The offseason is officially upon us, and we’re without Mets baseball until 2018. To get us through the dead of winter, let’s use this period to reminisce about some past Mets; the obscure guys, the forgotten ones. Whether they contributed to a playoff run or just simply serve as an answer to a Howie Rose trivia question, they are as part of Mets history as Seaver and Piazza. Welcome to “Shadows of Shea.”
Is it possible for someone who spent less than two years with a team to rank amongst the top franchise players at their position? When you’re Lance Johnson and the franchise is the Mets, the answer is yes. “One Dog,” as he was known by teammates throughout his career, put together one of the finest seasons by a Mets centerfielder since their inception.
After spending his previous eight seasons as a member of the Chicago White Sox, Johnson signed with the Mets as a free agent in December of 1995. He joined a team that finished second in their division the previous year, one that was a playoff hopeful entering the 1996 season. Locked in at the leadoff spot, Lance fortified a promising squad headlined by pitching trio “Generation K,” up-and-coming shortstop prospect Rey Ordoñez, and a solid core of returning veterans.
Unfortunately, the ‘96 season fell short of expectations, as it reached its nadir when Bobby Valentine replaced Dallas Green as manager late in the season. The Mets finished 71-91, but certainly to no fault of Johnson, who had a career year. Recognizing one of the few bright spots from the season, the Mets front office rewarded their All-Star centerfielder with a two-year, $10 million contract extension.
227 Hits (Mets single season record, led National League)
.333 Batting Average
21 Triples (Mets single season record, led National League)
50 Stolen Bases
The ’97 season would be Johnson’s last in the orange-and-blue. While his batting average remained stellar, LJ produced less extra-base hits, scored less runs, and stole less bases, as injuries played a role in his decline. Amid a chase for the Wild Card (won by the eventual-World Champion Florida Marlins), the Mets would include Johnson in a six-player trade with the Chicago Cubs in an attempt to bolster their bullpen. The Mets fell short of the playoffs, but the Johnson deal fetched Turk Wendell, who became a beloved middle reliever and integral part of the 1999 and 2000 playoff runs.
Johnson would go on to play the 1998 and ‘99 seasons for the Cubs, before ending his career with the Yankees in 2000. Despite only appearing in 18 games for the cross-town rivals, he earned a World Series ring. But Johnson failed to recreate the magic that was his 1996 year with the Mets. His short-lived tenure in Flushing often gets swallowed up by overall team failure, but true fans will always remember his record-setting year at Shea.
Lance has remained low key since his playing days, moving back to Alabama where he played his college ball. In 2014, The Marlins hired Johnson to be their minor league outfield and base running coordinator, a stint that was almost as short as his Mets career. In 2016, Lance hit one final triple of his career: On a White Sox pregame show, Lance announced that his wife gave birth to triplets.
As far as staying close with the Mets, he appeared at their Fantasy Camp in 2015. He can also be seen below paying homage to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Seeing Lance in a Mets uniform, albeit brief, brings back bittersweet memories of ‘96. His career recalls a triple-hitting speedster who led the AL and NL in hits back-to-back years, and is one of four players in history to play for both professional teams in Chicago and New York. As Mets fans, we remember One Dog as a flash in the pan. His ‘96 year was the stuff of legend, but ultimately insignificant. Forget the 1996 season, but remember Lance Johnson.