Lost In Vegas: The Mets Recent Struggles With AAA Affiliates

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The Miracle Year of 1969 started a wonderful relationship – a love story that took place outside the city limits, 350 miles south of Flushing.  Cupid’s arrow struck in Virginia, bringing the New York Mets and Norfolk into baseball matrimony.  The two formed an American classic – young  big city meets quiet small town.  They built a house, and raised kids together.  Thirty-eight years later, their union ended when Norfolk served the Mets with walking papers and pushed them out the door.  As is the case with most separations, kids usually suffer the most.  In this instance, local fans were the ones who suffered the most, and still do.  Visit the greater Norfolk/Virginia area today, and you will find die hard Mets fans suspended in time.

In 1968, Norfolk was still a sleepy class-A baseball town, until the Metropolitans showed up.  The  Amazin’s moved their AAA affiliate from Jacksonville, Florida to Norfolk for the 1969 season, and together under Mets ownership formed the Tiderwater (Norfolk) Tides.  By 1970, the Mets completed construction of their new home, Mets Field.  Norfolk and the Mets would go on to spend the next three-plus decades in relative bliss.

So, what happened?  Irreconcilable differences is always a convenient escape clause.  However, apathy and the dreaded other person are closest to the truth.  First, the other person.  In 1992, the Mets sold the Tidewater Tides to a group led by Ken Young.  Despite the sale, both clubs mutually agreed, and remained in a player development contract together for many more years.  The summer of 2006, when Norfolk and New York officially parted ways, just happened to be the same summer Ken Young formed a second group which purchased a few Baltimore Orioles affiliates within the Maryland area.  In the years leading up to 2006, the relationship between the Mets and Norfolk deteriorated.  This article from 2006, by Rich Radford of The Virginian – Pilot captures the condition:

June 05, 2011; Flushing, NY, USA; The New York Mets logo behind home plate before a game against the Atlanta Braves at Citi Field. The Mets defeated the Braves 6-4. Mandatory Credit: Andrew B. Fielding-USA TODAY Sports

"…2006 was a season in which lines of communication were strained between the Tides and Mets. During the course of the Tides’ 57-84 season, Mets general manager Omar Minaya and assistant general manager Tony  Bernazard failed to make a single trip to Norfolk to check on the club’s Triple-A team and its surroundings. In the same article, Tides field manager Dave Rosenfeld was quoted – “(But) the Orioles were our number one choice all along…they (the Mets) took us for granted.”"

Affiliation is short term by nature; two year or four year deals.  The Mets and Tides merely extended short term deals after Ken Young purchased the Tides.  But the perfect storm had come together.  Apparently, Mets apathy had run its course.  Also at the time, the Orioles AAA affiliate played in Ottawa, Canada.  So why wouldn’t Baltimore have been motivated to field an affiliate closer to home?  Norfolk, Ken Young and the Tides became a natural fit.  When the open period for affiliates to explore other options presented itself in 2006, the Norfolk Tides informed the Mets they would no longer enter into mutual agreement with them.  In the Orioles, Ken Young indeed found a more comforting mate.  However, before that deal was finalized, in a last ditch effort to save the affiliation, the Mets asked David  Wright to call Ken Young.  Why David Wright?  The Mets’ third baseman is a Norfolk native who grew up going to Tides games.  He is a Norfolk Tide veteran of thirty-one games.  He is a local hero.  And he played under Young’s ownership.  David failed to influence Ken Young.  Hanging up the phone effectively ended the thirty-eight year marriage, leaving Norfolk in the arms of another organization, and as we’ll see, leaving the Mets out of their league.

After nearly forty years of stability, the Mets’ triple-A situation was now on the rebound.  New Orleans, by comparison, had been treated by many MLB clubs over the years like a one night affiliate, Mardi Gras beads and allThis game of affiliation musical chairs happens rather regularly; for some clubs more than others.  In the previous forty-six years prior to hooking up with the Mets, New Orleans (and their various forms) joined with fourteen other organizations for an average of three years per Player Development Contract (PDC).  Suffice it to say, they’ve been around the block a few times, so the odds of the Mets bumping into N’Orleans were good.  During the 2006 open period, the Mets were clearly not as quick as other suitors in securing a deal with any of several International League options still available.  With little choice left, the Mets turned to the New Orleans Zephyrs.  Both parties agreed on just a two year PDC.  Pretty standard stuff, but a weak attraction took hold.

Entering 2007, the outgoing Washington Nationals left behind the same problem their New York rival would soon inherit.  Logistical nightmares would become the order of the day.  As the New Orleans Zephyrs play in the Pacific Coast League on a given night, the AAA affiliate of the Mets could have potentially been playing up to 3,000 miles away from Flushing.  Mets Chief Operating Officer Jeff Wilpon offered an assessment noted in the New York Times, saying the following:

"I’m not going to tell you it was our first choice, but in the end, I think we’ll look back and see that it was the best choice."

Sorry Jeff…with all due respect, it seemed to be the club’s only choice.  To the Wilpon’s credit, they went into post-Katrina New Orleans with a good heart.  Baseball wise, this relationship too, became strained.  While the Mets were an improvement over the Nationals, the Zephyrs nonetheless grumbled over quality of players and similarly echoed Norfolk’s outcry about an overall lack of support.  Perhaps a mild inference made by the above Times author supports this notion, when he wrote: “Although the Mets stock many of their top prospects at Class AA Binghamton….”  (stop there…)  That made me think…if I were the New Orleans GM, that practice would perturb me.  The Mets additionally never made secret their desire to relocate with an affiliate closer to home.  By August of 2008, New Orleans effectively asked the Mets to explore other options, as they themselves landed a far better suitor in the Miami Marlins and their perceived rich farm system.  The Amazin’s two year fling off Bourbon Street ended like their first failed union – with their host in the arms of another organization.  The Mets left behind a 141-144 record in New Orleans, and a 2007 Southern Division flag.

What the Mets received, it turns out, was a big break.  The 2008 open period presented the Mets with a stellar opportunity to join with the Buffalo Bisons into a stable PDC.  They pounced on that opportunity, with what was initially a mutually strong two year commitment.  Both parties believed their partnership was sure to be equally beneficial.  Geographically, this made much more sense for the Mets.  They now had three of their affiliates:  Brooklyn, Binghamton, and Buffalo, all operating within the Empire State.  Additionally, Buffalo put them back in the International League where they belonged.  Outgoing Cleveland recommended the Bisons organization highly to Omar Minaya.  The Bisons should have not only solved, but ended,  New York’s AAA troubles.

In Buffalo’s case, they were coming off a relatively lengthy on/off/on again, albeit very successful run with the Cleveland Indians.  They won the 2004 International League championship.  After three straight seasons not making the playoffs, although not the reason, Cleveland opted out in favor of finding a partner in Ohio.  The Mets, coming off a 2006 playoff appearance and two more near misses in 2007 and 2008, seemed like a greener pasture for Buffalo’s herd anyway, replete with the extra added ability to provide them with metropolitan exposure.  After all, when you consider the Bills of the NFL and Sabres of the NHL, Buffalo considers itself a major sports town.  Therefore, to locals, baseball in Buffalo came with palpable expectations.