In their last two home games of the year, the Mets faced the Montréal Expos, who gave their hosts fits all season. The Expos would lose 95 games in 1998, yet would win eight of 12 games against the Mets, and none were more damaging than this last pair. Though Met starter Armando Reynoso had won of seven of his previous eight decisions, on the evening of September 22 he was perturbed by unseasonably cool temperatures that “seemed to signal the onset of autumn,” in the ominous words of the Daily News. He allowed a lead to evaporate and the bullpen that relieved him permitted inherited runners to score, the fatal margin in a 5-3 loss. The next night, the Mets’ bats fell silent against rookie pitcher Carl Pavano, who compounded the damage by hitting an RBI double. Met batters failed to capitalize on several chances to claw their way back into the game and went on to lose, 3-0.
To finish out the year, the Mets traveled to Atlanta to play three games against the Braves. There was no rivalry between the two teams just yet, unless a fly can be said to have a rivalry with a bug zapper. While Atlanta rattled off one division title after another throughout the 1990s, New York obliged by offering no threat to their dominance whatsoever. When the Mets arrived at Turner Field on September 25, the Braves had already won 103 games and long since clinched the National League East. The visiting team had everything to play for, while the home nine had no concerns other than getting their house in order for the upcoming playoffs.
Unfortunately, the Braves were the ones who played like a team on a mission. In game one, the Mets loaded the bases twice against freshman starter Bruce Chen but could only score two runs for their trouble. When Atlanta turned to its bullpen, the visitors found themselves stymied by another rookie, Odalis Pérez, and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, 43-year-old Dennis “El Presidente” Martínez, ace of the 1980s Expos enjoying his last hurrah. Trailing by two runs with two outs in the top of the eighth inning, the Mets put the tying runs on base and had an excellent chance to do some damage, with their biggest bats due up. Bobby Valentine sent in September call-up Jay Payton as a pinch runner, hoping the speedy young outfielder could score from first on an extra-base hit and knot the score. The move backfired when John Olerud hit a two-out single, inspiring Payton to take third on the hit, challenging the powerful arm of center fielder Andruw Jones. It was an unwise challenge, to put it mildly. The rookie was gunned down by a good five feet, killing the rally. Payton had committed two cardinal baseball sins: making the last out of the inning at third, and doing so while Mike Piazza stood on deck.
The Mets made some more noise in the ninth but were turned aside by another rookie, hard-throwing lefty John Rocker. The end result was a 6-5 heartbreaker. The decision went to Dennis Martínez, the last victory of his major league career. The Mets would come no closer to winning for the rest of the season.
In game two, New York was shut out and limited to three hits by one of the Braves’ trio of aces, Tom Glavine, with assistance from another motley crew of relief pitchers both young and old. Al Leiter held off the Braves for five innings but faltered in the sixth, ceding three runs, which on this day was more than enough to ensure defeat. The loss put the Mets one game of the wild card lead behind both the Chicago Cubs and the surging San Francisco Giants.
Valentine wanted to send Hideo Nomo to the hill for the last game of the year. Nomo came to the Mets as a midseason acquisition from the Dodgers and owned a lifetime ERA of 2.13 against Atlanta, but this was not the same Nomo of a few short seasons ago. Batters had caught up to Nomo’s tricks, and he had not pitched well since his trade to New York. Nomo begged off the assignment as a matter of pride, insisting other pitchers deserved the chance more than he. Valentine had little choice but to go with Armando Reynoso, who was shelled for five runs before getting yanked in the second inning. Reynoso’s early exit forced Nomo into the game anyway for his first ever relief appearance, and he proceeded to throw four shutout innings. Too little, too late. The Mets lost, 7-2. Atlanta manager Bobby Cox compared beating Valentine to defeating Casey Stengel and John McGraw. As was often the case when words of praise were expressed by Valentine’s opponents, the intended tone of Cox’s words—sarcastic or sincere—was unclear. Valentine chose to take it as a compliment.
To pour extra salt on the Mets’ wounds, both Chicago and San Francisco were trailing in their respective games as the team boarded a plane back to New York. “They’re both going to lose, aren’t they?” Steve Phillips sighed to reporters before he left Turner Field. By the time his plane landed, they had. The Cubs and Giants finished in a tie for the wild card, necessitating a one-game playoff. If the Mets had won a single game of the five they dropped to close out the season, they would have found themselves part of an unprecedented three-way tie. If they’d won two games, the Mets would have captured the wild card outright. Instead, they won a premature trip to the golf course. When they returned to the Shea clubhouse to clean out their lockers, they found a pile of fan-made t-shirts with the hopeful legend 1998 WILD CARD NEW YORK METS printed in orange and blue.
No Met could explain it. “I guess we just ran out of gas,” said Lenny Harris, the Mets’ go-to pinch hitter. “And there were no gas stations open. They all closed down as soon as we got to Atlanta.” Outfielder Brian McRae had a more rational, if depressing, theory. “To win as many close games as we won meant we were close to losing them, too,” he opined. “We finished right where we should have finished. Because when you play 162 games, you don’t fool anyone.”
The entire organization took the loss hard, but no one took it harder than Bobby Valentine. Normally impossible to shut up, the manager was at a loss for words. “I don’t know what happened,” Valentine told reporters after the Mets’ last defeat. “If I knew, I would have done something about it. That’s my frustration about it. Everything I tried didn’t work.”
“There should have been something. There should have been something,” Valentine repeated, more to himself than anyone else.
Valentine had never been to the playoffs in his entire baseball life. Not as a player, coach, or manager. Not in the majors or minors. Not in America or Japan. This was the closest he’d ever come to the finish line, only to trip and fall flat on his face. The flameout validated the worst of what his detractors thought of him. He’d topped out at second place in Texas. He finished second in Japan. Now, Mr. Baseball was second best again. Notice a pattern?, critics asked. A better manager would have been able to motivate his team to win one lousy game, wouldn’t he? Now, two of the players who brought him so close to the postseason—Al Leiter and Mike Piazza—were set to become free agents. If the Mets couldn’t re-sign both players, or even one of them, there was no reason to think that Valentine would get another shot at the playoffs in 1999.
If Steve Phillips felt the same devastation, he did a better job of hiding it. “My hopes were grander than just getting to the playoffs,” he admitted after the Mets’ final, brutal game of 1998. “But I’m also excited about putting a team together for 1999. And that’s what’s getting me through today.”
Steve Phillips was never a man for the long view. As he set about the business of assembling the next iteration of the Mets, it is unlikely he gave much thought to one minute beyond 1999. His intent notwithstanding, Phillips would soon pull together one of the most memorable and beloved teams in franchise history.
Early in his Met managerial tenure, Bobby Valentine established a reputation of getting the most out of his younger players, particularly ones he’d already tutored at triple-A Norfolk. Edgardo Alfonzo, an infielder who blossomed under Valentine’s stewardship, was a prime example. Much as he had in Texas, however, he clashed with the team’s established players, and often walked the extra mile to do so.
Catcher Todd Hundley battled injuries and the burden of high expectations in the Mets’ miserable early 1990s. Pitchers raved about his skills behind the plate, but his hitting was another story. He was clearly a strong switch hitter, but struggled to maintain any sort of consistency with his hitting. Then Hundley came out of nowhere to belt 41 homers in 1996, setting a new high watermark for the franchise and shattering the single season home run record for catchers set by Roy Campanella. Sniffing their first home-grown slugger since Darryl Strawberry, the grateful Met front office gifted Hundley a four-year, $28 million contract in the ensuing offseason.
The Mets’ new manager should have been grateful to have such a weapon in his arsenal, but Bobby Valentine waged a proxy war with his catcher in the press instead. Hundley’s once-lauded catching skills deteriorated after he became a slugging superstar, an observation Mr. Baseball was happy to make to any member of the media who might have missed it. When Hundley suffered a dreadful slump toward the end of the 1997 season, Valentine dropped cryptic hints about the source of his struggles to the press. “I think he doesn’t sleep enough,” the manager said. “He’s a nocturnal person. He needs to get more rest. He has a real tough time getting to sleep after games. He needs to change his ways.”
For the few folks unable to read between these wide lines, the papers spelled out Valentine’s hint: The catcher partied too much. Hundley was forced to publicly account for his extracurricular activities and swear he liked the nightlife no more or less than any other young player.
Regardless of what Hundley did in his postgame life, the man had enough on his mind to induce a late season slide. As Valentine was lobbing his accusations, Hundley’s mother was battling cancer, while his wife was dealing with complications from her third pregnancy. Apart from these real-life issues, he was also experiencing severe elbow pain, but chose to play through it because the Mets remained surprise contenders deep into the 1997 season. For all the aches and Valentine-generated controversy, Hundley racked up 30 homers and 86 RBIs until a game against the Phillies on September 9, when his arm locked up during a follow-through swing. Torn ligaments forced Tommy John surgery, which would knock him out of action until halfway through 1998. Hundley had endured intense personal and physical trauma through gritted teeth to gut his through as much of the season as he could, and would never forgive Bobby Valentine for calling him out in public.
The Met skipper also made an enemy out of Pete Harnisch, a pitcher who missed a good portion of the 1997 season while seeking treatment for clinical depression. When Harnisch proved ineffective upon his return, Valentine insinuated it was because he was “afraid” to pitch. The skipper later insisted he was unaware of his condition, an excuse Harnisch considered neither plausible nor sufficient. After he was designated for assignment during an August road trip, Harnisch lashed out at Valentine in an obscenity-filled tirade shouted for all to hear in the lounge of a hotel where the Mets had been staying. The pitcher then sought out a larger audience by calling up WFAN, New York’s sports talk radio station. Live on the airwaves, Harnisch told listeners, among other choice tidbits, “There’s not really a guy on this team that respects Bobby Valentine.” Some teammates contradicted this assertion. Others retreated to the No Comment Zone. Within hours of airing his grievances, Harnisch was traded to Milwaukee.
While Valentine created enemies in his own clubhouse, the front office promoted the man who would prove to be his biggest internal nemesis. In July of 1997, Joe McIlvaine was demoted from the general manager position in deference to wunderkind Steve Phillips. The move made Phillips, age 34, the game’s second youngest GM. (Detroit’s Randy Smith edged him out by a month.) The Mets grabbed Phillips out of high school with their fifth pick in the 1981 draft, but his game never progressed beyond the double-A level. Phillips spent his initial post-baseball years earning a degree in psychology from the University of Michigan and delivering motivational speeches to corporations, work he found unfulfilling in the extreme. McIlvaine, who was the Met scouting director when the team drafted Phillips, rescued Phillips from this drudgery by offering him his first executive job in January of 1990.
The Met organization did everything in its power to groom Phillips as its executive of the future. In his first few years on the job, quotes from Phillips could be found throughout the city’s back pages with a frequency more befitting a high-level executive, not someone who held the obscure (if important) position of director of minor league operations. After the 1995 season, Phillips was elevated to assistant general manager. His name was soon being whispered as the imminent replacement for McIlvaine, whose relationship with team ownership had deteriorated beyond repair.
Joe McIlvaine attempted to rebuild the Mets on the Frank Cashen model of scouting and development. This slow and unglamorous process had already produced one major flameout in Generation K. Then, another debacle sealed McIlvaine’s fate. Ryan Jaroncyk, the team’s first round draft pick in 1995, was considered a can’t-miss prospect. The young shortstop found a way to miss anyway, quitting the game early in the 1997 season. Jaroncyk realized he never really liked baseball, and had come to this revelation several years too late to do the Mets much good. “I always thought it was boring,” he confessed upon retiring from the game at age 20.
Those who craved a change from McIlvaine’s course could not have devised a worse disaster. No one in the Met front office had bothered to find out if their hotshot prospect, the supposed future of their lineup and infield, even liked baseball. The ensuing blowback doomed McIlvaine’s prospects-first approach to team building, and McIlvaine’s job. Upon introducing his new general manager to the press, Fred Wilpon—in a line destined to be repeated back at him for years to come—insisted Phillips possessed executive “skills sets” that McIlvaine lacked.
