Despite their nearly identical records, the two teams were drastically different in performance and clubhouse atmosphere. The Mets were filled with young, homegrown talent led by outfielder Darryl Strawberry and pitcher Dwight Gooden. They were complemented by veterans including Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Ray Knight, and George Foster. Leading them all was Davey Johnson, a player’s manager. It was a team filled with hard‑nosed players who won over New York with their dirty uniforms, curtain calls, after-hours activities, and because, well, they weren’t the Yankees.
Meanwhile the Yankees featured some of the game’s greatest talent. Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly, and Don Baylor led a dynamic offense, while veterans such as Ron Guidry and Phil Niekro rounded out the pitching staff. But the Yankees’ abundance of talent was easily overshadowed by their dominating owner, George Steinbrenner, whose daily intrusiveness made the 1985 Yankees appear more like a soap opera than a baseball team. There was a managerial firing before the end of April and the fourth return of Billy Martin as manager. Henderson was fined for missing two games, Lou Piniella almost resigned as coach, and Martin punctured a lung and then gave drunken managerial instructions from his hospital room. Despite all that, the Yankees almost won their division.
While the drama inside the Mets’ clubhouse only made the team more endearing to fans, the drama inside the Yankees’ clubhouse had the opposite effect. The result was the most attention-grabbing and exciting season New York would see in generations. And it was the season the Mets would win the battle for the hearts of New York baseball fans, dominating the New York landscape for nearly a decade, while the Yankees faded into one of baseball’s saddest franchises.
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A Seismic Shift
The calls were starting to come in. It was late in the day on Monday, December 10, 1984. The baseball winter meetings had closed up the Friday before, and the offices of most Major League Baseball teams were relatively quiet. But in the offices of the Montreal Expos and New York Mets, things were just starting to heat up. The press sensed something. They knew that Mets general manager Frank Cashen and vice president Al Harazin had flown down to West Palm Beach, Florida, that day. West Palm Beach just happened to be where Montreal Expos All-Star catcher Gary Carter lived. This was more than a coincidence thought many of the Mets' beat writers. Few details had leaked out, but they knew something big was going on. Really big. And they wanted in on the news.
They were right to be suspicious. Behind closed doors over the previous three days, the Mets and Expos had been working out a deal. Somehow, they had managed to keep it quiet for most of the weekend. The plan was to announce a blockbuster trade between the two teams the next day, Tuesday the 11th, in an early morning press conference. But that was no longer possible. The news was going to get out before they could officially announce it, and neither side wanted to lose control over the story. Instead, the two teams rushed together to hold a dual telephone press conference that Monday night. Some players were trading uniforms, and the makeup of the National League East was officially about to change for the rest of the 1980s.
A few weeks before Cashen and Harazin made the flight to southern Florida, Gary Carter felt the need to have a chat with Montreal Expos president John McHale. It was Thanksgiving Day, but something was weighing on Carter's mind, and he needed an answer. Rumor had it the Expos wanted Carter gone.
"Is there any truth to it?" Carter asked McHale.
Montreal, perennial contenders in the late '70s and early '80s, had fallen off the last few years. They won eighty-two games in 1983, then dropped to seventy-eight wins in 1984. Attendance from 1983 to '84 had dropped by nearly seven hundred thousand. The team reportedly lost $3 million. Coincidentally, Carter made nearly $2 million a year. Now, it was a price the Expos could no longer afford to pay. That made Carter a primary target as the team looked to make changes.
Born in Culver City, California, Carter played ball with his older brother and his friends growing up. Playing with older kids not only acclimated Carter to performing against those older and bigger than him, but also showed him he could compete against a higher class of athlete. Carter was dealt a severe blow when his mother died of leukemia when he was just twelve years old. But a deep religious faith pushed Carter to always give it everything he had as he felt his mother was watching him and would expect nothing less.
