Monday, March 19, 2012

One Season Wonders: Lance Johnson

The 1995 Mets were only two years removed from the team's first 100-loss season since 1967.  But they were one of the surprise teams in the National League, finishing in a second-place tie in the NL East with a 69-75 record in the strike-shortened season.  The future looked bright for the Mets, especially with Generation K, their highly touted trio of homegrown pitchers, about to make a splash.

However, one thing was missing for the Mets going into the 1996 season.  In 1995, the Mets traded their leadoff hitter, Brett Butler, to the Los Angeles Dodgers during the stretch run.  That left the Mets with a musical chairs situation in the leadoff spot, with Damon Buford, Joe Orsulak and Alex Ochoa trying to be the last person to sit on the leadoff seat.

Neither Buford, Orsulak or Ochoa figured to be the team's leadoff hitter in 1996, especially with general manager Joe McIlvane openly shopping for one.  Two months after the conclusion of the 1995 season, the Mets found their man in Chicago.  And he provided the team with the best season a leadoff hitter had ever produced to date.

"Leading off and playing center field, No. 1, Mook -- correction -- Lance Johnson!"

Kenneth Lance Johnson was not a young player when the Mets signed him.  At 32, he was entering a time in his life when speedsters tend to lose a step or two.  But the Mets decided to take a chance on Johnson after he had reached career highs in at-bats (607), hits (186), runs scored (98), home runs (10) and RBI (57), while batting .306 with 12 triples and 40 stolen bases in his final year with the White Sox.

Despite the fact that the Texas Rangers offered Johnson a three-year deal with a fourth-year option, guaranteeing him $8.35 million, the centerfielder chose to take his talents eastward, signing with the Mets for two years and $5.7 million.  Johnson settled on the Mets after talking to Bobby Bonilla, Daryl Boston and Mookie Wilson, all former Mets and good friends.

The Mets now had their leadoff hitter in place, but Johnson was a centerfielder.  Their Opening Day starter from the previous year, Brett Butler, had been the team's leftfielder.  That was also the position played by Damon Buford and Joe Orsulak.  One month after the Mets acquired Johnson, they orchestrated a trade for leftfielder Bernard Gilkey.

With the outfield set, the addition of a defensive wunderkind at short in Rey Ordoñez, and Generation K on the way, the Mets were ready to take the 1996 season by storm.  They didn't wait very long to make a positive impression on the fans, and Lance Johnson had a lot to do with it.

On April 1, before a packed house at Shea Stadium, the season opened ominously for the Mets, who fell behind early to the Cardinals by six runs.  But the Mets began to chip away at the lead and by the seventh inning, the Cardinals' lead had been halved.  After an exciting conclusion to the top of the seventh, where a perfect relay from Gilkey to Ordoñez helped nail Royce Clayton at the plate to keep the score 6-3, the Mets rallied for four runs in the bottom of the inning.  Smack dab in the middle of the rally was Lance Johnson.  The Mets' new centerfielder used his speed to generate a run, plating Ordoñez with an infield hit, then scored the go-ahead run on a sacrifice fly by Rico Brogna.  Johnson's run proved to be the difference in the 7-6 Mets' victory.

Although Johnson helped contribute to the Mets' Opening Day victory, he didn't start the season very well.  One month after the season opener, Johnson had a decent batting average (.272), but was only reaching base at a .286 clip, drawing three walks in the season's first month.  The Mets expected more from their leadoff hitter, and beginning with the second game of a doubleheader against the Montreal Expos on May 1, Johnson gave the Mets exactly what they wanted and more.

Photo by David G. Whitham
Over a six-game stretch from May 1 to May 7, Johnson batted .500 (14-for-28), scoring five runs and driving in another.  He also collected his seventh triple of the season, after hitting six in the season's first month.  The season was barely a month old and Johnson was already only three triples short of Mookie Wilson's single-season franchise record for three-base hits.  Before the season was half over, that record would be history.

On June 16, Johnson picked up his 11th triple of the season against the St. Louis Cardinals, breaking Mookie Wilson's club record that he set in 1984.  For Johnson, the moment was extra-special because it was the Cardinals who originally drafted him in 1984 before trading him to the White Sox just months after he played for St. Louis in the 1987 World Series.

By the All-Star Break, Johnson was already having an historic season for the Mets.  Through his first 87 games, One-Dog (as he was affectionately referred to by his teammates) was hitting .322 with 16 doubles, 13 triples and five home runs.  He also had 40 RBI out of the leadoff spot, which was an unusually high number for a No. 1 hitter.  What was not unusual for a leadoff hitter was his 65 runs scored and 28 stolen bases.

For his efforts, Johnson was selected to his first All-Star team, joining catcher Todd Hundley to become the first Mets' teammates in five years to represent the club in the Midsummer Classic.  Due to an injury to Padres' outfielder Tony Gwynn, Johnson started the All-Star Game and surprised everyone by playing the entire game, going 3-for-4 with two singles, a double, a run scored and a stolen base in the 6-0 National League victory.

Johnson continued to hit after the All-Star Break.  In his first 32 games after the break, Johnson had 12 multi-hit games and stole 14 bases.  However, the team, who had remained within a few games of the .500 mark for most of the season, was starting to feel the dog days of August, especially the young pitching staff.  Generation K had become Generation K.O., as Jason Isringhausen's ERA was climbing near 5.00 and Paul Wilson's ERA had already gone north of that mark.

