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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 Sandy Project

Not many books draw attention more for their subtitle than their title, but Baseball Maverick’s most striking come-on clearly sits below the marquee:

“How Sandy Alderson Revolutionized Baseball and Revived the Mets”

The unaffiliated reader might arch an eyebrow at the part in which one man is claimed to have transformed an entire sport, but that pales in comparison for shock value to the Mets fan who tried to comprehend, before the 2015 season began, that the Mets had been “revived”. It wasn’t difficult for an army of skeptics to summon contrary evidence.

Alderson took over from Omar Minaya as general manager following the 2010 season. The Mets’ record entering his GM tenure was 79-83. Four seasons later, their record was 79-83, with no higher spikes posted in the intervening years. Baseball revolutions notwithstanding, truth-in-advertising ethics suggested “…and Helped the Mets Hold Serve” might have been a more accurate, if not nearly as provocative, description.

That's some kind of subtitle.

That’s some kind of subtitle.

Between the time I picked up Baseball Maverick and the time I finished reading it, author Steve Kettmann (and/or the marketers at Atlantic Monthly Press) emerged as prophetic. The Mets had indeed revived, albeit in a small sample. When they rose to 13-3, I probably would have bought into anything that implied anybody having anything to do with the Mets was a maverick, a revolutionary, a benevolent wizard, what have you.

Things have settled down a bit from the loftiest heights of April, yet you would have to strain your inherent anti-Alderson animus to argue against the concept of a wholesale organizational revival at this moment. The big club is lodged in first place, the Triple-A affiliate has won fourteen in a row and three of the GM’s four top picks to date were, through Wednesday, batting at least .300 in the minors. While a clutch of holdovers from before Alderson’s takeover have played a major role at the major league level, the current team was, for primarily better if occasionally worse, Sandy-crafted.

Is there, then, a straight line to be drawn from the 2015 standings back to what Kettmann wrote? Do we leave his book’s final, post-2014 ruminations convinced Alderson transformed the Mets into something permanently better than they were — something they couldn’t possibly have been without the Maverick’s visionary leadership?

It’s hard to say that every time I watch something go right of late that I think I saw it coming because of a tidbit I read in Baseball Maverick. The book seems to take place in an adjacent if not exactly alternate universe to the one we’re used to seeing the Mets in.

In Baseball Maverick, the defining moment of the Alderson era is the trade of Carlos Beltran for Zack Wheeler, and Wheeler is a central figure in the revival of the Mets. Wheeler, you may have noticed, hasn’t pitched in 2015, when the supposed revival seems to bearing serious fruit. This, of course, could not have been foreseen by the author. Still, the emphasis on young Zack’s rise through the system, complete with recollections of how he preferred to sleep late when he was a Giant farmhand, feels a little off the beaten path, which is a direction Kettmann tends to wander toward a good bit. Besides tracking the ups and downs of Zack Wheeler’s minor league doings, there’s also a surprisingly lengthy visit in the midst of 2013 with Josh Satin, who might have been an engaging fellow but, save for a few hopeful weeks of on-base percentage, never loomed as more than a passing figure on the Met scene.

There are Aldersonian elements behind stressing Wheeler and including Satin. Zack was a big-deal prospect whose debut was hotly anticipated two years ago and he presumably continues to figure prominently in Met plans once he heals from Tommy John surgery. Satin’s plate approach was in line with that which the organization was known for preaching. You can make out what Kettmann is going for in these instances, it’s just that some of his pitches wind up a little off the plate.

Where the book fascinates and excels is in its first third, our introduction to Richard Lynn Alderson. Did you know only Sandy’s wife calls him Rich? Did you know Sandy ran a mild scam while he was in college so he could get into Vietnam? Did you know he was literally the poster boy for the United States Marine Corps? Did you know that his baseball baptism brought him into the crosshairs of one Billy Martin? This would be a spectacular life story to follow if you’d never heard of Sandy Alderson; it’s even better because you keep finding yourself thinking, “This guy? The guy from the Mets?”

Yeah, that guy. Kettmann draws him out and draws him well. Seeing how Sandy became “Sandy” was a treat. Perhaps it’s because of Kettmann’s background as an A’s beat reporter, when the proto-Moneyball Athletics epitomized baseball’s progressive movement, that Oakland Alderson comes across as a guy you really want to hang out with.

Eventually Sandy morphs into the version of himself we recognize in Queens, and the storytelling mission shifts from biography of a person to the instigation of that so-called revival. That’s the point where Baseball Maverick can frustrate the Mets fan reader. Kettmann brings an outsider’s perspective to our folkways, which can be valuable (a fresh set of eyes and all that), but it also gave me the sense that we were being viewed from an anthropologist’s remove.

Some of this results in a slightly hostile undercurrent. I can’t escape the feeling that Kettmann has little use for Mets fans, at least those who didn’t know enough (in his judgment) to sit quietly and wait patiently while the heroic Maverick built them a winner. “It’s very New York to celebrate one’s toughness,” the author writes, “and then mock new ideas and turn out in the end to be a follower. This is part of the charm of New York Sports fans; they grunt and scream and yell, but they also turn on a dime.” The Californian also doesn’t seem high on the traditional New York media, which he quotes for Greek chorus effect when it suits his narrative.

