Most of you can probably put a name/event to dates pretty easily in Mets’ history.
You can probably cite half a dozen more, too. But one that’s probably not in the front of your mind is 12/11/81. It didn’t immediately resonate – although it probably should have – as a milestone date but it’s when the Mets announced definitively that they weren’t going to accept mediocrity any more. On that date, in two separate deals, the Mets cut ties with their double play combo of Doug Flynn and Frank Taveras.
In their Mets careers, Flynn amassed a 57 OPS+ over 2,269 PA while Taveras notched a 75 OPS+ in 1,583 PA. Actually, mediocre is probably too kind – they were downright lousy. The Mets sent Flynn to the Rangers for Jim Kern, who they subsequently dealt to the Reds in the George Foster deal. It’s remarkable that the Mets were able to get that much for Flynn. Sure, Kern had a bunch of injuries but when healthy he was pretty good. He did just fine in Cincinnati but he rocked the boat over the club’s facial hair policy and was sent out of town during the ’82 season despite a 2.84 ERA in 50 games with the Reds. For Taveras, the club got reliever Steve Ratzer, who spent a year at Tidewater but never pitched for the Mets.
My opinion at the time was hatred for Flynn and a sort of acceptance with Taveras. Flynn was easy to dislike. In addition to his complete inability to hit, a 57 OPS+!!!!, he was a constant reminder of the Seaver trade. People will bring up the Gold Glove Award he won and the fact that he had 61 RBIs batting eighth for a last-place club in 1979. What we didn’t know then – even if we had a strong suspicion – is that in 580 PA, Flynn had a remarkable 382 RBI chances. For a point of comparison, Eddie Murray had only 364 runners with 640 PA batting third in 1983. Flynn was about average (which was no small feat for him) in RBI situations in ’79 – he just had a bunch of them.
Taveras, well he at least had something going for him. And that something was that he was really fast and he was quite adept at a play that simply wasn’t seen much in the majors in the late 1970s – the push bunt. A righty hitter, Taveras would look to get a base hit by pushing a bunt to the right side. Generally, if he got the bunt past the pitcher, he would beat the throw to first from the second baseman. It was an exciting play. And there really wasn’t much excitement surrounding those late 70s Mets teams.
It would be nice if we could say that the Mets immediately replaced Flynn and Taveras with quality players. But they didn’t. The Mets had an opportunity with Wally Backman and perhaps Ron Gardenhire but injuries and pig-headedness got in the way. Backman suffered a rotator cuff injury in 1981, which hurt his throwing and he was labeled as a poor defensive player. Backman saw a fair amount of playing time in ’82 but the Mets used Brian Giles, straight off the Flynn assembly line of good field, no hit infielders, in 1983. At least that season at Tidewater, Backman got to play under Davey Johnson, who knew what he had and used him immediately in the majors in 1984.
Gardenhire couldn’t hit and he couldn’t stay healthy, either. He was replaced by a teenaged Jose Oquendo, who at this point in his career couldn’t hit, either. Oquendo was replaced by Rafael Santana, who, imagine this, couldn’t hit. Next up was Kevin Elster, who had some pop but who never really put it together. Then came Dick Schofield, who carried on the family tradition of his dad, Dick Schofield, by not hitting, too. The elder Schofield had a lifetime 73 OPS+ and the son put up a 71 in his only season as a Met. Jose Vizcaino looked like Babe Ruth out there with his 88 OPS+ in 1995, which must have horrified the Mets because they replaced him with Rey Ordonez, who … wait for it … couldn’t hit. Bottom line is that Jose Reyes was a long time coming.
But one of the ways you get better is by replacing guys you know are no good. The Mets did that on this day 39 years ago. It’s nice to have good defensive players but you can’t carry a guy for years as a starter who can’t hit. Those who decry the Mets’ recent focus on offense over defense should be forced to watch Flynn as a starter for four-and-a-half years. And for the Mallex Smith fans out there, who think that exciting equals good, they should watch Taveras for three seasons and see if they change their minds.
Back in 1970, the Mets were the darlings of New York and the sports world. They had just come off the miracle championship season. I was 13 and my father took me to see them play at Shea Stadium. Jerry Koosman was the starter.
I had gotten a Polaroid camera for Christmas that year and took it with me. We sat in the bleachers and I took a couple of photos. I recently discovered these in an old photo album. Since this was a Polaroid, the photos came right out of the camera and I was able to write on the back of them what was on the image.
The first one is a photo of the field with Koosman and Nolan Ryan doing some laps. Unfortunately, it’s got that seating bar across it (I’ve gotten a little better at taking photographs since then). I am, however, struck by the openness and simplicity of the stadium though. No advertising, just the numbers on the outfield wall showing the dimensions (I still remember it was 396’ in the power alleys and 410’ to dead center).
