On this date in 1982, there was approximately zero-percent chance that the Mets would soon call Keith Hernandez their first baseman. On this same date in 1997, it was maybe less likely (if that’s statistically possible) that Mike Piazza was five months and change from becoming the Mets’ catcher.
But both deals happened and twice this franchise of ours was transformed.
As currently floated by an in-the-know baseball writer or two, the chances of the Mets acquiring Troy Tulowitzki lies somewhere between five and ten percent. So if you believe the laying of odds based on what somebody’s source says to some reporter who may or may not know something’s up, well, meet me at the top of the National League East standings sometime this summer.
It’s probably saner to stay situated in the “nobody knows anything” camp, but what fun is that? At the very least, it’s plausible that the Mets and Rockies have discussed a deal that would bring Tulo, the best all-around shortstop in baseball when healthy, to Citi Field in the right kind of uniform. The Rockies have a contract they’d like to move and the Mets have a hole they’d like to fill. If they’re not talking to one another, there’s massive negligence going on in two time zones.
Is any of this serious? Even if you generously interpret every report you’ve lapped up this morning, you can find, at most, a glint of light that indicates that maybe, if everything and more happens, this has a shadow of a shot in hell of transpiring.
Sounds good to me. If it does happen, then hallelujah, we have — best-case scenario — an amazing upgrade at short, a lineup that can produce steady streams of runs and enough pitching no matter what needs to be sent to Colorado in exchange. If it doesn’t, then except for a few dashed hot stove hopes, we’re back where we started, with Wilmer Flores, who has yet to prove he’s a terrible alternative. Also we keep however many promising young arms we didn’t hypothetically trade, we don’t take on the dollar commitment that might not be onerous to another team’s payroll but apparently is to our team’s, and we don’t have to worry about Tulowitzki staking out a cozy spot on the several-year disabled list.
All this chatter is win-win in a December when the most scintillating development in Metsopotamia to date has been Jeurys Familia donning an elf costume (and that includes the acquisition of John Mayberry). It’s a classic baseball dilemma in theory: Great player joins team that seems ready to rise versus injury risk, financial commitment and unproven talent that may haunt you later. Thing is it’s only theory. It’s five percent, maybe ten, maybe nothing at all.
Would I do it? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t get to do it, so what’s the difference?
But I sure was happy when we got Hernandez and Piazza within six months of never imagining we might.
Children’s voices blended into an angelic choir. Or as angelic as it gets in Queens. Oh, how they caroled. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” they sang as one. They did so inside a ballpark, inside December.
Heresy! Sacrilege! What are they teaching these kids at PS 19, PS 57, PS 89, PS 140, PS 143 and PS 330?!
If it can’t be baseball season, then, yeah, sure, whatever, the second-most wonderful time of the year can be nine days before Christmas. Or nine days after Christmas. Like it matters if there’s no game on. But let us be clear, New York Mets who on Tuesday graciously hosted all those youngsters from all those elementary schools: the most wonderful time of the year commences April 6 and concludes October 4. Or preferably a few weeks later.
Don’t muck up your own script by encouraging confusion as to when the most wonderful time of the year is. You were giving out Christmas presents, but you should always be selling baseball.
“No, little girl, there’s no shortstop in there. Now quit asking.”
The most wonderful time of the year is still a ways off, so if you have to do something with the space between, doing it at Citi Field — while two Mets dress as something other than Mets and bring non-denominational joy to the local chapter of the Youth of America — is as good a way of doing it as there is. I was doing it this past Tuesday, as I have at the Mets’ invitation every December for five Decembers suddenly. Technically, I was covering it. Mostly, I was taking it in.
You couldn’t ignore “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” the holiday classic made famous by Andy Williams and belted out by one group of PSers or another. They were loud enough to drown out all conversation. Conversely, Sandy Alderson, conversing with reporters, spoke softly about the Mets’ disinterest in pursuing another big stick. The logistics and acoustics were a bit of a hurdle for your correspondent, who was leaning in from the edge of a media scrum better suited to gather within the most austere of monasteries. “Parties for hosting/marshmallows for toasting,” are all well and good, but does it have to be so loud?
In less festive terms, pipe down, joyous tykes — I’m on the other side of the curtain from where you are, I’m wearing a media credential for a short spell and I’m really trying to hear what Sandy’s saying.
That makes me different from many Mets fans who are probably not trying to hear what the GM is telling them about having pretty much wrapped up his wintertime shopping. He was letting it be known that no other shortstops — American, Korean, Coloradoan — remain on the Metropolitan must-have list, that the job belongs to Wilmer Flores unless some Grinch steals it away from him. And based on current inventory, the Grinch would named Ruben Tejada.
Word of this unsurprising pronouncement zipped around the world so quickly that even the seasoned beat reporters covering every cadence of Sandy’s chat had moved on. Their interview subject was talking low-budget lefties for the to-be-determined portion of the bullpen and they were scrolling through their phones. Maybe another general manager somewhere else was telling another cluster of microphones and cameras something more earth-shattering. GMs from San Diego, Tampa Bay and Washington were likely communicating among each other at that hour, though they’d wait a little while to let the rest of us in on their doings.
After a fashion, the kids out in the Acela Club quit caroling, the media huddle dispersed and I found myself standing next to Alderson just long enough to ask a big-picture question that maybe he hadn’t been asked lately. (Some years the blogging corps gets its own audience, some years you grab what you can get.) What, I wondered aloud, has changed about your job in the four years since you took office?
The “approach” is different, he told me. With the Mets “close” to contending, putting the finishing touches on the big league club is more of a priority than securing prospects and building the minor league system, which is where his efforts were concentrated during the first few seasons. “Not to say it wasn’t before,” he added, but nowadays there’s “more of a short-term perspective” at play. I followed up with a question regarding what, if any, has changed about his own assumptions or perceptions since becoming GM. He thinks the front office, as a group, “works better together now” than it did when he returned to day-to-day baseball operations.
One of my fellow bloggers asked if anything in particular impressed him about the goings-on at the Winter Meetings. Alderson was surprised at how active the White Sox had been and was taken by the number of deals the Dodgers made. I also wrote down that he said “pitching dominates in a short series,” which could be interpreted as an acknowledgement of Madison Bumgarner’s postseason or an implication that the Mets are well-equipped to handle a month of high-pressure short series, assuming they get there…which he and everybody else with the Mets seem to believe they might. The operative word I’ve heard over and over since September is “close”.
Except the season isn’t close, so after Alderson excused himself and while the kids giddily accepted gifts from Jenrry Mejia as Santa Claus and Jeurys Familia as Buddy the Elf, I occupied myself by staring out an Acela window and taking in the sight of the newly moved-in fence in right-center. That, like the Mets’ image of themselves, is close. If Curtis Granderson can’t hit 30 homers over that, something’s terribly wrong with geometry. Talk about a gift. Make sure visiting National sluggers know it’s not for them.
I hope the children all became Mets fans because of Mejia and Familia and the toys and games and lunch and singing and, of course, Mr. Met. I hope the children were already Mets fans when they arrived at Citi Field and weren’t faking it when they obliged the MC who drove them into a “LET’S GO METS!” chanting frenzy, but I saw only one kid who thought to wear a Mets cap to the party. It had the 50th anniversary logo patch on the back, implying that kid’s been a fan for at least three seasons of his young life. I hope he got the biggest kick of all out of anybody there, though I also hope he shared my skepticism about what passes, out of season, for the most wonderful time of the year.
Me and that kid, we know better.
My esteem for Familia, reasonably high based on his 2014 output, shot up exponentially because of the holiday gala. Or elfponentially. Usually “Santa’s helpers” at these things are players who wear their jerseys and a Santa hat. That’s how Carlos Beltran did it. Can you imagine Beltran going the Full Elf? Who would imagine such things anyway? But Jeurys did it.
Jenrry as Santa, on the other hand, was a little disconcerting. Not from the suit (splendid) or the demeanor (appropriate), but from the bulk he had to temporarily add to pull the whole look off. One Bartolo Colon on staff is enough. If you didn’t know it was an overstuffed ensemble, you’d be making Mejia an appointment with that new strength and conditioning coach the Mets hired. Especially for the conditioning part.
When the setup man and the closer who combined to give away fewer leads than the number (tons) to which we were accustomed presented the last of their presents, they came back behind the curtain to take questions, still dressed as Santa Claus and Buddy the Elf. I’m sorry they didn’t stay in character.
“How’s your slider coming along?”
“Why, you mean my sleigh, right little boy? Ho ho ho, here’s a Wiffle Ball!”
Nah, they didn’t do that. It was another crush of cameras and mics and mundane inquiries about how well they were recovering from their hernia surgeries, except they were being asked of men dressed in crushed red velvet and key lime green. I found myself on the fringe of this crowd, too, but I did clearly hear Jenrry say something about his two-seamer and his four-seamer. That’s better music for the Mets fan’s ear in December than anything Andy Williams ever recorded. I also caught an all-purpose “whatever job they give me, I have to be prepared” out of Santa. I guess “if Parnell tries to take my role away, he’s the one getting his skinny ass shoved down a chimney” wouldn’t have been in keeping with the spirit of the season.
It’s as good to give as it is to relieve, but either way, Mejia and Familia could use some hydration.
Harvey would have said something of that nature, but he wasn’t at the party. I assume he was down in the bowels of the stadium striking out three Bryce Harper mannequins.
Eventually, the English-language press gave way to the Spanish-language press. Mejia speaks faster in Spanish (who doesn’t?). The recorded Christmas music ceased. The students of the PSes were on their buses, headed back to class, all of them having had the best morning of the current semester. The beat writers, many of them appearing not much older than the students favored with goodies by Mejia and Familia, were on their laptops, transmitting the depth and breadth of what had happened here today, which, honestly, wasn’t much, but it was the semblance of baseball in winter, and who wouldn’t want to fill a stocking with that?
Given the roles the pitchers in costume played when there was a game every day or night, it didn’t seem right that we weren’t up to the eighth or ninth inning of the offseason already. We’ve not even arrived at the Baseball Equinox yet. But it’s coming. I know it is. Just not soon enough.
When I exited through the Stengel entrance, the security guard on duty gave me a broad smile and a cheery holiday greeting. I returned the same, with an addendum that the next time we’d see each other, it would be April. Our smiles broadened even more.
Yes. April. The most wonderful time of the year.
Sad news out of Long Island: Sy Berger, the father of modern baseball cards, died today at 91.
