The Mets of the late 90s are remembered for Michael Piazza exchanged in New York in May 1998, Robin Ventura“Grand Slam Single” and the 1999 playoffs. But the foundation of a winning culture began during a season in which they had low expectations and little winning experience.
Bobby Valentinehis first full year as manager was perhaps his most impressive work. Promoted after leading the Triple-A Norfolk Tides and the dismissal of Dallas Green in August 1996, the Mets were a club worse than the sum of its parts. Three members of the formation—Todd Hundley, Bernard Gilkeyand Lance Johnson— set franchise records. And yet, these individual efforts did not lead to team success.
New York has finished 20 games under .500, with Valentine riding the sinking ship with a 12-19 record. To cement the roster, the most significant upgrade of the offseason came in a trade that brought in a veteran first baseman John Olerud.
He had spent eight productive seasons in Toronto, winning two World Series titles, three Gold Gloves and one batting crown. His temper suited Canada better than Queens, it seemed. But he quickly found the National League to his liking. Making better use of his fluid swing to be able to spray balls across the court, Olerud battered 20 more points than he did in 1996 with the Blue Jays, held terrific ground at first base and set team records in just three seasons. His 102 RBI, 22 homers and 34 doubles were the most since his stellar 1993. And on Sept. 11, he became the seventh Met to hit for the cycle.
Edgard Alfonzo really started to step into Mets lore in 1997, establishing himself as one of the greatest and most beloved players of all time. Playing the majority of his games at third base, Fonzie racked up the highest bWAR (6.2), cut .315/0.391/0.432, and started an eight-game streak with at least 20 doubles.
Hundley, meanwhile, continued his historic 1996 in which his 41 home runs set a franchise mark and were the most scored in a year by a catcher. His 30 outbursts led the club, as did 86 RBI – and he was one of five Mets to drive at least 70 (joining Alfonzo, Olerud, Gilkey and Butch Huskey).
The Mets had an All-Star named to the NL team. Neither Olerud, nor Alfonzo, nor Hundley. The representative? starting pitcher Bobby Joneswho has gone at least seven innings in 13 of his 18 first-half starts with a 3.08 ERA.
Jones rotation mate, Rick Roseau, another right-hander with no flamethrowers in his arsenal, wasn’t a big player until 1995 because of the strike that sank the 1994 season and bled into the following spring training. It was a devastating blow to the sport. Still, it was the best thing that ever happened to Reed. MLB threatened to use replacement players, including Reed. It never happened in the regular season, but Reed hung on. And in his freshman year with New York, he led all starters with a 2.89 ERA and 1.042 WHIP.
Reed recorded 11 quality starts in the final three months of the season, as Valentine’s squad – which went 18-9 in May to surpass respectability – capitalized on winning records in June and July to become the one of baseball’s surprise stories.
After a tough 15 inning loss to the Montreal Expos at home on Sept. 12, their hopes for the NL’s only Wild Card spot seemed dim. More so when they were down 6-0 in the ninth less than 24 hours later. A single scored two and another shot loaded the bases for a left-handed swing Carl Everett. On a 3-2 pitch Ugueth UrbinaEverett connected on a change and blasted it under the right center field dash.
The implausibilities continued at the end of the 11th with two in a row. Bernard Gilkey, out of the starting XI with a sprained ankle, regained power
The last-minute effort against Montreal had Mets fans thinking of the playoffs. It had been seven years since they had even been able to entertain the idea of a postseason this late. With 15 games to go, they were five behind the Marlins.
However, a five-game slippage that followed really ended New York’s hopes. The Mets won two of three in the final series to finish with 88 wins, the most for the franchise since the start of the decade. The Marlins not only took that playoff spot, but won a World Series title in its fifth season.
1997 is largely forgotten. By far exceeding expectations and maintaining more than relevance in September, this was the year in which the Mets finally had fun again.