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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Rising to the Ashes

Every fall, the postseason brings three individual awards: the NLCS MVP; the ALCS MVP; the World Series MVP. I inevitably stay tuned after championships are determined to find out who won each respective series MVP, never thinking that it’s odd that a prize is about to be presented for a performance spanning as few as four and no more than seven games. Likewise, I always hang around to learn who the MVP of the All-Star Game is, and that is literally about how well somebody did in just one game — a game that doesn’t count (and a game in which almost nobody plays the entire game).

This all seems normal behavior in the realm of baseball fandom, yet when the Faith and Fear in Flushing Awards Committee commenced to contemplate who would receive the coveted Richie Ashburn Most Valuable Met award for 2020, FAFIFAC paused. The Mets, as you know, played a sixty-game season this year, more than a hundred games off the norm. Ascertaining value within this smallest of full-season sample sizes struck the committee as an exercise doomed to incompleteness. Was that really a season? And, other than having something new to watch on TV sixty times, was there any value in it?

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America signaled yes and yes, as the BBWAA gave out all its usual MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year and Manager of the Year awards in November despite the absurdly low totals it was determined to recognize. That the season didn’t feel quite authentic was beside the point. It was called a season. Players played in it. That, apparently, was enough.

After months of delay and doubt, we had what we agreed was a 2020 Mets season. But was there “Most Valuable” value demonstrated by any of the 26-34 Mets? Far be it from us to dismiss a sub-.500 team from the realm of individual praise. FAFIFAC renamed its MVM in honor of Ashburn in 2017 precisely because Richie was chosen by beat writers in 1962 as the Original Mets’ MVP. Ashburn was a touch bewildered by the designation — “Most Valuable Player on the worst team ever. Just how did they man that?” — but in our minds, a precedent was set. No Mets team is so bad that you can’t say somebody hadn’t stuck out as good…or at least stuck around, and that was good. Maybe, then, we can say that no Mets season is so brief that somebody doesn’t accomplish a few things that deserve lasting recognition.

What’s inescapable, however, is the lack of length prevented a traditional course of MVM events from emerging. There was no palpable first half or second half. There was no stretch drive. There wasn’t a long enough haul from which a single Met could truly emerge as vital or triumphant or a model of perseverance. There were just sixty mostly messy games plopped onto a shapeless grid of a semi-schedule sanctioned seemingly for the amusement of corrugated cutouts. Within this bizarre atmosphere, the Mets never really got going. They just got gone.

But FAFIFAC likes to give out its awards, so it will, but with a caveat: this was quite obviously no normal year, so we are presenting here not the normal Richie Ashburn Most Valuable Met award, but, for 2020 (and hopefully never again), the RichAshes: truncated trinkets for what proved a disposable seasonette. We still sincerely salute our winners, we’re just sorry they didn’t get a fuller chance to totally show their stuff.

True, had 162 games been played, maybe some other Met would have come along and surpassed them in our estimation, but we’ll never know. We only know what we experienced in 2020. Most of it wasn’t worth preserving let alone cherishing. But what these guys did wound up more than a little cut above the rest.

Prelude stated, the RichAshes of 2020 go to Michael Conforto and Dom Smith, co-MVMs in a compressed context. They individually made the most of the Mets’ limited run and were, together, the most compelling reason to keep tuning in nightly, even when shtickless stalwart for all seasons Jacob deGrom wasn’t pitching. If we could, we’d give them each their very own Amphicar, just like the one Ron Hunt won as sole MVP on the 1963 Mets. But since they’re reasonably chummy to begin with, we’d like to imagine they’d happily share one, given that Amphicars are tough to come by these days.

A most valuable prize for all seasons.

The Smith-Conforto combo seems a most appropriate choice when considering each enjoyed a particularly scalding chunk of baseball when either could have been on his way to traditional Ashburn honors. For a while, Michael Conforto looked like NL MVP timber for any season. Perhaps it was because the Mets never legitimately contended — and probably because elite offense ran rampant practically everywhere — no BBWAA voter officially noticed a batting average of .322, an on-base percentage of .412 and a slugging percentage of .515. The shadow cast by the onslaught of hot-hitting Braves, Padres, Sotos and Mookies blanketed any attention Conforto might have gotten, and Michael received no votes for league MVP.

On the other hand, Dom Smith hit so much that the writers had to mark their ballots with pens containing thimblefuls of orange and blue ink. After riding the bench on Opening Day, Dom started starting and making the most of his opportunity. The slash line of .316/.377/.616 is not only impressive to the naked eye, but it represents a sizable jump in every category over anything he posted in previous years. Smith’s 10 homers in 50 games nearly matched his 2019 total of 11 launched in 89 games. The voters noticed, placing Dom 13th in the MVP race, the only Met to garner any support and pretty good for a team whose offensive noise didn’t amount to much in the way of winning.

The most recent set of Mets consolidated as a strange collective creature when it came to batting. Remember how they started the baseball portion of 2020? They were putting runners on by the baseload but had a hard time shaking them loose from first, second and third — particularly second and third. Here are some of their in-game RISP performances as the season got going:

July 26 — 1 for 8
July 29 — 3-for-14
July 30 — 1-for-10
August 1 — 1-for-10
August 2 — 1-for-15

Not surprisingly, those were all losses. After stranding oodles of runners in scoring position, the Mets fell to 3-7 and never really recovered. Eventually they began to drive one another in with a little more regularity, yet an offensive rhythm eluded them. Consider that when it came to leaguewide OPS+, the metric designed to factor ballpark conditions into combined on-base and slugging percentage, the NL East champion Atlanta Braves placed fourth; the top Wild Card and holder of the second-best overall record Slam Diego Padres placed third; and the eventual world champion L.A. Dodgers placed second. Who did all those juggernauts look up to in this presumably very telling category?

The also-ran New York Mets, whose 122 OPS+ topped the senior circuit. Yet who came in seventh among total runs scored, well behind the Dodgers, Braves and Padres? Those same New York Mets, whose 286 runs checked in just slightly above the league average.

When the Mets didn’t drive in runs, from whatever base, the hole they left in their wake was gaping. But when they did score, they seemed to do it in gobs — in one of every ten games, they scored in double-digits; in three of every ten, they scored at least seven — and when the Mets scored gobs of runs, it was Michael and Dom doing much of the gobbling.

Most of the runs in creation came courtesy of these guys.

Runs created is a measure originally crafted by Bill James to gauge just how effective all the hitting a given player is in…well, creating runs. “To put runs on the scoreboard,” the godfather of modern advanced statistics posited, is the whole idea of getting on base, never mind slugging. Best among the 2020 Met run creators were Smith and Conforto, each weaving 42. In the realm of weighted runs created plus, or wRC+, which has nothing to do with RC Cola but everything to do with external factors like ballparks and overall league performance, Conforto (13th) and Smith (19th) were, by FanGraphs’ reckoning, the only two Mets to land in the NL’s Top 20.

In traditional and perhaps more easily digestible numbers suitable for the weekend after Thanksgiving, Dom finished tied for fifth in RBIs in the National League; Michael was seventh in hits; Smith finished second in doubles behind only MVP Freddie Freeman; and Conforto came in sixth in singles. Conforto’s OBP ranked sixth, while his batting average placed seventh. Smith was tenth in batting average, fourth in slugging. They were both Top Tenners in adjusted OPS+, with Dom in fourth and Michael in tenth.

Dom’s ability to hit for extra bases — 32, most for anybody in the league except for Freeman — stands out even more in light of his not having a position when the year began. Even with the National League giving in to peer pressure and sinfully adopting the designated hitter, a batting order slot specifically designed for a fellow who is more stick than leather, Smith had to sit. Yoenis Cespedes was still around, and the 2020 version of Cespedes was judged not physically capable of patrolling the outfield, where he’d once won a Gold Glove, thus his salary got priority at DH. First base, Dom’s natural habitat, was filled as far as the eye could see by a Polar Bear named Pete. Dom as a left fielder has always had a tough time being taken seriously. As he had in 2019, the man had to wait his turn.

Fortunately, it didn’t take long for Luis Rojas to ascertain a sitting Smith wasn’t nearly as useful to the cause of winning games as one who is depended on regularly. By the second weekend of the season, Yo wrote his ticket out of town by not showing up at the ballpark in Atlanta (and not saying anything to anybody about it until he cited COVID concerns). Suddenly, Dom was a born DH…except, wait a second, he was actually a born first baseman when he was drafted in the first round by the Mets in 2013. Sure, Pete Alonso had marked his territory with his Rookie of the Year/MVM tour de force in 2019, but 2020, as if anybody didn’t notice, was a totally different year. Though Smith was capable of taking reps in left field, more and more we saw Dom back in the infield, starting fourteen of sixteen games at first at one point. His hard-earned versatility reveals itself in the sum totals for the year. Dom took 22 starts at first base, 21 in left field and, perhaps surprisingly, just five as DH, with none of those over the final forty games. It was Alonso (17 designated hitter starts) who had to scoot over to make a little defensive space for Smith.

Where Conforto would play was no more mystery than whether Conforto would play. Michael was a mainstay in right field from Opening Day forward, at least until a hamstring injury ended his season a week early. A corner seemed to have been turned at last in 2020 for the Mets’ top pick of 2014. No one was any longer shifting him to center or left or much questioning his defensive dexterity. No one was proffering trade proposals out of disappointment or impatience with him. Everyone was wondering how soon the new owner would get around to extending him beyond his final year of team control, which arrives next year, one year after Conforto’s must-sign status became universally apparent.

It constituted a bonus to take stock and realize that the Mets’ top selections from back-to-back drafts (chosen by Sandy Alderson, no less) had blossomed in unison. Smith had been picked a year earlier, but Conforto beat him to the bigs by a couple of seasons. They’d each bounced up and down quite a bit. In 2020, though, Michael put together an essentially slump-free season just as Dom was morphing into a vital Met regular. Everything you hoped they could do, they were doing. Everything you weren’t sure they were able to do, you stopped worrying abut. It was a short summer and the quickest of falls, but it was nonetheless a season for coming of age for these maturing teammates. We’re no longer doubting all Conforto can do; we’ve stopped being wary of what Smith can’t do. We’re content to let them play, let them field, let them hit…and we trusted them on one occasion when they let us know maybe the game itself wasn’t the most important thing for the Mets to worry about.

Dom Smith motivated the Mets and their opponents the Marlins to step back from the field on August 27, one night after Dom took a knee during the national anthem out of anguish for what had occurred in Wisconsin. A Black man named Jacob Blake had been shot by police in Kenosha. It wasn’t too many weeks after the life of a Black man named George Floyd had been ended in the name of law enforcement in Minneapolis, an episode that set off protests across the nation. That wasn’t too many weeks after a Black woman named Breonna Taylor had been shot to death by police in Louisville. Floyd and Taylor, like Blake — and Smith — were Black. These surely weren’t the first three times or only three times the existential American question of whether Black lives truly mattered to those in authority was on the table. One would have thought the matter was self-evident, what with everybody being human.

Nor was it the first time that the question came to the arena of sports. Blake’s shooting was too much to bear for his home-state Milwaukee Bucks, and they decided that even isolated in a “bubble,” they wouldn’t play their NBA playoff game on August 26. Sports, never wholly separate from the world in which they are contested, felt the gravitational pull of events. It compelled Smith to silently, peacefully drop to one knee during the ritual playing of The Star-Spangled Banner prior to the Mets-Marlins game that night. Smith was noticeably the only Met to take a knee. Forced by external albeit familiar circumstances to take notice of larger issues, he was also the only African-American player in the Mets starting lineup that night. With Marcus Stroman having opted out for the season because of the pandemic, Smith started and ended 2020 as the only African-American player on the Mets’ active roster; Billy Hamilton joined the Mets in early August but lasted only about a month.

When you watched the Mets in 2019, especially when they came on like Natbusters in the second half, you were taken by their togetherness. They were Mets and they pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Technically, those words are from the Declaration of Independence, but experiencing the Cookie Club vibe from the summer before and through video check-ins during baseball’s hiatus, you believed these guys would stick together through thick, thin and everything in between. These two guys in particular were still, if we filtered out everything else, at the core of a fun crew of Mets answering to silly clubhouse nicknames (“Sloth Bear” for Smith; “Silky Elk” for Conforto). Thus, when you watched Smith kneel alone in 2020, it was discomfiting on multiple levels. I can’t say I know what it feels like to be a Black person in America and have to have it restated repeatedly for a general audience that your life matters until the thought doesn’t come off as controversial, but I do know what it is to be a Mets fan, and I saw one of our own alone out there on the 26th of August. I knew that felt wrong.

Smith, who’d been moved to his gesture by the Bucks and others in sports, wasn’t necessarily looking for company. In his postgame remarks, he said what he’d done was “not for them,” meaning his teammates. He had to do it in the moment. But he also wasn’t taking a knee in a vacuum.

“I think the most difficult part is to see people still don’t care,” he said through tears that night. “For this to just continuously happen, it just shows the hate in people’s heart…and that just sucks, you know? Black men in America, it’s not easy…”

Dom had played despite acknowledging his mind had been elsewhere. The next night, none among the Mets nor Marlins played. While the joint statement that transcended MLB’s usual attempts at performative empathy — both teams lining up for 42 seconds of silence; draping a Black Lives Matter shirt at home plate; departing an even quieter than usual 2020 Citi Field after not playing ball — wasn’t solely Dom’s doing, it was his display of genuine angst the night before that set the stage. And, for what it’s worth (and I think it was worth plenty), it was Conforto, as the Mets’ Players Association representative, who negotiated the symbolism and logistics with his Miami counterpart Miguel Rojas. The night before, Conforto had said of Smith, “His world is much different than mine. So it’s definitely helped me to listen and understand where he’s coming from and where a ton of people are coming from here.”

Within 24 hours, Michael developed a better idea of Dom’s perspective. “It really touched all of us in the clubhouse, just to see how powerful his statements were, how emotional he was,” Conforto said on the 27th. “He’s our brother, so we stand behind him and we stand behind Billy. All the players who stand up against the racial injustice, we stand behind them. And that’s what you saw tonight.”

A most unusual tableau from a most unusual night from a most unusual season.

What we also saw was, in the press availability that followed the Mets and Marlins proactively postponing their game, were Conforto and Smith standing together, alongside veterans Robinson Cano and Dellin Betances, to embody the Mets’ unified front. “It’s still overwhelming at this moment,” Dom said after the two teams voted to not play, “just to see how moved my peers are, my teammates, my brothers, the front office, the coaching staff, everybody who talks to me on a daily basis. Just to see how moved they were, it made me feel really good inside. It made feel like we are on the right path of change.”

It was just one night in a season that didn’t have nearly as many nights or days as usual, and it was surely as unusual a night as one could absorb viewing a ballpark’s activities from afar. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened or been so meticulously scripted had this been a season with a ticket-buying crowd filing into the house. The differences between 2020 and all years before it cannot be stressed enough. Then again, the issues that got to Dom were issues that had been present in his life and his nation’s life for too long. It wasn’t as if the phrase about Blacks lives mattering was invented this year. Perhaps the right path of change is indeed being pursued, even as way more needs to be done. Perhaps there’s only so much you can ask of a couple of ballplayers in their twenties to do about changing the world, particularly when the schedule has them going back to being ballplayers playing ball the next night.

We hope for a lot of things in this world. Dom Smith and Michael Conforto are the kinds of Mets who make you believe that once in a while your hopes don’t go for naught.

FAITH AND FEAR’S PREVIOUS RICHIE ASHBURN MOST VALUABLE METS
2005: Pedro Martinez (original recording)
2005: Pedro Martinez (deluxe reissue)
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
2014: Jacob deGrom
2015: Yoenis Cespedes
2016: Asdrubal Cabrera
2017: Jacob deGrom
2018: Jacob deGrom
2019: Pete Alonso

Still to come: The Nikon Mini Camera Player of the Year for 2020.

A Met For All Seasons, The Mets For Every Season

A Met for All Seasons began as an idea and an email exchange in which your Faith and Fear authors swapped picking seasons and players who’d suited up for the Mets during that season, players who were emblematic of Mets history for a decade or a year or maybe just a few minutes.

That email exchange was, um, in 2011. We do like to take our time.

More self-charitably, what happened was life got in the way, first and foremost the fact that the Mets kept playing baseball games and adding to their history, so there was no particular need to stop this happy/miserable carousel and look back at moments in time through a different lens. At least not until the pandemic brought us a silent spring, two cooped-up authors and a baseball-sized hole in a lot of lives. The idea we’d never quite had time for was at the door, leaning insistently on the bell.

And so, at long last, A Met for All Seasons, here presented in summation. Thanks to all of you for playing along at home, and a tip of the cap to all the teammates we most certainly remember even if they weren’t explicitly profiled in these posts. Hey, maybe next time.

1962: Richie Ashburn

The problem was that Ashburn hated losing. Which is the dark side of the ’62 Mets, the theme that usually stays submerged beneath the funny stories. Stengelese dominated headlines (and distracted the press from the wretchedness of the team), but there was no shortage of ’62 Mets who didn’t find their manager’s act particularly funny, or enjoy being National League doormats. Ashburn’s season came down to Sept. 30, 1962, a sparsely attended Wrigley Field matinee featuring two horrible teams. In the eighth, with the Mets trailing 5-1, Sammy Drake singled and Ashburn whacked a 2-2 pitch between first and second, singling and moving Drake up a base. Joe Pignatano came up … and hit into a triple play. (The Man Who Walked Away)

1963: Ron Hunt

In 1963, Ron Hunt was a player. The Mets had themselves a player. Not one to remember from distant better days or mock or pity or grow as old as Casey Stengel waiting for to develop, but one you could pay your money to enjoy right now and soon thereafter. This flirtation with eptitude grabbed attention throughout the Metropolitan Area and well beyond. (First Star I See Tonight)

1964: Rod Kanehl

Kanehl played baseball hell for leather. Fans loved that. He also played it intelligently, with sound instincts and a hunger to learn. His teammates and coaches respected that. The problem was that for all his verve and brains, Kanehl didn’t play baseball very well. He saw time at seven positions in ’62, a sign of admirable versatility … except for the fact that he somehow made 32 errors playing those positions. Herein lies a question to ponder: Is a utility player who can’t actually play any position still a utility player? (The First Patron Saint of Ridiculous Causes)

1965: Ron Swoboda

Swoboda has always understood what that summer meant to the fans, and refused to see what he did and what we did as disconnected. He has always been willing to bridge that gap, and make us feel like it doesn’t have to exist, even though he and we know better. “I never felt above anyone who bought a ticket — I just had a different role than they did,” he’s said. “We were part of the same phenomenon.” (My Swoboda)

1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice

What happened? I can’t find a record of a significant injury, or some mischance that derailed Fitzmaurice’s career. He simply never ignited the way that 1964’s record of successes suggested he would. And there’s no shame in that. It’s easy to forget it, watching the best players in the world plying their trade on TV or down there on the field, but baseball’s really hard. The vast majority of “next Mickey Mantles” turn out to be the latest somebody elses, not because they’re unworthy but because the game is grueling and demanding and fickle and unfair. (The Prince of Proximity)

1967: Al Schmelz

The problem, I soon discovered, was that it was easier to find Jimmy Hoffa than to locate a decent color photo of Al Schmelz in a baseball uniform.  A couple of Mets yearbooks had pictures of him grouped with other guys invited to camp — but they were always small and in black and white. He’s in the team photos — in glorious color, no less — in the ’67 and ’68 yearbooks, but of course he’s in the back, almost completely blocked by his teammates. So I did the best I could. (The Great White Whale of Arizona)

1968: Cleon Jones

The biggest moment in Mets history is also one of the quietest. You’ve seen it: With two outs in the ninth of Game 5 of the 1969 World Series, Davey Johnson hits a fly ball to left. At first the ball looks like it has the distance to be trouble, but the peril is illusory. Its momentum dies in the cool air of October and gravity pulls it down, to where Cleon Jones is waiting at the edge of the warning track. He catches it with two hands, almost gingerly, and then both his glove and his knee come down, until his knee brushes the dirt and his hands are clasped — as if in prayer, or benediction, or a little of both. (A Mobile Moment)

1969: Donn Clendenon

The exchange of players from June 15, 1969, however, transpired in a whole other beautiful world, one where Mets general manager Johnny Murphy could look at the roster he and his predecessors had been crafting when no one was taking them seriously and realize they were at last at the juncture when that mythic big bat could make a meaningful noise. Enter the strong, long and lanky Clendenon, albeit a couple of years removed from his most muscular production (28 home runs, 98 runs batted in and a .299 average in 1966 — adding up to an OPS+ of 141, not that anyone knew what the hell that was then). But the 1969 Mets, while they craved a legitimate cleanup hitter, didn’t necessarily have to have a superstar; nor were they willing to give up too much of their awesome young pitching to nab one. They needed someone who’d been around the league, someone who could get around on a fastball, and someone who would be OK playing sometimes. They needed a dependable right-handed hitting first baseman to complement their perennially developing lefty-swinging incumbent Ed Kranepool. Kranepool was 24. Clendenon was a month from 34. Between them, they averaged out as a 29-year-old switch-hitter, forging an ideal everyday player within Gil Hodges’s platoon of platoons. (With & Without Donn Clendenon)

1970: Tommie Agee

Guy hits home runs. Guy steals bases. Guy continues to make great catches in center field and becomes the first Met to win a Gold Glove. Is it any wonder the guy becomes the talk of day camp in the summer of 1970? Tommie Agee is the name I remember taking up the most Met talk when I talked Mets with other seven-year-olds. Slugging, sprinting, snaring…that’ll get kids’ attention. He was fearsome in his talent, approachable in his demeanor. Me, I liked to talk about Tom Seaver, but I didn’t mind hearing about Tommie Agee. It was a good Tom to be a kid. (Mutual Attraction)

1971: Tom Seaver

It was very important in the summer of 1971 that when I was assigned to a Long Beach Recreation Center Pee Wee League baseball team that I got to wear 41. I worried that because of my late registration (our family tended to be late for everything) that I’d miss out on the plum number because, c’mon, it was 1971 and didn’t every kid want to wear 41? Wasn’t every eight-year-old’s favorite player Tom Seaver? (My Seminal Seaver Summer of ’71)

1972: Gary Gentry

Some of the Miracle Mets had retired because they were old, at least for baseball, but others had disappeared before their time — what had become of Rod Gaspar, or Jack DiLauro? As I kept reading and learning, I figured out that Gaspar and DiLauro had been the last guys on the roster, the kind of guys who had to keep fighting for big-league jobs. But that still left one mystery: What had happened to Gary Gentry? (Pitchers Break)

