Podcast: Pete Mandlekern

Mets Rewind presents Blue and Orange, a baseball podcast for Mets fans, by Mets fans. Today we introduce you to Pete Mandlekern, a Mets fan since 1964.

Link: Mets legend reveals story behind catch

Ron Swoboda made The Catch to save the Miracle Mets in Game 4 of the 1969 World Series. The Mets won in the 10th inning on a throwing error and went on to capture their first world championship the next day, October 16, against the Orioles.

Podcast: Jacob Resnick

Mets Rewind presents Blue and Orange, a baseball podcast for Mets fans, by Mets fans. In our debut show we introduce you to Jacob Resnick, who has one of the most unique Mets fan experiences.

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.

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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.