Nov 28, 2015

1986 World Champion Mets Infielder: Howard Johnson- Part One (The Eighties)

Howard Michael Johnson known as "Hojo" was born on November 29, 1960 in Clearwater, Florida. The five foot eleven switch hitter was originally drafted as a first round, pitcher out of St. Petersburg College, by the Detroit Tigers in 1979.

In the minors he was converted into a third baseman due to bat & his strong arm. In his third minor league season he hit 22 HRs at AA Birmingham in 1981. In 1982 he hit 23 HRs while batting .317 stealing 35 bases at AAA Evansville earning a call up to the big leagues.

He came up to the Tigers in 1982 as a back up to Tom Brookens batting .316 with 4 HRs in 54 games. By 1984 he was being platooned with Brookens, starting out the year hot, driving in run in six of ten games in May. A strong June had him hit up at the .300 mark along with four HRs. But he tailed off as the year came to an end, and he saw less playing time in September after the Tigers rolled over the American League. Soon veterans Darrel Evans & Marty Castillo were getting more playing time, especially in the post season.

Hojo had 12 HRs 50 RBIs & batted .248 in 116 games, but only had one at bat going 0-1 in the post season as the Tigers won the World Series. After the season, he was traded to the New York Mets for pitcher Walt Terrell.

He arrived in New York as one of three third baseman, but Hubbie Brooks was quickly traded in a deal to acquire All Star catcher, Gary Carter. Hojo was the Mets starting third baseman on Opening Day1985, getting a hit & drawing an RBI walk in the 6-5 win over the St. Louis Cardinals. Hojo's debut went under noticed, since Carter was also making his debut & hit a walk off game winning HR.

Johnson struggled not getting above the .200 mark until July 4th, that month things got better for him. As Ray Knight struggled, hitting just .218 on the year, Johnson remained the teams main third baseman. He drove in 16 runs, raised his average thirty four points and hit four HRs. On August 3rd his top of the 10th inning HR in Chicago, off the Cubs George Frazier broke the 4-4 tie & was the game winner. On September 10th he hit a grand slam HR off the St. Louis Cardinals John Tudor, keeping New York in first place, one game up after the 5-4 win.

Three weeks later on September 29th, his three hit three RBI day, including a HR, helped the Mets beat the Pirates in Pittsburgh 9-7. Hojo hit, 242 with 11 HRs 18 doubles & 46 RBIs, posting a .300 on base %. For 1985 he played 126 games at third base posting a .941 fielding % making 15 errors in 253 chances.

In 1986 he started out well batting .357 in April. On April 24th Hojo hit a two run HR off St. Louis' Todd Worrell tying up the game in the top of the 9th inning. The Mets went on to beat the rival Cardinals 5-4 on George Fosters RBI base hit. From there he spent time on the DL miss most of the month of June.

Upon his return he struggled, losing his starting job at third base, to Ray Knight who would bat .298. On June 23rd he hit two HRs in a game against the Montreal Expos, even though the Mets lost 5-4. Johnson had only hit one HR going into mid June then went on a tear hitting 6 HRs during the next month.

One of his biggest blasts came during the legendary July 22nd game at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. The Reds Eric Davis had slid hard into third base & Mets third baseman Ray Knight went crazy. He immediately took his glove off & threw a punch at Davis. A classic bench clearing brawl occurred as both dugouts & bull pen's emptied. Players were ejected & manager Davey Johnson had to fill spots on the field, including having pitcher Roger McDowell play outfield.

Johnson followed up with a three-run HR off Ted Power in the top of the 14th inning, which led to the Mets 6-3 victory. Hojo’s constant smile and good sense of humor was constant throughout the year.

He became Roger McDowell’s side kick in issuing the “hot foot” to Mets players in the dugout. The “Hot Foot” was when a matchbook was stuck with bubble gum to the back of a players shoe & lit on fire by either Johnson or McDowell.

This was demonstrated in the 1987 “Let’s Go Mets” video by Johnson & McDowell. He finished the 1986 Championship year batting .249 with 10 HRs 14 doubles, 39 RBIs & a .341 on base %.

Post Season: HoJo was shut out in the postseason, going 0-for-7 in the four games he played in. His only start was Game #2 of the 1986 World Series when he went 0-for-4 in the Mets loss. His only other at bat in the series was in Game #6 when he struck out in the ninth inning.

Trivia: Hojo goes down in Mets history as the first Met to greet Ray Knight at home plate as he scored the miraculous winning run in the classic World Series Game # 6.

At age 25 Johnson already had won his second World Series title. Ray Knight was gone after the World Series and Johnson became the Mets regular third baseman. He developed into one of the league’s top power hitters over the next two seasons. After a slow April, he went on a three month tear starting out with a five HR 15 RBI stretch from May 10th through May 20th. In June he had a stretch where he homered in three of four games & then three more HRs in three straight games the next week.

