Monday, December 5, 2011

Top 10 Most Awkward New York Baseball Goodbyes

Jose Reyes is no longer a New York Met. He's a Miami Marlin.

(In case you haven't heard, with the opening of their new ballpark next April, on the site of the demolished Orange Bowl stadium just outside downtown Miami, the Florida Marlins have officially changed their name to the Miami Marlins, and also changed their uniforms including the color scheme.)

The Marlins, who famously won the World Series in 1997 and 2003 and then infamously -- under 2 different owners, so we can't blame the same cheapskate for both -- broke up their champions in order to cut costs, are now splurging. They signed Reyes to a 6-year deal worth $106 million -- an average of $17.6 million a season.

Met general manager Sandy Alderson admitted that the Mets never made Reyes a formal offer. The franchise's signature player since Mike Piazza left after the 2005 season, and they never lifted a finger to try to re-sign him.

Lisa Swan of Subway Squawkers (check the link to the right) has said, "Feeling a little sad for Mets fans tonight. Not only is Jose Reyes apparently taking his talents to South Beach, but the Wilpons still own the team."

Ouch. That's cold, Lisa. True, but cold!

Is this the most awkward New York baseball goodbye ever? Oh no. Not even close.

Top 10 Most Awkward New York Baseball Goodbyes

10. February 26, 1935: Babe Ruth. The Yankees release the Babe, so that he can sign as a free agent with the Boston Braves, to be player, "assistant manager," and, he hopes, the team's next manager. It doesn't work out.

This one would probably rank higher -- after all, it was the Yankees letting the greatest player of all time go, even if he was now 40 and in serious decline -- except that the story you may have heard about it is probably wrong: Since the Yankees weren't willing to make the Babe their new or future manager, he asked to be allowed to go so he could seek a managing job elsewhere.

9. December 13, 1956: Jackie Robinson. This would be ranked higher had it happened in the "Chipmunk" era of sportswriting that was soon to come, and a LOT higher had it happened in the ESPN era. Although Jackie always revered Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodger team president who brought him into the organization to reintegrate the game in 1945, after the 1950 season Rickey was forced out by one of the other co-owners, Walter O'Malley, who concentrated his control. And, as much as O'Malley loved money and control, he hated Rickey and anything to do with him. Including Jackie Robinson.

So on the date listed above, with Jackie's weight going up, his once-great speed reduced, and his 38th birthday approaching, O'Malley traded him to, of all teams, the Dodgers' arch-rivals, the New York Giants, for Dick Littlefield, a lefthanded pitcher already with a reputation for being less than mediocre, and $30,000.

Jackie knew this was done not so much to improve the team (after all, they'd just won their 2nd straight Pennant, their 6th in the 10 years he was with them), but for spite. So he refused to report to the Giants, retiring instead. The was voided and Littlefield was returned to the Giants, who ended up trading him to the Chicago Cubs instead.

In 1953, in between his hostile takeover of Rickey's stock (for which Rickey found a way to make him pay a lot more than he'd intended) and his exile of Robinson, O'Malley drove broadcaster Red Barber away, into the hands of the Yankees. Rickey, Barber, Robinson: Three of the most honorable and influential people in the history of American sport, and O'Malley drove them all away, all in a span of 6 years. All this BEFORE he greedily moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles. In other words, had O'Malley gotten his new stadium where he originally wanted it, and were the Dodgers now preparing to play a 2012 season in Brooklyn, Walter Francis O'Malley would still have been a dirty filthy greedy bastard.

8. January 22, 1982: Reggie Jackson. On this date, Reggie signed with the team then known as the California Angels. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner pulled out all the stops to sign Reggie in November 1976; 5 years later, he wouldn't lift a finger to do so, in spite of Reggie helping the Yankees win 4 American League Eastern Division Titles, 3 AL Pennants and 2 World Championships. Autry, the movies' "Singing Cowboy" who'd founded the Angels in 1961 and ran them until his death in 1998, made Reggie feel welcome.

By 1991, George was willing to admit that not re-signing him was the biggest mistake he'd made as Yankee owner. He invited Reggie to Old-Timers' Day, and Reggie has come back nearly every year since. In 1993, when Reggie was elected to the Hall of Fame, George promised him the retirement of his Number 44 and a Plaque in Monument Park. So Reggie asked the Hall of Fame to show him with a Yankee cap on his plaque there. The Reggie-George relationship still had some rocky moments, but for the last few years it was warm.

7. September 30, 2007: Tom Glavine. For years, Glavine had helped the Atlanta Braves win National League East titles, NL Pennants, and the 1995 World Series with a one-hitter in the clinching Game 6. He'd pitched well for the Braves against the Mets in the 1999 NL Championship Series. So it was very strange to see the Mets sign him for the 2003 season. At first, it seemed to work: Over the next 5 seasons, Glavine won 61 games in blue and orange (and black), including his 300th win, and 15 in their 2006 NL East Championship season, their only 1st-place finish since 1988.

