Monday, January 30, 2017

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets: Frank Cashen

Stand at the corner of Riverside Drive and West 122nd St. in Manhattan and you'll see the General Grant National Memorial.  Grant's Tomb, as it is more commonly known, is the final resting place of former president Ulysses S. Grant and is the largest mausoleum in North America.

Stand at the corner of Roosevelt Ave. and 126th St. in Queens and you'll see where Shea Stadium used to be.  In the late 1970s, nearly a century after General U.S. Grant passed away, Shea was not-so-affectionately known as Grant's Tomb after Mets chairman M.D. Grant.  And not even an experienced doctor could have saved the Mets from going six feet under during Grant's tenure.

Shea Stadium resembled a mausoleum in 1979, with fewer than 800,000 fans braving the tumbleweed that passed through the park's empty concourses to watch the men who passed as players tumbling over each other on the field.  But things began to change a year later in 1980, when the ownership team of Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon purchased the Mets from the Payson/de Roulet family.

After many years of misguided machinations by M. Donald Grant, the Mets were looking for a general manager who could make the team relevant again.  They found him after receiving a tip from the beer guy.

The architect and the building he worked in.  (Manny Millan/Getty Images)

John Francis Cashen was a sportswriter in Baltimore for 15 years.  When he wasn't writing, the bow tie aficionado was studying law at the University of Maryland.  On top of that, Cashen worked as a publicity director at a race track owned by local businessman Jerold Hoffberger, which led to a job in advertising for Hoffberger's National Brewing Company.

In 1965, Hoffberger, whose "Natty Boh" beer was the main sponsor of the Baltimore Orioles, gained controlling interest in the O's and asked Cashen to be the team's executive vice president.  Although Cashen had no experience working for a major league club, he enjoyed immediate success in his new role.  The Orioles won four pennants in his first six years on the job, taking home the World Series title in 1966 and 1970.

But after ten highly successful seasons with the Orioles, Cashen left the team to manage the brewery, which wasn't experiencing as much success.  Hoffberger eventually lost control of the National Brewing Company and ended up selling the Orioles in 1979.  No longer attached to his former boss, Cashen returned to baseball, accepting a position as Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's assistant.  Within a year, Cashen was changing jobs again, with a little help from his previous employer.

The New York Mets had new ownership in 1980, and were looking to build a winner from the ground up.  To do that, Doubleday and Wilpon needed a savvy general manager.  But before they could start the interview process, they first had to answer the phone.

"I understand you just bought the Mets," said the voice on the line.  "Well, the best general manager in the business is Frank Cashen."

Doubleday had never met Jerold Hoffberger, but once he took the former Orioles' owner's call, he figured he had nothing to lose by contacting Cashen.

"We called him," Doubleday said.  "He was the only one we talked to.  It only took a week."

And with that, the Mets had their new general manager.  However, it took a little longer than a week for the Mets to have a competitive team.

The 1979 Mets needed to win their last six games of the year to avoid losing 100 games.  But the season-ending skein couldn't keep them from finishing in the N.L. East cellar for a third consecutive campaign.  Cashen knew the roster needed a total shakeup if he wanted to field a competitive team that would bring the fans back to Shea Stadium.

"I took over a huge mess," Cashen said.  "Talent-wise, we had nothing.  Fan support, there was nothing.  In my estimation it was as ugly as you could get.  Just terrible.  We needed a complete overhaul of everything."

(Chuck Solomon/Getty Images)
One of the first things Cashen did as part of his overhaul was hire Jerry Della Famina and his advertising agency.  Due to his past work in advertising for the National Brewing Company in Baltimore, Cashen knew that the team had to promote a new image to its fans; one that promised that the losing ways of the club were coming to an end.  Della Famina came up with "The Magic Is Back" as the team's slogan in 1980, which led to much ridicule after the team ended the year with a 67-95 record.  His initial failure caused Cashen to realize exactly what was needed to help bring fans back to the ballpark.

"You can go overboard with marketing and advertising," Cashen said.  "The real thing that sells the team is the team.  You have to have the players."

At first, Cashen did not have much success importing veteran talent via the trade market, as players such as Ellis Valentine, Randy Jones and George Foster all underperformed after being acquired by the Mets.  But Cashen knew young talent when he saw it.  And his trades for prospects, as well as his draft strategy, were key in building a cohesive unit that would end the Grant's Tomb era of baseball at Shea.

Cashen's first-ever draft pick was Darryl Strawberry, who went on to set the franchise record for home runs.  Over the next three years, Cashen went on to draft Dwight Gooden, Lenny Dykstra, Roger McDowell and Randy Myers, among others.  He also signed several amateur free agents such as Kevin Mitchell and Ed Hearn.  And he traded away fan-favorite Lee Mazzilli in exchange for minor league pitchers Ron Darling and Walt Terrell, flipping Terrell a few years later for Howard Johnson.

When he first came aboard, Cashen said it would take four or five years to make the team competitive.  In 1983 - Cashen's fourth season with the team - the Mets were still languishing at the bottom of the division standings.  But by then, Strawberry and Darling were major-league ready.  In addition, Cashen finally made a trade for a veteran player that worked out for the club, acquiring first baseman Keith Hernandez from the defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals.  The Mets won just 68 games in 1983, but that represented the franchise's highest win total in seven years.

The 1984 season began with a loss before the team had even taken the field, as the Mets foolishly failed to protect Tom Seaver - Cashen had brought back the prodigal son just a year earlier - in the free agent compensation draft.  But Seaver's departure opened up a spot in the starting rotation, one that was filled when new manager Davey Johnson insisted to a hesitant Cashen that 19-year-old phenom Dwight Gooden was equipped to succeed in the big leagues after striking out 300 hitters in 191 innings at Single-A Lynchburg in 1983.

"He's ready, I know it," Johnson said.  "And don't worry because I'll protect him.  That's what I do with young arms."

With Cashen's young talent beginning to spread its wings at the major league level, the Mets exceeded all expectations by winning 90 games in '84 - the second-highest total in franchise history up to that point.  New York played meaningful games in September for the first time in nearly a decade, but ultimately fell short of the postseason.  Nevertheless, the team drew over one million more fans than they did in the year prior to Cashen's hiring.  Knowing that the team had to remain competitive to keep its new and returning fans, Cashen had to once again trade one of the club's most popular players.  But this time, instead of acquiring prospects in the deal, Cashen went for the gold.

On December 10, the Mets sent fan-favorite third baseman Hubie Brooks to the Montreal Expos, along with catcher Mike Fitzgerald, speedy outfielder Herm Winningham and pitching prospect Floyd Youmans.  In return, the Mets received veteran catcher Gary Carter, who was a seven-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner and three-time Silver Slugger Award recipient.  In other words, Carter was the missing link, both as a hitter and groomer of young pitchers.

"As easy as the trade for Hernandez was, the trade for Gary Carter was much, much, much, much more difficult," Cashen said.  "It took about 10 telephone calls and a couple of face-to-face meetings and was done over a period of a couple of months before I could finalize the deal.  He [Expos president John McHale] didn't want to do it.  I thought the possibility of getting him was slim and none.  We needed a hitter and a catcher and he fit the bill completely.  I hung in there for a long time, much longer than you do for an ordinary kind of trade."

