Fractured Prospect

Terry Collins remembers flying back from the team’s complex in the Dominican Republic. It was February 2009, and the future New York Mets manager was feeling hopeful about Fernando Martinez. Collins watched Martinez play pain-free in the first game of a doubleheader before catching his flight back to the States. Maybe, just maybe, this was the turning point in the career of the Mets top prospect.

“When I got off the flight I had a message: he’s hurt again,” Collins shook his head in disbelief.

The injury was not the first Martinez suffered, and in hindsight, wouldn’t be the last. Since signing with the Mets in July 2005, a deal that included a $1.4 million signing bonus, Martinez has been on the disabled list nine times. His afflictions could be tallied by the body part – knee, elbow, hand, hamstring, lower back.

The $1.4 million question became: Could Fernando Martinez stay healthy long enough to play?

”That’s the goal, to keep him on the field,” said Buffalo manager Tim Teufel. “We know he has talent; it’s just a matter of keeping him healthy.”

The Mets and Martinez were hopeful a fresh start would bring good health and good fortune. The following spring, Martinez played in 10 games, batting .333 (8-for-24). Still, the Mets wanted him to prove he could perform at a high level and, more importantly, stay healthy. He carried his hot bat north to Buffalo with a four-hit game the first week of the season. One week later, Martinez was sent back to the disabled list with a sore hamstring.

“It’s not that you doubt the talent,” said assistant GM John Ricco. “It’s getting the [at-bats]. If not, that’s in the equation. Angel Pagan was a similar case. Everybody knew he had the talent, but you start to say, ‘OK, how long can we go?’ At some point he’s going to have to stay healthy.”

“He’s worth every penny,” Sandy Johnson, Mets’ VP for scouting, told the Times. “He’s a complete player.”

Baseball America ranked Martinez the No. 20 prospect. By last season he was at No. 77 on the list and headed south. One injury after another, year after year, deflated Martinez’ stock value. The Wall Street Journal called him “the forgotten prospect … no one is frothing over him anymore.”

“Sometimes I say, ‘Come on, what happened?’” Martinez said. “What happened to me? I play very hard. I’m young. Maybe all the injuries will stop one day.”

The injuries left him hobbled by arthritis in his right knee, a history that presents potential problems in the future. Ken Oberkfell, who managed him in Buffalo for two years said, “It’s been a leg issue with most of the stuff, so it’s slowed down his defensive development and his offensive development. You use your legs a lot to hit and obviously you use your legs a lot to play the outfield.”

“It’s really hard to project what these guys are going to be, whether or not they’re going to stay healthy,” said Paul DePodesta, the Mets’ former vice president of player development and amateur scouting. “To be honest, we’re not real good at it as an industry.”

The waiting game ended in January 2012, when the Mets released Martinez. He never played a full season, at any level, due to recurring injuries. Since making his major league debut in 2009 (at age 20), he Martinez played in 99 major league games, compiling 282 career at-bats and a .206 batting average.

###

POST SCRIPT: Martinez was signed by the Houston Astros, where he parts of two seasons before be traded to the New York Yankees. Six weeks after the deal, Martinez was suspended 50 games by the MLB for violating its drug policy. Today he plays for the Estrellas Orientales, the team from San Pedro de Macoris in the  Dominican Republic.

Winter Blues for Claire

We all make mistakes. The problem with making a mistake if you’re Bill Buckner or Scott Norwood or even Fred Claire is, it happens on the world stage for all to see.

Coincidentally, Claire’s miscues from the general manager’s chair have intersected at some point in history, with current or former members of the New York Mets. It’s like six degrees of separation, but not.

With the Winter Meetings come and gone and the New Year here, once again the ghosts of winters past will pay a visit to Claire.

It started in 1990 when the Los Angeles Dodgers signed free agent right fielder Darryl Strawberry away from the Mets. “No free agent had more talent that Darryl Strawberry,” wrote Claire in his book, My 30 Years in Dodger Blue. “But there are no championship stories to be written about Darryl as a Dodger.”

To Claire’s credit, at the time, the signing of Strawberry to a five-year deal was celebrated. The former Met was already an eight-year major league veteran at age 28 and was coming off a productive season in New York, hitting 37 HR and 107 RBI. It was believed Strawberry’s best days were in front of him.

Strawberry, a California native and Crenshaw High School graduate, was coming home when he signed in Los Angeles. No one, including Claire, could have predicted the nightmare that lie ahead for Strawberry.

After a productive 1991 season, it was all down hill for Strawberry. Between 1992 and 1993, the Dodgers right fielder played in 75 games. He suffered through numerous injuries and off-the-field bigger problems were brewing.

“It came to a breaking point at our final exhibition game at Anaheim Stadium in April of 1994,” Claire recalls. “Darryl failed to show up for our Sunday game.

