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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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I've Seen the Future and It Doesn't Work

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.

As August 1988 came to an end, the New York Mets were one full season removed from a championship and looked like a good bet to add more flags over Shea Stadium. The team’s formidable starting staff had been bolstered by the dynamic right arm of David Cone, who’d established himself as a star, and the powerful lineup had been given a boost by the recall of one of the minor league’s most exciting rookie hitters.

Gregg Jefferies had been able to buy a legal beer for less than a month, but he was already a phenomenon, at least semi-famous for the ferocious, exhausting practice regimen he’d honed with his father and the punishment he’d inflicted on minor-league pitching.

Certainly New York heard him coming. He’d had a cameo the previous September, going 3 for 6, and Davey Johnson had reluctantly left him off 1988’s Opening Day roster. Johnson had never had much use for “leather guys,” but others in the organization convinced him that Jefferies’ glove needed to catch up with his bat before he could be a starting player. Not to worry: Everyone connected to the team seemed confident that would happen soon enough. And if not, well, Mets GM Joe McIlvaine assured the world that “we’ll create a position for him.”

If that sounded cavalier, the bat spoke loudly enough to drown out any caveats. The Mets had drafted the 17-year-old Jefferies in the first round of the ’85 draft; he’d hit .353 in ’86, then .367 in ’87, with 20+ homers and steals. His 1988 season at Tidewater wasn’t as otherworldly — Jefferies hit .282 — but he was called up in August when a hamstring injury felled Wally Backman and a viral infection took down Dave Magadan.

The kid proved more than ready: two hits in his first game, three in his second, Player of the Week honors soon after that. His swing was gorgeous — a tight, lashing curl of wrists and hips that sent balls flying, and was identical whether he was hitting left-handed or right-handed. Jefferies hit .321 in 29 games as the Mets coasted to a division crown, started all seven games against the Dodgers in the postseason, and hit .333 with no strikeouts. The season ended with a thud, but the Mets would be back, with Jefferies front and center.

As the ’89 season approached, Jefferies was inescapable. He was the poster boy for most every baseball preview, with the Mets’ own magazine bearing the decidedly immodest headline THE ARRIVAL OF THE PRODIGY.

Mets '89 cover

What if … now just hear me out here … this is a terrible idea?

I was probably Gregg Jefferies’ biggest fan. I’d never seen the debut of such a heralded rookie. I salivated over what he’d done in his abbreviated time in ’88, and breathlessly imagined what that stat line might translate to over a full season. Not to mention — because why stop there? — what a career along those lines might look like.

There was something else, too. Jefferies was less than two years older than me, and the idea of a baseball player who was my contemporary was new and intoxicating. I’d become a fan when players were impossibly old, on the far side of the grown-up/child divide, but Jefferies could have been in school with me. My career, whatever it turned out to be, would unfold alongside his.

And there was a something else to go with the something else: Jefferies was really good at what he did, and I felt the same way about myself. I couldn’t wait to see what he did; I couldn’t wait to see what I would do. I worked through these sentiments in a poem, of all things, one that’s been lost to history and I devoutly hope will remain unfound. A little while later, when one of my college roommates cracked that I liked Jefferies because he was the Met most like me, I made a show of protest but was secretly pleased.

The Mets went north for the ’89 season with Jefferies at second base. And then it all went so, so, so wrong.

The prodigy didn’t hit at all for the first two months of the season. That got better, to a point — he wound up at .258 — but the fielding never did. Jefferies had been moved to second because he wasn’t good enough to play shortstop in the majors, but he looked miscast at his new position, with particular trouble hanging in on the pivot play. Johnson, a former second baseman himself, stubbornly insisted the kid could be taught to play the position; every game seemed to offer new evidence to the contrary.

And the conversation around Jefferies stayed loud, but this time it was for all the wrong reasons.

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.

Sports Illustrated had profiled Jefferies in the spring of ’88, detailing his obsessive workouts with his dad, a former college infielder. It had all been a bit odd, but we were all too busy salivating about Jefferies’ arrival to care. Now, in hindsight, the SI portrait seemed a bit creepy.

There was the detail that the Jefferies family would gather around their big-screen TV (a rarity in those days) after hours-long workouts to watch video shot by Gregg’s mom and analyze his swing. Or the fact that Jefferies’ parents had stayed away for all of two days after their son started pro ball, then showed up and wound living in a trailer in his host family’s backyard. For 10 weeks. Or the fact that he’d asked them to do the same thing the next summer, and they’d agreed. Or the little detail that the license plates on Jefferies’ blue Camaro read 4 FOR 4 GJ.

Really? What kind of person had a license plate like that? Who became a pro ballplayer with his parents in permanent residence? Even Jefferies’ banter with his father during their marathon workouts sounded slightly artificial. We didn’t have this vocabulary at the time, but it was like the uncanny valley that plagues videogame recreations of people. Jefferies sounded like an AI pretending to be a person.

Again, he might have outhit all that — certainly he had the talent to do so. But he didn’t. And it crushed his career as a Met.

The sniping continued. Jefferies, no longer a rookie, was pranked and picked on by actual rookies. His beloved bats were dumped out of their special bag and left in the middle of the clubhouse. A teammate wrote ARE WE TRYING? by his name on the lineup card. Facing the Phillies’ Roger McDowell, who’d been his teammate just months earlier, Jefferies grounded out to end the Mets’ disappointing 1989 season. McDowell taunted him as he ran to first, prompting Jefferies to wheel after touching first and rush McDowell. The season was over, but there were two recent teammates scrapping on the bottom of a pile of Mets and Phillies — a pile in which Jefferies had more enemies than friends.

It never got better. The stories continued in 1990, the year of this profile. How Jefferies had been a handful in the minors, berating official scorers and cursing so loudly and vilely as he came off the field that fans complained. (His Tidewater manager, Mike Cubbage, tried to shame him by asking him how he’d feel if his mother heard that; Jefferies said she’d heard it all before.) Even the sympathetic profile pieces penned later felt off — Jefferies collected memorabilia of Elvis Presley, who’d died when he was 10, and idolized Ty Cobb, who’d died when his father was a teenager. In 1991 Jefferies penned an ill-advised open letter to Mets fans, which was read on WFAN, came off as more whining, and prompted an equally ill-advised open letter from Ron Darling, who was normally smarter than that. The joke in the Mets’ clubhouse that year was that Howard Johnson had been born again because his choice was to embrace Jesus or go to prison after murdering Jefferies.

Finally, as the smoking rubble of 1991 cooled, the Mets gave up on the future. They sent Jefferies to the Royals along with the surly Kevin McReynolds and utility man Keith Miller in return for Bret Saberhagen and Bill Pecota.

Jefferies would get to relax in Kansas City, though the Royals never found a position for him either. He put up a couple of stellar years for the Cardinals, who made him into a first baseman despite his being short of stature and right-handed, then played for the Phillies and the Tigers. A bad knee derailed his career; the kid who was going to break Pete Rose‘s hit record retired in 2000 at 32. He was 2,663 hits short of the record.

I registered all that vaguely. I’d been aghast at Jefferies’ failure to launch and the clubhouse miseries that had surrounded him; when he was finally sent off to Kansas City I couldn’t quite bring myself to admit I was relieved. After that, to be honest, I mostly wanted him to go away. He was a reminder of everything that should have worked and somehow hadn’t, of embarrassment masquerading as triumph.

What happened? Some of it, in hindsight, wasn’t Jefferies’ fault. He was dropped into a close-knit clubhouse of hard-nosed, old-school players. They didn’t like his awkward personality or his obsessive ways, but more than that they didn’t like that his being hailed as the future meant they’d soon be part of the past. They resented that Backman was traded away to make room for him, that the veteran Juan Samuel was pressed into service in center field, that accommodation after accommodation was made for him.

Jefferies was also a new breed of player — a forerunner of the travel-team kids who’d emerge from family cocoons, having been all but bred for stardom by helicopter parents as conversant with signing bonuses as they were with swing paths. Earlier this year, Joel Sherman spoke to Jefferies and some of his old Mets tormentors. He found many of Jefferies’ nemeses apologetic about their refusal to accommodate the new kid, and Jefferies magnanimous in response.

It’s an interesting piece, but I didn’t find it terribly convincing. It felt more like proof that Jefferies’ tormentors had mellowed over time and surrendered to the idea that schoolboy ballplayers come with entourages. “What was thought of as spoiled then is commonplace now,” Cone told Sherman, which was meant as a mea culpa but works equally well as an indictment. As for the relationship with his parents, Jefferies defends it as supportive and loving, and rejects the idea that he was stage-managed. I hope so, but I’m not sure how he would know differently. Stockholm syndrome is a helluva thing.

Jefferies really was a prodigy — that short, sharp, vicious swing is still a thing of beauty on YouTube — but being a prodigy isn’t enough. Blame his own self-absorption, and his teammates’ lack of generosity, and management’s callousness in putting him in an impossible situation. (And, as always, some plain old bad luck.) He was supposed to be a bridge between eras, but the bridge couldn’t handle the weight it was forced to carry. And the Mets wouldn’t go anywhere until the wreckage had been cleared away.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962: Richie Ashburn
1964: Rod Kanehl
1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1969: Donn Clendenon
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1977: Lenny Randle
1978: Craig Swan
1981: Mookie Wilson
1982: Rusty Staub
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1994: Rico Brogna
1995: Jason Isringhausen
2000: Melvin Mora
2002: Al Leiter
2003: David Cone
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Angel Pagan
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Wilmer Flores

The Sweet Spot of Summer

MLB’s “Summer Camp” has not only been named, it’s been sponsored, by a company called Camping World. Perhaps when the streamlined sixty-game schedule is announced, the reveal can be sponsored by Thom McAn, considering we’re all kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop on baseball’s best-laid, half-assed plans.

True, they no longer have Thom McAn stores, but then again, we’ve reached July and there’ve been no more than hints of baseball. At a time of year when we’ve usually had our game for three months, we’re sort of, kind of anticipating seeing a first pitch in three weeks. Covid-19 seems a more effective commissioner than Rob Manfred, so take no official edicts from the usual sources as the rule of law. And take whatever aseasonal pleasures you can from whatever the hell is going on that indicates baseball is rumbling back to life.

It’s the middle of February at the beginning of July. We’re talking camp. We’re talking a veritable plethora of non-roster pickups. Now loosening limbs under the auspices of the Metropolitan Baseball Club of New York are several fellows who span the familiarity spectrum from very to vaguely: Melky Cabrera, Gordon Beckham, Hunter Strickland, Jared Hughes. If this were the middle of February, we’d know what to make of the odd veteran signing. Now we are assuming this bunch will add depth to our 60-player pool, a phrase that didn’t exist the last time baseball went camping.

The Mets will start working out on the Third of July, both right on time and unfashionably late. It’s as if they’ve overslept only to find out it’s finals and they forgot to go to class for four months. Hitting coach Chili Davis will be monitoring his charges’ swings remotely in deference to how old he is (60) and where he lives (Arizona). Who said baseball can’t work from home? Davis isn’t the only coach around MLB being asked to bypass the ballpark. Some ballplayers are avoiding returning, too, opting out of the demi-season ahead for genuine health concerns. Those who are reporting are noticeably lacking that traditional “can’t wait!” spark. Instead of expressing excitement, our new manager — Luis Rojas, in case you’ve forgotten — is invoking caution:

“We’re very optimistic that we’re going to get into the season and finish it. That’s our goal.”

Not finish first. Not finish with a title. Finish the season. That’s the Mets’ goal. That’s baseball’s goal.

That’s different. But what isn’t these days?

***
These particular days on the calendar are usually among my favorite of the entire year. The close of June. The dawn of July. School is well over to the point you’ve forgotten the extraneous stuff you’ve learned (and your mother has stopped reminding you how much better your grades should’ve been). “Back to school” hasn’t re-entered the commercial lexicon. Kid or grownup, summer’s presence is undeniable. In adulthood, as in childhood, the Fourth of July is on the horizon. On the other side of Independence Day and its immediate aftermath is a little less summer. It will still be hot and all, but get past the first week of July, past the All-Star break, certainly, and you can feel it tangibly slipping away. Before you know it, it’s August and those sales on fall clothes and trapper keepers are advertised everywhere.

It doesn’t matter that you haven’t been mandated to be back to school for a couple of generations. The feeling that summer abandons you too quickly never leaves you. But it’s not in evidence at the close of June and the dawn of July. Here we have nothing to worry about. We have the Fourth coming up. We have baseball every day.

That’s how I’ve interpreted this sweetest summer interlude for as long as I can remember. Summer. The Mets. Unless there’s a strike or a pandemic, you’re safe to do so.

***
Fifty years ago right around now, I was reveling in the Mets’ grabbing and holding a piece of first place. The 1970 Mets moved into first place on June 24. The pesky Pirates and the creepy Cubs were making life unnecessarily stressful for a kid who wore his Mets cap to day camp at the Sands Beach Club, but on the Fourth, Tom Seaver wins his thirteenth game against five losses by five-hitting the Phillies, and we’re a half-game up on Pittsburgh and what more, besides a larger lead, could you want when you’re seven?

Forty-five years ago right around now, I mean literally right around now, I was picking out which shirt to wear to that night’s game against the Cubs. I was going to my very first night game on July 2, 1975. A landmark event in my life and I’m worried about clothes. I ultimately chose my t-shirt with the logo of my favorite group from when I was twelve, Chicago. Wednesday night in the park, under those Shea lights, it occurred to me I was rooting for New York, and therefore this shirt was a terrible choice. I didn’t have to worry about pitching, though. Jon Matlack went all the way for a 7-2 Mets win.

