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So offensive was the 1993 team that on Aug. 26 an angered and pained Fred Wilpon met with his players for the first time in his 14 years of what had been his laissez-faire co-ownership with Nelson Doubleday. He scolded them for embarrassing the franchise and the city in which he had grown up. "You should feel privileged to be able to play baseball in New York," he told them. "If you don't feel that way and you want out, let us know. We'll get you the hell out of here."
Then came the landmark moment of the descent. Wilpon marched to a podium at a news conference and fired one of his players on the spot, essentially for acting like a jerk for the better part of three years. Wilpon simply blurted out that outfielder Vince Coleman, who had come to represent all that was wrong with the team, would never wear a Met uniform again. The club still owed Coleman a 1994 salary of $3 million, but Wilpon would worry about that later.
"Businesswise," he says, "it wasn't a very smart thing to say. I didn't plan on saying it. Certainly I knew it in my mind. But, yes, I reached a point where I had to say enough is enough."
In the past three years three teams have gone from worst to first in successive seasons. Another, Oakland, took the reverse route last year. "A lot has changed since 1988," Wilpon says. "It's a much more volatile business now." The crash of the Mets, though, took on historic proportions. They became only the fourth team in history to lose 100 games within five seasons of winning 100. But unlike Oakland last season, the Mets collapsed without the excuse of fiscal restraint. They are a monument not so much to the vagaries of modern baseball but more to the destructive forces of mismanagement.
The most ruinous of their mistakes took three basic forms: miscalculation or outright ignorance of the intangibles winning players need, particularly in New York; quick-fix trades that recklessly disregarded long-term effects; and the disastrous breakup of what was supposed to be a seamless passing of the front-office command from chief operating officer and general manager Frank Cashen to his lieutenants, McIlvaine and Harazin. Wilpon is positively penitential in acknowledging all three elements. "Not enough emphasis was placed on the mix of people and the chemistry that are essential to winning," Wilpon says. "It was almost like Rotisserie baseball."
Less than two months after winning the 1986 World Series, the Mets traded outfielder Kevin Mitchell, who finished third in the Rookie of the Year balloting, to the San Diego Padres in a deal for outfielder Kevin McReynolds. It established the pattern for a series of errors in which the Mets progressively spoiled the chemistry of the team. Too often they overlooked players' mental toughness, approach to the game and suitability to the pressures in New York.
Mitchell was a kid from the San Diego ghetto who liked to tell stories of various escapades involving bullets and knives that had scarred his flesh. "Some people here thought Mitchell was a time bomb ready to explode," one Met official says. Well, there was something of a detonation in 1989. Mitchell hit 47 home runs that year, won the Most Valuable Player award and led the San Francisco Giants to the pennant.
McIlvaine had coveted McReynolds since he scouted him as a collegian at Arkansas. But McReynolds's skills and production diminished annually after 1988. He never lost a step, though, in his haste to leave the clubhouse after games. McReynolds was more interested in beating traffic than in sharing with his team-mates the joy of big victories or the crush of difficult defeats. So miscast was McReynolds in New York that he once said of its fans, "It's almost like people are miserable, and they want to bring you down to their level."
"Yes, I am disappointed with how McReynolds turned out," McIlvaine says. "He should have been a superstar. I can't tell you in all my years of scouting if I ever saw a player with tools like that. He didn't use that talent as much as he should have. Darryl Strawberry was the same way. They've both been good players. But they should have been excellent. They had Hall of Fame tools."
The Mets were wrong so many times about the makeup of their players that by 1992 they had a paranoid, distracted club. They put the likes of first baseman Eddie Murray and Coleman in the same clubhouse, where people like outfielder Bobby Bonilla and pitcher Bret Saberhagen quickly caught their contagious contempt for the media. "If there is one place in the entire world where that attitude can't work, it's New York City," Wilpon says. "It's the media capital of the world."