After a 2-1 win on April 13, 2000, then-Mets manager Bobby Valentine answered the routine postgame questions at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.
As the rest of the writers filed out of Valentine’s road office, a beat reporter for the Bergen Record named T.J. Quinn hung around to ask Valentine about alleged incendiary comments he made during a speech at Penn’s Wharton School of Business a day earlier.
During the talk, Valentine supposedly questioned some Mets players and general manager Steve Phillips’ decision-making, according to an internet message board.
A poster by the handle of “Brad34” shared what he thought he heard with other fans on Mets.com. It was not intended for the world to know, but Quinn had received a tip from someone within the Mets.
The way Valentine remembers it, as part of Quinn’s questioning, the reporter asked the manager, “Do you know Brad34?”
“No, who the f–k is Brad34?” Valentine said.
Brad34 — aka Brad Rosenberg, a graduate student at Wharton — innocently provided the match that ignited what became known as Whartongate, which may have been the first major sports media controversy that was launched by the power of the internet. At the least, it is believed to be the initial one on the New York sports landscape.
What now, 20 years later, is part of the sports media culture — the internet fueling controversies with its viral capacity to share all moments in time — was novel then. Indeed, Whartongate was the leadoff hitter for a generation of stories aided and abetted by the worldwide web and, in more recent years, social media.
That 2000 season ended up with Valentine leading an undermanned Mets team to the Subway World Series, but thanks to the Wharton comments that added to the tumultuous relationship between Valentine and Phillips, he nearly didn’t make it there.
In the aftermath of Brad34’s chat room post, Valentine remembers distinctively that Phillips told him, “If you said the things in the speech, I’m firing you.”
The Race to the Tape
To understand how the alleged comments Valentine made to a group of students became such a big deal, you have to remember the dysfunctional, though ultimately successful, relationship between Valentine and Phillips.
“It was strained,” said Jim Duquette, then a Mets assistant GM.
In 1999, Phillips fired Valentine’s coaches during the season then forbade Valentine from attending the 1999 winter meetings, the only manager in baseball who wasn’t invited by his team.
Duquette would secretly call Valentine from those meetings to keep him abreast of what was going on.
“At that point, you are trying to do what is best for the organization, but at times you had to pick a side,” Duquette said. “It wasn’t very healthy.”
Valentine was outspoken. He had been a star athlete for years before an outfield wall robbed him of what might’ve been an even more successful major league career as a player. The injury that deformed his shin did not diminish his ability to incessantly be the center of attention.
In 1999, on the way to an NLCS appearance, Valentine was quoted in Sports Illustrated saying he had “five losers” on his team. Management wanted Valentine to simmer down.
Valentine didn’t have a contract beyond 2000. During spring training that season, co-owner Fred Wilpon said Valentine would be judged on his actions and his words.
Phillips, whose contract was also due to expire after 2000, handled the media differently. The GM would choose his words as if he were hiding a secret, even with trivial information. He had a controlling personality. The two needed a marriage counselor.
This background was important as to why Brad34’s claims had weight. It was a make-or-break season, and the edict to Valentine was to shut his mouth.
Just 10 games into the 2000 season, Valentine was asked by friends to give a morning speech to 100 students at the Wharton School. He was honored to do so and said he made prepared remarks, something he seldom did. The Penn student paper wrote a little story, and no one thought or really knew anything of it.
But Brad34 posted in the chat room that Valentine had criticized the Mets. Brad34 wrote:
- Valentine thought the Mets didn’t need to sign Todd Zeile for three years and $18 million to play first base.
- The front office wouldn’t let Valentine sit $5 million outfielder Derek Bell.
- Valentine wanted to sign reliever Kaz Sasaki and he “ignores” Rickey Henderson.
With Wilpon’s public warning about Valentine curtailing his outspokenness, there was a story here and Quinn was tipped off.
“I’m not saying what level or anything, but someone in the organization said, ‘Mets.com’ and I said, ‘What?’ ” said Quinn, who is now an ESPN reporter. “The person repeated, ‘Mets.com.’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ The person said, ‘That’s it.’ I just went on the website and figured it had to be something from the message board.
“And I just started combing through everything that I could and finally found this post by Brad34 that said, ‘Bobby V spoke at my school today’ or something like that. I read it and it became pretty obvious that this must be what the person is talking about.”
Then Quinn was told, “Steve was aware and he was pissed.”
In the Veterans Stadium road clubhouse, after the rest of the beat reporters exited, Quinn approached Valentine with his exclusive. An agape Valentine said he thought it was off the record, according to Quinn. Valentine asked Quinn if he had to write it. Quinn did.
“Steve was aware and he was pissed.”
But one thing was not totally clear: Was what Brad34 said accurate? There was one way to find out.
“It was a race to the tape,” Valentine said over lunch earlier this year at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., where he is the athletic director. “I remember the race to the tape.”
Binyamin Appelbaum was then the 21-year-old managing editor of the Daily Pennsylvanian, the college’s student newspaper. Quinn’s story broke on a Thursday.
It would end up back page news and the lead on WFAN. Valentine’s job was on the line as the Mets headed next to play the Pirates.