“I told the media I didn’t know where Darryl was. It was obvious I was upset. The only feeling greater than my anger was my concern about Darryl’s whereabouts. Finally that evening, I received a call from Darryl.

“Fred,” he said, “I just want you to know I’m OK, and I will be with the team tomorrow.”

“No, Darryl, you won’t be with the team,” Claire said. “I want to meet with you tomorrow morning because we have come to an end of the road. You failed to show the responsibility that is needed to be part of our team. You can bring any representatives you care to have with you.”

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The next day Strawberry and his lawyer Robert Shapiro arrived at the Dodgers offices. Shapiro wasted no time, telling Claire, “We want you to know that Darryl has a problem with substance abuse. We have talked to the Players’ Association about getting assistance for Darryl.”

Shapiro’s efforts to salvage Strawberry’s career in Los Angeles were too late. Claire had already made a decision in the best interest of the Dodger organization to cut ties with Strawberry and the trail of personal problems accompanying him.

As Claire recalled, Strawberry sat in the Dodgers offices with tears streaming down his face.

“Fred, I feel sorry that I let you and the Dodgers down,” he said.

Claire’s Winter blues reached it’s peak on November 17, 1993, the day he traded Pedro Martinez(now the ace of the Mets staff), then 22, to the Montreal Expos for second baseman Delino DeShields. Claire recalls the misery so well he dedicated a full chapter to it in his book.

“There’s one baseball trade … where I wish I could have had a second chance,” wrote Claire, “That trade, of course, was the one that sent Pedro Martinez to the Montreal Expos … in exchange for second baseman Delino DeShields.”

The Dodgers needed a second baseman, and before trading Martinez, Claire made a three-year, $7.8 million offer to Jody Reed. Instead of taking the deal, Reed tested the free agent market and the Dodgers pulled the offer. Claire later considered free agents Harold Reynoldsand Robby Thompson. Reynolds, then 33, was not a long-term solution and Thompson re-signed with the San Francisco Giants before the Dodgers could make a serious bid.

With Reed still on the open market, Claire decided to look elsewhere anyway. After learning about DeShields availability and the Expos asking price (Martinez), Claire picked up the phone.

“I made two calls before moving forward with the deal,” said Claire, “One to Tommy Lasordaand one to Ralph Avila, the man in charge of our baseball operations in the Dominican Republic. I told both men they had veto rights on the trade. Both agreed it was a good deal for the Dodgers in that we would solve our problem at second with an outstanding young player.”

In three full seasons with the Dodgers, DeShields hit .240, playing in just 89 games in 1994, his first year with Los Angeles. He retired after the 2002 season with a career .268 batting average, hitting a career high .296 for the Baltimore Orioles in 2000.

Martinez spent four years in Montreal compiling a 55-33 record, striking out 222 batters in 1996 and 305 in 1997. It was his final year with Montreal that he made his mark with a 17-8 record, a 1.90 ERA, 305 strikeouts, 13 complete games in 241 innings pitched for a team that finished the season under .500 (78-84). Martinez signed with the Red Sox in 1998 and the rest is history … a career record of 197-84, 2.72 ERA, 2,861 career strikeouts, two 20-game winning seasons and, of course, three Cy Young Awards (1997, 1999 and 2000).

In reflection, Claire wrote, “The deal was made. There are no mulligans in baseball.”

The final strike was the trade of Mike Piazza, a deal that shocked Los Angeles, its fans, the baseball community and Claire himself. It was a trade that subsequently led to Claire’s departure as Dodgers general manager.

The Piazza story is a great story for baseball fans, not so much for Claire. “The deal which sent Piazza and third baseman Todd Zeile to the Marlins … was struck without even the courtesy of informing me, the Dodger general manager.”

It was a sign of the times for the Dodgers. They had just been bought by Fox television from the legendary, and longtime baseball family, the O’Malley’s. To this day, as Claire tells it, the trade that sent Piazza out of Los Angeles was “first and foremost a television deal” constructed and executed by Fox TV executive Chase Carey.

As the 1998 baseball season approached, Piazza was heading for his final season under contract when Fox assumed control of the Dodgers. “The last thing Fox wanted was a bidding war over Mike,” wrote Claire, “and the embarrassing possibility that the team’s most popular player would choose to depart … Incredibly, they managed to make it an even worse start.”

The transition in ownership delayed talks between Piazza and the Dodgers. So much so, spring training came and went with no deal, infuriating Piazza. The future Hall of Fame catcher finally exploded.

After an Opening Day loss in St. Louis, Piazza was approached by Jason Reid of the Los Angeles Times about the contract talks. Piazza lashed out, telling Reid, “… I am confused and disappointed by the whole thing. I’m mad that this dragged into the season and that it now has become the potential to become a distraction … How can I not think about this?”

Claire was miffed to learn of Piazza’s public comments and requested to meet with him before the next day’s game. The general manager and the star met privately at Busch Stadium.

“I want to get this contract settled or I want out of here,” Piazza told Claire. “You guys are low-balling me!”

