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Issues of character

Special to

Sept. 23
From across town, Mike Stanton called John Franco "a hero." As the New York Mets reacted to the tragedy around them and with the way they have played since the baseball world resumed in the shadow of suffocating tragedy, their faces have shown New York and the nation their character, their resolve and their willingness to accept the responsibility thrust upon them.

It took them from April 6 until Sept. 17 to get back to .500, a 141-game run that is the longest ever to a .500 record. Then came their Friday tribute and the dramatic Mike Piazza home-run victory. Even if it doesn't return the Mets to the postseason, it is a reminder of a three-year pattern of graceful performance under pressure by Piazza, Franco, Robin Ventura, Al Leiter, Armando Benitez, Edgardo Alfonzo and so many other players. For three consecutive Septembers and Octobers, the Mets have played in the runaway truck lane, taking the Braves to exhaustion in '99, the Yankees in 2000 to what was far more grueling than most five-game series and now, amid the smoke and ashes, this run at the Braves and Phillies that has made them as close to America's Team as any New York team can ever be.

For two years, they were deemed overachievers, this year fortunate to lead the majors in one-run victories. But that's not necessarily the case. Back in spring training, Franco, Leiter, Ventura and others all talked about the extraordinary "character" that makes up the Mets.

General manager Steve Phillips was then asked whether he consciously tried to find what he considered the "right" players. "We try," said Phillips. "It takes a certain type of person to play in in New York, it takes a certain type of person to fight through adversity, it takes a certain type of person to accept that this is a team game."

If Alfonzo, Ventura, Jay Payton, Benny Agbayani and most of the team had been healthy all season, we now know the Mets could have avoided the need to storm from so far behind. Many hope that when Piazza is inducted in Cooperstown, he will be reminded of the tears in his eyes before Friday's game, and we know Franco will be a symbol of a workingman New Yorker as long as he lives, which he will do in New York.

This spring, Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette said, "I don't care as much about Carl Everett's 'character' and what he does off the field as what he produces on the field." In contrast to Phillips' Mets, in two consecutive Septembers, Duquette's Red Sox have scattered.

In the final month's firings and accusations, word seeped out of Pedro Martinez and Everett tirades -- the latter obscenity-filled and laced with charges in front of his teammates that manager Joe Kerrigan used some racial epithet at a January promotional appearance -- that left them finishing the season with Martinez in the Dominican and Everett somewhere in Florida, grieving for pay but asking not to play.

Sure, Duquette is right when he defers to talent over character, an Everett vs. Craig Grebek argument. But when one looks at what the Yankees have done these last six years, what they have reeked of is character and fiery dignity, from Derek Jeter to Joe Torre to Mariano Rivera.

In contrast, take the Red Sox. "There are a lot of players here who have tremendous character, starting with people like Nomar (Garciaparra), Trot (Nixon) and guys like that," says Darren Lewis, who is such a character player that Dusty Baker named his son after him. "We had something special in 1999, when we came back to beat Cleveland and gave the Yankees such a series. But we made a lot of changes. Things are very different."

Everett clearly was the most visible and audible change, and while he played very well for half a season in 2000, his antics became a distraction and a detriment when the Red Sox had to pull together. Not that he is alone. Or whether we know everything.

Everett asserts that when he came in late to a meeting last Sunday, was fined and told to go home by Kerrigan, that he was unfairly singled out, that Martinez had been late to several meetings and that Chris Stynes, too, had been late Saturday. Kerrigan asserts that Pedro always called in advance. Stynes says he was fined and paid up. And players were clearly exhausted from Everett's obscenity-filled tirades.

Everett's agent, Larry Reynolds, says he will ask Duquette to trade Everett. But it isn't that simple. As Everett gets another opinion on his knee, the fact is that if Dusty can't talk Giants owner Peter Magowan and general manager Brian Sabean into taking a chance on another series of explosions, the Red Sox are going to have a hard time getting anything due to all the embarrassment Everett caused to an entire organization.

Seattle? Manager Lou Piniella talked about him last winter, but general manager Pat Gillick did some investigating and Everett's past eliminates any chance there. Houston? Sure, the Astros likely will be looking for a center fielder and a replacement for Moises Alou's considerable production this winter, but they're not taking Everett back.

"We got Carl at the right time in his career," says Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker, who traded him before having to deal with a long-term contract. Cubs? Andy MacPhail and Don Baylor have too many young players on the rise.

And what about the matter of talent? When the Red Sox played in Anaheim and Texas last month, their opponents talked freely of how much his body had sunk and been redefined. Knee or no knee, Everett played a below-average center field this season, he could not hit right-handed, batted .197 in the second half before calling it a season and over the last six seasons has averaged only 123 games a year.

"Great trade," says one National League GM of the Duquette deal for Everett. "He got one manager fired and may get Duquette and Kerrigan fired, as well." A former Expos official add, "What's so strange is that Dan took (Wilfredo) Cordero when he and all of us knew his history, yet after it repeated itself in Boston, Dan skated free and went and not only took Everett with his documented history, but gave him a four-year contract. If most of us did that, we'd get fired."