“I had people in the organization who said that Steve flew out to Pittsburgh with the intention of firing him,” Quinn said.
On Friday, Appelbaum had New York reporters contact him by phone and in person at the college paper’s office.
“The first I knew of it was when all these New York reporters were descending upon us on the theory that we had a more clear account of the speech,” said Appelbaum, now an editorial writer for the New York Times.
The Daily Pennsylvanian had sent a young writer to cover the Valentine speech. The reporter wrote a “perfectly innocent little story,” Appelbaum said.
She had taped half the speech, but her recorder stopped working for the second half of it. Now, the dysfunction of the Mets was knocking on the college student’s door.
“She was terrified,” Appelbaum said. “She had holed up in her room. She had a recording of half the speech and notes on the other half. Bobby Valentine called her and asked her not to release it. You can just imagine she was completely overwhelmed by all of this. She was literally refusing to come out of her dorm room.”
Meanwhile, Phillips was tracking down Brad34, the chat room poster.
“I think I did,” Phillips said. “We were hearing bits and pieces, and I just wanted to see if there was a way to hear everything and if there was any type of documentation. As I recall, there wasn’t. If they had one, it had been destroyed or erased. I don’t know exactly. There had been some taping of it, but it wasn’t available anymore. I don’t know exactly what had unfolded.”
Though Phillips and Duquette had heard rumors that Valentine had a videotape destroyed, there is no actual evidence that happened. It was, though, never released.
Meanwhile, Appelbaum had his reporter’s audio tape.
“This whole thing was essentially intermediated by the New York media, who would call and tell us what the Mets had said,” Appelbaum said. “Everyone wanted a complete account of the speech.”
The college paper eventually released the transcript, which Appelbaum described as underwhelming. Valentine did not mention Zeile but did express admiration for Sasaki. He did say Benny Agbayani would be more productive than the expensive Bell. He also made an old joke about the “worldly” Henderson asking for the Wall Street Journal sports section, which did not exist then.
“He actually started a sentence by saying, ‘This would get me in a lot of trouble with my owner …’ which I think was an accurate assessment,” Appelbaum said.
Bobby V’s Alibi
Valentine also said in the Wharton speech, “It’s an interesting situation sometimes. The reaction fuels the fire and allows the one-day issue to become a five-day issue.”
And as it turned out, Phillips’ decision to fly to the next Mets’ destination of Pittsburgh to confront Valentine in person added days to the story.
When Phillips talked to reporters in Pittsburgh, he would not say Valentine’s job was safe. Phillips now says it was already decided Valentine would remain as manager.
Either way, Valentine has an alibi that has never been revealed before of what he says actually happened that fateful week.
When confronted by Phillips and reporters, Valentine said he just referred to his comments “in the speech.” But what Valentine claims occurred is that after the speech and Q&A at Wharton he spoke to a few Mets fans as he walked to grab a cab.
“The backstory is, for whatever it is worth, Steve came and said, ‘Did you say these things in your speech?’ ” Valentine said. “I said, ‘No, absolutely not.’ He said, ‘We’re going to get the tape and, if you said those things, you are fired.’
“So what happened, now my head is spinning. I want to know what I said. Then a couple of things that Brad34 wrote, I said, ‘Ohhh, I said those things.’
“I was always absolutely honest. If I were asked the right question, I would’ve been honest also. But everyone asked, ‘… in the speech.’
“The speech is over. I’m walking down the hallway at Wharton School. Now, there are four kids in Mets hats and Mets jerseys who start walking with me. They are just walking and talking, ‘Bobby, we love what you do. Who is starting tonight? Who is going to do this and that?’
“They started asking me questions and I was answering them sarcastically at times.
“Whatever it was they asked, I answered all their questions. One was about Derek Bell. ‘Why the hell did we sign Derek Bell?’ I said something like, ‘Because Benny is a better player and we don’t want him to play.’ ‘How in the world can we give Rey Ordonez a three-year contract?’ I said, ‘We wanted to reward the guy with the lowest on-base and slugging percentage in the history of baseball.’ They were thorns in my side. Derek Bell being signed was a thorn in my side.”
The Moral of the Story
By Sunday, five days after the speech, Rosenberg, Brad34, backed away from his post, releasing a statement that read: “If I were to know that the [original] post would end up in the hands of the vast media, I never would have made such a post. Most of the information included in the [original] post was not factual.”
It was an innocent message in a chat room, after all. Brad34 really did nothing wrong, except maybe picking the Mets as his favorite team. It must have been tough to be thrust into the middle of the circus.
Two decades later, Rosenberg, through his wife, declined to comment for this story.
Then, now and forever, everything was different because of the internet. Before the worldwide web, Rosenberg would’ve told a couple of friends and it would’ve faded.
Instead it was the first sports story of its kind — at least in New York. A few words typed onto a message board caused such a chain reaction and put Valentine’s job in jeopardy. Two decades later, there is a lesson.
“The moral of the story is that, that was the beginning of not being able to say things ever,” Valentine said. “It is called the internet.”
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