Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Top 5 Reasons You Can’t Blame the 1980s Mets for Winning Only 1 Pennant

October 27, 1986, 25 years ago: The New York Mets defeat the Boston Red Sox, 8-5, to win Game 7 of the World Series, and claim their 2nd World Championship.

Remember the victory celebration at City Hall? Mookie Wilson proclaimed, “1986, the Year of the Mets! 1987, the Year of the Mets! 1988, the Year of the Mets!”

There was some reason for it. The Mets had gone from last place in the National League Eastern Division in 1983, 94 losses and 22 games out of 1st place; to 2nd, 90 wins and 6½ games out in 1984; to 2nd, 98 wins and 3 games out in 1985, to 1st, 108 wins (most ever by an NL team in New York and the most by any New York team between the 1961 and 1998 Yankees) and 21½ games ahead in 1986. The team had a good mix of kids and veterans, reliable hitting and solid pitching.

The future seemed wide open.

The 1987 season was a bit of a comedown: 2nd, 92 wins, 3 games out. In 1988, they won the NL East again, 15 games ahead, and were 3 outs away from going up 3 games to 1 over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Championship Series.

Then Mike Scioscia hit a home run off the great Dwight Gooden. Only once since have the Mets been so close to that elusive 3rd World Championship.

The Mets finished 2nd again in 1989 and 1990, then fell apart. Their close calls, near-misses and chokes in the 1990s and 2000s are a post for another time.

Why couldn’t this team, which Met fans and a Met-loving media told at the time was supposedly better than any of the great Yankee teams, and which Met fans still insist was better than the 1998 Yankees, win more than one Pennant?

Top 5 Reasons You Can’t Blame the 1980s Mets for Winning Only 1 Pennant

5. Dynasties Are Hard. In 1975-76, the Cincinnati Reds won back-to-back World Series. In 1977-78, the Dodgers won back-to-back Pennants. Since then, the only NL team to win back-to-back Pennants is the 1995-96 Atlanta Braves.

In fact, since the Mets won the 1986 Pennant, the Pennants won in the NL are as follows: Braves 5, St. Louis Cardinals 4 (including this season), Philadelphia Phillies 3, San Francisco Giants 3, Florida Marlins 2, Dodgers 1, Reds 1, San Diego Padres 1, Arizona Diamondbacks 1, Houston Astros 1, Colorado Rockies 1, Mets 1. (That’s 24, and the never-settled 1994 race makes 25. The teams that haven’t won in that time are the Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh Pirates and Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals.)

The American League hasn’t been a whole lot easier. True, the Yankees won 3 straight World Championships, 1998-2000, and 6 Pennants in 8 years, 1996-2003. But the only other AL team to win 3 straight Pennants in the post-1969 Divisional Play Era is the Oakland Athletics, and they’ve done it twice, 1972-74 and 1988-90. And that second time, they only won the World Series once.

4. Davey Johnson. He managed the Mets to a 108-54 record that season, as part of a career record that, after managing the Nationals for the 2nd half of this season, stands at 1188-931, or .561. But take out that 108-54, and his record drops to 1080-877, or .551.

The 1980s Mets weren’t Davey’s only shortfall. He managed the Reds to 1st place when the Strike of ’94 hit, and the ’95 NL Central title. And he got them to sweep the Dodgers in the Division Series, the Reds’ only postseason series win since 1990. But they then got swept themselves by the Braves.

Davey then moved on to the Baltimore Orioles, where he got them to the AL Wild Card in 1996, then lost his cool over the Jeffrey Maier incident in the ALCS, and the team followed his lead and lost 4 out of 5, including all 3 at home. And in 1997, the O’s won 98 games, still the most they’ve won since 1983, but again lost 2 out of 3 at home in the ALCS.

Davey was fired, and in 1999 was hired to run the Dodgers. Two seasons, one losing 85, one winning 86 but 11 games behind their arch-rivals, the Giants, in the NL West. He was fired, and at age 57, just as a manager should be in his prime, it looked like his career was over, until he got the Nats job this season at 68.

I can’t help but think that if the Mets had just given Joe Torre (their manager from 1977-81) a little more time, he might have been the beneficiary of the Mets’ return to respectability in 1984, and he might have done more with the Mets than Davey did. Certainly, Joe outmanaged Davey in 1996. The Mets didn’t win the ’86 Series because of Davey – but in spite of him.

3. Injuries. You’ll notice I don’t cite “Drugs,” “Alcohol” or “Substance Abuse” as a reason, in spite of the records of Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Keith Hernandez, Len Dykstra and Kevin Mitchell. That’s because that was their own doing. But injuries are a legitimate excuse.

