For all of the frustrations this season has wrought through two months of uneven play, one beacon of happiness has been the remembrances of the 1986 team, largely because we are now 30 years removed from that season and boy howdy do we ever like our round numbers in sports. But it’s been fun, revisiting the team that brought so much joy to multiple generations of Mets fans. Winning the World Series is a supremely difficult enterprise and that one pulled it off. They earned our retro-respect and receive it without hesitation or second thoughts.
But by 1991, the Mets were a team that felt 50 years removed from a title rather than just five. The roster was an awesomely weird amalgam of people. They were prospects that hadn’t developed as expected and aging stars from ’86 on the freeway out of town. They had players who would later become clubhouse leaders—both in Queens and elsewhere—but were still too young to know their true potential. And there were the free agent signings stuck in an unfortunate limbo, too late for the mid-’80s glory years but who simply couldn’t stick around the late ‘90s rebirth.
While that ’91 club still retained some of the DNA from the Series-winners just five years prior, it was a roster ultimately doomed to mediocrity, stuck in a time of confusion and soul-searching. The Mets were no longer the powerhouse of their recent past, yet their path to a rebuild was still far from obvious.
So it’s no surprise they finished 77-84, fifth in the NL East, but this team was so much more interesting than that, at least in hindsight. A 10-game winning streak that spanned the All-Star break pushed the Mets to 49-34, just 2.5 games behind Pittsburgh for first. Hope abounds! But then they finished the year 28-50, the worst record in all of baseball during that time. In those final 78 games, they averaged an MLB-worst 3.48 runs per game. (For comparison’s sake, this year’s Mets are only scoring 3.69 a game. How times have changed.)
An up-and-down team struggling to find an identity? A team full of hope that’s maybe over-reliant on pitching and has great trouble scoring runs? Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.
Yes, we joke lovingly about the baaaaad Mets teams of the past, but if this year’s iteration is more akin to the ’86 champs than the ’91 schlubs, from now until the All-Star break is when that transformation has to happen. Otherwise, they could be remembered alongside this magnificent, ragtag bunch of hapless underachievers:
Ron Darling – Dumped in a midseason trade to Montreal, Darling was by then no more than a middling fifth starter, even in his age-30 season.
David Cone – Acquired in spring training of 1987, Cone was the rotational stalwart of the post-’86 hangover. Led the league in strikeouts (243) and FIP (2.52) in ’91, his last full season with the Mets. This was also his age-28 season and yet all five of his World Series titles (plus the perfect game) had yet to happen. Life comes at you fast.
Sid Fernandez – Bryan did a great roundup of El Sid’s career not long ago, but 1991 was, as he writes, a lost year for the hefty lefty with the smooth curve. At least Fernandez had one more full season left in him for ’92.
Gregg Jefferies – There was no prospect hyped in that post-’86 wake quite like Jefferies. Third in ROY voting in 1989, buoyed by one epic charge at Roger McDowell. Led the league in doubles in 1990. Always a high-contact hitter, Jefferies never quite put up the big power numbers people expected, and he was traded after the 1991 season in the ill-fated deal that brought Bret Saberhagen to Queens.
Howard Johnson – This was peak HoJo in all his glory: Holding down third base, socking 38 dingers, swiping 30 bases, maintaining that magnificent beard! It was all downhill in ’92, but this ’91 season was one to remember. Johnson finished in the top 10 in MVP voting three times in his nine seasons with the Mets. This was the last of the three.
Kevin McReynolds – Traded away with Jefferies to Kansas City in the Saberhagen deal, McReynolds was the first big pick-up after ’86, a fresh bit of energy in the intervening years. And in 1988, as a seven-year-old who was newly cognizant of baseball, his game-winning grand slam at Wrigley Field (and the gaping maw it induced in Cubs manager Don Zimmer) became a seminal moment in my life.
Dwight Gooden – Doc’s final season in Queens with a winning record (13-7). Still only 26, but his days of averaging more than nine strikeouts per nine were effectively over by then. Dumped after the 1994 season.
John Franco – After coming over in the Randy Myers trade after the ’89 season, Franco missed out on a ring with Cincinnati in 1990, but his consolation was spending the next 14 seasons with his hometown Mets, through eras both putrid and sublime. His earlier Mets teams skewed more toward the former, but Franco (when healthy) was as reliable as they come. Weird to think that he would survive long enough to concede the closer’s role to Braden Looper and witness the rise of a young David Wright, but Franco remains the modern-day Mets answer to Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
Frank Viola – Still only 31 by then, Viola actually finished fourth (2.6) in team bWAR, behind Cone, Gooden, and Johnson. You know who finished tied for fifth? Jeff Ennis and Rick Cerrone (1.7). This was a weird Mets team. They let Viola walk after the season.
