in the New York Post, Larry Brooks used hockey as an example for talking about ethnic divisions on teams.

You better believe the question is asked every day around NHL front offices:Do we have too many Europeans? In Detroit, the answer is no. You better believe the question was asked by the Rangers when they collapsed late in 2005-06: Do we have too many Czechs?

Those posing the questions aren’t necessarily bigoted. They’re simply covering the bases in attempting to apply common sense to a complex equation in which two dozen men of disparate backgrounds must live and work together over eight months in order to achieve a common goal.

Brooks turns to the Mets:

…what’s the impact of having a roster dominated by players of Hispanic origin, but having the minority of English-as-first-language players speak for the team? Do we have an accurate assessment of the Mets when they are viewed through the prism of David Wright and Billy Wagner rather than through the eyes and reflections of Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, Johan Santana and Jose Reyes?

Is it our fault – the fault of the predominantly English-speaking press covering the team, that is – that Wright and Wagner (with Paul Lo Duca and Tom Glavine having departed over the winter and Cliff Floyd having left a year earlier) have become the go-to guys in the clubhouse for the daily temperature taking of the team?

Brooks could have taken his media criticism further and applied to the fans. Why are David Wright’s numerous fielding errors so easily forgotten? Why are Beltran’s never forgiven? The majority white fanbase of the Mets does not treat these two superstars equally. This doesn’t mean the fans are racist. Just that they have trouble identifying with players who are foreign.

And it is easy to imagine this creating tension in the clubhouse. Latino players feel under-appreciated by fans. White players feel the burden of being unofficial spokesman for a majority Hispanic workplace. The frustration in the clubhouse is perfectly predictable and human.

MSNBC’s Ted Robinson recommends that teams hire translators for Latin players (as they already do for Japanese) and believes the Mets are a good test case for the rest of major league baseball:

Why is this significant? The number of foreign-born players is not going to diminish and the majority will remain Latin. What the Mets have experienced in the last four years (although there was no public outburst in 2006, we can reasonably assume the issue was masked by a winning season) will eventually appear in other clubhouses. Teams should watch the Mets and prepare.

We’ve come a long way from last years’ absurd cover story in Sports Illustrated on Mets General Manager, Omar Minaya, in which Gary Smith asserted that political correctness = winning baseball strategy. Smith’s formula that “inclusiveness” means “success” was cloying then. Laughable now. It’s the sports equivalent of the Wall Street Journal’s line that endless immigration means endless economic growth, or Bush’s averments that democratization means security. As a child I used to argue that candy must be good for my health because of natural selection. I liked the taste so much, so evolution must favor a diet of Smarties and Mars bars. Our prejudices, whether for diversity or democracy, can lead us astray.

Needless to say, I will be wearing my Beltran jersey tonight and rooting for Oliver Perez to throw a solid seven innings. At the same time, I’ll be hoping American society isn’t as fragile as the Mets clubhouse.

*never trust a Yankees fan for good advice in baseball or life.