1973: Willie Mays

I wouldn’t have traded those two years of Willie Mays for anything or anybody. I wouldn’t have traded him for Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench or any of the in-their-prime future Hall of Famers from the All-Star Game three years earlier. I wouldn’t have asked to have Charlie Williams back had Charlie Williams gone to California and turned into Nolan Ryan rather than remaining Charlie Williams. I had Willie Mays as a New York Met when I was nine and ten. Maybe Willie was too old to play like he did when he was a kid, but I was old enough to get why it didn’t matter. I got the New York Giants connection. I got the meaning behind the ovations. I got why baseball made people not just happy but weepy. It all came together on the night of September 25, when Willie Mays and his 660 home runs — same number Topps would put into its base set of cards over the next few years — said “goodbye to America” in a New York Mets uniform at a packed Shea Stadium. The Mets had improbably scratched and clawed their way into first place. Willie, who’d been hurting and sitting the previous few weeks, gave them his blessing. You gotta believe you me that they won the division and, with Willie pinch-hitting at a critical juncture in Game Five of the playoffs versus the Reds, the pennant. (Mets Legend Willie Mays)

1974: Tug McGraw

The Mets were on their way to the division title, the pennant and a seven-game World Series duel that fell just a touch short of dethroning the Oakland A’s mid-dynasty. Tug was more than a beloved teammate and character by the time it was over. He was a folk hero, a legend, the personification of Belief. By shouting and leaping and pounding his glove to his thigh (and getting batters out by the bushel), he was the Met who made 1973 a miracle of its own. The Mets have never retired “You Gotta Believe” as a catchphrase since then. When things get dark enough to allow in only the slightest glint of light, it’s the light that takes precedence in our collective inner Tug. We gotta believe, we keep telling one another, because in 1973, that’s what Tug told us. Those words would live with us forever. Yet somehow, Tug McGraw would stay in our immediate company only one year longer. (A Trade Beyond Belief)

1975: Mike Vail

Mike Vail had breathed life into the cause surrounding a team otherwise running out of time. As fans, even when we’re 12-year-old fans, maybe especially when we’re 12-year-old fans, we need a cause. In September of 1975, we needed Mike Vail’s hitting streak to keep on keepin’ on. (Live From New York, It Was Mike Vail)

1976: Mike Phillips

My one memory of Phillips as an actual Met is seeing him hit a leadoff homer, with his name immediately popping up in yellow capital letters on the screen, which was Channel 9’s way of noting round-trippers. That’s the entire memory — I have no context beyond it, and when I sat down to write this, I wouldn’t have sworn that what I recalled was accurate. Plenty of memories from when you’re seven years old turn out to be incomplete, distorted or fundamentally incorrect. So I checked. (My Superhero)

1977: Lenny Randle

For one season, Lenny was a legend of perhaps not quite Kiner-Mays proportions, but in 1977, especially after June 15, you learned to not expect too much. On Saturday afternoon, July 9, a day devoted to playing stickball with/against a frenemy of mine (he’d committed the traitorous sin of quitting on the Mets and taking up with that other New York team, thus revealing a disturbing paucity of character), a transistor radio kept us apprised of what the Mets and the Expos were up to at Shea. They were up to extra innings. Extra, extra innings. In the seventeenth, with Lee Mazzilli on first and two out, Randle crushed a Will McEnaney pitch to end the game in the Mets’ favor, 7-5. I don’t remember how the stickball turned out, but as far as I’m concerned, I won the day. (At Least We Had Lenny Randle)

1978: Craig Swan

[P]itchers whose baseball cards you’d think twice before risking in flipping all took a back seat to this guy from the Mets. The Mets made hardly anybody take a back seat to them in 1978, but when it came to earned run average, all you hurlers can just be quiet back there. Mr. Swan is driving. (The Last Ace From the Deck)

1979: Ed Kranepool

[O]n September 30, 1979, anybody who was watching or listening to the Mets and Cards from St. Louis was about to witness something that seemed unimaginable across the history of the Metropolitan Baseball Club of New York. It was Ed Kranepool’s last game. Torre sent him up to pinch-hit for John Pacella in the seventh. Eddie produced a double, his 1,418th base hit, which remained the Met standard until David Wright passed him in 2012, and his 90th career pinch-hit, still a franchise record (and 31st all-time in the major leagues). The manager just as quickly removed him for pinch-runner Gil Flores. That was it. The Ed Kranepool Era was over. Well, the part where he played for the Mets, that is. When you’re talking Mets, I don’t think the Ed Kranepool Era ever ends. (18 and Life)

1980: Lee Mazzilli

Lee Mazzilli in 1980 was an idol the likes of which we just don’t have today, yet he was surely who we reveled in idolizing back then. If deconstructing the whole Archie Graham/Burt Lancaster dynamic challenged the sanity of the contemporary characters played by Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones at the end of the ’80s, we began the ’80s confident Mazzilli was the Met on whom the sun and moon rose and set, and it didn’t seem the least bit crazy in our world. (Local Boy Made Good)

1981: Mookie Wilson

Had the Mets used that weekend series against the Cardinals as a launching pad, had they refused to lose, the immortality would speak for itself and there’d probably be a documentary airing intermittently on MLB Network celebrating the achievement. The Mets of Mookie Wilson would rate that kind of enshrinement down the line, just not these Mets of Mookie Wilson, nor this swing of Mookie Wilson’s. Knowing what was to come, perhaps it’s a little greedy to wish the transcendent Mookie Wilson moment of 1981 would live on for everybody as another Mookie Wilson moment from five years hence does. (One’s Moments in Time)

1982: Rusty Staub

The name was the second thing. How did that work? Had his parents given him the alternate name Rusty? If so, why hadn’t mine given me a wonderful parallel identity? Or — and this was where the foundations of the world really got wobbly — had Daniel Staub named himself that? Could you do that? Maybe you could, if you were brave and audacious enough — if you were a hero. Which Rusty Staub plainly was. He was my favorite Met, after all. (Big Man at the Beginning)

1983: Darryl Strawberry

The Mets were a last-place team again in 1983. That 6-15 start didn’t shake off so easily; they were 37-65 before truly getting it in gear to finish 68-94…which isn’t much of a record. And the attendance was still pretty light. But if you’d stuck with the Mets in the years before they earned the right to draft Darryl Strawberry, then after the clock officially started on the wait for Darryl Strawberry to rise to the majors, you knew this last-place finish was nothing like the cellar-dwelling that had been the rule of the house prior to 1983. The future heralded by Darryl Strawberry had commenced in earnest. And, oh, what a future it would be. (Star of the ’80s)

1984: Wally Backman

Was Backman still the right personality for the job he’d always wanted? I wondered. After one Las Vegas season ended, Backman was brought in as a September coach, and chose 86 as his number — the only time, I believe, that’s adorned a Met back in a regular-season game. It was nice to see, but also a little sad — because I had the feeling that was as close as Backman was fated to get. (A Foxhole Player)

1985: Dwight Gooden

What Darling did on the first night of October, Gooden did basically every five days through the month of September. In the heaviest month of the year in the fiercest year the Mets had ever contested to that point (from July 29 to September 24, the Mets and Cardinals traded first and second place continually, with the Mets never more than a game ahead of the Cardinals and the Cardinals never more than three in front of the Mets), Doc started five times. He compiled 44 innings of must-win work that yielded an earned run average of 0.00. Grab yourself four paper clips, attach those five games and call that the greatest starting pitching performance in New York Mets history. Or, given the time of the season and the franchise at the time, the greatest finishing kick. (Doc, for All Seasons)

1986: Keith Hernandez

Hernandez battled insecurity and loneliness as a Cardinals rookie, overcame it with the help of veterans (Lou Brock and Bob Gibson were vital mentors, the first sympathetic and the second famously not), shared an MVP award, got married, got divorced, developed an infatuation with cocaine, kicked it, wound up in Whitey Herzog’s doghouse, and was exiled to the hapless Mets in the summer of 1983. His first reaction was to ask his agent if he had enough money to retire. Fortunately — for the Mets, for all of us, and for Hernandez himself — he didn’t. (A Complicated Man)

1987: Lenny Dykstra

Dykstra retired after 1996, 33 years old and beloved in two very different cities. And since he retired, everything has gone horribly wrong. Or, perhaps, it’s gone pretty much as it went then, except there are no baseball heroics to make us want to hand-wave the rest away. Sure, some of the stories were entertaining, such as Dykstra’s brief time in the spotlight as a stock-market guru, anointed by CNBC’s Jim Cramer as a homespun American genius. But others weren’t, at all. (Nails and the Chalkboard)

1988: Gary Carter

In the days after Carter’s death, the memories from his teammates were heart-breaking — and raw in a way I’d rarely if ever heard from pro ballplayers.  Keith Hernandez — Goofus to Carter’s Gallant — responded with grief so raw that listening to it made me feel like an intruder. But the words that really got me came from a sadder, wiser Darryl Strawberry: “I wish I could have lived my life like Gary Carter.” (The Kid Is Still in the Picture)

1989: Ron Darling

To those qualities he added a handful of ineffable somethings — style, glamour, and ease with the bright lights. And he had an intriguing background, one not exactly standard for a professional ballplayer. For openers, he was the son of a Chinese-Hawaiian mother and a French-Canadian father, a proto-Benetton ethnic mix that made vaguely cringy references to “exotic good looks” de rigueur when he was written about outside of the sports pages. He spoke French and Chinese, and he’d studied French and Southeastern Asian history at Yale. If I’d told you back then that George Plimpton — he of the Paris Review bylines and the good-schools accent — was going to invent a fictional Mets ballplayer, you’d have expected a creation a lot more like Darling than Sidd Finch. (Pitching With Mister P)

1990: Gregg Jefferies

It was soon an open secret that Jefferies’ teammates hated him. They thought he was Davey’s pet, a baby, and a brat. That kind of thing usually wasn’t allowed to leak out of a clubhouse, but the late-80s Mets leaked like a dysfunctional White House, and sports-talk radio was starting to bloom into the poisonous flower it would become. And Jefferies proved regular grist for this cynical mill. He made a fetish of his signature-model black bats, rubbing alcohol on them after games to spot the points of contact. He pouted after poor at-bats and misplays in the field. None of it would have mattered if the kid had outhit his personality, but he didn’t. And as the bad buzz got louder, the past came to look more like a warning that had gone unheard. (I’ve Seen the Future and It Doesn’t Work)

1991: Rich Sauveur

I’m at a baseball-card show in a sad hotel in Alexandria, Va., one I’d debated not bothering with. It’s in one of those half-ballrooms, with the accordion divider separating the couple of dozen card-dealer tables from the quarterly meeting of the Northern Virginia Chapter of Actuaries. I pay my $2, walk in, scan the room with my by-now-practiced eye and know immediately that I should have stayed home. There are barely any tables with storage boxes — just the usual tipped glass cases maintained by the price-guide set. I circle the perimeter anyway, because it’s 40-odd minutes back to Bethesda. At one of the tables, I do a double-take. Clipped to the tilted-up display case is a 1993 Topps Gold card. And it’s … Rich Sauveur. The card I’ve been searching for. The one nobody else seems to know exists. (Cardboard Lessons)

1992: Todd Hundley

Hundley was retired by the time the Mitchell report came out in 2007, but finding his name in there was about as surprising as waking up in the morning to discover the sun had risen again. Todd Hundley’s power surge might not have been entirely natural? Hell, I was surprised he hadn’t glowed in the dark during night games. (A Baseball First Husband)

1993: Joe Orsulak

[W]hy did I decide, somewhere toward the end of his perfectly representative but objectively unremarkable three-year tenure in our midst, that Joe Orsulak is one of my favorite Mets ever? Honest to god, I really don’t know. But just as honestly, he really is. (Right There)

1994: Rico Brogna

I immediately think of Rico Brogna when I think of the 1994 Mets season because of the idea he represented to me coming out of that strike-shortened year. Rico Brogna was who and what I wanted to come back. He’d brought me hope and I figured he could only deliver more. I was going to hold tight during absent August, silent September, ohfer October, the long, even colder winter, and the farce spring when MLB lured replacement players to wear their clubs’ uniforms in games that didn’t count, threatening to keep them around for games that did. By April 26, 1995, the latest the Mets have ever opened a season (until 2020), I should have been fed up with baseball, which didn’t even have the dignity to be around for months on end to let me be fed up with it. Instead, I kept hanging tight, waiting for Rico and welcomed back the whole package, lock, stock and Brogna. (The Very Idea of Rico Brogna)

1995: Jason Isringhausen

An impression was made. This player who hadn’t been in the majors until mid-July wound up fourth in NL Rookie of the Year balloting (Hideo Nomo won; Chipper Jones placed second). Further, Izzy made Mets rookie pitching history. Nobody who’d come up so late in a Met season — right after the midpoint of the strike-shortened 144-game campaign — had ever done so much winning right out of the box. Going 9-2 overall would be astounding from April until October. Izzy crammed all of his wins into a two-and-a-half month window. By comparison, Jacob deGrom in 2014 and Noah Syndergaard in 2015 also won nine games as callup starters, but both of them debuted in May. Rick Aguilera notched ten victories, but was called up in June 1985. Izzy was a young man in a hurry that hadn’t quite been seen before at Shea. (Land of Trope and Dreams)

1996: Rey Ordoñez

You hear the cheers — and Howie Rose’s astonished “threw it from his knees!” has endured — but what I remember happened a few seconds later, between innings. It was a sound I’d never heard before in a ballpark, a kind of murmur/mutter all around me and Greg. After cocking my head a moment, I realized it was the noise made by 25,000 people turning to the 25,000 people next to them and asking some variant of, “Did he really just do that?” Yes, he had. And he’d keep doing it through a seven-year Mets career that was sometimes annoying and occasionally infuriating but never dull. (That Sound)

1997: Edgardo Alfonzo

As the year went on, anybody who relished watching the Mets daily realized there wasn’t anything Edgardo Alfonzo couldn’t do well. He wasn’t particularly fast, but he wouldn’t get himself thrown out unnecessarily. If you needed a runner moved along, he could handle the bat. There was pop. There was savvy. There was silky smoothness at a position that had been missing dexterity since…well, forever. The Mets had steadily received some fine production out of third base dating back to the days of Hubie Brooks, but nobody stationed at the hot corner — not Brooks, not HoJo, not Knight or Magadan or Bonilla or Kent — was assigned its challenges in deference to defensive skill. Third wasn’t even Fonzie’s first position, but you would have thought he was born to play it. As the Mets ascended from a typical 8-14 start to a rousing 88-74 finish, it was Fonzie who led them from nowhere to somewhere. He placed ninth in the league in hitting and thirteenth in MVP balloting for a team that almost nobody noticed was building itself into a winner. (Eighth Wonder)

1998: Todd Pratt

When Todd Pratt was 29, he was working at a Florida instructional school and managing a pizza parlor. He was out of baseball after playing 102 big-league games over 11 pro seasons as the property of six organizations, and it would have taken a truly heroic optimist to predict his future would include star turns on baseball’s October stage, cult-hero status and years of reasonably secure big-league jobs. Somehow, that’s what happened. (Nine Wonderful Days in the Life of Todd Alan Pratt, Backup Catcher)

1999: John Olerud

John Olerud, content to hit and field without a lot of muss and fuss, went relatively unnoticed in 1999 as the Mets chased that playoff spot that eluded them in 1998. Mojo rose in his midst. He played in every game but one, starting all but four the Mets played. Opposing pitchers presumably kept an eye on him just as Olerud watched what they were doing quite closely. He walked 125 times in ’99, taking as gospel the bromide about it being just as good as getting a hit. It would figure that in the season cleanup man Mike Piazza set the franchise RBI record and five-hole hitter Robin Ventura drove in more runs than any Met ever other than Piazza, somebody would be on base a lot just ahead of them. Oly, you know, batted third in 159 games. (Love in the City at Century’s End)

2000: Melvin Mora

The good news is there was going to be 2000. We’d get through the 20th century and cross the bridge into the next one. The computers and lights would stay on, and life would resume pretty much as it functioned in 1999. Parochially speaking, this meant we could look forward to Melvin Mora on the New York Mets. True, the element of surprise wouldn’t burst from every swing he took or every throw he gunned, but we had him. World, you’ve been warned. (Mora in America: Melvinnium Approaches)

2001: Mike Piazza

Piazza was a courtesy pick, whom the Dodgers had no intention of actually signing — or of having play pro ball if they did expend a pittance as an additional courtesy. The courtesy pick would get to suit up for pro ball, but only because Lasorda was his bodyguard, strong-arming anybody who got in his buddy’s son’s way. Which was pretty everybody drawing a Dodgers paycheck who wasn’t named Tommy Lasorda. The Dodgers reluctantly signed Piazza (for all of $15,000) after a tryout in Dodger Stadium, during which Lasorda told the team’s skeptical scouting director that Piazza was now a catcher. So far, if we’re being honest, it’s a story that probably makes you feel a little queasy. But here’s where it gets interesting. (This One Has a Chance)

2002: Al Leiter

Thirty-seven regular-season games at Shea Stadium Al Leiter was my starting pitcher, plus twice in the playoffs and, to be rotationally retentive about it, once as an opponent. I don’t ever remember thinking in advance, “Leiter? Not again.” Nor, probably, did I think, “Oh boy, Leiter!” It was more like, “Al Leiter…all right, let’s go…” The games could get edgy when Bobby Valentine was managing, but a bit of the edge was taken off knowing Al Leiter was starting. His near-constant presence was comforting. That was where my head was at on Opening Day 2002, just as it was more than two-dozen times before. Standing and applauding in the right field boxes, it was exciting to welcome Alomar and Vaughn, welcome back Burnitz and Cedeño, value as ever Piazza and Alfonzo. But when we got to “pitching and batting ninth, warming up in the bullpen…” Al Leiter. All right. Let’s go. (Face of the Franchise)

2003: David Cone

Plenty of power pitchers look impressive on the mound but arrive with mechanics that make you cringe because you can almost hear things grinding and fraying in their shoulders and elbows, but Cone looked like a gyroscope, from the way he loaded his arm down near his hip to the finishing, energy-dissipating kick of his right leg. It was like an engineer and an artist had collaborated to create the Platonic ideal of a pitcher. (Baby-Faced Killer)

2004: Joe Hietpas

Hietpas was called up in mid-September 2004, which was a strange time in Mets history. Art Howe had been fired but agreed to finish the season, which seemed pointless from the perspective of employer and employee alike. Hietpas was a catcher known for his receiving skills and a rifle arm, though he’d never hit in the minors. Somehow Hietpas hurt himself despite having nothing to do; updates on his status were perhaps understandably scanty. All I knew was the remaining games on the schedule were dwindling with no sign of Hietpas in a box score. Howe might not have lit up a room as promised, but he was universally hailed as a genuinely nice man; surely he wouldn’t let Hietpas’s opportunity pass him by. (Beginnings, Endings and Things That Were Both)

2005: Pedro Martinez

I’m wary of any sentence that begins with the words “people forget”. A mighty big supposition is required to decide what is commonly retained and what escapes the collective consciousness. I can suspect you’ve forgotten a fact or two, yet I can’t possibly prove it without a torrent of interrogation. Maybe the stuff I’m thinking about today has been buried in your subconscious under stuff you’re thinking about today. Maybe you remember this stuff very well but haven’t seen fit to think about it of late. Nevertheless, I suspect people forget just how big Pedro Martinez was as a New York Met, especially in 2005, but really pretty much to the conclusion of his contract in 2008. He loomed as large as an individual Met possibly could over the entire operation from the instant he got here. Pedro was where we looked for answers, for progress, for hope. In that first year, Pedro was where we got it. (Unforgettable, That’s What You Are)

2006: Carlos Beltran

I suspect Beltran’s entire Mets career would be regarded differently if he’d swung and missed that final pitch instead of taking it, even though it would have changed nothing. Should he have swung too late to show he really cared? Smashed himself in the face with the bat to express his grief? Does Beltran remain unappreciated because he didn’t grimace enough? (The Sins of Carlos Beltran)

2007: Jose Reyes

In a game that enters the bottom of the twelfth, with San Francisco ahead, 4-3, Reyes leads off against the closer of blown leads past, Armando Benitez. Seven years since J.T. Snow and Paul O’Neill convinced us to cringe, it is surprising to realize somebody is still trusting Armando Benitez with save situations, but at this point in his managerial career, Bruce Bochy is not yet a certified genius. Armando is his man. Fortunately, Jose is ours. Benitez walks the shortstop with whom he briefly shared a clubhouse four years earlier. The count had gone to three-and-two and…yeah, we recognize Armando Benitez. We also recognize Reyes on first. First? Make that second, for Jose has goaded Armando into a balk. Endy Chavez then bunts Jose to third. Carlos Beltran grounds out, and Jose has to stay put, but since when does Jose Reyes stay put? He dances off third. He is Lola from “Copacabana”. She would merengue/and do the cha-cha… And while Armando Benitez tried to concentrate on getting a third out, Jose Reyes has teased from Benitez’s ever-tender psyche a second balk. Jose can dance home. The game is tied. Moments later, Carlos Delgado homers, and the Mets have won, 5-4. Jose Reyes and the Mets are 33-17, five games up on the Braves, eight ahead of the Phillies. Who the hell is going to stop Jose Reyes and the Mets? (7 Days)

2008: Johan Santana

The Johan Santana start of September 27, 2008, lives in a class of its own. That it wasn’t a no-hitter — or the no-hitter — is immaterial. We’d never had a no-hitter. We wouldn’t have known what to have done with one. What we had was the cloud that followed us from the previous September to this one. What we required was someone to chase the cloud away. That September, specifically on a gray Saturday afternoon, the last Saturday afternoon Shea Stadium would ever know, Johan Santana was every element under the sun. He was earth, wind and fire while chasing the clouds away. (Dates With Destiny)

2009: Angel Pagan

The other emblematic player was the Cyclones’ first heartthrob — a lithe, dark-eyed center fielder with a name borrowed from a shoegazer band you wanted your parents to hate. The girls screamed for Angel Pagan; so, in my own nerdy blue-and-orange way, did I. I was certain that he was the one, the Cyclone who’d solve the pitiless math of the minor leagues and show up one day at Shea. Pagan was going to be a star, and I was going to be able to point at him from the back of the mezzanine and tell people how I’d seen him play in a little park on the beach, not so long ago and not so far away, and now just look at him. Which turned out to be true. Eventually. If you squinted a little. (Lost and Found)