Todd Hundley – Still five years away from breaking the single-season record for most dingers by a catcher and 16 years away from the Mitchell Report that named him and teammates Chris Donnels and Mark Carreon as suspected PED users, Hundley was simply another 22-year-old, late-season call-up in 1991. His first career homer came that year in the bottom of the 14th in a late September game against Pittsburgh. Hundley’s tater tied the game, but Wally Whitehurst gave up a run in the top of the 15th and the Mets lost. (It was the first game of a doubleheader.)
Anthony Young – I would never tell anyone to not chase their dreams, but I might make an exception for Young. This season wasn’t terrible for the 25-year-old rookie, but oh the pain that was to come. He pitched a shutout in his first start of 1992—a six-hitter in St. Louis—then won again 10 days later in a late-game mop-up appearance. Of course, as we all know, he then didn’t win another game for another 465 days, losing a MLB-record 27 straight decisions. The day he broke the streak? Maybe the only time I was ever happy to see Eddie Murray in a Mets uniform.
Pete Schourek – To this day, my father and I maintain all young prospective pitchers (read: babies) should be taught to throw left-handed simply because of Schourek. His reverse splits were maddening, and yet somehow he once finished second in Cy Young voting to Greg Maddux. But in 1991, he was simply a 22-year-old rookie with his whole career ahead of him. He pitched his only career shutout that season, a one-hitter over the last-place Expos in September. Oh what hopes he must’ve had.
Hubie Brooks – Talk about bad timing. You play for the unwatchable Mets from 1980 to 1984, only to return for one more go-around in 1991? Like getting to the barbecue early, then volunteering to go pick up some ice for the cooler, only to come back, see the grill cooling off, and wonder why no one saved you a cheeseburger.
Garry Templeton – Will always be known more as the shortstop St. Louis traded to San Diego for some guy named Ozzie Smith. To Mets fans, he’ll always be the guy who was acquired for Tim Teufel. The speed that once led the NL in triples three straight years was long gone by ’91, and Templeton retired after the season.
Tim Teufel – Despite never playing more than 100 games in a season following ’86, Teufel stuck around as a utility infielder who could get on base in a pinch and supply some pinch-hitting pop if needed. He spent two more full seasons in San Diego before retiring in 1993.
Tom Herr – Like Templeton, another infielder more known for his days with another NL team. Herr was the starting second baseman on Opening Day but was reduced to a bench/utility role by June. Traded to the Giants in August and retired after the season.
Dave Magadan – In 1990, Magadan challenged for a batting title and received actual, real MVP votes after the season. (He finished better than worst!) The year after, he was a solid fourth of an infield that was low-key super-enjoyable for Mets fans to watch. Magadan at first, Jefferies at second, Johnson at third, and Kevin Elster at short was a group that was, at its best, definitely not old and terrible.
Mackey Sasser – Everyone remembers the throwing yips that nearly derailed his career in 1990—14 errors in 87 games—but what many forget is that Sasser largely overcame those issues in 1991, committing just one error in 179 chances over 43 games at catcher. Regardless, his career was more or less headed in its natural downward trajectory by that time, even at 28. I talked to him years ago for a magazine story on the yips that never ran. He was coaching community college ball down in Alabama. He’s now also the athletic director there. Good for him.
Kevin Elster – I was a catcher in youth ball, but if I’d had a better throwing arm, I probably would’ve played shortstop and Elster would’ve been the reason. He made the position look easy and fun, 88 games without an error and all that. Little did we know that it would all come to an end after ’91. Shoulder surgery just a week into the ’92 season ended his Mets tenure, but he would go on to appear in Little Big League, so it worked out OK for him.
Vince Coleman – In 1992, Coleman, along with teammates Gooden and Daryl Boston, was brought up on a rape charge that was later dropped. He also physically assaulted manager Jeff Torborg on the field. In 1993, he was charged with a felony for tossing a lit firecracker at fans outside Dodger Stadium. (His attorney? A pre-OJ Robert Shapiro.) But in 1991, he was merely injured and terrible, clocking in a sub-zero WARP over 72 games.
Oh wait, nah, he also fought with coach Mike Cubbage on the field before a game in July. Manager Bud Harrelson chose not to discipline Coleman and instead chalked it up to a “moment of insanity.” GM Frank Cashen (himself facing retirement) later fired Harrelson before the home finale at Shea. Cubbage took over for the final week of the season, went 3-4, and never managed again.
What a team.
Photo Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports