Backman, immortalized by Strawberry as "that little redneck" in a skirmish the two players waged in the newspapers in 1987, was at week's end batting .322 as the leadoff hitter for the Pirates. Dykstra, the leading hitter in the majors this season, with a .413 average, was shipped down the New Jersey Turnpike with McDowell last June for centerfielder Juan Samuel. Samuel hit .228 in 3½ miserable months in New York before being dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers in December.
The net result is a torrent of criticism directed at Mets management. "Two years ago I was a genius," says vice-president of baseball operations Joe McIlvaine, part of the Mets' management firm of Cashen, McIlvaine & [senior vice-president Al] Harazin. "Now I'm the village idiot."
Never mind that the same triumvirate built the 1986 Mets, or that many of its recent deals look foolish only in hindsight. Never mind that neither Backman nor Dykstra performed well enough to play every day in New York, or that Samuel drove in 100 runs for the Phillies three years ago. Never mind that Mitchell, last season's National League MVP, was an unproven 24-year-old rookie in the '86 Series, six weeks after which he was traded to San Diego for solid-yet-silent leftfielder Kevin McReynolds. "Everybody brings [those names] up on the radio," says New York third baseman and de facto captain Howard Johnson. "If they'd done what they are doing now while they were here, they'd still be here."
The radio station HoJo has been listening to—because "it's funny," he says—is New York's WFAN, a virtually all-sports phone-in forum for Vinnie in Brooklyn and Sal in the Bronx to weigh in round the clock with their analyses of local teams. "You gotta get rid of some of those statues on the field," said Frank from Long Island the day Davey Johnson was cut loose. "You could dig up Joe McCarthy, and it's not gonna make a difference."
That McIlvaine and his colleagues have become the village idiots has something to do with the village they inhabit. It's a place where, as Strawberry has said, "the media always have their knives out for you."
"As much as you try to please everybody, it's tough in New York," said Davey Johnson, who has nonetheless hinted that he would accept an offer to become the Yankees' manager when that position becomes available in the near future. "People felt like we should have given them more than one championship."
It often seems that all the people on the East Coast devote their attention to the Mets, if only to jeer them. McDowell will tell you he has nothing to say about his former team even as he launches into a detailed discussion of its recent history. Dykstra buttonholed a Mets beat writer in Veterans Stadium last week and whispered conspiratorially, "What's goin' on over there? Straw's goin'?"
Dykstra learned well to lower his voice. Although the Mets are based in the borough of Queens, their front office treats all matters with the secrecy of the Manhattan Project. Which is why it was so comical to see the diminutive, white-haired Cashen, resplendent in a blue bow tie and green sport jacket, emerge from a tunnel behind home plate last Thursday, during New York's first workout at Shea following the firing. He dipped his toe onto the turf, as if testing the water's temperature, before stepping onto the field and being swarmed by some 30 reporters, a lynch mob with klieg lights and bad blazers. "No," Cashen said with a sickly grin, he hadn't read the previous day's tabloids, all of which applauded the axing while still calling for him to issue his own mea culpa. "I guess I'll catch up this morning."
The mob, slowly decreasing in number, pursued the scurrying Cashen back into the tunnel, where Cashen, who had grown increasingly agitated, said, "I do not discount the value of a good fiery leader, and I'm not sure at this point that we have one."
By that time the wolf pack had dwindled to a persistent two reporters, and Cashen was on the threshold of a door that leads to a bank of elevators and, in turn, to the safety of the Mets' administrative offices. Ordinarily a reserved man, he was fairly hollering in response to a question about Strawberry and McReynolds, who also has said he might leave when his contract expires at the end of the 1991 season. "If they don't want to play here anymore, they don't want to play here anymore!" said Cashen. "What am I going to do? Go out and give them 10 million dollars?" And with that, a team functionary swept Cashen into the Otis.