Darkness gone for the former Dark Knight?

2020-06-07 MattHarveySI

Little did Tom Verducci know that when he pegged Matt Harvey as the Dark Knight that another kind of darkness would compromise Harvey’s once-promising career.

Ten 7 Junes ago, the Kansas City Royals with the number four pick elected to draft a Cal State-Fullerton shortstop named Christian Colon instead of a University of North Carolina pitcher named Matt Harvey—because they thought they had enough pitching.* The New York Mets in the same draft picked two pitchers: Harvey, with the number eight pick overall, and a Stetson University kid named Jacob deGrom.

Five years after that draft, Harvey bulldozed his manager Terry Collins into letting him try to finish a World Series Game Five shutout that would have sent the set to a sixth game back in Kansas City.

“Would I take back getting to the World Series with those guys and the city of New York?” Harvey asks now, before answering.   “There’s not a chance. I believe things happen the way they are supposed to. I got hurt and maybe I would have anyway. Getting to the World Series was worth it.”

Then Collins had to lift his gassed Dark Knight after a leadoff walk and an RBI double and bring in his closer Jeurys Familia, who already had a sick-looking Series resume thanks to those Mets’ porous infield gloves. Unfortunately, you can’t give the blown save to the defense under the save rule.

Two groundouts, then a terrible throw home to complete what should have been a simple game-ending double play, and Game Five went to extra innings. Where Colon, pinch hitting for Royals reliever Luke Hochebar, broke the two-all tie in the top of the twelfth, opening a five-run inning that won the Series for the Royals after the Mets couldn’t get a single baserunner past second in the bottom of the frame.

Today, deGrom—who waited until the ninth round before the Mets took him, too, ten years ago—is the National League’s back-to-back defending Cy Young Award winner. Arguably, he’s also the best pitcher in the game right this moment, among those not named Max Scherzer or Gerrit Cole.

Harvey, whom the Mets traded to the Cincinnati Reds in 2018, who signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Angels for 2019, who was released after that experiment tanked, and who gave it another try in the Oakland Athletics system the rest of the season, now looks for a job. In the Korean Baseball Organisation.

MLB’s tug-of-war between the owners and the players over the financials in getting a coronavirus-delayed 2020 season in at all probably meant it was a very long shot for Harvey to catch on with another major league organisation for now. He doesn’t mind taking his chances otherwise.

“It’s been an interesting ride, a roller coaster,” Harvey tells the New York Post. “With where I am now, physically and how I’m feeling, I hope I get another shot.” Calling it “an interesting ride” may be an understatement. Which is saying something about a pitcher you could call many things other than understated.

“As soon as he signed, he came to New York. I saw this big, good-looking kid standing in our bullpen with a black suit, white shirt, very thin tie — very GQ-ish, as he always was,” the Mets’ then-pitching coach Dan Warthen tells the Post. “His hair was always perfect. Then you see the ball coming out of his hand and you say, ‘Oh, it won’t be long until he’s playing baseball up here.’ And he was cocky, oh Lord. He said, ‘Hey, I’ll be ready to pitch for you next year’.”

Harvey premiered for the Mets in late July 2012, against the Arizona Diamondbacks.  He struck out ten in five and two-thirds innings while walking three and scattering three hits. “All of the reports I read,” says then-Mets manager Terry Collins, “didn’t talk about a 98 mph fastball. It was ’94-95, pretty good slider, working on changeup.’ All of a sudden, this guy is throwing 97-99 with a 92-mph slider. I said, ‘Holy cow!’ We were shocked by what we saw.”

“When he burst on the scene with a fury, it was fun, man,” then-Mets pitcher Dillon Gee—whose own career was sapped by injuries until he retired last year—tells the Post. “You had heard about him coming up. When he got here, he was like on a different level. You could tell he was a special talent.”

By the following season, Harvey was practically the talk of the town in New York baseball. When he ended June 2013 with a 2.00 ERA, Met fans has already begun greeting his starts with “Happy Harvey Day!” Harvey started that year’s All-Star Game—which was played in Citi Field, his home ballpark. The American League went on to win, 3-0, but Harvey’s three strikeouts in two innings electrified the joint.

Then Sports Illustrated put Harvey on the cover with the headline, “The Dark Knight of Gotham.” But the writer who delivered that cover story, Tom Verducci, would write five years later, after Harvey pitched (and, many said, partied) his way out of New York, “The truth is, for all the times he wound up in the tabloids other than the sports section, Harvey failed because his arm failed him.”

. . . His arm likely failed him because of how he threw a baseball. And when his arm failed him, he knew no other way. He couldn’t pitch without an A-plus fastball, he couldn’t embrace using a bullpen role as a way back, and he couldn’t believe in himself again.

. . . The Mets cut Harvey because his once-fearsome fastball became the almost exact definition of a mediocre fastball (MLB averages: 92.7 mph, 2,261 rpm). Because he couldn’t find another way to get hitters out, because he could not change his mechanics and because he could not buy into the bullpen, the Mets could not keep sending [him] out to the mound as a starter.

The decline in his stuff was obvious. And there was no way his fastball was coming back with the way he throws.

Especially not after blowing his elbow ligament into Tommy John surgery late in 2013 (which didn’t keep him from leading the Show with his 2.01 fielding-independent pitching rate or third in the National League with his 2.27 ERA), or incurring thoracic outlet syndrome, the surgery for which cuts somewhat invasively into the shoulder and the back, or trying too hard to come back too soon from both.

Be very afraid, Pittsburgh Pirates fans. Your struggling pitcher Chris Archer (though he did pitch decently after last year’s All-Star break) just underwent thoracic outlet syndrome surgery himself, who probably won’t return if and when major league baseball returns, and who may even find himself receiving a contract buyout before he can pitch 2021 and hit free agency after that season.

