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Gregg Jefferies, a hitting phenom who was touted by McIlvaine as a future batting champ, came up in 1988 as a third baseman, moved to second base and then back to third—he displayed not a bit of elegance at cither position—before the Mets moved him one last time: to Kansas City, following the '91 season. Howard Johnson began 1990 at third base, '91 at shortstop and '92 in centerfield. During those three seasons the Mets' Opening Day lineup featured different players at six positions every year. "The Mets have always been an offensive-minded club," says Dallas Green, who last season became the Mets' fifth manager in three years. "I could never understand why they ignored defense, with all the good pitching they had. It's a mistake we're not going to continue to make."
Midway through the 1989 season McIlvaine and Harazin were telling Cashen that he had to fire Davey Johnson. "The team is getting away from him," McIlvaine said. Johnson knew it was a stressful, transitional year. The co-captains, Carter and first baseman Keith Hernandez, repeatedly broke down physically in what would be their last season with the club. Gooden, the emotional cornerstone of the franchise, tore a muscle in his throwing shoulder. Cashen chose to bring back Johnson to start the '90 season, and McIlvaine continued trading. He sent Myers to Cincinnati for John Franco because he feared Myers was weightlifting himself out of baseball. Myers has since won an NLCS Most Valuable Player award and set the league save record for a single season. Franco has been hurt or ineffective much of the past three seasons.
Less than two months into the season Cashen agreed that Johnson had to go. Initially the Mets responded to Johnson's successor, Harrelson, and on Sept. 3, 1990, they were in first place, one-half game ahead of the Pirates. They lost their next five games, though, including three crucial games in Pittsburgh. In the third game of that series, on the recommendation of McIlvaine, Harrelson started Julio Valera, a 21-year-old righthander with one career start in the big leagues, rather than the veteran Darling. Valera allowed five runs while getting only six outs in a 7-1 defeat. Except during the first three weeks of a season, the Mets have not been back in first place since.
After the 1988 season Wilpon and Doubleday wanted Cashen to begin a transition into a consultant's role, allowing McIlvaine to assume full control of the baseball operations and Harazin the business side. "We wanted it to be a gradual process," Wilpon says. But two years later Cashen was still the ultimate authority in the organization, with no official change imminent, though McIlvaine and Harazin were doing much more of the spadework. While Cashen grew comfortable running the club in a patriarchal manner, the owners were content to stretch out the front-office transition another year. Finally, when the Padres asked McIlvaine in September 1990 to be their G.M., he figured, "If I'm going to do all the work, I might as well get all the blame or credit, and make the decision myself." So on Oct. 2, 1990, McIlvaine signed a five-year contract to be general manager of the Padres. His departure was provoked in part by the razzing his nine-year-old son, Timmy, took in school. "Your dad traded Lenny Dykstra," kids would say—and worse.
"All of a sudden, the plan of succession was no plan at all," Wilpon says. "We were stunned when Joe left."
No one was more stunned than Cashen, who was 65 and having a house built in Florida to accommodate a more leisurely life. Suddenly he had to run the team again on a full-time basis. He had neither the energy nor the interest for it.
Cashen was a self-proclaimed "dinosaur" who was growing increasingly bitter about the explosion in players' salaries. "I admit," he says. "I look at the money being spent as if it were mine." He had built winning teams in Baltimore and New York, but now the business and its players were changing, and Cashen was not. One month after McIlvaine left, Strawberry left too—in part because of Cashen.
In midsummer of '90, just when the Mets and Strawberry—a moody outfielder prone to lapse into stretches of indifferent play—were rolling, Cashen had scoffed in a television interview that Strawberry, a potential free agent, wasn't worth the money Oakland slugger Jose Canseco was getting. The tone and timing of the comments were inappropriate, especially with a player like Strawberry, who never seemed to be sure what he wanted. McIlvaine, who played minor league ball and studied at a seminary, had a better touch with players. But contrary to the owners' plan, this still was Cashen's team.
"At that point Darryl was leaning toward staying with us," McIlvaine would say later. "But after that it all changed. Darryl just wants to be loved. When Frank said what he said, Darryl felt his friends had deserted him. That did it. That was the end of it, I think."
It was in September, with the Mets trailing Pittsburgh by three games with six to play, that Cashen finally decided he wanted him gone. Strawberry had said his back was too sore to play, and he watched the Mets lose two of their next three games and be eliminated. He never played again for them. "That," Cashen says, "was the last straw. Here was a guy who didn't want to play with the season on the line. Darryl had had great Septembers for us before. But I think he lost some of his hunger for winning."