He was an All-Star, a perennial MVP candidate and he was available.
Thirty-five years ago this month, the New York Mets made what was then the biggest — and costliest — acquisition in their history: left fielder George Foster, a man with such impressive power that he audaciously warned La Guardia Airport jet traffic not to fly too close to Shea Stadium when he was up, at his introductory press conference.
Hyperbole? Sure. But not by much. In 1977, Foster walloped 52 round-trippers for the Cincinnati Reds — a feat not accomplished since the legendary Willie Mays in 1965 — hit .320 and drove in 149 runs, winning the National League Most Valuable Player award a year after finishing second to teammate Joe Morgan.
He finished sixth in MVP balloting in 1978, 12th in ’79 and fell from consideration completely during a pedestrian 1980 when he still hit 25 homers and drove in 93 runs, but batted just .273.
In strike shortened 1981, Foster slammed 22 home runs, drove in 90 and hit .295 in 108 games for the shortchanged Reds, who had the misfortune to compile baseball’s best record in a year when that didn’t mean a guaranteed post-season playoff spot. He finished third in MVP voting behind future Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Andre Dawson. The 33-year-old seemed sure join them some day in Cooperstown.
If the ’81 season was a cruel one for the Reds, the off-season was worse. The always bountiful New York Yankees acquired two thirds of Cincinnati’s starting outfield, center fielder Ken Griffey and right fielder Dave Collins, and Foster was due for a raise. Two years earlier, they’d seen spark plug Pete Rose leave for a multi-year, multi-million dollar deal with the Philadelphia Phillies.
After being the NL’s dominant team during the 1970s — accruing two championships, four pennants and six division titles — the Reds were in the unaccustomed position of being desperate.
Karmic payback is a bitch.
Five years earlier the Mets had maneuvered themselves into a corner with superstar pitcher Tom Seaver, who sought a three-year, $600,000 contract the team wasn’t willing to offer. At an impasse, they dealt him to the Reds on June 15, 1977 for reigning rookie-of-the-year pitcher Pat Zachry, infielder Doug Flynn and outfield prospects Steve Henderson and Dan Norman.
Now it was Cincinnati’s turn to beg for a fair return, albeit with a catch. The Mets also had to make a deal with Foster. He would not come cheaply.
The Seaver trade, plus another made the same day off-loading moody slugger Dave Kingman, had heralded the start of a string of last place and near last finishes and the end of the franchise’s original ownership.
Upon acquiring the team in 1980, Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon promised fans they’d make it a winning one. In exchange for relief pitcher Jim Kern (acquired for Flynn in an earlier off-season trade), catcher Alex Trevino and ambidextrous pitcher Greg Harris, the downtrodden Mets acquired in Foster, a star player still in his prime, something they’d needed and lacked since Seaver left.
Wilpon and Doubleday agreed to pay him $10 million over five years.
Comic strip author-philosopher Charles M. Schulz once observed there was no greater burden than a great potential.
Foster was a man so burdened.
He would be the backbone of a batting order that was to include Kingman, reacquired a year earlier from the Chicago Cubs for Seaver-trade acquisition Steve Henderson, plus cannon-armed right-fielder Ellis Valentine, also acquired in 1981 for Seaver deal piece Dan Norman, and reliever Jeff Reardon. They’d bolster a lineup that included speedsters Mookie Wilson and Wally Backman, plus sophomore third-baseman Hubie Brooks, who hit .307 as a rookie.
Veteran Craig Swan would lead a starting rotation that included a former Cy Young award winner Randy Jones, and a future winner, Mike Scott. Young relievers Neil Allen and Jesse Orosco would anchor the bullpen.
Their manager would be Staten Island native George Bamberger, a former Milwaukee Brewers manager coaxed out of retirement by General Manager Frank Cashen after suffering a heart attack.
In time, the Mets would make Bamberger suffer too.
Swan won 11 games and Allen saved 19, but the pitching staff suffered from a lack of the one thing the Mets looked to have in abundance: offensive support.
Valentine, who never regained his form after a 1980 beaning, batted a punchless .288 with just 23 extra-base hits including eight homers and 48 RBI. Brooks trailed off to .249 while Kingman performed the rare feat of leading the NL in home runs with 37, while batting just .204, worse than NL Cy Young winner Steve Carlton of the Phillies, who hit .218. Kong also drove in 99 runs.
Foster, in his first season as the Mets main man, batted a paltry .247, with just 13 home runs, 25 more extra-base hits and only 70 runs batted in, making him the team’s second-best power hitter behind Kingman. Ellis Valentine’s eight round-trippers placed him third. No other Mets batter had more than five homers, though Wilson set a team record with 58 stolen bases.
As a team they won 65 games and lost 97, finishing dead last in the NL East, eight games behind the fifth-place Cubs.
In perhaps the highlight of a lost season, utility man Joel Youngblood started in center field for the Mets’ August 4 day game in Chicago, got one hit in two at bats before being pulled, mid-game, because he’d been traded to the Montreal Expos. The erstwhile outfielder jetted to Philadelphia in time to join that night’s game where he had a pinch single, becoming the first player in big league history to have hits for two different teams in two different cities on the same day.
Foster’s power numbers improved in ’83, as he stroked 28 homers and drove in 90 runs, though his average fell to .241. Talent around him improved too as rookie right fielder Darryl Strawberry arrived from the minors and Neil Allen was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for first baseman Keith Hernandez. Seaver was reacquired from Cincinnati after a career-worst 5-13 season.
That help arrived too late for the other George, Bamberger, who stayed just 46 games — long enough to pencil in a line-up that included Foster, Kingman and Strawberry, but not Hernandez — before quitting with the team at 16-30 and again mired in last place. He told the press he’d had enough.
Foster lasted until mid-1986, the year the Mets finally fulfilled the Wilpon/Doubleday promise and won it all, by which time he’d become an unhappy spare part in an offensive machine. Batting .227 with 13 homers and 38 rbis, he was released on August 7. Signed by the Chicago White Sox, he appeared in 15 more games before his career ended that year at age 37.
In 1984, his most complete Mets season, Foster batted .269 with 24 home runs and 86 runs batted in, helping the team to win 90 games and lose just 72 for new skipper Davey Johnson, but he was never was the menacing all-star offensive presence he’d been while with the Reds.