Berger didn’t invent baseball cards — they date back to 19th-century “trade cards” and were first popularized by cigarette companies. But Berger made them the empire they became. In 1947 he started working as a marketer at Brooklyn-based Topps, which had been co-founded by the father of one of his fraternity brothers. Berger’s first assignment was marketing pop-culture cards for the likes of Davy Crockett, but in 1951 he looked to steal an infant market from rival Bowman with a series of baseball cards.
The ’51 cards were a dress rehearsal for what would follow — they were designed to be used playing a mock baseball game, making them more like a forerunner of Magic The Gathering than what we think of as baseball cards, and they came with taffy, which proved excellent at picking up the flavor of the varnish on the cards. (And you thought those square pieces of bubble gum were bad.) But the next year Topps introduced bigger, much better cards — full-color cards with stats on the back, including the now-iconic ’52 Mantle. Nothing would ever be the same — for generations, Topps cards were as much a part of boyhood as toy soldiers and bikes and other kid pastimes. (Berger was a sharp businessman, too — a showdown over photo fees for players was one of the union’s first attempts at finding its footing. The union’s insistence on better terms was a dry run for its ultimately successful attempt to force economic change on a sport that was still run like a medieval barony.)
I discovered the world Berger created in 1976, when I was seven. I’d grown up in a Mets household, but it wasn’t my mother leaping up and down and cheering for Rusty Staub that made me a fan forevermore. (Though that was a good start.) It was really Topps baseball cards, which in the summer of 1976 suddenly and irrevocably replaced dinosaurs as my principal boyhood obsession. For me, each of those Topps cards was a little window into baseball history — you could trace careers through the stats and the bulleted highlights on the back, and piece together an education about the sport from the little cartoon facts chosen by Topps writers.
Here’s what I learned from Topps’ twenty-six 1976 Met cards (plus one team card, a four-panel rookie and a record-breaker) — cards that came, oddly, on yellow and blue cards that would have been more suited for a collector of all things related to the University of Michigan:
- Connie Mack managed the Philadelphia A’s for half a century
- The Boston Braves played their home games in the 1914 World Series at Fenway Park
- Wayne Garrett, despite being a member of the Miracle Mets, apparently hadn’t been very good in 1969
- Jerry Grote had 20 put-outs in a game, specifically on April 22, 1970
- Bud Harrelson was from Niles, Calif., which I pictured as a wildly exotic place
- Jerry Koosman was undefeated in postseason play — 3-0 in the playoffs and 3-0 in the World Series
- Ed Kranepool had somehow hit 16 homers in 1966
- Christy Mathewson threw three shutouts in the 1905 World Series
- Jon Matlack was extremely handsome
- Felix Millan held his bat in a very strange fashion … but had set the Mets’ mark for hits in 1975
- Ken Sanders had been the AL Fireman of the Year in 1971, leading me to expect great things from him
- Rusty Staub had started his career with the Colt .45’s, who no longer seemed to exist
- Wes Westrum caught six foul pop-ups in one game on Aug. 24, 1949
- Craig Swan seemed to do well when he pitched for TIDEWATER, but not so well pitching for METS
- Joe Torre was odd-looking and seemed to like hanging out in the shadows near accumulated helmets
- Del Unser was the son of Al Unser, who’d been a catcher for the Tigers and Reds
- Mike Vail had led the mysterious IL in batting in 1975 and hit safely in 23 straight games for the Mets
- Joe Sewell of Cleveland had fanned just four times in 608 at-bats back in 1925
And that was just one team’s cards. I spent hours with my ’76 cards, piecing together the beginnings of a baseball education and the foundation of a lifelong love of the sport. How long did I spend? Well, a couple of weeks ago, on an insomniac whim, I Google-searched for photos of ’76 team sets and was able to identify at a glance which cards I’d never found during that summer 38 years ago.
From there, I submerged myself in the Baseball Encyclopedia, reading accounts of baseball history and scouring lists of league leaders and just browsing through the statistics of players, stopping to review careers that seemed particularly long or tragically short or otherwise noteworthy. (And how amazing was it that Hank Aaron somehow came first?) I haunted the library, checking out and devouring every baseball book I could find. (Like Greg, one of my favorites was Tug McGraw’s mildly deranged autobiography Screwball.) But my education began with Topps baseball cards, with seeing that Jesus Alou had played for a long time, and wondering what it was like to play for Marion or Visalia or the mysterious Pomp. Bch, and noting that players were drafted.
I stopped collecting baseball cards for a while after the strike, started up again as an adult in strange circumstances, and now collect what I want to collect — which invariably includes both regular Topps series and the update set. I own every Topps Mets card, and every Topps card of everybody who ever played for the Mets (with a few reprints in the mix), and have a trio of binders called The Holy Books that include cards for every Met in team history, in order of their arrival. But that’s not all. I’ve made cards for cup-of-coffee guys who never got a card even as a minor leaguer, and bought unused photos of players from Topps’s Vault eBay auctions. There’s something faintly magical about seeing a photo from the mid-1960s of an obscure Met and imagining it as a ’66 or ’67 Topps card — the photos have a certain saturated glow that identify them instantly and obviously as the work of a Topps photographer, in the same way that art historians can immediately spot, say, a Titian or a Veronese.
And Topps cards remain a happy part of my life. In the offseason, I like to scratch my Mets itch by browsing through The Holy Books, getting reacquainted with the immortals and the forgotten alike. I just did some THB upgrading via eBay, getting an Al Luplow in which he’s actually wearing a Mets uniform and eliminating a Gil Hodges with writing on the front. And I continue to make my own cards for the Lost Mets — somehow, creating a ’72 Rusty Staub or a ’75 Rich Puig feels like you’ve found something that always existed and had been merely lost.
I owe all that passion and knowledge and craziness, ultimately, to Sy Berger. He gave me my first baseball education, followed by literally decades of joy.
Admittedly, that new Cuddyer smell that so intoxicated our nostrils when the Mets made their loud November move has grown faint. What’s that they say about vehicles losing their value as soon as they leave the dealership? Our new (technically pre-owned) right fielder hasn’t rolled up one additional mile since he pulled into our garage, yet by being one of the first big signings of the offseason and not being paired by a second acquisition of significant size since — John Mayberry, Jr. and Sean Gilmartin notwithstanding — it’s tempting to think the Mets have done nothing.
Does loitering at a busy intersection count? Because if it does, maybe the Mets have lurched forward a bit by just standing here watching the wheels go by. Since Cuddyer came on board, look who’s gone from our general midst:
• Jason Heyward, from Atlanta
• Adam LaRoche, from Washington
• Jimmy Rollins, from Philadelphia
Those divisional deletions don’t solve all the Mets’ problems or necessarily not create new ones, given the way rosters evolve, but let’s hear it for no longer regularly seeing guys who’ve been showing up in our nightmares like clockwork for far too long.
Heyward. LaRoche. Rollins. Will SNY be able to air Post Game Live after losses without them? Heyward taking away base hits; LaRoche adding to the wrong half of the scoreboard; Rollins summoning ghosts. Their signature work accounted for a good chunk of the National League East’s anti-Mets propaganda highlight reel.
The rest of that film features Giancarlo Stanton dooming us from another stratosphere. He’s not going anywhere, at least until Jeffrey Loria twirls his mustache just before revealing his usual nefarious loopholes.
Depending on your rivals to melt around the edges is no surefire way to improve your chances, but if the Mets sought upgrades and couldn’t yet find them, then at least there’s the comforting thought that we’ll have to think less about the guys who’ve been killing us at regular intervals in the preceding seasons. Not that the teams they left behind aren’t capable of unleashing other strains of pest we’ve not yet dreamed of — the Nationals are still the Nationals and never underestimate the Phillies or Braves, even as they retrench — but no more Jimmy Rollins “doing what it takes to win”; no more Jason Heyward “diving and coming up with an unbelievable catch”; no more Adam LaRoche “going deep against Met pitching once again”.
LaRoche is tucked away on the South Side of Chicago. Rollins is a newly minted Los Angeleno. Heyward will still be wearing a distasteful uniform, but we’ll run into him relatively infrequently as a Cardinal. Has the neighborhood grown safer?
I don’t know. Too many Nationals roam the top of the division, the Marlins seem more genuinely dangerous than they have since Miguel Cabrera was young and mobile and it’s impossible to count on the Braves destroying the Braves from within. The winter we got Alomar and Vaughn, they got Sheffield and won the East; the winter we got Martinez and Beltran, they got Hudson and won the East; they’ve lately picked up Shelby Miller and Nick Markakis. Tell me for sure we won’t feel a tomahawk in our back at the hands of Shelby Miller and Nick Markakis. The Phillies, meanwhile, still maintain enough aging Rollins teammates so as to inspire reflexive shudders.
The Mets were getting better when 2014 ended, a season when they had no Harvey, no Syndergaard, no Cuddyer and only a small sample of Flores. They should keep trying to get better ahead of April 6, no doubt. But the part where we don’t have to be exposed to overly familiar nemeses for six series a year apiece…I’m marking that down as the first provisional win of 2015.
People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I take refuge inside the Mets Lounge with Taryn Cooper and talk Mets baseball with the Coop. Listen to us staring out the window and waiting for spring here, about 25 minutes in.
Up until January 22, 1969, Gil Hodges was not a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in pretty much the same way you and I are not members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Unlike you and me, however, Hodges had played the requisite ten or more major league seasons to eventually be considered for induction, yet until that particular winter day, the former Dodger and Met first baseman (1943; 1947-1963) hadn’t been retired from playing long enough to have been on a Hall of Fame ballot whose results were known to the public at large.
On January 22, 1969, the results of the first election to consider Hodges were announced. Stan Musial and Roy Campanella were elected. Hodges wasn’t. On that Wednesday, Gil, preparing to commence his second campaign as manager of the Mets, became not a member of the Hall of Fame in a way that was different from you and me.
Over time he would be not a member of the Hall of Fame in a way different from all of us, whether we played baseball for a living or not.
Every January from 1970 through 1983, there’d be a day like January 22, 1969. Hodges would only live long enough to be told on three of those days that the Hall of Fame wouldn’t be inducting him into its ranks. He died just shy of 48 on April 2, 1972. His name remained on every Baseball Writers Association of America ballot for which he was eligible. The last of those such elections had its results announced on January 12, 1983. Brooks Robinson and Juan Marichal were chosen. Hodges, as his family and legion of fans had grown reluctantly accustomed to hearing, wasn’t.
Under the prevailing rules of the period, Hodges would next be eligible for consideration five years later by the 15-man Veterans Committee, a body whose process was less transparent than the BBWAA’s. There was no ballot; discussion and debate centered on whichever “old-time” candidates the committee cared to contemplate, a group that included managers, executives and umpires in addition to players who had not been chosen by the writers. Thus, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, it would be mentioned on a semi-regular basis that the committee had convened and, in the course of conducting its annual business, opted to not elect Gil Hodges to the Hall of Fame.
