Will David Einhorn Save The Mets?

It would appear the endgame is nigh for Fred and Jeff Wilpon.

The judges are convening – even as we speak – and the fate of the ownership seems a fait accompli: the Wilpons will be forced to sell their chunk of the Mets in order to pay off mammoth debts on Madoff victims, SNY-TV, and Citi Field. For all I know, they may also have a 90-day invoice to the caterers for the post-game clubhouse spread. In short, it would take several massive miracles for Fred, Jeff and Uncle Saul Katz to retain a significant portion of the franchise. With a little help from their friends in the MLB hierarchy, they’ll be able to make their exit as gracefully and with as much dignity as possible, considering the NYC media cauldron and 24-hour news cycle.

Enter David Einhorn, the new, chosen, designated, legal partner in the ownership group. At first flush, he would seem the perfect fit to swoop in and take control. He’s in his early-40’s, he’s a Long Island local, he has been a roaring success in fairly arcane financial ventures – how he makes his money is certainly over my head – and he’s a baseball fan. Sound familiar? This is strikingly similar to the resume Fred Wilpon himself brought to the table 31 years ago, when he and Nelson Doubleday took the reins from a diffident and disinterested Payson family. Fred was young, dynamic and aggressive in terms of building the Mets’ brand, first by hiring Frank Cashen as GM and slowly, prudently discarding the pinchpenny ways of the prior regime. That ownership was just the breath of fresh air this franchise needed.

30 years on, this ownership is once again in desperate need of fumigation. The front-office put in place during these final fitful months of Wilponic hegemony has given David Einhorn the head start Fred never had. Think of it as Fred, Jeff & Saul’s going-away gift to us fans. If Einhorn will stay out of Sandy Alderson and co.’s way, keep his mouth shut and just keep signing the checks, that would be the most satisfactory answer to the question posed in the title. I’d love to see him be a kind of Steinbrenner-with-an-internal-filter: a burning passion to win without being an ass about it. My guess is that that’s how he will start out. I think it will result in at least a few pennants and a World Series title or two. But time, as we know, brings out many changes and shifts in personality and actions. It’s quite possible that Einhorn could eventually become a latter-day Jeff – nosing around the clubhouse, circumventing the plans of the GM and his lieutenants, getting chummy with and seeking policy input from players.

Were that to happen, the longtime, sadly cynical Met fan such as I would only be able to shake his head and look forward to better times. We’re used to that by now.

Mets Then & Now: Steve Henderson and Angel Pagan

I’ve been a Met fan for as long as I can remember. I could say since 1967, but I was two-years-old and don’t really remember much. I could have been swayed to the Yankees at the time, since when people would ask me who my favorite baseball player was and I would reflexively answer “Mickey Mantle”: he was the only player whose name I knew. But my Dad was a Met fan, so he and 1969 made sure that didn’t take. I’m eternally grateful for that, but that’s one of the great “What ifs?” of my life. In any case, I was for sure a Met fan by the time I got to my first game in 1973.

That’s kind of a long way to go just to say that I’ve seen a lot of men wear the orange-and-blue (and sometimes black). With that in mind, I’m starting a new – at least occasional — series here at the ol’ 360, “Mets Then & Now.” I’ll be looking back at Met teams of yesteryear – the great and the horrid – and comparing and contrasting individuals (mostly) or entire squads (sometimes) with the modern day counterpart, if not equivalent. To me, it’s not always a matter of hard statistics, but also of perception. This is where the fan in me will come out – player A of today reminds me a lot of player B from 1962-2010. This may or may not be backed up by fWAR or OPS+.

Which brings us to the two mentioned in the title.

A quick glimpse of Baseball-Reference.com tells me that these two players are nothing alike statistically. Steve Henderson would hit you more than a few home runs and steal you a couple of bases a year. Angel Pagan will steal you more than a few bases and hit you a couple of home runs a year. Henderson was a so-so defensive left fielder and Pagan is an occasionally brilliant centerfielder. Henderson finished second to future Hall-Of-Famer Andre Dawson for the 1977 Rookie Of The Year award; Pagan appeared on nobody’s ballot his first year.

And yet…

They look and play an awful lot alike to this untrained eye. The will both get a big hit when it’s needed – in Henderson’s case, a legendary one – and they can both make the surprising defensive play. They both have shown a disturbing propensity to lose their respective “baseball instincts” in the field and on the bases at the wrong time, but their overall games could both be considered exciting and entertaining. And, they both represent something to the franchise: the trying present and the promising future. Both players are fine as starters for a team going nowhere and could be valuable spare parts for a contender.

After four years, Henderson was dispatched to Chicago in exchange for the less-than-triumphant return of Dave Kingman, and while that was ultimately unsuccessful in result, the process was a good one. That trade was the first major splash of the Frank Cashen era – the first attempt to win back fans who had defected after the Midnight Massacre, ironically enough the night Steve Henderson arrived.

