Saturday, June 20, 2020

A Very Big Deal

The 1982 Mets were a very bad team. They lost 97 games, which would likely have been the sixth straight season of 90+ losses, had not the 1981 baseball strike cut the previous season down to 105 games. They finished at the bottom of the NL East standings yet again, a position to which they were becoming quite accustomed, having not finished above fifth place in their division since 1976. They had to endure another last place finish in 1983 before it would finally turn around.

Still, there were some consequential things happening for the New York Mets that year. After getting short looks the previous two years, second baseman Wally Backman had his first season as a semi-regular, appearing in 96 games and logging over 300 plate appearances. A young CF named Mookie Wilson broke out in a big way, solidifying the leadoff spot with a .279 batting average and 55 steals. A southpaw named Jesse Orosco saved 17 games and was pushing Neil Allen for the closer role, freeing the Mets to deal Allen for Keith Hernandez the following June. Oh, and a couple of young pitchers named Dwight Gooden and Randy Meyers were taken by the Mets in the draft.

One of the most important events in that 1982 season happened away from the playing field. On April Fool's Day, GM Frank Cashen made a trade with the Texas Rangers. In exchange for 27-year-old, Brooklyn-born OF Lee Mazzilli, the Mets received a pair of pitching prospects named Ron Darling and Walt Terrell. This was controversial at the time, as the still quite young Mazzilli had been the Mets best player since 1978, a rare ray of light in some very dark years. Maz had slumped badly during the strike-shortened 1981 season due to injuries, but all of us hoped and expected him to bounce back in 1982. Now, if he did, it would be in Texas.

Neither Darling or Terrell were ready for the majors in 1982. Terrell was ready a bit before Darling, appearing in 3 September starts at the end of that 1982 season. Terrell came up to the bigs for good the following June, making 20 starts for the still awful 1983 Mets. He more than held his own that rookie season, going 8-8 with a 3.57 ERA. That September the main prospect in the deal, Ron Darling, had a 5-game September cameo for his first taste of the majors. Darling dropped his first four starts before winning for the first time his last time out against the Pirates, a complete game 4-2 victory.

By 1984, Terrell was a fixture in the starting rotation for the Mets, starting 33 games and going 11-12 with a 3.52 ERA. That might have made him the ace of some previous Mets teams, but things had shifted dramatically in that consequential 1984 season. 1982 first round pick Dwight Gooden electrified baseball as a 19-year old, winning 17 games and striking out 276 batters in 218 IP. Darling took a regular turn in the rotation and, despite being erratic, was clearly the number two behind Doc. And a 21-year-old lefty from Hawaii named Sid Fernandez, obtained by the Mets from the Dodgers for a utility man named Bob Bailor and a reliever named Carlos Diaz, came up in July and made 15 starts for the team.

After finishing 68-94 in 2003, the 1984 Mets went 90-72, and challenged the Chicago Cubs for the division until settling for second place. At the time, 90 wins represented the second-highest win total of all-time for the Mets, and the second place finish marked only the third time in their history that the team finished in the top 2 of their division. Walt Terrell was still an important member of the rotation, but it was clear that the Mets had no shortage of talented young arms and Terrell was expendable.

In December of 1984, Terrell was traded to the Detroit Tigers, who had just won the World Series. The player coming back was a 24-year-old third baseman named Howard Johnson. This led to much scratching of heads and jokes about the old restaurant and motel chain. Johnson hadn't shown much in Detroit, and it was reported that manager Sparky Anderson didn't like him. Meanwhile, Terrell had proven to be a more than competent mid-rotation arm. Indeed, it didn't look like a smart move by the Mets initially. Johnson took some time to develop, while Terrell continued to put up solid numbers for the Tigers while annually logging over 200 innings.

Then in 1987, things took off for Johnson in a big way. He had 36 HR and 99 RBI, scoring 93 runs while showing good patience at the plate with 83 BB. Johnson had some ups and downs, but played 9 seasons in New York, establishing himself as one of the top position players in Mets history.

The trade proved to be a win-win for the Mets and Tigers. Terrell pitched 4 years in Detroit from 1985-1988 as a solid, dependable starter. The Tigers dealt him to the Padres in October, 1988, but Terrell came back as a free agent in 1990 and finished his career in Detroit. In 11 major league seasons, Walt Terrell went 111-124 with a 4.22 ERA. He logged 1986.2 innings in his career, surpassing 200 IP in a season 7 times.

