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The Amazin' Collapse Of the Mets

Dec. 20, 1993
Dec. 20, 1993

Table of Contents
Dec. 20, 1993

Table of Contents
Sportsman Of The Year
Duke-Michigan
Chiefs-Broncos
Rodeo
Dallas Stars
Dallas Mavericks
NCAA Football Championships
New York Mets
Point After

The Amazin' Collapse Of the Mets

The team's fall from perennial contender to laughingstock is a testament to the destructive power of mismanagement

It was 1988, one of those years of imperfect glory for the New York Mets, before the upper deck of Shea Stadium was closed for lack of interest and before any of the team's players were slapped with felony charges. Deep into the chilly night of Oct. 9, Dwight Gooden stood on the mound with the baseball in his hands and a two-run ninth-inning lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Three outs and the Mets would lead the National League Championship Series three games to one.

This is an article from the Dec. 20, 1993 issue

"It's in the bag," thought Met senior vice-president Al Harazin. Gooden had permitted the Dodgers only three hits—all singles, none of them after the fourth inning. "Doc's going to win his first post-season game."

Gooden quickly had an 0-and-2 count on John Shelby, the easiest hitter in the league to strike out. Yes, the Mets were nearly a lock to play the Oakland Athletics in a titanic World Series, the first matchup of 100-win teams in 18 years. Except something began to go wrong. Gooden walked Shelby in what turned into an eight-pitch at bat. He seemed to labor on the last two deliveries, fastballs high and away. He had thrown 125 pitches.

Reserve in fielder Dave Magadan squirmed in the Met dugout and thought, "Scioscia's up, Myers is in the bullpen.... Please put him in the game." But the lefthanded Randy Myers was not ready to face the lefthanded Mike Scioscia. Myers wasn't even warming. No one was.

"He's still in control," manager Davey Johnson thought about Gooden. "If I bring in Myers, they'll pinch-hit Rick Dempsey anyway. He's more of a home run threat than Scioscia."

Scioscia had hit three home runs all year, only one since June. Met catcher Gary Carter, knowing Scioscia liked to take a pitch or two with a runner on first, flashed his index linger to Gooden. After walking Shelby, the pitcher knew exactly what was needed: just a good get-ahead fastball squarely over the plate. It was 11:02 p.m. when Gooden threw the pitch. It arrived slightly above belt high. It would have been strike one, absolutely.

But then Scioscia swung.

There is a line of demarcation that runs roughly along the crest of the Rocky Mountains through North America. Water on one side of the line flows toward the Pacific. On the other it flows in the opposite direction. The moment Scioscia hit that two-run home run, the Mets had reached their Continental Divide. "If we had won that game, we would have won that series," says Joe McIlvaine, then the Met vice-president of baseball operations and now an executive vice-president with the team. "There's no doubt in my mind. It was a flash point."

The Mets lost that night in 12 innings and again the next afternoon. They lost the series in seven games, and they have not played another postseason game since. The course of the franchise's fortunes began flowing the wrong way, first in a trickle and then in a rush.

Two second-place finishes followed, though those turbulent years were more corrosive than anyone knew. It was the end to the dynasty that never was. The Mets were one of eight teams ever to finish first or second for seven consecutive seasons, but the only one of that group to not emerge from such a run with more than one pennant. Then came three losing seasons, each worse than the last. No team in baseball has been worse over those past three years, especially the most recent, a 103-loss horror in which the Mets, with conduct even more odious than their play, were reduced to being pathetic objects of late-night television humor. Baseball's Buttafuoco.

So offensive was the 1993 team that on Aug. 26 an angered and pained Fred Wilpon met with his players for the first time in his 14 years of what had been his laissez-faire co-ownership with Nelson Doubleday. He scolded them for embarrassing the franchise and the city in which he had grown up. "You should feel privileged to be able to play baseball in New York," he told them. "If you don't feel that way and you want out, let us know. We'll get you the hell out of here."

Then came the landmark moment of the descent. Wilpon marched to a podium at a news conference and fired one of his players on the spot, essentially for acting like a jerk for the better part of three years. Wilpon simply blurted out that outfielder Vince Coleman, who had come to represent all that was wrong with the team, would never wear a Met uniform again. The club still owed Coleman a 1994 salary of $3 million, but Wilpon would worry about that later.

"Businesswise," he says, "it wasn't a very smart thing to say. I didn't plan on saying it. Certainly I knew it in my mind. But, yes, I reached a point where I had to say enough is enough."