Forty year ago right now — right now — I was listening to John Pacella mow down the Cubs over WMCA. Every good thing Pacella did while I held down the receptionists’ desk for my father the summer he relocated his business from the city to the suburbs was accompanied by word from Bob Murphy or Ralph Kiner or Steve Albert that Pacella’s cap had fallen off again and again and again. It was a colorful sidelight to a dazzling, Magic summer, and a welcome distraction to the eerie Rockville Centre office quiet of July 2, 1980. If John Pacella could lose his hat and still win ballgames (and he would win this baby, 3-1), could we be stopped? When I was seventeen, it was a very good year for self-deception.

Hats off, John Pacella, wherever you are.

Thirty-five years ago tonight, the 1985 Mets got their heads out of wherever they’d been stuck over the course of a vexing six-game losing streak. On July 2, behind Ron Darling and five whole runs (the most they’d scored since June 21), they beat the Pirates, 5-4. They’d beat the Pirates the next night, then go to Atlanta on July 4 and play all night and a bunch of the next morning. They were on their way to winning 30 of 37 games, encompassing a pair of nine-game winning streaks and making for one of the best Met summers of my life — made even better knowing that, as a 22-year-old college graduate, it was the first summer during which I’d be technically immune to “back to school” pitches. Spiritually, I’m still working on it.

Thirty years ago this week, the Mets were scalding, and no Met was scalding the ball more effectively than Darryl Strawberry. On July 3 versus Houston, he hit the Shea scoreboard. So did Daryl Boston. Had the Mets had other Darryls with other spellings, they, too, would have gone deep. Under the calm hand of Buddy Harrelson, the 1990 Mets were on fire. I, at 27, welcomed their warm glow. This was about two weeks after my mother died. My fiancée and I watched the Strawberry fireworks display with my dad at the same kitchen table where we used to watch such explosions with my mom. Nobody said, “What a great distraction.” Nobody had to.

Twenty-five years ago this week, the 1995 Mets weren’t very good. They were particularly dismal when I showed up at Shea. Show up I did, anyway. On July 4, my wife and I joined my sister and her husband for actual Fireworks Night. That was their interest in being there. The Mets lost to the Cubs. That was still my interest at age 32. It was my sixth game of a season that started a little late due to management’s malfeasance. I was trying to make up for lost time. The Mets were 0-6 with me in the house. I kept going. By season’s end, they’d be not so bad and I’d be 7-7 on the year.

Twenty years ago today, July 2, 2000, I got a sip of how the other half lived. Not a taste, just a sip. The sister of a colleague of my wife’s was connected to a Mets sponsor, which somehow brought us into a Diamond View Suite. Here I was, 37 and heretofore limited to viewing only the diamond from Field, Loge, Mezzanine or Upper Deck. A view from the inside of a suite? Sweet! Except — and I don’t mean to look a suite horse in the mouth — there was no food provided by the sponsor, just the keys to the joint. I mean, yeah, there was food if you wanted to go get it for yourself, or if you wanted to order it when some nice person in a bowtie came around and inquired what of an overpriced nature you might like to ante up for, but there was no spread, just some beverages in the fridge. I’m not complaining, mind you…OK, I’m complaining a little. Wasn’t the whole idea of a suite to dig fully into the suite life? No, the whole idea of going to a Mets game in 2000 was to watch the Mets beat the Braves. Alas, the Mets didn’t do that that day. It was two days since Mike Piazza had capped off that exhilarating ten-running inning, when every seat was the best seat in the house, and we’d won the next day, too, so now I’m really getting greedy. Honestly, the 2000 Mets could have used a little more greed when World Series time rolled around. And I would have liked a little nosh on July 2.

Fifteen years ago today, I was at Shea to watch the 2005 Mets not quite satisfy my appetite again. This had nothing to do with food. The Mets had a chance to move two games above .500. They passed, losing to the Marlins, 7-3, falling to 40-40. Over the course of the previous week, they’d been 37-37, 38-38 and 39-39. I was 42 and tiring of barely breaking even roughly every other day. But I was handed a Carlos Beltran bobblehead for my trouble.

Ten years ago tonight, on July 2, 2010, the Mets weren’t quite ready to let us down. Deep in our bones, we knew they would eventually. Not even that deep. The stumble was coming. They weren’t that good. I was 47 and not as susceptible to summertime Magic spells as I was when I was 17. But for a while, we could pretend that the Mets were really a team worthy of being 10 games over .500, which is what they were after beating the Nationals in Washington. What made the victory particularly tasty was the way it concluded, with Francisco Rodriguez turning, wheeling and firing to Ruben Tejada at second base to pick off Roger Bernadina. It was the first time a Mets game had ended with the Mets picking a runner off at second. Tejada was a defensive prodigy. The Mets were winning. Maybe 2010 was gonna be a great year after all. (I know I just said I was too sophisticated for such teenage tripe. Maybe I wasn’t.)

Five years ago this afternoon, on July 2, 2015, the Mets scored one run. It was cause for mock celebration where I was sitting in some thoughtfully furnished Delta Club seats. The Mets had been shut out on June 30 and shut out again on July 1. It was that desolate slice of 1985 all over again, except it was thirty years later and there was no sign of a Strawberry, Carter or Hernandez on the premises. Also, that one run didn’t much hold up as Jacob deGrom threw one of his lesser outings and the Cubs completed a three-game sweep. Four days after we sincerely celebrated the coming of Steven Matz, we were mopey again at Citi Field. Still, we were relatively close to the Nats in first place and, more importantly to me at fifty-two years of age, was knowing my father was out of the hospital more than a month after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. I didn’t know that he’d be back in the next month or, that by then, I’d have another 52 to think about via Sandy Alderson’s trade for Yoenis Cespedes, and I never would have guessed that my dad, who’d pretty much given up on baseball since Darryl left the Mets, would get interested in what Yoenis and the Mets were doing and we’d be watching them together in the World Series come October. And what’s this about the 2015 Mets being in the World Series? No, I didn’t know that was in the cards in early July.

It’s just enough to know there are the Mets and there’s baseball right around now every early July. There isn’t any of that precisely on July 2, 2020, but maybe soon. Maybe.

The Last Ace from the Deck

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’m getting the feeling I came in at the end. The best is over.
—Tony Soprano

From June 7 through June 11 in 1977, the Mets’ starting rotation turned like this:

Tom Seaver
Jerry Koosman
Jon Matlack
Craig Swan

That would be the last time we’d have that particular group of pitchers working in succession on our behalf. On June 15, 1977, Tom Seaver was traded to Cincinnati, as that’s the sort of thing the Mets did in 1977. During the offseason following 1977, Jon Matlack was shipped to Texas in a four-team transactional extravaganza that also directed John Milner to Pittsburgh. And after the 1978 season, the Mets acceded to good ol’ Jerry Koosman’s wishes and sent him home to Minnesota.

When 1979 started, only one-quarter of the aforementioned armed quartet was left in New York. You wouldn’t have willingly cast off Seaver, Matlack or Koosman for the sole purpose of keeping Swan, but if you were limited to only one of the four, Craig Swan was by no means a bad remainder. Come 1979 and into the early 1980s, Swannie stood as tall in contemporary Metsian perception as any member of the erstwhile foursome, because in 1978, Craig Swan had made a name for himself.

In 1978, Craig Swan turned himself into the ace of the Mets’ staff — a legitimate ace, one even a team that hadn’t lost 96 games would be happy to have. The righthander, who had been drafted in the third round in 1972 and overwhelmed the International League in 1975, but had struggled as he sought to keep up with the Toms, Jons and Jerrys through 1977, captured the National League’s earned run average title by clocking in at 2.43 and beating out a whole cluster of notable pitchers. Steve Rogers finished second at 2.47. Tom Seaver finished tenth at 2.88. Crammed in between were the starry likes of Pete Vuckovich, Bob Knepper, Burt Hooton, Gaylord Perry, Vida Blue, Steve Carlton and Ed Halicki. You see Hall of Famers there. You see sensations, Cy Youngs, World Series starters, playoff participants. You see a guy in Halicki who once threw a no-hitter against the Mets in a game where his opponent was the highly touted yet still rather raw Craig Swan.

For one season, pitchers 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.

League ERA leaders in 1978, from right to left: Craig Swan of the New York Mets; some other guy.

Being best in the senior circuit constituted hot enough stuff. What makes the feat just as impressive from a parochial perspective is where that 2.43 stood in the Met annals at the moment Swannie registered it. Here are the ten lowest title-qualifying single-season ERAs in Mets history between 1962 and 1978:

Tom Seaver: 1.76 (1971)
Tom Seaver: 2.08 (1973)
Jerry Koosman: 2.08 (1968)
Tom Seaver: 2.20 (1968)
Tom Seaver: 2.21 (1969)
Jerry Koosman: 2.28 (1969)
Jon Matlack: 2.32 (1972)
Tom Seaver: 2.38 (1975)
Jon Matlack: 2.41 (1974)
Craig Swan: 2.43 (1978)

For approximately five-and-a-third seasons, from Matlack gaining a foothold in his rookie year of 1972 until Seaver was traded, we as Mets fans took enormous pride in our dynamic trio, the best darn pitching threesome in captivity as far as we were concerned. Judging by ERA, the most sophisticated of mainstream pitching metrics (only an expert could teach you to calculate it), Craig Swan was literally the next best thing.

Which, in a land bereft of Seaver and Matlack, with Koosman yearning for the chill of the Twin Cities, is a pretty commendable position to stake. Swan’s 1978 would maintain its claim on our statistical consciousness for a while longer. It wouldn’t be topped (or bottomed) by another Mets starter until Doc Gooden rolled his unforgettable 1.53 in 1985. To this day, Craig’s 2.43 is the fifteenth-best single-season ERA in Mets history, and to this day the only Mets to win ERA titles are Seaver (three times), Gooden, Johan Santana, Jacob deGrom and some guy named Craig Swan.

Seaver, Gooden, Santana and deGrom all won Cy Youngs at some point in their careers; every one of them, I would guess, has been deemed the GOAT by some enthusiastic tweeter in the modern age. Swan had to settle for the occasional waterfowl pun in newsprint. I’m convinced he went mostly unnoticed in precincts that weren’t Shea Stadium or the 1978 ERA listings. And who knows? If a couple of official scorer’s decisions had been different, maybe Swan finishes second in his category forty-two years ago and then Craig Swan is just…

Well, he’s still Craig Swan to us. That was extremely valuable post-Seaver and pre-Gooden. We had been all about young, homegrown starting pitching before Craig Swan, and we’d be all about young, homegrown starting pitching after Craig Swan. By the time Craig Swan reached his apex as a Met, however, he was pretty much all the Mets had in the way of young, homegrown pitching…with his youth rapidly morphing into baseball middle age the way that’ll happen with pitchers.

Swan had been a young Met and would become a shall we say venerable Met. He surely put in his time to gain his experience. During the course of his Met tenure, beginning with his debut in the second game of 1973’s Labor Day doubleheader, Swan started 184 games. That was more than any Met started from that nightcap forward, until his final appearance (in relief) on May 7, 1984. Within that span, that amounts to 13 starts more than Koosman; 28 starts more than Seaver; 52 starts more than Matlack; and 71 starts more than Pat Zachry, the pitcher who generally filled out the one-two punch we perceived our rotation delivering in the best of times during what was basically the worst of times.

From the time the Mets were founded in 1962 until the last time the Mets played in 2019, Swan started the ninth-most games of any Mets pitcher ever. Those ahead of him — Seaver, Koosman, Gooden, Sid Fernandez, Ron Darling, Matlack and Bobby Jones — each made at least one National League All-Star team. Swan didn’t make any. He made the mistake of being at the top of his game when the Mets were not scoring a whit for him. Halfway to his ERA title, in the eighty-first game of 1978, Swannie threw a complete game five-hitter, striking out thirteen Phillies, the same Phillies who were headed to a third consecutive division title. The only detail missing from this description is a win. Craig got tagged with a couple of late home runs and lost, 3-2. The decision lowered his record to 1-5 despite an earned run average of 2.66.

When Tommy Lasorda was mandated by the rule of law to take some 1978 Met to the All-Star Game, he grabbed Zachry, who was an extraordinarily encouraging 10-3 at the halfway mark, pairing that gaudy W sum with an ERA of 2.90. If choosing between the Met pitcher with the higher win total and the Met pitcher with the lower ERA, there was no doubt which Met pitcher Lasorda would pick. You didn’t have to explain 10-3. In those pre-deGrom enlightenment days, good luck getting somebody to understand how 1-5 merited All-Stardom. I don’t recall a single argument circulating that Lasorda should have taken both Mets, even though I’m ostensibly making it in hindsight.

Zachry’s second half was curtailed when he kicked a batting helmet in disgust after giving up a hit to Pete Rose during his former teammate’s epic hitting streak and, really, Pat never recovered his momentum, not in 1978, not for the rest of his career. Swan, meanwhile, kept his feet on the ground (despite also getting nicked by Rose during the streak), kept reaching for the stars, kept pitching until the Mets’ bats did him the occasional solid. Even with that league-leading ERA, he finished a scant 9-6, which meant going 8-1 with a 2.22 magic number in thirteen starts after the All-Star break for a ballclub otherwise spiraling toward 66-96.