2010: Ike Davis

I’m tellin’ ya, brother, you want in on Ike Davis. Talk about a sound investment. Gonna be the best all-around first baseman our Mets have had since John Olerud. Wait, did I say Olerud? I meant Hernandez. Yep, Keith Hernandez — Mr. Seinfeld himself. I bet ya loved Keith Hernandez. I bet in your heart of hearts you don’t think the Mets have ever truly replaced Keith Hernandez. Well, this Ike Davis is the sure thing, Mac. The bat. The glove. The personality. Wait ’til you listen to the kid speak. He’s a natural! And you don’t even have to hope the Mets’ll trade Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey for him. He’s on his way — it’s in the bag. Whaddaya say, how about putting down your heart and your hope on some of this Ike Davis action I’m lettin’ you in on.Oh, you won’t be sorry you did. I’m promising ya, pal, you’re gonna flip for Ike Davis. (The Sure Thing [One of Them])

2011: David Wright

That first at-bat wasn’t what he’d hoped for during all those nights dreaming about what might be: he was retired on a pop-up in foul territory, with Expos catcher Brian Schneider making a nifty catch that ended with him flipped over the dugout railing. Wright made outs in his other three at-bats as well: a groundout, a pop to short and a fly ball to right. The Mets won by a single run. Not a debut heavy on fireworks, but as I left Shea I made sure to tuck my ticket stub deeper in my pocket. When I got home, I filed it in a cubby of my desk instead of tossing it in with the recycling. Everything I’d heard and seen had convinced me that David Wright would be special. (A Special One)

2012: R.A. Dickey

The language-lovers among us who absorbed every step of his Metsian journey, especially his accounts and descriptions thereof, felt a thrill going up our leg, to borrow a 2008 phrase from Chris Matthews (himself more about Hardball than a knuckleball). I noticed that as much as virtually every Mets fan in creation toasted R.A.’s success warmly and effusively, it was those of us who worked closely with the language who seemed most thrilled on the man’s behalf. We intrinsically felt we had one of our own was out there on our behalf. Editors. Writers. Educators. This wasn’t just a Met excelling at pitching. This was a kindred linguistic spirit. We were in awe that somebody like this was so good at the sport we cherished even if most of us had never had any hope of playing it at any competitive level beyond the schoolyard (and even back then not that competitively). (Nothing Standardized About Him)

2013: Wilmer Flores

Flores was 22, looked 12, and ran like he was 52. He seemed uncertain in the field, making physical errors and sometimes going saucer-eyed in the heat of the moment. The Mets would move him around the infield, looking for a place to hide him and never finding one. Not exactly a recipe for success, but Flores could hit — in fact, he destroyed lefties. He showed a knack for big moments, which he’d eventually ride to a niche in the Mets’ record books. And while baseball players are taught to be stoic and stone-faced, as armor against the game’s cruelties, Flores’s emotions were always front and center. When he succeeded, he radiated joy; when he failed, he was accompanied by a little black cloud of misery. You sometimes wondered how the Mets should best use Flores, or if they should at all, but you always rooted for him. It was impossible not to. (The Man Who Was Untraded)

2014: Jacob deGrom

Ideally, all the Mets pitchers we pictured forever starring for us when we were dreaming our pitching dreams circa 2014 — including Rafael Montero, who was considered a bigger star in the making upon his concurrent-with-deGrom promotion — would still be starring for us at the dawn of the 2020s. It hasn’t worked out that way. Little deal was made of Jacob deGrom, yet nobody’s been the bigger deal or has signed one, for that matter. He’s been certified the best pitcher in his league two years running. He’s clearly the signature arm of a franchise that fancies itself legendarily pitching-rich. He’s carved himself a niche on the Mets’ version of Mount Pitchmore alongside Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and Jerry Koosman, and is maybe not too many innings from joining Tom Terrific in elevating their dual status to twin peaks. (Shtickless Wonder)

2015: Michael Conforto

Terry Collins’ mishandling of Conforto led to him not being able to hit anybody, which led to his being banished to the minors, which led to him hitting like his old self because he got to play every day and his luck turned and Collins wasn’t around to fuck with him, which led to his recall, which led to a ridiculous Just So story about what had happened and the supposed lesson of it. But the Mets weren’t done — they tried to turn Conforto into a center fielder, a position for which his ceiling was “heroic adequacy.” They did pretty much everything they could to derail him, but somehow he survived. (The M Met)

2016: Matt Harvey

The Dark Knight drifted in the span of a few seasons from a major storyline for the Mets to a suddenly faded piece of their history. “A Met for All Seasons is right,” Boras insisted. “Matt Harvey as an outsize Met figure is right. But we know what seasons were the most right. The seasons that were less right we’d prefer he not be a part of.” Alderson countered, “Us neither. Sometimes, however, you play the ball where it lies, and sometimes you pitch the pitcher there, too.” (After the Fall)

2017: Paul Sewald

A Jonah needs a certain modicum of talent — your overmatched emergency starters and stone-fingered infielders don’t count, because they shouldn’t have been put it that position in the first place. A truly tragic or star-crossed player isn’t a Jonah either, because when a Jonah screws up your reaction should be more of a sigh than remote-throwing, drywall-punching rage. Life with a Jonah is a grinding, corrosive series of letdowns, not a sequence of blowups that leave craters in the soul. And a Jonah need not be universally viewed as such — the identification can be completely subjective, with one fan’s Jonah another fan’s guy to merely shrug and grumble about. Which brings us to the 2017 Mets, and Paul Sewald. (Sympathy for a Jonah)

2018: Noah Syndergaard

As origin stories go, that one’s up there with Steve Rogers agreeing to the U.S. Army’s experiment or Peter Parker encountering a radioactive spider. But Syndergaard, endearingly, has never stopped sounding a bit like his old geeky duckling self even after turning into a fiery, terrifying swan. “My arm is like a trebuchet,” he told reporters during the 2015 playoffs. “It’s got to be loose and whiplike, and you have to use the force of your body to deliver the pitch.” When I read that, I needed a minute. Trebuchet? Really? Who was this kid? (The Model of a Modern Pitcher)

2019: Dom Smith

Because Braves manager Brian Snitker was also determined to torture us, he switched pitchers yet again, bringing on someone named Grant Dayton. The Mets countered with none other than Dom Smith — the same Dom Smith who hadn’t had a plate appearance since late July. This seemed cruel, to say the least. It all seemed cruel by that point. And then Smith hit the ball over the fucking fence. (The Shot Heard Through the Spring)

2020: Pete Alonso

The statistical odometer reset to zero for the new year, as it always does, and it wouldn’t budge until who knew when, but the legend of Pete Alonso kept gathering mileage and momentum because Pete Alonso was determined to live up to his legend, bat or no bat. Pete was on Zoom extending his best wishes to a Mets-loving grandma whose spirits were thus lifted out of the park. Pete got in touch with medical teams fighting the virus, and they took an instant from saving lives to say thanks for his saying thanks. Pete started a foundation called Homers for Heroes. Pete stood up for the idea that the lives of Black people matter before every sports league figured out that was a pretty simple truth. You didn’t need baseball to be in progress to keep rooting for one of baseball’s rising stars. (The Power Broker)

2021: Steve Cohen

Though Anybody But the Wilpons would have garnered some degree of applause, it was Cohen who stood as the people’s choice as reporting mounted through 2020 that the Wilpons were still trying to sell the franchise (word was the next generation of Katzes wasn’t keen on hitching its wagon indefinitely to Jeff). Other groups bid or tried to bid. Cohen, though, despite having his first attempt dashed in winter, never let go of his desire to own the Mets and never hesitated to dip into his pockets to make it happen when the opportunity arose anew in summer. And it happened. The Wilpons and Katz sold him the Mets. That’s all that had to happen for Steve Cohen to be the best thing that ever happened to the Mets on the cusp of 2021. Whether that description would hold once 2021 unfolded in real time… “Well,” Mets fans could tell one another, “we’ll see.” (Honeymoon in Flushing)

That Cano Has Sailed

I had come around on Robinson Cano in 2020, a man we learned Wednesday won’t be a Met in 2021. I had come to not automatically grimace at the sight or thought of him in a Mets uniform. I even got over my distaste for No. 24 being taken out of informal retirement on his behalf in deference to his having been named for Jackie Robinson and 42 not being available. Willie Mays wore 24. Then, save for the Kelvin Torve hiccup of 1990, only Rickey Henderson wore it thereafter. Nobody’d touched it for nearly twenty years. It was reserved for legends whose backstory merited it. Robbie, at his best, wasn’t quite in the Willie/Rickey stratosphere, but he’d been fairly close. We saw evidence that he could still resemble his younger, outstanding self, the perennial AL All-Star whose path to 3,000 hits and probably Cooperstown would require only decent endurance and a little forgiveness from a previous suspension time might sweep down the memory hole. After 2020, he’d have three seasons to build out his statistical portfolio and enhance his reputation anew.

Once he found his Met footing, Cano’s revitalized offense and the universal appreciation he seemed to elicit from his younger teammates for his informal coaching and words of veteran wisdom made me forget what an absolutely asinine trade had been executed to bring him and the shall we say inconsistent Edwin Diaz to Flushing in exchange for our top outfield prospect about ten minutes after the kid was drafted. I’d even decided to overlook that Cano viewed running the 90 feet to first base as purely optional.

Maybe it started with the three-homer night against San Diego and the hot streak he carried into an unfortunate infield injury in the summer of 2019, just as the moribund Mets were coming to life. The amazing part wasn’t that he was tearing up a hamstring just as he was tearing up a new league. The amazing part was that he picked right up where he left off when he returned in September, and essentially kept it going once baseball returned ten months later. Wow, I had to admit, Robinson Cano can still hit.

Insert here your own rhetorical question of gee, just how, as he approached 38 years old, did he manage to effect such a renaissance?

I guess the proof is in the positive.

Robinson Cano has been suspended for 2021 after testing thumbs-up for Stanozolol, previously known to us as the steroid of choice for fallen mid-2010s closer Jenrry Mejia. That makes it two suspensions in less than three years for Cano; the first was for the diuretic Lasix and cost him half a season. Cano forfeits his $24 million salary for next year, which is quite a paycheck to risk under an otherwise guaranteed contract. Perhaps it speaks, perversely, to a desire to win at all costs. Or tells us athletes, no matter how undeniably veteran or presumably wise, believe they are impervious to niceties like testing for banned substances.

The Mets themselves didn’t owe Cano all $24 million for ’21, incidentally. The Mariners were on the hook for a percentage. So call it merely a ton instead of a spit ton of money the Mets are off the hook for in the coming year, a welcome savings even for a franchise now connected to plenty deep pockets. And call it good fortune that the Mets are deep enough in perfectly viable second basemen — Jeff McNeil, Andrés Giménez — so that there is nothing glaringly debilitating from a competitive standpoint as one begins to construct hypothetical lineups for the season hopefully ahead. And if the Mets want to take a run at a free agent like DJ LeMahieu, hey, look — about $20 million just got freed up!

The news is not a terrible bruise to the Mets’ aspirations, but it’s too bad anyway. Cano was part of the team we came to embrace in 2019 and gave us a lot of hitting in 2020, hitting that added up (.316/.352/.544) and hits that still count as having happened. I watched him closely at FanFest last January, the last time I was inside Citi Field. He impressed me just by showing up and then by being one of the guys. I expected aloofness. I witnessed warmth. (With his contract, why shouldn’t he always beam?) I entered a George Foster post-1982, pre-July 1986 mindset with Robbie. The commitment to an aging star had been proven overly optimistic, but here was a once top-flight player now and again reminding you why he was considered it worth it — or in Cano’s case, worth it to a general manager who has since been relieved of his duties.

We don’t know how much of his 2020 production was Stanozolol-enabled and how much was simply good old baseball knowhow and residual reflexes remaining in working order. I understand it’s nearly impossible to say anything positive about a player who has just tested exactly that for a second time without sounding naïve or Pollyannish about the whole thing. Still, I came to kind of like the guy, and, as I’ve grown older, I’ve hesitated to be overly judgmental about people’s mistakes, especially if they don’t particularly hurt anybody else. We’re all capable of making them more than once. We’re all capable of learning from them eventually.

That said, yeesh. I can hear Norm Macdonald’s voice reporting, “Experts have announced they’ve discovered a way to NOT forfeit $24 million in guaranteed salary after testing positive for PEDs: DON’T use PEDs.”

Also, don’t trade Jarred Kelenic.

Cano has two years on his contract lingering lavishly beyond 2021, carrying him through his age 40 season. One wishes to believe the new regime can negotiate and easily cover a buyout. Once that deal is done, please deposit No. 24 at the front desk on your way out.

A Rainy Goodbye

Every November 17, I think, “It’s Tom Seaver’s birthday.” I’m thinking it again. Tom Seaver would have been 76 today. What a heartbreaking sentence to write.

November 17, 1944, was the first baseball birthday I learned. I’m pretty sure I plucked it off the back of one of Tom’s baseball’s cards, presumably his 1971 Topps, since that was the first one I ever pulled from a pack. I feel as if I known about November 17, 1944, almost forever. I wasn’t seeking to learn any other player’s birthday. With Seaver, I was always looking to learn more.

Last year, when he reached 75 years old, I had to resist the reflex that I had to resist every time I found cause to write about him since the previous March. I didn’t want to refer to Tom Seaver in the past tense. When his family let it be known in March of 2019 that Tom was withdrawing from public life because of the intensifying effects of dementia, it wasn’t hard for those of us consuming this miserable information from afar to lurch toward a second step, from accepting Tom was altogether out of the spotlight to assuming that made him as good as gone. But nobody said one thing was leading imminently to the other. Tom was missing from our immediate radar for terrible reasons. That was the headline. There was no need for another story.

It was a relief during the summer prior to Tom’s 75th, in late June of 2019, when his daughter Sarah came to town for the dedication of Seaver Way and assured us, in so many words, that Tom was still very much with us, still very much keeping company with Nancy, still very much tending to their vineyard. I wished Tom could have been at Citi Field that weekend joining his 1969 teammates in golden-anniversary celebration of their accomplishments. It seemed all wrong that he wasn’t, but as long as he was somewhere doing something he could enjoy, that seemed all right.

We’d been primed for the worst Seaver news for eighteen months when it came around on September 2, 2020. I was shocked by it anyway. I was lightly scrolling through Twitter, not too many minutes after the postgame show wrapped on SNY, preparing to write up the game of September 2 at some point that night. David Peterson took over in relief of Michael Wacha and pitched four scoreless innings. Michael Conforto went 4-for-5 with 5 RBIs. The Mets beat the Orioles at Camden Yards, 9-4. I don’t remember what exactly I was noodling for a recap, but looking at the box score for the first time since then, I’m reminded that the losing pitcher for Baltimore was John Means, and his name made me think of John Maine, a former Orioles hurler who became a Met staple for several seasons. There was likely a play on words in the offing.

Except Twitter had other ideas. I started spotting Seaver’s name in my scrolling. When I saw somebody tweet, “rest in power to the greatest met there ever was,” I didn’t need to get to the end of the lower-case sentiment. I knew where it was going. And I knew where I was going. In a blink, I was in front of my computer to write the Faith and Fear piece I’d known was coming someday but didn’t know was coming that night. Game Seven had arrived in my Mets fan soul. The ball was in my hand.

I had nothing.

Understand that any chance I had to write about Tom Seaver from 2005 forward represented a feast day for me in this space. I’d practically tie a napkin around my neck in anticipation of what was I about to pile on my plate. I get to call attention to the premier career in Mets history. I get to high-five my generational peers as if Tom had just finished another scoreless inning. I get to provide background and context to the later generations who might wonder what all the Franchise fuss is about. I get to feel like I did some summer afternoon in 1975. It was a privilege to write about Tom Seaver in life.

What’s more, I’d been writing in-memoriam tributes for 15 years. Those were remembrances of Mets and Mets figures and others I connected to the Mets that I assigned myself with an utmost sense of purpose and crafted out of veritable holy obligation to the memories of the suddenly departed. I don’t mind telling you that when I wrote those they flowed from my fingers as if they’d been on file waiting to emerge. I wrote nothing in advance. I just knew what to say when the time came. Yet here, with my idol, my hero, my favorite player resting in peace, power or whatever — for minutes that felt like hours — I had nothing to say to my fresh, white, blank Microsoft Word document. Nothing that wasn’t obvious. Nothing that met the moment. Nothing worthy of my subject.

No page ever stared at me so blankly. The situation defied my repertoire. I’d spent 51 years loving Tom Seaver and I couldn’t piece together a proper goodbye. Tom never pitched a Game Seven, but he would have at least thrown a pitch by now. Not having any kind of fastball in me, I typed the word “Terrific” and stared at it. That was my get-me-over curve, I guess. Tom always said the most important pitch was strike one. Eventually, other words followed. They landed on the screen and a finished product landed on the blog before long, but the whole exercise struck me as hollow.

Everything struck me as hollow for the next 24 hours. There were fine stories penned, splendid thoughts uttered, heartfelt montages aired and necessary mourning shared, yet somehow it all felt like nothing. How was the greatest Met there’s ever been transferred so definitively to the past tense? I understood why he was traded when I was 14. I understood why he was left unprotected when I was 21. I understood why he couldn’t be at the reunion when I was 56. I didn’t like any of the reasons, but I understood that things we don’t like happen. I understand life ends, even for somebody so many identify as their idol, their hero, their favorite player. But there was a disconnect between this news and my ability to fully process it when I was 57. I just couldn’t plug in.

On September 3, I watched the Mets play the Yankees on TV from necessarily empty Citi Field under a metaphorically appropriate dark late-afternoon sky. I toggled between thinking it would be wrong for the Mets to not win this game of all games and deciding one thing had absolutely nothing to do with the other. I wouldn’t want the Mets to lose to the Yankees on any occasion, but the literal part of me didn’t see any symbolic relevance to the matchup. Other than in Spring Training, Tom Seaver never pitched against the Yankees for the Mets, certainly not in front of vacant stands. Beat the Yankees. Don’t beat the Yankees. He’s still the Franchise and he’s not coming back either way. (May Dave Mlicki live long and prosper, but if his passing is announced the night before a Subway Series showdown, I think I have my angle.)

While winning one for Tom was a terrific idea in the abstract, I didn’t deeply care, regardless of opponent. The Mets could have been playing the Cubs, and James Qualls III could have been batting cleanup for the visitors, and I don’t know that I would’ve cared deeply. Hollowness reigned.

The game went on and on for so long that I couldn’t sit and watch it to conclusion, not if I wanted to take care of three details I decided were essential. I had to go out and buy three newspapers: the News, the Post and Newsday. I stopped buying print editions a long time ago, but these were my lifeline to the Mets as a kid, what sated me between Kiner’s Korner one night and pregame the next. I tracked Tom Seaver putting up his unbelievable numbers in those papers. I read all the good things his teammates and managers and rivals had to say about him. I gleaned when there was trouble mounting between him and the front office. I delivered the June 16, 1977, Newsday that reported he was off to Cincinnati. Talk about bad news on the doorstep.

Not that I hadn’t devoured via social media most everything the News, the Post and Newsday had produced on the subject in the preceding 24 hours. I instinctively needed the physical confirmation that Tom Seaver was no longer with us. That’s what I told myself. I used to save newspapers from momentous events. For the most part over the decades I’ve discarded them in intermittent fits of purging. I’ve kept the front and back pages from every Mets clinching since 1986, but those are celebratory. I don’t know why I had to have these Tom Seaver Died newspapers from September 3, 2020. I just knew I did.

Late afternoon had turned to evening and evening had turned to night. I couldn’t wait for the game to end, lest the papers no longer be on sale. I got in the car, turned on WCBS and made two stops that I thought would bear newsprint fruit. Between a 7-Eleven and a Stop & Shop, I found all three. At Citi, the Mets fell further behind in the eighth, but then caught up in the ninth. There was still some game awaiting me when I returned home.

Once inside, I examined the papers I bought. They told their essential story on their respective front pages.

The News: A most ‘Terrific’ life
The Post: TOM TERRIFIC
Newsday: A SCHOOL YEAR LIKE NO OTHER

Check. Check. And what?

I was slapping my forehead in a second. I had seen the Newsday front page online. Not this one. The Seaver one. It was instantly memorable because, by some cosmic coincidence, it was presented in a throwback format. Newsday was commemorating its 80th anniversary that very day by making up its front page to resemble what it published in 1940. Normally I’d admire that kind of homage. On this particular evening, I would have preferred something out of 1970. I was too young to be a Newsday carrier when I was seven, but not too young to read the N.L. Leaders the paper printed most every day. I wanted that version of Newsday in my hands, the one that taught me no starting pitcher was statistically better when he went to the mound every fifth day. Most wins. Most strikeouts. Lowest earned run average. It wasn’t a summer’s day in 1970 without the sports in Newsday reiterating how good Seaver was. But I’d take whatever they’d created in 2020 that had Seaver’s passing on the front page.

I was berating myself over the rookie mistake I’d made when I’d gone out before. I didn’t check to make sure I had the right edition of Newsday. Obviously, because it was late in the day, the late edition must have been sold out (who knew newspapers sell out these days?) and all that was left at the supermarket where I picked this up were the remnants of the stack from early in the day. That had to be it, therefore this would be easily rectified. I’d go out again and get the right one.

Fortunately, the baseball game ended in short order, with Pete Alonso swatting the tenth-inning home run that inevitably had to be hit in Tom’s honor (forget what I said that it didn’t matter whether the Mets won or lost). I’m going out again, I told Stephanie the instant Mets 9 Yankees 7 went in the books. I grabbed an umbrella and a plastic bag and set off on foot in the neighborhood. It was raining too hard by now for my driving comfort and, besides, we have enough stores within walking distance to find a newspaper.

I tromped seven-tenths of a mile in the direction of the train station and the seven-tenths of a mile back as the cats and dogs commenced coming down in buckets. I tried six stores: two chain pharmacies; two chain convenience stores; one deli; one place I want to call a stationery store except I don’t think they sell stationery. Not one of them had the Seaver edition of Newsday. I got wetter and wetter, madder and madder. Why didn’t I go out earlier? Why don’t I get in the car again and try the next town? Why does this matter to me? Am I letting Tom down? Tom is dead. He’s never met me, but now I feel guilty that I’m not making the plays behind him. You didn’t need to be Buddy Harrelson to pick up the right paper. It was a simple ground ball and I let it get by me.

The phrase “hot mess” might apply to how I was coping. But I tell ya what: the hollowness filled in. I felt it now. I felt Tom Seaver’s death. It was real. I connected to it. Going out in search of a newspaper was apparently my true tribute to my favorite player. It was my proper goodbye. No, I didn’t make the play, but I left my feet in pursuit of the ball. It wasn’t going to do either of us any good if I had the late edition of Newsday in my hands or not. In fact, I would learn after doing a little digging, that the METS GREAT SEAVER DIES front page and the coverage that accompanied it only went out to home subscribers. I couldn’t have found it in a store no matter what time I sought it. Maybe if I’d kept my paper route I’d have it.

