Welcome to The Happiest Recap, a solid gold slate of New York Mets games culled from every schedule the Mets have ever played en route to this, their fiftieth year in baseball. We’ve created a dream season consisting of the “best” 25th game in any Mets season, the “best” 26th game in any Mets season, the “best” 27th game in any Mets season…and we keep going from there until we have a completed schedule worthy of Bob Murphy coming back with the Happy Recap after this word from our sponsor on the WFAN Mets Radio Network.
GAME 025: May 7, 1991 — METS 6 Dodgers 5
(Mets All-Time Game 025 Record: 29-22; Mets 1991 Record: 15-10)
Darryl Strawberry was always a big deal at Shea Stadium. Why would a change of uniform lessen his impact?
The best everyday player the Mets farm system ever produced; their seven-time All-Star selection; their only Rookie of the Year who wasn’t a pitcher; their franchise leader in home runs, runs batted in and runs scored; and their seemingly eternal lightning rod had left the only professional organization he had ever known in November 1990, just over a decade after signing with them, excelling for them and occasionally exasperating them. Darryl had often threatened to bolt for his hometown Los Angeles Dodgers when free agentry beckoned, and that’s exactly what he did.
Strawberry was gone from the Mets in 1991, but he clearly wasn’t forgotten. When he made his return to Shea that May, he was — Dodger gray notwithstanding — automatically the biggest deal in the house.
And that was before a pitch was thrown. “For more than six hours,” Joe Sexton wrote in the Times, “Strawberry had been the focus of an emotional and entertaining maelstrom, the man who prompted and endured wild swings of sentiment in his return to the site of his greatest and lowest moments.”
It was electric all right, if not exactly a lovefest. Darryl’s propensity for stirring controversy and, establishment of club records notwithstanding, disappointment, did not diminish when he reappeared at Shea for the first time since the previous September. His first at-bat as a Dodger, against Met starter Frank Viola, was cheered enthusiastically…but it was also booed. That was pretty much how it went for Strawberry from 1983 to 1990. Darryl was pretty much whatever a given Mets fan wanted him to be, alternately or maybe simultaneously hero and villain. Representing the enemy made the choice simpler. As the evening progressed, the boos for a slugger who was a threat to the home team had no problem overtaking the cheers.
“It’s nice to be back in that atmosphere,” Strawberry said afterwards, perhaps realizing he and Shea, for all their conflict, were a match made in Metsdom. “It’s the way they are. I feel no bitterness toward them. A lot of people in the course of the night said a lot of nice things.”
Magnanimity came fairly easy for Mets fans, consider Viola was staked to a 6-0 lead by the bottom of the fourth. Among those picking up the RBI slack for Strawberry was another first-round draft pick, Chris Donnels. Making his major league debut, the Mets’ top amateur selection of 1987 singled home Howard Johnson to up the New York lead 3-0.
Donnels was destined to be a footnote, however — on this night, as in the course of Met history. (Unfair to point out, perhaps, but true nonetheless: six years after the Mets used their No. 1 pick on Strawberry, they won the World Series; six years after they used it on Donnels, they lost 103 games). Yet even with a six-run Met lead, this was always going to be about Darryl. He was why a Tuesday night in early May saw 47,744 customers pay their way into Shea. And he was why they wouldn’t be disappointed in their investment.
In the top of the sixth, with Dodger second baseman and former Met center fielder Juan Samuel on first, Strawberry ripped into the first pitch Viola attempted to throw past him. It never saw Rick Cerone’s catcher’s mitt or any other fielder’s glove. It was bound, like so many fly balls struck by Straw since ’83, for parts unknown. It went down as the man’s 124th home run hit at Shea, but the first he sent soaring as something other than a Met.
That certainly quieted Darryl’s legion of detractors, as did the home run Dodger first baseman Eddie Murray immediately followed with. But things never remained calm around Straw for very long, so it wasn’t surprising that the prospect of his next plate appearance, in the eighth, stoked enough emotions — and idiocy — so that Shea security had to spring into action because fans were pelting their former right fielder with…strawberries as he waited his next turn in the on-deck circle.
