While the Mets wait to see what they get out of their recent acquisitions—Kelly Johnson, Juan Uribe, Tyler Clippard, Yoenis Cespedes, and Eric O’Flaherty—let’s take a look back at four of the very best players the Mets ever acquired in the middle of a season. In fact, two of the players who were recently voted the Mets’ Franchise Four are on this list. We can only hope that the current results will be as good.
1.June 15, 1969 — Donn Clendenon
Clendenon came to the Mets through a series of unusual and fortunate circumstances. He was a rather average first baseman for Pittsburgh from 1961-68. He was selected by the Montreal Expos in the 1969 expansion draft, and then immediately sent to Houston in a trade. The only problem was Clendenon refused to report to Houston because of the racist reputation of their manager. So the Astros received two compensation picks from the Expos, and Clendenon went back to Montreal and bided his time until the Mets came calling at the trade deadline. Mets’ manager Gil Hodges was familiar with Clendenon, and Hodges wanted him as a role player in the Mets’ first ever playoff push. He would add a veteran leadership presence and be in a first base platoon with Ed Kranepool.
So, the Mets sent two insignificant players to the Expos—Steve Renko and Kevin Collins—along with three minor leaguers to make the deal, and it paid off big time. Clendenon batted .252 and slugged .455 for the Mets the rest of the season, with 12 homers and 37 RBIs in just 202 at-bats. He did not play in the Mets’ three-game sweep of the Braves in the NLCS, but played a major role in the World Series win over the Orioles as series MVP. He had three home runs, a double, and four RBIs.
Clendenon played for the Mets through 1971. His 1970 season was especially good, batting .288/348/515 with 22 home runs and 97 RBIs. Overall, he batted .267/.328/.469 in two and a half seasons in Flushing with 45 homers and 171 RBIs, carving out his place in Mets history.
2. June 15, 1983 — Keith Hernandez
Hernandez was a very good player for the Cardinals. He had been co-MVP of the National League with Willie Stargell in 1979, and was an integral part of St. Louis’s World Series championship in 1982. However, by the time of the trade deadline in 1983, Redbirds’ manager Whitey Herzog was tired of him. Herzog wrote in his memoir:
Keith Hernandez was dogging it … He’s the best defensive first baseman I’ve ever seen. But on offense, he was loafing. He loafed down the line on ground balls and he wasn’t aggressive on the bases.
What I couldn’t live with was his attitude. I’ve got two basic rules _ be on time and hustle _ and he was having trouble with both of them … His practice habits were atrocious. He’d come out for batting practice, then head back to the clubhouse to smoke cigarettes and do crossword puzzles … It was getting to the point where I was fed up with him.
People always say it’s the worst deal I’ve ever made, but I don’t believe that … Getting rid of Hernandez was addition by subtraction. I really feel that, if we had kept him, his attitude and his bull would have ruined our ball club. I know he never would have been as good for us as he has been with the Mets.
Herzog’s opinion was given some validity by Hernandez’s immediate reaction to the trade. Keith called his agent to see if he could block the trade, or if he had enough money saved up to retire instead. When he did report to the Mets, he broke down and cried in the shower in the clubhouse in Montreal a few days after the deal because he thought the team was hopelessly bad.
After Hernandez got over his trepidation about playing for the Mets, the rest is history. The Cardinals’ loss became the Mets' gain. In 1984, the team became a contender, winning 90 games after losing 94 the year before. Hernandez became the team captain and the on-field leader of the 1986 Mets, who dominated the National League with 108 victories and won the World Series.
In six and a half seasons with the Mets, Hernandez batted .297/.387/.429 with 80 home runs and 468 RBIs in 880 games, not to mention a countless number of brilliant defensive plays at first base to get the team out of many difficult spots. He was voted the Mets’ 1980s representative to their Franchise Four, and remains a popular broadcaster with the team to this day.
3. July 31, 1989 — Frank Viola
Some may argue that the Twins got the better of this trade since two of the players Minnesota received, Rick Aguilera and Kevin Tapani, became key contributors to the Twins’ 1991 World Championship team. It is true that this deal did not lead to the postseason for the Mets, unlike the other three trades in this article. However, if the goal of a trade-deadline move is to give your team the best possible chance to save its season, then you can’t do better than getting the reigning 1988 AL Cy Young winner. Viola had worn out his welcome in the Twin Cities by demanding big money while having a poor season, so he was available, and it was worth a shot.
Dwight Gooden was down with an arm injury since July 1, and the team had lost seven in a row at the time of the trade and needed help badly. Viola managed to go 5-5 with a 3.38 ERA in 12 starts the rest of the year, but nothing could save that Mets team. Key figures of the 1980s era, like Hernandez and Gary Carter, were breaking down due to injury and age. The team only won 87 games and finished a distant second.
However, the trade really paid dividends for the Mets in 1990. Viola went 20-12 with a 2.67 ERA in 35 starts. Although the team finished second again, there were times when Viola kept the team afloat all by himself. He won seven of the team’s first 16 victories. It was well deserved when he finished third in the Cy Young Award voting that fall.
In 1991, the Mets began to decline, and Viola’s performance decayed along with the team. He was 11-5 through July 12 and made the All-Star team, but he went 2-10 in the second half to finish 13-15 for the year. Viola left the Mets via free agency after the season. In two and a half seasons in New York, he went 38-32 with a 3.31 ERA in 82 games. The Mets didn't make the playoffs during his tenure, but having the left-hander from St. John’s gave the Mets their best opportunity to get there.
Viola continues to help the organization to this day as a minor league instructor, and is an extremely valuable tutor to lefties in the system like Steven Matz.
4. May 22, 1998 — Mike Piazza
This wasn’t a trade-deadline deal, but no discussion of the best Mets in-season trades is complete without mentioning the Mike Piazza trade. I hardly need to remind readers here of the best hitting catcher of all time. The moment he was traded to New York, everyone knew the Mets were headed to the playoffs and the World Series, and indeed he led them there in 1999 and 2000. No one ever missed Preston Wilson, even if he was Mookie’s stepson.
Who could forget the 10-run eighth inning in 2000, or the post-9/11 home run in 2001? Piazza is most certainly one of the Mets’ Franchise Four, and when he does eventually make it into the Hall of Fame, it should be in a Mets uniform. He had his World Series appearance there, and he meant so much more to them than he ever did to the Dodgers.
In seven and three-quarters seasons in Flushing, Piazza batted .296/.373/.542 in 972 games with 220 home runs and 655 RBIs, plus another five home runs and 12 RBIs in 22 postseason games. No doubt he was an all-time great player.