Despite the fame he acquired playing catcher, Carter did not play that position until the last week of his senior year in high school. He had been a pitcher and shortstop, but when told he would have a better shot of making the Major Leagues as a catcher, he converted. Drafted by the Expos in 1972, he made his Major League debut in 1974. Carter's ascension was matched by that of fellow future Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and eventually Tim Raines. Montreal had a core group of talented players that made the Expos a formidable opponent.
"Where we were as a team, if you remember 1979, 1980, the Expos came into their own. We finished second to the 'We Are Family' Pittsburgh Pirates in '79. We lost out to them by two games. If there was the wildcard back then we would have been in the playoffs. We lost to the Phillies that next year. They went on to win the World Series. We lost out to them by one game and then of course the strike shortened season in '81, we won the second half, beat the Phillies and then lost to the Dodgers, and three of those teams went on to win the World Series," said Carter.
As the Expos emerged as contenders, Carter, known by fans as "The Kid," became an offensive force unparalleled among National League catchers. Nineteen-eighty-four saw him produce his greatest season, setting a career high in hits (175), runs batted in (106), and batting average (.294). He had also, at the behest of Expos management, taken the extra measure of assimilating into the Montreal community. He and his wife bought a home in the city, and Carter even learned French.
Now, after a decade with the team that included their only postseason stop and seven All-Star Game appearances, Carter was compelled to ask if they no longer wanted him. "Yes," replied McHale, the rumors were in fact true. Expos owner Charles Bronfman had been complaining about Carter's performance for years. Bronfman felt Carter did not give enough, even though Carter played all of 1983 with tendinitis in his left elbow. Even though he could have been the National League MVP in 1984 had the Expos been in contention. Even though he now lived in Montreal, had learned French, and was a fan favorite. Bronfman had even gone so far as to once tell Carter, "Whenever you get up in key situations, I go to the bathroom."
Somehow, the Expos' drop in the standings and their loss in attendance was Carter's fault. "We finished in fifth place. So I started hearing rumblings that the front office, including Charles Bronfman, the owner, and the rest of the board of directors were possibly interested in trading me ... or at least that's what was filtering through the newspapers. And it got back to me and I was asked a question. 'What do you think of that?' Well that's news to me. I thought I was gonna be with the organization my entire career," said Carter.
It was not just Bronfman who wanted him gone. Carter had worn out his welcome with his teammates. They talked behind his back about how he was always jumping in front of microphones, smiling for pictures, doing advertisements for any product under the sun. They derided him by calling him "Camera Carter" and "Teeth." The smiling and happy-go-lucky attitude was all an act, they thought. Carter was a phony who valued his stats and camera time more than his team. After all, if they were miserable in Montreal, how could Carter possibly be genuinely happy there?
"Well I just looked at it as they were jealous and it goes without saying. You just move on. And if that's the way they felt about me, it's their own choice of words, and it's freedom of whatever they want to say and that's fine. You know, I just took it with a grain of salt. ... I did get a lot more maybe attention and recognition maybe because I did commercials up in Montreal. And I had a lot of opportunities," said Carter. "Hey, you try to take advantage of opportunities that exist, and when we started getting good as team, '79, '80, those years, I had the opportunity of doing some commercials for companies like 7-Up and Chrysler and Warner Lambert and stuff like that. And I made the effort of staying up there and making myself available, of getting involved in the community and the society up there. And a lot of them were so disenchanted over the transition of living in Montreal because of the changeover in money, the taxes, the language barrier."
If the team no longer wants me, thought Carter, maybe it is just better to move on. "When a team doesn't want you anymore, it comes to that point in time where it's time to move on. And that's really the feeling I was getting," said Carter.
Having been in the Major Leagues for ten years and with the same team for five, Carter had the right to veto any trade. But if the Expos wanted to move on, he was not going to get in the way. Instead, Carter asked McHale to at least send him somewhere competitive. A list of teams was compiled that Carter would be willing to go to. It included the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, and New York Mets. Carter wanted to stay in the National League, where he knew the parks and the players.