“First of all, Mike, we are not low-balling you,” Claire said. “ … your statements on Opening Day were not good for you or this team. I’m disappointed in you. We’re just starting out the season. We don’t need that bullshit.”

“I want to know what you guys want to do,” Piazza snapped back. “Either sign me or get me out of here.”

Less than a week later the Dodgers made Piazza a contract offer: six years, $81 million. Piazza’s agent Dan Lozano countered with seven years, $105 million. The Dodgers balked. No deal. Piazza shut down negotiations.

May 14, 1998: As the Dodgers and Phillies played at Dodger Stadium, Claire received a phone call from team president Bob Graziano, who was in the Dominican Republic. Graziano informed Claire, “Fred, we made a trade that needs to be announced tonight,” he said. “We have acquired Gary SheffieldCharles JohnsonBobby Bonilla and Jim Eisenreich for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile.”

Claire later recalls thinking to himself, “Talk about stunning news,” he wrote. “Here I was, general manager of the Dodgers, being informed of a trade already consummated … I could barely believe what I was hearing.”

Claire told Graziano, “Bob, there will be two announcements tonight, because I will have an announcement on my status … after this trade, you don’t need me.”

In retrospect, the deal was never announced that night. Bonilla’s no-trade clause had to be waived before the deal could be finalized. He did and Claire’s living nightmare became a reality. After the announcement was made at a press conference at Dodger Stadium by the team’s public relations director Derrick Hall, Claire told the media, “I want to be perfectly clear on how I learned of this trade. I received a telephone call from Bob Graziano in the Dominican Republic.”

Afterward, Florida Marlin general manager Dave Dombrowski said, “I felt bad from Fred’s perspective, but we all get caught up in situations we can not control” he said. “But the circumstances of that trade, with Fred not being included at all, were one of the most unusual I’ve seen in my career.”

Claire admits his public statements eventually cost him his job with the Dodgers, a harsh, abrupt end to a long and successful tenure.

Locker Room Real Estate Values

You can learn a lot about a baseball team from its locker room. The clubhouse is where relationships form, character is revealed and leaders speak out (or not). For the major league rookie, clubhouse real estate is valuable — sometimes priceless. Imagine being the rookie who spent eight months out of the year next to Sandy Koufax? Roberto Clemente? Lou Gehrig? Tom Seaver? These were model athletes, wise and humble men, who used their talent to teach.

Danny Frisella and Tug McGraw were in heated competition for fame and fortune from the outset of the 1972 season. The late Gil Hodges remembers both pitchers begging for their manager to pick them when he signaled to the bullpen. If Frisella was selected, and won the game, McGraw would give Frisella the “cold shoulder.” If McGraw got the nod (and won) Frisella would mimic the gesture.

There is no evidence whether or not the Mets clubhouse manager made an intentional effort to put Frisella and McGraw side-by-side in the locker room, but their adjoining lockers created more fun and competition. The two Mets pitchers would sometimes switch the locker nameplates to appear that the other won the game.

While Frisella and McGraw jockeyed for their manager’s affection, that same season a rookie named Jon Matlack was granted locker space between Tom Seaver and Jerry KoosmanMatlack was named 1972 Rookie of the Year, winning 15 of his 32 starts. He compiled 244 innings pitched, eight complete games and a skinny 2.32 ERA. Coincidence? Possibly. Seaver will tell you, for certain, it meant nothing then and means nothing now.

“Where you lockered really wasn’t that important,” Seaver told the New York Times in 2008. “It didn’t make any difference. Just your own little space; it could have been anywhere.”

For Seaver, locker space was irrelevant. It was a place – and space – where he took out his frustrations after a poor start. “When I make a mistake and beat myself with a bad pitch, then I get kicking mad and go after stools and water buckets,” Seaver told People Magazine.

Other times, Seaver used his locker as a prop. After getting off to a slow start in 1974, a Mets beat writer asked him if he had lost his fastball. Seaver paused, then started rummaging in his locker muttering, “Where are you, fastball? Are you in there somewhere?”

Seaver didn’t need sabermetrics to figure out the 1975 New York Mets were in for a long year. The Mets, a team renowned for their pitching stock, found themselves lacking. That spring, Seaver sat on a stool in front of his locker and looked up at the adjoining lockers. SEAVER. KOOSMAN, MATLACK.

Who are the rest of these guys? Seaver thought.

“That’s Nos. 1, 2 and 3. Where are 4 and 5?”

He rolled his eyes in frustration.

He knew, if something doesn’t change (and it didn’t), the Mets would not compete. The Mets were within four games of the lead in the National League East on September 1, 1975; then the bottom fell out on the season. They finished in third place 10 ½ games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates.