Like Harvey, alas, Archer’s post-surgery career prospects don’t look as promising as he himself formerly looked.

“I had TOS,” Gee says. “I know how much that sucks. It definitely changes you. You start trying to tinker with things. It’s not natural anymore. You start being robot-ish. You start not trying to hurt one area and totally hurt another area. Your whole body is out of whack.”

The limelight and the taste for night life among New York’s demimonde certainly didn’t help Harvey in the long run. “You could see the media and limelight kind of became part of what he wanted to do,” says Gee. “I’m sure that is super, super hard not to let that creep in, as popular as he got. I couldn’t imagine being bombarded as he was. He was the guy.”

Who’s to say, too, that Harvey didn’t sink into the demimonde because the slow realisation that his body began betraying the talent that got him there in the first place was too painful to bear? Dark Knights are supposed to be invincible, right?

Verducci believes Harvey’s mechanics both took him to the Show and eroded him soon enough. “Harvey pulls the ball far behind him—crossing the airspace over the rubber,” he wrote, “a strenuous maneuver that rarely leads to long careers.”

Harvey’s psyche also may have fallen out of whack in 2017, when that May Brazilian supermodel Adriana Lima, with whom he thought he had an enduring romance in the making, parted with him to leave a tony Manhattan afterparty with her former boyfriend, a New England Patriots football player.

Up to that point Harvey’s taste for the charms of supermodels was rivaled only by his taste for a ride whose value sometimes equaled that of a modest suburban home. But a few days after A few days later, Harvey missed a game claiming a migraine but possibly suffering a ferocious hangover, as the Post‘s Page Six had it. It got him a three-day suspension from the Mets.

Then Harvey suffered yet another injury, a stress fracture in his shoulder area, ending his 2017 and draining more off his fastball. The following season, in which he approached his first free agency, his continuing decline prompted then-Mets manager Mickey Callaway to think about moving him to the bullpen to rehorse, a move that tasted to Harvey rather the way Brussels sprouts taste to small children.

“We were trying to get him to use his curveball and changeup more, which he did in spring training — and he had a nice, four-pitch mix,” says then-Mets pitching coach Dave Eiland. “And then once the regular season started, he went back to his old habits, fastball and slider primarily. The command of it wasn’t quite there. If he missed a little bit, the outcome was going to be a little different than when he missed 97-99 with a 92-93 slider.”

When Harvey rejected the bullpen option, sometimes nastily, the Mets designated him for assignment, then dealt him to the Reds.

“I gave him the Dark Knight nickname, because I saw in Harvey someone who not only had the stuff to save the Mets in Gotham—they were in the middle of six straight losing seasons when Harvey arrived—but also the desire to play the role,” Verducci wrote. “He embraced not just being a staff ace but also a dominating personality.”

Learning to be just a young man may be almost as tough as re-learning how to pitch. Once upon a time Harvey was the most identifiable Met to the public but a somewhat alienating one inside his own team. Maybe riding the high life too hard distanced Harvey from people who might otherwise have felt for him, empathised, wanting to feel for him.

In Cincinnati and in Anaheim he was described as a changed young man, not exactly the type to just jump when the siren call of a tony party beckoned. If Gee and former Mets general manager Sandy Alderson are any examples, there’s empathy now, even if through hindsight’s eye.

“I liked Matt. I continue to like Matt,” Alderson tells the Post. “Sure, he had his reputation, but ultimately I thought as an individual, he was sort of a vulnerable person. Someone whose confidence was a little brittle. I remember in his postgame interviews, he came across as a real solid, humble, genuine guy. The things that we went through with him were not novel for me. It was part of the job. I didn’t resent it at all. I didn’t take it personally.”

Alderson isn’t the only one with a hindsight’s eye view of the Harvey dilemna. The former Dark Knight has one of his own. “There are a lot of things I’d do differently,” the 31-year-old Harvey now says, “but I don’t like to live with regret.”

There were just things I didn’t know at the time. Now, obviously, I’ve struggled the last few years. And what I know now is how much time and effort it takes to stay at the top of your game. I wouldn’t say my work ethic was bad whatsoever, but when you’re young, it’s not like you feel invincible, but when everything is going so well, you don’t know what it takes to stay on the field. It’s definitely more time consuming and takes more concentration.

Pitching respectably in Cincinnati got Harvey that shot in Anaheim that collapsed last year. The word now is that the video he’s produced of a pitching workout may impress someone in the KBO to give him a try. Eiland says he’s seen the video and it shows Harvey’s arm “looked like it was working well.” Warthen agrees: “This is the cleanest and easiest that I’ve seen him throw the baseball in a long time.”

Harvey also looks healthy. Shorn of his once-familiar beard, he looks as young as he was when the Royals bypassed him and the Mets snapped him up ten years ago. Almost as though he’d erased all those nights on the town and the flash he once embraced, except from inside his mind and soul where he can review them and remind himself how not to do it.

If Harvey can suggest that he knows better now what it takes to stay on the field or the mound, it’s an even more encouraging sign. It could also mean him trying to fend off the possibly inevitable one last time. It could also mean Harvey having to come to terms at last with the possibility that whatever else fell out of whack in his life before, his body’s betrayal was just too profound in the long run.

——

* Colon, the shortstop the Royals preferred to more pitching in the 2010 draft, remains the reserve-level player he’s been all his major league life. Before he was waived out of Kansas City, the Miami Marlins claimed and shortly farmed him out. 

The Braves signed him but released him the following May, the Mets (of all people) signed him on a minor league deal but let him walk as a free agent, then the Cincinnati Reds signed him to a minor league deal, gave him a cup of coffee last September, and re-signed him on a minor league deal.