The big Strawberry wasn’t bruised by this outpouring, and, in fact, he was ripe and ready to go in the top of the ninth when the Dodgers threatened again. Thanks to run-scoring hits from ex-Mets Gary Carter (a pinch-double) and Samuel (single), Darryl strode to the plate with two out and the Dodgers within one. Brett Butler stood at third as the tying run. One Strawberry swing could put L.A. up 8-6. The fate of the night came down to Darryl versus his former teammate John Franco. Franco had already given up those two runs, and after watching him for a year-plus as the Mets’ closer, few fans had trouble imagining what Darryl might do to him next.
To their surprise and mostly delight, Johnny grounded the Strawman to third. Donnels picked up the ball, fired to Dave Magadan at first and ended Darryl’s return to Shea favorably for the Mets, 6-5. The game had a little something for every Mets fan left in the unusual position of wanting to witness a Mets win and a Strawberry home run while realizing they were not mutually beneficial. No wonder they made so much noise.
“It was a roar as opposed to clapping,” was how Darryl described the atmosphere that surrounded him at Shea versus what he was trying to get very used to in L.A. “This is loud. This is very loud.”
Darryl Strawberry was in the house. Shea couldn’t have been set at any other volume.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On May 2, 1999, as the Mets celebrated the 30th anniversary of their 1969 world championship by handing out VHS copies of the Look Who’s No. 1 highlight film, the current edition of the club eked out a Shea win reminiscent of their glorious predecessors. In the bottom of the eighth, in a 0-0 game, pinch-hitter Matt Franco singled off Giant reliever John Johnstone with two out. Rickey Henderson then lifted a pop fly somewhere behind San Francisco shortstop Ramon Martinez. The Giants were still residents of Candlestick Park then, yet Martinez found the swirling winds off Flushing Bay a vexing challenge. Henderson’s ball fell in, and because there were two out, Franco kept running and scored all the way from first on an E-6. Edgardo Alfonzo followed with a walk and John Olerud singled, bringing home Henderson. Like something straight out of 1969, the Mets held on for the 2-0 win.
GAME 026: May 4, 1989 — METS 3 Reds 2 (10)
(Mets All-Time Game 026 Record: 29-22; Mets 1989 Record: 15-11)
What happens when power collides with power? Something powerful sometimes, depending upon whose power prevails.
On the pitcher’s mound at Shea Stadium to start the bottom of the tenth inning of a 2-2 game between the Mets and Reds this particular Thursday night was a 25-year-old, 6’ 4” righthander named Rob Dibble. Funny name, one could suppose (rhyming as it did with dribble), but one might also want to not smirk when Dibble rocked and fired. Having come up in the middle of the 1988 season, he wasn’t terribly well-known, but he could throw very hard. The Mets learned that the night before when Dibble threw two scoreless, hitless innings in setting up John Franco’s ninth save of the young season. In 18.2 innings pitched thus far in 1989, Dibble had struck out 23 batters.
It was not for nothing that within a year, Dibble would be widely known as a Nasty Boy.
Howard Johnson…funny name, too, in its way. But the man better known as HoJo didn’t register as nasty in anybody’s book. More like unassuming. On a team of outsized personalities in the late ’80s, Johnson mostly blended in — just another roadside motor lodge on the highway of Met life, as it were, amid the glitzier lodgings of Hernandez, Strawberry and Carter.
But HoJo had deceptive power, especially when it came to baseballs released by very hard throwers. Before establishing himself as a rare breed of slugger/speedster infielders — in 1987 he became the first non-outfielder in National League history to hit at least 30 home runs and steal at least 30 bases in one season; first switch-hitter in either league, too — he was instantly recognized for something more than his nickname. Howard Johnson was pegged as a dead-fastball hitter. The hardest throwing among N.L. pitchers knew better than to challenge Howard directly. And if they did, it was at their own peril. Just ask Cardinal flamethrower Todd Worrell, who had gained a reputation as Howard Johnson’s personal batting practice pitcher since coming to the bigs and otherwise succeeding brilliantly. HoJo had tagged Todd for four home runs since 1986.
Dibble may not have received the scouting report on Johnson. Or he may not have bothered to read it. His plan was pretty simple when brought into a game: gas. It was good enough to get Mookie Wilson swinging for the first out of the tenth inning. It wasn’t, however, nearly good enough to get Howard Johnson. Dibble went after HoJo with a first-pitch fastball.
There wasn’t a second pitch. Johnson sent Dibble’s offering soaring to deep right-center. It traveled out of the park and sent Mets fans toward the same general destination.
“He’s a dead, red fastball hitter,” Dibble said of the man who stuck him with the 3-2 loss, his first of he year, “and I gave him something to hit. He beat me.”
“There was just no sense in any outfielder even going back on that one,” impressed Met manager Davey Johnson added.
Howard Johnson, though, preferred to talk about how he had cut down on his swing this season, how he was a “smarter hitter” and wanted to do “what the situation requires”. This situation called for classic HoJo. “I could always hit the gas,” he said, “and the harder the better.”
Score one for power over power.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On April 30, 2000, the dictum that you can never have too many runs at Coors Field proved prescient for the Mets. Met runs were hardly in short supply as this Sunday matinee rolled on against the Rockies. The Mets put up the kinds of offensive totals one got used to seeing in Denver: a run in the second, four in the fourth, another in the sixth, then three in the seventh and a pair more in the top of the eighth. It was good enough for an 11-3 lead. But was it comfortable? Is the altitude thin in Colorado? No and yes, are your respective answers, for here came the Rockies, who nudged heretofore effective Al Leiter out of the game at 11-5, put a couple more runners on against Turk Wendell and…POW! Tom Goodwin sliced through the mile-high atmosphere with a grand slam off Dennis Cook, and suddenly it was 11-9 Mets and, oh dear, there was only one out. Cook took as deep a breath as one could in the mountains and grounded out Mike Lansing and Larry Walker to escape the eighth without further damage. The Mets took out an insurance policy in the top of the ninth by adding three more runs to their sum (featuring Edgardo Alfonzo’s fourth hit and fourth RBI of the day), and every one of them would be deeply appreciated by Armando Benitez, who allowed a two-run homer to Terry Shumpert. But the Mets’ closer recovered and preserved an all too eventful 14-11 Mets win. All could exhale, assuming there was any oxygen left at not altogether beautiful Coors Field.
GAME 027: May 5, 2004 — METS 8 Giants 2
(Mets All-Time Game 027 Record: 24-27; Mets 2004 Record: 12-15)
Everybody has his own goals and aspirations, some of which are going to matter mostly to the individual who cherishes them. A record for most home runs hit by, say, a catcher might fall into that category. Huge deal to the catcher, maybe not so much for everybody else. After all, it wasn’t one of those marks that had a long and storied tradition or came with a lineage of famous chases, like Aaron coming after Ruth or Bonds edging toward striking distance (however he did it) of Aaron.
Yet in early 2004, Mets fans were absorbed to a reasonable degree by Mike Piazza’s quest to become the catcher with the most home runs any catcher had ever hit. Being absorbed by Mike Piazza was nothing new to Mets fans, for whom Piazza was equals parts slugger and savior from the moment he arrived in their midst in 1998. He had a flair for the dramatic that transcended the statistical, so we could cut Mike a break and take his stat-fueled desires seriously. Entering the season, Piazza had totaled 347 home runs as a catcher, four fewer than Carlton Fisk…as a catcher. Fisk had 376 overall, with 25 hit doing something else when his team wasn’t batting.
That’s the thing about these positional home run records. Neither Pudge nor Mike nor, for that matter, Johnny Bench — 389 home runs in his career, 327 “as a catcher” — wore shinguards, a chest protector, a mask or a helmet backwards when they stood at rather than crouched behind home plate. On the other mitted hand, you couldn’t argue that catching did take a lot of out of a catcher, so maybe there was something to being the catcher with the most clout.
As for the taking a lot out of a player factor, the Mets noticed that. Piazza turned 35 years old late in the 2003 season. It was their goal and aspiration to get as much production as possible out of their aging catcher by turning him into a reborn first baseman. Thus, Mike began taking ground balls around a bag he was used to touching on his way to second, not standing around for any discernible period of time. Though converting Piazza to first base had been speculated upon publicly since at least 1999, when John Olerud departed for Seattle, it was an assignment Mike no more than lukewarmed to. It was, actually, a source of contemporary embarrassment in that the Mets’ biggest star learned he was headed eventually to first — left vacant by a long-term injury to incumbent Mo Vaughn — not from his first-year manager, Art Howe, but from a reporter covering the club. Howe had let word leak in an interview before mentioning to Mike that his world was abut to change.
“I didn’t realize [if] you say something on the radio around here it’s all over the place before you even blink,” said Howe, suddenly figuring out New York wasn’t Houston or Oakland. “It’s a learning process for me.”
As it would be for Mike, whose first base experience was slight and ancient by 2003. Though not hailed for his defense, Piazza was proud of his position and, despite lip service about doing whatever the team wanted, indicated little enthusiasm for a switch. “This has to be done the right way,” he said. “This is obviously turning into a life of its own.”
Because these were the 2003 Mets, the transition was literally painful. Within a week of his first base destiny becoming news, Piazza sustained a severe groin injury while batting (as a catcher) at Pac Bell Park. He’d be out for three months, and when he returned, the first base project was pushed back even further. He wouldn’t play his “new” position until the very last inning of the very last home game of the season, a night otherwise dedicated to paying tribute to retiring broadcaster Bob Murphy.
Whatever long-term plan the Mets of Art Howe and GM Jim Duquette envisioned for 2004 rested on Piazza finally taking over first and highly valued youngster Jason Phillips (a .298 hitter in ’03) becoming more or less the full-time catcher. But there remained the little matter of Piazza’s goal and aspiration. He really wanted that home run record. He needed five to top Fisk and he was given ample opportunity to scale Mount Pudge. In the Mets’ first 26 games of 2004, Piazza started behind the plate 18 times and at first base only six times. Mike crushed four homers in that span, every one of them in games when he caught.
The plan waited on Piazza’s record-breaking swing. If it wasn’t taking forever, it was taking its sweet time…at least until the first Wednesday night in May, at Shea. On that occasion, it didn’t take long. Two out, bottom of the first, Jerome Williams pitching for the Giants and, as occurred 351 times before, a ball landed over the right-center field fence.
A Mike Piazza home run. A record-breaker. Elevated from trivia to cause célèbre to obstacle to, as always seemed to be the case with Mike Piazza, an impressive achievement that made everybody who rooted for him feel better. At the curtain-call moment, with No. 352 deposited safely over the wall, nobody minded the catcher-first base tug of war. Whatever made or didn’t make sense in terms of defensive alignment, Mets fans mostly wanted what made Mike Piazza happy after all he had done in seven seasons to plaster smiles on their faces.
“I’m really excited and really proud,” Mike beamed after passing Pudge. “I’m blessed. I’ve lived a dream. Everything from here on in is icing.”
The first dollop was provided by his teammates that very night. In the eighth inning, with the game tied at two, Shane Spencer swatted a three-run homer as a left fielder, Mike Cameron sent one out of the yard as a center fielder and Kaz Matsui simply singled in a run as a shortstop. The Mets won 8-2. There was another helping of icing the next night, and it was all courtesy of the greatest home run-hitting catcher of all time. Piazza broke a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the eleventh against the Giants’ Jim Brower, winning another game for the Mets as a catcher. “It was fun to be a part of,” Piazza said humbly.
Leave it to the Mets of this era to throw a wet blanket on everything. “Mike’s a catcher first and a first baseman second,” Howe said soon after. “Somewhere down the road, he’ll be playing a lot of first base.” The road led all the way to one week later when Mike began being penciled in almost regularly as the Mets’ starting first baseman. An extended break, however, was provided in mid-June, right around the time the Mets invited Fisk, Bench, Yogi Berra and Gary Carter to Shea as part of a celebration of the catcher’s home run record. When his peers in immortality showed up, it wasn’t to honor a first baseman.
“Only we as catchers can fully appreciate what it takes to go behind the plate every day and also put some offensive numbers on the board,” the dethroned Fisk said. “Mike has met that challenge for years now.”
Postscript: Mike Piazza played 68 awkward games at first base in 2004. Art Howe would be dismissed from his Met job at the end of that season. Piazza would play three more years in the majors, retire with 427 home runs overall, 396 of them as a catcher and never be asked by any other manager to play first.
Nor, as far as anybody can tell, did he vociferously volunteer.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On May 16, 1962, with the Mets trailing the Cubs 5-4 in the bottom of the eighth, Gil Hodges took advantage of the Polo Grounds’ unique dimensions and launched a fly ball to center field which, amid the rolling pastures under Coogan’s Bluff, became the first inside-the-park home run in Mets history. Gil’s interior blast helped send the game into extra innings where, in the eleventh, Felix Mantilla’s infield single with the bases loaded brought home John DeMerit to give Casey Stengel’s squad a 6-5 win. The victory catapulted the 9-18 Metsies into an eighth-place tie with the Colt .45s. It was also their second consecutive extra-inning win, both coming at the expense of last-place Chicago.