Monday, January 30, 2006

The Whisper

December 1990 Nashville, Tennessee

Christmas lights were all over the place at the Grand Ole Opry where the Winter Meetings were being held. I was strolling through the lobby when Arthur Richmond stopped me to chat. Arthur had left the Mets and was now working in the Bronx for the Yankees. As we parted he invited me to come up and have a drink with he and a friend of his in about an hour.

The suite was a private one and Arthur and his friend were already there. The friend was an old hand in the game and was now doing radio color for a west coast team. He spoke in gentle, even, yet confident tones. But he somehow seemed pensive without the body language, as if patiently waiting for something important he knew he would be doing.

I went up to the hospitality bar to get us three more drinks when Arthur leaned over to whisper something in his friend's ear. Joe Torre leaned over and smiled quietly at what Arthur said.

It wasn't long afterwards that Arthur Richmond kept whispering Torre's name to George Steinbrenner about managing the Yankees. A reign of Four World Series Titles for the New York Yankees with Joe Torre at the helm followed.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

A Messy Business

Somehow considering the Isiah Thomas sexual harassment story leaves me feeling unwashed, dirty. My hair is soiled, my face greasy. A weekend camping trip has just ended. Or I've been sick on the couch with the flu or something. I need a hot shower, yet none is soon to be forthcoming.

There isn't any way we'll ever be able to truly know what really happened here, and quite frankly (apologies to Steven A. Smith), I just don't want to.

Professional sports in New York is all about glitch and glamour. And more so here than in any other city. Yet the people who find themselves in the middle are no better or worse than those who hold similar jobs in, say, Portland or Memphis. Or maybe Jacksonville. Aside from papparazi sightings in So Cal, no place even closely resembles New York for its largesse. And its all about power.

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Quest for this in New York is a phenomena unique to the city. To be on the back page. To be on page six. Thirst for this; lust for this corrupts as it is the attention one garners which labels power. Like Don Corleon granting favors on the day of his daughter's wedding does publicity favor power.

And it was for power at Madison Square Garden that all this messy business began. Who gets the credit? Who wields the most influence? Sadly, someone will win, someone will lose, or maybe everyone will lose. Nonetheless, a bloodletting will mark the turning point in this sad affair. Some will leave town as if they just lost one of those loser leave town matches they used to have in professional wrestling.

How appropriate, the pro wrestling angle here. Don't you think?

Friday, January 27, 2006

About Wally...

When Kevin McReynolds bulled over Mike Scoscia to score the winning run in the ninth at Dodger Stadium in Game One of the 1988 NL playoffs, the swagger returned.

And why not? During the season the Mets had won 10 of 11 from the Dodgers. And afterall, hadn't the incredible consecutive scoreless streak by Orel Hersheiser just been broken by back-to-back doubles by Gregg Jefferies and Darryl Strawberry in front of Gary Carter's game-winning hit? A Hersheiser start went to the Mets with 20 game winner, David Cone, going the next day was cause for celebration. And who could blame?

But a booming voice came from the second Dodger Stadium locker, "Don't get happy."
The man, small in stature, yet big in intagibles repeated his words several times. Wally Backman's words would prove prophetic, almost like the Ides of March.

The Mets would win only two more and 1988 post season vision became Kirk Gibson's Roy Hobbs moment in Game One against the Oakland A's. I'd imagine Backmamn has thought to himself many times about his feelings after Game One. And with language none to pretty and not for prime time TV.

Like it we would for it to be otherwise, Major League Baseball is played by grown men. Its a man's world of hostility, power, raw emotion. We've not all been angels on this earth, Backman no exception. Backman used to be fined as a minor leaguer a quarter every time he used the F-word. F-bombs they're called. We all used them and occasionally drank to excess, too. Grown man in a man's world. Backman was a throw back to another time and God bless him for it.

It came as no surprise that Backman became a successful minor league mananger, coveted by many organizations. And touted to be a future manager at the Major League level. It happened, albeit briefly prior to last season with the Arizona Diamonbacks. That was until revelations about his past came to light. We're all not angels.

So Backman sits in a deer stand somewhere in Oregon. Still. No phone calls. No job. Its time. See Bob Klapish's column in the Bergen record. I'll link it later.

