Yes, Jason Bay is going to be big in New York -- a big bust, that is
The Mets have reportedly agreed to sign Bay to a four-year, $66 million contract
But Bay is a slugger and the Mets need to build around speed and pitching
In Citi Field's first year the Mets' top home run hitter was Daniel Murphy -- with 12
The statement came 28 years ago.
In the winter of 1981-82, the New York Mets were Big Apple nobodies -- a star-less, charisma-less franchise coming off of a miserable 41-62 strike-shortened season. The team had drawn 704,244 fans, seventh in the National League (and not even half the total of the cross-town Yankees), and its marketing exclamation, "The magic is back!" rang hollow. Unless Joel Youngblood and Pete Falcone possessed some sort of secret, Houdini-esque abilities, the magic was not back. It was, in fact, dead.
With this as a backdrop, Frank Cashen, the team's general manager, pulled off a headline-stealing deal. In exchange for three middling players, Cashen landed slugging outfielder George Foster from the Cincinnati Reds, immediately signing him to a five-year, $10 million contract.
Did Cashen think the former National League MVP was the missing piece that New York needed to turn itself into a winner? Hardly. While the Mets offense was nothing to brag about, it was the club's rotten starting rotation and lowly middle infield that required the most attention. "But signing George was a message to baseball and to our fans that we were in it to win," Cashen said. "From here on out, we would do whatever it takes."
The outcome: Foster hit 13 home runs in his first season in New York. He played an abysmal left field, was booed mercilessly, shunned in his own clubhouse and -- even as he went on to spend 3½ more decent seasons with the Mets -- labeled one of the biggest busts in the team's history. By the time the team won the 1986 World Series, he was out of baseball.
Why? Because George Foster was a bad fit.
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As we approach 2010, New York Mets history is about to repeat itself. According to WFAN, the team has agreed to sign Jason Bay to a four-year contract worth nearly $66 million. Like Foster 28 years back, Bay is in his early 30s. Like Foster 28 years back, Bay will play left field and bat in the middle of the order. Like Foster 28 years back, Bay will arrive in Queens accompanied by enough hype and hope to fill three stadiums.
Like Foster 28 years back, this will not go well.
Jason Bay is a good ballplayer. A fine ballplayer. Heck, an excellent ballplayer. With Boston last year, residing in cozy Fenway Park, the 31-year-old All-Star hit 36 home runs with 119 RBIs, thus making him the pulse of an otherwise aging Red Sox lineup. He has cleared 30 home runs in four of his last five seasons. Bay also happens to be one of the game's truly good guys -- likeable, agreeable, approachable, laid-back. The complete package.
Yet for all the positives Bay brings to an organization, he lacks the one tool that the Mets truly need -- an ability to move walls.
When New York's brain-dead powers-that-be decided that Citi Field should feature spacious outfield grass and power alleys from here to Hagåtña, they unintentionally dictated the type of team that GM Omar Manaya is required to assemble. Namely, the modern-day Mets must replicate the '85 Cardinals, who were constructed around speed and pitching; around doubles and triples into the gaps; around shutouts and 2-1 wins. In Flushing, the signature has to be run generation -- Jose Reyes leading off with a single, stealing second, stealing third, being brought home via a sac fly. The Mets need men who take lots of pitches and work deep into counts; who can hit to the opposite field and run like Miguel Dilone.
Sluggers? What sluggers? Playing in Shea Stadium in 2008, David Wright was a power monster, producing 33 homers and 124 RBIs. Playing in Citi Field in 2009, Wright was, well, George Foster circa 1982, with a paltry 10 homers and 72 RBIs. Or, to put it more bluntly, the Mets' leading home run hitter last season was Daniel Murphy -- with 12. If Bay has an absolutely outstanding 2010, he might hit 25 homers. He might.
In their new digs, the Mets also require arms. Lots and lots of arms. They require starters who can hold a game close -- guys like John Lackey; guys like Javier Vazquez; guys... whom the Mets completely ignored as others pounced.
No doubt those Met fans who had been waiting for their team to make a statement will be pleased. Bay, like Foster, is a big name with big power and big skills.
He will also be a big bust.
Jeff Pearlman can be reached at email@example.com.