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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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Nothing Standardized About Him

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.

You’ll never know the pleasure of writing a graceful sentence or having an original thought.
—Aaron Altman attempting to verbally torment a trio of toughs after his high school graduation, Broadcast News

I want to say that the first time I remember encountering the word “literati” was in a story that referenced Peter Gent, author of North Dallas Forty. The conceit was that Gent would come into Manhattan with the Dallas Cowboys in the days when their dates with the Giants awaited at Yankee Stadium and attend kickoff-eve cocktail parties where the football player would make highbrow book editor-types swoon primarily by being a jock who spoke in complete, complex sentences. In the article I’m sure I read yet can find no evidence of despite myriad searches combining “literati,” “Peter Gent” and “cocktail,” there was much backslapping on the Paper Lion circuit when it was learned that this sui generis receiver had been traded to the Giants and would therefore be accessible all autumn long to talk pigskin and existence in terms that went beyond hut-one, hut-two.

Alas, articulate Gent was waived by the Giants as training camp ended. Never a star in the NFL, he didn’t become truly famous until the publication, several years after his retirement, of North Dallas Forty, a novel that told a real story about life in professional football. Maybe he was a cocktail party secret in the ’60s before going big-time in the ’70s (so secret that even Tom Landry must not have realized his player was out and about). Or perhaps I’m confusing something I read in the book written by Gent with something I read in a magazine about Gent. Or Dan Jenkins wrote something similar somewhere about somebody else, actual or fictional, given that Semi-Tough and North Dallas Forty were published around the same time and I got around to reading them around the same time. Or am I conflating these cultural touchstones with that episode of The Odd Couple in which Oscar owes the owner of a football team from Texas (tycoon Billy Joe, portrayed by Pernell Roberts) a large sum from poker losses and, because this is The Odd Couple, Oscar settles up by convincing Felix to let his band the Sophisticados perform at a hoedown, albeit as Red River Unger and the Saddle Sores?

Whatever the hell it is I’m thinking of, the image returned to my consciousness right around this time of year — it’s late May, in case you’ve lost track — ten years ago. That was when R.A. Dickey was called up from what we used to know as the minor leagues and introduced himself to all who love the Mets, but sent out a subtle dog whistle to those of us who not only cherish the Mets but relish the English language. If our little subset had been indulging in a Gent-eel soirée, we’d have all set down our martini glasses and focused our attention at game’s end like a laser on what the stranger from somewhere South of Staten Island was saying on SNY.

He got his picture on baseball cards, too.

Then we’d have each lunged for the nearest Thesaurus to craft a phrase less hackneyed than “like a laser”.

I doubt Dickey knew he was doing it. That’s what made him all the more rootable. He was just being himself — and in the process of evincing authenticity, he was endearing himself to everybody who’d gone after the verbal portion of the SATs with relative gusto while dreading the math portion. R.A. Dickey is to Mets baseball as [blank] is to [other blank]… There is no obvious answer or exact analogy. Rather than sweat a response, better you should fill in your name, settle for however many points a legible signature nets you, and ditch the test in time for first pitch Saturday afternoon. Besides, for as much as aptitude as he demonstrated by throwing a singular knuckleball between his unheralded arrival as a 35-year-old reclamation project in 2010 and the All-Star zenith of his Met tenure in 2012, there was nothing standardized about R.A. Dickey.

It’s been a decade since his Met debut, yet it hasn’t been so long since we tingled to the innings when R.A. baffled batters and the minutes when he described the process. He used words like “anomaly” and “propensity” and “compulsion” and “gingerly”. When he pitched well enough to win, he was satisfied his work “yielded this ripe a fruit”. His best pitch had to be “trustworthy”; it got better via “little mechanical nuances”; one swing could change “the culture of what’s going on in the moment”. The extra-large mitt he lugged from organization to organization so his next catcher could hope to handle his knuckleball? “This glove has a personality of its own.”

And that was just R.A. talking through his first season as a Met. Dickey didn’t have me so much at “hello” as “inconsequential.” That was the word Dickey chose to describe an atmospheric factor a beat writer asked him about after he’d lost a close one to Tim Lincecum in San Francisco. Did the wind play a role?

“Inconsequential,” he said. Swoon! Give Jon Niese a hundred hard-luck starts, he’d never come up with “inconsequential” (nor resist the opportunity to cop an alibi). It wasn’t the first time Dickey speaking about his pitching had gotten my attention, but there was something about casually tossing off five suitable syllables where nobody would have blinked twice at “nah” placed me in his corner forevermore.

The pitching didn’t hurt, either. The pitching was key, actually. The grandest vocabulary in the clubhouse doesn’t say diddly if it comes attached to an ERA over six. English Lit major Dickey and that hard knuckleball only he threw landed like a knuckle sandwich in the face of National League hitters who hadn’t seen anything like it cross a plate near them. R.A. had it going on when he emerged from the exurbs of nowhere in 2010; when he enhanced his knuckler’s strengths in 2011; and, come 2012, when he pulled down twenty wins and the Cy Young. Between revelatory starts, he collaborated on a best-selling not to mention intensely compelling book, co-starred in a delightful documentary about his signature pitch and scaled one of the world’s steeper mountains.

