2002-06-01 / Sports

Fans Growing Frustrated With Mets’ Vaughn

Baseball Columnist
By Bryan Hoch
Fans Growing Frustrated With Mets’ Vaughn By Bryan Hoch Baseball Columnist

Baseball Columnist

Mo Vaughn came to the plate in the ninth inning last Tuesday for the New York Mets with two runners on base, the game resting upon his excessively broad shoulders. The first baseman had been lustily booed in his first four plate appearances, striking out three times, but this was a prime opportunity to turn that all around.

Digging into the batters box at Shea Stadium, Vaughn waggled his bat in his distinctive stance, the left-handed batter hiding his face with his right bicep. All of the signs were there for a moment of redemption, with one clutch hit possibly marking the turnaround for a frustrating season. It would not be the tale on this evening.

Instead, Philadelphia Phillies closer Jose Mesa got Vaughn to bounce weakly to second baseman Tomas Perez, who completed a rally killing 4-6-3 double play to effectively put the Mets out of the game and send the fans home with a loss. Once again, boos rained down upon Vaughn.

Booing players in New York is nothing new – it’s as much a New York baseball tradition as anything else. Stars like Mike Piazza and Tom Seaver have been razzed at Shea, and even the great Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio were on the receiving end of jeers at Yankee Stadium.

Still, it’s strange to see the fans exacting so much venom on Vaughn’s 275-lb. frame, a player whom they welcomed to New York so much that on Opening Day that they altered the team’s rally cry to "Let’s Go Mo". The Connecticut native was even honored with a sandwich at Manhattan’s historic Carnegie Deli before he’d taken his first swings in spring training.

After missing all of last season with a torn left bicep, the 1995 American League MVP’s recovery has taken longer than expected. Expected to provide a boost of power and protection for Piazza in the heart of the lineup, Vaughn has cracked just four home runs this year and has failed in the big spots where the Mets have needed him most.

"He's hit the ball hard, and then he hasn't hit the ball hard," manager Bobby Valentine said. "And then he's consistently been doing that."

There have been brief respites in the booing for Vaughn, who has shown some flashes of brilliance through the first eight weeks of the season. He energized the Shea Stadium crowd with a long solo home run over the center field wall on Tuesday facing Florida Marlins reliever Braden Looper, and has shown himself to be surprisingly agile at first base defensively, gobbling up nearly everything hit in his general direction.

It hasn’t been enough for the fans or for the sluggishly performing Mets, who fell out of first place in the National League East with Wednesday’s 5-3 loss to Philadelphia.

Coming off of an injury and a long layoff, the Mets knew that Vaughn might not be 100-percent productive when they dealt righthander Kevin Appier to the Anaheim Angels in December 2001. Coupled with a monstrous salary nearly the size of the sandwich bearing his name, it was a risk the Mets were willing to take.

Signed through 2004 to a deal that will pay him over $26 million for his services, the Mets must be wondering how much ‘Mo’ time it’s going to take for Vaughn to come around.

                     *****

Mike Piazza is the greatest hitting catcher of all-time, and surely is not being paid $91 million over seven years for his ability to throw out baserunners.

Still, the display Tuesday at Shea was an embarrassment, as the Florida Marlins ran wild on Piazza and starting pitcher Al Leiter to swipe seven bases in as many attempts. It’s not that Piazza has a poor arm – his is just as strong as any in the National League.

The problem, we’re told, stems from Piazza’s footwork behind the plate. In a steal situation, Piazza rushes and opens his feet up in a perpendicular manner instead of stepping straight toward the second-base bag, effectively decreasing his throwing power and fighting himself to get the throw off. The result is the ugly one-hop bouncers to the left and right of the bag that we’re all so familiar with.

Former Mets catcher Jerry Grote worked with Piazza on the issue before the 2001 season at spring training in Port St. Lucie, Fla. and appeared to remedy the situation, but Piazza fell back into his old habits shortly after the season began. There’s still plenty of time for a refresher course.

*****

Nobody has been better out of the Mets bullpen than righthander Grant Roberts, who recorded two outs in the ninth inning of Tuesday’s game at Shea to lower his ERA to 0.68 – the lowest of any National League pitcher with at least twenty innings under his belt.

Roberts, a laid-back 24-year-old from El Cajon, Calif., rose quickly through the ranks of the Mets’ minor league system as a hard-throwing starting pitcher, but fell out of favor with management after struggles at Triple-A caused some to whisper about his lack of intensity for the game.

He has found new life as a reliever, appearing in 16 games last season for New York in the role, but still shows flashes of the old pitcher that prompted those behind-the-back jeers. When ‘Goose’, as he is affectionately known to his teammates, was noticeably skipping pitchers stretching drills on Tuesday, Bobby Valentine asked Roberts, "You think you’re different? Did you do these earlier?"

With a sly grin, Roberts took a few practice cuts with his bat and replied, "Nah, that’s not my thing." Appearing exasperated, Valentine asked Roberts, "Well, are you going to hit today?" to which Roberts replied in the affirmative.

*****

Before leaving you for the week, we’d be remiss if we didn’t touch upon the monster week put together by outfielder Shawn Green of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who has shown himself to be "in the zone" in a way that could only be considered Michael Jordan-esque.

Green became the 14th player in major league history to hit four homers in one game on May 23, victimizing former Mets lefthander Glendon Rusch and the Milwaukee

Brewers.

He added three more long balls in his next two games to become the first player to hit seven homers in a three-game span. His 19 total bases in the May 23 performance set a major-league record, shattering Joe Adcock’s previous mark of 18.

The Dodgers truly have a jewel in Green, who has been called this generation’s Joe DiMaggio for the fluid, effortless style in which he plays the game. One simply has to wonder what the Toronto Blue Jays were ever thinking in coughing him up for moody slugger Raul Mondesi and mediocre pitcher Pedro Borbon, Jr. after the 1999 season.

*****

Bryan Hoch regularly covers the New York Mets for MetsOnline.net and can be contacted at bryanhoch@metsonline.net.


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