Are the Mets Cursed?

Mike Piazza smiles. He’s standing in front of his locker, peeling off his black Calvin Klein undershirt and boxer-briefs. The Mets won last night and are preparing for another game against the dreary Montreal Expos. Their date with disaster in Atlanta is still a day away. Piazza and the Mets aren’t denying their troubles. But logic and temperament dictate that it isn’t time to panic. Especially not for Piazza, the greatest-hitting catcher in the history of major-league baseball. Even though his September batting average stands at an anemic .146, Piazza is simply too good not to bust out of his slump soon.

But when, Mike, when? Reporters keep pelting Piazza with minor variations on this relentless refrain. Are you starting to feel locked in? When are you going to take it to another level? When are you going to step up?

Piazza, alone for a moment, laughs. His large brown eyes, set wide in his face, give him a look of equine poise, even in times of crisis. “I’ve been trying to invent a new cliché to replace stepping up,” he says. “That’s the most overused term in sports. I’ve got to invent a new one. I’ll test out a few phrases and see what catches on. How cool would that be, if you could think up a term like step up and see all these guys using it in interviews? I need to start watching more of Don King’s interviews. I heard him say one time, ‘These are tribulations and infractications! These are hypocrisies and hypotheticals!’ He’s funny, man – he’s amazing. Maybe I can borrow something from him.”

Piazza’s own cool is admirable, and it’s the perfect emotional counterweight to Bobby Valentine, the manager who is descending into the self-destructive verbal twitches of his annual September fever dream. Spells, shades, and media frenzies haunt the Mets this time of year. Piazza is right to summon a sorcerer. To chase the haints of fall, the Mets could sure use some timely hitting. But a good Don King trickeration wouldn’t hurt.

Only in America? Only in flushing, Queens.

“There are a couple of clowns in our market where if I win the World Series,” says Valentine, “they’re going to say I didn’t sweep.”

On August 31, a six-week, 30-13 wave crested with the Mets alone in first place for the first time all season, and I set out to write a happy story: how the Mets had built a team loaded with talent and resilience, one capable of surpassing the Braves once and for all, and maybe even the Yankees.

But as a lifelong Mets fan, I should have known better. Even as the transiency of pro sports has reduced fandom to “rooting for laundry,” in the words of Mets fan Jerry Seinfeld, the Mets somehow remain true to their franchise DNA. The Mets aren’t burdened with the gloppy fatalism that clings to the Red Sox and Cubs. But what’s joyful and frustrating about the Mets – and what makes it hard and worthwhile to be a Mets fan – is that you can never count on the predictable.

The Mets have had exactly one dominant team in their 39 seasons, and that crew grabbed a World Series by the width of Bill Buckner’s legs. The 1986 Mets, with young Gooden and Strawberry and wily Carter and Hernandez, were supposed to be the foundation of a dynasty, but they were rapidly undone by stupid trades, ego, and addictions.

This year’s edition looked far more stable. An elite staff of starting pitchers. A closer, Armando Benitez, who has been automatic. Solid offense, led by Piazza and second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo, baseball’s most underappreciated all-star.

And then there was a characteristic that couldn’t be captured in a box score, an uncanny resilience, both individual and collective. Center-fielder Jay Payton missed two seasons, his right elbow torn apart and rebuilt by surgeons three times; now he’s a strong Rookie of the Year candidate. Todd Zeile, acquired over the winter, had to learn to play first base at the baseball-senior-citizen age of 34. The positively antique 40-year-old John Franco has swallowed his ego and become a setup man for Benitez. Benny Agbayani, product of the baseball nowheresville of Hawaii, outlasted Rickey Henderson to finally win a job. The resilience extends to the front office, where Steve Phillips, the general manager, held on to his job and his family after the public humiliation of an exposed extramarital affair.

The qualities that lifted the Mets through the winning streaks of July and August are still present. But in the middle of the team’s third straight September swoon, the Mets’ resilience is facing its most severe test. The team made a valiant run into the National League Championship Series last season. This year, there’s more at stake. Unfair as it is, Piazza and manager Bobby Valentine have their reputations on the line: Follow this September slide with anything less than a trip to the World Series, and they’ll forever be labeled late-season chokers.

Plenty of theories have been advanced to explain what has happened to the Mets this month. But the mystery was actually solved in Montreal.

It’s my fault.

Bobby Valentine told me so, over breakfast at the Le Centre Sheraton. This is a fan’s classic nightmare: that we’re personally responsible for the team’s collapse. But Valentine doesn’t see me as a Mets fan. He sees me as one of his, and his team’s, worst tormentors: the media.

The Mets are coming off three wins in four days, and while they aren’t crushing their opponents, the team appears to have snapped out of the funk that descended on September 1 in St. Louis in the first of three painful, last-inning losses. Even the manager seems to be having some fun again. After a game at Shea Stadium, I offer to buy Valentine a meal if he has a few spare minutes when the Mets are in Montreal, not really expecting him to take up the invitation. “Sure,” he responds sunnily, with a broad smile. “I’d be happy to do it.”

