The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Sunday, May 21, 1995                   TAG: 9505210166
SECTION: SPORTS                   PAGE: C8   EDITION: FINAL 
                                             LENGTH: Long  :  141 lines


David Letterman's jokes about the New York Mets still draw chuckles, but they don't ring as true anymore. Baseball's laughingstock two years ago, the Mets have recovered some dignity, not to mention real promise of a brighter future thanks to some of the prospects playing for the Norfolk Tides this season.

Joe McIlvaine, 47, has overseen the organization's rise from the ``disaster.'' That was McIlvaine's word when he became the executive vice president for baseball operations on July 8, 1993.

A former seminary student and minor league pitcher for five seasons, none higher than Class A, with the Detroit Tigers, McIlvaine spent 10 years in various jobs with the Mets before becoming the executive vice president of the San Diego Padres in 1990. He left the Padres, however, in June of 1993, disillusioned with the blatant cost-cutting he was ordered to do from the Padres' owners.

``In May (of 1993), we're in first place, playing great, and I had one of the owners in my box one night,'' McIlvaine said. ``The whole night he's got his head in his hands. Finally, I said, `What's the matter?' And he looks at me and says, `God, if this keeps up, what are we going to have to pay these guys?' That, to me, is when I knew we were in trouble.''

While cutting the Mets' payroll, McIlvaine has refocused the Mets on their farm system, once one of baseball's best. He was in Norfolk this week scouting the Tides, and discussed many baseball issues in an interview at Harbor Park.

Many people probably don't know you spent time in the seminary. When did you leave and how did you get into baseball?

I was there four years. I was 17 years old when I graduated high school and I entered the seminary in Philadelphia to be a priest. After four years, you have to make the decision is this what you're going to do with your life? I just decided I didn't think this was what I was being called to.

I pitched on a semipro team in the summer and I was seen by scouts then. When I finished high school I was 6 feet tall and 130 pounds. When I left the seminary I was 6-5, 170. I started first grade when I was 5, and if I could do one thing over, I'd have started school a year later, but you don't know how your body's going to mature and grow. From the earliest I can remember, I loved baseball. It's been a love affair for me all my life.

You were regarded as the heir apparent to Mets general manager Frank Cashen, but you left for San Diego. In retrospect, was taking that job a mistake?

No, because I learned a tremendous amount, good and bad, about myself and baseball and how to handle things better. I love San Diego. If you think what's your favorite city and if suddenly a job you wanted came up in that city, that's what happened to me. I loved living out there. But I was there six months and what I was told was going to happen suddenly changed. There was an owner who was trying to be the GM, trying to undermine everything I was doing. They kept wanting me to get rid of this player and that one, and I had just spent a lot of time and effort the first year or two trying to get all these people.

We weren't that far off. We had the best lineup in the division in '92; Tony Fernandez, Fred McGriff, Gary Sheffield, Darrin Jackson, Jerald Clark, Benito Santiago. We needed more pitching. But suddenly the financial side of it completely changed. The irony of the whole situation is this year, the Padres payroll is higher than the Mets payroll. That is irony.

Having been through that situation, did it help you in today's baseball economy? Does it bother you that it has come to teams like your Padres, and now Pittsburgh or Montreal, jettisoning talent because of salaries?

San Diego was really the first team to have to do that. I know how to deal with it now. When I came in here, our payroll was $43 million, we're down to $23 million, and we've got a better team now. It bothers me, yeah, because I love the game of baseball. Unlike some of the people that aren't baseball people that are in the game, the only motive I have for being in the game is I love it. I want it to survive and I want it to be the best game of all. And when I see things like this and the strike, it eats away at my heart. My motives are pure in baseball. I have no other motive other than to try and make the game better. That's the only reason I'm in it.

What were your immediate goals when you took over the Mets in '93?

To get back on the winning track. Obviously in '93 they got way off. We had to weed out a lot of people and get back to what made us good; the farm system and the scouting and the utilization of your personnel in the minor leagues. I think today's baseball more than ever cries out for guys coming up from your system. The difference sometimes in New York is New York's kind of a star town, I know that's the way Frank (Cashen) thought a lot, and you need to give New York star players. But I think the climate right now is such that people in New York are willing to watch people becoming stars, rather than having to trade for the established star and put him in there right away.

We're getting to the point in our system where we're not quite as good as were but we're getting there. In the early and middle '80s we were about a 10 on a 10 scale, as far as developing players. I think right now we're about an 8. I'm encouraged by what I see (in Norfolk) and I think in 1996 some of the talent here is going to translate into New York, especially pitching, and really make us formidable very quickly.

Tides pitchers Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen obviously are knocking on the door to the majors. How do you decide when a player, especially young ones like those two, are ready?

I think the player tells you that himself. I think the worst mistake you can make is bringing up a player before he's ready, unless you see him as a role player in the major leagues. But if you have a player who you think is going to be a regular and you bring him up before his time, confidence is the big thing there. Confidence is a fine line, and if you ruin a player's confidence, you can ruin a good player. An angel doesn't come out of the sky and say, ``He's ready.'' A lot of times it comes because of an injury or somebody's failing, but you try to give the kid as much time in the minors to give him proper schooling.

And New York is such a media town, the spotlight is so much on you, you tend to maybe hold a player back just a little longer to try to give him just a little extra time. It all comes down to judgment, and you have to take the psychological and emotional factors into consideration, as much as the physical factors.

Baseball is still being played without a labor agreement, with union leader Don Fehr still talking of another strike this season. How much does that concern you?

Certainly I'm concerned because it's not in the best interests of baseball. I'm cautiously optimistic that things will work out. Don Fehr is not a baseball person, he's a lawyer who's interested in running a union. He's not a baseball person, and he's not interested in the best interests of the game. That concerns me, because people who love the game don't want these things to happen. And people who say things like that, to me, don't love the game.

As baseball continues to expand, it also has extended its search for talent to foreign countries. What is your opinion of young American talent today?

I think there are as many participants today, Little Leagues probably have record numbers going, but the actual studying of the game and the knowledge of the game I think is lower than I've seen. They play at the game, but they don't study the game. I think that's the biggest difference in the last 20 years. We're having a hard time finding players who are really well prepared when they get into pro baseball. There are exceptions, but we have two rules when players get into pro baseball: patience, patience, patience and, No. 2, assume they know nothing.

Letterman and others have had fun dumping on the Mets. It's tough being the butt of jokes anywhere, but it's got to be especially hard in New York.

Nobody likes to be ridiculed and embarrassed. In '93 we deserved it. The team was a disaster. Since then we've made positive strides. We're going to be very competitive and we're going to be contending here very quickly. And that stuff will go away when that time comes. ILLUSTRATION: Photo

Joe McIlvaine has seen the Mets, baseball's laughingstock two years

ago, recover some dignity.

by CNB