From George to Dom
In 1986, Mets left fielder George Foster was believed to call the team racist, and was released. In 2020, Mets left fielder Dominic Smith protested against racism. How much changed in between?
Winning a championship is sweet for many reasons. An underrated perk to winning it all is you get to tell the story of your triumph for future generations. Most accept their version of events since most people don’t have the time to look back at an entire baseball season for more than an hour or two. Due to time constraints, editing out a large number of the storylines that pop up in any 162-game season is a necessary evil. But sometimes events are swept under the rug because they might be considered complicated, or inconvenient to the authors trying to tell their tale. It is a shame because it could be instructive.
The 1986 Mets went 108-54 during the regular season, then won a thrilling NLCS against the Astros and an unforgettable World Series against the Red Sox. In August of that year, George Foster accused the Mets of racism and was released by the team.
Actually, Foster was
accused of accusing
the Mets of racism.
It’s complicated. And inconvenient to some.
If George Foster is mentioned at all, the left fielder’s departure from the team in August is explained like this:
Foster was benched. He said that was racist, which is silly because Kevin Mitchell replaced him, and Mitchell is Black.
That is the tidy, inaccurate summation. Foster’s release was far more complicated than that. For one thing,
Foster said the following
days after he was put on waivers:
''I've got eyes, I can see that the man who replaced me in left field, Kevin Mitchell, is black.”
George Foster was acquired in a trade from the Cincinnati Reds before the 1982 season, then signed to a pricey five-year contract. Mets general manager Frank Cashen made the move to show the team was, cosmetically at least, a team now looking to contend after years of living comfortably in the basement. Foster earned the 1977 National League Most Valuable Player by hitting 52 home runs, the most dingers in a year since Willie Mays in 1965. It would be the highest dinger total in a MLB season for another 20 years.
Foster said in his introductory press conference that he was going to hit so many home runs LaGuardia Airport was going to need to change its flight patterns.
Cashen wrote in his 2014 memoir that he figured his new acquisition made said the LaGuardia boast tongue-in-cheek, but most people didn’t pick up on that. Most of Foster’s jokes apparently fell flat. Ray Knight played with Foster for six seasons with the Reds, and from the moment the Mets picked up Knight in August 1984, half of his job seemed to be telling teammates Foster meant well. “He had a funny way of saying some things,” Knight told Jeff Pearlman in his book on the 1986 Mets,
The Bad Guys Won
. “He would say something playfully, and it would come across as sarcastic. I knew it was playful and George knew it was playful. But no one else did.”
But taking a gander at his numbers, and watching games from Foster’s time on the Mets generously uploaded to YouTube showed he wasn’t a completely isolated and crummy teammate — that was just the neat, convenient, CliffsNotes version of his deal. His DRC+ was over 100 from 1983-1985 (103, 103, 117). He hit over 20 homers in those seasons — only Darryl Strawberry and Gary Carter accomplished that for the Mets during those years. On Willie Mays Day in San Francisco, Foster hit a grand slam and alertly backed up third base to throw out a runner at home plate. Before a September showdown against the Cubs in ‘84, manager Davey Johnson said that Foster was “probably” his best hitter since the All-Star Break. Foster smacked his 20th homer of the year that night, after Strawberry was intentionally walked in front of him. NBC cameras caught Foster celebrating his big bop with Kevin Mitchell, then a rookie with exactly one plate appearance to his name, dueting on a celebratory tune,
using a bat as a microphone
Late in a blowout win over his former team during that summer, Foster, wearing José Oquendo’s jacket, judged right fielder Jerry Martin’s catch a “2”. Nobody was immune to Olympic Fever back then.
During a 1985 episode of
Ralph Kiner asked Foster to compare the current Mets with the Big Red Machine. There was one big difference, Foster explained. “The Big Red Machine didn’t have Dwight Gooden.” In a 1986
New York Times
piece on Dr. K, Foster said Gooden was better than The Natural, because “
only lasted two hours.”
Foster was leading the Mets in home runs on the beautiful Saturday afternoon of July 20, 1985. While his arm was draped over Keith Hernandez,
Vin Scully explained to the national audience
that at Foster’s age of 36, he was no longer playing day games after night games.
That offseason, a couple of Mets went on a Carribean cruise. Hernandez admitted he went on it to rehabilitate his public image after admitting to using cocaine,
and failed at this goal
Gary Carter was great, and so were Jesse Orosco and Darryl Strawberry. George Foster was excellent. He made a lot of fans, and I lost a few.
In April of 1986, Vin Scully asked Foster if his sunglasses are rose-colored. “No, that’s when I was with Cincinnati,”
. “These are
colored.” Pete Rose. Darryl Strawberry. Get it?
