In modern sport, player movement generates massive amounts of interest. This movement naturally generates winners and losers among teams, players, and fan bases, and in a sport without a salary cap, there is some expectation that this movement will often tilt in the direction of large market teams.
That this has not always been the case for the New York Mets played no small part in the outpouring of joy from Mets fans upon the team’s announcement of an agreement with three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer on Monday. While generally not enough to suit their fans, the Mets have nonetheless made their share of notable transactions in their history. In the wake of this historic signing for the franchise, we thought it would be fun to look back at some of these, and try to place the Scherzer signing in the context of other major franchise transactions.
As we don’t have the benefit of hindsight for how Scherzer’s Mets tenure will play out, for purposes of this exercise we are going to strive to focus solely on the excitement generated by and apparent magnitude of the move for the franchise at the date of the transaction. With that said, we can rule out a some otherwise notable moves:
The Playoff Push Acquisitions—In historical terms, the Mets’ June 15, 1969 trade for Donn Clendenon and July 31, 2015 trade for Yoenis Cespedes would each be ranked among the most important in franchise history. The former provided the missing piece for a Miracle, the latter became a cult hero whose acquisition highlights a documentary on an endless loop on SNY. However, given that Clendenon joined a 30-26 squad nine games behind the Cubs and Cespedes joined a team just a couple of games over .500, it was hard at the time to exult in a Scherzer-ian fashion—if anything, the Cespedes trade just provided a sense of a relief that this time, the team was at least going to try.
The Flops—It wouldn’t be a true Mets’ historical appreciation without remembering some best laid plans that went horribly awry. I personally remember positively skipping to work on the morning of December 11, 2001 when it was announced the Mets had traded for Roberto Alomar—a reasonable reaction to acquiring a player who had accumulated 19.4 bWAR over the previous three seasons en route to two top-four MVP finishes. And, yes, on December 2, 1991, when it was announced that the Mets had signed free agent Bobby Bonilla—himself coming off top three MVP finishes the previous two seasons—it seemed more likely he would spend his Mets tenure showing the team back to their rightful place atop of the NL East than showing reporters The Bronx. Both names make Mets fans grit their teeth to this day precisely because each acquisition seemed to augur such hope, only to dramatically crash and burn.
The Once and Future Captains—Hindsight certainly buffets the June 15, 1983 acquisition of Keith Hernandez—now remembered as the cornerstone of a future champion. After suffering through many fallow years of fandom, the chance to watch a former MVP near the top of his craft was an exciting proposition. But that excitement was tempered by the fact Hernandez was joining a still moribund team, and seemed unlikely at the time to stay in New York. The January 7, 2021 acquisition of Francisco Lindor was truly exhilarating—Mets fans hope that someday this date will be memorialized in franchise annals in the same way as the Hernandez trade. Yet while Lindor’s Mets career will most likely be more notable than Scherzer’s, circumstances—as discussed below—render the pitcher’s signing a bit more exciting.
So, perhaps fittingly, while Hernandez had an underappreciated Hall of Fame case and Lindor is on a potential HoF track, the four singular most exciting transactions in Mets history involved players who are currently—or almost assuredly one day will be—enshrined in the Hall of Fame. It feels almost impossible to rank them, so let’s take a look at them in chronological order:
December 10, 1984—In those halcyon, pre-internet days, one didn’t have the news at their fingertips. Hence I walked home from fourth grade completely unprepared for the news I would hear. Knowing me as only a parent can, my mother’s first words to me were not about my day at school or her day at work, but simply “Bobby, did you hear—the Mets traded for Gary Carter.” After figuratively bouncing off walls, several questions ran through my nine-year old brain: “Who did we trade?” “My mom knows who Gary Carter is?” And, most prominently, “Will mom let me attend the World Series parade?” Given the young, emerging team that had just won 90 games the All-Star catcher was joining, expecting a World Series title seemed like an entirely rational response—even if it took one year longer than expected to arrive.
May 22, 1998—After sharing the stage with Tom Seaver at Shea’s farewell and with a number raised to the rafters, it is impossible not to think of the Mike Piazza trade with the Marlins as ranking among the most exciting in franchise history. Adding an all-world, rock star-like presence to an improving team—one toiling in a division dominated by the Braves and a town by the Yankees—felt like a perfect tonic. There were a few naysayers at the time, however. Some groused that the Mets best player at the time, Todd Hundley, played the same position, while others saw Piazza as a likely one-season rental, unlikely to stay in New York—which may well have been the case if Nelson Doubleday wasn’t still sharing ownership with Fred Wilpon—under whose ownership the team rarely engaged in such major acquisitions.
January 8, 2005—This was a delightful New York sports evening that started with the Jets winning a playoff game. As strange as those words sound, it was neither the highlight nor the strangest New York sports development of that night. Hours later, news emerged that the Mets were in agreement with baseball’s top available free agent, Carlos Beltran. Officially signed on January 13, Beltran famously professed a vision in that press conference for the “New Mets.” While some reduce the center fielder’s tenure to one unfortunate, wicked curveball, Beltran was the exact player the Mets never seemed willing to pursue—a 27-year-old, in his prime star. While the “New Mets” would end three consecutive seasons in heartbreaking fashion and the name Bernie Madoff would soon ensure the team wouldn’t indulge in similar expenditures for some time, adding Beltran to a team with a young David Wright and Jose Reyes was an incredible jolt.
November 29, 2021—Despite the Lindor trade, after losing out on or not fully pursuing J.T. Realmuto or George Springer last year—along with an unfortunately chosen and fortunately missed out on exploration of last year’s pitching market—it was easy for long-jaded Mets fans to feel as if not as much would change under Steve Cohen as hoped. Then Twitter buzzed this Sunday night that the Mets were the favorites to sign Max Scherzer. After enduring one more night of suspense, those fears were obliterated in one surprising, expensive, heterochromial swoop, with a Monday announcement of an historic contract officially signed on Wednesday. The excitement of adding an incredible pitcher like Scherzer near the top of his game speaks for itself, and the thought of he and deGrom becoming a new age Johnson and Schilling is certainly one to dream on.
Part of what makes the Scherzer signing so significant truly was in codifying the approach of new ownership and its break from the past. The Wilpon era often felt as if a bleak, perpetual shadow hung over the franchise. Certainly, every transaction comes with its own risk—particularly a pitcher who will turn 38 early in the 2022 season. However, even if Scherzer goes full Alomar here, Mets fans can believe it won’t be allowed to cripple the franchise.
If asked to rank these in significance, the Carter trade particularly stands out. While some bemoan the dynasty that wasn’t, from the time of that trade through to virtually the end of the decade, the center of gravity in baseball seemed to run through Flushing, Queens—as with the Braves of the 90s or the Dodgers of today. And perhaps part of the joy unleashed by Mets fans in the wake of signing Max Scherzer is in the sense that this is the goal. That finally, the organization may want this to be a reality again almost as much as Mets fans.