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Who's Johnny?

Welcome to Flashback Friday [1], 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.

This is all I knew about John Franco in 1986:

He closed games for the Cincinnati Reds.

He was very good against us.

And I hated him.

Why did I hate this previously anonymous 25-year-old southpaw? Besides the facts that he closed games for the Cincinnati Reds and was very good against us? Because he hated the Mets. He said unflattering things, at the very least. After our single most memorable contest of that regular season…

…that 14-inning, four-ejection, catcher-at-third, relievers-in-the-outfield, knock ’em, sock ’em, rock ’em baseball game of July 22 dropped by the Reds hours after rightfielder Dave Parker mishandled the easiest fly ball ever with two out in the ninth…

…the diminutive Redleg — whose third anti-Met save of the year was also muffed by Parker — lashed out at the team that beat and beat up his own.

They walk around like their stuff don’t stink. If that’s not cocky, what is?

That’s how the quote reads in Jeff Pearlman’s The Bad Guys Won!. I kind of recall reading it in contemporary accounts as “their [bleep] don’t stink.” However it was actually phrased, I think we got the idea: John Franco didn’t care for the Mets. Naturally, a Mets fan’s instinct was to not care for John Franco.

Went on that way through 1987, 1988 and 1989. Franco entered games for the Reds and tried to get the Mets out. That didn’t endear him to me. When he was mentioned as a possible wager courier for his manager, Gamblin’ Pete Rose, it was worth a chuckle. Who cared what hot water Franco was implicated in? He was a dirty, dirty Red. His Brooklyn heritage held no more water for me than, say, dirty, dirty Cub Shawon Dunston’s.

My birth paperwork certifies me as born in Brooklyn, so I’m entitled to say, as regards my fellow Brooklynites, you’re either with us or against us. That me and Franco and Dunston — a .203 batter versus the Mets in 1986 — shared a little fleeting geography meant nothing. That they wore uniforms that didn’t say “Mets” meant everything.

I wouldn’t have imagined in 1986 that a time would come when I’d be living and dying with and not against Shawon Dunston, just as I would have been mighty surprised to learn I’d spend a decade-and-a-half grimacing on behalf of Johnny (not John, but Johnny) Franco. Someday [2], in a distant future, I’d watch Johnny hold the Atlanta Braves scoreless in the eighth and ninth, and Shawon lead off an inning by fouling off every pitch in creation — and I’d be bathed in delight because they’d be wearing Mets uniforms and helping the Mets achieve, inarguably, their most Amazin’ victory since 1986 [3].

Who knew? Not me. Couldn’t have. While we live in a moment, it’s extraordinarily difficult to envision that that moment and all the circumstances surrounding it will evolve into something else entirely. In 1986, I didn’t see John Franco traded to the Mets for Randy Myers in advance of 1990, sprouting facial hair and becoming an all-time Met hometown hero [4]. If I couldn’t see that, how could have I forecast Shawon Dunston’s making perhaps the greatest late-season cameo in contending-Mets history?

Franco of the Reds is the most extreme example of “who knew?” from 1986. Dunston of the Cubs and, for that matter, Orel Hershiser of the dirty, dirty Dodgers (0-2, 5.60 ERA in three starts against our ’86ers) would join him on the 1999 Mets and play key roles in extending the fifth game of the National League Championship Series into history. They were no more than bit players in our ’86 drama, three National Leaguers of budding renown to be stampeded en route to our ultimate glory. We didn’t see any of them coming to and working for us when we would really, really need them in a time then far, far away.

Who thinks of such things while the present is already in progress? Can you look up and down the rosters of 29 teams that aren’t the Mets right now and find me somebody who you can project as a big part of the 2019 Mets? Is there out there as we speak a Franco, a Dunston, a Hershiser or even a Rickey Henderson (dirty, dirty Yankee [5]) who will put on a Mets cap and become Our Guy, putting behind him for the duration of his stay at NuShea any negative association we had with him because he’s so crucial to another pennant drive?

As divined via Ultimate Mets Database [6], sixty men who played for other teams in 1986 would eventually become New York Mets, including Brooklyn’s own Lee Mazzilli, who rejoined the team of his youth that very August 8. Mazzilli was one of five former Mets who wore non-Mets uniforms twenty years ago not knowing they’d be Mets again. The others: Bill Almon and Clint Hurdle (each returned to the fold in ’87), Alex Treviño (’90) and Hubie Brooks (’91). Everybody but Hurdle would leave the Mets a second time to play elsewhere, the lousy traitors.

Not quite fitting into the past & future category was only the greatest Met of them all, Tom Seaver. A White then Red Sock in ’86, Tom Terrific would go out as Tom Tentative in 1987, auditioning in June to fill a temporary shortfall in the Mets’ rotation but not measuring up to his own standards of excellence and retiring before not making the staff. The last colors he wore in pursuit of professional success, however, were blue and orange, so let’s give him an asterisk as the unofficial 61st future Met of 1986.

The last-place Pittsburgh Pirates of 1986 would contribute the most players, six, to the Mets of 1987 and beyond. Besides Mazzilli and Almon, the Bucs bequeathed us Rich Sauveur [7], Barry Jones, Joe Orsulak and a kid outfielder/third baseman named Bobby Bonilla.

