Mets GM: Opportunities lost and found

Now the worst-kept non-secret in town official, Sandy Alderson was is expected to be announced as the new Mets general manager on Friday.

I admit to having perhaps a knee-jerk reaction to the news he was the front-runner for the job a few weeks ago, particularly since the rumor mill had Tony LaRussa joining him. Blissfully, the pompous LaRussa is staying in St. Louis. So I am now more than a bit optimistic that the near-63-year-old Alderson can turn things around for the Amazin’s (though I still stand by my agreement with columnist Bill Madden that a general managership is a younger man’s game).

Alderson was a chief executive in the Oakland A’s organization from 1983 to 1998. He was Oakland’s GM in the late ’80s when Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco were known as the Bash Brothers. That duo later became notable for their admitted steroid use, as did a later Oakland slugger, Jason Giambi (though Giambi didn’t become a full-time player until 1997, he came up in an organization with two steroid-using sluggers as star attractions, at least raising the question if the steroid culture, as prevalent as it was in the Major Leagues in the ’90s, was even more prevalent in Oakland).

Alderson should have to answer for this at some point. But just not at his introductory press conference, as ESPN columnist Ian O’Connor suggests (h/t MetsBlog).

(Digression No. 1: Ian O’Connor is a writer I greatly admired, and still do. We used to run his column in the lousy paper where I toiled more than a decade ago. My dream as a kid was to grow up to become a New York sportswriter, and when I was an exurban-New York high school sportswriter in my mid-to-late-20s, I narrowed my dream to become a columnist like him and his fellow Daily News alum Mark Kriegel. That dream for me died a slow and then final death for a variety of reasons beginning more than 10 years ago (some largely self-inflicted), and I stopped reading O’Connor regularly when I entered my own post-sportswriting exile, but he seems to have obviously done some great work since.)

(Digression No. 2: As I tried to point out on MetsBlog (my comment seems to be in perpetual moderation), in response to a comment about sportswriters not doing due diligence during the steroid era, Steve Wilstein stands alone. He was the AP scribe who spotted and then asked McGwire about the bottle of Andro in his locker during the ’98 homer chase. Wilstein’s sportswriting brethren largely left him twisting unsupported in the wind that summer while sales of Andro boomed after Wilstein’s story broke. In the face of a popular groundswell for McGwire and follow homer run chaser/suspected cheat Sammy Sosa, I am ashamed to admit that I can’t say I’d do anything different in asking such unpopular questions in the face of such overwhelming popularity. Though at least I can be certain and proud of the fact that I wouldn’t have asked for a hug from my buddy McGwire, as Joe Buck embarrassingly did.)

(Digression No. 3: Wilstein and his andro reportage was covered in Ken Burns’ recent addendum to his PBS “Baseball” documentary, “The Tenth Inning.” To me, the now-retired Steve Wilstein is a sportswriting version of an American hero. They should erect a statue of him in a press box of his chosing.)

I disagree with many of my fellow Mets fans on MetsBlog who largely say that Alderson is not coming here to talk about the past, which sounds dangerously close to his former star’s dispiriting and damning 2005 testimony to Congress. Alderson should talk about the past. But I’m going to punt and say that’s both a talk he can give later, and a penance he’s already begun to pay for.

I think the steroid culture of the Bash Brothers is a spot on Alderson’s record. Some day he should answer for it. But why now? This is not President Bush squandering an opportunity to talk straight with the American public nine years ago — instead of asking for the shared sacrifice our country gave circa 1941 to 1945, he told us to go shopping.

This is not that moment for Sandy Alderson (the steroids-in-baseball version of it, anyway). I’m not sure when that moment will come, or if it already came and went, another opportunity missed. Perhaps it came and went in 2005 on the “60 Minutes” program O’Connor refers to. Perhaps it came and went when Alderson was hired by the Padres earlier this decade or when Bud Selig hired him earlier this year to help clean up problems (steroids chief among them) in baseball in the prospects-rich Dominican Republic.

And not to give Alderson a pass, but perhaps his effort over the last eight months to try to police steroids in the Dominican at least pays some of that penance, an unspoken, unacknowledged atonement of sorts, a reckoning, however brief and targeted it may have been.

