Sunday, September 16, 2018

Dynasty Denied -- The Stunning Fall of the 1988 Mets

DAVID CONE WAS UNBEATABLE. Rookie Gregg Jefferies was knocking the cover off the ball. The 1988 New York Mets came roaring down the stretch, winning 24 of their last 32 games and opening a 15-game lead over the second-place Pittsburgh Pirates.

Clockwise from top left: stars Keith Hernandez,
Kevin McReynolds, Howard Johnson, Gary Carter,
Darryl Strawberry and Dwight  Gooden
Seemingly invincible, they ran away with the National League East title.

This after a calamitous '87 season that started with ace Dwight Gooden checking into rehab and effectively ended with St. Louis Cardinal Terry Pendleton's devastating home run off Roger McDowell, a blown Sept. 11 save that kept them from moving within a half-game of the first place Cards.

They were playing like the squad that won the 1986 World Series.

The swagger was back.

Their 100-60 record was the best in the league. Armed with good pitching, good hitting and a rich farm system, the Mets had the makings of a dynasty.

The sky was the limit and then they flamed out, done in by hype, hubris and human frailty.

They wouldn't fully recover for a decade.

Resurrection


Their '88 starters included the in-recovery Gooden, who went 18-9, and Ron Darling, who won a career best 17 games. Cone, a reliever at the season's outset, joined the rotation in May when veteran Rick Aguilera got hurt. He went 20-3, winning his last eight decisions. The streak tied Tom' Seaver's franchise record.

Lineup mainstays Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez both had subpar years, but they no longer needed to lead the way as they did two years earlier. Outfielders Darryl Strawberry and Kevin McReynolds combined for 66 homers and 200 runs batted in. Third baseman Howard Johnson, who brightened '87 with 36 taters and 32 stolen bases, bashed 24 more round-trippers while swiping 23 more sacks.

Light-hitting, good fielding Kevin Elster supplanted World Series shortstop Rafael Santana. Fellow farm system grads Dave Magadan and Keith Miller also vied for infield playing time. Reliever Randy Myers came up from AAA to stay in '87. A year later, he was a dominant 26-save closer. Highly-touted pitching prospect David West and others awaited their chance.

Out of the yearbook -- The almost great Mets of 1988, orange, white and blue all over. 

And then there was Jefferies, a switch-hitting 21-year-old prodigy -- twice named Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year -- who arrived Aug. 28 and immediately began spraying line drives to all fields. In 29 games, he batted .321 with 35 hits in 109 at bats. Nearly half of them went for extra bases: eight doubles, two triples, six homers. He struck out 10 times, walked eight, scored 19 runs and drove in 17 more.

He ignited the Mets, who were 76-53 and 6 1/2 games ahead of Pittsburgh before his recall. They finished 40 games over .500, compiling the second best winning percentage in franchise history. They're still the last Mets team to win 100 games.

Conceit


The '88 Mets seemed to restore order to a universe knocked helter skelter by the prior year's disappointment, if one can call winning 92 games and finishing three games out of first disappointing. Five years earlier, they'd endured the last of six straight last- or next-to-last place finishes while new owners revamped the farm system and rebuilt the parent club.

They won 90 games in 1984, 98 the next and in 1986 a championship. Being contenders was a given. Titles were expected now. And, for a while, every move paid off. They could do no wrong. Aforitiori, if they made a move, it was bound to be right. Right?

Securing their second division title in three years, New York turned to the NL championship series where they'd face the West Division-winning Los Angeles Dodgers. The Mets had taken 10 of 11* from the ex-Brooklynites during the season.

What could possibly go wrong? Plenty.

The phenomenal Dr. K, Dwight Gooden, from the 1988 Mets yearbook

Before game 1 on Oct. 4, the Los Angeles Times published an article quoting Strawberry as saying he'd like to play for the Dodgers someday.

That evening, Gooden faced off against Orel Hershiser, who'd tossed a record 59 consecutive scoreless innings that summer. The Mets ace outdueled his counterpart, yielding just four hits and striking out 10, but the Dodgers scratched out two runs and led 2-0 going into the ninth.

Jefferies led off the top of the last with a hit, a Hernandez groundout moved him to second. Strawberry's double brought him home. Exit Hershiser. Reliever Jay Howell walked McReynolds, then fanned Johnson. With any other man due up, the Dodgers might have been home free, but the next man was Carter.

Two years earlier, he refused to be the final out of the '86 Series, keying a legendary extra-inning, two-out game 6 comeback. Now the future Hall of Fame catcher doubled off LA's reliever, scoring Strawberry and McReynolds, giving the Mets a 3-2 lead. Myers threw two scoreless frames for the win. Howell took the loss.