The language-lovers among us who absorbed every step of his Metsian journey, especially his accounts and descriptions thereof, felt a thrill going up our leg, to borrow a 2008 phrase from Chris Matthews (himself more about Hardball than a knuckleball). I noticed that as much as virtually every Mets fan in creation toasted R.A.’s success warmly and effusively, it was those of us who worked closely with the language who seemed most thrilled on the man’s behalf. We intrinsically felt we had one of our own was out there on our behalf. Editors. Writers. Educators. This wasn’t just a Met excelling at pitching. This was a kindred linguistic spirit. We were in awe that somebody like this was so good at the sport we cherished even if most of us had never had any hope of playing it at any competitive level beyond the schoolyard (and even back then not that competitively).

“Dickey is too good to be true on so many different levels that you almost expect to wake up and find out that you’ve dreamed him,” Prof. Dana Brand once wrote. Dana, in case you weren’t around in the latter 2000s and earliest 2010s, was a leading light of Met lit; his two books of essays — Mets Fan and The Last Days of Shea indicate the glow from his writing remains eternal. Before dying too soon nine years ago this week, Dana led the English department at Hofstra University and was putting together the Mets’ 50th-anniversary academic conference there. That Dickey and Dana crossed temporal paths, however briefly, vouches for some kind of cosmic karma in our world.

“He has none of the pretentiousness that ballplayers sometimes have when they use ‘big words,’” Dana elaborated on the subject of the soft-spoken Tennessean. “He uses the English language with thoughtfulness and precision. I hope he’s our ace for the next ten years.”

In December of 2012, barely more than a year-and-a-half after Dana’s passing, R.A. was traded to Toronto for minor leaguers who grew up to become 2015 National League champions Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud. The record will show this trade as a win in the annals of our ballclub. With Dickey on the back end of his career and Syndergaard’s potential blatantly apparent, the deal made extraordinary sense on paper and revealed itself as prescient in pursuit of a pennant.

Still, you miss someone like R.A. Dickey the way you miss someone like Dana Brand, men who could make words dance regardless of the status of their respective ulnar collateral ligaments. I’m sort of sorry R.A. didn’t get to pitch in a more successful Met era, but part of me doesn’t mind that much. R.A. Dickey was an era unto himself every fifth day. He gave us something we never had before during a period when we surely needed an element that surpassed the sum of our sub-.500 parts. We’d be blessed by the presence of superb pitching aces in seasons to come, just as we’d been fortunate to have benefited previously from twenty-game and Cy Young winners.

But to get to continually tell R.A. Dickey stories for three seasons…and to now and then recall suddenly many years later the joy he provided through his elite manner of pitching and his singular style of talking…well, let’s just say R.A. Dickey is to Mets baseball as nothing else ever was or ever will be.

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

The Man Who Walked Away

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.

Richie Ashburn has two Topps cards as a New York Met.

The first, his ’62 card, is what’s known in baseball-card circles as a BHNH. That’s “big head no hat,” a shot taken capless and from chest up, without the team logo showing. Such shots were insurance in case a player was traded — or, in this case, if baseball expanded and Topps had to include players with their new clubs before spring-training photographers got to work. Ashburn, hatless, is wearing Cubs or Phillies pinstripes. He’s working his tongue over his lower lip, as if he’s about to stick it out, and his brows are lowered. He looks perplexed, like he’s sizing up something strange and possibly dangerous.

Ashburn’s second Mets card is from ’63, and shows him in a proper Mets cap, looking heavenward, as if spying some greater reward. It’s what’s known as a “career capper,” one that includes a player’s full lifetime stats. Because Ashburn never suited up for ’63 with the Mets, or with anybody else after ’62.

Between those two cards lies a story.

Richie Ashburn '62 Topps card

Just wait till you see the expression he wears after being a ’62 Met.

Ashburn is one of the towering figures in the lore surrounding the 1962 Mets, they of the historically hapless 40-120 record and our year of consideration. But his role in that oft-told story is an interesting one. He’s not the jester (Marv Throneberry), the ringleader (Casey Stengel), the perpetual victim (Roger Craig), the shocked bystander (Gil Hodges), the sad clown (Don Zimmer), the guy in on the joke (Rod Kanehl), or one of the revealing cameos (Harry Chiti, Joe Pignatano, Choo Choo Coleman, the two Bob Millers as roommates). Ashburn was the straight man, the consummate professional at the center of the carnage and mayhem, perplexed by where he’d found himself and what he’d done to deserve it.

Which isn’t to say he didn’t have a sense of humor about it. Ashburn was Cyrano to Throneberry’s Christian, feeding Marvelous Marv lines from the locker next to his and turning a sad-sack failed minor-leaguer into a shambolic legend. He dined out on ’62 Met tales for years, or at least endured them, patiently answering fan mail and sprinkling the stories into his reminiscences in the Phillies’ broadcast booth and the Philadelphia sports pages.

You’ve probably heard those tales before, but they’re too good not to revisit.

The most famous yarn bestowed a name on a noted indie-rock band: Ashburn manned center for the Mets, but on pop flies he kept getting run over by Elio Chacon, the team’s enthusiastic but erratic Venezuelan shortstop. Eventually Ashburn figured out the problem was the language barrier, and enlisted the bilingual Joe Christopher to help. Christoper taught Ashburn that “I got it!” was “Yo la tengo” in Spanish. Ashburn tried out his new language skills on Chacon, who beamed. “Si, si, yo la tango.”

