Monday, January 30, 2017

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets: Frank Cashen

Stand at the corner of Riverside Drive and West 122nd St. in Manhattan and you'll see the General Grant National Memorial.  Grant's Tomb, as it is more commonly known, is the final resting place of former president Ulysses S. Grant and is the largest mausoleum in North America.

Stand at the corner of Roosevelt Ave. and 126th St. in Queens and you'll see where Shea Stadium used to be.  In the late 1970s, nearly a century after General U.S. Grant passed away, Shea was not-so-affectionately known as Grant's Tomb after Mets chairman M.D. Grant.  And not even an experienced doctor could have saved the Mets from going six feet under during Grant's tenure.

Shea Stadium resembled a mausoleum in 1979, with fewer than 800,000 fans braving the tumbleweed that passed through the park's empty concourses to watch the men who passed as players tumbling over each other on the field.  But things began to change a year later in 1980, when the ownership team of Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon purchased the Mets from the Payson/de Roulet family.

After many years of misguided machinations by M. Donald Grant, the Mets were looking for a general manager who could make the team relevant again.  They found him after receiving a tip from the beer guy.

The architect and the building he worked in.  (Manny Millan/Getty Images)

John Francis Cashen was a sportswriter in Baltimore for 15 years.  When he wasn't writing, the bow tie aficionado was studying law at the University of Maryland.  On top of that, Cashen worked as a publicity director at a race track owned by local businessman Jerold Hoffberger, which led to a job in advertising for Hoffberger's National Brewing Company.

In 1965, Hoffberger, whose "Natty Boh" beer was the main sponsor of the Baltimore Orioles, gained controlling interest in the O's and asked Cashen to be the team's executive vice president.  Although Cashen had no experience working for a major league club, he enjoyed immediate success in his new role.  The Orioles won four pennants in his first six years on the job, taking home the World Series title in 1966 and 1970.

But after ten highly successful seasons with the Orioles, Cashen left the team to manage the brewery, which wasn't experiencing as much success.  Hoffberger eventually lost control of the National Brewing Company and ended up selling the Orioles in 1979.  No longer attached to his former boss, Cashen returned to baseball, accepting a position as Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's assistant.  Within a year, Cashen was changing jobs again, with a little help from his previous employer.

The New York Mets had new ownership in 1980, and were looking to build a winner from the ground up.  To do that, Doubleday and Wilpon needed a savvy general manager.  But before they could start the interview process, they first had to answer the phone.

"I understand you just bought the Mets," said the voice on the line.  "Well, the best general manager in the business is Frank Cashen."

Doubleday had never met Jerold Hoffberger, but once he took the former Orioles' owner's call, he figured he had nothing to lose by contacting Cashen.

"We called him," Doubleday said.  "He was the only one we talked to.  It only took a week."

And with that, the Mets had their new general manager.  However, it took a little longer than a week for the Mets to have a competitive team.

The 1979 Mets needed to win their last six games of the year to avoid losing 100 games.  But the season-ending skein couldn't keep them from finishing in the N.L. East cellar for a third consecutive campaign.  Cashen knew the roster needed a total shakeup if he wanted to field a competitive team that would bring the fans back to Shea Stadium.

"I took over a huge mess," Cashen said.  "Talent-wise, we had nothing.  Fan support, there was nothing.  In my estimation it was as ugly as you could get.  Just terrible.  We needed a complete overhaul of everything."

(Chuck Solomon/Getty Images)
One of the first things Cashen did as part of his overhaul was hire Jerry Della Famina and his advertising agency.  Due to his past work in advertising for the National Brewing Company in Baltimore, Cashen knew that the team had to promote a new image to its fans; one that promised that the losing ways of the club were coming to an end.  Della Famina came up with "The Magic Is Back" as the team's slogan in 1980, which led to much ridicule after the team ended the year with a 67-95 record.  His initial failure caused Cashen to realize exactly what was needed to help bring fans back to the ballpark.

"You can go overboard with marketing and advertising," Cashen said.  "The real thing that sells the team is the team.  You have to have the players."

At first, Cashen did not have much success importing veteran talent via the trade market, as players such as Ellis Valentine, Randy Jones and George Foster all underperformed after being acquired by the Mets.  But Cashen knew young talent when he saw it.  And his trades for prospects, as well as his draft strategy, were key in building a cohesive unit that would end the Grant's Tomb era of baseball at Shea.

Cashen's first-ever draft pick was Darryl Strawberry, who went on to set the franchise record for home runs.  Over the next three years, Cashen went on to draft Dwight Gooden, Lenny Dykstra, Roger McDowell and Randy Myers, among others.  He also signed several amateur free agents such as Kevin Mitchell and Ed Hearn.  And he traded away fan-favorite Lee Mazzilli in exchange for minor league pitchers Ron Darling and Walt Terrell, flipping Terrell a few years later for Howard Johnson.