In the late 1990s, there was an expectation that a general manager job never ended, that a GM would be always on the clock and always under the microscope. Phillips embraced this view fully. He could remember a time early in his executive career when he witnessed Frank Cashen and Al Harazin sitting in their Shea Stadium suite and reading, discussing not trades and free agents and the farm system but the world. Phillips recalled this scene as if it were a quaint relic of a bygone era. Imagine, he would recount with a shake of his head, a general manager who had time in his daily schedule to contemplate a world outside of baseball.
Bobby Valentine caused one of his periodic stirs in the press by discussing the front office move with reporters before any official announcement had been made. This was interpreted as a means to hasten Joe McIlvaine’s exit, and led to speculation that the old general manager was removed at Valentine’s request. These speculators had short memories, forgetting that McIlvaine was the man who welcomed Valentine back to the Mets after both his firing in Texas and his exile in Japan, who believed Valentine could manage at the big league level again when few others did. Those who forgot these facts would soon have reason enough to dismiss rumors that Valentine wanted Phillips to ascend to the throne. Before long, the idea of Valentine doing anything to benefit Phillips would be laughable.
Valentine and Phillips were like two notes a semitone apart, too close to ever form pleasant harmony. Like Valentine, Phillips relished the spotlight. Like Valentine, Phillips had a high opinion of his own baseball knowledge. He insisted on visiting his manager’s office before and after almost every game to discuss strategy and roster moves. Like Valentine, Phillips possessed a myriad of foibles that tended to get himself in trouble, though they were of a different stripe than Valentine’s.
As for their differences, Phillips had the advantage of possessing a more selective filter between his brain and mouth and was much more guarded with his public statements. (“Sometimes I wish I had the ‘no comment’ in me,” Valentine confessed in grudging admiration of his boss.) Whereas Valentine’s relationship with reporters was strained at best, Phillips played New York’s sports press corps like a fiddle, always willing to provide them with quotes, access, background, and availability. Phillips had spent most of his adult life working in baseball, either as a minor league player or a major league executive, yet his sartorial sense and articulation allowed him to adopt the part of the Young Go-Getter. Always dressed impeccably, always with a perfectly coiffed head of sandy hair, savvy enough to affect wire-rim glasses when he wished to adopt a serious look. He had the air of the spokesman an embattled corporation would send before the cameras to assure the public that their product was safe no matter what the folks at 60 Minutes said. Phillips’s image stood in such stark contrast to that of his predecessor. Joe McIlvaine’s oversized spectacles and overeager, pained smiles labeled him a nerd when the term was still the most damning of slurs in the sports world. It was as Phillips made an extra effort to be polished out of sheer cruelty to the man he replaced.
Joe McIlvaine had brought Bobby Valentine back into the Met organization for the ability he’d shown at triple-A to teach the game to young players. He considered Valentine “one of the best teachers of baseball there is” and had hired him to utilize those skills in molding a team full of raw talent. Such skills were not treasured by a front office headed by Steve Phillips, who wanted to remake the Mets into something more befitting his ambitions. He referred to the Mets he inherited as “a good little team with good little players,” with all the condescension those words implied. Taking the hint, McIlvaine moved on to the Minnesota Twins, a small-market team whose only hope at competing was to develop a good little team with good little players. McIlvaine’s handpicked manager was left behind to wonder how he fit into the Mets’ new equation.
Phillips began his first offseason by taking advantage of the Marlins, as did nearly every other team that winter. Florida loaded up on high-priced superstars in 1997 to fuel a stunning World Series victory, then dismantled itself before the victory parade confetti had even settled. Prior to spring training in 1998, Phillips shipped three minor leaguers to the Marlins in exchange for left-handed pitcher Al Leiter.
A New Jersey native, Leiter enjoyed some up-and-down years with the Yankees and Blue Jays before finding his form with Florida. He pitched to a 2.93 ERA with 200 strikeouts in 1996 and played a key role in the Marlins’ championship the following year by starting game seven of the World Series. Florida manager Jim Leyland chose Leiter to pitch the deciding game not because he had any real confidence in him, but as he told reporters, “Who the hell else am I going to start?” Leiter went on to limit a powerful Indians lineup featuring Manny Ramírez, Jim Thome, David Justice, and Roberto Alomar to two runs, enabling his teammates to rebound from an early deficit and win the game in extra innings. Leiter described the attitude he acquired from Leyland’s tough love thusly: “It was basically, ‘Fuck everybody.’”
Leiter possessed enough service time to be considered a veteran, yet rarely conducted himself as someone who had attained the wisdom or calm that comes with age. He more resembled a little league dad who took the game a bit too seriously, when he didn’t resemble that dad’s sugar-addled kid. He was prone to both losing his focus and criticizing himself to worrisome extremes. The former led to high walk totals, while the latter led to worn out paths in front of the mound as he paced and berated himself for his failures. He had idiosyncratic on-field habits that were baffling, if not ill-advised, such as his method clearing mud from his cleats during rainy games. Whereas most pitchers used a wire brush or a spiked pad to remove obstructions from their spikes, Leiter preferred to jump in the air and click his heels, à la Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, to clear out the muck. More troubling was Leiter’s tendency to argue with his managers to remain on the mound far beyond the point most pitchers would, which marked him either as a gritty gamer when it saved a call to the bullpen or a stubborn jock when his tired arm blew a lead.
These shortcomings could be tolerated because Leiter was a lefthanded starter, and a very good one who could often fight his way to being great. When he joined the Met starting rotation, he became its best member by a wide margin. He was thrilled to join the team he grew up rooting for as a kid from Toms River, even if he would have to play for a manager who once tried to psych him out from the opposing dugout by screaming, “You’ll never make it out of the fourth inning!”
As big as the Leiter trade was, Steve Phillips’s hugest deal was yet to come. Todd Hundley’s Tommy John surgery forced him to miss the first half of the 1998 season, robbing the Mets of their catcher, their primary source of power, and their biggest star. When he did return, there was no telling how much motivation he’d have to play well under Bobby Valentine’s yoke. Meanwhile, across the country, another star catcher was feeling mistreated by his own team and was looking for an escape plan. These factors conspired to produce a trade scenario too juicy for Phillips to pass up.
Out in Los Angeles, free agency loomed for Mike Piazza, who had already established himself as one of the best hitting catchers in baseball history. Before the 1997 season began, Piazza and his agent proposed a six-year, $60 million contract to the Dodgers’ front office. The Dodgers rejected Piazza’s offer and extended arbitration instead. At this point, the catcher’s feelings about staying in Los Angeles began to sour.
Those feelings curdled even more the following spring after Los Angeles Times writer Bill Plaschke conducted an interview with ex-Dodger Brett Butler, who painted the catcher as “a moody, self-centered ‘90s player” and insisted “you can’t build around Piazza because he’s not a leader.” Though the Dodgers made the playoffs in 1995 and 1996, they were swept in the division series both times. Piazza batted .250 in his postseason appearances, with only three RBIs and one lone home run. The Dodgers also suffered a September swoon in 1997, allowing the National League West title to slip from their hands in the season’s final weeks. Through Brett Butler, the Dodgers publicly declared their belief that Piazza—one the most potent offensive forces in franchise history—was more responsible for the team’s failures than its successes.
Early in the 1998 season, the Dodgers’ brain trust offered Piazza an $84 million extension. Piazza rejected it, still stinging from the Butler interview. Relations between the catcher and the team degenerated quickly, and a trade was executed on May 14 that shipped Piazza off to the Marlins for a large package of players, the most notable being mercurial slugger Gary Sheffield. Everyone knew Florida was a mere layover for the catcher. A team that had unloaded so many superstars had neither the ability nor the inclination to keep Piazza. The only question was where he would fly to next. On the back pages and sports talk radio airwaves in New York, the chatter screamed for him to land with the Mets. Mike Francesa, one half of WFAN’s drive-time duo Mike and the Mad Dog, was one of the loudest voices insisting that the Mets had to get Piazza, Hundley be damned.
Eight days after Piazza left L.A., Steve Phillips pulled the trigger. He acquired the catcher while giving up even less than he had for Leiter. (The most prominent player in the deal was minor leaguer Preston Wilson, stepson of former Mets outfielder and then-first base coach Mookie Wilson.) For a franchise whose brief periods of success relied on strong pitching, Piazza became the best hitter to ever put on a Mets uniform.
The trade simultaneously made the Mets a force to be reckoned with and increased tension in the clubhouse. Todd Hundley had been the team’s biggest star, but six months on the disabled list turned him into a forgotten man. As the “get Piazza!” chants grew louder and louder, Hundley was told point-blank by Met ownership that they had no interest in acquiring a new catcher. One day after Hundley received this assurance, the Piazza deal was made. With a sense of timing the Dodgers would have appreciated, rumors that Hundley had drinking problem bubbled anew within days of the trade. Unable to find a teammate who’d own up to spreading such gossip, Hundley naturally blamed Bobby Valentine.
Hopes that conditions would improve once Hundley returned to action after the All Star Break were short lived. Valentine had one spot for two home run-hitting catchers and was forced to be creative to squeeze both of them in the lineup. Piazza would catch, and Hundley—who’d logged all of two games at any position other than catcher in his professional career—would try his hand at left field. The gambit was destined to fail, but the inevitability of this failure didn’t make the results any easier to watch. Hundley was not made for an outfield position, to put it kindly, and his hitting suffered in the bargain. In 53 games, Hundley batted a miserable .161 while belting only 3 home runs.
Mike Piazza started slowly in New York before stepping on the gas, hitting .351 in the second half of the season and .378 in September. As soon as he took off, so did the rest of the Mets. John Olerud flirted with a batting title, hit 22 home runs, and drove in 98 runs to lead the team. In his second season as a full-time starter. Edgardo Alfonzo complemented his slick fielding at third base with production at the plate, collecting 17 homers and 78 RBIs of his own. Alfonzo and Rey Ordoñez, a human vacuum at shortstop, both robbed countless hits and together made up one of the best defensive left sides of the infield in the majors. Al Leiter was as good as advertised, winning 17 games and pitching to an ERA of 2.47. The Mets not only began winning again, but did so in ways reminiscent of the brash Mets teams of the 1980s, overcoming deficits and prevailing in their last at-bats. A torrid month of August—20 wins in total—launched them into playoff contention, and the winning continued as fall loomed. On September 20, they defeated the Marlins 5-0 behind eight shutout innings from Leiter and timely hitting from Olerud. At 88-69, they held a half-game lead in the wild card standings over the Chicago Cubs with five games left to play.
And then, as if someone flipped a switch, everything stopped working all at once.
After Bobby Valentine’s brief sojourn to the Far East in 1995, a small miracle was required for him to return to the major leagues. That miracle occurred when another manager was somehow judged less controversial than him.
Dallas Green’s tough-nosed approach was deemed a crucial element in cleaning out the Mets’ clubhouse of its complacent malcontents and borderline psychopaths. He was able to wring enough production out of Bobby Bonilla and Bret Saberhagen to convert them into trade bait, and was praised for making the most out of what he had on his rosters, which was not much. In his first two years at the helm, the Mets’ fortunes improved, albeit at a snail’s place.
Then the team took yet another misstep. Starved for attention, the Mets promoted a trio of hard-throwing pitchers from their farm system in 1995. Young hurlers Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher, and Paul Wilson were dubbed Generation K by the team’s marketing wizards, a play on the Generation X label that was already several years out of style by that point. The moniker begged to be mocked, as if the pitchers would speed to the mound on skateboards while dressed in flannel shirts.
The belly laughs induced by the phrase “Generation K” notwithstanding, it was easy to see why the Mets expected big things from the trio. All three pitchers were ranked among the best prospects in baseball, promising a bright future for a franchise that traditionally built itself around pitching. But the Mets failed to recognize one crucial flaw in this plan. These young hurlers had shouldered considerable workloads in the minors, and neither Isringhausen nor Pulsipher were babied in any way when promoted to the big leagues in the middle of the 1995 season.
Generation K’s workload gave the Mets no cause for alarm because it wouldn’t have alarmed any front office of this era. The belief that innings limits might help prolong a young pitcher’s career was not yet accepted gospel in Major League Baseball. In the mid-1990s, pitch counts were not tallied like the ticks of a time bomb. The Mets were far from the only team of the time that worked its pitching prospects harder than they should have, and they were far from the only team who would watch promising young arms lost to the surgeon’s knife. The Mets were, however, the only team proclaiming to possess the future of pitching and daring to call them (snicker) Generation K.