But he'll always be remembered for one game they really needed him to win, but didn't: The regular-season finale of 2007, against the Florida Marlins at Shea Stadium. Had he pitched well and the Mets won, they would have finished in a tie for the NL's Wild Card berth, after having blown a 7-game Division lead with 17 to play; at the very least, they would have played a Game 163, even though there would be no guarantee of a Game 164. Had he pitched well but the Mets' defense and/or bats didn't get the job done, at least Met fans wouldn't have blamed Glavine.

He faced 9 batters. He only got one of them out. He allowed 5 hits and 2 walks, and with his last pitch as a Met hit a batter with the bases loaded, forcing in a run to make it Marlins 7, Mets not yet come to bat. Willie Randolph, the former Yankee All-Star who had grown up in Brooklyn as a Met fan and was now managing the Mets, got booed like hell when he came out to replace Glavine, and Glavine got perhaps the worst booing in Shea's history when he walked back to the dugout. This one outing, on the last day of the season, raised his season ERA from 4.15 to 4.45, and permanently stamped the 2007 Mets as authors of one of the biggest chokes in baseball history.

To make matters worse, after the game, which ended 8-1 to the Marlins, Glavine told reporters, “I’m not devastated. I’m disappointed, but devastation is for much greater things in life. I’m disappointed, obviously, in the way I wanted to pitch. I can’t say there is much more I would have done differently.” He had a point, but the least he could have said was, "I let my team down. I let the fans down. I tried. I failed. I'm sorry." He could have said any one of those 5 things, or any combination of them. He didn't.

He returned to the Braves for 2008, showed he really was past it, and retired. To this day, Met fans hate him, for what he did to them against them AND with them. Greg Prince, author of the blog and book Faith and Fear in Flushing (see link to the right), calls him "The Manchurian Brave."

6. July 24, 1978: Billy Martin. Over the course of the 1977 season, Billy said that George had fired him 5 times, and he'd "fired himself 3 times." The Yankees won the World Series anyway.

But in '78, injuries mounted, and so did tension between Billy and George, and between Billy and Reggie. On July 17, Billy suspended Reggie for disobeying a sign. On July 23, when Reggie returned, Billy was getting on a plane for the team's roadtrip to Kansas City, and a sportswriter asked him what George thought about all of it. Referring to comments Jackson had made and team owner George Steinbrenner's 1972 violation of campaign-finance laws: "They're made for each other. One's a born liar, the other's convicted."

That was it: Billy had to go. George flew out to Kansas City, too, and Billy knew the game was up. He announced his resignation, but who was kidding who. Replaced by Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Lemon, who had previously managed the Kansas City Royals and Chicago White Sox, the Yankees rebounded, got healthy, and won another World Series.

Billy's first tenure as manager was his most awkward -- but also by far his most successful. Although he returned in mid-1979, for the 1983 season, for most of 1985, and for the start of 1988, he only managed another 470 games for the Yankees -- almost exactly as many games as he managed in his first tenure (471). And while he came very close to getting the Yankees into the postseason in 1985, by 1988 he was a neurotic relic. He died in a car crash on Christmas Day 1989, and there are those who believe that George was thinking of hiring him for Billy VI.

5. October 17, 1964: Yogi Berra. With the Yankees struggling to win a 5th straight AL Pennant, Yankee co-owners Dan Topping and Del Webb made the decision that, at the end of the season, no matter what, they would fire Yogi, after 17 seasons as a player and 1 as a manager. But Yogi complicated things by leading the Yankees on a tremendous charge that resulted in a Pennant. The Yankees lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, but Dan & Del fired him anyway. Yogi took it in stride: He said, "That's baseball." (What, you were expecting him to say something funny about it?)

This was the last major decision made by the Topping-Webb regime, as they had sold most of their stock to CBS 2 months earlier. And it was awkward. But it wasn't as awkward as a departure near the beginning of their tenure. Or even their most awkward replacement of a manager.

4. October 18, 1960: Casey Stengel. Casey had just turned 70, and after finishing 3rd as Yankee manager in 1959 and being in 2nd place for most of 1960, Topping and Webb decided he was too old. But, as Yogi would 4 years later, he surprised them, leading them on a hot streak that won the Pennant. But, as Yogi would 4 years later, he could only get them to Game 7 of the World Series, and didn't win it. So, 5 days later, Casey reads a statement to the press, announcing his retirment. He lowers the page, and says, "I guess this means they fired me." He also said, "I'll never make the mistake of being 70 again."

Within a year, he would be hired as the manager of New York's National League expansion team, the Mets. For nearly 4 years, he would prove not that he was too old (he was 75 when he managed his last game), but that it was hard to manage a team when you didn't have the superb Yankee farm system.

