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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 [1], 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 [2], 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 [3] — 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 [4]. 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.