Having lived through the Mets 1992 season, I was not particularly eager to read The Worst Team Money Could Buy by Bob Klapisch and John Harper. But I picked the book up recently and really enjoyed it.
Without giving a review, I wanted to share some highlights. But before that, however, a sidebar:
A “2 Guys” thank you to every reporter who braves the clubhouse, who faces down the players, who comes back with the story. These days, bloggers tend to get too much credit — and this is not limited to sports. There are aggregate blogs out there that are terrific, fascinating, and wholly dependent upon the hard work of traditional journalists, the foot soldiers who attend town budget hearings, talk to cops on the beat, go off to Afghanistan to find the story. They work the trenches.
If you are a fan who followed the Winter Meetings, a typical blog post at, say, Metsblog, would be: 1) Link to tweet or article written by a reporter, often paraphrased by blogger; 2) Add opinion by blogger. It’s cannibalism, basically, and commonplace. Every blog does it, to varying degrees. Anyway, my point is simple: thank goodness we’ve got beat reporters out there, supported by some surviving semblance of traditional media to cut the checks. The changing world will go on and I’m not throwing my body into the gears of the machine. Just pausing for a moment to recognize that most of what we do here is on the shoulders of their hard work.
* In 2002, the Mets payroll was $120 million. And some folks will say, “See that, money doesn’t guarantee success!” To which I reply, “Oh, shut up. Of course it’s better to have a larger payroll than a smaller one. Next!” Or as a reader, Eric, put it recently in our comments section, “Bad POOR ownership is actually worse than bad RICH ownership.”
* Jeff Torborg really was a horrible manager, a massive miscalculation by Fred Wilpon (Torborg lasted exactly 200 games into his four-year contract before getting the axe). Wilpon desperately wanted to change the culture of the clubhouse. Klapisch and Harper referred to that tandem as “a manager and management consumed with image.” The conservative Torborg, who loved daily meetings, instituted the rule forbidding alcohol on team flights. Later Torborg resurfaced with the Florida Marlins, and was fired early in 2003 with a 16-22 record. (Coincidentally, that’s exactly 200 games with the Marlins, too; as a rule, Torborg gets fired after 38 games in the second year of his contract.) Once they got Torborg out of the way, the Marlins went on to win the World Series. Trivia: Can you name the only catcher on the receiving end of no-hitters from Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan? That’s right, Jeff Torborg. So, well, I guess he’s a better man than me after all.
* We’ve been saluting a certain hard-to-name quality on our The Mets All-Time “2 Guys” Team. Call it toughness, competitiveness, grit, whatever. Like pornography, you know it when you see it. As we work our way around the diamond, we’ve named John Stearns, Carlos Delgado, Wally Backman, Buddy Harrelson, Ray Knight, and Lenny Dykstra. Here’s a story for that thickening file:
Once Ron Darling was standing with a couple of writers in a bar, and somehow the subject turned to the tough guys on the Mets. Darling pointed across the room to where five or six of his teammates had gathered. “I’d take my chances against any of them but that little fuck,” he said, referring to Franco. “He’s dangerous.”
* After it was clear that the Mets would let Strawberry walk — but before Frank Cashen tried to (insanely) replace him with Vince Coleman — David Cone told a writer, “They better have a plan, a real plan, or this decision is going to cost people their jobs.” But they didn’t, and so it did. After ’93, GM Al Harazin never worked in baseball again.
* A reason to love Davey Johnson: After the Mets won the 1986 NLCS, they got wild on the return flight home and caused $10,000 worth of damage to the plane. Here’s what happened next:
Before the start of the World Series, Frank Cashen assembled the team in the clubhouse and, waving the letter in the air, told them they were responsible for the costs. Davey Johnson calmly took the bill from Cashen and ripped it to pieces. “If it weren’t for us winning that playoff,” he said, “there wouldn’t have been any party. We made this organization plenty of money. You pay it.”
* This Ron Darling quote: “I don’t trust any player who doesn’t drink beer.”