Bill Pulsipher’s 1995 season ended three weeks prematurely when he began feeling some ominous elbow pain. He continued to feel it in spring training the following year and submitted himself to an MRI that revealed torn elbow ligaments. Tommy John surgery knocked him out for all of the following season. Jason Isringhausen and Paul Wilson both made it through 1996 somehow, though each of them struggled in a way typical of young pitchers facing major league batters for the first time. Fans and the media had not been promised rookies with potential working through growing pains. They had been promised the building blocks of another dynasty. Generation K’s failure to be phenoms right out of the gate proved a PR disaster.
By the end of August, the Mets were lodged well under .500 yet again. Dallas Green was already on the hot seat when he publicly criticized the team’s premature promotion of Generation K. “These guys don’t really belong in the big leagues,” he insisted. “It’s that simple. It sounds very harsh and very negative. But what have they done to get here?”
It was hard to argue otherwise. Pulsipher’s injury and a combined 9-22 record for Isringhausen and Wilson proved Green’s case. But it was one thing for the press to laugh at the Generation K storyline. It was another thing entirely for the manager to do so.
Green was dismissed with 31 games left in the 1996 season and Bobby Valentine was called up from his post managing the triple-A Norfolk Tides to take his place. Upon receiving the news, Valentine sprinted out of the stadium in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where the Tides were in the middle of the game, and rented a car to make the long drive down to his new home in Queens. Once he got within range of New York’s sports talk radio station, WFAN, Valentine tuned in to see if word of his hiring had leaked out yet.
It had. As Valentine drove toward Shea Stadium he heard an endless string of callers moaning about the new Mets manager. Valentine’s an idiot. How can the Mets do this? Bad decision… He subjected himself to two hours of this masochism before shutting the radio off.
Fans weren’t the only ones skeptical of the choice. Many in the press credited Dallas Green with expunging the Met clubhouse of the stink of 1993 and lamented the loss of the straight shooter. Though both men were baseball lifers, Green was seen as the tobacco juice-spattered old school skipper while Valentine came off as his spiritual opposite: worldly, sophistic, cerebral. His stint with the Rangers was considered undistinguished at best, while his time with the Chiba Lotte Marines was deemed a demerit by writers who viewed Nomo-mania and the influx of Japanese players that followed with xenophobic suspicion, the kind that resurfaces whenever America’s pastime receives an injection of enthusiasm from a new corner of the world.
Amid this tense atmosphere, Bobby Valentine dared confess he’d gained a different perspective on how to play the game during his short time in the NPB, which was the last thing his critics wanted to hear. Valentine’s reliance on technology played as equally foreign to traditional sportswriters, who couldn’t understand why he asked his pitchers to watch video of opposing hitters during batting practice rather than shag flies. When Valentine admitted he learned Japanese using a computer program and developed a liking for the internet because of it, the scribes didn’t bother to contain their laughter. In the mid-1990s, the emerging online world was the exclusive province of nerds, not to be taken seriously by anyone connected with sports. What kind of manager would think he could learn anything about baseball from the internet?
In the Times, Harvey Araton captured the prevailing perception of the new Mets manager thusly:
With his neatly combed salt-and-pepper hair, his trim physique and his engaging smile, Valentine will come across better to Sound Bite America. He will reach out to those tarnished young pitchers, regale them with stories of the Japanese leagues, instruct them what to watch out for at the sushi bar.
An uninspiring 12-19 finish to the 1996 season caused no one to change their opinion of Valentine just yet. But in 1997, he captained the Mets to their first winning record in seven years, as the team flirted with a wild card berth as late as September, and was rewarded with a three-year contract for his efforts. Valentine was given credit for piloting the Mets to respectability despite having few stars on his roster. His starting rotation was a virtually anonymous bunch, and much the same could be said for his lineup. The two exceptions were switch-hitting slugger Todd Hundley, who broke the single-season home run record for catchers that season, and John Olerud, a surprise offseason pickup who would anchor the Met infield and lineup for three seasons.
Olerud was acquired from the Blue Jays the previous offseason for almost nothing, making it one of the rare times during this period when the Mets benefited from another team’s salary dump. The first baseman won two World Series rings with Toronto and was a high-average hitter who once flirted with batting .400, but after a few seasons of less impressive numbers at the plate, the Blue Jays feared he’d already reached the downside of his career. He was a quiet man, given the ironic nickname Gabby because he rarely spoke at all. In short, he exhibited all the signs of being type of athlete New York chews up and spits out. The fact he wore a batting helmet in the field—a precaution he adopted after an aneurysm nearly killed him as a 21-year-old minor leaguer—struck some as a sign of deeper fragility. Cito Gaston, his manager in Toronto, couldn’t see Olerud cottoning to Gotham, and vice versa. “He’s never had people yell bad things at him,” Gaston said after hearing of Olerud’s trade to the Mets. “And they’ll yell at him in Shea Stadium. I wouldn’t be surprised if he walks away from baseball at the end of the season.”
Olerud responded to Gaston’s challenge on all levels. New York, it turned out, fit him like a glove. More intellectually inclined than the average ballplayer, he took advantage of all the culture New York had to offer. Unlike many other well-paid players, he eschewed the suburbs of Long Island or Connecticut for an apartment in Manhattan. He even took the 7 train to the ballpark for many home games and professed to prefer the subway over the hassle of driving in city traffic. Toward the end of Olerud’s first season in New York, WNBC News captured his daily commute, riding the old Redbird-style trains from Grand Central, along with a slew of straphangers who paid him no mind.
Olerud’s cultural yearnings and proletarian transportation choices would have meant little if he hadn’t performed, but on the field he had a comeback campaign in 1997 as he knocked in 102 runs, belted 22 homers, and logged an on-base percentage of .400. And as surprising as his resurgence at the plate was, his performance on the infield was even more shocking. In Toronto, Olerud was considered a defensive liability. He was not fleet of foot, and his lack of speed made it difficult for him to hande the balls that zipped across the SkyDome’s artificial turf. But on the natural surface of Shea Stadium, Olerud changed his game and became a wizard with the glove. He was a weapon at first now, charging in on bunts, cutting down lead runners with the strong arm he’d never been able to show off on the carpet of Toronto. The Mets hadn’t wielded such an offensive defender at first base since Keith Hernandez. Met third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo followed this model and began to play his position with similar aggressiveness, showing off his own strong arm and inviting comparisons to Gold Glovers like Matt Williams and Ken Caminiti. The Mets’ infield defense, once porous, became a decided strength. The team’s pitching staff was full of soft-tossing control artists who logged far more grounders than strikeouts. Fielders like Olerud and Alfonzo made sure those grounders were converted into outs.
When a ball did manage to sneak past the infield, Olerud made the batter’s time on the basepaths uncomfortable. Rather than play on the bag or behind the runner, Olerud stood in front of him, screening him from the action. If a runner made any move back toward the first base bag or in the direction of second, Olerud would move right along with him. Bobby Valentine became fond of this pesky positioning while managing Texas. The idea was suggested to him by one of his coaches, Tim Foli, an ex-Met shortstop nicknamed Crazy Horse for his pugnacious reputation.
Opposing teams assumed Valentine asked John Olerud to play first base this way for the same reason they assumed he did everything else—to be a jerk. When pressed, Valentine played dumb. He was simply letting Olerud be himself, he said. New York, and Bobby Valentine, had finally let Gabby speak loudly, in his own way.
September 12, 1985 was a glorious day when all of New York was baseball mad. Both the Mets and Yankees were playing at home, an unusual coincidence made more so by the fact that both teams were contending for the postseason. Shea and Yankee Stadiums were each packed to the rafters, with the Mets hosting an afternoon game and the Yanks taking the nightcap. Fans young and old with bipartisan spirits played hooky and attended both games. This was a civic event not to be missed for the mere distraction of work or school. In the afternoon, the Mets beat the Cardinals on a walk off RBI single from Keith Hernandez to take sole possession of first place in the National League East. In the evening, the Yankees rode a six-run rally to a victory over Toronto, pulling them within 1.5 games of the first place Blue Jays. It was the latest in the season both teams had been in the playoff hunt since the Mets came into existence. The occasion was deemed so rare that the Times compared it to an astrological phenomenon on the order of Halley’s Comet.
This once-in-a-generation rarity did not prevent a New York brand of hubris and entitlement to wash over the city in record time. Fans of both teams wore t-shirts proclaiming NEW YORK SUBWAY SERIES 1985. One fan called for President Reagan to demand the Cardinals and Blue Jays step aside so that the World Series could once again be played within the confines of the five boroughs, “its rightful place.” A beleaguered clerk in the Macy’s electronics department grew tired of shooing away loitering “customers” who gathered around the display televisions every time a game was on. “They crowd in here and scream and yell like they were in their living rooms,” the weary clerk reported.
Then, as quickly as the city’s baseball fever had surged, it broke. The Yankees followed their thrilling win over Toronto with an eight-game losing streak that all but killed their playoff chances. The Mets hung on longer but finished short of St. Louis in the end. Over the next decade, as the trajectories of the two teams spun in opposite directions, that September day in 1985 remained the closest New York had come to hosting its first Subway Series since 1956.
And then came June 16, 1997, the evening when the advent of interleague play brought with it the first regular season Subway Series game. In front of a sellout Yankee Stadium crowd, the Mets shocked the defending world champions with a 6-0 victory. Starting pitcher Dave Mlicki—owner of a lifetime record of 17-21, a man even most Mets fans couldn’t pick out of a lineup—went the distance, scattering nine hits and striking out eight Yankees, six of them looking, including Derek Jeter to end the game.
By the end of the game, with most Yankees fans having long since left, the House That Ruth Built rang with foreign chants of “Let’s go Mets!” This did not go unnoticed by the press, or George Steinbrenner, who was infuriated by the insult. Stung by this humiliation, the Yankees rebounded to win the last two games of the series. The final contest was particularly contentious, as the Mets rallied late from a 2-0 deficit and scored the tying run when David Cone (now a Yankee) balked home a runner in the top of the eighth. Joe Torre later complained “Bobby tried to plant the seed early,” claiming that the Met manager had pointed out an odd hitch in Cone’s delivery to home plate umpire John Shulock, thus laying the groundwork for the balk call. Valentine contended his observation had no effect on the call. Mr. Baseball believed he was doing a favor for the less perceptive by pointing out a balk move when he saw one. Valentine’s eagle eye merely prolonged the game for the Mets, however, as the Yankees earned the last laugh on a walk off RBI single in the bottom of the tenth from Tino Martinez.
Prior to 1997, the relationship between the Mets and Yankees, and their respective fans, tended to be one of cool indifference. The question of which team was best was restricted to the hypothetical realm of barroom arguments. In the early decades of their coexistence, the Mets and Yankees contended in an annual exhibition for charity called the Mayor’s Trophy Game. This contest was approached in the same manner as a spring training game, with both teams’ best players appearing for a few short innings if they appeared at all. When the 1978 edition threatened to drag on into extra innings on a chilly April night in the Bronx, Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles threw a groundball into the seats in the hopes he could gift the Mets the winning run and “get the hell out of there.” For two years in the early 1980s, rather than stage a game no one wanted to play and few wanted to watch, the Mets and Yankees donated money to the Mayor’s Trophy charity instead and called it a day.
When both teams flirted with the playoffs in 1985, the event was such a novelty that it unfolded as a civic celebration. Fans of one team could be coolly generous to the other squad, even root for their crosstown rivals after a fashion, as they entertained pie-in-the-sky dreams of a Subway Series. The Mets’ and Yankees’ mutual failure to reach the postseason prevented anyone from discovering if those kumbaya feelings could extend deep into October.
A regular season game, a game that counted in the standings for both teams, was a different story. Three Subway Series games were enough to transform the Met-Yankee rivalry from cold war to open hostility. In the years to follow, every interaction between the two camps would be fraught with a tension that began with the fans and traveled all the way up to the players themselves.
The first Subway Series established the pattern that would continue for Met-Yankee summit meetings in the following years. The Mets would say they were keyed up and thrilled to be involved. They would receive kudos for giving the defending world champs a good fight if they lost, while reserving the right to treat each victory like a mini-World Series if they won. “It was a great three days, wasn’t it?” said Edgardo Alfonzo at the conclusion of the inaugural series. His team had lost two of three games in the Bronx, yet he could proclaim the series great with no fear of drawing criticism. The impact of winning the very first Subway Series game was so immense, it almost accounted for more than one win (even if the standings disagreed).
