It was 15 minutes before game time last Friday night when silence came upon the New York Met clubhouse, a place that typically emits all the warmth and good cheer of a poorly lit subway platform after midnight. The realization that they had reached one of those critical junctures that can define a season reduced the Mets to an uneasy stillness.
"Fearing the worst" is how third baseman Howard Johnson later explained it. Here it was only the middle of May and the Mets were confronting a four-game series that held the urgency of a September pennant race. "It's not the kind of situation you like to be in," Johnson said. "It's not good to feel that way, to feel like you're under pressure. Yes, I felt it. I know if I was feeling that way, other people in here were, too."
Why the worry? The Florida Marlins were at Shea Stadium. That's right, the arrival of an expansion team that wears teal and counts a lumpy 45-year-old man as its best starting pitcher gave the Mets a case of the yips. Losers of nine of their previous 10 games, the Mets had sunk to the absurd depth of having to sweep the Marlins just to escape the bottom of the National League East. Frightening, indeed. Welcome to the Netherworld Series.
Dwight Gooden, matched against the ancient Charlie Hough, temporarily soothed New York with a four-hit shutout in the opener. But the Mets' worst fears were realized the next afternoon. In a thoroughly hellish performance, New York lost 4-2 as leftfielder Vince Coleman botched a routine fly ball for the second time in 11 games and also kicked a grounder for an error; the offense mustered four hits, or only two more than had by Florida's starting pitcher, Jack Armstrong, an .087 lifetime hitter entering the game; the fans booed the appearance of manager Jeff Torborg in a credit card commercial that played on the video board; and rightfielder Bobby Bonilla, after being reprimanded by third base coach Mike Cubbage for dogging it on the bases, blew up at Cubbage on the field and again in the dugout in his second vile outburst this season.
The malaise continued the next day as New York fell behind 6-0 after four innings and lost 6-4. Just 28 games into the season, the Mets' 18th defeat dropped them to 11� games out of first place—it took them 110 games to fall that far off the pace during last year's 90-loss season—and assured that they would still trail Florida when the Marlins left town. It exposed New York once again as a troubled, overrated and distracted team nearly as occupied with its standing with the media as with its standing in the National League, both of which can be described as the pits.
No wonder Detroit Tiger manager Sparky Anderson scoffed earlier in the week that "the Mets are a myth." They are annually a popular preseason pick for the division championship, especially of famous smoke-blower Jim Leyland, the Pittsburgh Pirate manager who, between puffs, again said this spring that New York is the one team that can run away with the East. Truth is, the Mets have been deteriorating since they fired Davey Johnson as manager three years ago this month. After a brief flurry under Bud Harrelson, they have gone 203-232 (.467) since the 1990 All-Star break, the worst record in the league over that span.
Now the job security of Torborg, who followed Cubbage, who followed Harrelson, has been put in doubt, at least by the media the Mets so closely monitor. Why are the media calling for Torborg's head and the fans at Shea booing his appearance on the video board? (In the commercial he finds demonic delight in pulling a disappearing act on an eager fan.) Because Torborg simply isn't getting results. His record with New York after the loss on Sunday was 82-108 (.432). He did better than that as a rookie manager with the Cleveland Indians in the late 1970s, when he amassed a .439 percentage.
"I wanted badly to get off to a good start," says Met general manager Al Harazin. Instead New York is off to its worst start since 1983 despite a schedule that had the Mets playing 22 of their first 31 games against teams that last year didn't have winning records or didn't exist at all. "It was important because last year was so distasteful, it was important for ticket sales, it was important for Jeff, it was important for me, and it was important for our own emotional well-being."
Harazin conducted a team meeting in the spring in which he warned the players to "keep our focus" through the minefield of distractions he thought to be inevitable. He knew, for instance, of the impending publication of a book, The Worst Team Money Could Buy, in which New York newspapermen Bob Klapisch and John Harper chronicle the Mets' 1992 collapse. It took only four games in '93 for the first explosion to rock the clubhouse. Bonilla, with Coleman and Eddie Murray providing encouragement, mocked Klapisch, calling him a "faggot," and threatened him. Saying he was "just chillin'," Bonilla warned the writer, "I'll hurt you. I'll show you the Bronx." Then he swatted away the microphone of a television crew that recorded the scene.
It turns out that any unsuspecting person, not just the visitor with a media pass, is endangered in the Mets' clubhouse. On April 26, 40 minutes before he was scheduled to start against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Gooden was struck on the right shoulder blade by a nine-iron swung by Coleman, who, after having been tutored by Maury Wills on bunting this spring, chose a most inappropriate moment to work on his other short game. When the Mets scratched Gooden from his start, club officials tried to cover up the incident, offering only that Gooden had been "bumped" in the clubhouse.