The METS had had only the greatest expectations of him. They'd wanted to hold a big press conference in Dodger Stadium to announce his signing. Billy asked them not to. He had a claustrophobic unease with ceremony of any kind, and a press conference was nothing but a ceremonial event. It'd make him feel trapped. Plus he didn't want to make a big deal about becoming a pro baseball player. It was less a decision to celebrate than a vaguely uncomfortable fact to get his mind around. The Mets failed to consider the cause or implications of his reticence. In the belief that Billy was more ready for pro ball than Darryl Strawberry, they sent Strawberry to the low-level rookie team with the other high school kids and Billy to the high-level rookie team, in Little Falls, New York, with the college players. Little Falls, New York, could not have felt farther from San Diego, California. His teammates might as well have been a different species than the high school kids he was used to playing with. They had hair on their backs and fat on their stomachs. They smoked before games and drank after them. A few had wives. And all of the pitchers had sliders.
The Mets were betting that Billy was better equipped than Strawberry to deal with the pressures, and inevitable frustrations, that went with playing against much older players. Roger Jongewaard, the Mets' head scout, fully expected Billy to rocket through the minors and into the big leagues well ahead of Strawberry. The Mets scouting department had badly misjudged Billy's nature. They had set him up to fail. If there was one thing Billy was not equipped for, it was failure. He didn't even begin to know what to make of a stat sheet at the end of his first short season in high-level rookie ball that showed him hitting .210. He didn't know how to think of himself if he couldn't think of himself as a success. When the season ended he returned home, enrolled in classes at the University of California at San Diego, and forgot that he played baseball for a living. He didn't so much as pick up a bat or a glove until spring training the following March. That in itself should have been an ominous sign, but no one was looking for ominous signs.
The next year went well enough for him-he was, after all, Billy Beane-and by the summer of 1982 he had been promoted to the Mets' Double-A team in Jackson, Mississippi. He played left, Strawberry played right, and the whole team played the field. For a lot of the players it was their first exposure to the Southern female-the most flagrant cheater in the mutual disarmament pact known as feminism. Lipstick! Hairdos! Submissiveness! Baseball was a game but chasing women was a business, in which Billy Beane was designed to succeed without even trying. Billy had the rap. Billy, said his old teammate J. P. Ricciardi, "could talk a dog off a meat wagon." Billy was forever having to explain to another teammate of his, Steve Springer, that when you'd just met some girl, what you didn't do was tell her you played pro ball. It wasn't fair to her; you had to give the girl a chance to turn you down. Billy's way of giving her a chance was to tell her that what he did for a living was collect roadkill off local highways. Springer didn't have Billy's awesome God-given ability with women; he thought he needed the Mets to stand a chance; and this need of his led to one of those great little moments that make even the most dismal minor league baseball careers worth remembering. They were leaving one of the local burger joints when two pretty girls called after them, in their fetching drawls: "You boys Yankees?" Springer turned around and said, "No, we're the Mets."
Off the field Billy was Billy; on the field Billy was crumbling. The only thing worse than an ambivalent minor league baseball player was an ambivalent minor league baseball player with a terror of failure, forced to compare himself every afternoon to Darryl Strawberry. "People would look at Billy and Darryl and think about the untapped potential that might be brought out of them," recalls Jeff Bittiger, who was the ace of the staff on the same team. "They weren't just supposed to be big leaguers. They were supposed to be big league all-stars." That year Strawberry would be named the most valuable player in the Texas League. Billy would hit only .220. Often they'd hit third and fourth in the lineup, and so Billy spent a lot of hours in the outfield dwelling on Strawberry's heroics and his own failure. "That was the first year I really questioned if I'd made the right decision to sign," Billy said.
Darryl Strawberry presented one kind of problem for Billy,-Lenny Dykstra presented another, perhaps even more serious one. Billy and Lenny lived together and played side by side in minor league outfields for nearly two years, beginning in 1984. In the spring of that year both were invited to the Mets' big league spring training camp. With Strawberry now a fixture in the Mets' right field, the talk in the minors was that Billy was being groomed to replace George Foster in left, and Lenny was supposed to replace Mookie Wilson in center. Lenny thought of himself and Billy as two buddies racing together down the same track, but Billy sensed fundamental differences between himself and Lenny.