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Spreading the Blame for Collapse of Mets

<i> From Associated Press</i>

The New York Mets’ dynasty that never was has come crashing down. Just who’s to blame?

The fans have turned against the manager and management, and some of the players are ready to bail out, too.

Somewhere along the line, general manager Frank Cashen lost his touch and now the Mets are losing their grip and falling fast in the National League East.

Few picked the Mets to win the division this season, so why all the fuss, anyway? It’s not as if the Mets are asking anyone to get a haircut or something.

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“Almost no one picked us to win the National League East this year,” Mets executive vice president Al Harazin said. “We’re disappointed at where we are, certainly.”

Disappointed is quickly becoming an understatement in describing the Mets’ season. Disaster or debacle might be more appropriate.

After a 10-game winning streak in early July, the Mets were 15 games over .500. But New York entered a weekend series at Pittsburgh with a 57-57 record, having lost 19 of its last 23 games and nine in a row on the road.

True, few picked the Mets to win the division. But their total collapse in every area of the game was also unexpected.

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In eight consecutive losses to the Chicago Cubs, the Mets averaged two runs and seven hits. It was the first time they had lost two four-game series to one team in a season since the Dodgers did it in 1963.

“It’s frustrating to watch the whole team disintegrate,” pitcher Frank Viola said. “When I came here two and a half years ago, I was thinking I’d have a chance to win every year. To see it fall apart is just disheartening.”

Where it all started to fall apart is difficult to pinpoint, but it seems to have something to do with the front office trying to change the club’s personality.

The club Cashen skillfully built into a World Series champion in 1986, gained a reputation as being bright, bold and brassy. Slowly that image was chipped away until the Mets turned from fudge ripple supreme to pure vanilla.

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Even though the Mets are the winningest club in baseball since 1984, they are a Bill Buckner error away from not even having a ring to show for it.

When Davey Johnson no longer fitted Cashen’s managerial image, he was fired and replaced by Bud Harrelson. At the time, Cashen called Harrelson “the heart and soul of the Mets.”

Harrelson will probably stay on this season only because Cashen now realizes the Mets are too far back for a change to make any difference.

“By not making a move Cashen is giving up on the team that he said was good enough to win the National League East,” Howie Rose, who hosts the Mets’ pre- and postgames shows, told his listeners on Wednesday. “It seems like a contradiction to me.”

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The Daily News has already called for the firing of Harrelson and Cashen. Who knows, maybe the entire team is next on their hit list.

Nobody is saying that Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Ray Knight, Wally Backman and Ron Darling could still be helping the club. But Cashen’s critics say he went out of his way to build a team without personality. An outfield of Kevin Mitchell, Lenny Dykstra and Darryl Strawberry doesn’t look too bad right now.

“All the moves we made were to help the club win,” Cashen said. “It’s ridiculous to think we would trade a player who would make us better.”

Cashen’s biggest blunder may turn out to be not signing Strawberry. The club has been lost without his presence in the clubhouse and his home runs on the field.

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When negotiations with Strawberry broke down last summer, Cashen made a point of saying no player was worth $5 million a year. Strawberry was personally hurt by Cashen’s comments and the relationship was never the same.

Many of the changes made by Cashen, Harazin and former vice president of operations Joe McIlvaine were to build the team around Gregg Jefferies, the two-time minor league player of the year. So far, neither Jefferies nor the moves have worked out.

“Seems to me he can’t handle the pressure,” Strawberry told the New York Daily News. “They thought he could carry them when I left, but Jefferies is too worried about his hitting, always crying about some slump he’s in.”

The Mets are now a team with little chemistry in the clubhouse and several players unaware of their role. Trading Jefferies, however, is unlikely since it would be an admission by the front office of a big mistake.

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Cashen’s plan is to retire after the 1992 season and let Harazin and Gerry Hunsicker, director of operations, run the club. Harazin is more comfortable with the business end and Hunsicker is untested, so the future of the Mets’ front office seems shaky.

Two years ago, the plan was to give the job of day-to-day baseball matters to McIlvaine. But he got tired of waiting for Cashen to relinquish control and left to run the San Diego Padres.

“Maybe this will shock some people into making some drastic changes,” said one Met, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. “It’s clear this club, as it is right now, can’t win. There’s going to be a shakeup.”

Owners Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon have let Cashen run the show because he made them millions. Only Wilpon has even shown the slightest inclination to make some tough decisions.

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Since their 10-game winning streak, the Mets are 8-23. The middle of the order -- Howard Johnson, Kevin McReynolds and Hubie Brooks -- has been invisible and except for Dwight Gooden, the pitching faltered.

“I could come in here and yell at them,” a beleaguered Harrelson said in St. Louis. “What good would that do? Losing is punishment enough. I have no answers.”

Without a player to lead the way, the Mets needed a manager who could. But Harrelson showed he couldn’t do that when he sent coach Mel Stottlemyre out to make a pitching change so he wouldn’t be booed by an angry crowd at Shea Stadium on Aug. 5 in a game against the Cubs.

The front office was stunned by Harrelson’s admission and he lost what little confidence he had left with the players.

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“Being a popular player and popular manager are two different things and I think Buddy is finding that out,” Cashen said.

It’s also becoming obvious the Mets need to be rebuilt. It’s far less certain who will do the rebuilding.


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