Here’s a wonderful post from December 25, 2009, when Stephen Hanks warmed us with a fascinating story from his good old days. Back then, Stephen was the force behind New York Sports Magazine and helped set the stage for one of the greatest trades in Mets history. Enjoy!
Merry Christmas to all of you Met fans. I thought I’d have you all gather around the hot stove in your jammies with a cup of hot cider (spiked with a little of Tom Seaver‘s GTS wine) and listen to a winter’s tale of how your benevolent storyteller helped bring the Mets’ greatest first baseman ever to our ballclub in 1983.
It all began the fall of 1982, just after my 27th birthday. Since my early teenage years I had dreamed of starting my own magazine about professional sports in New York. I remembered a short-lived magazine called “JOCK NEW YORK,” which published for one year in 1969, long enough to celebrate the Miracle Mets on its cover. It boasted writers like Dick Schaap and Jimmy Breslin, and even Howard Cosell penned pieces for JOCK.
I was already a magazine fanatic and when JOCK folded, I remember saying to myself, “I’m going to do this magazine one day, only better.” After starting my career at the late, great SPORT Magazine (1978-80), and then spending a year editing a magazine for the National Hockey League, I felt it was time to make the leap and start NEW YORK SPORTS Magazine. I guess I was the Joe DeCaro or Matt Cerrone of my time.
With my wife Bea as the publisher and business mind, we decided we would launch our bi-monthly magazine with a May/June issue in April 1983. That would give us about four months to raise some money, plan the first issue, assign stories and photographs, sell ads, and all that wonderful and stressful stuff that goes into launching a publication. Then in mid-December, I received a gift from the magazine gods. The Mets made a trade with Cincinnati and brought back my hero Tom Seaver. It didn’t take a lot of soul-searching to decide who would be on the magazine’s first cover.
But while the first issue would carry a romantic tribute to Tom Terrific, we had already planned another Mets-related feature for that launch issue, a profile on probably the best player on that awful Mets team of the early 1980s–25-year-old reliever Neil Allen. The young closer had managed to save 59 games from 1980-82 and had more than a little Tug McGraw in him. He was cocky, fun, opinionated and accessible. He even lived in Lee Mazzilli‘s former house on Long Island. Going into the 1983 season, Allen was on the last year of his contract, had an option year and had his eye on big free-agent bucks.
A few weeks before spring training, I contacted Mets PR director Jay Horwitz and told him we wanted to feature Allen with a positive profile in our first issue and he agreed to give us access. I assigned one of my writer friends from the SPORT days, Mark Ribowsky, to visit Allen at his LI home, and the writer and the reliever spent a Saturday afternoon drinking beer and watching college basketball.
On Monday morning, I got a call from Ribowsky saying he had a story that would put NEW YORK SPORTS on the map. Allen didn’t just give him the standard “these are my goals for me and the team this season” stuff; he threw high hard ones at his teammates and the organization. Ribowsky, who had a great talent for getting athletes to spill their guts, probably knew he could hit pay dirt when Allen started the interview with this nugget:
“Who wouldn’t want to live in New York? Love those bright lights of Broadway and any time I can hit those East Side bars, man, I jump.”
At the time, nobody knew Allen had a drinking problem, something that would emerge in May that season when he entered a rehab clinic. For now, Ribowsky just kept his tape recorder running and Allen supplied the rest. You can just imagine what the organization’s reaction must have been when they read these Allen quotes in a magazine:
“Look, they didn’t do a damn thing in the off-season. I don’t want to sound bitter and the team’s been good to me, but they don’t show me no interest in improving the club. The only thing I see getting Tom Seaver for is attendance. He’s 38. I don’t see him coming back and winning 15 or 20 games . . . This team here ain’t gonna score him four or five runs a game. With this team two runs might be the highlight of the game.”
Or this breathless diatribe. Nuke LaLoosh after lessons from Crash Davis, Allen was not:
“We’ve finished next to last or last place six years in a row and who wants to play for a loser. Look at this year’s  team. Dave Kingman will hit .230 tops, and strike out every time he doesn’t hit a homer… I get along well with Kong, but other guys, especially the young guys, are just scared of him.”
“Brian Giles and Ron Gardenhire are unproven in the middle of the infield… John Stearns isn’t a superstar — he can’t hit a homer out of my front yard — yet he’s constantly burning the club in public right after games. You don’t do that . . . Stearns may not be able to throw the whole year and that leaves Ron Hodges at catcher, a guy people think died because they confuse him with Gil Hodges.”
“George Foster was making $2 million and wasn’t producing and came to the park in a long silver limo. The fans threw batteries at it, ripped the antennas off, pulverized it. By the end of the season, it looked like a German war tank. The pitching? I don’t understand the Mike Torrez trade. Why not get a fresh face like Floyd Bannister [who was a free agent]? Here’s a guy that throws hard like Ron Guidry, but we get guys 36, 38 years old. We trade a young arm like Jeff Reardon [to Montreal in 1981] for Ellis Valentine, who was a real head case… Our rotation? Seaver, Craig Swan, Torrez, Scott Holman and Rick Ownbey, who throws smoke, but walks six guys a game… It seems the front office accepts losing.”
