Howard Johnson spent nine seasons playing for the Mets, helping the team win its last World Series in 1986. The 61-year-old Johnson now resides in Nashville, Tennessee, where he runs a baseball facility and works with high school players.
The former third baseman will return to Queens next week to participate in Alumni Day. Post Sports+ recently caught up with Johnson, whose 3-year-old grandson Tanner was seriously injured in a lawnmower accident last summer. Tanner is expected to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Citi Field before next Friday’s game.
You haven’t been visible with the Mets in several years. Was there a rift between you and the organization after they fired you as batting coach in 2010?
Howard Johnson: It’s been a little while, but I felt like we had it all cleared up, [former team COO] Jeff Wilpon and I – he assured me we did. But I really wasn’t there much, and I wasn’t asked to come much. But that has changed somewhat now. I’m very happy about that, to have at least some kind of presence, to be able to come and be around the team and see a little bit more of what’s going on. And that’s what I look forward to. I feel like the Mets are my family and I want to be with them just to be with them because I love the organization. … I was at Mets fantasy camp last spring for the first time in 15 years, so that was fun. It was good to go back.
How’s your grandson Tanner doing after the accident?
HJ: He is fine. He crossed over and lost about a third of his left foot – all of his toes – so he’s going to be handicapped in that regard, but he’s got his first slipper that he can wear, and that’s going to allow him to walk almost full heel at the toes normally. I looked at him in his shoe. He plays tee-ball. You’d never know, and when he runs barefoot he pushes a little to the side, but he’s very active and he doesn’t know any better.
How would you describe the outpouring of support your family received after the accident?
HJ: It was crazy. people responded [with donations]. I didn’t expect everything that happened, and my son and the family are all grateful for that because it’s going to be an ongoing thing with Tanner as he grows up. Parts of his foot will grow and parts won’t, so it will be physical therapy, probably surgeries later. It’s just a matter of trying to set foot where he can live a normal life and play sports and do all that stuff and enjoy his life.
This Mets team is about to challenge the franchise record of 108 wins set by your group in 1986. What would you think of these Mets challenging that record?
HJ: It would be great if they challenged it. That means they’re likely going to win the split and have a reasonable chance of moving on, so if that happens, it happens. You still have your team records and stuff and you want to see them last, but at the same time I’m excited for the new team. I’m excited for the fans because they understand after many years, and it happened so fast [under new owner Steve Cohen] and they have a team that I think a lot of people can relate to.
I think people really identify with [Pete] Alonso, and [Francisco] Lindor has been very good this year. These two guys kind of handled it all, but I like the pieces they put together: [Starling] Marty, I really like that. [Luis] Guillorme did really well and [Jeff] McNeill. A lot of these guys are good bits. I remember watching them when I was with the Texas minor league system. I remember watching some of these guys with other organizations and realizing how good they were. [Mark] Canha is another guy. I know them and I love them. They have a good mix going on right now.
What will participation in Alumni Day look like?
HJ: I’m really excited about this because I can see my buddies again, get back in uniform and go back to those days when we were all together and relive some of it. I’m probably very happy my grandson Tanner is here. He’s going to experience it and hit the pitch on Friday [throwing out the first pitch]. Just going there and seeing the crowds will be a pleasure. I can’t wait to play. If there is a downside, this would be it. I’d rather not be there. I would take my shot by hitting, but that would be all.
Timing a moving target for the Mets
Baseball players are creatures of habit perhaps more so than professionals in any other sport, so Buck Showalter continues to pursue what he sees as a reasonable request: consistent start times for daytime games and night matches.
Instead, the Mets play games at 7:20 p.m. in Atlanta before heading to Philadelphia for games at 7:05 p.m. Earlier this season, some of those games in Philadelphia started at 6:45 p.m.
On getaway days, tee times which are usually 1:05 p.m. or 1:10 a.m. become 12:05 p.m. or 12:10 p.m. Then there are the Peacock Sunday streaming games which dictate teams cannot play until 1:35 p.m. on the East Coast.
MLB central office sets the schedule, but teams are free to set their own start times (with television partners such as ESPN and PKB also having a say).
The Mets played a Thursday night game in Atlanta, after which they were scheduled to travel until the wee hours to Philadelphia for a Friday game. According to the current rules, if a team travels less than 2.5 hours by plane, a night game is allowed the day before. Rectifying this type of schedule would be much easier than getting a uniform start time for day and night games. Simply, all breakout matches should, as a general rule, be played in the afternoon.
Pete Alonso was a perfect Team USA pick for next year’s World Baseball Classic on many levels. Not only did Alonso earn selection based on his All-Star-level play, but his sense of patriotism will likely help promote Team USA and the event. Alonso has helped raise thousands of dollars over the past few years for military families, including donating some of his own earnings. Alonso wearing stars and stripes will look completely natural.