But he’ll always have Game Five of the 2015 World Series. With one swing in the top of the twelfth he drilled his way into permanent baseball lore. It’s more than a lot of journeymen get.

In the same 2010 draft, the Royals passed over another pair of stars-to-be: outfielder Bryce Harper and pitcher Chris Sale. Harper is now in the second year of a $330 million/thirteen-year contract. Sale was the last man standing—striking out the side in the Game Five ninth—when the Boston Red Sox won a 2018 World Series that may or may not be tainted by their replay-room sign-stealing cheating that season.

Does Tim Tebow face a final curtain?

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Tim Tebow at the plate for Syracuse in 2019; the parent Mets have invited him to 2020 spring training as a non-roster invitee.

If he earns nothing else when his athletic career ends at last, Tim Tebow will earn eternal respect for his stubborn determination to play on until the last sports uniform is torn from his back. Whether that uniform will come off this year remains open, but Tebow can look forward to a spring reprieve at minimum.

The Mets have handed him a non-roster invitation, which probably indicates he’ll start a second season with the Syracuse Mets (AAA). But it isn’t likely to indicate that his chances of playing major league baseball, slim enough as they are already, will improve. At 32 years old, and with a total performance resume described as dubious at best, Tebow’s professional athletic career may head for the final curtain.

Tebow has played in the Mets’ system since 2016, almost a year after his last chance at quarterbacking in the National Football League ended with the Philadelphia Eagles. His previous baseball experience was as a high school junior, when the Angels thought of drafting him had he played the game as a senior first. When not playing baseball the former Heisman Trophy winner works as an ESPN college football analyst and motivational author.

He hasn’t exactly flown like an eagle in the Mets’ system, but he remains popular with fans and even with fellow Mets minor leaguers, who cite him as a good teammate regardless of what he does at the plate or in the field. That jibes with his NFL reputation, in which few put off by Tebow’s sometimes overbearing popularity faulted Tebow himself for it.

Nor was it Tebow’s fault that he wasn’t able to cling as an NFL quarterback or that his actual skills didn’t equal even a modest NFL backup. (What he really had were the skills of a solid running back.) I’ve seen no better assessment of his core dilemna—the one momentarily obscured by his fluke late-season Denver success—than that of How They Play‘s Tony Daniels:

His throwing style was awkward, and his passing was inaccurate as a result. He adopted a run-oriented mindset early in his career that caused him to take off running when his primary receiver wasn’t open or when he felt pressure. The most glaring reason why he failed as a quarterback in the NFL was because of the coaching he received in high school and at Florida.

Tebow was never forced to develop into a conventional quarterback. Because he was big, strong, and could run, his coaches at the lower levels simply went with the flow and allowed him to run without helping him to develop other skills. As a result, he simply improved on what he naturally did well and got weaker at what he didn’t do well; passing the football . . . Why else would NFL quarterback coaches have to work so hard with him on his mechanics? What were his high school and college coaches doing when he was in their practices? Was no one working with him on his footwork, stance, throwing motion, delivery, and following through then?

You stay mindful of the good teammate’s spiritual clubhouse value (“He’s the kind of guy who’s good for the team even when he’s not playing well,” said a Seattle Pilots teammate of pitcher Gary Bell after a Bell trade), you remain mindful at once that baseball teams require ability and results. Whatever the Angels saw in him as a high school junior was atrophied long enough.

By the time the Mets decided Tebow was worth having, maybe more to goose their minor league gates, he wasn’t a bona-fide baseball prospect. His personality and agreeability made you wish in your heart of hearts for some previously-unimaginable emergence of baseball talent. (They still do.) His shameless religious faith, which seemed jarring at first to the jaded, should never have been jarring and remains something to behold and admire in a time when spiritual faith sees more knockdown pitches than any hitter does.

Tebow launched his baseball career with a bang in his first professional plate appearance. But after four minor league seasons, one or two interrupted by injuries, Tebow’s  batting statistics—along traditional and what I call real batting average lines—would be impressive here and there . . . for a decent National League-bound pitcher:

Traditional Stat Line AB H BB SO AVG OBP SLG OPS
Tim Tebow, 2016-2019 940 210 85 327 .223 .299 .255 .495
Real Batting Avg. Line PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Tim Tebow, 2016-2019 1048 318 85 0 5 18 .406

Looking in absolute fairness, Tebow’s lifetime RBA is higher than only two 2019 Silver Slugger Award qualifiers with 500+ plate appearances last year, but those two qualifiers have other abilities that make them at minimum just able to play major league baseball.

Tebow’s best minor league season was 2018—at AA level Binghamton—and this was with a traditional slash line of .273/.336/.399 and an RBA showing a deceptive .453. He played in 87 games that season with his more or less standard results: little power with inconsistent bat speed, an apparent allergy to walks, five strikeouts for every walk, little running speed, and not a lot of outfield range.

Somehow, he became a AA All-Star; that may have tied to an unexpected showing for hitting safely with two out and runners on second or better. (He had 53 such plate appearances and hit .346, with thirteen runs driven in but only two of eighteen hits going for extra bases.) Then he lost almost half of July and all the rest of the season with a broken hand, which stopped once-unlikely momentum for him in June and in July’s first half: he hit a combined .317 for June and July, even if it wasn’t exactly that productive a .317. The Mets then moved Tebow up the ladder to AAA Syracuse last year. His slash line: .163/.240/.255. (OPS: .495.) His RBA: .326.

And yet, as Syracuse.com’s Lindsay Kramer wrote toward the end of the Syracuse Mets’s season, “While it could be argued that other players might have been a lot more deserving of the at-bats that appeared wasted on Tebow, at least his roster spot didn’t deny a quality young prospect playing time.”