When he first came aboard, Cashen said it would take four or five years to make the team competitive.  In 1983 - Cashen's fourth season with the team - the Mets were still languishing at the bottom of the division standings.  But by then, Strawberry and Darling were major-league ready.  In addition, Cashen finally made a trade for a veteran player that worked out for the club, acquiring first baseman Keith Hernandez from the defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals.  The Mets won just 68 games in 1983, but that represented the franchise's highest win total in seven years.

The 1984 season began with a loss before the team had even taken the field, as the Mets foolishly failed to protect Tom Seaver - Cashen had brought back the prodigal son just a year earlier - in the free agent compensation draft.  But Seaver's departure opened up a spot in the starting rotation, one that was filled when new manager Davey Johnson insisted to a hesitant Cashen that 19-year-old phenom Dwight Gooden was equipped to succeed in the big leagues after striking out 300 hitters in 191 innings at Single-A Lynchburg in 1983.

"He's ready, I know it," Johnson said.  "And don't worry because I'll protect him.  That's what I do with young arms."

With Cashen's young talent beginning to spread its wings at the major league level, the Mets exceeded all expectations by winning 90 games in '84 - the second-highest total in franchise history up to that point.  New York played meaningful games in September for the first time in nearly a decade, but ultimately fell short of the postseason.  Nevertheless, the team drew over one million more fans than they did in the year prior to Cashen's hiring.  Knowing that the team had to remain competitive to keep its new and returning fans, Cashen had to once again trade one of the club's most popular players.  But this time, instead of acquiring prospects in the deal, Cashen went for the gold.

On December 10, the Mets sent fan-favorite third baseman Hubie Brooks to the Montreal Expos, along with catcher Mike Fitzgerald, speedy outfielder Herm Winningham and pitching prospect Floyd Youmans.  In return, the Mets received veteran catcher Gary Carter, who was a seven-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner and three-time Silver Slugger Award recipient.  In other words, Carter was the missing link, both as a hitter and groomer of young pitchers.

"As easy as the trade for Hernandez was, the trade for Gary Carter was much, much, much, much more difficult," Cashen said.  "It took about 10 telephone calls and a couple of face-to-face meetings and was done over a period of a couple of months before I could finalize the deal.  He [Expos president John McHale] didn't want to do it.  I thought the possibility of getting him was slim and none.  We needed a hitter and a catcher and he fit the bill completely.  I hung in there for a long time, much longer than you do for an ordinary kind of trade."

Have bat, will travel - from Montreal to New York.  (Bob Vedral/Sporting News via Getty Images)

Prior to the acquisition of Carter, the most prolific offensive season by a Mets catcher was by John Stearns in 1978, when the Bad Dude smacked 15 homers and drove in 73 runs.  Carter surpassed both of those totals easily, cranking out a 32-homer, 100-RBI campaign in his first year with the team.  Carter nearly single-handedly carried the Mets to a division crown, batting .323 with 15 homers (Stearns' full-season total in '78) and 38 RBI over his last 34 games.  But alas, the Mets fell short of the playoffs once again, as their 98-64 record left them three games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the N.L. East.

The Mets had won 188 games between the 1984 and 1985 seasons with nary a postseason berth to show for it.  The team now had veteran leadership in Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter, and Cashen's key early '80s draft picks had all graduated to the big club.  With the core of the team already in place, Cashen decided to add smaller pieces to complete the championship puzzle, acquiring second baseman Tim Teufel to platoon with incumbent middle infielder Wally Backman and trading for left-handed starting pitcher Bob Ojeda to fill out the starting rotation.

The less splashier moves were a tremendous success, as Ojeda led the Mets with 18 victories in 1986, while Teufel's presence allowed Backman to play primarily against right-handed pitchers.  Backman responded by batting a career-high .320, while Teufel brought some pop to the lineup, contributing 25 extra-base hits in just 279 at-bats.  After two years of being the runner-up in the division, the Mets finally ended 13 years of frustration, advancing to the postseason for the first time since 1973.

With the right mix of veterans and homegrown talent, the team Cashen built won it all in 1986, defeating the Boston Red Sox in seven games to win the franchise's second World Series championship.  It took four years of rebuilding before the Mets became contenders and then another couple of seasons before they had the talent (and the luck - Thanks, Buckner!) to bring the trophy home, but Cashen kept the promise he made to his bosses.  He stitched together a ragtag group of imperfect players and came up with the perfect season for long-suffering Mets fans.