Have bat, will travel - from Montreal to New York.  (Bob Vedral/Sporting News via Getty Images)

Prior to the acquisition of Carter, the most prolific offensive season by a Mets catcher was by John Stearns in 1978, when the Bad Dude smacked 15 homers and drove in 73 runs.  Carter surpassed both of those totals easily, cranking out a 32-homer, 100-RBI campaign in his first year with the team.  Carter nearly single-handedly carried the Mets to a division crown, batting .323 with 15 homers (Stearns' full-season total in '78) and 38 RBI over his last 34 games.  But alas, the Mets fell short of the playoffs once again, as their 98-64 record left them three games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the N.L. East.

The Mets had won 188 games between the 1984 and 1985 seasons with nary a postseason berth to show for it.  The team now had veteran leadership in Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter, and Cashen's key early '80s draft picks had all graduated to the big club.  With the core of the team already in place, Cashen decided to add smaller pieces to complete the championship puzzle, acquiring second baseman Tim Teufel to platoon with incumbent middle infielder Wally Backman and trading for left-handed starting pitcher Bob Ojeda to fill out the starting rotation.

The less splashier moves were a tremendous success, as Ojeda led the Mets with 18 victories in 1986, while Teufel's presence allowed Backman to play primarily against right-handed pitchers.  Backman responded by batting a career-high .320, while Teufel brought some pop to the lineup, contributing 25 extra-base hits in just 279 at-bats.  After two years of being the runner-up in the division, the Mets finally ended 13 years of frustration, advancing to the postseason for the first time since 1973.

With the right mix of veterans and homegrown talent, the team Cashen built won it all in 1986, defeating the Boston Red Sox in seven games to win the franchise's second World Series championship.  It took four years of rebuilding before the Mets became contenders and then another couple of seasons before they had the talent (and the luck - Thanks, Buckner!) to bring the trophy home, but Cashen kept the promise he made to his bosses.  He stitched together a ragtag group of imperfect players and came up with the perfect season for long-suffering Mets fans.

Of course, once a team climbs to the top of the mountain, the only place to go is back down.  And the descent started when Cashen traded away Kevin Mitchell just six weeks after the Mets had won the World Series.  Although the Mets received slugger Kevin McReynolds in the eight-player deal with the San Diego Padres, Mitchell was "one of the guys" who embodied the identity of the never-say-die Mets, whereas McReynolds' idea of hunting for a trophy usually ended with an animal's head on his wall.  McReynolds wasn't a rough-and-tumble Met like Mitchell and several of his former teammates were, but Cashen felt that Mitchell would be a negative presence in the clubhouse, especially around Gooden and Strawberry.  The news of the transaction did not sit well with manager Davey Johnson.

"That's the one trade I really fought," Johnson said.  "They felt Mitch was a bad influence on Doc and Straw.  I knew that wasn't the case.  Mitch came from a tough background but he wasn't a problem at all.  I tried to convince the powers-that-be, but they kept saying, 'we think he'll self-destruct.' "

This photo clearly depicts Kevin Mitchell as a self-destructing bad influence.  (Bill Turnbull/NY Daily News)

What Mitchell did do over the course of his career after his departure from New York was destroy baseballs.  After playing just 62 games in his hometown of San Diego, Mitchell was dealt to the San Francisco Giants, where he hit 143 homers in less than five full seasons.  Mitchell helped the Giants win two N.L. West titles and the 1989 National League pennant, taking home the league's Most Valuable Player Award in the Giants' World Series campaign.

While Mitchell was becoming one the game's most feared hitters, McReynolds had a solid career with the Mets.  In 1988, McReynolds finished third in the N.L. MVP vote and helped the Mets win a division title.  But that was the only time he played in the postseason with the team, as the '88 squad didn't have the fire and resilience that their '86 counterparts had.  They did have David Cone, however, who became one of the league's best pitchers after Cashen traded for him.

In what is widely considered to be the best post-championship trade made by Cashen, the Mets acquired Cone from Kansas City for catcher Ed Hearn and pitchers Rick Anderson and Mauro Gozzo.  Cashen wasn't even asking for Cone in particular, but stuck to his mantra about who to select in a trade when given the opportunity.

"We knew Kansas City needed a catcher and we had Eddie Hearn," Cashen said.  "I'd like to tell you that we were that brilliant, but we looked into their system for a pitcher.  You know my philosophy: if you don't know what you want, take pitching." 

Cone had an up-and-down 1987 campaign, filling in as a starter when the staff was overcome with injuries and serving as a reliever when the other pitchers were healthy.  Cone himself wasn't immune to the injuries that plagued the pitching staff in 1987, missing nearly three months with a broken right little finger.  But Cone blossomed in 1988, becoming the first Met not named Seaver, Koosman or Gooden to win 20 games in a single season.  As good as Cone and his teammates were in 1987 and 1988 - the Mets combined to win 192 games during the two seasons - they had no pennants to show for their regular season success.  What they did have was a group of rapidly aging veterans and memories of a time when the team was expected to win a championship every year - something that Cashen was becoming well aware of.

At the tail end of the 1988 campaign, the Mets promoted 21-year-old wunderkind Gregg Jefferies.  Jefferies, who had torn the cover off the ball at every minor league level, would split time between second and third base during the final month of the season and started all seven games against Los Angeles in the National League Championship Series at the hot corner.  But after the disappointing defeat to the Dodgers, the Mets decided that Jefferies' future in New York would be at second base.  Wally Backman, who had been with the organization for a dozen seasons, including the last nine at the big league level as the team's second baseman, was the odd man out, causing him to ask for a trade.  In December, the Mets granted his wish, sending the gritty fan-favorite to the Minnesota Twins for three minor league pitchers.

Unfortunately, Jefferies didn't become the next hitting superstar for the Mets, playing just three more seasons in New York after Backman was traded to make room for him.  The .321 batting average and .961 OPS posted by Jefferies during his late-season call-up in 1988 proved to be a fluke, as Jefferies batted just .272 and had a .732 OPS for the Mets from 1989 to 1991.  In addition, Jefferies rubbed his more experienced teammates the wrong way with his immature behavior and childlike temper tantrums.  If anything, Jefferies became the clubhouse cancer that Cashen thought Kevin Mitchell was going to be just a few years earlier.

Six months after the departure of Backman, Cashen continued to part ways with some of the other characters from the '86 club.  On Father's Day 1989, the Mets traded Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell to the division rival Phillies for Juan Samuel.  The second baseman turned center fielder failed miserably in New York, and was an ex-Met the following season.  Meanwhile, Dykstra and McDowell both played well into the '90s, with Dykstra providing the spark in Philadelphia's pennant-winning 1993 campaign.  Needless to say, the trade to cut ties with Dykstra was unpopular with Mets fans and with the team's manager.

"The only thing I wanted Dykstra to do was stop trying to hit home runs," Johnson said.  "I never wanted him out of there.  He was part of the grit and the grind, along with Backman."

After 1986, Davey Johnson and Frank Cashen didn't see eye-to-eye very much.  (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

As the 1980s came to a close, so did the tenures of many long-time Mets players.  In addition to the trades of Backman, Dykstra and McDowell, the team shipped off beloved outfielder Mookie Wilson to Toronto at the trade deadline in 1989 and chose not to renew the contracts of Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter at the end of the season.  That was followed by the firing of Davey Johnson in May 1990 and the failure to re-sign Darryl Strawberry six months later.