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Seaver’s real estate at Shea Stadium was the site where many of the organizations proudest moments were celebrated. He sprayed champagne over the heads of his teammates in 1969 from that “little space.” Seaver helped the Mets win another National League title from thathole in the wall. He encouraged and mentored Matlack, Jackson ToddBob MyrickGeorge Stone and many others within earshot.

In one respect Seaver is right; a locker isn’t important. There’s nothing glamorous about an athlete’s locker. It’s literally a hole in the wall. For the common man, a locker is a lot like an office cubicle, a place to store your personal effects while you go take care of business. But, location is valuable, sometimes educational.

“I learned an awful lot from having my locker room stuck between Koosman and Seaver,” said Matlack. “”It was a very, very good location to be in.”

Seaver’s locker was physically unique, well, maybe for its modesty. Former Mets beat writer Marty Noble described the space this way: “there was no locker to the immediate left, just a three-foot-wide panel. A trash can was placed there.” Seaver’s “little space” was nondescript. Seaver, himself, was so Seaver was so impervious to his surroundings that, to this day, he is unsure whether he had the now famous locker space his rookie year of 1967.

Over time, Seaver’s locker took on a life of its own. After he we traded in June 1977, Bud Harrelson asked if he could move in. Not happening, said Mets equipment manager Herb Norman. The locker would be assigned to Seaver’s successor, Pat Zachry.

Seaver returned home, and to his “little space” in 1983, then, Ron Darling assumed the space from 1984-1991, followed by David Cone (July 1991-August 1992), John Franco (1992-2003), Steve Trachsel (2004-2006) and Aaron Heilman (2007).

“That locker did have history; more than any other in that place,” said Franco. “Nobody made the kind of history here that Tom Seaver made. It doesn’t matter how long anyone had it, it was always Seaver’s.”

“It doesn’t matter [who preceded Seaver],” added Darling. “It’s his.”

In some ballparks, because of some professional athletes, lockers can become hallowed ground. When Lou Gehrig died, his locker was sealed and sent to Cooperstown. Before Shea Stadium was demolished after the 2008 season, Seaver’s locker was preserved and put on the block for a cool $41,000.

That’s some valuable real estate.

In 1984, the New York Mets were on the rise. Jesse Orosco and Doug Sisk anchored the Mets bullpen on the field, roommates off the field and lived out of adjoining lockers during the team’s championship run in the 80s.

“We’re just a couple of ordinary guys who get along, and have no professional jealousy,” said Sisk. “We’re both fairly serious, but we have different personalities. But we’re not rivals. You can’t be rivals. It won’t work.”

When it does work, the team benefits – at least that’s what Mets manager Terry Collins had in mind when he placed Zack Wheeler and Matt Harvey side-by-side in Port St. Lucie. Collins told the media he intentionally put Harvey and Wheeler at adjoining lockers to give Wheeler the opportunity to ask questions and “soak up” the experience like Harvey did last season.

“Having lockers next to each other, we’re both baseball players who have the same mindset,” said Harvey. “Getting along, I don’t think, is going to be very tough.”

Wheeler had prime real estate in Port St. Lucie. Like Harvey in 2012, he will receive a valuable education a lot by watching and listening. Harvey described the experience as “eye-opening.” watching veterans Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey prepare for a major league baseball season.

“That’s something that I’ve never seen,” Harvey told ESPN.com. “Watching the preparation that those guys had in order to throw 200 innings … Sometimes it’s stepping back and realizing, ‘Hey, this is a long process. Throwing until the end of September is a long time from now.’”

The same opportunity to learn and grow await Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman.

Spring Training is always an intriguing place for reporters to take stock in how and where players are positioned. The nameplates begin to disappear as February turns to March and the minor league players are dispatched for reassignment. The last days of March mark the time for final cuts. The veteran invited to spring training is playing his heart out and biting their nails in one corner of the clubhouse while the fresh-faced 20-something is bouncing off the walls hoping this will be his year.

As Opening Day creeps closer, locker room real estate values will increase.

Bowties and Rings

Frank Cashen arrived in Flushing with an impressive resume; two World Series rings, a drawer full of bowties and patience.

Throughout Spring Training and most of April 1980 Cashen watched Joe Torre’s team sputter. There were no trades, nor firings. Not a single transaction. The Mets front office was quiet.

“When is the man going to make a move?” Mets catcher John Stearns boldly asked the media. “He’s had 90 days and nothing has happened.”

The new Mets GM didn’t break a sweat. He didn’t blink. Cashen’s first player transaction didn’t come until June, it was barely a twitch. He acquired Claudell Washington from the White Sox for a minor league pitcher. That same week Cashen used his No. 1 draft pick to select a tall, skinny kid out of Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles. His name: Darryl Strawberry.

Cashen made minor trades, signed free agents and put together a patchwork teams during 1981 and 1982. “I was looking for cosmetic things to try to make the Mets look decent until I could rebuild them,” Cashen told Peter Golenbeck in Amazin’.

