Welcome to Flashback Friday, a weekly feature devoted to the 20th anniversary of the 1986 World Champion New York Mets.
Twenty years, 43 Fridays. This is one of them.
I’ve never completely understood the notion that athletes aren’t supposed to express the opinion that they’re going to win before competition commences. Remember the trouble Benny Agbayani got into when he went on Howard Stern in 2000 and, once properly goaded, predicted the Mets would beat the Yankees in five? That was pretty innocent if incorrect. Maybe less so was David Cone’s/Bob Klapisch’s declaration in the Daily News that the Dodgers were a “high school team” in 1988, one that wouldn’t graduate to the World Series, not with the Mets grabbing at least four of seven diplomas in the NLCS. In both cases, the Met who made the proclamation was proven wrong and thus gave more meat to age-old idea that you never give your opponent an excuse to get riled up.
Davey Johnson never got that memo. Never saw a bulletin board that gave him pause. Never didn’t speak his mind, at least not when it came to expressing confidence in his team. There’s nothing taboo about saying you’re going to win as long as you do. The Mets backed up their manager. Their manager led them well.
It was probably more disturbing to read from Ken Davidoff in Newsday last Sunday that current Team USA bench coach Davey Johnson remains, at best, passively estranged from the Mets than it was to hear anything about Barry Bonds’ prodigious hormonal intake. If the Mets don’t do everything in their power to make the manager who directed them to their last world championship the centerpiece of their 1986 commemoration, then that’s the baseball tragedy of the year.
What did Davey Johnson ever to do the Mets that left him a prophet without honor in his own land? He was prophetic. It may not have been as snappy as “can’t anybody here play this game?” but Johnson’s declaration that he didn’t just expect the Mets to win in ’86 but that he expected them to dominate the National League East was probably the most accurate and heartening sentiment ever uttered by one of our managers.
What Davey told his players, as captured in Jeff Pearlman’s spellbinding The Bad Guys Won:
This is our year. I know the Cardinals won last year, but that’s done with. We’re not just going to win, we’re going to win big. We’re going to dominate. We’re going to blow the rest of the division away. I have no doubt about that. And neither should you. Now let’s get to work.
He expected it and he got it. He had something to do with it. A lot.
I didn’t like Whitey Herzog but I did like something he said in 1986 as the Mets were revving up, something along the lines of “the Mets think they won the last two years anyway.” He nailed it. It wasn’t arrogance (a word I never bought when the Mets became, for a brief time, the team the rest of the country allegedly love to hate) as much as it was confidence — soaring, rooted, realistic confidence. The ever improving Davey Johnson Mets of 1984 and 1985 formed the basis for that confidence. Maybe you can still grow a team to get good, then get better, then get best, but it doesn’t seem that way anymore. Then you could and then they did. Those ’86 Mets we honor today were the end result of a three-year project. If it were a science fair, Davey would’ve earned a blue ribbon. He created a club that took its time to blossom but when it did, boy did it cast a shadow over everything in its way.
The great managers are the night & day ones, the ones who take over and change the atmosphere 180 degrees. Bobby V did that, rendering evil ol’ Dallas Green marvelously moot. Gil Hodges left Wes Westrum out to dwell on a cliff of irrelevancy (with a dash of Salty Parker). Davey Johnson was every bit the turnaround specialist as those two more thoroughly chronicled and celebrated helmsmen. Does anybody remember the Mets immediately before Davey Johnson? Can you even name, without thinking, the two managers who preceded him?
Wrong. They were George Bamberger and Frank Howard. Bambi and Hondo; I think those were also the names of the detectives from Riptide. Bamberger looked miserable from the day he got here, the sum total of his managing amounting to one endless moan over Pete Falcone’s failure to throw strikes. Howard was an interim guy who bled the first sign of success out of the young group that wasn’t yet a core — and he kept after rookie Darryl Strawberry to run hard because “the cheapest commodity in this game is 90 feet” (a story Howie Rose repeated once a week on Mets Extra) — but the Mets were in Chuck Berry mode in 1982 and 1983: riding around with no particular place to go.
Davey Johnson hotwired them. The moment he took the gig, the twinkle in his eye and the shine on his cowboy boots practically screamed “I don’t expect us to win, I expect us to dominate” from the get-go. It was only a matter of time before he cashed the checks his demeanor was writing.
Do you realize that the man who led the Mets from a team that averaged 65-97 every year for seven years to one that won 90, 98, 108, 92 and 100 wins annually for the next five was never voted Manager of the Year? Got votes every year, but not the prize. When the Mets were shocking the world by roaring from last to second in ’84, Jim Frey’s Cubs were advancing from fifth to first. The Cubs in the playoffs? A seismic upheaval, no doubt about it. But those Cubs were an amalgam of veterans brought in to Win Now and they did. Davey was tending something beautiful in New York, something that kept flowering long after Frey’s one-year wonders withered and died.
