As a brief break from debating the (lack of?) merits of our Gangsta-in-Chief, letâ€™s take a look back at a few other Met managers. Nineteen men have held this esteemed position on one of sportsâ€™ grandest stages, only four have won the pennant, and just two have led us to the promised land.
Gil Hodges would have to be considered the dean of Met managers. For first generation Met fans like my Dad, born in 1937 and a Brooklyn Dodger fan from birth until the last out in 1957, Gil was special before he even became Met manager. Gil fit into that category of players, much like his Met colleague Joe Torre, who were about as good as one could be without quite being a Hall of Famer. He was uniquely qualified, as an ex-Dodger and ex-Met, to immediately have serious credibility with fans of the young team when he took over in 1968. He became leader of a team which had been one of the worst baseball had ever seen for the first six years of its existence. He had not had much success with the historically woeful Senators, but the record shows that the team did improve every year he was there.
The Mets had finished 9th or 10th in a 10-team league every year of their existence, and did again finish 9th in 1968, but with the best record they had ever had, and clearly hope was on the horizon. Almost the entire Miracle Met team was together in 1968, with Cleon Jones, Jerry Grote, Tommie Agee, Bud Harrelson, Tom Seaver, and Jerry Koosman all 25 or younger. One more year of seasoning, the addition of Donn Clendenon via trade, and the arrival of youngsters Gary Gentry and Tug McGraw were the last ingredients needed to create one of the most special years in baseball history.
Hodges had seen his share of winning teams, playing in seven World Series with the Dodgers between 1947 and 1959, winning two. (One interesting sidelight—he played well in almost all of them, but in the 7 game loss to the Yanks in 1952, he hit .000! 0-for-21 with 5 walks.) He was a serious man who commanded respect with his experience as a winning and excellent player, his imposing size, and the force of his personality. Few managers are remembered as fondly by players and fans alike as Gil Hodges is. He was universally loved and respected. The famous play when he walked all the way out to left to remove Cleon from a game for not hustling in mid-season did not alienate anyoneâ€”it caused Cleon to focus and have the best year of his career, and he came full circle by catching the last out of the World Series. This play permanently put the Gil Hodges stamp on his young team, and their play during the rest of his tenure would show that they remembered it well.
The 1970 and 1971 Mets had identical 83 win, 3rd place finishes, with their outstanding pitching unable to carry the load of an especially anemic offense. Gil tragically died of a heart attack during spring training in 1972, and the job went to coach Yogi Berra, another legendary New York player, but one who was on the other side of all of those Dodger-Yankee World Series.
Yogi was one of the greatest catchers in baseball history, and from 1947-1963, he and his Yankees played in the Series 14 times in 17 years. Revolting, I know. So, many Met fans surely had mixed feelings about Yogi, one of the prime movers of so many heartbreaking World Series losses for the Brooklyn fan (5 losses in 6 matchups from 1947-1956). Yogi was an old Yankee, and he was taking over from the man who was, at the time, perhaps the most beloved man ever to wear a Met uniform. Yogi had to win it all or else.
The 1973 World Series was one where the Mets did not come in having won 100 and sweeping the NLCS as had been the case in 1969. The â€˜73 team won a scant 82 games, and beat the heavily-favored Reds 3-2. And yes, they were up 3-2 against the also heavily-favored Aâ€™s heading back to Oakland. And then there was George Stone.
George Stone was a pretty good pitcher, and had had a very good year, going 12-3. 1973 was by far his best year, and he had always been an OK pitcher. But he was not remotely close to the class of Seaver, and Jon Matlack was one of the gameâ€™s best young starters in 1973. Some people still think that Yogi should have started Stone in Game 6. Even though I was only 7, I still argue about this with my Dad. Sure, maybe Stone wins, and we win it all. But had he lost, you then would have started Seaver in Game 7, yes, with another dayâ€™s rest, but are you going to risk losing the World Series to one of the all-time great teams (ultimately the ONLY non-Yankee team to ever win 3 straight World Series; yes, really) with Jon Matlack on the bench in favor of George Stone?
