The Star Nobody Knows
In New York, the town that can make a good player seem like a great one, Mets third baseman Howard Johnson remains surprisingly underrated. Ask fans—even in the Big Apple—to name the top 20 players in the game, and few will mention Johnson. Yet he is having his fifth-straight standout year. Through Sunday, he led the National League in home runs (17), was tied for second in RBIs (55) and was tied for third in runs scored (48).
Without bitterness, Johnson agrees he has been overlooked. "When I came here, I was a small part of the team," he says of the trade that brought him to the Mets from the Tigers on Dec. 7, 1984, for pitcher Walt Terrell. "We had Keith Hernandez, Darryl Strawberry, et cetera. Guys like me, Rafael Santana and Tim Teufel were fill-ins. I wasn't an every-day player until 1987. In a way, that first impression is the one people still have of me."
Since he become an every-day player, however, Johnson has been one of the most consistent players in the game. From the start of the 1987 season through last week, only Joe Carter had a higher combined total of home runs, RBIs and stolen bases—indicators of power, production and speed—than Johnson. And despite being one of only three players in history, and the only infielder, to have two 30-homer and 30-steal seasons, Johnson has played in only one All-Star Game, in 1989, and he has had few endorsement opportunities.
"The only offensive player in this town was Strawberry; everyone focused on him," says Mets pitcher Ron Darling. "In the past, this team was defined by starting pitching and Strawberry. But now [with Strawberry gone], there is plenty of spotlight out there. The thing about HoJo is, he's never had a season that distinguished him from everyone else. He's never had an MVP year, he's never led the league in anything. But he does everything well. The only thing he hasn't done is hit for average."
Johnson's lifetime average was .256 coming into this season. And in postseason play he has hit only .038 (1 for 26), another reason why he hasn't received the attention he's due. Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog's charge in 1987 that Johnson's bat was corked didn't help HoJo's status, either. Nor has his defense. He's an adequate third baseman, but, as Darling says, "sometimes his arm goes berserk." His erratic throws have led to a lot of errors—his total of 16 through Sunday was second only to the Astros' Eric Yelding for the National League lead.
But if Johnson is such a bad fielder, why was he asked to fill in at shortstop after Kevin Elster underwent shoulder surgery last August? Johnson went 39 games without an error at short, and his willingness to make the move allowed New York to keep Gregg Jefferies in the lineup at third. "I looked at it as a challenge to see how good I could become," Johnson says.
The challenge for the 30-year-old Johnson this year is to help the Mets make up for the loss of Strawberry. "Everywhere you turned, it was Darryl. If he hits, we win—that was the mentality," says Johnson. "That's not a good mentality. We all have to carry the load."
So far, HoJo has carried his share—and more.
Yet Another Rebuilding Project