The two most impressive players in the New York Mets’ camp, according to Manager Davey Johnson, are Kevin Elster and Barry Lyons.
To designate Elster in that manner was hardly a surprise. He is the club’s regular shortstop, who is expected to improve after his rookie season. But Barry Lyons? He was the least used and most forgotten Met last year. The way Lyons figures it, it’s about time somebody notices him. He’s ready to challenge Gary Carter for playing time.
“I know he’s not done,” Lyons said. “He’s been a great catcher for a lot of years. I don’t wish him bad luck. But I want my chance. I think I deserve it. I’ve done everything they’ve asked me and done it well. Now I need the chance to do it on an everyday basis.”
Right from the start of camp, when he checked in 10 pounds lighter at 200, Lyons has shown he is serious about getting more playing time. Through the middle of last week, he was tied for the club lead in hits (10) and was batting .476.
“I said he has stood out not just because of his hitting,” Johnson said. “It’s everything; the way he handles himself, his work habits . . . everything. I probably made a mistake by not playing him enough last year.”
Lyons batted only 91 times last season, 39 fewer at-bats than he had in 1987. He batted .231 with no home runs and 11 runs batted in. He had the fewest at-bats of any National League reserve catcher with the exception of Steve Lake, who batted 54 times for St. Louis.
Johnson has said he will be a bit quicker to sit Carter this season if he doesn’t turn around his two-year slide in offensive production. Lyons wants to make sure he will be the first catcher that Johnson calls on. Last year, Johnson gave Mackey Sasser more time as the No. 2 catcher. Sasser hasn’t had much luck at bat and has been bothered by back spasms this spring.
The other source of encouragement for Lyons is that Carter is in the last year of his contract. Lyons said he was ready to be the regular catcher if Carter was not re-signed.
“Last year I saw no light at the end of the tunnel,” Lyons said. “I definitely see it now as far as getting an opportunity. I don’t know of anyone out there that they can get who’s better than me. I’ve heard they were interested in Sandy Alomar Jr. Alomar hasn’t proved anything. Sure, he had a good year in triple-A, but that’s a hitter’s league (Pacific Coast League). I know they have to get someone ready to be their catcher of the future. I think that’s me.”
Met pitcher Dwight Gooden said he had no doubt that Lyons can be a regular catcher.
“If he’s the regular catcher next year,” Gooden said. “I’d have full confidence in him. Heck, if he’s the regular catcher in June, I’d have no problem with him back there.”
Lyons’ inactivity the past two seasons has brought about a strange twist in his reputation. Before then he was considered an offensive threat and a defensive liability. He was a career .302 hitter in the minor leagues and once drove in 108 runs in 126 games in double-A.
But now, Lyons is regarded as a better defensive player than an offensive one. In fact, he has improved his defense so much that Mets’ pitchers privately have expressed a preference for throwing to Lyons rather than Carter.