Yet Craig received as many Cy Young votes for his 1978 efforts as he did invitations to All-Star Games. Ten National League pitchers drew at least a point’s worth of support from the baseball writers; none of them was named Swan. It couldn’t have helped the New York Met’s visibility that much of what he did in the second half of ’78 took place during a citywide newspaper strike. Any chance that he’d be the big pitching story in at least the suburban papers or the local newscasts probably wilted in the glare given off by Ron Guidry’s 1.74 ERA across town. Oh, and Guidry was winning 25 games for a high-profile team clinching its division in sudden death versus its archrival; his 25th victory happened to come in Game 163.

The 1978 Mets finished sixth in a six-team division. Perhaps Craig Swan would have preferred playing fourth-fiddle behind Seaver, Matlack and Koosman for a rotation that lost a lot fewer games and came a lot closer to winning a flag. Swannie had a taste of what that might be like during his apprenticeship years, making his debut in the heat of the 1973 pennant race and getting a few reps for the 1975 Mets as they flirted with serious contention in August. Once he was fully established as a major league starter, however, it was all he could do to outpitch his circumstances.

I wouldn’t blame Swan if he treated his earned run average title the way Homer Simpson treated his 300 game in the 2000 Simpsons episode, “Hello Gutter, Hello Fadder”. Homer, it will be recalled, milked every ounce of fame out of his spectacular day of bowling, going so far as to stroll on stage uninvited and interrupt an intricate Penn & Teller routine.

PENN: Now before my partner Teller hits the shark-infested water, I’ll need to borrow someone’s crossbow. […] Now to save my partner’s life, I’ll need complete —

HOMER: Hello, everybody! Did somebody say, “a perfect game”?

But Craig Swan has never done anything of the sort as far as I know. He certainly didn’t coast on his achievement in 1979. The Mets’ Opening Day starter — the first one not named Tom Seaver or Jerry Koosman since 1967 — notched a win that afternoon at Wrigley Field. Damned if he wasn’t going to gather up all the decisions he could, going 14-13. We haven’t had too many Mets garner as many as 14 wins and be saddled with as many as 13 losses in a given season lately. The only pitcher of ours to do so in this century has been Bartolo Colon (twice).

Unfortunately, winning five games more for another last-place Mets club didn’t bring Swan any greater distinction among those who decide who’s an All-Star or a Cy Young candidate. His ERA trended up, to 3.29, but at least he took the ball every time Joe Torre planned on handing it to him. Craig’s 35 starts were by far a career high, not a small detail for a pitcher forever nagged by injuries and maladies. (Only three Mets have started as many as 35 games since 1979: Gooden, Darling and Frank Viola twice.)

Swannie’s timing in demonstrating durability made him a desirable commodity on both coasts. The Angels took notice and worked out a trade proposal, preparing to send two everyday players of promise to New York, slugger Willie Mays Aikens (21 homers at age 24) and shortstop Dickie Thon (a .339 batting average in 35 games at age 20), in exchange for 30-year-old Swan. California was coming off a division title and this move might finally catapult the pitcher into serious contention. It might have helped the Mets’ offense, too.

But in her last act before selling the team, Lorinda de Roulet vetoed the trade. Aside from claiming she didn’t want to make such a big move on the eve of finding new owners, she allegedly wondered, how GM Joe McDonald trade her ace for Thon, “just a baby”.

Well, baby, Swan, with free agency looming on his horizon, had himself some leverage. The new owners, Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon, couldn’t afford to lose their pitching staff’s veritable meal ticket, and making a goodwill gesture to secure the fans’ confidence as their massive rebuild began couldn’t hurt their image as genuine go-getters. It wasn’t the same management that refused to pay Tom Seaver what he was worth in 1977, but it was the same ballclub with the same understandably sensitive following. Thus, in the spring of 1980, the Mets gave Craig Swan a five-year contract worth $3.15 million, a figure that was enormous where the Mets of those days were concerned, but could be construed as fair for a pitcher who’d carried the load as he had for two seasons: 23 wins, an ERA under three.

Frank Cashen and Joe Torre looked to Craig Swan for more big things after signing him to a five-year contract. Only Cashen would be around in five years’ time.

Naturally, our mustachioed hero’s hard-earned durability disappeared. Swan started Opening Day in 1980 and won, just as in ’79. Then he’d go out and win four more decisions, the last of them on June 11 (a complete game, ten-inning, six-hitter captured via Mike Jorgensen’s walkoff grand slam). Swan got hurt in mid-July and missed a month. He started twice more in August and then was shelved, disappearing onto the DL with a 5-9 record and a 3.58 ERA. Nineteen Eighty-One was worse, as he started only twice before the strike and once after it.

Just as he remained following the departures of Seaver, Matlack and Koosman, Craig Swan stayed put on the Mets amid the comings and goings of Zachry, Falcone, Bomback, what have you. It would have been difficult to trade his contract by 1982. The new manager, George Bamberger, sent him to the bullpen in April. Having succeeded in relief, the ex-ace was reinstated in the rotation in June. It turned into another pretty good Swan year for another terrible Mets team: 11-7, 3.35 ERA; 65-97, last place. Nineteen Eighty-Three saw Swan and the Mets in sync, with both parties posting dreadful lines. The pitcher was 2-8 off an ERA of 5.51 for a team that again finished last, this time at 68-94. Except in ’83, whereas Swan was done pitching by the end of August, the Mets were just finding themselves late in the season. They had called up Darryl Strawberry in May, traded for Keith Hernandez in June and were slotting starts for promising youngsters Walt Terrell and Ron Darling. The Mets’ arrow was subtly pointing up.

Swan’s was pointing out the door. Most of his ten relief appearances in 1984, under Davey Johnson (his seventh manager), served as a reminder that all those injuries had taken a toll. His ERA — his signature stat from six years before — had bloated to 8.20. Dwight Gooden was in the rotation now, alongside Darling and Terrell. The Mets were getting better as they were getting younger. Swan wasn’t even trade bait. There’d be no getting a reasonably decent package of Zachry, Flynn, Henderson and Norman for him à la Seaver, no quadruple-play that would land an RBI machine like Willie Montañez as the dispatching of Matlack did, not even a young, unknown quantity like Jesse Orosco, who came from Minnesota in exchange for Jerry Koosman. Forget about anybody on the level of Aikens or Thon. The Angels had traded both of them long before ’84. But California would scoop up Craig a couple of weeks after the Mets swallowed what was left of his salary and released him. The SoCal native made two appearances as a Halo. One was a start. Neither was encouraging. One more trip to Spring Training, in 1985, convinced both him and the Angels that he was done.

Craig Swan’s Met legacy is primarily that 1978 ERA title. That’s a helluva thing to leave behind. There’s also the lingering sense, if you watched him for a decade, that he was an oxymoron: a constant who had a hard time staying on the mound. As his first manager, Yogi Berra, might have said, Swan was always around, even when he wasn’t. You couldn’t start naming Mets without naming Swan. Hell, I can remember a story that appeared somewhere c. 1980 that a family on Long Island was keeping a swan as a pet and they named him…

Whaddaya think they named their swan? Not Ron Guidry or Pat Zachry.

Sail on down the line, indeed.

Over those eleven full or partial seasons that Craig Swan the person was a Met, he compiled a record of 58-71, with an earned run average of 3.74. “It’s hard to be proud of a record that’s not at least .500 record,” Swan admitted in article published in the Mets’ 1981 program, adding that he dreamed of a 21-7 or 23-10 type of season that he could look back on in satisfaction when he was retired and sailing around the world. He never got anything close to those numbers, but I hope he’s as fond of that 2.43 from 1978 as I am. It meant a lot coming down what passed for a stretch that a Met — a homegrown Met — was competing to lead the league in something that significant.

Nevertheless, while he pitched for the Mets (or rehabilitated in hopes of getting back to pitching for the Mets), Craig Swan was truly more than his numbers, no matter how good or bad the numbers might be this year or that. Maybe it was the fact that he loosely filled Seaver’s shoes — he lived in Greenwich like Seaver and the two were known to have become close — that made Swan seem a little extra special in a period when little about Mets’ starting pitching was distinctive. On the other hand, he got himself in the kind of trouble you couldn’t ever imagine Tom Terrific courting. For example, disgusted that the Mets had to fly commercial from St. Louis to LaGuardia in 1982 (the flight was delayed), Swan got into it with traveling secretary Arthur Richman and a succession of authority figures, clear up to coach Frank Howard, who towered over the not inconsiderably built Swan. Unsurprisingly, Bambi sided with his brain trust. “If he wants a charter flight,” Bambi huffed of his pitcher, “let him charter it.” The Washington Post reported there was “no evidence of hard punches, but Swan’s shirt and tie were ripped off.”

“I’ve been verbally spanked,” Swan admitted in the aftermath.

Swan was usually more media-savvy than that. He was always a good guest on Kiner’s Korner, which counted for something, considering how rare it was for a Met to be star of a game in the late ’70s. Not only did he introduce Mets fans to the concept of rolfing as a potential remedy for so much that ailed him, Swan took it up himself in retirement. Last year, on Jay Horwitz’s Amazin’ Mets Alumni Podcast, Swannie revealed he enjoyed a long career pursuing the alternative medicine and had lately retired from his practice.

That iota of information stopped me cold. Craig Swan was retired from the thing he’d been doing since he retired from baseball? Like he’s retired retired? And now he’s seventy years old? The kid who came up behind Seaver and Koosman and Matlack and persevered until the dawn of Darling and Doctor K? The National League Earned Run Average Champion of 1978?

Sail on down the line, about forty years or so…

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962: Richie Ashburn
1964: Rod Kanehl
1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1969: Donn Clendenon
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1977: Lenny Randle
1981: Mookie Wilson
1982: Rusty Staub
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1994: Rico Brogna
1995: Jason Isringhausen
2000: Melvin Mora
2002: Al Leiter
2003: David Cone
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Angel Pagan
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Wilmer Flores

One’s Moments in Time

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.

Didn’t we almost have it all
When love was all we had worth giving?

—Whitney Houston

As it approaches the halfway mark, the year 2020 is not making a case for itself as one we’ll wish to remember, yet it’s also one we’re not likely to forget. I’m talking about the year 2020, not the season 2020. That latter entity has yet to officially commence. When the 2020 baseball season comes along — if it comes along and plays out as currently planned — we can’t say with a shred of certainty what we as Mets fans will remember about it, or if we Mets fans as a people will remember it at all.

Some of us will, of course. Some of us don’t forget. But we tend to be the exceptions. We’re the ones who can’t believe everybody doesn’t remember what we do. We’re the ones who are incredulous that what we cherish in memory ceases to exist in the general consciousness.

Though there is no precisely analogous Metsian precedent for how the 2020 baseball season shapes up, we do have one previous year between 1962 and 2019 from which to perhaps draw a potentially predictive parallel, not so much for how well the Mets might perform in the hastily scheduled sixty-game season ahead, but for the framework at hand.

Welcome, fellow Metsian citizens of 2020, to an echo of the summer and early fall of 1981. If things had gone a little better that August and September, you might have heard about it. Things went as they did, however, and a moment that deserves to live forever in Met lore couldn’t be much more obscure.

Fortunately, the man who provided the moment lives on in Met memory. He did too much for too long to be forgotten.

***
As massive as the contributions of others were, if the entirety of the 1980s were to be said to belong to one Met, they would be rightly assigned to the Met who wore No. 1, Mookie Wilson. Only Mookie played for the Mets in every season of the 1980s. As a matter of karmic symmetry, Mookie played for the Mets only in those seasons. He showed up with about a month to go in 1980 and lasted until there were two months left of 1989.

No Met played in more games in the 1980s (1,116); no Met collected more hits (1,112); no Met scored more runs (592). It was his decade. The rest of us were blessed to be living in it.

A few times per season in the 1980s, generally solid Mookie Wilson — he batted between .271 and .279 five consecutive seasons — would remind you what a spectacular player he could be. There was inevitably an inning or a game or a series or a week when he left you dazzled by his baseball brilliance. Robberies over fences. Bullets to the plate. Dashes from second to home on balls inside the infield. Four-for-fives. Triples. Steals. Streaks. Disruptions. A little roller up along first, as if one particular Saturday night/Sunday morning at-bat requires explicit acknowledgment.

And the occasional homer. It was not the personal Mookie Wilson calling card that the stolen base was (his 281 as a Met was the franchise record until Jose Reyes surpassed it in 2008), nor were there as many four-baggers (60) as three-base hits (62) on his Met ledger, but Mookie surely packed some power. He hit ten home runs in 1984 and nine apiece in 1986 and 1987. His first came off ex-Met Nino Espinosa. His last, prior to his trade to the Blue Jays, was off future Cy Young winner Doug Drabek. Wilson tagged some pretty big names along the way. Mookie was especially immune to Fernandomania, slashing .319/.380/.472 against legendary southpaw Valenzuela. Steve Carlton, T#m Gl@v!ne, Goose Gossage and Lee Smith all went to the Hall of Fame, but not before surrendering a longball to the Mets’ dynamic switch-hitting center fielder.

It wasn’t his calling card, but Mookie could hit a few homers.

There was another Cooperstown-bound pitcher who felt the home run wrath of Mookie. Though breathtakingly dramatic and indisputably impactful when it happened, the encounter amounted to a hiccup for the star hurler as he continued to retire batters with regularity. The batter didn’t even mention it in his memoir, but I’m telling you, next to the ground ball Bill Buckner couldn’t pick up, it represents the most incredible swing Mookie Wilson ever produced.

