Remembering the 1983 Lynchburg Mets

I’ve been thinking about the 1983 Lynchburg Mets. Why? Well, because I think about that sort of thing.

In the case of this particular team, I find myself fascinated by two things:

  • The Lynchburg Mets thoroughly dominated their league that year.
  • Several players on that club played an important role, either directly or indirectly, in setting up the parent club for its second World Championship in 1986.

Before we get to the players, here’s a collection of relevant tidbits offered by Jim Baker on pages 60 and 61 of the Bill James Baseball Abstract 1984:

Requited love beats all; I think the Mets will be requiting some love soon. First of all, Dave Johnson seems to have his head screwed on right… Secondly, the minor league system is for real. Baseball America, the well-respected minor league newspaper, named the Mets Organization of the Year. The Mets now have in their possession the Class A Player of the Year (Dwight Gooden), the Class AA Player of the Year (Sid Fernandez, acquired from Los Angeles) and the Class AAA championship team in Tidewater… Both Gooden and Fernandez are power pitchers who should excel at Shea Stadium, which has been shown in Abstracts past to favor power pitching… That the Mets have begun to work on their problems by developing and acquiring talent that is, above all, appropriate to their needs is, at least, a very good sign.

While you’re still digesting that, recall that the Mets in 1983 went 68-94, “good” for the National League’s worst record. A little more than 400 miles to the southwest, their High Class-A affiliate in the Carolina League finished with a 96-43 record (.691 winning percentage). They then swept the South Division champions, Winston-Salem, 3-0 to win the league championship.

Lynchburg boasted the league MVP (Lenny Dykstra), Pitcher of the Year (Gooden) and Manger of the Year (Sam Perlozzo). Five players made the All-Star team. Dykstra led the league in batting average, runs and hits; Gooden won the pitching Triple Crown. Only two teams in professional baseball won more games than Lynchburg—the Baltimore Orioles and the Chicago White Sox—and they had the benefit of playing 23 more games. The Double-A Reading Phillies won 96 games but didn’t make it out of the first round of the Eastern League playoffs.

Lynchburg scored 786 runs (second to Hagerstown’s 789) and allowed just 553 (Hagerstown finished second, with 621). The Mets might have tallied even more runs, but they also led the league in runners left on base.

With that out of the way, let’s turn to the roster:

Catcher: Ed Hearn, Barry Lyons, Greg Olson

None of these guys turned out to be a star, but all three had big-league careers, which is more than can be said for the overwhelming majority of A-ball catchers. After being released by the Phillies, who originally drafted him in 1978, Hearn signed as a minor-league free agent. He hit .272/.375/.386 at Lynchburg in ’83 and got into 49 games for the big club in 1986 before being shipped the following spring along with a couple of forgettable arms for a young right-hander named David Cone. Hearn’s career lasted just 13 more games.

Lyons stuck around a little longer, but unless you were following the game fairly closely in the late ’80s, you might never have heard of him. A 15th-round pick of the Mets in 1982, Lyons spent most of the season in the South Atlantic League before getting into two games with Lynchburg. Obviously he didn’t make much of a contribution, but he was there, so we give him credit.

The other catcher, who actually garnered most of the playing time, was Greg Olson, taken by New York in the 7th round of the ’82 draft. Olson never made it with the Mets, being released after the 1988 season. He got into a handful of games with Minnesota the following year, and then enjoyed four quasi-productive seasons with the Atlanta Braves before retiring.

Talk about just missing the ring: Olson was at Double-A Jackson when the Mets won it all, joined the Twins the year after their first World Championship, and then lost two World Series while with the Braves (including once to the Twins). Olson hit .230/.337/.252 (yes, that’s an .022 ISO for those scoring at home) at Lynchburg in 1983.

First base: Randy Milligan

First, a quick story: In 1987, at Tidewater, Milligan hit .326 with 29 homers. He stole eight bases, but one of the pre-season baseball annuals of the day inadvertently added a digit in their stat line, giving him 82 steals. One of my competitors in a Rotisserie League saw this and decided that Milligan was the new Eric Davis. Hilarity ensued.

Anyway, Milligan hadn’t found his power stroke yet in ’83, but he did other things well. He hit .292/.430/.401 in his second run through the Carolina League. He also stole 41 bases, which is impressive for such a large guy (his most “impressive” base-stealing feat at the big-league level was getting caught in each of his final nine attempts from 1990 to 1993, but I digress).

The bulky first baseman eventually had a brief yet surprisingly effective big-league career, batting .261/.391/.420 in 703 games, mostly with the Orioles. If you could’ve gotten Milligan, Ken Phelps and Earl Weaver together on the same team, that might have been something to watch.

Second base: Fermin Ubri

Ubri never made it past Double-A, but he was an All-Star in 1983. Plus, that’s a great name. He hit .267/.307/.341.

