"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
June 15, 2001
BASEBALL: The End of an Era
(Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website)
THE END OF AN ERA
As this website closes its “doors,” it’s only fitting to contemplate the end of another era . . .
In 1996, at the tail end of a dismal season that followed five dismal seasons before that one, the Mets hired Bobby Valentine as manager. The team he inherited had some talented players in their primes – Todd Hundley was then 27, Jeff Kent 28, Bernard Gilkey 29, Mark Clark 28, Bobby Jones 26 – as well as a few promising youngsters – Edgardo Alfonzo was 22, Carl Everett 25, Butch Huskey 24. But it was not a good team, and didn’t look likely to become one; Hundley was the closest thing to a major star on the team, and Kent was dealt to Cleveland for Carlos Baerga, who claimed to be a year younger but turned out to be nearly finished. For Valentine’s part, his record didn’t inspire confidence – his tenure in Texas showed no signs of a superior grasp of the game’s big-picture strategies, and he’d had an unfortunate tendency to get locked into petty battles with players.
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1997 didn’t look promising, and that was before Lance Johnson started pulling up lame, Bernard Gilkey went blind (or at least hit like it), and Hundley’s season ended early. The farm system wasn’t delivering much help. Rather than rebuild a team that was already – unsuccessfully – rebuilding, though, Mets management embarked on a course of bringing in guys in their prime and veterans, looking to force the team into contention. Joe McIlvane, before he was fired, dealt Robert Person to Toronto for John Olerud, then 28, in a spectacular heist; Olerud gave the team three years of great defense (see this Sportsjones piece for a tribute to Olerud’s glovework), a knack for hitting whenever the rest of the team slumped and for beating up Greg Maddux, and a completely unflappable demeanor. In three years he hit fantastically: .315/.501/.425, averaging 97 RBI and 96 Runs a year. Valentine picked Rick Reed off the scrap heap (in 1995, Reed was reduced to being a scab) and made him the staff ace; he finished 6th in the league in ERA, has been a solid starter ever since, and is on the way to his best season at this writing. Alfonzo developed suddenly, hitting .315. Everett didn’t, but did hit an improbable number of late-inning, game-breaking home runs. The Mets weren’t an outstanding team, nor a young team, but at least they were back in the neighborhood of the pennant race.
There were to be more stumbles after the Mets brought in Steve Phillips to run the show in mid-1997. In August, hoping to stock up for the stretch run, Phillips traded Johnson, Clark, Jose Vizcaino and Manny Alexander for Brian McRae, Mel Rojas, and Turk Wendell. The deal looked awful, and the Mets sank like a stone while Clark went 6-1 with a 2.86 ERA down the stretch. McRae stank. Rojas pitched worse than anyone could have imagined, allowing 128 baserunners and 13 home runs in 84.1 innings as a Met over two seasons. He moved on to Detroit, where he managed the improbable feat in one outing of allowing 9 earned runs while throwing just 11 pitches. After the season, Everett was dealt for peanuts (John Hudek, actually), where he went on to star.
But the Rojas deal wound up working out, because Johnson’s various injuries had finished him as a productive player, Clark never had another good year, McRae managed one good season as a Met in 1998, and Turk Wendell wound up as the best player in the deal. And the Everett situation was just impossible, after an avalanche of bad publicity over allegations that he beat his kids.
Slowly but surely, the pattern emerged. Both Phillips and Valentine, working alone, were apt to make bad decisions, and the two men have never really gotten along. Throw in an ownership group that has consistently demanded short-term results while refusing to spend the really big bucks needed to stay at the top of what Bill James called the “treadmill” of dependence on importing veterans, and it’s an impossible situation. Yet, because Valentine and Phillips managed to check each other’s worst ideas, identify guys like Reed who could be added to the team for nothing, and seize occasional opportunities to profit from other teams’ financial woes, the Mets squeezed out a very successful four-year run. Year in and year out, they retooled their outfield on the fly, swung deadline deals, and tinkered with the starting rotation.
In 1998, as they had done in 1985, the Mets brought in the extra talent to turn one good year into a legitimate contender. Al Leiter and Dennis Cook were the Mets’ take from the Florida Fire Sale. The Marlins came calling again when Mike Piazza’s contract talks broke down with the Dodgers – the Mets dug into the farm system again, dealing Preston Wilson and Ed Yarnall for a guy who looked like he might walk after a rocky first season in Queens. The gamble paid off. The team played thrilling baseball, highlighted by a dramatic series at the Astrodome in late August, but an offensive deep freeze in the season’s last week left them one game shy of the wild card Cubs.