The Dodgers would be nice. After all, Carter was from Southern California. He wouldn't mind the Braves either. Carter had a house in Florida, so playing in Atlanta would keep him relatively close to home. The Mets, while on the list, did not seem like a possibility. No way he was getting traded within the division, Carter thought (before realignment in 1994, the Braves played in the National League West, not the East). A deal was discussed that included Carter going to the Braves for Craig McMurtry, Biff Pocoroba, Rafael Ramirez, and/or Andres Thomas. The trade never happened though. Instead, the Expos informed Carter of a potential deal with New York.
The Mets had actually been after Carter for over a year. Cashen had first broached the subject of a deal involving the catcher toward the end of the '83 season when Montreal was in town. It was not much more than talk.
"I went to my friend John McHale and said, listen I am interested in Carter," recalled Cashen. "I will trade you for him, some good young ballplayers. He said, 'Frank, if they heard up here that I was thinking of trading Gary Carter I would be run out of Canada.'"
But each time Cashen spoke to the Expos, the conversation grew a little more serious.
"I only had one guy in my organization who knew about it and that was Al Harazin. We must have had twenty-five meetings ... we had five meetings face-to-face and about twenty phone calls between us," said Cashen.
The winter meetings in December 1984 yielded more progress. Once they concluded, Cashen and McHale finally got down to business. The Expos would need another catcher to replace Carter, along with a pitcher. Most important for them, however, was acquiring a shortstop. They wanted Hubie Brooks, a New York fan favorite who had been one of the few bright spots during the Mets' bleaker years. Cashen agreed to part with him. Additionally, catcher Mike Fitzgerald, pitcher Floyd Youmans, and outfielder Herb Willingham were included. In return, the Mets would get Carter. Once the details were finalized, the deal was presented to Gary, who had to approve it.
Carter sat down with his wife to discuss the proposal. New York would be different — vastly different. The pressure to perform would be beyond anything they had experienced in Montreal. The benefits, however, would also exceed Montreal's. The Carters both agreed it was time to move on. "Basically, it was a decision that I was not gonna make unless I had my wife's approval and everything. And she was for it and thought it was time to make the move," said Carter.
The Monday after the meetings concluded, Cashen and Harazin flew down to West Palm Beach for a face to face meeting to discuss New York with the Carters. Gary wanted to make absolutely certain this was the right thing to do before he officially said yes. If he had any lingering doubts, the meeting with Cashen and Harazin quashed them.
"All in all ... I had to accept the trade and I said yes. Going to New York was a shock because of obviously it being the media capital of the world. I was welcoming the change because of the fact that the Expos front office were so interested in wanting to trade me, so I said you know what, it's time to move on," said Carter.
"I think I have somewhere around a Christmas napkin with Gary's name on it to kind of commemorate the visit. We had a very nice time and enjoyed the company, he and his wife, and again we did some selling of the job of what we were trying to do in New York," said Harazin.
And with that, on December 10, 1984, the greatest trade in Mets history was completed.
The deal was a stunner, both for the Mets and the rest of the National League. Carter, as he was well aware, was being deemed the final piece of the puzzle for the Mets. The fact that the Mets even had a puzzle to complete was rather amazing.
Fewer franchises had struggled harder for success, at least in the 1970s and '80s, than the Mets. Having entered baseball as loveable 120-game losers in 1962, the Mets surprised the nation when they won the World Series in just their eighth season. A core group of young, solid talent helped them make the World Series again in 1973, though they suffered a seven-game defeat to the Oakland Athletics. After that, it was mostly downhill for the franchise. They remained marginally competitive until 1977, when things fell completely apart. That year, the team finished 6498. Even worse, in June they traded away ace pitcher Tom Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds. Seaver's trade was widely decried in New York. "What really surprised us in '77 was the demise of Seaver, in June, going to Cincinnati," said Bud Harrelson, the team's shortstop for much the 1970s and eventually the third-base coach on the '85 team. "It was starting to get a lot different than it was in the past with a lot of guys being there together winning in '69 and losing in '73. When Seaver left, it was tough. He was my roommate, so it was real tough mentally on me. It gave everyone a sense of hey, anything can happen. Which it did the next year for me. I end up getting traded to Philadelphia in spring training."
