Gotham Classic: Peas in a Pod; Goldis and Bernazard

Editor’s Note -This story was written the day after Willie Randolph was fired by Mets – MH

Back in 2004, or the last time the Mets’ front office was in this much turmoil, one guy (with some help from another guy) was the divisive force that created so much havoc that super-prospect Scott Kazmir was traded for a injury-prone, arbitration-eligible (and serious non-tender candidate) right-hander, Victor Zambrano. That guy’s name was Al Goldis, and his partner in crime was Bill Livesey. Yeah, those guys. “The Super Scouts”. These two geniuses helped destroy a blossoming farm system, an exceptional scouting department, and got an undeserving GM fired. They also helped turn a fan base against Jeff Wilpon.

Sound familiar?

Later that year, after the white-hot venom of the Mets’ fan base had erupted for several months, the Mets decided that Omar Minaya would fix all of the Mets’ problems, repair the front office, and circle the wagons. At first, he did. Then he made the mistake of hiring Tony Bernazard as his assistant.

Unlike Goldis, whose agenda to usurp any influence that newly-minted GM Jim Duquette (after spending half a year as the interim GM after Steve Phillips was fired) began the day he was hired, it took Bernazard a year before he got himself promoted to VP of Player Development, despite having not a shred of scouting, coaching or front office experience. That’s quite a trick. But hey, his resume clearly indicated his fine work on the World Baseball Classic.

He never wanted to undermine his good friend Omar Minaya, but his actions and behavior have had the same result. Even better, like Goldis, he has – for the most part — put enough of his cronies in place so that any criticism – or corroboration – is virtually non-existent.

Let’s rewind back to July 30, 2004.

The day before the Kazmir trade was made. Several days earlier, noted columnist Bob Klapisch was on MSGSportsDesk discussing a trade rumor that had the Mets considering trading Scott Kazmir in exchange for The D-Ray’s Victor Zambrano. The emerging Internet community reacted with outrage, stating the Mets would never make that deal, etc. They also added that Klapisch “made it up”.

At the time, I was working at the Associated Press, knew of Klapsich’s reputation (which was excellent) and started checking with all of my contacts with the Mets’ Minor Leagues to see why they were considering dealing their top pitching prospect, who was rated by Baseball America as the a Top 5 blue chipper in all of baseball.

The answer was Al Goldis. I got this info at 11:30 pm EDT on July 29th, spent the next few hours writing the story and publishing it on the then-Mets Inside Pitch website (now insidepitchmagazine.com). Here is the relevant body of that article:

Given this is Jim Duquette’s first full year as general manager, it seems ill-advised that right before the all-important trading deadline, his role is being being circumvented by others in the front office.

Yet, it appears that’s exactly what is happening…(as) sources indicate that Mets’ owner Fred Wilpon is starting to tune out Duquette at the worst possible time of the year.

“Superscout” Al Goldis is the man that Wilpon is apparently listening to, …(and) has become increasingly active in the team’s day-to-day activities, including constant criticism of the team’s scouting and minor league development people, as well as pushing for the trade of some of the team’s top prospects for a all-out run at the NL East. (Matt) Peterson and left-hander Scott Kazmir are the team’s top pitching prospects, yet each are being bandied about in trade talks, only months after being considered untouchable. Duquette, widely known throughout baseball circles as a patient man _ especially when it comes to the club’s farmhands _ is rumored to be against trading either player.

Yet, somehow, Peterson may very well be on his way to Pittsburgh, while Kazmir is supposedly the (main component) that would net the Mets’ righty Victor Zambrano from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

For a team that spent much of the offseason selling its fan base on the future and it’s so-called “Plan”, this chain of events is alarming to those who believe the Amazin’s only hope of consistent playoff contention is the minor league system. Duquette, the lone voice opposing ex-GM Steve Phillips’ the ill-fated deals for Roberto Alomar and Mo Vaughn, has suddenly appeared to have changed course.

“No one is untouchable” said Duquette, who appeared as a guest on ESPN 1050AM on Thursday.

The “win now” mantra that is emanating from Shea Stadium the past few weeks makes the non-signing of Vladimir Guerrero, on his way to a possible MVP season for the Angels, now seem ludicrous. If Fred Wilpon thought highly enough to hire Duquette in the first place, why allow Goldis, who is supposed to a special assistant to the general manager, to have such sway in the team’s makeup? Along with Director of Scouting Gary LaRocque and Minor League Coordinator Guy Conti, Duquette have presided over a complete overhaul of the team’s minor league system, now considered one of the best in baseball.

The lack of trust being shown Duquette is (alarming), whose opinions are being shunted aside in favor of a “subordinate”, who just happens to have the owner’s ear.

The next day, those trades were made, and as the fans’ reaction started to explode, people started looking for folks to blame. Not a single writer, save Newsday’s Dave Lennon (who got Peterson to say, “Go ask Al Goldis”, in answer to a direct question about his role), ever mentioned Goldis’ name in any of their stories.

Why?

