Spilled Milk: Mark Langston and Two Throw-Ins
Author’s Note: We interrupt the Spilled Milk Series to focus on a story that many of the current fans may have either forgotten or don’t know about. It’s the story of how the Mets missed their chance to extend their great mid- to late-80s run. As a courtesy to our readers and to help protect your valuable keyboard, monitor, or smart phone, The Mets Today staff will notify you when the “spit take” part of this article arrives. Next week, we’ll look at other big deals from the post-1986 era that didn’t happen.
Two events signaled the end of the Mets 1984-1990 winning streak. One is obvious and occurred in the 9th inning of Game Four of the 1988 NLDS. To paraphrase Casey Stengel: you can look that one up. The other occurred about five months later and while somewhat less dramatic than the events of that terrible October evening, had an equally devastating impact on the team’s immediate and long-term future.
Concerned over injuries to Bob Ojeda and Dwight Gooden, the Mets cast a lustful eye westward to Seattle and Mark Langston, the Mariners lefty ace. There were several scenarios, but the most-mentioned had the Mets sending Howard Johnson, David West and Sid Fernandez in return for Langston, who had won 46 games for some poor Mariners squads in the past three seasons.
This was one of the first “WFAN deals,” as in those pre-internet days, 24-hour sports talk radio was THE source for all information, rumors, and opinions related to the Mets. Millions of Mets fans within WFAN’s signal range (including me) stayed tuned-in hourly, waiting for a trade announcement. This deal was considered such a lock that Langston’s Mariner teammates took to serenading him with a chorus of “New York, New York” when he arrived at their spring training facility.
All was going well until the Mariners’ President Chuck Armstrong stepped in and overrode his GM Woody Woodward on the deal. The Mets where right: Ojeda’s career was essentially over and Gooden did get hurt during the 1989 season. With their ace on the shelf, the Mets instead moved West, Kevin Tapani and Rick Aguilera to the Twins for Frankie Viola. That deal did solidify a World Series winner, but it was for Minnesota!
Two years later, the Twins hoisted a pennant over the Metrodome, being able to do so in part from some key contributions from both Aggie and Tapani. By then, Viola was all but through with the Mets.
The Mariners did later move Langston, but instead to Montreal in exchange for a young pitcher named Randy Johnson. Too bad for the Mets that Woodward didn’t stick to his guns here. Langston won over 100 more games for Montreal, California and San Diego and would have been the Mets staff ace. The Mets also would have kept Aguilera and Tapani, both who went on to have long and useful careers. Letting HoJo go after his strong 1989 campaign (with a better one to follow in 1991) might have hurt a bit, but in retrospect his numbers now look more and more like that of a compiler than of an actual superstar. He developed a knack for following a great year with a down one. He also flopped at four defensive positions. The deal also hurt the Expos badly as they let Johnson get away.
OK–If you are eating or drinking anything while reading this, finish now before you go any further. If your dog, cat or family member is nearby, dismiss them from the room, as the urge to kick may rise. You have been warned!
What makes this non-deal even worse is that Seattle was also set to include two then-unknown prospects: a Double-A shortstop named Omar Vizquel and an outfielder that they had recently acquired from the Yankees — one Jay Buhner. Think about that for a moment. Vizquel is considered one of baseball’s all-time best-fielding shortstops, winning nine consecutive Gold Gloves (1993–2001) and two more in 2005 and 2006. Currently, his .985 career fielding percentage is the highest of all-time for a shortstop in Major League history. Vizquel is the all-time leader in double plays made while playing shortstop and trails only some guy named Derek Jeter as the shortstop with the most hits, all time. If he had done all of this in New York, they would have already cleared a space for him in Cooperstown. As it is, he is probably headed there anyway. But that may be a few years in the future as he is still active today and the only active player with service time in the 1980s. Jose Reyes would likely be playing elsewhere today with that city’s fans agonizing over his worth as a free agent (told you this story still resonates today). Buhner went on to hit 315 homers for the Mariners and drove in 965 runs. Both would rank him first on the all-time Mets list. He was so popular in Seattle that his number 19 has yet to be reissued. Best of all he was a former Yankee, which would have driven their owner and the fanbase crazy.
Conclusion: this was a failed attempt by the Mets to re-load after their disappointing 1987-88 seasons. If they pulled this deal off, they would have successfully revamped their team on the fly, as opposed to punting a season or two while rebuilding. Had it happened there is also a likely possibility that the Mariners franchise might have departed Seattle. Both Buhner and Randy Johnson (no Langston to trade him for) played key roles in their “refuse to lose” surge in the mid 1990’s. Prior to that, there had been a lot of talk of the Mariners following the old Seattle Pilots out of town. Chalk this one up to the baseball gods wanting to keep baseball in the Pacific Northwest, I guess.