It isn't just Everett's erratic behavior, but his unwillingness to being on time -- and Duquette's siding with Everett against Williams, Lewis, Mike Stanley, et al -- that eventually broke down the team's character, which has made Kerrigan's first month a nightmare.

"No team is going to have 25 All-Americans," says Hunsicker. "What's important is to have people like Jeff Bagwell and Moises Alou and guys like that, then keep the guys who could pull you apart either isolated -- so they don't affect others -- or get rid of them. You can't have forces pulling in the wrong directions so strong that they start to distract everyone."

Does character matter? "Darn right it does," says Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty. "We look for it. When we traded for Woody Williams, it wasn't just for his pitching, it was for what he does for everyone around him, and he's exceeded expectations. It's always helped that Mark McGwire demands a particular respect for the game, but we've tried to have guys like Mike Matheny around the club. Look at Jim Edmonds. He had some knocks on him in California, but he's turned into a tremendous character guy here."

Dan Evans of the Dodgers says, "When we were looking for some additions at the deadline, we looked for guys who could help us on and off the field. Character players make the winning streaks longer, and help shorten the losing streaks."

While the Dodgers may fall short, the addition of Paul Lo Duca and Marquis Grissom and the development of intense competitors like Mark Grudzielanek have transformed the Dodgers from the Hollywoods to a respected, dirtball team battling against adversity.

The Giants have always had that character, the Cubs have shown it, both reflections on managers whose entire baseball lives have reeked of character. "The Mariners are a great example of a team that has the perfect mix of complementary players and characters," says Evans.

Oakland takes on the personality of Jason Giambi, and the Tom Kelly Twins do not tolerate Everett-esque behavior.

Mark Shapiro, who steps up to replace John Hart next month as GM in Cleveland, says, "I hope to have players that when we win make me proud, but when we lose allow me to sleep at night."

Around the majors

  • Reds president John Allen says that he and owner Carl Lindner are pleased with the job performance of GM Jim Bowden. "We'd all feel better if we'd had a better season," says Allyn. "But all things considered in a small market, we have some very talented major leaguers, our farm system is deep and well-developed -- because of the trades Jim has made, Jose Rijo's development in the Dominican Republic and the work of Tim Naehring running our farm system -- and there is no reason that with a couple of trades for pitching that we won't be contending against next season. And we're right on schedule with our new ballpark, which may be the last publicly financed stadium in our country."

    Allen is obviously delighted with the arrival of potential superstar Adam Dunn. Bowden is very pleased with the development of LHP Lance Davis, and when they backed Chris Reitsma into the bullpen because he'd built up so many innings, Reitsma hit 97 on the radar gun. He is a potential 1-2 starter prospect.

  • While rumors swirl around the future of several Blue Jays officials, GM Gord Ash has let it be known that he and Buck Martinez want a leader or two, like Robin Ventura. They have run into some Raul Mondesi issues, and while Kelvim Escobar has been nothing short of brilliant at times, there are serious physical concerns about the fact that he's had numbness in his hand in three of his last six starts. ... Toronto has a lot of talent and has played better of late, but as one AL GM says, "They are always good in March and September," which translates out to that Joe Kerrigan belief "that you never want to take stock in spring training or September." ... Colorado's great Todd Helton understands. "It's easy to play well when you're out of it. It's harder when you're in it and are expected to win."

  • Several player reps would like the union to agree to a one-year rollover of the Basic Agreement. One owner told his people that he called Bud Selig suggesting a rollover and essentially got blown off. Management sources indicate that Selig understands the dangers of engaging in a labor war at this time in history, but that with six weeks remaining until the current agreement expires, the commissioner and his inner circle of owners want to see if they can make progress because they claim the inequity has too many teams in financial hot water. ... Selig is sending former Padres president Larry Lucchino to Florida at the end of the season to try to ensure that baseball has sought every alternative in getting a park built and saving the franchise. A day doesn't go by when you don't have a management official reiterate that if nothing works they still would like to fold the Angels and Devil Rays and move John Henry's Marlins to Anaheim and Jeffrey Loria's Expos to Tampa Bay. Hey, retiring Expos GM Jim Beattie even said it when discussing why the team did not choose to move this week's games to Colorado. "We may not have many fans in Montreal," said Beattie. "But they are a small, loyal core, and this might be their last chance to see baseball in their city."

  • If the Indians end up playing the Mariners in the AL Division Series, they get a break. Because the series goes game/off day/game/off day/game/game, the fact that the Indians essentially have only three starters -- Bartolo Colon, Chuck Finley, C.C. Sabathia -- doesn't punish them. Paul Shuey has returned throwing as well as ever, so the power bullpen is back in order.