Of course, once a team climbs to the top of the mountain, the only place to go is back down.  And the descent started when Cashen traded away Kevin Mitchell just six weeks after the Mets had won the World Series.  Although the Mets received slugger Kevin McReynolds in the eight-player deal with the San Diego Padres, Mitchell was "one of the guys" who embodied the identity of the never-say-die Mets, whereas McReynolds' idea of hunting for a trophy usually ended with an animal's head on his wall.  McReynolds wasn't a rough-and-tumble Met like Mitchell and several of his former teammates were, but Cashen felt that Mitchell would be a negative presence in the clubhouse, especially around Gooden and Strawberry.  The news of the transaction did not sit well with manager Davey Johnson.

"That's the one trade I really fought," Johnson said.  "They felt Mitch was a bad influence on Doc and Straw.  I knew that wasn't the case.  Mitch came from a tough background but he wasn't a problem at all.  I tried to convince the powers-that-be, but they kept saying, 'we think he'll self-destruct.' "

This photo clearly depicts Kevin Mitchell as a self-destructing bad influence.  (Bill Turnbull/NY Daily News)

What Mitchell did do over the course of his career after his departure from New York was destroy baseballs.  After playing just 62 games in his hometown of San Diego, Mitchell was dealt to the San Francisco Giants, where he hit 143 homers in less than five full seasons.  Mitchell helped the Giants win two N.L. West titles and the 1989 National League pennant, taking home the league's Most Valuable Player Award in the Giants' World Series campaign.

While Mitchell was becoming one the game's most feared hitters, McReynolds had a solid career with the Mets.  In 1988, McReynolds finished third in the N.L. MVP vote and helped the Mets win a division title.  But that was the only time he played in the postseason with the team, as the '88 squad didn't have the fire and resilience that their '86 counterparts had.  They did have David Cone, however, who became one of the league's best pitchers after Cashen traded for him.

In what is widely considered to be the best post-championship trade made by Cashen, the Mets acquired Cone from Kansas City for catcher Ed Hearn and pitchers Rick Anderson and Mauro Gozzo.  Cashen wasn't even asking for Cone in particular, but stuck to his mantra about who to select in a trade when given the opportunity.

"We knew Kansas City needed a catcher and we had Eddie Hearn," Cashen said.  "I'd like to tell you that we were that brilliant, but we looked into their system for a pitcher.  You know my philosophy: if you don't know what you want, take pitching." 

Cone had an up-and-down 1987 campaign, filling in as a starter when the staff was overcome with injuries and serving as a reliever when the other pitchers were healthy.  Cone himself wasn't immune to the injuries that plagued the pitching staff in 1987, missing nearly three months with a broken right little finger.  But Cone blossomed in 1988, becoming the first Met not named Seaver, Koosman or Gooden to win 20 games in a single season.  As good as Cone and his teammates were in 1987 and 1988 - the Mets combined to win 192 games during the two seasons - they had no pennants to show for their regular season success.  What they did have was a group of rapidly aging veterans and memories of a time when the team was expected to win a championship every year - something that Cashen was becoming well aware of.

At the tail end of the 1988 campaign, the Mets promoted 21-year-old wunderkind Gregg Jefferies.  Jefferies, who had torn the cover off the ball at every minor league level, would split time between second and third base during the final month of the season and started all seven games against Los Angeles in the National League Championship Series at the hot corner.  But after the disappointing defeat to the Dodgers, the Mets decided that Jefferies' future in New York would be at second base.  Wally Backman, who had been with the organization for a dozen seasons, including the last nine at the big league level as the team's second baseman, was the odd man out, causing him to ask for a trade.  In December, the Mets granted his wish, sending the gritty fan-favorite to the Minnesota Twins for three minor league pitchers.

Unfortunately, Jefferies didn't become the next hitting superstar for the Mets, playing just three more seasons in New York after Backman was traded to make room for him.  The .321 batting average and .961 OPS posted by Jefferies during his late-season call-up in 1988 proved to be a fluke, as Jefferies batted just .272 and had a .732 OPS for the Mets from 1989 to 1991.  In addition, Jefferies rubbed his more experienced teammates the wrong way with his immature behavior and childlike temper tantrums.  If anything, Jefferies became the clubhouse cancer that Cashen thought Kevin Mitchell was going to be just a few years earlier.

Six months after the departure of Backman, Cashen continued to part ways with some of the other characters from the '86 club.  On Father's Day 1989, the Mets traded Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell to the division rival Phillies for Juan Samuel.  The second baseman turned center fielder failed miserably in New York, and was an ex-Met the following season.  Meanwhile, Dykstra and McDowell both played well into the '90s, with Dykstra providing the spark in Philadelphia's pennant-winning 1993 campaign.  Needless to say, the trade to cut ties with Dykstra was unpopular with Mets fans and with the team's manager.

