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July 28, 2009

You Could Look It Up

Exhuming McCarthy, Burying Omar

by Steven Goldman

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If you're a student of Cold War politics, or perhaps just a fan of early R.E.M., Monday's Omar Minaya press conference announcing the termination of Mets Vice President of Player Development Tony Bernazard might have had a familiar ring to it. The moment came when Minaya deviated from his "I'm not going to get into the details" stance to accuse New York Daily News beat writer Adam Rubin of writing reports on Bernazard's inappropriate behavior because, "Adam, for the past couple of years, has lobbied for a player development position."

In dragging Rubin into the story, Minaya took a few flying leaps of logic into base vindictiveness. Now, it is possible that Rubin erred in asking people he was covering for pointers on how to break into baseball. While it wouldn't violate journalistic ethics to ask, "How do you get a job in baseball?" It is possible that the question could be misconstrued as "How can you get me a job in baseball?" Though he denied he felt Rubin had an ulterior motive in writing the pieces about Bernazard, Minaya seemed to be implying exactly that.

Rubin, of course, would have had to be mad, completely out of touch with reality, to think that somehow that a series of articles about Bernazard ripping his shirt off in front of a bunch of Double-A players would clear the way for his own hiring by the Mets. That would be a delusional plan worthy of Norma Desmond, with Rubin maniacally plotting like some comic book super-villain.

It's hard to believe someone like that could function in society well enough to hold their job, but in any case, it is clear that this is not what happened in the Bernazard situation, nor what Minaya really thinks. Consider several other statements he made during the press conference:

  1. 1. An internal investigation of Bernazard conducted by Mets Human Resources (an oxymoron) was already underway at the time the Rubin articles came out, due to complaints within the organization.

  2. 2. "All the things that have been public are… not exactly as they were reported." Not only is that an aspersion on Rubin's reporting, but a revelation: it wasn't the published stuff that got Bernazard canned, it was (in Minaya's words) "other things," matters that Minaya referred to as "interpersonal communications." "For me, it wasn't so much about the two reports that were out there." Rather, it was based on "a lot of things" that had come up as part of the aforementioned Human Resources investigation. Based on the Human Resources report, Minaya had to recommend to ownership that Bernazard be terminated despite being "a big part of our organization, our success."

  3. 3. That said, the investigation into Bernazard was "expedited" by the Rubin articles and, "I scuffled with it early on" because "I had to tell myself, 'Wow, these things are coming out…' because coming from Adam Rubin… You gotta understand this: Adam, for the past couple of years, has lobbied for a player development position. He has lobbied myself, he has lobbied Tony, so when these thing came out, I was a little bit-I had to think about it."

Thus did Minaya render transparent his motives in dragging Rubin into the story. Apparently, Bernazard's public outbursts were predictably accompanied by private misbehavior. Perhaps Minaya could have papered over the "interpersonal" problems, whatever they were, if not for Rubin publicizing the others-the Binghamton shirt incident, his accosting a Brooklyn Cyclones clubhouse man, arguing with Francisco Rodriguez, and more. Instead, he was forced to divest himself of a cherished (for whatever reason) subordinate.

Minaya's attack on Rubin, even if true, had no relevance to the story-Minaya had just spent half his press conference saying the firing was based on an internal investigation, not on Rubin's reportage. This turn was unprecedented in baseball history-never has a general manager been called "despicable" (as Rubin characterized Minaya's implications) at his own press conference. Think of the train-wreck GMs in history-Pinky Higgins, the Red Sox's apartheid GM, Chuck LaMar with the Devil Rays, Hawk Harrelson's year running the White Sox, Randy Smith in Detroit, six years of Allard Baird in Kansas City, Cam Bonifay's eight years in Pittsburgh, Jim Bowden with the Nationals-none has shot himself in the foot in quite so public a way. The closest thing that comes to mind is Al Campanis's self-immolation on "Nightline" in 1987… Or something else, something more significant.

One of the most arresting moments in American history came on June 9, 1954. A Senate subcommittee was conducting hearings on the charges and counter-charges tossed back and forth between Senator Joe McCarthy and the United States Army. McCarthy had claimed that the Army had been infiltrated by Communists, while the Army charged that McCarthy and his staff, including attorney Roy Cohn, were on a vendetta because the Army had refused to give preferential treatment to an associate of theirs, G. David Schine.

The Army had retained as its counsel Joseph Nye Welch, a Boston trial lawyer. Welch had one concern, that one of his staff attorneys, 33-year-old Fred Fisher, had belonged to the National Lawyers Guild, a left-leaning bar association that some believed was a Communist front organization. Fisher himself was not a Communist, and had left the organization as soon as it had come under a cloud. Still, he and Welch were concerned that McCarthy would "out" him during the televised hearings. Welch made a side deal with Cohn: McCarthy wouldn't mention Fisher, and in return Welch wouldn't question Cohn on his own questionable draft history.

Nonetheless, as soon as McCarthy felt cornered he went back on the deal. Welch was examining Cohn on one of those lists of Communists that McCarthy was always brandishing, and the curious lack of urgency that Cohn had shown in alerting the Army to that list. Welch was scoring points, at which point McCarthy said (I paraphrase; you can see the real thing here with the conclusion here , "If you want to know about Communists so badly, let me tell you about this one in your own law firm," and proceeded to name Fisher.

Fisher's response was instantly famous: "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness… Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad… He shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you…" McCarthy insisted on going on, at which point Welch cut him off, saying, "Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" (R.E.M. put the words into the instrumental break of their 1987 song, "Exhuming McCarthy.")

McCarthy went on, and Welch closed him down in words that are particularly appropriate to Minaya's attack on Rubin: "Mr. McCarthy, I will not discuss this further with you. You have sat within six feet of me, and could have asked me about Fred Fisher. You have brought it out. If there is a God in Heaven, it will do neither you nor your cause any good." The audience, which had been instructed not to react to the hearings, burst into applause.

Minaya too sat within six feet of Rubin. Like Fisher, Rubin made a mistake. He actually made two: first, he asked questions that were possibly inappropriate given his relationship to those he was questioning. Second, he picked the wrong people to ask, not just because they were the subjects of his beat, but because they obviously couldn't be trusted. However, he could have spoken with Rubin about it. He could have spoken to Rubin's bosses at the Daily News. Instead, he took the McCarthy route and made the matter public because, like McCarthy, he thought it would afford him some small revenge on the "instigator" of the Bernazard situation, or perhaps because he thought it would afford him cover.

Cover is something Minaya needs. It takes special skills to take a team in the country's best and biggest baseball market and take it to the postseason just once in five seasons, and to preside over historic September collapses in two consecutive seasons. Minaya has made some brilliant moves since taking over as Mets GM in September, 2004, including the low-cost acquisition of Johan Santana, and like all GMs he has made some poor deals as well (Matt Lindstrom, Brian Bannister, Heath Bell, and Jeff Keppinger were all discarded for no return) and suffered some oversights, like leaving Jesus Flores unprotected in the Rule 5 draft. However one sums up the record, it is certain that the overall results are inadequate given the resources available to this franchise and the helpless way it fell out of certain postseason berths in 2007 and 2008.

Whatever the lows of those difficult Septembers, never did the club look as pathetically weak as it did on Monday. It may seem overwrought to compare Minaya's assassination of Rubin to the democracy-shaking events of the Army-McCarthy hearings, but darn it, you don't see examples of that kind of flailing, drag-'em-down-with-me anger too often.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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