The season when Mets fans stopped showing up to Shea Stadium

Lee Mazzilli in his first stint with the Mets
Lee Mazzilli in his first stint with the Mets / George Gojkovich/GettyImages

The 1979 New York Mets was a team that finished with 99 losses. Their manager was some Hall of Famer named Joe Torre. But that was before he was considered a good manager. Having a Hall of Fame manager doesn’t always help anyway. After all, Casey Stengel was not exactly Hall of Fame material in his years as Mets manager…he was more or ring leader of some circus. Circus is probably the best adjective for the Mets during those early years.

And circus is probably the best adjective to describe the Mets in 1979.

Why 1979? I mean, who cares about 1979? That year is so insignificant that only the best of Mets trivia minds would know who played that season.

What did New York Mets fans have to cheer for in 1979?

Lee Mazzilli was the star of that team, a true matinee idol. Nobody looked better in a uniform than Maz. And the Mets promoted him…everywhere. There were huge signs in the subways, on billboards, that said, “Hi, I’m Lee Mazzilli. Come see what a kid from Brooklyn can do in Queens. Come see me at Shea.”

Maz actually had the best season of his career batting .303 with an OBP of .395. He hit 15 homers and swiped 34 bases. But it was most fun to watch him gracefully run after a fly ball in centerfield, stop, and make a basket catch a la Willie Mays.

John Stearns was the catcher on that team. And although he was productive, and still tough as nails, he was suffering from an untreated arm injury that zapped his power and he was no longer the same player he was when he first came up.

Here’s a name for you…a name that is also part of a baseball trivia question – Joel Youngblood. Let’s get the trivia question out of the way first. Who was the first, and only, Major League baseball player to get a hit for two different teams in two different cities in the same day? Of course, Youngblood did that when the Mets traded him mid-day to Montreal during the 1982 season.

Youngblood was a really good player…not great…but very good. Better than he gets credit for. Youngblood could play every position on the field and play it well. He was listed as an infielder, but the Mets put him in the outfield, in right field, and he was more than just reliable. People used to “wow” over the right field arm of Jeff Franceour…but for anyone who ever saw Youngblood unleash a throw from right field, or even throw across the diamond from third base…he had bazooka attached to that shoulder. He led the Mets with 16 homers in 1979 while hitting .275.

There were also some other guys in the lineup who might surprise you, guys who were known to be pretty good players, at least with other teams. Former Pirates Frank Taveras and Richie Hebner manned the left side of the infield at shortstop and third base respectively. Taveras added speed at the top of the lineup (42 SB) and Hebner was the professional hitter he had been throughout his career.

Also in the mix were two players from the Midnight Massacre – left fielder Steve Henderson and second baseman Doug Flynn. Henderson never lived up to his billing and Flynn was a magician at second base but just didn’t hit enough.

First baseman Willie Montanez also didn’t hit enough and exemplified what made this team a circus. He was a real hot dog…and if you are going to be a hot dog…then you had better perform and at least make it warranted. He didn’t perform well and his antics just typified what was wrong with the team.

Offensively there were a lot of recognizable names. There were also good players like Elliot Maddox and Jose Cardenal on the roster, as well as holdovers Ed Kranepool and Ron Hodges. There was Alex Trevino, Bruce Boisclair, and Sergio Ferrer. Remember those names?

And can’t forget about the pitching. Craig Swan had the misfortune of bad timing. He was smack in the middle of one of the worst eras in Mets history. Because he was pretty good. On a team with 99 losses he went 14-13 with a 3.29 ERA. He threw 10 complete games that included three shutouts.

Other than him, though, it’s not even worth talking about.

The pieces just didn’t fit. The team shouldn’t have been THAT bad but they just were. As good as Mazzilli was, at least that season, he wasn’t an impact player. Nobody was. It was a team of some good players and some decent players who just weren’t a good fit for the team nor the city.

I got to interview Youngblood when I was a beat reporter in the spring of 1979. He told me that the team was in such a state of flux that nobody knew what was happening. The front office was a mess and the roster was just a hodgepodge of cast offs from other teams…with the exception of Mazzilli and Swan.

Free agency was just taking hold and the Mets management, still led by M. Donald Grant refused to partake in the festivities. And there were really no festivities to watch for the fans. The city was in bad decay. The subway was in bad decay. Shea Stadium was in VERY bad decay.

So why am I watching? Because they're on TV!