The New York Mets had just eked out a 2-0 win over the Boston Red Sox on July 14, and because it marked Bobby Valentine’s 1000th victory as a big-league manager, team PR director Jay Horwitz came into Valentine’s media-filled office passing around a press release noting the occasion. On the back was the box score from his very first win, with Texas in May of 1985, and after a few minutes deflecting the usual flurry of obvious questions (“How satisfying is it? . . . Do you feel like a survivor?”), Valentine picked up the press release and stared at that old box score, which read Rangers 7, Chisox 2. “I must have been a better manager then,” Valentine deadpanned. “We scored 7 runs.”
If you’re looking for one good reason why this year’s Mets find themselves in double digits in the games-behind column (and if you’re one of the unfortunate few who still want to believe this team has a chance to make the playoffs, your last name is probably von Bulow), just hold your nose and take a whiff of the team’s, er, offensive statistics.
As any baseball maven will tell you, the name of the game is pitching—except when it isn’t. A little over a week after Valentine’s 1000th win, the 2001 Mets played their 100th game, a 3-2 loss to the Phillies that left them with a (your choice of suitably depressing adjective here) 45-55 record in which they’d scored a grand total of 373 runs. No National League team had scored fewer runs; even the Pirates were averaging 4.14 runs per game. In fact, if you named any hitting-related category known to man or SABRmetrician—batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, home runs—the Mets were either scraping or at the very bottom of every last one. Another Subway Series? The way these guys have been hitting, the team bus should just carry a big “I-95” sign on it.
What makes this season particularly disturbing for the Mets is the fact that, amid all the teeth gnashing over the free-agency loss of Mike “Don’t Fence Me In” Hampton and the cost-cutting jettisoning of Bobby (the white guy) Jones from the starting rotation, the Mets’ pitching staff got to the All-Star break with an ERA virtually identical to that of last year (4.51 in ’01; 4.52 in ’00)—and yes, that even includes blowout specialist Steve Trachsel (talk about a game face; he could be pitching a no-hitter and he still would have that deer-in-the-headlights look). But—and it’s a huge one—last year’s team hit the All-Star break scoring an average of 5.3 runs per game. The ’01 Mets scored 3 or fewer runs in a frightful 55 of their first 100 games, going 10-45. Four or more? 35-10.
There are, of course, no easy answers here, outside of simply getting people on base and then driving them home. And while the recent clubhouse grousing by now-departed reserve catcher Todd Pratt regarding the lack of production by the Mets’ gaggle of revolving outfielders was certainly correct (Fun fact: Through last Sunday, Bubba Trammell, traded to San Diego for now demoted reliever Donne Wall, had as many RBIs as Mike Piazza), the virus plaguing the Mets’ bats all season has been an equal-opportunity pathogen.
A team effort all the way, and one that Valentine has found as confounding as anything he’s seen in his near decade and a half of managing.
“I counted it one time before the All-Star break,” he told us after that 1000th win. “We’ve had something like 60 games this year where one hit by us or one hit by the other team decided the game. These games are every inning and every pitch of every inning. Every pitch we throw is important because it’s close, and for the same reason, every at-bat is important. Every hit-and-run we try, if a guy hits into a double play, I’m thinking, ‘When are we gonna get another chance?’ The opportunities are very few, and we just haven’t been able to get it done. But I’m not turning on the players. I see the effort; I see the desire; I see everything except the base hits.”
As Valentine spoke, I could recall the words of Frank Howard—all 6-8 of him—rumbling from that same Shea Stadium office at the end of the 1983 season, when as interim manager, he saw his cellar-dwelling Mets go 68-94.
That team scored just 3.5 runs per game (the league average was 4.1), and Howard, normally a gentle giant, was pounding his hand on the desk for emphasis as he spoke.
“You (bang) can’t (bang) compete (bang) in Major League Baseball (bang) if you can’t score (bang) four (bang) runs (bang) per (bang) game (bang),” he barked. By the time he was finished, one was half-expecting to see the desk sinking right through the floor. And guess who the Mets’ third-base coach was that year? A guy named Valentine.
METCETERA: Although general manager Steve Phillips‘s “skills set” dictates that he not divulge anything of substance regarding possible trades, he has let it be known that dumping salary for prospects is not likely, given the city the Mets play in. “If you want to win in this market, my feeling is you don’t win by rebuilding with young players,” he stated flatly last week. “You need the talent to maintain a level of success.” Which means that whatever moves he makes will likely be of the nature of a combination of valued commodities (that would be starting pitchers) and underachievers (anyone in the infield save for injury-plagued Edgardo Alfonzo) for matching packages by another team, such as the rumored deal with Colorado involving Glendon Rusch, Robin Ventura, and Rey Ordoñez going for Pedro Astacio, Neifi Perez, and maybe Jeff Cirillo.