This is the same George Foster who made the tone-deaf decision to arrive at Shea Stadium from his home in Greenwich, Connecticut in a limo, further alienating himself from fans already disappointed with his not saving the franchise. (He eventually had his wife take the limousine to the games.) The same man who sold knockoff Polo shirts to visiting players, golf shirts with horses with three hind legs that shrunk significantly after one wash. The same individual responsible for letting the objectively terrible rap (adjacent) single
escape into the world.
Foster can also be seen as the guy responsible for making the awful knockoff of the “Super Bowl Shuffle” happen that the Mets refused to sell at Shea Stadium, before pumping decent money into producing a single and music video of their own called
“Let’s Go Mets!”
, honoring the long-standing tradition of Black music getting co-opted.
The beginning of the end for Foster’s time in New York and his major league career came on July 22, 1986 in his old Riverfront Stadium haunts. Knight and Eric Davis exchanged blows at third base, and 47 of the 48 players active for the game
stormed onto the field
“All of us, except for George Foster, got caught up in the moment,” Wilson remembered in his 2014 memoir
Mookie: Life, Baseball, and the ’86 Mets
. “George stayed on the bench during the brawl while the rest of us were out on the field. His reasoning was that all of our fighting was not sending a good message to kids. That excuse didn’t score many points with us. George wasn’t a violent person. For that matter, neither was I. But there are some things that take precedence over everything else.”
It was after that 14-inning game when Johnson announced Foster’s diminished role on the team. He would no longer be the everyday starter in left field. Foster was hitting .154 in 39 at-bats at that point in July. He was 2 for his last 25, .236 for the season.
“I actually didn’t take it the same way those players did,” Davey Johnson wrote in the 2019 book
Davey Johnson: My Wild Ride in Baseball and Beyond
George was just a very mild-mannered, nice man. I could understand why he didn’t always want to fight. A few days later, in a move that had nothing to do with his sitting out the brawl, I replaced Foster in the regular lineup with a platoon of Mookie and Mitchell, which prompted George to call me a racist as we were getting off our team bus at our hotel in Chicago.
But Kevin Mitchell and Mookie Wilson did not replace Foster. Johnson told the press right after the game in question, not “a few days later”, left field would now be played by the
platoon of the right-hand hitting Mitchell and left-hand hitting Danny Heep,
a white man. He also said Lenny Dykstra (white), was going to be the full-time center fielder. With Strawberry set in right, this left out Foster as well as Mookie. And the white Lee Mazilli was
picked up off waivers
by the Mets on August 1st. According to
The Bad Guys Won
, Foster assumed Mazzilli was signed to replace him, and he was correct in said assumption. Cashen told Tidewater manager Sam Perlozzo that Mazzilli would only be with him in the minors for a week.
And Foster did not call Johnson a racist, technically. What he told Jim Corbett of the Gannett Westchester-Rockland on August 5th
I'm not saying it's a racial thing. But that seems to be the case in sports these days. When a ball club can, they replace a George Foster or a Mookie Wilson with a more popular white player. I think the Mets would rather promote a Gary Carter or a Keith Hernandez to the fans so parents who want to can point to them as role models for their children, rather than a Darryl Strawberry or a Dwight Gooden or a George Foster.
On August 6th
, Johnson confronted Foster after he got off the team bus from the hotel in Chicago. “Do you believe my moves with players are racially motivated?” Johnson asked Foster. ''I told him, 'No,'” Foster recalled later, “and that I felt my comments had been misinterpreted and taken out of context.'”
The New York Times
reported that Johnson was “personally affronted” by what Foster said in the article, and
wanted him released
, even though it would cost the team $1.7 million to do so.
In Johnson’s book, he remembered it differently:
“George,” I told him, trying to keep my composure. “I’m going to have to suspend you.” I didn’t know if the suspension would be for 10 days or some other number until I spoke with Frank, who had other ideas. “I think it’s just better that we release him,” Cashen told me. And that’s just what the club did. We let George go on August 7. I guarantee you it was the toughest thing I ever had to do in my Mets career. I’ve seen George since and we were fine. He was a little aloof with me, which was understandable. But I may never get over what he said to me all those years ago. In a season filled with great moments, that was the lowest.
(Cashen did not get into the details of George Foster’s release in his book. He passed away in 2014.)
Foster apologized to the team in the visitors clubhouse at Wrigley. He was released after the Mets swept their doubleheader against the Cubs. Lee Mazzilli took his place on the roster.
