Monday, January 17, 2005

The Face Of A New Generation

I'm alive
I'm being born
I just arrived, I'm at the door
Of the place I started out from
And I want back inside
All because of you - U2

In 1983, a nine year old boy on vacation with his parents in Wildwood, NJ glanced up at a TV screen in their hotel. He didn't have a great deal of interest in the sport, at the time being more concerned with the exploits of Spidey, the Hulk, and the Hardy Boys.

But the figure at the plate gave him a pause and a chuckle. After a moment of disbelief, he asked his mother, a die-hard Mets fan since 1969, who it was at the plate?

"Darryl Strawberry. He's the Mets' new outfielder and he's amazing!"

"His name's really Strawberry?", said the skeptical little boy.

"Yep. And he can hit the baseball a long, long way."

The boy nodded in quizzical admiration and went back to his books. He didn't watch but he remembered the name.

Upon returning from vacation, he began checking for this Strawberry fellow in the papers and, before long, began following the Mets in earnest.

Since then, I've been through a lot with this team. Not as much as the young woman who introduced him to Darryl Strawberry, who as a little girl was so sick during the summer of '69 that she had nothing to do but watch a miracle unfold on TV. But certainly enough so that I can appreciate where certain events fall with the history of Mets baseball.

I can remember being so disgusted that the Mets traded Hubie Brooks, my favorite player at the time, for some freakin' catcher named Gary Carter. I can remember coming so close in '85 only to be finally beaten out by Herzog's redbirds. I can remember '86. I can remember '88, the year Orel killed the Mets. I can remember the Coney years, the Pirate rivalries, and how much I always hated Willie McGee (and, god help me, I can't believe he got 5% of the HoF vote).

It has been over a decade since then. A decade ago, the Mets signed Bobby Bonilla, Vince Coleman, and traded for Juan Samuel and lost all the magic they generated in the '80s. Generation K collapsed, Jeff Kent was traded, and the Mets sank in the standings and in the minds of New Yorkers as they watched a young shortstop come up with the Yankees and take Manhattan by storm.

Since the Bonilla trade, since the collapse of the great Mets teams of the eighties, the Mets have been struggling against themselves. People may say they're just trying to compete with the Yankees, but it's really something more than that. Somehow, the failure of Bonilla and Generation K made the Mets afraid, and it seems like they've been running ever since.

Now, with the additions of Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran, the general feeling is that the Mets are poised for another run similar to the one in the mid-eighties. While that may be getting a bit ahead of ourselves, some of the similarities are striking:

In 1983, the Mets finished 68-94 but the lanky rookie Strawberry took home Rookie of the Year honors, a young (really) Jesse Orosco won 13 games in relief with a sparkling 1.73 ERA, and GM Frank Cashen made one of the deals of the decade when he acquired former MVP Keith Hernandez from the Cardinals for Neil Allen. Then, on October 13th, Davey Johnson, who had never managed a major league game in his life, was named their new manager.

In 2004, the Mets finished 71-91 but super stud David Wright hit 14 home runs in just 263 at bats, shortstop Jose Reyes dazzled when healthy, and GM Omar Minaya made the deals of the offseason signing both the top pitcher and hitter in Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. Then, on November 3rd, Willie Randolph, who had never managed a major league game in his life, was named their manager.

Spooky eh? It certainly tempts one to jump onto the Mets World Series bandwagon but, as with most things, reality often intervenes. Let's look at what happened the next couple years to those eighties Mets:

In 1984, the Mets finished in second, 90-72, behind the new core of Strawberry, Henandez, and the trio of rookie pitching in Doc Gooden, Ron Darling, and Sid Fernandez. On December 10th of that year, GM Frank Cashen made the second trade of the decade, acquiring catcher Gary Carter from the Expos and pissing off a young lad in Albany.

In 1985, the Mets finished in second again, 98-64, behind Carter's Mets and Doc Gooden's MVP year. If not for Darryl Strawberry missing seven weeks of ball with a torn thumb ligament (in which the Mets went 20-23), they probably would have won the division.

And 1986, well, we all know what happened then.

Those Mets teams got really good in a hurry because of:

1) Young pitching. Specifically, young pitching that came up and succeeded immediately.

2) Davey Johnson turning out to be a genius of a rookie manager

3) The Carter and Hernandez trades that put them over the top

Taking them in reverse order for the 2005 Mets, #3 corresponds with the Pedro and Beltran signings (and Delgado, if it happens). Willie Randolph could be a genius but we really don't know yet. And #1 parallels the young core, only this time it's on the field rather than on the mound. If that core succeeds (and stays healthy), we could see an '84 redux next year. But without them, this will be another .500 team in the NL shuffle.

I'm already on the bandwagon. I've drunk the Minaya kool-aid. I haven't been this excited going into a season since 1986 after the Mets came so close the year before. But let's remember that an awful lot has to still go right before we can return to the Mets' glory days.

But methinks a lot of young kids in New York are going to be putting down their comics this year.


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