My sister gave me the news thirty years ago this morning: John Lennon was murdered last night. My first thought was the next thing Suzan said:
“Now they’ll never get back together.”
Lennon’s assassination (which always sounded strange, in that politicians got “assassinated,” but what else could you call it?) was one of those events that just grew sadder and sadder as the week went on. The more it sunk in, the sadder it got. It grew beyond the realization that the Beatles reunion which I’d always vaguely hoped for was now out of the question. There would definitively be no more Beatles except for what they left behind, just as there would be no more John Lennon.
He had a hit on the radio in the weeks before, “(Just Like) Starting Over”. Now it was everywhere. Every solo record, every Beatles record filled the airwaves. Thousands flocked to the Dakota, the building in Manhattan where he lived and where he died at the hands of a disturbed individual whose name it hurts to type. They held candles and they sang in unison. They just kept coming, trying, I guess, to make him live in the best way they knew how.
In the week that unfolded, everything was John Lennon, the musician and the man. My relatively modest appreciation of his catalogue and my understanding of his legacy was deepened. It couldn’t help but be. Lennon was the lead story on every newscast, in every newspaper. It seems in the days after his assassination I heard every song John Lennon ever wrote and learned everything about him. I didn’t realize, until it was reported and repeated again and again, what a personal and professional milestone his new album — his and Yoko Ono’s, Double Fantasy — was supposed to be. Up to that morning when Suzan told me what happened, it was just another album whose name Casey Kasem might have mentioned during American Top 40. I honestly never noticed Lennon hadn’t recorded or released any new material in the previous half-decade. I never wondered what he was up to. That he had a new single out didn’t seem any stranger than Paul McCartney climbing the charts at a given moment in time.
Now that everything about John Lennon was coming at us in a torrent — he turned his life around; he had a young son; he was feeling optimistic about the future — it was worse than simply shaking your head over the untimely death of somebody whose songs you liked. The more you heard them, the more the cruel irony gnawed at you. “Give Peace A Chance”…the first time I heard it was less than two months before. It was used in a short-lived Broadway play we saw for my Survey of Drama class, Division Street. The play was about the death of ’60s idealism, and “Give Peace A Chance” was used in an almost taunting manner, with the modern-day pragmatists telling the hangers-on from another era to get over it and get going and stop already with hopelessly outmoded sloganeering.
That was in the middle of October, and I had no idea it was a John Lennon song. Now it played constantly, with unmistakable authorship and overtones. The man who stood for peace — who stayed in bed for peace, as the archival footage showed — had been shot to death.
I hear “Give Peace A Chance” now and I think of that week in December 1980. I hear “Imagine” or “Instant Karma” or “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “I Am The Walrus,” and I am transported to that last month when I was 17, the last year that I was in high school. I hear “(Just Like) Starting Over,” and I remember an instant when I walked down the hall, past the girls’ bathroom. Plain as day, I could hear a radio blaring from within:
Our life together
Is so precious together
We have grown
We have grown
Thirty years ago this week, for the worst reason fathomable, John Lennon was everywhere.
I’ve seen it several times and I might have seen it last night had I watched more of the thirtieth-anniversary coverage of John Lennon’s assassination. It was one of those things that jumps out from the background of a bigger picture if you’re so inclined to detect it.
The scene is the Dakota. The candlelight vigil is well underway. One woman catches my eye. She’s carrying some flowers, along with a newspaper — the Daily News. It must be from the night he was shot, because after it happened, the front and back pages were all about Lennon. This back page wasn’t.
I don’t remember the exact headline but if you noticed the newspaper, you couldn’t help but catch the key words:
Yanks Mets Dave
And the other New York story of December 1980 came flooding back to me. The Mets were trying to sign Dave Winfield.
Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon took control of the Mets in January. They hired Frank Cashen in February. There was no time to meaningfully rebuild or even tweak the major league roster for 1980. Playing the hand they were dealt, the Mets strengthened their advertising (“The Magic Is Back”) and their facility (new seats and an outfield paint job at Shea) and otherwise tried to get by on patience, goodwill and whatever Mark Bomback’s right arm could get them. It worked for a while  — the Mets flirted with .500 into mid-August — before a lack of depth and talent doomed them to their usual dispiriting finish: fifth place, 67 wins, 95 losses.
It was relative progress from the late 1970s , but it wasn’t going to sate anybody for long. These new owners and their highly regarded GM were going to have to make the kind of moves their predecessors from which their predecessors had shied as either a matter of conviction or penuriousness. No more Grant, no more McDonald, not more de Roulets. From now on, the Mets would have to operate like the New York franchise in the National League was supposed to.
They would have to substantially improve their product, and they’d have to spend to do it. They’d have to go after free agents…they’d have to go after the big fish of the 1980-81 offseason.
They’d have to go after Dave Winfield.
There were teams that seriously considered free agents and then there were the Mets. That was our big-market franchise in advance of 1977, 1978, 1979 and 1980. While others relied (or perhaps overrelied) on the injection of stars into their lineup or rotation, the Mets kept their hands in their pockets for the first four years that teams could sign standout players from the open market. The Yankees nabbed Reggie Jackson and then inked Goose Gossage. The Phillies solidified their ranks with Pete Rose. The Astros brought Texas-born Nolan Ryan home. Those were the prize catches of the first four “re-entry drafts,” as they were known. There were loads of other big names that went to lots of other teams.
But not to the Mets. The Mets reeled in two guppies, both in the 1977-78 class: infielder/outfielder Elliott Maddox and middle reliever Tom Hausman. Each contributed to the midseason surge of 1980, but the bottom line was still 67-95 and most every expense spared when it came to getting with how the last quarter of the 20th century would function.
Attendance was up in 1980; it couldn’t help but rebound from the final year of de Roulet disrepair in 1979, when it was a shameful 788,905. Still, rising to not quite 1.2 million could hardly be called a victory in New York, not for a franchise that a decade earlier drew almost 2.7 million, not when the other franchise in town was drawing better than 2.6 million. The goodwill and the patience was expiring (and Bomback was about to be traded). Doubleday and Wilpon could not afford to not spend. Certainly they had to shop like they meant it. And there was no way they could ignore Dave Winfield.
Dave Winfield had an off year in 1980 — 20 home runs, 87 runs batted in, .276 batting average, 89 runs scored, 23 stolen bases and every one of 162 games played — yet he would have easily been the best player on the Mets. He was quite obviously the best player on the Padres. In 1979, he may have been the best player in all of baseball: 34 HR, 118 RBI, a .953 OPS, even if nobody knew what that was at the time. Winfield was that rare baseball player who could do everything, offensively and defensively. When managers and coaches began voting him Gold Gloves in 1979, it wasn’t out of habit. It was because no outfielder got to more balls, caught more balls and threw balls with more authority. He was 6’ 6” tall, yet he could fly. He was imposing. He was accomplished. And when he became a free agent in the fall of 1980, he was only 29.
The best player on the 1980 Mets? Dave Winfield would have been the best player the Mets ever had. Of course they had to go after him.
“We are prepared to do whatever is necessary to be a contender,” Wilpon told the Times’s Murray Chass in July, before names of prospective free agents could be officially bandied about. “If a free agent is available — if our baseball people determine that that is a person we need and want — the Met organization will go after that free agent.”
Come November, Winfield was the Mets’ No. 1 target. He would be their first pick in the re-entry draft (a formality under the rules of the day) and someone they set to courting as soon as they could. With the process just getting underway, Cashen graciously penned a fairly lighthearted piece for the Times describing the serious business of waving an almost blank check at an enormously athletic young man:
Look but don’t touch. Express interest but don’t mention money. Somehow, in the proceedings that followed, it was difficult to know who would buy and who would sell. A stranger to the mix would be puzzled but no less than the participants.
