NY Mets: Recent freefall brings back memories of the 1991 season
By Alan Karmin
In the Back to the Future movies, Doc Brown decides 30 years prior is a great year to return to…”I figure it’s a nice round number.” So let’s turn back 30 years to the New York Mets 1991 season.
On July 20, 1991, the Mets, with fan favorite Buddy Harrelson at the helm ( he took over near the end of the 1990 season when Davey Johnson was fired), began the day with a record of 52-37, and were in second place, four games behind. They proceeded to finish the month of July losing seven of 10, while only losing a game and a half in the standings.
Then the dog days of August. Dog days doesn’t even explain it. The Mets went a putrid 8-21 during the month and, to no one’s surprise, dropped to 14 games back.
And the horrible play continued on into September, losing six of their first eight games. From July 20 through September 9, the Mets went 13-34, a winning (or losing) percentage of .276, sending them 17 games into the doldrums of the standings.
New York Mets had some shining stars on the 1991 squad
If you simply looked at the roster, if you hadn’t witnessed it all for yourself, you just may be surprised. Because there were some pretty good players on that team. Well…I don’t know if they were pretty good “players” at that time. Perhaps they once were…or were supposed to be…but the fact is that there were some pretty big names on that squad.
The offense was led by Howard Johnson who had one of his 30-30 campaigns, clubbing 38 home runs and swiping 30 bases, while driving in 117 runs. HoJo was the only holdover from the ’86 World Championship team, unless you count shortstop Kevin Elster, who was a defensive add-on for the stretch run of that season.
Still around from the ’88 team that won the Eastern Division but got thwarted by the Dodgers in the NLCS were the usually steady (but not this year) Kevin McReynolds and the now crusty veteran at age 23, Gregg Jefferies. Dave Magadan also made an appearance in 1988 and he was now the heir apparent for the since-departed Keith Hernandez. McReynolds had an off year, below his career numbers. And the Wonder Boy Jefferies, continued to fail to live up to all the hype (not unusual for Mets prospects) by hitting what would be for most a respectable .272 but only had 38 total extra base hits. Magadan, another hitting wunderkind, managed to hit .258 with four home runs and 51 RBI. Not exactly making anyone forget Keith at first base.
The pitching staff also had some, what would figure to be, reliable talent as three-fifths of the ’86 starting rotation were still toiling – Doc Gooden, Ron Darling, and Sid Fernandez. Add in David Cone (another key member of the ’88 squad) and Frank Viola, and you would think that you would have a star-studded staff for the ages. However, Doc was no longer dominating and just a shell of himself, and Ron and El Sid were dealing with nagging injuries that hampered their performances and kept them on the sidelines for extended periods of time. Cone had a season that was below his standards and Viola would never again match the one season he had when he won 20 games for the Mets.
The oldest of all of those players was McReynolds…sitting in the rocking chair at 31 years old. These were still a young group of players. So, on the surface, on paper, it appeared that there was still a young core to build around.
Frank Cashen, the GM who built the Mets into a championship team, had retired and gave way to one of his lieutenants, Gerry Hunsicker. Hunsicker believed that adding to that young core would be the recipe for another championship season. He was just a bit off with that one. I guess he didn’t anticipate the injuries that would decimate the pitching staff, and that the pieces he added were poor choices to boot.
Hunsicker brought back a 34-year-old Hubie Brooks to the organization. Brooks was a shortstop and third baseman during his first tour with the club, but returned as a power-hitting outfielder. Well, that’s what he was billed as anyway. Because he certainly didn’t live up to that billing as he managed only 16 HR and 50 RBI, sporting only a .238 average while also missing 50+ games to injury. There was supposed to be a young catcher on the horizon who wasn’t quite ready yet so Hunsicker brought in 37-year-old former Seton Hall and Yankee star Rick Cerone. Cerone was past his prime and was just not capable of handling the Mets pitching staff. Great guy…another bad signing.
The best, or worst, was the additions of three former Cardinals. Thirty five-year-old Infielders Tommy Herr and Garry Templeton (of “If I ain’t startin’ I ain’t departin’” fame with regard to his refusal to attend and play in the All Star Game if he weren’t starting the game) were added for infield depth. Herr had been a reliable player for years with the Cardinals but had lost a step or two and was fading fast. Templeton, long known for his bad attitude, had already been catapulted out of St. Louis and sent to San Diego, where he languished on bad clubs before being “rescued” by the Mets.
And speaking of bad attitudes, the third ex-Cardinal, and the key of all acquisitions, was the signing of a still 29-year-old Vince Coleman. Coleman was the premier base stealer in the National League and tormented the Mets for years. So the Mets went out and signed him…and it was probably one of the biggest disasters made by the front office. I know, I know…Ryan…Seaver…BONILLA…but Coleman was horrible and a clubhouse menace.
It cost nice guy Buddy Harrelson his job as manager. He had no chance.