3. April 28, 1985: Yogi Berra. The first time Yogi was fired as Yankee manager, he took it in stride. The second time, it was different. After finishing 3rd in 1984, his first year back at the helm -- the Detroit Tigers ran away with the AL Eastern Division on their way to winning the World Series -- owner George Steinbrenner, already with a reputation for an itchy trigger finger, promised Yogi he'd be the manager for the entire 1985 season, no matter what. But the Yankees lost their first 3 games, and 12 of their first 18. (Yogi was actually fired when it was 10 of their first 16.) And George decided he had to make a change.

In retrospect, George was right to change managers: Bringing Billy back to manage for a 4th time (out of 5) worked. The Yankees went on to win 97 games and finish 2 games behind the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL East. Five of the 16 games the Yankees lost under Yogi were by 1 run, 2 of those in extra innings; 2 others were by 2 runs. Put those 7 games together, and if the Yankees had won 3 of them they would have won the Division. And since the Kansas City Royals needed major comebacks to win both the AL Championship Series and the World Series, the title was there for the taking.

Where George was wrong was in HOW he fired Yogi. He sent Clyde King, a former big-league pitcher who served George in a number of capacities (including interim manager at the end of the 1982 season), to tell Yogi he was out. Yogi was furious that, unlike Topping over 20 years before, and Mets team president M. Donald Grant 10 years before when Yogi was fired as their manager, George wasn't man enough to invite him up to his office, or at least come down to Yogi's office, and tell him in person, instead sending a flunky to do his dirty work.

Yogi swore he would never return to Yankee Stadium as long as George was owner. Even dedicating a Monument Park Plaque to Yogi in 1988 didn't break the ice. In 1999, prompted by his family, a dying Joe DiMaggio, and sportswriter (now Yankee broadcaster) Suzyn Waldman, George came to Yogi's museum at Montclair State University and publicly apologized. Yogi, for once finding the perfect words, said of the feud, "It's over." Yogi and George restored their friendship and kept it going for the rest of George's life.

Which prevents this from being the most awkward New York baseball goodbye. If either man had died before fixing it, it might be Number 1 and a terrible stain on George's record -- along with a few others. But, as was said after the firing, George didn't realize that he couldn't win a popularity contest with Yogi Berra.

2. October 6, 1947: Larry MacPhail. This was a day for goodbyes, as the 1947 World Series came to an end with the Yankees beating the Dodgers in Game 7. Three of the heroes of the Series -- Bill Bevens of the Yankees, and Cookie Lavagetto and Al Gionfriddo of the Dodgers -- never appeared in another big-league game, although Lavagetto would become a big-league coach for years to come, including with the early Mets.

But it was at the postgame celebration that the fireworks really started. At the time, the Yankees had 3 owners: Topping, a wealthy playboy (translation: He spent the tin-industry millions made by his father); Webb, a construction magnate who'd made his fortune building Army bases in World War II, casino-hotels in Las Vegas (with the help of organized crime) and retirement communities in Arizona; and Larry MacPhail, who had previously built Pennant winners as general manager with the Dodgers and, before that, the Cincinnati Reds.

MacPhail was GM of the Yankees, but at the hotel where the celebration was taking place, MacPhail started drinking. It was said that with no drinks he was brilliant, with one he was wonderful, with two he was impossible, and he rarely stopped at two. He started crying and berating Topping and Webb in front of everyone, making a public spectacle of himself. Apparently, there had been friction between the 3 of them since they bought the team from the heirs of Jacob Ruppert in 1945, and, despite Topping being a rich man's wastrel son (recently ending the 4th of his 6 marriages) and Webb being Mobbed up, they still put up a public facade of being gentlemen.

The next day, away from prying eyes, Topping and Webb bought MacPhail out, and MacPhail never worked in baseball again -- although his son Lee, grandson Andy and great-grandson Leland Stanford MacPhail IV (also called Lee) have all worked in major league front offices. Topping and Webb promoted farm system director George Weiss to the GM's slot, and he built the most dynastic Yankee team of them all. But it's hard to get past having an awkward farewell after you've won the whole thing.

1. June 15, 1977: Tom Seaver. In the words of Redd Foxx, star of one of the biggest TV shows of the time, Sanford & Son, "This is the big one!"

This Daily News link says more about it than I could. http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/mets/true-story-midnight-massacre-article-1.224970

This and other M. Donald Grant moves drove not just the Mets but their attendance into the ground. Shea Stadium became known as Grant's Tomb. It would take the team's purchase by Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday in 1980 to turn things around, and even then they didn't get back into contention until 1984.

Of course, Wilpon had Doubleday and general manager Frank Cashen, who'd built the 1966-83 Baltimore Oriole powerhouse, to listen to. Now, Wilpon listens to his own instincts, to those of his son Jeff, and to those of Sandy Alderson. In this case, 2 out of 3 is bad.

1 comment:

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