No, no—a thousand times, no

Steve Cohen’s purchase of the Mets closed Friday. Almost at once, Cohen became the Mets’ version of the Hoover—beating, sweeping, cleaning. He flipped team president Sandy Alderson’s switch and Alderson hit the carpet roaring.

General manager Brodie Van Wagenen? Hasta la Volkswagen. Special assistant and former GM Omar Minaya? Gone. Assistant GMs Allard Baird and Adam Guttridge? Bye, bye, birdies. Executive director of player development Jared Banner? Dearly departed.

So said ESPN’s “news services” within a blink of the Cohen purchase closing. And then, a red flag: “Friday’s moves make [manager Luis] Rojas’ future uncertain. Fired Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, who completed a season-long suspension last week, could be a candidate for the analytics-oriented Cohen.”

Met fans celebrating the official consecration of Cohen as the new owner and that feeling of relief with the eighteen-hundred-ton Wilpon truck finally pulling away and off their backs should be hollering, “Danger, Will Robinson!”

They should remember that Alex Rodriguez and Jennifer Lopez and their gang probably got spurned as potential Met buyers not just because they couldn’t round up the full dollars but because A-Rod was foolish enough to seek informal administrative counsel from Luhnow, while Luhnow remained under suspension and J-Rod were still in the running to buy the team.

They should remember that seeking Luhnow’s advice on baseball operations compares to seeking marital counseling from Zsa Zsa Gabor.

They should remember that Luhnow continues blaming God’s will or any and everybody else for the Astrogate debacle that brought that a world champion and American League West dominator not to its knees but to a stance of defiance despite being exposed as particularly extralegal electronic video cheaters.

They should remember that, given another chance to own up, Luhnow lied to Houston NBC reporter Vanessa Richardson when he said, “Whether it’s the players or the video staffers, they just decided on their own to do it and that’s a shame, because had they come and asked me for permission I would have said no. Had they gone and asked Jim for permission, he would have said no. There’s just no reason why that should have happened.”

They should remember that,  even before the advent of the Astro Broadcasting Company, Luhnow was exposed (by Wall Street Journal reporter Jared Diamond) as seeing and not rejecting a front office-developed algorithm, Codebreaker, that the intern showing it to him said could be deployed for off-field-based sign stealing.

They should remember that Luhnow’s Astro “culture” was well exposed as a result-oriented culture in which human relationships were cheap, disposable, and disregarded. ”Luhnow had all year to speak,” thundered baseball writer Jose de Jesus Ortiz in a delicious Twitter rant. “But as was the case throughout his tenure Luhnow is as calculated as ever. That’s why baseball folks throughout the country say he’s dismissive of traditional baseball folks, scouts, players, etc. He sees them as assets, people to manipulate.”

They should remember that Luhnow dismissed the near-complete opposition in his front office, when he dealt disgruntled relief pitcher Ken Giles for then-under-domestic-violence-suspension relief pitcher Roberto Osuna in 2018. And, that Luhnow tried to cover the hide of his then-assistant Brandon Taubman being so fornicating glad they got Osuna in the presence of female reporters after the Astros won the 2019 American League Championship Series.

They should remember that, when Luhnow said to Richardson, “there’s no reason why we needed to explore breaking the rules to gain an advantage, it made no sense to me,” it begged the question of why Luhnow didn’t kill the Astro Intelligence Agency in its Codebreaker crib.

They should remember that 2017 Astros designated hitter Carlos Beltran, hired by Van Wagenen to manage the Mets last fall, never got to manage even a single spring training game for the Mets—because Beltran’s own Astrogate culpability got him suspended for 2020, too.

They should remember that it’s one thing for the Tigers to hire a repentant A.J. Hinch, especially since he won’t be getting his second chance at the original scene of the crimes at which he looked the other way, mostly; but, it’s something else that the Red Sox re-hired Alex Cora, whose fingers were all the way in the Astrogate pie, while not quite being in the pie known as the Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring. Hinch and Cora are like the Watergate burglars but not the Big Enchiladas when all is said and done.

They should ask aloud that, if the new owner about whom they’re raving otherwise is as analytically inclined as advertised, Cohen shouldn’t even think of Luhnow and the stain he’d bring to the Mets, when there are likely a good number of candidates with the same inclination but a parallel respect for the humans who work or play under them and an equal disinclination toward cheating your way to the top.

They should insist that Cohen, who’s shown a remarkable agreeability to reasonable fan input, keep the house clean once he’s cleaned it up. That Cohen and Alderson should have but one thing to say about even the outside prospect of inviting Luhnow into his remaking/remodeling Mets: “No, no—a thousand times, no!”

Cohen asks Met fans for input

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The New York Post captures Steven Cohen and his wife, Amy, celebrating Cohen’s purchase of the team he’s rooted for since the day they were born.

Forget everything else since the World Series finished and ponder this. A fellow Met fan since the day they were born now owns the team. And he hit Twitter running over Halloween weekend, soliciting his fellow Met fans’ input on improving their experience as fans.

Social media has been with us by and large since about the turn of the century, or within the first few years. Until Steve Cohen did it, I don’t remember any incoming baseball owners jumping aboard Twitter, reviving a dormant account, and asking their new teams’ fans much of anything, never mind a question like that.

Some of the answers Cohen received during his weekend Tweet and greet were on the sublime side, as were his replies. “You’ve already done it by buying the team,” tweeted a user handled Austin. “Nah,” Cohen replied, “we can do more than that.” David Tratner, identifying himself as a former NFL public relations executive, tweeted, “Hire smart people in every area (which may include people already in the building).”  Cohen replied, “Hire them smarter than you. That has worked for me in the hedge fund biz.”

Except perhaps for that time when his old hedge fund outfit got spanked by the Securities and Exchange Commission over insider trading. Now, read carefully: Cohen himself was neither accused of nor charged with wrongdoing in that case. It didn’t stop assorted naysayers from screaming blue murder over the prospect of a “felon” becoming a baseball owner.

It also didn’t stop New York’s self-congratulatory mayor, Bill de Blasio, a man who illustrates wisdom by standing athwart it, from threatening at almost the eleventh hour to kill Cohen’s purchase of the Mets. Cloaking himself in doing “our due diligence,” de Blasio sought to use a customarily obscure clause in Citi Field’s land lease agreement with the city—empowering the city to block users known for (brace yourselves) “moral turpitude” from buying—to kill the sale. (The Mets actually own Citi Field through their Queens Ballpark Company subsidiary, but the city owns the land on which it sits.)

When de Blasio was quoted credibly as saying he didn’t want some “billionaire hedge fund” guy buying the Mets, nobody thought to ask, nor did he deign to say so far as is known, which kind of billionaire he preferred to buy the team. Finally, last Friday, the requisite majority of major league owners voted to approve the sale. Cohen thus got the next-best thing to every Met fan’s boyhood wish. If he couldn’t become a Met, at least he got to buy the team.

Some of the weekend answers Cohen got were on the ridiculous side, too, but you might have expected that. “We also don’t need a new analytics department,” tweeted a user handled LOLCOWBOYS—his @ account identifier indicated himself as a Yankee fan—after suggesting the Mets should sign such aging free agents as Yadier Molina and/or J.A. Happ. “Going old school works. Just ask A rod. You should hire A rod as head of the analytics department.”

Cohen didn’t answer that one. But when not rejecting the former Yankee whose powers of baseball analysis have been found very wanting of late, respondents urged the Mets away from baseball’s playing senior citizens: “For too long,” tweeted a fan named Pete, “the Mets have been a team where talent acquired was of the Player to be named to the DL later variety.

A considerable consensus urged Cohen to consider restoring the black alternate jerseys the Mets wore a decade ago. (Say I: No chance. Stick to those handsome blue alternates.) Another fan suggested installing markers in the parking lot, where Shea Stadium used to sit, signifying important moments and plays in Met history, such as the precise spot where left fielder Cleon Jones caught the final out of the 1969 World Series. (Sound as a nut.)

“I like that one,” replied Cohen. He also went on to promise a far better institutional job of honouring the better and more instructive sides of the Mets’ chameleonic history, adding that he’d even return the Mets’ annual Old-Timers Days on partial behalf of doing exactly that. “No brainer,” he said.

My own contribution to that cause was suggesting such uniform number retirements as David Wright (5), Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter (8), Dwight Gooden (16), should-be Hall of Famer Keith Hernandez (17), and Tug McGraw (45). Cohen didn’t reply to that one as I write, but a Twitter account identified as Carter’s gave it a like. My best guess is that the account based from Carter’s Palm Beach home belongs to his family. (He died at 57 in 2012.)

I should have made another suggestion, on behalf of such former Mets as pitcher Bill Denehy, outfielder George (The Stork) Theodore, and other pre-1980 Mets whose major league careers came and went in a blink for assorted reasons. So I’ll make it now.

Mr. Cohen, you have the kind of good will and resources to make something happen for Denehy, Theodore, and over six hundred other former major leaguers who, for reasons ranging from the nebulous to the ridiculous, got frozen out of a 1980 re-alignment of baseball’s player pension plan.

The owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association agreed to change the plan and make players’ vesting eligibility 43 days of major league service time instead of the original four-year service time requirement. They also agreed to a one-day service time requirement as vesting eligibility for health benefits. But they excluded short-career major leaguers whose short careers happened between 1949 and 1980.

That mistake affected over 1,100 former players in 1980; attrition since has reduced the number to a little over six hundred. Denehy* may be the best-remembered of the impacted former Mets: after an injury-blocked rookie season in 1967, the Mets traded him to the Washington Senators in order to bring their manager, Gil Hodges, back to New York to manage the Mets.

An unconscionable volume of cortisone injections following his original 1967 shoulder injury—which proved a rotator cuff tear, about which then-Met and other medical personnel were far less than truthful with him—have helped make Denehy legally blind since 2005 and place him now on the threshold of total blindness. He isn’t the only one of the six hundred plus pension freeze-outs with profound health issues.

Eight years ago, then-Players Association director Michael Weiner and then-commissioner Bud Selig got Denehy, Theodore, and their fellow pension freeze-outs a small but telling redress. They got those players $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league service time for up to four years. The kicker is that they can’t pass those monies on to their loved ones after they pass on. And they still can’t buy in to the players’ health plan.

“It was a nice gesture on the part of Weiner and Selig who, undoubtedly also realized it could hardly make up for all those lost years in which the pre-1980 players got bupkis,” wrote longtime New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden last February.

Just why those players were frozen out of the original 1980 re-alignment remains somewhat mysterious. Denehy, former Texas Rangers pitching phenom David Clyde, and other affected players have said they think many if not most involved in the re-alignment believed many if not most of those short-career men were little more than September call-ups.

Denehy made the 1967 Mets, the 1968 Senators, and the 1971 Detroit Tigers out of spring training. Clyde was signed for a six-figure bonus right out of high school and thrown onto the mound for the Rangers immediately, before the Rangers broke a promise to Clyde and manager Whitey Herzog to send him to the minors for proper seasoning after letting him start twice to goose the struggling Rangers’ gates.

More of the short-career men made clubs out of spring training than the owners and the union remembered or even cared to know. Eligible former players since 1980 collect their pensions whether they were blink-of-an-eye one-day fill-ins, short-term scrubs, long-term spare parts, long-term regulars, or Hall of Famers. Pension vesting isn’t tied to statistical achievement.

It’s rare enough to see a genuine fan grow up to become the owner of the team he grew up loving. (Like me, Mr. Cohen, you saw your first live Mets games in the ancient wreck of the Polo Grounds in 1962-1963.) It’s even more rare when such an owner actively solicits his fans’ input and doesn’t laugh them out of town for their answers.

Mr. Cohen, the worst kept secret on earth is that your pockets are deeper than the Atlantic Ocean. You don’t have to open them to every last one of the six hundred plus pension freeze-outs. If all you do is address Bill Denehy, George Theodore, and their fellow short-career pre-1980 Mets, you would throw down one of the most considerable gauntlets of your time.

“Realistically speaking,” Denehy told me this morning, “no one’s going to come in and bankroll the whole six hundred [plus] players. But if they just take care of the former players in their own organisations, it would be a great start and get the ball rolling a little bit.”

You made yourself an instant hero among Met fans with your weekend Twitter excursion, Mr. Cohen. For that alone, you may repeal the law that says no fan in the history of professional sports has ever bought a ticket to a game to see the team’s owner. (Frustrated 1980s Yankee fans buying into Yankee Stadium to boo, hiss, insult, or hang George Steinbrenner in effigy at the depth of his act notwithstanding.)

You might make yourself even more a hero taking that pension bull by the proverbial horns, especially if more Met fans really knew and understood what little the Denehys and Theodores and others ask for having played the game even briefly. It may help you to know that the late Players Association director Marvin Miller—who was finally elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously as a pioneer—is known to have said in his retirement that not revisiting the 1980 pension re-alignment on behalf of the short career freeze-outs was his biggest regret.

Moving to take care of just your Mets’ own short-career pension freeze-outs would put you even further on the side of the angels and challenge your fellow owners to take a second, third, and even fourth look at their own, Mr. Cohen. Those would be the most profound looks those former players have received in years.

And it would consecrate you, sir, as what your weekend Tweet and greet merely began, the man who started to clean up the New York Mess—and started to clean up a long, long overdue pension plan redress.

———————————————————————

* Fair disclosure: Since interviewing him for a 2019 essay—recalling his role in bringing Hodges to New York, his battles with substance abuse borne in due course of his rookie-season shoulder injury misdiagnosis, after he was subject to such a volume of cortisone shots that eventually contributed to the blindness with which he’s lived since 2005—Bill Denehy and myself have become friends.

Pending end of the Mets’ reign of error

Citi Field at dusk last week. Met fans hope Steve Cohen’s ownership means no more nightmares.

“In truth,” writes The Athletic‘s Marc Carig this morning, “there’s no way to know what kind of steward [Steve] Cohen will be. There’s no guarantee that his love for [the New York Mets] translates into success. There’s no promise that he uses his billions to boost payroll to a level appropriate for a team that plays its home games in New York.

“Of course, the bar he must clear to be an improvement over his predecessors isn’t very high.”

Indeed. Carig himself isolates the bar right after that observation. Promptly enough, he reminds Met fans who need no reminder, and fans elsewhere who think the Mets remain figments of someone’s warped tragicomic imagination, that the legacy of Fred Wilpon and his son Jeff since taking full ownership in 2003 has been reduced to the hash tag #LOLMets.

On Monday, there came the news that Cohen and the Wilpons finally came to a deal allowing Cohen to buy the Mets for $2.4 billion. The last doorway through which Cohen must pass is the approval of 23 of the remaining 29 major league owners. Donald Trump and Joe Biden have smaller chances of winning the coming presidential election than Cohen has of losing approval as the Mets’ new owner.

Cohen resembles more the genial neighbour ready to throw a few steaks on the grill for the whole block than a filthy rich financier. All he has to do to clear the Wilpons’ bar, really, is take even one baby step off the ground.

Since Nelson Doubleday sold his share of the Mets to the Wilpons in 2002, the Wilpons  have accomplished what many in New York once thought impossible. They made the worst of George Steinbrenner’s Yankee reign resemble Camelot. (The Arthurian, not the Kennedy.) “A one-man error machine,” George F. Will called Steinbrenner when the 1980s ended. With extremely few exceptions, the Wilpons have been a two-man forfeit.

“The GMs change. The managers change. The players change. But until now, what has remained the same are the owners, and their aversion to accountability, and their refusal to level with their fans,” Carig writes. Those very words could describe the 1980s Steinbrenner, except that even The Boss found ways to hold himself accountable, however long after the facts.

The stories from those who have lived through it sound the same. They describe a cover-your-ass culture, in which getting the job done often took a back seat to simply avoiding the wrath of Jeff Wilpon. They recount looking over their shoulders and trying to manage up — with varying degrees of success. It’s a dance that requires bandwidth that should be devoted to making the team better. After a while, it’s too exhausting. So many through the years have simply lost their ability to stomach that reality.

Carig knows not every last Mets problem since 2003 can be laid at the Wilpons’ feet, but it has seemed often enough as though every positive met ten negatives. “Upon buying out nemesis Nelson Doubleday,” the New York Post‘s Joel Sherman wrote after the buyout, “Fred Wilpon made bringing a sense of ‘family’ to the organization a priority. Little did we know he meant the Corleone family.”

Doubleday himself tried to warn anyone who’d listen, right after he sold out and when Jeff Wilpon was made the Mets’ chief operating officer: “Jeff Wilpon said he’s going to learn how to run a baseball team and take over at the end of the year. Run for the hills, boys. I think probably all those baseball people will bail.” Some learning.

A few years later, there came a move not even Steinbrenner thought of when he spent much of the 1980s throwing out the first manager of the season for reasons running the gamut from specious to capricious. Even Steinbrenner’s execution of Yogi Berra sixteen games into 1985 didn’t quite equal the Second Mets Midnight Massacre for disgrace because, as the New York Daily News‘s Bill Madden observed, at least Yogi got the guillotine in broad daylight.

Officially, then-Mets general manager Omar Minaya fired manager Willie Randolph—after he and the Mets flew from New York to southern California to open a series with the Angels, after the Mets won the series opener, and about three hours after midnight. All Minaya was was the caporegime carrying out the orders of underboss Jeff Wilpon and his father’s co-consigliere Tony Bernazard. (Beware, Mr. Cohen. That’s Bernazard now manning the first base coaching line for your Mets.)

Minaya and, really, all his successors holding the GM title found themselves, most of the time, doing just that, holding the title while Wilpon fils held and exercised the power while leaving them on (pardon the expression) the firing line. Cohen will do well and right to engage real baseball people with hearts and minds, the wills to exercise both, and no requirement for rear-view mirrors attached to their sunglasses.

Just promise Met fans, Mr. Cohen, that you’ll resist the temptation to mortgage the Mets’ future on behalf of the old Steinbrennerian tack, exercised too liberally too often by the Wilpons, of bringing in “name guys who can put fannies in the seats,” even if the name guys are on the threshold of the end of the line.

