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- Published on Amazon.com
Review of my father's book " Winning in Both Leagues" that appeared in the weekend Wall Street Journal.
By: HENRY D. FETTER, WSJ
Oct. 3, 2014 2:47 p.m. ET
At a time when baseball books have the heft and solemnity of presidential biographies, J. Frank Cashen’s posthumously published account of his career in Major League Baseball delivers a refreshingly compact and unpretentious change of pace. Cashen, who died in June at the age of 88, quotes a friend who once described him as “a writer and a newspaperman by choice, a lawyer by education, a race track operator by heritage, brewery executive by dollar necessity, advertising manager by curiosity, marketing and sales official by progression, and baseball general manager by good fortune.” To which Cashen adds: “What a great bunch of jobs.”
In “Winning in Both Leagues” he has something to say about each of them, as well as about his Irish-immigrant parents and Baltimore upbringing. But most of the book is devoted to his two decades as a front-office executive, first in the American League with the Baltimore Orioles (1965-75) and then in the National League with the New York Mets (1980-91). He eventually became one of only two general managers to win the World Series in each league. (The other was John Schuerholz—in Kansas City and Atlanta—who began his career as a Baltimore front-office assistant under Cashen.)
In the fall of 1965—a now-vanished era when players were bound by the reserve clause and the World Series was the entirety of the “postseason”—Cashen was unexpectedly appointed executive vice president of the Baltimore Orioles by Jerry Hoffberger, who owned both the ball club and the brewery where Cashen was director of advertising. Cashen’s first decision was his most important: giving approval (over the opposition of his field manager) to a rare inter-league trade that brought slugger Frank Robinson to Baltimore from Cincinnati in exchange for pitcher Milt Pappas.
Robinson won the MVP award in 1966, and the Orioles won the World Series, sweeping the defending world champion Los Angeles Dodgers in four games. Led by an outstanding pitching staff, the Orioles won an additional three league pennants as well as the 1970 World Series during Cashen’s tenure.
The years with the Orioles were just a warm-up to the next phase of Cashen’s front-office career—the rise of the New York Mets from ineptitude on the playing field and lack of support at the gate in 1980 to victory in the World Series in 1986 and a team attendance record six seasons later. As Mets general manager, Cashen deployed the full range of team-building methods: He drafted Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry; traded for Keith Hernandez, Ron Darling, Howard Johnson and Gary Carter; braved the wrath of fans for trading away the popular Lee Mazzilli; signed Rusty Staub and George Foster as free agents; and hired former Oriole infielder Davey Johnson as manager in 1984. Johnson succeeded George Bamberger, who had managed the club during two losing seasons after Cashen fired a “stoically silent” Joe Torre. Cashen contends that Torre “had no idea how to improve things.”
The payoff came in 1986 when the Mets won 108 games in the regular season and then defeated the Red Sox in a memorable World Series. At least for a time, the Mets supplanted the Yankees in the top spot of the New York pecking order. It was indeed a wonderful success story, and Cashen’s obvious pride is well-deserved, but the Mets never built the dynasty that seemed to be in the offing. Cashen touches on Dwight Gooden’s drug problems but ignores Darryl Strawberry’s disruptive behavior, the draft picks that did not perform up to expectations and the trades that backfired. The Mets did not win another pennant under Cashen, and when the team dropped to fifth place in 1991, he retired as general manager.
Cashen has a kind word for almost everyone he came across in his baseball career. Bowie Kuhn, the oft-derided commissioner, is praised for a front-office minority-hiring initiative. Any resentment of Mets co-owner Fred Wilpon ’s readiness to take credit for the team built by Cashen is tempered by his own admission that, though much of his success at Baltimore was due to the talent assembled by his predecessor, “I did take many of the bows.”
In a rare note of sour grapes, Cashen partly blames the Orioles’ loss to the “Miracle Mets” in the 1969 World Series—“the absolute low point in my baseball career”—on an umpire conspiracy to “get even with” Orioles manager Earl Weaver. He also accuses Houston Astros pitcher Mike Scott of winning two games in the 1986 pennant playoff by illegally doctoring the ball, conceding that the baseball elite was “unimpressed” with his evidence.
Cashen reserves his full animus for the player agents, who, when they are not “garnering a disproportionate amount of riches for themselves” and giving bad advice to their clients, are being outsmarted by Cashen in salary arbitration. Here he sounds more like the stereotypical tight-fisted executive than the newspaper-union president and aspiring labor lawyer he once was.
At the end of his chronicle, Cashen offers up “ten things a GM should know.” They are sensible if not earth-shaking. (“You can never have too much left-handed pitching.”) But given baseball’s obsession with ever more elaborate statistics, it is good to be reminded that “there are ballplayers you win with and ballplayers you lose with—and it doesn’t always depend on ERA (pitchers’ earned run average) or BA (hitters’ batting average).” Or even, dare we say it, on OBP (On-Base Percentage) or WAR (Wins Above Replacement).
—Mr. Fetter is the author of “Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball, 1903 to 2003.”