Sandy Alderson was introduced as the new general manager of the New York Mets at Citi Field last week and, for better or worse, the organization is going through a rebirth.

Alderson adopts a mediocre major league roster and a minor league system that’s been labeled and assessed by baseball analysts as “fair,” “poor” and “a disaster.”

Like Cashen, the Mets new GM has a philosophical track record that is tied to player development. Alderson sold himself to the Mets on this very foundation, hence the four-year contract. There’s no quick fix when it comes to building long-term success.

“I’ve always had a preference for holding on to our own talent and seeing how far it can go,” Alderson told the media last week at Citi Field. “If it succeeds and realizes its full potential, we benefit. If it doesn’t, I think we’ve still made the right decision in terms of our fan base.”

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Like it or not, Mets fans are going to get the opportunity to see if Ruben Tejada is a major league second baseman; if Ike Davis and Daniel Murphy will blossom into serious offensive threats; if Lucas Duda is ready to play every day at the major league level; can Josh Thole hit consistently and command the respect of the pitching staff; is Jenrry Mejia ready to pitch at the major league level? How about Dillon Gee? Aberration or the real deal? Brad Holt: Ready or not? Will the real Mike Pelfrey please stand up?

Go ahead, take the entire 2011 season to assess the situation. Alderson – and whomever is given the job as Mets manager – will beta test, conduct fire drills and in season simulations to determine the answers to these and other questions.

One thing is for certain, you won’t find the Mets brass in a bidding war for Cliff Lee or Carl Crawford this winter. There will be no repeat of the multi-year, multi-million dollar press conference player introductions Mets fans have come accustomed too.

“I think we’re going to be busy, but that’s first and maybe ultimately only to assess the market,” Alderson said. “We don’t really know what’s out there. We need to be actively engaged in finding out what’s available to us, who has interest in some of our players … we’re going to be out there fishing.”

In the meantime, if the fish aren’t biting, the clock will be ticking on the contracts of Oliver PerezLuis Castillo and Carlos Beltran, a potential $30 million payroll reduction post-2011.

Alderson, a military man, is brilliant at working the media to his advantage. He won’t tip his hand. He won’t point directly at a player. He won’t offer specific details on any single issue. In fact, he has the uncanny ability to speak in riddles – and get away with it in front of a room full of New York media.

At last week’s press conference, Alderson was asked about player contracts, the free agent market and the team’s direction. He responded:

“One of the reasons that fans like baseball is because it provides a certain consistency and continuity in their lives that maybe doesn’t exist otherwise. It’s important to recognize that. But, at the same time, I think fans enjoy change.”

Fans like “consistency and continuity,” but “fans enjoy change.”

He’s not being evasive, but deceptive. Alderson is intentionally non-committal. He teaches marketing. He know the value of working the media. Alderson has a gift. It’s the art of the pick-off play from the GM’s seat.

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War states deception provides a competitive advantage. It forces your competition to second-guess your next move. The unknown poses a psychological threat to the competition.

In public Alderson would offer this translation: “I don’t think we’re going to go out actively trying to move anybody. But, at the same time, let’s see what’s out there. So, to that extent, I don’t think anybody is untouchable.”

Before he begins dangling his roster to the league like carrots on a stick, Alderson must first hire a manager, where there’s been no shortage of debate on who is best suited for the job. What does Alderson think? He offered little at the press conference.

“The manager is a very critical part of the overall leadership structure,” he said. “I can appreciate a fiery manager. I also think it’s important for a manager to be somewhat analytical … We’re looking for somebody that fits intellectual requirements, but also intuitive and emotional ones.”

That narrows the available field to roughly 15-20 candidates. Vegas and the New York press have Bob Melvin, Terry Collins or Clint Hurdle as odds on favorites. Keep guessing.

Three decades and five general managers removed from the Cashen era, Sandy Alderson arrived in Flushing with an impressive resume (including two World Series rings) and patience. Sound familiar?

All that’s missing are the bowties … and the next Darryl Strawberry.

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.

“Everything about me has been blown out of proportion all along,” said Jefferies. “How good my offense was, how bad my defense was, how weird my relationship with my father was. The media went beyond the bounds in how it portrayed me.”

His professional career started with less humility and a healthy heap of media hype. Jefferies was 17, a senior at Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, California, when the Mets selected No. 1 pick (20th overall) in the 1985 June amateur draft. The 1985 draft was loaded with future major leaguers including Barry Bonds, Will Clark, Barry Larkin, Rafael Palmeiro, John Smoltz, Mark Grace, David Justice, Randy Johnson, Tino Martinez and B.J. Surhoff , the No. 1 overall pick.

Jefferies lived up to the hype during his first two seasons in the Mets’ minor league system. In the first of those seasons, he combined to hit .353, 16 home runs, 111 RBIs and 57 stolen bases in 125 games (including stops at Columbia, S.C., Lynchburg, Va. (A) Jackson (AA). .In 1987, Jefferies hit .367, with 20 homers, 101 RBIs and 26 stolen bases in 134 games for the Jackson Mets. Baseball America selected Jefferies as Minor League Player of the Year back-to-back years.