Can't we just leave the wives out of it?

Hopefully, its different now, but at one time the family room at Shea Stadium was very small. Players took a right turn out of the clubhouse and walked down to the parking lot behind the Mets bullpen after games. As the family room was so small, most wives and children wait in the tunnel for their husbands and fathers. Cramped quarters and short fuses.

This just in....wives don't necessarily always get along. Disagreements can happen over extremely petty things but for the most part what happens on the field, good and bad, stays out of the family room. None of this should come as no surprise to anyone. Wives and families used to be off limits, but not any more.

The late Dick Young once inserted Tom Seaver's wife into a column to get back at Seaver about something. Soon after Seaver was traded to the Reds. Young, a talented but arrogant bully, crossed the line here, perhaps setting the precedent as another area that was acceptable.

Its certainly correct to assert that Anna Benson was different. But its dirt digging to pry into what other wives may have thought of her. Yes, Anna and Kris frequently conducted themselves as one would expect a couple might on Monday Night Raw, but don't expect to drag other wives into it. Vic Ziegel in the NY Daily News ripped Jay Horwitz this morning in his column for trying to leave the wives out of it. But then again, its the Mets who are trotting the wives out. Perhaps the gifted Ziegal has a point.

People often forget that golf great, Nancy Lopez was once a Met's wife, married to Ray Knight. And Nancy would have wanted it that way, too. She stayed behind the scenes and was a gentle mediator in the family room. Grace, elegance, and humbleness are words which describe the way I remember this wonderful, almost regal lady. Its called class. Using the Nancy Lopez model in the way we all conduct ourselves might be worth considering.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

In the defense of Omar

Yesterday's focus among the chattering classes in New York concerning the allegations that Omar Minaya is showing greater deference to Latin players has finally reached the dual media monster of Gotham. The juggernaut of the Knicks'and Isiah Thomas mess will keep this a one or two day thing, and for good reason. It's absurd.
I'd imagine that Minaya defended himself admirably yesterday on Mike and the Mad Dog. Although he didn't need to, the savvy Minaya-and perhaps wise old sage, Jay Horwitz- knew that its best to address something than let it simmer. The talk show forum of New York is now the best and quickest way to do this. He saved at least 12 hours and was able to do so without danger of being misquoted and being what New Yorkers most respect by being "a stand-up guy".
But lets speak to some facts that are easy to see. First and foremost, the number of Latino players in the Major Leagues has increased dramatically over the last thirty years. Baseball has made the adjustment and pumps more and more assets into scouting and player development in this area. Nevermind marketing. It stands to reason that by shear numbers, more Latino players are coveted by teams.
Prior to the 2005 season, three of the most coveted free agents available-Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran, and Carlos Delgado-all hail from Spanish speaking countries. Anyone could see that all three were fits for the Mets. Minaya delivered two and was fortunate to fall upon another salary dump by the Marlins and acquired Delgago this off-season. Minaya's unique personal skills certainly came into play, but also with Billy Wagner, a country boy from Virginia. And if Minaya had been truly obsessed with making the Mets a Spanish-only please team, Eric Heilman would have been traded for Danys Baez and the Mets would have saved money and signed Benji Molina instead of traded for Paul LoDuca.
And to be sure, Minaya's style marks a departure from past regimes. The Mets are no longer an organization that fears the four dailies and WFAN. They embrace it. Where once Al Harazin snuck off to write a press release concerning Doc Gooden's shoulder instead of letting Horwitz do it, Minaya is on one the most listened to sports talk show to put a story to rest.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Of pitchers and pitching

A conversation between Mets GM, Frank Cashen , and another National League GM once went the following way one late 1980's winter meeting:

NL GM: "What are you looking for?"

Cashen: "Pitching."

NL GM: "Thats too bad. I was hoping to talk about pitching."