The second photo is looking down into the Mets bullpen. There is Koosman again; warming up. His jacket is off and he’s getting ready for the game. Off to the right are some of the players’ cars. You can see the economics of the game displayed. The team was young. They had kids. These players drove station wagons. The bullpen itself is, like the stadium itself, pretty sparse. It is very wide-open. About half dirt and half grass. Koosman is standing out in the open throwing and probably throwing to Joe Pignatano. There is a single light pole out there and nothing else.
These two photos are certainly not museum quality shots but I think they capture the simplicity of the game. Baseball is best seen through the eyes of a kid. When Peter Alonso says Tom Seaver smiled at us after hitting a game-winning home run against the Yankees, it bypasses statistics, and contracts, and revenue, and advertising and places itself within the game’s timeline; within its consciousness.
Years from now, some fans will recall the Alonso moment and say I remember when he hit that home run the day we found out that Seaver had passed away. When I look at that photo of Koosman, I can recall when I was just a kid looking down on a hero getting ready for the game. I don’t recall who won and that doesn’t really matter too much because from a kid’s perspective, it isn’t really important.
After a rough stretch in the early 1990s, the 1996 season was a transitional season for the New York Mets. The team finished with a dreadful 71-91 record, good for fourth-place in the NL East, but gave fans a foreshadowing of the success which followed in the later part of the decade.
Generation K was supposed to be the cornerstone of that success. Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen both reached the major leagues in 1995, but Tommy John surgery at the end of spring training in ‘96 derailed Pulsipher’s season and career. Isringhausen and Paul Wilson each had their first full MLB seasons and underwhelmed.
New York’s offense was a different story. The Mets got career years from Todd Hundley, Bernard Gilkey and Lance Johnson, and Rey Ordonez proved to be a defensive whiz in his rookie season. Edgardo Alfonzo and Carl Everett didn’t play like the All-Stars they would eventually turn into, and GM Joe McIlvaine probably wishes he could hit the reset button on the Carlos Baerga for Jeff Kent trade he swung in July.
The Mets never got themselves in serious contention in ’96, but a five-game winning streak at the end of July pushed the team to 52-56 heading into the final two months of the season. They went 1-5 in their first six games in August, and were still clinging to the hope for a winning season in the middle of the month. Then they went south of the border and things took a turn.
As much as one would like to think this series was a good-will mission from Major League Baseball to Mexico, that was only a side benefit of the trip. Strangely enough, the Republican Party set the wheels in motion for this historic series.
When the 1996 MLB regular season schedule was announced, the Padres were supposed to host the Mets in a three-game series at Jack Murphy Stadium from August 16-18. Then, a problem arose. First, the Republican National Convention was to be held in San Diego from August 12-15, and Jack Murphy Stadium was in the running to host the festivities. By the time the GOP settled on the San Diego Convention Center as its venue, Padres President Larry Lucchino had made plans to play in Mexico.
Lucchino joined the Padres management team after a successful stint with the Baltimore Orioles, where he was responsible for the vision and conception of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. He brought several fan-friendly innovations to the Padres – planting palm trees beyond the outfield fence, becoming the first team to display pitch speed in the ballpark, and making players incredibly accessible to fans. Playing games in Mexico was another tremendous concept by Lucchino, owner John Moores, and their staff.
“What began as a scheduling problem evolved into a real opportunity for us to break new ground for Major League Baseball,” said Lucchino. “Monterrey is a great sports city, our first choice to host these landmark games.”
Home to the Sultanes de Monterrey of the Mexican League since 1990 the Estadio de Beisbol Monterrey holds over 26,000 fans, making it the largest baseball stadium in Mexico. The outfield dimensions are intimate, just 325 feet down the lines and 405 to center and inviting power alleys in left and right center. The Mets and Padres sold out all three games that weekend.
“At first we were a bit apprehensive,” Mets Manager Dallas Green said. “But everything has been great so far. We’ve tried to view this as just another road trip. But this is a historic event and we’re pleased to be a part of it.” In the mire of a very mediocre season, being part of this groundbreaking series was a highlight.
The Padres season was anything but mediocre heading into that weekend. Led by Tony Gwynn, Ken Caminiti and the newly-acquired Greg Vaughn, the San Diego was making a run for its first playoff appearance since 1984. They needed a strong push over the final month and a half to get past the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West. They found exactly that jolt in Monterrey.
Friday, August 16, 1996 – San Diego 15, Mets 10
“Mets are first major league team to lose in Mexico” declared the headline in the New York Times, recapping the wild game which was filled with enthusiastic fans and a six-piece mariachi band entertaining the crowd in between innngs.
The Padres aligned their rotation so that 35-year-old Fernando Valenzuela got the start in the series opener. “El Toro” was also honored with a standing ovation from his national crowd, and threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Robert Person took the ball for the Mets. San Diego took a 2-0 lead in the first inning on a Steve Finley home run, and built a 15-0 lead by the end of the sixth inning on the strength of four long balls. The Mets rallied for three runs against Valenzuela and reliever Dustin Hermanson in the top of the seventh.
