The Mets do not commemorate themselves well. Consider that this year marked the 40th anniversary of the 1973 team that went from last to first at the end of the season, beat the heavily favored Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS, and battled the powerhouse Oakland A's to a seventh game of the World Series. It is one of the signal events in Mets history, and one of the most remarkable comeback stories in baseball history. It birthed one of the greatest Yogi Berra-isms of all time ("It ain't over 'til it's over") as well as the franchise-defining battle cry of YA GOTTA BELIEVE!
It was celebrated with a set of playing cards.
This year marks the another round-number anniversary of a watershed moment in Mets history that I do not expect the team to commemorate. In fact, I'm sure anyone who remembers this event would prefer to keep it tucked far, far away from where memory can touch. And yet, it is important to take time to mark this occasion. Like the 1973 team, this squad defined the ones that came after it. In this case, however, the definition is not printable.
I am speaking of the worst team—if not in record, then spiritually—in franchise history. I am speaking of the 1993 Mets.
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In December of 1986, mere weeks after the Mets had won the World Series, Kevin Mitchell was shipped to San Diego for Kevin McReynolds. Mitchell would go on to win an MVP award for the Giants in 1989. McReynolds would enjoy a few good seasons in a Mets uniform, but prove himself ill-suited for the high pressure demands of playing in New York, a city of which he said, "It's almost like people are miserable, and they want to bring you down to their level."
When the story of The Fall Of The Mets is told, it often begins with the Dodgers' improbable victory over them in the 1988 NLCS. To me, the Kevin Mitchell trade is an even more unsettling omen of what was to come. Any team can beat any other team in a 7-game series, but the Kevin Mitchell trade signaled a sea change in the organization's thinking.
The Mets' success in the 1980s was largely predicated on player development, a slow, unglamorous process. When hired in 1980, general manager Frank Cashen warned ownership it would take a good five years to undo the damage of the post-Seaver-trade years. He was given that five years, and relevance returned. But once they reached the top of the mountain, the Mets decided to take a more Steinbrennerian path, even though the Yankees of that era provided ample evidence that spending money on "names" guaranteed nothing.
The Mets did not immediately jump into free agency, preferring instead to trade away homegrown players for more "established" fare. Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell were sent to Philadelphia for Juan Samuel (a second baseman asked to fill the center field hole left by Dykstra). A quartet including Rick Aguilera and Kevin Tapani was traded to Minnesota for Frank Viola. Lefty closer Randy Myers was exchanged for another lefty closer, John Franco.
With the exception of Franco, none of the players they acquired in such deals stayed in New York for long, while the players they sent packing almost invariably led their new teams to the playoffs. The more products of their farm system were shipped elsewhere, the more the Mets needed to look for "established" players on other teams' rosters, resulting in a vicious cycle destined to end badly.
Even so, the franchise's downfall came quicker and played out far more brutally than it should have. This happened because the the players who comprised the Mets' Franken-team chafed at the media environment that surrounded them. They responded by acting out in increasingly immature ways, until churlishness crossed over into criminal acts. McReynolds was the first example, but his mild offenses would pale in comparison to those of the men who succeeded him.
The poor roster judgment extended into the front office. Assistant GM Joe McIlvaine had been all but promised the GM position upon Frank Cashen's retirement. But with Cashen still at the reins and no official succession plan in place, McIlvaine tired of waiting and took the GM post in San Diego after the 1990 season. The move stunned the Mets and left Al Harazin as Cashen's sole lieutenant. Prior to McIlvaine's departure, Harazin had dealt strictly with the business side of the team's operations. Despite the fact that co-owner Fred Wilpon characterized Harazin's depth of baseball knowledge as "dangerously shallow," Harazin became Cashen's heir apparent by default.
What Harazin lacked in baseball acumen, he hoped to make up for with spending power. After eschewing free agency since the penny-pinching days of M. Donald Grant, the Mets suddenly jumped in head first. Harazin succeeded in lobbying Cashen to sign ex-Cardinals speedster Vince Coleman to a 4-year, $11.95 million contract before the 1991 season.
The spending ramped up when Harazin took over the GM chair from Cashen in 1992. He inked future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray and perennial All Star Bobby Bonilla to pricey deals, and also traded for the hefty contract of former Cy Young Award winner Bret Saberhagen.
