One Line Summary: Sometimes things change the most when you’re really not expecting anything at all.
The Mets renaissance began with the team’s worst inning in 28 years. After San Diego’s 11-run sixth on Opening Day, starter Pete Harnisch did not pitch again for four months due to depression. After a 3-6 West Coast swing to open the schedule, the Giants then swept the Mets to start the Shea portion of the schedule in the New York return of Jeff Kent, who’d been traded to Cleveland the previous summer for Carlos Baerga. Baerga was an All-Star second baseman on the way down while Kent—traded twice in a six-month span—was ascending to an elite level. Kent’s eighth-inning home run dropped the Mets to 3-9. The 1997 Mets looked last-place caliber.
The first baseman, John Olerud, had been so expendable that Toronto sent $5 million American dollars to the Mets to take him off their hands. Effective starter Rick Reed had been a replacement player two years earlier, causing animosity with union hard-liners like John Franco. None of the three big bats from ’96—Lance Johnson, Bernard Gilkey, or Todd Hundley—could produce like they had a year earlier. Gilkey, re-signed for three years after his career year in 1996, had roughly the same number but contributed 15 fewer doubles, 12 fewer home runs, 39 fewer RBI, a batting average 78 points lower, and slugging 200 points under the ’96 pace. Hundley, who was also given a big boost by McIlvaine, compiled the same slugging percentage and still hit 30 home runs despite injuries.
Hundley bristled when manager Bobby Valentine suggested he needed more sleep and fewer nights on the town. Harnisch and Valentine also feuded, but to fans who’d endured six straight losing seasons, results mattered most. Edgardo Alfonzo hit .315, Olerud squeezed past the 100-RBI barrier on the final day of the year, free-swinging and stone-gloved Butch Huskey moved around the field enough to collect 24 home runs and 87 RBI, John Franco saved 36 games, and lefty reliever Takashi Kashiwada wasn’t overly effective, but he made the record books as the first Japanese player to appear in a game for a New York team. Valentine created a solid bench out of unwanted players like Matt Franco, Luis Lopez, and Todd Pratt.
With a $35 million payroll—less than Florida and Cincinnati and only half that of the Yankees—the Mets won 17 more games while batting eight points lower than the previous year’s club. Valentine and pitching coach Bob Apodaca forged a no-name staff that rarely missed bats (13th in the NL in strikeouts) yet still allowed 70 fewer runs than in 1996. All-Star Bobby Jones reeled off 11 wins by early June while free agents Brian Bohanon and Armando Reynoso pitched far better than expected. There was scant help from the farm, with only two wins coming from the club’s three ballyhooed pitching prospects: Paul Wilson, Bill Pulsipher, and Jason Isringhausen—Izzy was the only one of the injured trio to pitch for the Mets in ’97.
Yet the front office was in flux. GM Joe McIlvaine, who’d put together the under-the-radar deals that helped turn the Mets into contenders, was replaced in July by Steve Phillips. A former Mets farmhand, Phillips spent weeks working on his first deal: A six-player swap netted Turk Wendell, Brian McRae, and, regrettably, Mel Rojas from the Cubs (Manny Alexander and unhappy campers Lance Johnson and Mark Clark went Chicago way).
The Mets stayed in wild card contention until the season’s final week, with the garbage money Marlins eventually claiming the prize. The Mets found their own rewards, most memorably Dave Mlicki’s shutout at Yankee Stadium in the first-ever regular-season game against the Yankees. Shea was the location where Jackie Robinson’s number 42 was retired throughout baseball on April 15, marking the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s landmark debut in the major leagues. From that day forward the Mets had the second-best record (84-65) in the National League.By Matt Silverman