The game got wild in the top of the ninth. Edgardo Alfonzo led off with a double against Hermanson, then Rey Ordonez walked. A double from Chris Jones plated Alfonzo and touched off a stretch where the Mets scored runs on four straight plays (two groundouts and an Andy Tomberlin home run) to cut the deficit to 15-7. A passed ball and a throwing error plated two more runs for the Mets against Sean Bergman, and Alfonzo singled home Alex Ochoa to run the score to 15-10. With the tying run still in the hole, San Diego’s third pitcher of the inning, Dario Veras, got Jones to line out to deep right to end the game.
Saturday, August 17, 1996 – Mets 7, San Diego 3
It was the Mets’ turn to build an early lead. Alfonzo put the Mets up 1-0 with an RBI single against San Diego’s Tim Worrell in the second and the team never looked back. They plated four more runs in the bottom of the third, and after the Friars cut the lead to 5-3, tacked on two insurance runs in the top of the ninth to seal the win. Mark Clark was good enough on the mound for New York, allowing three runs (one earned) on nine hits in 5.2 innings. Dave Mlicki and Doug Henry combined for 3.1 innings of scoreless relief. Gilkey and Hundley each had two hits and scored two runs, and six different players had at least one RBI for the team.
Sunday, August 18, 1996 – San Diego 8, Mets 0
The Sunday afternoon rubber game lives on as one of the most legendary games in the history of the San Diego Padres organization, known simply as “The Snickers Game.” Ken Caminiti was already playing the entire 1996 season with a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder, and was battling a severe case of food poisoning on this morning. He didn’t sleep a wink the night before and struggled to make the team bus to the ballpark. Padres hitting coach Merv Rettenmund remembers simply: “He looked like death.”
Padres trainers had him lay down in Bruce Bochy’s office and hooked him up to an IV bag suspended on a coat hanger on the ceiling. Less than 10 minutes before first pitch, Caminiti took the IV out of his arm and was ready to go. As he warmed up, he asked a trainer to go to the clubhouse and get him a Snickers bar. He ate two of them after the first inning, and led off the bottom of the second against Paul Wilson.
He swung and homered to left-center. 1-0 Padres. He batted again with two on in the third inning. Home run, 4-0 Padres. Caminiti batted one more time, striking out in the fifth before he was removed from the game and returned to the clubhouse where he was hooked back up to the IV. Members of the ’96 Padres still light up when talking about this game, and universally declare it to be the most impressive thing they’ve ever seen.
“You had to see it to believe it,” Tony Gwynn said. “It was a superhuman effort.”
Wilson’s troubles, however, were far from over. He surrendered a home run to opposing pitcher Joey Hamilton and allowed six runs in 6.0 innings. San Diego tacked on two more against reliever Paul Byrd en route to the series win.
National League President Leonard Coleman said the series was “a significant step in the international growth of baseball.” After three straight sell-out crowds, MLB has returned to Monterrey several times, most recently in 2019. In the last two and a half decades, baseball has made a conscious effort to play more games outside the continental US and Canada.
Regular season games have been played in Japan, Australia, England and Puerto Rico, and baseball has played games in non-traditional US markets like Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Cooperstown, New York; Williamsport, Pennsylvania; Nebraska and Hawai’i. In 2021, MLB will stage a game featuring the Chicago Cubs in an Iowa cornfield. As controversial as some of MLB’s decisions have been, its attempts to grow the game internationally are commendable.
Beginning with the Snickers Game, Caminiti hit .399/.485/.833 with 16 home runs for the remainder of the season and was unanimously chosen as the NL MVP after the Padres won the NL West. He signed an endorsement deal with the candy company and the San Diego’s rallying cry for the rest of the season was. “Get me an IV and a Snickers!” He led the Padres to the NL West title, which was won in dramatic fashion by sweeping the Los Angeles Dodgers at Chavez Ravine in the final series of the season.
The historic series marked the beginning of the Mets freefall in 1996. The team went just 1-9 in their next 10 games and fired Green on August 26 after returning home from the west coast swing that also saw the Mets play in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Bright spots down the stretch were watching Hundley and Johnson set single-season team records in home runs and hits, respectively, and watching a young core develop.
The Mets hired Bobby Valentine to replace Green as manager and also committed to a youth movement for the rest of the season. The team sputtered through an 11-15 September, but the experience gained down the stretch in ’96 set the stage for a much-improved 88-win team in 1997. With some tweaks to the roster, New York was ready for a runs in 1999 and 2000.
Joe Vasile is a play-by-play broadcaster for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders and Bucknell University, and the host of Secondary Lead, an upcoming baseball history podcast.
