Frank Cashen wore bow ties, used big words and carried a career-long sense of regret that the team he was hired to rebuild had upset his beloved Orioles in 1969. Cashen, the general manager responsible for constructing the 1986 world champion Mets, died Monday in Easton, Md. He was 88.
Even though he presided over two championships in Baltimore, he never could reconcile that loss to the Mets.
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In recent weeks, Cashen finished a book about his life in baseball and was calling reporters to discuss its publication. He had been a sports reporter for 17 years and earned a law degree from Maryland.
Cashen had little to work with when Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon brought him aboard in 1980. The architect initially had no blueprint. He inherited Joe Torre, very popular but years away from attaining Hall of Fame managerial credentials with the Yankees. Cashen let him go after the 1981 season.
The transformation seemed painstakingly long, even though championship seeds were being planted with the drafting of Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. In 1984, Cashen hired former Orioles player Davey Johnson as manager.
"Frank was our leader,'' Strawberry said in a statement. "I always admired the way he put together our team. He mixed young guys like me and Doc [Gooden] with guys like [Gary] Carter and [Keith] Hernandez. He was able to find the perfect blend to build a championship.''
Gooden said: "Frank was willing to take a chance and jump me from A-ball to the majors. That always meant a lot to me.''
Pitcher Bob Ojeda, now a commentator for SNY, said: "He was by far the smartest baseball man I've ever been in contact with. What the players loved about him was he cared more about you as a person than what you did on the baseball field.''
The additions of Hernandez and Carter cemented the Mets. The Cardinals were looking to unload Hernandez, who later admitted having a substance- abuse problem during a portion of his career in St. Louis.
"I was sitting at my desk one day and Joe McDonald called me,'' Cashen said on the 25th anniversary of the deal in 2008. "He said, 'Have you ever thought about trading [reliever] Neil Allen?' I said, 'Why would I want to trade him?' He said, 'Well, if you talk about Neil Allen, we'll talk about Mex.'
"I was stunned. The whole thing was done in a couple of phone calls in a total time of about 10 minutes.''
Hernandez praised Cashen as a "gentleman'' who was always "straight with you.'' It was Cashen who convinced Hernandez "to stay with the Mets instead of opting out to become a free agent,'' Hernandez said Monday night in Atlanta. And it was Cashen who told him he wouldn't be re-signed, right after the final game of the 1989 season.
"He was right. I was finished,'' Hernandez said.
"He was behind his desk and said, 'This is one of the toughest things I've ever had to do in the game of baseball. You've done so much for us here, I just want you to know how much I appreciate it, and everything you did to make this happen.'
"I remember saying, 'Frank, it's business, it's business, don't worry. I understand completely.'
"He says, 'No,' and he got up out of his chair, walked around the desk, I didn't know what he was going to do, and all of a sudden he had tears in his eyes. Then he hugged me. And when he hugged me, he said, 'Thank you so much.' . . . So I will always remember that moment.''
The deal to acquire Carter, the Expos' most popular player, took quite a bit longer before it was completed Dec. 10, 1984. "As easy as the trade for Hernandez was, the trade for Gary Carter was much, much, much, much more difficult,'' Cashen said after Carter's death in 2012.
"It took about 10 telephone calls and a couple of face-to-face meetings over a couple of months before I could finalize the deal. I thought the possibility of getting him was slim and none. We needed a hitter and a catcher and he fit the bill completely. I hung in there for a long time, much longer than you do for an ordinary kind of trade.''
Cashen often was asked if Hernandez or Carter made the difference. To use his own word, he demurred from singling out either.
Cashen's tenure was not without crises. Strawberry and Gooden had well-documented episodes of substance abuse. Cashen spoke with great regret of Gooden's career being undermined by the pitcher's "dalliance with drugs.''
But all of that was under the radar in 1986 when the Mets won 108 games and beat the Red Sox in the World Series. Cashen remained GM until 1991, then served in an advisory capacity for several years.
Years later, Cashen remarked that his biggest victory -- and loss -- had occurred at Shea Stadium. While recalling the '86 Mets, he still harped on the Orioles' loss in the '69 World Series.
Fittingly, Cashen is in each team's Hall of Fame.
With Marc Carig