Skip to main content
Original Issue


A series of dubious deals has turned the swaggering Mets of 1986 into the staggering Mets of 1990

It was after midnight when the New York Mets' Keith Hernandez made the second out in the bottom half of the 10th inning in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series. That's when Hernandez, his Mets trailing the Boston Red Sox 5-3—and three games to two in the Series—retired to manager Davey Johnson's office, cracked open a cold one and watched the now indelible madness unfold on TV.

Gary Carter singled. Kevin Mitchell, pinch-hitting for Rick Aguilera, did the same. Ray Knight singled, too, sending Carter across the plate, his arms waving wildly all the way. Mookie Wilson watched a wild pitch allow Mitchell to score, and then he hit that pathetic little dribbler between the gimpy wickets of Boston first baseman Bill Buckner. Knight scored, Shea Stadium nearly imploded, and 48 hours later New York reliever Jesse Orosco flung his glove high into the chill autumn night after the Mets beat the Red Sox in Game 7 to become world champions.

Back then New York was a team whose Series-saving rally embodied the club itself: full of pluck and blessed by luck. To the frustration of right-thinking fans everywhere, put off by the Mets' swagger, this young and inveterately obnoxious team had surely arrived as a dynasty. "You would get that impression," says Philadelphia Phillie reliever Roger McDowell, who saved 22 games for New York that season. "We had five starters who were unbelievable. I won't say a great, but a good bullpen. You had guys who got on base. Guys who knew how to run the bases. Scrappy guys. Guys who could hit the ball out of the park. Pitching, hitting, fielding—every category."

Today, not one of the aforementioned characters in the 1986 drama is on the Mets roster. A new nameplate has been put on the door to the office in which Hernandez sipped his beer. Last week DAVEY JOHNSON/MANAGER was replaced by BUD HARRELSON/MANAGER. After an 8-3 loss to the Phillies on Sunday, New York was in fourth place in the National League East, four games below .500 and 7½ games behind the division-leading Pittsburgh Pirates. Little more than three years have passed since that championship season, but the team that was once the polish on the Big Apple has turned into a giant pumpkin.

"I don't even recognize half of these guys," said McDowell as he watched New York take batting practice last Friday in Philadelphia. And McDowell, who at week's end led the National League in saves, with 13, was a Met only a year ago.

The turnover is not complete, but like the long balls that once preceded those all-too-frequent curtain calls at Shea, members of the New York team that won 108 games in 1986 come in three categories: going, going and gone. Thirteen of the 17 Mets used against Boston in Game 6 are no longer with New York, though only three have retired. Two players, pitcher Bob Ojeda and rightfielder Darryl Strawberry, who were in the starting lineup that Saturday night, remain, and one of them, Strawberry, wants out when he becomes a free agent at the end of this season. "This pretty much finalizes my decision," he said on May 29, the day that Mets general manager Frank Cashen cashed in Johnson's chips in a room in Cincinnati's Terrace Hilton and elevated Harrelson from his position as New York's third base coach.

The scapegoat, sent home to Winter Park, Fla., grazed for three days on his dismissal for front-office failings considerably larger than his own before saying to Larry Guest of The Orlando Sentinel on Saturday, "I feel drained, disillusioned, humiliated." And well he should. The Mets' 575-395 record in Johnson's six full seasons as manager was 29½ games better than that of the next best team over the same span, the Toronto Blue Jays. New York averaged 96 wins in those seasons, even though it had to replace several older players along the way. "Nineteen eighty-nine was a rough year, with all the new faces working into the lineup," Johnson said of his worst season. "It was a year of transition, and we still finished second. It was a really good year, but I was probably the only one who thought so."

New York won 87 games while giving Gregg Jefferies and Keith Miller, now the starting second baseman and centerfielder, respectively, their first real taste of playing time. However, that wasn't good enough for Cashen, who thinks that the Oakland A's are the only team with talent comparable to that of the Mets and who told the players just that in a somber meeting in the visitors' clubhouse at Riverfront Stadium after he had fired Johnson. Assessing talent is not the only area in which Cashen may be kidding himself. "I have told the players I still think we can win this," he says. He must be talking only about winning the weak Eastern Division, but even that is a long shot given New York's glaring deficiencies.