The Yankees, expected to win the real World Series no matter what year it was, treated the affair with a mixture of contempt and dread. Playing the Mets in contrived circumstances lay a few steps beneath their dignity. These games offered the Yankees little to win and everything to lose. David Cone told reporters that dropping two of three to the Mets would have sent him scrambling for a cyanide tablet. Derek Jeter said such an outcome would have forced him to move to New Jersey. (He would go on to repeat this “threat” often in future Subway Series, apparently believing there were no Yankees or Mets fans to hassle him in the Garden State.) After Tino Martinez hit his RBI single to ice the win in the series finale, the first baseman said he felt a ton of bricks lift from his back.
Former Mets like Cone and Doc Gooden chafed at questions about the differences between the teams. Now Yankees, they preferred to adopt the traditional stance of the Bronx Bombers: Refusing to acknowledge the existence of the Other Team In Town whenever possible. The Subway Series robbed them of that option. One reporter noted that upon being called up to the Yankees on the eve of the first Subway Series, Wally Whitehurst (another ex-Met) asked his old teammate Gooden when they were getting some pizza delivered to the clubhouse. The question was asked in jest, but Doc answered it with deathly seriousness. “We don’t do that stuff here, Wally,” he warned, looking over his shoulder to make sure no team officials had heard the impudent request. “This ain’t the Mets.”
There was no better demonstration of how much had changed between the two teams than the scene at Shea Stadium on April 15, 1998. Two days earlier, a 500-pound support beam collapsed at Yankee Stadium. Apart from adding ammunition to George Steinbrenner’s claims that he deserved a new stadium, the accident shut down the old one until city inspectors could ensure the facility was safe. The Mets were scheduled to play a night game but invited the Yankees to use Shea Stadium for the afternoon to complete their series against the Angels.
This was a neighborly gesture that made no one happy. Met players fretted that welcoming the Yankees into their stadium would have the same effect as inviting vampires into one’s home. Yankee players called the temporary relocation a “distraction,” worrying it would disturb their recent hot streak. They chose to dress up in the Yankee Stadium clubhouse before hopping a bus to Queens rather than dare use the facilities at Shea. Yankees fans who descended on Flushing that afternoon displayed naked loathing for their gracious hosts, comparing the temporary digs unfavorably to the self-proclaimed Cathedral of Baseball while displaying signs bearing insults like NOT BAD FOR A MINOR LEAGUE PARK. Mets fans who arrived that evening for their team’s regularly scheduled game said the place would need fumigation after being invaded by those fans. They bristled over Mets ownership being so accommodating to the team that was now their most hated rival. Surely George Steinbrenner would never be so welcoming if the tables were turned, they said.
And those were the remarks deemed fit for print and airwaves. When rumors bubbled that emergency repairs would force the Yankees to play their next series at Shea, Mets fans accused their team of playing doormat, while the Yankees worried over what playing at a minor league ballpark would do for their prospects. The issue was skirted when the Yankees’ next opponent, the Detroit Tigers, agreed to swap home series.
A spirit of citizenship that allowed the two teams to share a facility in the 1970s, and to cheer for each other in the mid-1980s. That spirit was now dead and buried. In its place was a harsh partisanship that brooked no compromise. The first Subway Series had been marked by full-blown fistfights in the Yankee Stadium stands. Players contemplated popping cyanide tablets if they lost. One fanbase compared the arrival of the other fanbase in their team’s stadium to an infestation of pests. A local sports radio personality dismissed the idea that New Yorkers could root for both teams by proclaiming, with the fervor of a Baptist preacher, “You can’t be for God and the Devil!” The host was a Yankees fan and made it quite clear which team stood for each part of this duality in his eyes.
The media made note of all this animosity, but only to dismiss it. They had already determined the Subway Series was a unifying civic event that enlivened and uplifted the entire city. Everyone said so, from the mayor on down. “It’s wonderful for the city,” Rudy Giuliani said right before the Mets and Yankees faced each other for the first time. Every outlet of officialdom adopted this line as their own, ignoring Giuliani’s own recollection of the days of his youth when fans of the Dodgers and Giants couldn’t be in the same room together without fighting. Brawls in the stands were labeled “skirmishes.” Hate-filled volleys from one team’s fans toward another’s were placed under the umbrella of playful exuberance. The belief that this antipathy could be ignored or dismissed ran deep and long. When interleague play was in its third season, at a point when Mets and Yankees had been crammed next to each other for 12 hate-filled contests, one writer dared suggest that the two teams—each of whom hungered for new facilities—could share one new stadium and thus save a great deal of taxpayer money, as if the support beam incident and all the ugliness it engendered (They’ll hafta fumigate the place…) never happened.
The press ran with the mayor’s contention and took it one step further. Now that New York had returned to its former glory, the only thing it was missing was a real Subway Series. If games between the Mets and Yankees in June were great for the city, then a World Series showdown would be even greater. Each subsequent matchup would bring such daydreaming from the scribes. Wouldn’t that be great for the city?, they cooed, blind to all the evidence they gathered that said otherwise.
When Valentine returned to the Met organization in 1996, the franchise was in the midst of one its periodic ruts while the Yankees were on the rise. At first glance, this was unremarkable. History showed the teams tended to travel in indirectly proportional waves, one ascending and the other plummeting before each reversed course. Whichever team happened to be on top was said to own the city, while the other would have to wait for fortune to shine on them.
New York’s affection for baseball is boundless, but its allegiances are capricious. While the Mets and Yankees each have their hardcore partisans, there exist between them a softer middle ready to jump on the flashiest bandwagon in town. In another city such fair-weather fans might be dismissed. In New York, the media capital of the country, they are prized commodities. So when one team owns the city, what it truly owns is a slippery but valuable asset that translates into big bucks in box office, TV ratings, and jersey sales. It is also an asset whose fickle attentions threaten to drift elsewhere at the first sign of trouble.
For the first three decades of the teams’ coexistence, they passed this baton back and forth with clockwork regularity. When the Mets debuted in 1962, the Yankees were riding high on the mighty bats of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, the lingering afterglow of their dynasty in the 1950s, and the dearth of competition occasioned by the Dodgers’ and Giants’ flight westward. By the mid-1960s, however, the glory days of the M&M Boys had passed, leaving a void begging to be filled. Even as the Mets continued to lose, they were more fun, more now, more in touch with the dynamic go-go New Frontier feeling of the era than the Yankees, who remained stuck in the gray Eisenhower years.
And then, to the amazement of everyone, the Mets stopped losing. First, they shocked the world by winning the World Series in 1969. Then, in 1973, they executed one of the most dramatic comebacks in baseball history, scrambling from last to first place in the season’s last month, besting the Big Red Machine in the National League playoffs before falling to the powerful Oakland A’s in the seventh game of the World Series. The Mets remained the darlings of the city through the first half of the 1970s. Over the same period, the Yankees scuffled through a series of listless seasons and never approached the drama staged by the Mets. The team’s corporate owner, CBS, was indifferent at best to the idea of fielding a competitive ballclub and made personnel decisions that alienated fans, such as the inexplicable firing of iconic broadcaster Mel Allen. Both the Mets and Yankees possessed fanbases that fled to the suburbs in droves in the 1960s and 1970s, but the Mets played in a ballpark with ample parking and easy highway access convenient to the expanding developments of Long Island. The Yankees played in the South Bronx, ground zero for white flight. Beginning in 1964, the year Shea Stadium opened, the Mets outdrew the Yankees for 11 straight seasons. The tallies were seldom close.
If the Yankees had any remaining illusions about their place in the New York sports landscape at this time, these were shattered in 1974, the year that renovations at The House That Ruth Built forced them to play home games at Shea for two full seasons. A day before their “home opener” in 1974, the Yankees betrayed their discomfort over being forced to play in Queens by warming up on a chilly infield while wearing road grays instead of their usual pinstripes. The opening day starter for the Yankees, Mel Stottlemyre, told the TV crews on hand that he felt like he’d been traded.
Then, the Mets lost their way. In 1975, the reserve clause—which had bound players to their teams in perpetuity since the earliest days of the major leagues—was struck down. The imminent arrival of free agency would render the Mets’ best players very expensive, a possibility that struck fear into the hearts of management. The Mets had once been owned by Joan Payson, an eccentric socialite who adored her team and spent lavishly on them. When she died the same year as the reserve clause did, the Mets fell into the hands of the de Roulet family, who were so parsimonious they once considered collecting foul balls and scrubbing them up for reuse, and so tone deaf to fan mood they thought parading a mule named Met-Al around Shea’s warning track would please the crowd.
On June 15, 1977, team president M. Donald Grant shipped the team’s two brightest stars, ace Tom Seaver and slugger Dave Kingman, out of Queens in a shortsighted effort to keep down payroll. Per Watergate-era nomenclature, these moves became known as the Midnight Massacre. It would doom the team to irrelevance for years to come.
Meanwhile, the Yankees took up residence in their renovated stadium and began to win like the Yanks of old. Their new owner, George Steinbrenner, embraced free agency as much as his crosstown counterparts ran from it. The Bronx Zoo Yankees captured headlines with soap opera storylines and two consecutive championships in 1977 and 1978. The teams switched places in the city’s affections almost overnight, with the Yankees drawing crowds that abandoned the hopeless Mets. Once-packed Shea Stadium turned into a ghost town. Embittered Mets fans dubbed the ballpark Grant’s Tomb.
Ill-suited for the new Big Money landscape of baseball, the de Roulets sold the Mets to a group headed by publishing heir Nelson Doubleday Jr. in 1980. One of the new owners’ first orders of business was to hire Frank Cashen as their general manager. The Baltimore native favored bow ties and spoke with a languid Chesapeake drawl, his persona more genteel Southern law professor than baseball executive. The image belied the fact that, as an executive in the Orioles’ front office, he helped construct the great Baltimore teams of the 1960s and 1970s. He pledged to bring such glory to the Mets, and within five years of the ownership change, Cashen’s build-up of a decimated farm system and savvy trades brought the Mets back to the top. They were not simply a good team but a gritty one that possessed the swagger and dirty uniforms that made sportswriters drool. After attendance barely broke 700,000 in 1981—a pitiful tally even when compensating for the players’ strike that occurred mid-summer that year—3,055,455 fans showed up at Shea in 1988, the highest gate total of any New York team ever to that point.
While the Mets swaggered their way to the top, their counterparts in the Bronx practiced subtraction by addition. Having found success in the late 1970s via big free agent signings like Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter, George Steinbrenner continued to press for big-ticket players each season, even as each subsequent shopping spree brought back a lower return on investment than the last. When the signings made at his behest turned out to be busts, Steinbrenner’s voice would the be first and loudest one denouncing these players as unworthy of wearing pinstripes. But rather than take any blame for any of these missteps, his energies would soon be focused on acquiring yet another pricey veteran.
The Yankees rarely had losing records in the 1980s and they had no shortage of stars, including Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly, and Rickey Henderson. But after losing the 1981 World Series to the Dodgers, they failed to make the playoffs for the remainder of the decade and could find little traction with a sports press fixated on the more exciting and successful Mets. The headlines the Yankees did garner during this time were negative and Steinbrenner-centric. His love-hate relationship with Billy Martin devolved from tragedy into farce. His revolving door manager policy was another sad joke, when it didn’t turn vicious and cruel. Yogi Berra, one of the most beloved figures ever to play the game, was unceremoniously dismissed from his managerial post a mere 16 games into the 1985 season despite repeated public assurances he’d get a fair chance to turn the team around. Wounded by the betrayal, Berra refused to return to Yankee Stadium for 14 years.
Steinbrenner griped to the press about Yankee Stadium “falling apart,” complained about the “dangerous” neighborhood in which it was located, and threatened to relocate to New Jersey, or Tampa, or whichever municipality would take him. Players chafed under The Boss’s yoke and tired of him calling them out in the press over the smallest offenses. Steinbrenner was fond of reminding the press that his team won more games than any other team had in the 1980s, a boast that most reporters denounced as little more than a participation trophy. When the Mets captured a World Series title in 1986, Steinbrenner’s howling in the wind became even easier to ignore.