One can’t help but wonder if Angel Pagan will face a similar end to his Met days as Sandy Alderson upgrades the current squadron with a sensible process as well.

The watchword under Alderson: Calm

Seems to me…

…there’s something missing in the Mets’ front office these days: panic.

It’s beyond refreshing to have another team in the division – our arch-rival, even, if you will – make a big, splashy move and have the reaction from Flushing be…well…nothing. The Phillies, of all teams, signed Cliff Lee to a contract lesser in years and smaller in funds than he’d been offered by Texas or the Yankees. Apparently, he loves Philly JUST. THAT. MUCH. Whatever. “De gustibus non desputandum est,” in my high-school Latin for “No accounting for taste.”

The quote from Sandy Alderson — amid the clamor and clanging of sports talk radio and the yarn-heads in the mainstream media — was as honest, forthright and bullet-like as could be. “Honestly, I don’t think it affects our long-term thinking as much as you might expect,” he said. What’s that? A flat-out declaration that we have a plan & we’re sticking to it? No promises to the fans that the front office will make you feel better right away? Wow. And hurrah!

You see, there is a looooooooong history of panicky reactions when some team or other stings us with a big-time signing. The mentality goes back to the early-‘90s, the waning days of the Frank Cashen regime – and in the first case, it was in direct response to losing the big player.

Darryl Strawberry bolted Queens to join his hometown team, the Dodgers. The Mets – never believing he’d actually, y’know, LEAVE – threw a wheelbarrow of money at long-time nemesis Vince Coleman. Coleman was a whole different kind of outfielder – and human being, as it turned out. Coleman was fast, very fast. As soon as he came into the league in 1985, he set NL stolen-base records in St. Louis. That’s about it. He didn’t hit much, had no power and his OBP hovered between .300 and .340.

How the Mets’ figured to replace Strawberry’s 1985-90 bWAR of 32.2 with Coleman’s b9.69 over the same time span is beyond rational thought, especially when there were far better options out there. Some 1991 free agent outfielders and their respective 1985-90 bWARs:

Brett Butler 25.8
Willie McGee 18.1
George Bell 17.0
Phil Bradley 15.3

But Coleman had some key steals when the Cards beat out the Mets for the NL East in ’85 & ’87, so there’s…um…gimme a minute…Nope, it STILL boggles the mind.

If we fast-forward 10 years, the Mets are on the heels of another success cycle, fresh off an NL pennant. One of their big pitchers, NLCS MVP Mike Hampton has departed for the snow-capped school systems of Colorado. The top free agent is Mike Mussina, late of Baltimore, who did some outstanding post-season pitching back when the Orioles known for that sort of thing.

Mussina – while being wooed by nearly everyone, including the Mets, hard — wasted little time in finding his new home: the Yankees. With a front office and fan base still smarting from a World Series loss to those very Yankees, this came as a blow. It didn’t help when Mr. Mussina rubbed in a little salt at his introductory press conference, saying, in effect, “If you’re going to play in New York, why would you EVER choose the Mets?” Ouch.

Reeling, the Mets turned around and signed Kevin Appier – in their view the next best thing in an admittedly weak crop of free agent starting pitchers. Now that’s fine. Appier had a pretty good track record and pitched okay for the Mets – just okay: a 117 ERA+ — but the contract GM Steve Phillips bestowed on him was absolutely ludicrous. Three years, $29.5 million 2001 dollars. For Kevin Appier. Not Tom Seaver. Not Sandy Koufax. Not Christy Mathewson. Kevin Appier.

By the off-season, even Phillips was conscious of the ridicularity of the deal and sought to unload Appier at the earliest possible convenience. Enter the Angels with Mo Vaughn and his bloated…contract. A one-up swap of Appier for Vaughn netted the Mets the living symbol of their early-aughts futility, the poster boy for the Top Payroll/Bottom Lineup Mets we’re so familiar with this very day. These days, the examples are our very own Dynamic Duo, Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez.

So I’ll take Sandy Alderson’s “passive-aggressive” stance — his words –until we can be “aggressive-aggressive.”

The magic is back: 1980-2010 similarities

Seems to me…

…I’ve heard this song before. 30 years before, to be exact.

The 2010 MLB Winter Meetings have just concluded and the New York Mets did…nearly nothing. I take this as a good sign. Really.

Joan Whitney Payson was the Mets’ first owner and if not their Patron Saint (that would be Casey Stengel) then at least an Archangel. She was a HUGE baseball fan and when her beloved New York Giants were ripped from their Polo Grounds moorings in 1957, she was the loudest drum-beater for the return of NL ball to New York. Hence, the Mets.

