As it becomes apparent that the Mets, as currently constituted, will not run away with the NL East this year, Mets’ fans are all anxiously anticipating this offseason’s upcoming deals feeling certain that we’ll find some improvement via the trade market.
Of course, Mets history has given us many more bad trades than good, but let’s look on the positive side, beginning with one of the best trades ever made by the Mets, in this case a trade hatched by Frank Cashen, certainly the best Mets’ GM to this point.
The Keith Hernandez trade of June 15, 1983 is explained in detail in one of the finest baseball books I have ever read, White Rat – A Life In Baseball by Whitey Herzog and Kevin Horrigan. As Cardinals’ manager/GM, Herzog made some outstanding deals and a couple of real clinkers. Even worse than the Hernandez deal is an earlier one that may rank as one of the worst trades ever – Ted Simmons, Pete Vuckovich, and Rollie Fingers for Sixto Lezcano, Lary Sorensen, Dave LaPoint, and David Green (then considered the best prospect in the game). But back to the Hernandez deal.
As the 1983 season went on, Herzog felt that Keith Hernandez was dogging it. Herzog said he knew nothing of Keith’s drug use, but he couldn’t believe how lazy Keith was becoming. He wasn’t running out ground balls and he seemed to be spending most of his time before games smoking cigarettes and doing crossword puzzles. Other players were complaining to Herzog about Keith’s lack of hustle, and Whitey’s coaches told him that even though the club was in first place, Hernandez was “poisoning” the whole team.
Herzog also thought the Cardinals needed pitching and felt that Hernandez still had excellent trade value and that Hernandez’ salary demands for his next contract were going to be far out of line with his value to the team. The Cardinals also had a red-hot minor league hitter in Andy Van Slyke who deserved a chance in the big leagues. So, Herzog decided that moving George Hendrick to first base and Van Slyke to the Cardinals’ outfield and dealing Hernandez for pitching help was the way to go.
When Lonnie Smith came forward admitting to a cocaine habit and possibly insinuating that he was not the only member of the team doing drugs, some suspicion arose concerning Hernandez. The Cardinals began shopping Keith, but there were few interested parties. All the other team were scared of his contract and there was a definite buzz of drug rumors. Only Frank Cashen of the Mets showed any interest. The deal was to be Neil Allen who the Cardinals were going to turn into a starter, and the Mets’ most promising young pitcher, Rick Ownbey, in exchange for Hernandez. When Cashen agreed, that was it.
Hernandez’ initial reaction to going to the Mets was negative and he was pretty sure he would opt out and become a free agent, but the Mets’ young talent and Hernandez’ quick adjustment to New York City changed his mind, and Keith put his drug problems behind him and became an integral part of a Mets’ team that won a World Championship and probably should have won a couple more. Allen faded quickly and Ownbey surprisingly never made it at all, making this one of those one-sided deals the Mets were famous for, only this time it was in their favor.