“(Goldis) is never around.” said one writer a few days after the deal. He was from a major NY tabloid, who is now out of the business, but I couldn’t reach him to get permission to use his name in this story. Frankly, it’s not important. What is important as his next sentence. “It’s easier to blame (Mets pitching coach Rick) Peterson. He likes Zambrano, was impatient with Kazmir because he didn’t buy into Rick’s program, and he’s weird.”

What? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I told him that his paper’s actions were unethical and that I would print what he said. He didn’t seem to care, I printed it, and even have repeated it on dozens of radio shows since. No one seems to be too disturbed by it.

The truth is, Peterson’s input played a role, and as he was the “CEO of Pitching”, but his “I’ll fix him in 10 minutes” comment, perpetuated as the REASON, is regurgitated nonsense. Much like the oft-repeated “Play it again, Sam” line from “Casablanca”, it doesn’t exist and is a myth. Also, John Franco and Al Leiter, while liked by ownership, were not asked for their input at the time of the deal. At that time, there was a growing resentment between certain members of the media, the two aforementioned veterans, and the manager.

Again, sound familiar?

Contrary to a recent TV report, and confirmed by more than one former member of the 2002 front office, Mets COO Jeff Wilpon, though respectful of Goldis, who was once the young Wilpon’s batting coach, did not “engineer” the Kazmir trade. As I reported then, and am reporting now, Jeff Wilpon was very reluctant to deal the young left-hander, who had become a fan favorite before ever throwing a pitch for the big league Mets, because of his tenure with the younger Wilpon’s claim to fame; the Brooklyn Cyclones. The opinion was shared by Duquette, long an admirer of the building of an organization from within.

The only problem was that his “assistants” had been spending the season plotting their purge of the previous – and current – regime’s prospects. Adding to that dynamic was the fact that Fred Wilpon had never really trusted Duquette’s evaluation skills, and had tried to hire Minaya away from the Expos in early 2004 before grudgingly giving the job to him. Instead, he hired the superscouts.

”We knew when Jim took over that that we had to hire two superscouts right away,” Fred Wilpon told the New York Times in 2005. “’Now Jim has two guys who are very, very important to him.”

Ah, the irony.

But later that summer, while the shining light of Art Howe had finally begun to dim, the Mets were again playing under expectations. Faced with slim-to-none hopes of making the postseason, the “Kitchen Cabinet” pulled the trigger. It was the room, dominated by Goldis and Livesey (whose role was excellently portrayed by Lawrence Rocca in a story published in the Newark Star-Ledger in August of 2004), that Fred Wilpon listened to and trusted the wrong people, and a franchise was ruptured.

The “all-powerful” Jeff Wilpon, who had urged his father to give Duquette a shot at the full-time job, then had to tell his friend that he was out and Omar, Fred’s personal choice, was in. The backlash from the deal was so unexpected, so bitter and so intense that “someone needed to pay the price.” Only recently has Duquette ever spoken about who pulled the trigger and even then, by only saying “There were too many cooks in the kitchen.”

Over the next two years, Wilpon’s money, Minaya’s personality and a very professional Willie Randolph were able to turn things around quickly, but as the organization started to heal itself, another man who would be King started to exert the influence bestowed on him by the GM. The difference is, this assistant GM had his sights set on the manager, pitching coach and others in the organization. He operated in the shadows like Goldis – and started driving good people out of the organization.

I wrote about this in the summer of 2005, as did Madden and Newsday’s Ken Davidoff.

Peterson kept his job (Bernazard realized that the Wilpons hired Peterson, not Duquette, a little too late), but he was able to drive Minor League Coordinator Tony Tijerina out the door. Most fans don’t know “T.J.”, but the former minor league catcher served as a player, coach, manager and assistant to Guy Conti (who he replaced as Coordinator) for the Mets since 1991, when he was drafted in the 13th round of the amateur draft. Deemed “too negative” by Bernazard to be a cog in his machine, he was replaced by Luis Aguayo.

Yeah, the new third base coach.

The new first base coach is former Minor League Manager of the Year Ken Oberkfell. The superb skipper, who helped develop David Wright, Jose Reyes and Kazmir, was really supposed to be the Mets manager in 2005. But once his biggest supporter (Duquette) was replaced as GM, he wasn’t even given an interview. Retreads Terry Collins and Jim Riggleman were, though.

The only good thing to come out of this whole debacle is that Oberkfell and new pitching coach Dan Warthen are getting their chance to work for the Mets. Finally. Good things do happen to good people.

Now to Randolph. Undermined by Bernazard, the lack of any real confidants on his coaching staff (interim manager Jerry Manuel was an Omar hire), and all of the mistakes made by the front office doesn’t change the fact that he wasn’t a very good manager. He deserved to be fired last year, got a chance to redeem himself, but didn’t deserve to get fired the way he did. Blame Omar Minaya for the clumsy way he handled this entire situation. Blame Omar Minaya for his assistant’s constant open-door policy with the Latino players, which hurt the skipper’s credibility. But stop blaming Fred and Jeff Wilpon for stuff they didn’t do.