Then a passage that would be sure to endear him to his General Manager:
“Me and Frank Cashen just clash. He thinks I’m young and just out for the glory. He wants me to be Tom Seaver, a conformist. Hell, I’m the clown of the ballclub, the ball buster in the locker room. Tug McGraw taught me to have a good time. No sense playing in the big leagues if you’re not having fun. I don’t care how much you make. But Cashen, he don’t like that attitude. Last year, before a game, I was on the bench with an old man’s mask on and a cigarette hanging out of my mouth. So they put a shot of me on the Diamond Vision screen. Right away, Cashen sent a message down asking, ‘Who was it, was it Allen?’ — because he assumes anything like that would be me — ‘Tell him I want to see him.’ I said, ‘Aw, screw him. I don’t wanna see him.”
There was more, but you get the idea. During the call with Ribowsky, I had three conflicting feelings. As a Mets fan, I was completely bummed by Allen’s comments. I almost didn’t want to know that the Mets were this dysfunctional. But as the editor of a new magazine, I was ecstatic. These type of comments from a star player might get us the back cover of the tabloids, and that was before Rupert Murdoch owned the New York Post. But I also knew I had to be cautious. If these quotes weren’t real; if they were taken out of context or said off the record and we printed them, my new magazine would be dead on arrival. I couldn’t take any chances. I pressed Ribowsky. “They’re all on the record,” he assured me. “It’s not on us that he was drinking and said these things. Listen to the tape.”
And so I did and the tape passed the journalism smell test. I was sitting on magazine publishing gold.
The premier issue of NEW YORK SPORTS would hit the newsstands all over the metro area on Tuesday, April 19. A few days before on-sale, I prepared a press release and sent it off with a copy of the magazine to all the Mets beat writers, hoping to create some publicity that would generate newsstand sales. On Wednesday the 20th, after a couple of days of rain, the Mets were playing a doubleheader against the Pirates at Shea and I was home watching the first game (we didn’t have enough of a budget for an office) when the phone rang. It was Jay Horwitz . . . at least I thought it was Jay . . . it was hard to tell at first given how he was screaming and cursing at me.
“You told me you were doing a positive profile and you screwed me and the team,” Jay shouted, seasoning his comments with a heavy helping of the F-word. “Jay, what do you want from me?” I squeezed in. “The guy said all that stuff on the record and I had to print it,”
“I don’t care,” he said, or something to that effect. “You and your magazine are banned from Shea Stadium! Don’t ask for a press credential and don’t have any of your writers ask. You’re banned!”
The next day, the Neil Allen story in NEW YORK SPORTS became a full-fledged controversy. Although we didn’t get back page headlines, there were articles in the sports sections and prominent columnists like the Post‘s Dick Young (public enemy number one because he was responsible for the Tom Seaver trade) and the New York Times‘ Dave Anderson wrote pieces in support of the magazine’s story. In Anderson’s case, I actually played the tape of the Allen interview for him over the phone so he knew we were legit. Allen, of course, denied he said any of it.
We also offered to play the tape for Frank Cashen in the hopes of getting our Shea ban rescinded. My wife managed to get the GM on the phone. He listened, sighed and told us to “just go away.” End of conversation.
Cashen had taken over as the Mets GM in 1980 after Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon purchased the team from the Payson family. He was an accomplished baseball executive and a conservative man who always wore a bowtie. Cashen was in the process of methodically resurrecting the Mets franchise and there was no way he was going to allow a disrespectful, loud-mouth young reliever to create chaos and undermine the cause. Once our story broke Neil Allen was as good as gone from the Mets. The admission of the alcohol problem and the rehab visit in May had to seal the deal. Now Cashen just had to find a team who wanted to unload a similar problem child.
On June 15, the day of the trade deadline, Frank Cashen made what is still probably the greatest trade in New York Mets history: Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey to the St. Louis Cardinals for Keith Hernandez.
Okay, I won’t take ALL the credit for helping create a situation in which the Mets wanted to unload Neil Allen. But I don’t think we could have obtained a player of Keith Hernandez’s caliber–even if Whitey Herzog did consider Keith “a cancer” on the Cardinals–if Allen wasn’t included in the deal. At that time the Mets didn’t have much else to trade and Darryl Strawberry and Mookie Wilson weren’t going anywhere.
Fellow Mets fans, you’re welcome. Sweet dreams.
Postscript: The 1983 premier issue of NEW YORK SPORTS outsold Sports Illustrated on the newsstands in the metro area. After a one-year hiatus to raise funds, the magazine began regular bi-monthly publication in May 1984 (the Shea Stadium ban had been rescinded that winter) and published six issues before suspending operations after the May/June 1985 issue due to lack of capital.
(Photos: ESPN, AP)