But off-the-field Jefferies struggled to adapt. He was homesick from the moment he arrived in Kingsport, Tennessee to play for the Mets of the Appalachian League. “I was lost and depressed,” he said. “I was alone, living in a Sheraton.”

Jefferies’ parents arrived two days later. The short visit turned into a 10-week stay. “When I had a bad night at the ballpark, I’d go stay with my folks,” he said. “They were my support system. They helped me cope with disappointments.”

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He was 19 — still a teenager — on the day he was promoted by the Mets. Jefferies arrived at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego to join the team and stadium security officials refused to let him into the clubhouse because, they said, he looked like a kid trying to scam security.

Jefferies made his major league debut on September 6, 1987 as a pinch-hitter against the Dodgers at Chavez Ravine. “When Davey [Johnson] told me I was going to hit, I wanted to, but I didn’t want to,” he said. “After I popped out, people yelled that I was overrated; I should go back to Jackson.”

It wouldn’t be the last time he’d hear those words. But, for the time being, Jefferies didn’t care. A couple days later he collected his first major league hit against the Phillies.

The following spring Jefferies arrived at Mets camp in Port St. Lucie, Florida amid more hype, greater expectation and unprecedented attention. The New York Times labeled him “arguably the best baseball player not on a major league roster.”

The hype worried the Mets front office. They had seen what New York did (and was still doing) to Darryl Strawberry. “The hardest thing to deal with is the New York media attention,” Strawberry said in hindsight. “All those writers, every single day. Nothing can ever prepare you for that. You can’t compare a 20-year-old kid to a Hall of Famer because he’ll only disappoint.”

The Mets didn’t want its prized prospect crushed by the Big Apple. The final week of spring training the Mets made it official: Jefferies would start the season with the Tidewater Tides, the Mets Triple-A affiliate in Virginia.

“Some players are labeled ‘can’t-miss,'” said Mets manager Davey Johnson. “He is ‘inevitable.’  I hate to send a kid down I enjoy watching playing.”

In late August, the Mets promoted Jefferies after a sore hamstring sidelined Wally Backman and a viral infection crippled Dave Magadan “forced our hand,” said Joe McIlvaine, the Mets’ vice-president of baseball operations.

Jefferies singled and doubled in his Mets season debut against the San Francisco Giants. One night later, he was back in the starting lineup for the series opener against the San Diego Padres at Shea Stadium. Jefferies wowed the modest crowd of 16,444, collecting three hits — a double, triple and home run — in a 6-0 win.

He batted .400 during his first two weeks and won the National League Player of the Week honors going 11-for-25 (.440) with three HRs, nine RBI, eight runs scored and a .960 slugging percentage.

“Who would have thought he’d come up and do this?” said Johnson. “The kid is creating some problems here.”

The day after he went 3-for-5 against the Dodgers in an 8-0 Mets win, Jefferies was sitting at his locker talking with Keith Hernandez when Strawberry walked up and handed him an envelope.

“Here, you deserve it,” he said.

Inside the envelope: Strawberry’s pay check.

But, not everyone in the Mets clubhouse was as overjoyed by Jefferies arrival and success. The New York Times suggested a “handful of insecure infielders [felt] threatened” by his talent and attention.

“There simply shouldn’t be those kinds of petty jealousies,” said Hernandez. “We’re here to win. People have no business making a kid feel unwanted. If you are unhappy, you take it to Frank Cashen or Davey Johnson. It wasn’t the kid’s decision to be called up or to play. And there’s no worse feeling than rejection. It can’t make him feel good.”

When the news was brought to Davey Johnson’s attention, he responded with a sheepish grin of approval adding, ”Guys create tension by competing.”

Jefferies played 29 games in 1988 for the Mets, batting .321 with six homers and 17 RBI. He continued his success at the plate in the postseason, starting all seven games at third base and batted .333 (9-for-27) including three multi-hit games in the 1988 National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“There was a lot of jealousy,” Gary Carter said years later. “He might have been one of the reasons we didn’t win it all in ’88. Davey [Johnson] put him at third in the playoffs against the Dodgers. When Jefferies was given that opportunity, there was a separation on the team.”

One would think that Jefferies success on the field would translate to peace in the clubhouse and joy in the bleachers. But, no such luck. The 1989 season was hijacked by turmoil on and off the field.

Throughout the winter talks centered on the idea of the franchise building the team around Jefferies; the suggestion created controversy. Could an unproven rookie carry New York baseball?

“Last year Gregg was a caddie,” said Bob Ojeda. “He was a pretty good caddie, but we can’t really say he’s a big addition yet, not until we know how he can play the position.”