That 1986 championship was assumed to be a mere precursor to a Met dynasty. After barely missing out on the playoffs in 1987, the Mets recaptured the National League East division crown in 1988 and cruised into the playoffs to face a Dodger team they’d beaten 10 out of 11 times in the regular season. Few gave Los Angeles a ghost of a chance. In a year-end special produced by WOR-9, an assemblage of Met beat writers looked past the Dodgers to a World Series matchup against the powerful Oakland A’s of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. Some believed the National League Championship Series might go as many as six games. None considered the possibility the Mets might lose it. The scene also included New York Post beat writer Joel Sherman saying he couldn’t wait to watch Canseco play in person because “I’m convinced he’s on steroids.” The remark was lobbed not as a dire accusation but as a joke, and his fellow scribes responded with laughter in kind.
No one in New York was laughing when Los Angeles, powered by the bat of Kirk Gibson and the arm of Orel Hershiser, defeated the Mets in seven games. The Dodgers went on to continue their Cinderella story by stunning the A’s in five games in the World Series. The Mets went on to implode.
The decline proceeded slowly at first, one small slip at a time. Staff ace Doc Gooden, once the most exciting players in the game, struggled with substance abuse and drew multiple suspensions for violating the league’s drug policy. Star slugger Darryl Strawberry feuded with management and left for Los Angeles. Frank Cashen’s magic touch eluded him as he traded away players like Kevin Mitchell, Lenny Dykstra, and Randy Myers and watched them all become superstars elsewhere. Manager Davey Johnson clashed with the front office over these unwise trades and other meddling from suits until he was canned in 1990, despite having never won fewer than 87 games in his seasons at the helm. Johnson’s replacement, Buddy Harrelson, was a beloved former Met from the team’s glory days on 1969, but he made it clear he was not made of managerial timber when he withered under criticism and literally hid from the press. Before long, Harrelson was gone as well.
Then it was the front office’s turn to implode. Assistant General Manager Joe McIlvaine had been all but promised he’d succeed Frank Cashen upon the general manager’s retirement. But as the 1980s turned to the 1990s with Cashen still at the reins, McIlvaine tired of waiting and took the GM post in San Diego after the 1990 season. The move blindsided the team and left Cashen with only one lieutenant, Al Harazin. Prior to McIlvaine’s departure, Harazin had dealt strictly with the business side of operations. He looked the part of the money man, his sensible eyeglasses and conservative suit giving off the humorless cast of a hedge fund manager. Met co-owner Fred Wilpon characterized Harazin’s depth of baseball knowledge as “dangerously shallow.” He nonetheless became Cashen’s successor by default.
What Harazin lacked in baseball acumen he hoped to make up for with spending power. In 1991, Harazin successfully lobbied Cashen to sign Vince Coleman, an All Star outfielder who’d tortured the Mets as a base-stealing machine for the Cardinals, to a four-year, $11.95 million contract. The following year, Harazin ascended to the general manager’s post and made a flurry of expensive deals, inking future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray and slugger Bobby Bonilla and trading for the hefty contract of former Cy Young Award winner Bret Saberhagen. These acquisitions made the Mets a chic pick to return to their former glory, but the 1992 season was doomed by injuries. Saberhagen was limited to 15 starts. Closer John Franco struggled all year before he was shut down at the end of August. Coleman missed more than half the season with injuries, but the Mets came to wish he’d missed even more time. When not on the disabled list, Coleman instigated a shoving match with his manager to earn himself a two-game suspension and blamed his precipitous drop in base stealing numbers on the sorry state of the Shea Stadium infield.
Bobby Bonilla stayed healthier than most but became emblematic of the problem with these new Mets. His antagonistic relationship with the media began with his first press conference upon signing with the team. Anticipating a rude welcome before he’d even donned a Met uniform, he promised the writers, “You guys won’t be able to knock the smile off my face.” He proceeded to give them every reason to try. In his first year in Flushing the outfielder batted a modest .249 with 19 home runs, far below the standard he set as a perennial All Star in his days with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and did not react well to his treatment at the hands of the local boo birds. Bonilla took to wearing earplugs on the field so he wouldn’t hear the taunts and inspired more jeers when he lobbied Shea’s official scorer to take away errors from his record. Fans expected Bonilla, who grew up in the Bronx, to be better prepared for the rigors of playing in the city. Editorial cartoonists depicted him wearing diapers.
Off the field, 1992 was tarnished by a series of sordid accusations against some of the Mets’ biggest stars. First, Coleman, Doc Gooden, and outfielder Daryl Boston were accused of raping a woman at the Mets’ spring training facilities the previous year. (Charges were dropped against all three players before Grapefruit League action ended.) Then, the tabloids had a field day with bizarre rumors that pitcher David Cone had lured women into the Shea Stadium bullpen with promises of autographed baseballs in order to masturbate in front of them. In an unrelated incident, Cone was also accused of making death threats against a group of women at Shea.
Ugly as these accusations were, the team’s reaction to them was even uglier. The Mets could have done some soul searching about their selection of personnel or attempted to discipline players for such behavior. The team instead decided the real villains were the media.
An air of paranoia began to pervade the Met clubhouse. The team believed that every person who entered with a mic in his or her hand was out to get them. In the face of such a “threat,” players and management alike decided the best defense was a good offense and attacked the press at every opportunity. Some blamed this shift in outlook on Eddie Murray, who brought a virulent hatred of the press with him from his years in Baltimore. Others thought the Mets smarted from the memory of the well-liked Buddy Harrelson being hounded out of his managerial job by a critical press that painted him as ill-suited for the pressures of the position. Still others thought the leering David Cone headlines poisoned the Mets’ feeling toward the scribes who covered them. It may have been poisoned long before by the media circuses that sprung up around Doc Gooden’s fall from grace and Darryl Strawberry’s front office feuds.
Whatever the seed, it was watered by Harrelson’s replacement, Jeff Torborg. The Mets’ new manager obsessed over how his team was perceived in the papers, to the point of calling constant team meetings on the subject, warning his players to pay the writers no mind. One player responded, “If we’re not supposed to be worried about the media, why are we having all these meetings about the media?” Torborg’s nigh-daily briefings on the press hindered everyday team operations to the point that Cone dubbed him Oliver North.
Torborg also miscalculated when he attempted to impose clean living on his players. His immediate managerial predecessors had “boys will be boys” attitudes when it came to postgame jockish misbehavior, and Davey Johnson was especially permissive of his players’ hard partying ways. Thus it came as a shock to the team when one of Torborg’s first orders of business was to ban beer drinking during team flights. It was an article of faith to these players that their 1980s glory days were powered by the carte blanche they had to engage in booze-and-coke-fueled mayhem. In retrospect, it’s obvious that the Mets’ bacchanalian ways did more to kill a dynasty than create one, but players did not see it this way at the time. Torborg’s teetotal edicts were interpreted as a conspiracy to rob them of their manly devil-may-care essence. When traded away to Toronto in 1992, David Cone sighed, “The day of the arrogant Mets is over.” As evidence, he pointed to Torborg’s goody-two-shoes beer ban, cringing at the sight of grown men sneaking sips of Budweiser on a team flight while the skipper had his back turned.
Despite the ugliness of 1992, many observers were willing to give the Mets a mulligan due to the spate of injuries they suffered that year. Surely a team with a healthy Bonilla, Saberhagen, Coleman, and Murray would compete. Pirates manager Jim Leyland picked them to win the National League East. Others weren’t so sure. Sparky Anderson of the Tigers snorted, “The Mets are a myth.”
Before too long, the Mets would wish they were a myth, but their monstrosity was all too real.
The 1993 Mets won their first two games at home against the Colorado Rockies, a freshly minted expansion team. They again won two consecutive games against the Rockies one week later, then beat the Reds in back-to-back games on April 16 and 17. They would not put together another winning streak of any kind again until the end of June. Over this stretch, they did not so much play baseball as execute daily nine-man reenactments of Faces of Death with bats and gloves. And as gruesome as what the Mets did on the field in 1993 was, it paled in comparison to what they did off of it.
A mere four games into the season, Bobby Bonilla executed his first meltdown by confronting New York Daily News beat writer Bob Klapisch, who had co-authored a book about the mess of 1992 with the provocative title The Worst Team Money Could Buy. Excerpts had appeared in the Daily News and Bonilla was not pleased with his portrayal therein. After calling Klapisch a homophobic slur, Bonilla promised the writer, “I’ll show you the Bronx,” then smacked away a microphone belonging to a camera crew capturing the whole thing on tape.
In his own defense, Bonilla later attempted to distinguish between attacking one member of the media and attacking the media at large, which only served to underscore the team’s contemptuous view of the fourth estate. “This team as a whole, we feel [Klapisch] abused his privilege, period, and that’s all we have to say,” Bonilla grumbled, quickly adding, “We’re not taking this out on everyone else in the media.” The press-phobia was displayed again on April 26 when Doc Gooden was scratched from a scheduled start. The Mets claimed the move came after the pitcher was “bumped” while in the clubhouse. This story collapsed when it was revealed the bump was caused by Vince Coleman, who was practicing his golf swing in the locker room and hit Gooden in the shoulder blade with a 9 iron. Rather than apologize for the clumsy cover-up, Al Harazin harrumphed his only mistake was “not doing a better job of keeping it out of the papers.” When reporters tried to grill Coleman in the clubhouse the next day, they were bum-rushed toward the exit by a crew of bouncers comprised of Bonilla, Eddie Murray, and John Franco.
With the season barely a month old, Sports Illustrated referred to the Mets as “battle-weary” and characterized a four-game series against the expansion Florida Marlins in the middle of May as having “the urgency of a pennant race.” The Mets proceeded to split the series and embarrass themselves in many other ways. In the second Florida game, a 4-2 loss, Coleman misplayed an easy fly ball and booted a grounder. In the same contest, Bobby Bonilla admired what he thought was a game-tying homer and jogged leisurely around the bases, only to see the ball caught at the warning track. When reprimanded by third base coach Mike Cubbage, Bonilla growled, “Don’t show me up on the field.” Bonilla carried the argument into the dugout, hurling obscenities at Cubbage the whole time. Fed-up fans took to booing Bonilla not after every strikeout, but after every swing and a miss. Some put paper bags over their heads when he strode to the plate. Others jeered a credit card commercial featuring Jeff Torborg when the team dared play it on Shea’s giant Diamond Vision video board.
By May 19, the Mets were 13-25, only one game better than the pace of the dreadful 1962 team. The big difference between the two was that the 1962 Mets were a lovable group of incompetents while the 1993 squad was a loathsome pack of overpaid malcontents. Torborg received his walking papers and was replaced by Dallas Green, whose previous managerial work with the Phillies and Yankees labeled him as a drill sergeant type who could whip the Mets back into shape. A few weeks after Torborg’s dismissal, Al Harazin was gone as well. Joe McIlvaine, who’d resigned his own post in San Diego after clashing with Padre ownership, returned to take the job that should have been his in the first place. It was already far too late for Green’s tough love to have any effect in the dugout, or for McIlvaine’s front office skills to cure a poisoned clubhouse. The moves were little more than deck chair rearrangement on the Titanic.
The Mets’ lone sliver of sympathy in 1993 was earned by Anthony Young, a star-crossed pitcher who experienced a Biblical plague of bad luck on his way to shattering the major league record for consecutive losses—27 in a row, a streak that extended back to the previous season, before a rare Met walk-off win at the end of July ended his misfortune. Young’s ignominious accomplishment brought more reporters into the clubhouse, however, the last thing his teammates wanted. On July 7, as the press huddled around the pitcher’s locker, one of Young’s teammates tossed a lit firecracker behind them. No one was hurt, but the outburst scared the hell out of the writers, who had every reason to believe this team harbored desires to harm them.
The offending pyromaniac kept his identity hidden for three weeks until Bret Saberhagen defiantly confessed to the act. “It was a practical joke,” he sneered with dismissiveness. “I wanted to get people’s attention. There are always tons of reporters here when something bad is happening. I don’t like a lot of them.” When asked if he’d been disciplined by the team, Saberhagen all but laughed in his questioner’s face. “What are they going to do, fine me?” It was as if the Mets were an unruly class that delighted in torturing a series of overmatched substitute teachers.
