1989 New York Mets: The Johnson Era Starts To Fade

It was the last gasp of the Davey Johnson era. A highly successful period of Mets history had been marked by a World Series title in 1986, but crushing pennant races in 1985 and 1987 and a grueling NLCS loss in 1988. The Mets took a step back in ‘89 and signaled the end of the era. Here are the most important things to know about the 1989 New York Mets…

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*Starting pitching drove this team throughout the 1980s and this year was no different. David Cone, Sid Fernandez, Ron Darling and Bob Ojeda all made over 30 starts. Fernandez finished with a 2.53 ERA with the others in the mid-3s.

*Dwight Gooden pitched well, with a 2.89 ERA, but injuries limited him to 17 starts. The Mets were left without a clear stopper in the rotation, a reason they “only” finished second in the NL in ERA after customarily being the best during this time period.

*The void left by Gooden led the Mets to swing a big-time deal with the Minnesota twins for Frank Viola. New York parted with versatile pitcher Rick Aguilera as the highlight of a five-player package that netted Viola, a Cy Young winner in 1988 and MVP of the 1987 World Series. Viola underwhelmed in Shea, making 12 starts after the August deal and posting a 3.38 ERA.

*It was a time of change for the everyday lineup. Old stalwarts like first baseman Keith Hernandez and catcher Gary Carter were being phased out. The star of Queens in 1989 was switch-hitting third baseman Howard Johnson. “HoJo”finished with a stat line of .369 on-base percentage/.559 slugging percentage with 36 home runs. He both scored and drove in over 100 runs and swiped 41 bases.

*HoJo finished fifth in the MVP voting, but he should have been higher. There was no denying San Francisco’s Kevin Mitchell—47 home runs for a division-winning team—deserved to win, but Johnson’s all-around excellence should have had him second. He was the only complete all-around player in an offense that finished third in the NL in runs scored.

*There should have been more help from Darryl Strawberry. But coming off the best year of his career in 1988, Strawberry struggled in 1989. The slugging percentage of .466 was good enough, if below what might be expected. The .312 OBP was bad by any measurement and underscored the Mets’ biggest offensive problem—they didn’t get on base consistently. HoJo and new first baseman Dave Magadan were the only regulars with OBPs higher than .320.

*The front office also looked to address the lineup in midseason with a big move. They dealt fan favorite Lenny Dykstra and reliever Roger McDowell to Philadelphia in exchange for Juan Samuel, who could play both the outfield and second base and could produce offensively. But he didn’t in his 86 games with New York this season, settling for a stat line .299/.300.

*New York was squarely in the race at the All-Star break, with a record of 45-39 and only 2 ½ games behind the NL East-leading Chicago Cubs (prior to 1994 there was no Central Division and the league was just split into East & West with the winners going to straight to the NLCS). But the pitching was already showing signs of cracks, notably in a four-game series at Wrigley in early June. The Mets gave up 33 runs and lost three of the games. In late July there were back on Chicago’s North Side and gave up 22 runs in losing three straight.

*Even so, the Mets had a shot on Labor Day. The record was 72-63 and they were 3 ½ game back. The problem was that there were four teams all bunched up, with the Montreal Expos and St. Louis Cardinals also in the mix, so the margin of error was very tight. The Mets had beaten both the Expos and Cards a combined nine of eleven times in early August to keep themselves in the mix. New York went back to Wrigley Field for a two-game set the Tuesday and Wednesday after Labor Day to try and get back in it.

*Cone pitched the opener and went eight innings, but was still hit around and lost 7-3. Viola got the Wednesday start and pitched extremely well. He didn’t get offensive support and left after eight innings with the score tied 1-1. Reliever Don Aase came in and promptly gave up a walkoff shot. The Mets were 5 ½ games back and never got closer the rest of the way.

*Even though Chicago pulled away with the NL East, New York still recovered enough to push past Montreal and St. Louis for second place. But the final 87-75 record marked the first time under Davey Johnson the Mets failed to win at least 90 games.

Johnson returned for the 1990 season, but was fired after a slow start. The ‘90 Mets rebounded under Bud Harrelson to win 91 games, but still finished second in the NL East. By 1991, the Mets were fading and they did not return to relevance until the latter part of the decade.