In the sponsor-heavy home clubhouse at Shea Stadium, where even the chairs carry corporate logos, the Mets pad about in towels emblazoned with the words MET LIFE. Of late that phrase has become an oxymoron. The Mets palpably lack a certain something, whatever you might care to call it. Cashen used the phrase "fire in the belly" in his meeting with the players after canning the oft-laconic Johnson. Harrelson, though he believes its virtues are vastly overblown, calls it leadership.

"This is the first year that we don't have Hernandez and Carter, what we'd call born leaders, who are boisterous, cocky," says Harrelson of the pair of fading 36-year-olds who clearly had to go but who just as clearly took part of the soul of the team with them. Pitcher Dwight Gooden might have best defined that certain je ne sais quoi missing from the Mets after a game on May 15 at Candlestick Park. Carter, who's now with the San Francisco Giants, had doubled in the eighth inning to give New York one of its nine one-run losses this season. "Maybe we've made too many trades for guys who are used to getting their asses kicked," said Gooden. "The guys who used to snap—Wally [Backman], Lenny [Dykstra], Ray, Keith, Mitch—they're gone."

Backman, immortalized by Strawberry as "that little redneck" in a skirmish the two players waged in the newspapers in 1987, was at week's end batting .322 as the leadoff hitter for the Pirates. Dykstra, the leading hitter in the majors this season, with a .413 average, was shipped down the New Jersey Turnpike with McDowell last June for centerfielder Juan Samuel. Samuel hit .228 in 3½ miserable months in New York before being dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers in December.

The net result is a torrent of criticism directed at Mets management. "Two years ago I was a genius," says vice-president of baseball operations Joe McIlvaine, part of the Mets' management firm of Cashen, McIlvaine & [senior vice-president Al] Harazin. "Now I'm the village idiot."

Never mind that the same triumvirate built the 1986 Mets, or that many of its recent deals look foolish only in hindsight. Never mind that neither Backman nor Dykstra performed well enough to play every day in New York, or that Samuel drove in 100 runs for the Phillies three years ago. Never mind that Mitchell, last season's National League MVP, was an unproven 24-year-old rookie in the '86 Series, six weeks after which he was traded to San Diego for solid-yet-silent leftfielder Kevin McReynolds. "Everybody brings [those names] up on the radio," says New York third baseman and de facto captain Howard Johnson. "If they'd done what they are doing now while they were here, they'd still be here."

The radio station HoJo has been listening to—because "it's funny," he says—is New York's WFAN, a virtually all-sports phone-in forum for Vinnie in Brooklyn and Sal in the Bronx to weigh in round the clock with their analyses of local teams. "You gotta get rid of some of those statues on the field," said Frank from Long Island the day Davey Johnson was cut loose. "You could dig up Joe McCarthy, and it's not gonna make a difference."

That McIlvaine and his colleagues have become the village idiots has something to do with the village they inhabit. It's a place where, as Strawberry has said, "the media always have their knives out for you."

"As much as you try to please everybody, it's tough in New York," said Davey Johnson, who has nonetheless hinted that he would accept an offer to become the Yankees' manager when that position becomes available in the near future. "People felt like we should have given them more than one championship."

It often seems that all the people on the East Coast devote their attention to the Mets, if only to jeer them. McDowell will tell you he has nothing to say about his former team even as he launches into a detailed discussion of its recent history. Dykstra buttonholed a Mets beat writer in Veterans Stadium last week and whispered conspiratorially, "What's goin' on over there? Straw's goin'?"