Uh, no. Yogi was right then, and he has always been a far more savvy baseball man than his silly quotes suggest. Matlack had pitched very well in Games 1 and 4. In addition, Met pitching allowed a total of 8 runs in Games 6 and 7, while the rest of the team scored 3 and made 3 errors. Just as 2008 cannot justifiably be blamed on David Wright for failing to get Murph in from 3rd, blaming Yogi is simply scapegoating. It was the right move 36 years ago, and it remains so today.
After that bitter loss, Yogi would never win the hearts of Met fans, and after the team slumped the next year and a half, Yogi was gone, and this ushered in a long period of seasons ranging from mediocre to downright horrid. While Gil will always be remembered as the chief of the Miracle Mets, Yogi will remain the face of the team that, in many ways, would have been even more of a miracle had they beaten the Aâ€™s with an offense that was near the bottom of the league in almost every category.
The man who hit that fly ball to Cleon in inning 9 of Game 5 to complete the Miracle was an Oriole second baseman named Davey Johnson. Davey was an all-star, a Gold Glover, and a starter on a championship team, but he did not have the pedigree of Gil or Yogi. Much like Gil, he took over the Mets as they were finally starting to field some good young players and show promise after a long period of seriously depressing baseball. This was Daveyâ€™s first managerial gig in the bigs, but he had played for Earl Weaver, and apparently studied hard at the feet of the man who believed in the mystical power of starting pitching and 3-run homers.
Davey was given a squad full of hungry young players, who were perfectly complimented by born leader and ring-wearing ex-Cardinal Keith Hernandez. 1984 was a truly special season, the Mets going from 68 wins to 90, and being relevant in the league for the first time since 1976. The Mets progressed in 1985, and in 1986 did what Bum Phillips had imagined after the Oilers kept falling short to the Steelers in the AFCâ€”to paraphrase Bum, in 1984 we knocked on the door, in 1985 we beat on it, and in 1986 we kicked the *#&#&@!# thing down. The first generation fans had 1969, but for the second generation fans like me, 1986 will always be an incredibly special team. Davey knew exactly how to get the most out of everyone, from the Heeps, the Hearns, the Mazzillis, the Niemanns, and even the Rick Andersons. A team with stars, veterans, and youngsters, who all got along tremendously on and off the field, who fought and partied together, and who showed more grit than a cloning factory overstocked with Manny Ramirez models.
Hard living, injuries, and upper managementâ€™s desire to somewhat cleanse the team conspired to limit this group to just one more postseason series, the heartbreaking and unexpected 1988 defeat to the Hershisers, er, Dodgers, who we had beaten 10 out of 11 in the regular season. Davey was let go after a 20-22 start in 1990, and this was the beginning of another horribly fallow period, bottoming out with the miserable squad of 1993.
The last twelve years have seen a lot of good players and a lot of exciting baseball, but no more titles. While many fans do indeed feel that we could have-and should have-won more than two titles over the last forty years, only the Yanks(6), Aâ€™s(4), and Reds(3) have won more in that period. This speaks to the idea that World Series winning teams are indeed something very special.
In our case, I would argue that while I wish we had won in 1973 and 1988, and 2000 would have been perhaps the greatest win of all, we do have the 1969 and 1986 teams, arguably two of the most memorable champs of the past half century. They were led by the men who are the iron bookends on the shelf of Met managers, and who had much in common in terms of the respect they commanded, the way they molded teams of very diverse men together, the manner is which their leadership brought out clutch fundamental baseball, and how they maximized the talent of the players they led. What we have seen since Wainwrightâ€™s last strike in 2006 does certainly suggest that it is indeed very difficult to find leaders like Gil and Davey. We may or may not be headed for a third straight year of horrible disappointment, but there are many franchises which do not have even one classic team to look back at. We have two, and we will always owe a debt of gratitude to the two men who led those singularly unique Met championship teams.