Ojeda’s words proved to be prophetic. Jefferies – and the Mets – stumbled out of the gate. The Mets rookie batted below the Mendoza line until almost mid-June. He didn’t hit a home run until June 15. But the Mets stuck with him, hoping Jefferies would turn it around. He didn’t – really. Jefferies finished the 1989 season with a .258 batting average and a couple scraps and cuts.

The strife hit its peak one afternoon while the Mets were on the road against the St. Louis Cardinals. During the pre-game workout he was instructed to return to the clubhouse. When he arrived, Jefferies found one of his bats broken to pieces.

Jefferies was known to protect his bats. He would keep them separate from his teammates and reportedly “rubbed his bats down with alcohol,” so he could see where the ball hit them, like his idol Ty Cobb.

He collected the splinters and sat down beside his locker. Quietly, he contemplated quitting.  “I asked myself if I actually wanted to do this,” he said. “I came close to saying no. I came close.”

When the Mets fell out of contention in late September tempers flared and, ultimately, exploded on the final play of the season when Jefferies and Roger McDowell exchanged words after the final out. Jefferies charged McDowell as both benches emptied.

“There were 30 of our guys rooting for Roger and 20 of theirs rooting for him too,” said then Phillies manager Nick Leyva.

“Gregg’s been through some tough times this season,” McDowell told the media. “There’s been a lot of pressure on him, and maybe it all got to him. I never disliked him, but I don’t think we’ll be exchanging Christmas cards this year.”

 

The following spring Jefferies arrived in Port St. Lucie hoping to turn over a new leaf and win back the trust and respect of his teammates. “I’m not a pouter, but I guess it looked like I was,” he said. “I brought a lot of it on myself. I’m sorry. I’ve learned. I’ve matured.”

Jefferies’ comments fell on deaf ears. “We’re not going to stand for his antics this year,” Ojeda told the media. “If he starts anything like that, we’ll nip it in the bud. Who’ll nip it? The hierarchy. We don’t hate Gregg Jefferies. We just didn’t like some of the things he did. We didn’t deal with it correctly. I guess we had so many things going wrong last season that this festered.”

Joe Durso of the the New York Times wrote:

The open coldness may have broken and the clandestine character assaults may have abated, but there is still detachment and distance. If there is not personal animus, there is widespread awkwardness, a situation compounded by Jefferies rudimentary social skills …

“What really ticked me off was when Gregg would walk back real slow after making an out, said Davey Johnson. “It bothered me, and I’m sure it bothered the players. I think there was a lot of petty jealousy toward him. The resentment was overdone.”

“He was 21 and he acted as if he had won three batting championships,” said Hernandez.

No words could redeem Jefferies. The damage was done. His last hope was to keep his mouth shut, play baseball and let his performance do the talking, but neither Jefferies or his teammates could hold their tongue.

The final straw came in June 1990. In pure cowardly fashion, the Mets clubhouse anonymously began railing against Jefferies, calling him “a designated hitter playing third base.” When the quote hit the newspapers, Jefferies came unglued. “People, I guess, will always have something to say. I really am tired of being butchered,” he told the media. “I don’t mean to sound like a baby because I’ve been quiet about this for three years. I just want to play baseball. I’m not taking this anymore.”

“There’s too much of this ‘One Met said’ stuff,” David Cone told the New York Times. “If you’ve got something to say, put your name behind it or go to the player and say it.”

Jefferies responded to the anonymous comments with a nine-paragraph letter that he read on WFAN, then the Mets flagship radio station.

THE LETTER

Over the past three years, there has been an awful lot said and written about me. All too often, I have been criticized and blamed by some of my teammates. (I don’t believe anyone can deny the fact that I have consistently taken it on the chin for the last three years.)

In those three years, I have always accepted responsibility for my mistakes and errors. I have never made excuses or alibis, or blamed anyone or pointed fingers.

It is my hope that the air can be cleared and that misunderstandings can be corrected. There comes a time when you have to stand up for what is right. I believe it is only fair and right that the fans of New York know my side of the story. Yes, there is another side to what you have heard.

(I have never been accused of not want to win, not caring enough, or not trying hard enough.) If anything, I’ve been accused of caring too much, trying too hard, and wanting to win too much. Is there really something wrong with that?

The core of all the criticism lashed out at me is that, admittedly, a few of my teammates don’t regard me as a friend. It would be great to be friends with everyone, but my main concern is to play good baseball and to help the Mets win. (It is not important that we all be friends, however, it is important that we truly be teammates, all pulling for one another.

When a pitcher is having trouble getting players out, when a hitter is having trouble hitting, or when a player makes an error, I try to support them in whatever way I can. I don’t run to the media to belittle them or to draw more attention to their difficult times.

I can only hope that one day those teammates who have found it convenient to criticize me will realize that we are all in this together. If only we can concentrate more on the games, rather than complaining and bickering and pointing fingers, we would all be better off.