Armed with the Dwight Gooden, David Cone, Sid Fernandez, Ron Darling, Bobby Ojeda, Rick Aguillera starting staff, Cashen still craved pitching. The day's mantra that you couldn't have too much pitching endures. Yet when chemistry problems with a once extremely tight staff developed, a wiser Frank Cashen later concluded that you couldn't have too much pitching, but you could have, well, too many pitchers.
Of course, like all of us, major league GM's don't have crystal balls. But wise ones, like the Mets Omar Manaya take history lessons. Consider this Mets off-season.
Manaya made the obvious observation. Lots of quality starters. But we gotta do something about that bullpen. Why not trade strength for weakness.
Only the extremely fortunate presence of Pedro Martinez made Braden Looper's main stage blown saves a knock down and not a knock out. As it was, the hardened Martinez' leads frequently victimized by Looper's bad outings, often lead to solid starts five days later. But previous malfeasance by a Boston bullpen may have left Martinez accustomed to such events. He wouldn't throw Looper under the bus, but Minaya knew the Mets couldn't and wouldn't go through another season of ninth inning futility.
Exit Looper. Enter Billy Wagner. And enter does Wagner with the reputation for getting the last three outs. Mission accomplished Minaya. Now on to the rest of the bullpen.
Minaya's quote this week indicating that its harder to get relievers than starters now is quite telling. The game's changed and perhaps in transition. And analysis of statistics and rosters might show that a new focus and value is placed on bullpens than was, say, 15 years ago. Rosters in the late 80's and early 90's routinely kept 10 or even 9 pitchers. Managers often carried three catchers or kept a back-up shortstop. It was more about pinch-hitting and double-switches and such. Now it appears that 25-man rosters carry 11 to 12 pitchers. Extra arms are in the bullpen, rather than fannies on the bench.
The fine columnist of the New York Daily News, John Harper speaks to this today specifically to the Mets. href="http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/story/385737p-327332c.html">http://www.newyorkdailynewssports
Unlike Cashen twenty years prior, Minaya seized the opportunity and dealt from strength to acquire what his team desperately needed to keep pace with the ever changing game.
He traded pitching to get pitchers. Or is it the other way around? I'm never sure.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Birth of the Gooden Legacy

ed note: What follows is a sample of the narrative I've written about the 1986 Mets. Its insightful to cover the 1985 season and the pennant race with the St. Louis Cardinals and this exerpt recalls the events of a game with the Montreal Expos at Shea Stadium. Special attention is given to the emergence of Doc Gooden during this season.

July 30, 1985


The Toronto Blue Jays AAA affiliate was in Syracuse when Davey Johnson managed the Tidewater Tides in 1983. Johnson recommended to Frank Cashen a lefthander that they had named Jimmy Key. At the winter meetings that year, he spoke to Pat Gillick
about acquiring Key.
Gillick said that he would trade Key - "for Gooding."
Cashen said, "I'll bet you would."
Not feeling it necessary to correct Gillick on the name,
Cashen ended the inquiry on Key.
In 1983 Davey managed a melting pot of players at Tidewater to the AAA World Series Title. It was a big deal to us as we got $1000 by winning. Wally Backman, Kelvin Chapman, Clint Hurdle, Herm Winningham, and Gary Rasjich were major contributors in the series.
Alot of our pitchers were recalled to the big club by September that year and a young righthander just one year removed from high school and in just his second year of pro ball was called up from Lynchburg to help us out at the end. He'd won 19 games and struck out an astonishing 300 batters in just 27 starts. Dwight Gooden wouldn't turn 19 until after the season had ended.
A writer covering the AAA World Series was in our Louisville, Kentucky dugout before Gooden's start and asked us to describe him.
For some reason I blurted out," A young Bob Gibson."
The writer responded, "That's quite a mouthful."
But Davey and Al Jackson, seated within earshot, nodded and agreed together that it was a pretty good comparison.
Gooden had thrown batting practice in spring training to the Tides so Davey had seen him pitch, but he called Lynchburg Mets manager Sam Perlozzo to get an update. Perlozzo, who later would become thirdbase coach for the Mets, was fervent in his
evaluation of Gooden. He saw a killer instinct found in very few young pitchers. Perlozzo felt that when Gooden got two strikes on a hitter, he smelled blood, and actually added something more to an already overwhelming fastball.
During spring training in 1982, Joe McIlvaine and a group went across the bay from our minor league camp in St. Petersburg to see Gooden pitch as a high school senior in his native Tampa.
Veteran scout, Eddie Toledo, who always came to camp to help with the young Latino players, joined the group that made the trip. Eddie arrived the next morning, arms flailing
demonstratively and kept repeating that Gooden had been the best pitcher he'd ever seen.
McIlvaine drafted Gooden with the fifth pick in the June Free Agent Draft, grateful that he was still there. The first pick that year was Shawon Dunston.
Davey was named manager of the Mets during the 1983 World Series, replacing interim manager Frank Howard. Hondo replaced George Bamberger who had resigned during the season. Bamby was reported to tell the players in his good-bye speech, "Gentlemen, I'm going fishing."
Davey knew Gooden was special and wanted him to go north in 1984. He worked on Frank all spring and, but Cashen always changed the subject when Davey brought it up. Doc nursed a blister and back spasms in the spring, but still impressed.
Davey detailed in "Bats", the book he collaborated on with Peter Golenbock, that his converstions with Cashen over beers during spring training about Gooden usually elicited this response: "Here's to the ladies."
Cashen relented at the end and the legend of Dwight Gooden was born.
Gooden didn't disappoint. He set a then rookie record for strikeouts in route to the 1984 Rookie of the Year Award. In fact, Doc set all sorts of records that year. He set the major league record for strikeouts for rookies with 276 and he was the first
teen-aged rookie ever to lead either league in strikeouts. He also set a major league record for strikeouts per nine innings with an 11.39 average shattering the old record of 10.71 held by Cleveland’s Sam McDowell in 1965. He finished the year 17-9 with a
2.60 ERA.