 The Houston Astros hosted the 1992 Republican National Convention at the Astrodome, which resulted in a record-setting 26-game road trip for the team. Coincidentally, Ken Caminiti, Steve Finley and Willie Blair were all members of both the ’92 Astros and ’96 Padres.
On July 22, 1986, the New York Mets played a road game against the Cincinnati Reds. Bobby Ojeda started against rookie Scott Terry. The Red led 3-1 with two outs in the 9th inning when Dave Parker dropped what should have been the final out of the game.
In the 10th inning, pinch-runner Eric Davis stood on 2nd base, after Pete Rose had hit a pinch-hit single. Ray Knight was the Mets’ third baseman. What happened next has become one of the team’s most memorable brawls. Here’s the YouTube video:
At 10 seconds in: Davis breaks to third while Eddie Milner strikes out.
At 11 seconds in: Knight takes the throw from Gary Carter. Davis emerges from the slide and faces the first base line and seems to declare himself safe.
At 12 seconds in: Knight looks to the umpire while the umpire calls Davis safe. Knight then looks down at Davis to see if he has taken his foot off the bag. Meanwhile, Davis also turns to the umpire to get confirmation of the call and possibly elbows Knight in the process. Then Knight begins to lean over Davis possibly to take advantage of any unintentional lifting of the foot.
At 13 seconds in: Knight continues to lean into Davis while the umpire is still signaling the safe call. Davis looks back to see what Knight is doing. Davis then begins to lose his balance and Knight looks to the umpire to see if he can get an “out” call.
At 14 seconds in: Davis faces Knight and pushes him back. The umpire tries to intercede. Davis and Knight fully square off against each other. Eye-to-Eye.
At 15 seconds in: Davis forces Knight backwards off the base. Knight then launches a right cross into Davis’s face while the umpire hold Davis around the waist. Davis gets spun to the right by the force of the punch.
At 16 seconds in: Knight prepares to continue the fight while Davis tires to regain his balance (he is still being held by the umpire).
At 17 seconds in: Davis does a complete 360 degree turn around the umpire while Knight takes a step back. Other club members begin to join the fray.
The chaos continued for another two minutes. Another serious fight ensued with Kevin Mitchell taking on more Reds. Four ejections from the game followed: Knight, Davis, Mitchell, Mario Soto, and Reds coach, Billy DeMars. Mets manager, Davey Johnson protested the game because the Mets lost two position players while the Red lost only two.
Carter took over at third base for Knight. Ed Hearn went behind the plate. Jesse Orosco then took over in right field to replace Mitchell. Orosco and Roger McDowell then swapped spots with each other until Howard Johnson won the game with a three-run home run in the 14th inning
Could we put together a division made up of the different Mets eras? Who would be victorious? What team would finish in last? How competitive would the different eras be?
Let’s start with developing the 25-man roster for the Mets teams prior to the Gil Hodges era that began in 1968.
The New York Mets from 1962 to 1967 were notorious for how bad they were, losing over 100 games in five of those first six years. They only missed losing 100 games all six years by losing 95 in in 1966. There are many reasons for this, including lack of talent. However, if you look at the teams of that era, it wasn’t that there was no talent, but more that the Mets’ management couldn’t build a roster in a way that made sense based on the talent they did locate. Such players were scattered on incomplete or in transitional rosters, which seemed to be the modus operandi of Mets management prior to Hodges taking over in 1968.
In building this roster, the concept was to build a team, not just the best 25 players. It was also to try to avoid having players on the roster that were traded for each other in an effort to show what a 1960’s Mets roster could have been. No players who had a major impact in the Hodges-managed Mets were included either and that will be noted when discussing the specific positions.
Jesse Gonder 1964
Chris Cannizzaro 1964
Choo-Choo Coleman 1962
Catcher was a bit of a black hole for the Mets before Jerry Grote took over in 1966, but of those early Mets teams, the 1964 group was the best. Gonder was mostly an offensive catcher and led the league in passed balls in 1963, but he posted a nearly .700 OPS and threw out 43% of would be runners, higher than the league average of 40%. Cannizzaro had one of the best years of his career in 1964, posting a .739 OPS, throwing out 59% of would be baserunners and providing solid defense behind the plate. Coleman is one of those Mets that is famous for being a part of that hapless 1962 team, but he was actually pretty good that year. Coleman posted a .744 OPS in 1962 and was at least league average behind the plate. This group, by rotating, would have not only limited each players faults but provided a pretty solid backstop for the team. Why three catchers? In the 1960’s, with smaller pitching staffs, having extra players that had limited positional versatility, like catchers, was pretty common, especially considering the toll the position took on the body.