By 2002, the Veterans Committee that had failed to elect Hodges since 1988 was disbanded. Systems that promised to be new and improved supplanted those thought to be flawed and insufficient. The bottom line of all these 21st-century transformations and tweaks? Six separate elections during which Gil Hodges was considered for the Hall of Fame and rejected for the Hall of Fame. The most recent of those decisions was announced this past Monday, December 8.
Hodges received 3,010 votes in the 15 BBWAA elections that considered him — the most any single candidate has ever cumulatively received — but never more than 60.1% in a given year, which left him short of the necessary 75%.
In the Veterans Committee votes whose totals were never publicly announced, it has been reported and repeated that he missed out by one vote at the meeting of February 23, 1993, and that the one vote belonged to a dying Campanella. Roy tried to cast it by phone but had it disallowed by influential chairman Ted Williams.
In 2003, the first of the broader post-Williams elections, Hodges received 50 votes — more than any of the 200 players considered. It was still short of the 61 required for election. A similar outcome unfolded in 2005: Hodges and Ron Santo tied for the most votes with 52; 60 were needed to gain induction. Hodges finished in the top three in 2007 and top four in 2008. A smaller electorate was impaneled to determine the class of 2012; he came in third. Only this week, when his vote total for prospective 2015 induction was announced as “three or fewer,” did Hodges not come reasonably close to election.
When viewed through the prism of Baseball Writers elections, old Veterans Committee elections, reconfigured Veterans Committee elections and so-called Golden Era Committee Elections, there have been roughly 35 chances across a 46-year span to confer Hall of Famer status upon Gil Hodges. Those who do the conferring have failed to act in the affirmative 35 times.
On some level, in a manner that almost defies belief, Gil Hodges is not a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame like nobody else who has ever lived is not a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Gil Hodges hasn’t hit a home run since July 6, 1962. He has not been to bat since May 5, 1963. He hasn’t managed a ballgame since September 30, 1971. Yet it keeps being decided by those empowered to make such judgments that he is not a Hall of Famer. The Hall of Fame first opened on June 12, 1939; it hadn’t existed thirty years the first time those charged with determining membership denied Hodges. The Hall of Fame has existed that long and more than half as long again since its agents began making recurrently sure Gil Hodges wouldn’t get in.
We use the word “election” to describe the function of choosing Hall of Famers. It’s misleading. We have elections to determine who governs us. When those elections do not reach the conclusion we’d like, we’re not disappointed only in theory. The candidate we didn’t prefer doesn’t win, we are convinced there will be negative consequences. Our town or country, we are convinced, may suffer. Our interests will conceivably suffer. But at least we had an actual say in how the vote turned out.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame does not request our input. And when our idea of a Hall of Famer doesn’t mesh with those who make those calls, there’s no substantive harm to our way of life. In that sense, it’s less important than the All-Star Game election never mind a congressional election. If we don’t pick wisely in June, our league might lose in July and our theoretical home-field advantage in the World Series would be taken from us. We’d have one fewer game to attend in late October on the off chance we’d have multiple games to attend in late October.
Still beloved. Still respected. Still hailed.
My idea of a Hall of Famer is Gil Hodges. It’s always been, ever since I learned a) there was a Hall of Fame and b) Gil Hodges was somebody who was said to be on the verge of being elected or, perhaps more accurately stated, selected. Gil Hodges was the embodiment of Hall of Fame of greatness when I first encountered him through television and radio and newspapers and magazines and statistics and stories. My filter was Metsian, so if you want to factor in bias, feel free. We’re all biased in favor of what we care about deeply.
Kids who grew up in the same approximate era when Hodges was a living, then tragically prematurely deceased legend might not have made Gil their Cooperstown Ideal if they didn’t grow up in the New York area. That’s fair. If you were eight years old in the Twin Cities in 1971, you likely revere batting champ Tony Oliva in that fashion. If your formative baseball experience focused on Maury Wills stealing more bases than anybody had in generations, you can’t be talked out of knowing in your heart of hearts that Maury Wills — or at least his legs — should be sped upstate. Twelve in 1975 and from somewhere in New England? How can Luis Tiant not seem as worthy as anybody who ever pitched? If you were weaned on the White Sox way back when, Minnie Minoso or Billy Pierce or Dick Allen all make Hall of Fame sense to you the way Gil Hodges makes Hall of Fame sense to me.
None of the above was selected by the so-called Golden Era Committee. Not Jim Kaat, Ken Boyer or Bob Howsam, either. Ten candidates, ten honorable and outstanding careers, no dice whatsoever. The whole thing wound up an exercise in Hall of Fame self-congratulation. Look, they said, it’s a tough place to get into…why, we just went through a lengthy and detailed process of letting nobody in!
Should they be running the Hall of Fame to satisfy the inner child in every baseball fan? If they’re not to some extent, then they’re running it badly. There’s a kid I harbor in my heart of hearts. He came to baseball with Gil Hodges as his team’s manager. He saw Gil Hodges take his team to the World Series and win it when that was thought impossible. He saw Gil Hodges run that team for only a couple more years, but remembers the integrity he brought to the game and how he seemed to get the most out of his players. He never forgot the talk of what he did as a Brooklyn Dodger. He looked it up for himself and the facts aligned with the myths. That kid long ago hung a plaque for Gil Hodges. It would be swell if there was another one where more people can see it.
Whether they do or not, mine is never coming down.
It’s too late to electioneer — or selectioneer — but it doesn’t hurt to once again go over the basics of why Gil Hodges’s case is made over and over.
• Seven consecutive 100+ RBI seasons
• One of the top sluggers of all-time at the time of his retirement (when he delivered his 370th and final home run, it was more than any National League righthanded batter had ever hit)
• One of the best defensive first basemen ever…a Keith Hernandez quality glove, by all accounts, except it was worn on the hand less inclined to handle the position
• Key on- and off-field role on one of the sport’s most legendary powerhouse teams, contributing mightily to seven Dodger pennants and two Dodger world championships
• Universal admiration and esteem while he played and while he managed — which matters not just in the fine print and on principle but also if you’re going to hold dubious character against the ballplayers who have since statistically surpassed him
• An outstanding leader of a previously pathetic expansion team…in the American League with the mid-’60s Washington Senators
• And, not incidentally, that whole Miracle thing that unfolded on his watch during his aforementioned second campaign as manager of the Mets
As a player, the numbers shone in their time. As a skipper, nobody has been hailed as a guiding force in quite the same awed tones since. As a citizen of baseball and America, as beloved and respected as they came. The past tense isn’t really appropriate here. He’s still beloved. He’s still respected. He’s still hailed.
He just hasn’t been selected is all.
Somebody has to bear the burden of being the one who represents the razor’s edge. Here on one side are those few granted membership to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Here on the other are those who aren’t getting in, which is basically everybody else. Just on the wrong side of admission, incongruously situated amid the mere mortals, stands Gil Hodges, slugger, fielder, leader, man.
We who aren’t getting in — everyone from Jerry Koosman and Cleon Jones to you and me — could do worse for someone to fall in behind.
Hodges deserves to be located among what we on Earth refer to as the immortals. That’s according to but not limited to me; we watched him manage and heard of his playing and, like the team he led, missed him terribly when he was gone. That’s also according to but not limited to me; we examine his qualifications in the context of postmodern framing and continue to find his achievements in the game extraordinary. We know he should be over there, on the other side of the line, alongside Stan the Man and Campy, keeping good company with his contemporaries and his peers.
He’s not, unfortunately. Somebody has to be the one at the front of the line, an arm’s length from the velvet rope. For a son of Indiana coal country; a Marine sergeant on Okinawa; a decorated combatant in six Subway Series; an Original Met battling a bum knee; a brand new manager elevating the stubbornly stagnant Senators; and the steady voice who told the Mets in no uncertain terms that they were for ready to get real, it’s a burden easily enough borne.
Even if it’s difficult to accept that 35 times in 46 years he hasn’t been invited in.
The last 31 times the Hall of Fame has opted to pass on the chance to enshrine Gil Hodges, it’s been left to his family to absorb the bad news without him, which serves to make the whole ritual that much more distasteful. Starting January 24, 1973, and running through this past Monday, his wife Joan and his son Gil, Jr., have gotten the word whenever whatever body who thought about it makes its decision public. To say of your late husband or late father that “he was and forever is a Hall of Famer” would mean so much to them. You find yourself rooting for posthumous induction because of wonderful it would be for the living. Gil, Jr., however, was able put this latest disappointment in perspective: “I try to impress to my mom that he’s treated like he’s in the Hall of Fame. And that’s what she’s gotta remember.”
In Flushing, the treatment is royal enough so you wouldn’t know he’s not.
The Gil Hodges entrance anchors the first base side of Citi Field.
Gil Hodges’s likeness greets the observant visitor who turns left upon walking into the New York Mets Hall of Fame and Museum; he and George Weiss composed the sophomore class of inductees in 1982.
No. 14 above the left field wall is a 24/7 reminder that Gil managed the 1969 Mets to the unlikeliest of world championships.
At McFadden’s Citi Field on Saturday, January 10, those who attend the Queens Baseball Convention will be treated to the presentation of the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award, recognizing a Met who, when we think of him, will always warm our hearts, brighten our spirits and light our way…just as the thought of Gil himself still does. (The identity of the highly worthy recipient will be announced shortly).
Back in Brooklyn, where he defined an era every bit as much as Campy, Pee Wee, Duke and Jackie — four Hall of Famers who proudly called Gil a teammate and a friend — there’s a bridge, a park, a Little League field and street named for him.
And for what it’s worth, on July 17, 1993, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art to take in an exhibit of the Burdick Collection, ostensibly the world’s largest set of baseball cards. I loved it enough to buy two posters portraying the cream of the crop of those cards. Forty-two different players are featured on this pair of posters. Forty of them are in the Hall of Fame. The only outliers are Shoeless Joe Jackson, barred by dint of the Black Sox scandal, and Gil Hodges, whose 1951 Bowman image is the first one pictured in a row that goes on to include Musial, Dizzy Dean and Henry Aaron. He sits right above Bill Dickey.
Gil fit in perfectly with that crowd in 1993. He fits in perfectly with them still.
It was nice, I suppose, to have a reason to think about Minoso and Oliva and Kaat and Tiant and Allen and Howsam and Boyer and Wills and Pierce and Gil Hodges for a few weeks in late autumn. It would be nicer if one of them — preferably Gil, of course, but any of them — had been tabbed a Hall of Famer. They have families and fans, too. Each of them compiled a track record in the sport we love that almost nobody else has approached.