The next time there was a pop-up behind the infield, Ashburn hustled in to catch it and saw Chacon steaming in his direction. “Yo la tengo! Yo la tengo!” he hollered. Chacon obligingly pulled up and Ashburn camped under the ball — only to be knocked sprawling by Frank Thomas, the left fielder.

(By the way, when I was in college Yo La Tengo played a show in town and got a ride back to wherever they were staying, only to have the driver somehow mistake a pedestrian path for a city street, drive across our cross-campus lawn, and crash into a building. Which struck me as the ’62 Mets of indie-rock touring.)

But my favorite Ashburn story is a subtler one.

Ashburn and Throneberry each received a Chris-Craft cabin cruiser for their contributions to the ’62 Mets. Ashburn got his because he was voted team MVP, but Throneberry won his boat by hitting a Chris-Craft sign more than any other player. (This was the same sign that Thomas kept aiming for while at bat, eventually prompting an exasperated Stengel to holler from the dugout, “if you wanna be a sailor, join the navy!”) The team accountant informed Throneberry that he had to pay income taxes on his boat because it had been earned, while Ashburn’s boat was a gift and therefore tax-free.

That’s the shot, but here’s the chaser: Ashburn lived in Tilden, Neb., and had no conceivable use for a fancy boat. So he arranged for it to be moored in a marina in Ocean City, N.J., while he found a buyer. Whoever put the cabin cruiser in the water forgot to put back the drainage plug, so the boat sank. Then the check written for it bounced.

Yeah, 1962 was that kind of year. But on-field, Ashburn was the Mets’ brightest spot. He hit .306, a single-season mark that would stand until Cleon Jones hit .340 in 1969, and was the team’s All-Star representative. And that season followed a superb career, one that would lead to Ashburn getting the call to Cooperstown. Well, eventually. Which is part of our story too.

Ashburn’s father played semi-pro ball and would shape his son’s career, teaching him to hit left-handed to take advantage of his speed and grooming him as a catcher because he saw that as the quickest route to the big leagues. Noticing his son’s weak arm, he taught him to compensate through positioning, charging balls hit to him and making throws on the run — a technique that would become an Ashburn signature (and saved the 1950 pennant for the so-called Whiz Kids, as Ashburn nailed Brooklyn’s Cal Abrams at the plate in the season’s last game.)

In 1943 Ashburn signed with the Indians, only to have the contract nullified by Kenesaw Mountain Landis because he was just 16 and still in high school. The next year, Ashburn played in the Polo Grounds as an American Legion All-Star, where Connie Mack noted his speed and size and advised him to move off catcher. Ashburn signed with the Cubs, but Landis nullified that deal too because of a clause in the contract that would have paid Ashburn if the Cubs sold their Nashville farm team. Tired of false starts, Ashburn went to college despite being coveted by all of baseball, and had to be convinced to sign with the Phillies. His manager with the 1945 Utica Blue Sox, future Phils skipper Eddie Sawyer, was the one who finally forced Ashburn to quit catching — according to legend, that happened after Ashburn beat a batter to first, gear and all, on a grounder to the infield.

(By the way, Ashburn’s SABR biography is wonderful, and was invaluable to me. Read it here.)

Ashburn missed 1946 because he was in the Army — in a Metsian move, they sent him to Alaska — and made his debut in 1948 at 21. He was an immediate star, hailed as the best center fielder in the game and its fastest runner. Ashburn collected more hits than any big-leaguer in the 1950s, won two batting titles, led the league in hits three times, led or tied for the league lead in walks four times, topped 500 putouts four times, and played 730 games in a row.

After a subpar 1959, the Phillies traded Ashburn to the Cubs, where he always looked out of uniform. The Mets bought his contract in the winter of 1961, inheriting a player who’d lost some of his legendary speed but was still valuable.

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

The next spring, Mets GM George Weiss — not known for being free with dollars — offered him a contract with a $10,000 raise. Ashburn said no. When an incredulous Zimmer asked why he’d retire after hitting .300, Ashburn said he couldn’t stand the idea of losing 100 games again. His ’63 Topps card became a retrospective of a career voluntarily cut short.

Ashburn finished up with 2,574 hits, which leads to a question that’s nagged at me for years.

He wasn’t inducted into the Hall of Fame until 1995, when the Veterans Committee voted him in. (His first call was to his 91-year-old mother, who wept with joy.) But calling that a grave injustice is too sentimental. Ashburn was a marginal candidate: He only hit 29 homers in his big-league career, and 82% of his career hits were singles.

But then there’s this. Ashburn would have been 36 on Opening Day in 1963. Granted, 36 was older for a ballplayer then than it is now, and Ashburn had lost some of the speed that was so important to his game. But he was still an effective player, racking up 119 hits in 1962. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine Ashburn playing another couple of years with the Mets and winding up closer to 2,800 hits. (And let’s not forget he lost a year because of military service.) I don’t know if 3,000 hits was the magical number then that it became, but I do know that voters and veterans would have seen his candidacy differently a lot sooner if he’d come closer.

Instead, Ashburn walked away. He became a beloved broadcaster and columnist, a second act that cemented his legend in Philadelphia — next time you get to go to Citizens Bank Park, check out his statue in Ashburn Alley and offer a salute to his 1, retired since 1979. He died on Sept. 9, 1997 in New York, just hours after he’d enlivened a Mets-Phillies game with his usual dry commentary. (The Phils won, 13-4; the next night, Harry Kalas offered a heartfelt tribute to his longtime partner and the Phils won, 1-0, thanks to a Rico Brogna homer off Dave Mlicki.)