A ballplayer once described it best: Visiting with ownership prior to the draft is like spending an evening with a beautiful and willing woman and never mentioning love.
The courting was on in earnest, with Doubleday’s and Wilpon’s baseball people giving it their all. Cashen would, over the course of his 12-season tenure as Met GM, become known as someone who eschewed free agency, but in the fall of 1980, he was, by necessity, up for anything.
The question was always before me: Would the Mets be active in the re-entry draft?
The re-entry draft, I was to say then and repeat it so often during the summer, was one of several ways open to a general manager to rebuild a ball club. The improvement of your young players is one, replacement from a budding farm system still another. Judicious trading would help and, of course, there was that comparatively new spectacle — the re-entry draft.
No one of these can be ignored, I said, quickly pointing out that when you have finished last three years in a row, you cannot ignore any of the avenues open to improve the team.
The Mets tried. They really tried. They offered what Cashen termed “the highest money package ever made to a player”. It was reported as $12 million over eight years, though Winfield claimed, “Money is not the overriding factor.” Big Dave’s San Diego teams had failed to contend since he came to the majors in 1973 (including 1977, when they invested in big-name free agents Rollie Fingers and Gene Tenace). The Mets were instructed they’d have to show signs of putting together a better team that they previously fielded for Winfield to want to join.
“I was stifled,” Winfield told the Associated Press before deciding where to play in 1981 and the years beyond. “Rarely did I come to bat with men on base. Pitchers always could pitch around me.”
The 1980 Mets had, infamously, totaled 61 home runs among them. Ten of them had been struck by Claudell Washington in a little more than half-a-season, and those had gone unexpectedly out the door to Atlanta in November. Claudell, himself a free agent, was assumed safely in the fold for ’81. He wasn’t, and he hadn’t yet been replaced. All the Mets could offer Winfield in lieu of a platform for imminent winning was New York and an immense paycheck.
Another team could give him that and a lot more. Dave Winfield signed with the defending American League East champion Yankees: ten years for an eventual (thanks to cost-of-living increases) $23 million.
The Mets tried, but maybe they were never going to succeed at this particular contest. “Steinbrenner is determined not to let the Mets grab Winfield from under his nose,” a source said before the free agent’s final decision was made. In those years, George’s nose — particularly when connected to his wallet — was a most formidable obstacle.
Cashen didn’t wind up empty-handed when it came to decorated San Diego Padres. On December 15, 1980, the same day Winfield agreed to his record pact with the Yankees (and three days after utilityman Bob Bailor had been acquired from Toronto), the Mets sent John Pacella and Jose Moreno to the Padres for former Cy Young award winner Randy Jones. Jones hadn’t been anything close to a top pitcher since 1976, the year the southpaw edged Jerry Koosman for honors as the best hurler in the National League. The next day, Cashen, addressing what he saw as a glaring Met weakness — “a team without character in its left-handed pinch-hitting” — signed former Met Rusty Staub as a free agent. He then added another layer of depth to the bench with another experienced lefty pinch-hitter, free agent Mike Cubbage. After the new year, Cashen signed his third free agent, and another lefty pitcher to go along with Jones, veteran Dave Roberts.
Some new bodies, same old team. Cashen couldn’t be done restructuring. So as Spring Training was getting underway, he sent June 14, 1980  walkoff hero Steve Henderson to the Cubs for another recidivist Met, Dave Kingman. Kingman had hit 48 home runs in 1979, but just 18 in an injury-shortened 1980. Plus he was the same Dave Kingman who was known for resisting the urge to be charming when he was last a New York Met, in 1977.
Almost none of it helped. The Mets were 17-34 when the 1981 players strike shut down baseball for eight weeks. Then, with a clean slate — the one-time-only “second season” — Cashen’s moves still didn’t help that much. Version 2.0 of the 1981 Mets demi-contended into September but ultimately fell out of the mini-race and went 24-28. Kingman hit home runs. Staub lined pinch-hits. Bailor filled in nicely. The Mets were still going nowhere.