Cone, who once aspired to be a sportswriter, penned a New York Daily News column published the next day comparing the flame-throwing Myers with the curve-ball-reliant Howell, whom he likened to a high school pitcher. The Dodgers, who'd won 94 games in the regular season, responded by ripping Cone for five runs, driving him from Game 2 after just two innings. With a 6-3 win, LA evened the series.
When two was greater than five.

Game 3, in New York, brought a measure of revenge. Stifled by Hershiser for five innings, the Mets battled back to tie the game in the sixth, 3-3.

LA broke that tie with a bases-loaded walk in the 8th, then handed the ball to Howell. As the Dodger closer ran the count full on McReynolds, Mets manager Davey Johnson asked umpires to inspect the pitcher's glove.

Pine tar.

Howell was summarily ejected and later suspended. The Mets erupted for five runs off a string of Los Angeles relievers then brought in Cone to close it out. The chastened author set his opponents down in order.

New York now led the series, 2-1, with Dwight Gooden -- alias Dr. K -- on tap for game four.

Failure


The doctor delivered, holding the Dodgers to two runs on three hits while the Mets scored four, two on back-to-back homers by Strawberry and McReynolds.

Johnson allowed his ace to pitch into the ninth where Gooden walked centerfielder John Shelby, then grooved his first pitch to Mike Scioscia. The LA catcher belted it into the NY bullpen. The Mets' potential 3-1 series lead vanished. Shea Stadium fell silent.

Scioscia, interviewed years later, said he could hear his cleats crunching the infield dirt as he rounded the bases.

Like Pendleton's blast off McDowell a year earlier, the Gothamites were stricken. The Mets reliever would re-live the horror again in the 12th, yielding a two-out homer to outfielder Kirk Gibson. LA 5, NY 4. Though the Mets loaded the bases in the bottom of the frame, Hershiser came out of the pen to lock it down, tying the series at two wins a piece.

Los Angeles carried its momentum into game 5, thwacking their onetime prospect, Sid Fernandez, for six runs in four innings en route to a 7-4 win. New York had dropped two of three at home. They returned to LA facing elimination.

Pitcher, author, provocateur
from the '88 NLCS program, Mets' edition
There, backed by McReynold's four hits and three RBIs, Cone tossed a complete game gem, winning a stay of execution. He allowed just one run on five hits, struck out six and walked three.

Game 7 pitted Hershiser against Darling. The Mets starter didn't make it past the second, surrendering six runs -- four earned -- on six hits. Hershiser scattered five hits and two walks en route to a complete game shutout.

By the time he'd frozen the Mets' last batter, Howard Johnson, with a late breaking curve, the outcome had long been clear. The Mets' season was over. Though it wasn't immediately clear, so too was their era of dominance. There would be no dynasty.

LA won the World Series, beating the Oakland A's, 4 games to 1. Kirk Gibson was named NL MVP. Strawberry finished second. McReynolds, third.

Hershiser won the NL Cy Young Award. Cincinnati Reds hurler Danny Jackson was runner-up. Cone came in third.

1989 and Thereafter


From 1984 through 1988, New York had had the best overall record in the majors but little to show for it. Efforts grand and small to retool and reset failed to slow the decline. It started gradually in 1989 and accelerated to full-blown catastrophe in 1993 when they lost more than 100 games for the first time in 26 years.

Reigning American League Cy Young winner Frank Viola was acquired for Aguilera, West and minor leaguer Kevin Tapani. Fan favorites Wally Backman, Mookie Wilson, Len Dykstra and McDowell were traded away. Their replacements underwhelmed, as did Jefferies.

In his first full season, the wunderkind struggled to hit just .258 after replacing Backman at second base and earned the lasting enmity of teammates who believed he should have been sent back to the minors. In time, he'd fulfill some of his immense promise, but mostly as an ex-Met.

Wonderboy Gregg Jefferies,
from the Mets' edition '88 NLCS program
Hernandez and Carter were let go at season's end. Davey Johnson was retained, but not for long. With the team sputtering at 20-22, he was fired midway through 1990. They played better for his replacement, longtime player and coach Bud Harrelson, but only well enough to finish second for the fifth time in seven years. It would be their last winning season until 1997.

In November 1990, Strawberry departed for the Dodgers as he'd said he would. A year later, Jefferies, McReynolds and Miller were traded to the Kansas City Royals for one-time Cy Young winner Bret Saberhagen and utility man Bill Pecota. Soon after, Viola signed with the Boston Red Sox.

Cone, who'd solidified his ace status by leading the NL in strikeouts in 1990 and 1991, was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in August 1992, and helped them win the World Series. He won the AL Cy Young Award in 1994 as a member of the Royals. In 1998, 10 years after he burst to prominence, he won 20 games again, this time as a New York Yankee.

He returned to the Mets for a cup of coffee in 2003, then called it career.

* An earlier version of this entry said it was 11 of 12.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

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