***
Do you remember the mural that adorned the Shea Stadium press level from 2003 until the ballpark’s demise in 2008? The words “Amazin’”; “Miracle”; “Believe”; and “Magic” were emblazoned against a series of photos evoking some of the most transcendent plays and personalities in Mets history. A replica was visible in St. Lucie for a while as well. One of the pictures featured Mookie Wilson surrounded at home plate by his teammates. Sometimes, whether in SNY’s early years or during Spring Training when nothing much was going on and the conversation seemed appropriate, a camera would focus on the image, which, judging by the man in the middle and the style of uniform (blue and orange trimming on the sleeves; names on the back), had to have been captured between 1980 and 1982. You could make out the names of Mets who aren’t generally linked with Met runs to glory. Whatever point Gary Cohen was making as the director stayed with the shot of Mookie being congratulated tended to get interrupted by Keith Hernandez, who processed the era of origin and pronounced the Mets of those times as “el stinko”.

Keith was a Cardinal when that picture was taken. He might not have recognized what exactly it was from, but I can understand why he’d react undiplomatically to it.

I recognized the image for what it was: the conclusion of a walkoff home run struck by Mr. Wilson off 2006 Hall of Fame inductee Bruce Sutter on Sunday, September 20, 1981. It was very a big loss for the St. Louis Cardinals. It was an enormous victory for the New York Mets.

Wait a minute, you might be thinking. How could the 1981 Mets have an enormous victory in September? Weren’t they “el stinko”? Weren’t their seasons in the years before Mr. Hernandez became someone whose opinion we valued uniformly over by September?

Yes, mostly. But not in September of 1981. Not that Sunday afternoon.

***
By now, I trust some of you have put at least a few of the pieces together. Nineteen Eighty-One was different from all the Met years before it and all the Met years that would follow it, even this one, the one that shapes up as sort of similar. Nineteen Eighty-One was the year of the split season in Major League Baseball. Because of a labor-management battle that shut down the sport in the second week of June and kept it shut down until the second week of August, MLB concocted its craziest scheme, at least until it decided to stick a runner on second to begin every extra half-inning in 2020.

The teams that were in first place when the strike hit on June 12 were graduated to the playoffs. The slate was cleared and cleaned as of August 10 for the resumption of play in what became the literal second season of 1981. Everybody, even the el stinko Mets of the first season, who’d been 17-34, was gonna be 0-0. Get hot for some fifty-plus games, lead your division on October 4 and you, too, could be a playoff team.

It was intriguing if not perfect. You could have the best record for a hundred-plus games total and it might get you nowhere. There was no reward for having the best record in your division in all of 1981. There was no “all of 1981” when it came to the standings. You had to finish first in one of the halves or go home. The Phillies, Dodgers, Yankees and A’s had the first half covered. The second half was up for grabs.

The Mets commenced to grabbing. The horrible start from April to June ceased to exist as a determining factor. They just had to start winning when they started playing in August and keep winning until October. They did the first part just fine. Three in a row when baseball resumed. Six and Two after eight games. Nine and Six a little over two weeks in and virtually tied for first place on August 25. The Mets were not only in a race, they were practically leading it.

Then they weren’t, which shouldn’t have been surprising given that, you know, they’d been 17-34 with roughly the same team before the strike. But it was different in September after getting a taste in late August. We who’d hung on and hung in and hung some more with these Mets futile season after futile season — last in ’77; last in ’78; last in ’79; next-to-last in ’80; and next-to-last (thanks only to the even more dreadful Cubs) in the first half of ’81) — were determined to hang on as best we could to this taste of contention, this morsel of legitimacy.

The flavor brought us to the third weekend of September and a showdown at Shea versus St. Louis. St. Louis may not have realized it was a showdown, but it was for us. They were in first place, 5½ ahead of us in fourth, with the Expos and Cubs wedged in between. There probably aren’t a lot of first-place teams psyching themselves up to take on the fourth-place team that’s barely hanging on, but that was their problem. We were showing down. We were punching up.

We beat them on Friday. We beat them on Saturday. If we beat them on Sunday, we’d be 2½ back with two weeks to go. In the Book of Amazin’, Miracle, Believe & Magic, 2½ back with two weeks to go was doable. It was the stuff of stadium graphics. We just had to get there.

The Mets lined up everybody they had to do it. They even called on Joan Payson and Casey Stengel, inducting them posthumously into the inaugural Mets Hall of Fame class prior to first pitch. Joan and Casey would have been quite familiar with what was going on after their busts made the scene. They, after all, had been around in 1962 when the Mets lost their very first game to the Cardinals. It seemed we were on our way to a similar result after Pat Zachry gave up two in the first and three in the third, with Hernandez scoring two of the five Redbird runs. The Mets were down, 5-0, fighting back but flailing in the process. Three hits in the bottom of the second for New York, yet no runs. Two hits in the bottom of the third, but still no runs. Two more hits in both the fourth and fifth…and no runs.

Not so Amazin’.

Finally, with relievers Ray Searage and former Cy Young winner Mike Marshall holding the fort, the Mets broke through in the sixth. Ron Hodges, who’d been around since “Believe” became a thing in 1973, doubled in the first Met run. Mookie doubled in another. Recently recalled Jesse Orosco kept the Cards off the board in the seventh, which gave the Mets more room to run. John Stearns, Doug Flynn and Rusty Staub (pinch-hitting for Jesse) drove in runs in succession and, Miracle of Miracles, the game was tied after seven.

Was 1981 another 1973? Another 1969? In the top of the ninth, with Neil Allen pitching, it was 1962 all over again in center field, when Wilson mishandled a Tito Landrum two-out triple poorly enough that it gave Landrum passage to an extra base and the Cardinals a 6-5 lead. “Shadows were tough and the ball stayed in the sun an extra second,” Mookie said of how September tended to play at Shea. “Once I got to the ball, I just dropped it and he kept going.” If the Cards kept going and put away the Mets in the bottom of the ninth, they’d put away the Mets for 1981.

Sutter, the premier closer of the age, came on for the save. The Cardinals traded for him in the offseason just for moments like this. The master of the split-finger fastball went about doing his job. He grounded Doug Flynn to short. He flied Alex Treviño to center. All that was left was Frank Taveras. Taveras fought off immediate demise by stroking a ball to left. It would have been good for a single, except Frankie decided it should be worth a double. Running as only he and Mookie could among the 1981 Mets (Taveras held the club’s single-season stolen base record until Wilson broke it), he took second just barely. It was simultaneously risky and gutsy, but it worked. And it brought up Wilson, who was three-for-five on the day to this point. To this point, however, wasn’t the point. Mookie vs. Sutter was.

Mookie vs. Sutter wound up being this, per Bob Murphy:

“Home run! Home run! Home run by Mookie Wilson!”

Final score: Mets 7 Cardinals 6. Twenty-two hits for the home team, who also left thirteen on base, but those LOB lads didn’t matter anymore. Just Taveras crossing the plate with the tying run, then Mookie touching it, surrounded by every Met who could make it (somebody thought to snap a picture). Hodges couldn’t make it because he’d been in the bullpen catching yet another reliever in case there were extras. Instead, he caught Mookie’s home run ball, the third of Mookie’s major league career, the first Mookie ever hit to right field.

A lineup worthy of a pennant race: Messrs. Staub, Flynn, Wilson and Kiner.

Mookie had done it! We had done it! We were the winners of the biggest Mets game this late on a calendar since 1973. The Magic from the middle of 1980 was Back, thanks to this, The Son of Steve Henderson Game; same score, higher stakes. As dreamed and desired on Friday, we had moved to within 2½ of the Cardinals. “Today,” manager Joe Torre said of his Mets postgame, “was the first time, I think, that the fellas out there realized they were in the pennant race.” The Shea faithful didn’t need a ton of convincing. As Murph called it in the aftermath of Mookie’s home run, the stands were beset by “pandemonium”. It was “shades of old times at Shea Stadium, like the thrills of ’69 and ’73, the crowd not wanting to leave. They’re enjoying it so very, very much.”

There was no DiamondVision in 1981. There was no A/V choreography as there’d be in later years for game-winning celebrations. So the fans just took care of business themselves, sticking around and cheering in a New York groove because why wouldn’t you want a moment like Mookie had given them to last as long as it could.? “The crowd is just staying here,” Murph marveled. “They don’t want to go home. It’s unbelievable!”

Never mind that our record in the second half was now a humble 19-20. It got us into third place and within striking distance of first. The only team between us and the Cards was the ’Spos. Montreal benefited from our surge almost as much as we did, pulling to within a game-and-a-half of St. Louis.

With hindsight, they benefited more. It was the Expos, not the Mets, who kept going from September 20 forward. It was Gary Carter’s Expos, not Keith Hernandez’s Cardinals, who’d finish first. St. Loo wound up a half-game back, which was something you could be at the end of 1981. They had the combined best record when you added up the first and second halves despite not finishing first in either half. The prize for that was bupkes. Knowing that Mookie’s bullpen shot off Sutter equaled the difference between the Cardinals moving on and going home was…well, it didn’t really matter to us, because we went home, too. We’d win on Monday the Twenty-First, then not a whole lot more, quickly falling out of contention for the second-half title that would have catapulted us into the playoffs and made Mookie Wilson’s home run immortal.

Which, unless you’ve inducted it into your own Mets Hall of Fame and recognized a picture that made it to the press level facade at Shea a couple of decades later, it isn’t. 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.

Lesson from the second season 1981 for the short season of 2020: introduce yourself to winning ASAP and remain intimately acquainted.

Got an aberrational short season ahead of you? Inexact precedent suggests you make the most of it from beginning to end.

***
In Mookie: Life, Baseball, and the ’86 Mets, co-written with Erik Sherman, published in 2014, and extraordinary in its telling of what it was like to grow up a young Black man in Ehrhardt, S.C. in the 1960s and 1970s, Wilson whisks away the second half of 1981 with the following passage:

“We didn’t come close to winning a division title in either half of the season and went home.”

It was a different assessment from the one Mookie offered after the Cardinal game. Then, when he was 25 and completing his first full season in the majors (en route to finishing seventh in NL Rookie of the Year voting, an honor nabbed by Valenzuela), Mookie said he had just played in “the most exciting game of my life. It was definitely a game to remember. I still haven’t come down. I’m as high as I could possibly be.”

Little did Mookie imagine he and the Mets could get higher, as they would as the 1980s unfolded. Most every Met Wilson played with on September 20, 1981, would be gone from Shea in a relatively short time. Mookie would stick around longer without interruption than any of them. Before Wilson was shipped to Toronto for Jeff Musselman (!) at the trade deadline in ’89, the catalyst and the team he converted would rise to elevations we would have barely fathomed in ’81. Mookie and the Mets got undeniably good in ’84; approached greatness in ’85; and, at last, defined magnificence in ’86. Mookie made just enough contact to ensure immortality for the lot of them in Game Six of the World Series. He was already beloved (ya never heard him booed, didja?). Now he was something else. We knew it as of October 25-26, 1986, and we’d remember it forever without prompting.

On September 1, 1996 — one day shy of the sixteenth anniversary of Mookie Wilson’s first game as a New York Met, the player who wore No. 1 for the bulk of a decade would become the first of the 1986 Mets inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame. It was a most apt choice.

And the Mets won that day in walkoff fashion. Also apt.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962: Richie Ashburn
1964: Rod Kanehl
1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1969: Donn Clendenon
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1977: Lenny Randle
1982: Rusty Staub
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1994: Rico Brogna
1995: Jason Isringhausen
2000: Melvin Mora
2002: Al Leiter
2003: David Cone
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Angel Pagan
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Wilmer Flores

Fingers Crossed

Are you ready for some baseball?

Well, are ya?

Let’s cross our fingers and hope baseball is ready for itself. Baseball can declare all the intentions it wants. It still has to check in with the coronavirus pretty regularly to make sure it gets to proceed as it intends.

Until we find out otherwise, it is on. Baseball, that is. It’s on the calendar for the first time since the middle of March. Circle all the dates you like. Unseasonable Spring Training commences on or about July 3. The short season — shorter than those to which we are accustomed, longer than anything we’ve had in 2020 — gets going in the July 23-24 range. Sixty games are plotted through September 27. Then everybody and their uncles, aunts and cousins will be invited to the most darn inclusive postseason jamboree you ever did see.

Now, where were we?

Unless the coronavirus gets loose in big league clubhouses and environs and then…ah, let’s convince ourselves to be optimistic. The Mets will play baseball. Their opponents, all nine of them, will play baseball. Four other divisions’ worth of ballclubs will, too. True, the “universal DH” is a pox and it should be vaccinated against (can we be realigned to another universe, please?), and this cockamamie idea to start extra innings with a runner on second has already been labeled cockamamie within this sentence. Nobody will be in the stands by design, so there go the letter and spirit of our team song. The only meeting the Mets we’ll be doing will be through the magic of video and audio, fortunately narrated to us by the best sets of announcers in the business. Crowd shots will be lacking, but the cameras should be able to pretty easily pick out the players.

The original Opening Day for 2020 was scheduled for about three months ago. It went by as just another day. It was weird. The next days without baseball were a little less weird. Except for experiencing a phantom pang now and then that something that should have been going on wasn’t, I can’t exactly say I missed baseball the way a lifetime’s passion indicated I would.

There was (and is) a pandemic. There was (and is) social injustice. There was (and is) a sense that half-baked baseball wasn’t (and isn’t) going to make everything better. Baseball didn’t walk out on the world. The world turned unamenable to meeting/greeting the Mets and anybody else who gets within six feet of you without a mask.