That was on 13 August, after Tebow’s season ended with a cut to his left pinkie. In what could be called a summation of his baseball career to date, Kramer wrote, “[G]etting a chance is one thing, taking advantage of it another. Tebow . . . showed perseverance in his bid to transition from NFL quarterback to pro baseball player but that dedication is still a long way from producing numbers anywhere near someone deserving of a big-league look.”

Or, at last, generating the positive attendance numbers that once made the Mets’ Tebow experiment an unlikely success at the gate. “Poor play plus poor attendance numbers is a brutal combination,” wrote Sportsnaut‘s Jesse Reed. “Tebow is beloved by many, yet he isn’t compelling his fans to come watch any more.”

Said Tony DeFrancesco, last year Syracuse’s manager and for 2020 the Mets’ first base coach, “It might take a little more time than people expected, third year professional ball, first year Triple-A. Unfortunately, injuries got to him. Those are at-bats that I think Tim really needs to develop, to really understand his swing, his decision-making, seeing pitches. So I think that still has to improve.”

Said Rene Rivera, a catcher at Syracuse last year but with eleven seasons of major league experience, “He tried. He didn’t seem to be so comfortable with the league. This is a tough league. This is a lot of veteran players, a lot of upcoming big-leaguers. We know that he didn’t do well by the numbers. But I think the good thing that he takes with him is the experience that he can come next year and be more comfortable and know what he has to do to be successful.”

The S-Mets’s hitting coach, Joel Chimelis, observed that consistency (“You don’t have room to have a swing one day and not the next day”) is “very difficult” to show in the Show if you can’t show it in the high minors. Tebow can drive balls when he connects properly, but connecting properly is the question for which the answers fade further in the rear view mirror for a now 32-year-old who wasn’t exactly a prime prospect in the first place.

“Not everybody’s body works the same,” Chimelis continued. “Guys are a little bit more flexible than others around the hips, a little bit more bat speed. Me, personally, I’d rather have quickness, bat speed, than power because bat speed is power. If you have bat speed, you’re going to drive the ball. And it’s not necessarily the biggest guy that’s driving the ball and hitting the ball the hardest. He’s kind of big, so he has to be more efficient with his mechanics in order for that to happen.”

Such assessments earned by other minor leaguers at or close enough to Tebow’s age, and often younger, usually send them the message that it might be time to exercise whatever exit strategy they have toward taking up another line of work, if they don’t have one off-season already.

Sports history is overcrowded with athletes who proved better human beings than performers in their chosen sports. Getting the athletes whose talents were as good as their selves was rare enough. Getting the athletes whose selves were as admirable as their talents were trans-dimensional made the former seem routine.

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Tebow with his fiancee, Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters, after they became engaged during a visit to his Jacksonville home.

That’s why we revere the like of Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson, Yogi Berra, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Cal Ripken, Albert Pujols (even in his heartbreaking, protracted, injury-seeded decline), and Mike Trout. Talent above and beyond, people better than their sports legends. It’s also why you root for someone like Tim Tebow, who personifies exponentially the guy who’s a better man than he’ll ever be a ballplayer.

If you consider such things to be rewards for such decency, be advised that, a day before I wrote here, Tebow celebrated his year-old engagement to a South African beauty queen, Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters, 2017’s Miss Universe, who met him during her reign, enjoyed her first American Thanksgiving at his home, and thanked him publicly for his support when her reign ended.

When Tebow and Nel-Peters announced the engagement on Instagram, they charmingly asked followers for help with wedding hashtags. The followers weren’t exactly shy about providing such help. One, referring to Tebow’s oft-remarked habit of kneeling in prayer on NFL sidelines (it became famous as “Tebowing”), suggested “#TookAKneeForDemiLeigh,” perhaps after seeing a shot of Tebow popping the question—on his knee—during one of her visits to his Jacksonville home. Others stretched it a mite: “#TyingTheTebow,” “#ToHaveAndTebow,” that sort of thing.

Mrs. Tebow-to-be isn’t just another ethereal pageant queen, either: a month after she was crowned Miss Universe, carjackers in Johannesburg forced her to hand them her car keys and get into their car, whereupon she administered a prompt, solid punch in the throat to one of the thieves and escaped for help. She also conducts worldwide self defense workshops.

Her husband-to-be doesn’t have to worry about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s not-always-true observation that there are no second acts in American life. Tebow fashioned one even before his first in football ended. Baseball’s been close enough to a third act for him. His athletic career may approach the final curtain sooner than he’d prefer, but his numerous virtues include that he has his second act with a long, pleasant epilogue yet to go, and impeccable taste in woman.

The Mets, under new ownership?

2019-12-05 JacobDeGrom

The Mets may soon be owned by a man who paid more for one sculpture than they’re paying Jacob deGrom for the next five years.

Lose a pitcher, gain an owner? As it looked as though the Phillies would sign Zack Wheeler for five years and $118 million, less than he was offered by the White Sox, his now-former Mets looked as though they were about to sell an 80 percent stake in the team to a Long Island boy who, like me, has been a Met fan since the day they were born.

Steve Cohen has in common with me having seen our first Mets games courtesy of the original troupe who played in the ancient Polo Grounds while awaiting Shea Stadium’s completion. That’s almost the full extent of our common ground. For openers, at present he owns a four percent stake in the team, while I own nothing of the team but an alternate game hat and several books.

Cohen played baseball as a boy until a shoulder injury put paid, apparently, to any thoughts he had of growing up to pitch professionally, presumably in a Met uniform. His career ended with slightly more honour than mine did: I discovered 1) I couldn’t hit a fair ball unless the foul lines were moved to a single line crossing the rear point of home plate; and, 2) I couldn’t throw a strike unless the strike zone sat on the batter’s derriere.

So each of us ended our baseball careers and settled for pursuits less likely to provide even that one in a billion shot at immortality.

