Thursday, June 21, 2012

Davey Johnson Over Gil Hodges Was The Correct Call

On Sunday night, the Mets announced their all-time team, which was comprised of the best players at each position throughout their half century of existence.  There were no surprises at certain positions.   For example, Keith Hernandez was voted the team’s best first baseman, David Wright took home the honor of top third baseman and Tom Seaver was the team’s best right-handed starting pitcher.  But when it came time to announce the team’s best manager, it came as a surprise to some people that Davey Johnson was named the top skipper over Gil Hodges.  I have one question to ask those people.  Why are you so surprised?

The people who disagree with the selection have made some good points in defense of their favorite field general.  They claim that Hodges changed the direction of the team, showing his players that they were good enough to win and that the team was far removed from the early “lovable loser” days of the franchise.  That is very much true.  Under Hodges’ leadership, the Mets went from a team that had lost 100 or more games in five of their first six campaigns (losing 95 in the other) to a World Series champion in two seasons.  In Hodges’ first year as the team’s manager (1968), the Mets improved from 61 wins to 73 wins.  It was the first time the team lost fewer than 90 games in a single season and set the stage for the Miracle Mets of 1969.

Those who favor Gil Hodges over Davey Johnson also point to Hodges’ impact on his players.  To this day, the men who played under Hodges get misty-eyed whenever they talk about his influence on them as individuals as well as his role in getting all of his players to use every ounce of their talent so they could perform to the best of their ability.

There is no question that Hodges was one of the best managers in Mets history.  After never finishing higher than ninth in the ten-team National League prior to Hodges’ arrival, the Mets soared to new heights under No. 14.  They surpassed 70 wins for the first time in 1968, then followed that up with a championship in 1969 and two third-place finishes in the six-team National League East in 1970 and 1971.  But despite the unprecedented success experienced by the Mets under Hodges, Davey Johnson was just as good, if not better.

Other than the 100-win campaign in 1969, no Gil Hodges-led Mets team won more than 83 games in a single season.  Meanwhile, no Mets team under Davey Johnson’s watch won fewer than 87 games.  Prior to Hodges’ arrival in 1968, the Mets had finished in last place or next-to-last place in all six of their seasons.  Similarly, Davey Johnson took over a long-moribund Mets franchise in 1984 that had just come off its seventh consecutive finish in the NL East basement or knock-knock-knocking on the cellar’s door.

Tom Seaver had already won 16 games for a Mets team that only won 61 times in 1967, before Hodges was brought aboard.  Similarly, Jerry Koosman had already made his first appearance with the Mets prior to Hodges’ arrival, as did Cleon Jones, Buddy Harrelson, Jerry Grote and a handful of other key players that helped the Mets to the 1969 title.  Meanwhile, Davey Johnson brought Dwight Gooden with him from the minors, and was also instrumental in giving regular jobs and/or extended playing time to key members of the 1986 World Champions – players such as Wally Backman, Lenny Dykstra, Roger McDowell, Sid Fernandez and Kevin Mitchell.

Both won championships as managers, but only one deserves to be called the best in Mets history.

Whereas Hodges had a similar cast of characters throughout his four-year tenure as Mets manager (this was prior to free agency), Johnson had to deal with a number of new players in his 6½ years as Mets’ skipper.  Johnson won 90 games in 1984 with Mike Fitzgerald as his catcher and Jose Oquendo and Ron Gardenhire splitting most of the time at shortstop.  On the mound, Walt Terrell, Bruce Berenyi, Ed Lynch, Mike Torrez, Tim Leary and Calvin Schiraldi combined to start more than half (83) of the team's games.  By 1986, the quintet of Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Bob Ojeda and Rick Aguilera started all but 14 of the team's 162 regular season games.  However, by 1989, mostly everyone was gone or on their way out.

Wally Backman was traded to Minnesota after the 1988 season.  The following June, Terry Leach, Roger McDowell and Lenny Dykstra were also sent packing.  July saw the departures of Mookie Wilson, Lee Mazzilli and Rick Aguilera.  Finally, in November, Keith Hernandez was granted free agency and Gary Carter was released.  Despite the extreme roster turnover, Johnson still won 87 games in 1989, remaining in playoff contention until the final week of the season.

Injuries were also a major concern for the Mets during Johnson’s tenure.  In 1985, Darryl Strawberry injured his thumb and missed seven weeks.  1987 was the year every starting pitcher missed time due to injury or drug rehab.  The Mets still managed to win a minimum of 92 games in each season.

Despite the injuries, the changes in personnel and the decline of veteran players such as Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter, the Mets never finished lower than second place in any full season under Johnson.  They entered the month of September either in first place or within striking distance of the division lead in all of Johnson’s seasons.  Other than 1969, no Gil Hodges-led team finished higher than third place.  The 1968 Mets finished 16 games under .500, the 1970 squad finished six games out of first and the 1971 team was never closer than 10 games out of first after the All-Star Break.

Lastly, let’s take out Hodges’ best season (1969) and Johnson’s best year (1986) from their records.  How did they both fare when the team wasn’t at its peak?  It’s not even close.  Hodges was eight games under .500 (239-247) in his other three seasons as Mets manager.  Johnson was a whopping 124 games over .500 in his non-1986 seasons (487-363).

Gil Hodges had an outstanding year as Mets manager in 1969.  His leadership skills were certainly instrumental in taking the team from laughingstocks of the league to baseball nirvana.  But other than that miraculous season, the Mets were just mediocre at best.  Davey Johnson’s Mets were never mediocre in his six full seasons at the helm.  His teams were thrown curveballs from every angle.  Whether it was a drug suspension here or a rash of injuries there, Johnson always found a way to keep the team competitive deep into the season, and on two occasions (1986, 1988) well into October.  And he did that after taking over a Mets team that had not finished with a winning record since four years after Hodges’ untimely passing.

Although Gil Hodges did an exceptional job during his four years as the Mets’ field general, Davey Johnson earned the right to be named the team’s best manager over its first 50 seasons.  There should be no question about that one. 

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