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McIlvaine reflects on pivotal Mets trade

McIlvaine reflects on pivotal trade

NEW YORK -- The man who was inconspicuously responsible for the Mets' grand successes in the 1980s made his first appearance at Citi Field on Wednesday and brought with him a unique perspective of the club's history and the decisions that ultimately led to the 1986 World Series championship. Joe McIlvaine, once the Mets' general manager and one of the lieutenants under general manager Frank Cashen in the early 80s, was at Citi to scout for the Twins and to share a story about the day that profoundly altered the course of the Mets' franchise.

It was late March 1982, and New York was looking to add some young pitching and was offering its erstwhile poster boy Lee Mazzilli. McIlvaine was doing the footwork on prospective deals with the Cubs and Rangers. The Mets and then-Cubs general manager Dallas Green were talking about a two-for-one deal -- Mazzilli to the Cubs for rookie outfielder Mel Hall and a 24-year-old relief pitcher, Lee Smith.

As McIlvaine recalls it -- and his recall is quite accurate -- Smith was a highly-regarded prospect with nasty stuff and a seemingly stress free delivery. The Mets had approached Green only after the Rangers had backed away from another two-for-one deal the Mets had proposed -- Mazzilli for pitchers Ron Darling and Walt Terrell. And just when New York's interest in Smith peeked, Green removed him from the package and replaced him with veteran reliever Doug Bird.

"We weren't that interested," McIlvaine recalled, "so we really began to push the Rangers. We knew [Rangers manager Don] Zimmer wanted Maz. And we liked Darling and Terrell."

The Mets were dealing with Rangers general manager Eddie Robinson, who also liked Mazzilli's offense and who needed a center fielder.

"We made the trade late in the day [April 1]," McIlvaine said. "And when we announced it, I was at a high school game in Tampa. And when I got there, I saw Joe Klein. He was the head of players development for the Rangers then. He was -- I don't know, 150 feet away -- and he starts running toward me. And I mean running. And he starts yelling, 'What did you do to me? What did you do?'"

Klein wasn't quite on the same page as Robinson and Zimmer. He thought he had two special pitchers in Darling and Terrell.

But the deal was made, and the Mets imported pitchers who played important roles in the team's development in 1983 and '84. Terrell was traded in December 1984 for a switch-hitting infielder with a lightning bat, 30-home run power and 30-stolen base potential -- Howard Johnson.

So, in a way, the Mets put Darling and Johnson in their future on April Fools Day, 1982. And two months later, the club drafted an amateur pitcher McIlvaine had scouted, for the first time, in the hours after the trade was announced, a kid from Hillsborough High School in Tampa -- Dwight Gooden. "It was a pretty good day," McIlvaine said.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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