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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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The Glory That Was Rome

“Let’s see, this team lost 99 games last year, 96 the year before and 98 the year before that, right? This is a much greater challenge than the one I faced in Baltimore in 1965.”
—Frank Cashen, introduced as New York Mets general manager, 2/21/1980

Rome wasn’t built in a day. It was built in just under seven years, between February 21, 1980, and October 27, 1986. Its civic planner, architect, contractor, foreman and chief stonecutter was Frank Cashen.

Cashen, who died Monday at 88, created the greatest empire our people have ever known. What a joy it was to revel in its glories, to thrive under its protection, to believe it would endure for all eternity.

It has, in its way. It’s 2014, yet we who were there live to tell the tale of 1986 — our collective memory’s seat of government and Frank Cashen’s most astounding structure. True, we are moved to talk about 1986 so often because we haven’t lived through anything very much like it since, but had there been a dozen 1986s constructed in its wake, there is little chance we would ever forget the one that would forever tower over everything else that followed.

Cashen famously modeled a bow tie as he general managed the Mets from outcasts to emperors. It was a sartorial habit he picked up from his days as a newspaperman (neck ties just got in the way of layout). Yet given the stature he attained in his 12 years as GM, he probably should’ve been outfitted in a purple toga and laurel wreath. Well, maybe not, because he likely wouldn’t have cared for the Animal House overtones. It wasn’t what the man wore, anyway. It was what the man did.

He did us solid after solid after solid. You can’t build something that stands so strong in the consciousness without employing the most solid of material. Frank went out and got us the best. He drafted. He traded. He cultivated. He built. That’s what it came down to. He started with almost nothing — a handful of minor leaguers and a dollop of goodwill — and he got to work ASAP. You couldn’t necessarily see the finished product forming unless you peered far into the horizon, but here came the pieces…

Strawberry. Sisk. Mitchell. Dykstra. Darling. Gooden. McDowell. Heep. Hearn. Aguilera. Hernandez. Fernandez. Santana. Added to holdovers Backman, Wilson and Orosco, the Mets entered 1984 on the heels of seven consecutive losing seasons — four of them on Cashen’s watch — but with more than half of the 1986 World Series roster secure in the system. Some were up, some were coming.

As the first kiss of success brushed the Mets fan cheek in the first blush of summer 1984, the procession continued. Elster drafted and signed. Knight acquired for the franchise’s first legitimate stretch run in more than a decade. Within 10 weeks of a 90th win not being aspired to but actually achieved, Johnson from Detroit. Three days after that, Carter from Montreal. Then Niemann. Then 1985 and 98 wins that proved 1984 no fluke and presaged 1986 as no year anybody who loved the Mets could have imagined prior to Cashen.

A little more building remained to be done. Ojeda in December. Teufel in January. Top off with Mazzilli in August.

Celebrate your 108-54 champions in October.

One man, one mind, one skilled dialing finger, one keen judge of talent, one executive unafraid of a little creative tension with his field manager, one old-school soul who gritted his teeth through what he must have considered the coarser developments of contemporary baseball. Frank Cashen did his building without resorting to the tools of big-money free agency. He delved into the financial resources available to him, yet never made much of a show of parting with dollars. His era and that in which he had to do business barely overlapped after a fashion. He remained resolutely tweedy in an age when Members Only jackets were considered high style.

Frank was the right person at the right time — and probably not five minutes longer.

Post-1986, the empire Cashen built couldn’t have appeared sounder, but its foundation didn’t sustain. Maybe nobody’s could have in those days. The playoff format wasn’t the pliable version we know today. Dispatch the wrong character, depend on the wrong personality, cede control to lesser lieutenants, run into some lousy luck, suddenly you’re not tending the empire you thought you were. You deal gingerly with decline, you watch from the sidelines when fall inevitably occurs. Down the road, they’re lamenting your failure to forge something more tangibly dynastic.

You won it all once; when you slipped to winning but not winning enough, there wasn’t much opportunity to appreciate what winning once the way you won meant. Amidst decline and fall, who’s got time for perspective?

That’s what eternity is for. And the Mets fan who was blessed to have lived deep in the heart of the empire Frank Cashen built will always be eternally grateful for the privilege of permanent citizenship there.

18 comments to The Glory That Was Rome

  • Steve D

    Frank took a laughingstock and made it relevant in three years, a champion in 6 years. Met fans of that era owe him a huge debt of gratitude. It was an amazing job and his likes are sorely needed now. RIP Frank.

  • Dave

    Very well done, Greg. Mets fans often operate in the glass half (or completely) empty mode for obvious reasons and may be inclined to remember Cashen as both the architect and the demolition crew. But he stood alone in the, well, entire human race as the person who actually made the Mets baseball’s premier franchise. We all salute him.

  • metsfaninparadise

    Another analogy–I tell people that that team was my “Boys of Summer.”

  • He was so far and above the best GM in Mets history no one else is even in the conversation. And this was despite giving away Reardon, Dykstra and McDowell, plus Aguilera and Tapani–they did get a talented if disinterested player in Kevin McReynolds for Kevin Micthell and others. The Mets cruised to the ’86 division title but had enough gamers to win two postseason series that fall despite being pushed to the wall. I will never forget the feeling when he traded for Hernandez I saw the first glimmer of light at the other end of the tunnel. Wish I could say that now. RIP, Mr. Cashen.

  • Bryan

    Cashen was brilliant in building a team. Makes the current administration look like they aren’t even trying. Maybe it’s cause they really aren’t. Another great read Greg, thanks for all you write!