He had 20 HRs by the All Star break and in July he had a stretch of driving in six runs in a seven game span. From July 10th through July 16th he hit six HRs driving in eight runs. He started August with a grand slam in Montreal in the Mets 12-4 blowout win. During a thirteen-game span he had at least one RBI in all but one game. In mid August he homered in three straight games, driving in seven more runs in that span.

On August 31st he hit a top of the 10th inning HR off The Pares Keith Comstock for a game winning 6-5 Mets win in San Diego. Two days later his two run HR off Ed Whitson led New York to a 3-2 win, helping Dwight Gooden complete the three game sweep of the Padres. On September 21st he hit another grand slam, this one at Wrigley Field in Chicago helping the Mets to a big win. The win had the Mets keep pace with the Cardinals just 2 1/2 games back. They would fade away in the final week of the season & finish a very close second by just three games.

Hojo had always been a quick base runner as well. In the late eighties the trend became joining the & so called exclusive 30/30 club. Hojo did just that as he stole 32 bases & finished the year with 36 HRs (7th in the league). That year he set a HR record for NL switch hitters with his 36 HRs. He was overall a much a better hitter from the right side of the plate.

He had 99 RBIs, second on the club to Daryl Strawberry & tenth most in the league. He hit 22 doubles with 93 runs scored while posting a 3.64 on base percentage. He was now being recognized as a new Mets slugger as the careers of Gary Carter & Keith Hernandez were beginning to wind down. Johnson even earned 42 points in the MVP voting as well. The free swinging Hojo struck out 113 times (9th in the NL). It was the first in a five year stretch where he struck out over 100 times.

In 1988, Johnson’s numbers fell off, especially after he suffered a right shoulder injury. In April he batted just .171 with three HRs. On May 1st he helped Doc Gooden go to 6-0 as he hit a three run HR & drove in four of the Mets 11 runs in an 11-0 shutout. On June 2nd he hit a walk off HR against the Cubs Frank DiPino in the bottom of the 13th inning. In the final week of the month he hit four HRs & drove in runs in six of eight games. On June 29th he hit a bottom of the 9th inning HR at Shea Stadium, off the Pirates Jim Gott. The HR tied the game, in which the Mets went on to win in the bottom of the 13th.

He began July by driving in runs in the first four games of the month. hitting just .230 on the season. But he still showed some power with 24 HRs 24 doubles & 68 RBIs, setting a Mets record with 25 intentional walks. On August 27th, his first inning two run single, were the only runs Ron Darling needed in his 2-1 win over the San Francisco Giants Rick Reuschel. On September 8, 1988 at Wrigley Field he had the only five-hit game of his career, going 5-for-5 with a three-run HR & four RBIs.

As Johnson was struggling on the field, mostly due to his back issues, the Mets tried out the highly touted 21-year-old prospect, Gregg Jefferies at third base, Jeffries started out on a tear & had a hot September. The Mets clinched another NL Eastern title that season, as Johnson batted .230 with 24 HRs 21 doubles & 68 RBIs. He walked 86 times (fourth in the NL) posting another good on base % at .343%, while playing in 148 games.

Post Season: Johnson struggled in the 1988 NLCS going just 1-for-18 with six strikeouts. He did not help the Mets cause, in the losing effort to the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was benched in the final two games, with the exception of a Game #7 pinch hit role, where he struck out. Greg Jeffries played third base in both those games.

Trade rumors about Johnson were all over the news during that off season, but instead it was Wally Backman who got shipped out of New York. Jeffries took over second base & Johnson remained as the Mets third baseman. He would commit 24 errors at third, second most in the league in the position & fifth most out of all position players. Johnson committed a lot of errors in his career (163 overall), leading the league twice (1990-1991) & coming in the top four at third base four times.

Davey Johnson moved him up from sixth in the batting order to the number three spot in front of Daryl Strawberry in 1989. He responded by having an awesome year & the fact that he stayed healthy certainly was a difference. It began with a solo HR & three RBIs on Opening Day, as he helped New York beat the St. Louis Cardinals 8-4.

In May he hit HRs in back to back games at the start of the month, including a walk off HR against the Cincinnati Red's Rob Dibble. He went on a tear in June, as he hit 11 HRs driving in 24 runs, winning the NL Player of the Month award. He hit five HRs in the first eight games that month, and had a hitting streak where he hit safely in 16 of 18 games entering July.

That season he was name to his first All Star team & started at third base for the NL in the All-Star Game held in Anaheim. In his first at bat, he drove in a run with a single off Oakland's Dave Stewart. The AL won the game 5-3.

On August 20th he hit his 30th HR of the season & joined Bobby Bonds and Willie Mays as the only multi-year members of the 30-30 club. He hit five HRs in September but the Mets finished second that year, six games behind the Chicago Cubs.

He personally finished 1989 second in the NL with 36 HRs, (tying his career-high and his own NL record for switch hitters) He led the league with 104 runs scored, drove in 101 runs (4th in the league) hit 41 doubles which set a Mets club record & was third most in the league. Johnson stole 41 bases (4th in the NL) finishing fifth in the MVP voting.

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