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COMMENTARY : Is Vince Coleman Ready for Demands of New York?

NEWSDAY

There is this trade-off trade-off for Vince Coleman coming to the Mets: Signing as a free agent isn’t exactly free. Carrying the bag of money can be an overwhelming burden, and New York has its way of determining whether the man is big enough to carry it.

The bag contains $11.95 million for four years -- a lot of money. “I would say so,” Coleman acknowledged Thursday when the Mets held uniform No. 1 in front of him for the cameras for the first time.

For that they get a one-dimensional player. He steals bases, which can be a devastating dimension in the right setting.

He gives them excitement, an individual to be feared, an individual who can turn a game. He can defy the pitcher and catcher to keep him from stealing. In a one-run game he can make the other team dread having to deal with him in the ninth inning, as it feared having to face Darryl Strawberry.

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But only if he can stand up to the demands.

And more than one player has been crushed by the weight. Consider the case of Ed Whitson with the Yankees. Consider the landmark free agents of last season, Mark Langston and Mark Davis, who failed, and they weren’t even in New York. And in the beginning there was Catfish Hunter, as poised a man as ever pitched a baseball, who had to overcome his need to justify what was then an enormous contract.

Coleman is going from St. Louis to New York without benefit of decompression tanks. Like it or not, he will be compared with Strawberry, which is something like apples and oranges. But he will be compared, and the sound of fans will tell him where the voting goes.

“We’ve discussed it; you know it’s something that will be added,” said Coleman’s wife, Lynette, whose insight appears as keen as her smile and the bright look in her eyes. She will play a role. If she had said there was no way she was going to New York, he wasn’t coming. If she hates April and May in New York, her husband may not survive June. If he has tough times early, she can help him recover.

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The fact is that they chose New York as much as New York chose them.

“I have a sense that as the money gets greater and greater, the self-imposed pressures get greater and greater,” said Mets’ Vice President Al Harazin, who did the negotiations with Coleman and conducted the investigation that led to it. There is just so much to be seen in statistics and on-field performance, so Harazin said he spoke to Coleman’s former teammates, coaches and managers.

He played that information against how Coleman looked the moneymen in the eye. “He’s got that ego; you’d probably think at first brush that they all have a lot of ego, but it’s not necessarily true,” Harazin said. “He’s got intelligence. We were told he’s a good guy on the club. I’d be surprised if he was one who would bend under that pressure.”

Strawberry hit 37 home runs and drove in 108 runs. Coleman stole a league-leading 77 bases last season, scored 73 runs. That’s really strawberries and kumquats. But ambrosia is in the eye of the beholder. “Maybe Darryl should have went to St. Louis and people would be saying he’s not going to steal 100 bases,” Coleman said. “Who’s going to expect me to hit 37 home runs?”

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What will be expected is for Coleman to try like anything, and to help them win. His great edge is that his running game is an obvious display of effort, in contrast with the deceptive grace of Strawberry’s swing and the not-so-deceptive struggles in the outfield. Coleman is not a gifted left fielder, but he does try.

By the nature of his game, he looks arrogant on the field. Thieves, by definition, have to be arrogant. “I think a lot of pitchers are worried about me,” he said. “Not only pitchers. Players are saying like I did against Tim Raines: ‘Please don’t let this guy get on base.’ It’s like guarding Michael Jordan. So when I get on base, you’re at my mercy. I know I’m going to steal. You can’t pick me off and you’re not going to throw me out and the pitcher is saying, ‘There goes my earned run average.”’

Coleman has this image of himself on a team with the likes of Dwight Gooden, Frank Viola, David Cone, et. al. “I never played with a pitching staff capable of shutting out a team five days in a row,” he said. “If I go out and steal a run early, it’s going to enhance their performance.” He meant getting on base, stealing second and third and being driven in by Tommy Herr, the once and present teammate, without a hit. “That’s a run stolen,” he said. He has scored as many as 121 runs in a season.

For at least two seasons the Mets have failed chemistry. They did not play well together. Coleman’s style can drive out some of the blah on the field. Harazin thinks the absence of Strawberry as the dominant personality will permit other personalities to emerge. Coleman does show a sense of humor, which is always welcome.

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He tells of how the St. Louis clubhouse man stood back from him for two years because the clubhouse man felt someone who stole 145 bases at Macon and 110 in his first season at St. Louis was arrogant. “My type of play doesn’t dictate the type of person I am,” Coleman said. “I think I’m a nice guy; I try to be.”

It is, of course, pineapples and grapefruit, but the comparison with Strawberry was implicit when Coleman said, “Have you ever heard of me not showing up at the ballpark? Have you ever heard of me being late to the ballpark? Or beating up my wife?”

No. There are thoughts that Strawberry was indeed a risk for five years or even four for the Mets, with whom he should have stayed, and even more of a risk playing in his hometown. Coleman doesn’t have that burden.

Coleman is this former punter-placekicker and defensive back from Florida A&M; who went to the last cut with the Redskins, whose general manager, Bobby Beathard, wanted him to be a wide receiver. “I said, ‘Bobby, let me punt just one time,”’ Coleman recalled. “He said, ‘No, just run pass routes.”’

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When Coleman sat out the last preseason game with a sprained ankle, he decided it was a blessing in disguise and turned to baseball. Last year, when Beathard was with the Chargers and the Cardinals were visiting the Padres, Coleman found a note to phone Beathard. “I told him I was ready to play wide receiver,” Coleman said.

It’s just a thought. So is the thought of what the Mets might have been with both Coleman and Strawberry.

Reality is wondering how Lynette and Vince and their two boys will get along in New York. “You want to know where you can raise your children with good values,” Lynette Coleman said.

They had tickets to see “The Phantom of the Opera” Thursday night. Friday, they were to look at neighborhoods on Long Island. “I’m sure we can find something,” she said.

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They have a chance.


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