These moves 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, and Coleman missed more than half the season. Even when in the lineup, Coleman proved troublesome. He instigated a shoving match with his manager that resulted in a two-game suspension, and blamed his sudden loss of basestealing prowess on 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 Mets uniform, he promised the writers, "You guys won't be able to knock the smile off my face." He then proceeded to give them every reason to try.
In his first year in Flushing, the outfielder batted a modest .249 with just 19 home runs and did not react well to being treated poorly by the Shea boo birds. Bonilla took to wearing earplugs on the field so he wouldn't hear the taunts, and inspired more jeers when he lobbied the official scorer to take away errors from his record. Bonilla's whining grated on a public that expected better of the superstar who grew up in the city and should have been prepared for what playing there meant. Cartoonists depicted him wearing diapers.
Off the field, 1992 was tarnished by a series of sordid accusations. First, a trio of players (Coleman, Doc Gooden, Daryl Boston) were accused of raping a woman at the Mets' spring training facilities the previous year. Then, the tabloids had a field day with bizarre rumors that 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.
As ugly as these incidents were, the team's reaction to them was worse. The Mets could have done some soul searching about their selection of personnel, or attempted to discipline and correct such (alleged) behavior. Instead, the Mets decided the real villains were the media.
It's difficult for a modern mind to comprehend how a baseball player in 1993, who plied his trade in a world with no internet or camera phones and a far less powerful ESPN, could see the sports media as relentless. However, there was a definite sense among athletes of this era that the traditional beat writer—a scribe who'd drink with the players and keep their indiscretions quiet—had given way to reporters more in the mold of the new glut of sleazy celebrity "news" shows like Inside Edition, Hard Copy, and A Current Affair.
The truth of that is highly debatable, but players of the time certainly believed it, and the Mets did more than most. An air of paranoia pervaded their clubhouse, convincing its members that every person who entered with a mic in his/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 Murray, who brought a virulent hatred of the press with him from Baltimore. Others thought the Mets still smarted from the memory of Bud Harrelson, the 1969 Mets' scrappy shortstop who withered under back-page criticism and lost his managerial post near the end of the 1991 season. 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 that by the media circuses that sprung up around Doc Gooden's several falls from grace and Darryl Strawberry's intramural feuds in the late 1980s.
Whatever the seed, it was watered by Harrelson's replacement, Jeff Torborg. The new manager obsessed over how his team was perceived in the papers, to the point that he called constant team meetings on the subject, warning his players to pay the writers no mind. Pitcher Pete Schourek responded, "If we're not supposed to be worried about the media, why are we having all these meetings about the media?" Torborg's preoccupation with the press was so desperate that Cone dubbed him "Oliver North."
Torborg also miscalculated by attempting to impose clean living on his players. His immediate predecessors (Harrelson and Davey Johnson) had "boys will be boys" attitudes when it came to postgame jockish misbehavior. Torborg, on the other hand, enforced a ban on beer drinking during team flights. To the Mets of this era, it was an article of faith that their '80s glory days were powered by beer-and-coke-fueled mayhem (See The Bad Guys Won for all the gory details).
In retrospect, it's clear that the Mets' hard partying ways did more to kill a dynasty than create one. At the time, however, they firmly believed otherwise, and Torborg's teetotaling edicts were seen as a conspiracy to rob these athletes of their manly devil-may-care essence. Cone, when traded away to Toronto at the 1992 deadline, sighed, "The day of the arrogant Mets is over." He pointed to Torborg's goody-two-shoes beer ban as a sign of weakness, cringing at the sight of grown men sneaking sips of beer while skip had his back turned.
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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. The Mets tried to underscore a fresh start with a uniform makeover. For the first time, their jerseys featured a swoosh/tail beneath "Mets" and "New York" on their home and away togs, respectively. The fashion statement fell with a thud, and few fans now even remember the brief swoosh experiment, which lasted through the strike-shortened 1994 season.