Just as Cashen had no problem sending Kevin Mitchell back to his hometown four years earlier, he had no qualms about letting Strawberry return to his place of birth in Los Angeles.  The Mets had offered what they thought was a fair deal, putting four years and $15.5 million on the table for the right fielder, but the Dodgers were willing to give Strawberry a longer commitment and the corresponding financial compensation that came with such a commitment.  When the deal was announced, Cashen remained unapologetic about not bringing back the 28-year-old superstar.

"We offered him four years; they offered him five," Cashen said.  "The money was the same.  I've never offered a ballplayer a contract for $15.5 million.  I don't have to apologize for it."

And just like that, the first player Cashen drafted when he became the Mets' general manager was gone.  

When the Mets rallied to defeat the Red Sox in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, the miraculous comeback featured two-out singles by Gary Carter, Kevin Mitchell and Ray Knight, followed by a wild pitch and a little roller up along first by Mookie Wilson.  Within three seasons, they were all gone.  In fact, by the time 1990 came to a close, all nine players who started Game Six and the manager who wrote their names on the lineup card were no longer with the team.  The house that Cashen built so meticulously had been all but torn down.  A year later, the architect walked away as well.

In 1991, the Mets had a solid first half under manager Bud Harrelson, and by late July the team was 15 games over .500 despite having a suspect offense.  But the Mets won just 24 of their final 70 games to finish the year under .500 for the first time in eight years.  That was enough for Cashen, who resigned at the end of the year after 12 seasons as the Mets' general manager.  Cashen remained with the team as its chief operating officer in 1992 and then as a consultant, briefly filling in as general manager in 1993 and once again in 1998.
 
Nearly two decades after spending his last day as the team's full-time general manager, Cashen was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame.   He received the honor in 2010 along with two of his former first round draft picks (Strawberry, Gooden) and the manager he hired that helped turn the team around in 1984, leading to a championship two years later.

The Mets' turnaround in the 1980s might never have happened if not for these four men.  (Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Cashen, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 88, wasn't without his faults, as he frequently had disagreements with manager Davey Johnson.  Cashen's old-school approach to running a club, expecting professionalism from his players at all times, was frustrating to Johnson, especially when it came to women traveling with the team and the players' behavior off the field.  Cashen was also quick to trade away players, as seen by the jettisoning of Mitchell, Backman and Dykstra for players who either couldn't handle New York (Juan Samuel), couldn't make it to the big leagues (all the minor leaguers who came back in return) or couldn't feign interest in the game (Kevin McReynolds).  The fast trigger finger eventually led to the team's decline in the early '90s and the subsequent drop in attendance at the ballpark.  A team that had surpassed three million paying fans in 1987 and 1988 was barely drawing half that amount just five years later.  Shea Stadium wasn't quite Grant's Tomb again, but the magic that had permeated the park in the 1980s had certainly dissipated by the 1990s.

Despite his various flaws, Cashen's legacy remains untarnished and he is still revered as one of the greatest general managers in franchise history.  He may not have had everyone on his side during his time with the Mets, but even his fiercest detractors knew how important he was to the team.

"Frank was our leader," Strawberry said upon hearing of Cashen's passing.  "I always admired the way he put together our team.  He mixed young guys, like me and Doc, with guys like Carter and Hernandez.  He was able to find the perfect blend to build a championship."

The Mets were one of the worst teams in the league at the beginning of Cashen's tenure in New York.  When he left, they were once again a second division team.  But for all the agony Mets fans endured waiting for a competitive club to root for, the one championship squad Cashen constructed has remained something they can look back on with pride.

A man who got his start working for the local beer guy will always have Mets fans raising a glass in his honor.


Note: The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players and personnel who experienced the best of times and the worst of times with the team.  For previous installments, please click on the names below:

January 2, 2017: Tom Seaver
January 9, 2017: Mike Piazza
January 16, 2017: Wally Backman
January 23, 2017: Daniel Murphy

 

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets: Daniel Murphy

When a young player experiences a pennant race for the first time, he's told to savor the moment because there's no guarantee that it'll happen again.  For one former Met who was thrust into the spotlight from the moment he first set foot on a major league diamond, he relished every opportunity to play meaningful games in September.  Alas, the calendar was only thing that made it to October that season, as the Mets fell short of their postseason quest.

The bright-eyed neophyte who tasted the sweet nectar of a playoff chase so early in his career became a grizzled veteran just six years later, one who played for a losing Mets team in each of those half-dozen seasons.  But just as the sun appeared to have set on another season, the Mets shocked the baseball cognoscenti by winning an unlikely pennant, giving their veteran second baseman a chance to finally play in the postseason after having just missed during his rookie campaign.  And once he got there, he turned October into his own personal stage.

Daniel Murphy's good side will always feature a bat in his hands.  (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Daniel Thomas Murphy was drafted by the Mets in the 13th round of the 2006 June Amateur Draft.  Murphy, who played third base at Jacksonville University, was a college teammate of Tony Bernazard's son when Bernazard was the Mets' vice president of player development.  Murphy's development in the Mets' minor league system began slowly, as the infielder batted just .213 during his first season as a professional.  Murphy's second year showed a marked improvement in his hitting ability, as he batted .285 for the St. Lucie Mets and led the team with 34 doubles and 78 RBI.  His defensive skills, however, were another story.

Flash back a few years to when Murphy was a student-athlete at Jacksonville.  While attending a team meeting, Murphy was once asked to state his name and defensive position.  Without hesitating, Murphy answered the question.

"I'm Daniel Murphy," he said, "and I bat third."

Defense was never one of Murphy's strong suits, which became quite obvious during his time in St. Lucie, as the third baseman committed 35 errors in 131 games with the team.  But as long as Murphy kept on hitting, his name would always find a way to be included on the lineup card.

In 2008, Murphy began the season playing above A-ball for the first time in his career.  He ended the year in the middle of a playoff race at Shea Stadium.  At Double-A Binghamton, Murphy batted .308 with an .870 OPS and spent time at every infield position except shortstop.  He even played four games in left field while in Binghamton, which came in handy later that summer when the Mets were looking for an injury replacement with some experience at the position.

The Mets began the 2008 campaign with Angel Pagan in left field filling in for the injured Moises Alou.  By the time the dog days of summer began in August, the Mets had used more left fielders than Spinal Tap used drummers.  Through the end of July, the Mets had played 108 games.  Incredibly, a total of 11 players had started in left field for the team by then, with none of them playing more than 20 games at the position.  Players such as Brady Clark, Trot Nixon, Andy Phillips and Chris Aguila all "earned" starts in left field for a team that was considered one of the best in the game.  Another participant in the season-long game of left field musical chairs was Marlon Anderson, who started 20 games before pulling his left hamstring on August 1.  The following night, left fielder No. 12 made his debut for the Mets, and his name was Daniel Murphy.

"I'm ecstatic to be here," Murphy said prior to the game.  "It'll probably hit me when I'm out in left field with 40,000 people around me."

Tony Bernazard, who was instrumental in the Mets' signing of Murphy in 2006, knew that Murphy was the right man to call up at that time.

"(Murphy's) the one who is most ready," Bernazard said.  "He will give you good at-bats all the time."

