Is This Season Looking A Lot Like 1997 To You?

Prior to the 2011 season, the Mets interviewed a number of potential candidates for their open managerial position before deciding to hire Terry Collins, a pick that was popular in the front office, but not immediately liked by the fans. Less than half a season later, Collins has made believers out of the skeptics who thought anyone not named Wally Backman would be able to manage the Mets. After a rough 5-13 start, the Mets have responded by going 28-21 (.571 winning percentage) and currently find themselves in third place in the National League East.

Collins has been able to piece together a team that has been without Johan Santana for the entire season and sans corner infielders Ike Davis and David Wright for the past month. His makeshift lineups have led to the emergence of various players who had been career minor leaguers or fringe players. Players such as Justin Turner, Ruben Tejada and Daniel Murphy have all contributed in the absence of Davis and Wright, and pitchers such as Dillon Gee, Chris Capuano and Jonathon Niese have all flourished while Santana has been rehabbing his surgically repaired shoulder.

The 2011 Mets have all the makings of a nice story in Flushing, after two lost seasons at Citi Field which immediately followed two heartbreaking seasons at Shea Stadium. But this is not the first time a manager has taken a downtrodden Mets team and turned them around faster than anyone ever expected. In fact, it was only 14 years ago when another former major league manager was given a chance by the Mets to bring respectability back to the franchise.

Bobby Valentine managed the Texas Rangers from 1985-1992, where he became the franchise’s all-time leader in managerial victories. But after a slow start in 1992, Valentine was relieved of his duties by future president George W. Bush and did not manage again for three years. In 1995, Bobby V took his managerial talents overseas and led the Chiba Lotte Marines to a surprising second-place finish in the Japanese Pacific League. Valentine’s success in Japan (he was fired due to a conflict with the team’s general manager) led him back to the States and a job managing the Mets’ Triple-A team in Norfolk.

After leading the Tides to an 82-59 record in 1996, Valentine was promoted to the Mets to replace the recently ousted Dallas Green. The Mets finished the season by winning only 12 of the 31 games under their new skipper. However, with a new season came new hope, and Valentine was the purveyor of that hope.

The 1997 Mets went into the season with little to no expectations. Their biggest acquisition of the offseason was John Olerud, a former batting champion in 1993 who had done little since winning that batting title, averaging 13 HR and 61 RBI from 1994 to 1996, and failing to hit over .300 in each of those three seasons. The rest of the infield consisted of the past-his-prime Carlos Baerga at second, light-hitting shortstop Rey Ordoñez and young Edgardo Alfonzo, who had been shuttled back and forth between second and third base for the better part of three seasons.

Although Bernard Gilkey and Lance Johnson were returning to the outfield, both were coming off career years in 1996 that did little to help the team in the standings. Rounding out the outfield was Butch Huskey, who had always shown power potential, but never quite fulfilled it. Todd Hundley (he of the record-setting 41 home runs in 1996) was yet again behind the plate catching a ragtag group of starting pitchers that included Bobby Jones, Rick Reed, Dave Mlicki, Mark Clark, Armando Reynoso and Brian Bohanon. Those six pitchers combined to win a mere 40 games in 1996 and were now being counted on to lead the 1997 Mets. It didn’t start off the way Valentine would have liked.

The 1997 Mets lost 10 of their first 14 games and were already seven games out of first place just two weeks into the season. But Bobby Valentine did not let the poor start deter his team. By mid-May, the Mets had climbed back to .500, but then hovered around the mediocre mark until mid-June. It was then that the team took off, winning six straight against Pittsburgh and Atlanta. By September, the Mets were still alive in the Wild Card race, but their playoff hopes finally burst during the final week of the season, as the Marlins took the Wild Card on the way to their first World Series championship. Despite falling just short of the playoffs, the Mets still finished the year with an impressive 88-74 record.

Bobby Jones and Rick Reed emerged as solid starting pitchers for the Mets, with Jones winning 15 games and earning his first (and only) All-Star selection and Reed finishing sixth in the National League with a 2.89 ERA, to go along with 13 wins (after winning a total of 10 games from 1988-1996). The infield also surpassed all expectations, with John Olerud leading the way. The first baseman batted .294 with 22 HR and 102 RBI. He also led the team in on-base percentage with an even .400 mark. The left side of the infield impressed as well, as Edgardo Alfonzo hit a then-career high .315 and Rey Ordoñez won his first Gold Glove Award. Bernard Gilkey and Lance Johnson couldn’t sustain their 1996 paces, but Butch Huskey made up for that by setting career marks in batting average (.287), hits (135), doubles (26), home runs (24), RBI (81), stolen bases (8) and slugging percentage (.503). In addition, Todd Hundley followed up his memorable 1996 campaign with another solid season, batting .273 with 30 HR and 86 RBI.

No one would say that the 1997 Mets were loaded with All-Stars. But Bobby Valentine took that group of individuals and turned them into a team. Valentine used 143 different lineups, utilizing all 25 players on the roster and going with the hot hand whenever possible. The final result was the first winning season for the Mets in seven years.

Fast forward to 2011. Terry Collins is now the former major league manager who was hired by the Mets after a layoff of several years. After spending time guiding young players in the Mets’ farm system in 2010, Collins is now managing a number of them in the big leagues.

Not much was expected from the Mets in 2011, but after a slow start, the Mets are now playing very good baseball. They’re coming together as a team, with veteran leadership (Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes), emerging talent (Justin Turner, Ruben Tejada, Daniel Murphy), and young pitchers developing into top starters (Jonathon Niese, Dillon Gee).

Like Bobby Valentine did with the 1997 Mets, Terry Collins is instilling confidence in the 2011 Mets. His goal is not to reach .500, but to surpass it. Mediocrity is not an option with the current Mets. It is a stepping stone. Terry Collins expects this team to perform on the field, regardless of who he puts out there. It is why the Mets have been able to leapfrog past the Nationals and Marlins in the NL East and why they are within 4½ games of the Braves for the Wild Card lead.

Bobby Valentine did wonders with a group of players that “on paper” shouldn’t have performed as well as they did. He taught them how to believe in themselves and their ability to get the job on the baseball field. The players responded to their manager and made the fans believers as well. Fourteen years later, Terry Collins is trying to do the same thing with his group of Mets.

Will Collins succeed as Bobby Valentine did almost a decade and a half ago? That remains to be seen. One thing is certain, though. If the players continue to follow Collins’ philosophy, then there’s no reason to believe that this team can’t surpass expectations. The Mets can go as far as they want to go. It’s a good thing they have a manager who knows this and is willing to take them there.

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