That’s a pretty good baseball life. But the part of it that can be statistically appraised was diminished because Ashburn couldn’t stand being part of a baseball joke. He got to be the straight man instead of the heel, sure. But he was still part of a comedy act, and the laughter didn’t sit well with him. And walking away didn’t free him from the farce, as that single miserable year in New York sometimes threatened to overshadow a dozen remarkable ones in Philadelphia. He was good-humored about the whole thing, but I sometimes wondered what he thought more privately, when the microphones were off and the writers had put down their pens.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1964: Rod Kanehl
1969Donn Clendenon
1972Gary Gentry
1973Willie Mays
1982Rusty Staub
1991Rich Sauveur
1992Todd Hundley
1994Rico Brogna
2000Melvin Mora
2002Al Leiter

The First Patron Saint of Ridiculous Causes

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.

When I first encountered Rod Kanehl, it was as an example of what not to be.

The story is famous in Miracle Mets lore: After the Mets ascended to the lofty heights of .500 in late May of 1969, the latest they’d ever managed mediocrity, the beat writers entered the locker room expecting a celebration, only to find business as usual. When he figured out what the scribes had expected, Tom Seaver was contemptuous — in his usual indomitable, slightly imperious way.

“What’s so great about .500?” he asked. “I’m tired of jokes about the old Mets. Let Rod Kanehl and Marvelous Marv laugh about the Mets. We’re out here to win.”

As a Met-obsessed kid learning the franchise history through books, I loved that story. I loved what it said about Seaver and standards and winning, which is the context in which it’s usually presented. I also took away from it the thoroughly mistaken idea that every player was intimately aware of his franchise’s past. But it left me wondering: Who were Rod Kanehl and Marvelous Marv, anyway? In time, I’d figure that out — and given more time, I’d discover that Seaver’s name-checking Kanehl wasn’t as random as it sounded.

But let’s not get ahead of the story.

Marvelous Marv — that would be Marvin Eugene Throneberry, he of the initials M.E.T. — got more ink when tales of the early Mets got told and retold, but in my opinion it was his roommate Roderick Edwin Kanehl, AKA Hot Rod, who really embodied those teams, and the reason Casey Stengel‘s Mets had been beloved instead of booed.

Rod Kanehl 1964 cardKanehl played baseball hell for leather. Fans loved that. He also played it intelligently, with sound instincts and a hunger to learn. His teammates and coaches respected that. The problem was that for all his verve and brains, Kanehl didn’t play baseball very well. He saw time at seven positions in ’62, a sign of admirable versatility … except for the fact that he somehow made 32 errors playing those positions. Herein lies a question to ponder: Is a utility player who can’t actually play any position still a utility player?

If that sounds philosophical, well, Kanehl was at least a utility-player-level philosopher. “The line drives are caught, the squibbles go for hits — it’s an unfair game,” he once observed, which strikes me as an essential baseball truth and is one of my favorite lines. Which was another reason I came to love Kanehl — he was the first in the franchise’s line of self-aware ironists, guys who demonstrated that they were in on the joke, even when an unfair game meant it was on them. In that sense, Ron Swoboda, Tug McGraw, Robin Ventura, Cliff Floyd and Noah Syndergaard are all descendants of Kanehl.

Kanehl grew up in Springfield, Mo., where baseball took a back seat to track — he was a star runner, high jumper and pole vaulter in high school and college. But he also played pickup games of “Indian ball” in the neighborhood, as well as American Legion and semi-pro ball. His speed prompted Yankee scout Tom Greenwade — who’d signed Mickey Mantle — to take a chance on him, signing him for $4,000. Kanehl debuted in the Class-D Sooner State League alongside Mantle’s twin brothers Roy and Ray, putting together a 32-game hitting streak. But his real break came two years later, when he attended an instructional camp in St. Petersburg, Fla., overseen by Casey Stengel. Kanehl, not far removed from days when losing a single ball meant the end of the game, leapt a five-foot fence topped with barbed wire to retrieve a home run before ball-hawking local kids could get it. As a former high jumper, Kanehl knew the fence was no obstacle, but Stengel was impressed: “Anybody who can save the club $2.50 on a baseball like that can play for me.”

But by the end of 1961, it looked like that would never be the case. Kanehl had learned to play shortstop — a move driven in part by Stengel’s love of versatility — but he’d spent eight years in the Yankees system without a callup. In an odd foreshadowing of Seaver’s arrival, he became available to the Mets because of a commissioner’s ruling. Syracuse, then a Twins affiliate, selected Kanehl in the 1961 minor-league draft, but the Twins switched Triple-A allegiances to Vancouver. The Mets signed an affiliation agreement with Syracuse, raising the question of which club got Kanehl. Commissioner Ford Frick, presumably not picking from a hat, ruled for the Mets.

Kanehl knew expansion had given him a shot at being a big leaguer, and he made the most of it. As he recalled later, “I was 28 years old. I either make it, or I go home.”

And this time he had an advantage, one he wasn’t about to surrender: Stengel knew and trusted him. Kanehl had been through years of Stengel’s standardized workouts and instructional boot camps, which the Ol’ Perfesser brought to the Mets. When Stengel wanted to show his new charges how to take a lead or bunt, he frequently chose Kanehl to demonstrate — Kanehl, the Double-A player without so much as a day in a big-league clubhouse.

