Clichés about "focus" are indeed a standard coaching trope. But there's a vehemence in Valentine's voice, and his volume keeps rising, and for fifteen minutes he continues to rant. I'm relieved when he pauses to sink his gleaming white teeth into a bagel with lox, because Valentine's incisors seem aimed right at me.
"Is there a San Francisco or Seattle magazine that would have the audacity to do a story like this at this time of the year?" Valentine spits. "No. Absolutely not! To try to have breakfast with Lou Piniella to talk about last year and the playoffs? Right now, with him having a two-game lead? Absolutely not."
He can't be serious. I'm frantically trying to figure out what misdirection play he's running. But then Valentine's words and fears become direct and crystalline.
"Last year at this time, there was a really nice guy that I talked to who wanted to do a story about me and the Mets," Valentine says, referring to S. L. Price of Sports Illustrated. "He e-mailed me and told me how he wanted to do this human-interest story about my relationship with a guy who had died, who used to coach in my hometown, Stamford, and my connection with my hometown, and how I kept up the connection and had grown with the community. I said, 'That's great.' He came in with all intentions of doing that story. But guess what? It wasn't good enough for his magazine, 'cause we lost seven games in a row during the time he was around! So he came out with a story in the last week of the season about why we were losing seven in a row! And the story just about got me fired and had a lot of things in it that I didn't even imagine would ever appear in print. That said, you seem like a wonderful guy."
Last year's losing streak did cause the Mets problems, but Valentine skips over what really set the house on fire: his own words in S.I., calling five of his players "losers" and his entire roster "not real intelligent." I have no idea whether I resemble S. L. Price. But a losing streak late in the year, a magazine reporter asking questions -- clearly, Valentine is spooked.
Reporters have been on a Valentine Alert all year. It's one of the things that makes me like Valentine, knowing that he lives under insanely microscopic scrutiny. For long, silent minutes after games this month, reporters have stood in Valentine's office, waiting for him to freak out. All summer, he's largely bitten his tongue. Now, even before he gets to Atlanta, Valentine is unraveling. I ask about the prevailing sports-page wisdom that he's been quiet because he's in the last year of his Mets contract.
"That's insulting," Valentine fumes. "I haven't read that, so I'm glad I didn't have to get insulted. It's insulting because it infers that I'm doing something for a new contract. The only reason that the situations have been less focused on me is because the players are a different group of guys. I've been exactly the same person, because that's what I am. There haven't been as many situations for cheap-shot artists to take cheap shots, or situations to get overblown because the players haven't allowed it to. It's simple."
Yet after two embarrassing losses in Atlanta, Valentine couldn't help turning the attention back on himself, suggesting he should be fired if the Mets miss the playoffs and waking the ghosts of last September, when Valentine also volunteered his head.
No one ordered Valentine to do this interview. If I'm such a menace, why is he talking to me at all? " 'Cause you're a nice guy, I think," Valentine says. Which is swell -- and silly. Maybe it's his eternal optimism, that things will come out right this time. Or maybe, no matter how much trouble his mouth has caused before, Valentine can't not talk.
To be Metsian is to be perverse. "The last few years, we've been in good situations and then we make it tougher on ourselves," says Edgardo Alfonzo, sounding not complacent, just analytical. "That's the way we're used to doing it."
"When our backs are against the wall," says pitcher Rick Reed, "we come out fighting."
Reed knows plenty about tough times. He'd been cut by four different major-league teams when the players' union went on strike in 1994. His mother couldn't afford her diabetes medication; his parents showed up at Reed's house one night in a car missing one door. Reed crossed the picket line.
At spring training the next year, the returning veterans cursed Reed when they spoke to him at all. Reed persevered, concentrating on his curveball and on the indigent Dominican boy he had befriended while pitching in the Dominican Republic's winter league. He and his wife were trying to adopt the kid. Reed finally stuck with the Mets at the age of 31.
"Rick has come through a lot," Valentine says. "Like so many guys on our team, he's the kind of guy who'd be fine for someone's daughter to bring home and say, 'Hey, this is my guy.' He'd be welcomed in any family."
Time and Reed's thoroughgoing decency have won over his teammates. The 2000 Mets have been a remarkably cohesive bunch since Henderson's exit. There are a few loose cliques -- country boys like Turk Wendell, Dennis Cook, Rick White, and Bobby Jones; older, more sophisticated vets and family men like Ventura, Zeile, and shortstop Mike Bordick; the backgammon boys, Benitez, Derek Bell, and Pat Mahomes -- but the Mets aren't split into any rigid factions. "What's unique about this team is that on a given road trip, you'll see fifteen guys out together," says Al Leiter, the Mets' pitching ace. "It's not segregated, and that's a good thing. When you go out together, whether a guy's playing good or bad, you feel for him."
Perhaps it's beer, and the pathetic Arizona Diamondbacks, that have kept the Mets sane. After losing one night to the Expos, a dozen Mets -- white, black, and Latino, young and old -- are inside a jammed karaoke bar on Montreal's Crescent Street, the city's slicker equivalent of Columbus Avenue. These Mets are plenty relaxed; alas, none takes the stage to sing along to "YMCA." The next day, they go out and wallop the Expos.
I tell Bobby Valentine that during the high tension of last year's playoff games, I was impressed that he looked amazingly serene. "It all depends on the TV producer and the director," Valentine snaps. "I have found that the director can cast any light he wants for the image he wants to portray to the TV audience, just by shooting the manager in the dugout during different times. Kind of interesting. If they want to show the manager picking his nose every time he does it, they can do it, they can have it on camera. Or times he's angry or frowning or frustrated, they can do it." Actually, I say, I meant before and after games, during untelevised press conferences and casual interviews, but Valentine keeps going on about the tendencies of the directors of baseball telecasts for various networks.