In the past three years three teams have gone from worst to first in successive seasons. Another, Oakland, took the reverse route last year. "A lot has changed since 1988," Wilpon says. "It's a much more volatile business now." The crash of the Mets, though, took on historic proportions. They became only the fourth team in history to lose 100 games within five seasons of winning 100. But unlike Oakland last season, the Mets collapsed without the excuse of fiscal restraint. They are a monument not so much to the vagaries of modern baseball but more to the destructive forces of mismanagement.

The most ruinous of their mistakes took three basic forms: miscalculation or outright ignorance of the intangibles winning players need, particularly in New York; quick-fix trades that recklessly disregarded long-term effects; and the disastrous breakup of what was supposed to be a seamless passing of the front-office command from chief operating officer and general manager Frank Cashen to his lieutenants, McIlvaine and Harazin. Wilpon is positively penitential in acknowledging all three elements. "Not enough emphasis was placed on the mix of people and the chemistry that are essential to winning," Wilpon says. "It was almost like Rotisserie baseball."

Less than two months after winning the 1986 World Series, the Mets traded outfielder Kevin Mitchell, who finished third in the Rookie of the Year balloting, to the San Diego Padres in a deal for outfielder Kevin McReynolds. It established the pattern for a series of errors in which the Mets progressively spoiled the chemistry of the team. Too often they overlooked players' mental toughness, approach to the game and suitability to the pressures in New York.

Mitchell was a kid from the San Diego ghetto who liked to tell stories of various escapades involving bullets and knives that had scarred his flesh. "Some people here thought Mitchell was a time bomb ready to explode," one Met official says. Well, there was something of a detonation in 1989. Mitchell hit 47 home runs that year, won the Most Valuable Player award and led the San Francisco Giants to the pennant.

McIlvaine had coveted McReynolds since he scouted him as a collegian at Arkansas. But McReynolds's skills and production diminished annually after 1988. He never lost a step, though, in his haste to leave the clubhouse after games. McReynolds was more interested in beating traffic than in sharing with his team-mates the joy of big victories or the crush of difficult defeats. So miscast was McReynolds in New York that he once said of its fans, "It's almost like people are miserable, and they want to bring you down to their level."

"Yes, I am disappointed with how McReynolds turned out," McIlvaine says. "He should have been a superstar. I can't tell you in all my years of scouting if I ever saw a player with tools like that. He didn't use that talent as much as he should have. Darryl Strawberry was the same way. They've both been good players. But they should have been excellent. They had Hall of Fame tools."

The Mets were wrong so many times about the makeup of their players that by 1992 they had a paranoid, distracted club. They put the likes of first baseman Eddie Murray and Coleman in the same clubhouse, where people like outfielder Bobby Bonilla and pitcher Bret Saberhagen quickly caught their contagious contempt for the media. "If there is one place in the entire world where that attitude can't work, it's New York City," Wilpon says. "It's the media capital of the world."

The Mets signed free agent Bonilla after the 1991 season. They invested $29 million in him to be their cornerstone player when baseball insiders knew he was nothing more than a good, complementary player given to self-absorption. Once, while with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Bonilla was batting in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game when the winning run scored on a wild pitch. Despite the victory Bonilla was angry that he had lost a chance to pad his RBI total. "Why does it always happen to me?" he said.

New York has exposed the worst in him. He has threatened a reporter, worn earplugs at home games, called the press box with his team down 7-0 to complain about the scoreboard display of an error call against him, and whined so much that the New York Daily News ran a cartoon of Baby Bo in diapers on its back page. On top of all that, he has batted .257—26 points lower than his lifetime average before going to New York. Last season his agent, Dennis Gilbert, wondered aloud to Harazin if maybe both the Mets and Bonilla might be better off if they traded him. Bonilla was not the leader or impact player the Mets had paid for.

"I think there are very few people in the game you can ask to do that," Harazin says. "Against the backdrop of success the Mets had for so many years, asking him to come in and do that was probably asking too much."

So sensitive was his rightfielder that former manager Jeff Torborg feared Bonilla would only be a worse wreck if he dared criticize him. "I tried to protect him as much as I could," Torborg says, "to the point where I got myself in trouble." Both Bonilla and Torborg were caught in lies trying to cover up the 1992 press box phone call.

It was Harazin who negotiated the free-agent contracts of Bonilla, Coleman and Murray, prompting former Met pitcher Frank Viola to say in retrospect, "Money doesn't make a winning team. Al knows money, but he doesn't know baseball."

