A couple of weeks back we hatched this idea, threw it out to our Nation of Readers, and promptly went on vacation. To our surprise, we received thousands of suggestions. It was like that scene with all the mail bags from “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Wait, um, no.
But a surprising number of folks did write in with their comments. Tens of people!
The biggest vote-getters centered on the trades involving Keith Hernandez, Ron Darling, David Cone, Mike Piazza, and Gary Carter. And only one of those trades failed to make our Top Ten. In total, about 20 different trades were named, though we did not feel constrained by majority rule —
— Or any other rules!
Such as grammar, spelling, or the known laws of physics. Anyway: Making the final selection was more difficult than I’d imagined, probably because we took it way too seriously. I called Mike some bad names, he tried to run over my dog. It got ugly.
It’s interesting, nonetheless, to debate what makes a great trade, since there’s so many variables. Donn Clendenon, for example, played a total of 281 regular season games for the Mets; Sid Fernandez took the hill for ten years. Rusty Staub became an icon and a beloved hero, nearly leading the Mets to the 1973 World Series while playing with a busted wing. One point of contention was how much credit do you give a guy — let’s use Ray Knight as an example — for his role on a championship team. Extra points, for sure. But how many? And on and on it goes.
Ultimately — and only because I begged — we cheated a little. We added one “Honorable Mention” because it killed me to keep this one trade off our Top Ten List.
HONORABLE MENTION *
February 8, 1998: New York Mets trade Jesus Sanchez, A. J. Burnett and Robert Stratton to the Florida Marlins for Al Leiter and Ralph Milliard.
In case you were wondering (I was) Ralph Milliard was a second baseman who had one plate appearance with the Mets in 1998. It was not a hit.
Millard sounds like a character from a W.P. Kinsella novel. My first impulse was to think, “Yes, Leiter was our co-ace, but he did not come cheap.” A.J. Burnett was a tantalizing pitching prospect who went on to win 147 games (and counting), plus 8 postseason starts. But if you look at Burnett’s first 6 seasons in Florida, 1999-2004, he won only 37 games (including 5 shutouts in 2002). He was an 8th-round pick, extremely raw, a project with a sizzling fastball. He lost almost all of 2003 and some of 2004 due to Tommy John surgery. Burnett was not going to be much short- or mid-range help to the Mets. Conclusion: They actually got Al Leiter, part of the Marlins’ post-Series dismantling, on the cheap.
Yes, this was not an Ed Hearn for David Cone heist, but in retrospect, Leiter was acquired at a very cheap price.
In 1997, the year before the trade, the Mets won 88 games and finished 3rd in the NL East. Six pitchers got almost all the starts, here are those hallowed names: Rick Reed, Dave Mlicki, Bobby Jones, Mark Clark, Brian Bohanon, and Armando Reynoso. The club clearly needed to upgrade. Somehow they came away with a near-ace and emotional team leader.
Leiter delivered in a big way in his very first year with the Mets in 1998, posting a 17-6 Won-Loss Record with a 2.47 ERA. That ERA was third in the National League that year, the year of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. That is the backdrop to remember when looking at Leiter’s numbers for the Mets, they were accomplished at the height of the “steroid era.” In three other seasons that he was with the Mets, 2000, 2001, and 2004, Al finished in the top ten league leaders in ERA.
Leiter also had his big moments for the Mets in important games. The most memorable of these was a two-hit shutout of the Reds in a “sudden death” one game playoff in 1999 as the Mets and Reds had tied for the NL Wildcard spot that year after 162 games. The 5-0 win that day put the Mets in the playoffs for the first time since 1988 and made possible two of the greatest games in team history, the Todd Pratt walk-off home run versus the Diamondbacks and Robin Ventura’s “grand slam single” in Game Five of that year’s NLCS.
When we think of those Mets teams Mike Piazza is always going to spring immediately to mind. Edgardo Alfonzo, also, as he was so integral to the success of that era. But you can’t win without pitching and Leiter was our best pitcher during those years. Reed had some fine seasons, and Hampton was great for us for one year, but Al delivered over and over. Acquiring Leiter was a great moment in Mets history.
Part of it was Al’s style. He was fiery, emotion came off his body like steam. In the 2000 World Series, he pitched his heart out. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pitcher want it more. It’s too bad, whatever ugliness happened between him and the Mets organization. Al went back to being a Yankee guy, but he was the heart and soul of the team for a while there.
We’d be remiss, Mike, if we didn’t give credit to the engineer of that trade, the oft-maligned Steve Phillips. Old Steve made a lot of trades, he didn’t mind rolling the dice, and he made a few strange ones along the way, but getting Leiter was a great deal. In Phillips’ next trade, he acquired a pretty good catcher. (No, not Tim Spehr.) Later, he traded for Mike Hampton. And, sigh, Billy Taylor. Steve Phillips was probably the busiest GM in Mets history. And all over the map.
Steve Phillips became GM of the Mets on July 16, 1997, and was fired on June 12, 2003. The Mets record during that time was 502-441. As you mentioned, Steve was a very aggressive GM, and he made some trades that still make Mets fans wince. He also made this trade above, and I don’t think I am giving anything away by revealing he made at least one more that made our list. Plus future homegrown stars David Wright and Jose Reyes were drafted and signed during Phillips tenure.
One of the best ways to never make a bad move is to do nothing. That does not lead to winning. Any GM who can win at a 502-441 rate and also leave David Wright and Jose Reyes for his replacement has done well by me.
One last fun fact about Steve Phillips: He traded for Lenny Harris . . . twice! In July, 1998, he gave away John Hudek for Lenny Harris. Then again in 2000 he traded Bill Pulsipher to the Dodgers for . . . Lenny Harris!
And that same year, 2000, we made our last World Series appearance.