Put a bat in his hands and Murphy could do anything with the ball, even bunting it.  (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

For years, Bernazard knew how great a hitter Murphy was, but even he couldn't have expected the start Murphy would have in the majors.  In his first three weeks with the Mets, Murphy started 11 games in left field and appeared in seven games as a pinch-hitter, batting .404 with a .491 OBP in those 18 games.  Murphy also collected two doubles, a triple, two homers and 11 RBI in his first 55 plate appearances.  A reason for Murphy's early success was his ability to make the pitcher throw many pitches per at-bat, allowing him to see the pitcher's full repertoire.  In fact, Murphy worked a full count in more than 20% of his plate appearances (Murphy saw a 3-2 pitch in 31 of his 151 times at the plate).

Without question, Murphy's promotion gave the Mets a spark they hadn't experienced for the first two-thirds of the season.  When Murphy played his first game with the team on August 2, the Mets were in third place in the N.L. East and stood 3½ games behind the wild card-leading Milwaukee Brewers.  A month and a day later, the Mets completed a three-game sweep of the Brew Crew that gave them a 21-9 record since Murphy's debut.  Heading into the final week of the season, the Mets were in a race with the Phillies for the division title and the Brewers for the wild card.  They began the week with a four-game series against the N.L. Central champion Chicago Cubs.

Chicago had already wrapped up the best record in the National League by the time they arrived at Shea Stadium, but manager Lou Piniella continued to trot out his best players for the critical series.  The Mets and Cubs split the first two games and were knotted in the third contest as it went to the bottom of the ninth.  Murphy then brought the Shea Stadium crowd to its feet by leading off the inning with a triple off veteran reliever Bob Howry.  The 54,416 fans in attendance were eagerly anticipating a thrilling walk-off victory, especially with David Wright about to bat, Carlos Delgado on deck and Carlos Beltran in the hole, but Piniella continued to manage the game as if it were the seventh game of the World Series instead of a meaningless game for his club.

Wright struck out.  Delgado and Beltran were intentionally walked.  Ryan Church grounded out, with Murphy being forced out at the plate.  Ramon Castro fanned on three pitches.  Inning over.  Rally over.

Murphy tried to be the hero, and he would have been had the Mets defeated the Cubs in the bottom of the ninth inning on September 24.  But the Mets didn't win.  And they also didn't win their season-ending series against the Florida Marlins.  The Brewers won the wild card.  The Phillies clinched the division title and went on to win the World Series.  The Mets got nothing, other than the start of Daniel Murphy's major league career.

Although Murphy started only 30 games in left field for the Mets after his August call-up, that somehow led the injury-riddled team at the position.  Murphy entered the 2009 season hoping to give the Mets more stability at the position after the team saw a dozen players patrol left field in 2008.  It did not take long for the Mets to realize that perhaps Murphy wasn't the best option for the job.

On the first Sunday of the season, Johan Santana dominated the Marlins, striking out 13 batters in seven masterful innings.  But Santana was pinned with the loss, as Florida scored two unearned runs in the third inning after Murphy dropped a routine fly ball.  After the game, a clearly frustrated Santana was quick to throw Murphy under the bus for the loss.

Whoomp, there it isn't.  (Rothstein/Daily News)
"It's one mistake that he made," Santana said.  "It cost us the whole ballgame, but it's part of the game."

Not mentioned by Santana was the fact that he walked Jeremy Hermida prior to Murphy's gaffe and then allowed an RBI single to No. 8 hitter Ronny Paulino after the miscue.  Nor did Santana mention that the Mets' offense failed to show up for the game, as the team was shut out by Marlins starting pitcher Josh Johnson for 8⅔ innings.  Santana very well may have been speaking out of frustration, but the stigma of being a bad fielder, regardless of the position he was playing, stuck with Murphy for the rest of his career as a Met.

After starting 13 of the first 14 games of the 2009 season in left field, the lefty-swinging Murphy began to platoon at the position with the right-handed batting Gary Sheffield, who had played the majority of his career in the outfield.  But when starting first baseman Carlos Delgado suffered what became a career-ending injury on May 10 and after Jeremy Reed - who had played all of three games in his career at first base - made a crucial error at first that cost the Mets a game in Los Angeles a week later, the Mets decided to move Murphy back to the infield.

Murphy adjusted well to the infield life.  But once Murphy stopped worrying about dropping fly balls, it would be his teammates who would start dropping like flies.  In addition to Delgado, Jose Reyes' season also ended in May.  Carlos Beltran, who was among the league's leading hitters during the first two months of the 2009 campaign, eventually missed half of the season with a knee injury.  David Wright remained healthy until he was felled by a Matt Cain fastball to the noggin.  Sheffield, who for a while was the team leader in home runs, missed extended periods of time late in the season.  And how can we forget Luis Castillo falling down the Citi Field dugout steps in August, just two months after he dropped a fly ball of his own?  When everyone else went down, sometimes literally, Murphy remained the last Met standing.

The Mets could not overcome the rash of injuries that befell them in 2009, finishing the year with a 70-92 record, but Murphy's first full season in the majors was one of the few success stories for the team.  Although his batting average dipped to .266, Murphy managed to hit 38 doubles and a team-leading 12 homers.  He also led the club in games played and finished second to Wright in runs batted in.  But Murphy's injury-free campaign caught up with him over the next two seasons.

The 2010 season opened with Murphy on the disabled list due to a right knee sprain suffered at the end of spring training.  Due to the emergence of rookie first baseman Ike Davis, Murphy began to play games at second base during his minor league rehab assignment.  Unfortunately, a hard takeout slide while covering second caused Murphy to tear the MCL in his right knee, ending his season before he could return to the majors.  A year later, Murphy's season ended prematurely once again, and for the second straight year, it involved a collision at second base.

In 2011, Murphy was among the league leaders in hitting, boasting a robust .320 batting average in early August.  But after Braves' outfielder Jose Constanza spiked Murphy at second base on a stolen base attempt on August 7, Murphy suffered his second medial collateral ligament tear in a span of 14 months and would miss the rest of the season.

Murphy finally stayed healthy in 2012 and 2013, playing in 317 of a possible 324 games, and took over the everyday job at second base.  In 2012, Murphy became the first left-handed hitter in club history to hit 40 doubles in a single season and followed that up with a brilliant 2013 campaign, setting new career highs in homers (13), runs batted in (78), runs scored (92) and stolen bases (23).  And yet, for all the progress Murphy had made as a hitter, the focus still remained on his defense, as Murphy posted a -0.8 dWAR in 2012 and an even worse -1.5 dWAR in 2013.

The 2013 season also marked the fifth consecutive season that Murphy played for a losing team.  But things started to change for the Mets in 2014 and for Murphy as well.  The Mets won five more games in 2014 than they did in the previous season and finished in a tie for second place in the N.L. East.  They also outscored the opposition by 11 runs and saw an improvement in attendance at Citi Field for the first time since the park opened in 2009.  As for Murphy, he was finally recognized for his offensive talents by earning his first All-Star selection.  By the end of June, Murphy was batting .303 with 19 doubles, six homers, 32 RBI, 51 runs scored and 11 stolen bases.   He maintained a .300 batting average until late August, when a strained quad led to a stint on the disabled list.  The injury caused Murphy to struggle upon his return, as he ended the year with a .289 average.

Despite the slow finish, Murphy still led the Mets in hits, doubles and runs scored.  His recognition as a first-time All-Star capped a six-year period in which Murphy pushed himself to improve every facet of his game.  And when he finally received the All-Star nod, Murphy was humbled by the honor.