Frank Thomas 1962
Tim Harkness 1963
This is where a minor stretch had to be made to the 25 man roster, for several reasons. One was that Ed Kranepool wasn’t eligible due to his participation in the Hodges era Mets. That severally limited options at first base since Kranepool was the everyday first baseman for the team starting in 1965 and was a regular in 1964. The other issue was Thomas. Thomas had to be on the roster as he had what was arguably the best Mets offensive season of the pre-Hodges era. Thomas hit 34 home runs in 1962, which was the Mets high water mark until Dave Kingman was on the roster in the mid-seventies. He also had an .824 OPS, one of the highest marks until the 1969 team. Thomas was awful in the field though and was tried at multiple positions in 1962, including a smattering of games at first base. He spent more time at that position in an injury plagued 1963 and in 1964 before being traded to the Phillies, where he was the starting first baseman in their playoff run down the stretch. Thomas wasn’t a good first baseman, but that was part of the reason for the inclusion of Harkness, who was an extremely good defensive first baseman with a minimal bat.
Ron Hunt 1964
Hunt was one of the best players on those early Mets teams, making the all-star team twice in the four years he was with the club. In 1964, one of those all-star seasons, Hunt posted a .763 OPS, batted .303 and posted a 3.2 bWAR. Hunt wasn’t a great defender, but he was solid and played hard every moment of every game.
Roy McMillan 1965
Shortstop was a position that went throughout a lot of different players before Bud Harrelson took control in 1967, but the best of that early group was the veteran McMillan. McMillan had lost a step in the field but was still solid and wasn’t a total loss at the plate in 1965. McMillan wasn’t really a full-time player any more at age 35, but he was an intelligent veteran and future coach and manager. His experience and demeanor would have been valuable on this team and with the utility players that were picked for the roster, he may have gotten the necessary time off to enhance his value even more.
Charley Smith 1965
Smith is a forgotten player in early Mets lore. He’s a classic example of the type of player the Mets looked for in that time period. Smith was a player just entering his prime when the Mets acquired him in 1964 from the White Sox, who had never reached the potential he was thought to have while playing in the Dodgers system prior to his debut in 1960. Smith was acquired for some flotsam and jetsam from the Mets 40-man roster in 1964 and proceeded to hit 20 home runs for the club while splitting time between shortstop and third base. After officially taking over the third base position in 1965, Smith hit 16 home runs in just 499 at bat’s and was terrific defensively. He should have been the team’s third baseman of the future entering 1966, his age 28 season, but instead was traded for an aging Ken Boyer, a common move by Mets management in those early years. Did Smith go on to have a spectacular career? No, but he was never given the same opportunity he had with the Mets in 1964 and 1965, so who knows how good he could have been.
Richie Ashburn 1962
Joe Christopher 1964
Jim Hickman 1962
Johnny Lewis 1965
The Mets actually had very solid outfielders in the early days, but just couldn’t put them all together on a single roster. Hickman was one of the players that had a ton of potential and didn’t realize it until joining the Cubs later in the decade. 1962 was his best season as a Met though, where he looked like a building block player. He posted a .729 OPS and showed solid power, hitting 13 home runs in 392 at bats. He also played solid outfield defense, including over 80 games in center field where he was a positive defender according to baseball runs saved. Ashburn was terrific in limited time in 1962, hitting .306 with a massive .424 OBP and .817 OPS. He was also fantastic as a pinch hitter that year, hitting .419 in those situations with a .514 OBP. He really couldn’t man center field any longer but handled right field well and would probably be used on this roster in a corner outfield position as a part time starter and regular pinch hitter. Christopher was another expansion draftee, like Hickman, who had never really gotten an opportunity on his home club, the Pirates. Christopher had a lot of talent, especially on the offensive end, and put that all together in 1964 when given an everyday spot in the lineup. Christopher hit .300 that year, with an 826 OPS, the highest mark a Met regular would post until Cleon Jones topped the 900 mark in his terrific 1969 season. Christopher was not a very disciplined outfielder usually relying on skill rather than any knowledge of positioning, but his best position was left field, where he probably would have been stationed on this roster. Lewis is another forgotten Met and a player the Mets had high hopes for when they traded one of the teams best pitchers, Tracy Stallard, for him prior to the beginning of the 1965 season. Lewis responded to the playing time in 1965, hitting 15 home runs, posting a .715 OPS and playing solid outfield defense, including being a plus defender in center field. On our roster, as a left-handed hitter, Lewis would have formed a nice platoon with Hickman in center field. This unit would have been strong offensively and pretty solid defensively as the positive defensive metrics of the other three players would have been able to hide Christopher and probably Thomas as well, when he spent a little time patrolling left field.
