Jeff Pearlman, The Bad Guys Won! A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo-chasing, and Championship Baseball with Straw, Doc, Mookie, Nails, The Kid, and the Rest of the 1986 Mets, the Rowdiest Team Ever to Put on a New York Uniform—and Maybe the Best (2004).
Pearlman writes, “There are those who will read this book and say, ‘Why would anyone root for a team made up entirely of imbeciles?’” Rooting for them was no problem; reading about them was kind of pushing it, though. Some might consider the 1986 Mets merely to be a particularly egregious result of our national method for socializing eleven-year-old athletes. But to Pearlman their behavior embodied the “fire and panache” lacking in baseball today. “For all their greatness on the field of play, the Yankee Dynasty of the late 1990s and early 2000s will be remembered as—yaaaaaawn!—a skilled yet boring cast of characters, and nothing more.” I cannot help but feel that something has been gained, rather than lost, but I still got a lot of laughs from Pearlman’s book.
Anyone truly wishing to understand the way race, gender, and class intersected with the Houston bar scene in 1986’s Cooter’s Incident, will have to consult Pearlman’s magisterial account. Game six’s daredevil paratrooper and the Mets’ often overlooked rap record also get Cuban Missile Crisis-level treatment. Pick hit lines:
1. “Sure, he could understand some penalty. But two hundred hours of community service? Was Ueberroth on drugs?” (Re: Keith Hernandez)
2. “…baseball’s cleanest, most wholesome, most photogenic, most accessible, most despised player.” (Re: Gary Carter)
3. “In the ocean of beautiful, submissive young women who hungered for ballplayers, this was Strawberry’s grand find?” (Re: Lisa Strawberry)
4. “This was the same pitcher who was convinced the WWF was 100 percent real.” (Re: Sid Fernandez)
5. “Did Mitchell, in fact, slice a cat’s head off? … Truthfully, we’ll probably never know.”
6. “There, passed out, was shortstop Rafael Santana, penis in hand… spraying urine like a fire hydrant.”
7. Doug Sisk: “Do people think that because I was wearing a uniform, I couldn’t be hurt? I’m human.”
8. Ozark airline employee: “The Mets were animals. They were worse than Philly, and that’s when the Phillies had Greg Luzinski and Larry Bowa. But the Mets were the worst. They had some real dickheads.”
9. Darryl Strawberry to Tim Teufel: “Yo, Richard Head! Hey, Mr. Dick Head. How’s your dick, Head?”
10. Ed Hearn: “I’d like to say there were moments that season when I liked Darryl, but I didn’t. He was selfish and vicious, and he took a lot of pride in making people feel crappy. People went to him when Doc was in trouble, and Darryl’s response was, ‘Oh, no, I would never do drugs.’ Okay, whatever, Darryl. Whatever.”
11. Frank Cashen: “Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry were the guys who really let us down. I built that goddamn team, and I built it around those guys…. That club should have won for the next three or four seasons without fail…. That team was destined to be a dynasty. Maybe I take this too personally, but in my opinion those two men cost us years of success.”
Pearlman has a different explanation for the shortfall of the late 80s Mets. As Buster Olney argues about the Yankees, Pearlman believes the Mets lost their way because the GM replaced tough-minded players with soulless ones, like Kevin McReynolds and Gregg Jefferies. Bob Klapisch and John Harper also advanced this thesis, more emphatically, in The Worst Team Money Could Buy, about the 1992 Mets (a funny book that should have waited to see 1993).