It wasn’t just cocaine that curtailed Doctor K’s career: He had shoulder issues. Hernandez developed a bad back. Bob Ojeda wrecked his elbow. Sid Fernandez hurt his knee. David Cone, who didn’t arrive until 1987, had some injuries. Carter was 32 but slowed down considerably in 1987, and had his last season of at least 500 plate appearances in 1988. Considering that he is now, tragically, battling cancer, one might think that he “fits the steroid profile”; however this is unlikely, since steroids weren’t nearly so prevalent in baseball in the mid-1980s, and if he was using them after 1986, they clearly weren’t helping much.

2. Whitey Herzog. Barring an unlikely series of events, Dorrel Norman Elvert Herzog will probably be the last combination field manager and general manager to build a Pennant winner. These days, the job is just too big for any one man.

The White Rat led the Cardinals to 3 Pennants in the 1980s, including beating the Mets out for the NL East in 1985 and ’87. (Note that, under the current 3-Division-plus-Wild-Card setup, the Mets would have at least won the NL East every season from 1984 to 1990, with the Cards and Cubs battling it out for the NL Central.)

The Mets were known for their “pests,” guys like Mookie, Dykstra, Wally Backman, guys who didn’t have a lot of power but were good at getting on base, baserunning and fielding. But so were the Cards – in fact, except for the years when the steroided-up Mark McGwire was bashing out home runs, that’s pretty much been the Cards’ trademark since Branch Rickey built them into champions in the 1920s:

1926-28: Rogers Hornsby, Sunny Jim Bottomley, Charles "Chick" Hafey.

1931-34: The Gashouse Gang, led by player-manage Frankie Frisch, who'd previously sparked the New York Giants. While ace pitcher Jay "Dizzy" Dean was the face of the franchise, the real motors were Frisch, John "Pepper Martin" and a young shortstop named Leo Durocher.

1942-46: Although they had the mighty Stan Musial, far more indicative of their style were Enos Slaughter, Marty Marion and Red Schoendienst.

1964-68: With Schoendienst managing them, it was Lou Brock, Curt Flood, Julian Javier, Mike Shannon and Tim McCarver, slap hitters with good defense and (in some cases) great baserunning that gave Bob Gibson the runs he needed, far more than sluggers like Ken Boyer, Orlando Cepeda and the last 2 years of Roger Maris.

Even from 2004 to now, with Albert Pujols as their big gun, they’re better known as a contact-hitting, running, fielding team. They still bear the marks of Frisch, Schoendinest and Herzog.

If Herzog hadn’t been managing in the NL – if he’d stayed in the AL, where he managed the Kansas City Royals to AL West titles in 1976-78 – the Mets might have won at least 2 more NL East titles and put themselves in position to win more Pennants.

But then, if the Mets hadn’t passed over Herzog, then their director of player development, for Yogi Berra to become manager after Gil Hodges’ death in 1972, he might not have left the organization. Chalk up another shortsighted futzup to team chairman M. Donald Grant.

All good reasons. But Number 1 should stand out, as the biggest reason the 1980s Mets didn't really have "the teamwork to make the dream work" more than once:

1. They Weren’t That Good.

Seriously: They were not a great team.

True, in ’86 the Mets had a stretch in April and May where they won 18 out of 19. But from September 8 onward, they went 16-10 – 24-15 counting the postseason. They were 17-1 against the Pirates and 10-2 against the Padres; take that out, and they were 81-51. Against the 2nd-place team in the NL East, the Phillies, they were just 8-10.

Indeed, the fact that they were tied with the Astros after Game 4 of the NLCS, and were desperate to not face Mike Scott in a deciding Game 7, especially in the Astrodome, and the fact that they fell behind the Red Sox 2 games to 0 at Shea Stadium and were within 1 strike of blowing a World Championship that had been described as “inevitable” ever since the ’85 regular season ended – before the ’85 postseason had even been played – shows that it was anything but inevitable.

The ’86 Mets, combined, had an OPS+ of 106, meaning they were just 6 percent better offensively than the average NL team that season. Indeed, the Yankees, who didn’t have the pitching to get past the Red Sox that year, had an OPS+ of 115, thanks to Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly and Rickey Henderson.

The Mets had an ERA+ of 115, meaning they were 15 percent better at pitching – good, but hardly suggesting of a World Championship. Compare that to the Astros the Mets beat for the Pennant: 114. Or to the Mets’ other World Series-winning team, 1969: 122. Even this year’s Yankee team, which won the AL East but lost the ALDS, had a team ERA+ of 119, 4 percent better than the ’86 Mets!

Think about it: Of the last New York sports team that could even remotely be called a "dynasty," the 1996-2003 Yankees, how many players will make the Baseball Hall of Fame? Wade Boggs is already in. Tim Raines should be. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera are shoo-ins. Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina have good shots. That’s 6, without counting manager Torre (who will get in) or owner George Steinbrenner (who might). If Roger Clemens is judged solely on his stats, especially if no proof of steroid use is publicly revealed (we all believe he did it, but the proof is yet unseen by the average fan), that’s 7. Nor does this count guys who are probably a level or two away from being Hall-worthy, like Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez, Jimmy Key and David Cone.