This was on September 3. It’s November 17 now, the date every year when I think, “it’s Tom Seaver’s birthday.” Tom Seaver would have been 76 today. That sentence remains heartbreaking so soon after September 3. But Tom had 75-plus mostly terrific years. We as fans reveled in the decades’ worth that brought him to our attention and kept him there. We’ll continue to revel in what he did and who he was in and out of a Mets uniform. That’s the headline here.

18 and Life

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

I’ve been alive forever
And I wrote the very first song

—Barry Manilow

Jeurys Familia (2012-2018, 2019- ) won’t still be relieving for the Mets in 2029. Jacob deGrom (2014- ) won’t still be starting for the Mets in 2031. Michael Conforto (2015- ) won’t still be driving in runs for the Mets in 2032. Brandon Nimmo (2016- ) won’t still be getting on base by any means necessary for the Mets in 2033. Dom Smith (2017- ) won’t still be pounding out doubles for the Mets in 2034. Jeff McNeil (2018- ) won’t still be pinging from position to position for the Mets in 2035. Pete Alonso (2019- ) won’t still be blasting homers for the Mets in 2036. Andrés Giménez (2020- ) won’t still be making plays in the hole for the Mets in 2037.

And if they are, they won’t be doing whatever they’re still doing for another year besides.

Steadiest Eddie.

So let’s salute as unbreakable a Mets record as exists: Ed Kranepool’s 18 seasons as a Met, spanning 1962 to 1979. Nobody else has come close to playing so long for us, let alone playing so long for us and nobody else. It is highly unlikely anybody else will ever play more. Longevity. Continuity. Exclusivity. The combination is not to be underestimated, because the combination crafted by Kranepool has never been equaled.

• Cure David Wright (2004-2016, 2018) of his spinal stenosis and let him play his entire contract, through 2020, without pause. He might make the Hall of Fame, but he comes up a year short of Ed Kranepool as a Met.

• Fix the left elbow of John Franco (1990-2001, 2003-2004) without time away for Tommy John surgery and then keep him around instead of letting him slip off to Houston for his final innings. He comes up two years short of Ed Kranepool as a Met.

• Same for fantasy-version, never-leaves, therefore in theory never-gets-in-trouble so we never have reason to stop loving him Jose Reyes (2003-2011, 2016-2018). Uninterrupted Reyes comes up two years short of Ed Kranepool as a Met.

• What if Buddy Harrelson (1965-1977) never left instead of spending two years with Philly and one in Texas? Still not enough. When Buddy was coaching in 1982 and the Mets were suddenly short of infielders, there was some chatter that the 38-year-old former Gold Glover might have to be activated. Add that hypothetical to the other hypothetical and still nope. Harrelson comes up two years short of Ed Kranepool as a Met.

• Straighter and narrower paths for Darryl Strawberry (1983-1990) and Doc Gooden (1984-1994) that carry them respectively to the ends of their careers (1999 and 2000, respectively) in Flushing? Like Wright, each man still winds up a year short of Ed Kranepool as a Met.

• Maybe if Tom Seaver’s restoration in 1983, intended to eradicate that he was forced to abdicate following his initial 1967-1977 reign, isn’t botched in 1984, and he stays at Shea all the way to 1987, which was when he officially retired…that’s sixteen seasons as a Met and it’s also STILL not enough to measure up to Ed Kranepool as a Met.

And if you’re a New York Met who’s beyond the reach of even Tom Freakin’ Seaver, then, brother, you must be doin’ somethin’ Amazin’.

You can attempt to delete ifs and buts from the story of every Met who isn’t Eddie Kranepool, but they’ve all got ifs and buts. For example, if the Mets never traded Jerry Koosman, he conceivably could have played all nineteen of his seasons with the Mets (and maybe been A Met for All Seasons), but then we don’t get Jesse Orosco and we can’t say for sure who would’ve gotten the second last out of a World Series in Mets history.

No, no buts about Eddie Kranepool. No ifs, either. Ed Kranepool showed up early and stayed as late as he possibly could. He put in 18 seasons; 18 seasons in a row; and 18 seasons in a row as a Met only.

Edward Emil Kranepool in a taxi, honey.

Nobody’s had a Met career like Kranepool’s, except Kranepool. Nobody’s been a Met like Kranepool, except Kranepool. Nobody’s been the Mets like Kranepool, except Kranepool. That was the case in 1962, in 1979, in all the seasons in between and, as the four-plus decades since he played have illustrated, forever after. Projections are dangerous to make without the data to back it up, but I feel comfortable declaring nobody else ever will be a Met like Kranepool, except Kranepool.

That’s the beauty. That he’s still Ed Kranepool and there’s still no catching him or matching him let alone the possibility of hatching him, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. There’s exactly one Ed Kranepool. Nobody else has one of him because there is only one of him. Baseball-Reference lists “similarity scores” for every player with decently measurable major league tenure (100 IP; 500 AB), so while you can certainly find statistical comps for Ed Kranepool if so inclined, I don’t believe any other baseball franchise has so deeply embroidered within the fabric of their story any figure quite like him.

Ed Kranepool is of the New York Mets.
The New York Mets are of Ed Kranepool.
He’s ours, dammit.

***
Ed Kranepool, we have determined, has the Most Seasons record cold. Most games played, too, with 1,858, topping Wright by more than a full season-and-a-half’s worth. According to Baseball Musings, nobody’s played in more Met losses than Eddie: 1,102, which will come with the territory of anybody whose 18 Met seasons, partial and full, encompassed eight last-place finishes. Krane is second in wins, however, with 746 (with five ties thrown in for middling measure). Befitting a man of his experience, he dots Top Fives and Top Tens all over the Met charts.

He earned his spots in the upper levels of Mets compilation categories by hanging in there. It is no insult to say Ed Kranepool’s best quality as a player was sticking around and sticking around some more. That and arriving in the big leagues sooner than any Met ever had or ever will. The latter is technically unknowable, but give us a shout when you come across another Met not yet old enough to vote.

The Youth of America gets some private tutoring.

Eddie was only 17, no older than ABBA’s Dancing Queen, when he made his major league debut, which makes sense only when you realize the Mets weren’t yet six months old themselves and how is an infant franchise supposed to know you don’t put a 17-year-old in the big leagues unless it’s World War II or you’re nurturing the next Mel Ott. They signed Ed in late June shortly after his high school graduation and ten days after Marv Throneberry failed to touch two-thirds of the necessary bases to secure what he thought was a triple. So yeah, the baby Mets were in the market for a first baseman of the future practically right away. At James Monroe High School in the Bronx, Ed broke records established generations before by a fella named Hank Greenberg. He was a heavily scouted, hot enough property in those pre-draft days to elicit a bonus of $85,000, a lofty figure for 1962.

Ed chose the Mets because he deduced advancement on a ballclub in dire need of help would come quickly. Yet the Mets didn’t rush him to the majors right away. No, they waited until September. Then they give him just a taste. The fans, too. They needed something to savor en route to 40-120, something that would tell them the future had some promise in it. Kranepool relieved Gil Hodges on defense on September 22. He got his first base hit a day later in what was supposed to be the final game the Mets would ever play in the Polo Grounds. The following April, Shea Stadium wasn’t ready, so the Mets were back in Manhattan. So was Eddie, though he probably wasn’t ready, either. How could he be? He was only 18. A productive Spring Training had lured Casey Stengel into insisting on Krane’s inclusion on 1963’s Opening Day roster, but the minors beckoned by July.

In 1964, at 19, Eddie was an established big leaguer, though one seemingly final detour to Triple-A at least provided him a story to tell again and again (as if being schooled by Stengel while wet behind the ears wasn’t enough of a conversation piece). After slumping during Shea’s first weeks, he tore up Buffalo, earning a promotion in late May. He played in a doubleheader for the Bisons on a Saturday in Syracuse and schlepped to Queens for a doubleheader the next afternoon. That one, against the Giants, went 32 innings in toto, and Eddie played all of it. Had the May 31 nightcap lasted just a little longer, Krane likes to mention, he would have been playing in another month.

“When are we gonna be ready?”

The Mets’ youth movement was planting its seeds during Kranepool’s first years, and it was reasonable to assume he was on the verge of sprouting. In recent times, prodigy Bryce Harper was breaking in to rave reviews, and later when Juan Soto was doing the same but even more spectacularly, their ascent up the ranks of the all-time teenager home run list was duly noted. You know whose name continued to show up prominently in such historical accountings? Yeah, Ed Kranepool’s. His 12 home runs before the age of 20 slot him eighth among all teens in baseball history. Admittedly, there’s not a ton of competition, given that relatively few players see the majors before their twenties, but among those who did, Eddie showed more power than most of them. Krane is one behind his boyhood idol Mickey Mantle, one ahead of Robin Yount. Mantle and Yount are in the Hall of Fame. (It only seems like Soto already is, too.)

Eddie was at least, after turning twenty the previous November, an All-Star in 1965. The Mets were on their way to losing more than a hundred games for the fourth consecutive season, so this was one of those situations in which there was a Met All-Star because the rules said there had to be, but Eddie was posting very respectable numbers, batting over .300 through mid-June and hitting .287 once he joined the likes of Mays, Aaron and Clemente at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington. Ed didn’t play, as the NL won without his contributions, but they certainly didn’t ask him to vacate the premises.

It would be a misleading to play the AMFAS Young Player Peaked™ card here, because it’s hard to say a good first half in ’65 and a little pop while still getting proofed if he requested a Rheingold amounted to a peak. There were some good signs for Kranepool, but what Ol’ Case had said in the first part of his famous “in ten years…” line wasn’t quite coming to fruition. You know the bit. Stengel, in what turned out to be his final Spring Training as skipper, was telling reporters about two representatives of his Youth of America. This young feller, he more or less said of Ed Kranepool, is twenty, and in ten years has a chance to be a star. This other young feller, he said of Greg Goossen, is twenty, and in ten years has a chance to be thirty.

The joke is usually on Goossen, and perhaps Stengel, but Kranepool, at twenty, was done being an All-Star. His final 1965 numbers sagged. Once he stopped being a teenager, his home run totals ceased to appear impressive. Once he turned 21, he’d never again play in as many as 150 games in a season. Once he turned 23, he’d never again play in as many as 130 games in a season. It was somewhere around this time that the realization set in that the first amateur the Mets ever signed to much fanfare was never going to set the world on fire as a professional the way scouts thought he might when he was in high school just a few years earlier.

Or as the banner a not particularly satisfied customer brandished not very deep into the young man’s career, “IS ED KRANEPOOL OVER THE HILL?”

Ed Kranepool got old before his time, but only in context. When the Mets traded Jim Hickman to the Dodgers following the 1966 season, that left Ed as the only player from 1962 on the club. Those who weren’t particular about specifics would, for the rest of his Met days, refer to him as the last of the Original Mets. It was a misnomer. The Original Mets were the 28 men who broke camp in April. They included Hickman, Hodges and the first/righty Bob Miller. Legend notwithstanding, Marvelous Marv was not an Original Met. Nor were Choo Choo Coleman, the second/lefty Bob Miller or Harry Chiti, who was traded for himself. Eddie was the 45th of 45 men to play as a 1962 Met. In the popular imagination, they’re all lumped together as the lovable losers of legend. Ed played in three games that first year. They lost two. There’d be plenty of losses to which he’d serve as accomplice in ’63 (starting with Opening Day, when Stengel assigned him to right field), but pinning the L of the first year on Kranepool’s forehead isn’t wholly accurate or remotely fair.

But, like with the doubleheader for Buffalo the day before the doubleheader at Shea before May turned to June, it made for a better story to point to Eddie as someone who’d been around forever. Hence, the 1967 yearbook referred to the 22-year-old as “The Dean”. It was funny because it was true. Ed was the only Met who’d been around since at least the end of the beginning. By ’67, with Ron Hunt having departed in the same trade that dispatched Hickman, he was also the only Met left from when Shea was brand, spanking new. Kranepool was only nine days older than Seaver, yet had a five-season and better than a 500-game head start on the good-looking rookie righty who would turn heads like no Met before him. Casey had given way to Wes Westrum. Stengel’s Youth of America had only taken hold in fits and starts. Seaver was the harbinger of the next era. It wasn’t quite in Queens in ’67, but if Seaver was here, it couldn’t be far off.

Kranepool was here, too. He kind of came with the place.

***
Growing up, I never thought of Ed Kranepool as a bad player. I never thought of Ed Kranepool as a good player. I just thought Ed Kranepool was a Met. I had never known the Mets without him. Unless you latched onto the Mets when they debuted on April 11, 1962, and then walked away in disgust before June was over (“how could Throneberry miss first AND second?”), nobody had ever experienced the Mets without Ed on their radar if not in their box score. My first exposure to Eddie was on a Topps 1967 baseball card, one of the I don’t know how many dozens that fell into my possession once my sister tired of accumulating them. He’s kneeling in what’s supposed to be an on-deck circle, except it doesn’t appear to be marked as such. He’s just kneeling, somewhere on grass in St. Petersburg. Not that I understood the niceties of baseball card photography when I first got a look at ED KRANEPOOL • 1B or had any conception how long he had been around relative to his teammates or his franchise when I first got my hands on it. I just knew the METS, as the pink-purple lettering identified his employer, were my local team, so I probably wanted to mark this card as special.

This is the version without the beard.

At four, maybe five years old, I took a blue Bic pen and drew a beard on Ed Kranepool’s face. I didn’t do that to anybody on any other card from any other team or, come to think of it, any other Met. Maybe I felt an instinctive connection to the Met who’d outlasted all of his previous peers to date. Maybe I was just in the mood to draw a beard on a face. Either way, I can’t recall further evidence of personal affinity for Ed Kranepool. Like I said, he kind of came with the place, simply a fact of Met life, like Shea Stadium, or Kiner’s Korner, or rallies that fell a run short in the ninth.

Gil Hodges must have thought something similar. The kid he said goodbye to in May of 1963 when he retired from playing to take up managing in Washington was still a Met five years later when Gil returned to take the Flushing reins. Lord knows they needed him. The Mets had never lost fewer than 95 games, never finished higher than ninth out of ten, and they only reached that height once. By the time Gil came back, Ed “had been around long enough,” Leonard Koppett wrote, to be seen as disappointing, not the pure promise [he] had been.”

Did Gil Hodges need Ed Kranepool? He didn’t lean on The Dean nearly as much as Stengel and Westrum had, starting him less in 1968 than his predecessors had every year since 1964. It’s no coincidence that Hodges elevated the Mets to a point where they won more often and didn’t fret about losing their lovability. Their standing didn’t exceed ninth, but all contemporary observations agree that this ninth was light years removed from the tenths of yore. The losses (89) continued to outweigh the wins (73), but the chronic ineptitude that took root in ’62 was being professionally removed. Some of that lingering Youth of America was indeed in bloom, but it’s also universally agreed that it was the tending Hodges did that accelerated the growth.

It’s probably a coincidence that the reduction in Kranepool’s playing time occurred in the first season that suggested the Mets were capable of truly getting their act together. Ed’s production tumbled in 1968, even taking into consideration that this was The Year of the Pitcher. Under Hodges, playing time would have to be earned by all Mets, with bonus-baby pedigree serving as no kind of determining factor.

***
Ed Kranepool was batting .227 entering play on July 8, 1969, and was mired in a 5-for-53 slump. Nonetheless, Gil Hodges started him and batted him sixth that afternoon against one of the best righthanders in the National League, Ferguson Jenkins. It was, to that moment, the biggest game the Mets were ever scheduled to play in their eight-season existence, really the first big game they’d ever played. The first three months of the season had been a revelation. Instead of falling through the floor, they rose in the standings and, with the halfway mark at hand, they were in second place, seriously challenging the NL East-leading Chicago Cubs for first. The difference between the two teams was five games, unless you counted perceptions. The Cubs were star-laden successors to the Cardinals as smart-money favorites to breeze away with the pennant.

The Mets, no matter that they were well over .500 and actually looking down on multiple teams rather than peering up at everybody, were still the Mets. C’mon, let’s get serious.

That was a challenge the Mets were up for. Their fans, too, 55,096 of whom came to play on a day like no other at Shea. They were stoked to root the Mets over the Cubs as loud as they could. They loved these guys who were blowing by mere respectability and indeed getting serious about first place.

One guy, though, would have to earn it a little more than the others.

At 1:58 PM, according to the tick-tock chronicled in The Year the Mets Lost Last Place, “Jack Lightcap, the Met announcer delivers the starting lineups over the public address system. The crowd greets every Met name with wild cheers, every name except that of the starting first baseman, Ed Kranepool.”

Ed was the Met around whom the Mets as a whole had been chronologically built. His growing pains ensued in full view of those who loved their team but hated that they were so terribly lousy. The sour residue of those years had centered itself on one of 25 Mets in a year when every Met name should have been greeted with wild cheers. “Kranepool,” Dick Schaap and Paul Zimmerman posited, “was young only in chronology, not in manner. He ran like an eighty-year-old man catching a commuter train. His modest ability to hit became even more modest with men on base.”

Krane’s start in ’69 had been good for a while, though this, too, was to form, according to the authors. “[E]very now and then,” they wrote, “Kranepool showed flashes of the brilliance that had been expected of him. For a few weeks, usually at the start of the season, he would hit over .300, and Met fans, starved for a hero, would rally to him. But then Kranepool would start slipping toward his own level […] and the fans would abandon him.” On June 15, with Eddie’s latest seemingly inevitable slump beginning to gather downhill steam, GM Johnny Murphy traded for another first baseman, veteran Donn Clendenon. Clendenon, a righty, settled into a platoon with Kranepool, a lefty. In the week prior to the Cub series, Donn had driven in eleven runs. Donn was linked only to these good new days. Ed went back to what he himself referred to as “a seven-year losing streak”.

Prepare to dine like a champ.

No wonder, then, that if Mets fans had to not respond positively to any Met, perhaps as an exercise in figuratively pinching themselves that everything couldn’t possibly going so well, they had their object of derision all picked out. Eight Mets in July 8’s starting lineup are celebrated as soon as Lightcap announces them. “Kranepool’s name,” Schaap and Zimmerman noted, “inspires a chorus of boos.”

But that was before the game, before the fifth, when, with no runs on the board, Kranepool swung and sent a Jenkins slider over the right field wall. Nobody was booing now. And by the ninth, when the Mets were rallying from a 3-1 deficit, there was no time for ancient recriminations. Everything is happening in the now. Ken Boswell leads off with a fly ball Cubs center fielder Don Young can’t find. It lands as a double. With one out, Clendenon comes off the bench to pinch-hit, the beauty of having two capable first basemen on the roster. He hits one very deep to left-center. Young tracks it down but can’t hold it. It’s another double, though because it took its time not being caught, Boswell has to advance with caution, and he runs only to third.

That’s OK, because Cleon Jones, way up in the batting race, hits one to deep left to score both Ken and Donn. Cleon, a .352 hitter, lands at second. It’s the Mets’ third double of the inning. It’s 1969, and in 1969, managers like Leo Durocher stick with aces like Ferguson Jenkins. Durocher instructs Jenkins to intentionally walk Art Shamsky. The strategy works provisionally as Wayne Garrett grounds to second, leaving runners on second and third for the next batter.

The next batter is Ed Kranepool. Durocher can have him walked, too, so Jenkins can face J.C. Martin. But, are you kidding? Leo’s not worried about any Ed Kranepool.

Maybe he should’ve been, because Eddie makes contact with a one-and-two pitch and bloops it into left field. It falls in for a single. Jones dashes home. The Mets have won, 4-3. The Mets have picked up ground on the Cubs. The Mets are serious contenders. The fans are jubilant, and Eddie has made them so. Ed Kranepool is now batting .232, and he’s going to wind up 1969 batting only .238, but he’s quite clearly having the best season of his life. “I used to get so tired of losing,” he said. “It made the days so long and the nights so unpleasant.”

These were better days. The best two, from a Krane’s perspective, came on October 14, when the Met who’d seen it all since 1962 hit a home run in the World Series, and October 16, when the team he’d played for since 1962 won the World Series. Clendenon, Series MVP, and Kranepool combined for four dingers in the five games.

***
For the rest of Ed Kranepool’s life, he was a 1969 Met, with a 1969 World Series ring, hard-earned and hard-won. In every public reunion of the world champs, Ed would be as front and center as any of them. The “…since 1962” part was trivia now. The trials and tribulations of a bonus baby who didn’t live up to the hype, who was labeled intermittently as “bitter” or “lazy” was dusty backstory. Eddie beat the Cubs. Eddie beat the Orioles. Eddie, along with his teammates who sung about it on The Ed Sullivan Show, had heart.

Ed Kranepool was now a world champion — a 1969 World Champion New York Met. Nobody could take that away from him. The journey from the basement to the penthouse was complete. With the possible exception of Ed Charles, whose professional baseball career commenced in 1952; was stymied for a decade by institutional racism; and then got bogged down by colorless losing in Kansas City, nobody in a Mets uniform could have appreciated this new reality more than the Krane.

Except the Glider really could call his journey complete. His career ended with Game Five of the World Series (whether he wanted it to or not was another matter). Charles was 36. Kranepool was 24. Though he’d worked as a stockbroker in the offseason and might have thrived in business had he followed that path, he was a ballplayer first and foremost. He had a lot more ball to play.

After 1969, it couldn’t help but be kind of a downer to have to live up to what he’d just been a part of. It showed, not only in his performance but his demeanor. For all the youth he’d embodied, Ed never evinced a sense of ebullience. Maybe he didn’t feel a reason to. He never knew his father, who’d been killed in World War II. He’d been pushed to compete in the top tier of baseball before he was ready. The fans were preternaturally impatient. The reporters always had questions (and occasionally had digs). The manager expected improvement, championship ring or not.

For a spell in 1970, Ed Kranepool went to a place he’d rightfully assumed he was done with, save for annual exhibitions. He was sent to the minors. The erstwhile All-Star, the man who belted a home run in the previous October’s World Series, was batting .118. He was also 25. Not old. Not baseball old, even. It wouldn’t have seemed all that strange if all you knew was age and average and didn’t know the name and what he’d done last summer and fall.

But this was Ed Kranepool, who’d been a Met since 1962 and hadn’t been a minor leaguer since 1964. It was a shock to the system, both that of Mets fans and The Dean. Ed went to Tidewater, hit .310 and returned. The Mets hadn’t thrived in his absence, failing to defend their championship, but Ed was better in the long haul for his visit to Triple-A. Starting in 1971, Ed wasn’t just a young veteran ballplayer, but a reliable young veteran ballplayer. The average soared to .280. The OPS+, for the first time in his career, rose above 100, indicating he was more than a replacement-level player. Not that anybody had that stat handy in ’71, but he’d transitioned to the latter half of his career in style. Gil Hodges’s expectations were being met.

Ed’s speed demanded In Action cards portray him standing his ground.