Mine was becoming an Air Force intelligence analyst and, following, a professional journalist at the regional level with a career described as fitful at best. Cohen’s was going to Wall Street and building a fortune that would, if he intends to buy that 80 percent stake in the Mets, make him baseball’s wealthiest owner almost overnight.

I say “almost” because the reporting holds that the incumbent Wilpons will stay in command for five more years. But the transition of power could happen sooner, as often it does. “According to my sources, Cohen, who is currently a minority owner of the Mets, would immediately own at least a tad over 50% should the deal be approved,” writes Mike Ozanian in Forbes. “Why would anybody buying a majority stake in a dysfunctional business allow the folks who ran it dysfunctionally for years keep running it? Time is of the essence.”

To see the reaction of Met fans who’ve despaired over what The Athletic calls the Wilpons’ “tight fisted and ham handed stewardship of the Mets” is to think the Messiah has come at long enough last. Met fans salivate over the prospect of the tight fists turning into open hands.

Cohen is known for a previous bid to buy the Dodgers (he lost out) and as an art lover and collector who once paid for one sculpture (Pointing Man, by Alberto Giocametti) $3.8 million more than the Mets agreed to pay their back-to-back Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Jacob deGrom for five years beginning in 2020.

The Wilpons’ fists tightened when they turned up among the wounded (victims and partial culprits alike) in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. Cohen’s SAC Capital Investors, which he built, copped to five counts of insider trading in 2013 and ponied up a $1.2 billion fine. Though Cohen himself wasn’t accused of wrongdoing, SAC Capital was barred from outside investments from there forward.

Cohen merely picked himself up, dusted off, and created Point72 Ventures three years ago and Cohen Private Ventures, which he says will manage his majority Mets stake if the deal is done. The Wilpons are still trying to get out from under the Madoff mess, which only began for them when they thought investing with Madoff would help them with things like the botched Bobby Bonilla deal. (Which the Mets must pay through 2035 at $1 million a year, for a player who’s been retired almost two decades.)

“Madoff ‘made’ them boatloads of money that never existed and they invested it in places they’re still trying to pay back (like their team *cough Bonilla* and television station),” writes Sarah Valenzuela of the New York Daily News. “By 2015, they were paying off about $100M/year to get to the principal amount of their debts, plus the cost of the recently built Citi Field.”

Fred and son Jeff Wilpon have been known as Steinbrennerian meddlers (George, not Hal) without much of anything resembling Steinbrennerian results after they wrested the team’s full ownership from co-owner Nelson Doubleday in 2002. And as often as not the meddlings were destructive enough to be considered human neglect.

The elder Wilpon once forced Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez to pitch a meaningless game for the box office in 2006 despite a toe injury; it may have aggravated shoulder issues, invited 2007 season-losing surgery, and limited Martinez in 2008, to the point where he returned to the Red Sox after his deal expired to retire as a Red Sox.

When Doubleday wanted in the worst way possible to bring Hall of Famer Mike Piazza to the Mets in 1998, Wilpon actually tried to thwart the deal. Today Piazza’s Hall of Fame plaque shows his head under a Mets cap. Way to call ’em, Fred. Meanwhile, for every Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, and Johan Santana acquisition there were Bonilla’s second Mets deal and acquisitions of aging, past-prime, or completely lost players almost too numerous to mention.

Wilpon pere and Wilpon fils have also been renowned for blocking signings and deals their baseball brain trusts have recommended strongly enough to them while signing off on signings and deals described as dubious most charitably.

And no managerial firing in the Steinbrenner Yankees’ history was half as despicable as the manner in which Wilpon ordered the executions of Willie Randolph, his pitching coach Rick Peterson, and his first base coach Tom Nieto in 2008—after the team traveled to Anaheim and won the first game of the road trip. And after midnight while they were at it.

But before my fellow Met fans drink too deep in celebrating the advent of the Cohen era, they may do wise to ponder the Wednesday evening caution from MLB Trade Rumours‘s Steve Adams:

Any ownership-level shakeup, of course, can have payroll implications for a team, but there’s no immediate indication that the Mets will increase spending in the near future. To the contrary, multiple reports this week have indicated that the Mets may need to move some undesirable contracts before spending further this winter — a reality that has long since been apparent to any who’ve closely examined the team’s payroll outlook. As for what would happen with regard to team payroll down the line, that can’t be known at this time, but it’s worth highlighting that the Bloomberg Billionaire Index lists Cohen’s net worth at a staggering $9.2 billion.

Today’s announcement seemingly puts a finite window on the Wilpons’ rein atop the organization and, as ESPN’s Buster Olney points out (Twitter link), perhaps explains why the club has been so focused on winning as soon as possible and making splashy moves toward that end.

That’s a somewhat extensive way of reminding Met fans—since the day they were born and otherwise—how wise it is to cut the cards no matter how deep you trust Mom.

Cohen grew up on Long Island in Great Neck, a well-to-do place in Nassau County familiar to me mostly as the home of a classic opulent wedding-and-bar-mitzvah semi-factory. Leonard’s of Great Neck, now Leonard’s Palazzo, is known to television fans as the joint where Johnny Sack asked Tony Soprano to perform a hit before Sack was hauled from his daughter’s wedding back to prison, in season six, episode five.

Take that, Mr. Cohen: After my parents moved us from the north Bronx, I finished growing up (har, har) in Long Beach, an island strip across a channel in southern Nassau which had a little bit of every economic strata, a lot of beach and boardwalk, and a home for Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather, from which son and heir Michael plotted and delivered the execution of the heads of the Five Families.

My mob’s better than your mob. #LFGM.

From Piazza to Mets pitching coach?

2019-11-18 SteveKarsay

As a Brave, Steve Karsay served a home run pitch New York and the country will never forget. Now he may become the Mets’ pitching coach.

