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The Mets were wrong about their choice of managers, too. After Davey Johnson was fired 42 games into the 1990 season, his seventh with the club, neither of his successors, Bud Harrelson or Torborg, made it through two seasons. Harrelson lost respect in the clubhouse when he quit his radio show because he thought the questions were too pointed and when he admitted sending coach Mel Stottlemyre to make a pitching change out of fear of being booed.
"That has an effect on the team," Magadan says. "The thing that hurt Buddy was when he showed vulnerability. Jeff wanted to control the media. We had so many meetings with Torborg and Buddy that were about the press, especially with Torborg. Those were just about the only team meetings we ever had with him."
At one meeting Torborg tried so hard to convince his players that they should not be distracted by the media that pitcher Pete Schourek finally piped up, "If we're not supposed to be worried about the media, why are we having all these meetings about the media?" Torborg was so preoccupied with covering up the slightest controversies that pitcher David Cone called him Oliver North.
"Jeff was put into a situation so different from Chicago," Harazin says, referring to Torborg's three years as manager of the White Sox, including a 94-68 season in 1990. "He had a young, scrappy club with a college-style eagerness to succeed that suited him. I put him in a very different situation here. I didn't give as much thought to that as I should have."
When the Mets traded him to Toronto, on Aug. 27, 1992, Cone called it "the end of the arrogant Mets. The end of the mid-'80s, flourishing Mets." When Cone was asked that day if he knew how that end came about, he replied, "Well, yeah, the heart and soul was bred out of it. Numbers and production have taken a front seat while what a guy's intangibles are, what personality he brings to the Mets, is left on the backseat. You need people who are fixtures, with personality and guts. When things are down, those are the type of guys who fight back."
There is no more damning statistic of how soft the Mets turned than this: They have a losing record in one-run games every year after 1988. They have been bullies in games decided by three or more runs in that time, with a .539 percentage in such games (215-184). In one- and two-run games, though, they have played .417 baseball (171-239). Trying to explain the disparity, Cone once attributed it to the Mets' "tight booty."
Of the 23 players to appear in the 1988 National League Championship Series for the Mets, 10 were gone by the end of the next year. Today only one of them is left: Gooden.
Cashen and Johnson now admit they acted rashly in trying to fuel the Mets' run at the top of the National League East and fulfill the pervasive and enormous expectations. "We traded so many good young players to try to keep the thing going," Cashen says. "We got caught up in it. I probably should have been more forceful in not letting that happen. I should have stopped a couple of trades." It is the temporary-insanity defense. Says Johnson, "Nobody was willing to take a step back and say, 'Wait a minute. What are we doing? Let's not panic.' We lost sight of what got us there."
Within a 44-day span of the 1989 season, the Mets traded centerfielders Lenny Dykstra and Mookie Wilson plus pitchers Rick Aguilera, Roger McDowell, Kevin Tapani and David West for three players who, as it turned out, would be gone from the club in little more than two years.
Late on the night of June 17, 1989, as the Mets rode their team bus back to their hotel alter a game in Philadelphia, McIlvaine whispered to Johnson that he had a chance to obtain outfielder Juan Samuel from the Phillies for Dykstra and McDowell. "Think about it," McIlvaine told him. The manager shot back, "I don't have to think about it. I want you to make it if you can. It's that simple."