"It's a blessing," Murphy said.  "And I don't work any harder on this ballclub than anyone else does.  There's no doubt about that.  There's 24 men in here who work really hard.  It's just an honor.  It's humbling.  It's a fantastic blessing."

Daniel Murphy, All-Star.  (Elsa/Getty Images)

Murphy wasn't the only Met in 2014 to receive national attention, as pitcher Jacob deGrom ended a three-decade Rookie of the Year drought for the Mets, becoming the first Met to win the award since Dwight Gooden in 1984.  The emergence of deGrom, plus the return of fellow moundsman Matt Harvey from Tommy John surgery and the forthcoming debut of top pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard gave the Mets hope that they would finally turn the corner in 2015.

The 2015 season would also be Murphy's final season before becoming a free agent for the first time, giving him extra incentive to have a solid season.  But even though the Mets got off to a fast start, tying a franchise record with an 11-game winning streak in April, Murphy did not.  When the calendar turned from April to May, Murphy was batting just .198.  But Murphy became a one-man hitting machine over the team's next 29 games, batting .352 with an .869 OPS.  Unfortunately, just like it did in 2014, a quad injury caused Murphy to miss 22 games in June.  And faster than you can say abracadabra, the Mets' offense disappeared.

In the three weeks they played without their second baseman, the Mets batted .217 as a team and scored an average of 2.8 runs per game.  The low point of Life Without Murphy occurred on June 9, when the Mets were no-hit by Giants' starter Chris Heston, who had just 12 major league starts prior to his gem at Citi Field.

Murphy eventually returned from his injury and three weeks later, the Mets returned to relevance with the acquisitions of Kelly Johnson, Juan Uribe and Yoenis C├ęspedes.  While all the attention was placed on the team's new members - which also included the team's top hitting prospect, Michael Conforto - Murphy quietly began to rake at the plate, batting .309 over the next two months.  Murphy also added something Mets fans weren't accustomed to seeing from him - power.

From July 25 through September 26, Murphy slammed eight homers and posted a .549 slugging percentage.  Included in his home run barrage was a mammoth blast into the Pepsi Porch during a nationally televised game against the Washington Nationals on August 2 and a game-tying, three-run homer in Atlanta on September 13 when the Mets were down to their final out of the game.  And of course, the Mets won both games.  In fact, the Mets had a 33-14 record when Murphy was in the starting lineup from July 25 (the night Johnson and Uribe made their Mets debuts) to September 26 (the day the team clinched the N.L. East division title).

From the night Murphy made his debut on August 2, 2008 until the final regular season game of the 2015 campaign, Murphy had played in 903 games for the Mets and had never appeared in the postseason, breaking Ed Kranepool's club record of 887 games played to start a career without a playoff game in the mix.  But that streak would end in 2015, as the Mets advanced to the National League Division Series to face the Los Angeles Dodgers.  It wouldn't take long for Murphy to begin a different kind of streak.

In Game One, Murphy was responsible for the series' first run, homering off three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw in the Mets' 3-1 victory.  Murphy took Kershaw deep again in Game Four, but the Mets lost that game to force a fifth and deciding game - a game that was single-handedly won by Murphy's bat and brain.

In the first inning, Murphy delivered an RBI double to give the Mets an early lead.  But the Dodgers proceeded to take the lead in the bottom of the first, a lead that remained intact until Murphy came up to the plate in the fourth frame.  On the first pitch delivered by Zack Greinke, himself a former Cy Young Award recipient, Murphy pulled a single to right.  Two batters later, Lucas Duda drew a walk, moving Murphy to second.  But with the Dodgers' infield employing a shift for the pull-happy Duda, third base was left vacated.  An observant Murphy noticed the lack of a fielder near the bag and took off for third, arriving safely without a throw.  Murphy then scored the tying run on a sacrifice fly by Travis d'Arnaud, literally stealing a run.

Murphy had already contributed to both of the Mets' runs in his first two at-bats.  When he faced Greinke for the third time in the sixth, he introduced the baseball to the right field seats.  On a 3-2 pitch from the Dodgers right-hander, Murphy lined a home run down the right field line, giving the Mets a 3-2 lead.  Starter Jacob deGrom and the bullpen (including Noah Syndergaard, who pitched a scoreless seventh) combined to keep the Dodgers hitless in their last four turns at bat to preserve the one-run lead and send the Mets to the National League Championship Series.

Flip that bat, Daniel!  You just sent the Mets to the NLCS!  (Harry How/Getty Images)

For five games, Murphy teed off against the best the Dodgers had to offer, clubbing three homers off Kershaw and Greinke.  Murphy would face another challenge in the NLCS, facing Jon Lester and Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta.  Challenge accepted.

  • Game One, first inning vs. Jon Lester:  Home run.  Mets lead, 1-0, and go on to win, 4-2.
  • Game Two, first inning vs. Jake Arrieta:  Home run.  Mets lead, 3-0, and go on to win, 4-1.

With the Cubs' top two starting pitchers out of the way, Murphy and the Mets coasted in the next two games at Wrigley Field.  With Game Three knotted in the fourth inning, Murphy delivered a tie-breaking blast against Kyle Hendricks to give the Mets a 2-1 lead.  The Mets held on to win, 5-2.  Murphy had now hit home runs in five straight postseason games.  Former teammate Carlos Beltran had been the only player to ever accomplish the feat in the playoffs, doing so with the Houston Astros in 2004.  And just one Met had ever homered in five consecutive games prior to Murphy.  That was Richard Hidalgo, who turned the trick during the 2004 regular season.  Both records would fall in a memorable Game Four.

The Mets were one win away from their first National League pennant in 15 years.  It took just 15 batters for the game to turn into a laugher.  New York scored six runs in the first two innings to take a commanding 6-0 lead.  The Mets scored their final two runs of the game in the eighth inning on a home run by - who else? - Daniel Murphy.

Murphy had homered in six straight games - a postseason record and a Mets' all-time mark - to lead the Mets to the World Series.  The former 13th round draft pick who had been with the Mets since they called Shea Stadium home had finally reached the promised land.  But alas, Murphy's dream postseason turned into a nightmare in the Fall Classic.  Not only did Murphy fail to hit a home run, he was also held without an RBI by the Kansas City Royals.  In addition, Murphy struck out seven times in the five-game series after being the toughest player to strike out in the National League during the regular season (38 Ks in 538 plate appearances).  And of course, his costly error in the eighth inning of Game Four allowed the tying run to score and led to the eventual winning run crossing the plate.

The Royals ended the Mets' season in Game Five, winning their first championship in three decades.  Kansas City also ended Murphy's tenure in New York, as the Washington Nationals gave Murphy 37.5 million reasons to leave the only team he had ever known.

"I've seen plenty of Daniel Murphy, believe me, as a general manager - often from the other side of the field," Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said.  "He is a player that plays the game the right way.  We love his attitude, his grit.  When the bright lights - not only in New York City - are on, (Murphy) shines the brightest." 

In 2008, rookie Daniel Murphy joined a Mets team that was poised to make it to the postseason, but fell short on the season's final day.  He then suffered through a number of personal injuries, several defensive position changes and more than enough losing baseball for six seasons before finally enjoying another September to remember as a 30-year-old veteran.  This time, Murphy and the team made it to the postseason party and extended their season all the way to November before the glass slippers finally came off.  And along the way, Murphy etched his name into the record books in a way no one could have expected.