Alas, Gil would be gone before Opening Day 1972, a victim of a fatal heart attack. It was a blow to the entire organization. Nobody likely felt it any more than his fellow first baseman from 1962, the youngster the manager had pushed to mature. “He learned to respect me,” Ed reflected to his SABR biographer Tara Krieger in 2008, “and I learned to respect him.”

The Mets’ next manager, Yogi Berra, who also had played briefly with Kranepool, was a mellower figure. He inherited a club whose offense was bolstered heading into ’72, with trades for Jim Fregosi and Rusty Staub. One of those swaps worked out better than the others — and they were supplemented by another deal for Ed’s former All-Star teammate Willie Mays — but the season, like the two seasons preceding it, were no better than 83-win wonders. They were good enough for third place, which after 1969 wasn’t very good at all.

Then came 1973, and a division captured on 82 wins (maybe that was the problem — the Mets were winning one game too many). Eddie was a decidedly part-time player as he reached his late twenties. Clendenon had moved on, but John Milner’s power eventually made him the first baseman more days than not. With the Hammer supplanting the Krane, Ed took more reps in the outfield than he had at any time in a decade. It paid off in the fifth and final game of the NLCS. Staub was out with a sore shoulder, so Berra had to improvise. Eddie started in left, with Cleon in right. Kranepool drove in the Mets’ first two runs in the first, then took a seat so Mays could pinch-hit and drive in another in the fifth. Four innings after that, the Mets had their and Eddie’s second pennant.

***
The Mets didn’t win the World Series in 1973, and Ed Kranepool never got close to another postseason once Oakland beat New York in seven games. His legacy, however, was about to be embellished. For Mets fans coming of rooting age in the middle and late ’70s, stories of Kranepool’s shortcomings sounded as if they’d been excavated from the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It may have happened, but we didn’t really understand. Eddie Kranepool, to us, wasn’t a bonus baby who never delivered on his promise. He was ED-DEE Kranepool who delivered big-time when called upon, two syllables at a time.

A Mets fan’s view of Ed Kranepool really depended on when one tuned into his long-running show. Getting hooked on the Mets by 1974 got you the Eddie you couldn’t fathom was once considered unpopular. To those of us who were too young to have grasped the 1960s in real time, this Eddie Kranepool, who arose in the wake of his roommate Tug McGraw’s cry of YOU GOTTA BELIEVE, even overshadows the Eddie Kranepool who shows off his 1969 World Series ring. In the 1960s, I was drawing beards on his baseball card. In the 1970s, I was wrapping rubber bands around my Ed Kranepools and storing them safely in a shoe box. I even had him on my closet door — not a card, but an autographed photo. Ed had come to my sixth-grade class one day when I was absent to hand them out. I don’t know how I always managed to be absent for the cool shit, but I was. The story I was told the next day was our teacher was friends with him, so why wouldn’t Ed Kranepool visit Lindell School without notice? Miss Goldstein was kind enough to put aside a picture for me, writing “Greg” on the border. It was almost like it was personalized.

How was I absent for this?

While this was an out-of-the-ordinary occurrence, somehow I wasn’t that surprised that Ed Kranepool would visit a random classroom on a random weekday sans warning. Ed and Ron Swoboda had run a restaurant on Long Island. He lived here year-round. Getting the opportunity to meet Ed Kranepool (unless you were dumb enough be out with a cold or something) seemed to come with the territory, like what Wayne Campbell said on Wayne’s World about Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. A copy of the album was issued to every kid in the suburbs.

Eddie, I’m sure got a nice hand, from a roomful of kids. How nice, I couldn’t say. He was beloved without exactly being lovable, though one must concede love is a matter of taste. Drop by Kranepool’s Ultimate Mets Database fan memories page and you’ll be overwhelmed by how many of the Metsian persuasion pledge eternal allegiance to Eddie — and be more than a little taken aback by those who would be fine if a sinkhole opened up and swallowed him.

Ah, Mets fans.

Generally, familiarity bred affection. Getting really good at something didn’t hurt, either. Ed Kranepool’s 18 seasons yielded 4.3 wins above replacement, per Baseball-Reference. That’s negligible, marginal, insignificant if you didn’t put the number to the name. But the name was Ed Kranepool, and had we known about WAR then, we wouldn’t have cared, because there was one thing Ed Kranepool was, in fact, really good at. Besides sticking around, I mean.

Ed Kranepool became the world’s greatest pinch-hitter this side of Manny Mota. From 1974 to 1977, he batted .447 (42-for-94) in the role that suited him to a tee. In his first pinch-hitting appearance of 1978, he homered off Stan Bahnsen of the Expos to win the game, the first and only walkoff home run of his career. Sometimes he was so good at pinch-hitting, his managers got carried away and pushed him off the bench and into the starting lineup. It was the bench’s loss. For a couple of years, he was pretty close to a regular again and better than ever at it. In his early thirties, he was an approximation of what he was supposed to have been all along. In 1976, he pinch-hit only ten times because Joe Frazier started him more than 100 games, the most votes of confidence Ed had received since Hodges began to fully “respect” him in 1971. In 1975, Ed hit .323 after making Metsopotamia rub its eyes in disbelief by lifting his average above .400 in early June. There was talk of a write-in campaign to make him an All-Star for a second time (it didn’t get anywhere). Poet Bob McKenty was so inspired by the Krane’s surge that he channeled his amazement in verse for the Times:

Although his bat knows no fatigue,
Eddie Kranepool is unique:
The only man in either league
To bat .400 twice a week.

Throughout this second or third phase of his renaissance, Ed Kranepool wore an expression of a man just getting comfortable with being accepted for who he is. The residual gawkiness of the teen and preternatural grumpiness of the dismissed was still in evidence, but this was the Krane. The bird with whom he was homophonically linked is described as large, long-legged and an opportunistic feeder. Some are said to not migrate at all and keep to themselves.

The Krane was indeed a rare bird, native to the meadows of Flushing.

Sounds about right. As Leonard Koppett reflected as the flight of the Krane entered what turned out to be its loftiest elevation in 1974, “He didn’t appreciate being the butt of all those jokes in the early days, felt that he hadn’t been given as many opportunities to play regularly as he had earned. He didn’t hold grudges, and he appreciated his responsibilities in a public relations sense, but he was not what one would call a warm personality.”

Nevertheless, Ed Kranepool is who we got as Mets fans, and who we as Mets fans got, even if Ed Kranepool didn’t always seemed thrilled to be Ed Kranepool. He’d smile for the camera if the situation demanded it, but otherwise seemed a little shall we say circumspect about the whole thing — Joe Pesci’s description of the white-haired gent in his mother’s painting in Goodfellas comes to mind: “And this guy’s saying, ‘whaddaya want from me?’” comes to mind.

It’s worth remembering that when a pennant wasn’t being chased, Eddie was essentially just another guy going to work in the same job he had for a long time back when most ballplayers weren’t compensated lavishly and weren’t above replacement. He often seemed unhappy with his situation, maybe with his co-workers, surely with his employers. You stay in the same job for 18 years and not sound surly now and then. Except nobody with a notepad or microphone is likely to ask you what you’re thinking at the end of a bad day or unsatisfying year.

Yet he seemed to smile for the cameras a little more as the years went by. He starred in his very own Gillette Foamy commercial, implicitly attributing the upturn in his fortunes since 1971 not to extra swings in the cage but the shaving cream he was enthusiastically apportioning across his face. When Newsday carriers were encouraged, in the summer of 1977, to convince more of their neighbors to sign up as subscribers, the bait the paper offered us to hustle and sell was a ticket to see the Mets one night real soon, specifically “Mets stars Henderson and Kranepool”. Henderson was the new kid, Steve, from Cincinnati. We all knew Kranepool. We might not have thought of him as a star, but with Seaver and Kingman traded, and Koosman and Matlack struggling, we got it.

I never did sign up any new subscribers (other than my parents), but I would have taken a ticket to Newsday Night at Shea Stadium to see Ed Kranepool. Starting, pinch-hitting, shaving…didn’t matter. ED-DEE could do it all.

***
On December 8, 1978, the Mets traded Jerry Koosman to Minnesota for minor league pitcher Greg Field and a player to be named later, leaving only one 1969 Met to be a 1979 Met. Ed Kranepool got to Shea before every one of his world champion teammates and he outlasted them, too. The Dean had extended his tenure to a record-breaking 18th season. He was The Fantasticks, running Off-Broadway since the early ’60s, with no closing date in sight. His peers had been Throneberry and Coleman and the two Bob Millers at the beginning, then the men who made a couple of miracles. Now he was part of a unit whose headliners were named Mazzilli, Stearns, Swan and the darling of the Newsday carrier set, Henderson. Every Met who’d been on an active roster from late September 1962 to late September 1979 had something in common: they had all been Ed Kranepool’s workplace proximity acquaintances. There were close to 300 men who qualified, almost everybody who’d ever been a Met.

That didn’t include Harry Chiti. He’d been traded for himself before Ed got called up.

One of the best ever in a pinch.

The late-career magic Kranepool’s bat packed began to wear off in ’78, by which time the long days and unpleasant nights of losing were again entrenched at Shea. The newest iteration of the Youth of America was given the bulk of the playing time by Joe Torre. Willie Montañez was an RBI machine at first, so starting to stay sharp became close to impossible. Ed’s pinch-hitting could still be lethal (15-for-50) but his rare opportunities in the lineup went for naught (2-for-30). Keeping a 33-year-old part-timer fresh was hardly Torre’s priority. When Ed came up in 1962, there was nobody as young as Kranepool. When he headed into 1979, there was nobody in the clubhouse who could possibly relate to all of his baseball life experiences. The 18-year-veteran appeared to be, in the immortal customer-service advice of Rodney Dangerfield, all alone here.

Except on July 14, the highlight of the 63-99 1979 season in a campaign almost entirely devoid of them. It was Old Timers Day at Shea Stadium. The festivities centered on the tenth anniversary of the 1969 Mets. The bulk of them were retired from baseball already. The handful who weren’t were playing for other teams. Seaver was a Red, Koosman a Twin, Nolan Ryan still an Angel long after the Fregosi trade proved less than optimal. Most of those who no longer had a ballgame to play every Saturday showed up at Shea.

One 1969 Met didn’t have to make a special trip. For one afternoon, during pregame ceremonies, Ed Kranepool didn’t have to be a 1979 Met. He could line up with the Mets with whom he identified most closely. He could even break out into a grin when joined in the introductions by perhaps the most famous ’69er of the moment, Chico Escuela, a.k.a. Garrett Morris. Morris had broken through with his “baseball been berry, berry good to me” catchphrase on Saturday Night Live months before. It was uncommonly hip of the 1979 Mets to invite him to reprise his role — that of a 1969 Mets utility infielder — among the authentic alumni. Ed had already gone along with the joke enough to appear in a filmed bit on Weekend Update in which Kranepool had to express dismay with Chico’s new tell-all book, Bad Stuff ’Bout the Mets. Ed was a natural at expressing dismay.

Tom Seaver: “Always take up two parking places.”

Yogi Berra: “Berry, berry bad card player.”

Ed Kranepool: “Borrow Chico’s soap and never give it back.”

Ed stayed in character and shook his head that Chico was stabbing the guys in the back with his revelations. What the hell, it wasn’t like the 1979 Mets were doing any kind of a 1969 impression.

***
When the old champs scattered to their post-baseball lives and Ed Kranepool was left to continue in his long-running role, it had to be acknowledged that Eddie hadn’t only been the last of the Met-hicans from 1969 to stay at Shea, he was having a pretty damn long major league career. Those guys who tipped their mesh caps as old-timers in July (the Mets were so cheap in those days) were more or less the same age as Ed. Yet most of them were done. Ed got better at baseball as he went along. True, he was in the denouement phase of his ED-DEE peak by 1979, destined to bat only .232 in his final season, but you didn’t see Jones or Agee or Swoboda or Shamsky still being asked to pinch-hit at a ballpark near you. We’ll say it again: Eddie knew how to stick around.

Except for one night in August when, against the Astros, he left the field before the game was over. To be fair, he thought the game was over. See, the Mets were leading the Astros, 5-0, and starter Pete Falcone had induced Jeffrey Leonard to fly to center with two out in the ninth, so that seemed to end it. Except Frank Taveras had called time at short, which meant Leonard got to swing again, and he used it to single…except this time it was noticed the Mets didn’t have their full complement of nine at their positions because Kranepool, figuring the game was already in the books, had vamoosed to the clubhouse, and…well, let’s just say you don’t come up with the 1962 Mets without somewhere in your soul still being a 1962 Met. The bottom line was an Astro protest was upheld and they had to finish the game the next afternoon (no harm done, except to Falcone’s complete game).

In 1979, an 18-year feast of base hits and dependability was about to end.

It would be too much to read into one confusing episode and infer Eddie was trying to tell us, “Hello, I must be going.” Nevertheless, on September 30, 1979, anybody who was watching or listening to the Mets and Cards from St. Louis was about to witness something that seemed unimaginable across the history of the Metropolitan Baseball Club of New York.

It was Ed Kranepool’s last game. Torre sent him up to pinch-hit for John Pacella in the seventh. Eddie produced a double, his 1,418th base hit, which remained the Met standard until David Wright passed him in 2012, and his 90th career pinch-hit, still a franchise record (and 31st all-time in the major leagues). The manager just as quickly removed him for pinch-runner Gil Flores.

That was it. The Ed Kranepool Era was over.

Well, the part where he played for the Mets, that is. When you’re talking Mets, I don’t think the Ed Kranepool Era ever ends.

***
Ed Kranepool’s three-year contract expired after the 1979 season. Management was not interested in negotiating a new one. Maybe Ed could have shopped his services to the American League, where the designated hitter was embraced rather than scorned. A man over 35 could get regular swings over there without having to worry about playing the sport the way it’s designed. But the Krane was definitely not a migratory bird. He’d lived all his life in New York, whether it was the Bronx or on Long Island. Free agency opportunities notwithstanding, he wasn’t bout to take flight.

Kranepool knew, as everybody did, that the Mets were going to be sold. They were scraping bottom in the standings and drawing ants (flies couldn’t be bothered), but they were still, on paper, a National League jewel in the largest market baseball had. Maybe a new GM would be interested in Kranepool. Better yet, maybe Kranepool could be in on hiring the new GM. Eddie, whose business acumen was a bigger part of skill set than foot speed, tried to put a group together. He was serious. It made the papers. But, ultimately, the group led by Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon bought the Mets. Ed Kranepool didn’t. In 1980, for the first time since there’d been Mets, a Mets season would proceed without Ed Kranepool in uniform.

When the 2020 season was on hold and I had no new games to watch, I checked YouTube to see if anybody had uploaded episodes of my favorite TV drama from when Ed Kranepool was winding down as a player. To my delight, somebody had. The entire series of Lou Grant, which initially ran from 1977 to 1982, was available for my viewing, and I viewed the hell out of it, all 120 episodes. I mention this because a recurring baseball player character was introduced as a love interest for reporter Billie Newman during Season Three, a backup catcher named Ted McCovey, no relation to Willie. Ted isn’t old for a regular person, but he’s not a regular person. He’s a ballplayer and he’s just been placed on irrevocable waivers. Ted tries to explain to Billie what this all means:

You know what baseball’s done for me? Treated me like a kid for the past fourteen years, and now, suddenly, they’re telling me I’m an old man.

I don’t get the sense that’s something Ed Kranepool would have said when the Mets told him his services were no longer required, but I have to imagine he thought some unscripted unsentimental version of it. Ed was their golden boy. He grew up with them. He’d literally spent half his life answering to chants of ED-DEE, maybe tuning out the less flattering remarks that came with it. When Ed Kranepool played his last game, he was fewer than six weeks shy of 35. Not old for a regular person. Not close to old. Not even the oldest Met of his final season (Jose Cardenal was almost 36).

But too old to play for the Mets anymore, which must have been very strange.

***
About as great an Internet find as Lou Grant for me was a reprint of a magazine article from the defunct New York Sports, which lives on in pixels thanks to our friends at Metsmerized Online. It’s an article from 1984, breathed back to life by MMO in 2012, written by Len Albin. It’s called “Ed Kranepool Never Got a Day”. At the time, Ed was feeling underappreciated by Mets management not so many years after he hung up his spikes. His 1,858 games, his 1,418 hits, his 18 seasons cut little ice with an ownership more concerned with trying to make people forget the recent past than celebrating more distant glories. These Mets were just getting good at being in the present. It might have been too much to demand their executives pay proper homage to the past.

Yeah, but this was Ed Kranepool, No. 7 from 1965 forward (and No. 21 for a couple of years before that). This was Ed Kranepool when David Wright was a toddler, Eddie’s records not close to being threatened. They hadn’t given him anything approaching what he — or anybody who’d been a Mets fan more than five minutes — considered his due. No ceremony, no acknowledgement, no nothin’.

“I don’t feel an allegiance to the Mets anymore,” Kranepool told Albin, even as he dressed up in his c. 1978 uniform top and posed Lou Gehrig-style in an empty Shea, addressing the fans who weren’t there for the day he had yet to get. “Loyalty went out the window the day they didn’t sign me.”

Did Eddie mean it? Probably. And probably not. And were the Mets that blithe toward the man who as much as anybody epitomized who they’d been for almost their first two decades? Probably. But probably not. The Mets still had enough of a rearview mirror to gather Old Timers annually in the ’80s. Under Frank Cashen, they inaugurated a Hall of Fame in 1981. True, they hid the commemorative busts in the lobby to the Diamond Club where few were bound to bump into them, and they tended to not announce the ceremonies with sufficient advance notice to draw a large crowd, but they were, in their own less than fantastic way, trying to remember the kinds of Septembers like 1969 and 1973…even a little 1962 sometimes, if not any 1979.

On September 1, 1990, before the Mets took on the Giants in front of more than 40,000 fans, Ed Kranepool got his day. He became the fifth player inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame, the fourteenth member overall. Now he was a world champion, a two-time pennant-winner and recognized by the only organization with which he’d ever been associated as immortal.

The Ed Kranepool story was, at last, complete.

***
Only kidding. The Ed Kranepool story was not complete. How could it be? His era is eternal, and the people who owned the Mets were who they were.

In the winter of 2017-18, despite Eddie’s many trips back to Shea Stadium and Citi Field for commemorative occasions, we learned Kranepool was sore at Jeff Wilpon. (Why should he have been any different from the rest of us?) An article, which ran in the New York Times, described Eddie on the outs with the entity that coroneted him as a Hall of Famer. Not only that, but Eddie needed a kidney. He was selling much of his baseball memorabilia, not because he needed to, he said, but because it was time.

Amends were made in the summer of 2018, with the then-COO of the Mets reaching out and bringing back Eddie for a first pitch. Of greater import, the Krane got word in the spring of 2019 that a kidney donor with a match for his needs had been found. He was in greatly improved health and spirits by late June, when the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Mets was being toasted by a full house at Citi Field. Tom Seaver couldn’t be there because dementia had sidelined him from public appearances. Too many teammates were no longer with us, but whoever could be there came. Still, without Tom, somebody would have to speak for the group after they were all introduced. That was Seaver’s role at the 40th anniversary. It was always Seaver’s role.

Who better to speak for the 1969 Mets?

At the 50th, it was Kranepool’s. Of course it was. Steadiest Eddie was always around. That was worth more than WAR. The most memorable snippet of his brief speech was an admonition to the 2019 team to not give up despite being buried in the standings. “They can do it like we did,” he said to great cheers. The modern Mets eventually listened and inserted themselves into a playoff race you would have thought they’d have needed to pay admission to see.

I’d pay admission to attend a reunion of 1979 Mets. Or 1966 Mets. Or any Mets. With Steve Cohen taking over, anything is possible. That Ed Kranepool would be eligible to speak at eighteen of them would make the proposition only more attractive. Nobody ever earned the title A Met for ALL Seasons as much as he did from 1962 through 1979. Before 1980, you couldn’t imagine a season without Kranepool. The slice of 1970 he’d spent at Tidewater was surreal enough.

In the Spring Training of ’79, prior to his 18th season, the player to be named later from the Jerry Koosman deal, a minor league reliever named Jesse Orosco, impressed enough to make the ballclub. Or maybe Orosco was chosen a couple of weeks shy of his 22nd birthday because the Mets could pay him the minimum (they’d cut Nelson Briles in camp so they wouldn’t have to pay him a veteran’s salary despite Briles taking part in the Chico Escuela bit). As every baseball fan knows, Jesse Orosco would do so much sticking around in the major leagues that the Mets would be able to trade for him a second time, a dozen years after trading him away, more than twenty years after trading for him the first time, fourteen days before the turn of the next millennium. The Mets wouldn’t hold onto him when they did — they’d trade Orosco for Joe McEwing in Spring Training of 2000 — but that’s some serious sticking around. Jesse was still pitching in 2003, when Jose Reyes was a rookie. You’d figure Kranepool would feel a bond for Orosco based on longevity alone.

Of course the Koosman-Orosco connection is a staple of all Mets historical discussion. The happy kind, anyway. Two pitchers have been on the mound for the last out certifying the Mets world champions, and they were traded for each other: Koosman from 1969 for Orosco from 1986. Not that we knew the back half of that equation in 1979. Yet in 2012, at the Hofstra Mets 50th anniversary conference, I heard Ed Kranepool, in the midst of excoriating the Mets for too swiftly disassembling the 1969 club, rail against the Jerry Koosman trade, even dismissing the Orosco portion of the transaction and the eventual great news that came from it when a friend of mine brought it up to him.

“I don’t care about any Jerry Orosco,” Kranepool fumed.

I’m sure he knew the pitcher’s name was Jesse, but as they said in Animal House, forget it, he’s rolling. And besides, he’s Ed Kranepool. He was being loyal to Jerry Koosman; to 1969; to the Mets he knew best, the Mets with whom he most closely identified, the Mets for whom he’d stand and speak in 2019. Koosman for Orosco turned out to be not a stone steal for the Mets the way we wish all our trades to be (Kooz pitched seven seasons after leaving the Mets and won twenty games as a 37-year-old as soon as he did), but you can’t say it wasn’t a plus trade for the Mets. Orosco grew into an All-Star closer. It was not incidental that he was on the mound for that second world championship. And he did pitch several seasons into the next century.

And we tip our cap right back to ya, Ed.

Yet at that moment in 2012, when Eddie was hopping mad all over again that the Mets had traded away his last friend from 1969, leaving him to carry the banner into miserable 1979 all by himself, a fan who’d predated 1986 could feel himself empathizing with the Krane. Yeah, how could they do that to you, Eddie?

Eight years later, that same fan would saddle Kranepool with carrying the 1979 banner, but forget it, I’m rolling.

