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Why would Johnson be so eager to move the 26-year-old Dykstra? Because Johnson was no longer concerned about developing players. He had become a different manager ever since Cashen nearly fired him after the 1987 season—the two had clashed over personnel moves—even though the Mets won 92 games while their pitchers spent a combined 457 days on the disabled list.
"I thought I had a hell of a year managing," Johnson says of that second-place finish. "And then I had that problem with Frank. That told me they had taken the attitude, 'We have to win every year. We're great.' Now I'm thinking, Jeez, no matter what I've done before, that don't mean diddly-squat. So any time a trade came along that could make the ball club better immediately, I was for it. I could be gone at any moment.
"Sometimes you've got to take a step back to go forward," Johnson says. "The plan had been to eventually trade Mookie and give the job to Lenny. He'd struggle for a while, and the team wouldn't be as good without Mookie, but we'd be better off down the road. We stopped worrying about that. I'm as guilty as anybody."
McIlvaine made the trade the day after running it past Johnson and after Cashen—much to his subsequent regret—endorsed it. There was one unmentioned element that clinched the deal. Samuel was Latin. "We were desperate to have a Latin on the team," says one Met official, "especially with the great Latin American population in the city. We thought New York would love him."
Problem was, Samuel hated New York and was even less comfortable in center-field. Since trading Dykstra and then Wilson (for Jeff Musselman) six weeks later, the Mets have auditioned 17 players in centerfield, and none has held the job for a full season.
By July 31, 1989, the Mets were seven games out. They panicked again. McIlvaine traded Aguilera, Tapani, West and two lesser pitching prospects to the Minnesota Twins for Viola. Again Cashen would come to regret his endorsement.
With McIlvaine as director of scouting in the early '80s, the Mets built the foundation for their winning teams from a superlative farm system. A snapshot of their minor league system at the start of the '83 season included Aguilera, Dykstra, Gooden, Magadan, McDowell, Mitchell, Myers, Strawberry, Mark Carreon, Ron Darling, Tim Leary, Randy Milligan, Greg Olson, Calvin Schiraldi, Walt Terrell and other future big leaguers. Since the time Scioscia hit that home run off Gooden (and as McIlvaine had become more involved on the major league level), the Mets have not had a single player in their system who has 100 hits in a big league season and only one pitcher who has won as many as 10 games in a given year. That pitcher, Tapani, has done so four times—for Minnesota.
"I didn't want to give up Aguilera," McIlvaine says. "He was just getting comfortable closing games. West had a good arm, but I knew he didn't have what it takes inside. Tapani is the one who surprised me. I thought he was a five-inning starting pitcher who couldn't go two days in a row if you put him in the bullpen."
The Mets' farm system was drying up, and here was McIlvaine squandering what little was left. "This one," he said at the time, "could backfire right in my face if Viola doesn't perform up to expectations." The Mets made up just one game on the first-place Cubs after the trade, with Viola going 5-5. He spent two more years in New York—going 38-32 overall, including a combined 13-20 in August, September and October—before leaving as a free agent. "That's the kind of thinking," Wilpon says of the shortsighted trade, "that doesn't work out. Frank never worked out, to put us over the top."
Viola was tormented by the carousel of grotesque fielders the Mets annually put on display. "I'm not surprised to see what's happened to the Mets," says Viola, who bolted after the 1991 season to sign with the Boston Red Sox. "I saw it coming. What happened is they had too many people out of position. And I mean starting from the front office on down."