2002-11-16 / Sports

Happy Shea Days Nearing End For Fonz

By Bryan Hoch

Baseball Columnist

Shopping in one of those tourist trap stores near Times Square this week, I saw a young boy and his father eyeing a replica baseball jersey, complete with Edgardo Alfonzo's name and number embroidered across the back.

As the middle-schooler raved about the exploits of the Mets' infielder - how he'd led the team in hitting this past season, served as a backbone for years, manned his positions with defensive grace - it would have been cruel to inform the young man that his favorite player's change-of-address form seems to be on the way.

With free agency lurking right around the corner, the Mets have been non-committal at best in regard to the organizational future of the 29-year-old Alfonzo, who paced the Mets this season with a .308 average and powered 16 home runs.

In fact, if you listen to some reports, the Mets have been downright cold in the treatment of their most solid homegrown talent. One source claimed that Alfonzo should expect to take a pay cut if he hoped to have the privilege of continuing to play for the organization that drafted him all the way back in 1991.

Certainly, the Mets have their reasons. Alfonzo suffered badly from lower back problems for most of 2001, finishing up with a career-low average of .246, an issue that was refreshed in the minds of club management when he hit the disabled list again this August.

Recurring back problems don't seem to have much promise of recovering, and there have been whispers for years that the Venezuelan-born Alfonzo might not actually be the age he claims to be. Those things considered, it would be hard to blame the Mets if they opted not to give in to Alfonzo's request for a four or five year deal this winter.

Still, it was impossible not to note how badly the Mets' lineup lacked Alfonzo's presence when he went on the disabled list this past August. Missing Alfonzo to stabilize the order, the Mets hit a summer swoon, losing an embarrassing twelve games in a row and a league-record 15 straight at Shea Stadium.

Alfonzo can certainly find work in the major leagues, should the Mets not belly up to the table with an offer deemed acceptable.

The Yankees are certainly eyeing Alfonzo's services as they mull over re-signing the resurgent Robin Ventura - one source close to Alfonzo said that he would "love" to play in the Bronx - and if Alfonzo and his back are willing to put up with Philadelphia's artificial turf for one more season, he could stay in the National League without leaving the northeast.

But back at Shea, the Mets' replacement options are paltry. Hot-hitting rookie Ty Wigginton was impressive in a late-season stint, but few are convinced he's ready to hold down an everyday job in the majors. San Francisco's David Bell is a possibility, although he's not much better statistically than Alfonzo, and the Mets had no interest in taking on Jeff Cirillo's ugly contract when the Mariners tried to fleece New York for Lou Piniella.

Bottom line: the Mets are a better team with Alfonzo than without him.

For all their trials and tribulations over the last decade-plus, it's hard to even find fans who have been as loyal to this franchise as Alfonzo has. Considering that reason alone, management needs to get their act together and talk things out.

Trade Winds: Mets GM Steve Phillips is attempting to make good on owner Fred Wilpon's request to shed some weight from the payroll as baseball's winter meetings get underway this week in Tucson.

The Mets are thought to be most interested in trading away shortstop Rey Ordonez, who made waves in the last week of the season when he called Shea Stadium fans "too stupid" and said that he wouldn't want to re-sign with the Mets when his four-year, $19 million contract expires after 2003.

New York has already offered Ordonez and underproducing outfielder Jeromy Burnitz to the Marlins for outfielder Preston Wilson, according to one source. Despite the fact that the cash-strapped Marlins owe Wilson $29.5 million over the next three years in a horrendously backloaded deal, Florida isn't biting.

The Mets would also lick their chops at any potential suitor who might take outfielder Roger Cedeno (owed $14.5 million through 2005) off of their hands.

Voicing Opinions: Early in October, Yankees great Reggie Jackson made a few statements to the effect that he couldn't understand why manager Bobby Valentine was forced to solely take the fall for the Mets' miserable 2002 season. Meanwhile, Phillips has been allowed to keep his job as general manager.

He's not alone, and a new fan web site has popped up with the intent of making that sentiment heard to the Mets' front office. Its address: FireStevePhillips.com.

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

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