I, too, still believe that the Mets should have won and won big for the rest of that decade. But the problems of Strawberry, Gooden, and new guys were only part of a catalog of disappointment that included a) a series of catastrophic baseball decisions by Cashen and his lieutenants, and b) the loser attitudes of those same hardcore vets Pearlman and Klapisch single out for praise. It’s all coming back to me now…
A Position-by-Position Review of the Decline and Fall of the late 1980s New York Mets Starting Pitchers: From 1987-1990, the four years of Cashen’s dynasty that wasn’t, Dwight Gooden was a sometime workhorse with a very good fastball, who went 61-27. His drug suspension hurt the Mets in 1987, but his tumble from the Koufax level probably had more to do with management issues like overwork and disastrous coaching. Ron Darling had peaked in 1985-86, but remained an average pitcher thereafter. Sid Fernandez lost very little if anything throughout the period. Bob Ojeda had flashes of quality pitching, but endured long DL stints. Cashen, in one of his two great moves after 1986, offset some of the collective decline by snaring David Cone for Ed Hearn and Rick Anderson. Despite setbacks, then, the Mets still had a good enough rotation to win the NL East, given the amazing talent on hand in the bullpen and batting order. However, the Mets made a lot of mistakes in those departments.
Bullpen: How about a five-man relief corps featuring: the best lefty specialist ever, a side-arming right-hander who could start or relieve effectively, a 100-inning eating right-hander, a sharp righty All Star closer, and a fireballing lefty All Star closer? Between 1987 and 1989, the Mets traded away that whole bullpen.
They gave up Jesse Orosco after 1987; he retired sixteen years later after pitching in more games than any other big leaguer in history. He had a lot of good seasons left. As an afterthought, they traded Terry Leach to the Royals for a player to be named later because they wanted to showcase David West, whose reputation was sky-high anyway. NL hitters immediately took the shine off West, and Leach turned in four more good seasons in the American League. They shipped Roger McDowell to Philly in the Juan Samuel trade during a season in which he threw 92 innings with a 1.96 era. He was the weakest of the five, but it wasn’t his last good year either. Rick Aguilera, who actually had the best stuff in the pen that year, went to Minnesota in the Frank Viola deal (along Kevin Tapani and the devalued West). Viola was their best pitcher in 1990, but Aguilera was a good relief ace for the next six years.
The one that honked me off the most though was trading Randy Myers for John Franco. I guess you could say the Mets won because Myers was finished six years ago at 35 while Franco is still going for them at 43. But in 1990, when the Mets were chasing Pittsburgh, Franco was a generic hit-an-inning closer who collapsed in September despite a light workload, and Myers was a blazer who threw 20 more innings and helped the Reds win a championship. If they hadn’t tried to make him a starter in 1991, it would be more clear that he, not Franco, was the star relief ace at the time. The only other good reliever the Mets acquired in this stretch was Alejandro Pena, who gave NY two good years before they gift-wrapped him for the 1991 Braves, in exchange for somebody named Tony Castillo.
Catcher: Before the 1985 season, Cashen boosted the Mets into the big time by packaging several players for Gary Carter. The next year, he put them over the top by bundling prospects for Bob Ojeda. Naturally, he fell in love with this type of consolidation trade, and he tried it at least four more times over the next few years, eviscerating the Mets’ talent base and accidentally disposing of a few MVP-type seasons in the process. The one place he really did need to make one of these moves again was at the same position, catcher. Carter was great in ’85, solid but declining in ’86, and finished as a good player in ’87. The best use of the over-hyped trade chip David West would have been to land a catcher from a middling team in 1988, like Carlton Fisk or somebody. Instead, the Mets ambled through the next four years with Carter, Barry Lyons, Mackey Sasser (the guy who couldn’t throw the ball back to the pitcher), and Rick Cerone, never really trying to solve the problem.
First base: In 1988, 25-year old Dave Magadan (.393 obp) proved a better offensive player than 34-year old Keith Hernandez (.333 obp), but the Mets gave Hernandez another go in 1989, and he consumed 215 at bats hitting .233. In 1990, the Mets stupidly acquired Mike Marshall, who wasted 53 games at first base hitting .239 with 6 homers, while Magadan cooled his .328/.417/.446 campaign on the bench. The Mets never truly committed to Magadan at 1b and dumped him in ’92. Overall, he lasted 16 years in the majors, hitting .288 with a .390 obp. To get Sasser, the Mets gave up Randy Milligan, a walk-drawing, mobile power hitter who would have made an excellent platoon partner for Magadan if they wanted to go the Stengel route.