Sartorial opinions aside, surely a team with a healthy Bonilla, Saberhagen, Coleman, and Murray would compete. Pirates manager Jim Leyland, who'd just seen his best players bolt in free agency (Bonilla included), picked them to win the NL East. Others weren't so sure. Tigers skipper Sparky Anderson 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 expansion Colorado Rockies. They defeated the Rockies two in a row a week later, then beat the Reds in back-to-back games on April 16 and 17. They would not win consecutive games again until the end of June. Over that stretch, they did not so much play baseball as execute daily nine-man reenactments of Faces of Death with bats and gloves. And they were just getting started.
A mere four games into the season, Bonilla had his first meltdown. He confronted beat writer Bob Klapisch, who had authored the soon-to-be-published book about the mess of 1992, The Worst Team Money Could Buy. Excerpts of the book had just 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 that captured the whole thing on tape.
Bonilla later tried to distinguish between attacking one member of the media and attacking the media as a whole. In doing so, he simply underscored the team's contemptuous view of the press. "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."
On April 26, Doc Gooden was scratched from a start after, according to the Mets, getting "bumped" while in the clubhouse. It was soon revealed the "bump" was caused by Coleman, who was practicing his golf swing in the locker room and hit Gooden in the shoulder blade with his 9-iron. Rather than apologize for the clumsy coverup attempt, Harazin harrumphed that 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 consisting of Franco, Bonilla, and Murray.
By May 17, Sports Illustrated was already referring to the Mets as "battle-weary" and characterizing a four-game series against the brand-new Florida Marlins as having "the urgency of a pennant race." The Mets proceeded to split that 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, 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.
Already tired of Bonilla's act, fans took to booing him not after every strikeout, but after every strike, period. Some put paper bags over their heads when he strode to the plate. Others booed a credit card commercial featuring Torborg when the team dared play it on DiamondVision.
By May 19, the Mets were 13-25, only one game better than the pace of the dreadful 1962 team. The big difference was that the 1962 Mets were a lovable bunch, while the 1993 squad was thoroughly hateable. Torborg was let go and replaced with Dallas Green. The former Phillies manager was regarded as a "drill sergeant" type who would presumably kick posteriors until the Mets shaped up. The team's play would not improve, however, and Green could do little to clear the toxic atmosphere of the Mets clubhouse.
A few weeks after Torborg's dismissal, Harazin was gone as well. Ownership had realized their error in giving him the GM seat and attempted to move him back into a strictly business role, but Harazin chose to resign instead. McIlvaine, who'd resigned his own post in San Diego after clashing with management there, returned to take the vacated post he should have received in the first place. By that point, McIlvaine's appointment, just like Green's, was little more than deck-chair rearrangement on the Titanic.
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Anthony Young, a hefty righthander, began 1992 as a starter. A string of defeats punched his ticket out of the rotation, though he filled the closer's role by default during John Franco's injuries. Young garnered 15 saves in Franco's absence that season, but no victories. Between starting and relieving, Young lost his last 14 decisions of the 1992 campaign.
Young began 1993 in the bullpen and continued to rack up losses. When Green took the helm, he was reinserted into the rotation, but his luck did not change. Still more losses ensued, each more mystifying than the last. Typical of his luck: An outing on June 17 in Pittsburgh, when he found he was allergic to the drying agent groundskeepers spread on the mound. Eyes swollen and teary, he toughed his way through seven innings, but still lost, 5-2.
On June 22, Young lost to the Expos, 6-3, as his teammates committed a whopping four errors behind him, resulting in three unearned runs. Their defense noticeably improved once Young left the game, leading many to believe the poor man was hexed. "When he goes out there, the whole team feels it," marveled reliever Jeff Innis. "It's intense." It was his 23rd consecutive defeat, tying the all-time mark of the formerly forgotten Cliff Curtis, who lost 23 straight in 1910-11 for the Boston Braves.
One start later, Young shattered Curtis's record with a 5-3 loss to the Cardinals. Not content with breaking the mark by one loss, Young kept right on losing. Then he was returned to the bullpen, where he continued to lose some more. Various psychics offered assistance, including a séance with the departed Curtis. Well-wishers sent in good luck charms by the truckload. Fans who'd been booing Coleman, Bonilla, and Murray all season cheered Young in pregame intros, hoping to extend good vibes his way. Nothing helped.