* * * * * *

After a few days of rain in March of 1985, Whitey Herzog dropped by our clubhouse to arrange a "B game". Everyone had to get their pitchers ready, so one of these games was hastily scheduled later in the day at the small Huggins-Stengall Field off
Fourth Street. The Cards trained not far from us at Al Lange Stadium in downtown St. Petersburg. Gooden pitched in the casual contest later that morning.
The dugouts were small at Huggins-Stengall as Davey, myself and Al Jackson sat together again watching Gooden pitch. Al was now the lead minor league pitching coach for the Mets.
As I was watched Doc pitch, I sort of thought out loud, "Doc looks bigger this year."
Davey replied evenly, "Maybe in his legs."
A slowly maturing Gooden had gained ten pounds in the off-season. He was still just twenty years old and already had a full year in the majors.

* * * * * *

On July 30, 1985 the Expos were in town for a three game series. Rick Aguilera, emerging as a quality starter in Bruce Berenyi's absence had won his fourth game the night before, beating Bryn Smith 3-2. Doc would face Bill Gullickson on a Tuesday night before another large crowd.
Gullickson and Gary Carter didn't get along. There always had been some animosity toward Gary while he was with the Expos as many of his teammates felt he overly courted media attention. His problems with Gullickson, however, stemmed from a 1983 incident that occurred in an Expos game against Atlanta. Gary failed to catch a foul pop-up and Gullickson became angered when Carter was not charged with an error.
It was ruled "No play" by the official scorer and the Braves went on to score several runs, all of which were charged against Gullickson's ERA. A furious Gullickson called the press box later in the game demanding Carter be charged with an error which would
have protected his ERA from the runs that scored.
When Gullickson strode to the plate for his first time at bat in third, Carter noticing Gullickson's new beard said, "Well, if it isn't the bearded wonder." Gullickson had no response.
In the bottom half of the 4th in a scoreless game, Gullickson sailed an 0-2 pitch over Gary's head. He stepped out of the batter's box and glared at Gullickson and nodded his head at him.
After he grounded out, Gary screamed at Gullickson as he bounded into the dugout, "You wanna play hard ball, Gully?"
He kept screaming at Gullickson as he sat down next to Gooden and started putting on his gear. Frank Pulli was the homeplate umpire and while still in his crouch, looked over at our dugout and calmly said, "Gary."
Doc had his hat off and was toweling off his neck. He softly patted Gary on his leg and quietly said, "Don't worry, Homes. I'll get him."
The next inning, Gullickson batted with two outs, and Gooden sailed his first pitch over his head in similar fashion. He struck out the first two guys, probably just to make sure no one was on.
Gullickson sheepishly looked at Carter and said, "What's up, Kid ?"
Doc said, "It slipped." Of course nobody bought that.
The Expos dugout, especially Andre Dawson, erupted at Carter.
Our dugout went nuts, too. Danny Heep was notably livid. I thought he was going to charge their dugout as he bellowed at Dawson to shut up. Pulli fined Doc $50 and warned both benches and that was the end of it.
Doc went on to win his tenth straight. He struck out ten. It was a 5 hit shutout. Mets win 2-0.
In a June game earlier in the year at Dodger Stadium, Gooden got out of memorable jam in the bottom of the eighth when he loaded the bases with the game tied at 1-1. A lead-off hit by Steve Sax was followed by a perfect hit and run single by Ken
Landreaux and then an intentional walk to Pedro Guerrero.
Gooden remained calm and deliberate and struck an imposing figure on the mound-the same mound that belonged to legends like Koufax and Drysdale. He struck out Greg Brock, got Mike Soscia to pop straight up to Carter, and finished off the inning by striking out Terry Whitfield. Three outs. Nine pitches. All fastballs. We went on to win the game.