Steve Karsay has a unique place in Mets history thanks to a 21 September 2001 game in New York. Now he may become their next pitching coach, depending on whether 2019 interim Phil (The Vulture) Regan really doesn’t factor into the plan going forward.

Native to New York, growing up a Yankee fan in the College Point section of Queens, Karsay took over for Mike Remlinger to work the bottom of the eighth in the late Shea Stadium, right after the Braves broke a one-all tie in the top of the inning on an RBI double. It was only the second time Karsay saw action in Shea in his career at that point.

Future World Series-winning Nationals manager Dave Martinez, a pinch hitter in that inning, stayed in the game to play first base for the Braves. He didn’t know then that it would be the final month of his major league playing life: he’d miss all 2002 with a knee injury and retire after that season.

Karsay surrendered a one-out walk to Mets third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo and Mets manager Bobby Valentine sent Desi Relaford out to pinch run. Checking in at the plate: Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, who couldn’t keep the tears back when bagpipers walked across the pre-game field intoning “Amazing Grace,” among other small ceremonies for New York’s first sports event after the 9/11 atrocity.

“I think the baseball part was secondary until we started getting deeper into the game,” remembered then-Mets general manager Steve Phillips. And when Piazza stepped up to the plate the Shea Stadium audience rose to their feet waving small American flags and cheering as much for the will to endure after such an atrocity as for the Mets.

Karsay started Piazza with a fastball down and away hitting the corner for a strike. “I get back into strike mode as a pitcher,” the righthander would remember to The Atlantic a decade later. “I wanted to throw another fastball down and away, which I did.”

This time Piazza didn’t miss. He electrified the ballpark, the city, and maybe the country that needed all the electricity it could find when he hit it so far over the left center field fence it banged off the second level of a television camera scaffold posted behind that fence. The fact that Piazza’s bomb gave the Mets a 3-2 lead that held up for a win was almost secondary.

Karsay remembered the ball almost hitting the camera operator aboard that scaffold. Other than that, he didn’t give a full glance on the mound to the ball in flight. The crowd noise told him everything he needed to know. “It’s one of those shots that doesn’t leave my mind,” he said a decade after the game. “Not that it bothers me, because I feel like I threw a good pitch and he hit a good pitch.”

None of the Braves begrudged Piazza’s moment. “If there was any game in my career that I had to lose or take the loss, that’s the one I would have wanted it to happen,” Karsay said. “I don’t think you could portray it any better than how that situation occurred.”

“It wasn’t a competition against our most hated rivals,” remembered Valentine in due course. “It was so much bigger than anything I had ever been part of before. It was just inevitable that something really special was happening.”

“I think we all, as Braves, knew that night we were in trouble,” Hall of Famer Chipper Jones (who went 2-for-4 with a run scored that night) remembered. “Because we’re not only playing a very good baseball team, but you just had the feeling that God and every other baseball god was on New York’s side that night. The matinee idol Mike Piazza ends up hitting the storybook homer that sent everybody home feeling great, feeling wonderful. We’d done our jobs as baseball players to entertain people, but we’d gone I feel above and beyond just the normal day’s work.”

“When Piazza hit the home run, it was kind of like, ‘OK, that was supposed to be. These people needed this a whole lot more than we needed to win a game’, ” Hall of Famer Tom Glavine—who’d pitch for the Mets late in his career—remembered three months ago, on 9/11’s anniversary. “It was the only game that we played at that level where I felt that way.”

“[F]or the fans, it was an unbelievable breath of fresh air,” said Martinez on the 9/11 anniversary this year, too. “This country’s been through a lot, and we stuck together. So to be a part of that, and to be a part of this country, I’m just really happy to be an American.

“And those people that lost lives, my heart goes out to them, always . . . ,” he continued. “I just kind of stood back and just watched [Piazza] jog by me like, ‘Wow’. I just listened. And I could hear the fans. Look in the stands, and there were people crying. There were so many people from the fire department, the police department there, at the game. It was something.”

The one part Karsay might want to walk back was after he got the inning’s third out. He fumed at plate umpire Wally Bell over a borderline pitch he thought was a strike to Alfonzo that helped lead to the walk, and Bell ejected him from the game on the spot.

He was having his best major league season to date in an injury riddled career. He’d been an Athletic (after being traded out of the Blue Jays organisation so they could get  Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson) and an Indian (a trade for fellow relief pitcher Mike Fetters), before becoming a Brave three months before 9/11—in the trade that rid the Braves of misanthropic reliever John Rocker.

After the 2001 season Karsay signed as a free agent for four years and $22.5 million with the Yankees he grew up rooting for. The injuries continued (he missed all of 2003 following shoulder surgery) and, after a year in the Rangers’ system (where he combined on a perfect game in the minors), an aborted reunion with the Indians, and the A’s buying him back from there to no avail, Karsay retired in 2005.

He spent several years as a pitching coach in the Indians’s system before becoming the Brewers’ bullpen coach and, among other things, helping Drew Pomeranz finally find his groove as a reliever—Pomeranz posted a 2.39 ERA and 2.68 fielding-independent pitching rate as a Brewer following his deadline trade from the Giants this year.

That could be a key reason why Karsay’s now in the Mets’ sights if they’re uncertain about Regan continuing at 82. God only knew the 2019 Mets bullpen was described in charitable terms as a mess. Their solid rotation—two-time Cy Young Award-winning Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler (who may yet depart as a free agent), Marcus Stroman, and Steven Matz—was compromised too often by the arson squad.

Between the collapse of prize acquisition Edwin Diaz and the inconsistencies elsewhere, until Seth Lugo and Justin Wilson proved the steadiest bulls down the stretch, the most feared words in the English language around Met fans were “pitching change.”

