It Was 20 Years Ago Today: Joe McIlvaine’s Best Deal Ever
December 20, 1996: The New York Mets trade RHP Robert Person to the Toronto Blue Jays for 1B John Olerud.
What I remember most about this announcement was that it was the first trade news that I ever got via the Internet. it came over a clipping service that the company I worked for at the time subscribed to. I had added the phrase “New York Mets” to a search string weeks before, and was online when this story broke. I also remember being very puzzled and upset about this move, but in hindsight, it turned out to be the best move in Joe McIlvaine’s otherwise mostly awful tenure as GM of the Mets.
I fully acknowledged that the 1996 Mets had a lot of holes, but I didn’t think first base was one of them. The team had hit rock bottom in 1993, but had rebounded somewhat in the strike shortened years of 1994 and 1995. Under McIlvaine, they had shed the contracts of Bobby Bonilla, Vince Coleman and Bret Saberhagen and had an inspiring crop of prospects ready, or so it seemed then, to bring back the glory days to Shea. A strong finish in 1995 had many of us thinking the squad was about to take the next step in 1996.
The hard-throwing Person was one of a quartet of starting pitchers that had already propelled the Mets Double A team to the Eastern League championship. The now infamous other three quarters of that star-crossed rotation, Bill Pulshipher, Jason Isringhausen and Paul Wilson, were all touted as the Mets homegrown answer to the stellar Atlanta Braves rotation. Speaking of homegrown, the Mets also had the wonderfully-named Butch Huskey as their incumbent first baseman. Huskey had slashed a not-unimpressive 278/319/435 the year before. A genuinely decent and quiet young man, Butch seemed the perfect antidote to the toxicity of the now-departed veterans.
Much to the my dismay the Mets stumbled badly in 1996, throwing massive amounts of sand into the gears of this prospect-driven Mets renaissance that myself and many others had envisioned.
On the surface Olerud looked like another step backwards, a declining veteran with a big contract. Weren’t the Mets trying to get away from this type of player? He had a stellar 1993, winning the AL batting crown, but had steadily declined since then. He had one year left on his contract and the Blue Jays chipped in 80% of it. The deal had to be approved by the commissioner’s office because of the large amount of money changing hands. Remember, this was 1996; five million dollars certainly ain’t what it used to be!
This trade and Olerud’s tenure as a Met are frequently overlooked, which is a shame, because both were absolutely fabulous. Olerud slashed 294/400/489 in 1997 and drove in 102 runs. He signed a two year extension at the end of 1997, but instead of becoming complacent, he got better. He slashed 354/447/551 in 1998, that average breaking Cleon Jones’ 1969 Mets record for highest individual batting average in a single season. His fielding was impeccable, he was credited as the anchor man in the 1998-99 “Best Infield Ever” that included Edgardo Alfonzo, Rey Ordonez and Robin Ventura. He played all 162 games of the 1999 season and while his numbers tailed off slightly, he was a mainstay both offensively and defensively, as the Mets returned to the playoffs for the first time in 11 years. They faced off against the Braves in the 1999 NLCS and his Game Four homer keyed a furious Mets comeback that unfortunately fell short three games later in Turnerland.
Overall he slashed 315/425/501 in his three years here, the best stint of his career, even considering the big years he had in Toronto. Despite his success, he departed for his hometown of Seattle after the 1999 season. He enjoyed three more strong years in the Pacific Northwest before a farewell tour that included productive stops with the Yankees and Boston. In retrospect, the Mets should have pushed harder to keep him as they could have used his bat in the 2000 Subway Series and in their failed defense of the NL crown the next year.
It’s probably not too much of a stretch to think that had he stayed in New York, he might merit serious consideration for the Hall of Fame. As it stands, he is now largely ignored when the great hitters of the 1990’s are discussed.
Person went on to have a decent, if unremarkable career. He would go 46-37 for Toronto and the Phillies. For a long time he had more innings pitched, more wins and more strikeouts and any of his more highly-touted Binghamton Mets Generation K pitching rotation mates. Eventually and mainly by staging a comeback in 2011, Isringhausen caught up and passed him in those categories. Don’t get me wrong, Isringhausen definitely had the better career.
One more thing about this trade: it happened weeks after the Winter Meetings and wouldn’t be the last time that the Mets would strike a deal later on the winter. In fact, McIlvaine’s successor Steve Phillips added the pair of pitchers the Mets needed (Al Leiter in 1998 and Mike Hampton in 1999) to return to the post-season in deals made later in the winter (February and December 23rd) respectively than this one. Sometimes, patience can pay off, as it did for the Mets in all three of these post-Winter Meetings trades.
Something to ponder while we sit and wait for any trade or free agent signing news this time around. Happy Holidays, everyone.