In three seasons Coleman missed more than half the team's games, cursed out a coach, was suspended for shoving his manager, caused Gooden to miss a start when he accidentally whacked him with a golf club, was a target of a rape investigation (no charges were brought), prepared for games by throwing dice in the clubhouse and, on July 24 this year, threw an M-100 firecracker out of a car window as he was leaving Dodger Stadium with some other players. The explosion injured three people, including a two-year-old girl who suffered corneal damage. Coleman originally was charged with a felony; in November his attorney negotiated a plea bargain in which Coleman pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of possession of an explosive device.

"Vince Coleman was a total mistake by this organization," says Wilpon.

Murray produced admirable statistics for the Mets, but his hatred for the media poisoned the clubhouse. Although he was on his way to batting .285 with 27 home runs and 100 RBIs last season, and though the Mets would gladly and easily have parted with him, his venomous attitude had become so notorious that not a single team called to express interest in acquiring his bat down the stretch.

"Guys like Vince and Eddie copped this attitude that reporters were there only to screw up the team," says Magadan, who now plays for the Florida Marlins. "I don't think there's any question that their attitudes affected the clubhouse. I mean, I realize reporters have a job to do, but believe me, you notice when you're talking to reporters and Eddie Murray walks by and says, 'Why are you talking to them?' Some guys would say, "I don't want Eddie getting on me,' and they'd change their opinions about the press."

Saberhagen, with no previous evidence of such behavior, became a boor. On July 7 he tossed a lighted firecracker near reporters, and later he brashly admitted doing it, saying, "What are they going to do? Fine me?" Just three days after Coleman exploded his M-100 in Los Angeles, Saberhagen squirted bleach at reporters.

The Mets were wrong about their choice of managers, too. After Davey Johnson was fired 42 games into the 1990 season, his seventh with the club, neither of his successors, Bud Harrelson or Torborg, made it through two seasons. Harrelson lost respect in the clubhouse when he quit his radio show because he thought the questions were too pointed and when he admitted sending coach Mel Stottlemyre to make a pitching change out of fear of being booed.

"That has an effect on the team," Magadan says. "The thing that hurt Buddy was when he showed vulnerability. Jeff wanted to control the media. We had so many meetings with Torborg and Buddy that were about the press, especially with Torborg. Those were just about the only team meetings we ever had with him."

At one meeting Torborg tried so hard to convince his players that they should not be distracted by the media that pitcher Pete Schourek finally piped up, "If we're not supposed to be worried about the media, why are we having all these meetings about the media?" Torborg was so preoccupied with covering up the slightest controversies that pitcher David Cone called him Oliver North.

"Jeff was put into a situation so different from Chicago," Harazin says, referring to Torborg's three years as manager of the White Sox, including a 94-68 season in 1990. "He had a young, scrappy club with a college-style eagerness to succeed that suited him. I put him in a very different situation here. I didn't give as much thought to that as I should have."

When the Mets traded him to Toronto, on Aug. 27, 1992, Cone called it "the end of the arrogant Mets. The end of the mid-'80s, flourishing Mets." When Cone was asked that day if he knew how that end came about, he replied, "Well, yeah, the heart and soul was bred out of it. Numbers and production have taken a front seat while what a guy's intangibles are, what personality he brings to the Mets, is left on the backseat. You need people who are fixtures, with personality and guts. When things are down, those are the type of guys who fight back."

There is no more damning statistic of how soft the Mets turned than this: They have a losing record in one-run games every year after 1988. They have been bullies in games decided by three or more runs in that time, with a .539 percentage in such games (215-184). In one- and two-run games, though, they have played .417 baseball (171-239). Trying to explain the disparity, Cone once attributed it to the Mets' "tight booty."

Of the 23 players to appear in the 1988 National League Championship Series for the Mets, 10 were gone by the end of the next year. Today only one of them is left: Gooden.

Cashen and Johnson now admit they acted rashly in trying to fuel the Mets' run at the top of the National League East and fulfill the pervasive and enormous expectations. "We traded so many good young players to try to keep the thing going," Cashen says. "We got caught up in it. I probably should have been more forceful in not letting that happen. I should have stopped a couple of trades." It is the temporary-insanity defense. Says Johnson, "Nobody was willing to take a step back and say, 'Wait a minute. What are we doing? Let's not panic.' We lost sight of what got us there."

Within a 44-day span of the 1989 season, the Mets traded centerfielders Lenny Dykstra and Mookie Wilson plus pitchers Rick Aguilera, Roger McDowell, Kevin Tapani and David West for three players who, as it turned out, would be gone from the club in little more than two years.

