"It was the beginning of a dream come true."
Every town in America seems to have that one family stacked with great athletes.
Each one better than the next and maybe one or two of them even went on to play in college.
In Biloxi in the 1970s, that family was the Lyons family and they were a touch more accomplished than your typical athletically gifted family.
Pat Lyons played offensive tackle for Gulf Coast Junior College and Tommy Lyons was a scholarship pitcher for Ole Miss. Kenny Lyons went to Ole Miss too, and he gained his fame on the grid iron as their starting quarterback from 1971-1973, taking over for a fellow named Archie Manning.
The youngest brother, the “Last of the Lyons” as he puts it, also received a college football scholarship, but it was on the diamond where he made his mark.
Barry Lyons, who switched from football to baseball and played seven seasons in the Major Leagues joins us for a two-part Spitballin’.
Lyons was drafted by the Mets in 1982, the same year they drafted his 1986 Mets teammates Dwight Gooden and Roger McDowell, and moved quickly through the deep Mets farm system in the ‘80s.
He won the Carolina League MVP in 1984 and then batted .307 with 108 RBIs in 1985 in AA.
The problem for Lyons—and the other catchers in the Mets system—was that Hall of Famer Gary Carter was occupying that space on the Major League level during that time.
Lyons broke camp with the Mets in 1986 as Carter’s backup, but a broken arm later in the season in the minors kept him out of uniform for the Mets historic run to the World Series. That’s not to say Lyons wasn’t there though. He had some of the best seats in the house for the historic moments from that postseason that are played over and over.
Barry Lyons (c.) with Tim Teufel (l.) and Kevin McReynolds during a Mets-Pirates game. (Photo via NY Daily News)
Later, Lyons became a successful minor league manager before returning to his roots in Biloxi where he has been able to create a legacy that might even outshine his family athletic accomplishments from the 1970s.
Lyons has been a long-time advocate to bring minor league baseball to Biloxi and in 2015, the Huntsville Stars relocated to Mississippi and became the Biloxi Shuckers, AA affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers. Lyons was named a team ambassador for the Shuckers in 2017 and you can still find the passionate backstop at the ballpark greeting fans and talking baseball.
In part one this week, we’ll talk about growing up as the Last of the Lyons and his journey to the Majors as we go Spitballin’ with Barry Lyons.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Lyons. Always great to talk to former Mets! Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you get your start playing baseball as a kid?
I’m the youngest of four boys and all three of my brothers are great athletes. My dad coached us all but once we were past Little League he stepped aside and nurtured us as our biggest fan. My passion for baseball started early as far back as I can remember. I always loved baseball and was a natural at the game.
As the youngest brother, what kind of athletic impact did your brothers have on your growing up?
Well, my oldest brother Kenny was a multi-sport athlete. He was the quarterback at Ole Miss in the early 70s right after Archie Manning. He signed a free agent contract with the Dallas Cowboys in 1975, but unfortunately he didn’t pass his physical because of shoulder surgery and some problems with his back that they discovered at minicamp, so his pro career lasted all of about two days. But he was the trailblazer for our family.
My next brother Tommy was a great pitcher. He was drafted out of high school by the Cleveland Indians but he went to Ole Miss on a full baseball scholarship to pitch there instead. He had some injuries too though and his career ended there. My third brother, Pat, was the closest to me in age and probably my best friend. He was a football and baseball guy. He played baseball and football on the community college level.
“Even today, watching Once Upon a Time in Queens, as joyous as that World Championship was, it stings a little to know I was a part of it, but wasn’t in uniform and felt a little separated from it.”
What was your experience like on the college level?
I was the last of the Lyons family and I had a lot to live up to based on what my brothers had done. But I had so much good fortune being the youngest of four brothers who were so successful. I followed and idolized them and wanted to be like them from my earliest days of baseball. I did well in football and actually signed a scholarship to play football in college at Delta State University, baseball was my love and that’s where my passion was.
I was blessed to play baseball for four years at Delta State under an amazing man and amazing coach, Dave “Boo” Ferriss, who was a great pitcher for the Red Sox in the 1940s and 50s. He started a Division II baseball program from scratch where he grew up in the Mississippi delta. I learned a lot and enjoyed being a part of the program.
Wow that’s great to have Boo Ferriss as your coach. What role did he play in you choosing baseball over football in college?
Coach Ferriss showed interest in me the summer before my senior year. During the fall, one day after football practice Coach Ferriss came to visit me. I hadn’t met him prior to that. He left a lasting impression on me. I had some interest in some smaller Division I football schools and several Division II and junior colleges as an offensive lineman. But I went to visit Delta State in December of that year and was offered a full football scholarship. I asked for an agreement that I could forego spring football practice so I could play baseball full time in the spring. That was agreed upon and I was happy to follow in my brothers’ footsteps and easing the financial load for my parents which was very important to me.
But after my senior year, Coach Ferriss offered me what amounted to a full baseball scholarship which I immediately accepted and ended up declining the football scholarship to concentrate on baseball. Coach Ferriss explained to me how important fall baseball was, especially for an incoming freshman. There was a graduating senior who was the catcher the previous year, so from the minute I walked on campus, I was the starting catcher.