Being a fan — particularly an ex-Yankee fan/now-diehard-Mets fan — and an ex-sportswriter involves living with a large helping of hypocrisy (hell, being me involves a large degree of hypocrisy, but that’s a whole other series of blog posts. I feel like Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday: “It appears my hypocrisy knows no bounds.”). Apologies, if they are still to come, can come later. I’m looking forward to the Alderson era in Metsdom and all the opportunities it presents, today and in the future.

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Alderson, LaRussa way wrong for the Mets

So, Sandy Alderson is interested in the Mets’ newly vacant general manager’s job, and the Mets are said to be ready to interview him next week. This, of course, has the rumor mill ramping up that Tony LaRussa, said to be tired of managing in St. Louis, would logically follow said Alderson to the said Mets (should Alderson get the said job, it is said).

Didn’t the Mets already try this once with re-tread Oakland A’s management? (see: Howe, Art). How’d that work out for them?

First of all, Alderson seems to have the tacit endorsement of Bud Selig. I do not consider that an advantage. Second of all, the buzz of winning ball teams this century have been young, innovative general managers. Not to sound ageist, but as Bill Madden of the Daily News wrote this week: “… ask John Schuerholz ask Pat Gillick, ask almost anyone, the GM job has become a young man’s job.”

Alderson had great success as a GM in the 1980s. So did Frank Cashen, and I don’t see the Mets interviewing him to come back. Alderson, who will be 63 years old next month, hasn’t been a GM in 13 years (though he was the San Diego Padres CEO from 2005-2009, when the Friars went 397-414 for a .490 winning percentage, or 0.00186 percent better than the Mets’ winning percentage this year of .488).

Then there’s LaRussa (who has a law degree, don’t you know?), the Cardinals manager who was Alderson’s A’s manager, and whose name is devilishly linked with his former boss among the Mets commentariat. I don’t like LaRussa’s politics (lover of Arizona immigration laws, featured guest-speaker-introducer for Glenn Beck’s America, though God forbid don’t upset him more than you’re upsetting him now), but, hey, whatever. Even Jackie Robinson was a supporter of Nixon and Goldwater. It’s just, LaRussa can’t stop shining the spotlight on himself and his J.D.-conferred brain.

That’s the problem. LaRussa can’t help himself, which is exactly why I don’t want him here. It’s all about him. LaRussa is to the Cardinals/A’s as Joe Girardi is to the Yankees. Even exempting politics (I have no idea of Girardi’s, which is a plus side in the Yankee skipper’s column, though, did you know, he has an engineering degree from Northwestern?), they have an innate need to let you know how much smarter they are than you.

LaRussa, who claims he saw no evil among the steroid-abuser.

LaRussa, who was outmanaged by Jerry Manuel — that now departed, ever-quotable former manager — in a 20-inning game earlier this season. That road win set the Mets on their much beloved 9-1 homestand in late April, which in turn sparked a two-month winning joyride, which of course they could not sustain. But it sure as hell was fun while it lasted.

Alderson is not the right choice for GM for a rebuilding Mets team. LaRussa is even a worse choice as a potential manager. But some in the Mets commenting community are happily abuzz at the prospects. Are Mets fans so desperate for a winning team that they’d sell the lovable soul of this franchise? What are we, the Yankees?

(who has a law degree, don’t you know?)

On dodging career bitterness to become the ‘other guy’ and escape ‘the depths of Mordor’

In what has become a disaster of a Mets season after so much promise in June, R.A. Dickey remains a highlight and perhaps the most inspirational story to come from on-field performances in this baseball season.

Dickey’s story has been well-told, but for readers of this blog who are neither Mets fans nor baseball fans, here’s some catch-up: Dickey was born without (or perhaps it atrophied as a youngster) an ulnar collateral ligament — the primary tissue that stabilizes the elbow — in his pitching arm. He shouldn’t be able to turn a doorknob without pain, let alone pitch.

He was drafted out of college by the Texas Rangers, but a team doctor discovered the oddity in his arm, and the team downgraded a promised $800K offer to $75 grand.

After wandering through the majors and minors and through several organizations for more than a decade — the very definition of a journeyman — Dickey has found success in his first season with the Mets this year by mastering the unpredictable knuckleball, a pitch so rarely used that only two Major League hurlers use is as a primary weapon (Dickey and Boston’s Tim Wakefield). Dickey is doing this at 35, an age when most professional ballplayers are in their decline stage (though some top-level pitchers do throw into their 40s, as do many knuckleballers).

