Back in April, I reviewed Steve Kettmann's biography of Sandy Alderson, "Baseball Maverick: How Sandy Alderson Revolutionized Baseball and Revived the Mets," for The Wall Street Journal. The book was well-researched and well-written, but also struck me as strangely worshipful of Alderson -- in a way that even Alderson would resist -- occasionally dismissive of modern analytic baseball thinking and, more than anything else, a little presumptuous of just how great a job Alderson had done with the Mets. The first sentence of the review: "There is a chance the New York Mets will not be terrible this season." The presumption was clear: Why write a book about this team?
So! Here we are, with Game 3 of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field Tuesday night, with the Mets two games away from their first World Series in 15 years. So perhaps it was in fact worthwhile to write a book about this team and this general manager after all. Kettmann, graciously (considering how I panned his tome), agreed to answer some of my questions about this year's team and Alderson's legacy. And definitely go buy the book here.
One of the reasons I was skeptical of your book in the first place -- while still pointing out that it was well-written and well-researched -- was that it seemed to elevate Alderson's status and success with the Mets to the equivalent, or even something above, what he'd done with the A's, simply because his Mets tenure happened to be the time you got access with him. Do you think what he's done with Mets is as impressive? If they win the World Series, is it his crowning achievement?
I think what Alderson has done in New York is more impressive than what he did in Oakland, and I say that as someone who had great access to Alderson back then covering him as a San Francisco Chronicle A's beat writer in the '90s and, as readers of my book know, someone who believes the innovations Alderson made (and helped make) as A's GM truly "revolutionized" baseball. When Alderson took over as Mets GM in late 2010, it looked like we'd all be talking about "Moneyball" with money. The job would be, not easy exactly, but straightforward -- and kind of fun. Instead, the [Bernie] Madoff mess enveloped the team, demanding huge cuts in salary and unleashing a dark current of pessimism and dread. On a personal note, Alderson's father John, with whom he shared a lifelong passion for baseball, was run over and killed in Florida in a strange incident not long after he'd started as Mets GM.
If the Mets win the World Series under Alderson, I think it will be his crowning achievement -- and the approach he and his team took in shifting the culture of the Mets and building a winner slowly, with patience, will be studied and emulated. Obviously the team's current success has a lot of fingerprints on it -- Omar Minaya, a great talent evaluator, was a huge part of building this team. For example, Noah Syndergaard and Travis d'Arnaud came to the Mets through a trade with Toronto that Alderson pulled off, but it was Minaya who developed R.A. Dickey into a Cy Young winner who could fetch so much value in return. That's leaving aside Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey and all the other star players Minaya drafted. But as we see all around baseball, collecting talent is only part of the challenge -- it's developing it and making it fit together. I believe Alderson's time as a Marine officer -- he was even the poster boy for the Marines at one point -- gives him insights into how to create conditions for people to work well together and develop together.
Do you give any credence to the argument that while Alderson obviously deserves credit for what he and his staff have done with fostering the young pitching, that this year is as much due to kismet and good fortune as design? Remember, fans were in open revolt in July, and the only reason they had the cash to bring in Yoenis Cespedes and some other players is because David Wright's insurance money and Jenrry Mejia's PED suspension brought in extra cash (which has been reported, undermining the "Carlos Gomez had injury concerns" explanations). And not to mention the Nationals' implosion, opening a door that might not have been open otherwise.
Absolutely kismet, luck, magic -- whatever you call it -- has a huge amount to do with the run the Mets have had this year, including Daniel Murphy's jaw-dropping heroics so far in the postseason. But there is also no question that design played a fundamental role in getting the Mets to this point. I think the success of this year's Mets will remind people in baseball, even those who emphasize analytics, that team chemistry does matter and that there is a difference between a team built to win regular-season games and a team designed to make a deep push in the postseason. Having starting pitching that is dominant -- and deep -- matters more in the postseason, and young dominant pitching is in some ways even better, since there is an aspect of talent developing before our eyes that can tend to cast a spell on opposing teams. Veteran leadership also matters, even if it comes in unconventional packages (i.e., Bartolo Colon).
Are the Mets' financial problems going to be just as much of an issue next year? And going forward, if they don't win now, considering the fragility of young arms, might they not get the chance again?
I think Alderson, [manager] Terry Collins and the coaching staff and Mets players themselves are very focused on the truth that you really never know when you'll be back in the NLCS -- or beyond -- again. The Mets have so many good young arms, they threaten to be good year in and year out, but it's also true that this year's team might be better than any they'll assemble for years to come. That said, I think there's room to sign free agents for the future -- but the Mets are never going to be the Dodgers, leading baseball in spending, and under current ownership they're never going to go back to ranking second in baseball in payroll, as they did shortly before Alderson took over in late 2010.
How much have you talked to Alderson since the book came out? How much have you talked to him since the July run started?
We've spoken frequently all season long, and I caught a game with him in Philadelphia late in the season. I also rode together with him to Game 1 of the NL Division Series against the Dodgers, which turned out to be a lot of fun: A group of six California Highway Patrol motorcycle officers led the motorcade and cut off traffic to make for a swift ride to Dodger Stadium. I'll be adding new sections to the "Baseball Maverick" paperback, which will be out next April -- or, depending on how far the Mets take this, a whole lot sooner.
A friend has a theory that if the Mets end up winning the World Series, Alderson will retire. Do you think that's a possibility?
The thought crossed my mind as well, but I don't think so. Back in October 2012 when Alderson was selling David Wright on his vision for the future, he emphasized that his goal was not to put together a strong team and win once as a one-off. He'd done that in Oakland, winning one World Series [in 1989] but falling short several other times. He was absolutely focused on rebuilding the Mets in a way that would lead to them being contenders year after year. He'll have work to do this offseason, but with the emergence of Jeurys Familia as a quality closer and a starting rotation that will go into next season as the envy of baseball, even before Zack Wheeler can come back from Tommy John, I think Alderson is very focused on trying to put together a run of sustained excellence.
Who's the one Met you've spoken to the most on this team you'll be happiest for if they win the whole thing?
I have to go with Travis d'Arnaud, and I'd have said that before he hit the apple in center field at Citi with that bomb of a homer. One scene in my book that resonated with me particularly was the jarring contrast of what d'Arnaud went through in June 2014. He was a highly touted prospect, but he was lost at the plate and the Mets demoted him to Triple-A. He went from being a big leaguer in San Francisco, a city justly famous for its night life, to 6,531 feet up in the Rocky Mountains at a facility called Security Service Field, across the street from a Walgreens and a Kum & Go gas station. d'Arnaud did not mope. He made the most of the time at Triple-A and when he rejoined the Mets later that season he was a different player. He's come a long way in the year-plus since then: He's a presence in the lineup, he seems to have done an amazing job in working with a staff of young pitchers -- and he's got an infectious enthusiasm.
The book is "Baseball Maverick" and is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.