That rankled the veterans, who saw Kanehl as Casey’s pet — Richie Ashburn was only one of the best bunters in the game, after all. In an early bunting drill, Roger Craig knocked the rookie down with a fastball below the chin. Undaunted, Kanehl sprang to his feet and told the veteran, “get it over, Meat.” But unlike other managers’ pets — hello, Gregg Jefferies! — Kanehl was accepted by his teammates. He won respect with his fiery play, but also because he had the brains to hang around the veterans’ clubhouse skull sessions, listening attentively as Gil Hodges and Don Zimmer and Gus Bell and Ashburn discussed their craft. In short order, they treated him like one of their own.

Kanehl also had an undeniable flair for the dramatic — and after eight years of toil, his luck was turning. One day in spring training he was asleep at the end of the bench after a too-late night when Stengel called on him to pinch-hit. Kanehl made his bleary way to the plate to find the Mets down by two, with runners on second and third (he had no idea how they got there) and Sandy Koufax glaring at him from the mound. He barely saw the first two strikes and tried to pull his bat back from a vicious curve ball ticketed to be strike three. It hit his bat and flared over the infield for a game-tying two-run double. Felix Mantilla then drove Kanehl in with the winning run. The game was televised in New York, where eager Mets fans saw a potential folk hero.

Stengel saw it too, and won a showdown with GM George Weiss. Weiss was well-acquainted with Kanehl, and wanted no part of him, but Stengel loved the player he called “Kanoo” or “my little scavenger,” observing that he “busts his ass for me.” The manager got his way: Kanehl hit .440 in the spring and won the backup-infielder spot over Ted Lepcio, a slow-footed veteran. Hot Rod was headed to New York.

And he kept getting lucky. He survived cutdown day by starring in a doubleheader against the Giants while playing first base, a position he’d never played before. On April 28, he scored from second on a wild pitch — the winning run in the Mets’ first home game. In another game, he walked, noticed none of the infielders were paying attention, and hurried down to second base. Ralph Kiner and Bob Murphy had taken advantage of a station break to get water, and had no idea how Kanehl had wound up with an extra base, or what to tell listeners.

Maybe they concluded Kanehl was magical. Because he kind of was — or at least as magical as a guy who hits .248 with a dismal fielding percentage can be. Kanehl hit the first grand slam in club history on July 6, a game where Stengel had exhorted the troops to do their best because Joan Payson had just returned from the famous trip to Europe where she’d amended her instructions to only receive telegrams when the Mets won. That feat earned Kanehl a place in the record books and 50,000 King Korn trading stamps, which he traded in at a store in Chicago for “a living-room suite, a Deepfreeze, an end table — a lot of junk.”

He also embraced the city where he’d hoped to play for so many years. Kanehl became an expert at navigating the subway, earning the nickname “the Mole” from teammates. But once again, he impressed the old hands: After games at the Polo Grounds, veteran Mets liked to repair to the Silhouette, a former Dodgers hangout in East Flatbush. (Which is an awfully long way from Coogan’s Bluff, but that’s habit for you.) Kanehl would take the subway instead of traveling by car, and routinely be on his second or third drink when his teammates arrived.

(Credit where credit is due: Kanehl is a major character in David Bagdade’s A Year in Mudville, one of several books I leaned on for the above, and which would make an excellent addition to your baseball library.)

The good times were not to last. Weiss kept trying to replace Stengel’s little scavenger, bringing in Ron Hunt for 1963 and then Amado Samuel and Charley Smith in ’64. 1964 is the year to which this profile nominally belongs, but by then Kanehl’s star — never all that bright to begin with, if we’re being honest — was waning. He slumped for much of the summer and struggled with injuries, and the Mets no longer wanted to be seen as the scrappy, scruffy team of the Polo Grounds. They’d moved to jet-age Shea and wanted to emphasize youth. When Kanehl didn’t make the Mets out of spring training in ’65, he said no to a minor-league contract.

Kanehl would never play another professional game, but neither his baseball story nor his part in the Mets’ tale had ended. He went back to semi-pro ball, suiting up for the Wichita Dreamliners. At the time, semi-pro and amateur leagues played for the National Baseball Congress championship. In the ’65 semi-finals, Kanehl’s Dreamliners faced off against the Alaska Goldpanners, a pitching-rich club whose starting staff included future Mets Danny Frisella, Al Schmelz and Tom Seaver. Seaver started against Wichita and imploded in the sixth; Kanehl stole home as part of a triple steal. The Goldpanners lost, 6-3, and if you think Tom Seaver forgot that, think again.

Kanehl hoped that season would earn him a look as a coach or manager, and he had every reason to think it might. He’d been offered a Class-D managerial job back in 1960, Stengel had used him as a de facto bench coach, and he’d been sent out to coach first at the tail end of the ’63 season. For whatever reason, the call never came. Years later, Kanehl told Sports Illustrated that “I thought there would always be room for a guy who knows the game and has some intelligence. I know the game from underneath. I know what goes on in the mind of a mediocre ballplayer. I know what it’s like to be a bad hitter. I know what it’s like to have to battle every time you go up to the plate.”