The era peaked, really, in 1999. The team’s offense took a great leap forward with a full season from Piazza and the addition of Robin Ventura, Rickey Henderson, Roger Cedeno, and Benny Agbayani, vaulting from 11th to fifth in offense. The move of Alfonso to second (clearing the way for Ventura to replace the ruins of Carlos Baerga) and Alfonso’s breakout as a hitter immediately vaulted the Mets to the status of an elite offense. The Olerud-Alfonso-Ordonez-Ventura infield shattered records as the most sure-handed in history, and SI put them on the cover comparing them to Ozzie’s Cardinals and the Brooks Robinson Orioles. The great tragedy of 1999, though, was that the team never peaked all at once. After a 27-28 start, they went on a 65-30 rampage, propelled by the offense. Henderson was having his best season with the bat, improbably for a 40-year-old first-tier Hall of Famer. Then, the pitching got going – Masato Yoshii was one of the league’s best pitchers over the last two months, and Al Leiter and Rick Reed shook off injuries to get into a fabulous groove that lasted into the postseason. But the offense came unglued as Henderson and Cedeno ran out of gas and injuries crippled Piazza and Ventura. The season’s conclusion is too fresh and too complex a story to revisit here, but I still think those Mets would have matched up better with the Yankees in 1999 than they did in 2000.
After the season, the Mets lost Olerud, who went home to Seattle. Maybe nothing could have been done about that, but it was a severe blow, and the offense in particular has never entirely recovered. Todd Zeile was about the best the Mets could have done for a replacement, but to get him the team tied itself into an overly long contractual commitment to a middling 34-year-old power hitter, the type of player most likely to decline rapidly in value. Rickey Henderson became useless again early the next season. And the focus on win-now was exacerbated when the Mets traded 2 of their few promising young players (Cedeno and Octavio Dotel) for the last year of Mike Hampton’s contract. Further, further they went out on a limb.
This time, things broke just right – the Mets dropped to seventh in the NL in offense, but behind Hampton, a revived Leiter and another scrap-heap find in Glendon Rusch, the pitching was outstanding. After upsetting the Giants in the first round of the playoffs, the Mets found the road to the World Series easy when an injury-plagued Cardinals team toppled the Braves. The rest, again, is history: the Mets lost a series of close games in the World Series, Hampton left as a free agent, and when the team dropped out of the Alex Rodriguez sweepstakes due to his financial demands (who are we kidding that it was anything else), the certainty that the team would head into a period of decline was sealed.
It’s hard to knock the strategy pursued by Phillips and Valentine. At every turn, they faced a choice between tearing apart a contending team to rely on a threadbare farm system, or pushing the team to acquire more and more veterans and bigger contracts. The 1998 team almost made the postseason for the first time in a decade, and with a few breaks the 1999 and/or the 2000 teams might have won it all, making it impossible to argue that it wasn’t all worth it. Compared to the prospects of rebuilding (given the Mets’ dismal track record with keeping young players healthy), that’s quite an accomplishment. But the promise of the future, throughout 2000, was Alex Rodriguez, and when the team decided it couldn’t afford him, the end of the road came into view. When Mike Hampton left, it was obvious that the Mets would need to rely on luck and a declining division just to squeak into October. The luck wasn’t there, and we are finally at the point where any more attempts to keep the current team halfway competitive will just put off the day when there is any possibility of rebuilding into a serious contender. Memo to David Wells: don't worry about having to play for Valentine.
It’s over, folks. The Mets, at this writing (Thursday), stand 9 games out of first place, and more importantly 7 behind the lively-again Braves in the loss column. Could they get back in the race? Sure, this division can be won with 85 wins. But they haven’t played that way, not even close. They have yet to put together anything like an extended hot streak, they haven’t proven they can beat the Phillies head to head (Pat Burrell, the type of outstanding young power hitter the Mets system has produced precisely once in its 40-year history, simply owns the Mets), and this past weekend they dropped 2 out of 3 to the Devil Rays. They are 11th in the NL in ERA, despite the best control record of any NL staff, and 12th in runs scored. The team’s best player, Edgardo Alfonso, has been hobbled by a back injury and may never be the same. As a Mets fan, I generally don’t give up easily. It’s been some of the most thrilling baseball I can remember, the last 4 years; Robin Ventura’s grand slam single in the driving rain was one for the ages, but there have been countless other memorable moments. But now the bill is due.
The team the Mets have assembled is aging, and fast. Piazza is 32 and has caught 1124 major league games; Ventura and Appier are 33, Wendell is 34, Reed, Leiter and Zeile are 35, Cook is 38, Franco is 40. Even the young players
I hate the idea of breaking this team up, trying to trade some of the core guys like Rick Reed or Ventura. Maybe a month from now 2001 will look different, and the team will hang together for a last run. But it will only get worse from here, and the last thing any Mets fan wants is to get what the Orioles have – old guys with big contracts hitting .190 and blocking the rebuilding process. Some players, like Zeile, Appier and Ordonez, should probably be dealt even for short-term reasons; probably the guy with the best market value as compared to the team’s need to keep him is Benitez. It’s time to start moving the pieces and facing up to the need to build a new winner for 2003 and beyond. Otherwise, as most Mets fans remember too well, it can get a lot worse than this before it gets better.
Well, that’s the end of a year’s run for this column on the BSG site. I’ve got a few thank yous of my own: to Bill for giving me a soapbox and getting me back in the writing business, to Jay Murphy for making it happen, my wife and kids for putting up with this and to all the readers who wrote supportive notes. I’m shopping around for a new place to write; if you want to know where this column (in whatever form) lands, just sign up for the BSG mailing list and Bill will let you know.
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