Otherwise, nothing tangibly good comes out of a process that considers ten baseball greats and selects none. Nobody wants to dwell on process. Nobody wants to be told that this one took it stoically or that one was philosophical or that next time, here’s what should be done so it doesn’t happen again. You have a National Baseball Hall of Fame so you can celebrate baseball. Leave terms-of-service minutiae to other endeavors.
The Hall is a tough ticket. It should be. How tough, I’m not certain. If it’s not going to be the Hall of Willie Mays and Tom Seaver and hardly anybody else (that train pulled out of the Cooperstown station ages ago), it can lighten up a little by my reckoning. I don’t like to play the game of “how can they keep Gil out if so-and-so is in there?” So-and-so had a fine career. So-and-so meant a lot to a lot of people. I’d rather have a Hall of Fame that’s reasonably expansive rather than overly exclusive, one that leans toward warmly welcoming as opposed to stringently discriminating. One of those ten “Golden Era” rejectees in the Hall would have made it a better institution. Any one of those ten.
Conversely, I don’t need a Hall of Fame to define greatness. The fun lies in figuring it out for yourself.
An unscientific sampling indicates a vast majority of Mets fans were let down and maybe offended that Gil Hodges didn’t make the Hall of Fame on his 35th try. Maybe that’s intangibly good. Not that we needed another dollop of disappointment, but it was gratifying to sense how much his legacy belongs to all of us. That includes the Mets fans who came along well after April 2, 1972. You didn’t have to be alive and sentient when he was around to appreciate Gil Hodges’s significance to the Mets and to baseball. You read and you listen and you get it. You tell the stories that have been told to you. You tell your own stories that you’ve put together on your own and those get told again. The fun lies in that, too.
You, my fellow Mets fan, have something to take uncommon pride in. You root for a team that at one of its absolute peaks was led by a manager who made all the difference in the world…a player who was among the very best at what he did…a man who hasn’t been noticeably bettered by anyone who’s followed in his wake.
That’s Gil Hodges’s legacy to us. That’s ours for keeps. It beats a plaque upstate any old day.
Few are the long-running sitcoms that haven’t trotted out the trope in which Thanksgiving (or perhaps some other festive gathering, but usually Thanksgiving) is imperiled because there are too many guests and not enough seats at the table or, for that matter, not enough food for all the guests squeezing their way to the table.
The Mets took their stab at this old chestnut eight months ago when they started the 2014 season with a scene at first base where there was room for only one first baseman yet they issued cordial invitations to three potential occupants.
Hilarity could have ensued. It usually has where the Mets are concerned. Instead, the situation resolved itself well in advance of the season’s first commercial break. And as the prime time schedule is constructed for 2015, we find an unlikely bedrock anchoring first base. Lucas Duda is slated to play there with no more than sporadic pre-emption.
The spirit of Mel Allen isn’t the only one asking, “How about that?”
On Black Friday, right around the time of year the Mets have been known to sort through their flurry of first base transactions (Rico Brogna, traded on November 27, 1996; Carlos Delgado, traded for on November 24, 2005), the Mets neither made a list nor checked it twice where the initial sack is concerned. Doorbusters? Lucas is their fencebuster. And he plays first.
In 2014, The Dudafly Effect emerged as our Nikon Camera Player of the Year — the award bestowed upon the entity or concept that best symbolizes, illustrates or transcends the year in Metsdom. Once Lucas started to soar, first base was no longer a cocoon of troubling uncertainties. And if Lucas Duda can take flight and stay aloft, who’s to say an entire team can’t follow?
Duda, emerging from the shadows.
Duda’s Met-amorphosis, in which a previously miscast outfielder who could never quite hack it for an entire major league season turned into one of the better first basemen in the National League, presaged a series of events that might not have otherwise occurred. Just consider what happened once Lucas flapped his wings.
If the Mets hadn’t settled on the possibility that Duda would settle in at first, then it’s likely Ike Davis would have stayed and thus remained more question than answer. Ike, once upon a not so long ago time, was the Mets’ first baseman of the future, except he stubbornly refused to effectively fill the role of first baseman of the present. For those of us who invested middle-of-the-order and staple-of-the-infield hopes and dreams at the sight of Ike and all he seemed to represent when he debuted so promisingly in 2010, every year after 2010, until his trade to Pittsburgh in 2014, was a little more painful than the one before it. Right up to his final truncated season as a Met, when the 27-year-old Davis’s potential was no longer sustainable versus his disappointing reality, it was hard to believe Ike hadn’t reverted to being the pre-Valley Fever Ike we wanted him to be.
Sometimes, it was uttered out of desperation as much as sound judgment, that sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make. That was the best reason to hang on to Ike, who had shown more than flashes of brilliance at his best. Yet on April 18, the Mets let go of the possibilities inherent in a turnaround that might never come and traded the indisputably likable Ike Davis to the Pirates for minor league pitchers Zack Thornton and Blake Taylor. Whether it’s the best trade the Mets could have made won’t be known until primary acquisition Taylor, 19, matures and pitches a lot and matures and pitches some more.
High on hindsight, we know it wasn’t much of a trade for Pittsburgh. They won a Wild Card in 2013 without Ike Davis, they won another in 2014 with Ike Davis. Ike’s .721 OPS in 397 plate appearances was hardly the determining factor in the keeping the streak alive. Less than two months after they served as Madison Bumgarner’s first postseason victim (in a game Ike watched from the PNC bench), the Bucs shipped him to Oakland…for international slot money…which on the surface sounds as silly as NBC allegedly giving Disney the rights to Oswald the Rabbit to secure the services of Al Michaels, but that was the deal the Pirates made.
Ike, a lefthanded hitter like Lucas, was the Mets’ starting first baseman on Opening Day 2014. And in their sixth game. And their ninth, eleventh and fifteenth; he was traded just before Game 16. The indisputably likable Josh Satin, meanwhile, started the second, tenth and twelfth games of the year at first; the 19th, 26th, 28th and 34th, too. Satin was part of the Three Men On First concept — you can’t call it a plan — that hovered over Port St. Lucie and drifted northward. The first three games of 2014 (all losses to Washington) featured a different starting Met first baseman, a pattern that was repeated during a West Coast swing between April 12 and 14.
Such indecision. But maybe Josh’s righthanded bat, which looked so lively and acted so selectively for a spell in 2013, was worthy of an extended audition. Maybe it could work its way into a regular rotation. Maybe Satin, who’d sipped cups of Metropolitan coffee in 2011 and 2012, could stick around for a full pot.
Alas, there was no stick to Josh Satin, 29, who batted .107 through May 9 and was thereafter stationed at Las Vegas. He returned in September, only to go hitless nine times as a pinch-hitter, watch his average sink to .086, have a fracture discovered in his right hand and find himself outrighted off the Mets’ roster after the World Series. Right around the moment Davis was learning he was an Oakland Athletic, Satin was signing with the Cincinnati Reds, where he’ll compete to back up Joey Votto.
If there’d been no Duda at first, maybe Satin would have stuck around. Had there been no injuries to Votto in 2014, maybe Satin wouldn’t have appealed to Cincy. But y’know, there was a Votto for 62 games this past season and when you look at the percentages, the four-time All-Star first baseman’s on-base and slugging numbers didn’t really outdo Duda’s. Hardly anybody among National League first basemen outdid Lucas in the realm of Adjusted OPS+, the stat that aims to take into account what a player’s home ballpark means to his production. Indexed in those terms Anthony Rizzo was the top first baseman in the senior circuit with an Adjusted OPS+ of 151, third overall among plate-appearance qualifiers in the N.L., behind only outfielders Andrew McCutchen (168) and Giancarlo Stanton (160). Indexed second among first basemen and seventh throughout the league was living, breathing nightmare Freddie Freeman at 138.
And exactly one tick behind Freeman was Duda at 137, eighth-best among all National Leaguers with at least 502 plate appearances and third-best among first base qualifiers. Not in this particular picture: Votto; Ryan Howard; Adam LaRoche; Adrian Gonzalez; Justin Morneau; Brandon Belt; Paul Goldschmidt; and any other famous first baseman you’d care to name. Lucas Duda started 136 games at first base, played 146 games there, took part in 153 games out of 162. He came to the plate 596 times and not only rustled up an impressive sabermetric marker but accumulated the kinds of numbers that have always looked sweet emanating from a first baseman who batted cleanup in nearly half of his team’s games:
• 30 home runs, third-most in the National League during a notoriously power-starved season
• 92 runs batted in, tied for fifth in the National League
• a slugging percentage against righthanded pitchers (.543) that granted you the patience to endure the .180 batting average versus lefties
• an OPS of 1.145 in the 64 PAs when there were two outs and runners in scoring position, which wasn’t a figure that necessarily got a lot of play, but provides statistical evidence to back up the most important production on Lucas Duda’s 2014 ledger.
Duda produced a feeling that, once you knew he was the starting first baseman and you got used to the idea that it was a temporary or default or honorary designation, he was going to come through. And he made good on that feeling. Maybe not always, but enough.
There was a pair of homers to deliver the Mets their first win (thus averting those haunting 0-162 thoughts) on April 4 against the Reds.
There was a 3-for-3 night versus the Braves on July 8 just as the Mets began to rise now and then to their sporadic occasions.
There was the eight-game stretch in late July when the Mets indicated their traditional second-half swoon might not be so severe. Helping lift the club toward a happier ending was Lucas, batting .310, driving in eleven runs and homering five times, including full-on difference-makers at Milwaukee on a Friday night and a Sunday afternoon.
There were offensive outbursts in Oakland and L.A. in August that yielded three and then five RBIs in respective Mets wins, the latter seeing Duda alertly throwing home to turn an around-the-horn double play into a 5-4-3-2 triple play.
And, as if to validate the Mets’ entire campaign as one lined with genuine progress, there was the rousing final weekend at home against Houston: on Saturday night, September 27, a walkoff homer down the right field line, off a lefty — and amid the distracted shrieks of Austin Mahone’s army of tweenyboppers; and on Sunday afternoon, September 28, a three-run job that landed Lucas his 30th home run and catapulted him past the 90-RBI barrier. As the Closing Day crowd chanted “Doo-DAH!” the man of the moment took a phantom car wash through the dugout (his playful teammates went hiding) and then a sincere curtain call.