Dykstra learned well to lower his voice. Although the Mets are based in the borough of Queens, their front office treats all matters with the secrecy of the Manhattan Project. Which is why it was so comical to see the diminutive, white-haired Cashen, resplendent in a blue bow tie and green sport jacket, emerge from a tunnel behind home plate last Thursday, during New York's first workout at Shea following the firing. He dipped his toe onto the turf, as if testing the water's temperature, before stepping onto the field and being swarmed by some 30 reporters, a lynch mob with klieg lights and bad blazers. "No," Cashen said with a sickly grin, he hadn't read the previous day's tabloids, all of which applauded the axing while still calling for him to issue his own mea culpa. "I guess I'll catch up this morning."

The mob, slowly decreasing in number, pursued the scurrying Cashen back into the tunnel, where Cashen, who had grown increasingly agitated, said, "I do not discount the value of a good fiery leader, and I'm not sure at this point that we have one."

By that time the wolf pack had dwindled to a persistent two reporters, and Cashen was on the threshold of a door that leads to a bank of elevators and, in turn, to the safety of the Mets' administrative offices. Ordinarily a reserved man, he was fairly hollering in response to a question about Strawberry and McReynolds, who also has said he might leave when his contract expires at the end of the 1991 season. "If they don't want to play here anymore, they don't want to play here anymore!" said Cashen. "What am I going to do? Go out and give them 10 million dollars?" And with that, a team functionary swept Cashen into the Otis.

For all the hype and tripe being trumpeted in New York about individual Mets moves since 1986, the cumulative effect of the trades has certainly been negative. For one thing, New York's games this season have looked like Gilligan's Island reruns, with a recurring cast of players remaining stranded every night. In what the Elias Sports Bureau, the official statistician of major league baseball, calls Late Inning Pressure Situations (LIPS)—that is, at bats in the seventh inning or later with the hitter's team tied or trailing by three or fewer runs, or by four runs with the bases loaded—the Mets were hitting .202 at week's end. In those same situations with men in scoring position, New York's average shriveled to .158. The '86 Mets faced a few LIPS with men in scoring position themselves and hit .326 (box, page 59).

"I think we're pressing too hard," says Jefferies, whose .289 average through Sunday was one of the bright spots on the Mets' dismal stat sheet. "We're just not getting runners over. We're not getting runners home from third with less than two outs."

One reason runners are being left on base is that tenants of what was the middle of the order under Davey Johnson—Howard Johnson, McReynolds and Strawberry—were hitting .252, .267 and .247, respectively, before Harrelson changed the order last Friday. New York's team average was an anemic .239, second worst in the league. That wouldn't seem so bad if the Mets had sacrificed offense to improve their defense, as the Baltimore Orioles and the Chicago White Sox have done to rebuild. But through Sunday, New York had the league's worst fielding percentage as well.

In their zeal to promote players from their minor league system, the Mets have wound up with major weaknesses where they count the most—up the middle. New York has used five catchers this season and has a natural third baseman, Jefferies, at second and a second baseman, Miller, in center. "We have to get a catcher, a utility infielder—a backup at short—little things" is all Cashen will concede.

The pitching staff, led by Gooden, Sid Fernandez and Frank Viola, is excellent, though the Mets' luck no longer is: Gooden, 3-5 after losing 5-4 to Philadelphia last Saturday, missed most of 1989 with an injury to his throwing shoulder. Two weeks ago he cracked a toe when catcher Mackey Sasser inadvertently set a chair on it before sitting down. But the Mets are still so rich in pitching that starters Ojeda and Ron Darling have been herded in and out of the bullpen all season.

Darling, who was 15-6 as a starter in 1986, is the current odd man out. He is only 29, and New York is trying to trade him for a catcher. Says Harrelson of his bosses upstairs, "If they have any plans, I would like to find out, even if they're futuristic. Are we going to have the services of Strawberry and McReynolds?"

To hear his predecessor tell it, however, Harrelson will likely find out who his new catcher will be when he opens his newspaper one morning. "I would hear a name tossed out one day, and two weeks later we'd have made a trade for him," says Davey Johnson. "We used to have great organizational meetings, talking thoroughly about the personnel, but we stopped doing that. When? It doesn't matter when."

The approximate date is not difficult to discern. Just don't mention it, thank you, to any of the remaining Mets who were on the team that October. Says Howard Johnson, "It'll never be like that again."