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Dykstra & McDowell for Samuel

Welcome to Flashback Friday: I Saw The Decade End [1], a milestone-anniversary salute to the New York Mets of 1969, 1979, 1989 and 1999. Each week, we immerse ourselves in or at least touch upon something that transpired within the Metsian realm 40, 30, 20 or 10 years ago. Amazin’ or not, here it comes.

I didn’t think it was a bad trade. I had mixed emotions, to be sure, but those were tinged by sentiment. For the purposes of winning baseball games, I didn’t think it was a bad trade.

I was wrong. I was wrong to think sending Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell to the Phillies in the middle of the 1989 season wasn’t a bad trade.

It was a bad trade. It’s probably not given long enough shrift as one of the more deleterious trades the Mets have ever made. Maybe that’s because it’s got so much competition. Ryan for Fregosi usually stops all conversation, but Nolan Ryan didn’t help a division rival win a pennant and Jim Fregosi didn’t keep the Mets from winning one themselves.

This is hindsight talking, but hindsight took the early bus where this one was concerned. It might not have seemed altogether ludicrous — may have even looked beneficial — that Sunday in Philadelphia when two stalwarts of a past champion dressed in the visitors clubhouse but left the Vet with the home team. The Mets of 1989 were past champions and very much acting the part for the first 2½ months of the season. That’s why drastic action was deemed necessary.

The Mets entered ’89 as favorites to hold the N.L. East in their pocket as they had been favored regularly every April since 1985. But our sluggers were sluggish and the club limped to a 3-7 start; they’d sit in last place more than two weeks in. A mini-surge captured them first place soon after in a very tight, very fluid divisional race. But traction was elusive. After 60 games, they were 30-30, in third place, four games out.

The previous December I read Roger Angell describe how old the Mets looked in the sun, on the field in Game Five of the ’88 NLCS, the day after Mike Scioscia became Mike Scioscia. Within days of that issue of the New Yorker hitting newsstands, those Mets — which is to say the past champion Mets — began to be taken apart the way we would watch Breeze Demolition take apart Shea Stadium twenty winters later. The first piece to be extracted was Wally Backman, traded unceremoniously to the Twins for three minor leaguers who never made it to the bigs. Wally Backman remains [2] the Met who epitomizes the “he comes to kill you” ethos every Met fan sentient back then recalls with such wistfulness. But he was given away for three instrumental breaks; Jeff Bumgarner, Steve Gasser and Toby Nivens cannot be said to have added up to a song.

That was the only trade of note the Mets made heading into ’89, but shipping Backman off to Minneapolis was move enough. It cleared the way for the future, for Gregg Jefferies. After his earth-moving callup in ’88 (109 ABs, none before August 28, actually earned him Rookie of the Year votes), a position would have to be found for Jefferies, who was more hitter than player. Wally’s position was deemed Gregg’s. What had been the property of Backman and Tim Teufel now belonged to the heir apparent. Angell was right. Keith Hernandez was aging — 35. Gary Carter was aging — also 35. Darryl Strawberry wasn’t old (27) but his maturity was never a given. McReynolds, HoJo…nice players, but Jefferies was the star in waiting. This was the beginning of the overhaul of a team that had won to a team that would win again.

Yet Jefferies struggled, and the old guys got older, and plenty else wouldn’t click, and something had to be done. Enter…or should we say exit Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell. It wasn’t their fault the Mets were a stagnant .500 team, but there was doubt they’d ever exceed what they had been. Randy Myers throwing peas, with converted starter Rick Aguilera chipping in, made McDowell’s hotfoots superfluous in the bullpen. He was a sad 1-5 by mid-June. Dykstra was part of a center field platoon and not particularly amenable to going halvsies with Mookie Wilson any longer. There was no particular dropoff in his production in 1989, but management looked at Lenny and saw a part-time player who swung for the fences far more than his frame suggested would be ideal.

If you could trade two players rapidly devolving into spare parts and get a player not long removed from being considered one of the true comers in the game, how could you not? Enter Juan Samuel.

Geez, this guy was good. The Phillies were nothing special from 1984 through 1987, but Samuel was. Struck out more than should be tolerated, yet for four seasons put up hellacious numbers. Stole as many as 72 bases; drove in as many as 100 runs; collected 28 homers and 15 triples in the same season. Sadly, none of those were his most recent stats when the Mets got him. Juan Samuel had a down 1988 and was doing no better in 1989. But Davey Johnson had his eye on him since he came up in 1984 and Davey got his man, a two-time All-Star second baseman, and inserted him in the lineup every day…in center.

To be fair, he made the switch as a Phillie, but this was the emerging Met way: get somebody who played one position as a rule and jam him into another. Howard Johnson would try shortstop until short could stand it no more. Gregg Jefferies bounced between third and second. And center field at Shea, once the province of legends Dykstra and Wilson (suddenly a utilityman), was bequeathed to a converted second baseman.

A second baseman who couldn’t play center. He was a terrible centerfielder. Didn’t get good breaks. Didn’t know what he was doing. And he didn’t make it worthwhile by hitting up a storm. No longer on turf, Samuel stopped tripling. He stole 31 bases in 3½ months, but didn’t get on enough for it to make a difference. Batted .228 as a Met. His OBP was .299, a stat that may not have been in vogue twenty years ago but was glaringly weak enough to change Davey’s habit of penciling Samuel in as his leadoff hitter by August.

Individually, he was a bust and as far as helping the team…well, the Mets were three over, two out, in third place on June 18, the day of the trade. A week later, after sweeping the Phillies at Shea, the Mets moved a percentage point ahead of the pack. But that was it. They would never see first place again in 1989. It can’t all be laid at Juan Samuel’s feet (which indeed proved useful when he unleashed a karate kick on Norm Charlton in a rollicking brawl versus the Reds), but let’s just say the Mets didn’t lose it in spite of him.

The sour taste Mets fans of long memory might still have from Dykstra & McDowell for Samuel probably stems from the future success of Lenny Dykstra and the sense that the ’86 ways that began to fade with the dismissal of Mitchell and Knight and accelerated with the exile of Backman really began to evaporate when Dykstra left. Those are legitimate reasons for wanting to spit out the residue of Juan Samuel’s tenure. But let’s not forget that not only was Samuel ineffective as a Met, he was damn near insubordinate toward the end. As the season drew to a close, Davey Johnson wanted to consider what he had to look forward to for 1990. The manager penciled Samuel in to start a game at second base. Having proved an inadequate centerfielder (and Jefferies having shown himself utterly unreliable up the middle), Davey figured it was worth a try.

Juan Samuel refused to play second base for the Mets. Said it wasn’t fair to him, that he wasn’t properly prepared, that that’s not what he’d been doing the entire season. So he didn’t play second. By December, he was traded to the Dodgers for Mike Marshall and Alejandro Peña. (And, for what it’s worth, 1989 would be Davey’s last full season as Mets manager.)

Roger McDowell’s visibility as a reliever would recede after leaving the Mets. He bounced from Philly to L.A. to Texas to Baltimore, never making it back to the postseason before lighting his last major league match in 1996. His greatest post-Met fame would come in TV appearances that had nothing to do with saves or holds. He was a mainstay in the annual MTV Rock ‘n’ Jock Softball soirees (they kept inviting him back long after his sinker stopped sinking) and he endures in Seinfeld reruns as the notorious “second spitter” in “The Boyfriend,” a.k.a. the two-parter with Keith Hernandez [3].

Lenny Dykstra, however, was the gift that kept on giving as a reminder of where the Mets had been and where they were unwillingly going. We should have known something was up when he made his first appearance at Shea as a Phillie five days after the trade. After accepting a large ovation from his old fans, he stepped in against Bobby Ojeda and tripled. He’d score moments later on a Dickie Thon homer.

The man they called Nails didn’t light the world on fire as a Phillie otherwise in 1989. He left the Mets a .270 hitter and finished the year at .237. His OBP dropped from a so-so .362 with the Mets to a positively Samuelian .297 for his new team. The Phillies tried to give him away in the offseason. They found no takers. Frank Cashen was among those who said thanks, but no thanks.

And wasn’t Philadelphia thankful? Not unlike the renaissance Ray Knight experienced in 1986 after proving untradeable off an awful ’85, Dykstra blossomed in 1990: batted .325, led the National League in on-base percentage at .418 and hits with 192, made the All-Star team and finished ninth in MVP voting. The next two years were injury-riddled (due partly to driving drunk in ’91), but he was back in form in 1993, leading the league in hits, walks and runs, finishing behind only Barry Bonds for Most Valuable Player honors and spearheading the Phillies’ pennant drive. Lenny hit the tenth-inning home run that would win pivotal Game Five of the NLCS in Atlanta, and he came close to snatching the World Series from Toronto by posting four steals, eight ribbies and four homers, including a three-run job in Game Six [4] that was snowed under by Joe Carter’s later heroics but was incredibly and characteristically clutch in its own right.

While Lenny Dykstra was doing all that in 1993, the Mets were finishing last, 44 games under .500, 38 in back of Philly. Juan Samuel was a Cincinnati Red and bitter memory by then. Even though Dykstra never had anything close to a big season again (retiring after 1996), the critical mass created by his ’93 performance and Samuel’s total disappearance made the deal one of utter infamy for Mets fans. Dykstra may have been cited in the Mitchell Report. He may be fighting myriad lawsuits [5]. His businesses, so successful [6] before the stock market tanked, may be in trouble. But he’s one who got away, one of too many. It wasn’t a Ryan, an Otis, a Kent [7] or a Kazmir with Dykstra. He achieved something tangible with the Mets. He won a ring here. So did Ryan, but Ryan was unfulfilled potential through 1971. Lenny had already paid dividends and we let him go when he still had miles left on his warranty.

Samuel goes down as a bad acquisition, sure, but also a harbinger of dreadful things to come. First off, from the time Mookstra vacated center in deference to Juan until Carlos Beltran accepted several Brinks Trucks to play there, the Mets had no serious full-time, long-term centerfielder. Other than one hot year from Lance Johnson and some good months from Jay Payton, it was essentially vacancy signs and poor planning 410 feet from home plate. Samuel also signaled a new era of reliance on misguided reclamation projects. You can draw a line from Samuel to Baerga to Alomar (though I could swear Robbie didn’t need reclaiming until he got here)…maybe this is one of those “it always happens to us” default modes to which Mets fans tend to revert, but, honestly, we always seem to grab once-great players without wondering why they were so available for the grabbing. That’s also how George Weiss insisted on stocking the 1962 Mets, incidentally.

Twenty years ago the Mets weren’t meeting reasonable expectations and they floundered. They did something about it. It didn’t work where Juan Samuel was concerned. But they would do more. We’ll be back in a few Fridays to consider their other major move of the summer of 1989 — and how 1986 ended for good.

Flash back to how a Mets fan became the Mets fan he is today with Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets, available from Amazon [8], Barnes & Noble [9] or a bookstore near you. Keep in touch and join the discussion on Facebook [10].