And he still looks happy as he slides into the semicircular banquette opposite the restaurant’s Saturday-morning brunch buffet, dressed crisply as always, today in pressed khakis and a handsome black-and-white-checked button-down shirt. Valentine looks very weekend-casual-suburban-dad and sounds it, too, as he chats about sending e-mail to his teenage son, who is visiting the University of North Carolina and applying for early admission.

Then I begin to ask Valentine about the heartbreaking end of the 1999 season in Atlanta, when a thrilling and exhausting playoff run –

“Hey!” Valentine says, cutting me off. “The only thing that matters to me is my job, and my team. This stuff, as wonderful as it seems to be, the coverage that the Mets are going to get – I don’t really give a shit about it. I want to say that right up front. To tell you the truth, reminiscing at this time, or going back or evaluating or appraising, is really something that is against my nature right now. Just so you understand. It’s been a long season; we’ve been through a lot. The one thing that you hear in sports often is that you need focus, especially at this time of year, and I think that that focus is needed by the manager as well as the players. And I’d be willing to bet that our competition doesn’t have to worry about this kind of article being written at this time of year. For whatever it’s worth, I don’t take offense to it, but I definitely don’t go along with this whole thing. If I was Joe Torre or Tommy Lasorda, or anybody in any of these other small markets where you can control things through your P.R. department, I would have put a stop to it. It’s very detrimental to the psyche of the players. And maybe of me too. I don’t know. I doubt it.”

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.

Not that he’s ignoring the papers. “There’s a couple of clowns in our market where if I win the World Series, they’re going to say that I didn’t sweep,” Valentine says. “And if we sweep, they’ll figure out a reason why we didn’t shut everyone out. It’s petty, ridiculous. “

In one sense, he’s right to be worried. Though the Mets have plenty of players who’ve endured the New York media blitz, some Mets executives are fretting about the newer arrivals. “You don’t know if they can handle the pressure,” says one Mets boss. “Derek Bell and Mike Hampton didn’t do well when they were in the playoffs with Houston; how are they going to perform in the New York playoff atmosphere? And Zeile was one of those Texas Rangers hitters who the Yankees shut down completely. So we don’t know how they’re going to react.”

Who let the dogs out?


Who? Who? Who? Ahh-who?

Exuberant barks and growls are shaking the locker room in Cincinnati. The Mets had started the day 0-for-September; Dr. Allan Lans, the team shrink, has suddenly appeared and is making his availability for consultation very visible. But a home run in the top of the tenth inning by Zeile has restored the smiles and celebratory beers to the clubhouse. It’s hard to distinguish the recorded guttural woofs of the Baha Men’s lead singer from those of Mets utility man Lenny Harris, who gets the credit – or blame – for installing this song as the team’s new lucky anthem.

Who? Who? Who? Ahh-who?

Perhaps it’s another singer, Garth Brooks, who is the real lucky charm. The country megastar played for the Mets during spring training this year, as a charity-fund-raising gimmick. Last night, Brooks phoned Leiter and Robin Ventura from his home in Oklahoma to offer his encouragement during the slump, and the veterans told Brooks to drop by and catch a game sometime. Brooks hopped in his private plane and flew to Cincinnati, strolling into center field during batting practice and surprising the Mets, who greeted him with bear hugs.

“What’s unique is that on a road trip, you’ll see fifteen guys out together,” says Leiter. “It’s not segregated, and that’s a good thing.”

Now Brooks is in the locker room, hollering giddily at Piazza, “You’re the man! You’re the man!”

Piazza grins, but his eyes search the floor. He’s being praised by one of the biggest stars in the world, but Piazza looks bashful. “Yeah,” he says quietly. “I guess. Sometimes.”

At times, it’s possible to look at the massive Piazza and glimpse the gangly suburban kid who found refuge in baseball and heavy metal. Piazza still regularly cranks up bands like Pantera and King Diamond, and he contributed a “death-metal scream” to his buddy Zakk Wylde’s most recent album.

Piazza grew up outside Philadelphia. His childhood, and the strange route he took to a pro contract, helped form Piazza’s determination not to stand out. His father, Vince, is a self-made multimillionaire who turned a couple of used cars into a Pennsylvania empire of auto dealerships, a computer-service company, and real-estate holdings. Vince made sure all his children learned how to work hard for a living – when he built a vast mansion atop a hill in Valley Forge, Vince Piazza sent his sons out to break boulders alongside the construction crew – and he was obsessed with turning Mike into a baseball player. Vince built Mike a lighted backyard batting cage, but the father’s greatest gift turned out to be his friendship with Tommy Lasorda.

When Piazza went undrafted out of high school, Lasorda steered him to college coaching pals, then engineered a private audition for Piazza at Dodger Stadium in front of the team’s head of scouting. Then Piazza earned his way up through the Dodgers system, loading on muscle in the weight room and doing hours of monotonous drills to learn a catcher’s footwork. Still, he was regularly taunted as “Tommy’s boy.”

Piazza won the National League Rookie of the Year award with the Dodgers in 1993 and just kept getting better. He loved playing and living in Los Angeles, becoming a hugely popular figure, but he has never worn his stardom on his sleeve. Piazza seems to have internalized all the SoCal laid-back cool during his six seasons in L.A. Though lately he’s been dating the Playmate of the Millennium, Darlene Bernaola, he has no use for the standard trappings of celebrity; he’s never seen with a “posse,” preferring to drive himself around New York. Even as September grew tense, Piazza was his usual affable self, going out of his way to give me the address of an old-school barber in Brooklyn who Piazza says gives the best shave in New York.

Piazza got his playing style in Philadelphia. “As a kid, I really admired the way Mike Schmidt of the Phillies carried himself,” Piazza says. “He was always very stoic, very serious. I like to have fun, but for some reason, if I do show emotion on the field, it’s impromptu, it’s not a lot of fist-pumping. I like to run my home runs out and walk back to the dugout. Little things like that – running out ground balls, things that maybe don’t mean a lot but are important to me.”

In 1998, a contract dispute ended with the Dodgers’ dumping Piazza on the cut-rate Florida Marlins. The Mets pounced, trading for him in May 1998. “Before that, we were a good little team,” Steve Phillips says, “and then we became a legitimate contender.”

Piazza arrived feeling betrayed by the Dodgers, and when he slumped in September, Mets fans booed viciously, further wounding him. Yet he chose to stay – a new $91 million deal didn’t hurt, but he says he cared more about winning with the Mets, and winning over the fans.

This August, Mets fans chanted “MVP!” whenever Piazza, hitting .351, strode to the plate. Then came September. Once again, the drumbeat is sounding about how Piazza fades at the end of a season because of the wear-and-tear of catching. Piazza says he loves catching, but his reluctance to switch positions also has plenty to do with his self-image. The rich man’s son, who had a major-league manager for a professional godfather, recoils from anything that looks like special treatment.

“Being a catcher brings him down to everybody’s level as just being one of the guys,” Robin Ventura says. “He’s an amazing hitter, but because he’s always blocking balls and getting run over and whacked by foul tips, there’s more of a human thing to Mike.”

Piazza turned 32 this month, but he talks with the maturity of a much older veteran. Mention his mammoth home run to cap a ten-run comeback against the Braves in June, and Piazza praises the rest of the lineup. “The only reason why I got that opportunity is that Fonzie Alfonzo had a great two-strike, two-out hit,” he says. “I’m starting to get the idea more and more that great players throughout history and great teams – you’re not put in a situation to excel without good teammates. What is Roger Maris without Mickey Mantle, or vice versa? Hank Aaron had Eddie Mathews hitting behind him. I’m not downplaying my own role – but again, look at Schmittie. He had Greg Luzinski.”

Last October, after the final loss to the Braves, Piazza, his hands swollen, his knees screaming from seven months of squatting, his brain scrambled by baserunning collisions and pitch-calling decisions, couldn’t bring himself to take one more team flight. So instead of boarding the Mets’ charter out of Atlanta, Piazza went to a rental-car counter. “I wanted a Cadillac, but all they had was a Ford Escort,” he says. “Probably a good thing, so I couldn’t drive as fast.”

He headed west out of Georgia, wandering from interstates to blue highways through Tennessee and Mississippi and down to Pensacola, where he sat on the beach and munched crab legs. “I threw my cell phone away and just drove,” he says. “I was burned out, and driving for me is very therapeutic. I was solo, man. Just drove through, ate at diners, truck stops. It was pretty neat.”

Piazza is a Civil War buff, so he stopped at Vicksburg. He stared at the battleground where, after a brutal 47-day siege, the Union army, led by Ulysses S. Grant, split the South in one of the war’s decisive victories. “Granted there’s no comparison between war and baseball,” Piazza says. “But I look at these battlefields and think, ‘Where did they find the courage to charge when they were outnumbered two-to-one?’ And I use it as a way to motivate myself.”

Bobby Valentine got a lot of ink for screaming at the Mets after their two losses in Atlanta last week. But a subtler tactic may have helped them win the next night: Valentine moved Todd Zeile into the slot behind Piazza, where Ventura, struggling with the aftereffects of knee and shoulder surgery, had floundered most of the season. That night, both Piazza and Zeile homered in the 6-3 Mets win.

The next day in Philadelphia, the win and his own venting have made Valentine a new man. In the visiting manager’s office, his feet up on the desk, he’s telling hilarious Sinatra stories and making fun of himself. “No, I was never in the Rat Pack,” Valentine says. “I was just a rat.”

Al Leiter, the savvy, charmingly demonstrative lefty from New Jersey, who pitched five perfect innings in Atlanta to begin the Mets’ mood swing, considers the September strangeness – the batting slumps and losses to awful teams, the end-of-the-world fulminations. Isn’t it unbelievable that the Mets are still in position to roar into the playoffs?

Leiter’s green eyes dance merrily. He’s not hearing any talk of curses or omens or Bill Buckner’s revenge.

“Unbelievable?” Leiter says with a laugh. “Nah. It’s just baseball.”

Mets baseball, that is. Everyone knows Yogi Berra spoke the original most-overused sports cliché: “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Few remember that Yogi said it as manager of the Mets.

Are the Mets Cursed?