Mets GM Sandy Alderson, a hyper-competitive former Marine, constructed the team in his own image.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Late Friday night, Southern California motorists were delayed when a team of six California Highway Patrol motorcycle cops sealed off traffic on a highway heading north from Dodger Stadium to make way for a motorcade of two popsicle-colored rental buses and a single car. Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, who once commanded the United States Marines ceremonial unit in Washington and was at the wheel of the Ford rental, could not get over the smooth precision and teamwork of the CHP contingent and repeatedly thanked and congratulated them as the Mets raced toward the team hotel. Alderson could not help but be in a good mood after his young converted shortstop, Jacob deGrom, outpitched the great Clayton Kershaw in Game 1, giving the Mets an early edge in the NLDS.
Less than twenty-four hours later, shortly after Game 2, Alderson was standing outside the umpires' room seething and waiting to talk to Joe Torre to demand accountability for Chase Utley's much-discussed takeout slide on Ruben Tejada (accountability that was forthcoming a day later in the form of a two-game suspension, which is now being appealed). Alderson was also there as the face of the team he has been building in Queens since he became General manager in 2010—a team that mirrors his own personality in many ways. Tonight's game at Citi Field will offer a referendum on the character of that team. How will they handle this challenge? Can they be tough but also smart? Will they show up to play or let the emotional subtext take them out of their game?
The spotlight will be on Wilmer Flores, batting seventh tonight, who has been given the unenviable task of handling shortstop during the glare of the postseason when any miscue will be magnified. Even as a youngster growing up in Venezuela, Flores was gifted with the bat, not so much with the glove. "You know those guys who, every time the ball is hit to them, they field it no problem? I was never that guy," Flores told me for my recent book on the Mets, "Baseball Maverick." But Flores generally performed better at short this season than expected, and he'll be helped by a home crowd that has embraced him since July, when he teared up on the field after thinking he was being traded at the deadline.
Flores would have seen some postseason action at shortstop even with Tejada healthy. He is especially good against lefties, like the Dodgers' Game 3 starter Brett Anderson. Flores had 16 home runs in 483 at-bats this season (compared to three for Tejada in 360 at-bats), including seven against left-handers in 100 at-bats. Not exactly a Tulo-like total, but Alderson believes in winning postseason games with dominant pitching and homers. "You get a couple guys on and hit a bomb," he told me. "That's how you win games."
In the aftermath of Utley's slide, Mets fans are thinking about past teams who were labeled as soft. But the Alderson-built Mets of the moment are unlikely to earn any such accusations. The clubhouse may feature model citizen types like David Wright and Michael Cuddyer, but the Tony La Russa school of thought about toughness (You hit my guy, I'll hit two of yours!) made famous in in his Cardinals years, really goes back to La Russa's formative years as manager with the Oakland A's, where he won his first World Series and where he worked closely with then general manager Sandy Alderson. Billy Beane, Alderson's protégé in Oakland, is famously competitive—but he thinks his former mentor, to this day, is even worse. Alderson once set a pick in a pickup basketball game that sent a sportswriter flying, all because he muttered "At ease, soldier" to Alderson, who earned a bronze star as a result of serving as a Marine officer in Vietnam.
"Playing basketball with Sandy was part of his leadership," Beane told me for my book. "He wants passing, he wants movement, he wants setting picks, and he's very intense. Taking a thirty-footer on a breakaway, you don't want to be on Sandy's team, because he's going to let you know about it. He wants to win, but he wants to do it the right way. If you were on the other team or even if you played for him the first time, you'd go, 'He's kind of kidding, right? He's really not that into this, is he?' And if you knew him, you'd go: 'No, no, he's into it. He is into it.'"
A team built in Alderson's image will, like Alderson himself, never back down physically. It will go toe to toe. But it will be smart about finding a way to exact revenge. Case in point: the 12-pitch at bat David Wright worked against Kershaw in the first inning on Friday, which set the tone that the Mets were going to make Kershaw work. And the strategy was effective on a hot night at Chavez Ravine.
It was Wright who sat Matt Harvey down for a long talk after the kerfuffle over his innings limit, post-Tommy John surgery, had threatened to become a full-blown distraction as the Mets were gearing up for the playoffs. And it was Wright who helped defuse the explosive potential for controversy of Harvey's odd no-show at practice last week in New York. In a sense, Wright functions as a kind of extension of Alderson in the clubhouse, where Alderson rarely goes. Wright is his own man, but he and Alderson have an interesting point of overlap in their shared respect for the military, which was something Wright embraced when he heard Alderson would be the new GM. "I come from a military town in northern Virginia, so that was big for me," Wright told me. "The structure, the organization, the leadership ability of the military is something I know firsthand being from that town."
I always knew that being a former Marine was important to Alderson. In my days as an Oakland A's beat writer for the San Francisco Chronicle in the '90s, I used to refer to Alderson as "the Marine." But not until "Baseball Maverick" was published this April did I fully come to understand how much Alderson continues to be defined by his Marine experiences. He and I visited the military college in Quantico, VA, and the Marine Barracks Washington, the ceremonial headquarters at Eighth and I streets in Washington DC. Repeatedly, Alderson talked with Marines about how every day he tries to live up to the Marine code, which to him means living with honor and always emphasizing teamwork and mutual respect, even when people come from totally different backgrounds, which they always do in the Marines. If that sounds like a mere slogan, it's an ethos that's been reproduced inside this year's Mets clubhouse.
"You want a good mixture of guys," reliever Tyler Clippard, acquired from Oakland in Alderson's late July flurry of trades, told me last week. "We have such great core veterans, we have great young guys that have all the potential in the world. They listen and they ask questions and everything in between. Guys from different backgrounds and countries and nobody feels like they're isolated on an island, everybody's got friends, everybody's talking to each other. Obviously when you're winning it's easier, but I just really feel like it's the perfect mixture of guys."
The marquee player the Mets acquired in July, Yoenis Cespedes, is also an Alderson kind of player. The A's under Alderson won the 1989 World Series with an offense dominated by another Cuban, Jose Canseco. Alderson and Canseco would spar frequently, but the truth is, they always got along well, as Alderson has told me often. I'm the guy who wrote "Juiced" for Canseco and I can tell you that he always had respect for Alderson and enjoyed his sense of humor.
Cespedes lacks the plate discipline Alderson desires in a player, but with his kind of power, that can be overlooked. Cespedes is a player who loves the big stage and seems to grow in stature the more electricity is in the air. In a game as intense as Game 3 promises to be, Cespedes will be in his element. When Tejada was hurt in Game 3, a lengthy pause followed, and Cespedes stood quietly next to his fallen teammate. He's not an emotional type, but his face showed a look of deep sorrow and conviction. It wasn't the consternation Alderson would display pacing outside the umpire's room later that night, but it was sincere. And unlike his general manager, whose hands are tied at this point, Cespedes will have a chance to take revenge on the Dodgers the way he knows best: with his bat.