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Issues of character
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
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
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.
On the rise
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:
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