Soon, other mainstays from the good years were gone. By 1980 the Mets were an embarrassing franchise to both players and fans.
"During the mid to late 1970s, the stench of stagflation and the Vietnam/Watergate hangover was in no way alleviated at Shea Stadium," said Mike Riordan, history department supervisor at Pompton Lakes High School in New Jersey and a devoted Mets fan. Riordan's mother used to take him to games whose sole highlight would be seeing John Stearns, a .260 career hitter who represented the best the Mets had to offer, get a hit or two. "Luckily, for the older members of Generation X, alcohol was becoming an appropriate partner for Met-related suffering."
They were some of the few who were actually showing up to Shea, as the Mets were constantly overshadowed by New York's other team, the Yankees. While the team in the Bronx had future Hall of Famers like Reggie Jackson and Rich "Goose" Gossage, the Mets had players like Jerry Morales and John Pacella. The results were predictable. The 1980 Yankees scored 772 runs and won 103 games. The 1980 Mets scored 554 runs and won 67 games. The Yankees won the American League East. The Mets just barely avoided finishing last in the National League East for the fourth consecutive year.
"In those early years when I first joined the Mets, the fall of 1980, the Mets were pretty bad," said Mookie Wilson. "They had great guys, don't get me wrong, but the team was not the team that was capable of winning any ball games. The pitching was probably the strong suit. They didn't have a lot of speed. Didn't have much power. As I remember they were pretty strong up the middle, but everything else was pretty much a tossup. John Stearns was catching at the time and was probably one of the better players on the team at that point. Everywhere else we were pretty weak. I was somewhat disappointed. I had expected more out of Major League Baseball. Reading and watching Major League Baseball, I had expected more, and I really began to wonder if I had made a mistake."
A media campaign designed by Della Femina, Travisano and Partners, which tried to entice fans to Shea by claiming "The Magic Is Back!" was widely ridiculed. What magic? Early in the 1980 season the St. Louis Cardinals' team bus drove by Shea Stadium. When the players caught a glimpse of the slogan plastered on the stadium's exterior, they broke out laughing.
The team was so lackluster that management actually began promoting opposing players to draw fans to the park. "I get a little tired when I look up at our own scoreboard and see constant plugs for a visiting team and a visiting pitcher," said then-manager Joe Torre in 1981, when the Mets were plugging the impending Shea Stadium debut of Dodgers rookie phenom pitcher Fernando Valenzuela.
"It was bad," said Wally Backman, a second baseman who was called up to the team in 1980. "The team was terrible. It was a lot of older players."
After enjoying a mini hot streak in midseason, the team lost twenty-four of twenty-seven games. Fortunately for most fans, they had not bothered to show up to witness the performance.
"The first time I came up there, I remember a big crowd was about fourteen thousand people," said Terry Leach, a pitcher who started his career with the club in 1981. "We were not very good, and heck I didn't know any better. That was my first time being up in the big leagues."
Nineteen-eighty-one was not much better than 1980 for the team, as they were already thirteen and a half games out of first by May 19. Starting pitcher Pat Zachary tied with relief pitcher Neil Allen for the team lead with seven wins, amazingly low even for a strike-shortened season. Outside of Hubie Brooks, no starting position player hit over .271. Pitcher Pete Falcone hit as many home runs (1) in 22 at bats as starting second baseman Doug Flynn and starting shortstop Frank Taveras hit in 608 combined at bats.
"When I got back, it was not a good team," said Rusty Staub, who had played with the Mets from 1972 to 1975 and then rejoined the team in 1981. "They had a lot of people that had been around there for a while. Some had talent. Some overestimated their talent."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Doc, Donnie, the Kid, and Billy Brawl"
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgments 1. A Seismic Shift 2. “Never Played the Game” 3. Attendance Envy 4. Fun to Be a Met 5. Billy and George, a Love/Hate Story 6. The Russians Attack Atlanta 7. Hospital Management 8. “I’m Going to Kill You” 9. “One Tremendous Baseball Season” Epilogue Notes Bibliography Index