If you don’t count the start of strike-marred 1995—and if I don’t, why should you?—Opening Day 2003 marked the first Mets lid lifter I’d missed in 13 years. And if you believe 13 is bad luck, you could blame triskaidekaphobia for the cluster-screw that was the 2003 season. Or you could blame Art Howe. But it’s more satisfying—and relevant—to blame Steve Phillips.
The 2003 season was what the Wonderboy GM had wrought. The scapegoating and ousting of Bobby Valentine the previous fall (though let’s give the Wilpons proper credit for that bonehead move as well), was only part of the reason to blame Phillips. What really doomed the 2003 Mets was the lousy roster Howe inherited. And the only reason they hired Art Howe was because Oakland didn’t want him, despite leading their team to three straight postseason berths. Heck, the Mets didn’t want him. They’d wanted Lou Piniella, but the Mariners, who had him under contract, wanted a top prospect to let him go to another team. Even Phillips understood it was folly to trade someone like Jose Reyes for a manager. And if Piniella couldn’t turn around his hometown Devil Rays, as they were called then, what makes you think he could have done diddley with the mess of a Mets team that may have lost 100 games in ’03 if not for an unexpected rookie season by Jae Seo?
Seo came out of the minors and pitched well. Aaron Heilman drew much more attention—I can still hear the strains of the “Kids Are Alright” from the Who for his debut. “Boris the Spider” might have been more apt. The rookie that made ’03 worth remembering at all, though, was Jose Reyes.
That Jose debuted with the Mets and had not been traded for a manager or a 35-year-old, slop-throwing reliever showed that Steve did have some self-control after all. Phillips was always ogling a new old reliever (this is how they lost pre-disappointment Jason Bay in 2002), but Stevie held off—and didn’t trade David Wright, either, who was still a year away from the majors. Reyes debuted in June 2003 in Arlington, Texas. Phillips must have been proud, albeit briefly. He was axed the next day and his replacement, Jim Duquette, spent the summer banishing the lousy contracts that Phillips had either signed or agreed to take on—the dead weight of the Mo Vaugn contract is a prime example of the latter. Duquette got rid of the stopped-caring Hall of Fame Roberto Alomar; the good-guy, bad hitter Jeromy Burnitz; Aussie lefty Graeme Lloyd; and the haircut twins Rey Sanchez and Armando Benitez, in separate deals.
Unless you remember Edwin Almonte, Royce Ring, Victor Diaz, or any of the acquired players who never made it out of the minors, there’s not a whole lot more of 2003 worth recalling. My son was born that year, so it worked out nicely for me; certainly better than letting lame duck Steve Phillips do the drafting a week before they fired him. So you can blame him for 2003 top pick Lastings Milledge. Only five Mets from that draft made the majors and the best was Brian Bannister, a good-looking, slow-throwing son of big leaguer who got hurt running the bases as a rookie and was traded for Ambiorix Burgos in 2006, but we’ll get to ’06 soon enough.
First there was 2004. A cruel season, for it brought more Art Howe, and crueler yet, it provided hope in a slow-starting division. And then, like an army that thinks it’s on the verge of winning a battle when it is actually on the verge of being routed, the Mets charged right into an ambush and came out prisoners. Jim Duquette, who proved adept at dumping salary, was not as good going the other way: sending prospects for veterans. On the ill-fated trading deadline day in 2004, in two separate but regrettable deals, he sent away Scott Kazmir and Jose Bautista, among others, for Victor Zambrano and Kris Benson. The Mets, who were 44-41 two days before the All-Star break, went 21 games under .500 after that. They lost 16 of 17 in August, including 11 in a row. Duquette and Howe were fired in September—and the Mets couldn’t even do that right. Instead of an interim replacement, Howe finished the last two weeks of the season. The year ended with the Mets saying bon voyage to Howe as well as the Expos in the last game played in the history of the Montreal franchise.
It also marked the end of three straight losing seasons for the Mets. Willie Randolph was the hire. Ironically, that came the same week Wally Backman was hired to manage the Diamondbacks. It must have been an impulse buy because he was fired four days after being hired when Arizona got freaked out by some events in Wally’s past that they obviously didn’t uncover in their not-so due diligence. Backman had been up for the Mets job, but he pulled himself out of the running since it seemed he felt he was a long shot in New York. He still is. Sigh.
New Mets GM Omar Minaya surrounded Randolph with pretty things, notably Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran, plus a trade for a new first baseman, Doug Mientkiewicz, who couldn’t hit but had a good enough glove to save David Wright many errors. The “New Mets” still had too many “old Mets,” including past free agents Braden Looper and Kaz Matsui. The Mets had way too much money tied up on players past their prime—see Glavine, Tom; Floyd, Cliff; and Cameron, Mike—but the Mets also finally got back over .500. It wasn’t easy, either. The Mets lost their first five games under Randolph, including a Looper implosion on Opening Day, the first of five such Mets bullpen meltdowns that cost Pedro five wins in ’05. And then after being ahead in the Wild Card race as September dawned, the Mets lost 14 of 17 to fall four games under .500. The Mets showed actual life in September, rallying to finish four games over. 500 and sending off Mike Piazza right in his final game as a Met.