Ed Kranepool became a Met in 1962. Seventeen years later, he was still a Met. It was miserable 1979. I became a Mets fan in 1969. Seventeen years later, I was still a Mets fan. It was glorious 1986. Meaning? I dunno. Stick at something long enough and you’ll be punished or rewarded, perhaps. But it doesn’t matter that in my eighteenth year of Mets fandom, I received the gaudiest, most overpowering and dominant season of Mets baseball ever, and that in Ed’s eighteenth year of playing for the Mets, he was part of the most depressing, least encouraging season of Mets baseball ever. It wasn’t like either one of us was going to do or be something different.

I’m certain I’m more sentimental about it than he is, but we’re both as loyal as can be to our Mets.

THE METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962: Richie Ashburn
1963: Ron Hunt
1964: Rod Kanehl
1965: Ron Swoboda
1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1967: Al Schmelz
1968: Cleon Jones
1969: Donn Clendenon
1970: Tommie Agee
1971: Tom Seaver
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1974: Tug McGraw
1975: Mike Vail
1976: Mike Phillips
1977: Lenny Randle
1978: Craig Swan
1979: Ed Kranepool
1980: Lee Mazzilli
1981: Mookie Wilson
1982: Rusty Staub
1983: Darryl Strawberry
1984: Wally Backman
1985: Dwight Gooden
1986: Keith Hernandez
1987: Lenny Dykstra
1988: Gary Carter
1989: Ron Darling
1990: Gregg Jefferies
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1993: Joe Orsulak
1994: Rico Brogna
1995: Jason Isringhausen
1996: Rey Ordoñez
1997: Edgardo Alfonzo
1998: Todd Pratt
1999: John Olerud
2000: Melvin Mora
2001: Mike Piazza
2002: Al Leiter
2003: David Cone
2004: Joe Hietpas
2005: Pedro Martinez
2006: Carlos Beltran
2007: Jose Reyes
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Angel Pagan
2010: Ike Davis
2011: David Wright
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Wilmer Flores
2014: Jacob deGrom
2015: Michael Conforto
2016: Matt Harvey
2017: Paul Sewald
2018: Noah Syndergaard
2019: Dom Smith
2020: Pete Alonso
2021: Steve Cohen

The Sins of Carlos Beltran

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Faith and Fear in Flushing exists because the Mets signed Carlos Beltran in January 2005.

But it wouldn’t be an enormous exaggeration.

In 2005 the Mets already had a reputation for Wilponian meddling and aiming the gun at their own feet, but they hadn’t yet been wrecked by their Madoff misadventure or Major League Baseball’s determination to keep their hamstrung ownership in place. Beltran was a homegrown star who’d outgrown the Royals and logged half a season as a 27-year-old mercenary with the Astros, ending the year by lighting up the 2004 playoffs: a .435 average, 14 RBIs, 21 runs scored, and homers in five straight games.

It was a performance destined to make him very rich, he was the best player on the free-agent market, and the Mets wanted him. Back then, that was enough. The Mets inked Beltran to a seven-year, $119 million deal — not eye-popping now, but a gargantuan sum and commitment then. An exciting new era of Mets baseball was under way, Beltran was going to be its centerpiece, and two lunatic Mets fans decided it was time to turn their daily email kvetching, flights of nostalgic fancy and occasional moments of happiness into something public.

We were a long way from finding our tone, rhythm or anything else — those early posts are just us talking to each other, as we’d been doing over email. But Beltran was on our minds from the start. And in the second-ever Faith and Fear post, Greg offered a prescient warning:

Nevertheless, we will tire of Carlos Beltran. Let me be the first to welcome him to Flushing and show him the door. Not for at least five years, I hope, but it’ll happen. He or his swing will slow down. The strange breezes and thunderous flight path to LaGuardia will get to him. He won’t lead us to the promised land nearly enough and his salary will become unmanageable. He will get booed. Not now, but eventually. It always happens.

What we didn’t imagine was how quickly it would happen. Beltran was hobbled by a quad injury, played through it or was pushed to play through it (you never know, given the Mets) when he probably shouldn’t have, and put up a first season that wasn’t bad — a 2.9 WAR — but wasn’t otherworldly. The fanbase, understandably, wanted otherworldly; a chunk of that fanbase, less understandably, felt entitled to it. Beltran was booed vociferously and complained about endlessly on the airwaves and in the comment sections of the ever-expanding constellation of blogs about the Mets.

Most of those complaints were typical of people who can only see baseball in terms of effort and grit and the will to win and other rah-rah bushwah accepted as intellectual currency by dolts. (Because the universe is malign, these people inevitably sit within two rows of me and are the loudest in their section.) Ironically, Beltran might have won these fans over if he hadn’t been so good in center field — he had an encyclopedic knowledge of positioning and excelled at reading balls off the bat and taking first steps, which let him glide into the gap or back to the fence and corral a lot of drives without lunging or diving, as lesser center fielders needed to do. Fewer showy plays; less balls falling in. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, even if it means you’re not on as many highlight reels.

One ball Beltran did dive for could have cost him his career — in August 2005, he collided head-to-head with right fielder Mike Cameron in San Diego, one of the most frightening outfield mishaps I’ve seen in more than four decades of watching baseball. Beltran suffered a fractured cheekbone, sustained a concussion that left him unable to remember the next few hours, and contended with bouts of vertigo. He returned to the field six days later and played every game remaining on the schedule. His naysayers would spend the next half-decade deriding him as fragile anyway.

There was also an ugly undertone to that first year. With Omar Minaya at the front-office helm, the Mets were championed (and eventually marketed) as Los Mets, a showcase for Latin superstars such as Beltran, Pedro Martinez and Carlos Delgado. That didn’t sit well with some fans, who saw “Los Mets” not as a way to invite in fans who’d felt little noticed or left out, but as a calculated affront aimed at shoving them aside.

In 2006 Beltran reported for duty healthy, but got off to a slow start, and heard the boos again. That all changed on April 6, one of the more interesting early-season games in franchise history. It was a chippy affair between the Mets and the Nationals, with lead changes and batters taking balls to the ribs. In the seventh, with the Mets up by one, Beltran hit a two-run homer and circled the bases to cheers from the Shea crowd. His face remained impassive, and he plunked himself down on the bench, stone-faced as the fans demanded a curtain call.

It was a peace offering, but Beltran showed zero interest in accepting it. The moment went on, increasingly uncomfortably, until Julio Franco got up from his seat and spoke quietly but pointedly to his teammate. Beltran listened and popped out of the dugout to wave. It was a perfunctory gesture, but the war was over and a magical season (which Beltran represents in A Met for All Seasons) had begun. Beltran tied a club mark with 41 homers, drove in 116, won his first Gold Glove, and put up 8.2 of WAR — an MVP-caliber season. Along the way there were a pair of celebrated walkoffs — a May drive off Philadelphia’s Ryan Madson at 12:33 a.m. in the 16th inning (Gary Cohen exulted that “we’re going home!”) and an August bottom-of-the-ninth homer off St. Louis’s Jason Isringhausen. (Cohen: “HE RIPS IT TO DEEP RIGHT! THAT BALL IS OUTTA HERE! OUTTA HERE! THE METS WIN THE BALLGAME!”)

In the NLCS, Beltran won Game 1 for the Mets with a 430-foot drive off Jeff Weaver and went deep twice in Game 4. He hit .296 for the series … but all anyone remembers is his final at-bat in Game 7. That came with rookie Adam Wainwright on the mound — ironically, he’d stepped in as closer for an injured Isringhausen — and Yadier Molina (then somehow just 24 years old) behind the plate.

It was Cardinals 3, Mets 1, but Wainwright started the bottom of the ninth by giving up back-to-back singles to Jose Valentin and hero-in-waiting Endy Chavez, got Cliff Floyd looking on a curve, then threw Jose Reyes a 1-2 curve — one Reyes lined to center but saw hang up for Jim Edmonds. He then walked Paul Lo Duca, with Anderson Hernandez taking Lo Duca’s place as a pinch-runner. It would come down to Wainwright and Beltran.

As Beltran gathered himself, Molina went to the mound — his third visit of the inning — and told Wainwright to start with a sinker. He then changed his mind and called for a change-up. Wainwright hit the inside corner for strike one, a perfect pitch. Molina called for the curveball inside, another tough pitch that Wainwright executed. Beltran fouled it off for an 0-2 count. Molina decided to double up on the curve, and this time he set up on the outside edge. Wainwright threw what he later said was the best pitch he’d ever thrown for a called strike three, the game and the pennant.

Beltran after that K

And then this happened.

Wainwright would ride that curve to a very successful career, but he’d had trouble harnessing it that inning, throwing two high curves to Valentin and hanging one to Reyes, which unfortunately wound up hit right at Edmonds. He’d gotten the pitch over to strike out Floyd, but the sequence he dropped on Beltran came after an inning in which he’d scuffled and battled. But at the critical moment, with a lot of help from a precocious young catcher showing you why he’d be a Hall of Famer, Wainwright made the pitches he needed to make.

John Smoltz called the called strike “the perfect pitch at the perfect time to the perfect place,” which was true. But it wasn’t like Wainwright had engineered a never-before-seen, unhittable pitch in a lab and waited until then to break it out. Watch baseball and actually pay attention to it and you’ll see pitches like that one all the time: a hitter gets to two strikes, looks fastball and gets a 12-to-6 curve instead. His knees lock up, the hands freeze, the back goes rigid in dismay, and that little moment tells the pitcher and the catcher that the out is secured even before it hits the glove. What follows can look like a magic trick, with pitcher and catcher headed to the dugout even before the pitch breaks and the hitter left standing with the ump as he records the punch-out for posterity.

Cue the outraged calls to the FAN: “Yeah, but you can’t get caught looking in a big moment like that!” Oh please. Baseball doesn’t work that way — players don’t save a higher gear for big moments, and anyone who says otherwise has succumbed to magical thinking. If anything, players succeed by putting aside the stakes of a moment, along with every other distraction; as Ray Knight put it, “concentration is the ability to think about absolutely nothing when it is absolutely necessary.” It’s not like Beltran stands alone, either — in 2010, both League Championship Series ended on called third strikes, with Alex Rodriguez caught looking for the Yankees and Ryan Howard for the Phillies.

I suspect Beltran’s entire Mets career would be regarded differently if he’d swung and missed that final pitch instead of taking it, even though it would have changed nothing. Should he have swung too late to show he really cared? Smashed himself in the face with the bat to express his grief? Does Beltran remain unappreciated because he didn’t grimace enough? If that’s the case, who does it indict: Beltran, or columnists and fans who judge a player’s value by modern-day phrenology?

Still, that moment has been useful to me as a fan. If your takeaway from that pitch is anything like the stuff above, I’ll smile and chit-chat with you, and we’ll even high-five if the Mets score, but I’m not going to take you or anything you say about baseball seriously, because you’ve shown me that would be a waste of my time.

Beltran followed his amazing 2006 season with All-Star campaigns in 2007 and 2008, and was solid down the stretch in both seasons as the Mets collapsed around him. And he kept supplying highlights — a game-saving, 14th-inning catch nearly all the way up Tal’s Hill in Houston in 2007, a two-out, ninth-inning, come-from-behind grand slam off the Marlins the next year.

71-style Beltran manager card

A card that got away for a job that did the same.

Beltran’s 2009 was wrecked by injuries; in January 2010 he opted for knee surgery against the wishes of the Mets, and didn’t return until the All-Star break. That was probably too soon, as he’d pretty clearly lost a step in center and was rusty at the plate. The dispute kicked off a war with his employers, one that would last for the rest of his Mets tenure. Given the Mets’ approach to handling injuries at the time, best described as a combination of negligence, incompetence and bullying, I knew whose side I was on. But the anti-Beltran brigade blamed him, calling him selfish and fragile. Just like they blamed him later in 2010, when the Mets publicly called him out, along with Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez, for skipping a trip to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in D.C.

It was a shameful display of bullying regardless of the circumstances: The Mets were unhappy with all three players and decided to sic the press and fans on them for a public shaming. It turned out Beltran had missed the visit because he had a lunch meeting about a school his foundation was building in Puerto Rico, which is a lot better excuse than I’ve ever brought to the table. A couple of days after that, agent Scott Boras nailed the real problem: “The team has a duty to run the organization professionally. Giving the players [short] notice, knowing they have plans or obligations in their personal lives, and then to admonish the players without checking, it’s totally unprofessional on all fronts.” I’m not particularly a fan of Boras, but if you’d like to contest the accuracy of that judgment, look back at the Mets of the early Citi Field era and get back to me.

The next season, the knives were out again amid speculation that Beltran wouldn’t cede center field to Angel Pagan. But he did, saying that he felt he could still play there but “this is not about Carlos — this is about the team.” Healthy again, he put up excellent numbers, good enough for the Mets to trade the stub of his contract to the Giants for Zack Wheeler in a steal of a deal. After six and a half tumultuous years, his time in New York was over. Beltran would play six more seasons as a baseball nomad, suiting up for the Cardinals, Yankees and Rangers before ending his career with a return to the Astros and a 2017 World Series ring. He exited as a sure-fire Hall of Famer, praised not just for his accomplishments on the field but also for his value as a mentor in the dugout and the clubhouse. (Though hold that thought.) And his place in the Mets record books was impressive then and now: Beltran is third in career WAR and Win Probability Added, trailing only David Wright and Darryl Strawberry.

The passage of time healed the wounds between Beltran and his former team, and in November 2019 the Mets hired him as manager, replacing the hapless Mickey Callaway. But the timing was terrible: Not long after his introductory press conference, Beltran was swept up in the scandal around the Astros, who’d had employees steal catchers’ signs via video, then pass them to hitters by signals, most famously by thumping on a trash can. Beltran at first denied that the Astros had stolen signs, but investigations revealed that they had, and he and bench coach Alex Cora had been the ringleaders. That cost Cora his job as manager of the Red Sox, A.J. Hinch his job as the Astros’ skipper, and Beltran his return engagement with the Mets, before it ever began. For once, the Mets made the right decision: The hectoring would have never stopped, causing ample distractions in a year fated to have no shortage of them.

Since then, Hinch and Cora have returned to the managerial ranks; so far, Beltran remains out in the cold, with the Mets signaling that Luis Rojas will most likely return as skipper in 2021. I don’t disagree with that, but I do hope that if Beltran is properly penitent — as he needs to be — he gets another chance to manage.

I want that for reasons both praiseworthy and petty. It would give Beltran a chance to showcase his deep understanding of and love for the game, in a role where I think he’d excel. But I’d also love to shove that success into the faces of his detractors, the ones who still dislike one of this franchise’s greatest players for his supposed sins. For not showboating when he could glide, for not throwing tantrums when he failed, for not trusting his health to the Mets’ idiot doctors and cheapskate owners, for not managing to hit an impossible 12-to-6 curve when geared up for a fastball, for being injured, for being rich, for being Carlos Beltran.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962: Richie Ashburn
1963: Ron Hunt
1964: Rod Kanehl
1965: Ron Swoboda
1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1967: Al Schmelz
1968: Cleon Jones
1969: Donn Clendenon
1970: Tommie Agee
1971: Tom Seaver
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1974: Tug McGraw
1975: Mike Vail
1976: Mike Phillips
1977: Lenny Randle
1978: Craig Swan
1980: Lee Mazzilli
1981: Mookie Wilson
1982: Rusty Staub
1983: Darryl Strawberry
1984: Wally Backman
1985: Dwight Gooden
1986: Keith Hernandez
1987: Lenny Dykstra
1988: Gary Carter
1989: Ron Darling
1990: Gregg Jefferies
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1993: Joe Orsulak
1994: Rico Brogna
1995: Jason Isringhausen
1996: Rey Ordoñez
1997: Edgardo Alfonzo
1998: Todd Pratt
1999: John Olerud
2000: Melvin Mora
2001: Mike Piazza
2002: Al Leiter
2003: David Cone
2004: Joe Hietpas
2005: Pedro Martinez
2007: Jose Reyes
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Angel Pagan
2010: Ike Davis
2011: David Wright
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Wilmer Flores
2014: Jacob deGrom
2015: Michael Conforto
2016: Matt Harvey
2017: Paul Sewald
2018: Noah Syndergaard
2019: Dom Smith
2020: Pete Alonso
2021: Steve Cohen

Cohen Speed Ahead

Steve Cohen further casually introduced himself to us Tuesday afternoon, after tweeting back and forth among us on and off for a week. We’d definitely like to hang out in his company some more.

The new owner of the New York Mets, decidedly not the old owner of the New York Mets, took to Zoom to chat with the media (and, by extension, all of Metsopotamia) and sent us zipping toward the future. There were sentimentally superb nods to the past — his first Mets game at the Polo Grounds; his many games in the Upper Deck at Shea Stadium; his fond recollections of Cleon, Tom and Mookie from ’69 and ’86; and his confirmation that reviving Old Timers Day is indeed a fine idea — but the most encouraging portion of his Q&A was forward-looking, with his sights clearly set on a brighter tomorrow.

How could they not be? The Wilpon clouds have parted and their replacement by the guy who rode the Port Washington line to Shea before making his billions is auguring blue skies smiling on us. He’s got the will to win a World Series in a time span equivalent to how long it’s been since were last in one, and he’s got the financial wherewithal to convert our shared wishes and dreams into uplifting reality…or at least push us a whole lot closer to meeting heightened expectations. Plus he seems pretty cool about the whole thing. Overall, Cohen is here to take our sad song and make it better.

Hey, Steve, don’t be afraid. You were made to go out and get us some players, fortify an organization and generally elevate us to perennial powerhouse status. And you’ve got Sandy to pitch in.

Yes, Sandy Alderson 2.0 has arrived, like Bobby Ewing from out of the shower in Dallas. Brodie Van Wagenen was never here if you close your eyes real hard and then open them real fast; Luis Rojas will probably still be here when we look around come Spring of 2021, but that’s OK for now. Unlike the fall of 2010 until the summer of 2018, Sandy will not be the GM, but he will oversee operations, asking only for the chance to shop high-end and to receive “a seat at the table,” which should be easily accessible to him, assuming Brodie didn’t throw it through a wall on his way out.

Any situation like this is going to be chock full of happy talk and pledges to recreate “the culture,” but we’re primed to take just about everything Steve and Sandy said literally, seriously and to heart. The game has changed. This is not your slightly younger self’s offseason press availability. We will no longer listen to Alderson speculate on what might be done while we shake grains of salt on his perhapses and maybes, because he’s got somebody backing him who’s prepared to grant him leeway and resources, two items we’re pretty certain he didn’t have within his regular grasp pre-Cohen. We’ll no longer cringe when we hear from the owner , because the owner is no longer somebody whose only public statements are scheduled for self-congratulations or damage control.

The Mets, Alderson said, have been “storied”. The Mets’ goal from this day forward is to be “iconic”. Cohen said he’s “all in”. Who here isn’t?

A Foxhole Player

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

Looks back at the ’86 Mets often pair Wally Backman with Lenny Dykstra, his fellow partner in grime (and co-star in the ’86 year-in-review video’s super-cringey “Wild Boys” montage). Which makes sense: Backman and Dykstra were both undersized players who seemed able to will themselves on base, inevitably getting their uniforms filthy in the process, and were blunt-spoken to the point of brashness and often far beyond it. And both players’ heroic stints in New York were followed by more difficult chapters, ones that made their legacies uncomfortable.

But Backman deserves more than to be remembered as half of a scrappy/hustling platoon with Dykstra. He deserves his own reckoning — as not only a throwback player but also a throwback manager, hyper-aggressive in confronting umpires and dissecting enemy skippers. Backman could have been dropped in any of a number of baseball eras, transplanted perfectly to jittery old black-and-white newsreels or faded 60s film — a fitting contemporary for John McGraw, Earl Weaver, or Billy Martin. Unfortunately for him, he’s one of the last of that lineage — these days, front offices aren’t looking for the next Billy Martin, particularly when they fear such a hire would come with off-field baggage. That baggage is part of Backman’s legacy too.

1987 Wally Backman card

Doing Wally Backman things

But let’s go back to the beginning. Walter Wayne Backman grew up as a baseball rat in Beaverton, Ore., spending untold hours in a vacant lot his parents had turned into a regulation-sized baseball field for the neighborhood kids — and honing his skills under the eye of his father, a railroad switchman who’d briefly been a Pirates farmhand. The Mets drafted him in 1977, and he hit .325 for Little Falls as a 17-year-old shortstop.

The bat was there. So was the gritty, no-prisoners style. The fielding, however, was not — which would be an ongoing problem as the Mets tried to figure out where Backman fit. In 1978 Backman hit .302 in Lynchburg and won a league championship, but he also had a .947 fielding percentage and led the league in errors.

The Mets shifted Backman to second base, which is where teams hide middle infielders who can’t field, knowing all too well that a lot of balls still pass through second basemen’s hands, sometimes literally. Still, Backman’s glove was less of a problem there than at short, and his other talents were undeniable. He hit .323 for Tidewater in 1980, and when Doug Flynn hurt his wrist, Backman got the call. He made his debut on Sept. 2, the same day as Mookie Wilson, singling in his first at-bat off Dave Goltz and driving in Claudell Washington. He still couldn’t take a legal drink.

That’s another thing about Backman: He was one of the old-guard Mets from the ’86 club, preceded only by Wilson (by a few minutes) and Jesse Orosco (by a year). They’d be followed by a second wave of ’83 and ’84 players as the team found its focus under Davey Johnson, then bolstered by the ’85 and ’86 arrivals. Dykstra belonged to that third wave — when Backman made his Mets debut, Dykstra was still playing high-school ball.

Backman’s first tour was promising — he hit in 18 of 26 games — but 1981 was a washout, as he struggled for playing time and tore his rotator cuff. The injury lingered into 1982, which was unfortunate: The Mets had cleared the middle infield for Backman and Ron Gardenhire by shipping out Flynn and Frank Taveras, but Backman’s fielding was poor and his season was cut short by a broken collarbone. 1983 started off promisingly, but soon turned sour, as Backman agitated for a trade after being sent down to Tidewater in May.

He didn’t know his career was about to turn around. At Tidewater Backman found a champion in Johnson, who called him “a foxhole player, a guy who will keep grinding and grinding until the job is done.” His new skipper showed confidence in him as a second baseman too, tutoring him at the same position he’d held down as an Oriole. When Johnson got the call as Mets manager for 1984, our year in question, Backman came with him.

Backman and CarterJohnson was also a believer in the value of platoons, which maximized Backman’s value. His scrappy superpowers didn’t work against lefties — for his career, Backman hit .294 right-handed but just .165 as a southpaw. Under Johnson Backman split time with Kelvin Chapman and then with Tim Teufel in 1986. That season would make him a legend — his drag bunt leading off the bottom of the ninth in Game 3 of the NLCS set up Dykstra’s walkoff, Gary Carter drove him in as the winning run in Game 5, and he scored what would eventually prove the decisive run in the epic Game 6. One of my favorite shots of the World Series comes from the on-field celebration after Game 7 — a hug amid the scrum that united the grimy, sweaty Backman and a beaming Carter.

