Welcome to Flashback Friday: I Saw The Decade End, 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.
The last thing I wanted to hear in the summer of 1979 was that someday the Mets were going to be good. Someday was so, so far away. The slightest hint that the calendar might be sped up so it would get here one ice age sooner…that maybe, just maybe we weren’t so bad…yeah, that would be sweet.
In the middle of July, the Mets went nuts and won five in a row — two from the Dodgers, three from the Giants. The Dodgers were terrible and the Giants weren’t any good, but that was hardly the point. The Mets had been the pits for three seasons running, and now they were winners. They were 5-0 in their last five anyway. I wasn’t in the mood to be told what I was watching was the most fleeting of mirages.
Leave it to my friend Larry, who didn’t keep up with the day-to-day details of baseball, to drag me kicking and screaming back toward the conventional baseball wisdom of the late ’70s. Apropos of nothing, he called the Saturday night after the Saturday afternoon when the Mets had streaked to their fifth straight and tossed me an aside:
“The Mets are so bad, they’re gonna have to invent a place lower than last place for them.”
It was like tossing me a grenade. And I, naturally, jumped on it. No, I said, you don’t understand. The Mets have won five in a row. People aren’t going to be making jokes like that about them anymore.
But of course they would. The Mets were still in last place because prior to that 5-0 run, they were 33-48. And after that 5-0 run, they would go 25-51. If anybody bothered to bring the Mets up in conversation for the balance of that season, it was not to speak of them in reverent tones.
For the 1979 Mets, however, someday would have to do. We knew. We knew deep down it was gonna take some time this time. The Mets were buried in last place from May 7 on. On the July day I was sure a corner had been turned, the Mets were 5½ out…of fifth place. A five-game winning streak had brought them no closer to first than a dozen games. And that was as close as they got until the decade was over. The Mets finished 35 games from first place in 1979, after finishing 24 games out in 1978 and 37 games out in 1977. The early ’80s, the occasional illusion of progress notwithstanding, weren’t much kinder in the GB column.
Someday…someday…so we waited. We waited and we watched whoever the Mets threw out there. Reviewing All-Star Game highlights on the MLB Network a few weeks ago, I saw again some of those in whom I invested my dreams: John Stearns, Pat Zachry, Lee Mazzilli, Joel Youngblood. Today somebody has a bad week and I advocate trading him. Back then it didn’t occur to me the best players on the Mets might make for decent trade bait. They were our best players. We were going to build around them, our All-Stars — and our might-be All-Stars: Steve Henderson, Doug Flynn, Craig Swan and so on. This was the core of my team for nearly four seasons. These were my brightest hopes for baseball happiness.
I wasn’t happy. I was loyal and I could be distracted by All-Star appearances as I was by modest achievements (Henderson’s second-place finish for Rookie of the Year in ’77; Flynn’s Gold Glove in ’80; Swan’s ’78 ERA title) and the odd five-game winning streak. That was very odd. The Mets won five in a row in the middle of 1978, did it again in 1979 and then inexplicably roared through their last six of ’79 to avoid losing the 100 games that so richly deserved to be plastered on their permanent record. The Mets wouldn’t exceed six straight victories for nearly a half-decade from there.
To reiterate, I wasn’t happy. I was merely waiting. I was waiting for this unit to gel as I had been informed by Mets management it would. There was scant evidence from the standings and little encouragement to be gleaned from the action on the field, but these were my guys. When one of them did something well, it wasn’t an anomaly. It was evidence that our day was coming. An All-Star berth was validation, as long as one conveniently ignored that the requirement that every team needed to be represented was partly the reason we had All-Stars.
Pat Zachry was a legitimate selection in 1978, though. To Mets fans like me, Pat Zachry was never going to overcome the stigma of being the righthanded starter obtained from Cincinnati for Tom Seaver, but through the first half of 1978, the pitcher having the better year between the two was Pat Zachry. No kidding. Zachry was 10-3 after shutting out first-place Philadelphia on July 4. It was his fifth complete game of the season. His ERA was 2.90, lower than Seaver’s 3.18 — and that was with Tom finally throwing a no-hitter in June. The Franchise in exile was only 9-6 in early July, still stung from an 0-3 start. There were stories in the New York papers wondering out loud which team got the better of the Tom Seaver deal one year later.
Those stories would stop soon enough, and not just because of a newspaper strike. Seaver had a decent (for him) year when all was said and done. Zachry’s, however, ended in July when he kicked a dugout step in frustration at giving up the hit that allowed Pete Rose to tie Tommy Holmes’ modern N.L. hitting streak record at Shea. Zachry fractured his left foot and was never compared favorably to Seaver again.
But he was an All-Star, just as Joel Youngblood would be three years hence. Joel Youngblood hit the picket lines batting .359 in 1981. When baseball decided to bring its sport back with a delayed Midsummer Classic, ‘Blood was the obvious choice from the Mets. He was a few plate appearances shy of leading the league in hitting at the time of the players strike (typical, in that Joe Torre could never quite commit to Joel at any one position despite having witnessed first-hand his awesome arm in right), but .359 in anything more than spot duty is worthy enough of All-Star consideration. That, and no other Met had been seen burning it up before they all walked on June 11. Thus, there was Joel Youngblood being introduced among the Schmidts and the Dawsons in Cleveland. And there he was pinch-hitting for Fernando Valenzuela at the height of Fernandomania in the top of the second. And there he was immediately popping up to Rod Carew in foul ground.
And there went Joel Youngblood, first-time and last-time All-Star.
Quick: What do Tom Seaver, Darryl Strawberry and Mike Piazza have in common? They are the only Mets to have accumulated more All-Star appearances as Mets than John Stearns. John Stearns was a four-time Met All-Star. Several Mets of note have matched that total, but only the three aforementioned Met legends have exceeded it.
Three times — in ’77, ’80 and ’82 — John Stearns was the only Met named to the squad. The Dude, as he was sometimes known, hustled and cared but was the Mets’ mercy pick each time out. They all look like Willie Mays in the boxscore, however, so an All-Star’s an All-Star, even a last-minute All-Star as Stearns would be on his other night near the spotlight.
In 1979, Ted Simmons was elected and injured. Johnny Bench was selected and injured. That left Tommy Lasorda with an opening behind Bob Boone and Gary Carter. That made John Stearns, no better than the fifth-best catcher in the National League that year, a four-time Mets All-Star for all time. John Stearns didn’t play in the ’79 game, but he was introduced just as he was the other times. John Stearns, if we are to employ these mighty narrow parameters, was as or more stellar a New York Met than all but three men in the 48-year history of the franchise. Going only on quantity, John Stearns was more of a Met All-Star than Keith Hernandez (three selections), Jerry Koosman (two), Tug McGraw (one) or Rusty Staub (none). Gary Carter, Dwight Gooden, David Wright and Carlos Beltran have made four National League All-Star teams as Mets — same as John Stearns.
I read a few scoffs at the notion that the underachieving and downright incompetent 2009 Mets had four All-Stars. You pay Wright, Beltran, Johan Santana and Frankie Rodriguez as much as you do, the mystery isn’t how a sub-.500 team rated four invites — the mystery (if you haven’t been watching SNY or reading the DL) is how you’re under .500. Historically speaking, the shock isn’t four 2009 Mets were All-Stars. The shock is two members of the last-place, eventually 63-99 1979 Mets were.
By comparison, the 1999 Mets were bound for demi-glory yet sent only one man, Piazza, to the festivities in Boston that year. Robin Ventura and Edgardo Alfonzo would sandwich Mike in the MVP voting that fall; they’d finish 6-7-8, respectively. Yet neither Fonzie nor Robin got the call. Despite an aggressive Mets push on behalf of Rey Ordoñez to put on a fielding exhibition in the sport’s grandest exhibition game, he didn’t go either. Nor did John Olerud, despite reaching the break hitting .309 and getting on base at a .450 clip. The Best Infield Ever on a team on its way to 97-66 and the playoffs was snubbed.
But the 1979 Mets, lodged in last place for months, had two All-Stars, proving perhaps the danger in using such honors as any kind of historical barometer. Still, it was great. It was great that Stearns was the man they called when they already had Boone and Carter and they couldn’t get Simmons and Bench. And, yes, of course, it was great that the whole world was about to meet Lee Mazzilli. Lee of Lee Mazzilli Poster Day. Lee of the Sunday News Magazine cover story that declared “if this team has a future, its name is Mazzilli.” Lee of the Sports Illustrated profile in which, at 24, the kid talked plaintively about making his “first million” (link via the Mazzilli-loving Mets Police). Lee of the .462 average that decisively led the league early, a figure that more than thirty years later I can pull out of my head without thinking twice.
World, Lee Mazzilli…Lee Mazzilli, world.
The planet made his acquaintance when he was introduced before the All-Star Game in Seattle. It became intimate with him when he pinch-hit for the father of future Met Gary Matthews, Jr. and flicked a Jim Kern delivery into the nether regions of the Kingdome to tie the game at six in the top of the eighth. He strode the Earth like a Colossus when he wisely accepted a fourth ball from Ron Guidry with the bases loaded and two out an inning later. He flipped his bat away, driving in what would stand as the winning run.
That was the moment that apotheosized Lee Mazzilli into the symbol of all that was potentially good about that dismal Met era. First off, he won the All-Star Game even if, to posterity’s annoyance, the Most Valuable Player trophy was mistakenly handed to Dave Parker. Secondly, he did it against a Yankee. Until Dave Mlicki, the Mazzilli-Guidry encounter was the closest we ever came to a Subway Series (Mayor’s Trophy Games notwithstanding) and, as Mlicki ensured in ’97, the Mets prevailed. It was no small feat for ’79. Not a single Mets fan allowed the respective affiliations of the principals go unremarked upon in and around the Metropolitan Area the following day. Third, Mazz (always…always…always Mazz with two z’s, por favor) traveled to the Pacific Northwest not out of charity or contingency. He was hitting .333 when he was named to the squad. He would have been an All-Star centerfielder from any team. He was the All-Star centerfielder from ours.
That was great.
It wouldn’t last for Mazzilli. He’d never be objectively thought of that highly again as a full-time player after 1979, just as Pat Zachry was never All-Star material after July 1978, just as Joel Youngblood’s destiny after August of ’81 wasn’t more All-Star appearances but a single trivia answer (only player, two teams, two cities, one day, a hit for/in both). Like Henderson and Flynn and Swan, they never quite blossomed beyond seeming to us like they might. Our default All-Star was inevitably Stearns, not because he was outstanding, but because he was a catcher. Defending league champion managers groped about bad teams’ rosters for catchers then the way they plumb the depths of bad teams’ bullpens nowadays for All-Star closers.
But, y’know, I swore they were going to be a good team soon enough. If only the Mets would make a trade that would vault them from sixth to fourth one of these years. You get to fourth, you’re only one step from third. And if you’re in third…well, you can count.
They tried, I thought. They acquired Willie Montañez who styled like crazy before they had a word for it. They acquired Richie Hebner, which didn’t seem like such a terrible idea until Hebner made it clear he didn’t care for the concept (and then played with raging apathy). They got to the trading deadline in 1979, June 15, and pulled off two deals that might have looked helpful to a contender but baffled me on behalf of my last-place team. They sent Mike Bruhert and Bob Myrick to Texas for veteran righty Dock Ellis and they purchased from the Red Sox veteran lefty Andy Hassler. Two tested arms could be a boon in a pennant race.
There was no pennant race going on here.
But anything looked better than nothing when you were a Mets fan then. As I will never forget Lee Mazzilli was batting .462 on April 18, 1979, I will never forget the guy working the snack bar at Nassau Beach that summer. I’m wearing my Super Stripe Mets cap. He sees it and responds unusually positively. Hey, he blurts, you’re a Mets fan? I’M a Mets fan, too! (It was that unusual for our kind to come across one another.) We shake hands and we commiserate, but the guy’s so excited at the sight of a Mets cap that he can’t contain himself.
I like those pitchers we got, he says, meaning Hassler and Ellis days earlier, not Seaver and Koosman from when we were younger. I think in five years we’re gonna be really good.
Five years? I just nodded, but inside I screamed.
FIVE YEARS? I CAN’T WAIT FIVE YEARS!
Damned if the hot dog guy wasn’t a veritable Kreskin. Oh, he was wrong about Dock Ellis and Andy Hassler. They were useless to us and went the way of Montañez and Hebner and Jose Cardenal and every other disinterested old-timer/short-timer who was just passing through in 1979. The same could be said for Mazzilli, Youngblood, Zachry, Swan, Flynn and Henderson, all of whom hit the pavement before the ’80s could truly take hold at Shea Stadium. Only John Stearns hung on, and that was because he went on the DL a month after his final All-Star appearance in ’82 and never seemed to come off it.
It did take five years. It was so, so far away from where we sat in that National League East basement apartment of 1979, but the Mets did get really good in the summer of 1984. It was right around this time of year, actually, when the Mets blossomed as the Mets directly before them never would or could. The Mets finished at home against Cincinnati before the All-Star Break in July a quarter-century ago and then picked up their schedule in Atlanta — just like they did last weekend and just like they’re doing right now, come to think of it. We had four All-Stars then, too: Keith Hernandez, Darryl Strawberry, Jesse Orosco and Dwight Gooden. Nobody questioned it because we clearly deserved all the recognition we could muster. The 1984 Mets were the first-place Mets at the All-Star Break. They took a five-game set from the Reds from Thursday to Sunday and then, because being the first-place Mets wasn’t enough, they gathered by their dugout and threw their caps to the fans.
If the 1979 Mets had done that, there would have been a cap for everyone in attendance.
It took five years for Willie Montañez to somehow morph into Keith Hernandez, for Joel Youngblood to bleed into Darryl Strawberry (by way of a used-up Ellis Valentine), for Dock Ellis to become Doc Gooden. The ’84 Mets were our first winners in a baseball generation. They bridged the All-Star Break with an eight-game winning streak, taking the first three they played against the Braves after several in their ranks helped the N.L. win the All-Star Game in San Francisco following that cap-tossing love-in at Shea. Eight in a row…it was a skein of success that dwarfed every such effort at sustained triumph between 1977 and 1983.
I don’t know if having a winning ballclub was worth waiting that interminably long for, but I’m absolutely certain it felt as sweet as could be when it arrived, no matter the individual identities of the Mets who delivered it — and us — at last.
Join Mets By The Numbers’ Jon Springer, Mets historian/author Matt Silverman, ESPN Uni Watch’s Paul Lukas and me for the first of three AMAZIN’ TUESDAYS July 21, 7:00 PM, at Two Boots Tavern. It will be an evening filled with reading, rooting and a decided lack of Richie Hebner. Get all the details on our Tuesday night soirée here, and please vote Richie Hebner into Metstradamus’ Hall of Hate here.
And if you want to read about Thanksgiving with Lee Mazzilli, what are you waiting for? Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or a bookstore near you. Keep in touch and join the discussion on Facebook.
Oh, and nice story on Gary, Keith and Ron from John Koblin in the Observer here.