NOTE: In the (great, great, great) book I’m currently reading, Dollar Sign on the Muscle (see: The Essential Baseball Library for more details), Ruly Carpenter says the same thing a little differently: “There aren’t many milkshake drinkers in the Hall of Fame.”
* Midseason in ’92, it became clear the Mets wanted to trade David Cone. Because by that time, any Met with a personality was freaking doomed.
All at once, it hit Cone that Jeff Torborg and Al Harazin’s desire to cleanse the Mets came from a much higher source. It was Wilpon. “He was the trigger guy all along,” Cone said later that season. Now, more than ever, Cone recognized the Mets for what they were: an organization committed to enforcing rules. Those who did wrong would suffer for their sins. Operating in the largest, most liberal city in the country, the Mets had somehow managed to become of the baseball’s most conservative organizations.
* Torborg let David Cone throw 166 pitches in a 1-0 shutout over the Giants in a meaningless July game. I don’t think even Jeff’s old battery mate, Nolan Ryan, would approve of that.
* Boy, the players all hated Greg Jefferies — and Davey Johnson, who coddled him, deserves some of the blame for that. Here’s a good Darryl Strawberry tale, from the 1989 season:
What irked Strawberry more than anything was the way Jefferies treated his own bats, a Japanese model he was being paid by the company to use. He would sit at his locker, polishing them with rubbing alcohol to remove marks made by batted balls and keep them shiny. And he would ask equipment manager Charlie Samuels to pack them separately, away from the rest of the Mets’ wood, so Jefferies’s personal stock wouldn’t chip. It was part of the egocentric behavior that eventually made Jefferies a pariah in the clubhouse. One day in Atlanta, Strawberry had seen enough. Moments after Jefferies had handed Samuels one of his bats, the second baseman rushed to make the team bus to the airport. Strawberry — still undressed, always one of the last on the bus — stormed across the room and shouted, “Gimmi that bat, Charlie. Gimme the fucking thing.”
Samuels was only too happy to oblige. He handed Strawberry Jeffereies prize possession. Darryl ceremoniously walked across the room and dumped the bat in the trash. “Fuck that fucking bat. Fuck Jefferies,” Strawberry mumbled, returning to his locker. Everyone in the clubhouse had, at one time or another, wished they could’ve defaced Jefferies bats in some way. But only Strawberry had the balls to actually do it.”
* When it was all going bad in ’92, Wilpon made a decision that he typically makes under similar circumstances: he closed the checkbook. When Fred starts losing money, he reflexively (and cyclically) cuts costs rather than reinvests in the product.
At some point in August, as the Mets were becoming a laughingstock and tickets were going unsold at Shea, Wilpon notified Harazin that the vault was now locked. With more than $16 million worth of salaries on the disabled list, Wilpon vowed to stop playing the fool to long-term contracts. He informed Harazin there would be no $25 million to sign Cone to a five-year contract.
And later that season:
The Mets had begun the year flaunting the highest payroll in baseball and ended it by making major cuts in their minor league development staff, letting at least one coach go at every level of their farm system. It was a sad moment for a franchise that, in the eighties, had taken such pride in rebuilding through its scouting and development. But someone had to pay for the Mets’ failures and another fifth-place finish. Attendance had been extraordinarily light in September. The season total came to only 1.7 million, the lowest since 1983 and down by more than 1 million since 1990, the last year Darryl Strawberry played in New York.
* Another observation that I found eerily similar to 2012: “They couldn’t hit, finishing last in the majors with a .233 batting average, and they couldn’t run. Indeed, management badly miscalculated the effect the team’s lack of speed and quickness would have. Speed? For much of the year the Mets had threatened to set a major league record for fewest triples in a season; as it was, their total of seventeen was easily the lowest in the NL, thirty shy of the Pirates league-leading total.” Note: In 2012, the Mets were last in triples with 21 — 36 shy of the Giants league-leading total.
Thanks again, Bob Klapisch and John Harper, for a terrific glimpse behind the scenes into the daily life of a beat reporter.
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By the way, 40 years ago today, a guy named Bruce Springsteen came out with his debut LP.
Which means that, boy, some of you guys are old. Rock on.