The next season the always blunt Backman would be front and center in Mets dramas, calling out Darryl Strawberry‘s absences by telling the press that “nobody I know gets sick 25 times a year.” Strawberry threatened to punch Backman in the face, calling him “that little redneck” — an escalation that took an odd turn when Backman didn’t know what a redneck was. “Is it like a red-ass?” he asked, using baseball argot for a hothead. (Brought up to speed by reporters, he seemed genuinely hurt by the accusation.) Such tunnel vision seems baffling, until you remember that Backman was a lifelong baseball rat who’d been playing pro ball since he was 17.

The Mets traded Backman after ’88 to make room for Gregg Jefferies — in part because Johnson was certain he could tutor Jefferies at second the way he’d taught Backman. That didn’t work, and Backman’s departure would be much mourned as the increasingly colorless Mets drifted and stumbled and then collapsed. But for all the talk of grit and fire, it’s doubtful Backman would have made a difference: He had good numbers for the Pirates in 1990, but was a part-timer otherwise, and his career came to an end when the Mariners released him in May 1993. He was just 33.

If that had been the end of Backman’s baseball life, it would still be a pretty interesting one: a 5-foot-9 platoon guy who couldn’t really field but bit and clawed and scraped his way to a 14-year big-league career, a World Series ring, and never having to buy his own beer in New York. But Backman had a second act as a manager, which would prove … complicated.

Like a lot of former players, Backman needed a couple of years away from the game to decompress. But he returned to it in 1997 as manager of the Catskill Cougars, a team in the independent Northeast League. From there Backman went on to manage the Bend Bandits and the Tri-City Posse. He managed like he played: aggressive, combative, and endlessly hustling, a combination that became known as Wally Ball. But it wasn’t all dirty uniforms — Backman also gained a reputation as an able teacher of young players and an astute judge of enemy managers’ weaknesses. Billy Martin is the obvious comparison, but his real model was Johnson. Johnson, in turn, had learned at the knee of Earl Weaver, who’d tutored him as a minor-league infielder in the Baltimore system. A Backmanesque figure in his own right, Weaver quite literally grew up in the Browns’ and Cardinals’ clubhouses of the 1930s — his father had handled both St. Louis teams’ dry-cleaning. Backman would have been perfectly at home there.

Backman’s independent-league success got him a job in the White Sox farm system, where he succeeded in Winston-Salem and Birmingham but then was let go after campaigning a little too openly for Jerry Manuel‘s job in Chicago. He jumped to the Diamondbacks and the California League, where he was the 2004 Minor League Manager of the Year with the Lancaster JetHawks. He was in the running to replace Art Howe in New York, but dropped out amid rumblings that he’d get the Diamondbacks’ job instead. That happened in November 2004: Wally Ball was coming to the Show.

At least until it wasn’t. Backman’s managerial tenure lasted four days. The issue was a New York Times piece about Backman’s hiring, one that noted his off-field troubles: a DUI arrest, a restraining order connected to his first marriage, an arrest following a 2001 drunken altercation with his second wife, and a bankruptcy declaration. What’s interesting is the off-field messes weren’t the focus of the Times story, but its end — it was basically color to show that Backman was intense.

The problem was that the Diamondbacks hadn’t known about that stuff.

They belatedly did due diligence on the manager they’d hired and decided to unhire him, a moment that has loomed over the rest of Backman’s life. Backman protested about the unfairness of it all, pointing out that George W. Bush had a DUI and was president; three years later, his second wife, Sandi, told ESPN’s Jeff Pearlman that “I hope for nothing but [the D-Backs] to lose every game.”

And on the surface it did seem a bit unfair. The restraining order had been obtained ex parte, meaning only the party seeking it need be present when granted, and such orders aren’t uncommon in bitter divorces. Sandi Backman said the 2001 incident had been overblown, and the idea that Wally would hit her was “comical.” When the Diamondbacks inquired, a friend of Sandi Backman’s who’d been involved in the drunken altercation blamed herself for escalating things, saying she’d been out of line.

But the Diamondbacks found the police report alarming reading — among other things, it said the friend had resorted to keeping Backman away from Sandi with a baseball bat, breaking his forearm with it. (The bat was from the ’86 Series; Backman still has a titanium plate in his arm.) Backman had been on probation for the DUI, and officials in the Washington county where it happened found out about the 2001 incident through the Times. It was a violation of Backman’s parole, raising the possibility that the Diamondbacks’ new manager would soon be in jail. (Backman said he hadn’t known he was on probation.) More fundamentally, the Diamondbacks felt Backman had a problem with alcohol that he refused to address and had been less than truthful with them.

When the Backmans sat down with Karl Taro Greenfeld for a 2005 Sports Illustrated profile, they doggedly went through Wally’s legal troubles point by point. There were a lot of points. Confronted with a fair-sized pile of paper, Greenfeld wisely stopped considering each tree to admit that he was in a forest. “It is impossible not to wonder,” he wrote, “how one man could generate so much paperwork.”

(An unwelcome sequel: In the summer of 2019, Backman was arrested after a fight with his girlfriend and accused of taking her phone so she couldn’t call the cops. The girlfriend turned out to have a fair number of skeletons in her own closet and Backman was cleared of charges, but the case sounded unhappily familiar, and put a bunch more papers on that pile.)

Backman throwing balls

Video immortality

Backman started working his way back to the majors in 2007, returning to the independent leagues to manage the South Georgia Peanuts and splitting $40,000 in salary with three coaches. His comeback was documented in Playing for Peanuts, and a video of a miked-up Backman being ejected will live forever. And justifiably so: After berating umpires for tossing out one of his players, Backman litters the field with bats and balls, screaming, “Pick that shit up, you dumb motherfuckers!” (An oddly courtly moment in his tantrum comes as he pauses to warn the opposing catcher to get out of the way.) The bats and balls sit on the field, untouched to avoid another eruption, as Backman tells his ejected player they’ll go get a beer and then hunts for a clipper to deal with the fingernail he just split. The aftermath, though, was less entertaining: Backman heard that the Peanuts’ 22-year-old radio announcer had described his fit as an embarrassment and burst into the press box to berate him and threaten to shove the mike up his ass. Asked by Pearlman why he’d done that, Backman struggled for an answer and settled on “I have lots of pride.”

Still, five Peanuts got pro contracts — Backman hadn’t lost his touch as a baseball instructor. In late 2009 the Mets offered him a road back, hiring him to manage the Brooklyn Cyclones. When the team parted ways with Manuel, Backman was a finalist for the job in Flushing, but wound up in Binghamton instead. The big-league job went to Terry Collins — another fiery skipper who will live on in video legend. Backman moved up to manage Buffalo and Las Vegas, where he helped prepare Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Wilmer Flores and Brandon Nimmo for the big leagues. (Temperament aside, you can see some of Backman in how Nimmo attacks a plate appearance.)

Backman thought he was in line to be Collins’s successor, and there were fans who wanted him to be, campaigning at any sign of trouble for the old ’86 hero to show up screaming and overturning buffets. Except, well, when’s the last time you saw a manager do that? The game had changed, with front offices taking greater control of lineups and tactics and managerial duties becoming more about dealing with clubhouses and the media. Hell, Collins himself had changed, remaking himself from the high-strung skipper who’d burned out clubhouses in Houston and Anaheim into a far more even-keeled leader. (Well, OK, mostly.)

Was Backman still the right personality for the job he’d always wanted? I wondered. After one Las Vegas season ended, Backman was brought in as a September coach, and chose 86 as his number — the only time, I believe, that’s adorned a Met back in a regular-season game. It was nice to see, but also a little sad — because I had the feeling that was as close as Backman was fated to get.

At the end of 2016 Backman resigned under a self-created cloud, claiming he’d been forced out by Sandy Alderson and blackballed in trying to find a job with another organization. Was that true? Who knows? But by airing his employers’ dirty laundry, Backman did an excellent job of blackballing himself. He returned to the independent leagues, managing in Mexico, in New Britain, and then with the Long Island Ducks. There, this most old school of skippers found himself dealing with experimental rules, such as a prohibition on mound visits and shifts. His pitching coach, former teammate Ed Lynch, said that it was “like John McGraw dropped into the middle of our clubhouse.”

I’d be surprised if Backman ever gets the second chance he hungers for, but I’m not willing to concede that’s an injustice — that pile of papers is hard to unsee. But I find pleasure in his trail of managerial addresses, which could be transplanted to the back of a baseball card from the 50s or 60s: Mountaindale, Bend, Tri-City, Winston-Salem, Birmingham, Lancaster, Albany, Joliet, Brooklyn, Binghamton, Buffalo, Las Vegas, Monclova, New Britain, Islip. It’s a baseball rat’s pedigree — maybe not the one Backman wanted, but an honorable one I hope brings him some joy. And, in time, a little solace.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962: Richie Ashburn
1963: Ron Hunt
1964: Rod Kanehl
1965: Ron Swoboda
1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1967: Al Schmelz
1968: Cleon Jones
1969: Donn Clendenon
1970: Tommie Agee
1971: Tom Seaver
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1974: Tug McGraw
1975: Mike Vail
1976: Mike Phillips
1977: Lenny Randle
1978: Craig Swan
1980: Lee Mazzilli
1981: Mookie Wilson
1982: Rusty Staub
1983: Darryl Strawberry
1985: Dwight Gooden
1986: Keith Hernandez
1987: Lenny Dykstra
1988: Gary Carter
1989: Ron Darling
1990: Gregg Jefferies
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1993: Joe Orsulak
1994: Rico Brogna
1995: Jason Isringhausen
1996: Rey Ordoñez
1997: Edgardo Alfonzo
1998: Todd Pratt
1999: John Olerud
2000: Melvin Mora
2001: Mike Piazza
2002: Al Leiter
2003: David Cone
2004: Joe Hietpas
2005: Pedro Martinez
2007: Jose Reyes
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Angel Pagan
2010: Ike Davis
2011: David Wright
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Wilmer Flores
2014: Jacob deGrom
2015: Michael Conforto
2016: Matt Harvey
2017: Paul Sewald
2018: Noah Syndergaard
2019: Dom Smith
2020: Pete Alonso
2021: Steve Cohen

The Let'sing and the Going

If following the beginnings of more than one transition at a time is too overwhelming to contemplate, a quick note to keep you updated: Steve Cohen now owns the New York Mets, lock, stock and Brad Brach. The deal we anticipated for a nearly a year and celebrated for a week — and the addition by subtraction we craved for at least a decade — closed on Friday afternoon. Or as the deWilponizer himself put it in a not so lawyerly statement, “This is a significant milestone in the history of this storied franchise. I want to thank everybody who helped make this happen. The 2021 season is right around the corner and we’ve got a lot of work to do, so I’m excited to get started. Let’s go Mets!”

Amens all around, especially that last sentence.

Also leaving the premises via the front office exit: Brodie Van Wagenen; Omar Minaya; Allard Baird; Adam Guttridge; and Jarred Banner. Brodie and Omar, you know well. Or knew well. Team president Sandy Alderson (never count out all the familiar figures in our Met lives) announced their departure, and has, per a press release, “begun the process of building a new Baseball leadership group.” The caps on Baseball is theirs. We’ll amen that emphasis, too.

Love in the City at Century’s End

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

Not every man’s a talker, John.
—Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin to William Daniels as John Adams, 1776

On August 13, 1997, Comedy Central debuted a new animated series called South Park. In its premiere episode, “Cartman Gets An Anal Probe,” uh…well, you pretty much got the major plot point right there. The fourth-grade kids who would soon take over basic cable entered the cartoon world pretty well drawn and remain recognizable from their original form twenty-three years later. At no point, however, did breakout character Eric Cartman drop into small-town Colorado conversation on his first evening on the air what would soon become his and one of the more ubiquitous overall catchphrases of the era this side of Austin Powers’s “yeah, baby”:

“Sweet!”

Several channels over on certain cable systems that fateful Wednesday night in television, the New York Mets were playing and defeating the St. Louis Cardinals, 5-4. It would require ten innings and include four singles by a first baseman whose swing had come to be universally described one way above all others:

“Sweet!”

South Park continues to air to this day, but it was a true cultural influencer in the late ’90s. Its initial wave of popularity culminated two years after its unveiling in the release of a movie subtitled Bigger, Longer & Uncut, which somehow brings to mind that first baseman again, the one whose production as a Met couldn’t have been bigger; whose career as a Met should’ve been longer; and whose place in the upper echelon of Met history deserves to be uncut.

By 1999, both Eric Cartman and John Olerud were at the top of their games. Sure, Cartman was unabashedly foulmouthed while Olerud tended toward the closemouthed, but each had a way of grabbing the attention of those who knew that sooner or later they’d each make their presence felt — and that you’d hardly ever see either of them without a hat.

Eric Cartman always could recognize swings.

Cartoon or not, the South Park feature film — an old-fashioned, albeit quite profane movie musical — was an enormous hit in the summer of 1999, drawing boffo box office receipts, winning critical raves and attracting a Best Original Song nomination from the Oscars for the show-stopping “Blame Canada” (“with all their hockey hullabaloo/and that bitch Anne Murray, too”). Robin Williams was tabbed to sing it at the Oscars on March 26, 2000, which was three days before the next Met season was to begin, in Tokyo as well as in something of a state of mourning, for by 2000, John Olerud’s days as a Met were over. Yet instead of dwelling in sadness that he was gone, we really needed to smile that he was here among us for three sweet seasons.

And for Olerud arriving on the shores of Flushing Bay, thank Canada.

***
By December of 1996, John Olerud’s future appeared to be as the subject of a “Where Are They Now?” profile, as in do you remember that guy in the batting helmet, even when he played in the field, who flirted with becoming the first major league batter to hit .400 since Ted Williams? Actually, by December of 1996, that was a good question in the present. Whatever happened to that guy whose sweet swing — “so sweet it should be poured on pancakes,” as Phil Taylor’s memorable Sports Illustrated phrase framed it — was the toast of a continent?

In the summer of 1993, John Olerud of the defending world champion Toronto Blue Jays was causing a run on pocket calculators. Though he was enough of a prodigy to leap from his home state Washington State University to the Jays without minor league grooming, and his first three MLB seasons were good enough to earn him regular playing time for an absolute powerhouse of a ballclub, Olerud’s combined batting average from his 1989 cup of coffee to Toronto’s first pennant in 1992 was .269. Nice, maybe, but not particularly noteworthy.

Next thing you know, the guy you never saw without a helmet — a precaution born of the aneurysm he suffered in college — emerged in ’93 as the most dangerous man in North America whenever he held a bat. At the end of April, John was hitting .450. At the beginning of June, he was still at .400. Fans voted him to start the All-Star Game, at which point he was five points from the magic number. On the first night of August, he was two points over it.

“We’re still trying to figure out to pitch to him,” White Sox manager Gene Lamont told Taylor as Olymania was taking hold in the AL. “When Olerud’s hitting well, he’s one of those guys who doesn’t seem to have a hole. There’s no place to attack him, and he won’t help a pitcher by going after the balls out of the strike zone. A tape of him hitting ought to be mandatory viewing for young lefthanded hitters.”

The Jays kept soaring even as their first baseman leveled off. Olerud’s average cooled to .363, but it was plenty high enough to win the American League batting title, topping his teammate Paul Molitor by more than 30 points for what we love to call the crown. More than a decade before people began enthusiastically adding on-base percentage to slugging percentage and calling it OPS, Olerud was the best in his league at that, compiling a 1.072. Most Valuable Player Frank Thomas finished second. Most popular player Ken Griffey finished third. And the Blue Jays of WAMO — Devon White, Roberto Alomar, Molitor and Olerud — finished as world champions yet again.

So whatever happened to that guy to make as brilliant a batsman in baseball practically trivial three years later? For one, the Blue Jays stopped contending for world championships pretty quickly, with their drop in status coinciding with the before & after of the 1994-95 baseball strike. The Blue Jays were an attendance magnet the first five years they played in the super futuristic SkyDome. Soon enough, the novelty wore off. Coming up the ranks, hopefully to help lead a Jaynaissance, was a power-hitting catcher-outfielder who wasn’t really much on catching or the outfield, and when the DH slot got otherwise filled (by 1993 World Series hero Joe Carter), he needed a new position. That kid, Carlos Delgado, was a comer by 1996, with 25 homers and 92 rabies to his credit. That made Olerud, whose average had steadily dropped until it was nearly 90 points off its ’93 apex, a goner. That, and the fact that John’s power never matched what Delgado was demonstrating, which didn’t go over so well with manager Cito Gaston. That, and John’s contractually guaranteed compensation being deemed too heavy for an increasingly light bat.

A non-contender in a heretofore big market that decided the market had downgraded to middling did what teams of that ilk often do. It sought a taker for a contract it no longer wanted to pay — and paid much of the freight to have it taken off its hands. Shortly before Christmas of ’96, the Jays found their match in the Mets, who’d recently parted with first baseman Rico Brogna. They sent Olerud and $5 million (then a record for cash included in a trade) of the $6.5 million their former batting champ was owed to New York in exchange for pitcher Robert Person.

The next time you’re tempted to mope about all the horrific trades the Mets habitually make, please remember the Mets once traded Robert Person for John Olerud and received $5 million in the bargain. No offense to Robert Person. Loads of offense from John Olerud.

Where was John Olerud now? He was exactly where he needed to be — where we needed him to be, too, not incidentally.

***
What made John Olerud’s swing so darn sweet? In 1997, the first baseman explained to John Alta villa of the Hartford Courant that at his Ontario peak, “I used to be able to hit the ball where it was pitched really well. If the pitch was in, I pulled it. If it was away, I went with it.” Then the ’90s went deep and greater power was deemed a necessity. “After a while,” Olerud continued, his former team “started working with me to pull the ball, and I lost the feel for the outside pitch.”

When the lefty brought his bat through customs, the Mets were content to let the swing and the swinger be. Bobby Valentine noticed that John (whom the Mets drafted out of high school in 1986, before he opted for college) had “tried to change and drive the ball to right field in an attempt to hit more home runs. I don’t see that as a necessity when the guy can get a .400 on-base percentage and produce the amount of extra-base hits he has in the past.”

Good guy in a white hat.

“Once I got to New York,” Olerud agreed a few weeks into his Met career, “I found I was able to concentrate better on getting my swing down and being able to cover the plate.” Comfortable again at last, the tall fell in the hard hat began banging the ball like it was 1993. In his first month as a Met, John batted .356. It was a harbinger of the 1997 Mets’ renaissance. The team that had wallowed below .500 for six seasons was newly competitive, rising to an 88-74 record that nipped at the heels of the Wild Card-winning and eventual world champion Florida Marlins. Though Oly’s average dipped below .300 in the second half (landing at .294), he continued to deliver extra-base hits (34 doubles, 22 homers), drive in runs (passing 100 on the season’s final day) and, improbably, generate a cycle.

Mind you, it took an injured rookie outfielder playing out of position (future Hall of Farmer Vladimir Guerrero, in center instead of right and dealing with a sore hamstring) to help create the triple portion, but John was preternaturally pokey on the basepaths, so fair is fair. Besides, there was no questioning the single, double and homered he also hit on September 11, 1997. The triple was the only three-bagger of the year for Olerud, yet it came in the company of the other varieties of hit. Go figure.

And go figure what Cito Gaston anticipated for the quiet player the Jays were only too happy to have the Mets take off their hands: “John doesn’t look like he’s having fun playing,” his former manager said after the trade, suggesting that maybe once he played out the final year of his contract, Olerud would rather retire than play in the hostile environs of New York.

That, in the patois of the 21st-century Internet, proved a freezing cold take.

***
John Olerud and his wife Kelly took to New York like fishes to water. It was that natural. They set up their home in Manhattan, they took in the opera at Lincoln Center at the other Met, they walked all over the place, unless it was to get out to Shea, in which case you might spy No. 5 for the New York Mets on the No. 7 eastbound. Those vicious fans Gaston fretted might eat the low-key out-of-towner alive? We embraced him.

Especially his batting average, which was something the Mets had literally never seen from one of their own before. In 1998, in the first year of a new two-year contract Olerud signed quite voluntarily, John shattered a club record that had lasted as long as the one Babe Ruth held for home runs. In 1935, Ruth finished his legendary run with 714 dingers. Thirty-nine years later, Henry Aaron topped his equally legendary total. Though not as famous as “714,” Cleon Jones’s .340 from 1969 seemed just as unassailable to Mets fans and for just as long. To put it in perspective, the average second-highest behind Jones’s ’69 figure for 20 years belonged to…Jones: Cleon’s .319 in ’71. That .340 wasn’t remotely approached until Dave Magadan got hot in 1990 and stroked to a tune of .328. Lance Johnson smashed the club record for most base hits in a season with 227 in 1996, yet his average fell seven points shy of .340.

Along came Olerud’s 1998. John hit .354 for the Mets. It was not only fourteen points better than any average that had come before it, it is still fourteen points better than any Met average behind it. This was the Olerud of 1993 returned to full possession of that sweet swing and all the delicious hitting that poured from its spout. Except for an aberrantly dry June, John batted above .350 in every single month of the season. In September, when every game proceeded as if it would be the difference between the Mets’ breaking their decadelong playoff drought and going hunting & fishing per usual, John channeled Ted Williams, hitting .413. Against righties across the year, Olerud’s batted .346. Versus lefties, presumably a tougher matchup, he batted .375. And in case you didn’t notice him — this was, within the realm of NL first basemen, the Age of McGwire — he made sure you paid attention by connecting for nine hits in nine at-bats and reaching base fifteen times in fifteen consecutive plate appearances…in September…in a pennant race…in New York. When he wasn’t hitting, he was walking. John started 152 games; he reached bases in 144 of them.

After watching him for 160 out of a possible 162 games in 1998, the surprise wasn’t that John Olerud batted .354. The surprise was that .646 somehow got left on the table. When Olerud was hot, he was getting a hit or at least a walk. When he wasn’t hot, it was June, and that was over in thirty days.

The Mets wound up one game from a postseason berth after their schedule elapsed, dropping their final five to fall behind both the Cubs and Giants, who engaged in a tiebreaker to determine a Wild Card. Before anybody’d ever heard of the 2007 Mets, the 1998 Mets were judged to have collapsed. As a team, perhaps. But individually, Olerud never wavered one inch. John finished second to Larry Walker in the National League batting race in 1998, nine points behind a man who took half his swings not at pitcher-friendly Shea Stadium but thin-air Coors Field. The Met who’d supplanted Cleon Jones also finished second (to Barry Bonds) in WAR among NL position players; second (to Mark McGwire) in on-base percentage; and third (to McGwire and Bonds) in adjusted OPS+. Somehow, despite playing in the nation’s largest market for a ballclub that contended to its very last out, John Olerud received only enough votes to finish 12th in MVP voting. It was the year of Big Mac socking seventy balls out of ballyards and Sammy Sosa doing the same 66 times. A very good hitter whose case was best illustrated by more intricate calculations stood little chance of standing out.