Kanehl was in the Mets’ clubhouse after the team won the division in 1969. As the Champagne fountained, he introduced himself to Tommie Agee. The young outfielder chatted genially with his visitor, then turned to ask a bystander, “Who is that?”

Seaver could have told him. So could many a long-suffering Met fan. Kanehl knew the game from underneath, which is a wonderful phrase. He also knew this soon-to-be-miraculous franchise from underneath. The Mets had been his ticket to the big leagues, at long last, and he was savvy enough to know they would be his meal ticket as the legends thickened around Marvelous Marv and Stengelese and the strange events witnessed in the last days of the Polo Grounds and the first days at Shea. He exemplified those days — the futility, sure, but also the raffish exuberance and the roll-your-eyes irony and the crazy, cockeyed hope that could never be extinguished in spite of it all. And while Kanehl didn’t get to manage — which would have been a treat for a new generation of fans — he never forgot to give thanks for what had come his way. In 1975, when Stengel died, Kanehl was the only ex-Met at his funeral.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
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

Mora in America: Melvinnium Approaches

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 am determined to take our best traditions into the future. But with all respect, we do not need to build a bridge to the past. We need to build a bridge to the future, and that is what I commit to you to do. So tonight let us resolve to build that bridge to the 21st century…
—President Bill Clinton, 1996

There was a time when the 20th century was the only one any of us knew, that the concept of the 21st loomed as too outrageous to realistically contemplate. Even as “the year 2000,” as we reflexively called it, beckoned just up the road, it still struck us collectively as unknowable. Perhaps to prepare us for the mysteries of Y2K and the impending millennium it would usher in, we were granted a transition tool known as the 1999 Mets. They were a team that stretched the bounds of reality late in the last century for as long as they could.

With 73 days to go in the 1900s, the Mets played a baseball game they have yet to equal for sheer insanity in the 2000s. It wasn’t over until there were 72 days to go in the 1900s, and it came directly on the heels of one at least as lunatic, which they played when there were 75 days to go.

Time was flying just as we were having the most fun of our pre-millennium lives. Also flying everywhere he needed to be was Melvin Mora, one of the ornaments of the inimitable 1999 stretch drive and playoff spurt. Mora was one of those players who made 1999 what it was, even if he didn’t arrive to stay until it neared its conclusion. But then he made it better. He made it his own.

The Mora era began in earnest in the bottom of the ninth inning of October 3, 1999, the Mets knotted with the Pirates, 1-1, in Game 162, the game the Mets needed to win to guarantee they’d have a Game 163 and a chance at the jewels that waited beyond. After two topsy-turvy weeks that topped off a topsy-turvy year (that hadn’t seen anything yet), the Mets and Reds were tied for the National League’s sole Wild Card. The Mets were well-equipped to grab it. It was the year of Piazza, the year of Ventura, the year of Alfonzo, the year of so many 1999 Mets.

But when it mattered most, it was the moment of Mora.

Melvin — we were instantly on a first-name basis — came up with one out, following Bobby Bonilla not coming through as a pinch-hitter, and lined a single to right field off Greg Hansell to imbue Shea Stadium with the fierce urgency of hope. So many stars twinkled in our sky in 1999, yet here was this distant light coming into focus to show us the way.

The autumnal festival of Mora had commenced. In what flickers through the frames of the mind’s screening room as quick succession, Edgardo Alfonzo singled; Mora flew to third; John Olerud was intentionally walked; Gene Lamont replaced Hansell with Brad Clontz; Clontz warmed up; Mike Piazza stepped up with the bases loaded; Clontz went into his delivery; Clontz’s delivery skittered past catcher Joe Oliver; and Melvin Mora

Well, Melvin Mora was now at the heart of the Melvin Mora Game. We’d call it that forever because, as Oliver chased the pitch that got away and Piazza stood appropriately dazed in a state of inoperativeness, Melvin — who spent two-thirds of the day on the bench, then worked the box score as PR-LF-RF-LF the rest of the way — dashed from third to home. There was no doubt he was going to cross it safely. The last few steps, almost for show, turned into a duckwalk. Quack, quack, quack; the secret word is “playoffs”.

A one-game playoff, anyway. At the end of Game 162, with Robin Ventura leading the charge of the hug brigade and the Mets beating the Pirates, 2-1, we celebrated as if we knew there’d be more playoffs. If it didn’t read as a foregone conclusion in the standings, you could guess confidently that we were going places.

Mora is partially obscured by a hugging Ventura, but after scoring the winning run of his namesake game, he’d never be obscure again.

First, to Cincinnati, to break the Wild Card tie. The Mets gave miracles a rest and opted for excellence. It was one of their underlying conditions in 1999. They didn’t win 96 games for nothin’. In fact, thanks mainly to Rickey Henderson leading off with a single, Edgardo Alfonzo following Rickey with a two-run homer, and Al Leiter giving up only two hits over nine innings, they won a 97th, 5-0, which punched their ticket to their next stop: the NLDS in Phoenix.

It didn’t really matter where the Mets’ next game was going to be. The important thing was that there were going to be next games. There hadn’t been since 1988. It would be too simplistic to say “no wonder — there hadn’t been Melvin Mora, either,” but, actually, yeah. One gets the feeling that Melvin Mora, had he been insightful enough to arrive in some other season, would have pushed the Mets an extra step. He would have kept Mike Scioscia in the park in 1988; would have neutralized the Bonilla & Bonds Bucs of 1990; would have convinced Vince Coleman to roll up his window in 1993; would have held together 1998 when it was falling apart.