But it is summer; and there is an agreed-upon scheme, which has been upgraded to a theoretically workable plan; and those players whose every move we monitor as closely as possible from a distance seem determined and enthusiastic to play; and what are we, anyway — made of stone?

No, we’re made of Mets. Time to replenish our natural fiber. Safely, of course.

The Man Who Was Untraded

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.

Aug. 6, 2007 was an off-day for the Mets. The day before, a Mets pitcher who will remain nameless had finally secured his 300th victory, a milestone future generations will note came wearing the wrong uniform. Greg and I celebrated rather tepidly; we were happier about the fact that the Mets were in first place, 4.5 games up on the Atlanta Braves. Those good times wouldn’t last either. In less than two months the season would crash and burn, with that same pitcher enduring a first-inning battering he found disappointing but others of us remember as closer to devastating.

Lost amid the aftermath of the celebration and the preamble to an as-yet-unglimpsed tragedy was an agate-type transaction. The Mets had signed a Venezuelan infielder on his 16th birthday, the first day the new acquisition could sign such a deal. Wilmer Flores was now a professional baseball player.

He was also still a child, one preparing to go far from home, to a country where he didn’t speak the language. Being a homesick 16-year-old without moorings is hard enough; he’d also attempt to make a living playing a famously demanding and deeply unfair sport, in competition for a vanishingly small number of jobs. One day, perhaps, there’d be fame and fortune; for now, there’d be vaguely furnished efficiency apartments with too many roommates and long bus rides and unhealthy fast food and hard work for a pittance.

In 2008 Flores did well enough on the field, hitting over .300 in stints at Kingsport, Brooklyn and Savannah. But off the field he was miserable; at the end of the season he told Tony Bernazard, the Mets’ VP of player development, that he wanted to go home. Bernazard would eventually lose his job for an excess of tough love; this day, he supplied the right amount. He told Flores no.

The next year Flores, still just 17, reported to Savannah and resolved to learn English. He watched the news with a dictionary in hand, which helped. But what helped more was watching episodes of “Friends.” He learned English, and stopped feeling so alone, by watching the misadventures of Ross and Rachel, Monica and Phoebe, Chandler and Joey as they navigated the city where he hoped to play one day. Years later, Flores’ walk-up music would be the Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There for You,” better known as the “Friends” theme. Fans at Citi Field thought that was cute and joined in on the clap-clap-clap-clap-claps; few had any idea what that jingle meant to Flores, and in how many ways it had helped him get to where he was.

Flores made the big leagues in 2013 — called up on his 22nd birthday, the sixth anniversary of his signing. The new kid, most notable for looking about 12, quickly gave us a preview of his time in New York. On his first day in the big leagues, he went 0-for-4 and made an error; on his second day, he collected three RBIs with a bases-clearing double. (And while his signature moments would come later, those who like such classifications can record him as 2013’s A Met for All Seasons.)

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.

Flores was up and down between Citi Field and the minors in 2014 but made the Opening Day roster in 2015, installed at shortstop in what seemed like an act of desperation bordering on cruelty. It didn’t go well; Flores made three errors in the first week while hitting .158, a sensitive player laboring through a public ordeal. But he then hit .364 over his next nine games, a very Floresian outcome that made you think that maybe, just maybe, he could outhit his own defense.

And the 2015 Mets needed all the hitting they could get — they were a perplexing team, with great arms repeatedly undone by anemic bats. At least that was the case until late July, when Sandy Alderson overhauled the team in a frantic rush. He summoned Michael Conforto, the next bright hope of a future no one thought had arrived yet. He brought in Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson and Tyler Clippard, a trio of battle-tested mercenaries.

And, on July 29, during a game against the Padres, he traded Wilmer Flores to the Brewers.

Flores was sent away along with Zack Wheeler for Carlos Gomez, who’d zoomed around Shea Stadium’s outfield as a giddy young colt of a player but would arrive at Citi Field as a marquee hitter and clubhouse leader. The deal was done, complete with snapshots of a smiling Gomez on a plane, getting a sendoff from his now-former Brewer teammates. The news rocketed around Twitter, reached the Mets’ radio and TV booths, and winged its way through the Citi Field stands. And thanks to fans with cellphones in the fancy seats, it reached Flores in the Mets’ dugout.

The strange thing was that the just-traded Flores batted anyway, grounding out meekly as fans in the know cheered by way of farewell, and then went out to his position in the field. That doesn’t happen in baseball — players cost too much money to risk having an injury unravel a trade. The reaction in the stands and the booths was incredulity. Were the Mets really so strapped for personnel that they’d buck tradition and good sense?

And then, horribly, we saw that Flores’s face was a mask of shock, his eyes glassy and red. His movements were tentative and uncertain — a step this way, then that way, looking for comfort that couldn’t be found. He was crying on the field, which was hard enough to watch. What was harder was that he was spending his final, miserable moments as a New York Met on public display. The Mets had been Flores’s family since he was 16, a constant during a wrenching adjustment; what should have been a private moment would become cheap grist for the cynical mills of sports-talk boors. Cue a million Tom Hanks clips, and never mind what that would do to the young man who’d committed the cardinal sin of showing emotion over losing the life he’d worked so hard to build.

Except, somehow, the trade came undone. Alderson said there was no deal; Terry Collins fulminated about modernity; Wilmer Flores remained a Met. (Having missed out on Gomez, the team would eventually land Yoenis Cespedes.)

Flores, mercifully, was given July 30 off. But he was at shortstop the next day as the Mets faced off against the Washington Nationals, kings of the N.L. East. Flores, still looking a bit stunned, was given standing ovations for everything he did. The game would go to the 12th tied 1-1, one of those contests in which you’ve bitten your nails down to the quick by the third and by the sixth you’ve started gnawing on your actual fingers.

Wilmer Flores heads for homeFlores led off the bottom of the inning and got a 1-1 fastball from Felipe Rivero. It was 95 MPH but flat, catching too much of the plate. Flores hammered it into the Party City deck. The Mets had won and a cult hero, already born, was immortalized. The delights of 2015 were just beginning — there’d be the Cespedes-fueled rocket ride, Daniel Murphy‘s brief transformation into Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, David Wright redemptive victory lap, and the pitching heroics of Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. But it all started with Wilmer Flores in despair after being traded and in ecstacy after being untraded. That was the first moment in which the impossible became not just possible but somehow expected.

You know, of course, that those Cinderella Mets left the ball princeless and in rags — they played 12 weeks of scintillating baseball when they needed to play 13. Flores was at the plate at the very end, looking at a called third strike from Wade Davis in a 12th inning that not even his magic could fix. He missed the 2016 wild-card game, having injured his wrist sliding home against Atlanta, but continued his penchant for late-season heroics — in July 2018 he hit a walkoff homer against the Phils to give him 10 walkoff RBIs, topping Wright’s club mark. But by the end of that year, Flores had become a player looking for a position. The Mets nontendered him, a decision that was sad but also seemed sound. This time, there were no tears — or if they were, they were private.

I have a few Mets memories that reliably make me tear up, ones that still pierce me because they jolt me back to the moment, to the miraculous transmutation of grinding, gnawing anxiety into joyous certainty and release. Mike Piazza connecting off Terry Mulholland. Mookie’s grounder trickling … and getting through Bill Buckner. Steve Finley coming down and discovering Todd Pratt‘s drive is on the wrong side of the Shea Stadium wall. Robin Ventura sending us back to Georgia. And Wilmer Flores coming home.

I think it’s because that moment was what we all want sports to be, while knowing it usually isn’t. There’s a fundamental gulf between fans and players, one that’s about not just ability but also vocation. We’re fans who live and die with our teams despite being helpless to affect what happens on the diamond; the players can do that, but the diamond is their workplace and team is their employer. Their emotional bond with the laundry we regard as near-sacred? It’s necessarily lesser, should it exist at all.

But once in a great while, that isn’t true. Wilmer Flores became a Met as a child; as a young man, the idea of being parted from his baseball family left him in tears. On that night in July 2015 he was the team’s accidental shortstop, a role for which he wasn’t exactly a natural fit. A fresh start arguably would have been good for him. But he didn’t want to go — he wanted to stay and help write a better story. Given an improbable second chance, he did just that.

I can close my eyes and see him rounding third. There’s a crowd of giddy teammates awaiting him at home plate, and a happily baying stadium full of fans on all sides. He tosses his helmet away and grabs at his blue uniform, at that script word on his chest: METS. Wilmer tugs on it for emphasis, and that moment shows that word — that silly, made-up little word — means as much to him as it does to us. And then, with a last step, he vanishes into the throng and stomps on the plate, coming home.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962Richie Ashburn
1964Rod Kanehl
1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1969Donn Clendenon
1972Gary Gentry
1973Willie Mays
1977Lenny Randle
1982Rusty Staub
1991Rich Sauveur
1992Todd Hundley
1994Rico Brogna
1995: Jason Isringhausen
2000Melvin Mora
2002Al Leiter
2003David Cone
2008Johan Santana
2009Angel Pagan
2012R.A. Dickey

The Prince of Proximity

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 sometimes imagined an incredibly simple game: Name Every Met. Get a bunch of paper, number the lines 1 through 1,091, and see how many you can fill in. Think of it as the ultimate Sporcle. Boom, here’s Tom Seaver. And Mike Piazza. And Pete Alonso. And then, hours later, sometime after Mark Carreon and Benny Ayala and, I dunno, Alay Soler, you’d have a certain number of blank lines.

How many blank lines? I don’t know. I’ve never tried. Two hundred? Two dozen? If you sat there long beyond any sane measure of time, finally crawling away when your brain was broken, which Mets would you be missing?

I’d probably do better at the margins than with the lesser mainstream players, because I’ve become more and more interested in the cup-of-coffee guys, the 25th men who had a week or a day or a single at-bat in the sun. That interest was always there, but it got turbocharged after I started making custom baseball cards for Mets who’d fallen between the cracks at Topps and other companies. All of those single-line Baseball Reference guys turned out to be pretty interesting stories — and lessons in how injuries, missed opportunities and plain old bad luck could mean the difference between being a trivia question and being a household name.

If you’ve heard of Shaun Fitzmaurice, 1966’s A Met for All Seasons (and he could only represent 1966), congratulations. Of all the momentary Mets I’ve chronicled, Fitzmaurice was the one whose failure to ignite struck me as most surpising. Notre Dame star, Olympian, cannon arm, speed and power, in the big leagues at 24, looked like a superhero … and somehow that only translated into 15 big-league plate appearances and a pair of singles.

At the top of the long list of things you probably never knew about Fitzmaurice, the name is pronounced FitzMORRIS. A star athlete at Wellesley High in Massachusetts, he graduated in ’61 and immediately got a taste of the big time, playing for the U.S. All Stars in the Hearst Sandlot Classic. The Hearst game existed for nearly two decades as an annual showcase for amateur baseball stars. The ’61 game was played at Yankee Stadium; the New York City All-Stars came away with the victory, but Fitzmaurice supplied the game’s most dramatic moment. With the U.S. All Stars down to their last out, he smashed a 400-foot inside-the-park two-run homer. The man who crossed the plate ahead of him? A kid from San Antonio named Jerry Grote. Grote, by the way, was playing second base; his double-play partner was a fellow San Antonian named Davey Johnson.

A month later, Fitzmaurice arrived at Notre Dame. As a freshman, he couldn’t play varsity baseball. But he could play against the varsity team, and in one such game the new kid collected a home run and two doubles. As a sophomore, Fitzmaurice set school records for hits in consecutive games and triples; he also excelled at track, and was offered a scholarship, which he turned down to focus on baseball.

Between the above and that highlight from Yankee Stadium, you’ve figured out that Fitzmaurice had speed. But he also had power — as a sophomore he clubbed a 500-foot home run against Illinois Wesleyan that’s lived on in Irish lore.

Fitzmaurice finished the ’64 season as Notre Dame’s captain-elect, and was a hot commodity among big-league scouts, who looked at his combination of power and speed and wondered if they were watching the next Mickey Mantle.

The summer left them even more excited. Fitzmaurice played for Sturgis in South Dakota’s Basin League, another largely forgotten part of baseball lore. A semi-pro circuit, the Basin League was a showcase for players seeking to rise in big-league scouts’ estimation — during the nearly three decades of its existence, 16 future Mets played for Basin League teams.

Fitzmaurice finished as the Basin League’s MVP in ’64, hitting .361 and breaking league records for hits, total bases, triples and RBIs. But his pretty good ’64 wasn’t done. He was offered a spot on the U.S. Olympic baseball team by legendary college coach Rod Dedeaux. Baseball was a demonstration sport at the ’64 Summer Olympics in Tokyo; Dedeaux’s team went 14-4-2 in touring Hawaii, Japan and Korea. The highlight was the squad’s 6-2 victory over a squad of Japanese amateur all-stars, played before 50,000 fans in Tokyo’s Meiji Stadium. Fitzmaurice was front and center, smashing the game’s first pitch for a home run and hitting .355 for the tour.

A Japanese team offered Fitzmaurice a contract, another intriguing what-if in a career that’s full of them. But he chose to play stateside and for the Mets. They beat out the Red Sox, who huffily explained that they’d been interested in the hometown kid, but he’d wanted too much money.

Shaun Fitzmaurice custom card

A custom card for a momentary Met.

Instead of serving as Notre Dame’s captain, the kid who’d excelled in South Bend and Sturgis and Tokyo became a Mets minor leaguer, signing on the same day the club inked Yankee legend Yogi Berra as a catcher-coach.

