It had been nearly 11 years since David Cone was at Shea Stadium in a Met uniform, and after pitching five innings of shutout ball and getting the win against the Montreal Expos in his first major league appearance since sitting out all of 2002, the 40-year-old was asked what stood out in his mind. Noting that “the drive to the ballpark was kind of surreal,” the boyish-looking right-hander said he was really thrilled to hear the crowd cheering for him, and in particular “that two-strike chant like we used to have in the old days here when we had a lot of strikeout pitchers.”
Ah, yes, the old days at Shea, when young men with names like Gooden, Darling, Fernandez, and Cone mowed down the opposition with day-after-day displays of speed and power. But as the Monkees would say, that was then, this is now, and it seems somehow fitting that the 2003 edition of the New York Mets would be unveiled the week that the clocks moved forward and not back. With a fastball topping out at around 86, and with the K’s mostly coming via 70 mph curves and change-ups, Cone will have to get by on guile, not gas. Like the rest of this year’s Met starting rotation, which is long in tooth and short on torque, he will need solid defense behind him if he’s to succeed.
One important reason the Mets finished dead last in the NL East in 2002 was their atrocious defense—their 144 errors “led” the league—and looking around the field this year, it’s hard to see any grounds for assuming improvement. On the right side of the infield there’s Mo Vaughn, unable to bend over for anything that’s not edible, and Roberto Alomar, who seems to be just missing grounders to both his left and right—not a good sign for a 35-year-old. At shortstop, while the good news is that Rey Sanchez is no Rey Ordoñez, the bad news is that, with the same basic build and wearing the same number 10 as his don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on the-way-out predecessor, Sanchez from the back looks like Ordoñez. And while Ty Wigginton certainly has the desire to become a good third baseman, the chops aren’t there naturally, meaning it’ll be a work in progress all year. Moreover, Sanchez’s lack of range at short means that Wigginton will try to cover more ground than he should be responsible for.
Then again, after but a week, it seems fairly obvious that covering ground is already a problem for the Met outfield. In left, Cliff Floyd shows little instinct for getting a “read” on balls hit his way (especially line drives)—and has already turned catchable balls and/or singles into doubles in a fashion we haven’t seen at Shea since George Foster and his limo left town. In center, Roger Cedeño so far doesn’t look any worse than he did last year in left. Floyd’s lack of range will make it harder on Cedeño, but if Jeromy Burnitz can remain the solid right fielder he’s always been—and can move into the gap to relieve pressure on Cedeño—this may work. But if superior fielders Timo Perez and Tsuyoshi Shinjo don’t get much playing time (manager Art Howe apparently hasn’t figured out he’s not in the American League anymore), things could get fairly ugly soon. Behind the plate, Mike Piazza at 34 continues to pursue the all-time home run record for catchers, and until he hits the 17 needed to surpass Carlton Fisk, he remains glued there—along with his woeful less-than-20 percent success rate at throwing out base stealers. Barring more suspensions, we won’t get to see that much of Vance Wilson, whose 51 percent rating was tops in the league, and who, like Perez and Shinjo, is an undervalued commodity in a defense-dependent place like Shea.
Hitting? The Mets will probably hit. Pitching? If Glavine, Leiter, Trachsel, Cone, and/or Astacio consistently give five to six innings, and the veteran bullpen can hang in there—and that includes Armando “He Hit a Good Pitch” Benitez, who for all the damnation by the fans and the media, blew only four saves all last year—the Mets could be competitive in a division likely to stay up for grabs all season. But if they can’t grab that ball, all the new paint in the world won’t be able to whitewash what could be a very long season for a very old team.