Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Frank Cashen turned the Mets from weepers to winners

It was with a heavy heart that I read on July 1 that legendary New York Mets general manager Frank Cashen had died.

One of the quotes in story about Cashen was from Mets great Keith Hernandez, who said that Cashen never swung a bat for his teams or played the field, but did so much to make them winners.

Truer words were hardly ever spoken.

We who loved the Mets always enjoy talking about the late mid to 1970s, when the Miracle Mets of 1969 and the improbable NL champs of 1973 became the Mediocre Mets. The real decline began in 1975, when Tom Seaver was traded to the hated Cincinnati Reds. Memories of the 1973 NLCS and the fighting that broke out at Shea were still strong.

I can still remember that Seaver was part of the delegation that went out to left field and appealed to fans in the stands to stop throwing things at Pete Rose because the Mets would forfeit the game if they didn’t stop.

Some might say that the heart went out of the franchise after the Mets lost the 1973 World Series to the Oakland A’s in seven games, but the death of Joan Payson really was the beginning of the “down years” for the Mets. Sure, she was a hard-nosed businesswoman who made tough decisions, but she loved the team and you knew that no one was going to put one over on her.

As a kid, I read incredulously the stories in the papers about how Payson’s daughters, who had inherited the team, knew nothing about baseball, but were learning every day, under the tutelage of M. Donald Grant, the chairman of the board. Under Chairman Grant, Shea Stadium became a house of baseball horrors. Players who wouldn’t have made it in A or AA found themselves wearing the blue and white, and doing things in the game that barely can be mentioned in mixed company.

There was a guy who used to bring a collection of signs. When he brought in and showed one that said, “Welcome to Grant’s tomb,” he was summarily ejected from the park. Many people preferred to do it themselves, and countless games of something that was dubbed “Mets’ baseball” were played to empty seats.

The team resorted to ad campaigns with idiotic slogans – “Catch a Rising Star,” “This Summer, the Mets Are Turning to a New Source of Power,” “I’m a Stubborn Mets Fan” (with a braying donkey on a T-shirt), “The New New York Mets, the Peoples’ Team” and more.

Look, people, a loser is a loser, and no one wants to be associated with a loser. Across town, George Steinbrenner’s Yankees were attracting attention with a colorful and aggressive manager (Billy Martin) and free agents that could play, even if they despised each other. My father would declare, after another Mets loss, “Why don’t they go out and buy themselves a ballteam?”

Through the late 1970s, the Mets limped along. High hopes in spring training and another rookie starting pitcher (the next Tom Seaver, we’d hear) usually turned into dismay before May. By the early 1980s, shell-shocked Mets fans had seen it all, and when the team was finally sold to Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon in January 1980, Mets fans were ready for more seasons of ineptitude in the front office and on the field.

But Doubleday and Wilpon hired Cashen and he began with the basics, so his brilliance was not recognized right away. The farm system was rebuilt and began turning out real stars like Hubie Brooks, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, and many more.

Strategic trades brought established stars like Gary Carter and the real key to the whole operation, Keith Hernandez, to the team. Keith had quite a reputation for the Mets’ rival Cardinals, and there were stories about cocaine use, but Hernandez was a leader. Even more important, he was a first base artist. First base was where you stuck outfielders who couldn’t run anymore and catchers whose knees were shot, and so many first basemen suffered from “bad hands,” but Hernandez was the maestro of first base. You remembered his errors in throwing and fielding because they were so rare.

And he was a dangerous lefthanded power hitter who could make baseballs fly and batted in front of Strawberry. I always say that Hernandez was the real key to the Mets in those years. Pitchers who would laugh about throwing to Mets hitters suddenly found themselves shaking in their cleats as they faced men who could put baseballs away. No more of this “warning-track power” B.S. These guys were the real deal.

And it was Frank Cashen who put it all together and made it work. He got a manager, Davey Johnson, who knew how to bring aggressive players together and get them focused on the cause, and all that talk in the 1970s and early 1980s about how awful Shea Stadium was went away. You put a great team into a stadium, and people won’t care if the place is falling apart and the hot dogs put you in the hospital. They want a winner, not a spinner.

Of course, the good times couldn’t last. No one’s perfect in assessing baseball talent and even great players burn out eventually. The Mets never repeated their 1986 glory but came close, and the failures of recent years are, of course, not Cashen’s fault.

He provided the players who gave Mets’ fans some thrills and awesome memories. For that, I am grateful, and wish his family the best in this sad time.

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July 2, 2014 - Posted by | Life lessons, The business of sports

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