  • Will in Central NJ

    I’m so glad that Mr. Cashen was able to accept his Mets Hall of Fame plaque in person in 2010, alongside Davey, Doc and Darryl. He will forever be one of the giants in the Mets’ pantheon. Rest in Peace, sir.

  • APV

    In human terms, I’m not that sad because the man had done plenty of living in his long life and am obviously not related. Of course, the greatest thing he ever did was oversee the process that made the Mets champions. Sure the players had to do their jobs and a solid manager had to give them proper guidance, but it also needed a GM who could properly see what needed to be done to take the next step. The Carter trade was that next step, even if we had to wait a year.

    As a Mets fan, however, Frank Cashen’s passing reminds me of what we once had, what we don’t have anymore, and what I fear we may not have again for a long long time. That’s a feeling that everybody — players, coaches, managers, GMs, yes even owners — is interested in winning and would do what it took to do so. We know damn well that is not the case with the Wilpon family today (maybe it was when Doubleday was around), Sandy, Terry, the coaches, and most of today’s players. Fred stayed out of the way in the pre-championship years; I shudder to think how the Mets would be if Cashen had to work for Little Jeffy.

    Was Cashen perfect? No. He had his battles with Davey, mistakenly let Knight and Mitchell go after the championship, traded for Juan Samuel (who fell off a cliff when he got here), and probably took slights and misdeeds more personally from 1987 onward. Oh, and then there’s the handling of Darryl’s free agency. Straw’s departure, a decade after Frank brought him here, had to be the clear signal that it was time to move on. Frank Cashen did not like free agency as a tool for building a winner and some believe had Darryl stayed the Mets would have been a contender and maybe a division winner in 1991.

    All that said, the Mets finished over .500 seven straight years, only winning less than 90 games once in that period, and took home two division titles, a league pennant, and a World Championship in 1986. None of these achievements occur for the Mets without Frank Cashen. He will never be forgotten by this Met fan. RIP Frank!

  • Geoff Hayton

    Great piece for a great man. The ending was particularly strong.

  • Seth

    Somewhere, I have an old VHS tape of the locker room celebration from Sept 1986, the night they clinched the division.

    At one point, Frank Cashen was being interviewed — right in the middle of the interview, some role player or September callup flies past the camera, shouting and spraying champagne as he goes, and interrupting Frank in mid-sentence.

    Frank gets a disgusted look on his face and mutters (barely perceptibly; you have to turn up the volume to hear it), “It’s always the guys that do the least that celebrate the most” (I might be paraphrasing).

    I always thought that really showed a side of Frank that you didn’t often see publicly. I didn’t know the man personally so I can’t comment on what this really meant, but I thought it revealed a bit of his personality.

    • That would be Randy Niemann, who did, in fact, the least. Still, in the moment, everybody’s entitled to maximum jubilation.

      For probably the greatest unvarnished perspective on dealing with Cashen the baseball man, I can’t recommend Pete McCarthy’s interview with Howie Rose enough. Listen here.

  • Lenny65

    Many teams have won it all. Many teams have had amazing seasons. But few have even been fortunate to experience a six month long victory dance (and boy, we were SO obnoxious about it, too) followed by a roller coaster post-season that was every bit as outrageous as the legends say. The Mets could win the next ten WS and it’d still be highly unlikely we’d ever get a season like we got in 1986. I mean they had the division completely wrapped by the All Star break, it was totally outlandish. The brawls, the endless curtain calls, the fist pumps, the attitude. RIP Mr. Cashen and thanks from every fan fortunate enough to remember the majesty of that wonderful era.

    • Perhaps this feels like the case because we’re so close to it, but I’d comfortably argue our two WS titles are more the stuff of legend than most any other WS titles/teams belonging to others.

      • dak442

        I think you are spot-on. The Miracle that is ’69, and the utterly epic ’86 postseason are an incredible 1-2 combo. What other championship seasons even come close? By comparison the Yankees come off as corporate successes – it’s like cheering a balance sheet.

        ’55 Dodgers, ’93 Blue Jays, ’11 Cards, ’04 Sox… those were all pretty great, but ours are better. And we have two of them!

        Unfortunately, it looks like that tally will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future…

      • Lenny65

        Oh, I agree, they’re both special in unique ways. Who still talks about the 1997 Miracle Marlins or the dominance of the 1976 Reds? I’m too young (not old enough, I mean) to remember 1969 but difficult to see that exact confluence of events happening anytime soon. ’86 I remember and I remember it well. Younger fans might think there’s some embellishment or exaggerating going on when we olds start waxing nostaligic but trust me, it was all that and more and a bag of chips on the side too.

  • mookiewouldhavemadeitanyway

    Great appreciation, Greg. In the spring of 1982, when the Mets traded Lee Mazzilli to Texas for Darling & Walt Terrel, I was 13 years old and livid. After all, my prize for attending “Lee Mazzilli Poster Day” was still hanging in my bedroom. I was so pissed off that I wrote a letter to Cashen. Cashen, to his credit, wrote back and stated he hoped “time and the future course of events” would change my feelings. I lost that letter many years ago, but always remember that quote. Because he ended up being right…and Mazzilli made it back in time for ’86. Thank you and RIP, Mr. Cashen.

  • […] as the renowned emperor Frank Cashen could have told you, refuses to get built in a day. Of late, it is in fashion among Mets fans of a certain vintage to […]