Late on the night of June 17, 1989, as the Mets rode their team bus back to their hotel alter a game in Philadelphia, McIlvaine whispered to Johnson that he had a chance to obtain outfielder Juan Samuel from the Phillies for Dykstra and McDowell. "Think about it," McIlvaine told him. The manager shot back, "I don't have to think about it. I want you to make it if you can. It's that simple."

Why would Johnson be so eager to move the 26-year-old Dykstra? Because Johnson was no longer concerned about developing players. He had become a different manager ever since Cashen nearly fired him after the 1987 season—the two had clashed over personnel moves—even though the Mets won 92 games while their pitchers spent a combined 457 days on the disabled list.

"I thought I had a hell of a year managing," Johnson says of that second-place finish. "And then I had that problem with Frank. That told me they had taken the attitude, 'We have to win every year. We're great.' Now I'm thinking, Jeez, no matter what I've done before, that don't mean diddly-squat. So any time a trade came along that could make the ball club better immediately, I was for it. I could be gone at any moment.

"Sometimes you've got to take a step back to go forward," Johnson says. "The plan had been to eventually trade Mookie and give the job to Lenny. He'd struggle for a while, and the team wouldn't be as good without Mookie, but we'd be better off down the road. We stopped worrying about that. I'm as guilty as anybody."

McIlvaine made the trade the day after running it past Johnson and after Cashen—much to his subsequent regret—endorsed it. There was one unmentioned element that clinched the deal. Samuel was Latin. "We were desperate to have a Latin on the team," says one Met official, "especially with the great Latin American population in the city. We thought New York would love him."

Problem was, Samuel hated New York and was even less comfortable in center-field. Since trading Dykstra and then Wilson (for Jeff Musselman) six weeks later, the Mets have auditioned 17 players in centerfield, and none has held the job for a full season.

By July 31, 1989, the Mets were seven games out. They panicked again. McIlvaine traded Aguilera, Tapani, West and two lesser pitching prospects to the Minnesota Twins for Viola. Again Cashen would come to regret his endorsement.

With McIlvaine as director of scouting in the early '80s, the Mets built the foundation for their winning teams from a superlative farm system. A snapshot of their minor league system at the start of the '83 season included Aguilera, Dykstra, Gooden, Magadan, McDowell, Mitchell, Myers, Strawberry, Mark Carreon, Ron Darling, Tim Leary, Randy Milligan, Greg Olson, Calvin Schiraldi, Walt Terrell and other future big leaguers. Since the time Scioscia hit that home run off Gooden (and as McIlvaine had become more involved on the major league level), the Mets have not had a single player in their system who has 100 hits in a big league season and only one pitcher who has won as many as 10 games in a given year. That pitcher, Tapani, has done so four times—for Minnesota.

"I didn't want to give up Aguilera," McIlvaine says. "He was just getting comfortable closing games. West had a good arm, but I knew he didn't have what it takes inside. Tapani is the one who surprised me. I thought he was a five-inning starting pitcher who couldn't go two days in a row if you put him in the bullpen."

The Mets' farm system was drying up, and here was McIlvaine squandering what little was left. "This one," he said at the time, "could backfire right in my face if Viola doesn't perform up to expectations." The Mets made up just one game on the first-place Cubs after the trade, with Viola going 5-5. He spent two more years in New York—going 38-32 overall, including a combined 13-20 in August, September and October—before leaving as a free agent. "That's the kind of thinking," Wilpon says of the shortsighted trade, "that doesn't work out. Frank never worked out, to put us over the top."

Viola was tormented by the carousel of grotesque fielders the Mets annually put on display. "I'm not surprised to see what's happened to the Mets," says Viola, who bolted after the 1991 season to sign with the Boston Red Sox. "I saw it coming. What happened is they had too many people out of position. And I mean starting from the front office on down."

Gregg Jefferies, a hitting phenom who was touted by McIlvaine as a future batting champ, came up in 1988 as a third baseman, moved to second base and then back to third—he displayed not a bit of elegance at cither position—before the Mets moved him one last time: to Kansas City, following the '91 season. Howard Johnson began 1990 at third base, '91 at shortstop and '92 in centerfield. During those three seasons the Mets' Opening Day lineup featured different players at six positions every year. "The Mets have always been an offensive-minded club," says Dallas Green, who last season became the Mets' fifth manager in three years. "I could never understand why they ignored defense, with all the good pitching they had. It's a mistake we're not going to continue to make."

