Don’t Give Up…Yet (Part 3)
In 1992, the Mets made a very unpopular trade, sending fan favorite and proven performer David Cone to Toronto in a deal that included second baseman Jeff Kent. It was the start of a miserable relationship that lasted parts of five seasons. “Jeff Can’t” was one of his nicer nicknames and he was booed unmercifully by the Shea faithful (including me). Many of us where giddy when Kent was unloaded on Cleveland for the seemingly -ebullient Carlos Baerga in mid-1996. Boy where we wrong. Traded by the Tribe to San Francisco the following year, Kent would blossom into one of the best hitting second basemen ever. He would belt 245 more homeruns, win four silver slugger awards as the top offensive second baseman, garner several All-Star nods and win the NL MVP in 2000. He later moved on to the Dodgers and in 2005 had the best season of any Dodger second baseman since Jackie Robinson. A noted “bad guy” during his Met tenure, the San Francisco press gave him the prestigious Willie Mac award one season for hustle and leadership. He currently holds the all-time record for home runs as a second baseman and will likely be elected to the Hall of Fame.
Exactly what did Kent in during his Met tenure is no mystery. He got off on the wrong foot with his entitled teammates (although how anyone on those terrible teams could feel entitled is quite another story) and worse, feuded with the press. I remember hearing him on a Mike and the Mad Dog interview essentially telling both hosts to flip off. That type of behavior made him both a pariah and a target. Always forced to cover up, he couldn’t relax and play his game. Proving that their ineptitude is not a recent phenomenon, the Wilpons had orchestrated a series of deals, like the Cone for Kent move, which had broken up the rollicking late 80’s Mets. By 1993, Kent was the sole survivor from the return on those horrible deals, meaning he bore the brunt of the fan’s ire for the sad state of the franchise. Once he found the loving embrace of Dusty Baker, he flourished.
Boston or Philly may try to lay claim to the title, but I believe New York is the toughest market to play in. Unless your last name is Jeter and you have four rings, success is measured by your last plate appearance or pitch thrown. The mere fact that you are reading this is ample evidence that this scrutiny doesn’t abate much during the offseason. It can be a brutal environment for a young player try to hone his craft. To top it off, lots of sites (like Cerrone’s), are already dishing out trade rumors out like crazy in an attempt to maintain traffic this winter. This tends to devalue players in the minds of many who read their names repeatedly in rumored deals, only to then see them still wearing a Met uniform come Spring Training. We tried all winter to unload Player X and no one wants him, the reasoning goes and look, he just made an error/walked in a run/struck out with two men on, he must really stink, get him off the team. So boo him and express displeasure anonymously on the web or the airwaves. The rest is predictable. I am only half kidding when I suggest having every Met personnel involved with player development, coaching or the front office carry around a picture of Jeff Kent in a Met uniform as a reminder of this organizational failure and learn how to be vigilant about avoiding another.
Don’t underestimate the enormity of the task facing the Mets while they undergo a defacto rebuilding process. It looks like financial austerity is going to be the watchword for the team in the foreseeable future. This means a roster heavy with younger players, many of whom will struggle, at least initially. They need to develop an internal environment that will allow the young players to thrive, meaning among other things that they will need a sense of positional stability and a defined role, as well as some mentor figures both on the field and in the dugout. Instead, we have a whispering campaign against Ike Davis, while the top pitchers in the organization will be forced to prepare for their big league careers in Las Vegas, which is perhaps the worst location in all of baseball to pitch. Not real encouraging.
Externally, they need to sell patience to the fan base. Both championship teams took years to build. The truth is probably their best defense here—hey, they’ve tried everything else.