But you can only ask Melvin Mora in retrospect to do what Melvin Mora actually did. The lithe Venezuelan product wasn’t born until 1972, didn’t sign a professional contract until 1991, and needed to play a little in Taipei in ’98 to draw attention to talents that went undetected during his looong tenure in Houston’s minor league system. The Mets noticed, signed him, invited him to Spring Training in ’99. He tore up the Grapefruit League. Howie Rose referred to him as the mayor of Port St. Lucie. It wasn’t enough to get him elected to the Opening Day roster. Melvin Mora didn’t appear in a major league game — for the Mets or anybody — until May 30, 1999.

Mora started that day. And on July 17. And July 25. Otherwise, he served as a spare part for an engine that was revving on most cylinders most of the time. Defensive replacement. Pinch-hitter. Pinch-runner. Then, after the trade deadline yielded Veteran Experience, back to Norfolk, see you in September. Which we did, mostly in late innings.

Mora’s magic at the end of games (one in particular) was the reason the Mets had somewhere to be in October for the first time in eleven years besides on their way home. Mora helped bring them to Phoenix to take on Randy Johnson and the fancy 100-win Diamondbacks. The Diamondbacks had more wins than the best Mets team of its generation, and nobody’d ever heard of them until a couple of years before. Then again, none of us had ever heard of Melvin Mora until the previous spring, so it was a fair fight.

Melvin’s first postseason appearance came in the sixth inning of Game One, a little earlier than usual, but this was the playoffs, and Bobby Valentine’s state bird was the double-switch. Masato Yoshii was coming out. Dennis Cook was coming in. “BUT,” as the announcer on the commercials would say, “THAT’S NOT ALL! YOU ALSO GET MELVIN MORA IN FOR SHAWON DUNSTON!” It was always Melvin Mora in for somebody, with somebody else going out so a reliever’s spot in the batting order would take its time coming around again. Melvin Mora was the perfect cog for Bobby V’s constantly cranking game-management mechanism.

In the ninth inning, the Big Unit was Buck Showalter’s irreplaceable cog. He’d thrown what amounted to two starts in the Diamondbacks’ first-ever postseason game. In the first one, the Mets nailed the perennial Cy Young winner good. Fonzie homered. Oly (a lefty!) homered. Even Rey Ordoñez bunted a run home. The imposing Johnson was apparently no bother to these Mets.

Then, in the fifth, Randy Johnson got back to being serious, and the Mets could no longer touch him. Around the same time, Yoshii remembered he was no match for Randy Johnson and, before Valentine could pull his double-switch, the game was tied at four, which is where it was in the ninth. Robin Ventura singled to lead off. Roger Cedeño bunted unsuccessfully. Ordoñez, practically having the offensive game of his life (1-for-3, plus that sacrifice), singled to left. Rey batted eighth. Pitchers usually bat ninth in the real league here, but because Bobby V played as many dimensions of chess as was necessary to outpoint his opponent, he had Melvin Mora up in this crucial spot in this crucial juncture of this crucial game.

Crucially, Melvin walked. Not only did it load the bases, it forced Showalter’s hand. Out went Johnson. In came Bobby Chouinard. Two batters later, Chouinard gave up a grand slam to Alfonzo to give the Mets an 8-4 lead that became an 8-4 win. Mora’s run made it 7-4. Mora’s walk off the Unit, just like Mora’s hit against Hansell, made all good things possible.

Melvin just kept it coming as the series proceeded. Valentine didn’t use him in the Game Two loss and didn’t need him to more than caddy in the Game Three win, but in Game Four at Shea, with the Mets poised to advance in a postseason for the first time since 1986, Melvin’s presence became crucial once more. In for defense in the eighth, the utilityman’s utility explained itself in a hurry. A 2-1 lead carefully nurtured by Leiter dissolved into a 3-2 deficit that resulted from Jay Bell’s two-run double off Armando Benitez (gosh, usually he’s so reliable). The game threatened to get away once Matt Williams singled and Bell steamed toward home, but the left fielder — Mora — fired in to Todd Pratt to nail Bell and keep the Mets down by only one run.

Pratt’s name will be attached to this game after he homers in the tenth, but who knows if there’s a tenth without Mora in the top of the eighth? Not only does Melvin imbue the concept of “defensive replacement” with game-changing impact, but we saw in the bottom of the eighth that moving fielders around doesn’t come without risk. Tony Womack had started at short for Arizona. Showalter shifted him to right and, two batters in to his new station, Womack muffs a fly ball that sets up the tying run.

Too bad for Buck that he didn’t have Melvin. Much better for us that we did.

In the NLCS that Mora and Pratt (among others) facilitated, Melvin’s defense, particularly his arm, was on full display. In Game Three, Melvin throws out Bret Boone at the plate from center in the first. In Game Five, Melvin throws out Keith Lockhart at the plate from right in the thirteenth. The Braves were given extra innings to scout Mora’s skills — he’d been playing the whole day and changed positions twice — but they chose to attempt to run on him, anyway.