Or, demeaning the guys who still have miles to go before they sleep but discover the hard way that they could hit for the home run cycle (solo, two-run, three-run, salami) at the plate or throw a 27-pitch perfect game and still get a Wilpon boot heel in the backside, while wearing Met uniforms or when leaving for other, less capricious pastures. The trashing of Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey upon his almost immediate departure was only the lowest of such lows.

The Wilpons’ monkey business management even impacted the Mets’ number one farm team. Why on earth did the Tidewater/Norfolk Tides move clean across the country to Las Vegas, to play in pleasant-stands/rickety field/hotter than hell Cashman Field? (They’ve since moved to Syracuse.) Wilpon fils soured the relationship with Norfolk, according to a Tides executive who spoke to Wall Street Journal reporter Brian Costa in 2013:

[C]ommunication with team officials became ‘virtually nonexistent’ . . . When he became involved in everything was when things changed. I dealt with him on some things and somebody always had to go to him if you wanted to do anything. He had his nose and hands in everything.

Don’t get anyone started on the Mets’ medical disasters of the past several years, either. The Wilpons, Jeff in particular, were seen micromanaging those, too, particularly the clumsy public relations side of them. You’d have been very tempted to think that Wilpon pere and fils alike believed to their souls that numerous avoidable Met injury complications, usually when players were back on the field sooner than reasonable, were either God’s will or the players’ faults.

Anyone else taking over a storied if troubled franchise would merely have his work cut out for him. Cohen may have to reach into a miracle bag right away. This year’s Mets—with a more solid core of younger talent than credited—might be in better postseason position if they hadn’t had a hiccuping bullpen much of the way or catchers who don’t seem allergic to hitting or to pitch calling and framing when working with arms not belonging to Jacob deGrom.

Small wonder that when the social media universe exploded with glee at the finality of Cohen meeting the Wilpons’ price the glee was mixed with a considerable majority of opinion that Cohen’s first order of Met business ought to be targeting and signing J.T. Realmuto, currently the Phillies’ catcher who becomes a free agent after the postseason.

(Codicil: If you must, get him for no more than three years. At 30, Realmuto isn’t likely to be serviceable behind the plate for too much longer, and the Mets already have a few DH types aboard. The starting pitching not named deGrom, Seth Lugo, or pending return Noah Syndergaard needs work. And keep an eye out for available young competent catching.)

How about a front office overhaul? Met fans drooling over Cohen’s advent probably have wet dreams about incumbent GM Brodie Van Wagenen’s departure. The team’s medical staff may or may not need yet another frame-up overhaul. If the Show repairs its relationship with the minor leagues, assuming the minors have a 2021 season to play at all, it wouldn’t hurt Cohen to deliver some badly needed damage control.

Like yours truly, Cohen is a Met fan since the day they were born. On such behalf could he also use his formidable resources as Carig suggests powerfully enough, “spend[ing] on areas not seen by fans. That goes beyond a heavier investment in analytics. It extends to scouting and player development. The Yankees and others have poured resources into those areas. There’s no reason for the Mets to lag behind. Cohen could make that change relatively easily, and almost instantly.”

The new owner doesn’t lack for his own baggage, of course. He’s tangled with the Feds over insider trading, though his old company SAC Capital was forced to yield $1.8 billion to pay a record fine while Cohen himself wasn’t accused of wrongdoing. All he had to do was not involve himself in managing outside investors’ money for two years, and he obeyed the order dutifully enough.

The Wilpons did dodge a howitzer shell by preferring Cohen over a group led by former All-Star Alex Rodriguez and his paramour Jennifer Lopez, who didn’t have enough to out-bid Cohen as it was, after all. A-Rod probably cooked their chances when it became known he sought the unofficial counsel of disgraced former Houston Astros GM Jeff Luhnow. Taking sound baseball counsel from Luhnow compares to studying human relations with Kim Jong-un.

But selling to J-Rod would also have meant not being rid of Wilpon fils entirely. From Daily News writer Deesha Thosar: “Jeff Wilpon desperately wanted the group led by [J-Rod] to take over because the couple, unlike Cohen, would have let him have an active role in the team. Right up until Monday evening, when Sterling Partners announced Cohen would purchase the Mets, Jeff Wilpon was the one propping up A-Rod in exchange for keeping a hand in operations.”

Perhaps in spite of themselves, the Wilpons leave that solid young Met core to Cohen’s stewardship. They also leave a crown jewel in Citi Field, which they built, but which they had to remake after discovering their original little palace played (and looked) more like Ebbets Field surrounding the Grand Canyon. The remake/remodel has done wonders, for the team on the field and the fans in the stands who love the current ambience and the culinary offerings alike, and can’t wait to come back when pandemic relief allows.