A few weeks later, Saberhagen executed an encore by spraying reporters with bleach from a squirt gun. This time, the pitcher’s confession was apologetic and accommodating, as he told the press he’d doused them with bleach “accidentally” and swore he had no intention of hurting anyone. The shift in tone was due to another horrible incident that had happened in the interim, one that turned the Mets’ season from an ugly farce to a detestable one.
On July 24, after a game at Dodger Stadium, Vince Coleman rebuffed a crowd of autograph seekers, and joined Los Angles outfielder Eric Davis in the slugger’s Jeep Cherokee. The two of them planned to attend a barbecue at the Dodger’s house later that evening. While sitting in the Jeep, Coleman tossed some kind of explosive in the general direction of a group of fans standing nearby. This was no mere Saberhagen firecracker. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office later compared it to “a quarter-stick of dynamite.” The ensuing explosion injured three people, including a two-year-old girl who suffered corneal lacerations.
Despite the fact that Coleman had maimed a toddler, no one but the victims and the LAPD took the attack seriously at first—least of all Coleman, who shooed reporters away from his locker the next day with a profanity-filled rant. The Mets waited 72 hours before issuing an official response in which they labeled Coleman’s acts as “regrettable and reprehensible” but also made sure to classify them, with an implied shrug of the shoulders, as “off-field activities.” An untested Bud Selig—still early enough in his tenure as baseball’s commissioner that he was labeled “de facto commissioner” by Sports Illustrated—waited five days before issuing a tepid statement about “reported incidents involving New York Mets players.”
Not even Dallas Green, reputed bad cop, brought the hammer down on his outfielder until he had no choice. The manager inserted Coleman into his lineup for three straight games following the incident at Chavez Ravine before public outcry forced a benching. Even then, Green painted Coleman as the true victim and blamed the press for blowing the whole affair out of proportion. “I made the decision based on your activities,” he said, wagging his finger at reporters. “It’s difficult for any athlete to go through something like this and perform up to his capabilities.” A more rational mind might have conceded it was even more difficult for a two-year-old girl to suffer corneal lacerations, but Green had acquired the Mets’ hatred of the media by osmosis.
Coleman himself conveyed no remorse until faced with felony charges carrying a prison sentence of up to three years. He then called a press conference to beg forgiveness, his wife and kids in tow for maximum effect. He volunteered to clean up after recent fires in Malibu as a show of community service and made sure to be photographed barbecuing for local firemen. His eventual punishment would be a one-year suspended sentence plus a civil suit settled for an undisclosed amount.
These baby steps toward good citizenship were insufficient for one half of ownership. New York real estate mogul Fred Wilpon had been a tiny portion of the partnership that purchased the Mets from the de Roulet family in 1980. Over the following decade, Wilpon angled his way into 50/50 control of the team with Nelson Doubleday, but for most of that time he maintained a low public profile. Compared to his counterpart in the Bronx, he was almost invisible. The Coleman incident changed all that. On August 24, Fred Wilpon called his first ever team meeting and chewed out his employees, saying they had embarrassed the Mets and their city. “You should feel privileged to be able to play baseball in New York,” he told them. “If you don’t feel that way and you want out, let us know. We’ll get you the hell out of here.”
Wilpon then scheduled a press conference to inform the gathered media that the pyromaniac outfielder would never play for the Mets again. It didn’t matter Coleman was owed $3 million the next year. It also didn’t matter Wilpon neglected to discuss this with anyone in his front office beforehand. “I reached a point where I had to say enough is enough,” Wilpon said.
The 1993 season would prove a watershed moment for New York baseball. It marked the moment when the Mets transformed from a gritty, gutsy group of scrappers into one of the most unlikable teams in any sport. They quite literally became a punch line, invoked by hack comedians in the same breath as Amy Fisher or Pee-Wee Herman. Comparing them to another walking embarrassment of the era, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated declared the Mets “baseball’s Buttafuoco’s.” David Letterman, who’d recently switched over to CBS to pit his New York-based Late Show against NBC’s The Tonight Show, was particularly fond of raking the Mets across the coals in his nightly monologues. Once beloved by their own fans and reviled by others, the Mets had become a joke to everyone.
The Mets had picked a terrible time to be terrible. While they were stumbling, the Yankees began their slow climb back to the top, thanks in large part to the most humiliating Steinbrenner blowup of all. In the late 1980s, The Boss suspected a charity led by star slugger Dave Winfield was a scam and resented the clauses in Winfield’s that obligated Steinbrenner to contribute to it. Another executive with similar suspicions might have tipped off the IRS, or hired a private detective to do some snooping. Steinbrenner paid $40,000 to man named Howie Spira who claimed he worked for Winfield and could dig up some dirt on the player’s charity and the man himself.
Unfortunately for Steinbrenner, he had thrown in his lot with a man who was not only up to his neck with gambling debts, but also a one-time FBI informant. Spira aggressively shopped his story of doing freelance detective work for Steinbrenner to the feds, all while recording all of his phone calls with the Yankee owner for self protection. The last straw came when Spira called up The Boss and demanded an additional $110,000 to prevent his tapes from finding their way to the newspapers. Steinbrenner went to the police to complain of the extortion. In the process, the public soon learned that Steinbrenner had employed a man who owed tons of money to professional thumb-breakers, just to unearth damaging information about Dave Winfield. Even in the sordid annals of Steinbrennerian history, this stood out as a low point.
Once the commissioner’s office completed its investigation, Steinbrenner received a “lifetime ban” from the game in 1990. His meddling had become so reviled that when news of his ban was broadcast over the Yankee Stadium PA system during a game, the fans in attendance responded with a standing ovation.
To all the world, this looked like the Yankees’ darkest hour. In truth, it turned out to be the seed of a new dynasty. Steinbrenner’s enforced absence allowed the Yankee front office one brief, blessed respite in which to operate unhindered. General Manager Gene Michael was able to retain talent in the team’s farm system rather than trading it away for overpriced veterans, and to supplement emerging prospects with judicious free agent signings—two things The Boss’s incessant interference never allowed. Homegrown stars like Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and Andy Pettitte blossomed alongside the imported bats of Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, and Wade Boggs.
The Yankees began to win again. In 1993, they passed the Mets in attendance for the first time in over a decade. They would not relinquish that crown for the rest of the 1990s. In 1990, a New York Times/WCBS-TV poll showed that almost three times as many New Yorkers professed to be Mets fans than those who said they rooted for the Yankees. Most respondents named George Steinbrenner as their primary reason for this preference. “I always enjoyed the Yankees, but George turned me off,” said one, who saw the Mets as “a quieter, more classy team.” Three years later, the Mets were no longer quiet nor classy, and another New York Times/CBS poll showed the Yankees held the edge, claiming 6 percent more fans among respondents than the Mets.
The gap between the number of professed fans for each time only widened in the years that followed as the Yankees dominated the baseball world. They showed pluck by battling back in the 1996 World Series, capturing the title after being down two games to none against the powerful pitching staff of the Atlanta Braves. Then they loaded up on even more free agents, created a super-team, and decimated all competition in a season for the ages in 1998. By this point, there was no question which was the top team in town. The only debate concerned how far the Yankees towered above the competition, or if the other team in town offered them any competition at all.
The New Sheriff
One team was up and the other was down. This was far from a new phenomenon, historically speaking, and yet, the reversal of fortunes that began in the early 1990s was different. It wasn’t the mere fact that the Yankees were winning and the Mets weren’t. It wasn’t the mere fact that the Yankees had marquee players and the Mets did not. What was truly different this time around was the city itself. New York had gone through such a radical transformation that it threatened to make the fluid relationship between the two teams settle into a bitter permanence.
In 1993, the same year the Mets were throwing explosives and the Yankees were initiating their return to respectability, Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor. The Flatbush native was once as liberal as any child of the 1960s; as a young assistant district attorney, his first big case involved throwing the book at crooked cops. Then federal appointments during the Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan administrations, coupled with New York’s ugly descent into rampant crime and near bankruptcy, sped his transition from bleeding-heart lefty into law-and-order conservative. As a federal prosecutor during New York’s terrible 1980s, he rose to fame by battling mobsters and Wall Street’s inside traders with the same level of pit bull tenacity. His most notable innovation as United States attorney for Manhattan was his pointed use of the “perp walk”—the attention-grabbing act of marching a suspect into custody in front of a tipped-off press corps, which simultaneously humiliated the alleged evildoer and gave the prosecutor an air of machismo. The perp walk had been employed against Mafiosi for years. Giuliani’s innovation was to use it as a measure of populist revenge against the miscreants of Wall Street, shaming inside traders like Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky.
When Rudy Giuliani first campaigned for the mayorship in 1989, he rested his hopes on a platform to restore “quality of life.” Though the city was in rough shape at that moment, voters were not quite ready for Giuliani’s message. The political novice lost a hotly contested mayoral race against David Dinkins, an African-American Democrat who hoped to be a balm for simmering racial tensions in the outer boroughs. Four years under Dinkins brought little relief to crime and even more racial unrest, however. When the incumbent mayor and the prosecutor locked horns again in 1993, Giuliani squeaked out a narrow victory.
Rudy Giuliani embraced the “broken windows” theory of policing, which posited that allowing a few broken windows to go unrepaired encouraged worse lawbreaking. “Broken windows” urged an aggressive pursuit of small violations in order to create an environment in which committing any crime would be more difficult. It emphasized a shift away from crime fighting—catching criminals who’d already broken the law—to the old fashioned idea of ensuring laws weren’t broken in the first place.
The broken windows approach cleared the streets of the inconveniences New Yorkers had come to accept as part of life in a city gone to seed. Gone were the squeegee men who hassled drivers trapped in traffic, the open-air drug markets and homeless encampments in public parks, the subway cars covered from wheel to roof in indecipherable graffiti. Rather than issue tickets to cars whose owners refused to move them for street cleaning, Giuliani spearheaded the ultra-punitive measure of papering their windows with unremovable stickers plastered with the accusation THIS VEHICLE VIOLATES NYC PARKING REGULATIONS. Rather than tolerate noisy dance clubs whose patrons spilled into the street, Giuliani charged the police to enforce ancient cabaret laws, hounding the parties out of business. He dismantled the city’s vast social safety net, which he saw as a bloated fountain of fraud, and replaced it with a system that required fingerprinting, background checks, and “workfare” for benefit recipients to earn their keep (mirroring similar initiatives being enacted on the federal level by the new presidential administration of Bill Clinton). Picking up where he left off as a federal prosecutor, Giuliani flushed the mob out of the Fulton Fish Market and private sanitation. That the laws being broken in these instances were minor in the grand scheme of things was exactly the point. Let no one think they can get away with anything in this town anymore was Giuliani’s unspoken edict.
The amount of credit one gave Giuliani for improving New York City’s fortunes tended to correlate to whether one had voted for him or not. If you hadn’t, you might have insisted that the city’s increased safety coincided with a nationwide drop in crime, and that serious crime had already begun to decline measurably in the latter years of the Dinkins administration. (Both contentions were statistically provable, though in New York’s most troubled neighborhoods conditions had ebbed only from utter horror to mere nightmare). Many of Giuliani’s critics declared the methods employed by the NYPD to clear the streets of squeegee men and small-time drug dealers—stop-and-frisk, ticketing, instructions to move along under threat of arrest—were also used to harass minorities for the “crime” of walking city streets. The city’s black community in particular viewed his accomplishments skeptically, feeling that strong-arm police tactics were employed harshest of all in their neighborhoods, that his slashing of the city’s welfare system was aimed squarely at them, that he considered their existence in New York to be a criminal act.
If you had voted for the mayor, however, you saw a city that was safer and cleaner than it had been in decades. You told yourself that the ends were more than justified by the means, that the suppression of certain civil liberties was a small price to pay to walk the streets at night safely. Under Giuliani’s watch, the city’s crime rate dropped precipitously, year after year. The numbers of serious crimes—especially murder—fell off a cliff. Giuliani had done exactly what he promised he would, improve the city’s quality of life, and he had done it with an efficiency that was stunning to behold. In short, Rudy Giuliani’s way worked. Quibbles with the harshness of some of his methods could seem pointless, if not dangerous.
