Johnson Is Fired as Mets’ Manager; Harrelson Named
Davey Johnson, who led the New York Mets to the 1986 World Series championship and was one of the winningest managers in baseball, was fired Tuesday as his talented team struggled below .500.
Bud Harrelson, the third base coach, was named as Johnson’s replacement.
“I thought the club was underachieving and needed to go in a new direction,” general manager Frank Cashen said at a news conference prior to the Mets’ game against the Cincinnati Reds. “Part of the blame is certainly mine. Part of the blame has to be with the organization and part of the blame has to be with the team. It’s not all Davey’s.”
“I have very little experience in letting managers go,” he said, speaking in a low, somber tone. “If I had to let Davey go, it’s great to have somebody of Bud Harrelson’s stripe in the organization.”
The Mets, projected by many to win the National League East, were 20-22 and six games behind Pittsburgh when Johnson became the first major league manager to be fired this season.
Three hours before the start of Tuesday night’s game, Harrelson was sitting in the manager’s chair at Riverfront Stadium making out the lineup card.
“I just had a meeting with the players,” he said at his first news conference as manager. “We discussed the (team) rules that have been in existence since 1984, which I think players really didn’t pay attention to this season.
“I think they agree they have been abusing the set-down rules for a while,” he said. “I think they agree it was in the best interest of the club to start living up to those rules.”
Al Harazin, Mets’ senior vice president, said he and Cashen summoned Johnson to their room at 11 a.m. Tuesday and told him he was fired.
Johnson was said to have left immediately for his home near Orlando, Fla.
Johnson, 47, was selected Mets manager during the 1983 World Series and led them longer than anyone else in team history; they never finished worse than second during his tenure.
He inherited a club that had not finished above fifth place for seven consecutive years and turned them around to average 96 victories a year.
Johnson led the team to the 1986 World Series championship in seven games over Boston and to a division championship in 1988, where the Mets lost in seven games to Los Angeles in the playoffs.
But rumors of his dismissal began late last year when the favored Mets failed to win the division despite having stars such as Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and Howard Johnson. And there was speculation Johnson would be fired if the team did not get off to a hot start this season.
Johnson was known, and often criticized, for being a laid-back manager who pretty much left his players alone.
But with the team not performing up to expectations the last two seasons, there was talk that the Mets needed more of a hands-on, motivator.
“We wanted to give Davey every chance to turn it around. Unfortunately, he didn’t. Things were the same,” Harazin said.
In Harrelson, the Mets get someone who is best known as the former player who fought with Pete Rose in the 1973 playoffs against Cincinnati. He was a two-time All-Star and a spirited shortstop, and the Mets hope he can again spark the team.
Cashen said he “told the ballplayers I still feel we can win this thing.”
“We talked a little about underachieving, we talked a little bit about fire in the belly and we talked about some other things,” he said. “Principally, we tried to refocus this team on winning, because winning is what this is all about.”
During Johnson’s six full seasons, the Mets were 575-395, a winning percentage of .593, fourth best among all major league managers. That was 29 1/2 games better than the second-best team in that period, the Toronto Blue Jays.
Nonetheless, Johnson was still criticized for his style, and it was suggested that the Mets’ victories resulted from an abundance of talent--Strawberry, Gooden and Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter, who were released after last season.
That was particularly evident last year, when the team struggled throughout the season, winning 87 games and finishing second, six games behind the Chicago Cubs. Gooden missed the last two-thirds of 1989 with an arm injury, Strawberry slumped to .229 and Johnson himself predicted at the end of the season that he wouldn’t be retained.
He was, although two of his coaches, Bill Robinson and Sam Perlozzo, were let go without his input.
Then the Mets lost to Pittsburgh 12-3 on opening day and the Davey Watch was on. Before the first week was over, the Mets had lost four of their first six games, and Johnson was answering the same questions he had responded to in 1989.
By mid-May, he was running out of answers, and reporters were running out of questions.
Cashen said he made the decision to switch managers “after traveling with the ballclub to the West Coast.”
The Mets lost five of eight games on that road trip, including three in a row in San Francisco.
Johnson’s defenders have blamed the front office for the Mets’ problems, pointing to trades that got rid of more fiery players like Wally Backman, Lenny Dykstra, Mookie Wilson and Roger McDowell, all keys to the 1986 championship.
Dykstra is leading the major leagues in hitting, Wilson sparked Toronto to the AL East championship last year, and Backman and McDowell both are off to hot starts in 1990.
Kevin Mitchell, last year’s NL MVP, was also traded after the 1986 season in a deal that brought the Mets Kevin McReynolds, a productive player but one whose laid-back style closely resembled Johnson’s demeanor.
This season, Johnson was criticized for his handling of the pitching staff, thought by many to be the best in baseball--six starters who all had been 17-game winners at least once in their career, and reliever John Franco, among the best in the business.
But what looked good on paper, was not so great in reality.
They began with Bobby Ojeda, an 18-game winner in 1986, in the bullpen. Then Ron Darling, who had a career record of 87-55 entering the season, was sent there after a slow start.
Darling and David Cone both have been publicly critical about the way they were handled by Johnson, who kept Gooden and Frank Viola, his two top starters, in their regular rotation. Gooden, however, is below .500 for the first time in his career, and only Viola, acquired in a trade last season, has been consistently successful.
Just last week, after getting hit hard in a loss at San Diego, the usually reticent Viola lashed out at the whole team, saying it was just “going through the motions.”
At the same time, the team has been searching for a center fielder to replace Dykstra and Wilson and a catcher to replace Carter. Also, Johnson has been blamed for favoring offense over defense. The Mets had 45 errors, most in the league, going into Tuesday night’s game.
Harrelson, 45, was a favorite of Mets fans as their shortstop from 1966 to 1977. After retiring as a player with the Texas Rangers in 1980, he managed in the Mets farm system, where he had a 69-45 record, and has been a coach with the team since 1985.
His coaching contract with the Mets was good through next season, with an option for 1992. Last season, he was offered the job as manager of the Toronto Blue Jays but turned it down.
As a player, he was one of the game’s best defensive shortstops although his lifetime batting average was just .236. He played in two all-star games and two World Series and is known for a brawl with Rose in the 1973 NL Championship series that began when Rose slid hard into him trying to break up a double play.
Johnson had a .261 career batting average in 14 seasons with Baltimore, Atlanta, Philadelphia and the Chicago Cubs and once hit 43 homers in a season with the Braves.
.Ironically, he made the final out for the Orioles in the Mets’ first World Series victory in 1969.
He began his managerial career in 1979 with Miami of the Inter-American League and won the league’s championship. He managed the Mets’ Double-A Jackson team in 1981 and won the Texas League title, and guided the Mets’ Tidewater Club to the 1983 Triple-A championship.