Before he became a postseason hero for the Mets, Murphy was criticized for just about everything.  He wasn't a good defensive player.  He didn't hit with enough power.  He was a poor base runner.  Even off-the-field issues like missing Opening Day in 2014 to attend the birth of his first child and his comments about homosexuality due to his religious beliefs left Murphy open for criticism from fans and the media.

But with one amazing and unexpected postseason appearance, Murphy became the brightest star in a city full of them.  No one will ever be able to question his role in one of the most unlikely pennant runs in recent history.  And no one will ever be able to forget the story of the Met who once claimed his defensive position was batting third.

Daniel Murphy and his son, Noah, celebrate a memorable 2015 campaign.  (Ed Leyro/Studious Metsimus)


Note: The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players and personnel who experienced the best of times and the worst of times with the team.  For previous installments, please click on the names below:

January 2, 2017: Tom Seaver
January 9, 2017: Mike Piazza
January 16, 2017: Wally Backman

 

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets: Wally Backman

To succeed in baseball, sometimes all you need is someone who believes in your ability to do the job you're hired to do.  At times, that belief can get a player who doesn't light up the boxscore with eye-popping stats an everyday job.  The same holds true for a manager, who requires his front office to have faith in his ability to guide the team toward its goals.

For one former Met who was losing hope that he would be able to spend a full season in the big leagues, all it took was a manager's promise; one that gave him the confidence to improve his game to a level that would keep him in the majors for over a decade.  But that faith was not reciprocated when it was his turn to be the manager, ending a nearly four-decade relationship with the franchise that first believed in him as a player.

A rare photo of Wally Backman with a clean uniform.  (Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

Walter Wayne Backman was a scrappy middle infielder from Oregon who impressed the Mets so much while he was in high school that they drafted him in the first round of the 1977 June amateur draft.  Although Backman was purely a singles hitter (he had just 88 extra-base hits in his first four seasons in the minors), his ability to draw walks and steal bases made him a valuable commodity in the speed-driven game of the late '70s and early '80s.

Backman made his major league debut on September 2, 1980, as did fellow speedster Mookie Wilson.  Backman's performance after his September call-up was far more impressive than Wilson's, as the second baseman batted .323 with a .396 on-base percentage in 110 plate appearances, while Wilson batted just .248 with a .325 OBP in nine extra opportunities at the plate.  Backman split time between second base and shortstop during his month-long debut and produced nine multi-hit games, making a case for his inclusion on the Mets' 1981 Opening Day roster.

Although Backman did make the team out of the spring training in 1981, he was relegated to mostly pinch-hitting duties, as he was hard-pressed to find a defensive position on the field.  Incumbent second baseman Doug Flynn had just won his first Gold Glove award for defensive excellence in 1980, while shortstop Frank Taveras was coming off a two-year stretch in which he stole 74 bases.  To make matters worse, rookie third baseman Hubie Brooks, who also excelled during a late-season call-up in 1980 (.309 batting average, 10 RBI in 89 plate appearances), blossomed into the team's best player during the strike-shortened 1981 campaign, batting .307 with 27 extra-base hits in 98 games.  The glut of talented infielders on the Mets' roster limited Backman to just five starts and 42 plate appearances in what should have been his first full season in the majors.

The 1982 campaign brought a new manager to the Mets in George Bamberger, and with the new skipper came Backman's first extended stint at the major league level.  With Flynn having been traded to the Texas Rangers during the off-season, the second base job was Backman's to lose.  Backman handled the offensive side of the game quite well, batting .272 and reaching base at an impressive .387 clip.  In addition, Backman's 115 OPS+ tied All-Star catcher John Stearns for the team lead among regular players.  But after five years of Flynn's Gold Glove caliber defense at second base, Backman was an underwhelming replacement in the field, committing 14 errors in 88 games at the position.  When a broken collarbone ended Backman's season in mid-August, his short tenure as the Mets' starting second baseman also appeared to be over.  It would have been were it not for a manager who had a feeling about his switch-hitting second sacker.

When Backman got injured in 1982, the Mets turned to 22-year-old Brian Giles to replace him.  Giles was much more reliable defensively and became the team's new starter at second base in 1983, leaving Backman without a position.  As a result, Backman spent most of the '83 campaign at Triple-A Tidewater under manager Davey Johnson.  The rest, as they say, is history.

A not-so-rare photo of Wally Backman with a dirty uniform.  (Tony Triolo/Sports Illustrated)

With a mathematics degree in his back pocket and a willingness to use computers to help him manage, Johnson saw in Backman a player whose value couldn't be measured with traditional baseball statistics.  Backman had an impressive .316 batting average for Tidewater in 1983, but his keen ability to draw walks produced a .422 on-base percentage.  At a time when OBP was not considered one of the major determinants of a player's value, Johnson saw its worth and knew that Backman would be key to his team's success.  So when Johnson was promoted to be the Mets' manager in 1984, he kept a promise to take his spark plug with him.

"I need a leadoff hitter, and Backman fit the bill," Johnson said.

Prior to 1984, the Mets had been using Mookie Wilson as their leadoff hitter.  But Wilson's .310 lifetime OBP, combined with his league-leading at-bat total in 1983 meant that he was also among the leaders in outs made.  With Backman batting first and Wilson dropping to No. 2 in the batting order, the Mets had a true leadoff hitter.  Backman's .360 OBP and 32 stolen bases were both second on the team in 1984, trailing only Keith Hernandez's .411 OBP and Wilson's 46 steals.

In addition to Backman's successful season at the plate, he also saw a significant improvement in his defense, making four fewer errors in 1984 than he did in his previous full season with the Mets in 1982, despite starting 39 more games in '84 than he did in '82.  Backman's offense and defense was instrumental in the Mets' improvement from a perennial second-division team to a 90-win contender in 1984.  And he had his manager to thank for the opportunity.

"The best thing that happened to me was having Dave Johnson as a manager last year," Backman said.  "In the past, I was never a leadoff man.  Dave put me leadoff to begin the season.  He saw what I could do and had confidence in me.  That took a lot of pressure off.  I could relax and play my game."

Backman continued to improve in 1985, making just seven errors in 140 games.  However, he wasn't playing entire games, as he would be removed often for a pinch-hitter whenever a left-handed reliever came into the game.  You see, for as many improvements as the switch-hitting Backman made under Davey Johnson, most of his success as a hitter came from the left side of the plate.  In 1984, Backman batted .162 (6-for-37) against left-handed pitchers, albeit with a .340 on-base percentage.  Since that was considered a small sample size for the mathematically inclined Johnson, the skipper gave Backman more opportunities to bat against southpaws in 1985.  And Backman got even worse.

During the 1985 campaign, the second baseman batted a meager .122 (16-for-131) vs. LHP and he was also drawing fewer walks against them, which led to an also cringeworthy .212 OBP.  As a left-handed batter, however, Backman's two-year production was among the best in the league, as batted .307 against right-handed pitching.  Not helping matters was that Backman's replacement at second base whenever a left-handed pitcher was on the mound (Kelvin Chapman) was himself a lousy hitter.  Although Chapman fared well in 1984 against left-pitchers (.296 batting average, 358 OBP in 181 plate appearances), he was downright atrocious replacing Backman in 1985, batting .172 with a .230 OBP in 142 PA.