"The only thing I wanted Dykstra to do was stop trying to hit home runs," Johnson said.  "I never wanted him out of there.  He was part of the grit and the grind, along with Backman."

After 1986, Davey Johnson and Frank Cashen didn't see eye-to-eye very much.  (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

As the 1980s came to a close, so did the tenures of many long-time Mets players.  In addition to the trades of Backman, Dykstra and McDowell, the team shipped off beloved outfielder Mookie Wilson to Toronto at the trade deadline in 1989 and chose not to renew the contracts of Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter at the end of the season.  That was followed by the firing of Davey Johnson in May 1990 and the failure to re-sign Darryl Strawberry six months later.

Just as Cashen had no problem sending Kevin Mitchell back to his hometown four years earlier, he had no qualms about letting Strawberry return to his place of birth in Los Angeles.  The Mets had offered what they thought was a fair deal, putting four years and $15.5 million on the table for the right fielder, but the Dodgers were willing to give Strawberry a longer commitment and the corresponding financial compensation that came with such a commitment.  When the deal was announced, Cashen remained unapologetic about not bringing back the 28-year-old superstar.

"We offered him four years; they offered him five," Cashen said.  "The money was the same.  I've never offered a ballplayer a contract for $15.5 million.  I don't have to apologize for it."

And just like that, the first player Cashen drafted when he became the Mets' general manager was gone.  

When the Mets rallied to defeat the Red Sox in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, the miraculous comeback featured two-out singles by Gary Carter, Kevin Mitchell and Ray Knight, followed by a wild pitch and a little roller up along first by Mookie Wilson.  Within three seasons, they were all gone.  In fact, by the time 1990 came to a close, all nine players who started Game Six and the manager who wrote their names on the lineup card were no longer with the team.  The house that Cashen built so meticulously had been all but torn down.  A year later, the architect walked away as well.

In 1991, the Mets had a solid first half under manager Bud Harrelson, and by late July the team was 15 games over .500 despite having a suspect offense.  But the Mets won just 24 of their final 70 games to finish the year under .500 for the first time in eight years.  That was enough for Cashen, who resigned at the end of the year after 12 seasons as the Mets' general manager.  Cashen remained with the team as its chief operating officer in 1992 and then as a consultant, briefly filling in as general manager in 1993 and once again in 1998.
Nearly two decades after spending his last day as the team's full-time general manager, Cashen was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame.   He received the honor in 2010 along with two of his former first round draft picks (Strawberry, Gooden) and the manager he hired that helped turn the team around in 1984, leading to a championship two years later.

The Mets' turnaround in the 1980s might never have happened if not for these four men.  (Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Cashen, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 88, wasn't without his faults, as he frequently had disagreements with manager Davey Johnson.  Cashen's old-school approach to running a club, expecting professionalism from his players at all times, was frustrating to Johnson, especially when it came to women traveling with the team and the players' behavior off the field.  Cashen was also quick to trade away players, as seen by the jettisoning of Mitchell, Backman and Dykstra for players who either couldn't handle New York (Juan Samuel), couldn't make it to the big leagues (all the minor leaguers who came back in return) or couldn't feign interest in the game (Kevin McReynolds).  The fast trigger finger eventually led to the team's decline in the early '90s and the subsequent drop in attendance at the ballpark.  A team that had surpassed three million paying fans in 1987 and 1988 was barely drawing half that amount just five years later.  Shea Stadium wasn't quite Grant's Tomb again, but the magic that had permeated the park in the 1980s had certainly dissipated by the 1990s.

Despite his various flaws, Cashen's legacy remains untarnished and he is still revered as one of the greatest general managers in franchise history.  He may not have had everyone on his side during his time with the Mets, but even his fiercest detractors knew how important he was to the team.

"Frank was our leader," Strawberry said upon hearing of Cashen's passing.  "I always admired the way he put together our team.  He mixed young guys, like me and Doc, with guys like Carter and Hernandez.  He was able to find the perfect blend to build a championship."

The Mets were one of the worst teams in the league at the beginning of Cashen's tenure in New York.  When he left, they were once again a second division team.  But for all the agony Mets fans endured waiting for a competitive club to root for, the one championship squad Cashen constructed has remained something they can look back on with pride.

A man who got his start working for the local beer guy will always have Mets fans raising a glass in his honor.

Note: The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players and personnel who experienced the best of times and the worst of times with the team.  For previous installments, please click on the names below:

January 2, 2017: Tom Seaver
January 9, 2017: Mike Piazza
January 16, 2017: Wally Backman
January 23, 2017: Daniel Murphy


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