On a cold day in December, Mets G.M. Steve Phillips drove to Massachusetts with manager Bobby Valentine and then assistant G.M. Omar Minaya to watch the workout of an aging, overweight first baseman with a huge contract and an injury-plagued past, including a 2001 season wiped out by a ruptured tendon in his left arm. "I didn't know what to expect," says Phillips. "But I was intrigued."
There wasn't an abundance of chatter that morning as Mo Vaughn stepped to the plate to take batting practice at his indoor cage. But before he began hitting, the owner of 299 career home runs turned to Phillips, held up three fingers, smiled and said, "You're gonna see me take three swings. And you'll know I'm good."
Vaughn took those three swings, turned to the G.M. again and said, "See, I told you."
A week later Phillips pulled off one of the riskiest and most dramatic trades in the 40-year history of the franchise, sending 11-game winner Kevin Appier, the No. 2 starter on a less-than-dominant staff, to Anaheim for Vaughn, including the three years and $42 million left on his contract. In Vaughn the Mets get two critical elements that have been in short supply since catcher Mike Piazza arrived early in the 1998 season: a slugger with enough clout to share the load with Piazza, and a clubhouse presence with Reggie Jacksonesque magnetism.
Vaughn immediately took to New York City like Enrique Iglesias to cheesy ballads. He visited the workers at ground zero and met the city's new mayor, Mike Bloomberg. Smelling the publicity bonanza, Manhattan's famed Carnegie Deli named a new corned beef, pastrami, turkey and cheese sandwich the Mo-Licious. Like Vaughn, it is big and hard to get ahold of. Unlike Vaughn, it comes with a pickle. "I could feed the homeless population with that [sandwich]," Vaughn says. "It's tremendous."
Last season New York averaged an NL-low 3.96 runs per game and hit just .249, second worst among the league's 16 teams. That Piazza hit 36 home runs is something of a miracle, considering that his protector in the order was Robin Ventura, he of the .237 average and 21 homers. At one point the Mets' tepid lineup included Ventura, Todd Zeile, Benny Agbayani, Jay Payton, Timo Perez and Rey Ordo�ez. Combined output in 2001: 53 home runs, 250 RBIs.
Vaughn's output in 2000, his last healthy season: 36 home runs, 117 RBIs.
Vaughn won't be the only newcomer to Shea Stadium. Rightfielder Jeromy Burnitz, leftfielder Roger Cede�o (who played for the Mets in 1999), second baseman Roberto Alomar and starters Pedro Astacio and Shawn Estes were also acquired in the off-season as Phillips orchestrated the team's most dramatic face-lift since '92, when then G.M. Al Harazin wowed the baseball world by signing Bobby Bonilla, Eddie Murray and Vince Coleman to lucrative free-agent deals.
"This isn't the same [situation]," says Phillips, recalling a club that lost 90 games and suffered one embarrassing p.r. gaffe after another. "The character I see here is outstanding. Mo and Alomar are quality people and teammates. All of our new players are."
While Vaughn is perfectly suited for the Big Apple Circus, it will be intriguing to see how Burnitz, a mercurial slugger with four straight 30-home runs seasons and five straight 100-strikeout seasons, readjusts to his old haunts. A decade ago Burnitz was the gem of the Mets' system. After being a called up in '93, he and Dallas Green, New York's manager at the time, clashed. After the following season Burnitz was banished to Cleveland.