Gregg Jefferies’ Rotten Apple

Gregg Jefferies’ career with the New York Mets is difficult to put into words. As a man he has been described as “petulant … self-absorbed … immature … selfish …” As a player, Jefferies was described far differently; he was labeled by scouts as a teenage “phenom”  and the late, legendary L.A. Times baseball columnist Jim Murray described his swing as “equal parts pancake syrup and butter.”

Somewhere in the space between, where the drama, conflict and jealousy fall away, the real Gregg Jefferies is revealed.

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One Play, Two First Basemen and the Elusive Third Out

Even in hindsight the story is hard to fathom. The New York Mets came to bat in the bottom of the 10th inning, at home, trailing the Boston Red Sox 5-3 in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. They were three outs away from losing the Series. Hold on, this isn’t the story you’re thinking it is.

Wally Backman led off the inning slicing a line drive into the glove of Dave Henderson. One out. Keith Hernandez then hit a hard line drive to centerfield for the second out. The Mets were, as Len Dykstra would later tell Peter Golenbeck in Amazin’, “one out away from wasting the whole f—ing season.”

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Cashen’s Open Letter to Fans

While researching another story, I stumbled on to this “open letter” former Mets general manager Frank Cashen wrote for the New York Times. It is fascinating, to say the least, because:

a. Cashen took the initiative to include Mets fans on what the organization would do to build a winning team and how they would execute their plan
b. The letter reveals the nuances of the now defunct reentry draft
c. How free agency operated in the pre-Boras days, when “A List” free agents were bid on openly by potential suitors

Cashen made referred to the Free Agent Reentry Draft draft a “raffle of human skills,” a prescient reference. The draft’s purpose was to prevent one team from signing a great number of free agents, and to put a limit on a player’s bargaining leverage. The reentry draft rules teams also meant:

  • Had to select which free agents they wished to bid on
  • Teams could select a limited number of players
  • A limited number of teams could select a single free agent
  • Free agent players were limited to signing a contract with one of the teams they selected by (if a player was selected by three teams or fewer, he was deemed to be available to all teams)

Imagine if these ground rules were still in place in 2011? No chance. In fact, the reentry draft system was eliminated a year later, following the 1981 baseball strike. It was replaced by the free agent compensation draft. In no way am I suggesting the reentry draft be reinstated, but I do find the dynamic of the original free agent bidding system intriguing when you match the rules with current circumstances.

But, hypothetically, imagine knowing in advance which teams were bidding? The discussion would place pressure on the Mets ownership to reveal when and what they offered individual free agents. Imagine Sandy Alderson, or better yet, Fred and/or Jeff Wilpon crafting an op-ed on the “State of the Mets?”

Instead of making kneejerk trades, Cashen spent most of his first season as Mets GM assessing, watching, taking notes. In fact, it was the middle of the summer before he made a minor deal to acquire outfielder Claudell Washington. In hindsight Cashen’s biggest move of the summer came when he drafted a tall, skinny, left-handed power hitter from Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles by the name of Darryl Eugene Strawberry.

The Mets were silent through the first few years of the reentry draft, while their crosstown rival Yankees were buying and stockpiling talent (Catfish HunterDon Gullett and Tommy John), none louder than Reggie Jackson, who eventually led the Yankees to a World Series title in 1977.

From the day he was announced as the new Mets GM Cashen was asked the question: “Would the Mets be active in the 1981 reentry draft?” Every reporter knew who and what was at stake.

Forever Young

Don’t, OK? Save your breath – and Anthony Young’s time. Just get to the question. That’s right, the question; the inevitable query about losing. He won’t mind answering because, well, the reply is always the same. I pitched well during the stretch. It just happened. I don’t feel like I deserve it. I will be known for this forever. It was destiny. He accepts his place in history, yet, he reveals nothing about his true feelings.

What irks Young is the mind-numbing process; the back-and-forth, like some silly parlor game, between reporter and former athlete. The Q&A lingers. The questions turn to small talk. How do like coaching? What do you teach young baseball players? He takes a deep breath and exhales his frustration. Minutia, he thinks. Young’s mind is screaming: Ask the question!

Anthony Young has been living in baseball infamy. Two decades ago today he began a historic losing streak that lasted 465 days, across 81 appearances and two seasons; piling up 27 consecutive losing decisions. The long slog finally came to a halt on July 24, 1993.

How can you tell when something bad is about to happen? There was nothing more than circumstantial evidence looking back at the aftermath of the New York Mets 5-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on May 6, 1992. Young pitched six innings, allowing five earned runs and six hits (including two home runs) in his first loss of the season. But it was OK. He won his first two starts of the season. The Mets were 16-12.

“Take away two pitches (gopher balls) and it’s a different game,” Young told the media after the loss. “Those were about the only pitches I didn’t get where I wanted.”

A couple bad pitches led to a few bad games, a disappointing season, a long slump, a full-feature horror flick. The record has grown like an extra appendage to Young. As the losses piled up, he held on to his confidence.