Fitzmaurice was billed as the center fielder of the future and was granted an invite to 1965’s spring training, where his instructors included the newly hired Jesse Owens. The legendary Olympian who’d faced down Hitler identified Fitzmaurice, Tug McGraw and Al Jackson as three of the club’s sprightliest runners.

Fitzmaurice didn’t set the world on fire in the minors in ’65 or ’66, but an excellent August with Jacksonville convinced the team to call him up for the last month of the ’66 season; he was recalled with a lanky young hurler named Nolan Ryan. He played sporadically, often used as a pinch-runner, but collected his first big-league hit on Sept. 28, beating out a grounder to short against the Cubs. (He also showed off his arm, throwing out a runner at home.)

Though he was just 24, he had gone from prospect to suspect. Fitzmaurice would never return to the majors. He logged time in the Pirates’ and Yankees’ systems before spending four and a half seasons with the Richmond Braves. He never earned a call-up to Atlanta, and the ’73 season was his last in pro ball.

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. (And hell, even Mickey Mantle was never the player of scouts’ dreams once he destroyed his knee in a close encounter with a Yankee Stadium storm drain.)

Still, Shaun Fitzmaurice really did hit an inside-the-park homer in Yankee Stadium as a high-school player. He really did hit a first-pitch homer in the Olympic Games. He really did hit a ball halfway to the moon that they’re still talking about at Notre Dame. He really did have an amazing year during which his talent proved too big for South Bend, South Dakota and Japan. And he really did have a career that intersected those of Jerry Grote, Davey Johnson, Yogi Berra, Jesse Owens and Nolan Ryan.

All that’s pretty amazing. And a lot more than you might guess from that single line in Baseball Reference.

And hey, now you know how to pronounce his name.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962: Richie Ashburn
1964: Rod Kanehl
1969: Donn Clendenon
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1977: Lenny Randle
1982: Rusty Staub
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1994: Rico Brogna
1995: Jason Isringhausen
2000: Melvin Mora
2002: Al Leiter
2003: David Cone
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Angel Pagan
2012: R.A. Dickey

Land of Trope and Dreams

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.

Jimmy quit
Jody got married
I should’ve known
We’d never get far

—Bryan Adams

Together they started fewer than 100 games as Mets, yet there may be no trio of Met starting pitchers that occupies as definitive and oft-referenced a shared place in club history as Generation K. Considering that Generation K never exactly existed, that’s quite an accomplishment.

You know the members of the band: Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson. They are introduced in that order here because I came to know them as IPP in my earliest online Met days on AOL, in 1994, when we couldn’t get enough of abbreviating things. Izzy, Pulse and Paul were going to be as big as Tom, Jerry and Gentry, maybe bigger than Doc, Ronnie and El Sid. Really, though, when you think about it, those accomplished threesomes weren’t exactly trios the way Izzy, Pulse and Paul were. True, they also emerged in temporal proximity as young, hard-throwing Met starters at a juncture when the body Metropolitan yearned for a shot of youth, but in each case, their umbrella was the rotation itself. The Seaver Sector and the Gooden Gang didn’t need to be cordoned off as something else.

IPP was going to be something else. They were something else before they were anything. In retrospect, they were a trope. They were the Next Big Thing. Maybe every wave of a team’s pitching prospects — particularly on the Mets, where we consider freshly cultivated arms our birthright — comes off that way. The Mets were cultivating a crop of starting pitchers in the mid-’60s, pre-Seaver, before we knew were synonymous with Seaver, when any Big Thing the Mets developed would have been their First.

Yet IPP was different. IPP coalesced as a unit in the Mets fan imagination. They were going to arrive directly and thrive immediately. The Mets of the 1990s, wandering through a desert of irrelevance to anybody who wasn’t seeking a primitive Internet bulletin board to dissect their every tentative step toward respectability, would follow.

Yeah, it was gonna be great.

***
The IPO of IPP commenced twenty-five years ago tomorrow, June 17, 1995, as the lefty Bill Pulsipher made his major league debut at sun-splashed Shea Stadium. Two denizens of the secret AOL Mets board known as the Metcave were on hand to bear witness to the birth of the notion that Mets pitching was once again a farm-sourced strength. The Metcave was long ago imploded by the management of America Online. Its pair of delegates to the dawn of Pulsipher is right here blogging about the Mets since 2005.

But never mind how my formerly virtual friend Jason and I met in real life for the first time for the express purpose of watching Pulsipher pitch. This is about Bill and his prospect buddy Jason — Pulse and Izzy. In 1995, Pulsipher was judged further along, so he was the first to take a turn for the big club. It didn’t go particularly well if you go by hits (9), walks (6), runs (7) and winning (didn’t). But Bill Pulsipher, 21 years old and brimming with stuff, was here. Despite missing the strike zone too much and getting lit up when he found it, Dallas Green left his neophyte lefty in that Saturday afternoon for seven long innings, which meant that at the end of the day, Pulse had seven innings of big league experience more than he’d had that morning. Our and presumably his dream was coming true.

The next phase was seeing what Jason Isringhausen could do. Pulse had been promising at Triple-A Norfolk: 6-4 with a 3.14 ERA. Izzy was incandescent: 9-1, 1.55. About the only headlines the Mets were making in July of 1995 revolved around their hesitancy to call up the 22-year-old righty who was overmatching the International League. The months after the 1994-95 strike had not been kind to the Mets, who had lost whatever momentum they’d garnered in ’94 and reverted to dreaded 1993 form. Maybe less embarrassing to the human race, but distressingly less competitive in the standings. At the All-Star break, the Mets sat nineteen games under .500 and nineteen games from first place.

In 1995, Izzy made 1996 something to look forward to.

BRING UP IZZY or words to that effect rang out from the back pages of the Post and the News. Flagship radio station WFAN might have taken a call or two or two-thousand echoing the sentiment. It made for more optimistic buzz than the other Met story of the summer, which was where might the Mets dump their remaining contractual obligations to Bret Saberhagen and Bobby Bonilla.

We got our Izzy wish on July 17, which is to say we got only so much of our wish, because being a Mets fan in the middle of the 1990s could never be about unalloyed wish-fulfillment. Sure, Jason Isringhausen would make his major league debut, against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, appropriate enough given that the kid was born and raised in Illinois. What was inappropriate that nobody in New York could plan on seeing what all the Izzy fuss was about because 1995 was the heyday of The Baseball Network. Granted, The Baseball Network lacked a heyday, but we who constituted the viewing public were stuck with it just before and just after the strike (baseball always could shoot itself in the foot).

In case you’ve forgotten, The Baseball Network was designed to limit the exposure baseball fans had to their favorite baseball team. One night a week, your local ABC affiliate would show one game, which meant nobody else could show any game, even in cities that included two teams, even on cable systems whose summertime programming revolved around telecasting every game the local teams played. On the Monday night of Izzy’s debut, it was decided that the one game the New York market would be treated to. on Channel 7. was the Yankees and White Sox, neither of whom were doing noticeably better by July than the Mets and Cubs, and neither of whom were featuring the first career appearance by a pitcher for whom a fan base was salivating en masse.

The one time in your life you would have welcomed hearing from Fran Healy on SportsChannel, he was nowhere to be heard.

There was radio, fortunately. WFAN actually advertised this Mets game as an event, and their frequency the only place where you could follow live the major league debut of Jason Isringhausen. Circa 1995, WFAN generally promoted Mets games as infomercials for mediocrity if they promoted Mets games at all. But this was an event. This was potentially the start of something big. This was potential incarnate. This was 9-1, 1.55 for the Tides showing his stuff for the Mets. You couldn’t look, but you had to listen.

Jason Isringhausen sounded good. Izzy pitched seven innings and gave up only two runs, keeping the Mets tied until they could pour on some offense in the ninth. Speaking of pouring, the baseball gods deluged the other New York and other Chicago team with rain at Yankee Stadium, leaving their game in an official tie and giving TBN/ABC an excuse to switch the Mets-Cubs game into New York. We couldn’t see the very beginning of Izzy, but we got a clue as to where he and we were going.

We were on our way. The Mets of Izzy and Pulse (and, by the trade deadline, no longer of Bonilla or Saberhagen) effected one of the most remarkable in-season turnarounds in their history. It might as well have aired on The Baseball Network for all of its long-term resonance, but it really happened. The 1995 Mets, who had bottomed out at 35-57 on August 5, surged to finish 69-75. It wasn’t technically a split season à la 1981, but it may as well have been. That 34-18 spurt reset perceptions and expectations. The team that had been on the road to nowhere had taken a detour. In that unforgettable late summer of 1995, we took off on a rocket ship fueled by the indefatigable grit of Jeff Kent; the five-tool elegance of Alex Ochoa; the unshakable poise of Carl Everett; the clubhouse singalongs to Hootie & the Blowfish. Ms. Pac-Man struck a blow for women’s rights and a young Joe Piscopo taught us how to laugh.

All right, so the last two are from a Simpsons flashback to the spring of 1983, but you get the idea. Everything seemed bright and beautiful for the Mets of tomorrow today. Nineteen Ninety-Five was finishing strong on more than a wing and a prayer. The two wings that belonged to Izzy and Pulse did the heaviest, hopefulest lifting. Pulsipher’s third start, in Florida on June 27, became his first win, and for a dozen starts over two months, Bill registered an ERA of exactly three. The only obstacle to his continued progress was some elbow soreness. An MRI revealed sprained ligaments. Rest was prescribed for the final few weeks.

Isringhausen, meanwhile, never stopped winging and bringing it. Like Pulse, Izzy notched his first victory in his third start, with eight innings of one-run ball over the Pirates at Shea on July 30. Unlike just about everybody in modern major league starting pitching, Izzy revealed himself a decisionmaking machine, earning either the W or L in eleven consecutive starts. Most of them were W’s. It’s as if Izzy wouldn’t have it any other way. On September 15, I saw him scatter thirteen Phillie hits over seven-and-a-third innings and somehow pull down the 4-1 win; never before and never since has a Met pitcher won a game when giving up that many hits. Jason entered the season’s final day, against the division champion Braves, on a 9-2 tear. Even though his last outing would be marked ND, it wasn’t as if Izzy hadn’t done his job. With eight more scoreless innings, our phenom’s ERA dropped to 2.81.

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.

Oh, and at Binghamton and Norfolk, over 26 starts, Paul Wilson completed his first full season of professional baseball by going 11-6, with a 2.41 ERA, striking out nearly a batter an inning across 1995. Baseball America ranked him the sport’s No. 2 prospect heading into 1996.

***
Izzy didn’t necessarily look the part of an ace. He wasn’t reedy, but he wasn’t exactly imposing. Maybe a little goofy if not exactly quirky (that was Pulse). And he wore his hat a little too far down on his forehead (as did Pulse) But he got batters out, which was all that mattered. Besides, Paul, a big righty, was going to be here any minute to fill the Seaver role. Pulse would be the Kooz, the southpaw. Izzy was going to be just fine as Izzy, who’d been the hottest pitcher around as 1995 concluded.

If only 1996 had played out as we had scripted it in our minds. Had it, IPP would have been A-OK and the Mets would be ready to roar some more as they usurped the Braves’ position in the division for the rest of the ’90s. This was how it was supposed to work. We get the pitching, we get the glory.

We didn’t get the pitching. Not this pitching, anyway. After they posed for the irresistible St. Lucie group photo that codified their collective status as the Next Big Thing — about the time the admittedly clever Generation K nickname took hold in the press — Izzy, Pulse and Paul peeled off to their individual fates. Pulse, first to the big leagues, was first to all but disappear from the picture. The elbow pain remained. Tommy John surgery was needed. Pulse didn’t pitch in 1996.

Izzy and Paul did, though neither of them with consistency. Wilson’s much-anticipated debut fizzled. There were a handful of tantalizing outings here and there, but Paul’s 1996 was a trial by fire, and the verdict was a 5-12 rookie season saddled with a 5.38 ERA (it was over six when September started). Izzy the sophomore struggled, too: 6-14, 4.77 ERA. The Mets stumbled backward as well, losing 91 games and erasing almost all signs of their stunning competence from 1995. By the end of ’96, the Met pitchers and the Met future was hardly a story in New York.

***
The trope of the Next Big Thing morphed over time to a trope of its own. Generation K is A Thing, all right. Referencing it is that thing fans do when young pitching goes awry. Spotlight a highly touted pitcher who didn’t fully live up to his toutage, and Generation K is likely to be invoked. Put two from the same team in a room (or a paragraph) and, as convenient shorthand, you’ve got Generation K all over again.

Except, as mentioned above, there never was a Generation K. There were some publicity photos and there was some projecting. There was definitely some pitching, just not a ton of it. Ninety-eight New York Mets games over a span of six seasons were started by Jason Isringhausen (52); and Paul Wilson (26); and Bill Pulsipher (20). That’s about ninety more than it felt like in the wake of their mostly not pitching at all.

That’s because Generation K never pitched in the same rotation. They weren’t three Mets together in the same season, unless you’re generous enough to factor in the major league disabled list. The injury-laden details are gory in the baseball sense, but in brief…

• By 1997, Paul was hurt and Pulse wasn’t back; it was all we could do to return Izzy, who’d had his own miseries, to the Met mound by late August.

• Come 1998, all we’d have as active evidence of IPP was Pulse: some bullpen work and a lone doubleheader start that did not go well. Then he got traded to Milwaukee.

• Izzy realighted as a Met in 1999 sans distinction. Then he, too, was traded to shore up a bullpen that needed a reliable arm, which Izzy was thought to no longer possess (though it’s not like Billy Taylor, for whom Izzy was sent to Oakland, had one by this point).