Fred and Jeff Wilpon did not order Omar Minaya to fire Willie Randolph in the middle of the night. That was Minaya’s doing, and was on Minaya’s timetable. Sure, much like former Met Bobby Valentine’s ill-advised “Baseball at-bat on Marijuana” pantomime at the Tony Tarasco press conference in 2002, Randolph’s comments on race and SNY were an impetus for then Phillips and now Minaya to get the final approval from Fred Wilpon to fire the manager. Fred Wilpon is building his rotunda to honor Jackie Robinson, and is the guy who really hired Willie Randolph in the first place. He was hurt, and shocked that his manager could say the things he did. The moment they were made, the last real support Randolph had died. Jeff Wilpon? He was ready to fire Randolph after last year’s collapse, sure. So were a lot of people. Had he really “run” the organization, he would have. He deferred to Minaya. So much for that nonsense.

My favorite line lately is “Jeff Wilpon leaked info to the media”, as being blamed by many for the terrible timing of the firing. One writer even went on to say that Jeff “picked his favorite media guys” and told them that the firings were imminent. Really? Who would those guys be? The answer is zero. The media has been relentlessly smearing Jeff for years. Some have called him “Paris Wilpon” and others spew derivatives of “rich, spoiled, silver spoon brat” around the tabloids and blogs for good measure.

He’s no George Clooney. But he’s honest and while he often chooses not to comment, he never gets the benefit of the doubt. He had a few weeks there in the winter, as he was lauded for his role in the Johan Santana negotiations, but otherwise, is never fairly treated.

“Why should he have any say in the team, he’s just the owner’s son.” barks Chris Russo on WFAN. Sure Chris, I’m sure if you, or Peter Gammons or Vinnie From Flushing’s dad owned the Mets, you’d get a job in some other industry. Jealousy, thy name is everyone not named Jeff Wilpon.

Admittedly, both Fred and Jeff can be their own worst enemy, as they lack the communication ooze of PR hacks. But they are straightforward, honest, family men that refuse to lower themselves to debating with people that use personal attacks, embittered ex-employees and innuendo to publish the “facts”. Their biggest problem is that they put their trust, consistently, in the wrong people. From Al Harazin to Steve Phillips, the list is long.

Fred Wilpon loves baseball. He loves it so much that during this spring training he was talking to anyone who would listen about young pitcher Jon Niese. Jeff Wilpon loves baseball so much he goes on scouting trips to watch all levels of the farm system. They have been wrong often, and are stubborn, and defensive. But they love this club, want to win a World Series, and dammit, in a industry that is littered with franchises that could care less about being competitive, they desire excellence.

They’re not perfect, and they sure as hell have no particular affection for me (which is an understatement), as I have been extremely critical of ownership through the years. But they are NOT at fault for this latest debacle. This is fully and completely the responsibility of Omar Minaya.

Because he’s extremely likable, friendly and a honest GM (who understands his fan base more than most GMs), so much like painting Rick Peterson as a vindictive mad scientist, the media’ decision to portray Minaya as the reluctant triggerman is equally easy.

The evil Queen did not send the huntsman into the woods to kill Snow White. Great drama, great soap opera, but ultimately, bull.

The truth? Minaya’s firing of Randolph had a heckuva lot to do with his own job security. If he’s going to go down, he’s going to go down with his own guy, Manuel. You see, back in 2005, Rudy Jaramillo was Omar’s first choice to manage his club. Bobby Valentine was also a consideration, but not an option. Randolph – who had been linked to the Reds with Minaya as a possible manager-GM team in 2000 — was a compromise candidate, agreed on by Omar with full support – and strong suggestion — of ownership.

Then-newly hired Bernazard was never really on board with the hire, but waited until he had consolidated his power to start sowing his seeds of discontent. For nearly two seasons, Bernazard has been undermining the skipper in the clubhouse and in the front office. Thanks to The Daily News’ Bill Madden and WFAN’s Mike Francesa and Chris Russo (the latter two are sadly, vastly uninformed in other aspects of the story), his role took him out of the shadows a bit.

“(Thankfully) he’s Minaya’s problem,” said one baseball official, who spoke with Gotham Baseball Magazine on condition of anonymity. “He and Goldis are peas in a pod.”

So, the free-for-all now being directed at the Mets’ ownership, while par for the course, is ridiculous and unwarranted.

Randolph deserved to be fired at the end of last season, and 2008 should have been the beginning of a new regime. Minaya decided to keep the manager, and couldn’t bring himself to make a decision that was months in the making. He repeatedly told people in Tuesday’s press conference that it was “his decision”, yet the mudslinging of Fred and Jeff Wilpon is the main theme of what you read and hear today.

Unfair, and far from the truth.

All indications are that, even if the Mets miss the postseason again, Minaya will be safe. But will Bernazard? For the Mets’ sake – and Minaya’s – a real VP of Player Development is needed. It’s hard to imagine Minaya firing his friend, but maybe like in “What About Bob”, the Mets will find someone to take him off their hands.

Bernazard was in line for the Pirates GM job (which went to Neil Huntington), and lots of Mets’ insiders were secretly hoping he would get the gig. He didn’t. He is also being rumored to be in line for the vacant Seattle GM job.

Don’t be surprised if you see lots of crossed fingers at the next organizational meetings.