“[W]ith how the Mets are currently constructed,” writes Daily News reporter Bradford William Davis, “all the team needs to be turbocharged into a contender is above-replacement level ownership.”

Cohen merely has to do what the Wilpons mostly couldn’t, wouldn’t, or both: Fortify, deliver, and sustain a team as digestible as its ballpark without causing organisational or fan base indigestion. A man whose from-boyhood passion was merely born with Who the Hell’s on First, What the Hell’s on Second, You Don’t Want to Know’s on third, and You Don’t Even Want To Think About It’s at shortstop can’t do any worse. Can he?

The Buffalonto beatdown

Wearing his NYPD hat to commemorate the 9/11 atrocity, deGrom pinned the Blue Jays while his mates bludgeoned them Friday night.

Until two starts ago, Jacob deGrom must have felt like the single most neglected spouse in town. He was said to be keeping non-support court filings signed and sealed in his locker just in case things went from bad to worse to lost cause entirely.

Then, last Sunday, his New York Mess (er, Mets) gave him seven runs to work with before his day ended and dropped seven more on the Philadelphia Phillies after he came out of the game. You couldn’t blame deGrom if he’d awakened the next morning asking himself whether he’d been dreaming.

So what to make of Friday night against the Buffalonto Blue Jays in the Jays’ temporary, pandemic-season home?

With the Mets allowed to wear first-responder hats at last to commemorate victims and their attempted rescuers in the 9/11 atrocity nineteen years earlier?

With deGrom pitching like the two-time defending Cy Young Award winner he is . . . and the Mets giving him fourteen runs to work with before his outing ended after six innings? Including and especially a ten-run fourth featuring Dominic Smith slicing salami?

This was no band of pushovers deGrom and the Mets massacred Friday night. The Jays were in second place in the American League East with a 24-19 record when the game began. They’re not exactly driven back to the basement after the Mets’ carnage. But they might have been tempted to crawl into the nearest Buffalo basement to hide at least until Saturday’s game.

Maybe the Jays just faced the wrong New York team. Earlier this week they dropped a ten-spot on the Yankees in the sixth. On Friday night, the Mets—who came into the game leading the National League with a .275 team batting average and a .351 team on-base percentage—looked more like Murderer’s Row than a Mess.

“The guys did a good job of going out there and putting up runs for me,” said deGrom to reporters after the 18-1 bludgeoning, in what was probably the understatement of the night. “It was a little cold out there, so I was trying to stay loose in between, but I’m thankful for the runs and they did a good job all night of that.”

The Mets already had a 4-1 lead when Wilson Ramos opened the fourth working a walk out of Toronto reliever Anthony Kay. You may remember Kay’s the one the Mets traded to the Jays last year to get Marcus Stroman, who opted out of this season after it began and goes to free agency after this season.

Well, now. Brandon Nimmo chunked a base hit into shallow left to follow Ramos. After Kay walked Michael Conforto to load the pillows following that, the fun really began. J.D. Davis grounded sharply to Jays shortstop Santiago Espinal. Espinal had a clean shot throwing Ramos out at the plate. The throw hit Jays catcher Danny Jansen right on target. And it bounced right out of Jansen’s mitt and off to his right just before Ramos crossed the plate unmolested.

Up stepped Smith with the pillows still full. He swung on 2-0 and drove it clean over the right field fence. 9-1 Mets, five runs home in the fourth thus far, and the Jays hadn’t seen anything yet.

Robinson Cano followed Smith with a line single. Pete Alonso, who had a night he’d rather forget at the plate, struck out on a full count, but Kay came out of the game in favour of Jacob Waguespack and Jeff McNeil greeted the new man on the mound with a line single up the pipe, before Waguespack hit Mets rookie Andres Gimenez with a pitch that ricocheted off to the left side.

Here came Ramos again, and into the right center field gap went his three-run double. Nimmo pushed Ramos to third with a ground out to Espinal playing him up the middle, then Conforto—who’d hit a three-run homer in the four-run Mets third—sent a liner to left that bounced past a sliding Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. hoping for a shot at the circus catch. And Davis cued one just past third base and up the line for the double sending Conforto home.

Smith looking at strike three hitting the absolute edge of the low outside corner must have felt to the Blue Jays as though he’d decided to have mercy upon them. DeGrom in the Mets dugout must have watched the carnage and wondered, even for a split second, what new and unheard-of ways his mates would find to blow a thirteen-run lead.

