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Historical Hot Stove
by Bruce Markusen
Previous Columns

Cooperstown Confidential - 09/03/2002

No greater contrast in expectation vs. actual performance can be found than in the differing fortunes of the New York Mets and Oakland Athletics. The Mets, considered leading contenders to win the National League wildcard at the start of the season, have emerged as arguably the game’s most disappointing team in 2002. Overpriced and underachieving, the Mets defined the “dog days” of August by finishing the month winless at home—no victories against 13 defeats at Shea Stadium. In so doing, they accomplished a “feat” never before achieved by a National League franchise, while matching a mark for futility previously reached by two awful American League teams. In 1996, Detroit completed the month of September with a putrid record of 0-and-16 at Tiger Stadium. In 1969—the same year that the Mets’ franchise attained its “Miracle”—the expansion Seattle Pilots floundered through August 0-for-13 at decrepit Sicks Stadium… Those months of ineptitude weren’t solitary flukes, either. The ‘96 Tigers finished the season at 53-and-109, thanks to one of the worst pitching staffs ever assembled. The staff’s “ace,” journeyman right-hander Omar Olivares, led the Tigers with all of seven victories; Felipe Lira paced the team in strikeouts with the grand sum of 113; and most alarmingly, only one pitcher on the entire staff posted an ERA below 4.00, and that was middle reliever Joey Eischen (3.24), who threw all of 25 innings… The ’69 Pilots didn’t fare as badly as those Bengals, completing a ledger of 64-and-98 in their lone season of existence. The Pilots had some decent veteran players—like Don Mincher, Tommy Harper, and Tommy Davis in the everyday lineup and Diego Segui and Bob Locker on the pitching staff—but also had too many holes to avoid an August swoon. Ray Oyler, reminding some of a current Mets shortstop with the same initials (Rey Ordonez), batted .165 with a slugging percentage of .267; journeymen Wayne Comer and Steve Hovley played all too regularly in the outfield; and future pitching stalwarts Marty Pattin and Mike Marshall struggled through apprenticeships with ERAs over 5.00… Unlike the ’69 Pilots and ’96 Tigers, the most recent edition of the Mets seemed capable of challenging for a playoff spot earlier this summer, at least a wild card berth if not the divisional domain of the retooled Atlanta Braves atop the National League East. With superstar catcher Mike Piazza, star infielders Roberto Alomar and Edgardo Alfonzo, and proven outfielders Jeromy Burnitz and Roger Cedeno all performing well below past levels, the Mets fell into complete disrepair in August after struggling to sustain even a .500 record for much of April, May, June, and July… So what’s next for the Mets? Is there any hope for 2003? The game’s new collective bargaining agreement will make trades involving Cedeno, Burnitz, and Mo Vaughn extremely difficult, if not next to impossible. Salary dumps of the two disappointing outfielders and the overweight first baseman will only be possible if the Mets are willing to pick up large portions on the balances of their contracts and can also find suitors that are nowhere near the new luxury tax threshold. The best bet for a trade might involve Alomar, whose value is nowhere near where it was last winter but who still might appeal to an American League team looking for an upgrade at second base (perhaps the Red Sox, if they decide to improve on Rey Sanchez). If the Mets can acquire two good prospects for Alomar this off-season, they should make the deal right away; if not, they should wait until the spring, hope that Alomar can display renewed life to opposing scouts, and then trade him for the best possible package… The Mets should also give serious thought to moving Mike Piazza to either first base or right field, in an effort to improve their catching defense while also discouraging other teams from running wild, but most importantly to slow down the batting decline he has suffered the last two seasons. For that to happen, either Vaughn or Burnitz will have to be discarded, which may prove to be general manager Steve Phillips’ biggest challenge.

In pleasing contrast to the Mets, the Oakland A’s of Art Howe and Billy Beane have become the feel-good story of the late summer and early fall, reeling off 19 straight wins (through Labor Day) to emerge as the favorites in the American League West—if not the entire junior circuit. At the beginning of the season, the A’s seemed capable of securing a playoff spot, but not with any kind of certainty, not with a roster weakened by the free agent departures of Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon and not in the game’s best division, accompanied by strong rivals like the pitching-rich Seattle Mariners and the ever-improving Anaheim Angels. Yet, after another lackluster April and May that had some questioning the grand plan of general manager Beane and the motivational tactics of manager Howe, the A’s have regrouped, thanks to the best starting pitching triumvirate in the league, better late-inning relief provided by Billy Koch, the in-season call-up of promising second baseman Mark Ellis, the mid-season acquisitions of Ray Durham and John Mabry, and the arrival of Miguel Tejada as a legitimate MVP candidate. Tejada is playing like a suped-up version of the 1970 Campy Campaneris model (who hit a career-high 22 home runs that year), while teaming with Eric Chavez to give the A’s two feared game-breakers in the middle of the order… For those who believe in history repeating itself, the A’s’ winning streak bodes well for the team’s immediate future in October. The 19-game streak ties the American League mark held by two other franchises, the 1947 New York Yankees and the 1906 Chicago White Sox. The ’47 Yankees, who featured Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, a young Yogi Berra and pitching ace Allie Reynolds, went on to beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in a classic seven-game World Series. The ’06 White Sox, who boasted Hall of Famers in shortstop George Davis and pitcher Ed Walsh, proceeded to beat the rival Chicago Cubs in that fall’s World Series, four games to two… Is it just me, or does the trio of Barry Zito-Tim Hudson-Mark Mulder remind anyone of the A’s’ triplet of pitching studs of the early 1970s—Vida Blue, Jim “Catfish” Hunter, and Ken Holtzman? In each case, that’s one heady, overachieving right-hander bookended by two talented left-handers, a combination that could give fits to the left-handed bats in New York (Giambi, Robin Ventura, and Nick Johnson) and Seattle (Ichiro and John Olerud) this fall. And while we’re at strange cross-generational comparisons, Cory Lidle is Blue Moon Odom… Now if Billy Koch can become Rollie Fingers and Jermaine Dye can become Reggie Jackson (or at least Joe Rudi), the A’s may win it all this October…

Bruce Markusen is the author of A BASEBALL DYNASTY: CHARLIE FINLEY’S SWINGIN’ A’s, scheduled for release in September by St. Johann Press. For more information on the book, send an e-mail to

by Bruce Markusen


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