Everything that was said about Davey Johnson later — that he didn’t have to really manage, that he favored experience, that with that kind of talent why shouldn’t you win? — completely forgets what he did in 1984. Davey Johnson built a team on youth and heart. He had two vets as starters, Hernandez and Foster. Everybody else was still in the proving ground of his career. Darryl was the obvious talent, but what was obvious about a team with Mike Fitzgerald, Ron Gardenhire, Kelvin Chapman, Wally Backman, Hubie Brooks, Mookie Wilson and Rafael Santana shifting in and out of the lineup for the better part of the spring and summer?
Who knew what to do with a rotation comprised of almost entirely unknown quantities? Once he shook out the guys he could do without, his most proven starter was Ed Lynch. Frank Cashen went out and got him Bruce Berenyi. And they were essentially window dressing. Everything about the pitching would be about the kids. Terrell. Darling. Fernandez.
Davey knew what to do. Davey played and pitched the kids in the heat of the pennant race they had wrought. Somehow he knew enough to not overplay them but play them just enough. Made true big leaguers out of a bunch of ‘em. Got what was to be had out of the rest of ‘em. Experimented with lineups. Plugged in a computer when that was George Jetson stuff. Was never afraid (witness the 19-year-old ace and his 17 victories) and neither was his team.
I’m not sure how that bunch held its own into September with the Cubs of Cey, Bowa, Sandberg, Matthews, Moreland, Durham, Dernier, Sutcliffe, Sanderson and Smith, but they did. Even given the Cubs’ outlastment of the Mets (to say nothing of their one-year futility remission, which expired after the second game of the playoffs against San Diego), I don’t see how Jim Frey could be said to have outmanaged Davey Johnson.
Nor do I believe that the guidance of a team to 10 wins more than it accumulated the year before to secure its first division title in 13 years — by 21-1/2 lengths — is undeserving of honor. But Manager of the Year in 1986 didn’t go to Davey Johnson either. It went to somebody named Hal Lanier, whose long and successful managing career after that certainly validated the choice…
Oh wait, Hal Lanier never did a damn thing after the 1986 regular season was over. But even if we file that under Unknowable At The Time, why is leading a team to 96 wins more of an accomplishment than leading a team to 108 wins?
“The big thing,” third base coach Buddy Harrelson told A Magic Summer author Stanley Cohen in 1986, “is that this team is expected to win, and that’s what creates pressure.” He compared the circumstances between what was going on then to what was had gone on 17 years earlier:
In ’69, if someone screwed up, no one made anything out of it. Now if someone screws up, it’s a big deal. People ask questions, you’re expected to explain why it happened. That’s the big difference between the two teams. This one is playing under pressure that we never really understood in ’69.
The ’69 Mets (73 to 100 wins) are one blessed thing. The ’86 Astros (83 to 96) are another. Why is emerging from mediocrity to a division title considered so much more of an accomplishment than pushing the stone of triumph from near miss to excruciatingly near miss to resounding glory? Where is the stone of shame in that? The 1986 Houston Astros had a very nice season. The 1986 New York Mets had an extraordinary one. If you’ve read anything about those characters, you know they didn’t manage themselves.
Maybe Davey isn’t honored now because he wasn’t honored then. Maybe he was written off as a pushbutton manager. Tell me what button he pushed that didn’t work, though. His bravest decision, I thought, was the one he made before the third game of the World Series when the Mets were still panting following the draining NLCS victory that won them the pennant (the one that hinged on moves like pinch-hitting Dykstra to lead off the ninth and allowing McDowell to go five innings in relief; whose ideas were those?). Davey Johnson told his players to blow off the off-day workout, the batting practice staged for TV’s sake, the political faceshowing. Just go relax and get here for Game Three.
Can you imagine any manager flaunting the sport’s conventions so matter of factly today? Even Ozzie Guillen? Even then? But his players listened. They got there for Game Three, scored four in the first at Fenway and, in a blink, tied the Series at two.
What’s remembered most about his actual managing from that Series, however, is what is perceived as negative. Why in Game Six didn’t he keep Darryl in the lineup to start the ninth and why did he have HoJo up in the bottom of the inning in a bunting situation?
Darryl made the last out of the eighth after Gary Carter’s sac fly knotted things at three. Aguilera took Straw’s place in the order. He was due up frigging ninth. Kevin Elster, as raw a rookie at the plate as you’ll ever see in a World Series, was due up third. By doing what he did, Davey got another inning of defense out of Elster (OK, he’d make an error, but he was on the roster for his glove) and saved Howard Johnson’s switch-hitting bat to pinch-hit for the kid against righty Schiraldi. His only other options were righthanded Kevin Mitchell, righthanded Tim Teufel and break-glass-in-case-of-emergency catcher Ed Hearn.