With more teams using left-handed starters and relievers, Johnson needed a solution to generate more production against them.  He found the answer in a technique employed by former Mets manager Gil Hodges.

(Barry Colla Photography)
In Johnson's first season managing the Mets, five of his starting eight players had at least 595 plate appearances and only seven players on the roster reached 250 plate appearances.  Once he penciled in a player at a certain position in 1984, he was there for the season.  That started to change a little in 1985, as Johnson took a page out of the Book of Hodges and employed a Mookie Wilson/Lenny Dykstra platoon in center field and used both Ray Knight and Howard Johnson at third base to maximize the offensive production.  If a left-handed pitcher started, Wilson and Knight would receive the bulk of the starts.  If it was a right-handed pitcher on the mound, Dykstra and HoJo would play.  As a result, only five players on the 1985 team surpassed 470 plate appearances, but 11 men came to bat at least 200 times.  The platoons helped, as the Mets, who finished in the middle of the pack in most offensive categories in 1984, became one of the National League's strongest hitting squads in 1985, finishing in the league's top five in batting average, OBP, slugging percentage and runs scored.

Second base was the one position that Johnson couldn't find a suitable platoon partner for Backman.  The two-year Kelvin Chapman experiment had failed, and the Mets needed a solution if they wanted to be a complete offensive team in 1986.  Enter Tim Teufel and enter the postseason.

With Teufel aboard in 1986 to spell Backman against southpaws, the Mets flourished at second base, with Teufel providing the pop (25 extra-base hits, 31 RBI in 279 at-bats) and Backman becoming an OBP machine (.320 batting average, .376 OBP).  Only seven batters in the National League who qualified for the batting title managed to hit over .300.  Backman missed qualifying by a mere 62 plate appearances.  However, he did become just the second Met in franchise history to bat at least .320 in a season of 400 or more plate appearances, joining Cleon Jones, who accomplished the feat in 1969.  By the time 1986 was over, Backman would join Jones in accomplishing a team milestone.

The 1986 Mets won 108 games and ran away with the N.L. East title.  In the National League Championship Series against the Houston Astros, the Mets ran into the league's top pitcher in Mike Scott.  Backman's former Mets teammate stymied New York in Games One and Four, meaning the Mets had to beat the other Astros pitchers if they wanted to advance to the World Series.  After being shut out by Scott in the series opener, Backman got things going for the Mets in Game Two, scoring New York's first run of the series after delivering a one-out single off future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan.  In his next at-bat, Backman produced an RBI single against Ryan and scored on a triple by Keith Hernandez to put the game out of reach.  Backman was also front and center in the Mets' Game Three and Five victories.

With the Mets trailing the Astros by a run in the bottom of the ninth in Game Three, Backman beat out a drag bunt to lead off the inning, then went to second base on a passed ball.  After Danny Heep flied out, Lenny Dykstra hit a long fly ball to right field that barely cleared the wall, giving the Mets and an exuberant Wally Backman a thrilling come-from-behind win.

After Scott's second victory of the series in Game Four, the Mets knew they had win Game Five in order to avoid playing an elimination game at the Astrodome in Game Six.  This time, Nolan Ryan would fare better against Backman, striking out the second baseman three times in his first four at-bats.  Matching Ryan pitch for pitch was Dwight Gooden, who was brilliant in his ten innings of work.  By the 12th inning, the two teams were still deadlocked and Astros pitcher Charlie Kerfeld was in his second inning of relief.  After retiring Dykstra to lead off the inning, Backman delivered a crucial single, lining the ball off the glove of third baseman Denny Walling.  An errant pickoff throw by Kerfeld allowed Backman to scamper to second base, but also meant that the Astros would intentionally walk Hernandez to get to the slumping Gary Carter.  Carter was batting just .048 in the series (1-for-21) as he stepped up to the plate.  By the time his eight-pitch at-bat was over, his average was up to .091, as Carter drove in Backman from second with a hard-hit ground ball up the middle.

Wally Backman celebrates after scoring the winning run in Game Five of the 1986 NLCS.  (ABC TV screen shot)

The Mets were now one win away from advancing to the World Series for the first time in 13 years, but had to fly to Houston to win that pennant.  Left-hander Bob Knepper was tabbed to face the Mets in Game Six, which meant that Backman would start the game on the bench and Tim Teufel would play second base.  By the time the game was over, Backman would play a key role in deciding the outcome of the game.

New York trailed Houston by three runs as the Mets came to bat in the top of the ninth.  Knepper had been brilliant, facing the minimum three batters in seven of his first eight innings.  But the Mets rallied to tie the game against Knepper and reliever Dave Smith.  With the game knotted and two men in scoring position, Backman was called upon to face the right-handed Smith and was intentionally walked to load the bases.  That's where the Mets' rally ended, as pinch-hitter Danny Heep struck out to end the inning.

The two teams continued to put up zeroes until the 14th, when Backman gave the Mets the lead with a one-out RBI single off reliever Aurelio Lopez.  Had Backman just supplied the Mets with a pennant-winning hit?  Would his name become synonymous with those legendary Mets who came through in the club's biggest moments?  Not quite, as Billy Hatcher delayed the Mets' champagne celebration with a home run off the left field foul pole in the bottom of the 14th.

As the game advanced into the 16th frame, both teams were clearly fatigued, especially the pitchers.  With Lopez still in the game for the Astros, Darryl Strawberry led off the inning with a double, which was followed by an RBI single by Ray Knight, who advanced to second on the throw home.  Backman then stepped up to the plate, prompting Houston manager Hal Lanier to summon left-hander Jeff Calhoun from the bullpen.

With Teufel having been replaced by Backman in the ninth inning, Mets manager Davey Johnson was forced to leave Backman in the game to face the lefty.  Calhoun immediately went ahead on the count with two quick strikes.  But a wild pitch allowed Knight to advance to third base, causing Calhoun to be more careful with his pitches.  Using his keen eye at the plate, Backman coaxed a nine-pitch walk out of Calhoun to continue the rally.

As bad as Backman had been at the plate against southpaws, the next batter was even worse against all pitchers, as closer Jesse Orosco was now set to bat.  But the pressure of the situation continued to get to Calhoun, as his first pitch to Orosco got by catcher Alan Ashby, allowing Knight to score from third base and Backman to advance to second.  Orosco then bunted Backman over to third and Backman later scored the third run of the inning on a single by Lenny Dykstra.  Backman's run proved to be the game-winner, as the Astros scored twice against Orosco in the bottom of the 16th before the reliever struck out Kevin Bass with the tying and winning runs on base.

By winning the pennant in Game Six, the Mets avoided a potential do-or-die game against Mike Scott, who had already dominated the Mets twice in the series.  As much as the Mets didn't want to face him, Backman was originally one of the few players who thought a potential third start by Scott would be the charm for the Mets.

"I don't care if he scuffs 400 balls," Backman said, referring to the rumored secret of Scott's success.  "I don't care if they're scuffed before the game.  I don't think any pitcher can beat us three times in a row."

However, once the Mets outlasted the Astros in Game Six, Backman came to the same realization that most of his teammates already had about having to face Scott in a potential seventh game.

"If we had lost and had to face Scott tomorrow," Backman said, "I wouldn't have slept at all."