Midway through the 1989 season McIlvaine and Harazin were telling Cashen that he had to fire Davey Johnson. "The team is getting away from him," McIlvaine said. Johnson knew it was a stressful, transitional year. The co-captains, Carter and first baseman Keith Hernandez, repeatedly broke down physically in what would be their last season with the club. Gooden, the emotional cornerstone of the franchise, tore a muscle in his throwing shoulder. Cashen chose to bring back Johnson to start the '90 season, and McIlvaine continued trading. He sent Myers to Cincinnati for John Franco because he feared Myers was weightlifting himself out of baseball. Myers has since won an NLCS Most Valuable Player award and set the league save record for a single season. Franco has been hurt or ineffective much of the past three seasons.

Less than two months into the season Cashen agreed that Johnson had to go. Initially the Mets responded to Johnson's successor, Harrelson, and on Sept. 3, 1990, they were in first place, one-half game ahead of the Pirates. They lost their next five games, though, including three crucial games in Pittsburgh. In the third game of that series, on the recommendation of McIlvaine, Harrelson started Julio Valera, a 21-year-old righthander with one career start in the big leagues, rather than the veteran Darling. Valera allowed five runs while getting only six outs in a 7-1 defeat. Except during the first three weeks of a season, the Mets have not been back in first place since.

After the 1988 season Wilpon and Doubleday wanted Cashen to begin a transition into a consultant's role, allowing McIlvaine to assume full control of the baseball operations and Harazin the business side. "We wanted it to be a gradual process," Wilpon says. But two years later Cashen was still the ultimate authority in the organization, with no official change imminent, though McIlvaine and Harazin were doing much more of the spadework. While Cashen grew comfortable running the club in a patriarchal manner, the owners were content to stretch out the front-office transition another year. Finally, when the Padres asked McIlvaine in September 1990 to be their G.M., he figured, "If I'm going to do all the work, I might as well get all the blame or credit, and make the decision myself." So on Oct. 2, 1990, McIlvaine signed a five-year contract to be general manager of the Padres. His departure was provoked in part by the razzing his nine-year-old son, Timmy, took in school. "Your dad traded Lenny Dykstra," kids would say—and worse.

"All of a sudden, the plan of succession was no plan at all," Wilpon says. "We were stunned when Joe left."

No one was more stunned than Cashen, who was 65 and having a house built in Florida to accommodate a more leisurely life. Suddenly he had to run the team again on a full-time basis. He had neither the energy nor the interest for it.

Cashen was a self-proclaimed "dinosaur" who was growing increasingly bitter about the explosion in players' salaries. "I admit," he says. "I look at the money being spent as if it were mine." He had built winning teams in Baltimore and New York, but now the business and its players were changing, and Cashen was not. One month after McIlvaine left, Strawberry left too—in part because of Cashen.

In midsummer of '90, just when the Mets and Strawberry—a moody outfielder prone to lapse into stretches of indifferent play—were rolling, Cashen had scoffed in a television interview that Strawberry, a potential free agent, wasn't worth the money Oakland slugger Jose Canseco was getting. The tone and timing of the comments were inappropriate, especially with a player like Strawberry, who never seemed to be sure what he wanted. McIlvaine, who played minor league ball and studied at a seminary, had a better touch with players. But contrary to the owners' plan, this still was Cashen's team.

"At that point Darryl was leaning toward staying with us," McIlvaine would say later. "But after that it all changed. Darryl just wants to be loved. When Frank said what he said, Darryl felt his friends had deserted him. That did it. That was the end of it, I think."

It was in September, with the Mets trailing Pittsburgh by three games with six to play, that Cashen finally decided he wanted him gone. Strawberry had said his back was too sore to play, and he watched the Mets lose two of their next three games and be eliminated. He never played again for them. "That," Cashen says, "was the last straw. Here was a guy who didn't want to play with the season on the line. Darryl had had great Septembers for us before. But I think he lost some of his hunger for winning."

Strawberry decided to sign a five-year, $20.25 million contract with the Dodgers in November '90. "We'll be a better team without him," Cashen promised, obviously unprepared for the team's 208-277 free-fall since then. Cashen was relieved to be rid of Strawberry, who seemed to launch as many controversies as home runs (he holds the franchise record, 252).

For 10 years Cashen had disdained the free-agent game, insulated by that rich farm system. He quickly changed that posture after his best player and best baseball mind left him in the space of five weeks in 1990. At the urging of Harrelson and Harazin, he signed Coleman to a four-year, $11.95 million contract. It was an act of desperation that accelerated the decline of the Mets as much as any single move.

By the end of the 1991 season Cashen finally agreed to step aside. Against their better judgment, Wilpon and Doubleday turned the entire operation over to Harazin, a bookish former management labor lawyer who admitted to never once having owned a pair of blue jeans. More important, as Wilpon knew, Harazin's baseball knowledge was dangerously shallow.

"Al was running both sides of the business," Wilpon says. "I think that was a mistake. The days of one general manager doing everything are over. Nelson and I knew it then. But we liked Al and decided to give it a shot. It was a costly shot for us."

The Mets' problems deepened. Last June, Wilpon realized that putting Harazin at the helm of the entire organization had been a mistake, just as his gut had forewarned him. He was entertaining Doubleday, his neighbor, at his Long Island home one day when the two men resolved to take action. "We have to go back to our plan," Wilpon said of their old intention to separate the baseball and business operations of the club. Doubleday agreed. Harazin, though, wasn't so amenable. He quit rather than be confined to running the business operations, a job that was filled last month by Jack Diller, who had been dismissed from a similar role with New York's NBA Knicks and NHL Rangers.

McIlvaine was rehired by the Mets to run the baseball operations on July 8, alter having left the Padres four weeks earlier in a dispute over a directive from the San Diego owners to trade the club's high-salaried players. The Mets considered no one else for the job. It was a curious choice, given McIlvaine's checkered trading record in his first tour in New York. Wilpon, though, believed McIlvaine's expertise at evaluating young talent was what the Mets needed most as they started rebuilding. McIlvaine has already allowed oft-injured pitcher Sid Fernandez, Howard Johnson and Murray to leave as free agents, while considering trades involving Bonilla and Saberhagen that will bring the Mets some prospects.

This October, McIlvaine sat behind the backstop at Veterans Stadium and watched Dykstra star in the World Series, another obvious reminder of his and the franchise's failings. Yes, Scioscia had kept the Mets out of the World Series in 1988. But since then Aguilera, Cone, Dykstra, Mitchell, Myers, Tapani and West had helped their teams get there. Of course, none of those teams was the Mets.

"Come here, let me show you something," Wilpon says. He rises from a chair in the Fifth Avenue office of his real estate company and walks across the room to a white rectangular box that is so large it is resting across four chairs. There is a great sense of purpose in his walk now. He is finished watching others run his baseball team. McIlvaine and Oilier will report directly to him. The Mets won't embarrass him again the way they did in 1993.

"It was," he says, "one of the most painful years of my life. The business community and the private community, with all of the charity work we do, know that Nelson and I are at the top. To see what happened with this team was very, very painful. That's why I tell you this is a whole new thing we're starting."

Wilpon wants former Mets such as Tom Seaver, Mookie Wilson, Lee Mazzilli and Rafael Santana to come work for the organization. He wants "the greatest community outreach program" in sports. He wants grand entranceways and redesigned fan services at what has been a tacky Shea Stadium. He wants updated, cheery uniforms for the ushers. He has ordered intensive customer-relations training for all of the organization's business managers, including himself. He has talked with the Disney people, Universal Studio executives and other resort managers to learn how to attract and treat customers.

"Go to any of my buildings right now," he says. "I guarantee you, you won't find a piece of paper on the floor."

Wilpon pulls away the lid from the large white box. It is an architectural model of a sprawling entertainment complex. The centerpiece is a grass-surface stadium with a retractable dome, to be built within five years near the current Shea Stadium site and financed by state and city bonds. The stadium is surrounded by several pointed pavilions that resemble huge tents. Wilpon explains they are state-of-the-art exhibit halls that he intends to be the permanent home of the World's Fair. That portion of the complex will be privately funded.

Wilpon opens and closes the little retractable dome, which splits open at the center like dual sliding doors. It is a perfectly happy and orderly place. The little plastic trees are always full and green. There is never any traffic on the access roads. It is kept immaculately clean. This is the world Fred Wilpon wants for the Mets. He wants the litter of a live-year decline swept up. He wants not a single piece of paper on the floor.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONGENE GREIFDisgusted by his club's demise, Wilpon will oversee its reconstruction.PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONGENE GREIFThe sins of the front office were a burden for a string of Met managers.PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONGENE GREIFMore emphasis should have been placed on the team's chemistry.PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONGENE GREIFNew York brought out the worst in Baby Bo.PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONGENE GREIFA contagious contempt for the media rubbed off on Saberhagen.PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONGENE GREIFNow McIlvaine gets a second chance to piece together the Mets.