On any given day now, you can walk into the Mets' clubhouse and find a friendly player ready to talk baseball with you. It might not be like the good old days of the Eighties, when Kevin Elster would graphically discuss the previous night's sexual conquests, but in this PC-era, listening to David Wright explain why he's hitting so many opposite-field home runs is good, clean fun.
And, hey, it beats the alternative.
I can attest to that, having lived though the media golden age at Shea, and the subsequent collapse in the early Nineties. Younger reporters who sometimes complain that today's stars, like Derek Jeter and Carlos Beltran, have nothing interesting to say, obviously don't know what it's like when the players declare war on the press.
Still, the newcomers have a point about the thick wall of clichés. Where did all this new millennium caution come from? I asked Jeter that very question recently, wondering why he affects that Dawn of the Dead expression whenever the camera goes on. His answer was surprisingly candid.
"It's you guys," Jeter said, nodding at a group of reporters standing around the clubhouse. "Because any time you do something you guys write about it, absolutely anything. You can't really be as loose as you want to be."
It's hard to imagine Jeter being loose and hip and funny - and, mostly, spontaneous. That person packed up and left years ago. The last time I glimpsed the real Jeter was in 1999, when I passed along a message from an extremely attractive female acquaintance: she wanted to meet the Yankee shortstop. At that point, Jeter was still semi-trusting of the press, so the offer was met with a curious arching of his eyebrows.
"You serious?" Jeter asked.
"I wouldn't have mentioned it unless I thought she was worth your time," I replied.
For a fleeting second, Jeter was actually considering it. The wall was down. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, Jeter was doing the calculus.
Then he shook his head.
"Nah, I just can't do it," Jeter said finally.
I asked why.
"If I went out with her, then you'd have something on me."
For Jeter, and just about every other Yankee, it's safer to answer questions as neutrally as possible. A reporter gets enough baseball data to write his or her story, but very few responses come from the heart anymore. Then again, it's worth noting that getting too close can be dangerous, especially if there's a war going on.
The Eighties-era at Shea came to an official end in 1993, the year Bobby Bonilla and I went one-on-one in the clubhouse. Actually, the franchise had been in steady decline since the Mets lost the 1988 League Championship Series to the Dodgers, which started the house-cleaning of all the wild-siders.
Within 2-3 seasons, Elster, Wally Backman, Lenny Dykstra, Keith Hernandez, Darryl Strawberry and Ron Darling were gone. The final blow was the trade that sent David Cone to the Blue Jays in 1992. The clubhouse had turned decidedly chillier towards the press, since the remaining good guys - Dwight Gooden, Dave Magadan and Todd Hundley, were out-numbered and intimidated.
Still, the '92 Mets were supposed to be talented enough to make up for their lack of charisma. I was writing for the Daily News then, and with John Harper, then the beat writer for the Post, we collaborated on what we believed would be a diary of a championship summer. The editors at Random House figured this team couldn't miss, not with a free agent star like Bonilla, a future Hall of Famer like Eddie Murray and three starting pitchers (Gooden, Cone and Bret Saberhagen) who either had or would win a Cy Young Award.
Trouble was, this team had none of the impenetrable confidence of their Eighties predecessors. The '92 Mets had plenty of paper-talent but were otherwise empty; for all their dreams of dominance, they were only a game over .500 on June 1. That's when the bottom fell out. The Mets lost 37 of 58 games in July and August, at which point the book had done a 180-degree turn.
"We need a new theme," said our editor, David Rosenthal. He was a die-hard Met fan who went on to become executive vice president and publisher of Simon and Schuster's adult trade division. Then, as now, Rosenthal had a sense of what would sell.
"The book is going to be about how much the Mets suck and why. And here's the title."
He paused for effect.
"The Worst Team Money Could Buy."
It was a catchy and fitting phrase. And it was easy enough to document; Harper and I wrote alternating chapters as a diary of the failed summer of 1992, flashing back to the better days in the Eighties. More than anything, though, "Worst Team" was a look at the not-so-glorious life of a baseball writer, and how the likes of Murray and Bonilla and Vince Coleman and Jeff Torborg had taken the fun out of being around the Mets.
We delivered the book to Random House in November of 1992, with the release date scheduled for the first week of April, 1993. That spring, Harper had joined the Daily News and was assigned to the Yankees, which meant I was the book's sole representative in Port St. Lucie. In the final days of camp, I told Torborg what was coming.
"This book is tough but fair," I said. "So don't take any of it personally."
Torborg thanked me.
"I know how this business goes," he said. "I appreciate the heads up."
Turns out Torborg wasn't so appreciative, not after reading that he'd lost control of the team within the first few weeks of the '92 season, and that he was afraid to stand up to Murray and Bonilla. Torborg found it easier to demonize the press than assert authority on his own. He did just that after "Worst Team" was released.
