The 1969 “Miracle Mets” team changed the course of Howie Rose’s life. The 1986 World Series changed Howard Johnson’s life.
Rose, Johnson, Al Leiter and Gary Cohen might be important figures in Mets history, which is why they will all be going into the club’s Hall of Fame on June 3, but the organization has impacted all of their lives in ways they couldn’t have imagined. The four of them reflected on their Mets journeys Thursday in a Zoom call with the media.
“The Mets are in my heart, they’re in my body as part of who we are. It’s in our DNA,” said Johnson, a former Mets’ infielder on the 1986 World Series team. “All of the guys that ever put that uniform on, we share brotherhood. The guys in the booth are no different.”
The club has had fractured relationships with some of its former players throughout the years but there has been a concerted effort under owners Steve and Alex Cohen to repair those relationships and bring some beloved former Mets and their families back into the fold. History and nostalgia are what baseball does best and the Mets are bridging the past and the present with the 2023 class.
The four members of this year’s class have given fans memorable moments throughout history and the two broadcasters continue to narrate some of the best and worst moments. Behind the scenes of it all is Jay Horwitz, the Mets’ longtime former PR director who now leads the club’s alumni relations efforts. Horwitz will also be honored this summer with the Mets Hall of Fame Achievement Award.
“(Jay), in many ways, is the bastion of Mets history and is the touchstone for just about every player who’s played for the Mets over the last 40-odd years,” Cohen said.
Johnson was an infielder who hit 30 home runs and stole 30 bases three times as a switch hitter. He later returned to coach for the Mets in various capacities. He didn’t have his best season in 1986 but he did have one signature moment in a season full of them for the Amazins’, hitting a three-run home run in Cincinnati in the 14th inning after Ray Knight, Darryl Strawberry and Kevin Mitchell had been ejected.
The group that defeated the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series has remained close. Some of them became overnight celebrities and some saw their celebrity profile heightened. It was a unique experience that few outside of that particular group could relate to.
“It’s hard to put into words what that team has provided for all the players that were on that team,” Johnson said. “It’s sad that some of them aren’t here anymore, but they’re looking down at us as well. And I’m just glad that I was a part of it.”
Leiter, a left-handed pitcher who authored a two-hit shutout in Cincinnati to help the Mets clinch the 1999 NL Wild Card spot. A New Jersey native who grew up rooting for the Mets started his career with the Yankees and finished it there too, though he wanted to finish it with the Mets. He was mad at former Mets general manager Omar Minaya for years but the two are now close friends.
Leiter was traded to the Mets during the Marlins’ 1997 fire sale and is still grateful to longtime baseball executive and then-Florida GM Dave Dombrowski for how it all happened.
“Dave Dombrowski called me the day before the trade and said, ‘I’m not promising you anything, but I have comparable prospect offers and I’m wondering if you had a preference.’ He said, ‘I’ve got an offer from the St. Louis Cardinals, and I’ve got an offer from the New York Mets,’” Leiter said. “I said, ‘Dave, are you kidding?’ Then I go through the whole thing, ‘I was a Mets fan, I grew up in New Jersey, and that’d be amazing.’”
A day later he was a member of his favorite childhood team.
“I couldn’t have been more grateful for Dave Dombrowski to do such thing to call reach out to a player,” Leiter said.
But while the careers of Johnson and Leiter were ending, the careers of Rose and Cohen were taking off. They could both relate to Leiter as lifelong Mets fans, which makes this honor of being inducted into the team’s hall of fame that much more meaningful.
“It’s rather flabbergasting I have to say,” Cohen, who has called games for the Mets on the radio and on SNY since 1989, said. “I think back to spending hundreds of nights sitting on the upper deck at Shea Stadium. Think about Lindsey (Nelson), Ralph (Kiner) and Bob Murphy under my pillow for West Coast games. The Mets have been an enormous part of my life.”
Rose, a noted Beatles fan remembers attending his first Mets game on July 6, 1962, because it was the same date the Beatles had their first Abbey Road recording session. Four years later, he met his wife Barbara on the same date.
The two ended up sharing a booth and sharing a friendship that has spanned decades. Rose didn’t come from a minor league baseball background like Cohen and learned about detailed radio broadcasts from his partner. Cohen learned how and when to let his personality and humor shine through from Rose.
“We are fans who got lucky and got a chance to bring our favorite team home to people,” Cohen said.
It’s only natural that the two are going into the Hall of Fame together.
“The fact that Gary and I are going in together, it’s so special,” Rose said, “We’re kindred spirits.”