Strangely enough, Foster called a press conference four days later at Shea with Cashen. He was photographed
with his erstwhile boss.
"Let me make this clear, I did not say the Mets were racist,”
My remarks were not racially motivated. I never said that being benched or being released was racially motivated. After all, how can my being benched in favor of Kevin Mitchell? My statements were the straw that broke the camel's back. I never got to see Mr. Cashen to say my side and that's what this is today. I was misinterpreted, everything snowballed and I was released. But it really didn't happen all of a sudden.
I only wanted to make one small point when I spoke to that reporter. It wasn't that important until it got misinterpreted. Fans look up to baseball players. Fans don't care whether the baseball player is black or white. Fans respond to performance. To fans race is secondary, if not totally irrelevant.
Cashen insisted the release was just, to use a future Mets GM’s term, bad optics.
George Foster was not released because of the uproar over the remarks he passed. He is a Christian man and when he says they were misinterpreted, I believe him. We have been talking about his release since spring training. We decided to continue with him as a limited regular through the All-Star break and then see what happens. I had told Davey that I would give him a decision about Foster's fate on the road trip. At the beginning of the season, the manager said he would start Foster until the All-Star break. At the All-Star break, Davey said he was going to start Mitchell and we would see how George adapted to a part-time role. He didn't particularly adapt to that role.
Foster cleared waivers the next day. He signed with the White Sox. Foster hit a home run in his first at-bat, but that was the lone highlight of his American League career. 1986 would be his final season in the major leagues.
''I would have to say he was misquoted,”
Wilson said after the release was announced.
“George was one of the great ones.''
“Some guys, like George Foster, thought there may have been a race issue on the club, that they wouldn’t promote the black players as much as the white players,” Wilson wrote in 2014.
As someone who grew up having to deal with racism, I didn’t get George’s race thing at all. Maybe I was naive, but I just felt that the Mets believed they had found someone in Lenny who would eventually grow into a better player and that it would happen sooner rather than later. You can always look back and think, Hmmm, I wonder if race had anything to do with it. At the time I didn’t think that way at all because Dykstra gave the team a dimension I didn’t have even when I was healthy.
I knew George was on his way out. I talked with him quite a few times in ’86 and he was convinced that there was a conspiracy to get him out of New York. I didn’t disagree. George always had a way of being overly honest and, in baseball, it is sometimes best to tap-dance around the truth. Unfortunately for him, George wasn’t much for ‘dancing.’ George probably felt the credibility he had built up after two world championships with the Reds and winning an MVP award would stand up on its own, but no one is bigger than the game, even when the game is not fair. And not going onto the field during the brawl just gave the Mets more ammunition to move him out.
“I'm black, and I'm sensitive to racial issues,'' first-base coach Bill Robinson said in 1986. “If I thought there was any racial overtone to anything on this club, I'd quit or I'd strongly object.”
”I really feel bad,” Mitchell said. “George helped me a lot. I'm sorry it happened.”
“George has strength; he's close to the Lord. He was very hurt,”
Ray Knight said
then. “I've known him for a long time, and I believe him when he says it came out the wrong way. I never knew him to say or do anything that had any racial connotation.”
“What George said about race prejudice generally, does not seem so far-fetched to me,”
said Willie Randolph
, then in his 11th season with the New York Yankees. Randolph would go on to manage the Mets from 2005-2008. Six weeks before he was fired in the middle of the night after a victory over the Angels, Randolph accused the New York press, including SNY, the network 65 percent owned by then-majority Mets owner Fred Wilpon, of a racial double standard in how they covered him. He
apologized a week later
”I'm disappointed the way the organization handled it,” Darryl Strawberry said in 1986. “A guy who had a career like that deserved to wait till the end of the season. Who knows, maybe I'm next.”
Strawberry had a lot more to say about race, and Frank Cashen, in his 1992 book
After the 1990 season, I also realized that part of that had to do with racist attitudes in baseball and on the Mets, but I wasn’t mature enough in 1987 to pick that up. I just blamed myself. And Frank Cashen didn’t help.
I began to think that all of my real emotional hang-ups were made even worse because I was a black player on the Mets at a time when they weren’t especially sensitive to black players’ issues, let alone my own personal needs. I looked around me on the Mets and I saw black players come and go and I noticed that all of them had problems. Nobody was talking about Keith’s acknowledgment of his drug problems back in St. Louis, but they sure were talking about Mookie’s “attitude problems.” Doc’s recovery program at Smithers, and “Darryl’s drinking.” White players like Gary Carter were allowed to shrug off their bad seasons, but the black players, it seemed, were “problems.”
It was a double standard.
Strawberry signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 1990 season.
When you’re black in this sport, you begin to hear rumors about how you have to be better than the white players on your team just to get the same kind of contract, and you hear that managers don’t like to play their black players too much because then they have to get them more money. Most players dismiss these as rumors because they don’t want to think that after all these years and twenty years of the civil rights movement and other advances, you’re still being judged on your color. But then one day you look around you and you begin to place some credence in these “rumors”, and you begin to have a different outlook on the team you’re playing for.
It seemed to be that the Mets had fewer blacks on their team than most of the other Major League teams and that they signed precious few black players. Was I so much trouble to the Mets that they didn’t want to deal with other blacks because of the example I was setting? But what was I doing? I had carried the Mets in 1988, leading the team in home runs and RBIs. I tried to be a leader and resolve my own immaturity, but the moment that I talked about money with management, that’s when they turned. They decided they were not going to pay Darryl Strawberry one thin dime more than he had agreed to for his final year and his option year. But I was convinced that if I had been a different color, it would have all been different.
From Foster’s release until the end of the regular season, Mookie Wilson collected more plate appearances (196) than Lenny Dykstra (178), Kevin Mitchell (132), Danny Heep (72), and Lee Mazzilli (51). Wilson started in 12 of the 13 Mets postseason games, stepping up to the plate 55 times, including the one that made him immortal. Dykstra started ten playoff contests, but edged Wilson with one additional time at the dish, since he leadoff in all of his starts. One of those at-bats was to lead off Game 3 of the World Series against the Red Sox, when he homered off of Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd. Dykstra’s homer has been credited for turning the Series around for the Mets, who were down 0-2 in the series. In his 2019 book
, Mets pitcher Ron Darling claimed Dykstra screamed racist things to Boyd, who is Black, before the home run to rattle him.
Lenny was in the on-deck circle shouting every imaginable and unimaginable insult and expletive in his direction—foul, racist, hateful, hurtful stuff. I don’t want to be too specific here, because I don’t want to commemorate this dark, low moment in Mets history in that way, but I will say that it was the worst collection of taunts and insults I’d ever heard—worse, I’m betting, than anything Jackie Robinson might have heard, his first couple times around the league.
Dykstra denied this and sued Darling for defamation and libel. Boyd appeared on Dykstra’s podcast to say he believed his denial and
never heard him say those things
. A judge
dismissed the lawsuit because
Dykstra’s "reputation for unsportsmanlike conduct and bigotry is already so tarnished that it cannot be further injured."
Kevin Mitchell famously was in the Mets clubhouse as the two-out 10th inning Game 6 rally was happening, booking plane tickets back home in San Diego. He quickly picked up a bat and singled off of his former minor league roommate Calvin Schiraldi, and scored the tying run off of Schiraldi’s wild pitch during Mookie’s at-bat. Mitchell was traded a month later to his hometown Padres for Kevin McReynolds, a white man. McReynolds was so boring, Bill Robinson
once said of McReynolds
, that “you don’t have to worry about his attitude because he doesn’t have any.”
The Bad Guys Won
, Pearlman quoted Davey Johnson as saying he was against the Mitchell trade, and reported that the front office was concerned Mitchell was guiding Gooden and Strawberry down the wrong path. “I can’t make a man go in there and suck on some white powder,” Mitchell, the 1989 NL MVP for the Giants told the author. “How can I? I ain’t never used any drugs in my life. I’m high off sex and I’m high off life. I rarely even dealt with Gooden and Strawberry off the field.”
(Since I know you’re going to ask: Gooden, in the 1999 book
Heat: My Life on and Off the Diamond
he is credited in writing with Bob Klapisch, claimed that Mitchell once slit a cat’s throat right in front of him. Mitchell denied this and confronted Gooden about it at a card show in 2002. Gooden insisted he didn’t write it, even though it was in his own autobiography. Mitchell accepted Gooden’s excuse.)
Last July, a generous human being uploaded George Foster’s final game with the Mets, hours after Foster’s comments were published, a dreary Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field. Throughout the 12-inning first game of a doubleheader, WWOR-TV’s production truck repeatedly would show George Foster in the visitors dugout. Sometimes he was surrounded by teammates, yet alone.
Once he sat next to Strawberry, seemingly in silence.
Ray Knight sat next to him for awhile, arm on Foster’s shoulder.
Knight later said
Foster looked out to left field and said, “Mitchell's color is the same as mine.”
The Met broadcasters ignored most of those shots. Each of the three said something once, attempting to sum up what was going on. Tim McCarver, upon seeing Foster, said he was of the “obviously controversial remark about racism on the Mets.” Steve Zabriskie simply reported that the Mets were going to have “some type of announcement” regarding Foster after the games.