As it happened, HoJo did come up to pinch-hit for young Elster with runners on first and second and nobody out in the bottom of the ninth. He attempted one bunt and then hit away. I’ve heard both possible criticisms of Davey on that sequence:
Why have a guy who can’t bunt up in a bunt situation?
Why not have that guy bunt?
Howard Johnson could bunt. I saw it with my own eyes. There was an exhibition game that March on Channel 9 against the Twins. Howard Johnson laid down the most gorgeous bunt I ever saw in my life. It rolled fair halfway up the first base line and he beat it out for a hit. Maybe Davey, HoJo and I were the only three people with any recollection of that by late October. Alas, his one attempt at a bunt in Game Six didn’t take.
Then why not swing away? Howard Johnson had already shown himself a Major League power hitter. He nearly hit one out versus Clemens in Game Two. If Howard Johnson could connect, Knight would score. If he could loft a fly to deep right even, Ray would be on third and that would be as good as a bunt.
It didn’t happen. Sometimes guys don’t come through.
And that’s the big complaint on Davey’s head? That’s the moral equivalent of not inserting Dave Stapleton for defense in the bottom of the tenth? I’ve read in more than one place that both Davey Johnson and John McNamara managed awful games that Saturday night. You’re kidding me. McNamara didn’t remove Buckner but did take out Clemens and found a way to involve Bob Stanley. Davey Johnson took a couple of logical whacks at winning and crapped out. (And why does nobody ever blame Aguilera for failing on an Armandoesque scale?)
So Davey Johnson didn’t win awards for his managing, and in his team’s finest hour, he’s remembered as an impediment to victory rather than a cause of it. Is that why his legacy as the most successful manager the Mets have ever had is so obscured?
Maybe. That and the pretty apparent contempt in which management held him all along. The greatest story in Pearlman’s book involves Davey destroying the bill United Airlines sent Frank Cashen for the players’ demolition of their plane after the NLCS. He won the battle, one senses, but Cashen and the people he reported to seemed to have maintained long memories and deep grudges. I doubt it was all about that one episode, though. It was that “screw it, we’re gonna win, nothing else matters” persona, so endearing to the fans and so effective in screwing it and winning, that probably also worked against him. You do impolitic stuff, by definition you’re going to lose at politics. If Davey Johnson couldn’t bring home any more World Series rings — and the record shows he didn’t — politics was all that was left.
After six seasons of winning records, six seasons of contending ballclubs, six seasons that included the greatest season in the history of the franchise, Davey Johnson was dismissed early in his seventh season of managing the New York Mets. It wasn’t just his ways, but him, that had become taboo where he won like crazy. Was it was time for a change? The team did launch to a tepid stairt in 1990 and it didn’t seem like coincidence that Buddy Harrelson sparked them to what I still consider the most torrid stretch I ever watched the Mets burn through, the 26-5 run that vaulted them into first…briefly. But Buddy shrunk in the manager’s chair following the streak and he’d be succeeded by a series of pretenders who didn’t come close to measuring up to Davey Johnson’s standards. Not until Bobby Valentine came along was there anyone remotely worthy of the job. Maybe Davey just needed a weekend off in 1990.
Davey’s first appearance at Shea after his dismissal came on June 13, 1992, Old Timers Night (Upper Deck Heroes of Baseball, the sponsor dubbed it). It was a loosely themed Mets’ 30th anniversary gala. Keith Hernandez took his first bow as an ex-player. He was extremely well received. But his ovation finished, like the ’86 Phillies, a distant second to Davey Johnson. The fans (me among them) went wild for the old skipper. We knew he’d been wronged. We knew it was right to have him back not just for an evening but presumably in the good graces of the organization.
Next time he was back, it was as manager of the Reds, a team he rescued from Marge Schott’s claws for as long as something like that could be rescued from someone of that ilk. He got them to the playoffs in 1995, the last time they were there. Then he was shown the door. He immediately went to Baltimore and took the Orioles to the postseason twice more, another instance of his tenure being the last successful one a team has seen. Peter Angelos offed him and Davey materialized in Los Angeles. The Dodgers weren’t bad with him, but they didn’t win anything.
With those other jobs behind him, he should have been welcomed home for good. He should have been given some superscout role, a consultant-for-life contract. At the very least, he deserved a bust in the Diamond Club, the repository of the Mets’ supersecret Hall of Fame. At the very little more, No. 5 never should have been made available to David Wright. Casey’s 37 is on the left field wall. Gil’s 14 is. Davey Johnson was every bit as important to the good fortunes of the New York Mets as Stengel and Hodges were, yet he has received virtually no kudos from those who employed him.
He shouldn’t just win such honors. He should dominate them.
• Happy birthday to someone situated way too far away for my tastes, someone with whom I saw one win, one loss and one decade of friendship come to baseball fruition in 1986. Joel Lugo is as old as me today, but still lagging well behind Julio Franco. Then again, aren’t we all?