The World Champion New York Mets have this small image problem: No one outside the city's five boroughs can stomach them. O.K., O.K., so that's a little strong; transplanted Mets fans are, like crime, everywhere. But the essential fact remains: The Mets are the most loathed team in baseball.
Not just by the fans, either. Opposing ballplayers, put off by the Mets' perceived arrogance on and off the field, openly disparage them. "They aren't the most likable bunch," said Tommy Herr of the Cardinals before last year's playoffs. "They act so superior, from the manager on down. They seem to antagonize everybody they play."
After the New Yorkers concluded a series with Cincinnati last July, Dave Parker, whose Reds brawled with the Mets, said, "It's time to show them there are tough guys everywhere.... I'm sorry our series is over with them."
"The way they acted, they'll find every game this season will be like the seventh game of the World Series," Philadelphia's Mike Schmidt said recently. His team finished a distant second in the NL East, 21½ games behind the Mets. That margin notwithstanding, while the Phillies trained this spring at their minor league complex, someone posted a color picture of the world champion Mets on a bulletin board, a question scrawled across their grinning faces: "Can you beat these ass——?"
No World Series winner in either league has successfully defended a divisional title since 1978. Free agency, injuries, complacency, luck and revenge have all conspired against the defending champs. In the Mets' case, the revenge factor must be figured in exponentially. Seems as if every NL team would like to shove fistfuls of crow down their gullets.
But why? Is it right to hate a team because Lenny (Nails) Dykstra smirks instead of smiles, because Darryl Strawberry shuffles I'm-so-cool-ly around the bases whenever he homers? Is it fair to begrudge Gary Carter his schoolgirlish histrionics each time he hits one out, or to blame Ron Darling for having a pretty name and a beautiful wife? Is it the Shea Stadium curtain calls that are the most grating, or the between-innings specter of Carter on Diamond Vision singing LET'S GO, METS GO! with his arm around a life-sized cardboard cutout of himself? Is it the on-field brawls with other clubs—the Mets had four of them last season—or the off-field scuffles with police, girlfriends and wives that make the bile rise? Is it New York itself? Mets fans? Davey Johnson? Will somebody please explain why the thought of the Mets falling flat on their collective faces makes every team in baseball drool?
"I think a lot of it is envy," says new Met Kevin McReynolds, the leftfielder whose righthanded bat makes New York's lineup even more impressive than it was last year, when the Mets led the league in batting average, slugging percentage and runs. "The same thing happened to us in San Diego after we won our division. Teams treat you differently when you're on top."
Sorry, Kevin. Not buying. When the Royals won the World Series in 1985, no one longed for them to hunker down with a large piece of humble pie. They were appealing champs. Not the Mets, who, despite being friendly and likable as individuals, assume a pompous air as a team. Before last season even began, they were predicting that they would terrorize the NL East. "Don't we get a bye into the playoffs?" said second baseman Wally Backman jokingly. He later miffed the Expos by writing them off at the All-Star break, when New York's lead stood at 13 games over Montreal.
The Mets are good and they know it. They sass you with success: 90 wins in '84, 98 in '85, 108 in '86, the most since the 1975 Big Red Machine. "I think just about everybody in the world hopes Houston wins," said Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog on the eve of last year's NL playoffs, a brilliantly played series marred only by the Mets' graceless accusation that Astro ace Mike Scott had scuffed the baseball in Houston's two victories. That allegation added "poor losers" to the Mets' repertoire of alleged shortcomings. The Mets seemed to believe that the only way they could lose was if the other team cheated.
"All that arrogant talk got started because everyone was p—— off about the way we dominated the National League," says Dykstra, who has been accused of diving theatrically in pursuit of routine flies. "Nobody likes to get beat night after night. When we take the field, we believe we're going to win, and we try to have fun doing it."
The fun part can be irritating to other teams. On July 11 in New York, for example, Carter, whose nickname is Kid, hit a three-run homer off Atlanta's David Palmer in the first inning, a blow that gave the Mets a 3-0 lead. It wasn't exactly the stroke that won the pennant. Still, Carter charged around the bases, slapped high fives at home plate, tipped his hat to the fans, slapped some more fives in the dugout, took a curtain call, shook his fist in the air and otherwise behaved like a 4-H kid whose hog had just won the blue ribbon. Palmer plunked the next batter, Strawberry, in the buttocks, and that precipitated a brawl. "You guys are showing me up," Palmer screamed.
"The Kid got a little too enthusiastic with his high fives and curtain calls," said Met first baseman Keith Hernandez. Still, for the remainder of the season, the curtain calls continued, regardless of the score.
"The fans in New York pay our bills, and they stand and applaud until the guy comes out and takes a bow," says manager Johnson, whose often abrasive, know-it-all manner contributes mightily to his club's image. "It's humorous to me that we're perceived as some outlaw gang, because that couldn't be further from the truth. We're not arrogant guys. We've played very consistent baseball the last three years, and we're from New York. People feel they're smarter because they're from New York. That might be true, too."
Johnson believes that because of all the media in New York and the city's large population, New Yorkers are exposed to more ideas. Hence, they can't help but be smarter than other Americans. So, you see, we are not just dealing with the arrogance of a team, but with that of an entire city.
General manager Frank Cashen, whose Oriole teams won four American League pennants and two world championships between 1966 and '71, thinks his Mets are judged by a different standard because they play—and win—in the Big Apple. "I had very good teams in Baltimore that also played with dash and èlan and great confidence," says Cashen. "I saw those same traits in some Pittsburgh clubs and in the Cincinnati Reds. But when you take that approach to the game in New York, it's perceived as arrogance by the rest of the country."
Pitcher Darling agrees. "We did the same exact things in '84 and '85," he says. "High fives, a lot of standing O's from the crowd. No one cared when we finished second. It showed we were hungry. But as soon as we win 108 games and kick a lot of butt, everybody writes about the arrogant Mets."
"We're not a complacent, fat-cat team," says the Mets' 40-year-old public relations director, Jay Horwitz. "We happen to have a lot of exuberant players. Dykstra, Backman and Carter show their feelings. Carter plays hard, is accessible to the media whether we win or lose, and is popular with the fans. That's so terrible?"
Horwitz, who in the words of pitcher Bobby Ojeda "looks like Gene Wilder and acts like Mary Poppins," has a difficult job with the Mets. "I've been called arrogant, a goon, a nurse, a one-man KGB agency and, my favorite, a plastic Plexiglas shield for doing my job," Horwitz says. "But people have no conception of the number of media requests we get in New York. Before Game 7 of the Series we did 37 one-on-one television interviews." Horwitz is so good that the players, in a generous move, voted him half a share in their World Series booty—more than $43,000.
Two years ago, the Mets established a policy that no one could interview Dwight Gooden except after games in which he pitched. "We didn't want him hiding in bathrooms, turning into a hermit," says Johnson. Now that Gooden is 22 and makes $1.5 million, the policy has been relaxed. "He has to learn how to handle it," says Cashen.
The Mets also offer their players a course in the art of dealing with the media, taught by Andrea Kirby, a veteran sports broadcaster. The underlying message of all this is: You are a New York Met. You are special. This is a great organization for which to work. If you want to write a book someday (as Gooden, Strawberry, Johnson, Hernandez, Carter and Dykstra have in the past two years), tens of thousands of people will buy it. You are the magic, and the magic is back!
Fine. Until the off-season rolls around, and the players have to deal directly with the real world. It can be a long way down, and this winter was just that for the Mets.
In a series of incidents, the Mets took one public relations pummeling after another. In October, Gooden and his fiancèe, Carlene Pearson, called off their marriage. Shortly thereafter it became public that Gooden had an eight-month-old son, Dwight Jr., by another woman. On Jan. 30, Pearson was arrested and charged with criminal possession of stolen property and criminal possession of a weapon—a loaded handgun—at LaGuardia Airport, where she was meeting Gooden's flight. She pleaded guilty to attempted criminal possession of a weapon on Feb. 19, and is expected to be given five years' probation when she is sentenced this week.
On Dec. 13, Gooden was arrested in Tampa for assaulting police officers, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest with violence after being stopped for a routine traffic violation. Gooden pleaded no contest to two felony charges in January and was placed on three years' probation and ordered to perform 160 hours of community service. The Gooden arrest report subsequently cleared the arresting officers of racial motives in the incident. One of the officers, David Bryant, received a mild reprimand, a letter of counseling, for "intentional and inappropriate taunting" after he admitted shining a light in Gooden's eyes and saying, "Dwight Gooden, Action Sports, how are you doing?" Two others, Mark Townsend and Jim Thompson, were not disciplined for reportedly saying "break his arm" during the incident because, Tampa police officials maintained, the remarks came in the heat of the moment. Gooden, who has since complained of continuing police harrassment and has reportedly considered civil action against the department, is planning a permanent move to Long Island.
