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New York Mets
An infusion of big-name vets has the overdue Mets thinking Subway Series
By Michael Bamberger
Once a decade the Mets play in a World Series. That has been their pattern. They were born in 1962, won their first World Series in '69, lost their first in '73 and then won their second in '86. The new season is the last chance to keep the pattern alive. The natives are growing restless.
"Hey, Steve," a fan yelled to Steve Phillips, the Mets' general manager, one day during spring training. "How 'bout a Subway Series?"
"Let's hope the Yankees can get there," Phillips shot back.
Stranger things have happened. Last year New York finished 18 games behind the division-winning Braves in the National League East and missed winning the wild-card spot by one game. In the final week of the season the Mets seemed to have a baseball disorder. They couldn't score runs and couldn't win games. While the Yankees, like expectant parents, waited eagerly to see what October would bring, the Mets were closing their season by losing five straight games to the Expos and the Braves. Can anyone suggest a new synonym for collapse? The New York papers wore out all the good ones.
You need thick skin to make it in New York City. More than that, you need star power. The Mets, weird to say, now have more star power than their intracity rival. Not more talent or skill, but more star power. Their plan is to win coming out of the chute, draw good crowds before school lets out and give the Yankees some competition in the box office and the Braves some competition in the standings. New York's first two series are against the feeble Marlins and its unlikely nemesis from last fall, the Expos. Those games might just set the tone for the season.
By the end, the Mets should be hugely ahead of those two teams and another rival, the Phillies. Still, for them to beat the Braves, something odd would have to happen in Atlanta, like the sudden and collective collapse of the best rotation in the majors.
As for the New York rotation, it's more sturdy than spectacular. The Mets will start a lone lefty (Leiter) and four righties: Rick Reed, Bobby Jones, Masato Yoshii and Hideo Nomo. Leiter, Reed and Jones are known commodities. Over the past two years they have a combined 81-53 record with a 3.44 ERA. The two Japanese pitchers are question marks. Nomo, unhittable at times during his first two seasons, with the Dodgers in 1995 and '96, struggled with his control for most of last year, averaging more than five walks per nine innings. His back-wrenching delivery, an odd and disconcerting sight earlier in his U.S. career, hardly throws off anybody these days. Yoshii, though he's 33, is still an unknown. After getting off to a strong start in '98, he won two games after May 27. The Mets' chances of succeeding depend on Yoshii and Nomo, or on two young pitchers in the farm system, Jason Isringhausen and Paul Wilson, both of whom are coming off serious injuries.
Given all this uncertainty, the New York front office realizes it might have to make a move. There was talk in spring training of making a midsummer deal to bring in a proven starter. But frontline pitchers are always expensive, particularly in mid-season. Closing such a deal will be a high-wire act for Phillips. To complicate matters, he answers to two bosses, co-owners Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday, who often disagree.
The man who will handle the pitchers, Piazza, will get an occasional day off and, during interleague play, an occasional turn as DH, but he's still likely to catch in about 140 games. He'll catch that often in part because that's what the Mets are paying him to do but mostly because that's what he wants to do. His goal is to be the greatest-hitting catcher in baseball history. He also wants, desperately, a World Series ring.
Slugging is a concept not typically associated with the Mets this decade. Neither, particularly, is winning. New York had best change that this year, before it's too late.
Issue date: March 29, 1999
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