For the first time in decades, New York was deemed safe. Tourists returned in droves. Developers gobbled up newly valuable real estate, nowhere more dramatically than Times Square, a once seedy outpost of peep shows and porno theaters reborn as a family-friendly center for tourist attractions and corporate headquarters. Tenement-jammed enclaves like the Lower East Side, the East Village, and Hell’s Kitchen sprouted glittering high-rises and became high-rent districts almost overnight.
The transformations did not stop at the bridges and tunnels. For the first time ever, outer borough living became fashionable. In the 1980s, the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn had been wracked by the same crime and race riots that plagued the rest of the borough. Two years into the Giuliani administration, the Times could tout the same neighborhood as “a new Bohemia” where all the great artists’ lofts had already been snatched up and a two-family home cost the princely sum of $175,000.
To the world beyond New York, Rudy Giuliani was seen as the man who brought America’s largest city back from its darkest hours. He became an ambassador for New York, a living symbol of its rebirth. And when America saw Giuliani outside of City Hall, the place they most often saw him was Yankee Stadium, watching his beloved Bronx Bombers lay waste to yet another inferior opponent. When the victorious Yankees hoisted World Series trophies over their heads, Rudy was right beside them in the champagne-soaked clubhouse, wearing his lucky team jacket, celebrating as if he too were a member of the team that won it all.
These Yankees bore no resemblance to the Bronx Zoo clubs of the 1970s, who won despite the oil-and-water mix of strong personalities like Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin. These Yankees were a well-oiled machine that brooked no deviation from the championship plan. These Yankees did nothing but win, decisively and methodically. When they won it all at season’s end, they paused for only one brief moment to pop bubbly before resuming preparations to win again the next year. Even George Steinbrenner reined in his worst impulses and operated more like a button-down CEO than a tyrannical dictator. Spooked by his ban from the game, The Boss kept his public blowups and ambush firings to a bare minimum after he was reinstated by Major League Baseball in 1993. Now when Steinbrenner mouthed off to the press, it was understood the old man was only blowing off steam. Reporters expected him to mouth off once in a while, and even to make a few rash personnel moves. They did not expect him to cause the chaos he once did, because no one, not even George Steinbrenner, could be allowed to derail the Yankees of the 1990s. The stakes were too high, the money involved too astronomical.
The Yankees had been a business-first operation going back to the days when Colonel Jacob Ruppert first made them a powerhouse by snatching Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox. But there was something very New-York-in-the-1990s about how they operated in the last decade of the 20th century. New York’s recovery was powered, in part, by its ability to promote itself as a destination, as a brand, to be featured as the backdrop of hit shows like Seinfeld and Friends, to push its tough but grinning mayor on any talk show that would have him. Most baseball teams did not yet think of themselves in terms of branding, but the Yankees did. They beat the rest of the league in understanding free agency and they beat the rest of the league at this game, too. The Yankees no longer aimed to win between the lines alone. They sought to best the competition in ways never thought of before, to win “games” other teams didn’t even know were being played.
When it came to this new means of “winning,” there was no better example than the merchandising deal the Yankees inked in 1997. The resolution of the players’ strike of 1994 brought with it a properties agreement, under which any revenues garnered from the sale of team merchandise would be shared equally among the teams. For small market franchises that could never hope to earn huge sums of money from merchandise sales, this new revenue stream held out a small sliver of hope they might be able to compete against the big boys. This hope was contingent on those big boys allowing the agreement to go forward, however, and the biggest boy of all wasn’t about to let that happen.
In November of 1996, MLB rejected a joint merchandising deal with Nike and Reebok that would have netted each club between $50,000 and $100,000. Steinbrenner pushed aggressively for rejection, as he complained the amount was far too low. Four months later The Boss shocked baseball by brokering his own exclusive ten-year merchandising pact with Adidas for close to $100 million. This ensured the Yankees would net more from the sale of team gear alone than most other teams garnered from their broadcast rights, and they wouldn’t have to share one red cent with their fellow franchises.
Through carefully executed legal jujitsu, the Yankees argued the Adidas deal didn’t violate the strict letter of the properties agreement. Commissioner Bud Selig, himself a former owner, had championed Steinbrenner’s reinstatement to the game. The Yankees’ marketing deal left Selig feeling betrayed. But when he demanded the Yankees cancel their pact with Adidas, Steinbrenner responded by suing his fellow owners. In the political parlance of the day, he accused them of being “welfare queens” who refused to pull themselves up from their bootstraps, parasites who leeched off of his success rather than put in a hard day’s work. In his view, if the Yankees sold boatloads more jerseys and caps than everyone else, that was not an accident of geography or a reflection of a power imbalance, but a sign of his own stellar business acumen. Therefore, he and his team deserved to reap those rewards accordingly. The Yankees spent a lot of money to market themselves and he’d be damned if he’d see the value of his investment depressed by less industrious teams in Montréal and Kansas City. For good measure, Steinbrenner pointed to the Brewers—the team Bud Selig once owned—as one of the league’s more pronounced failures. The Brewers had logged only two lousy postseason appearances since Selig moved the franchise to Milwaukee in 1970. Selig therefore could not possibly comprehend the price of greatness as much as Steinbrenner did.
The commissioner fumed in private and lobbed a few symbolic sanctions at the Yankees and their owner. Then he negotiated a settlement that gave Steinbrenner exactly what he wanted. Thus was a small measure to level the playing field between the game’s haves and have-nots rendered toothless.
Incidents like these allowed The Boss to believe it wasn’t the Yankees’ overwhelming financial resources that led to the team’s success, but his toughness and brainpower. Members of the New York press varied in their level of criticism of Steinbrenner. Some gave The Boss credit when the Yankees began to win again, while others would never forgive him for being the myopic meddler who brought the team to its knees in the 1980s. When it came to the issue of whether Steinbrenner had the right to make the Adidas deal, however, nearly all the local scribes agreed that he did. The idea that money alone could lead the Yankees to conquering baseball and the city was too gauche for them to entertain. They preferred to believe grit and smarts held the day.
When a pair of Yankee coaches were interviewed for a managerial vacancy at another squad (Selig’s Brewers, of all teams), Kevin Kernan of the Post expressed a tenet held by all his fellow New York scribes when he asserted any team would be nuts to not hire these men. Why? Yankee pedigree put these coaches a step above the competition because the Yankees would never hire anyone but the best and the brightest. “A lot has been made of the big market-small market infrastructure of baseball,” Kernan wrote, “but the reality of the situation is that it is big brains vs. small brains that separates the winners from losers.” This was a debatable thesis, but no one in New York’s sports press dared debate it.
Likewise, the city’s “comeback” was also subject to debate, though few were willing to do so. The new New York was great if you were a tourist or a developer or had money to burn on a luxury apartment. It could feel less great if you’d remained in the city through the bad years, either due to regional chauvinism or a dearth of other options, only to face skyrocketing rents and a police force that seemed more determined to occupy your neighborhood than protect it. While the city’s minority communities felt they were targeted by the aggressive policing, Mayor Giuliani defended the NYPD’s actions unequivocally and showed little empathy for those who might serve as collateral damage in their quest to clean up the city. His personal dictionary defined freedom as “the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do and how you do it.”
New York and its Yankees had risen from the ashes. To question how either had done so was to question excellence itself. It implied you believed things were better the way they used to be, that you might even want to return to those awful days. To root for the Mets now carried a similar implication that you might pine for the stabby coke-dusted New York that tolerated drug abuse and sexual assault and firecrackers and bleach squirtings because it dared not dream things could be any better.
The Future in Queens
For much of the 1990s, the Mets seemed to have no entryway into this new world. The man who thought otherwise, who believed a path could be found and that he could chart it, was Fred Wilpon. The press conference during which Wilpon “fired” Vince Coleman was more than a wake-up call to his players. It was a wake-up call to himself and to the world. It was the first public sign he would run the Mets’ show from this point forward.
Both Fred Wilpon and his co-owner Nelson Doubleday were dedicated National League baseball fans devastated by the Giants’ and Dodgers’ move west in 1958, but the two men had little else in common. Doubleday was born into wealth and inherited a fortune from his family’s namesake publishing house. He was the great-grandnephew of Abner Doubleday, the Civil War hero who was dubbed the inventor of baseball by later mythmakers. His approach to team ownership fit his background: Assemble a solid portfolio and let your assets do the work. Frank Cashen assembled a championship team with almost no interference from Doubleday, who had almost no interest in the dirty business of that assembling. He bore a vague resemblance former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, with his distinguished silver hair and his respectable yachtsman’s tan betraying his background as a well-off man of leisure.
Fred Wilpon came from a very different world. He grew up as the son of a funeral director in Bensonhurst and mined his own fortune in the cutthroat world of real estate. Wilpon played baseball at Lafayette High School alongside a lanky lefty named Sandy Koufax and fancied himself an authority on the game. He was known to smile on occasion but favored grimaces instead, his face always betraying the striver’s fear of being outhustled.
When Wilpon bought into the Mets in 1980, he owned a mere five percent of the team. He had his eyes on much more, however, and quickly found the means to get it. In 1986, Nelson Doubleday sold the publishing house that bore his name to the German conglomerate Bertelsmann. The publishing house technically owned the Mets but Doubleday intended to retain ownership of the team and saw no barriers to doing so until he was alerted to a contractual technicality: Wilpon possessed first right of refusal in any sale of the team. This revelation left Doubleday gobsmacked, since he had no knowledge of when or how Wilpon had obtained such a right. With this legal ammunition in his arsenal, Wilpon could make the resale process difficult and protracted for all parties involved. Outsmarted, Doubleday was forced to come to a settlement whereby he and Wilpon would purchase the Mets from Bertelsmann for $81 million. They would be equal partners, and barely on speaking terms, from that day forward.
Doubleday’s position was further weakened after he picked the wrong side in MLB’s power struggle. Commissioner Fay Vincent rubbed many owners the wrong way with his intervention during a players’ lockout in 1990, his suspension of Steinbrenner, and his public accusations that the game’s owners were colluding to artificially suppress salaries (accusations that would later prove true). Fred Wilpon backed the scheme to oust Vincent with a vote of no confidence, a coup led by fellow owner Bud Selig. Nelson Doubleday threw his lot in with Vincent’s lost cause. Once Selig rose to power, Doubleday was pushed even further to the margins.
Around the same as the infamous shape-up-or-ship-out presser, Wilpon felt confident enough to reveal his grand vision for the Mets to Sports Illustrated. He wanted of subjecting Shea Stadium’s employees to the same rigorous hospitality training as Disney World employees, the gold standard of customer service. He dreamed of replacing Shea with a state of the art facility and had commissioned a model of a sprawling entertainment complex with a gleaming retractable dome stadium, surrounded by pavilions housing a permanent world’s fair.
Wilpon held onto an article of faith that he shared with his team’s fans: The Yankees had not taken the city for good. The new facility plans were an expression of that faith, spelling out his own vision for a new New York. It harkened back to the long gone days of 1964, when the world came to Flushing, when Queens was a place where you could dream of the future, when Shea was a crown jewel, when the Mets were kings.
The boy was roughhousing with his friends, as boys do, and it was all fun and games until he landed a shot to his friend’s eye. The boy’s heart sank because his friend wasn’t just any teenager. His friend was Bobby Valentine. In Stamford, Connecticut, Bobby Valentine was everything.
In the 1960s, Stamford was beginning its transition from a working class burg of factories and docks into a gentrified bedroom community of glittering corporate outposts. The industrial waterfront would soon be replaced by a series of glass towers, each new one a carbon copy of the last. Those who remembered Stamford’s lunchpail past could feel there was no room for them in this new version of their hometown. They didn’t have much to hold onto except for Bobby Valentine, world-class competitor.
Valentine’s skill as a running back garnered comparisons to O.J. Simpson from the man who’d coached Simpson at USC. He was so good at basketball that for years after he’d left, local coaches could chide a showboating youngster by yelling, Who do you think you are, Bobby Valentine? He excelled at more esoteric endeavors too, winning pancake eating contests and ballroom dancing competitions with equal gusto. (One day, the men paid to cover his teams would have a field day with these little biographic details.) If an event ended with crowning a winner, Bobby Valentine would find some way to be that winner.