Ralph Kiner’s attempt is the one that is hard to forget. It was inadvertently scored to the Wrigley Field organist playing the opening bars to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” As Foster stood up, took off his cap, and turned towards the American flag, Kiner said:
There’s a shot of George Foster who was quoted as saying that the Mets were racist because he was not playing as the starting left fielder on a permanent basis. And now, here’s our national anthem.
Mets left fielder Dominic Smith did not stand during the national anthem before the Mets game on August 26, 2020. He kneeled in protest of yet another Black man, this time by the name of Jacob Blake, getting shot by police officers seemingly just for having dark skin. None of his teammates joined him.
Smith was asked by Steve Gelbs of SNY after the game on the decision behind the kneeling. Gelbs knew the answer, both because he does not ignore current events, and because he knows how acutely Smith has felt racism. Just months before, after the murder of George Floyd, Gelbs interviewed Smith about race. Dom revealed two chilling, depressingly not surprising incidents that occurred in Port St. Lucie, Florida during spring training
before the COVID-19 pause
Smith and one of his teammates, J.D. Davis, went to a restaurant near the spring training complex in the Florida town.
And we sat there, ordered our food. We waited. Nobody in the restaurant. Waited 30 minutes. More people come in the restaurant. Maybe five, six, seven people come in. They order.
An hour goes by now, Steve. Still no food. Other people who just came probably 15 minutes ago get their food.
Hour and a half go by Steve - still no food. The restaurant is not even packed. They don’t bring us water, they don’t bring us bread, anything. So I’m like ‘J.D., do you see what’s going on?’
Dom then explained to his white teammate and close friend what was happening. They gave up and left after two hours of not getting their meal.
They apologized on the way out but in my opinion I just felt like they didn’t want us there. They were staring at us crazy since we walked in the door.
It was also in Port St. Lucie, Smith said, where he changed lanes in his nice car, an automobile he was able to pay for with the professional athlete salary he earned, and was honked at by an angry driver. At the next traffic light, the driver pulled up next to him and yelled, “Turn on your fucking blinker. You probably fucking stole that car you [n-word].”
Back in New York
, Smith said he decided to kneel that night on account of everything going on in the world, showing support to the games postponed in MLB and in the NBA. Two minutes in, he started to cry, and got a lot more direct in his answers.
I think the most difficult part is to see that people still don’t care. For these incidents to continually happen, it just shows the hate in people’s heart.
Being a Black man in America is not easy.
We’re heading in a good direction but, to just see the constant stuff that reoccurs. It’s just terrible.
The Marlins and Mets were scheduled to play another baseball game the next night. Nine Mets ran onto the field. They were led by Dominic Smith, with Billy Hamilton close behind. Smith jogged to his customary position in left. The benches were empty. Aside from the Mets on the diamond, all of the players and coaches from both teams stood in front of their dugouts, lowered their heads, and for 42 seconds, 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson, took a moment of silence. They then walked back to their respective clubhouses. SNY showed Dom settling his right hand on J.D. Davis’ left shoulder as he left the field before fading into a live look at home plate, obscured by a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. They did not return to actually play that evening, despite what the commissioner of baseball
Smith again faced the media soon after, but this time he was not alone. Dom was joined by Dellin Betances, Robinson Canó, and Mets player representative Michael Conforto. Conforto was the first to speak.
After seeing the comments Dom made last night...it really touched all of us in the clubhouse just to see how his powerful his statements were, how emotional he was. Dom, he is our brother. So we stand behind him.
I wish Conforto said the Mets were not naive, and knew what they did that night would not end racism, but they had to do
. And that Reggie Jackson might have been right when he said
the Mets were racist
when they chose a white catcher named Steve Chilcott instead of him with the first pick in the 1966 draft. And Davey Johnson should have looked within himself over what made him so furious at George Foster after hearing what he assumed was suggested of him. And Johnson using Mookie as much as Dykstra after Foster’s release proves he loved platoons and nothing else. And racism is typically a systemic scourge, which means Davey Johnson and Frank Cashen and executives throughout the sports world have been making personnel decisions based on race and never knew it, because prejudice is embedded in the United States. And Johnson and Cashen aren’t off the hook for the lack of cognizance and for the era they lived in, because they were otherwise smart men, who could have done the work to examine their subconscious and for a second consider the possibility they were judging people by the color of their skin on some level. And there is no way to completely know what the hearts and souls of those men, of any individual, is truly made of, or of what silently drives them.
But the 27-year-old did not say those things. He doesn’t know the entire story.