Third base: Dave Cochrane

Cochrane, a fourth-round pick in 1981, hit .263/.365/.472 at Lynchburg in ’83. He paced the Mets with 25 homers and the Carolina League with 102 RBI. He followed up with a strong season at Double-A Jackson before being traded to the White Sox in July 1985 for Tom Paciorek. After a brief stay in Chicago, Cochrane enjoyed 3+ seasons of cameos for the Mariners. He played his final big-league game in 1992 and hit .235/.294/.333 in 562 career plate appearances.

Shortstop: Agustin Garcia, Jose Marcano, Julio Paula, Joseph Redfield

The most interesting thing about the Lynchburg shortstop situation is that there was nothing interesting about it. Four guys split time at the position, with none logging more than 44 games there. Garcia had the best year at the plate, hitting .241/.348/.361. The Mets were so impressed that they converted him to a pitcher, but he never made it out of A-ball. Paula and Marcano also stalled out at that level, but Redfield actually made it into one game with the Angels in 1988 and 11 more with the Pirates in ’91.

Outfield: Lenny Dykstra, Mark Carreon, Darryl Denby

Dykstra basically did everything. As a 20-year-old, he absolutely owned the Carolina League. The guy hit .358/.472/.503, and that doesn’t even begin to do justice to his performance. Dykstra scored 132 runs and drove in 81. He stole 105 bases in 128 attempts. He drew 107 walks and struck out 35 times. He once knew a call was a wrong number, even though the person on the other end wouldn’t admit it.

Okay, I made that last part up. Point is, Dykstra had a great year. And of course, he went on to become a key cog for the 1986 Mets, hitting .295/.377/.445, swiping 31 bases and playing a solid center field.

Carreon, a year younger than Dykstra, hit .334/.399/.418 at Lynchburg. Carreon didn’t make it to the big club until ’87, but he ended up having a reasonably productive career, finishing with a .277/.327/.438 line over parts of 10 seasons. No shame in that.

Denby hit .278/.317/.436 in what turned out to be his best minor-league campaign. He never made it past Double-A and retired in 1986.

Starting pitcher: Jay Tibbs, Dwight Gooden, Jeff Bettendorf, Reginald Jackson, Bill Latham, DeWayne Vaughn, Calvin Schiraldi

Half the pitching staff reached the big leagues in some capacity. Two of these guys played prominent roles in the ’86 World Series, albeit on opposite sides.

Tibbs, Gooden and Bettendorf combined for 46 wins. By most standards, the 21-year-old Tibbs, a second-round pick of the Mets in 1980, had a fine season (14-8, 2.92 ERA, 170 K); this year, however, he played a barely audible second fiddle to a kid three years his junior. Tibbs never made it with the Mets, being traded in June 1984 for right-hander Bruce Berenyi. Still, Tibbs did have a career (not as good as I’d remembered—for some reason, I always confused him with Bob Sebra); over parts of seven big-league campaigns, Tibbs went 39-54 with a 4.20 ERA.

The kid? That would be Gooden, of course. He struck out 300 batters in 1986. That works out to 14.14 K/9, or about 3-1/2 more per inning than Nolan Ryan fanned when he set the single-season strikeout mark in 1973. Oh yeah, Gooden was 18 years old.

I’m going to sound like a geezer here, but it’s difficult to describe just how great Gooden was when he first arrived. He won NL ROY in 1984 (yeah, he jumped straight from the Carolina League) and then the Cy Young Award in 1985 (at age 21, with a 24-4 record and 1.53 ERA). Gooden won 17 games for the ’86 Mets, though he got torched in the World Series, losing both games he started.

Bettendorf, Latham and Vaughn all had cups of coffee, which brings us to Mr. Schiraldi. The Mets’ first-round pick in ’83 made six starts at Lynchburg (4-1, 4.45 ERA) before being promoted to Double-A Jackson. After the season, New York traded Schiraldi and others to the Boston Red Sox for left-hander Bob Ojeda and change.

Schiraldi is famous for two reasons. First, he was a college teammate of Roger Clemens. And second, he was hung with the loss in Games 6 and 7 of the 1986 World Series. Prior to his October confrontation with the team that drafted him, Schiraldi had been lights-out for the Red Sox, allowing just nine earned runs in 57 regular-season and ALCS innings. But nobody will remember that.

Relief pitcher

With a team this good, who needs a bullpen? Apparently not Perlozzo, who basically used two guys. (In retrospect, maybe letting Gooden throw 191 innings at age 18 wasn’t such a great idea.) The closer, Wes Gardner, went 6-3 with a 1.87 ERA and 15 saves. He later became part of the package that brought Ojeda to New York.

The other pitcher who saw action was right-hander Joe Graves, who went 6-4 with a 2.78 ERA and eight saves. He topped out at Double-A before retiring in 1986.

References & Resources
The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 2nd ed. (Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, Eds.); SABR Minor Leagues Database; Ultimate Mets Database.

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