Before the season the New York Met TV ads showed an outfield wall being dented by liner after liner, an incendiary fastball scorching a catcher's mitt and a solemn promise in bold letters: HARDBALL IS BACK. But in the musical background of the ad was a George Thorogood tune that may have been subliminally prophetic: The Mets are indeed Bad to the Bone. Cast as the consensus favorite to win the National League East after trading for righthander Bret Saberhagen and signing free-agent sluggers Bobby Bonilla and Eddie Murray during the off-season, New York has been unhealthy and uninspired, inoffensive and inopportunistic. Hardball? Hardly.
The payoff for the Mets' $44.5 million payroll, the largest in baseball, through Sunday was a middling 51-59 record and fourth place in the standings, 11½ games behind the Pirates. While the Mets have been wobbling all season, a combination of body blows in one recent 48-hour stretch knocked them out completely. Outfielder Howard Johnson went on the disabled list on Aug. 2; he fractured his right wrist sliding into second a week earlier. Rightfielder Bonilla joined him on the shelf that same day when he busted a rib diving headlong for a foul pop. Then on Aug. 4, Saberhagen went on the DL, for the second time this season, with a recurrent inflammation of the tendon sheath in his right index finger caused by the way he grips his changeup. To top off the week, third baseman Dave Magadan, one of the few good hitters left in the lineup, broke his right wrist breaking up a double play against the Cubs on Saturday. "I'd like to say something profound," said New York pitcher David Cone of the quadruple whammy. "But I've run out of everything, even clichès."
All season, injuries have been rampant among the Mets. Righty Dwight Gooden (shoulder), outfielder Vince Coleman (hamstring and rib cage), shortstop Kevin Elster (shoulder) and relief ace John Franco (elbow) have all spent significant time on the mend. But New York's woes go beyond being banged up, and they can't be quickly fixed, either by a desperate deal (the Mets acquired outfielder Kevin Bass from the San Francisco Giants on Aug. 7 for a player to be named later) or by red ribbons (which Franco placed above each player's locker in June to dispel mal'occhio—the evil eye). Throughout 1992 the Mets have been about as vibrant as a New York City subway token clerk. Even Madison Avenue would be hard-pressed to pump up enthusiasm for the rest of the season, but a few alternative slogans are hereby suggested.
Please come back, even though we can't. Attendance at Shea Stadium has slumped to its lowest point in eight years, to 26,393 a game through 52 dates. Met MIAs are only part of the reason. The New York offense has generated little scoring and still less excitement. "Even when we were healthy, we didn't play as well as I thought we would," says manager Jeff Torborg, in his first year with the Mets. "We haven't gotten the big hit."
Or many hits at all. As of Sunday, New York was last in the league in both batting (.234) and slugging (.334). It had been shut out 14 times and had rallied to win in a measly 11 games. Only five times had Murray, Johnson and Bonilla, the heart of the order, each driven in a run in the same game. At one point in a 3-2 loss at Pittsburgh on Aug. 4, pitcher Sid Fernandez's batting average (.229) was higher than that of six other Mets in the lineup.
Nor does New York have the alacrity to manufacture runs. "Power comes in bunches," says hitting coach Tommy McCraw, "but speed comes to the ballpark every day." Coleman, the Mets' best speed threat, does come to the park every day, but often it's for rehab; in two seasons in New York he has made five trips to the DL and has played just 111 games. And occasionally, his fleetness is fleeting. In an Aug. 1 game against the Cubs, Sammy Sosa stole second and scored when Coleman loafed after catcher Mackey Sasser threw the ball into centerfield.
Look at me, could I be, centerfield? Despite failing to convert second basemen Juan Samuel and Keith Miller into centerfielders in recent years, the Mets arrogantly persisted, shifting Johnson there before this season—Johnson had played third for most of his career. "We have a tendency to think we can switch a guy to another position in six weeks," McCraw says. "This isn't Little League; it's the major leagues."
Johnson valiantly folded in center, bungling routine plays, and was shifted to left just before his injury. And the energy he had expended learning his new role also took its toll at the plate. After leading the league with 38 home runs and 117 RBIs in 1991, HoJo has hit .223 with seven homers and 43 RBIs in 100 games. He was even replaced in center on July 10 by call-up Pat Howell, who had batted a mere .251 at Triple A Tidewater. While Juan, Keith and HoJo will never be rhapsodized about like erstwhile New Yorkers Willie, Mickey and the Duke, Johnson measured himself by the company he was keeping. "Of all the guys the team experimented with in center," he says, "I thought I was the best."
THE MET MAGIC: 86ED. The Mets' former status as New York's darlings—for winning the 1986 World Series from the Boston Red Sox—was evoked again last week by one absurd piece of paper: the $93,500 check that actor Charlie Sheen wrote recently to purchase the ball Mookie Wilson hit between Bill Buckner's legs to win Game 6 of that Series.