Oh, and by the way, in the world of monosyllabic jock quotes, Dickey was an English major in college, is an avid reader, and is a thoughtful quote.

But what continues to strike me, and what gives me inspiration as a 38-year-old former English major with what feels like a stalled career and little understanding of what to do about it, is R.A. Dickey’s attitude about his own career, which saw such promise (and promise of riches) turn to a kind of professional wandering in the desert, and then to an eventual career reboot that is well on the way to redemption.

As he told the New York Times in 2008 (while still working on, but not yet perfecting, that knuckleball):

“‘Imagine winning the lottery and then losing the ticket,’ said Dickey, who signed with the Rangers because he assumed no team would give him a chance again. He reported to the minor leagues knowing that precious little was keeping his elbow together, that each day pitching could be his last.

“‘Every day I had to decide whether I was going to be bitter, if I was going to be that guy — woe is me, you know?’ Dickey said. ‘I had to choose every day to be the other guy.'”

Or, as announcer and Mets legend Keith Hernandez said in the Mets broadcast earlier tonight (in a bit of coincidental and unfortunate timing, just before Dickey gave up a game-tying home run), Dickey’s career was “in the depths of Mordor,” and now he is a candidate for comeback player of the year. Read the rest of this entry »


Mad Men and the Mets

With Mad Men kicking off its fourth season on Sunday, it’s time to celebrate the Mets-Mad Men connection.

Mad Men takes place at a point in history, to cite a 2008 New York Times Magazine article, when ad men were rock stars of an era, when “the creative revolution in advertising was taking off.”

The Mets were born in 1962, in the heart of the Mad Men era (and the year in which season two of the series takes place). They were New York City’s new team in the National League after the Dodgers and Giants left town, and much of their essence, which survives today, is — at least in part — a product of early Sixties advertising. The “Meet the Mets” song, as much an effort by J. Walter Thompson as it was of the Mets’ execs themselves, has that fun, zippy feeling of the early, swinging part of that decade.

The Mets even garnered passing references in two episodes of the show, both from junior executive Ken Cosgrove. He tries to use the lure of Mets tickets (“great seats for probably a terrible game”) for a date with Jane, the new secretary — and future second wife of partner Roger Sterling — in season two (1962), then drops by Pete Campbell’s office with an offer of Mets tickets, which Paul Kinsey takes him up on, in season three (1963).

Even the Mets acknowledged the connection as much (or merely latched onto a popular show, or both), with a promotion last year related to Mad Men at their new, new modern stadium.

Jimmy Breslin, in his own way in his 1963 book “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?,” links advertising and the Mets’ birth:

“As noted earlier, it took more than baseball people to create the Mets. One of the biggest culprits, for example, is a beer company called Rheingold. This company, based in Brooklyn, put up, on the advice of an advertising agency, $1,200,000 per year on a five-year contract to sponsor the Mets on television and radio. The bid was made and accepted in the fall of 1961. The Mets had not yet signed a player. By December, the Mets had signed players and the Rheingold account was taken away from the ad agency and placed with another organization, J. Walter Thompson. …

“‘We didn’t like losing the account at all,’ one of the admen said over a martini.
“‘How come you lost it?’
“‘Somebody gave the client a bad report.’
“‘What was it?’
“‘They told the sponsor who was going to play third base for the Mets.'”

The “Meet the Mets” song and the Mr. Met mascot fit in perfectly with the early Sixties. It’s something that perhaps Don Draper wouldn’t have thought of — Draper, socially climbing, image conscious, would probably have been a stodgy Yankee fan, and possibly would have dismissed the Mets ad campaign, the way he is both intrigued by and then dismisses the ultimately iconic “lemon” Volkswagen Beetle ad in the first season.

Though who knows? Would the 1960s version of J. Walter Thompson, which was involved in the “Meet the Mets” song, have had more in common back then with Sterling Cooper (though certainly not today) than Doyle Dane Bernbach, which came up with those “lemon” and “think small” ads? Or perhaps the Mets’ early campaigns fell more in the category of “traditional” (for 1962) advertising rather than DDB’s ironic VW Bug ads.