Felix Mantilla 1962
Bob Johnson 1967
Rod Kanehl 1962
Johnson had one of the greatest Mets seasons ever off the bench in 1967. He hit .348 with an .851 OPS a figure that didn’t make it in the Mets record books due to the fact it was done in in only 246 plate appearances. He was a tremendous pinch hitter, hitting .387 in those situations, and would have formed a dynamic left right pinch-hitting duo with Ashburn on our roster. He was also acquired for cash and spun into a trade for Art Shamsky, a key member of the Hodges era teams, so his inclusion was a must on this roster. Mantilla was a player who got regular time on the 1962 Mets, something he had never really gotten while playing several years for the Braves before being taken in the expansion draft by the Mets. That time was spent all over the diamond defensively with a bat that produced a .729 OPS. He would be traded to the Red Sox after 1962 and have two more terrific offensive seasons in 1964 and 1965. On our roster, he would have been all over the field, probably primarily filling in at second base and short. Kanehl makes the roster as an extra player, pinch runner and jack of all trades defensively. He’s also a legendary Met from those times and was actually pretty good as a fill in player in 1962. He was totally exposed when given a regular gig in the second half of 1962, but on this roster, he would have been able to sit right in as the guy who, functioning mostly as a pinch runner and defensive replacement, hit .259 before the all-star break in 1962.
Jack Fisher 1966
Al Jackson 1965
Dennis Ribant 1966
Carl Willey 1963
Starting pitching became what made the Mets contenders in the late 1960’s and early seventies, but the team couldn’t put together a cohesive starting staff in the era before that unit first came together with Hodges in 1968. The Mets did have solid seasons from several pitchers scattered throughout the first 6 years of the team’s existence and the four seasons above were the best (obviously excluding Tom Seaver, who’s tremendous rookie season in 1967 is omitted due to his importance on the Hodges-era teams). Fisher was an early workhorse for the team and posted a 3.68 ERA in 1966 while throwing 230 innings. Ribant was one of many young pitchers that had one good season for those early Mets and either flamed out or was traded away. In 1966, Ribant posted a 3.20 ERA and a 1.189 WHIP, all on his way to a terrific 3.2 bWAR in 188 innings of work. Jackson was arguably the Mets best starting pitcher of this era, throwing 205 innings in 1965 with a 3.43 FIP. Jackson, a ground ball pitcher, was notoriously undermined by the team’s bad defense, and would have had a more solid unit to work with on this roster. The 32 year-old Willey posted arguably the Mets best pitching season of the early era in 1963, posting a 3.10 ERA and 4.3 bWAR that year in 183 innings of work, including four shutouts.
Roger Craig 1963
Galen Cisco 1963
Both of these pitchers were classic examples of players put into roles that didn’t totally suit them with those early Mets teams. Craig was a terrific pitcher, but one that was ideally suited for a swing man role. This is proven by terrific seasons he had in such a role with the Dodgers and Cardinals around his Mets tenure. With the Mets, he was a workhorse, throwing 469 innings over two seasons and 64 starts. On our roster, he would have been allowed to start less and been slotted into the role he played for the Dodgers in 1959 and the Cardinals in 1964. Cisco was another player that was a much better reliever than starter, as evidenced in 1963, when he posted a 3.10 ERA as a reliever and a 5.13 ERA as a starter.
Larry Bearnarth 1963
Jack Hamilton 1966
Dick Selma 1967
Don Shaw 1967
Relievers were much less of a prominent part of a roster in the 1960’s, which is part of the reason this unit seems so minimal. However, all four of these guys brought something valuable as extra arms in a pitching staff that wasn’t made of the Bob Gibson’s of the world. Bearnarth was one of the longest tenured bullpen arms of the early Mets, throwing 319 innings in that role from 1963 to 1966. His best year was 1963 where he posted a 3.42 ERA over 126 innings of work, mostly in relief. Shaw was the classic lefty bullpen guy, posting a 2.98 ERA in 1967 over 51 innings. Hamilton, a flame throwing wild man, was the first Met to crack double digit saves, posting 13 such in 1967, a year he split between starting and relieving. Selma was another hard thrower and a relative bullpen ace in 1967, posting a 1.96 ERA in that role over 64 innings that year.
How would this team have fared? Better than one would think. It would have been pretty good offensively, with power, bench bats and really good hitters at most positions. It would have been about average defensively, but that is a far cry better than the bumbling reputation the Mets had in those years. The pitching staff is where it would lose out to other Mets eras and that’s why it probably would still be at the bottom of the Mets barrel, but still much more competitive than what most people would probably think.
The Mets historical performance defensively has been, in a word, bad. As we have examined the best and worst fielders in Mets history, it was evident identifying bad players was a little easier than identifying outstanding players. At second base, the answer was largely “no one.” It is never easy to explain *why* the Mets have ignored fielding all these years. Perhaps a little inferiority complex to the offense of the Bronx Bombers. Part of that is related to signing and playing old veterans.
Fielding is a younger person’s game. The aging curve starts earlier and peaks earlier than the offensive curve. You come into the league at your fastest, but still haven’t learned all the nuances, and generally, you peak your second or third year in the league – call it 24-25, and then you begin a decline, some of it faster than others depending on how reliant a player has been on speed. Leg or arm injuries hasten the decline a bit more than on offense where running and throwing are more important. It is all more intuitive than one might expect.