She doted on the team and was as generous as the times, the Reserve Clause and Board Chairman M. Donald Grant would allow. She famously offered the San Francisco Giants $1,000,000.00 for Willie Mays in 1963 (she was politely turned down).

Mrs. Payson passed away in 1975 and the club fell to her widower, Charles Shipman Payson. Mr. Payson was a mostly humorless man – from what I can gather — who was no fan of baseball, nor the Mets. With the passing of Mrs. Payson, the aforementioned M. Donald gained a louder and louder voice in the front office. This was a shame, seeing as Grant turned out to be tone-deaf.

By 1975, the Reserve Clause was on life-support. Free agency (ownership’s worst nightmare) was fast becoming a reality. Mr. Payson, daughter Lorinda de Roulet and Grant ignored the rumblings and ran the team as if it were still 1937. The team floundered. Collapsed. Sunk. Stunk. .

THE all-time Met, Tom Seaver was famously and tearfully sent packing in 1977. Grant gave an explanation comparing the episode to a game of contract bridge. OH…KAY… And while fans and media begged the team to loosen the purse strings, Payson became Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life: “Not with my money.” So while the Yankees signed Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson and Don Gullett, the Mets got Elliot Maddox and Tom Hausman. When the Phillies signed Pete Rose, the Mets traded for disgruntled Richie Hebner. Yippee…

With the team somewhere south of rock bottom, Grant was discharged and Mr. Payson sold the team. We few remaining Met fans shouted HALLELUJAH! Now we’ll see something! New, young, dynamic ownership! A new GM who’d been successful elsewhere! We’ve got money and we’re not afraid to spend it!

Except we didn’t. The sale of the team took place after the 1980 Winter Meetings, so there wasn’t a whole lot of off-season to work with. Frank Cashen, the new GM fresh off a decade of success with the Baltimore Orioles (and how funny does that sound nowadays?), didn’t complete his in-house evaluations until the eve of spring training, so the “excitement” consisted of new faces Phil Mankowski, Jerry Morales, Mike Jorgensen and Mark “Boom Boom” Bomback, all acquired under the old regime. We fans had to content ourselves with a terrific mid-season pick-up, outfielder Claudell Washington. And with the first overall pick in that year’s June amateur draft, Cashen was able to pluck a fellow named Darryl Strawberry.

And you know what?

It was all OK.

We fans knew there were better times ahead. OK, so Washington bolted when the Braves offered ridiculous (for the times and talent) money to him. Fine, we couldn’t compete with that and didn’t try. There was talent and intelligence in residence in the lower minors and meanwhile, Cashen was able to supplement the major league roster with some veteran 2nd tier players (Dave Kingman and Rusty Staub, returnees from the mid-70’s among them) until by 1984, we found ourselves rooting for a bonafide contender.

Sound familiar?

With Sandy Alderson, the new GM fresh off two decades of success elsewhere, in charge I sense a similar pattern, but I think the 2011 Mets are already in far better shape than their long-ago counterparts. The ’80 Mets didn’t have even a hint of a David Wright or Jose Reyes or Carlos Beltran or Johan Santana, from a pure talent standpoint. They were starting from Lee Mazzilli and Doug Flynn and Steve Henderson and Pat Zachry. So from where I sit, Sandy Alderson gets all the latitude in the world; he knows what he’s doing far better than I (or anyone else of us fans) do.

Mets Rewind: August 1

Here’s what happened on this day in New York Mets history:

1989: The New York Mets blast the St. Louis Cardinals 11-0. Kevin McReynolds hit for the cycle (the first Met to accomplish the feat since Keith Hernandez did in 1985) and Sid Fernandez pitched a four-hit complete game shutout.

2000: After vetoing a trade to the New York Mets 10 days earlier, Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin helped his team — the Reds — to a 6-0 victory over the Mets at Shea Stadium. Larkin was booed by the crowd of 42,774 at Shea. ”This crowd takes the team personally, and I think they felt a little personal attack there,” said Mets manager Bobby Valentine. ”But they know he’s a tremendous player and respect him for that.”

2004: Tom Glavine gave up six runs in five innings as the New York Mets dropped a 6-5 decision to the Atlanta Braves. The loss completed a three-game sweep by the Braves and put the Mets nine games behind in the National League East. ”It’s not impossible,” Braden Looper told the media. ”But it’s definitely hard.” Manager Art Howe admitted publicly that being nine games out would be ”a tough hill to climb.” The Mets never reached the hill.

2010: The New York Mets honor the 1986 World Champions, placing former general manager Frank Cashen, manager Davey Johnson, pitcher Dwight Gooden and outfielder Darryl Strawberry in the new Mets Hall of Fame. The weekend was filled with fanfare and a pre-game ceremony prior to Sunday’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks.