The late 1980s were the glory era of the New York Mets. Between 1984 and 1989 the franchise won a World Series, two division titles and finished second in the NL East four other times–all of which would have been playoff seasons by the wild-card standards of today. But there was a bit of slippage in ‘89, as they failed to win 90 games for the first time in this stretch. The 1990 New York Mets entered the season looking to get back on track.
Hard personnel decisions were made in the offseason. The Mets parted ways with catcher Gary Carter and first baseman Keith Hernandez, both great players and cornerstones of the World Series champs in 1986. But both were fading and the Mets had good young replacements in Mackey Sasser behind the plate and Dave Magadan at first.
New York also traded Randy Myers to Cincinnati in exchange for John Franco, a deal of good lefthanded closer for another. In the everyday lineup, the Mets moved outfielder Juan Samuel to the Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for Mike Marshall. That deal didn’t pan out–Marshall didn’t play well and was shipped up to Boston in July.
But plenty of other players did play well and they could hit. Sasser and Magadan each batted over .300. Kevin McReynolds and Howard Johnson each hit 20-plus home runs. New York picked up Daryl Boston off waivers in April and the centerfielder had a respectable year. So did Greg Jeffires at second base. Off the bench, outfielder Mark Carreon and infielder Tim Teufel each hit 10 home runs in part-time duty.
All of which made the Mets very deep offensively. But no one made the lineup go like Darryl Strawberry. The rightfielder hit 37 home runs. He drove in 108 runs. His on-base percentage was .361 and he slugged .518. All while playing a pitcher-friendly Shea Stadium. Strawberry took a good offense and made it the most prolific run-scoring unit in the National League. He finished third in the MVP voting.
The Mets’ great teams of this decade were built on pitching. The ‘90 staff wasn’t as good as the everyday lineup, but the pitchers did rank fourth in the NL in ERA. Good health was key as the top four arms all made 30-plus starts. Frank Viola led the way with a 20-win season, a 2.67 ERA and finished third in the Cy Young vote.
David Cone pitched well and won 14 games with a 3.23 ERA. Sid Fernandez clocked in with an ERA of 3.46, but a lack of run support left his record at 9-14. The offense saved their runs for when Dwight Gooden was on the mound. With a 3.83 ERA, Gooden won 19 games.
Franco anchored the bullpen with 33 saves and a 2.53 ERA. Bob Ojeda and Ron Darling, each starters on the best Met teams in recent years split time between the bullpen and the fifth spot in the rotation. Alejandro Pena and Wally Whitehurst were respectable in relief.
All in all, the Mets were looking good and expectations were high. But they went to Pittsburgh on Opening Day and Gooden was rocked in a 12-3 loss. The Mets lost that series and by Memorial Day they were 20-22. Davey Johnson, the manager for this entire era of franchise success was fired.
Bud Harrelson was called in to take over with the team in fourth place and 7 ½ games back of the Pirates. Prior to the realignment of 1994 that created a Central Division, the NL East included the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs, along with the Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals). The Expos and Phillies were nestled in between the Mets and Pirates in the standings as the 1990 season turned toward summer.
New York was still 23-26 when Pittsburgh came to Shea Stadium in early June. The margi was now 8 ½ and there was no sign the managerial change was providing a spark. Then the Mets dropped the Thursday night opener of a four-game set.
But a different team showed up at Shea the rest of the weekend. The New York offense unloaded and scored 24 runs the next three games, won all three and found their footing. Coming out of this series, the Mets won 16 of 18 going, including a sweep of the Phillies who fell out of the race. New York was within a ½ game of Pittsburgh at the All-Star break, with Montreal a close third.
The time off for the All-Star game slowed the momentum and New York lost three times in a five-game set in Cincinnati. They lost a series in Houston. The finale, a 1-0 loss to Mike Scott must have brought back bad memories of the 1986 NLCS when Scott’s brilliance nearly derailed the Mets’ championship season.
New York responded by winning three consecutive series and nudging into first place by a game. Some August doldrums followed, as the Mets went 10-14 and fell three games back. But towards the end of the month they swept home series against San Diego and San Francisco. Montreal fell off the pace. When Pittsburgh came into Shea on the Wednesday after Labor Day, the Mets were within a half-game of the lead.
Viola pitched the first game of Wednesday’s doubleheader and was brilliant, throwing eight shutout innings. New York’s offense went silent though, mustering only one single off Zane Smith. Pittsburgh got to Franco for a run in the ninth and won 1-0. The bats stayed quiet in the nightcap, a 3-1 loss. And on Thursday night, New York only put together three hits in a 7-1 loss. The offense had been shut down at the worst possible time and the Mets slipped 3 ½ games off the pace.
The margin was still at 3 ½ a week later when New York made a return visit to Pittsburgh for two games at old Three Rivers Stadium. Magadan got the opener off to a good start with a two-run double. The bats then went quiet again, but Cone had all he needed in tossing a three-hitter for a 2-1 win.
On Thursday, the Mets got what they needed with Gooden going to the mound. The presence of Doc did something for the bats. Trailing 2-0 in the fourth, Strawberry unloaded a three-run homer. Gooden got his 17th win, 6-3 and New York was back within a game and a half. There were 2 ½ weeks to play and baseball fans everywhere could look forward to a final Mets-Pirates showdown back here in Pittsburgh to close the season.
But New York couldn’t make it happen. Montreal came into Shea and won three straight. The Mets split four with the Cubs, a team they could have made some hay with. The deficit grew to three games. Even though the Mets went north of the border and paid the Expos back with a sweep of their own, the Pirates were now hot. With six games to go, the Cubs came into town and won two of three. One day prior to the final series in Pittsburgh gaining, the Mets were eliminated.
It was a tough way for the season to end and reminiscent of 1987 when a potential Mets-Cardinals showdown to end the season was foiled by New York slumping beforehand. From a historical perspective, this one was worse. It effectively ended the era. The Mets fell to 77 wins in 1991 and another managerial change was made. They would not have a winning season again until 1997.