Brace yourself. The Mets got George Foster.
Brace yourself. The Mets got one of the most…no, the most dangerous hitter in the game.
Brace yourself. The Mets are going big-time.
I braced myself. It was February 10, 1982, 25 years ago tomorrow, that the biggest move the Mets had ever made unfolded.
George Foster was a superstar doing superstar business. George Foster had won World Series and an MVP and RBI titles and hit home runs like nobody on the Mets ever did. George Foster was right up there with Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez as a Big Red Machine cog. By ’82, only Bench was left. Cincinnati was coming off a year when they had baseball’s best record but kvetched endlessly about being left out of the strike-torn, split-season playoffs. The boppers who defined them in the ’70s were going or gone. Foster was 33 but still producing. Producing too much to be paid by the starched suits of Cincy as he approached his open-market opportunity.
So they traded him. They traded a man who drove in 90 runs in 108 games a year earlier. And they traded him to us.
They traded him to us! Nobody traded anybody like that to us!
I was in college. When I found out about the deal — Alex Treviño, Greg Harris and paper Met Jim Kern for George Foster — I was in heaven. I called Joel Lugo back in New York. Can you fathom this? we asked each other. We used to pass time in Spanish class not learning Spanish but constructing fantasy lineups of superstars the Mets would never sign. Our dream leftfielder was George Foster.
¡Ay caramba! Some dream.
With all due disrespect to Roberto Alomar, there has been no Met acquired whose expectation-to-disappointment ratio turned out as severe as George Foster’s. You may be familiar with the thudding falloff in his statistics upon his transfer from Cincinnati to Queens, his less than thrilling demeanor, his words that came back to bite him as he was coming and going, the then immense contract (five years, $10 million guaranteed, no small detail at the time) that looked worse and worse as it went longer and longer. But here’s something I didn’t know about George Foster until I just looked it up:
In 1982, he didn’t even get on base as often as Alex Treviño.
Our former backup backstop, turned semi-regular as a Red, had him beat on OBP, .318 to .309. Considering that Ron Hodges wound up catching the bulk of Mets games in the summer of ’82 — and if you throw in whatever innings Harris and Kern might have gobbled up ahead of the likes of Pete Falcone and Brent Gaff — you could make a case that George Foster wasn’t just a bad signing. It was a lousy trade.
Well, let’s not get too carried away. It sure looked good on February 10, 1982, three relative nobodies for the signature black bat that had been torturing National League pitchers on a regular basis since 1976. I can’t stress enough if you’re too young to remember the years when he was King George, but Foster was a true terror during a period when the Mets eschewed the home run and run batted in as practically a matter of policy. In 103 games in 1981, the Mets hit 57 home runs. If that sounds pathetic, consider they hit 61 in 162 games the year before that. Our biggest bopper in truncated ’81 was Dave Kingman, with 22 round-trippers. Lee Mazzilli was second on the club. For the year. With six.
Home runs that is.
If it’s just money, a catching sub and two arms (three if you count the ambidextrous Harris twice) that gets you George Foster, then of course you go out and get him. This wasn’t just a batting-order enhancement. This was an image makeover. We were a half-decade into the free agent era and the Mets had never signed anybody of marquee value. To shock the world and trade for a superstar because his team was actually cheaper than the Mets? In the same winter that another team with a New York address was not retaining Reggie Jackson? It was the original no-brainer.
The Mets got George Foster. That’s not a sentence. That’s the little ditty I sung to myself for weeks that winter. The Mets got George Foster! If only his entire Met career had been limited to the Transactions box of February 10, then the whole episode would have to be marked a critical smash.
Everything, however, went downhill from the moment he opened his mouth. His press conference, probably the first of the winter dog-and-player shows that are now fairly routine around the Diamond Club, featured a smiling George and Sheila Foster, happy to be here. And what did he say? Something about those planes flying into LaGuardia…oh yes, they shouldn’t come in too low because George, you see, would be hitting some mighty high home runs in 1982.
Would you believe medium-high pop flies?
We’ve been promised and then witnessed a couple of brand spankin’ new eras in Mets baseball since 1982. Every ten years, actually. The Torborg/Bonilla era in 1992. The Alomar/Vaughn era in 2002. These were dawns of real bring in the broom, take out the trash epochs, intended to wash the taste of the just-completed horrible seasons before them from our rightfully disgusted mouths. Without much prompting, we can remember how the ’02 and ’92 transformations didn’t, to put it gently, quite take. But friends, they had nothing on 1982 in terms of both ambition and lack of fruition.
After two years of taking stock of their fairly decrepit inventory, Messrs. Doubleday and Wilpon figured rebuilding the Mets would require shock therapy. Everything right down to the letters (thinner, slanted) on the backs of the Mets’ unis was changing. Up the middle, it was goodbye Taveras and Flynn, hello Gardenhire and Backman. No more Mazzilli either. He of the Tony Manero good looks and six 1981 home runs was swapped to Texas for a couple of minor league pitchers, Ron Darling and Walt Terrell. While they headed for the Tides, the Mets had a new pitching-genius manager to deTorrefy the joint. George Bamberger would have everybody straightening up and flying right in no time.
They had that new slugger, of course, in Foster. They had a new thingamajig looming over the new slugger in left field. DiamondVision it was called. When the Mets started their home season, George Foster showed up on the big screen and elicited big cheers from the 40,845 on hand (double the gates of the previous three Home Openers combined…boy were we unpopular). George rewarded his new fans by scoring twice. Mets beat Philadelphia 5-2. Beat ‘em again the next day 8-1. Foster drove in a run. The Mets had won five of their first seven. The Bamberger Mets appeared extremely sharp on DiamondVision.
Who cared that George Foster was batting all of .233? Or that by the end of the homestand he’d be down to .224? Or that he would finish April at .171, with three homers and ten ribbies? The Mets were winning a little more than they were losing and we had a legitimate No. 3 hitter. Among him and Kingman and a theoretically resuscitated Ellis Valentine, we had a genuine middle of the order. Together they might very well produce so much power as to light up New York! That’s what it said on an ad I noticed at a train station one day.
Then dimness fell over the big city.
I’m not certain, but I believe I was at the game when the crowd turned on George Foster once and for all. By crowd, I mean everybody who rooted for the Mets whether they were at this particular game or not; by turned on, I don’t mean the juice. It was June 2 against Joe Torre’s surging Braves. Phil Niekro had been no-hitting the Mets into the eighth until Bob Bailor broke it up. Pete Falcone pitched competently enough to keep the Mets viable into the ninth, trailing only 3-0. Finally, we got something going. Mookie singled. Stearns singled. Niekro, as knucklers are prone to do, threw a wild pitch. Second and third. Nobody out. And coming up is our man, George Foster.
This was it. This was the ten million bucks. This was what we had lacked forever, the bat we could count on to change a game in our favor with one swing. Niekro was a future Hall of Famer? So was Foster. The DiamondVisiion, still new enough to command instant attention, showed a black & white clip of the cavalry riding to the rescue. We cheered as one. George Foster was going to save the day!
Phil Niekro struck out George Foster. I wanna say it was three pitches, all swings and all misses, but I can’t say for certain. I didn’t boo him. I don’t think Joel booed him. Maybe somebody else at Shea that night didn’t boo him. The other 18,000 or so in the stands probably did. Sure sounded that bad. The Mets would get on with their dismal defeat in a matter of minutes, but something bigger was lost that night. Our hopes, our trust, our faith that we could acquire one of the biggest bats in baseball and he would hit ‘em high and far and handsome for us…dashed. Stars with reps had come to the Mets before and disappointed. Stars with reps would come to the Mets later and disappoint. But this star disappointed so massively so soon that his futility hatched, in earnest, the decidedly unpretty Mets fan instinct to expect the worst — everybody comes here and sucks — out of almost every big-name acquisition for the rest of our lives.
George Foster, after swinging at strike three from Niekro, was batting .247. When the season ended, he’d be batting .247. To the six home runs he had collected by June 2, he would add a seventh two nights later upon his return to Cincinnati (off Tom Seaver). Then from June 5 through October 3, George Foster — who five years earlier became the only player between Willie Mays in 1965 and Cecil Fielder in 1990 to wallop as many as 50 home runs in one season — hit six more.
George Foster totaled 13 home runs and 70 runs batted in 1982. This was nine and twenty fewer in those respective categories than he accumulated in 1981 when he played in 43 fewer games. His low-flying airplanes comment stuck to his failures like pine tar. I remember sitting in front of two guys in August who suggested a helicopter hover above the infield during his at-bats: “Let’s see if he can hit that.” George’s preferred mode of transportation, an ostentatious stretch limo, presented an easy target for fans who weren’t content to let him hear of his shortcomings while he didn’t hit, didn’t field with much élan and didn’t exactly burn up the basepaths with enthusiasm. Meanwhile, the rest of the Mets, under Bamberger’s relentlessly irritated tutelage, played about as well as their nominal main man, wasting a promising 27-21 start en route to a devastating 65-97 final. If you’re scoring at home, that’s 38-76 over the last four months of the season. That’s .333 ball. That might as well be 1962 by way of 1982.
Though he would never return to Riverfront George status, Foster’s stats would improve here and there from ’83 through ’86. Certainly he can be viewed as the first stake in the ground, the first sign that the ownership that had taken over in 1980 was serious about securing established, expensive talent as it became available and made sense. Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter would follow in happier trades, deals hard to imagine without the Foster precedent. When the team ripened in ’84, his second-half tear (52 RBI) was one of the primary reasons. He was noteworthy by his absence in the ’86 brawls, but he was also said to be a spiritual sort, and several players pointed to him as a Veteran Leader. They even fell into his strangely hypnotic recording of Get Metsmerized. He was George Foster and he loved this team.
Because this team had gotten quite good and because he would provide decent pop behind Keith, Gary and Darryl, I actually felt bad about the abuse he never stopped attracting, at least until the moment he charged the Mets with racial motives when Davey Johnson turned much of his slump-riddled playing time over to not Danny Heep but Kevin Mitchell and Mookie Wilson in August of ’86. Few tears were shed when the prodigal Mazz took the Foster roster spot. At the bitter end, George Foster was judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his power numbers.
To repeat our top story, undisputed slugging superstar George Foster came to the Mets in 1982 and hit 13 home runs, drove in 70 runs and batted .247.
Really now. What the hell?
Next Friday: The folly of improving on perfection.