In addition, it was unsure whether Keith Hernandez, acquired from St. Louis in a shocking deadline deal in 1983, would sign a long term contract for a team that had made last place its home for five of the previous six seasons.
During the 1983 World Series, Cashen made a bold move. Instead of hiring a "name" manager, he gave the job to Tidewater skipper Davey Johnson.
Johnson, a former three-time Gold Glove Award winner with the Baltimore Orioles, had played for Cashen _ then the O's general manager _ and had forged a friendly, albeit adversarial relationship.
Johnson, who ironically made the final out of the 1969 World Series, would now be given the task of molding a young team that had enjoyed little success and was now being vilified for the loss of Seaver.
At least his resume was impressive, as Johnson had won pennants in each of his three seasons in the minors and advanced quickly through the Mets' system, jumping over more experienced managerial candidates.
One of the factors in his success was his use of computers _ he has a mathematics degree from Trinity (Texas) University _ to compile player data. Also, his attention to detail with batter-pitcher matchups, platooning and in-game switches _ all learned from playing for O's Hall of Famer Earl Weaver _ played a large role in his being chosen to lead the Mets.
Johnson tested the manager-GM relationship right from the beginning, as Johnson insisted that 19-year old Dwight Gooden be included on the 1984 opening day roster.
Gooden _ who pitched two playoff game for the Tides in 1983 _ had spent much of that season pitching for Lynchburg of the Class-A Carolina League. The Mets' number-one pick in the June 1982 draft (the fifth player taken) had led the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts in 1983, fanning 300 in 191 innings.
Cashen was reluctant to rush Gooden. Not only was he already under extreme criticism for the Seaver debacle, but two years earlier, he had allowed Joe Torre to include phenom Tim Leary in his rotation to begin the 1981 season. "Tim Terrific" blew out his arm in his debut on a cold, windy day in April at Wrigley Field.
But in the end, Davey won out. Gooden responded with a 17-9, 2.60 ERA, striking out a MLB rookie- record 276 batters, which earned him NL Rookie of the Year. Ron Darling, Walt Terrell and Sid Fernandez _ who Cashen acquired just prior to the 1984 season for utilityman Bob Bailor and reliever Carlos Diaz _ all had strong seasons. Their combined efforts, especially early in the season, allowed Johnson to push Cashen to drop the trio of Craig Swan, Mike Torrez and Dick Tidrow by June 1.
But the maturation of the pitching staff wasn't the only move that made '84 a special year.
First, after being convinced by Cashen that better days were ahead, Hernandez signed a long term deal, accepting the leadership role for a young group of players. His brilliant defense, clutch hitting and overall willingness to be the front man for the team was invaluable. The rest of the infield would be tougher to figure out for Johnson.
Switch-hitting second baseman Wally Backman was coming off a poor 1983 season. After playing in 96 games and hitting .272 as a a rookie in 1982, he had a poor spring and start the nest season. A rotator cuff injury get him sent down to AAA Tidewater after just 26 games, and he angrily went AWOL for several days before rejoining the Tides. As a former second baseman himself, Johnson knew Backman had the stones to play major league baseball, but had little confidence in Wally's hitting ability from the right side of the plate, so Johnson chose journeyman Kelvin Chapman to platoon with Backman at second base for 1984. Chapman had been a 23-year old infield prospect for the Mets in 1979, getting a September call-up. He spent the next four years toiling in the minors. Both responded, as Backman hit .280 and stole 32 bases, while Chapman had his only productive season in the majors, batting .272.
At shortstop, Johnson had little use for the light-hitting Jose Oquendo, and sent him back to the minors in favor of Rafael Santana, a much more balanced player. Ron Gardenhire also played some short, but it was third baseman Hubie Brooks who would finish out the year at shortstop for the Mets in 1984. Brooks, who had played shortstop for Arizona State in the 1978 College World Series, made such a splash in his 26 games at short, that he would be the key player traded in the off-season for Montreal's Gary Carter.
But in 1984, the catching job belonged to 23-year old Mike Fitzgerald, a solid but unspectacular backstop.
|Darryl Strawberry: Darryl paved the way for the '84 Mets, clubbing 26 home runs in 1983 before doing it again in 1984.|
The outfield of George Foster (.269, 24 HRs, 86 RBIs), Darryl Strawberry (.251, 26 HRs, 97 RBIs) and Mookie Wilson (.276, 46 SBs) played well enough to help the team win 90 games. All season long, the surprising Mets baffled the critics, who had picked the team to finish dead last in the NL East.
Ultimately, the thrill ride ended with the Mets six games behind the Cubs. In retrospect, this was the season that started an unparalled string of five straight 90-win seasons for the New York Mets franchise. In fact, from 1984-1990, the Mets finished in second place five times. Had there been a NL wildcard in those years, New York would have been in the playoffs in each of those seasons.
Many Mets fans feel that group of talented players that won two NL East titles (1986, 1988), the NL pennant and World Series in 1986, should have achieved more. That may very well be true, but compared to the underachieving group of the past three seasons, at least they were exciting, competitve teams that captured the imagination of their fans.