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Palladino: Frank Cashen Was The Mets' Last Great Architect

By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns

Believe it or not, there was a time when the Mets had a dominant club.

Unlike the Fred Wilpon/Sandy Alderson Mets of today, who do tend to embarrass themselves at almost every turn, the Mets of the 1980s were sharp, slick-fielding and clutch. Wilpon had not yet draped this franchise in the Dodger-blue nostalgia of his youth, as he was only a co-partner with Nelson Doubleday. It was Doubleday who came up with the brainstorm to hire a real team-builder of a general manager.

The man's name was Frank Cashen. When he died Monday at age 88, he took with him a piece of Mets history that even Wilpon's financial miscues and baseball tomfoolery of the current century could not overshadow.

It was Cashen who built the 1986 world championship team. That man knew how to bring in talent. He'd done it before with the Orioles of the '60s and '70s. In fact, he brought one of those players -- a fellow named Davey Johnson -- on as his manager after he fired George Bamberger following 1983, the Mets' third straight 90-plus loss season.

As keen an eye as Cashen had for managerial talent, his real forte came with the players. He recognized young talent and drafted it. Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Lenny Dykstra, Wally Backman, Roger McDowell, and Rick Aguilera all came via the draft. Gooden rose meteorically from Single-A straight to the majors.

He sent popular native son Lee Mazilli to Texas for two Double-A kids named Ron Darling and Walt Terrell. The former became the No. 2 pitcher on the championship staff that Gooden led, and the latter became trade bait in 1984 for the deal that brought third baseman Howard Johnson.

If Cashen had a fault, it was that he didn't care much about a star's reputation. He was worried about winning, about returning the Mets to relevance. So with no reservation about locker-room impact, he shipped reliever Neil Allen and a minor-league arm to St. Louis for All-Star first baseman Keith Hernandez in 1983.

Not that Hernandez didn't hold up his end of the bargain. He went on to have three All-Star years with the Mets and became their on-field heart and soul. One of the best fielding first basemen around, he was also one of the league's great clutch hitters.

But he came with a past. He admitted in the 1985 Pittsburgh drug trial that he had used cocaine for three years with the Cardinals. Originally handed a full-year's suspension, he was allowed to keep playing on the condition that he donate 10 percent of his salary to drug-related community service and perform 100 hours of community service. He also had to submit to random drug testing.

It was no surprise, then, that cocaine and hard partying marked that '86 team. Gooden even missed the victory parade down the Canyon of Heroes.

One who did not indulge was squeaky clean catcher Gary Carter. Like Hernandez, he came as an established All-Star, though his Montreal Expos teammates took issue with his ingratiating personality. That, too, mattered little to Cashen. Carter became almost as inspirational as Hernandez, not only for how he handled a star-studded rotation of Gooden, Darling, Sid Fernandez and Bob Ojeda -- and a pen that included McDowell and closer Jesse Orosco -- but for his willingness to play hurt. Many a game were Carter's legs wrapped up like a mummy to bind the sprains and bruises of a long season. But he continued working and hitting timely homers with his tomahawk swing.

Cashen received credit for all of that. The Mets were successful and exciting, and attendance figures rose to three million in 1987 and '88 before the management team decided to break up the old gang.

The Mets haven't won a championship since. As they stood Wednesday -- 10 games under .500, nine games behind first-place Atlanta and a half-game out of last place -- thoughts of another championship for the Fred Wilpon/Jeff Wilpon/Alderson triumvirate anytime soon would send anyone into hysterical laughter.

It wasn't always like that. The mid-'80s at old Shea Stadium were days of success, relevance and championships.

All because of a smart man who favored bow ties.

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