How did I know? Because before the second home game of the season, I was greeted in the clubhouse by this salvo.
"Look who just walked in, motherf-----. Hey, Bobby, why don't you s--- my d---? But don't take it personally."
It was Bonilla, repeating the last words I'd said to Torborg.
"That's right, you heard me, motherf-----. But, hey, don't take it personally."
It was a set-up plotted by Torborg and GM Al Harazin. Bonilla would later admit to Peter Gammons he'd never actually read the book, but that didn't matter. He'd been stoked up by the team's elders, now ready to act as their muscle.
Mets' publicist Jay Horwitz quickly realized there was an explosive situation on his hands. He closed the clubhouse, although he couldn't promise a cease-fire. Throughout the ensuing game against the Astros - which Dwight Gooden lost - my colleagues kept asking, "Are you going back down there?"
I had to. I had no choice. To do otherwise would be caving in to the Mets' intimidation tactics. If I bailed now, I could never set foot in that clubhouse again. So after the last out I trudged downstairs, taking a final deep breath as I pushed past the door.
Bonilla was waiting.
"Whattya know, the motherf-----'s back," he bellowed. Bonilla was standing across the room, knowing I'd have to walk towards him to get to Gooden. He and Doc had lockers only a few feet apart.
What followed was the most brutal 10 minutes of my professional life. I was part of a group of reporters interviewing Gooden, listening to Bonilla taunt me.
"Come on, motherf-----, make your move," he said. "I know you're feeling the itch. Make your move."
Bonilla was staring me down; I could feel eyes lasering through me as I asked Gooden a question. Doc and I had been friends since his rookie year in 1984 and I knew he was caught in a terrible quandary. He wanted to shut Bonilla up, but he knew he couldn't reprimand a teammate in public. Poor Doc. He was so unnerved he started brushing his scalp while answering questions - even though he was completely bald, having shaved his head a week earlier.
Meanwhile, Bonilla persisted, growing more menacing by the minute.
"Make your move, Bobby," he said. "Cause I'll hurt you."
I looked at Bonilla and asked, "Are you threatening me?"
"It's like the home boys say back home: we just chillin," he said with a street-snicker. And with that, Bonilla swiped a radio-microphone out of his face. The eruption was coming, although Bonilla didn't realize a NY-1 camera had been trained on him all along. This confrontation, which Bonilla thought would forever be our ugly little secret, would soon be all over ESPN.
The tipping point was when Bonilla called me a c--t. I'd already heard enough insults, but that one I couldn't allow. I put my notebook in my back pocket, circled around the group at Gooden's locker and got into Bonilla's face. Nothing - no one - was between us.
"You want to fight me?" I said. It was a question and a challenge, both. Bonilla, who stood 6-4, 240 pounds, had me by four inches and 50 pounds. I didn't like my chances, but if he wanted to go, I gave him the opening.
Bonilla did nothing.
Instead, he waited until clubhouse manager Charlie Samuels rushed to separate us. Horwitz and two other clubbies crossed the room in another eye blink. By then, it was obvious no punches would be thrown, although Bonilla was again shouting at me, telling me, "I'll show you the Bronx right here, motherf-----."
Looking back, I realized the whole episode was designed to embarrass and scare me, not to actually break my face. There was a line Bonilla knew he couldn't cross and - lucky for both of us - he didn't. It was an awful rest of the summer; the Mets kept losing, Torborg got fired and the few Mets who were brave enough to talk to me had to make sure the coast was clear in case Murray was nearby.
As for Bonilla, we didn't speak for six long years. It took Bobby Valentine to finally broker a peace treaty. When Bonilla returned to the Mets in 1999, he told the rightfielder he wouldn't tolerate any wars in his clubhouse. Valentine encouraged me to make the first move. It was in Port St. Lucie that I finally approached Bonilla. Once again, I took a deep breath, but to my surprise, it was Bonilla who broke the ice.
"Sometimes, you wish you could do things differently, do them over," Bonilla said. "But you can't. So you move on."
And with that, he offered his hand. It was as close to an apology as Bonilla would ever get, so we shook. Life with the Mets has improved ever since: from Al Leiter to Mike Piazza to David Wright, the stream of good guys has made it fun to be at Shea again.
The era of sex-and-drugs and juicy quotes is over, but so is the dark age. I'll take that trade-off.
* * * * *
Bob Klapisch has covered baseball in New York for the New York Post, New York Daily News and, most recently, The Bergen Record and ESPN.com. He is the author of five books, including "The Worst Team Money Could Buy" (Random House). His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Men's Journal, FHM and The Sporting News.
Klapisch, who pitched at Columbia University, still throws for the Hackensack Troasts in the semi-professional North Jersey Majors-Met League. He lives in Westwood, N.J. with his wife and two children.