Either way, perhaps the mysterious, slowly adapting Don Draper might have come up with the Mets’ catchy, enduring ad campaign, after all. Along with the upheavals of the Sixties, perhaps we’ll see more changes in Don Draper, with a new firm to run (as set up in the final episode of Season Three) and presumably new life away from his wife and children (we’ll see, beginning Sunday night). Of course, this might come down to where you feel the Mets’ ads of 1962-1964 fall in the traditional-ironic advertising divide.

Author Dana Brand describes in his Mets Fan book, how, as a child in the early Sixties, he loved the “novelty of the blue and orange colors, and the cool, contemporary brevity of the name” of New York’s new team.

(And, come to think of it, orange surely must have seemed to be the “new” color for the Sixties. Along with the Mets, think of the orange adopted by new teams like the Astros in 1965 and hockey’s Philadelphia Flyers in 1967. Or, put another way, think of teal and purple as the new “orange” of the Nineties, with the Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies.)

SNY’s chipper “Mets Yearbook” TV commercial — with the bobblehead doll, clips of Casey Stengel and the Polo Grounds, an easy-to-whistle tune, and the 8mm filmstrip feel — pays homage to those days.

Brand, later in “Mets Fan,” writes in a piece about the “Meet the Mets” song:

“It fits with Mr. Met (who would think him up now?). It fits with the apple that comes out of the hat every time a Met hits a home run. It doesn’t come out of the twentieth-first century … It is the tone of the team. It brings us back to the smiling sixties. It draws us into the Mets-happy universe.”

How correct he is. It is a team for the Mad Men era, both then and now. New York was changing, New York baseball was changing (even the Mets themselves, who moved from the old Polo Grounds to the modern Shea Stadium in 1964), and, of course, America was changing. The orange-and-blue Mets were, and still are, the baseball baby born of the Mad Men period.

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Addendum, August 30, 2010, 12:24 a.m.: Another Mets reference in Mad Men — an orange Mets pennant appeared in Lane Pryce‘s 1965 office in the Week 6 (season 4) episode that aired earlier this evening. A nice touch, and a humorous one, because why on earth would the dry British Pryce have a Mets banner in his office? Is he merely trying to immerse himself deeper in his newly adopted country by following the Mets’ eventual 50-112 season? Or did his secretary add that to his decor, with Pryce — distracted by his constant concerns over the ad firm’s finances —  not even noticing it?

Addendum, October 8, 2010, 9:55 p.m.: No, Pryce is certainly a Mets fan. Witness his love of America in the episode of two weeks ago, when he comes out with a Teddy Bear and red, white and blue balloons to greet (he thinks) his son. Pryce, the stuffy Brit, has embraced his new country, and what was more 1960s American (well, more ’60s New York, anyway) than the lovable underdog of the Mets of that decade?

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On Language (Jerry Manuel edition)

Baseball has a language of its own, constantly evolving. The name of my occasional baseball blog is meant to pay homage to baseball and its unique lexicon, the oldest of which Steve Rushin once bemoaned was as dead as Latin. One of the reasons my father tapes Yankee manager post-game press conferences is just so he can get his anger up listening to Joe Girardi alibi for his pitchers by talking about, as The Old Man puts it, their “arm slots” being off. Not arm angle, but arm slot. My father’s point is that why can’t Girardi just say they didn’t pitch so good (like any good ol’ manager), instead of trying to sound smarter (Girardi has an engineering degree from Northwestern, don’t you know) and otherwise cover up for his players’ poor performances? But as much as it grates him to hear Girardi say it, arm slot is just another part of baseball’s ever-developing way of words.

(A personal favorite, which I tried to explain to my somewhat confused 3½-year-old, is Twi-night, for the type of doubleheader you rarely, if ever, see anymore).

So, when I heard Jerry Manuel talk about Mike Pelfrey and his “pitchability”after his win Tuesday night, I loved it. I’m sure the word has been around the coaching circles for a while, but I still loved the word, and love it even more coming from Manuel. Makes me wish William Safire was still around so he could investigate the etymology of “pitchability.”

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Originally published June 12, 2010, 1:49 a.m. at my sometime baseball blog, Clutch Bingles.