Now, about those 1980s Mets: Who is going to be in the Hall of Fame? Carter already is, and deservedly so. But Hernandez? Great fielder, but Baseball-Reference.com’s Hall of Fame Monitor, where 100 is a “Likely HOFer,” has him at 86; their Hall of Fame Standards, where the “Average HOFer” is at 50, has him at 32. He was a key figure on 2 World Championship teams, first the '82 Cards, then the '86 Mets. He won a batting title, an MVP and several Gold Gloves. He was good with the media. And, while this shouldn't be a qualification, he's handsome and charming. He’s been eligible for the Hall since 1996, so why isn’t he in? Are they holding his past drug use against him? (It would explain why the even more deserving Raines is not in.)

How about Strawberry? Not even close, according to B-R: 55 and 30. Gooden? 88 and 40, closer than Mex and Darryl, but not there – and, again, that’s due as much to injuries as to coke and booze. Howard Johnson? Not even close, probably due to not having had a full season after age 30. (Steroids? From age 21 to 25 he was a light hitter; 27 to 30, great hitter; 31 to 34, fell apart; after 34, out of the majors.) Dykstra? You're kidding, right? The guy had 7 very good seasons, but only 2 great ones, 1990 and '93, and both of those came after he was foolishly traded to the Phillies for Juan Samuel -- the Phils definitely got more out of both of them than the Mets did.

The other pitchers, Darling, Ojeda, El Sid, Jesse Orosco? None comes close. Nor is Davey Johnson in the Hall. Nor is general manager Frank Cashen, who was also a key cog in building the Orioles who won 6 Pennants from 1966 to 1983, and thus probably should be in, although there are only 5 men in the Hall who are there as general managers, rather than as owners or Commissioners/League Presidents, and only one of those, Pat Gillick, was involved with any championship team after the 1964 season.

Furthermore, let’s look at the competition the Mets had in the NL East. In 1984, they lost the Division to the Cubs; in ’85, the Cards; ’87, the Cards again; ’89, the Cubs again; ’90, the Pirates. None of those teams ended up winning the World Series; in fact, the ’84 and ’89 Cubs and the ’90 Pirates didn’t even win the Pennant.

The one team to knock the Mets out and win the Series was the ’88 Dodgers, and they were one of the weakest World Champions ever: They were the 2nd team to win the World Series with not a single Hall-of-Famer playing for them. (The 1st? The ’81 Dodgers, and don’t count on Steve Garvey, Fernando Valenzuela, Kirk Gibson or Orel Hershiser being elected to change either of those distinctions.) In fact, until Carter was elected, the ’86 Mets were the 2nd team to win it all with no HOF players.

And I haven’t even mentioned, until now, the Curse of the Bambino on the Red Sox (no World Series wins without cheating since 1918), or the Curse of Judge Hofheinz on the Astros (took ‘em 44 years to win their 1st Pennant and have still never won a World Series game, let alone a Series). Considering who they played in the postseason, the Mets were damn lucky.

Indeed, given the current setup, the Mets would have won the East, the Astros the Central, the Giants the West, and the Phils and Reds would have tied for the Wild Card. As I said, the Mets had a losing record against the Phils that year; suppose the Mets, who would not have faced the Phils in the NLDS due to being in the same Division, had beaten the Giants in their NLDS, and the Phils had beaten the Astros in theirs. The Phils, especially with Steve Carlton finally showing his age and the wrong Maddux brother (Mike) in their rotation, wouldn’t have scared anyone; but they had a good bullpen with Steve Bedrosian (won the next year’s NL Cy Young), Don Carman, Tom Hume and a 39-year-old but still quite effective Kent Tekulve. And with Mike Schmidt winning his 3rd MVP, and good bat years from Von Hayes, Glenn Wilson and the aforementioned Juan Samuel... who knows? It could have been a Phils-Red Sox World Series. (That’s only happened once, all the way back in 1915.) It would have been a surprise – but considering how the Mets almost lost to the Astros and again almost lost to the Red Sox, hardly impossible.

When you consider the great teams in New York baseball history – the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees of 1926-32, the Gehrig-DiMaggio Yankees of 1936-39, the Mantle-Berra-Ford Yankees of 1951-64, the Reggie Yankees of 1976-81, the Jeter-Rivera Yankees of 1996-2003, the Mathewson Giants of 1905, the Frisch Giants of 1917-24, the Ott-Terry-Hubbell Giants of 1933-37, the Robinson-Snider Dodgers of 1947-56, or even the light-hitting but pitching-strong, gutsy Seaver Mets of 1969-73...

Would you take the ’86 Mets over any of these teams? Would you really?

Face it: The wrong Met World Championship team is being called a “miracle.”

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