"I knew the press would get the story eventually," Harazin says. It was in the next morning's papers. "I knew Vince, after all he's been through, would be subject to ridicule, and I didn't want to be charged with any complicity in putting out that story." The cover-up only heightened the episode's sex appeal. Still, Harazin, in a revelation of the Mets' level of paranoia, admitted that his only mistake was "not doing a better job of keeping it out of the papers." When a television crew showed up the next day and began focusing on Coleman's locker, Murray, Bonilla and reliever John Franco forcefully ordered the crew out of the clubhouse.
A few days later, Franco told a group of writers that New York lacked fire and he questioned the preparation of some players, whom he didn't name. Torborg reacted by calling a team meeting and expressing annoyance that Franco had spoken out in the newspapers. "We do have people in this clubhouse who worry more about [the media] than they should," pitcher Bret Saberhagen says. Even Harazin, when asked if the Mets have maintained their focus, replies, "I think we've had a difficult time in a number of cases."
In fact, the issues involving the media and the manager are only peripheral to the Mets' woes. Their essential cause is that New York is not a very good baseball team. Its hitting, the worst in the league last year at .235, is last again, this time at .230 through Sunday. Also, the Mets miscalculated on centerfielder Ryan Thompson. In its rush to justify last year's trading of David Cone, for whom it received Thompson and second baseman Jeff Kent from the Toronto Blue Jays, New York handed Thompson an every-day job rather than allowing him to develop slowly in a platoon with Joe Orsulak. Thompson was overmatched and after hitting .125 was sent to the minors on May 1. Kent seems one of the few players fit for New York ("Yeah, I have an attitude," he says), but as of Sunday he was hitting .218 and playing chaotic defense.
The bullpen, with Franco not fully recovered from elbow surgery, was 0-7 with a 4.48 ERA. Good grief, even Charlie Brown has more wins this year. With 17 straight defeats dating to May 6, 1992, reliever Anthony Young is chasing Cliff Curtis's 82-year-old record of 23 consecutive losses. Only superior pitching by Gooden, who accounted for New York's two wins in the 15-day span that ended with Sunday's loss, has saved the Mets from approaching the ineptitude of another expansion club, their 1962 forebears.
"The other day I looked at the scoreboard to see how the Phillies were doing," Saberhagen says. "But then I said, 'Why bother with the first-place team? We've got six teams to worry about.' It's frustrating. One of the problems we have here is that we don't have that one dynamic player who gets everyone going, like a Lenny Dykstra, who can do something every day to help you win."
The Mets figured they had acquired such a player when, after the 1991 season, they outbid several other clubs for Bonilla, who laughed at the challenge of playing in New York by boasting to the media, "You can't knock the smile off my face." He has batted .242 for the Mets. By Sunday, after striking out twice in three at bats and seeing his average fall to .214, Bonilla was so lost at the plate that he resorted to choking up a couple inches on the bat to get a ground ball single. His feeble bat and his angry, brooding disposition have become millstones of equal weight around the Mets' neck. "He's in his own world now," says one teammate. Says another, "His act is weak, just weak."
Bonilla's flare-up at Cubbage last Saturday hinted at the depth of his frustration. With two outs and Bonilla at first base in the eighth inning, Johnson hit a fly ball that Bonilla thought to be a game-tying home run. So Bonilla, watching the ball, jogged toward second base. Just chillin', if you will. Junior Felix caught the fly on the warning track.
When Cubbage went out onto the infield to retrieve Bonilla's helmet, he told him, "You've got to be running on that ball. Next time you hand me your helmet at third base instead of second." Bonilla, Cubbage said, then "jumped on me." The two engaged in a brief, heated argument. Bonilla told Cubbage, "Don't show me up on the field." After the next half inning Bonilla resumed the argument in the dugout, shouting curses at Cubbage. "He came right at me, and I held my ground," Cubbage said afterward. "He said he watched the ball. I told him that's not his job. If he wants to watch a home run, watch one tonight on ESPN."
So unpopular is Bonilla in his home city—he was raised in the Bronx—that the fans at Shea don't wait for him to strike out to boo him. They roundly jeer him whenever he swings and misses or a strike is called against him. By the time of his baserunning blunder on Saturday, three fans behind home plate had pulled brown grocery bags over their heads. The Mets' preseason ticket sales were off 25% this year—that after New York's attendance declined last year for a fourth straight season.
"I know people don't have a good perception of the Mets," Harazin says. It has been nearly impossible for anyone to separate last year from this, what with New York's creating a blur of the same lousy hitting, poor fundamental play and inability to cope with the media. There is, though, one clear distinction about this group of Mets. They now have the mighty Marlins to fear.