Monday, October 8, 2012

How Long It's Been: A Met Pitcher Won 20 Games in a Season


Two weeks ago, on September 27, 2012, the Mets beat the Pittsburgh Pirates, 6-5 at Citi Field.  The winning pitcher was Robert Allen Dickey, whose record advanced to 20-6.

In ye olden days of baseball, “R.A.” was short for “Red Ass,” a term used to describe a player who was always in a bad mood.  The Mets have had a few of those over the years, and understandably so.  But R.A. Dickey is no Red Ass.

The last time a Met pitcher won his 20th game of the season was on October 3, 1990, also against the Pirates.  It was Frank Viola, and it was a tougher task, as it was on the road at Three Rivers Stadium, and the Pirates were National League Eastern Division Champions.  The Mets closed to within 4 games of the Pirates, but would get no closer to the NL East lead on a final day until 2006.

Here’s the Mets’ lineup for that day:

CF Darren Reed
1B Dave Magadan (replaced by Kelvin Torve)
RF Pat Tabler
2B Tim Teufel
3B Tom O’Malley
LF Chris Jelic (P Dan Schatzeder, P Alejandro Pena)
C Todd Hundley
SS Kevin Baez
P Frank Viola (PH-LF Keith Hughes)

Not exactly a classic lineup, although that can be explained by the meaninglessness of the game, to everyone but Viola.  The usual lineup would have had Mackey Sasser behind the plate, Gregg Jeffries at 2nd, Kevin Elster at short, Howard Johnson at 3rd, Kevin McReynolds in left, Daryl Boston in center, and Darryl Strawberry in right.

Indeed, while it had been only 4 years since Jesse Orosco threw his glove in the air to complete the 1986 World Championship, only 7 players were left from that team: Darryl (not Daryl), Teufel, Elster, HoJo, Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling and Sid Fernandez.  David Cone was there, but had not yet become a Met in 1986.

In the ensuing 22 years, 5 Yankees have won 20 or more games in a season: Andy Pettitte in 1996, Cone in 1998 (having done it for the Mets in 1988, making him the only pitcher to win 20 for both teams), Roger Clemens in 2001, Mike Mussina in 2008, and CC Sabathia in 2010.  But no Mets since 1990 – until now.

October 3, 1990.  That’s just under 22 years – 21 years, 11 months and 25 days.  How long has that been?

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The Mets were finishing their 7th straight season finishing at least 2nd in the NL East: 1984-90.  It’s the only time in their history that they’ve done that – although the Yankees have done it twice (10 straight, 1949-58; 13 straight, 1995-2007).  The old New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers also pulled the feat off.

But in 1990, the Yankees finished dead last in the AL East, their only last-place finish in the Divisional Play era, and only the 4th in their entire history: 1908, 1912, 1966 and 1990.  It hasn’t happened since.  George Steinbrenner had been banned from baseball (a ban that would be lifted prior to the 1993 season), and the franchise was in total disarray.  The last World Championship was 12 years earlier, the last Pennant 9 years, and it didn’t look like there would even be a serious run at another anytime soon.  Attendance at Shea Stadium was 2,732,745 – 33,737 per game.  At the old Yankee Stadium, it was 2,006,436 – 24,771 per game.

In 1990, the Mets were the kings of New York Tri-State Area baseball.  Not only was it undisputed, it was indisputable.  The situation was very much the reverse of the current situation: Although the Mets were about to fall from their perch, and the Yankees were about to begin to rise, hardly anyone saw either eventuality coming.

There were no Asian players in the major leagues, and the SkyDome in Toronto had recently become the first stadium with a retractable roof.  The old Comiskey Park in Chicago had closed 3 days earlier, leaving Tiger Stadium in Detroit and Fenway Park in Boston as the only remaining pre-World War I parks.  In other words, when Viola won his 19th game of the 1990 season (if not when he won his 20th), there was a park still standing where Cy Young had played.  Not just Cy Young Award winners, but Cy Young himself.

The Milwaukee Brewers were in the American League, and the Houston Astros were in the National League.  (The former is no longer true, and the latter will no longer be true starting next season.) There was no regular season Interleague play.  The Montreal Expos had no intention of moving.

Baseball was going to expand for 1993, and the decision would be announced in a few weeks.  The contenders were, in alphabetical order: Buffalo, Charlotte, Denver, Miami, Nashville, Orlando, Phoenix, Sacramento, Tampa Bay and Washington.  In December 1990, the search was narrowed to Buffalo, Denver, Miami, Orlando, Tampa Bay and Washington.  It was agreed that only one of the Florida areas would make it.  The following June, the decision was made: Denver and Miami, the Colorado Rockies and the Florida Marlins (now the Miami Marlins).  Phoenix and Tampa Bay would have to wait until 1995, to start play in 1998; Washington got the Expos in the 2004-05 off-season.  The other cities are still waiting: Charlotte is being seriously talked about as a future team’s home; so is Sacramento, but only for the Oakland Athletics; so is Orlando, but only for the Tampa Bay Rays.  Meanwhile, Buffalo has a stadium but a shrinking population base, and Nashville seems to have given up completely.

There were 2 NFL teams in Los Angeles, but none in St. Louis, Baltimore, the Carolinas or Jacksonville.  There was an NBA team in Charlotte, but it wasn’t the Bobcats.  There was an NHL team in Minnesota, but it wasn’t the Wild.  There was a Winnipeg Jets, but it wasn’t the current NHL franchise by that name.  There were still NHL teams in Quebec City and Hartford.  There were no NHL teams in the Southeastern or Southwestern U.S.

The defining baseball players of my childhood were pretty much done: Carl Yastrzemski and Johnny Bench were already in the Hall of Fame.  Reggie Jackson, Tom Seaver and Mike Schmidt were retired and waiting out the Hall’s five-full-seasons eligibility requirement.  Nolan Ryan and George Brett were still active.  Pete Rose was already banned.

Dickey, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz were in high school.  CC Sabathia, David Wright, Jose Reyes, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder were in grade school.  Stephen Strasburg was 2 years old.  Bryce Harper and Mike Trout weren’t born yet.

The same night that Viola won his 20th, I was at Yankee Stadium, watching the Yanks play out the string against the Detroit Tigers, for whom Prince Fielder plays now, and I watched his father Cecil Fielder hit his 50th and 51st home runs of the season in a Tiger win.  At the time, 50 homers in a season hadn’t been done since George Foster did it for the Cincinnati Reds in 1977, or in the American League since Mickey Mantle (54) and Roger Maris (61) both did it for the 1961 Yankees.  It would, within a few years, become quite common – and, as we later learned, for a dubious reason.

The Toronto Blue Jays, the Atlanta Braves (not since they were in Milwaukee), the San Francisco Giants (not since they were in New York), and the team then known as the California Angels had not yet won their 1st World Series.  The Jays, the Braves (not since they were in Milwaukee), and the Houston Astros had not yet won their 1st Pennant.  The Seattle Mariners, the Texas Rangers had not yet reached the postseason for the 1st time.  All of these things have since happened.  There were then World Series droughts for the Braves (33 years), the Giants (36 years), the Cleveland Indians (42 years, 26 years without even a Pennant), the Boston Red Sox (72 years), the Chicago White Sox (73 years), and the Chicago Cubs (82 years).  The droughts have ended for the Braves, the Giants, the Red Sox and the White Sox – but not the Indians and Cubs.

The Cincinnati Reds were about to win the World Series, shocking the defending champion A’s in a 4-game sweep.  The New York Giants went on to win the Super Bowl, beating the Buffalo Bills in a classic after dethroning the defending champion San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.  The Detroit Pistons were 2-time defending NBA Champions – Michael Jordan, indeed the Chicago Bulls franchise, had not yet won a title, but that was about to change.  The Edmonton Oilers were the defending Stanley Cup Champions – Mario Lemieux, indeed the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise, had not yet won a title, but that was about to change.  Nor had the New Jersey Devils won the Cup.  Nor had the New York Rangers – not in the last 50 years, anyway.  The heavyweight champion of the world was James “Buster” Douglas, who had knocked out Mike Tyson earlier in the year, but within a month he would be defeated himself by Evander Holyfield.

The President of the United States was George Herbert Walker Bush.  His son George was the owner of the Texas Rangers.  Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, their wives, and the widows of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were still alive, as were (and still are) Jimmy Carter and his wife.  Bill Clinton was about to be elected to his 5th term as Governor of Arkansas.  Barack Obama was President – of the Harvard Law Review.  Joe Biden was Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and had just presided over confirmation hearings for the newest Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, David Souter.  Mitt Romney was about to be named CEO of Bain Capital, so instead of them going out of business (they nearly did), he could help them cause other companies to go out of business.

The Governor of the State of New York was Mario Cuomo.  His son, the current Governor, Andrew Cuomo, was working for the man then Mayor of the City of New York, David Dinkins, as Chairman of the New York City Homeless Commission.  Former Governors Malcolm Wilson and Hugh Carey were still alive.  George Pataki was in the State Assembly.  Eliot Spitzer was an Assistant District Attorney for Manhattan.  David Paterson was in the State Senate.  Former Mayors Robert Wagner Jr., Abe Beame and John Lindsay were still alive.  So was Ed Koch, who still is.  Rudy Giuliani was licking his wounds from his 1989 electoral loss to Dinkins.  Michael Bloomberg was involved in financial services, and had just launched his company’s broadcast services.

Major novels of the year included Clear and Present Danger by Tom Clancy, Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy, Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard, The Bourne Ultimatum by Robert Ludlum, and The Burden of Proof by Scott Turow.  All became major motion pictures.

Major TV shows that had just debuted, or soon would, included the original Law & Order, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Evening Shade, Dream On, Beverly Hills 90210, and a TV version the comic-book speedster The Flash.  Oh yeah, and Cop Rock, which became one of the biggest jokes in the history of television.  Think Police Academy meets Glee.  On second thought, don't think about that.  I wouldn't want you to get a headache.

Celine Dion said hello, making her English-language debut.  Leonard Bernstein said goodbye, announcing his retirement from conducting, and dying within days.  Stevie Ray Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash.  Judas Priest was exonerated on charges that they led two Nevada teenagers to kill themselves.  Sinead O’Connor refused to take the stage at the Garden State Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey, if the National Anthem was played; the staff of the venue now known as the PNC Bank Arts Center did not play it, and Sinead performed.  This was the first time she courted controversy in the New York Tri-State Area, but not the last, nor the biggest.  A band called “Mookie Blaylock,” after the basketball player, would soon play its first concert; they would soon change their name to Pearl Jam.

The Prime Minister of Canada was Brian Mulroney.  The monarch of Britain was Queen Elizabeth II (that hasn’t changed).  Liverpool were the defending Champions of England’s Football League, their 18th title – they haven’t won it since.  Manchester United needed a replay against South London club Crystal Palace to win the FA Cup, which they’d also won twice in the 1980s, but they hadn’t won the League since 1967.  North London’s Arsenal went on to win the League in the season that had just begun.

There were portable telephones, but they didn’t exactly fit in your pocket.  The World Wide Web was about to be introduced, but hardly anyone had heard of it, and the word “Internet” was not yet in wide usage.  The Hubble Space Telescope had recently been launched, but it didn’t work, and would require a rescue mission.

In the early fall of 1990, the elder President Bush was building Operation Desert Shield, in anticipation of having to liberate Kuwait from Iraq; when Saddam Hussein refused to remove his troops from Kuwait, the Operation became Desert Storm.  Germany was reunified after 45 years.  A civil war began in Rwanda.

Douglas Edwards, and Le Duc Tho, and Joel McCrea died.  Allison Scagliotti, and Jonathan Lipnicki, and Ricky Rubio were born.

October 3, 1990.  A pitcher for the New York Mets won his 20th game of the season, Frank Viola.  Now it has happened again, with R.A. Dickey.

But unlike Viola, whose 20 wins nearly helped the Mets win the Division, Dickey’s 20 wins had little effect on the Pennant race.  Maybe someday, he’ll play in the postseason.  Or maybe not: After all, knuckleball or not, he is about to reach his 38th birthday.  He’s not exactly a kid anymore.

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