“I’m a good pitcher,” he said. “I believe in myself. The Mets believe in me, too.”

Young entered the 1992 off-season with a sense of hope. But he had a four-month break – to think. Spring Training was a struggle. The media pressed him on the streak. After a relief appearance (2 IP, 4 R, 3 H) in a 7-3 loss against the Houston Astros, Young began to crack. Suddenly, the idea of breaking Cliff Curtis’ 23-game losing streak became a reality. There was enough negative momentum to not even Tony Robbins could save Young’s fragile state of mind.

As Young approached the record the stories turned downright laughable. No. 18 came on a walk-off hit to Mike Lansing of the Montreal Expos. Young, angered by his performance, attempted to kick a roll of toilet paper but missed, kicking a nearby porcelain toilet and nearly fracturing a toe.

Murphy’s Law seemed took over in June, adding fuel to the fire. Young appeared to be on the brink of snapping the streak in Chicago. He pitched six shutout innings against the Cubs; then Mike Draper and Mike Maddux surrendered eight runs in the final two innings. He got a no-decision.

No. 22 was eventful. At Three Rivers Stadium, Young sneezed and snorted his way through seven innings in a 5-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was later reported that prior to the game groundskeepers in Pittsburgh spread a drying substance on the mound to soak up rain. Young took the mound and suffered an allergic reaction to the substance. Apparently the old saying is true: When it rains … oh, nevermind.

Five days later Young tied the record thanks to four Mets errors that led to three unearned runs. He left after six innings and New York’s defense tightened up, causing former Mets pitcher Jeff Innis to comment: “Did you see the plays we made after he left?” he said. “When he goes out there, the whole team feels it. It’s intense.” Young left the Mets clubhouse that night wearing a tee-shirt that read: LIVE AND LEARN.

The tee portrayed a carefree, event hopeful, attitude on the outside, but inside, Young was terrified. “I’ve had four different managers in the three seasons I’ve been around,” he told the media. “Start? Bullpen? “Right now, I’m confused.”

By late June the Mets were buried in last place, 30 games under .500. They had lost four straight and Young was scheduled to start against the St. Louis Cardinals. The night before the game Young went to dinner with Gregg Jeffries, a former teammate. Let’s just get this over with. One way or another, he thought, break the record or break the streak. Less than 24 hours later, it was over. Young gave the 36,911 morbid Mets fans what they had come to see: a loss, and a piece of history. It was one for the record books. He owned the record: 24 consecutive losing decisions. Young was officially branded “a loser.”

The media presence was overwhelming. The Mets moved the post-game press conference to Dallas Green’s office because of the media overflow. As they circled the perimeter and doorway, one member of a camera crew poked a hole in the ceiling, causing plaster to reign down on the media. Young shook his head in disbelief saying, “Everything is over with now. I broke the record; I’m in the record books. Now that I have the record, I hope you all can leave me alone.”

Not so fast Young man. It would be another month (and three more losses) before it was over.

Finally, on July 28, 1993, Eddie Murray drove in the winning run at Shea Stadium, giving the Mets a 5-4 victory over the Florida Marlins, ending Anthony Young’s infamous 27-game losing streak. Dallas Green popped the cork on a bottle of champagne. A fan sent roses. The Mets, and Young, celebrated.

“It wasn’t a monkey,” Young told reporters. “It was a zoo … the zoo had been lifted off of my back and we had just won the World Series.”

Two decades later and Young still has the shrapnel stored in his attic in the same box he kept them in at his locker at Shea; letters, cards and notes of encouragement and a videotape from his 1993 appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. In two-and-one-half seasons with the Mets he recorded five wins and 35 losses. Young was shipped off to the Chicago Cubs just days before Opening Day 1994.

“It was initially disappointing because I wanted to have a great season in New York,” he said years later. “Sure enough, Chicago hosted the Mets at Wrigley Field for Opening Day and Karl Rhodes connected on three homers off [Dwight] Gooden.”

It wasn’t all that bad. During one stretch, Young pitched 23.2 straight scoreless innings and over the one year and two-month stretch, he recorded 15 saves. There were moments – but not many.

Mets Draft History

One glance at the New York Mets No. 1 draft selections reveals a history of good, bad and ugly decision-making.

The Mets first-ever draft pick was pitcher Les Rohr, the second overall pick in the 1965 draft. Rohr’s major league career was short-lived. He made his MLB debut on September 19, 1967against the Los Angeles Dodgers, pitching six innings, allowing three runs and recording his first win. Rohr made six appearances over three years before he retired after the 1969 season due to injuries. He was just 24 years old.

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Benny and the Mets

Talk about being unprepared? Benny Ayala stepped off a plane at LaGuardia airport just hours before first pitch and raced across the street to Shea Stadium. While his teammates finished batting practice, Ayala found his locker and, for the first time in his life, put on a Major League Baseball uniform.

“I was nervous,” said Ayala, during a phone interview from Puerto Rico. “I had to rush in late in the afternoon. I didn’t have time for food before the game. I just got there and put on my uniform.”

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