It was June 15, 1977 when the Mets were sent into a tailspin that would last almost a decade. ‘The Franchise’ was traded to Cincinnati for 5 players who were basically scrubs. After what became known as The Midnight Massacre the Mets proceeded to average 96 losses for the next 7 years.
It was 6 years to the date, June 15, 1983, when GM Frank Cashen began lifting the Mets from the depths of the NLE. He sent pitchers Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey to STL in exchange for Keith Hernandez.
With the exception of Seaver, Keith is perhaps the most beloved Met of all-time. But this has nothing to do with his stats. While his numbers were impressive for the 6 ½ seasons he batted 3rd and played 1B, he meant more then that, both to fans and to teammates. Keith was always in the game, if not physically then mentally. He played the game the way it was designed to be played. Keith knew not only how to play, but also how to win.
Keith was our team captain and being a captain of that bunch was not easy. There was media savvy Gary Carter on his way to Cooperstown, the hot-headed Ray Knight, the fiery Wally Backman and the youthfulness of Darryl and Doc. But it was ‘Mex’ who emerged as not just team captain but leader. And winner.
Fast forward 20 years. After falling one base hit shy of the World Series in 2006, we were seemingly one player from a Championship. Now, 4 seasons later, we seem about 6 players away.
Mets management has tried many different things. None have worked. We acquired the best LHP in baseball in Johan Santana. It didn’t matter. We signed K-Rod after his record setting 62 saves. That didn’t matter. We brought in a veteran with winning experience in Gary Sheffield. No difference. This past winter we signed one of the best available bats in Jason Bay. Same thing.
The one piece of the puzzle we have failed to add is a leader, a la Keith. The Mets are a bunch of nice guys with good talent and a solid core. But as Leo Durocher famously stated, Nice Guys Finish Last.
We have waited impatiently for David Wright to take over that role. But lets be honest–That aint happenin’. David’s a great hitter but he is not carved out for such a title. Carlos Beltran? A great all-around player but it’s not in his makeup. Reyes we all love but Jose’s having too much fun playing major league baseball. Johan possibly could but to be a leader you need an every day player.
It seems like just yesterday the Mets were knocking on first place and leading the wild card. After enduring stretches of 16, 24 and 17 innings without scoring a run, after only scoring 30 runs in our last 15 games, we have dropped to 3rd place, only ½ above Florida, just one game over .500.
We not only need a captain but more importantly a leader. And a winner. That one player who can kick his teammates in the ass. Keith kept the team focused, driven and determined. In the early days of our success, our leader was quite possibly Buddy Harrelson. In spite of his lifetime .234 BA he was out there every day for 13 seasons. He took his life in his hands when he took on Pete Rose in 73, showing Rose and the Reds that the Mets were not going to be pushed around. Can you honestly see any of the current players making a statement like that?
Mets management doesn’t seem to get it. To build a winner you don’t need the best team on the field; You need the RIGHT team on the field. And now we are expressing interest in Gil Meche. Gil Meche???? Meche is one of the few pitchers in Baseball who makes Ollie Perez look good. That laughing sound you hear is coming from The Bronx. And Philadelphia. And Atlanta.
Most of our beloved 86 champions went on to play with other teams. Bobby Ojeda, Ron Darling and Roger McDowell all left New York and proceeded to wear #17 with their new club as a tribute to Keith. Can you picture anyone leaving the Mets now and wearing #5 as a tribute to the leadership skills of David Wright?
The words Frank Cashen spoke over a quarter of a century ago are more poignant today then any recent time in our history. Cashen explained that he acquired Keith not only for what he was capable of doing on the field but for what he meant to a team–in the clubhouse, in the dugout. As Cashen stated, ‘To build a winner, you need to start with a winning attitude.’
Fred? Jeff? Omar? Are you listening?