But if Regan moves elsewhere within the Mets structure and Karsay becomes the new pitching coach, he might yet turn an arsonist or two into an executioner or two. The rotation and enduring Piazza’s post-9/11 surrealism are nothing compared to that.

A principled Peter

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Pete Alonso hit one for the record book on 28 September, but the NL Rookie of the Year struck a bigger blow for respect on the 9/11 anniversary.

It’s not that Pete Alonso didn’t have the kind of season that deserved the honour. But sometimes baseball award voters are human enough to pick a winner based on something equal to and maybe a little better than his performance—even performance that would blast in neon, as Alonso’s did this year.

Voting Alonso the National League’s Rookie of the Year, they may have thought both.

Alonso’s season performance by itself would have been enough to nail him the award, even if you can make the case that Braves pitcher Mike Soroka—who got the one first place vote Alonso didn’t get—had at least an equivalent season on the mound.

Breaking the rookie season home run record (with a major league-leading 53), creating 126 runs and using only three outs a run to do it, and producing 220 (100 scored, 120 driven in) runs on the season, gets you attention in a big enough hurry. So do three out of a possible six National League Rookie of the Month awards, which Alonso won in April, June, and September.

So does helping put the game back into the game with your enthusiasm, on a team that needed it in the worst way possible this side of the world champion Nationals. The Mets lacked for sharks, baby and otherwise, but thanks to Alonso they became abundant in jersey stripping on game-ending, game-winning hits during their surprising post-All Star break run.

So does a shameless and welcome display of emotion such as Alonso—who’d made the Mets out of spring training on a non-roster invitation—showed when he nailed Soroka’s rotation mate Mike Foltynewicz on the next to last regular season night in New York for the record, then couldn’t hide the tears when he returned to first base.

But so does finding the way to elude baseball government’s edict against special haberdashery commemorating the 9/11 atrocity, as Alonso did for that very anniversary. The Mets and a few other teams wanted to wear such hats; baseball government said no, stick with the official commemorative patches on the sides of the uniform hats.

Alonso said not so fast.

Telling no one but his fellow Mets what he was up to, Alonso gathered up the shoe sizes of his teammates, manager, and coaches, then arranged for special commemorative cleats to be made for the game by Adidas, New Balance, and other top athletic shoemakers. It isn’t every major league rookie who delivers the kind of audacity that ennobles his team and his game.

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The shoes that put the Mets’ best feet forward on 9/11.

The cleats featured American flag striping, the initials of first responder agencies, a small image of New York firefighters raising an American flag at Ground Zero, and a silhouette of the Twin Towers. Making the major league rookie salary of $550,000 for the season, not to mention winning $1 million as this year’s Home Run Derby champion at the All Star break, Alonso paid for every pair of the special cleats himself.

“For me, this season has been an absolute fantasy. I just want to give back. I want to help,” said Alonso, a Florida first grader when the atrocity happened. “I don’t just want to be known as a good baseball player, I want to be known as a good person, too. And I just want to really recognize what this day is about. I don’t want it to be a holiday. I want it to be a day of remembrance of everything that happened. It was an awful day.”

He hatched his podiatric plot well in advance of the 9/11 anniversary, and it’s not exactly impossible that the Mets being so unified as a team on the matter might have kept baseball’s customarily capricious official leadership from sanctioning the team.

It probably didn’t hurt, either, that a little favour fell upon the Mets from the Elysian Field gods that night. Their surprising bolt out of the post All-Star gate could only get them to within three games of the National League’s second wild card, proving that even the subordinate gods work must work within a budget, but they could at least spend a little extra on the 9/11 anniversary itself.

Thus did the Mets, wearing Alonso’s subversive commemorative cleats, shut the Diamondbacks out on . . . nine runs and eleven hits, including six home runs, two (Todd Frazier, Brandon Nimmo) back-to-back in the Mets’ five-run first, and with Frazier and Jeff McNeil each hitting a pair of them before the carnage was finished.

The following night, the Mets again nailed eleven hits off the momentarily hapless Diamondbacks, but this time they were good for eleven runs, the big blow the first of Juan Lagares’s pair of blasts, in the bottom of the third. The center fielder checked in with the bases loaded, nobody out, and the Mets up 1-0 on an unearned run, then hit a full count service from Alex Young into the left field seats.

And any threats of fines or disciplinary measures against Alonso or the Mets over the commemorative shoes went unfulfilled.

Yordan Alvarez, the Astros’ phenom bombardier, was named the American League’s Rookie of the Year unanimously, beating out Orioles pitcher John Means, Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe, White Sox outfielder Eloy Jimenez, and Blue Jays second baseman Cavan Biggio—the son of Astros Hall of Famer Craig Biggio.

By arriving in a June callup after decimating the two highest minor league levels, Alvarez has the second-shortest Rookie of the Year season behind Hall of Famer Willie McCovey. And, as Alonso did in the National League, Alvarez won a trio of American League Rookie of the Month prizes. (June, July, August.)

He premiered by teeing off against another Oriole pitcher, Dylan Bundy. He went on to tie the rookie record for the most home runs in 100 games or fewer, hit righthanders and lefthanders with equal deadly force, and followed an almost invisible American League Championship Series by hitting .412 with one bomb in the Astros’ seven-game World Series loss.

The third Rookie of the Year in Astro history—Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell won the award in 1991; Carlos Correa (2015) became the first Astro to win it after they were moved into the American League—Alvarez is Alonso’s near-opposite, the strong, silent type. He shares Alonso’s essential humility, but you’re not likely to see him shred the jersey away of any Astro nailing a game-ending hit. Yet.

“He’s a quiet man by nature,” says his manager A.J. Hinch, “and his demeanor is very low key. But he’s always in tune with other players and other people and the information.”

