Pirates, Mets bonded through late-season swoons
NEW YORK -- Serendipity wasn't necessarily at work in July 1997, when the Marlins imported Darren Daulton from the Phillies. On his last big league legs -- he would retire three months later -- Daulton essentially demanded that his new teammates find a place in the postseason, and it all worked out.
Dave Dombrowski was pulling the strings in Miami in those days, and he was a skilled puppeteer, familiar with the grit Daulton had demonstrated four years earlier when he pushed and prodded the Phillies into October.
"All he's done," Al Leiter said during the Marlins' World Series run, "is make all the difference in the world."
Dombrowski had anticipated some impact, though not nearly what Daulton provided beyond his .262 average, three home runs and 21 RBIs.
As Yogi once said, "He exceeded expectations and more."
Frank Cashen had a sense of the potential impact of Keith Hernandez 14 summers earlier, when he took Gold Glove defense, boundless intensity and critical hitting off the Cardinals' hands. Hernandez proved to be the primary difference-maker in the Mets' sequence of success in the 1980s as much for his intensity and savvy as his performance.
And what of the Dodgers acquiring Kirk Gibson 25 years ago? Gibson became a tad unhinged by a clubhouse prank during Spring Training, and he growled, cussed and swung from the hips in reaction. And his colleagues came to attribute their newfound motivation to his tantrum. He didn't win the MVP Award based on his RBI total (76).
In each case the impact was intangible, something beyond numbers, something more than the 9-0 record Doyle Alexander provided the Tigers in 1987 after the deal that sent John Smoltz to the Braves.
But for every trade that powered a grand U-turn by a struggling team, there have been 150 others that had the effect of a spitting into wind of the lake at Wrigley.
The Pirates have learned as much in the last month. Neal Huntington did what many clear-thinking general managers of contenders would do before the non-waiver Trade Deadline -- he tried to reinforce his roster. He acquired Travis Snider, a left-handed-hitting outfielder with less power than Duke; Gaby Sanchez, who had played himself into disfavor with the Marlins; and Wandy Rodriguez, a left arm with talent. They could have made some difference. They didn't. But Huntington tried.
While the Pirates were making what they hoped were upgrades, the Mets did nothing and, as a consequence, prompted a degree of grumbling in their clubhouse.
"The message we kind of got in here," one of the players said, "was that they had no faith in us. ... Like, 'Why should we spend money or trade a prospect if we're not going to win?'"
And now the Pirates, victims of a 13-31 collapse since Aug. 8, and the Mets, who have endured a longer but less precipitous decline, are on the same page. The Pirates need to improve dramatically to achieve their first .500 season since Barry Bonds' last snarl at Three Rivers Stadium. But watching their cadaver-like performance at Citi Field on Monday night, it seems likely that pirate ship has sailed. Their 10-6 victory on Tuesday night probably was a case of a broken clock being right twice a day.
A break-even season eluded manager Terry Collins' second Mets team last Wednesday, when Philadelphia's Ryan Howard struck in the ninth inning. The only carrot remaining for the Mets' horse is a 20th victory for R.A. Dickey. That can happen on Thursday. Then all that will remain for the Citi-dwellers will be a pair of three-game series, against the Braves and the Marlins, the teams that frequently have ended Mets seasons -- literally and figuratively -- since the late 1990s.
The Pirates and Mets have second-half declines in common, both last season and this. Collins and his counterpart, Clint Hurdle, know of each other more than they know each other. But a bond, unwanted as it may be, exists. They twice have taken different routes to points of September irrelevance. They stand on the same street corner today as they engage each other in a four-game series at Citi Field.
"We could share some ideas," Collins said on Monday night before the first of the four. "Clint's case is really tough, because he got some pieces to help. And they were closer to the top than we ever were, and they were there later."
Indeed, the Pirates created legitimate expectation when they won 63 of their first 110 games. Their record was 16 victories better than .500 on the morning of Aug. 9. Then the floor gave way. Hurdle says that his players must learn to be "comfortable being uncomfortable."
That thought is related to what Joe Torre used to say. In difficult circumstances, he said, the need was "to be intense while not being tense."
It can happen; a player like Daulton can facilitate that.
By Aug. 9 the Mets already had excused themselves from contention in the National League East. They had lost three of their previous four games, the third loss an unbecoming 13-0 smackdown in Miami, and they turned the 46-40 record they carried into the All-Star break into a 53-58 eyesore.
But go back to March, when the general assessment of the Mets was that they would be hard pressed to overcome the gravity of last place in 162 games. But when Dickey was winning every five days and Johan Santana was going where no Met had gone before, some corners of the New York market began to believe. Some folks recalled 1973 and began to beat their chests.
And now we jump ahead to August 2013. Who among us will develop any degree of trust if either team is in the running after the next Trade Deadline passes? The self-fulfilling prophecy can be powerful. If the Pirates play a 19-inning game next summer, too, they'll be apt to swallow hard and wince. The Mets may react -- adversely, of course -- merely to the All-Star break.
It happens. There was much turnover over the years before the Red Sox ended the curse, and some players bought into the prophecy. Didn't the Giants of the 1970s wait each year for the arrival of the June Swoon? We even upper-cased it, as if it were included in the calendar.
It shouldn't happen. It may not happen. But the declines/collapses of 2012 could have an impact next summer. That's if the teams show enough in the first half that what they do in the second half constitutes a collapse.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.