I have never claimed to be the future of the Mets; this was a label that was put on me. I have never asked to play second base or third base, or for that matter, anywhere. I have just followed the requests of the management. What I do want the fans to know is that I give 110% all the time. All I want is for us to win.

Here’s hoping that 1991 will be a championship year for the New York Mets.

My best always,

Gregg Jefferies

“He has feelings,” said then manager Bud Harrelson. “He’s conveyed them. Now it’s time to get back to baseball.”

The Mets finished the 1991 season in second place (91-71), four games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates. The season fell apart over a two-week period in early September when the team dropped 12 of 18 games. Harrelson was dismissed and two months later, in December 1991, the Mets traded JefferiesKevin McReynolds and Keith Miller to the Kansas City Royals for Bill Pecota and Bret Saberhagen.

“Pure relief,” said Jefferies.

“It was vital that Gregg get out,” said Miller. “Vital.”

“New York was a little too much for him,” said Ron Darling.

Jefferies played 14 MLB seasons, his first five (1987-1991) for the Mets. Jefferies batted .276 in 465 games in New York (.276/42 HR/205 RBI).

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.”

As Hernandez circled back to the dugout, the Mets first baseman — always intense, always encouraging his teammates to keep their heads in the game — never stopped. He went down the steps, into the dugout, down a second set of steps into the tunnel underneath Shea Stadium and straight to the team’s locker room. Game over, he thought. Depressed, disgusted, disappointed, Hernandez later confessed he just couldn’t bare to see the Boston’s celebration unfold on his field, in front of  his fans.

 

“I went into Davey’s [Johnson’s] office and took a beer out of his fridge,” he told then Washington Post reporter (and Mets fan) John Feinstein and author of One on One: Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game.

Hernandez said he was dehydrated and downed a Budweiser in seconds. He proceeded to crack open a second beer, paying little attention to the television nearby. Hernandez sat down in his manager’s office, lit a cigarette and drank another beer.

His counterpart, Bill Buckner, was standing off the line at first base, anticipating what the spray of the champagne would feel like; seeing a beaming smile on Mrs. Yawkey’s face, and witnessing the bedlam that would ensue in Boston’s clubhouse. The entire Sox dugout was like a mass of small children ready to rush the tree and begin tearing open presents on Christmas morning.Buckner was 36 years old; his body was 75. The decade leading up to this moment were successful, yet painful, for Buckner. His body took a beating. Through the years Buckner tried acupuncture, herbs (DMSO) and holy water — yes, holy water (1978, Chicago, look it up). In 1986, he was given nine cortisone shots as he literally limped through the season.

Boston Globe reporter and Baseball Hall fo Famer Peter Gammons wrote, “it wasn’t unusual to see him before games with ice taped to his ankle, Achilles tendon, lower back, elbow and shoulder … he often looked as if he were running in galoshes.”

Now, Buckner stood alone, limping around first base, pushing dirt in his signature black high top spikes that supported his fragile ankle, hoping for one more out.

The two first baseman — Hernandez and Buckner — couldn’t have been further apart in mind, body or spirit.

Underground, Hernandez watched the monitor as teammates Gary Carter and Kevin Mitchell delivered back-to-back singles.

“I opened a third one,” said Hernandez.

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Ray Knight is reduced to a single strike separating Boston and their first World Series title since 1918, before lifting a single to centerfield, scoring Carter and advancing Mitchell to third base. Hernandez never moved an inch, his eyes locked on the television while he anxiously pulled on his cigarette, beer in hand.

Meanwhile, Buckner and the Red Sox stiffened. The crowd roared, stomping their feet, literally rocking Shea Stadium and leaving Hernandez wondering whether the ballpark would hold up under the circumstances. Sox manager called on relief pitcher Bob Stanley to finish the job.

As Stanley warmed up in the cold late October night in New York, Buckner could only stand by, watching each smoky breathe he took vaporize into the breeze. Back in the Mets clubhouse, Hernandez nervously chain-smoked from his manager’s chair.

Like Calvin Schiraldi did earlier, Stanley reduced Mookie Wilson to a single strike. Twice Boston pitcher’s were one strike away from finishing the Mets. Stanley fired a 2-2 wild pitch, scoring the tying run.

Shea Stadium went ballistic.

“I’m still not thinking that clearly, so I finish the third one,” Hernandez told Feinstein. “That’s when it hit me: the score’s tied and I just drank three beers. I’m buzzed. I was sitting there frozen, trying to figure out how I’d go out and play first base when Mookie hit the ball.”

After Wilson’s ground ball skipped through Buckner’s legs, for a moment he stood with an expression of disbelief near first base, then slowly limped back to the Boston clubhouse.

“How lucky did I just get?” Hernandez asked Feinstein. “Thank God Buckner booted that ball.”

Buckner — not so lucky.

Time has not healed, as it so often does. History skips, like an old 45 record, replaying the moment over and over. And Hernandez and Buckner? The space between them is now eternal.