Evolving Amazins Look to Move Up

Baseball in the Big Apple: Two Teams, One Ticket-Tape Parade

The cover of the 2000 New York Mets media guide shows Robin Ventura being mobbed by teammates after his heart-stopping grand slam "single" in Game 5 of last year's NLCS against the Atlanta Braves. "Amazin' Again" it says in big, bold Mets blue-and-orange letters—and this longtime Shea observer couldn't agree more. After all, if you had a team that, after 170-plus games, came within two wins of making it to the World Series, wouldn't you think it "amazin' " if your general manager spent the ensuing off-season replacing a good third of the players who brung ya there?

Just how broke was this team that it needed the kind of winter alterations engineered by action-obsessed Steve Phillips? Good question—and one that the Mets GM keeps answering with the kind of talent/salary business talk that's come to dominate pro sports of late rather than with any actual baseball logic. For his part, manager Bobby Valentine—he of the tenuous one-year-left, "we'll talk more after you've won something" contract—sure wasn't taking the party line when asked just before spring training if he thought the on-paper 2000 Mets were better than the true-life 1999 model. "I don't think so," he said. "I think it could be, if things fall into place. I don't ever think that a disjointed assemblage of people is better than a unified group. And by the end of the season, I thought we were pretty much a unified group."

John Olerud, Roger Cedeno, Orel Hershiser, Masato Yoshii, Octavio Dotel, Shawon Dunston, yes, even Kenny Rogers—they were all part of that unified, you-gotta-have-heart group swarming around Robin Ventura for that brief but truly magical Mets moment last October. Like the song says, though, that was yesterday—and yesterday's gone. As for today and tomorrow, when things may or may not fall into place, here's our two cents' worth:

Pitching: Sure, Mike Hampton is better than any of the four starters he's here to replace. Like Regis Philbin, though, he's only one man. Hershiser, Yoshii, Dotel, and Rogers started 87 games last year and went 38-24—a winning percentage of .613 that was actually better than the 97-66 team's overall mark of .595. So where are those wins going to come from? Al Leiter? He's coming off a 13-12 year that, unfortunately, was far more in line with his overall career stats than his (free agency-inspired) 17-6 year in 1998. Bobby J. Jones? Injury concerns continue to make him a question mark. Rookie ("Glenn or") Glendon Rusch? An unproven commodity for a rotation that can't really afford any bad surprises. At least they've still got (it's been three years now) secret weapon Rick Reed, who's gone six or more innings in 72 of his 88 Met starts and seems to come up big every time he's needed. Speaking of bad surprises, outside of perhaps any new animal teeth hanging from the necklace of Turk "Legends of the Fall" Wendell, there shouldn't be too many from the veteran bull pen of Pat Mahomes, Rich Rodriguez, Dennis Cook, Wendell, John Franco, and Armando Benitez. Then again, it might behoove the Mets to get "Baby Huey" Benitez a bit more aware of how much his muy machotoreador act really ticks off opponents.

Offense: Even without the sure-to-be-missed Olerud, the Mets still have authentic bangers in Mike Piazza, Robin Ventura, Edgardo Alfonzo, and Todd Zeile (not only a gamer, but nearly as much a mensch as Olerud; that may ultimately matter more than his hitting). Without Cedeno, however, they are certainly slower—much slower. Still, their lineup should be productive, depending on a few key ifs: if trigger-happy Phillips doesn't actually go ahead and trade Rickey "Homey Don't Play That Game" Henderson (sure, he's nuts; he's always been nuts); if Darryl Hamilton (or likely against-lefties sub Melvin Mora) keeps batting second; and if Derek Bell bats no higher than sixth. Yes, Bell has all the trappings of a power hitter—he strikes out a whole lot, and likes to speak about himself in both the first and third person, often in the same sentence—but he doesn't actually hit home runs (home-opening heroics notwithstanding). In seven- plus seasons, he's got all of 111.

Defense and Bench: No infield will ever have a better year than the Mets had in 1999 (least errors in major league history), so don't look for that again—especially with Zeile learning first base on the job and Ventura still recovering from shoulder surgery. (If you're an injury-minded rotisserie guy, Ventura is the man to watch in 2000.) The Mets brought in John Stearns to work with Piazza on his throwing, but considering their conflicting musical tastes (Piazza's a metalhead; Stearns a country boot scooter), don't expect too much. Besides, Todd Pratt should be in there more for late-inning defense anyway (and did you know he hit .310 and drove in 21 runs in the 29 games he started last year?). Utility man Kurt Abbott's probably more versatile than Luis Lopez—and also much less likely to get into a nationalistic scrape with Rey Ordoñez. Given the age of the starting outfield (Henderson, 41; Hamilton, 35; Bell, 31), everyone else will no doubt get appreciable field time—save, of course, pinch-hit specialist Matt Franco, who at this point in his career is even starting to look like Rusty Staub. And as to the nagging Jay Payton/Benny Agbayani controversy, all we'll say is if, at age 27, the injury-prone Payton still has such great potential, why doesn't anyone else want him? Moreover, Benny is the vital good-luck link to the Mets' mid-'80s glory teams as proud successor to "El Sid" Fernandez in the Hawaiian-centric, oversized No. 50 uniform department. You don't really want to mess with that kind of karma.

Coach: As for the ever beleaguered Bobby V., well, love him or hate him, the Mets skipper always says what's on his mind, and all the media people who can't stand him (and their numbers are legion) will surely be sorry to lose all the good copy if they do finally get what they've been salivating for since he got here in late 1996—that is, his head on a platter. As one who mostly finds himself on the other side of that sour Greek chorus, here's hoping Valentine finds a way to sheathe that sword he always seems so bizarrely ready to fall on.

Prediction: To quote the bard, Bob Murphy: Fasten your seat belts.


It's Up to You NY, NY: Yankees

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