Monday, January 02, 2006

NL Expansion: 1962

The National League in 1962 had every reason to expand. Not only had the AL just expanded for the 1961 season, but every factor weighing upon the AL weighed upon the NL to some extent. But if there was one single factor behind the NL's 1962 expansion, it was a man not unused to changing the face of baseball: Branch Rickey.
The vacuum created in New York when the Giants and Dodgers left led to the formation of a group seeking to bring more baseball to the Big Apple. According to David Nevard, baseball rules were set up in such a way as to make the establishment of a new league more feasible than the addition of one or two teams. With this in mind, a committtee was formed to establish a new major league, the Continental League. It was headed by New York lawyer William Shea. The public face chosen to lead the new league? None other than Branch Rickey, the former Dodger executive responsible for modern integration.
The realities were that the league never stood a realistic chance. Not only were the AL and NL very cool towards the idea of a challenge in power, but the fact of the matter was that most good players in North America were controlled by the 16 existing teams. The Continental League folded in August of 1960.
But the challenge put forth by the league was significant. It exploited a huge opening in the New York market for a second baseball team as well as the opportunities created in "new" cities such as Houston, Toronto, Denver, and Atlanta. It's unclear how much Rickey and Shea were sincerely trying to make a new league or whether they were simply forcing the slow-footed owners to expand. Whatever their motives, the tactic worked. With every other factor taken into account, the NL chose to expand for the 1962 season, matching the AL with 10 teams. The New York franchise, awarded to Shea, was to be called the Mets (after the old AA Metropolitans) in the hands of principal owner Joan Payson. The other franchise would be the Houston Colt .45s, awarded to "the richest man in Texas," Robert E. Smith. The residue of the Continental League was evident in Shea's control of the Mets (who in 1964 moved into Shea Stadium) and in the presence of virtually the same Houston franchise that would have been in the Continental League. Oh, and Rickey would run baseball operations for the Mets.
So began the 1962 baseball season, with the National League sporting two new teams. What followed would be the stuff of great legend, myth, and folly . . .

New York Mets
It wasn't just the presence of former Dodger executive Rickey that made the Mets a National League throwback. Met executives went out of their way to associate themselves with New York baseball history in any way possible. This came from their selection of Rickey as GM and Casey Stengel as manager right down to the choice of uniform colors: Giant orange and Dodger blue.
Rickey's time as GM was quite short. Owner Payson and club chairman M. Donald Grant were not willing to give Rickey full control nor were they ready to spend what he saw as neccesary to field a contender. So Rickey was out in favor of former Yankee executive and future Hall-of-Famer George Weiss. As a man who played an instrumental role in building the Yankee dynasty under Casey Stengel, Weiss came with impeccable credentials.
It wasn't just Stengel's presence that made the team seem like a Frankenstein's monster of past NL teams: also taking the field were former Yankees Johnny Murphy and Whitey Herzog along with former Dodgers Gil Hodges, Charlie Neal, Don Zimmer, Roger Craig, and Clem Labine. The franchise's early rosters were truly infested with way-over-the-hill stars such as Duke Snider, Warren Spahn, Richie Ashburn and Yogi Berra in an attempt to find established names, often at the cost 0f on-field quality.
Speaking of on-field quality, how about those 1962 Mets? Truly good players on the team were hard to come by, prompting Stengel to question "Can't anybody play this here game?" The short answer was no. Other than still-potent hitters Ashburn and Frank Thomas, the team was a vast collection of, according to Don Zimmer, "humpties," or marginal major-leaguers. New York fans, taking cynical delight in the team, christened first-baseman Marv Throneberry "Marvelous Marv" despite the fact that he was very rarely marvelous.
The team won 40 and lost 120 (a big-league record), finishing in last place, 60.5 games behind the Giants. The Mets were the only team in the league to commit over 200 errors and finished dead last in fielding percentage. Their 5.04 runs allowed/game was half a run worse than the 9th-worst Chicago Cubs (4.54). Only the Astros scored fewer runs, and they were playing in a much tougher ballpark.
The ballpark in question was the old, semi-abandoned Polo Grounds, vacant since the Giants left for San Francisco in 1958. The Yankees denied a request to share Yankee Stadium until such time as Shea Stadium could be built, the Bronx team angry at Weiss' leaving his (enforced) retirement to head the cross-town competition.
Despite their awfulness, which has been romanticized, the Mets drew fairly well. The return of National League baseball to the Big Apple energized thousands of former Dodger and Giant fans, who now took pride in the lovable losers of Stengel. Despite their 120 losses, the Mets drew 922,530 fans in 1962, 7th-best in the NL. By the time they moved into Shea Stadium in 1964, their attendance had nearly doubled, to 1.7 million (2nd-best in the NL). Never has such a bad team been so popular or made so much money.
But behind the veneer of disrespectability there were signs that the team was becoming less awful. One was the emergence of second baseman Ron Hunt, a surprisingly competent player, and first baseman Ed Kranepool. Kranepool was never great and was rarely good, but his stability was such that he was well-liked. Owner Payson made it clear that he was never to be traded, and so this weak-hitting first baseman spent his 18-year career entirely with the Mets.
After signs that Stengel was barely conscious, let alone competent to still be running a baseball team, coach Wes Westrum took over the 1966 team, bringing them the tremendous accomplishment of a 9th-place finish (ahead of the Cubs), and less than 100 losses (95) for the first time in franchise history. Very gradually, almost in spite of themselves, the Mets began gaining players who were quite good, or at least good for a year or two. After losing 101 games and falling back into the cellar in 1967, the 1968 team went an amazing 73-89 and finished 9th. A deceptively competent lineup included players such as catcher Jerry Grote, shortstop Bud Harrelson, and outfielders Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee. But the real engine behind the Mets in 1968 (and for years to come) were the mound aces Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. Seaver, known as Tom Terrific, was the best pitcher of his era, a man whose good looks and inner strength made him a New York hero, if not a national one. Koosman was never as brilliant as Seaver, but was one of the more underappreciated hurlers of his era, winning 15 or more games 6 times and posting a 3.36 career ERA (110 ERA+).
In 1969, the leagues expanded again and shifted into two divisions. With their move into the 6-team NL East, the Mets made their move. Inspired by beloved manager Gil Hodges, the Mets, led by Seaver and Koosman, posted a 2.99 team ERA, second only to St. Louis (2.94). The offense was good-but-not-great, with no-name outfielders Jones and Agee leading the charge. The Mets were just as lucky as they were good, and their amazing season electrified New York. They won 100 games and found themselves as the first-ever NL East Champions, playing the first-ever NLCS against Hank Aaron and the Braves.
Aaron hit well, but was unable to prevent a sweep at the hands of Agee, Jones, and a young fireballer named Nolan Ryan. The Mets went on to face the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. The Mets were serious underdogs, up against the Orioles of Frank and Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Jim Palmer, Earl Weaver, and that great Baltimore pitching. What happened was about as significant as the Duke basketball team losing to North Dakota Tech. The Orioles held the Mets to just 3 runs per game, but that was nothing compared to the 1.80 ERA posted by the Mets pitchers. New York took the Series in 5 games. They supplanted the 1914 Braves as the most miraculous team in baseball history, forever to be known as the Miracle Mets.
Unfortunately, the limitations of the roster quickly became clear. The '69 Mets seemed like a team of nobodies that won more games than they should have, and the years 1970-1972 proved that theory true. The team won just 83 games each year, finishing 3rd in the NL East. The 1973 team, though, may have been a bigger surprise than the '69 team. Led by the semi-ironic rallying cry "Ya Gotta Believe," the '73 Mets won the NL East with a record of 82-79, absolutely the worst record ever by a postseason team until the 2005 Padres went 82-80 and won the NL West.
The '73 Mets may not have been very good, but like their '69 brethren, they were adept at beating much better teams in the postseason. With Seaver and Koosman, joined by Jon Matlack and closer Tug McGraw to anchor the pitching staff, the Mets returned the same basic disappointing offense, with Rusty Staub the only significant addition. But this underwhelming team went into the NLCS against the heavily favored Big Red Machine and won in 5. The World Series against the defending champion Oakland A's was amazingly close, but the A's eventually won in 7.
The rest of the 1970's saw the gradual disintegration of the core of the 69-73 team. It was not helped by a front office that seemed inept in the face of controversy. The tragic death of manager Hodges in 1972 saw the team criticize the New York Daily News for reporting the story before Hodges' family was told -- and then the team turned around and gave the same paper "exclusive last photos" of Hodges a few days later. Losing patience with the talented but wild Nolan Ryan, the team traded him and three other players to the Angels for Jim Fregosi. Not only did Ryan blossom into a future Hall-of-Famer, but it became clear that Fregosi was basically done as a player.
The team had an often prickly relationship with star players, especially Seaver. After trading Staub, one of the few good hitters they had, to Detroit when he sought a long-term deal, word got out of a trade that would send Seaver to the Dodgers. Public backlash forced the team to relent and sign Seaver to a deal, but it severely damaged the image of the Mets. It was especially poor timing in that the Yankees were surging back to dominance by signing big-name stars as free agents, whereas the Mets were content to confine their signings to journeymen such as Elliott Maddox and Tom Hausman.
Sportswriter Dick Young of the Daily News served to inflame crises by taking a very public pro-management stance that infuriated players. Young was especially infuriated by a victory banquet in Florida held for the '69 World Champions. In the midst of the victory banquet, Florida governor Claude Kirk took the opportunity to enter into a lengthy defense of the war in Vietnam. Seaver and McGraw, vocal opponents of the war, simply got up and left along with several other teammates. Young, a pro-management conservative, was livid, especially when manager Gil Hodges said nothing more than to question whether the speech was appropriate for a World Series celebration.
The breaking point came when Young published a story claiming that Seaver's wife was behind his dissatisfaction with the club, claiming (among other things) that Seaver was jealous of other stars getting bigger contracts. Seaver demanded a trade, a deal which was already being contemplated. The future Hall-of-Famer went to Cincinnati for Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn, and some humpties.
With Seaver perhaps the most popular ballplayer in the city, the New York press (Young excepted) went crazy. The trade was dubbed the Midnight Massacre, along with the trade of slugger (and strike-outer) Dave Kingman to San Diego. It could be considered the breaking point for the franchise, which lost the support of New York fans almost immediately. Club attendance had reached as high as 1.7 million in the mid-70's, but fell below 800,000 during their 99-loss 1979 campaign. It wouldn't be until a new breed of homegrown talent emerged in the mid-80's that the team would again draw more than 1.5 million, eventually topping the 3 million mark in 1987.
But the late 70's and early 80's saw that strange, utterly entertaining phenomenon known as a Bad Team in New York City. With nothing but washed-up players, ex-prospects, and mid-level performers, the Mets reacted strongly to the emergence of Lee Mazzilli in 1977. Not only was Mazzilli a good player, but he was a tall, dark and handsome young man in New York. The Met publicity department went into overdrive, but Mazzilli had his last good year in 1980 and was eventually traded to Texas.
The biggest casualty was longtime club chairman Grant, who had been with the team since its inception. He was canned by acting owner Lorinda de Roulet, Payson's daughter. Not only did de Roulet suggest that minimum-wage players were better than free agents, she suggested that old balls be washed and reused. She also stubbornly pursued the use of a mascot, a mule named Mettle driven around the field by her daughter, Bebe.
The team was sold in 1980 to publisher Nelson Doubledar and realtor Fred Wilpon. Former Orioles GM Frank Cashen took over as General Manager. Cashen warned that it would take 5 years for the Mets to be competitive again, and set about developing the farm system. Cashen eventually proved true to his word; although the early 80's weren't any more successful on the field, they showed the signs of improvement as good rookies emerged from the farm system and the team started completing useful trades.
The 1984 team proved the biggest surprise, as the Mets crawled out of the cellar to win 90 games, finishing 2nd, just 6.5 games back of the Cubs. The offense was driven by Keith Hernandez, the great-fielding first baseman stolen from the Cardinals in a trade, as well as George Foster, taken from the Reds in a less-fruitful deal. (Foster would later claim that he was denied playing time because he was black. When it was pointed out that his replacements, Mookie Wilson and Kevin Mitchell, were both black, Foster retracted his statement). But the key to the offense was a rookie named Daryl Strawberry. Strawberry emerged in 1983, winning the Rookie of the Year Award. His 1984 campaign, 26 HR, 75 BB, 27 sB, was even better. Other home-grown talents making a contribution were Mookie Wilson, Hubie Brooks, and Wally Backman.
The Met pitching staff was equally capable. The club got 31 saves from closer Jesse Orosco (2.59 ERA), as well as quality work from starters Ron Darling, Walt Terrell, and Sid Fernandez. None of the three were home-grown, but all were obtained in very clever trades by Cashen. The home-grown star of the 1984 Mets was a young pitcher named Dwight Gooden.
It's hard to imagine that a young pitcher has ever really been as good or as famous as Dwight Gooden. This would be a whole separate article, but Gooden was simply beyond good when he reached the majors at age 19. He posted a 2.60 ERA in 218 IP, striking out an ungodly 276 batters against just 7 HR and 73 walks. Gooden went on to have an even better year in 1985, and looked like a superstar before he got into drugs. The drugs played a part, but the reason for Gooden's downfall (as pointed out in Rob Neyer's Book of Baseball Lineups) was arm injuries.
With the Yankees of Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly disappointing, the Mets were once again the talk of New York. Manager Davey Johnson, having taken over the team in 1984, was a level-headed intellectual, at least by baseball standards, of the Earl Weaver school of managing. Despite being accused of a certain laziness, he was able to consolidate a great group of talent. The Mets in 1985 did even better, winning 98 games, but had to settle for a close 2nd, 3 games behind the Cardinals.
But the 1986 team finished second to no one. They won 108 games, finishing a healthy 21.5 games ahead of the Phillies. The last NL team to win more than 108 games was the 1906 Cubs. The Mets tied a post-war record of 108 wins by an NL team, tying the 1975 Big Red Machine.
Like any other great team, the '86 Mets had some superstars, some minor stars, and some guys just having a good year. They had in Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, and Darryl Strawberry 3 MVP candidates. They also had, in Gooden, Darling, Fernandez, Bob Ojeda, and Rick Aguilera, one of the best starting rotations of the 80's. They got 45 saves from their dual relief aces Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco. Minor stars such as Lenny Dykstra, Mookie Wilson, Lenny Dykstra, and Ray Knight gave them great depth in the lineup. Despite their status as a juggernaut, the '86 Mets had a tough time in the postseason, winning closely-fought victories over Houston in the NLCS and Boston in the World Series.
Many have wondered at the fact that the '86 Mets, an apparent juggernaut, did not become a dynasty. The 1987 team finished second with just 92 wins. The '88 team rebounded for 100 wins and a division title, but were upset by the Dodgers in the NLCS. Many theories have been put forth as to why the team didn't become a dynasty, with drugs and high living listed among the prime causes. This is, again, perhaps another article in itself, but it's central to the understanding of the 1980's and 1990's to see why the '86 Mets did not become a dynasty.
The first point I'd like to make is that the '86 Mets just weren't as good, in the qualitative sense, as other dynasties. They were great in terms of what they did on the field, but in terms of the players therein, they are not so historic. I'd say that more than one Hall-of-Famer is basically a prerequisite for dynastic status. But the '86 Mets have only one: Gary Carter. They also don't have anyone who is likely to make the Hall in the future, with Keith Hernandez the only real possibility at this point. I would argue that while the team had an inordinate number of very good players; solid guys like Gooden, Strawberry or Ray Knight who had very fine careers, they did not have superstars. This is not just in the qualitative sense; their surrounding career numbers would serve to reinforce this argument.
You've also got guys who were just lucky. Lenny Dykstra had about 6 or 7 good years, with the possible help of steroids, but wasn't really a super-star. The same could be said for Ron Darling, whose good looks masked the fact that he also allowed a lot of walks and home runs. Players like Mookie Wilson, Wally Backman, and Sid Fernandez were good, yes, but never great. George Foster was essentially done by 1986. So you have a team with some talented veterans and some good young players, yes, but . . . the veterans were nearly done (although we didn't know that at the time), there was no one ready to take their places, a lot of the guys (Backman, Dykstra, Darling) weren't quite as good as their rep, and the rookies wouldn't be quite so resilient as hoped.
Are drugs the culprit? If Hernandez, Gooden, and Strawberry hadn't gotten hooked on the hard stuff, and if Darling hadn't been such a playboy, would the Met dynasty have been a success? It's possible, but I think the influence of drugs is horrifically overstated as the single cause of the team's decline. As I said before, Gooden's overuse was a much bigger cause for concern, and drugs or not, Keith Hernandez was 32 years old in 1986, and his steep drop in quality after 1987 is entirely reasonable for a player not on drugs. Strawberry is the only one whose decline can be convincingly tied to drugs, although even then we just don't know how much of it was due to drugs and how much of it was just the vicissitudes of baseball.
But back to the story . . . the Mets, facing an increasingly demanding New York public, tried to put the club back into contention by signing big-name free agents. It didn't work, by and large. The Mets made Bobby Bonilla the richest man in baseball in 1992, whereupon Bonilla suddenly went from being a great player to being just pretty good. Then there was Vince Coleman, who was never really great at anything in the first place except stealing bases, but that didn't stop the Mets from bumping him up a couple tax brackets in 1991. Not only was Coleman simply dreadful in New York, he was a surly interview given to throwing firecrackers at fans.
The 1993 team is a good illustration; the Mets had a whole array of players who had been or would be stars, but were between their good years. Coleman and Bonilla were joined by old hands: the largely ineffective Joe Orsulak and Howard Johnson, as well as Gooden and Fernandez (who were admittedly pretty good), Frank Tanana and John Franco (who weren't). Promising young starter Anthony Young suffered the indignity of breaking the record for most consecutive losses, this despite the fact that his 3.77 ERA was above-average. The only young players of any note were Jeromy Burnitz and Jeff Kent (who would have their best years elsewhere), and Todd Hundley, the only one on the whole team with a good year to give the Mets. Most disturbing was the development of Paul Wilson, Jason Isringhausen, and Bill Pulsipher from the farm system. The Met publicity department went into overdrive, dubbing them "Generation K" and claiming they were the future aces of the franchise. That went about as well as could be expected, with injuries and general sucktitude sidelining the three. Wilson and Isringhausen would go on to have some good years . . . with other teams.
The seeds for the future were sown with the hiring of Steve Phillips as GM and Bobby Valentine as manager for the 1997 season. Phillips was the organization man who never met a big contract he didn't like, and Valentine was the resident pain in the ass looking to spur the team to better years. Whatever effect the combination had on office parties, they were instrumental in rebuilding the team into a contender almost immediately. The Mets had homegrown talents Edgardo Alfonzo and Rey Ordonez patrolling the left side of the infield with solid defense and Hundley returning as catcher. To add a big pat to a largely punch-less lineup, the Mets traded for Toronto first baseman John Olerud. Olerud became a fixture at first base on what would become (with the addition of Robin Ventura) arguably the greatest infield of the 90's. Closer John Franco was the only familiar face on a journeyman pitching staff where the immortal Dave Mlicki led the team with 32 starts. But the Mets won 88 games for 3rd place, finishing above .500 for the first time since 1990. The 1998 team again won 88 and moved up to 2nd place, falling just one game short of the Wild Card on the last day of the season.
The 1999 team finally broke through. Its 97 wins were just good for 2nd place behind the Braves, but the team entered the postseason as the Wild Card after defeating Cincinnati in a 1-game playoff. Instrumental were Mike Piazza, obtained in a 1998 trade with Florida, veterans such as Rickey Henderson and Orel Hershiser, and a solid core of pitchers anchored by Al Leiter and fireballing closer Armando Benitez, both acquired by Phillips via trades. The team upset the Diamondbacks in the NLDS 3-1, but then fell in a nail-biter NLCS to the Braves 3-2.
The Mets bypassed the Braves entirely in 2000. They again won the Wild Card at 94-68, with new faces such as Todd Zeile and Mike Hampton. They went on to beat the Giants in the NLDS 3-1, eased past St. Louis 4-1 in the NLCS, but were stopped by the Yankees in the World Series in 5.
The 2001 team won just 82 games and fell into 3rd place. The jeers got louder in 2002, when the Mets lost 86 games and finished last. Culprits were Mo Vaughn and his Contract from Hell (obtained by Phillips in a trade with Anaheim) and an outfield of Roger Cedeno, Timo Perez, and Jeromy Burnitz that was comically inadequate. Valentine's enthusiasm seemed more obnoxious when the team was losing, with stunts such as appearing in the dugout in a fake beard after being ejected from a game not endearing himself to anyone. He was dumped in favor of Art Howe. Howe lasted only two seasons (5th place and 4th place) before he was fired.
The Mets are currently under GM Omar Minaya and manager Willie Randolph, both of them entering their second season heading the club. Although the team continues to throw big money at big free agents (Carlos Beltran, Pedro Martinez, Billy Wagner), they have returned to respectability thanks to the front office's efforts to sign players that are actually good, as well as the emergence of young players such as superstar third baseman David Wright. The Mets appear to be contenders in the NL East, but after all the money they've spent, it will all be considered a failure unless they return to October.

Sources include:
Total Ballclubs by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella
Total Baseball Encyclopedia 2004 Ed.
Zim: My Life in Baseball by Don Zimmer
Rob Neyer's Book of Baseball Lineups by Rob Neyer

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