One passage struck me for what it didn’t mention. In a chapter focused on Alderson’s return to Oakland last summer, Kettmann notes Travis d’Arnaud homered against Scott Kazmir at the whatever it’s now called Coliseum. That pitcher-hitter confrontation occurred shortly after the one-decade anniversary of when Kazmir became a red-letter name in Met infamy, thanks to one of Alderson’s predecessors sending Scott packing in 2004. In hands more familiar with Met matters, I imagined a paragraph of background on the significance of the 2014 presence of Kazmir, the onetime prime pitching prospect in the Met scheme of things who had been traded too soon for too little. The surrender of Kazmir accelerated the path to the present Kettmann was exploring: the careless culture represented by the casting off of Kazmir; to the Madoff-fueled phase of Metsdom under Omar; to Sandy being hired to remake the Mets once more. It might have also been worth juxtaposing what Kazmir’s career turned out to be —occasionally very good but also injury-riddled and an illustration that nothing’s guaranteed in the company of surefire young arms — with what Alderson was hoping to derive from Wheeler, Harvey and everybody else.

Instead, Kazmir’s inclusion in the Oakland tableau went unremarked upon, while a couple of tweets from current A’s writers reporting Alderson’s hi’s and how-do-ya-do’s to old Coliseum friends were reprinted in full. It was a reminder that for all the delving into the Mets the author was doing, his background was in Alderson, not the ballclub.

Kettmann made some frankly weird choices along the way. In attempting to explain Mets history for the neophyte, he mined some esoteric detail: the scores of a pair of April 1969 losses to the Pirates; Cleon Jones’s 64 walks that championship season; Dwight Gooden raising his record to 4-0 on the day the Mets won their eleventh straight game in 1986. He mentions by name a buddy he brought to a game shortly after Juan Lagares was promoted, yet all we learn about “Dave” is that he preferred eating his hot dog to paying attention to the rookie center fielder. He goes to the trouble of describing a Las Vegas crowd on the night the Boston Marathon bombing case was cracked as having a “confused, edgy mood to it,” but there’s no payoff, 51s-related or otherwise, to that observation. His description of d’Arnaud’s early-2014 slump — “he’d wince like a guy who had just aggravated a nagging injury and mope on his way to the dugout, all but whistling a tune and crying out, ‘It’s so hard bein’ me!’” — simply overslid the metaphorical bag.

That said, there are a slew of delectable nuggets, gossipy and otherwise, scattered throughout Baseball Maverick. The “90-win” challenge, which was eventually dumped on Alderson’s head as if from an ice bucket, is well-dissected. Terry Collins, we discover, admires the hell out of Art Howe. Kettmann shares his experience as a Rookie of the Year voter and uses it to explain why Jacob deGrom broke through. Framing last year’s Mets as “a time-lapse photograph sequence showing growth in progress” fits perfectly. The last time we see that picture, with the Mets ending last season on a high note, it gives us a glimpse of Alderson processing what he and his lieutenants have wrought. On the final day of 2014, Kettmann finds Alderson (who doesn’t much like to watch a game at a game) in the Citi Field parking lot, listening in his car to a delayed satellite-radio signal when Lucas Duda strikes his 30th homer.

“I heard the roar of the crowd before I actually heard Howie describe the home run,” the GM said. “I knew something good had happened, but didn’t know what.”

I could say the same about Baseball Maverick, a work whose access to Alderson and attendant publicity makes it fairly essential reading for the history-minded Mets fan. Because this franchise’s time-lapse photo still had yet to be delivered from the dark room en route to 2015, it’s difficult to say this book provides the intensely curious reader a foolproof road map for How We Got Here. There are just too many odd little detours to keep the journey straight. But Kettmann built in enough fun pit stops along the way to make the trip legitimately enjoyable and reasonably enlightening.

6 comments to The Sandy Project

  • Lou from Brazil

    Greg, I finished the book a couple weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. I think Sandy, as a person and at the forefront of modern baseball management and player analysis, is a really interesting dude. As you mentioned, the portions on players themselves were a little hit or miss and seemed a bit random in an attempt to make this at least superficially about the Mets. But overall, thoroughly a good read and made me appreciate the work he’s done in (2015, so far) revitalizing the club.

  • SkillSets

    Certainly Godded-up Alderson a bit, especially since he hasn’t won a damn thing yet except the votes of the Wilpons and New York Daily News sports editorial management.

  • FL Met Fan Rich

    Mets whimped out last night! I wouldn’t even have minded losing last nights game.

    Matt Harvey should have drilled two Phillies last night after Murphy got hit. Hammels toke aim at him twice in a row!

    Maybe it would of woke the team up as it seemed like they were sleep walking last night!

    Need to get the fire back!….Drill two Phillies today! Make my day!

    • Rochester John

      Harvey was never in control of an inning after Murph got drilled, so the opportunity to retaliate never really presented itself. It’s a long season, though, and I’m guessing Harvey has a pretty long memory.

  • Rob

    Greg, I’m pretty sure Sandy Alderson had absolutely nothing to do with the success of Oakland or the Mets. ;-)

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