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 11½ 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.
"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.