It was the first time a Mets first baseman had reached those particular powerful milestones since…well, since 2012. A scant two years earlier, Ike Davis clobbered a 32nd homer and racked up a 90th ribby in Game 162. Somehow, though, Ike’s 32 and 90 never felt as real as Lucas’s 30 and 92. Ike struggled continually in 2012 but hit a bunch of home runs in between nagging bouts of futility. Lucas’s production felt born of perseverance and suggested a player who had broken through and broken out.
The totals were about more than the joyful tyranny of round numbers where Duda was concerned. Ike never seemed fully over whatever plagued him in 2012, so it wasn’t all that surprising that 2013 represented a continuation of his woes (minus the redemptive second-half power surge). Lucas, who first reached the big leagues in September 2010 yet never avoided a return trip to Triple-A until 2014, is inked in for 2015 in a way few Mets are, in that way where you go through the lineup in your head in winter and say, “OK, Duda at first…”
One less doubt, one less question, one more spot at which you nod serenely before wondering what will happen elsewhere on the diamond. When the relative certainties begin to dwarf the lingering mysteries, you can step back and convince yourself that things might be better than you’re used to. After the end of the 1983 season, in the wake of the seventh consecutive extremely sub-.500 record, a Mets fan could take stock of the pieces that were suddenly fitting into place.
Strawberry in right. Wilson in center. Foster, having rebounded from a disastrous 1982, in left. Brooks at third. Youngsters who might or might not be long-term propositions at short and second. No known catcher. But Hernandez at first.
The conclusion thirty-one offseasons ago: if they have that much, even before we get to the pitching, how bad could the Mets be?
Duda became such a staple of Terry Collins’s lineup card at first base that it’s hard to remember that in the first shaky phase of major league career, when his bat was admired but his glove was feared, he was exiled to the outfield. Auditioned in left field in 2010. Carlos Beltran’s successor in right field in 2011. Allowed to roam freely there for 81 games in 2012 (not removed for defensive purposes in the ninth inning of June 1 of that year as only the first no-hitter in Mets history hung in the balance). Shifted to left again for the first chunk of 2013. He’d played more first than outfield coming up through the minors. Then it was decided, given that Davis had put in his claim on first, to get him comfortable in the outfield.
He tried, but it never took.
For four seasons, it kept not taking.
The problem wasn’t that Lucas didn’t use two hands.
It was that he used his two hands. When the TSA ruled it was permissible to bring a baseball bat on board commercial flights, they still wouldn’t allow Lucas Duda’s glove. It was considered too lethal.
You pondered replacements, but Kirk Nieuwenhuis was going to have to heal, Matt den Dekker was going to have to hit…and Lucas Duda was going to have stand somewhere safely for the portions of the game when they took the stick out of his hand.
Then came Eric Young, Jr., who may not have been an ongoing solution in left field when he sped into town in June of 2013, but between his arrival and Marlon Byrd’s renaissance in right, Lucas was squeezed out of the outfield. Those developments, along with Ike’s endless implosion, might have been the best things that ever happened to Duda’s career trajectory. The Mets were forced to play their most viable first base candidate at first base.
And that took.
At first base, Duda’s glove is competent if not classic. At the plate, he’s not quite a classic on-base machine, but he knows how to work a count. He has hit some very long home runs in his time, though he’s not really a classic slugger. Yet his is a classic success story. He kept not making it until he made it. He made it far enough to finish Top Five in two power categories. He made it far enough to earn three points in MVP balloting (“today on the ABC Afterschool Special, ‘A Vote For Lucas’”). He made it far enough to earn a trip to the Far East on MLB’s All-Star tour of Japan. Lucas wasn’t technically an All-Star in 2014, but he played enough like one so he wasn’t stopped at customs.
Some ballplayers are clearly ballplayers. One glance tells you Juan Lagares was born to track deep flies and usher them to their leathery demise. Curtis Granderson in a business suit espousing the attributes of salmon is a ballplayer, despite playing ball at a subpar level in his first go-around as a Met. Some ballplayers you can see the ballplayer within even as you realize it’s going to requite a little waiting for that ballplayer to come out and excel. In his earliest ups, Wilmer Flores looked like he was in the middle of his own dream where he’s suddenly batting with the bases loaded and he may or may not be properly clad. Later, though, you could squint and make out shades of Kevin Mitchell or Jeff Kent, hitters who found places on the field to make themselves worth the defensive angst. If neither of his shoulders is barking, you can picture David Wright literally hopping off a train in the middle of nowhere with his bat, rolling up his sleeves and putting on a show for the folks in the sticks (and then signing so many autographs that he has to literally hop back on the train when it starts to pull out without him).
Lucas Duda looks like an igloo with legs. He’s the guy working in the back of the garage who shrugs when you ask when your car will be ready. There’s a hint of impishness (consider the Closing Day car wash, which was not just baseball-funny but truly funny) that indicates he possesses a personality, but he generally conceals it. He’s certainly not an anti-personality à la Kevin McReynolds, but he’s perfectly willing to personify the is-what-it-is ethos.
He doesn’t reply in interesting fashion to the stream of queries he elicits when he has a big game. Ike did. Not everybody does. You want color? As Joe Franklin would have advised, go to Martin Paint. You want a first baseman who can hit? You’ve got one. And whatever it is the first baseman who can hit has got, when it was left to blossom, it metamorphosed beautifully from perceived impediment to actual asset in 2014 and it doesn’t seem off base to count on it continuing in that direction in 2015. He outlasted Davis. He outlasted Satin. He still doesn’t hit lefties, but the Mets, instead of conducting their offseason as if it was Small Business Saturday, signed accomplished righty batsman Michael Cuddyer to mostly play right field but also take the odd start against southpaws at first.
The Mets are building around soon-to-be 29-year-old Lucas Duda instead of figuring out what to do to him. They’ve got d’Arnaud catching, Lagares in center, Murphy at second if they don’t trade him, Wright coming back from injury at third but still being Wright, Granderson reactivating his ballplaying self probably in left, Cuddyer mostly in right, maybe Flores for real at short.
Plus Duda at first, pasting righthanders, gobbling up more grounders than not, dependably digging low throws from the dirt and inspiring confidence every time he metaphorically flaps his wings.
There are lingering Met mysteries, to be sure, but the relative certainties are beginning to decisively outnumber them. Start piling up the things you’re pretty sure about — such as Duda — and you commence to transforming from a perennially lousy 74-88 to an encouragingly so-so 79-83. Keep piling them up, and your lately so-so squad seems destined to transform further into something undeniably good.
Which begs a simple question: if they have that much, even before we get to the pitching, how bad could the Mets be?
FAITH AND FEAR’S PREVIOUS NIKON CAMERA PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
2005: The WFAN broadcast team of Gary Cohen and Howie Rose
2006: Shea Stadium
2008: The 162-Game Schedule
2009: Two Hands
2012: No-Hitter Nomenclature
2013: Harvey Days
Image courtesy of Getty Images.
My goodness, is it really the 10th time we’ve done this?
Background: I have a trio of binders, long ago dubbed The Holy Books (THB) by Greg, that contain a baseball card for every Met on the all-time roster. They’re in order of matriculation: Tom Seaver is Class of ’67, Mike Piazza is Class of ’98, Jacob deGrom is Class of ’14, etc. There are extra pages for the rosters of the two World Series winners, the managers, and one for the 1961 Expansion Draft. That page begins with Hobie Landrith and ends with the infamous Lee Walls, the only THB resident who neither played for nor managed the Mets.
If a player gets a Topps card as a Met, I use it unless it’s truly horrible — Topps was here a decade before there were Mets, so they get to be the card of record. No Mets card by Topps? Then I look for a minor-league card, a non-Topps Mets card, a Topps non-Mets card, or anything else. Topps had a baseball-card monopoly until 1981, and minor-league cards only really began in the mid-1970s, so cup-of-coffee guys from before ’75 or so are tough. Companies such as TCMA and Renata Galasso made odd sets with players from the 1960s — the likes of Jim Bethke, Bob Moorhead and Dave Eilers are immortalized through their efforts. And a card dealer named Larry Fritsch put out sets of “One Year Winners” spotlighting blink-and-you-missed-them guys such as Ted Schreiber and Joe Moock.
Then there are the legendary Lost Nine — guys who never got a regulation-sized, acceptable card from anybody. Brian Ostrosser got a 1975 minor-league card that looks like a bad Xerox. Leon Brown has a terrible 1975 minor-league card and an oversized Omaha Royals card put out as a promotional set by the police department. Tommy Moore got a 1990 Senior League card as a 42-year-old with the Bradenton Explorers. Then we have Al Schmelz, Francisco Estrada, Lute Barnes, Bob Rauch, Greg Harts and Rich Puig. They have no cards whatsoever — the oddball 1991 Nobody Beats the Wiz cards are too undersized to work. The Lost Nine are represented in THB by DIY cards I Photoshopped and had printed on cardstock, because I am insane.
During the season I scrutinize new card sets in hopes of finding a) better cards of established Mets; b) cards to stockpile for prospects who might make the Show; and most importantly c) a card for each new big-league Met. I also increasingly find new ways of spending money and making this insane pursuit more insane. A year ago I upped the insanity ante by acceding to Greg’s years of gentle campaigning and reworking The Holy Books so the players were in order of matriculation instead of alphabetical within the year of their debuts. This year I’ve started making sure the managers are all represented, including the interim guys. Anybody got a Salty Parker card?
(Apologies to everybody who’s read that a ton of times. Want to read it some more? Previous annals are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.)
Anyway, enough yip-yap. Let’s get to welcoming:
Curtis Granderson: The big free-agent acquisition of the 2012-13 offseason, Granderson arrived to equal parts relief that the Mets were spending money and anxiety that the Mets might be spending money on the wrong player. (See Michael Cuddyer.) He then did little to decide the argument one way or the other, alternating productive stretches with periods as an instant out while remaining unflaggingly courteous and even kindly throughout all the questions that led to. Granderson should move to left field next year and will be taking aim at fences that are closer in right-center, though hitters not wearing Mets garb will be doing the same. Round and round we go. Granderson enters The Holy Books as a Topps Series 2 Met, which means he’s actually a digitally redressed Yankee. Sigh.
Jose Valverde: Relievers attending their last rodeo are interesting exhibits in the stats vs. intangibles debate. A couple of years ago Jason Isringhausen had a serviceable final year with the Mets, but was credited with teaching Bobby Parnell the knuckle-curve and life lessons about being a closer, both of which proved extremely valuable. This year Papa Grande pitched about as well as you’d expect a 36-year-old man with a giant fork sticking out of his back to pitch, but did take Jenrry Mejia, Jeurys Familia, Gonzalez Germen and Rafael Montero under his wing as the leader of the “Dominican Mafia.” (Valverde’s term, not mine.) Germen’s year was wrecked by injuries, but all the others took small to large steps forward. So was acquiring Valverde a mistake by the Mets? That’s a more difficult question to answer than you thought a paragraph ago, isn’t it? Papa Grande will forever be a 2012 Tiger in The Holy Books, excitedly informing God that he’s just done another neat thing.