While Valentine loved to win at anything, baseball was his one true love. The lights outside his house were covered in baseball-shaped globes, lovingly painted by a carpenter father who shared Stamford’s belief that Bobby Valentine could do no wrong. He was son to them all, a local treasure to be cherished and protected. That’s why, when a boy landed an accidental elbow to Bobby Valentine’s eye, his first fear was not that his friend would hit him back, but that he’d destroyed the hope of an entire city.
Of course, Bobby Valentine shrugged off this blow. Nothing could stop Bobby Valentine. If your entire hometown called you Mr. Baseball before you could vote or buy a beer or join the army, you would believe you were bulletproof, too. The problems would only come when you left that town and entered a world that didn’t see you glowing with the same angelic light. That world might never make any sense to you at all. You might never make any sense to that world.
Hitting A Wall
Bobby Valentine became the Los Angeles Dodgers’ first-round draft choice in 1968. His athletic range was matched only by his relentless enthusiasm and his inability to dial down a high-octane personality. His rookie league manager, a baseball lifer named Tommy Lasorda who would become a mentor and tireless defender of his former charge, described him as “insufferable, but in a good way.” The young man had the talent and character to be a team captain one day, said Al Campanis, the Dodgers general manager who had discovered Sandy Koufax. Valentine hit his way through the Dodger organization with breakneck speed, the only speed he knew, inspiring the big league club to call him up during the 1969 season.
Then Valentine was forced to slow down for the first time in his life by Walter Alston, human speed bump. Alston had managed the Dodgers since they called Flatbush home and had no patience for the impatient likes of Bobby Valentine. Each year, Alston was offered a one-year contract by the Dodgers’ parsimonious owner, Walter O’Malley. Each year, Alston accepted the contract with Spartan stoicism. If the manager could be made to wait in this humiliating manner, so could a brash youngster. Alston used Valentine all over the field, treating him more as a utility player than a budding star. A wiser person might have shown deference to the old man. Mr. Baseball openly lobbied for Tommy Lasorda to take Alston’s place.
A wiser person also wouldn’t have risked his career by dabbling in intramural football in the offseason. Valentine did, and the knee injury he sustained while engaged in this risky hobby following the 1971 season limited his range at shortstop the subsequent year. He spent some time in the outfield in 1972 and batted a respectable .274 in 112 games, but the Dodgers had not chosen him as their first-round pick hoping for mere respectability. Continued clashes with Alston all but forced the Dodgers to trade him to the Angels at year’s end.
On May 17, 1973, while patrolling center field at Anaheim Stadium, Valentine pursued a long fly—at full speed, naturally. As the ball sailed over the fence, he crashed into it and caught his spikes in a chain link fence. The speed of the pursuit, combined with the unfortunate placement of his cleats, snapped his right leg in two places. He looked up after his crash to see bone poking through the skin.
This compound fracture would have been a brutal injury from which to recover even if correctly treated, and his was not. Valentine’s break was set improperly, causing his right leg to heal slightly shorter than the left, the source of chronic back pain forever after. His legs had once powered him to break state rushing records. Now they were unsure of themselves. He rushed to work his way back to the field but those ungainly legs betrayed him. A gear was missing in this new body of his. He would hit what should have been a sure single and get thrown out after he tripped on his way to first base.
Valentine’s days as an everyday major league player were over, though he scraped by for another six seasons as a utility man through sheer guile. He came to New York midsummer of 1977, part of the package that sent slugger Dave Kingman from Gotham to San Diego at the trade deadline. By this point, Valentine’s stock had dropped so much that his appearance on the Met roster drew little notice. It didn’t help that his arrival coincided with the soul-crushing trade of Tom Seaver to Cincinnati.
For a season and a half in New York, Valentine performed ably enough and was assured by his manager during spring training of 1979 that he would make the opening day roster. Then, with a week left in Florida, the team released him. The same manager who’d assured him a roster spot now said the Mets couldn’t keep him on the team at the expense of younger players with more potential. He also told him that the Mets—the go-nowhere Mets of 1979, who would be all but mathematically eliminated the moment they took the field in April—couldn’t take a chance on his inferior defense at second base. He’d heard none of these discouraging words before.
Incensed, Valentine called a press conference to protest such unfair treatment. Being released so close to the end of the spring training meant it would be almost impossible to catch on with any other team. No professional courtesy, Valentine wailed. The man who delivered the bad news did his best to be civil, but the truth was the truth. The skipper had to make some tough decisions that spring, such as cutting Met-in-perpetuity Ed Kranepool. It wasn’t personal, the skipper insisted, a fact that was of little comfort to Valentine. Once assured a roster spot and steady paycheck, all Valentine had left was a shrug of the shoulders and best wishes from his now-former manager, Joe Torre.
Valentine muddled through 62 more games with the Seattle Mariners before hanging up his spikes at the ripe old age of 29. Then he returned to Stamford to open a sports bar that bore his name. He would have been wise to situate his watering hole north of the noisy, smog-choked corridor of I-95, close to the pied à terres for the Wall Street crowd. Instead, Valentine opened his bar south of the interstate, where the town remained a little grungy and his name could bring in crowds for weekday lunches and weekend games. On that side of town, crowds would greet him as Mr. Baseball, forever and ever.
On the walls of his bar Valentine hung his prized collection of baseball memorabilia. Pictures of Willie, Mickey, and the Duke, autographed game-worn jerseys, bats in glass sarcophagi. Alongside them he hung pictures of the horror of that night in Anaheim strobed one frame at a time. You see him approaching the wall, getting closer with each blink. You can tell he won’t be able to stop himself. His momentum is too great. A terrible finish is in store. And then you see it. You see Mr. Baseball sprawled out on the turf in agony, his leg shattered, his old life already over.
A year as a saloon keeper was enough to convince Bobby Valentine he was not done with baseball. Desperate for any path back into the sport, he accepted a minor league instructional assignment with the Mets in 1981 and once again worked his way to the major leagues with brutal efficiency. Valentine was added to the big league club’s coaching staff for the 1983 season, alongside players he’d worked with down on the farm who were beginning to resurrect the Mets from the status of perennial punching bag.
In 1985, Tom Grieve, the Texas Rangers’ general manager and a former teammate, tapped Valentine to be his team’s new skipper. Under Valentine’s stewardship the moribund franchise experienced a rare brush with contention, finishing second in the American League West in 1986, the team’s best showing ever. But no matter where the Rangers were in the standings in any given season, the spotlight would always focus on Valentine. Exactly how Valentine wanted it, said his detractors, a vocal and growing group.
Valentine refused to keep still in the dugout, shifting from one bad leg to the other, pacing, shaking his head, throwing up his hands. He even bit his nails with theatrical flourish. He would often position himself on the dugout railing and stay there for innings on end to berate opponents and umpires, thus earning himself the unflattering nickname Top Step. He once screamed at Royals pitcher Joe Beckwith so mercilessly that the unnerved righty lobbed several wild pitches. Beckwith’s skipper, Dick Howser, was a patient soul who once weathered an entire season as Yankee manager under withering public criticism from George Steinbrenner without ever uttering a peep in protest, but Valentine’s antics tested even his resolve. The man who’d shown the forbearance of Job in the Bronx gave his pitchers leave to throw at Valentine’s head.
Bobby Valentine was more popular with his own team, but not by much. The Rangers’ ace Kevin Brown grumbled that when Valentine’s players went through slumps the manager shut them out, fearing their woeful performances could infect others. He could have benefited from some friends in the press but showed zero ability to cultivate such alliances and even less interest. Simple queries from the beat writers provoked answers that ranged from dismissive to combative, delivered in a voice that came from the back of the throat, guttural, mocking.
Such sins could have been excused if Valentine’s teams succeeded on the field, but the Rangers’ runner-up finish in 1986 proved his high watermark in Texas. These Rangers had no shortage of talent with players such as Brown, slugger Juan Gonzalez, catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, and the ageless Nolan Ryan. That such pieces failed to gel into a winning combination was deemed the manager’s fault, and he’d accrued precious few allies who would argue otherwise on his behalf. Valentine got the axe in July 1992 with the bad news delivered at a dour press conference led by Rangers team president George W. Bush.
Valentine returned to the Met organization to manage their triple-A affiliate before he received an offer befitting his restless spirit and boundless ego: Become the first manager recruited directly from America to lead a team in the Japanese major leagues (Nippon Professional Baseball, or NPB). NPB had employed a handful of American-born managers in its history but most of these had transitioned from playing in the league. None had lasted long in their posts. The offer came from the Chiba Lotte Marines, a down-on-its-luck franchise willing to try anything to win or at least gain some attention. Compared to its American counterpart, NPB had very strict notions when it came to training and decorum, areas not thought to be Valentine’s strong suits. The cultural differences and the Marines’ lowly status would have dissuaded most other men. Valentine jumped at the challenge, signing up as the Marines’ manager for the 1995 season.
That challenge came at an unhappy time for Japan. In 1995 the nation was sucker punched by a devastating earthquake in Kobe and deadly sarin attacks in the Tokyo subway system, all while the economy remained in the doldrums that had prevailed since the beginning of the decade. Looking for any ray of sunshine, Japan fixated on Hideo Nomo and his historic stateside “rookie” campaign. After chafing under NPB’s restrictive contracts and rigorous training demands, the star pitcher for the Kinetsu Buffaloes “retired” from the league so he could sign with the Dodgers, making him the first Japanese-born to play in the American major leagues in almost 30 years. Compared to most major league pitchers, Nomo’s delivery to the plate was slow and halting, as he pivoted until his back was to the batter before completing his windup. This pitching style was fairly common in Japan, but American hitters had rarely seen the likes of it before. Nomo’s delivery baffled hitters and made him an immediate sensation on both sides of the Pacific. His American success became a source of great pride to a baseball-obsessed nation starved for any bit of good news, his every start documented religiously by the Japanese media.
As exciting as all this was to the average Japanese citizen, this turn of events terrified the Japanese baseball establishment. Nomo had figured out a way to beat the system and somehow became an even bigger star in his native land by doing so. Even worse, Nomo-Mania inspired more than a few MLB teams to ship scouts overseas in hopes of finding the next Japanese superstar. Though Valentine was new to Japanese baseball himself, he became the go-to quote for American reporters and scouts hoping to make sense of it all. “The top 20 pitchers here are all major league standard or above,” Valentine told the New York Times. While he cautioned Japanese hitters would need some time to acquire the power expected from the typical MLB player, he also believed a young outfielder named Ichiro Suzuki might be able to make the leap to America. He made these bold pronouncements when he had been on the job all of three months.
This assumption of expertise by the newcomer grated on his new bosses. The team officials who’d sought out Valentine developed a case of buyer’s remorse and set about undermining their new manager at every turn. During spring training Valentine relied on his interpreter and head coach to tutor him on NPB’s players and the league’s folkways. Both men were dismissed by management three games into the regular season with little explanation. Marines General Manager Tatsuro Hirooka ordered Valentine to read up on “the book” of NPB players and their stats. Said book was only available in Japanese, a language Valentine could not yet speak or read fluently. Hirooka told his manager to study harder. Valentine was promised the autonomy to both make roster moves and fire coaches but soon found he lacked any such power. He was given a verbal contract for three years, then handed a paper contract for two.
Valentine being Valentine, he saw this treatment not as a reason to show more deference but to exercise more defiance. Tradition in Japanese baseball subjects its players to arduous practice schedules, but Valentine challenged these ideas by cutting down on rigorous individual drills, emphasizing team fielding and batting practice instead. Lack of discipline was blamed when the Marines struggled well into the season, but once the team began to win, fans became energized for the first time in ages. Valentine piloted the Marines to a second-place finish and their best record in 11 years. In the process, he transformed himself from an outsider into a fan favorite.
And yet, rumors of Valentine’s imminent dismissal swirled as soon as the season ended. The official line from the Marines’ front office pointed to irreconcilable differences on the subject of training. Hirooka contended the Marines finished second despite Valentine, not because of him, while an assistant general manager said Valentine “was judged deficient in baseball ability.” Grateful for what Valentine had done for the team, fans gathered 24,000 signatures for a petition demanding his return. He was fired anyway.
Valentine returned to the Mets’ minor league system for a third time, convinced this was a temporary setback. As far as he could see, he was still Mr. Baseball. It was only a matter of time before the Mets would see it that way too.