  • Few teams will have more decisions over the winter than the Braves. John Smoltz, who is considered a must-sign, is a free agent, as are Javy Lopez and Steve Karsay. Andruw Jones and Kevin Millwood are fifth-year arbitration cases, and as they make long-term decisions on each, they may have to move one, or both. But unlike some teams, the Braves still have a tremendous farm system, so as Jason Marquis and Odalis Perez move into the rotation and Tim Spooneybarger comes into the pen, they also have Rafael Furcal, Wilson Betemit, Marcus Giles and Mark DeRosa to split second, short and third -- for an approximate total of $1 million. Granted, they need a power bat for first base, but while the current team is not what it used to be (Franco, Lockhart, Caminiti, Sanchez?), they have never backed off spending money and were right at $95M again this season. But after disappointing attendance for a team that has given Atlantans a decade of excellence, they have several difficult decisions to make. Memo to AOL: please don't change the TBS crew. Please.

  • Uh oh. Just when Bruce Bochy announced Rickey Henderson would play every day the rest of the season so Henderson to get to 3,000 hits and pass Ty Cobb's runs record, Rickey came down with the flu and led to suspicions that he's figured out he has a better chance of getting a job next season if he doesn't get the marks this season. ... Speaking of the Pads, Jason Middlebrook's debut against Kevin Brown and the Dodgers was an eye-opener, throwing 93 with an excellent change and slider and a whole lot of deception. Middlebrook was considered by many the best high school pitcher in the draft when he instead went to Stanford, had one great season, then hurt his arm; Kevin Towers took a chance, this spring the velocity came back and Middlebrook has the makings of a front-line starter for a club that has all kinds of good young pitchers. ... The Pads are still waiting on former University of San Francisco 1B Taggert Bozied, who wouldn't sign this summer even though he has finished college; he still is looking for first-round money, though drafted in the third round. He batted .307 for the Sioux Falls Canaries. San Diego also drafted RHP Matt Harrington, who infamously turned down $4M from the Rockies last summer and ended up going 0-2, 9.47 in the Northern League, and will watch him throw in October to see if he's worth signing. Former Clemson OF Patrick Boyd is another of those blown decision stories. He turned down $850,000 out of high school in Clearwater, Fla., turned down $450,000 as a fourth-round pick as a junior and turned down $200,000 as a college senior this summer because he wants $1M. The fact that he played one game for Clemson and was not considered by coaches to be in the same league as tougher players like Khalil Green gets ignored, but maybe the Canaries are paying $1 million for 23-year-olds with no credentials.

    On the rise
    What we learned about Javier Vazquez in the second half of the season is that while obscurity reigns in Montreal, at 25 he became one of the game's best pitchers. He was on his way to his major league-leading 10th win since the All-Star break when he was beaned Monday, and his 1.60 ERA since the break is also the best. His seasonal ERAs have dropped from 6.06 to 5.00 to 4.05 to 3.42. "He's got a touch and a feel like Greg Maddux," says Braves hitting coach Merv Rettenmund. "We were sitting around discussing what one pitcher we'd want to win now, and he was the guy. He's outstanding."

    Vazquez is the leader in the category of players who have clearly altered their careers in the second half. You can make a case for Armando Benitez, but his transformation from the guy who scared people to one of the most dominant closers began in the first half. So here area few others of those who took the second half high road:

  • Carlos Beltran, Kansas City. There may not be a half-dozen American League players with more talent that the Royals center fielder; maturity was always an issue. It seems as if the game slows down for him, and in the second half his .344 average and .980 OPS seem to have him knocking on stardom's door if he can keep his focus.

  • Robert Person, Philadelphia. He went out and beat Maddux Monday in the biggest game of his career, a start that made him 9-1, 2.84 with a 72/27 strikeout/walk ratio since the break.

  • Frank Catalanotto, Texas. He has not yet proven where he'll play, since shoulder problems cut short his second base career, but there is no question he has to play somewhere. Cat has always hit the good and the hard-throwing pitchers, which made him the Rangers' most sought-after player at the trading deadline, but his .400 on-base percentage and .521 slugging in the second half has been remarkable. Those front-order hitters who can knock in runs are difficult to find.

  • Cory Lidle, Oakland. After injuries drifted him from New York to Arizona to Tampa Bay, the A's got him thrown into the three-way deal involving Johnny Damon and Billy Beane expressed the belief that Lidle could be a 4-5 starter. In the second half, Lidle is 9-2, 2.88, and in 12 starts has gotten them into the seventh 10 times. It's amazing what good scouting, in this case J.P. Ricciardi, can do. Of course, one can argue that the second-half performances of Mark Mulder (10-1) and Barry Zito (8-2, 2.21, 56 H, 85.1 IP, 30/80 BB/K) have elevated them from good young pitchers to near-stardom.

  • Terry Adams, Los Angeles. For years, he tried to find his place as a reliever, but after being put in the rotation by Jim Tracy and Jim Colborn he has flourished and his 8-5, 3.58 ERA in the second half will earn him attention in the free-agent market and with Chan Ho Park leaving becomes a vital sign for the Dodgers.

  • Orlando Cabrera, Montreal. His eight errors and league-leading fielding percentage give him a legitimate shot at a Gold Glove, and the joy with which he plays brings energy to everyone around him. But his .299 average and the .851 OPS since the break have snuck in under the Rich Aurilia radar screen.

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  • Apolitical blues:
    Sept. 22

    Curt Schilling's letter to America

    Gammons: column archive

    Gammons: Diamond Notes archive
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