Countless quintessential performances as these vaulted Gooden's stature on the team and in baseball. His starts became big tickets in New York during the 1985 season and took on a spectacle of their own. Two nitwits would stake claim to the upper deck in
leftfield and put out"K's" with each Gooden strikeout. The pair became the collective consciousness of the crowd as they, too, would begin to smell blood each time Doc would get two strikes on a hitter.
When room allowed, the duo would start running around up there waving around their placard "K's” in Keystone Cops fashion anticipating another strikeout. The DiamiondVision screen would play out a comical cartoon accompanied by the haunting
melody of the theme from "Jaws" with Gooden, of course being played by a hungry shark. So it was with any Gooden start. An entire city would embrace him forever.
Gooden became the youngest pitcher ever to win the Cy Young Award, finishing with a 24-4 record and a 1.53 ERA. He also led the league in strikeouts with 268 and became the first pitcher since Sandy Koufax in 1966 to win the "Triple Crown" of pitching.
It turned out to be his only Cy Young award and his greatest season. Stardom and a certain trip to Cooperstown had been predicted, but Gooden's career was sadly abated by injuries and cocaine. Most will point to the cocaine, but the shoulder trouble that started a few years later made Gooden change pitching styles and could no longer dominate as he had. Ironically, he secured his place in history in 1996 when he pitched a no-hitter. But it was for the other team in New York: The Yankees.
Yet it is to 1985 that we turn to hear the legend. It was a summer of a great pennant race with the Cardinals that wasn't decided until the first weekend in October. Alas, no one ever remembers who finished second. But it will forever be the summer of 1985 for all of us to smile and remember Dwight Eugene Gooden.

* * * * * *

Doc's victory on July 30th helped spark a stretch where we won 19 of 23 and vaulted back into first place. Doc had five of those victories, including a 3-0 shutout of the Giants on August 20th.
The next night on August 21st, Ed Lynch took a 2-1 lead into the ninth and yielded to Roger McDowell. He gave up a one out single to Chris Brown and then faced the Giants catcher, Bob Brenly. The count reached 2-2, when McDowell slowly shook of Carter's signal for a sinker and opted to throw his second best pitch, a slider. McDowell hung it and Brenly smacked it into the leftfield bullpen, giving them a 3-2 victory. Two days later we were back in second, again chasing the Cardinals.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

A shameless ploy

Yes. One could find this a shameless ploy to hawk an unpublished book. The working title is the same as this blog is titled. But during the course of writing my narrative about the 1986 Mets , I rediscovered writing. While growing up in the mid- seventies, baseball was still experienced for most through the medium of AM radio. For me it was the hapless Atlanta Braves; they the royal blue and white variety. Many nights were spent just listening. The great game had to be imagined. As my own epiphany regarding my own big league baseball career-or rather the untenable dream with respect to talent-ended in my early teen years, writing about this game I still have a unquenchable yearn for became the void. A beat reporter for my Braves became the new dream. That until a football coach told me about a career in athletic training. Epiphany number two came at age 17. I would become a trainer for a Major League Baseball team. This was on a warm Florida spring day in 1976. Less than nine years later a phone call would mark the attainment of the dream. It would be with the New York Mets and I was thus inserted into the middle of one of baseball's greatest stories at the beginning of the 1985 season.