What was it like to get that call that you were drafted and then having to make a quick transition to minor league ball?
I got drafted as a junior by the Detroit Tigers, but decided to go back to Delta for my senior year. My senior year at Delta State we went to the Division II College World Series and we finished third. A week or so later I was drafted by the Mets, signed and joined the Low A team in Shelby, North Carolina. I had a very good half season there. Davey Johnson was the roving hitting instructor in the organization. It just so happened he saw me not long after I got drafted. I think the way I swung the bat and the theories I had about hitting left an impression with him that was helpful to me later on in becoming a Big Leaguer under Davey.
You came up through the Mets system with a lot of the guys who would go on to make up the 1986 team. What was your experience like in the Mets system at that time?
My first full season in the minors I had some injuries. I hit .297 and had a good season, but not near the kind of season I thought I could have so I was a little disappointed. I went to Winter Ball and played against some older players in Colombia, South America and it gave me confidence going into Spring Training of 1984. I had an outstanding season and was voted Most Valuable Player of the Carolina League. After that season, I knew I was going to be a Major League Baseball player. Prior to that, it was a dream and a goal, but once I had that season, I knew that I would be a Big Leaguer. I wasn’t ready just yet, but I knew in my heart eventually I would be. Then in December of that same season, the Mets traded for Gary Carter.
I wanted to ask you about that. What was it like as a top catching prospect to see the Mets trade for the best catcher in the game?
I was watching Monday Night Football with a friend at his house and they made an announcement that Gary Carter had been traded to the Mets. I guess the word I would use is “shocked” to describe how I felt. I didn’t know how to receive that news but I did know that Gary was such a great player and that our Major League team would benefit from him being there. He was a huge part of the World Championship team, but personally, it was a road block to me in my Major League career.
It looked like you had an even better year the next year in AA though. Was that just a matter of staying focused on your own development?
Yes, I went to AA in 1985 and had a great season and probably finished runner-up for MVP in the Texas League. I believed I was the Most Valuable Player and I was MVP for the Mets organization. It was an exceptional year and it put me in line to be a Big Leaguer in 1986.
Going into 1986 there were huge expectations obviously for the Mets. You were coming off two great years in the minors but hadn’t played above AA yet. What was that Spring Training like for you in ’86?
I beat out several other really good catchers to be the backup catcher to Gary Carter out of Spring Training. I was there for the first six weeks and had a couple of starts. We won both games and I had an RBI in both games, but that was the extent of my playing time in six weeks. The Mets sent me back to AAA in Tidewater to get some playing time. They called up Ed Hearn when they sent me down and he got more opportunities than I did and he made the best of it. Ed did really well and solidified himself as the backup catcher for the rest of the season.
In June I got called back up when Howard Johnson got injured. They wanted a righty bat and I was there for three weeks. I didn’t get any opportunities to start and went back down to AAA and played well. Unfortunately on August 2, I suffered a broken right forearm when I got hit by a pitch in Pawtucket and that ended my season. Three days later, Gary tore a ligament in his thumb. Eddie moved into the starting role and John Gibbons got called up as the backup. I knew that would have been me had I been healthy. Unfortunately, my season ended August 2 that year.
That’s some really tough timing for sure. There’s so much written and said about the 1986 Mets. What are some of your thoughts looking back on that season?
Even though I was there for a short time, I was a part of the ’86 team. I was there for some of the postseason. I was in the ballpark for Games 6 and 7 of the World Series. I enjoyed the celebration and the good times that went with it. Unfortunately, I was not in uniform and was not on the postseason roster due to my injury. Even today, watching Once Upon a Time in Queens, as joyous as that World Championship was, it stings a little to know I was a part of it, but wasn’t in uniform and felt a little separated from it. I was fortunate though to play four more years in New York and I loved every minute of it.
You made your Major League debut the seventh game of the season catching Dwight Gooden. Doc just came out that historic 1985 season and there was no bigger star than him. Was there extra pressure catching him in your MLB debut?
That was an exciting time. Just before that, the final Spring Training game was an exhibition game in Jackson, Mississippi which was two hours from my home town Biloxi. I had just played the year before in Jackson too. To be able to come home and play my first unofficial game as a Major Leaguer right near my home, near my friends and family and fans who saw me play in Jackson was a blessing. Opening Day was the next day in Pittsburgh and I officially became a Major Leaguer.
On April 19, a Saturday against the Phillies, I got my first start and Doc was the pitcher. I caught him in Spring Training and being in the same draft, I knew him from Instructional League and in the organization. He came off that amazing year in 1985 and catching him for my first start was special. Kevin Mitchell was a rookie on that team too and that was his first start of the season. We won 3-2 and Doc went the distance. I had an RBI groundout to tie the game and it was thrilling to say the least. It was the beginning of a dream come true.
My dream was always to be a Major League Baseball player. I don’t know that I ever dreamed about that World Series moment or the walk-off home run. I just hoped that I would be a Major League Baseball player one day and that was the moment when my dream came true.
Join us next Friday when we continue with Part 2 of Spitballin’ with Barry Lyons. We’ll find out just what he was doing during Game 6, his thoughts on the 1987 and ’88 Mets, his role on bringing minor league baseball to Biloxi and his thoughts on the game today.