1990s: THE GENERATION GAP
Generations can come and go pretty quickly, as the Mets discovered during the 1990s. Generation K, for instance, was supposed to be the bedrock of the franchise. Instead, it was just a passing fad, like Pokemon and the Macarena.
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Injuries, illnesses, poor focus and just plain bad luck prevented Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson from being the new Seaver, Koosman and Gentry. Those three pitchers were part of a fresh start after the disaster that began in 1992 with Bobby Bonilla, Eddie Murray, Bret Saberhagen and other high-priced players under the direction of Jeff Torborg.
The latter described it all best when he returned as a broadcaster to Shea Stadium's Diamond Club level and saw the busts of franchise greats in the Mets Hall of Fame. "I should be in there, too," Torborg said. "I was a bust."
For much of the decade, nothing seemed to work. They had four general managers, six managers (including Mike Cubbage for seven games in 1991) and no pennants.
Worse yet, there were anguished episodes: Dwight Gooden's drug problems, Darryl Strawberry's departure through free agency, Bonilla's threat to a reporter ("I'll show you the Bronx right here"), rape allegations against three players and a team boycott of the media.
Dallas Green, described by one columnist as "a swaggering farmer," was brought in from his acrage in Pennsylvania to restore order in 1993. He did that, for the most part, but he did not make the Mets a good club.
The youth movement just did not take, although Edgardo Alfonzo and Rey Ordonez did help the team eventually become a contender, and prospects such as Robert Stratton, A.J. Burnett (yes, that one) and Preston Wilson proved useful chips in trades.
Bobby Valentine breathed life, and a touch of tension, into the team when he became manager in 1996 -- and just in time, because the Yankees began their new generation of championships that season. Mets management soon chucked the wait-and-see patience for go-for-it boldness.
The Mets were still were nothing special in early 1997, but Bernard Gilkey had a feeling on April 15, when President Bill Clinton appeared at Shea Stadium to honor the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier. "Things could turn around for the New York Mets today," Gilkey said.
He was right. Having been 20 games under .500 the year before, they finished 14 games over .500 in 1997. In the first-ever game that counted against the team uptown, Dave Mlicki pitched a shutout, leaving "Let's Go Mets" as the echoing chant at Yankee Stadium.
On May 22 of the following year, the club felt confident enough to trade for Mike Piazza, a deal that did not put them in the postseason that year, but did signal that the Mets were on their way.
1993: THE IMPERFECT STORM
The entire 1993 season was captured in a whirling, weird tableau on July 28.
Pregame meetings lasted two hours and featured a parade in and out of the clubhouse: manager Dallas Green, assistant general manager Gerry Hunsicker, Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Donald Fehr and principal owner Fred Wilpon. The topic was the players' behavior, arguably the only thing worse than their play (at the time, the Mets were 34-65 and 28 games out of first).
Particulars included Vince Coleman's toss of a cherry bomb four days earlier, an act that nearly seriously injured a two-year-old girl; Bret Saberhagen's admission earlier in the day that he had been the one who tossed a pack of lighted firecrackers at the feet of reporters on July 7, following one of Anthony Young's major-league record 27 consecutive losses; and an investigation into the infamous bleach episode from the night before. Saberhagen vigorously denied he had been the culprit in dangerously spattering bleach on reporters with a water gun--although, confronted with evidence in a team investigation that went on for days, he eventually broke down and admitted his guilt.
This night, Saberhagen was the starting pitcher and got a no-decision. The focus all fell on Young, the symbol of futility. He allowed the expansion Marlins to go ahead by giving up a run in the top of the ninth. But the Mets rallied to win in the bottom of the inning, hurtling him from the dugout, celebrating the end of a streak that had earned him a spot on the Tonight Show.
When he was asked how it felt to have the monkey off his back, Young said, "It wasn't a monkey. It was a zoo."
Just like the 1993 season.
1999: NEVER SAY DIE
The early part of the 1999 season was so bad that any Met would have been tempted to go incognito. Bobby Valentine was the one who finally did it, in the 14th inning of a win against the Blue Jays on June 9.
Having been ejected in the 12th for arguing a catcher's interference call, Valentine showed up in the dugout wearing sunglasses and a fake mustache. Hey, he probably felt he needed to keep a close eye on his staff, which had been overhauled by a purge three days earlier.
When the firings of three coaches were announced--at Yankee Stadium, of all places--55 games into the season, Valentine tossed a gauntlet in front of himself, saying, "I believe, in the next 55 games, if we're not better, I shouldn't be the manager." That eclipsed the other pithy quote from that eventful day: Amid the turmoil in the Mets clubhouse, Rickey Henderson was asked for his reaction to the dismissal of hitting coach Tom Robson. He replied, "Who's that?"
The fake mustache was the touchstone of another eventful day, in which Valentine engaged in a pregame verbal dustup with a reporter, witnessed Benny Agbayani getting injured when one of his own hits caromed off the batting cage and opened a gash over his eye, and dealt with Bobby Bonilla's refusal to enter the game.
Despite those pitfalls and a suspension for mustache caper, Valentine did manage to get the Mets into first place by the 110th game. He also guided them, turbulently, into the postseason.
The team clinched a tie for the National League wild card berth by winning the regular season finale on a wild pitch. Al Leiter won a one-game playoff in Cincinnati with a two-hitter. Todd Pratt happily galloped around the bases after his home run ended the first-round series against the Diamondbacks--a treat he denied Robin Ventura, tackling Ventura before he could touch all the bases on an apparent walk-off grand slam in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series against the Braves.
In Game 6, the Mets rallied from a 5-0 first-inning deficit and actually led twice, including once in the 10th inning. But they lost in the 11th on a bases-loaded walk, ending yet another eventful day, and year.