John Lannan: Lannan joined the team as one of those rotation-insurance guys, but was lit up and excused right after Tax Day. He then spent nearly two months away from Las Vegas, attending to what was described as personal/family stuff. It didn’t work out on the field; I hope it did off the field. 2013 Topps Update card on which he’s a Phillie.
Bartolo Colon: For all the complaining about Colon, he did win 15 games for a mediocre club, show every young pitcher who was paying attention that you don’t need to throw 95 to bedevil enemy batters, and give the rest of us that immortal belly-jiggle GIF. The Mets are now trying to send him elsewhere for the final year of his contract; here’s betting he winds up doing better than anyone would have thought for his new team, too. Topps Series 2 Met, which means he isn’t really a Met in his picture.
Chris Young: No, not the tall one who was hurt all the time (and had a great comeback campaign in Seattle in 2014). This Chris Young seemed like an interesting gamble to return to form after a poor run in Oakland. But he didn’t. Oh boy did he didn’t. Young dropped a ball Castillo-style to lose a game, couldn’t hit and then hung around on the roster forever, gamely answering reporters’ questions about his failures while fans lost their minds. He was finally dumped in August, hooked on with the Yankees, and of course immediately delivered a walk-off homer. The Yankees then resigned him for next year, which one imagines they’ll regret. Topps Team Set photo in which he’s a Photoshopped Oakland A. No, we still don’t have an honest-to-goodness Met photo on a card yet.
Kyle Farnsworth: If I’d told you in spring training that Farnsworth would a) be the Mets’ closer in late April and b) that he’d be the third Mets closer of the year, you’d have responded with a chorus of uh-ohs. Yeah, it was that kind of April. The Mets dumped Farnsworth in mid-May, which had less to do with his performance (he was OK and did some Valverdean mentoring in the pen) than with the “advance consent agreement” he’d signed going into the year — the Mets dropped him to avoid guaranteeing his 2014 salary. As is so often true in modern baseball, this was simultaneously a dick move and a wise one. Farnsworth, understandably furious, vowed revenge and signed on with the Astros. But his Inigo Montoya quest ended in frustration — Houston dropped him a little more than a month later, before he got a chance to face the Mets. 2013 Topps card with Tampa Bay.
Bobby Abreu: Trivia time: Abreu began his career playing for Terry Collins as an Astro facing the Mets and ended it playing for Terry Collins as a Met facing the Astros. The 40-year-old seemed like a veteran too many when he arrived in late April after not playing in 2013. But he won plaudits as a teammate and mentor — the Mets reportedly considered him when they went shopping for a new hitting coach — and as fans we gradually came around to appreciating that we were seeing the last go-round in an excellent career. Abreu exited the sport as a .291 hitter with 2,470 career hits, the last of them a single to left in the fifth inning on Closing Day. This one’s worth watching again — Abreu chugs into first then takes a couple of just-in-case steps towards second, but you can see in his face that he knows he’s never going to get there, and once he turns right instead of left that will be it. He knows it’s time, but a quarter-century of baseball still exerts a powerful pull. 2014 Topps Update card on which he is our first honest-to-goodness Met.
Eric Campbell: The inevitably nicknamed Soup followed a career path familiar to many unfortunate young Mets in recent years — get called up from the minors, hit well, get sat down by Terry Collins for an absurdly long time, hit poorly for some reason. Campbell survived this hazing to emerge as a useful contributor overall, but weren’t we just saying that about Josh Satin? Good luck, Soup. 2014 Las Vegas 51s card. (Update: Campbell got a Topps Heritage High Numbers card. Commence rejoicing.)
Rafael Montero: Montero got lost in the shuffle amid the unexpected emergence of Jacob deGrom, the waiting for Noah Syndegaard and talk-show jackals flopping onto their well-worn fainting couches whenever Matt Harvey dared to something besides sit in a dark room apologizing for having torn a ligament. (It’s fun playing in New York!) When Montero did arrive, he sometimes looked lost and sometimes looked like a world-beater — in other words, he looked like a typical starter in his first big-league go-round. Here’s hoping he isn’t a 2015 Cub or Mariner or D-back … well, unless his becoming one of those would help us by making a great shortstop into a 2015 Met. Fandom, sigh. (Really awesome) 2014 Topps Update card.
Jacob deGrom: Proof that the Mets are not, in fact, a perpetually unlucky franchise doomed to wander the Earth under a little rain cloud. Like everyone else, we’d barely heard of deGrom before this year — the first mention of him in these pages is from spring training and talks, inevitably, about his hair. So of course he wound up as the NL Rookie of the Year, seeming to get better with every start. Harvey, Wheeler, deGrom … it’s enough to make a guy go sit outside Citi Field and wait for April, after years in which attending a game was enough to make a guy go sit outside Citi Field and wait for October. 2014 Topps Update card.
Buddy Carlyle: Like pretty much everybody else, I scoffed when the Mets brought Carlyle in as the sacrificial lamb in a Verdun of a game on May 31 against the Phillies. Which didn’t seem crazy: Since posting an ERA of nearly 10 for the 2009 Braves, Carlyle had been employed by the Nippon Ham Fighters, the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Yankees, the New York Yankees (for 7 2/3 innings), the Gwinnett Braves, the Buffalo Bisons, and the Las Vegas 51s. Good times! But Carlyle didn’t instantly suck that day in Philadelphia. In fact, he got the win … and wound up posting a 1.45 ERA for the season. Guy even got a hit. Nobody knows anything, particularly when the subject is middle relievers. 2014 51s card.
Dana Eveland: See Buddy Carlyle, more or less.
Taylor Teagarden: Brought up when a struggling Travis d’Arnaud was sent to Las Vegas, the rather amazingly named career backup catcher crashed a grand slam in his third-ever Mets at-bat. Teagarden didn’t do much else in his 25 subsequent Mets at-bats and was gone after less than two weeks, but when you hit a grand slam in your first-ever game, you don’t have to do much else. 2014 51s card.
Dilson Herrera: A surprise call-up who began the year in St. Lucie, Herrera more than held his own in 66 Met ABs, showing power, speed and solid instincts. Not bad for a guy who still can’t buy a legal drink. (And points to Mr. Alderson, who got Herrera and Vic Black from the Pirates for a few weeks of Marlon Byrd and the decaying corpse of John Buck.) You never know, but here’s betting Herrera has supplanted Daniel Murphy by the All-Star Break and is a full-fledged star by 2017. 2014 Topps Pro Debut card on which he’s a Savannah Sand Gnat. It’s OK; he’ll have a better one soon.
Erik Goeddel: Who the hell is Erik Goeddel? He pitched in six games this year? If you say so. 2014 51s card.
Dario Alvarez: See Erik Goeddel. 2010 Brooklyn Cyclones card that needs to go back in its binder once Alvarez gets another card. For which a 13.50 ERA during a demitasse of cold coffee is no great guarantee.
As a seven-year-old Mets fan in my first full season of rooting, I gravitated to Ray Sadecki, who passed away Monday at the age of 73, as my favorite Met pitcher who wasn’t Tom Seaver. Seaver ascended to a permanent pedestal on a level all his own in 1969, so in the vast space between him and pitchers who weren’t otherworldly, there was plenty of room for a solid southpaw to garner some secondary allegiance among the impressionable set in 1970. On those defending World Champions who outpitched the National League (best staff ERA, most staff strikeouts) but couldn’t hit their way out of a paper bag (ninth in batting average, tenth in slugging percentage), you couldn’t go wrong with whatever righty or lefty you chose to soak up whatever residual allegiance you hadn’t already devoted to Tom Terrific.
For non-Seaver starters, Jerry Koosman’s face burst through the front page of The Sporting News in approximately every third pack of cards I opened that summer. Gary Gentry flirted hard with a no-hitter in Chicago. Jim McAndrew honorably repped Lost Nation, Ia., winning (and losing) in double-digits. Nolan Ryan occasionally harnessed his unbelievable stuff (8.5 K/9 IP, including 15 in his first start of the year), though too often he didn’t (6.6 BB/9 IP, including 8 in his last start of the year). Out of the pen rode Tug McGraw, and what kid back then wouldn’t be quickly drawn to a McGraw? Tug was the lefthanded complement to Ron Taylor, who Topps informed me held a degree in engineering and was about to engineer 13 saves for a third year in a row. Plus there was Danny Frisella and his indefatigable forkball.
Yet amid that sub-Seaver bounty, I went with Sadecki, a man asked to help defend a championship he had nothing to do with achieving, having been a Giant rather than a Met in 1969. Initially, it was based on his name. “Ray Sadecki.” Never mind how it looks. Listen to how it sounds. Hear it not in your voice but in Bob Murphy’s. “And pitching for the Mets, the lefthander, Ray Sadecki.”
Doesn’t that sound great? I didn’t know the spelling before I heard it. I wasn’t necessarily sure where the first name ended and the last name began or if there was necessarily any daylight in between. “Raceadecky.” Maybe he went by just one name, celebrity-style. Maybe the Mets had an icon on their hands. Like Twiggy. Or Lulu.
Once I deduced that “Raceadecky” was Ray Sadecki, I followed his stats in the Sunday papers and warmed to him even more. Sadecki and Seaver, by my interpretation of the weekly numbers, were carrying this team. Whereas everybody else was muddling along around or under .500, Tom and Ray won all the time. Tom was 14-5 at the All-Star break, Ray 7-2. If everybody was performing up to their standards, the Mets would have been well ahead of Pittsburgh instead of a game-and-a-half behind them.
Seaver slumped to 18-12 in the second half. Sadecki surged to 8-4, which is to say that while I was disappointed Tom didn’t win 20, I was thrilled that Ray finished with twice as many wins as losses. The next year, Ray was 7-7, which I fully understood was a comedown from 8-4, but I liked what I considered the “consistency” of how Sadecki achieved .500: After falling to 5-5 in late August of 1971, his next four decisions were a win, a loss, a win and a loss. I have since learned that would indicate “inconsistency,” but he didn’t lose more than he won and thus Sadecki seemed the epitome of comity.
Let’s play two, probably! (Image courtesy The Shlabotnik Report.)