• Pulse came home in 2000, but the homecoming was brief, and he’d be traded once more that season, to Arizona for the second coming of Lenny Harris. All the while, since 1996, Paul had been rehabbing in hopes of resuming what theoretically could still be a substantial career. At age 27, he finally got to start a major league game on August 4, 2000 — for the Devil Rays, one week after the Mets dispatched him and Jason Tyner to Tampa Bay for Rick White and Bubba Trammell.

Of the 98 starts Izzy, Pulse and Paul accounted for as Mets, only 14 came after 1996.

***

Ain’t no way to keep a band together.

Young pitchers who don’t make it…it’s a very common tale. Young pitchers who don’t make it in combination? That’s been known to happen, too. “Ain’t no way to keep a band together,” wise pianist Del Paxton advised callow drummer Guy Patterson in That Thing You Do!, a 1996 release, as it happens. “Bands come and go. You got to keep on playin’, no matter with who.”

The trio that split apart would. Wilson’s comeback with the Devil Rays got him back in the game to stay, at least for a while. Paul won eleven games in 2004 for the Reds, earning Opening Day honors the next season versus Pedro Martinez and the Mets. He’d keep pitching until 2006. Pulsipher was in the majors as late as 2005, with the Cardinals, but Pulse really liked pitching, so he just kept going in the minors, affiliated and otherwise, until 2011. He did get to be part of a championship outfit in the New York Metropolitan Area, helping the Long Island Ducks to an Atlantic League title in 2004.

Jason Isringhausen had the longest name of the three pitchers and the longest run of success. With Oakland, Izzy became a top-notch closer, saving more than thirty games twice and making it the AL All-Star team in 2000. He brought his refined relief act back to the National League in 2002 and continued to lock down games for St. Louis, saving as many as 47 in a single season. The Mets saw him plenty, for better and worse. In August of 2006, it was Izzy who gave up the game-losing home run to Carlos Beltran in the memorable 8-7 slugfest at Shea that served to tease that October’s NLCS matchup. By the postseason, Isringhausen was on the shelf again, which was too bad, considering his hip injury paved the way for the rise of Adam Wainwright en route to another dramatic Beltran at-bat.

But we weren’t done with Izzy yet. In Spring Training 2011, fifteen years after Generation K seemed so real, its most distinguished alumnus returned to St. Lucie like a swallow to Capistrano. This was no sentimental journey, however. The Mets were short of solid relief pitching (when aren’t they?) and the Mets took a chance on a 38-year-old righty who’d been out all of 2010 but maybe still had something left in the tank. Now Jason Isringhausen was the veteran, passing on his knuckle-curve wisdom to young Bobby Parnell and, once Frankie Rodriguez was traded, getting outs in ninth innings to close out Met wins. On August 15, Jason Isringhausen notched the 300th save of what had turned out to be a long and distinguished major league career. He’d pitch one more year, for the Angels, before retiring in 2012.

***
Young pitching is so tempting. You want it soon and you want it now. In 1995 and 1996, we had more of it than ever. Between the last start of Bret Saberhagen on July 29, 1995, and September 27, 1996, which was Pete Harnisch’s first start after a milestone birthday, the Mets handed the ball on 218 consecutive occasions to starting pitchers under the age of 30. No Cardwells or Leaches or Colons got in the way of these turns of a veritable Logan’s Run rotation. That wasn’t just IPP/Generation K doing its nascent thing. The under-30 cohort encompassed the likes of Bobby Jones, Dave Mlicki, Reid Cornelius, Robert Person and Pulsipher stand-in Mark Clark along with Harnisch before he turned thirty.

We had ups and downs with the kids. The ups were scintillating. The downs got Dallas Green fired. When the dust settled, the Mets were in surprisingly good shape. In 1997, with almost no IPP presence, they were legitimate Wild Card contenders. In 1999, the year Izzy was traded, they went to the playoffs for the first time since 1988, relying mightily on pitchers who pitched in 1988: Al Leiter, Rick Reed, Orel Hershiser. Bobby Jones, who rose to the majors a little before IPP came into focus and was never attached to Generation K despite being their generational peer, was the only homegrown kid starter who lasted deep into the Bobby Valentine era. (He also had his own Generation… sort of.) If you consider an Ikea dresser that leaves parts strewn all over the floor from its construction yet is somehow functional, you get an idea of how the Mets were built to win by the end of the 1990s.

They did it without Izzy. They did it without Pulse. They did it without Paul. You wouldn’t have bet in 1995 that the Mets would make it near the mountaintop by the end of the 20th century without any of IPP contributing. Maybe that’s why we shouldn’t bet on baseball.

Should we be reflexively distraught at every mention of Generation K? That’s our instinct. Their failure to stick as intended is drilled deeply into the cautionary tale compartment of our psyche. From a human standpoint, feeling sad that at least two of those pitchers didn’t live up to what was forecast for them seems the decent thing to do, though Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson were, in fact, professional baseball pitchers for a pretty long time, and we’re more likely to ask them for their autograph than they are to ask us for ours. And Jason Isringhausen has those 300 saves. He didn’t make the Hall of Fame, but he did make the Hall of Fame ballot.

From the Mets fan perspective, is it awful that Generation K wasn’t a sequel to Seaver, Koosman & Gentry or Gooden, Darling & Fernandez (or a prequel to the best of Harvey, deGrom & Syndergaard)? I suppose. We’ve wanted every pitcher who comes up to the bigs for us to be big for us forever. Not every pitcher can be. We were fortunate that by 1997 we overcame their collective absence and that by 1999, quite frankly, we weren’t really thinking about them.

Yet here I am, a quarter-century removed from 1995, thinking about those guys, recalling how much fun it was fun to look forward to those guys, and to revel in the first sample size one of those guys in particular gave us. I can’t help but think that brand of fleeting happiness was indeed something worth generating.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962: Richie Ashburn
1964: Rod Kanehl
1969: Donn Clendenon
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1977: Lenny Randle
1982: Rusty Staub
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1994: Rico Brogna
2000: Melvin Mora
2002: Al Leiter
2003: David Cone
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Angel Pagan
2012: R.A. Dickey

At Least We Had Lenny Randle

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.

But there ain’t no Coupe de Ville
Hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box

—Meat Loaf

If it feels like it’s been a while since the last official Mets game, it has been. As of Sunday, it will be the longest it’s ever been. June 14, 2020, will mark 259 days since September 29, 2019, last season’s Closing Day. That tops by one the 258-day void between August 11, 1994, the last game before that year’s players’ strike, and April 26, 1995, Opening Night of the next year at Coors Field. That arid spell stretched on forever, and we’re about to surpass forever.

So for reasons beyond the sport’s control and maybe a few within its negotiating grasp, we’ve involuntarily tried a baseball-less season. It doesn’t seem preferable to anything. But is it preferable the least favorite baseball season of your life?

No.
Of course not.
Are you crazy?

But isn’t not having any baseball somehow better than being subject to terrible baseball, specifically terrible Mets baseball made worse by the subtraction of the best Met ever?

Let me think about that for a sec…

Still no. You’re still crazy. Believe me, lacking any recent games to contemplate, I’ve thought it through thoroughly.

I’ve personally experienced 51 Mets seasons, from 1969 through 2019. I recently sat down and attempted to formalize some chronic late-night noodling, daring to list, from 1 to 51, my personal favorite Met seasons; or my least- to most-favorite Met seasons from 51 to 1. (This differs from dispassionately discerning and ranking The Best Met Seasons of All-Time, which I took my shot at here.) I’ve known what’s bundled at the top for some time. The bottom cluster, though, I had to dwell on, even though you wouldn’t necessarily want to dwell in it. You go down there, you better just beware of the bad, bad season you’ll call the one you liked least.

Yet you still liked it. I mean, no, you didn’t like like it, but there was baseball. There were occasional wins. There were intermittent great plays. There were players you looked forward to seeing play. There was, if you were lucky, a player you had no idea was going to play and you grew excited once you realized he was going to play every day.

In 1977, my least favorite Mets season among the 51 I’ve truly inhabited, that player was Lenny Randle. He couldn’t save ’77, but he could make it go down incrementally smoother.

Players like Lenny Randle are why they revise editions of the yearbook — or used to. You want to examine his picture, pore over his stats, absorb his biographical nuggets. You want to root for Lenny and the Mets, sometimes in that exact order. You want to wrap yourself in the recurring surprise of the presence of someone who wasn’t there when the season began and now you can’t imagine your ballclub continuing without him. You want all the Lenny Randle you can get.

We got Randle by the bushel in 1977. It was one of the two elements of my least favorite season I remember most fondly. One was the first trip I took to Shea Stadium without adult supervision, an LIRR jaunt to see Lenny and the Mets take on (and lose to) the St. Louis Cardinals. That’s an unabashedly fond memory for a fourteen-year-old. Lenny coming aboard at the end of April and flourishing in the months ahead is the other. That’s a fond memory for a Mets fan of any age.

Otherwise, 1977 is the season the Mets fell through the floor of the National League East and traded Tom Seaver while most everybody I knew suddenly decided to switch their local baseball allegiances. No wonder it’s my least favorite season. What was wrong with it is easy enough to divine and despair. Let me evade the tag of “least” as best I can and stick to the favorite part of my least favorite season. Let me remember the revelation that was Lenny Randle of the New York Mets.

When the Mets gathered in St. Petersburg for Spring Training, Lenny Randle was not with them. He was a Texas Ranger, across the Florida peninsula in Pompano Beach. Randle had been a Ranger since before there were Texas Rangers, back to 1971 when the Rangers were the Washington Senators. In 1974, Lenny was one of the Rangers who shocked baseball, rising from the Seasons in Hell depths of the AL West to challenge the Oakland A’s for divisional supremacy. Texas fell short but behind Manager of the Year Billy Martin, MVP Jeff Burroughs, Cy Young runner-up Ferguson Jenkins and Rookie of the Year Mike Hargrove they excited a nation of baseball fans. They certainly got an eleven-year-old on Long Island stoked about their upset chances. Randle, mostly shifting between second and third base and switch-hitting .302, became one of my vaguely favorite American Leaguers from a distance.

In the Spring of ’77, I had no idea how close Randle would soon be getting to where I lived and rooted. The Rangers were maneuvering legacy prospect Bump Wills to second and Lenny to the bench. Tensions couldn’t help but be a little high between the incumbent infielder and his manager, Frank Lucchesi. Randle indicated he didn’t want to be a Ranger reserve. Lucchesi grumbled, “I’m sick and tired of these punks saying, ‘Play me or trade me.’ Let them go find another job.”

That’s what Randle did, indirectly, taking harsh exception to being called one of those things you don’t call a grown man in your employ (management training has come a long way over four decades). While the Rangers were in Orlando visiting the Twins, Lenny lost his temper and started communicating with his fists. Lucchesi took a punch under the right eye, with a fractured cheekbone to show for the altercation. It didn’t play as much of a fight in the public imagination. Randle was a 28-year-old athlete. Lucchesi’s age at the time of the incident was reported as 49 back when 49 seemed incredibly old. The manager went to the hospital. The player went on suspension, with his reputation severely bruised.

That was in late March. In late April, it was announced that somebody had made a deal to take the potential social leper off Texas’s hands: the Mets, of all teams. I say “of all teams,” because the Mets seemed like the last team in the world to take a flier on a presumed malcontent. M. Donald Grant didn’t like the players who talked back. Now the Mets were welcoming one who hit back? Somehow, the Mets managed to be sort of progressive in this instant, looking past the ugly episode and assuring themselves that Randle was still the person who, prior to Lucchesi labeling him a punk, had been “probably the most popular Ranger among his teammates,” according to Sports Illustrated.

“Every report on him from scouts and from people who knew him at Arizona State,” Mets GM Joe McDonald told the Times, “says that he is a gentleman and the incident in Florida was uncharacteristic.”

Still, it was uncharacteristic for the Mets of 1977 to take questionable-PR chances or attempt to improve their ballclub. They hadn’t make any moves in the offseason and the stagnation showed. Perhaps McDonald was inspired by a fairly recent episode of M*A*S*H in which Hawkeye and B.J. plot with a North Korean prisoner who happens to be an excellent English-speaking surgeon to create a new identity for the captured doctor, presenting him as One Of Ours so he can help heal the wounded, which is the whole idea of medicine in wartime, as the series mentioned once or twice. Not yet wise to the elaborate scheme, Col. Potter is surprised to find he’s in receipt of new, eminently qualified personnel.

“You know, Radar,” the 4077th’s commanding officer remarks to his company clerk, “this is the first time I Corps has sent us help without us screaming about it.”

That’s how I felt. It never occurred to me the Mets would go after Randle. After the first winter of free agency came and went with the Mets leaving all pursuable talent essentially unbothered, it never occurred to me the Mets would go after anybody. Yet here Lenny Randle was, in San Diego, coming in for defense in the eighth inning, replacing John Milner in left (Randle played every position but first base and pitcher during his twelve-year big league tenure). I can honestly say I’ll never forget that Saturday night of April 30, 1977.

I’d love to tell you it’s solely because Lenny Randle made his Mets debut in the 4-1 win that raised Tom Seaver’s record to 4-0, but in the interest of full disclosure that nobody asked for, it’s because I stopped up the downstairs toilet while my parents were out. We didn’t own a plunger, so I had no idea what to do except finish watching the Mets and the Padres, and work on crafting a delicate explanation for why the bathroom my parents relied on was shall we say out of order.