Good guy in a black hat.

For someone who measured 6’5” and had no compunction about being seen out and about on public transportation, Oly sure had a way of keeping a low profile.

***
Technically, the 1999 Mets became the 1999 Mets on Opening Day in Miami. Spiritually, I’d date the idea that the 1999 Mets were surely the most special Mets ballclub since 1986 — and just as unmatched for specialness in the two-plus decades that have followed — to the bottom of the ninth inning on Sunday, May 23, 1999. That was The Curt Schilling Game, one of those wins you name for an opponent because the presence of the opponent greatly explains why you won.

That was the day the 1999 Mets became the 1999 Mets.

The Mets were trailing the Phillies on a gray, desultory Sunday, 4-0, going to the bottom of the ninth at Shea. There’d been a rain delay to begin the day, and the ending had fait accompli hovering over it. Schilling had handled the Mets with no discernible resistance for eight innings. Starting the ninth was exactly what an ace of his caliber would be asked to do.

Mike Piazza singled to lead off and Robin Ventura homered directly thereafter. Now it was 4-2, but “even still,” as they liked to say on The Sopranos. Instead of losing by four, they’d lose by two. Brian McRae’s groundout made that much obvious. Then, though, Matt Franco singled and Schilling hit Luis Lopez. Say, a person with a Met rooting interest might think, the tying runs are on base. How the [bleep] did that happen?

Yet Schilling was still on the mound. These weren’t Old Days so old that starters weren’t removed when in trouble in the ninth. But Phillies manager Terry Francona didn’t make a move. His closer, Jeff Brantley, was unavailable and Schilling, by the skipper’s reckoning, appeared “in complete control”.

Yet the next batter, Jermaine Allensworth, pinch-hitting for Rigo Beltran (how are those for 1999 Met names?), singled to left and brought Franco home to make it a one-run game. Allensworth, however, was about to be erased on a 1-5 fielder’s choice at second, meaning the Mets had Lopez on third and Roger Cedeño, the batter who’d provided Schilling with his fielding choice, on first. With Edgardo Alfonzo up, Cedeño dashed to second. With Fonzie up a little longer, Schilling hit his second batter of the inning. Edgardo took first.

So here we were: the bases loaded, two out, a teetering Schilling continuing to be trusted by Francona and, at bat, John Olerud, the .354 hitter from the year before. In 1999, through Saturday, May 22, he was at .357. On Sunday, through eight innings, he had two singles. Now, in the ninth, over WFAN, Gary Cohen called what became of the first pitch Schilling threw to Olerud, the 28th of the inning, and the 136th of the game.

“The pitch to Olerud…line drive…BASE HIT INTO LEFT FIELD! In comes Lopez! Here comes Cedeño! Here’s comes Gant’s throw from left field…the slide…SAFE, THE METS WIN IT! THE METS WIN IT! Cedeño slides home under the tag of Mike Lieberthal, a two-run GAME-WINNING single for John Olerud, the Mets score FIVE RUNS off Curt Schilling in the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Mets win it in a REMARKABLE finish!”

While it wasn’t the first REMARKABLE finish the Mets crafted in 1999 — they had topped the Brewers three days earlier, 11-10, in a doubleheader during which Robin Ventura hit a grand slam in each half — it was the one that confirmed that this was the season when the Mets would be doing their best Pippin impression. They had magic to do just for us; miracle plays to play; parts to perform; hearts to warm; kings and things to take by storm. In the middle of the magic and the madness and the myriad ups and dangerous downs and the holding on to of hats (hard and otherwise) was a stoic figure whose big stick/soft speaking literally went without saying. Quiet John Olerud bested voluble Curt Schilling and was now batting .366.

When one recited the top of 1999 Mets’ lineup, unprecedented for power and production in Flushing, Olerud’s was inevitably the third name to come up. On its most bountiful days, it went Rickey Henderson, Alfonzo, Olerud, then Piazza and Ventura. Robin, Mike and Edgardo finished 6-7-8 in the NL MVP voting, and Rickey was practically in the Hall of Fame already. Olerud’s 19 homers and 96 ribbies were there, too. When we got to talking defense, John was necessarily a quarter of the conversation. Around the horn, from left to right, it went Ventura, Rey Ordoñez, Alfonzo, Olerud, every last one of them deft as all get out with the leather, though one of them maybe a little easier to miss. Robin, Rey-Rey and Fonzie attracted passels of praise for leaping, diving and performing sleights of hand. Less explicitly stated was that somebody had to reel in everything fired from odd angles to first. Ventura and Ordoñez won Gold Gloves. Alfonzo finished second to Pokey Reese. Olerud’s glove was there, too. His face joined the others on the cover of SI as well, no matter that the primary focus of the accompanying article was on Ventura.

John Olerud, content to hit and field without a lot of muss and fuss, went relatively unnoticed in 1999 as the Mets chased that playoff spot that eluded them in 1998. Mojo rose in his midst. He played in every game but one, starting all but four the Mets played. Opposing pitchers presumably kept an eye on him just as Olerud watched what they were doing quite closely. He walked 125 times in ’99, taking as gospel the bromide about it being just as good as getting a hit. It would figure that in the season cleanup man Mike Piazza set the franchise RBI record and five-hole hitter Robin Ventura drove in more runs than any Met ever other than Piazza, somebody would be on base a lot just ahead of them. Oly, you know, batted third in 159 games.

On July 10, when the Mets were somehow engineering a comeback at least as REMARKABLE than the one they mounted against Schilling, John Olerud batted in the ninth inning again. The score at the time was 8-7, the Mets with the 7. The other team was the Yankees, so, yeah, it was kind of a big deal in the moment. There was one out when Henderson walked and Alfonzo doubled over Bernie Williams’s head. Second and third, and Oly was up. Because Piazza was on deck, Rivera was forced to face Olerud. Talk about picking your poison.

John grounded to second. I bring that up here because I was shocked that Olerud didn’t win the game right then and there. We had to wait through an intentional walk to Mike and a pinch-single from Matt Franco to take it, 9-8. From the instant Fonzie beat Paul O’Neill’s throw from right, it became The Matt Franco Game, and quite rightly. But after two-and-a-half years of exposure to Olerud, I was convinced John would take care of Rivera the way I was continually confident John would take care of business, embodying BTO seven years before anybody thought to habitually blast “TCB” at Shea. Amid the oft-roiled waters of the Bobby Valentine epoch, Olerud was a sea of tranquility. It was rare when he spoke up, and if he spoke up, he had a good reason for it.

In early June of 1999, not that long after The Curt Schill…er, John Olerud Game, the heretofore hellacious Mets ceased to do much correctly. Bruised from an eight-game losing streak, Steve Phillips sent up a warning flare to his archnemesis Bobby V, purging three of the manager’s coaches, including the man in charge of helping the hitters, Tom Robson. Robson had helped no hitter as much as he’d aided Olerud. They’d been together since 1997, not coincidentally coinciding with Oly emerging from his downward Toronto spiral.

“He was the perfect hitting coach,” Olerud said after the dismissal. “He helped save my career. We came from the same philosophical school of hitting — hit the ball where it’s pitched — and we really hit it off.”

Olerud was so angry about having his mentor snatched from him that two months later, he said of Robson’s successor, Mickey Brantley, “We’ve been working together and he’s helped me with a few things.”

A team player doesn’t have to say much.

That was Oly, politely saying just enough to reporters when asked (no Steve Carlton media boycotter he), but refusing to stir the pot. It was no wonder that when John was drafted to appear in the classic Nike NY vs. NY stickball ads, his most memorable contribution was wearing a blue batting helmet and silently contemplating whatever Masato Yoshii just told him in Japanese.

In the course of playing almost every game of every season for three seasons, John just did his job and did it extremely well. He’d get to the ball. He’d dig out the throw. He’d drive in the run. He’d reach base. He’d be John Olerud, and everything would be OK.

• Like that time Greg McMichael gave up an eighth-inning lead to the Rockies, just as the Mets were asserting their contending aspirations for real in May of ’97, and Oly rode to the rescue with a ninth-inning walkoff homer.

• Like that time he started and all but ensured a triple play. It was in August of ’98, with the Giants in town. Those charmers Jeff Kent (first) and Barry Bonds (third) were on base. J.T. Snow grounded to Olerud. Olerud threw to Ordoñez to get Kent. Ordoñez threw to Olerud to get Snow. Bonds? He got daring and dashed for home. John took note and threw to Todd Pratt. Bonds was out, 3-6-3-2, in the first triple play the Mets had turned in nine years. Score it two assists for the first baseman.

• Like that time in August of ’99 when most eyes at Shea gravitated to the visiting first baseman, McGwire. Ah yes, Mark McGwire. Even during that game the Mets beat the Cards two years earlier, on the night South Park premiered, McGwire seemed intent on stealing Olerud’s unassuming thunder. Olerud had four hits in a win? McGwire, still new to the National League, crushed two homers, including one off Mel Rojas — big surprise — to tie the game in the eighth. (Mark wasn’t chemically enhanced; like Cartman, he was just big-boned.) Now Big Mac was at it again, smashing a ball so hard and so high up the Shea scoreboard in the very first inning that it took out a light bulb. Who could compete with that? Try Oly, whose eighth-inning grand slam highlighted yet another REMARKABLE comeback.

The Mets steadied themselves to such a state of excellence by September of 1999, that the only thing that would have seemed remarkable would have been their falling apart just when everything they’d been striving for was in their grasp. As it turned out, ya couldn’t say the 1999 Mets weren’t remarkable in every way possible because, as if on cue, the Mets descended once more. This time it was into a seven-game losing streak that a) cost them their shot at dethroning divisionally dynastic Atlanta from first place and b) was killing their chance at the Wild Card. Everybody, even good old reliable John Olerud, was in a miserable slump at the worst juncture imaginable. Nothing was going right.

The Mets were bound to stop beating themselves. Wisely, with less than a week to go, they chose instead to beat Greg Maddux. Good choice! At first, it wasn’t so obvious that this night would be any different from the preceding nights and days of woe. Maddux was out in front, 2-1, going to the bottom of the fourth. But a blooper here, a bleeder there, and the Mets began to chip away. Even Al Leiter, whose batting average was generally as low as his pitch count was high, singled. There’d been six singles in all, allowing the Mets to cobble together three runs and load the bases.

Up came Olerud to swat a grand slam off the four-time Cy Young winner and blow the roof off of Shea Stadium. (What, you didn’t know Shea used to have a roof?) The Mets would go on to pummel the Braves and breathe life into themselves, setting us up for a final unlikely weekend. All our team would have to do is sweep the Bucs and hope a bunch that somebody somewhere else did us a favor.

The solid came from Milwaukee, where the Brewers beat the Reds Friday and Saturday. (Thanks, Crew.) By Sunday, with the Mets having taken two of two from Pittsburgh, we knew that if we could win one more game, the 162nd on the schedule, we’d see another day, maybe more. In the third inning, with the Mets down, 1-0, Olerud reached base and scored. In the ninth, with the score still tied at one, John came up with the most urgent game the Mets had played in more than a decade on the line. Melvin Mora was on third base. Edgardo Alfonzo was on first. All 124 RBIs of Mike Piazza were on deck. There was one out.

Bucs manager Gene Lamont — the same man who six years earlier described Olerud as a hitter without a hole — decided he’d rather take his chances with Mighty Mike than Big Bad John. Olerud was intentionally walked. This was about to become The Melvin Mora Game, courtesy of a Brad Clontz wild pitch and a savvy break off third from Melvin, but again, as in July against Mariano Rivera, or any time against any pitcher, really, I never didn’t have confidence that if somebody challenged John Olerud, John Olerud and thus the Mets would emerge victorious.

Mojo wouldn’t have risen nearly so high without Olerud in the picture.

What needed to get done got done. Clontz with the wild pitch, Mora with the scamper home, the Mets off to Cincinnati for this year’s sudden-death one-game tiebreaker, then, with that pocketed, to Arizona with the wildest of Wild Cards stowed securely in the overhead compartment. The 1999 postseason was about to feature the Mets.

And starring for the Mets in the course of two series, ten games and nine extra innings was John Olerud. Oly’s slash line was .349/.417/.558. His timing was exquisite, starting with Game One of the NLDS. In Arizona, he clobbered Randy Johnson for a homer, which was supposedly something lefty batters didn’t do to the lefty Unit. At Shea, before The Todd Pratt Game was properly named, it was Olerud who kept the sixth-inning rally that Al Leiter would nurse until the eighth going, and it was Olerud who lofted the fly ball to right that Tony Womack couldn’t find, setting up the tying run after Leiter (and Armando Benitez) couldn’t nurse that lead any longer. When the Mets were one loss from having their 1999 expire at the hands of the hated, hated, hated Braves in the next round, Olerud almost singlehandedly altered the prognosis. In NLCS Game Four, he homered off John Smoltz to give Rick Reed a lead in the sixth and, in the eighth, he wiped the smirk off John Smoltz’s loathsome face with the single that brought in the tying and go-ahead runs en route to the Mets’ literal must win.

The next day, Maddux returned to Queens, and just guess who couldn’t wait to greet him. Oly indeed got him for another home run. If nothing else, it would give Mad Dog something to stew over when he got to chatting with Smoltz and Johnson someday at Cooperstown. “Yup, we’re all in the Hall of Fame, yet John Olerud homered off each of us in the same postseason when the stakes were highest. That guy sure could hit.”

He sure could. Oly’d collect another hit in what was about to become The Grand Slam Single Game, though not the titular blow itself. In the fifteenth, with runners on second and third, Bobby Cox pulled a Gene Lamont and chose to intentionally pass Olerud, sensing in his wet, tired bones that John was likely to get on base no matter what. It was Olerud on first who trotted to second on Todd Pratt’s game-tying walk. It was Olerud on second who trotted to third on Robin Ventura’s very long hit over the right field fence, not that anybody noticed once Pratt turned from second to tackle Ventura, who’d blessedly touched first.

That was one time you couldn’t blame anybody for not noticing John Olerud.

In Game Six, John was in the middle of the Mets’ first rally, singling on the heels of Fonzie’s double in the sixth, which led to three of the most vital runs in franchise history. The Mets had been down, 5-0, and dead. Of course the Mets didn’t play dead very well in 1999, so it their fatal condition was only temporary. In the seventh, with the deficit four runs, Olerud once again warded off coroners, singling Henderson home (off Smoltz) to make it 7-5. Piazza followed with the frozenest rope of a home run you’ve ever seen, knotting the game at seven and setting the Mets up for Game Seven.

Strangely, that game never got played. Game Six kept going as long as it could, tied at nine heading to the eleventh. The Mets had let go of 8-7 and 9-8 leads by then, but I was confident we’d go back out in front in a matter of batters. John Olerud was leading off the top of the eleventh. John Olerud’s on-base percentage in the three seasons he’d been a Met was .425. It was the best in team history. (Heading into 2021, it’s still the best in team history). John Olerud’s batting average in the three seasons he’d been a Met was .315 (also the best ever by a Met with at least a thousand at-bats). Maybe he’d put the Mets ahead by himself or place himself in scoring position (of those who qualified over the first 38 seasons of Mets baseball, only Darryl Strawberry had posted a higher slugging percentage).

I just assumed John Olerud — whose lifetime Met OPS would add up to .926, a number no other Met has yet to match — would figure out a way to push the Mets into Game Seven, and after the Mets won that seventh game after trailing the series three games to none, John Olerud would, in the company of the rest of the never-say-die 1999 Mets, figure out how to win us a World Series. From there, it would just be a matter of calling into work to let them know I’m not coming in today because I’ve got a parade to go to.

Except John Olerud couldn’t do it all, at least not in the top of the eleventh. Versus Russ Springer, he flied out. The Mets who followed him to the plate, Shawon Dunston and Robin Ventura, also surprised me by not succeeding. I swear, I had so much confidence in those 1999 Mets. Alas, three up, three down. In the bottom of the eleventh…well, let’s just say there wasn’t a parade on my or the Mets’ agenda, though I did wind up calling the office after the Mets lost Game Six, 10-9, and leaving a voice mail that I was gonna be out sick.

The Braves, you see, they killed Kenny.

***
Give or take an ill-timed spate of Kenny Rogers wildness, I didn’t regret a second of the 1999 Mets. That was the kind of season you live for as a fan. John Olerud was the kind of player you live for as a fan. I swear he did nothing wrong for three years. Not that he didn’t leave the occasional runner on base, but he never let the Mets down. You could trust John Olerud right down to the nub of the only millennium you’d ever known.

Then, when the next one began, he was a Seattle Mariner, for crissake. I guess it was his idea. I kept reading how he and Kelly wanted to raise their family in the vicinity of their respective parents. The babysitting came a lot cheaper that way. Maybe if the Mets had made an offer as spectacular as Olerud’s 1998 season had been, he could have been lured back. Or maybe not.

“[W]e have our son now who is fifteen months old,” Olerud explained when he decided to sign with Seattle, and “as a husband and a father, I want to be characterized as a guy who puts family first, and that was a real big priority.” Nevertheless, he added, leaving New York did not come easy. “I had a great experience there, John said. “Everybody in the organization, people in the front office — the clubhouse and the players were all great. We really enjoyed the city as well. The fans treated us fantastic and the tough series we went through last year developed real camaraderie.”

“He just wanted to go home,” Jim Duquette, then the Mets’ farm director, recalled for the Athletic in 2020. “His agent was pretty upfront it would just have to take a huge offer for us to keep him. Even if we did that, he wasn’t sure he would stay in New York.”

MAYBE DO THAT AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS???

Sorry, I’m yelling at the past again, which doesn’t really change the results from any already completed Mets games, seasons or eras, including the trajectory of the era the Mets were in as 1999 turned to 2000. They had come fairly close to the playoffs in 1997, then achingly close in 1998, then they landed at the doorstep of the doorstep to the World Series in 1999. That ’99 team may not have been perfect, but it was beautiful. Nobody was more beautiful than John Olerud. Without Olerud to marvel at, the eye of the beholder in 2000 simply couldn’t find them nearly so alluring.

You could have told us, Oly, our world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.

Instead, we got Todd Zeile. And Zeile was not Olerud. Zeile wasn’t even a first baseman most of the time. He’d come up as a catcher and settled in at third for the approximately forty or fifty clubs in whose clubhouse he’d briefly set down his suitcases. An ESPN assessment of the Mets’ options in the days after letting John walk (he always could walk) declared Todd “an awful option…a player whose numbers always look better on paper than they do in person. More importantly, he is a defensive liability regardless of what position he plays.”

Yeah, so like I said, we got Zeile. He wasn’t awful. But, to reiterate, he wasn’t Olerud. Sports Illustrated was no longer tempted to laud the Mets’ infield as perhaps the “best ever” on its cover. “On base” was no longer a guaranteed destination for the first baseman, either. The Mets were different without Olerud. They were less fluid. They were clunky. They were also, for a year, more ultimately successful, reaching the World Series with Zeile. Todd put up some solid numbers during the season and some spectacular stats during the postseason. He was not quiet. He was one of those guys who came over and spoke up for the team when needed. He was, honestly, a very good Met for a pennant-winning club and, eventually, a well-liked Met, especially when he retired as a Recidivist Met, after a few more trips to a few other teams, in 2004.

And he still wasn’t John Olerud. Nobody was John Olerud except John Olerud. John Olerud kept being John Olerud as a Mariner. He was an All-Star his first year there, something the National League forgot to designate him as a Met. He was a big part of a 116-win juggernaut. He would win three Gold Gloves for them, too. When the M’s released him and he could stay home no longer, he’d make stops as a Yankee (BOO!) and a Red Sock (for whom he’d have to tune up in the minors for the first time in his life). In all, he’d play parts of seventeen major league seasons, retiring after the 2005 campaign. He was 37 then and had made Cito Gaston’s predictive capabilities look pretty shoddy. When he reached the Hall of Fame ballot in 2011, a decent sabermetric case was made for John’s consideration. Olerud could be seen as a harbinger of what baseball would value in terms of offense, what with getting on base nearly 40% of his plate appearances. Combine that with intermittent heights as high as Mt. Rainier, and why wouldn’t Olerud at least be the kind of player worthy of serious mulling for a few winters?

He got four votes and disappeared from the ballot ASAP.

Cooperstown’s loss, just like letting John go prior to 2000 was our loss. At the risk of cycling back to a few paragraphs ago, yeah the Mets with Zeile were real good just like the Mets with Olerud were real good, but man, it was just not as good. Or as elevating. Or as breathtaking. Or, yes, as beautiful. In a time of heated Met passions, John generated such warm affection. I wouldn’t call Oly the most popular Met ever, but I can’t think of any Met of tenure who was less unpopular. I don’t remember a discouraging word muttered or shouted in his direction from 1997 to 1999, and I’ve never heard anybody since 1999 declare relief he was replaced. Nobody seemed to not like him a ton. Nobody seemed to want him to leave. He didn’t come close to overstaying his welcome.

I would welcome watching John Olerud swinging several times a day every day. What a delight that I got to do exactly that for three years running. How sweet it was.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962: Richie Ashburn
1963: Ron Hunt
1964: Rod Kanehl
1965: Ron Swoboda
1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1967: Al Schmelz
1968: Cleon Jones
1969: Donn Clendenon
1970: Tommie Agee
1971: Tom Seaver
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1974: Tug McGraw
1975: Mike Vail
1976: Mike Phillips
1977: Lenny Randle
1978: Craig Swan
1980: Lee Mazzilli
1981: Mookie Wilson
1982: Rusty Staub
1983: Darryl Strawberry
1985: Dwight Gooden
1986: Keith Hernandez
1987: Lenny Dykstra
1988: Gary Carter
1989: Ron Darling
1990: Gregg Jefferies
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1993: Joe Orsulak
1994: Rico Brogna
1995: Jason Isringhausen
1996: Rey Ordoñez
1997: Edgardo Alfonzo
1998: Todd Pratt
2000: Melvin Mora
2001: Mike Piazza
2002: Al Leiter
2003: David Cone
2004: Joe Hietpas
2005: Pedro Martinez
2007: Jose Reyes
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Angel Pagan
2010: Ike Davis
2011: David Wright
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Wilmer Flores
2014: Jacob deGrom
2015: Michael Conforto
2016: Matt Harvey
2017: Paul Sewald
2018: Noah Syndergaard
2019: Dom Smith
2020: Pete Alonso
2021: Steve Cohen