Before it was all over, Young lost 27 games in a row. He nearly lost number 28 on July 28, before a rare Mets rally in the bottom of the ninth turned a loss into a vulture win. In "achieving" this feat, and facing his fate with stoic resignation, Young garnered the 1993 Mets its one shred of sympathy. The New York Times declared him "A Noble Loser" ("Mr. Young endures all this with remarkable dignity..."), while SI opined, "With all the talk these days about role models in sports, here's an athlete to whom we can relate."
The only Met anyone could stand was a man who lost quietly.
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The Anthony Young saga brought a tiny bit of goodwill to a team in desperate need of some. It also brought more reporters into the clubhouse, which was the last thing the Mets wanted. On July 7, as the press huddled around Young's locker, an anonymous player tossed a lit firecracker behind them. No one was hurt, but the mystery Met kept his identity hidden for three weeks, when Bret Saberhagen defiantly confessed. "It was a practical joke," he snorted. "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' teacher was on leave, and they delighted in torturing a series of overmatched substitutes.
Saberhagen's tone was much different a few weeks later, when he confessed to "accidentally" spraying a group of reporters with bleach from a squirt gun. Suddenly, the pitcher was apologetic and accommodating to the press he swore he didn't intend to injure. The shift was probably due to an incident that occurred since then, which had turned the Mets season from an ugly farce to a monstrous one.
On July 24, after a game at Dodger Stadium, Vince Coleman planned to attend a barbecue at Eric Davis's house. He left the stadium, rebuffed a crowd of autograph seekers, and went to pregame for the party with Davis in the Dodger's Jeep Cherokee. While the Jeep was parked and fans still stood nearby, Coleman tossed some kind of explosive in their general direction. The local DA's office later compared it to "a quarter-stick of dynamite."
The ensuing explosion injured three fans, including a two-year-old girl, who suffered corneal lacerations. Despite the injuries, no one seemed to take it too seriously at first—least of all Coleman, who shooed reporters away from his locker the next day with a profanity-filled rant. The Mets took 72 hours to respond officially, labeling Coleman's acts as "off-field activities" that were "regrettable and reprehensible." Bud Selig (still referred to as "de facto commissioner" by Sports Illustrated) took 5 days to issue a tepid statement about "reported incidents involving New York Mets players."
Not even the supposed drill sergeant, Dallas Green, brought the hammer down on Coleman until he had no choice. Green inserted Coleman into his lineup for three games after the firecracker horror before public outcry forced a benching. The manager—having acquired his players' paranoia by osmosis—pinned the blame for the benching squarely on the press. "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."
Contrition only appeared when Coleman was hit with felony charges that carried a prison sentence of up to three years. He called a press conference to beg forgiveness (with his wife and kids in tow for maximum effect), volunteered to clean up after recent fires in Malibu as part of his 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.
That was not quite good enough for ownership. Since purchasing the team with Nelson Doubleday in 1980, Fred Wilpon had maintained a relatively low profile, his name in the papers hardly at all, especially when compared to his counterpart in the Bronx. The Coleman incident changed all that. On August 24, he called his first ever team meeting and chewed out his employees, saying they had embarrassed the Mets and the city of New York. "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 called a press conference to inform the gathered media that the pyromaniac outfielder would never play for the Mets again. It didn't matter that Coleman was owed $3 million the next year. It also didn't matter that (oops) Wilpon neglected to discuss this with anyone in the front office beforehand. "I reached a point where I had to say enough is enough," Wilpon said, and that was that.
The Mets had completed their transition from worldbeaters to laughingstock, appearances in the playoffs exchanged for appearances in late night monologues. The Mets quite literally became a punchline, leaned on by comedians of the age as often as Amy Fisher or Pee Wee Herman. Comparing them to another tabloid punching bag, Tom Verducci declared the Mets "baseball's Buttafuocos." David Letterman, who'd just joined CBS to pit his Late Show against The Tonight Show, was particularly fond of raking the Mets across the coals.
The final indignity came on September 8, when Houston pitcher Darryl Kile no-hit the Mets at the Astrodome. Kile allowed just one baserunner on a walk and retired the last 17 batters he faced. A local ABC anchor wondered, "Should it really be considered a no hitter? It did come against the Mets."
