This is part 3 on “The Mets Dark Years” by former National Baseball Hall of Fame researcher and librarian Russell Wolinsky.
Following the death of team owner Joan Payson in 1975, Mets management slipped into an era of decay, chaos, and incompetence. Chairman of the Board M. Donald Grant took a greater and more powerful role in the franchise. Grant, a frugal and unsentimental man, a partner at Fahnestock and Company, drove Seaver, the team’s best and most popular player out of New York (with some assistance from columnist Dick Young).
The Grant-Seaver feud was ostensibly about money, but it was more than that. Grant would go into a rage whenever Seaver’s nickname, The Franchise, was invoked: “Mrs. Payson and I are the franchise,” he screamed. “What are you, some sort of Communist?” Grant asked his star pitcher, and player rep, during player-management labor negotiations.
Grant seemed to show utter contempt for the New York sports fan. He took a hard line against free-agent signings. He limited the number of replays permitted on Mets TV broadcasts, and may have been at least partially responsible for New York City losing in its bid for the 1984 Summer Olympics by refusing to consider relocating the Mets from Shea. For more than a year after the Seaver deal, Grant was not seen at the ballpark without a bodyguard.
Finally, after seventeen years, and a financially and aesthetically ruinous 1978 season that he attributed to bad luck and poor weather rather than terrible player-personnel decisions, Grant was deposed by Lorinda de Roulet, the daughter of Joan Payson. “Don’s not happy about stepping down,” de Roulet admitted, “but….It just seemed like the time to do it.” As a parting shot, the departing chairman declared, “You will come to my grave, look down on me and say, ‘You were right!’”
De Roulet assumed the chairmanship enthusiastically, but the money and baseball experience just was not there. By 1979, the Mets pitching and financial situation had grown so dire that Joe Torre was forced to bring three rookies up north from spring training: Jesse Orosco, Neil Allen, and Mike Scott. None was an immediate success. Torre wanted former Cardinals teammate Nelson Briles on the New York pitching staff, but management could not justify the expense.
At least the new chairman was a fan, not above running on the field to congratulate Jerry Koosman on his 1978 opening-day win or sending Pete Falcone, the Pride of Bensonhurst, a bottle of champagne on his first Mets win, (on his fourteenth attempt). But rumors swirled: board meetings wherein de Roulet’s daughters asked why new baseballs were required for each game, and if all the lights at Shea needed to be turned on. A botched trade with the Angels raised questions about her qualifications as a baseball executive. After the disaster of 1979, Charles Shipman Payson, Lorinda’s father and Joan’s husband, refused to funnel any more of his money into the team and demanded the franchise be put up for sale.
After a two-month bidding war, a winner emerged: Doubleday & Co. purchased the franchise for a then-record $21 million. The triumvirate that would run the club consisted of Nelson Doubleday, Fred Wilpon, and John O. Pickett Jr., president of the New York Islanders. Doubleday’s offer surpassed those of Robert Abplanalp, “the aerosol-valve king,” and groups fronted by former New York mayor John Lindsay, Earl Smith, former US ambassador to Cuba, and Ed Kranepool. A month later, Frank Cashen, mastermind of the successful Baltimore Orioles teams of the late 1960s and 1970s, was named executive vice president and general manager.
Once the bowtie-wearing Cashen charged in, it was obvious the new GM would want his own man to manage, preferably one with an Orioles background. Rumors of Earl Weaver or Frank Robinson coming to New York immediately began. Torre was left twisting in the wind. He kept the club loose through the toppling of Grant and incompetence of de Roulet. But he never had the players. “I should be managing this team with an eye toward the future; but without a new contract, I can only assume they want me to win now and that’s how I’m managing.”
The strike in 1981 probably helped save Torre’s job…through that year. He was relieved of managerial duties on the final day of the season. “Joe’s only problem,” opined coach Bob Gibson, “was that he didn’t have a Bird on his hat.”
Former Baltimore pitching coach George Bamberger came out of retirement to assume the managerial reins at Shea. “I never knew it would be this bad,” he was heard to mutter after half a season with the Amazin’s. Bamberger resigned in June 1983, posting an 81-127 won-lost log. The next former Oriole to manage the Mets, Davey Johnson, named in 1984, would fare much better.
Repeating the model that worked so well in Baltimore, Cashen believed the best, and quickest, way to rebuild the franchise was as an offensive juggernaut that featured at least one “big bopper.” “No team can really be competitive without 100 homers,” he often declared (the Mets had not hit over one hundred home runs since 1976). Cashen tried several players in that role: Claudell Washington, Dave Kingman (back for a second tour of duty), Ellis Valentine, and George Foster.
Washington had one moment of glory in a New York uniform: belting three home runs on a Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles. Kingman made headlines by handing out monogrammed pens to members of the media during his introductory press conference. Valentine spent most of his time underachieving, pouting, and criticizing management. Foster came from Cincinnati amid great hype, but couldn’t produce offensively without the Big Red Machine surrounding him in the batting order. He became prime target of Shea boo-birds. All were found wanting; none really fit the bill until the emergence of Darryl Strawberry in May 1983.
By 1983, the seeds were being sewn. Seaver had returned, Strawberry, Mookie Wilson, and Hernandez were secure in the starting lineup. Still, New York again finished last in 1983. “There was improvement,” noted Cashen “but we are two or three players away.”