As we look at the ten best defensive teams the Mets have fielded, they get dominated by youth, and some pitching, but the link to pitching is not as strong as one would assume. They are absolutely linked, but as strikeouts become more prevalent, defense is marginally less important. As opponents’ slugging increases, defense becomes marginally more important. It mostly comes out in the wash. Any Mets fan guessing at the best defensive teams would get about half of the seasons correct. When a team plays well, they win.
The countdown begins.
10 – 2005, ~10 defensive runs saved.
First, yes, it is shocking that the tenth best season, out of 68, is a mere 10 runs above average. It highlights how poorly the Mets have selected players for their defensive prowess. This +10 does represent a significant improvement over the average Mets team. This was the early years of David Wrght (age 22) and Jose Reyes (age 22) but they were not the anchors of the team defensively. Carlos Beltran (age 28) and Cliff Floyd (age 32) were the strong performers, bringing the Mets team to the positive side of the ledger. Floyd’s contribution was mostly due to his arm, in preventing additional bases, and throwing our runners. Floyd had 15 assists from left field.
9 – 1976, ~11 defensive runs saved
This Mets team really was the last hurrah for several Met fan favorites. The Mets dumped everyone after 45 games into 1977, but these players really had gelled into a decent core. None of these guys were outstanding, but they hovered in the average range, and one or two new faces, Roy Staiger and Mike Phillips in the infield, and Jerry Grote giving way to the much younger John Stearns propped up the older players. The core of the last few years, Ed Kranepool, Felix Millan, Bud Harrelson, and Wayne Garrett had played well, but age was taking its toll, and Garrett was shipped off to Montreal with Del Unser.
8 – 1995, ~13 defensive runs saved
This strike season was not a great one for the Mets. Sure they finished second in the NL East, but had a losing record. This was a new beginning for the Mets, with younger players playing throughout the lineup, with no player particularly strong defensively, except Edgardo Alfonzo, but no player really sinking the defense except Jose Vizcaino. It was a pool of average performances, with a set of slightly above average performances from Ryan Thompson, Chris Jones, Jeff Kent, and Carl Everett.
7 – 1999, ~18 defensive runs saved
There is a pattern emerging, and it will become more evident as we climb into the top five. When a team signs players, or promotes young players that can play defense, the team has good defensive seasons, and often good overall seasons. The 1999 team included one of the top fielding first basemen in history, and he did more than just field groundballs well. John Olerud was smooth and prevented throwing errors from the infield at a remarkable rate throughout his career. Alfonzo had matured, 25 years old now, and was an incredibly good defender. The Mets had added Robin Ventura, whose defensive performance arguably put him on a WAR scale with the league MVPs that season, and of course, Rey Ordonez anchoring it all. This infield defense was airtight. These four were worth 80 runs saved! That should make you wince at the outfielders’ performance. Just a shift in personnel – getting Darryl Hamilton earlier. The Mets won 97 games, and a wild card slot, but that outfield defense was just terrible.
6 – 2007, ~24 defensive runs saved
This Met team was riding the crest of the Wright-Reyes-Beltran defense from a couple of years earlier. Carlos Delgado was playing adequately, and the outfield platoons were performing around average. The only blemish defensively was Shawn Green. Green was on his last legs, and had Lastings Milledge performed as his projections suggested, 2007 may have turned out differently.
As we head into the top five defensive Mets teams, take a note of the total runs saved, and how different they look.
5 – 1997, ~45 defensive runs saved
This team saved nearly twice as many as the previous teams. The core of the 1999 team was in place with Ordonez, Alfonzo and Olerud were playing well. At second base, we all recall the husk of Carlos Baerga, but for this season, he was putting an average defensive performance on the field. The pitching staff was a good groundball staff, and the infield kept the Mets in games and the playoff hunt heading down the home stretch.
4 – 1970, ~47 defensive runs saved
The 1970 team had solid defensive players in their prime. Tommie Agee, Cleon Jones, Grote, Harrelson, Garrett. Art Shamsky playing great defense. Agee as an anchor in center field everyone else performing just above average really drives a team to a solid defensive performance. This team and the 1997 team epitomize what a couple of good fielders and no sinkholes can do for a team. The 1970 team could have done better with fewer sinkholes at the plate, as Harrelson, Grote and Ken Boswell had managed hitting much at all.
3 – 1996, ~47 defensive runs saved
The 1996 team is the very peak of the Rey Ordonez Mets. The Mets had also brought in Bernard Gilkey and Lance Johnson, both of whom were good fielders, and with Alex Ochoa and Everett coming along the defensive learning curve, the outfield shone. With Ordonez and Alfonzo anchoring the infield, the Mets needed a little more help from the corners. Butch Huskey and Tim Bogar were not enough to keep those holes from being costly. As we saw with the addition of Olerud, a good first baseman can cure a lot of infield ills.