Alonso is the Mets’ sixth Rookie of the Year, following Hall of Famer Tom Seaver (1967), Jon Matlack (1972), Darryl Strawberry (1983), Dwight Gooden (1984), and Jacob deGrom (2014), and only the second Mets position player (after Strawberry) to win the prize. His race for the prize might have been a lot closer, maybe even lost by a hair, if the Padres’ phenom Fernando Tatis, Jr. hadn’t been held to 84 games thanks to the injured list.

Interesting synergy. This year’s Rookies of the Year belong to a pair of teams born from the same expansion draft, for 1962. Neither of whom could possibly have imagined the day to come when one would be the team to be named later when a third expansion team, the Brewers, would be traded to the National League.

But Alonso played all but one game in 2019. And it took the Mets’ often-criticised general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, a former players’ agent, to convince the club to take Alonso north with them when spring training ended, rather than do as too many other clubs have done with promising youth and bury him one more year in the minors for the sake of extended team control.

Unlike in days of Mets future past, there’s a realistic chance that they might be able to lock Alonso down on a longer-term commitment when his first free agency comes within not-so-distant sight. They’ll be freed of major commitments to too-oft-injured Yoenis Cespedes (in danger of missing all of 2020 as well off multiple-ankle and knee surgery) and aging Robinson Cano well enough when that day arrives.

Assuming Van Vagenen makes no more trades that involve importing still-onerous contracts, such as the deal that landed Cano in the first place, the Mets would be able to keep Alonso in the blue and orange for a long enough time to come. Assuming Alonso continues the kind of performance he showed exponentially in 2019, it would be manna for a franchise that often forces its fans to dine on quail.

And in this case we’re not talking strictly about Alonso’s performances at the plate or at first base, where he shook away the periodic hiccup to establish himself as more than capable afield. Whether Alonso proves the equal of Mets legend Keith Hernandez, who revolutionised the position by making it one of infield leadership as well as fielding virtuosity, remains to be seen, but he showed the potential for either or both.

He showed more than the right stuff in uniform. First, he sent a tenth of his Home Run Derby prize money to a pair of 9/11-inspired charities, the Wounded Warriors project (which aids post-9/11 military wounded) and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, named for the firefighter who lost his life on 9/11 trying to save lives in the World Trade Center.

Then, he plotted and executed his end-run around official baseball’s official strictures against any 9/11 commemorative gear above and beyond the hat patches. The gesture couldn’t possibly restore the lives lost in the atrocity but they could and did at least indicate to the city battered by it almost two decades earlier that someone playing baseball in a New York uniform understood that baseball’s transcendence sometimes has to wait its turn behind spiritual transcendence.

It wasn’t given to Alonso to electrify the Citi Field audience this 9/11 the way Hall of Famer Mike Piazza did in the Mets’ first game back in the late Shea Stadium after the original atrocity. When Piazza swung on 0-1 against Braves pitcher Steve Karsay with pinch runner Desi Relaford aboard in the bottom of the eighth and hit it far enough over the center field fence to ricochet off a television camera posted on a scaffold. And, prove the game winner for the Mets.

With his family and his fiancee in the house, Alonso had to settle for sending Foltynewicz’s 2-1 service over the center field fence in the bottom of the third on 28 September, pushing him past Aaron Judge as the single-season rookie home run champion and bringing the Citi Field crowd to its feet not just because of the blast itself but because he couldn’t keep his emotions from overflowing in its immediate wake.

With the memory of his 9/11 commemorative subterfuge likely still fresh, the crowd refused to turn off the love as Cano flied out to deep center for the side and the Mets re-took the field. And Alonso stationed at first base finally couldn’t contain himself, lowering his head and crying shamelessly, the magnitude of his accomplishment overwhelming him in disbelief.

It was the perfect night for nice guys to defy Leo Durocher. While Alonso swung his way into the record book, on the opposite coast the Astros’ Hall of Famer-to-be Justin Verlander threw his way into it.

Verlander struck out the Angels’ right fielder Kole Calhoun in the bottom of the fourth for career strikeout number 3,000, and struck Calhoun out again in the bottom of the sixth for season strikeout number 300. Lifting a page from the late Ernie Broglio, Calhoun can say at least that he played with a couple of Hall of Famers and helped put at least one pitcher there.

Unlike Alonso, alas, Verlander’s entry into history came with a p.s. The fourth-inning strikeout went for a wild pitch, enabling Calhoun to first base, where Calhoun stayed only long enough for the next Angel batter, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, to hit one into the left field bullpens. It didn’t stop the Astros from winning the game, but sometimes you just can’t slip further into the books without one misstep.

Verlander’s a very well seasoned veteran and Alonso is a freshly-initiated kid with, hopefully, a long enough career ahead of him. Maybe, if the Mets don’t relapse and see the core of Alonso, deGrom (still young at 31), McNeil, Nimmo, Michael Conforto, J.D. Davis, Seth Lugo, and Amed Rosario as a young enough core to build around and not fool around with, including a postseason or three.

Maybe even a postseason taking the Mets to face the Astros in a World Series. Maybe. If astronauts first walked the moon when the Mets won their first Series at the tender age of eight, and the Nationals could win this year’s World Series entirely on the road, it reminds you of one of baseball’s truly unimpeachable laws: Anything can happen—and usually does. So who’s to say?

Alonso’s uniform number—20—is deemed by Bible scholars to indicate the perfect waiting period, and by numerologists to indicate infinite potential in relationships and diplomacy. Of course. He fell into the perfect waiting period to make his Show debut this season—no waiting, right out of spring training—and, proving that good things indeed come to those who wait, to break Judge’s rookie home run record on the next-to-last day.

His potential on and off the field appears infinite enough. For now you get the parallel pleasure of seeing that not only does the right player swing for the record book, and play to earn a major award, but every so often he proves to be the right man for both.