Mike Scott wonders what might have been had he been able to scuff his balls one last time.  (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Although Backman batted just .238 with a .304 OBP in the NLCS, he always seemed to come through for the Mets during all of their memorable rallies, confirming Davey Johnson's belief in Backman's ability to be a key cog for the team.  Backman continued to produce for the Mets in the World Series against the Boston Red Sox, even though he started just four of the seven games due to the presence of left-handed starting pitcher Bruce Hurst, who was essentially Mike Scott without the scuffed balls.

Backman was sensational in his four starts, batting .375 and reaching base at a .444 clip to help the Mets win three of those four games.  But four victories were needed to win the World Series, and the Mets would need to earn that fourth win against Hurst, who had already defeated New York twice in the series.  It had been two weeks since Backman made the proclamation that no pitcher could beat the Mets three times in a row.  And before Game Seven was over, Backman made sure that his prophecy came true.

The Red Sox took an early 3-0 lead against Mets starter Ron Darling, a lead which was still intact going to the bottom of the sixth inning.  But the Mets finally got to Hurst in that sixth frame, collecting two singles and a walk off him.  With the bases loaded, Keith Hernandez delivered a two-run single to get the Mets within a run.  It was then that Davey Johnson inserted Backman into the game as a pinch-runner, which paid off when Backman came in to store the tying run on a bloop by Gary Carter that forced Hernandez out at second base.  When Backman came up to the plate for the first time in the game in the seventh inning, he drew a seven-pitch walk from Boston reliever Joe Sambito that moved Rafael Santana to third base.  The base on balls proved to be huge, as Hernandez drove in the Mets' sixth run of the game with a sacrifice fly.  The Mets went on to win the game and their second World Series title, defeating the Red Sox in the seventh game, 8-5, with Backman scoring the tying run and drawing a key walk that led to the deciding run crossing the plate.

After winning a championship in 1986, the Mets expected to win several more titles during Backman's career.  But alas, that was not to happen, as injuries befell most of the team's starting pitchers in 1987.  The injury bug also got to Backman, as the second baseman missed 18 games in June with a hamstring issue and an additional 18 games at the end of the year with lingering effects of the original injury.  With Backman missing extended time on the field on multiple occasions in 1987, his platoon partner, Tim Teufel, got more playing time and made quite an impression on the team.

Teufel had 351 plate appearances during the 1987 campaign (which was 16 more than Backman) and batted .308 with 29 doubles, 14 homers and 61 RBI.  As a result, Teufel got more playing time in 1988, with Backman starting just 28 games through mid-June.  The lack of consistent playing time hurt Backman, as he batted just .238 through the team's first 60 games.  But Backman got a second chance as a starter when Teufel missed 23 games with an injury and was absolutely spectacular, batting .344 with a .418 on-base percentage from mid-June to late August.  Just when it looked like Backman would help lead the team to another postseason appearance, he was disabled once again, missing 13 games from late August through mid-September.  By the time he got back on the field, he had lost his job once again.

(Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images)
Although Backman finished the 1988 campaign with a solid .303 batting average and .388 OBP in 347 plate appearances, it was his injury replacement that captured everyone's attention in September.  Gregg Jefferies was called up from AAA-Tidewater on August 28 to replace Backman on the roster.  After becoming the team's first homegrown hitting prospect since Darryl Strawberry, batting .354 in his first three professional seasons and showing extra-base power with above-average speed, the 21-year-old wunderkind and fellow switch-hitter proceeded to tear the cover off the ball for the Mets, batting .462 with 14 extra-base hits in his first 13 games.  Jefferies ended the year with a .596 slugging percentage and .961 OPS, and his 17 RBI in just 29 games matched the total produced by Backman during the entire season.

Backman did play all seven games against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, batting .273 with a .333 OBP, but the writing was on the wall.  Jefferies was going to be the team's starting second baseman in 1989, and Backman was going to need to play elsewhere.  After a dozen seasons in the organization, the Mets granted Backman's request for a trade, sending him to the Minnesota Twins for three minor league pitchers.  Upon finalization of the deal, Backman was clearly disappointed that his tenure with the Mets had to end the way it did.

"It's funny, you're nothing one year, the way I was after 1987, the first bad year I had," Backman said.  "They couldn't have given me away a year ago.  Now, I have a good year and I'm gone."

Backman became a journeyman during the final five seasons of his career, playing for the Twins, Pirates, Phillies and Mariners from 1989 to 1993.  Backman's playing days ended in May 1993, when he was released by Seattle after batting .138 in ten games with the team.  But just because his playing days were over didn't mean Backman was going to hang up his baseball uniform for good.

Less than half a decade after playing in his final game, Backman managed independent baseball teams before coming back to minor league baseball to manage the Chicago White Sox's Carolina League team in Winston-Salem.  He then was promoted to Chicago's Double-A team in Birmingham and won a league title in 2002.  Backman had another first-place finish in 2004 managing for Class-A Lancaster in the Arizona Diamondbacks' organization before getting his first chance to manage in the majors with the parent club.  What should have been a proud moment for Backman ended up being his worst nightmare, as he was fired just four days after he was hired by the D-Backs when it was revealed that he had been arrested for harassment and had been convicted of driving under the influence.  Backman had also filed for bankruptcy and did not report the news in his final interview.

After taking some time away from baseball, Backman returned to managing independent league teams and winning more division titles.  He came back to the Mets organization in 2010 to manage the Brooklyn Cyclones, leading them to a division title.  Backman then moved up the minor league ladder, managing in Double-A in 2011 and Triple-A in 2012.  But although Backman won back-to-back division titles managing Las Vegas in 2013 and 2014, he couldn't get what he really wanted from the Mets - a job managing or coaching at the major league level.

The Mets qualified for the postseason in 2015 and 2016, winning the National League pennant in 2015, but Backman was left in the Pacific Coast League while the team was celebrating its success three time zones away.  And so, with his path to the majors blocked by an organization that he claimed was disrespecting him, Backman resigned as manager of the 51s.

"When you work for an organization, do everything, you want to be respected for what you do,"  Backman said.  "I just felt, for my time being there, that the respect wasn't there."

The face of a disrespected man.  (Kin Lui)

Wally Backman was part of the Mets organization for the better part of four decades.  From a scrappy infielder in the 1980s who was one of the spark plugs for a championship team to a fiery manager who led teams to titles wherever he managed, no one could ever say that Backman wasn't a winner.  But for someone whose name was synonymous with winning, why did Backman lose so much?

Before Davey Johnson confided in him, he couldn't get anyone to believe in his ability to play the game.  When the Mets promoted Gregg Jefferies, who was basically a brat with a bat, Backman couldn't stay on the field for the only organization he ever knew.  Because the Arizona Diamondbacks were unaware of how background checks worked, Backman and his family suffered unnecessary embarrassment.  And finally, no amount of division titles was enough to give Backman a job coaching with the Mets on a full-time basis.

For someone who has been a champion many times over, Backman's lifelong career in baseball has been more bitter than sweet.  A player as beloved as he was with the Mets and a person who has given so much of himself to the game deserves better than the hand he has repeatedly been dealt by baseball.


Note: The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players and personnel who experienced the best of times and the worst of times with the team.  For previous installments, please click on the names below:

January 2, 2017: Tom Seaver
January 9, 2017: Mike Piazza