2 – 2006, ~52 defensive runs saved
Defense can push teams to championships. The 2006 Mets were a solid hitting team, and a good pitching team, and an excellent fielding team. Wright, Reyes, Delgado, Beltran, Floyd, and the additional playing time for Endy Chavez, and addition of Jose Valentin. This was an excellent defensive tam all around, and Chavez provided the Mets with arguably the greatest catch in team history. This was the best team in the NL, despite how it all ended.
1 – 1969, ~53 defensive runs saved
The best defensive team in Mets history was one of the youngest as well. The defensive innings went to players 26 and under. We’ve mentioned the players as they were all part of the 1970 team as well. Jones had his best defensive season, Agee Grote and Harrelson were at the top of their games defensively. Only four players performed below average, and all were just barely below. It was a great team all around.
A few quick notes – the 1986 team was about the 11th best, but nearly all of that was Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter, with a little Rafael Santana. 2008-2010 were solid teams. But on the whole, after 68 years, the Mets team *average* a defensive performance of -15 runs saved. So all of these teams outperformed Met-spectations by another win and a half.
The 1986 team is now a cherished memory among New York Met fans. Many players on that roster still rank high on any all-time favorite Mets list. There was one player who was released though who caused some controversy prior to his departure.
That player was none other than George Foster; he wore number 15 and played left field. By late July though, he was left out.
Foster came to the team with much ballyhoo at the start of the 1982 season. Flyers went out; he was featured on the cover of the yearbook that season (along with George Bamberger). He came to the Mets after starring for the Cincinnati Reds.
He didn’t hit a ton that year (13 HRs, 70 RBIs, and a .247 batting average). But the next year, in 1983, Foster’s performance improved (28 HRs, 90 RBIs, and a .241 batting average). He was likewise productive in both 1984 and 1985 but he was never the monster force the Mets thought they had acquired.
In 1986, his performance and playing time continued to diminish and by late July, he was a part-time player. The Mets were winning and their team was solid. They didn’t need Foster to contribute offensively; they had other players who were performing.
Then in early August, while the Mets were out-of-town on a road trip, the news broke that Foster was being released. Prior to his release, Foster had told a newspaper:
“I’m not saying it’s a racial thing. But that seems to be the case in sports these days. When a ball club can, they replace a George Foster or a Mookie Wilson with a more popular white player.
“I think the Mets would rather promote a Gary Carter or a Keith Hernandez to the fans so parents who want to can point to them as role models for their children, rather than a Darryl Strawberry or a Dwight Gooden or a George Foster.”
At a subsequent team meeting, Foster told his teammates that his remarks were being taken out of context. Davey Johnson, though, was uncomfortable with Foster keeping his spot on the roster and had already replaced him as a starter with rookie, Kevin Mitchell. Then, Frank Cashen announced he had placed Foster on waivers.
Foster later clarified his remarks, saying:
“I never said race had anything to do with who plays – me or Dykstra or Mazzilli or Mitchell,” he said. “I even prefaced my remarks by saying I didn’t want it to be racial. How could it be construed as such when Kevin Mitchell isn’t white?”
“I was talking from a business standpoint about promoting players, marketing players. You can take it from a business or economic standpoint: What product will sell to the public? What section of people will it attract to the ballpark?”
For his part, Johnson explained his actions as follows:
“Normally, I wouldn’t comment on something a player is quoted as saying,” Johnson said. “But this is an affront to me. He was alluding to my integrity as a baseball manager. I cannot have anybody on the club who questions my motives.”
Johnson continued, “George is a fine man, a good man, and he’s been a great ballplayer. But it hurts me. He put me into a corner.
The only thing I can think of is he’s had a great career and I’ve had the unfortunate task of sitting him down near the end of his career.
“In the four years he’s been here, he’s been streaky,” Johnson added. “This year, with the emergence of Kevin Mitchell,
I couldn’t afford the luxury of waiting for George. My job is to put the best nine players out there.”
Bill Robinson, the team’s first base coach, said:
“I’m black, and I’m sensitive to racial issues, if I thought there was any racial overtone to anything on this club, I’d quit or I’d strongly object. I don’t think this will offend the black players. Dwight Gooden is one of the country’s most popular athletes. So is Darryl Strawberry, and Mookie Wilson is a favorite with the public.”
Some of Foster’s teammates spoke out on Foster’s behalf. Strawberry said:
“I’m disappointed the way the organization handled it. A guy who had a career like that deserved to wait till the end of
the season. Who knows, maybe I’m next.”
“I would have to say he was misquoted. George was one of the great ones.”
In the end, Foster would sign with the Chicago White Sox and go onto play a handful of games for them before being released again. Foster’s performance and demeanor never earned him the same level of appreciation individually that the 1986 team earned as a whole. Despite that, the team voted to award Foster a World Series ring and a three-quarters share of the championship money. Foster was also on hand for the final game at Shea Stadium in 2008.