Meanwhile, Dave Winfield was going to the playoffs and ultimately the World Series with the Yankees. He would hit hardly at all in the Bombers’ Fall Classic loss to the Dodgers and later be dubbed by his employer as clutchless Mr. May.
The Mets could have used a player who excelled in any month.
It’s tempting to wonder what might have happened had Winfield seen past the money and the bluster thrown around by George Steinbrenner and opted to become the building block of a potential Met powerhouse. Kingman probably wouldn’t have come back and George Foster would have been passed up in 1982, but Winfield in one corner and a young Darryl Strawberry  — with less pressure on his inexperienced shoulders — in another, with Cashen’s minor leagues bearing fruit all over the diamond…is the Mets’ development accelerated? Do free agents look better to Cashen? Does he still trade for Hernandez? For Carter? Is there more than one World Series in the 1980s Mets future?
You can’t say, but we do know the Mets won one more World Series during the span that Winfield was under contract to the Yankees than Winfield did. We also know Doubleday and Wilpon never hired small-time fixers to gather dirt on their star players. George Steinbrenner’s engagement of Howie Spira to help incriminate Dave Winfield (who was suing Steinbrenner over a $300,000 payment to his foundation), got “The Boss” suspended from baseball in the early 1990s. While Winfield sought refuge with the California Angels — en route to winning a World Series with the Blue Jays, registering his 3,000th hit with the Twins and wearing a Padres cap on his inevitable Hall of Fame plaque — the Yankees constructed a new championship era without George’s input.
It might be more intriguing to wonder what might have happened to the Yankees had Dave Winfield gone to the Mets. Maybe Steinbrenner never develops a detrimental obsession with making a superstar look bad; maybe he’s never suspended; maybe their dynasty of the 1990s never takes root.
We’ll never know.
It’s thirty years since the Mets tried to buy their way up in the standings. There were no takers for what they were selling. Foster, a year later, would accept their money (through a swap with the Reds), and it didn’t work that well, but it was seen as an important first step toward Met respectability. In the first half of the ’80s, Cashen went at team-building through the other methods he outlined in the Times: a few of his young players began to blossom; more came up through the farm system; and still more were brought on board via judicious trade. In his November 1980 article, Cashen promised one way or another, “The Mets are coming. The Mets are coming.” When the Mets finally arrived as a champion-in-full six years later, big-money free agency was not a factor.
And now? There are no big-money free agents coming the Mets’ way in December 2010. They’ve signed their share in the past half-dozen years to mixed results. Whatever individual successes free agency has yielded them, the composite box score shows the Mets’ player acquisition strategy has left the franchise uncomfortably distant from legitimate contention.
So this December, we as Mets fans behave counterintuitively. In 1980, coming off a season in which our team finished next to last, we were dying for our owners to throw a few bucks around. Today, in a similar position, we don’t mind that they don’t. In fact, we prefer it. Jayson Werth goes for big money. The Mets don’t bite. Carl Crawford signs a huge contract. The Mets aren’t involved. Cliff Lee remains available. The Mets don’t look, don’t touch and don’t express interest. We cheer on Sandy Alderson as he doesn’t spend. We nod at D.J. Carrasco  and Ronny Paulino  and Boof Bonser  and whatever the Rule 5 draft  shakes out, and we don’t say boo.
The Mets weren’t materially better in 1981 than they were in 1980. Our patience and our goodwill was stretched a little further. We rooted for Dave Roberts and Randy Jones instead of John Pacella and Mark Bomback, and we hoped that whatever it was Frank Cashen was working on long-term paid off soon enough.
What will April to October of 2011 bring? We don’t yet know, just as we don’t know if 2011 will serve as the bumpy on-ramp to a smoother ride for 2012 and thereafter. But in these very cold final days of 2010, I can’t say it’s terribly exciting to live through yet another December when the Mets are detectable only in the background.