Some good players – perhaps in name only – but truly bad performances. Oh yeah, there were injuries. And there were a LOT of young players paraded through the clubhouse to fill in over the course of the year, but it was simply a poorly constructed team with a roster that had players – regardless of their youthful ages – maybe not past their primes, but definitely saw their most productive parts of their careers in the rear-view mirror. Sad, but true.
New York Mets 2021 season has similarities to that 1991 season
Now…back to the future…30 years ahead…and you have this frustrating and exhausting season of 2021.
Most of the season, the Mets, under (like Buddy Harrelson) another second-year manager, have been hovering around six or seven games above the .500 mark. What was thought to be a powerhouse division, has been, for the most part, a dud. And the Mets were able to take advantage of the ineptitude around them, and in lieu of some ineptitude of their own, and somehow, someway, manage to spend most of the season, since April 13, in first place.
Being in first place is great, of course. But it can also create an illusion. Hey look, the team was in first place on April 30 and they were two games under…UNDER…the .500 mark…actually their low point, at least record-wise, of the season. The Mets picked it up in May and ended that month with a five-game winning streak. And after winning their third consecutive game on June 16, the Mets were at 35-25, their high watermark of the season, and five games in front in the division.
But the bottom began to fall out long before the team’s fateful trip to Miami and Philadelphia. Because after hitting that high point, the Mets would hold onto first place but never again get to 10 games over the .500 mark. Twice they got to eight games over, but kept slipping back to seven, then six. So they were not even playing .500 ball from that point on. In fact, since that date on June 16, the Mets have gone 21-30, nine games under .500.
When you slump at the beginning of a season, it’s VERY noticeable because you can’t disguise the numbers. But when you slump near the end…after having good numbers…it’s not as noticeable and, seemingly, not egregious.
Going into the season, on paper, it seemed like the Mets were a force to be reckoned with. There was/is some talent on the team. But what has happened to them? They all seem to look like Superman befallen by Kryptonite.
Michael Conforto, the very last position player left from the 2015 World Series team, looks totally lost, having the worst season of his career. His defense has been terrific…his offense has been dreadful. And it’s not just him. Everyone, from top to bottom is having a year that is well below expectations. The team is at or near the bottom in every offensive category.
And the offense was supposed to be the strength of this team in 2021. Who’d a thunk it? The pitching? Well…that’s another story.
The staff has three holdovers from that 2015 squad – Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Jeurys Familia. We all knew that Thor couldn’t be counted on coming back from that surgery. And those expectations were met. Familia surprised most with a return, at least in some appearances, to his 2015 from, only to fall apart. And poor Jake. If this guy didn’t have bad luck, he wouldn’t have any luck at all. All he does is go about embarking on what looked like a season of epic proportions, and if the team’s offense didn’t failing him…his body finally did.
Marcus Stroman and Taijuan Walker were truly having superb seasons, as if they were either inspired by Jake, or just trying to keep up with him. And then, the bottom fell out. They both came back down to earth. Rookie Tyler Megill has been phenomenal in limited duty…which truly is limited due to innings restrictions and he has but one win to show for his exemplary efforts.
This team was not constructed well at all, regardless that All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor was acquired and signed to a long-term contract. Ironically, while social media is blowing up and pointing a figure at him, other than his batting average, every other offensive category is right in line with his career numbers and he was playing stellar defense.
The trade deadline acquisitions of Rich Hill and Javier Baez would be considered a nice draw if you have a great hand to begin with. But the Mets were not dealing from strength. Hill would be a nice added piece as an innings eater down the stretch run of a pennant drive…not when your ace is gone and the rest of the staff has run out of gas. It’s like a stocking stuffer on Christmas when you are looking for the big one under the tree.
That big one was believed to be Baez. That, too, was unrealistic for the very same reasons. It was hoped he would be this year’s Yoenis Cespedes. The difference is that when Cespedes arrived, there was a young, healthy pitching staff running on all cylinders. Players were playing above expectations. And so Cespedes was like adding the nuclear weapon to an already powerful army…he simply put them over the top. Baez was never going to do that.
Like the team 30 years earlier, after hanging on for most of the season, this team is free falling…and hard. It doesn’t look as dire because they are still (going into the series with the Nationals) one game OVER the .500 mark. But where do they go from here? Does the slide continue? Or do they turn it around and bounce back. Does this cost Rojas his job? Better yet, does it cost Zack Scott his “interim” job?
The Mets have been consistent all year. Consistently inconsistent. Truthfully, the team has been bad. Statistically, it obviously shows. But the Rays have proven that you don’t have to rank right up there in every category to win on the field. The Mets, themselves, have had poor statistical years, yet have captured a World Championship. The Miracle Mets of 1969 are a great example of that.
However, like the team of 30 years earlier, the players have been greatly underperforming all season. The injuries have taken their toll, yes, but that doesn’t account for all of the bad play on the field. Let’s face it, the players are likeable, but then so were the 1962 Mets. You could laugh at that team and the way they lost. You could find the humor in that.
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You can’t find the humor in this. They are a disaster…and they are not even fun to watch. Time to change the channel. Or maybe change philosophies? Regardless, it may be time to finally do a complete overhaul because, apparently, this ain’t working