After 82 games of — by the accounts of those both inside and outside Shea Stadium’s clubhouse — utterly underwhelming baseball, the New York Mets returned to Flushing after the All-Star break last week to find some intrigue afoot.
Their cheerleading, boy-next-door general manager axed the team’s hitting coach, a move that smelled more of stewing front office frustration than any attempt to right the swings in his lineup. A former spark plug leadoff hitter, most remembered in Queens for having played card games with a teammate during the final innings of the Mets’ 1999 loss in the National League Championship Series, assumed the Amazins’ first base coaches box. Timely hits off the bat of the once-wunderkind corner outfielder, since cast off as a showboating flash in the pan, could have well drawn the envy of any battle-tested veteran in the home team’s dugout.
But the changes the Mets and their fans most expected to see were on the scoreboard. The Amazins took three of four games from the visiting Cincinnati Reds, their first series victory of the month. They lost six of the eight games they played before the All-Star break.
“Baseball’s a long season. They’ll stop fooling around,” said fan Dan Delion, from Glendale, after last Thursday night’s 3-2 victory. Lastings Milledge, called up from Class AA Binghamton after the strained ligaments in his foot healed, scored the winning run in the fifth inning by sliding around the sweeping tag of catcher David Ross. In the eighth inning of Saturday night’s game, he broke a 1-1 tie with a game winning single that scored right fielder Shawn Green. His double on Sunday drove in two Mets in a 5-2 victory.
After the series, he told reporters: “They’re giving me a chance to play. … Like I’ve been saying, I’m going to take full advantage.”
The Mets’ inability to take full advantage of the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves’ mediocrity has left them with a very tenuous lead in the National League East. During a June swoon, fans suffered through a 4-14 stretch. The Mets finished the month 12-15 after a May in which it looked like they would be unchallenged in the National League East.
“They just haven’t shown much consistency,” said Mets fan Brendan Long. “They have to find their groove.”
David Wright and Carlos Beltran could perform more consistently, Long and others at Shea said. Almost every Mets fan criticized slumping first baseman Carlos Delgado for his consistently poor performance at the plate.
As of Friday, after the firing of hitting coach Rick Down, former Met Howard Johnson started working with Delgado and others during the Mets’ batting practice sessions. Although he worked as a Mets special instructor for the last two years, the enigmatic Rickey Henderson, baseball’s career runs and stolen bases leader, had never before served on a major league coaching staff.
Manager Willie Randolph reluctantly saw Down leave, but many Mets players and fans were excited that Henderson rejoined the club.
“Sometimes change for the sake of change can spark something,” said fan John Higgins, out with his wife and two daughters for the game on Friday night.
Mets shortstop Jose Reyes expressed excitement about being able to continue learning from Henderson’s legendary ability to time pitcher’s deliveries to home plate.
The Mets headed to the west coast for series against the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers after the Reds home stand.