One area where Walt Terrell proved quite unlucky was in missing out on the World Series with both the Mets and Tigers. He came over to Detroit after they won it all in 1984, and missed the Mets 1986 championship by a couple of years. Terrell only pitched in the Playoffs once in his MLB career. In the 1987 ALCS he made one start, and it was not a good one. Terrell started game 3 of that series, allowing 6 ER and a pair of homers over 6 innings. The Tigers spotted him a 5-0 lead in the third, but he was unable to hold it. The Tigers bailed him out, scoring 2 runs late to pull the game out, but that was their only win in a 4-1 series loss to the Minnesota Twins.

Terrell's impact on the Mets was quite profound. He came over in one of the most lopsided trades in the Mets' favor in their history. His solid pitching helped the Mets to contend in 1984, and then he was traded for an all-time great Met after the season.

Lee Mazzilli, the player traded for Terrell and Ron Darling, never played as a regular again following the trade. He didn't play well in a partial season in Texas, and wound up being traded to the Yankees in August of 1984 for Bucky Dent. Mazzilli had a decent couple of months in the Bronx, but the Yankees traded him after the season to the Pirates. He played as a semi-regular in Pittsburgh, slashing .246/.366/.342 from 1983-1985. At  30 years old, Mazzilli was a shadow of the solid player he had been early on with the Mets. Then, after the 1985 season, Mazzilli got caught up in the infamous Pittsburgh drug trials, giving testimony but not being charged or suspended.

A change happened in baseball for the 1986 season that had a big impact on Mazzilli and the Mets. The collective bargaining agreement at the time allowed the clubs to keep active rosters as low as 24 players, although the standard had been 25. All the clubs decided to cut down to 24 players for the 1986 season as a cost-cutting move. Rusty Staub, who turned 42 in 1986, had been used by the Mets quite effectively in a pinch-hitting role the previous couple of seasons. With the crunch of a 24-man roster in 1986, the Mets couldn't afford to keep Staub in that role, and he was basically forced to retire.

Seeking a more well-rounded bench player, the Mets offered Pittsburgh Ray Knight in a proposed trade for Lee Mazzilli that spring. Knight had struggled mightily the previous season, slashing .218/.252/.328 while semi-platooning with Hojo at third. The Pirates turned them down. Maz struggled with the Pirates in 1986, and they wound up releasing him outright in July. The Mets signed their former player and sent him down to Tidewater for some at bats. Interestingly enough, it was Maz' first time playing for the Mets' Triple-A affiliate, as he had made the majors directly from Double-A in his first go-round with the club.

On August 7, 1986, the Mets made the controversial decision to release LF George Foster, and Mazzilli was brought up to the majors. The move worked out quite well for the Mets. Foster was way past his prime, and New York was able to use Mookie Wilson and Lenny Dykstra in the same OF while Mazzilli thrived in a ph/supersub role. Meanwhile, the player that the Pirates refused to trade Mazzilli for, Ray Knight, stayed in New York for that 1986 season and enjoyed a solid bounce-back year, culminating in being selected World Series MVP.  The Mets resigned Mazzilli following the Championship season. Maz produced well in 1987, then his performance fell off a cliff. He remained with the Mets until he was waived in July 1989.

So much of the story lines of the great Mets teams of that era seem to be tied up with that April 1, 1982 trade. Ron Darling gave the Mets a fantastic 1-2 punch with Gooden in the mid-80s, although he was never quite the same pitcher after breaking his thumb in a game against the Cardinals in September of 1987. Even in his 17-victory 1988 campaign he wasn't as dominant as he had been, and he was more of an innings eater than a star after that.

Charles Walter Terrell has an important place in New York Mets history. He was involved in not one, but two of the most consequential Mets trades of the 1980s. He was an important member of the starting rotation for the first Mets team in more than a decade to contend for a division crown.

Although Darling and Walt Terrell's careers diverged quite a bit after the Mets traded Terrell, they had one interesting thing in common. Neither were great hitters, Darling had a lifetime batting average of .144, while Terrell's was .120.

While he was with the Mets in 1983, Terrell hit a pair of home runs on August 6, then added another knock three games later on August 23 for his third homer of the month. He would never hit another home run the rest of his career.

In 1989, Ron Darling hit the first two home runs of his career in consecutive games in June. He, too, would never hit another home run in his career.

That's it for me today. It was fun to take a look back and also step back from the ongoing nonsense between MLB and the Players. Hope you enjoyed it, thanks so much for stopping by. Please stay safe, stay well and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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