In the season's final week, the Mets suddenly acquired a sense of dignity and managed to win their last six games in a row. They still finished an abysmal 59-103, more than bad enough for last place, a full 5 games behind the expansion Marlins.
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Painful though it might be, the 1993 Mets should be remembered, because the team itself failed to remember them, to its detriment.
When the decade began, the Mets still "owned the town," drawing 2.73 million fans to Shea in 1990. In contrast, the Yankees struggled to break 2 million in attendance that year, then fell below that mark for the next few seasons. Once the Mets became a joke (and an unfunny one at that), the tide began to turn. It helped that the "lifetime ban" posed against Steinbrenner in 1990 allowed the Yankees' front office to function normally for the first time in decades. With a mixture of homegrown talent and judicious free agent pickups, the Yanks began to win again. They surpassed the Mets in attendance in 1993 and have never trailed since.
The Mets spent the mid-1990s trying to revert to their old ways, but McIlvaine's development-centric approach was doomed by a series of high profile prospect failures. First, the flameout of the over-hyped Generation K, three young fireballers who were supposed to lead the Mets to the promised land, only to struggle with injury and ineffectiveness instead. Only one of them, Jason Isringhausen, would enjoy a lengthy major league career, and he would enjoy it away from New York.
Then there was Ryan Jaroncyk, a "can't miss" first round pick who found a way to miss by quitting the game altogether in 1997. Jaroncyk had come to realize he'd never liked baseball to begin with. "I always thought it was boring," he admitted upon retiring from the game at the tender age of 20.
An ownership dominated more and more by the voice of Fred Wilpon grew impatient. Like some of his former employees, he too became obsessed with the press, but in a different way: He desperately wanted to get back in their good graces. He longed to recapture the days when the Mets were the city's great sports love. But by the mid-90s, the Mets couldn't buy a backpage, and Wilpon couldn't see how slowly developing prospects (some of whom may never make it all) would solve that problem.
Wilpon dismissed McIlvaine midseason in 1997. He was replaced by Steve Phillips (For those who enjoy irony, McIlvaine had drafted Phillips for the Mets in the early 1980s). The new GM condescendingly referred to the team he inherited as "a good little team with good little players" and set about making it bigger. It was a viewpoint that reflected Wilpon's quest to both win back fans and win the backpages away from the ascendant Yankees. Meanwhile, Wilpon set about wresting total ownership of the team from Doubleday, assuring there would be no dissenting voices to object.
The press, forgetting 1993 altogether, praised Phillips for thinking and spending big, like a New York team should. His big splashes worked (Al Leiter, Mike Piazza, Robin Ventura) until they didn't (Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar). When they didn't, Phillips had no other tricks up his sleeve, and he was dismissed as unceremoniously as his predecessor.
The cycle began anew in 2005, as yet another GM (Omar Minaya) tried to win over press and fans with flashy signings. Once again, the moves worked wonders until age and injuries exposed the pitfalls of short-term thinking. Only this time, the rebuilding process was hampered by the Bernie Madoff Affair, which drained the team's coffers. Buying their way back into contention was no longer an option.
We have the 1993 Mets to thank for the dreadful Mets of 2009 to the present. Post-Harazin front offices failed to learn from their example and tried to build their teams in very 1993-ish ways. The results were less monstrous but no more successful on the field. None led to any kind of long-term success.
We have the 1993 Mets to thank (in part) for the Yankees' "ownership" of tri-state baseball loyalties. Had the Mets stayed relevant over that stretch, perhaps they would have kept pace with their crosstown rivals in the hearts and minds of New Yorkers.
One could also argue we have to thank the 1993 Mets for Fred Wilpon's increased influence on, and eventual sole ownership of, the team. Before 1993, he kept a low profile. The hideousness of that squad spurred him to take a more active role. It's hard to argue that, in aggregate, this has been to the benefit of the Mets as a franchise.
We certainly have the 1993 Mets to thank for the stream of LOLMETS that runs through sports media. Before then, the Mets had made themselves synonymous with success (No, really!). Then, they managed to turn a team packed with All Stars into one of the most despicable teams ever. After 1993, everything the team has done is suffused with the undercurrent of How are they gonna mess this up?
Everything the Mets are now, they owe to 1993. Take some time to remember them today and give them a hand. Or perhaps just a finger.