Bobby Bo, who today resides in an ample circle of his very own [8] in Met Hell, probably didn’t get our attention in 1986. Acquired from the White Sox in mid-season, he batted 23 times against us as a Pirate, registering six hits and driving in no runs. But it was Bonilla becoming a Buc that dislodged Mazzilli from the Pittsburgh roster. About a week later, Mazzilli was re-signed by the Mets to put the deluxe in pinch-hitter deluxe that October.

The Pirates’ callous dismissal of our disco-era idol was the first example of another team’s personnel move that would indirectly impact the Mets’ planning vis-à-vis players who played in 1986 as something other than Mets. One of the first that followed came the next spring when Kansas City GM John Schuerholz wanted Ed Hearn so badly that he dealt the Mets ’86 Royal callup David Cone. The most recent vintage-’86 domino to tumble? It happened last winter when Atlanta GM John Schuerholz declined to give Julio Franco, an integral part of the 1986 Indian uprising, the two years he sought.

Then Atlanta wasn’t in the same division as us. Today they’re barely in the same league. But I digress.

In between Mazz and Moses, ’86 enemy alumni have come to mean many different things to us. Kevin McReynolds appears in our consciousness both as one of the more talented all-around players we’ve ever had and as the dry sponge that began absorbing the fun out of Mets baseball. Either way, we probably don’t think about him in terms of the 1986 San Diego Padres, not the 8 RBI he got off us in 12 games, not the time he fouled back a ball through that tiny square behind home plate at Jack Murphy Stadium while batting against the Mets.

Juan Samuel’s ’86 Phillies track record — no power, but 7 steals vs. the Carter Corps — is meaningless to us. He cost us Lenny and Roger is what we understand. Likewise, triviots who recognize the name Jeff Musselman aren’t impressed with whatever he did at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium circa 1986. It’s what he dared to do here in 1989 — show up at Shea in exchange for Mookie Wilson — that sticks in our collective craw.

On the other hand, there are 1986 players who were Mets to be named later who don’t penetrate the brain as ours on instinctive inspection.

• The world at large would be correct in recalling Cy Young winners Bret Saberhagen as a Royal and Frank Viola as a Twin. We’re sure not quick to claim them as our own despite a good season apiece from each; “Bleacher” and “Choker” are what I’d come up with as one-word responses to their names if so pressed.

• Edwin Nuñez (Mariners) and Bob McClure (Brewers & Expos) may have hopped aboard the 1988 division express before the trade deadline, but are they really on your roll call of champion Mets?

• Unless you’re a nut with a blog and/or killer card collection, you’re probably not linking the names Roger Mason (Giants) or Luis Rivera (Expos) with the name New York Mets no matter that they each worked a Shea shift in 1994. To be fair, you’re probably not remembering them all.

Mets Classics aficionados are more likely to recognize Chico Walker as the last out from the ’86 division clincher than as a ’92-’93 not-terribly-Amazin’. When those same diehards pop in the first of the nine discs from the ’86 boxed set and fast-forward to the thrilling ending, they see Jesse Orosco striking out Kevin Bass, the scariest batter in the Astro lineup, not the 1992 Met who went 0-for-7 in a far less legendary 16-inning marathon [9]. Through whichever lens you choose to view him, you’ll see somebody kicked Bass each time.

• And if we have any friends from Cardinal Country looking in, we hereby relinquish to you all intellectual property rights to Tom Herr [10] and Vince Coleman [11]…except to occasionally despise them as our own.

1986 belongs at the top of any list of Mets seasons, but it’s a 1986 Oriole, Don Aase, who sits at the top of the all-time alphabetical list of Mets. If you were around for his one year of Mets “service,” you’ll remember one thing and one thing only about it: that as the Mets made their most serious move on first place in 1989, Don Aase gave up a late-summer Pendletonian home run that turned that season irrevocably to the bad. It was against the Dodgers on August 20 in the top of the ninth, a three-run shot off the bat of Los Angeles’ second baseman.

The Dodgers had quite the future-Met pedigree that Sunday. Eddie Murray, Mike Marshall and Alejandro Peña — all active in 1986 — along with Lenny Harris (a Double-A Vermont Red at this time two decades back) were among five gonna-be’s who were not even a gleam in our eye on August 20, 1989. They, like ex-Met Ray Searage, were all sporting LA’s on their caps. But none of them was the accomplished infielder who blasted that heartbreak homer off of Aase. That particular Dodger of 1989 who would be yet another Brooklyn-rooted Met for one season in the 1990s was, sad to say, a dirty, dirty Yankee in 1986. Like Aase and Nuñez and Dunston and Hershiser and all the Eventupolitans whose future was unknowable then, we probably weren’t giving him a whole lot of thought twenty years ago.

If you’re wondering what that guy is up to these days, I think I heard something about him being Julio Franco’s manager.

Come to think of it, you wouldn’t have guessed six years ago that “Yankees 2000” would eventually become code for the curse that befell that rancid franchise for ruining the last Subway Series and the name of a really good blog [12] that promotes the curse as well as happier Met thoughts. Yankees 2000 took a break from its noble mission to profile one of its readers and fellow bloggers…me, for some reason. Read that [13] if you dare/care (you’ll learn how FAFIF could have been LMAGE had not a better thought prevailed) and check out the rest of Y2K while you’re there. It almost makes you forget Luis Fucking Sojo.