Mets' miseries test Torborg's patience

June 20, 1992|By Newsday

NEW YORK -- Six times. Maybe seven. That's how often New York Mets manager Jeff Torborg lifted his cap and ran one hand over the front of his hairline while waxing optimistic on the Mets' lifeless 5-2 loss to Montreal Expos on Wednesday night. He pursed his lips four times, leaned forward thrice, twice grimaced and -- subject to replay -- glared once, which is particularly significant.

This was three days after the post-game dugout shout that followed the Pittsburgh Pirates' sweep, two days after the arms-flailing meeting with John Franco in the outfield and one day after the Mets broke a five-game home losing streak and Torborg conducted his post-game audience while sitting on the front edge of his desk.

We fastidiously provide these details for those on The Jeff Watch. You know, New York's favorite managerial game. Subtitle: When will he crack? Think of it as Monopoly. Torborg could be the thimble, homebody that he is. Stump Merrill was the wheelbarrow. The Mets have the highest payroll in baseball and a 30-34 record. People, Torborg included, are being booed by the diminishing number of customers who visit Shea Stadium and leave early. The signs are all there.

"Some of the response over the weekend . . .," Torborg said. "We lost three tough games and I got a little testy on the radio. People started saying, 'Well, he's losing it.' "

Which is the object of the game. It's an avocation run wild in these parts nowadays, probably spawned from the numerous incarnations of Billy Martin, each followed by a tragicomic, inevitable fall that was charted with numbing accuracy. Then there was Davey Johnson. And Buddy Harrelson.

Part of the issue is mythical: Basically, coaches who win most of their games and joust a little with the media get along just fine. Part of it is real. Mets general manager Al Harazin, who hired Torborg last October, said, "You can tell somebody about something, but it's like with your kids, they have to live through it. As much as Jeff had experience in Chicago, it's nothing like what he's going through here. You can't tell anybody who hasn't managed here -- or been the general manager, for that matter -- how bright the glare is."

Torborg's problem comes in layers.

One, he came to New York as the paragon of positive thinking and family charm. He was coming home, after all, to a home in Mountainside, N.J., that he thought he was going to have to sell. Any degree of failure (and the Mets have been a failure to this date) would be heightened by its comparison with this fairy tale.

Overblown, said the manager. "Coming back here was a big part of the decision [to take the job]," Torborg said. "But it wouldn't matter what city I was in. Losing would still tear me up."

Two, the Mets spent millions assembling this team, and they have played without verve and without success. That's Torborg's problem, and his response has been to remain relentlessly upbeat.

"The manager," said Bobby Bonilla, the richest and most-criticized of the players, "has to remain positive."

And three, he has exposed himself to the public on a daily basis, appearing on local radio station WFAN twice each day. "Everything in New York gets overblown," said the Mets' Dave Magadan. "But it's just that Jeff has got to sit down and explain everything so many times."

Harazin was worried from the start about the radio gig, which pays Torborg approximately $50,000 a year on top of his four-year, $1.9 million salary. "Frankly I was leery," Harazin said. "He told me all of the things he did in Chicago and I was awed. The post-game show, I knew would be a potential flash point, for all of the obvious reasons and also because of the media tension it would create."

This all happens, remember, a year after Harrelson bailed out on his pre-game radio show because the questions were too tough. "We did a post-game show in Chicago," Torborg said. "It was no easier after losses there. I know the story with Buddy last year. I can understand how it would happen. But this was my idea."

Said Harazin: "I think he's stimulated by it. It's part of the challenge for him." Which isn't to say the GM isn't still leery.

Meanwhile, Torborg has gone about the business of guiding a wayward horse with uncommon control. That's also part of the challenge and part of the package the Mets are paying for. Torborg admits the losing eats at him, but that it's part of his job not to let outsiders see the pain. He comes to work early enough to ride an exercise bike, the better to sweat off a few ounces of frustration. He goes home at night and commiserates with his wife, Suzie.

"Some people say they don't bring the job home with them," Torborg said. "I take it home with me. I talk with my wife about things. It helps."

His 20-year-old son, Dale, the youngest of three boys and one of two who works out daily with the Mets, said, "You can tell when things aren't going smoothly for him, but he's just real positive."

Positive, in fact, to the point of stretching credibility. Same in the clubhouse.

"When you don't succeed," said outfielder Dave Gallagher, who played for Torborg in Chicago, "he's mad with you, not at you."

Torborg is a profoundly emotional sort, moved deeply by such experiences as meeting a 13-year-old leukemia patient last Sunday. "I know people don't want to hear this, not in this realm, but what's a baseball game after that?" he asked. He allows this sincerity to serve as his strength.

And to Torborg's everlasting credit, none of the players has accused him of being superficial.

But they are waiting. For the eruption, that is. Torborg warned Harazin that he possesses a vile temper and that it will surface during a 162-game season. Gallagher has seen it. "He's smart enough to know when it's necessary," he said. Smart enough, too, to know who it will affect, who it will crush. The season is 65 games old and the Mets are in a hole.

Tantrum? Soon. Crack? Probably never. Sorry.

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