In recalling my childhood fondness for the pitcher whose name and numbers captivated me when I was seven and eight, I sought out an image of one of his baseball cards from that period. The 1971 model uncovered a lost memory of sorts, and I don’t misplace too many memories. It may not even been a memory as much a feeling. On the front, we see Sadecki in action. He has wound up, he is in the process of delivering, he is just, at the moment of photography, releasing the ball from his fingertips. From our vantage point behind home plate, we can’t see the batter, though we know he is righthanded. We see an umpire, but can’t identify him. The catcher, though, is easy to make out, for there’s a visible zero beneath his backwards batting helmet.
That’s Duffy Dyer, ol’ No. 10, crouching to catch Ray Sadecki, ol’ No. 33. It is afternoon at Shea Stadium (we see another “0” in the picture from the “410” marker in center…back when outfield distances stayed stable almost every year). As I was examining the picture, it gently occurred to me that this battery made all the sense in the world because if Sadecki was throwing to Dyer, it was probably during the back end of a Sunday doubleheader from 1970.
I had no proof, other than the sense that on a staff featuring so much young talent, Seaver in particular but also Koosman and Gentry were going to get priority to stay in rotation. When you had a doubleheader, you’d be inclined to use somebody you felt comfortable being flexible with…somebody who felt comfortable being flexible. Ray Sadecki, the veteran starter who came up with the Cardinals a decade earlier, was the one who’d get slotted where he was needed depending on the situation.
Thanks to Baseball Reference, I was able to discern that of Ray Sadecki’s 62 starts for the Mets between 1970 and 1974, 10 of them came in doubleheaders and 9 of them came in second halves of doubleheaders. Seven of those doubleheader starts were at Shea; three, in 1970 and ’71, came on a Sunday (perhaps explaining why I was driven to track down his statistics in the Sunday Times).
“I’d love to be in the rotation,” Sadecki said after five-hitting the Braves in 1971, when he was the elder statesman of the staff at 30. “But who are you gonna sit down for me? I’ll wait for the next doubleheader, or the next time somebody turns up lame.”
I could go through the box scores and determine who actually played behind Ray Sadecki and in front of Duffy Dyer on such Sundays, but I’ll go with the mind’s eye and assume Dave Marshall — who was traded to the Mets with Sadecki for Jim Gosger and Bob Heise two months after the 1969 World Series — was in right and Teddy Martinez was filling in at short or second. This was life when you kept close tabs on the early 1970s Mets: second games of twinbills, your backup catcher, your fourth outfielder, your utility infielder and, of course, your swingman. Most of the time you looked to Seaver and Shamsky and Harrelson and Grote and so on. But you needed an entire team to compete and contend. Even when you had as much pitching as the Mets usually had, you needed a guy who had been around and who would do what it would take.
You needed Raceadecky.
The more I thought about the legacy of Ray Sadecki, the shall we say “swingy-er” he became. He was a starter among all those more celebrated starters, yes, but he was a reliever, too. When you get to 1973, when the Mets competed just enough to contend and contended just enough to prevail, Ray was a part of it, but a different part of it. He was definitely more a reliever than a starter under Yogi Berra than he was under Gil Hodges. He could still go both ways, but came mostly from the bullpen. Down the stretch in ’73, McGraw wasn’t the only lefty reliever converting nonbelievers.
Ray Sadecki saved perhaps the most remarkable game of that September, taking over in the fifteenth inning in Montreal on September 7 and nailing down a 3-2 victory in which Tug had pitched 5⅓ for the win (and Mike Marshall went 8⅓ only to lose). And Ray was the winning pitcher on the night of September 20, pitching four innings and striking out six Bucs at Shea before Ron Hodges drove in the deciding run in the thirteenth. Sadecki had a little help in the top of that inning; after giving up a long fly ball to Dave Augustine, he recorded the final out on a 7-6-2 double play, Jones to Garrett to Hodges, when Richie Zisk attempted to score from first.
That was the ball that hit the top of the wall but didn’t go out, arguably the single most miraculous play in regular-season Met history. It was thrown by Ray Sadecki — same as the final out of the fourth game of the 1973 World Series, a more routine resolution. By striking out Bert Campaneris to preserve Jon Matlack’s 6-1 lead, Sadecki was credited with a save (under the more generous scoring rules of the day), a nice companion to the World Series W he inked onto his dossier nine years earlier when he beat the Yankees for the Cardinals in 1964’s Game One.
The Mets won eight World Series games at Shea Stadium. Two of them were captured in what has come to be known as “walkoff” fashion. The one that concluded 1969’s festivities was completed by the man who started it, Koosman. The other five resulted in home team saves, each registered by a different Met. Three of them were the product of their team’s primary fireman: McGraw in Game Four of 1973, Jesse Orosco in Game Seven of 1986 and Armando Benitez in Game Three of 2000; one came from a future Hall of Famer, Ryan, in Game Three of 1969; and one was the handiwork of Ray Sadecki, who won 20 games for the ’64 Cardinals but didn’t put on airs about taking on whatever task was at hand for the ’73 Mets. As Gil Hodges put it a couple of years earlier, “He has the right approach. He’s able to accept whatever job comes his way.”
There is something singular about Ray Sadecki that goes beyond his aesthetically pleasing name and triple-word score in trivia value. We go back to that job description: swingman. It means someone who can swing from relieving to starting to relieving and be effective enough at it so you don’t hesitate to ask him do both. Nobody in the 53-year history of the New York Mets was a more relied-upon swingman than Ray Sadecki. No pitcher swung more (which reminds me: Ray swung for a .213 average as a Met hitter, the best batting average by any Met pitcher with at least 100 plate appearances).
In the six seasons in which he was a Met — all of 1970-1974, until he was traded with perennial prospect Tommy Joe Moore for elusive-turned-erstwhile Never Met Joe Torre, and then his brief pre-retirement Recidivist Met encore in 1977 — Sadecki pitched in 165 games, starting 62, relieving in 103. According to Baseball Reference’s Play Index tool, no Met who started that many games ever relieved in so many and no Met who relieved in so many games ever started as many.
It’s not even close. And if you infer by his situational usage that Sadecki must’ve been little more than sacrificial spot starter when called upon, infer otherwise. Ray threw 13 complete games, including three shutouts, as a Met. Not bad for someone who never fully cracked the Met rotation or started more than 20 games in any of his Met seasons.
Today we’re used to every pitcher being assigned a role and being stuck narrowly inside it until further notice. It takes a veritable sea change to use a pitcher to do something he wasn’t doing last week. In 2014, we witnessed a rarity: a starter, Jenrry Mejia, not only moving to the bullpen, but becoming the closer, roughly following the trajectory established in the 1960s by McGraw. Thing is, Mejia (who came up as a reliever in 2010, got hurt and was reborn as a starter in 2013) isn’t going to start for the Mets again unless something goes amazingly awry.
We saw Aaron Heilman struggle as a starter when he came up in 2003, eventually excel — he threw a one-hitter early in 2005 — but then be consigned to the bullpen, never moving back to starting, even when the Mets were groping for a trustworthy arm in the years to follow. We also saw the Mets attempt to do something Heilmanesque with Dave Mlicki, who started almost exclusively in 1995 and relieved almost exclusively in 1996. But then Dave was shifted back to the rotation in 1997 and stayed there without another bullpen appearance before he was traded to the Dodgers in 1998.
Conversely, you’ve occasionally had Mets who were asked to get used to the majors as relievers or refine their form as relievers but whose predominant role on the Mets was starter. Or you’ve had starters who faded from the rotation and wound up relegated to the pen. You pretty much have to go back to Terry Leach to find a pitcher you could think of as a true swingman. Leach saved the 1987 season when starters were dropping left and right from injury, but once a wave of health took hold, Leach was back in the bullpen for the entirety of his remaining time as a Met. And prior to Leach — excepting for McGraw’s handful of starts to rouse him from funks in 1973 and 1974 — smooth shifting between roles wasn’t done all that much, not even in the pre-save era, at least by the same pitcher on a recurring basis. Galen Cisco came closest to pulling it off, starting 61 times and relieving 65 times between 1962 and 1965, the four worst seasons in Mets history.
But Sadecki did it continually and did it effectively for mostly good teams, including a league champion. In four of his five full Met seasons, he started at least 10 games and relieved in at least 9 games. In his best WAR year as a Met, 1971 (when his won-lost record was a “consistent” 7-7), he started 20 times and relieved 15 times. By modern metrics, he was worth 3.4 wins above replacement in ’71. Only Seaver and McGraw delivered more pitching value…and you generally knew whether they were going to start or relieve.
You never knew with Raceadecky. But once I figured out he was Ray Sadecki, I sure knew that I liked him.
He was born.
He picked up a baseball.
He threw it.
He was about to be as good at it as anyone who has ever lived.
He joined a baseball team that had been as bad at its profession as any group that works with baseballs had ever been.
He made them better.
Everyone in his midst matured.
All of them together became the best.
All of them together won all there was to win.
He himself was recognized as the prime reason.
He was considered the best at what he did.
He, who was 24 years and 11 months old, appeared to be a fully realized individual on and off the baseball field.
One month and one day later, he turned 25.
Forty-five years after that — today — Tom Seaver turned 70 years old.
It was bound to happen and it has happened.
Most 1969 Mets who have lived this long are at least 70 years old.
None who populated their World Series roster is, at this moment, younger than 66.
Wayne Garrett will be 67 on December 3.
Only one is older than 80.
Ed Charles turned 81 on April 29.
Only four who are still with us have passed 75: Charles, J.C. Martin, Ron Taylor and Al Weis.
Two others who have passed on would have been at least 75: Donn Clendenon and Don Cardwell.
When you subtract the 45 years it has been since 1969 from 75, you get 30.
That was a loaded number in 1969.
“Don’t trust anyone over 30,” it was said by some in a context wholly unrelated to baseball.
The Mets of 1969 were mostly under 30.
The whole lot of them, though, were implicitly trusted, deep inside an era when everything was being questioned.
All of them — the ones under 30, the ones over 30 — won a championship and the faith of millions.
Taken as a whole, they seemed awfully young, even in the realm of a kids’ game.
Now all of them who are still with us (which encompasses 20 of the 25 Mets from that World Series roster) are nearly 70, right at 70 or somewhere over 70.
Which was bound to happen and it has happened.
So Weis, who hit the homer that tied Game Five, is 76; and Cleon Jones, who scored the go-ahead run, is 72; and Jerry Koosman, who threw the final pitch, is 71.
And Tom Seaver, who spoke for all sentient peoples outside the state of Maryland when he declared the Mets’ victory over the Orioles as “the greatest feeling in the world,” is 70.
Those of us who watched them and idolized them and relished their legend as we grew up and thought of them as not necessarily having been under 30 or over 30, but as 100-62…we’ve done some aging, too.