My explanation was not accepted any better than any of the words Lucchesi expressed regarding Randle in Florida, but we borrowed a neighbor’s plunger; bought one the next day for future emergencies; had a long discussion about how much paper to not use; and decided it would be best to confine my business to the upstairs bathroom for the rest of eternity.

Talk about fear in flushing.

Life went on. Randle went on. The first day of May found Lenny starting at second base, collecting three hits that included a triple, stealing home and sparking the Mets to completion of a three-game sweep of San Diego. Frazier was no Lucchesi when it came to managing the former Arizona State Sun Devil. “I wish I had four or five more just like him,” Cobra Joe said after a splash of exposure to his newest player.

We definitely could’ve used more Lenny Randles. The creeping malaise that was the 1977 Mets was impervious to the charms and impact of a lone burst of talent and personality, no matter how engaging. The wins against the Padres were an aberration. The Mets were headed for the basement, and their biggest stars — Seaver and Dave Kingman — were headed out of town. So was Frazier. On the last day of May, Joe was the ex-manager of the Mets. The new skipper was another Joe — Joe Torre, promoted from the active roster. The first move the player-manager made was to install Randle, who’d been mostly filling in at second while occasionally bouncing into the outfield, as his everyday third baseman and leadoff hitter. Torre had obviously kept his eyes open en route to taking Frazier’s job. Randle had batted .341 across his first month as a Met.

To thank Torre for the vote of confidence, Lenny singled, doubled, walked twice and scored twice on May 31, elevating his average to .352. The Mets were starting a hot streak (it wouldn’t last), Torre was starting a managerial career (it would take him to the Hall of Fame) and Randle was starting daily and becoming the undisputed best thing about the 1977 Mets. Once Seaver and Kingman were traded on June 15, there wasn’t much competition, but Lenny likely would’ve earned the distinction on his own.

Lenny is why they revised yearbooks.

The hitting wouldn’t swelter forever, but the average stayed above .300 for the rest of the season. The running threw caution to the swirling Shea wind, resulting in probably too many caught stealings but also a new club record of 33 bags swiped. The fielding at third was fine enough so that the 1978 Mets Yearbook wasn’t engaging in hype when, after ticking off his string of offensive accomplishments, it praised Randle for having given the Mets their “steadiest play ever at that position”.

Beyond the production, Lenny Randle was a fun guy to have around, not a small factor in the most unfun non-pandemic season imaginable. Emerging from the stormy circumstances that the revised edition of the 1977 yearbook did its best to downplay (“his much publicized run-in with Rangers’ manager Frank Lucchesi in ’77 spring training made him available to Mets”), Gentleman Len seemed genuinely happy to be here when hardly anybody else did. “It takes a certain player to be able to play in New York,” Lenny would assess in retirement for ubiquitous oral historian Peter Golenbock, and he was clearly one of them. He lit up every Kiner’s Korner he guested on in a year when Mets were sorely lacking for stars of the game. Lenny had received good advice from one of his coaches when it came to the postgame show.

“Willie Mays would tell me to go talk to Kiner,” Randle remembered for the book Down on the Korner. “He was a legend to me.”

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.

And that wasn’t even Randle’s most memorable Met moment of the week. That would come at Shea on Wednesday night, July 13, as Lenny batted versus the Cubs’ Ray Burris in the bottom of the sixth with the home team trailing, 2-1. That’s when things went dark. Literally.

“I thought to myself, ‘This is my last at-bat. God is coming to get me,” the third baseman said of the situation that enveloped him. Randle’s mortality wasn’t really in quite so dire a shape. It was just a blackout of all five boroughs that lasted until the next day. That’s all. The Mets-Cubs game was suspended until mid-September, when Randle completed his plate appearance by grounding to short. It took two months to play the full nine innings, but the Mets lost. Usually it took only two hours.

The Mets’ darkest season was Randle’s brightest. The next year, Lenny was the Opening Day starting third baseman, carrying expectations. Perhaps they burdened him, for Randle in his second Met year couldn’t hold a candle to Randle in his first. Lenny ended April batting .155 and never broke .250. His stolen base total plunged and he was getting thrown out almost as often as he was being called safe. Before Spring Training ’79 was over, so was Randle’s Mets career, with the shining star of ’77 (and his salary) released altogether and replaced at the hot corner by Richie Hebner. The surly erstwhile Phillie seemed determined to prove the new former Met’s theory that it takes a certain player to be able to play in New York. Hebner wasn’t that certain player, but let’s call that another story for another least favorite season.

Randle didn’t last very long at Shea, but he surely put the favorite in “least favorite,” which is a most valuable asset for any fan who would never think shop his loyalty around the Metropolitan Area. We don’t remember that his ship sank in 1978. We remember that he made us feel as if we were riding the high seas with him every time he batted in 1977. Knowing Lenny as we did, little wonder that in 2015 an MLB Network documentary celebrated this character who once endeavored to blow a fair ball foul as “the most interesting man in baseball”. And little wonder that he became a Mets fantasy camp coaching mainstay. As FAFIF correspondent Jeff Hysen reported from Port St. Lucie in January of 2009, “Lenny Randle stressed the importance of not colliding with anybody — he said that when a fly ball was hit his way, he would yell ‘get the [frig] out of the way!’ It was very windy and tough to catch the flies. After I did, Randle chest bumped me.”

Just as a gentleman does.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962: Richie Ashburn
1964: Rod Kanehl
1969: Donn Clendenon
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1982: Rusty Staub
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1994: Rico Brogna
2000: Melvin Mora
2002: Al Leiter
2003: David Cone
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Angel Pagan
2012: R.A. Dickey

A Stud With No Name

We are a few days from the 40th anniversary of the most Magical home run in Mets history — the Steve Henderson game-winner of June 14, 1980 — and should you care to treat yourself to a commemorative viewing, you can transport yourself to the evening in question and take in extended highlights of the Saturday night Shea Stadium rally to end all Saturday night Shea Stadium rallies (at least until the Saturday night Shea Stadium rally of October 25, 1986). Go to the 51:00 mark to experience it unfolding. Stay past the 52:00 mark, after Henderson’s opposite-field home run flies into the Mets’ bullpen. Watch Hendu’s teammates gather around him in jubilation; pound him on the back; lift him in the air; follow HENDERSON 5 to the dugout. You can identify the 1980 Mets in mid-giddiness by name and number.

YOUNGBLOOD 18
FLYNN 23
MORENO 4
TREVIÑO 29
STEARNS 12
TAVERAS 11
CAREDNAL 6
MAZZILLI 16
MADDOX 21

And right in the middle of the World Series-level celebrating those Magic is Back Mets absolutely earned, 15. No name, just 15. The lack of complete identification was sort of understandable in that the player who wore No. 15 was relatively new to Shea, though you’d figure there’d have been ample time to properly outfit a guy who’d been acquired a week earlier and who’d been playing for the team since Wednesday the 11th. Maybe there was a no-return policy on jerseys once you stitched a letter across their backs and the Mets just wanted to be sure their newcomer was a keeper.

No. 15 would soon make a name for himself in Flushing.

Make no mistake about it, though. We who hung on every move the Mets made knew who No. 15 was. His presence in a Mets uniform in June 1980 was a cause for celebration unto itself. The irony in his name not being ironed on was that he was probably the biggest name the Mets had the moment he arrived in Flushing.

We got Claudell Washington. Eventually his uniform top fully reflected his affiliation with us, and ours with him. We might not have realized we’d be united in common cause for just that one summer, but, as Carol Burnett liked to sing every Saturday night, I’m so glad we had that time together.

Claudell looked pretty pumped about it, too. Watch the video and focus on the nameless wonder. He is as elated as any Met this side of John Stearns that the Mets have come back from six runs down to pull out a 7-6 victory over the Giants. You can understand why Stearns was thrilled. Dude had been trying to push the Mets into the end zone since 1975. Washington? As noted, he’d been a Met for a matter of days. Yet he was susceptible to Mets Magic. Hell, he was largely responsible for this particular megadose of it.

We know June 14, 1980, as the Steve Henderson Game, but it was also something of a Welcome Wagon fiesta for Washington. Frank Cashen traded minor league pitcher Jesse Anderson to the White Sox for Claudell on June 7 — the first exchange the GM engineered at the outset of his long, arduous post-de Roulet rebuild of New York National League baseball. The Mets were scratching and clawing toward provisional respectability. They needed another set of fingernails, preferably wrapped around a bat capable of driving in some runs. The day Cashen landed Washington, almost two months into the season, the Mets had gone deep exactly eleven times.

That is not a typo.

Washington wasn’t a slugger, per se, but he could hit a few homers, totaling 13 the year before with Chicago. The outfielder had been making things happen since 1974, when he was only 19, yet an integral part of the world champion A’s. Few teenagers play in the majors. How many bolster a dynasty already in progress? A year later, he’d sock 10 home runs, steal 40 bases, bat .308 and make the AL All-Star squad. When he got to the Mets, Washington was decorated, venerated, and still only 25. This was more than lefty punch combined with dangerous speed. This was a bona fide stud baseball player, the kind we weren’t used to having in our ranks. For Mets fans of the era, this was a genuine morale boost. We must be sort of serious about competing in this division. We just went out and got Claudell Washington.

On June 14, Washington, who’d made an impressive catch at the wall in right in the early innings, drove in the first Met run of the night in the sixth with a sacrifice fly. In the eighth, his right-side grounder set up the run that reduced the home team deficit to 6-2. And in the ninth, with The Magic bubbling up from the Met cauldron, it was Claudell who singled up the middle with two outs to score Lee Mazzilli and send Frank Taveras to second, making the score 6-4 and things very interesting. Two were on base as Henderson strode to the plate as the potential winning run. The potential tying run was Washington on first. The potential became reality four pitches into Henderson’s battle with San Francisco reliever Allen Ripley.

No. 15 touched home plate to make it 6-6 moments before Henderson officially put the comeback in the books. Steve was the obvious walkoff hero. Claudell was an unnamed co-conspirator. He wouldn’t be unsung in Met success for long. The following weekend at Dodger Stadium, he and we got a Claudell Washington Game for the ages. Four hits and five RBIs in a 9-6 victory to bust up a losing streak. Three of those hits were home runs. Magical finishes notwithstanding, Mets didn’t hit home runs in 1980. They dwelled in a dinger desert. As for doing it in triplicate, Jim Hickman had hit three home runs in game in 1965; Dave Kingman hit three home runs in a game (also at Dodger Stadium) in 1976; and Washington became only the third Met ever to do it, do it and do it once more. Of course he was an old hand at it, having whacked three homers in a game for the White Sox in 1979. To that point, three players had gone deep three times in one game in each league: Babe Ruth, Johnny Mize and Claudell Washington.

“If the game had gone on much longer,” first baseman Mike Jorgensen half-joshed regarding his normally power-deficient outfit, “Washington would be leading the club in homers.” Great self-deprecating line, except at the time, Jorgy led the Mets with five round-trippers. By the next afternoon at Wrigley, when Claudell reintroduced himself to the Windy City by belting one over the ivy, it didn’t seem like such a joke.

By season’s end, Washington would, in fact, be the Mets’ second-leading home run hitter with ten, six behind Mazzilli’s sixteen; the Mets slugged 61 combined. Considering he played in only 79 games, it represented a pretty powerful output. Combined with his notching 17 steals and 42 ribbies, Claudell had made a good case for continuing his association with the Mets. Cashen was able to grab him in June on the last year of a contract. Signing him to a new deal in the offseason made plenty of sense for a Mets club yearning to rely on something more tangible than Magic. Alas, Ted Turner made Washington — still only 26 as of next season’s Opening Day — an offer he couldn’t refuse. Claudell was off to Atlanta.

As enticing a proposition as Claudell Washington appeared for the long-term, especially the day he blasted those three home runs in L.A., the Mets had already secured their right fielder of the future in June of 1980. Four days before the Washington trade, the Mets drafted Darryl Strawberry — a Los Angeles product, it so happened — No. 1 in the nation. Darryl, then 18, wouldn’t be able to hit home runs for the Mets immediately, but he’d make it to Shea soon enough, and he’d give us something (including, in 1985, the fourth three-homer game in Mets history) to look forward to. Young outfield prospects will get your motor running like prospects at no other position. A supremely confident Southern California-bred center fielder named Pete Crow-Armstrong, whom the Mets selected in the first round of the abbreviated 2020 MLB draft Wednesday night, will do that, assuming he signs and assuming professional baseball gets its ass in gear again one of these days. Lefty-swinging Crow-Armstrong is 18. He’s presumably a ways away from Citi Field, but years tend to circle the bases at a brisk pace. We just drafted somebody born in 2002, for cryin’ out loud. That’s even crazier than realizing our summer with Claudell Washington took place forty years ago.

Washington played for the Braves until 1986. He’d see action with seven teams in all, plying his craft clear into 1990, by which time he was in his seventeenth major league season…and was still only 36. Almost half of his life had been spent as a big leaguer by then. Just a little of it was as No. 15 on the Mets. Nevertheless, when I learned on Wednesday that Claudell Washington had died at only 65, hours before we started thinking about a future with Pete Crow-Armstrong, I was back in 1980 with the Magic. I was thinking about the guy whose name was missing amidst the home plate Hendu hug, the guy who’d been a Met for about a minute yet greeted Steve Henderson like a true brother in arms.

“Claudell played for 7 teams,” Washington’s fellow ’80s Brave Dale Murphy tweeted in the wake of the sad news. “Guarantee he was a teammate/clubhouse favorite on each team he played for.”

I can see that. I saw it in 1980.