But controversy, not consecration, has attached itself to the 1992 Mets, and the 29-year-old Cone has been in the eye of almost every storm. He was questioned in Florida in March by detectives who were investigating a woman's allegations that three other Mets raped her in '91; no charges were brought. Later that month he was sued by three women who accused him of sexual harassment. One incident of harassment allegedly took place in the Shea bullpen in '89. The suit is still pending. He was also point man for a week-long media boycott at spring training when the players felt assailed by the press because of the rape case.
But Cone has been king on the hill. Through last weekend he was 13-5 with a 2.75 ERA, and his 200 K's had him on course for a third straight league strikeout crown. The last National Leaguer to accomplish that was Warren Spahn of the Braves, from 1949 to '51. Over his past seven starts Cone has averaged 133 pitches an outing, including a 166-pitch, 1-0 win over the Giants. "My only recourse to all of this adversity was what I could do on the field," Cone says. "It's the only thing I could grab on to. Coming to the ballpark, in between the lines, was like a haven. Nobody could touch me, nobody could take away what I did on the mound."
Come hell or tidewater. New York has used the DL a club-record 16 times already, and the incoming Tides from Triple A have done little to help wash away the Mets' mess. The products of the franchise's once rich farm system, which has been depleted through trades in recent years, have batted a collective 197.
Quest for fire. The Mets lack strong personalities, and it is reflected in their play. "This group we have is a pretty quiet group," says general manager Al Harazin. "Anyone who says we made it that way by design, that's baloney." But some former New York players have perceived a vanillafication of their old team over the years. "There's no question they've gotten rid of a certain kind of ballplayer—the hard-nosed guy who would do anything to beat you," says Philadelphia Phillie infielder Wally Backman, who last played for the Mets in 1988. "Now they're a bunch of easygoing, laid-back guys. I'm not saying they destroyed the ability, but the chemistry is gone. I don't think management set out to do that, but they didn't take chemistry into account. And I know that didn't sit well with a lot of players over there."
We've fallen from favor, and we can't get up. There is no team in professional sports under a more powerful microscope than the Mets, and when they struggle, that scrutiny can be dispiriting. "Nobody can last very long in New York," says ex-New York pitcher Ron Darling, now with the A's. "The media wears players down. The pressure is so constant." New York games are telecast on superstation WWOR. The traveling media crew comprises seven beat writers and a reporter from WFAN, the team's flagship station and the granddaddy of all-sports radio. Magadan describes WFAN as "a station that's on 24 hours that basically picks us apart. You can get in from a road trip at four o'clock in the morning and turn it on, and that's what you'll hear."
Bonilla, a New York native, came under fire quickly. At the suggestion of McCraw—"I did it a thousand times," he says—Bonilla wore earplugs during one game to deafen the fans' booing of him at Shea, and he found a photo of his plugged car in a tabloid the next day. After committing an error in another game, Bonilla phoned the press box from the dugout to beef that the scoreboard flashed the error sign too long. He was caught dissembling about it later. Suddenly, Bonilla, who came to the Mets after six seasons in Pittsburgh with a reputation for amiability, was public enemy No. 1. Costing $29 million over five years, he has numbers (.260, 12 homers, 54 RBIs) that are neither awesome nor rotten, but he has had to retreat from a media he no doubt assumed he could handle. "He's been the focal point for the press and the fans," Harazin says. "Whatever he does, it's hard for him to satisfy his critics."
Bland is beautiful. Torborg has gotten heat for spilling certain information on his own WFAN radio show—about moving Johnson to left, about Franco's elbow—before he has shared it with the players. The result has been a toned-down Torborg (or should we say Torpor) Report, except for last week when he got into a heated exchange over strategy with the show's cohost, Chris (Mad Dog) Russo. "The New York media has changed Bonilla, Cone and Torborg, and I don't blame any of them for changing," says Steve Levy, the WFAN reporter who travels with the Mets. "All three were extremely open at first, and they were burned by the media. Once you get burned in New York, it's a blaze."
The Mets' once promising season continued to go up in smoke last week in Chicago. In a 9-1 debacle on Friday, the fourth of six straight losses by week's end, the Cubs scored seven runs in the fourth thanks to three errors, including a heave home from shallow right by second baseman Bill Pecota that traveled as far as a touchdown spike. Steve Stone, color commentator for Chicago's WGN, told his viewers, "You just saw the worst relay throw in history."
After the game Torborg mashed his hand on a clubhouse door. "We've had a lot of games where it's not very pretty, but that inning...nothing as ugly as that," he said as he iced his injury.
Even the Mets' most fabled slogan—Tug McGraw's YOU GOTTA BELIEVE! of 1973—has little echo now. Says outfielder Daryl Boston, "We feel like the losing is going to end. But it just doesn't."