2002-10-05 / Sports

The Bobby Valentine Era Comes To An End

By Bryan Hoch

The Bobby Valentine Era
Comes To An End
By Bryan Hoch
Baseball Columnist

Two days after the Mets closed out their regular season with a 6-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves, maintenance crews had already started to scrape away the inspirational slogan atop the home dugout at Shea Stadium. There was no longer any reason to "Always Believe" - it simply served as a reminder of a season gone terribly wrong.

And as the workers in t-shirts and blue jeans toiled in the mid-day heat, flaking off inches of black enamel, the underlying layers of paint began to reveal themselves. Suddenly, the markings welcoming you to the home of the 2000 National League champions appeared.

Bit by bit, the roof began to show more forgotten memories. There were the blue dugouts, harking back to the days when the Mets wore pinstripes and blue caps. It all seemed remarkably perfect - those layers of paint had all stood by while Bobby Valentine took over a dismal team and guided it to the World Series, only to have the club embarrass themselves all the way back to last place this year.

With a press conference on Tuesday, Mets owner Fred Wilpon officially ended the Valentine era at Shea Stadium, sending a clear message to players and club employees that failure would not and could not be tolerated under his new, full regime.

"We put very good players in place who didn't play very well," Wilpon said. "We thought it was a very competitive team. We still believe they're very competitive, but we were disappointed, and I think the players will be far, far better next year."

With that logic, Wilpon spared the job of general manager Steve Phillips, who made the offseason deals for players of disappointing performance levels like Jeromy Burnitz, Jeff D'Amico, Shawn Estes and Mo Vaughn.

However, Valentine's termination should serve as notice of a last chance for the dapper executive - when asked if he had discussed the possibility of a contract extension with Phillips, Wilpon flatly responded, "No."

Valentine had weathered any number of storms at the helm of the Mets since taking over for disciplinarian Dallas Green in August 1996. There were the comments that implied catcher Todd Hundley might have a drinking problem and needed to get to bed a little earlier, prompting the classic tabloid headline "Todd: I'm Not Sleepy, Dopey!"

Then, who could forget the day Valentine gestured into the press box to say, "See, I told you," after Paul O'Neill homered for a second straight game?

The New York media had been wildly critical of Valentine's decision to bring in righthander Mel Rojas to face the Yankees outfielder in an interleague Subway Series matchup (remember when those were still a big deal?). O'Neill homered off of Rojas and came back the next day with a blast off of lefty Bill Pulsipher.

Valentine was perplexed, but not as much as the students who attended his speech at the Wharton School of Business in April 2000. What was supposed to be a soliloquy on the economics of baseball turned into an hour-long Mets-bashing experiment, delivered by the manager with the warning that his comments were not to leave the room.

Further proof to never trust a college kid: Internet user "Brad34" couldn't resist the temptation and promptly punched out a partial transcript from his dorm room, beaming them out to Mets fan message boards. Once the media got hold of the text, Valentine's goose was nearly cooked.

The difference between those public fiascoes and this season's never-ending parade of scandals and rifts was that, in years past, Valentine's teams won. After going winless in the month of August at home and suffering through several extended losing streaks, the crushing blow of a last-place finish was too much for Wilpon to bear.

What made Valentine's firing so surprising to some was the fact that he appeared to have no idea it was coming. As the finish line of the season came into sight, Valentine spoke glowingly of the plentiful meetings he had been attending with Mets higher-ups and openly discussed the future of some younger players who might have an impact on next year's team, such as infielder Ty Wigginton.

"We're going to be a world-class organization," Valentine boasted a week ago. "Next year, we'll put forth a great effort and be a very, very good team ... learning from our mistakes, and definitely not be afraid to go forward."

Valentine was right in a sense, relaying the sentiment that the Mets would not hesitate to make the moves that might improve the team's fortunes. Little could he know that in Wilpon's master plan, Valentine would be classified as one of the 'mistakes'.

Bryan Hoch can be contacted at bryanhoch@yahoo.com.

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