27 zeroes

I know the Mets are still waiting for the franchise’s first no-hitter, but what they did this week might be even more rare:

Three consecutive shutouts of the same team, and the two-time defending National League champions, to boot.

Consider: There’s been two perfect games in Major League Baseball since this last occurred. There’s been 10 no-hitters since then, too.

I first heard Gary Cohen on the SNY broadcast say it: three consecutive shutouts of the same team hasn’t happened in Major League Baseball since 2004 — Kansas City losing at Minnesota. The Mets haven’t done that since 1969 (also against the Phillies). Incidentally, their 9-1 homestand earlier this year also matched a feat performed by the ’69 Miracle Mets (and the 1988 team, too).

I looked it up, and the Twins shut out the Royals for three straight games, the last one on July 7, 2004. True, Minnesota did it with three complete game shutouts, but that hardly tarnishes the Mets’ streak. Twenty-seven innings against the same team without allowing a run to score is rare enough.

By the way, the winning pitcher in the second game of that Twins streak? Johan Santana (natch).

Originally published May 28, 2010, 12:15 a.m. at my other blog, Clutch Bingles.


Rooting interests

Was in Barnes & Noble the other day on my lunch break,and I flipped through Joe Benigno’s book Rules for New York Sports Fans. Well, hell, I’m almost 38 years old, and My Old Man had me reading the sports pages since I graduated from picture books (I grew up thinking that newspapers were read backwards, starting from the back page). So I hardly need to read about “rules” for being a fan. On the other hand, I live too far upstate to get WFAN’s signal, and Benigno is nothing if not a passionate sports radio host, so I gave the book a look-see.

Benigno writes that you can’t change fandom after you’re 13 years old, that there’s no divorce in fandom. I don’t think I saw it, but I suppose he might as well have added that there’s no converting religions (through marriage or otherwise) in sports fandom and no equivalent evolving of your politics as a fan, either (I’d probably agree on that one for professional politicians).

Well, I’m not divorced (despite my friends frequently referring to my wife as a Saint). I’m still a Catholic (though, to paraphrase Jake Barnes, I’m a rotten one). I’m still fairly Center-Left. And I changed the team I root for at the age of 36.

It’s been nearly a year since I came out with this, but let me explain and expand.

I was born into Yankee fandom — my father idolized Mickey Mantle, and my grandfather (from Italy by way of Yonkers, or is it Yonkers by way of Italy?) took me to my first ballgame, at age 7, at Yankee Stadium in 1979. I rooted for them until I was 11, became disillusioned at that impressionable age, came back within a few years, and slowly had that cynicism build up until I left the Yankees to root for the 2009 Mets. The Yankees won the World Series that year. The Mets won an early start to fall golf.

The year I turned 11 I rooted for the 1983 Yankees more than any team in my life, past or present. If you remember, that was the season that Billy Martin came back to manage the Yankees (Oh, right, that one? No, not that one. That one? No, that one.). The Yanks’ game program had a picture of Martin from behind pointing his thumb over his shoulder at his No. 1 with the words “Billy’s Back.” The team yearbook had a photo of Martin kicking dirt on an umpire, which surely did wonders for the Yanks getting any leeway on close calls that season.

My favorite player was Graig Nettles. I adored him. I modeled my batting stance on his. I sought out his model baseball glove, his model spikes, his model bat. I sought out his baseball cards. I bought his book. I loved Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” music video (remember those?) because he mentions Nettles at the end of it (the end of the video, that is, not the song).

And the Yankees traded their two-year captain and Gold Glover in spring training 1984 and named Toby Harrah their third baseman.

I was crushed. A few days before the deal, I remember seeing the back page of one of the tabs with a story about the potential trade of my hero. I threw the paper down the stairs in my house in anger.

Nettles went to the Padres, and the Padres went to the World Series that year. I bought and wore a Padres hat that year.

Eleven is pretty young to become a budding jaded cynic, but hell, I experienced a strike shortened season when I was 9. No wonder my generation grew up jaded, for God’s sake. It’s one thing to have grown up a decade earlier, when your President leaves a season (or two) early. It’s only politics, government, and the future of the free world. It’s quite another to have your baseball heroes out for the summer. We’re talking about something much more important. (Though at least they came back that year. I wonder how fans who were 9 years old during the 1994 strike-canceled season feel today).

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