By August 18, the Mets had fallen 20 games behind the first-place Braves.  One week later, manager Dallas Green was gone, replaced by Bobby Valentine.  Despite the poor play on the field and the upheaval in the clubhouse, Lance Johnson continued to shine.

Beginning with his 2-for-4 performance on August 14, Johnson hit .399 over the team's final 41 games.  In addition, the centerfielder scored 35 runs and drove in 20 more during the final quarter of the season.  Mostly everyone else wilted in the summer heat (save for Gilkey and Hundley), but Johnson just got better.  Despite not being a big on-base percentage player or a slugger, Johnson had an impressive 1.004 OPS over the last month and a half of the season, reaching base at a .426 clip and producing a .578 slugging percentage (13 doubles, six triples, two home runs in 173 at-bats).  The Mets finished the season with a disappointing 71-91 record, but Johnson's season was anything but disappointing.

For the season, Lance Johnson hit .333.  At the time, it was the second-highest batting average in team history (Cleon Jones hit .340 in 1969).  Johnson also became the second Met to play in 160 games (Felix Millan played 162 games in 1975) and the second to reach the 50-steal plateau (Mookie Wilson stole 58 bases in 1982 and 54 bases in 1983).  But there were a number of offensive categories in which Johnson was second to none.

In 1996, Johnson set the Mets' single-season record for at-bats (682), runs scored (117), hits (227), total bases (327), multi-hit games (75), singles (166) and triples (21).  He also had the rare distinction of having more stolen bases (50) than strikeouts (40).  To this day, Johnson still holds the single-season franchise records for hits, multi-hit games, singles and triples.

Following Johnson's record-setting campaign, the Mets rewarded him with a two-year contract extension worth $10 million, keeping him under the team's control until 1999.  But Johnson was also a year older, and a year closer to breaking down.  The 33-year-old Johnson started the 1997 season where he left off in 1996, hitting .309 with five stolen bases over the Mets' first 13 games.  But shin splints knocked Johnson out of the lineup on May 1 and he missed six weeks of action, returning to the Mets just in time to see Dave Mlicki shut out the Yankees in the first regular season Subway Series game on June 16.

By early August, Johnson was still hitting above .300, but he was hitting mostly singles.  His 17 extra-base hits (ten doubles, six triples, one home run) were a far cry from his 1996 production, when he finished the year with 61 extra-base hits.  Johnson also wasn't running as much, stealing 15 bases in 25 attempts.  His 60% success rate was well below his 77% career rate.  Despite Johnson's regression, the Mets were overachieving and competing in the National League wild card race.  However, the team was leading the league in blown saves and needed to improve their bullpen if they wanted to have a realistic shot at making the playoffs.

On August 8, the Mets made a deal to improve their bullpen, but the cost was steep, as they had to part ways with Lance Johnson.  In a six-player deal with the Chicago Cubs, the Mets sent Johnson, starting pitcher Mark Clark and backup shortstop Manny Alexander to the Windy City for centerfielder Brian McRae, closer Mel Rojas and set-up man Turk Wendell.  Although McRae went on to record a 20-20 season with the Mets in 1998 (21 HR, 20 SB), he never quite replaced Lance Johnson in center.  Meanwhile, Mel Rojas went on to become one of the most hated relievers in Mets' history.  However, Turk Wendell became one of the most successful middle relievers in team history, and was a key player in the Mets' postseason runs in 1999 and 2000.

The injuries that sidelined Johnson during the 1997 season continued to keep him off the field for extended periods of time over the next three years.  As a member of the Cubs in 1998 and 1999, Johnson missed a total of 145 games.  He then played 18 games for the Yankees in 2000 before being released on June 6, just four months before he would have gotten the chance to play against the Mets in the World Series.  Although Johnson was only 36 years old, he would never play in the major leagues again.

Although his career was cut short by injuries, Lance Johnson still had plenty to smile about.

Lance Johnson became an everyday player in 1990 as a member of the Chicago White Sox.  Over the next six seasons, he was one of the best leadoff hitters in the game not named Rickey Henderson, batting .289 and averaging 12 triples and 34 stolen bases per year from 1990 to 1995.  Then he became a Met in 1996 and obliterated his six-year averages.  But injuries and a subsequent trade in 1997 curtailed his career, ending it at a relatively young age.

The Mets did not play well as a team in 1996, finishing 20 games below .500.  But Lance Johnson did all he could to make the season a memorable one for Mets fans.  Mookie Wilson captured the fans' hearts with his speed and smile in the 1980s.  Two decades later, Jose Reyes did the same.  The Mets did not have many players like that in the 1990s, but for one season, they did.

Lance Johnson was Mookie Wilson after the fan-favorite retired and he was Jose Reyes before anyone knew who Reyes was.  But without his one magnificent season in 1996, perhaps no Mets fan would have known who Lance Johnson was.  It's amazin' what one wonderful season can do to a player.

Note: One Season Wonders is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets who had one and only one memorable season in New York.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:
January 2, 2012: Bernard Gilkey
January 9, 2012: Terry Leach 
January 16, 2012: George Stone
January 23, 2012: Roger Cedeño
January 30, 2012: Frank Viola
February 6, 2012: Joe Christopher 
February 13, 2012: Dave Magadan 
February 20, 2012: Pedro Martinez
February 27, 2012: Bret Saberhagen 
March 5, 2012: Robin Ventura 
March 12, 2012: Willie Montañez

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