Second base: Gregg Jefferies was a 20-year old switch-hitting phenom who hit .321 with power in a 1988 cup of coffee. The incumbent second basemen, Wally Backman and Tim Teufel, were past their best days, and Davey Johnson wisely gave Jefferies the job. However, the great veteran leaders on the Mets, who only cared about winning, etc., decided that Jefferies was a baby and wasn’t fit to share their noble fellowship. They hated him for things like caring too much about hitting. They tore the kid down, but neglected to build him back up as a member of the group. He didn’t emerge as the player he previewed in 1988 until 1993, when he hit .342 with 16 homers (46 steals, 62 walks, and 32 strikeouts) for the Cardinals. Maybe he wasn’t destined to be a superstar (or a second baseman) after all, but I still think that player was inside him all along during his Met years. Shortstop: Cashen actually messed up this position before the championship, when he gave up prematurely on another 20-year old switch-hitting infielder, rifle-armed Jose Oquendo, after he hit .222 in 1984. Seeing his replacement Rafael Santana also was a low average hitter with no power and no walks, in 20/20 hindsight the Mets would have been better off living with Oquendo in 1985 and letting him become the best offensive shortstop in franchise history from 1986 to 1991, during which time Oquendo hit .272 with a .368 on base percentage for St. Louis (of course it is possible that Oquendo might not have become that player with NY). Instead, the Mets replaced Santana with equally lame Kevin Elster (who, unlike Jefferies, the Mets embraced socially). I suppose if Cashen had made all the right moves with the rest of the offense, it would have made sense to have Elster’s glove stabilize the defense. In the actual case, it has to go down as another problem left unsolved.
Third base: Cashen’s other great move after 1986 was letting go of Ray Knight in order to play Johnson, who became a power-speed threat for the next five years. However, it should be noted that before his best season in 1989, Cashen tried to trade him and Sid Fernandez for Mark Langston (Davey Johnson publicly torpedoed the deal). HoJo’s career went out the window when he hurt his hand and they made him an outfielder in 1992.
Outfield: Though Cashen blames Strawberry for titles lost, three of his four seasons after 1986 were tremendous. Nobody would have noticed his off year in 1989 had Cashen not traded Kevin Mitchell for Kevin McReynolds. This trade was a wash in 1987 and marginally helpful in 1988, when McReynolds played better than Mitchell (though the trade would not have altered either pennant race for the Mets). It killed them in 1989-1990, when Mitchell became a .290 hitter with awesome power and McReynolds became a generic, disinterested, donut-seeking player.
In 1989, Cashen broke up the Mets’ productive center field platoon, dealing the supercharged Lenny Dykstra for Juan Samuel, who Joe McIlvaine described as “an impact player.” I remember, because impact’s status as an adjective was novel at the time. Samuel made an impact, but McIlvaine should have been more specific. Meanwhile, Dykstra was an MVP ballot player in 1990 and 1993. Mookie Wilson also remained a useful player through 1990. I know they both wanted out of the platoon, but then, so did Woodling and Bauer. The Mets should have played Dykstra most of the time and used Wilson as a 4th outfielder with generous playing time. Instead, they junked the platoon and chose a free-swinging infielder (the Alfonso Soriano of his day) to play center field.
Those were really the biggest screw-ups. An outfield of Mitchell-Dykstra-Stawberry would have been a match for even Pittsburgh’s (Bonds-Van Slyke-Bonilla) in 1990. No team makes all the right moves, of course. But as a fan of those Mets I can’t help but agree with Cashen that they should have won division titles in 1989 and 1990, at least. I’d have loved to have seen them up against the A’s in the World Series. In his own special way, Frank Cashen handled success just as poorly as his superstar players did.