Omar actually had an even better winter between the 2005 and ’06 seasons. He eschewed sentimentality and let Al Leiter and Piazza finish their careers elsewhere. A year after the big-talking Marlins beat out the Mets for free agent Carlos Delgado, Minaya traded with the suddenly-downsizing Marlins to get both Delgado and catcher Paul LoDuca. Another key swap was getting John Maine from the Orioles for Kris Benson a few weeks after Anna Benson’s Christmas party appearance caused plenty of trouble with her massive, inexhaustible, never-ending, um, mouth. Some scrap picking turned up gems (Jose Valentin, Endy Chavez) and old junk (Julio Franco). Minaya built up a bullpen that had been spotty except for, get this, Aaron Heilman. Omar traded for Duaner Sanchez, signed Chad Bradford and Pedro Feliciano, plus he convinced Darren Oliver to come out of retirement. He filled a huge hole at the back of the pen with a huge A-hole: Billy Wagner. Minaya kept busy all year, acquiring veterans like Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, and, when Duaner Sanchez went down in his career year (torpedoing the Mets bullpen in the process), Minaya did what he could during a time of year where trades aren’t easy to make and brought in Oliver Perez, Roberto Hernandez, Guillermo Mota, and outfielder/shell of his former self Shawn Green. I said he tried, I didn’t say he succeeded.
But the 2006 Mets were in control of the NL East from the opening series forward. It was the Mets, not the Phillies, who brought an end to the 14 years of dominance by the Braves. Minaya even looked ahead, signing a teenager by the name of Juan Lagares, and drafting Joe Smith and Daniel Murphy. He could not control injuries, though, as Pedro and El Duque could not pitch in the postseason. Still, the Swiss-cheese rotation almost made it to the World Series with Oliver Perez pitching a Game Seven. So close. So very frigging close.
I just can’t go into 2007 and 2008. I had to live through those years not just as they were happening, but in books, magazines, and websites as I was working on all three around the clock during this period. I also worked on a diary of the 2008 season with Keith Hernandez and the team’s inability to put the finishing touches on a postseason berth was excruciating. It was both great and terrible to be at Shea for the final day of that ballpark’s existence. As for 2007-08, I spilled enough ink about those two years to say I gave at the office.
But how about those doubleheaders? Well this period in question began with the Mets just getting killed in doubleheaders both straight and split. The ’03 Mets lost all three doubleheaders they played at Shea—the traditional kind—and had a makeup with the Yankees that turned into one of those deals with two games in two stadiums in one day, which they of course lost. The ’03 Mets not only lost all their doubleheaders, but all six games against the Yankees. Howe’s Mets never did win a doubleheader. After losing another DH in 2004, Howe wound up 0-4-2 (plus 0-1 in his lone day-night doubleheader).
Willie Randolph went 1-0-4 in straight doubleheaders, and he was the first second Mets skipper to manage a day-night twinbill at Shea. The Mets made it count, drawing a record 98,000 in a single day at Shea while splitting with Washington in 2007. The Mets surpassed 100,000 for a split DH against the hated Phillies in 2008. A day-night doubleheader loss in Atlanta that year, however, saw Ryan Church get a concussion before flying to Colorado at the same time many people—including those paragons of virtue in the owner’s box—were already furious at Willie for comments about racism in Flushing.
A doubleheader proved to be Willie’s last day at Shea. It was good for me, catching my only foul ball in 350-plus games at Shea, but Willie caught a flight to Anaheim after the twinbill and never made it back. In a Mets uniform, at least.
Willie’s replacement, Jerry Manuel endured some rough twinbills in ’08 as well. One of the countless Mets bullpen implosions occurred in a doubleheader that cost Johan Santana (and the team) yet another win in the first game and then Jon Niese combined for a shutout for his first major league win in the nightcap. Day or night or one after the other, doubleheaders were torture for a good team with a terrible bullpen. The Mets split two straight doubleheaders at Shea, split two on the road, split a two-borough doubleheader against the Yankees, and lost one doubleheader outright on the road. That’s a lot of doubling up, and that’s a year I lived through again and again. That’s something no one would want to live through twice.
Nightcap: Put This in the Books
I could listen to Howie Rose on the radio all day. I understand he has his own career goals and all, but the day he left Mets Extra on WFAN was a sad one. He soon came back to the Mets fold in many capacities—and his replacement for 18 years on Mets Extra, Ed Coleman, was one of the best in the business. But I have always admired Howie’s ability to not only take the conversation to different levels while always maintaining the perspective of both the Mets fan and the Mets team and never, ever getting a fact wrong.
His book, fittingly named after his game-ending calling card—Put It in the Book—is not just a recollection of his rise up the ladder from kid in the upper tank with a tape recorder to radio voice of the Mets (though there is obviously plenty about that). He also analyzes where the team has been and where it’s going, throwing in items like “The 10 Most Important/Influential/Iconic/Indispensable Persons in the Mets First Half Century.” He’s also not afraid to call ’em like he sees ’em during this literary respite from the booth. I fully concur with his assessment of Jeff Kent, who both came and went in bad trades, as a “pain in the butt.” And Howie isn’t afraid to make himself look bad, either, telling how he realized too late that calling Rob Reiner “Meathead” to his face at Dodger Stadium was a no-no. And speaking of no-no’s, Howie had the thrill of a lifetime in calling the first—and only—no-hitter in Mets history in 2012. He is enough of a walking encyclopedia to have taught us in the foreword he kindly wrote for Mets by the Numbers for Jon Springer and me that Gordie Richardson, the last number 41 before Tom Seaver, had thrown a no-hitter as a Met in 1965… during spring training (Gordo combined for the no-no with the equally immortal Gary Kroll).
That is the kind of stuff Howie just knows without referring to books or computers or tea leaves. Like the TV broadcasting trio we hear so much about, we are very lucky to have the radio voice of Howie, and Howie is very fortunate to have the one job he always wanted.