The long layoff in the fourth and the Buffalo chill all night may have affected him a little. He had to wrestle a bit for his outs and to keep the Jays from getting any friskier than second and third in the bottom of the fifth, but he still finished his evening’s combination of work and leisure with nine strikeouts, two walks, one measly earned run (Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. singling home Randal Grichuk in the bottom of the first), an ERA shrunk to 1.67, and a second-best 0.87 walks/hits per inning pitched rate.

This time, the only thing the Mets blew was what remained of the Blue Jays’ fight for the night.

Erasmo Ramirez came out of the bullpen for the final three innings’ scoreless relief and a save under the three-inning side of the rule, while the Mets added two in the seventh (a bases-loaded walk to Cano; Davis scoring on Conforto’s ground out to shortstop), one in the eighth (Ramos hitting one over the center field fence), and one in the ninth. (Gimenez doubling home Alonso, who’d reached when he got plunked.)

If this is dreaming, deGrom must have thought when the game went into the books at last, I’ll kill the guy who wakes me up. To death.

“First and foremost,” said Conforto, “we got the win, and we got a win for Jake too. We’re always feeling good when Jake’s on the mound no matter how many runs we put up, but it felt good to do that for him.”

DeGrom wore a New York Police Department hat for the game. Other Mets wore that or hats for the New York Fire Department, the Port Authority Police Department, the Department of Sanitation, and the Office of Emergency Management commemorating the 9/11 atrocity.

Last year, after baseball’s government again told the Mets not to even think about wearing the hats during a game on that anniversary, Alonso decided to let the world know what he thought about that. He paid for 9/11 commemorative cleats for himself and his mates to wear when they played the Arizona Diamondbacks on the anniversary—and beat them with nine runs and eleven hits.

This year, baseball government wised up and let the Mets and the Yankees have their heads about the commemorative hats, just in time for the Mets to hand the Blue Jays their heads and for the Yankees to sweep the Yankees in a doubleheader Friday. Doing the right thing with or without official permission invites its own kind of good karma.

Commemorating 9/11—Defiance yields dividends, revisited

Note: New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso now seems to have broken out of his slump. The 2019 National League Rookie of the Year has hit five home runs in his past seven games, including a game-ender against the Yankees last week and a game-winner against the Orioles Wednesday night. The Mets’ batting coach, Chili Davis, says Alonso—hardly the only star struggling this strange season—sought a fast start and tried to force too much and thus his slumps.

On today’s anniversary of the 9/11 atrocity, against both my country and my native city, I’d like to revisit Alonso’s most shining among many 2019 moments en route his setting a new seasonal home run record for rookies—the day he defied commissioner Rob Manfred on behalf of inviting his teammates to join in delivering a 9/11 commemoration, springing entirely from his heart as well as his own checkbook. I also include the dedication to which I offered the original essay.

The 9/11-commemorative shoes with which Pete Alonso defied a witless commissioner last year.

 

Defiance yields dividends
(Original publication: 13 September 2019)

Baseball’s unwritten rules are ridiculous enough. Some of the written or at least known-to-be rules are even more ridiculous. Which is why Mets rookie star Pete Alonso’s 9/11 defiance ennobles and should elevate him and shame baseball’s government.

When the Mets played their first home game following the original 9/11 atrocity, they wore hats brandishing NYPD, NYFD, and other first responders with their uniforms. They defied baseball government then, too. Ever since, baseball government has shot down subsequent similar bids to honour the rescuers and the fallen. And others.

As the Mets pondered violating the edict on 9/11’s tenth anniversary (they ended up obeying baseball government orders for nothing more than an American flag on their caps), the Nationals had ideas about wearing Navy SEALs caps during a game around the same time, honouring those SEALs killed in Afghanistan that August. Baseball government said sure—pre-game only. During the game, don’t even think about it.

Alonso—a first grade Florida kid when the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11—wasn’t having any of that nonsense.

If baseball was going to shoot down his original idea for custom hats featuring New York police, fire, and assorted first responders* and others, Alonso was going to shoot his own weapon—he got his teammates’ shoe sizes and footed the bill himself for Adidas, New Balance, and other top athletic shoemakers to make special 9/11 commemorative game cleats.

“I’ve just been thankful and gracious for this opportunity,” Alonso said to Yahoo! Sports‘s Mike Mazzeo, referring apparently to both his surrealistic rookie season and his chance to do honour to 9/11’s victims and responders.

“For me, this season has been an absolute fantasy. I just want to give back. I want to help. 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.”

Baseball government at least had the Mets, the Diamondbacks, and other teams wear patches on their caps showing MLB’s official logo converted to an American flag backdrop, a red-white-blue ribbon behind the logo, and “We shall not forget” embroidered into one side of the surrounding blue circle. Royalties from replica sales will go to three national 9/11 memorial groups.