We’ve aged enough so that I am moved to revisit a thought I expressed in September of 2005, when 1969 was 36 years removed from the present, and I was 42, and we mourned the loss of the Most Valuable Player from that World Series:
“What I can’t get over in absorbing the news that Donn Clendenon has passed away is that the ’69 Mets have 70-year-old men.”
When you are six years old and watching your favorite baseball team win the World Series, everybody on TV is unfathomably older than you.
When you begin to comprehend the difference in ages as you go along in life, you decide certain numbers are young; others are not exactly old but are getting there; and, up the line, everything sounds ancient.
But as you get further along, nothing sounds impossibly old.
Because you’re old enough to know better.
You allow for the occasional jolt.
Jamie Moyer comes off the mound for good at 49, leaving you, at last, with no major leaguer you can call your senior.
Jose Reyes, whose calling card will always be that grin of impetuous youth, is now not only 31, but the de facto Longest Ago Met Still Active.
Dwight Gooden, never not cited in deference to what he did at 19 and 20 when the latest phenom explodes onto the pitching scene, just hit the half-century mark (Doc always did like to hit).
Yet, really, nothing about age surprises you anymore.
Tom Seaver was 22 when he emerged as National League Rookie of the Year and the best Met ever simultaneously.
He was 24 when he and 24 teammates won the World Series.
He was 25 when he struck out 19 batters in one game, the last 10 of them in succession.
He was 26 when he won his 20th game in his last start of what was the best season of his already certifiably brilliant career.
He was 27 when he won his 100th game.
He was 28 when he won a second Cy Young Award and led the Mets to another pennant.
He was 30 when he set another strikeout record and won another Cy Young.
He was 32 when he left town on business.
He was 38 when he came home.
He was 39 when he was called away again.
He was 40 when he won his 300th game while wearing a set of horizontally striped pajamas.
He was 42 when he retired as a Met, or as much of one as he could.
He was 43 when he bowed to his public as his number was framed on Shea Stadium’s outfield wall.
He was 47 when he was inevitably enshrined in Cooperstown.
He was 54 when he returned to Flushing to broadcast his old team’s games.
He was 61 when his appearances at Shea became recurring guest spots.
He was 63 when he closed the old ballpark down.
He was 64 when he lit the new ballpark up.
He was 68 when he delivered the ceremonial first-pitch benediction to the new ballpark’s first showcase event, an All-Star Game to be started by 24-year-old Met ace Matt Harvey, who had been sensational enough when he debuted at 23 to inspire immediate comparisons to Tom Seaver, who threw his last official competitive pitch on September 19, 1986, just over two-and-a-half years before Harvey was born.
Tom Seaver is 70 today.
He is one of eighteen 1969 Mets — World Series roster and otherwise — who are 70-year-old men.
Age is as unrelenting as it is relative.
He’ll always be 41 to me.
In the spirit of one Miss Mary Richards, a spunky Minneapolis television news producer who probably rooted for the Rod Carew Twins if she rooted for any baseball team between 1970 and 1977, we offer a pressing two-part question.
1) Who can turn Mets fans on with his smile?
2) Who just took a nothing year and suddenly made it all seem worthwhile?
Well, it’s Jacob deGrom, folks — and he should know it; with each pitch and every little movement he showed it. Now the National League Rookie of the Year should know something else, namely that he is Faith and Fear in Flushing’s Most Valuable Met of 2014.
Cue toss of Mets cap in air.
In a season that needed a Jacob deGrom, we got a Jacob deGrom. We got a really good pitcher who got on a really great roll and we got a really good story that captivated us with really little advance notice. You put it all together, as Jacob did between the time he came up in May and the time he mowed down batters in September, you’ve got a Met who put an indelible imprint on a campaign that was otherwise drifting toward all too familiar oblivion.
You’ve also got a pitcher who’s got spunk. And we love spunk.
DeGrom defined the Mets season when it lacked meaning. Definitive deGrom came to stand for something special.
• For strikeouts. Most notable were the record-tying eight in a row he reeled off to commence his September 15 outing against the Marlins, the night that won deGrom the full and focused attention of the baseball world (even if his bullpen eventually lost the game). In all, deGrom struck out 144 batters in 140⅓ innings, including 23 in 13 over his final two starts.
• For consistency. Between July 8 and September 21, Jacob made 12 starts and all but one of them was “quality”: six innings or more, three earned runs or less…usually less. His ERA in the deGrom dozen: 1.90. The Mets won nine of those twelve; the pitcher won eight of nine.
• For story. What wasn’t there to love about Jacob deGrom? If he wasn’t the total package, his contents were increasingly intriguing the more we saw of them. The unconventional spelling of the last name. Those flowing and luxurious locks. The ability to hit like the position player he’d been in college a scant four years earlier. The hypelessness of this great, righthanded hope.
Some of it you could see right away, but maybe the best part of deGrom’s 2014 is that most of us didn’t see it coming at all. Baseball America ranked him 10th among Mets prospects entering 2014; Baseball Prospectus didn’t have him in its Top 10; Amazin’ Avenue placed him 15th out of 25; Mets Minor League Blog 16th of 41. When you heard him mentioned, as late as March, you thought there was an extra syllable to him, as in “and deGrom”. He was generally the last Triple-A pitching prospect rattled off, after Noah Syndergaard, after Rafael Montero, after nobody else was readily available to take a Subway Series start in mid-May.
DeGrom made his major league debut at Citi Field against the Yankees and impressed: 7 IP, 4 H, 2 BB, 1 ER, 6 SO. There was no going back to Las Vegas and no detour to the bullpen. His first win required an eighth start and seven innings of shutout ball in Miami, but once he scaled that hump, he was on his way to pretty much excelling every fifth day. Inexperience didn’t stop him. A second trip around the league didn’t stop him. The briefest of DL stints didn’t stop him. Like the Mets down their version of the stretch (17-11), he only got better.
Yet even hindsight doesn’t indicate we saw him coming. Matt Harvey in 2012 and Zack Wheeler in 2013 were not only seen coming, their every step along the way was tracked, detailed and heralded. DeGrom, conversely, was no hot child in the city. He just showed up and pitched like a phenom without attendant phenomenal publicity, which probably made his success that much more delicious.
If the core of our Mets rotation of dreams — Harvey, Wheeler, deGrom, Syndergaard, and the survivor among Montero, Matz, Niese and Gee — becomes reality, it will always be true that only one showed up simply when he showed up and performed without expectations. Pending any further hardware earned by Syndergaard, Montero or Steven Matz, we know that the one who arrived without as much as elevator talk about how good he was going to be was good enough to win Rookie of the Year.
Which is something you can win only once, and deGrom won it. When he did so earlier this week, it felt unprecedented in modern Mets history, probably because it was. Four previous Rookie of the Year awards are displayed among the Mets’ most cherished mementoes, of course, but none had been captured in thirty years. There was Seaver in ’67, Matlack in ’72, Strawberry in ’83, Gooden in ’84…and then the procession stopped cold. Even the near Met misses over which some of us still grip grudges — Hunt/Rose 1963, Koosman/Bench 1968, Henderson/Dawson 1977 — were ancient.
Whatever became of Mets Rookies of the Year?
Farm systems ebb and flow. The Mets’ ebbed a whole lot between Gregg Jefferies’s splashy debut (he won ROY votes in both 1988 and 1989) and Jay Payton’s long-delayed breakthrough in 2000. Between their respective third-place finishes, freshman Mets garnered only scattered support in the 1990s, with Bobby Jones, Jason Isringhausen and Rey Ordoñez finishing out of the money in their respective neophyte seasons’ voting.
To paraphrase Cubs fans regarding their fallow century, anybody can have a bad decade. But after Payton, ROY things appeared no more promising for the Mets. The award that signals something good is about to happen stayed well out of their grasp. From 2001 to 2013, Ty Wigginton, Jose Reyes, Kaz Matsui and Ike Davis combined for five points’ worth of third-place votes. Harvey, Wheeler and David Wright combined for zero, or one less than the one point apiece Jeurys Familia and Travis d’Arnaud pulled down this year.
The overall story of the Mets from Reyes in 2003 and Wright in 2004 to Harvey in 2012 and Wheeler in 2013 was a lack of rookie talent good enough to gain award consideration. But the subtext, particularly in recent years, was the Mets, probably without meaning to, avoided the chance to have a night like they did with deGrom this past Monday. Wheeler had to be confined to the farm so his service-time clock didn’t start ticking. Same for Harvey. Same for Davis, come to think of it. The Mets were keeping a farsighted eye on the future but demonstrated a crying need for corrective lenses where seeing what was right in front of them was concerned.
Super Two was a big subject for their big prospects in 2012 and 2013. It was a prominent topic in 2014 when the promotion of their biggest prospect, Syndergaard, was broached. DeGrom? Not a big prospect. Nobody mentioned Super Two on May 15 when he was handed the ball and asked to hold the Yankees in check. Nobody gave a second thought to how his arbitration and free agency eligibility would be affected when he struck out eleven Phillies on May 31. Nobody groaned about how much it might cost the Mets when he was taking care of the Braves, the Marlins, the Mariners, the Brewers and the Giants in successive starts in July and early August. The only issue that concerned us was how did Billy Hamilton’s speed and defense stack up against Jacob deGrom’s win after win?
We were thinking about a Met being Rookie of the Year for the first time since, really, Gooden. Doc had no genuine competition in 1984. DeGrom’s only authentic foe was Hamilton, unless you counted time. Hamilton had been up with the Reds from Opening Day onward. He had hype. He had numbers in April while Jacob had a month in Vegas. But Hamilton stalled, deGrom blossomed and all those strikeouts in September put our guy over the top.
It was invigorating for a Met to not only be a part of that conversation let alone on top of that conversation. I don’t know how tangible a Rookie of the Year award is in terms of franchise value, but I have to believe having one in the middle of your immediate future plans is worth whatever the Mets might have to cough up to pay deGrom when he’s eligible for arbitration in 2018 and/or becomes a free agent in 2021. The last line of the announcement the Mets sent to their fans after the prize became Jacob’s included an invitation to “catch Jacob deGrom and the rest of the 2015 Mets with a Season Ticket Plan,” so it certainly seems marketable.
Winning usually is.
FAITH AND FEAR’S PREVIOUS MOST VALUABLE METS
2005: Pedro Martinez
2006: Carlos Beltran
2007: David Wright
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Pedro Feliciano
2010: R.A. Dickey
2011: Jose Reyes
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Daniel Murphy, Dillon Gee and LaTroy Hawkins
Still to come: The Nikon Camera Player of the Year for 2014.