The 1984 New York Mets came into the season as the heir to hard times. The franchise had captivated baseball in 1969 with their miracle run to a World Series title. A subsequent 1973 run to the National League pennant was almost as shocking. But after winning seasons in 1975-76, the franchise had fallen and couldn’t get up.
From 1977-83, they failed to so much as many 70 games in a season. That included a four-year run with Joe Torre as the manager. It included a year-plus with George Bamberger, who had recently turned around the Milwaukee Brewers. And if you were looking for an out with the strike year of 1981? No such luck—pro-rated out, the ’81 season was going to be as bad as any other during the seven-year drought.
It was time for changes in Queens. The Mets had already brought in Keith Hernandez, an All-Star first baseman from St. Louis. They called up Darryl Strawberry and the talented rightfielder won Rookie of the Year in 1983. They had another group of rookies coming up for 1984. And in Davey Johnson, they found the right manager to put it all together.
Hernandez and Strawberry continued to be the best everyday players in 1984. Hernandez batted .311 with an on-base percentage that was a sparkling .409. Strawberry hit 26 home runs, stole 27 bases and drove in 97 runs.
Offensive support came from second baseman Wally Backman and third baseman Hubie Brooks, with on-base percentages that ranged from .340 to .360. Leftfielder George Foster was now 35-years-old and no longer what he’d been during his glory days in Cincinnati. But he still went deep 24 times and drove in 86 runs.
Mookie Wilson provided speed and defense in the outfield. Kelvin Chapman was a solid reserve infielder. Rafael Santana was starting to emerge at shortstop. None were outstanding, and the catching spot was a weak point, but it was enough for the Mets to finish in the middle of the 12-team National League in runs scored.
The pitching only ranked 8th in in the NL in ERA, but itwas the area where the excitement came from. Walt Terrell was a reliable arm coming into his prime and he finished with a 3.52 ERA in his 33 starts. A rookie named Ron Darling got started on a stellar career that would extend into the broadcast booth in his post-playing days. Darling also went to the post 33 times and his ERA was 3.81. Sid Fernandez, a 21-year-old lefty got 15 starts and posted a 3.50 ERA.
But the buzz in Shea Stadium came when 19-year-old Dwight Gooden took the mound. He won 17 games, finished with a 2.60 ERA, won Rookie of the Year and finished second in the Cy Young voting. A star was born.
The Mets played good baseball right out of the gate and started 15-8. They were in first place in the NL East in early May, before settling in at 22-19 by the Memorial Day holiday. New York was only 2 ½ games out.
The league alignment prior to 1984 was two divisions per league with the winners going directly to the League Championship Series. With no Central Division in existence, the Cubs were the team setting the early pace in the NL East. The Philadelphia Phillies had won this division in ’83 and were in second. The Mets were tied with the Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals) for third.
New York slumped out of the holiday weekend and was four back in early June. Then they won 13 of 17, a stretch that was capped with a series win over Philadelphia. The Mets nudged into first place again, leading by a half-game at the All-Star break. The Cubs were hot on their heels and the Phils were 3 ½ out. The Expos fell out of contention, a development that would bode well for the Mets by the coming offseason.
The late part of July was good for the folks in Queens. They went 11-3 out of the break, took a 3 ½ game lead on Chicago and were up five on Philadelphia. The Cubs were coming into Shea Stadium for a four-game set on the final weekend of the month.
Gooden took the ball on Friday night and allowed just four hits in eight innings. The 2-1 win pushed New York’s lead to 4 ½. All was right with the world.
Only it was all downhill from there. It started on Saturday afternoon. Relief pitcher Doug Sisk came for Darling in a 3-3 game in the eighth. Eight runs later, the Mets were on their way to an 11-4 loss. In the Sunday doubleheader, the bats went silent. They got just twelve hits over the twinbill and were a combined 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position. Losses of 3-0 and 5-1 narrowed the lead to a game and a half.
New York followed that up by losing three straight to a mediocre St. Louis Cardinals team. The Mets were a half-game back of Chicago when they went to Wrigley Field for another four-game set, this one starting on August 6.
Gooden started Monday’s opener and there would be no reprise of his last start against the Cubbies. He was down 6-0 after four and the Mets lost 9-3. Tuesday was a doubleheader. Darling and Ed Lynch got the starts. Neither got out of the fifth inning. Losses of 8-6 and 8-4 pushed New York deeper into the hole.
The finale on Wednesday afternoon was going better. A two-out/two-run single by catcher Mike Fitzgerald gave the Mets a 5-3 lead going into the bottom of the seventh. Terrell and reliever Wes Gardner couldn’t hold on. Chicago scored four times, won 7-6 and New York was facing a 4 ½ game deficit.
The NL East race stayed mostly stable the balance of August and the Mets were five games out on Labor Day. They had a couple more head-to-head series with the Cubs ahead in September, so this was still very much a race.
But New York lacked consistency and in an ironic foreshadowing of 1985, the Cards were their nemesis. Twice, St. Louis swept two-games sets from the Mets. New York couldn’t get traction against lowly Pittsburgh. The split of the six games the Mets played with the Cubs wouldn’t have been sufficient in any case. Set against the backdrop of these missed opportunities against lesser teams, the NL East turned into a runaway.
New York was still able to finish with a nice 7-2 stretch and that got them to 90 wins. Whatever disappointment they felt had to be mitigated by just how far the franchise had come in a single year under Johnson.
They were also taking steps to get better. A late August trade had brought Ray Knight to play third. That gave the Mets the opportunity to move Hubie Brooks. They used Brooks as the lead piece in a four-player package that got Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter out of Montreal, who decided to start rebuilding.
New York was even better in 1985. But while the Cubs fell off, the Cardinals jumped up and St. Louis won a sizzling NL East race in ’85. The Mets kept coming. In 1986, they broke through and won it all. They contended to the final week in 1987. They won 100 games in 1988 and returned to the postseson.
While there was residual disappointment in this era for producing “only” one World Series title, the Mets were one of baseball’s flagship franchises in the latter part of the 1980s. With the Yankees down (at least by Yankee standards), the Mets owned the Big Apple. That era started in 1984.