That’s something commendable, but the idea that Alonso—who gave ten percent of his Home Run Derby prize money to two 9/11-related charities, the Wounded Warriors Project and the Stephen Stiller Tunnel to Towers Foundation (Stiller was a New York firefighter killed during 9/11 rescue efforts)—should have had to defy his game’s governors to honour those killed in America’s arguably worst single-attack atrocity, is grotesque.

Maybe the Mets being one and all on board with Alonso’s footwear helped keep the Manfred regime from slapping the team with a fine or other disciplinary measures. Or maybe the sense that fining or otherwise disciplining Alonso and the Mets for it would bring the regime more negative publicity kept it on its better behaviour.

And maybe the Mets’ defiance delivered them a little favour from the Elysian Fields.

First, they flattened the visiting Diamondbacks Wednesday, 9-0—nine runs on eleven hits including a five-run first. Then, as if to prove that some good deeds go unpunished, the Mets finished a four-sweep of the Snakes Thursday with an 11-1 battering.

Again, the Mets used eleven hits, including a single-game team record six clearing the fences, including center fielder Juan Lagares doing it twice, while Marcus Stroman nailed his first genuinely quality start on the mound since becoming a Met shortly before this year’s new single trade deadline.

Lagares’s first blast was only the biggest blow. Todd Frazier’s second-inning leadoff blast against Diamondbacks starter Alex Young and J.D. Davis’s two-out RBI single in the third off Young opened the game 2-0 Mets. A base hit and a walk loaded the pads for Lagares in the third when he wrestled Young to a full count.

Then Young threw a fastball arriving under the floor of the strike zone, and Lagares picked the perfect moment for his first career salami, hitting the equivalent of a five-iron shot into the left field seats.

The center fielder joined the long ball party in the bottom of the fifth, too. Aging second baseman Robinson Cano opened the inning with a line drive into the right field bullpen at Snakes reliever Robby Scott’s expense. Michael Conforto drew a one-out walk and, a strikeout later, exit Scott, enter Jimmie Sherfy, and exit another Lagares launch, this one landing in the seats near the right field foul pole.

Mets catcher Tomas Nido—the backup to Wilson Ramos, and the receiver half the Mets’ starting rotation seems to prefer throwing to (the Mets’ team ERA with Nido behind the plate: 3.68; with Ramos: 4.46), but who doesn’t hit enough to enable them to cement that preference—batted next. He didn’t give Sherfy a chance to breathe after Lagares’s second blast, lining one off the back left field wall above the thick orange line marker that denotes a home run.

Two innings later, and after pinch-hitter Ildemaro Vargas doubled home the only Arizona run in the top of the frame, Conforto punished reliever Kevin Ginkel for a third straight four-seam fastball, driving the down-and-in service into the upper deck in right.

Nothing, however, made even half the impression Alonso’s defiance in tribute to 9/11’s fallen and heroes made. The rook plotted the subterfuge for weeks and, by all known accounts, got the Mets’ team leaders including defending Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom on board with the plot.

Threats of fines or other disciplinary measures against Alonso or the Mets have proven unfulfilled, so far.

The fact that such a threat was made or implied and even had to be taken seriously tells you plenty of what you need to know about why baseball’s government has such a rotten public image while the game itself and most of those who play it have one of simple beauty.

Thus does baseball remain very much like its country—our government has a rotten image that’s very well deserved, but our country and most of those who call it our own have one of simple beauty.


* In my college years, briefly, I dated a Long Island nursing student named Kathy Mazza. It never became serious between us, but we had a few pleasant dates including a couple that ended with an all-night hunt for bialys—they differ from bagels in being smaller and based in flour, not malt—which I remember were a particular favourite snack of hers at the time.

Kathy eventually became an operating room nurse turned Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police officer who, her eventual police officer husband once swore, became a cop to show him how policing was really done. In due course, she became the second woman to earn captain’s bars on the PAPD and the first to command its police academy.

Her achievements there included convincing the Port Authority to install portable heart defibrillators in the airports it oversaw and training the 600 PAPD officers posted to those airports on how to use them. She also taught emergency medical procedures at the PAPD academy.

And, she died in the 9/11 atrocity.

Joining PAPD responders at the North Tower, she shot out the glass walls of the North Tower’s mezzanine enabling hundreds to escape; the tower ultimately collapsed while she and fellow PAPD officers tried leading more out of the tower. Her body was found a month later, I believe.

Kathy Mazza was one of 37 PAPD officers including its then-chief killed on 9/11. She’s still the only woman ever killed in the line of duty on the PAPD, which suffered the largest single-event loss of life of any single law enforcement agency in history on 9/11.

This column is dedicated to her and their memory.