On Jan. 26, Darling and infielder Tim Teufel were each placed on a year's probation (which was set aside after one month) and fined $200 apiece after they pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest for scuffling with police last July outside a bar in Houston. Three days later, Strawberry's wife, Lisa, filed for a legal separation in Los Angeles. In the suit she accused him of breaking her nose, taking her credit cards and jewelry, hitting her with a brass picture frame and threatening to kill her during drunken tirades.
Not even Carter, the Mets' resident Boy Scout, emerged from the off-season unscathed. His name, along with those of several other prominent athletes, was linked to a firm called United Sciences of America, which has filed under Chapter 11 for bankruptcy protection and has been under investigation for fraudulently marketing its products.
"In New York you exist in a bigger camera," says Cashen. True, but then he goes on to make the dubious claim that "the sort of domestic problems Strawberry had would merit a paragraph in a notes column in another city, if that. In New York it's all over the tabloids."
Was it ever, 'DARRYL BEAT ME' and HE JOINS AMAZIN' HALL OF SHAME screamed the New York Post, which had heralded Gooden's domestic difficulties with 'I WANT MY DOC BACK!' MOM OF DWIGHT'S LOVE CHILD MAKES PITCH FOR HER MAN. Even the staid Times got in some licks, METS' MISSION FOR 1987: SHAPE UP was the headline on a Dave Anderson column in which he identified the once-lovable Mets as "baseball's most notorious team.... Instead of a starting rotation, the Mets now have a starting probation."
"People portray us as hoodlums," says Horwitz, who found some reporters blaming him for the Mets' off-season woes. "They said the way we handled Gooden was the reason he spent a night in jail. Because we sheltered Dwight and kept him away from the press. I resented that."
Still, those were a remarkable number of incidents to befall one team in a such a short period, and it's tempting to look for a common thread. The arrogance of a champion? The stupidity of youth? Or merely the predictable behavior of athletes who have never learned to say "no" or "I'm sorry" or "I'm wrong."
"I don't believe we're that pampered," says Ojeda. "We can still swim on our own. All that stuff this winter was somewhat like a shark attack. If there's one shark attack, all of a sudden they report every shark sighting. Now, that's all in the past. But we've learned from it, and, if anything, it has brought us even closer together."
That's bad news for the NL East, because the Mets were already the most closely knit team in baseball. It's weird. Most clubs talk about their pitching or speed or power. The Mets, who have all those things, just talk about their unity. "You cannot get cocky around here because if you do, there are five guys who will be all over your case," says Ojeda, a former Red Sox. "We don't have the cliques and backstabbing that other clubs have. This is a true team, the first actual team I've ever been on. There are no I-me situations."
And when one of the Mets steps out of line, as Strawberry did two weeks ago when Johnson fined him $1,500 for missing two straight practices, the players react as one. "We need Darryl," said Backman, "but we need him to get his act together."
"I have no sympathy for Darryl. He's a good kid and a future Hall of Famer," said outfielder Lee Mazzilli, "but he's gotta wake up and smell the coffee."
"Darryl has a responsibility to not only his employers but to his teammates," said Darling. "All of us would love to sleep till noon every day: But it's his job. He gets paid a lot of money. The least Darryl could do is show up."
Whether you dress the Mets in white hats or black hats, you have to dress them in the same colored hats. They thrive on the us-against-them mentality, and they could care less what anyone outside the team thinks of them. They are a collection of self-absorbed gamers who, for the most part, care about only one thing: winning. How is unimportant—just the totals, please. That they won the sixth game of the Series because Bob Stanley threw a ball to the screen and Bill Buckner couldn't pick up a roller was lost on the Mets almost immediately. They had won because they did what they had to do. They were special. They were the Mets.
Let's face it, baseball is lucky to have them. They elicit a reaction. They make us care. More than two million fans have seen them play on the road in each of the last two seasons. That's a lot of caring, most of it along the lines of: Care to wring Dykstra's neck? Strawberry's? Carter's?
If you're sick of them now, how are you going to feel next year if they repeat, which, of course, they think they will do? Don't talk to them about history, about the Royals and Tigers and Cards and Orioles and Phillies and all the other teams that faltered after winning the Series. "I don't like to be classified as one of the other teams," says Backman. "I like to be classified as the Mets. And we have the team to do it again." He's right, too, the cocky little bugger. Doesn't it just warm your soul to hear it?