By the thirteenth inning of Game Five — the Grand Slam Single Game, as it’s known for eternity — Melvin Mora has played 41 innings of postseason baseball and has recorded an assist from each outfield position. Plus he’s hit the first home run of his major league career in NLCS Game Two. Oh, and in Game Four, with the Mets as backed against the wall as can be imagined (though the imagination would be given a strenuous workout in the games ahead), he walks in his first plate appearance, in the eighth inning, concentrating on getting on base while Cedeño is busy stealing second base. Then, as the trail runner, he engineers a double-steal with Roger, placing them on second and third for Olerud. Then he scores the winning run on Olerud’s single, something he was situated to do because of that double-steal.

In Game Six, the third must-win contest the Mets have contested in a 72-hour span, word is getting around on New York’s erstwhile secret weapon. When Mora comes up in the top of the eighth as a pinch-hitter for Orel Hershiser, score tied at seven, Benny Agbayani on second, Bob Costas and Joe Morgan spotlight over NBC the “27-year-old rookie” most nobody had heard of when October began.

Melvin “has a chance to be a star,” according to Costas. “At least the Mets think so. He’s shown his stuff down the stretch and in the playoffs.”

“He’s going to be a valuable asset to the Mets in the next few years,” affirms Morgan, who lists the “lot of little things to help you win” that Mora does, which he ticks off as “plays good defense”; “has a good arm”; and “swings the bat pretty well.” Those little things sound mighty big. Mora is mighty big in the scope of this game, as he’s been in so many games since he got on base versus the Pirates a little over two weeks before. He singles to center and brings home Agbayani.

“Melvin Mora, who only a few years ago was playing in the Chinese professional league in Taiwan,” Costas marvels, “gives the Mets the lead in Game Six.”

How good was this guy? Darn good.

Yes, indeed, the rookie who “does not have any fear,” according to Morgan, has put the Mets up, 8-7, in a game that seven innings earlier they trailed, 5-0. It’s been crazy, it’s been a team effort, and now it’s Mora more than anybody else levitating the Mets until they can outlast the enemy Braves. Hold onto this lead, go to Game Seven. Win Game Seven (like they’d lose it after getting there), go to the World Series. Go to the World Series, and the world will know the legend of Melvin Mora as it continues to unfold before its eyes.

Except Bobby Valentine doesn’t move Mora to the mound, which is a mistake in retrospect, because Mora, who’s played three infield and three outfield positions in 1999, can do it all, and Franco, Mr. 400+ saves, gives up the tying run. The game will go to the tenth, Mora will come up, having stayed in as the right fielder, and again, Mora does it all, or at least all he can do. Agbayani is on second again. Mora singles again. Benny goes to third before scoring on Pratt’s fly to Andruw Jones, of all people. The Mets are ahead, 9-8, in the tenth inning of the sixth game of the National League Championship Series, an NLCS whose first three games they lost, and an NLCS from which they’ve courted elimination so steadily that you’d think somebody would have put a ring on it.

But Melvin Mora keeps the Mets and their chances going together.

MORGAN: “How good is this guy?”
COSTAS: “Darn good.”

Mora doesn’t pitch the bottom of the tenth, which dawns after midnight. Benitez does and gives up the tying run. Mora doesn’t bat in the top of the eleventh. It’s not his turn and the Mets don’t score. Mora doesn’t pitch the bottom of the eleventh, either. Kenny Rogers does. He’s not darn good. The Mets and the 1999 season break up. Their dissolution was as inevitable as their romance was beautiful.

But this, ostensibly, isn’t about 1999. It’s about 2000. That other wildly successful Mets year. The one that felt different. The one that was different. The one that had Melvin Mora at its beginning rather than its end.

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

Melvin makes the team out of Spring Training. Melvin goes to Japan as a bona fide component of the defending Wild Card champs/NLDS winners (the banner has never been succinct). Melvin is on base when Benny Agbayani slams grand to win the Tokyo finale in the eleventh inning, an early-morning outcome that feels like something the 1999 Mets would have concocted.

Except it’s not 1999 anymore, which by default is the bad news. Where’s John Olerud? Where’s Orel Hershiser? What are Derek Bell and Todd Zeile doing here — and in Japan? If Jerry Seinfeld had awakened pre-dawn to watch the Mets and Cubs (he was in the stands at Turner Field for Game Six, so maybe he was at the Tokyo Dome, too), he might very well have asked, “Who are these people?”

These people were the 2000 Mets. They’re not exactly the 1999 Mets, but they’re plenty good. What they lack in that certain something, they make up for with comparable competitive capabilities, which isn’t nearly as romantic as that certain something. No, it never is 1999 again, but the millennium odometer had made that explicitly clear.

Melvin Mora is still pretty much Melvin Mora, which is a very 1999 sign for 2000. On April 20 at Shea, in the tenth (the bottom of an inning when he’s been double-switched into the game), Mora steps up and homers off Curtis Leskanic to give the Mets a 5-4 win over Milwaukee. It’s his first major league home run, not counting the one he launched off Kevin Millwood in the playoffs…though why wouldn’t you count a home run you hit in the playoffs?

The Mets’ sights were aimed directly at a return to the playoffs from the moment they took flight for Tokyo. It wasn’t going to be easy. In the Bobby Valentine era, no matter how much talent the players provided the manager, and no matter how much wizardry the manager provided the players, it never was. They wouldn’t have been the Mets of just before and just after the millennial divide had it been. Their road got bumpy as hell in Los Angeles on May 29 when Ordoñez, who bold-typed the “Best” in “The Best Infield Ever?” (and definitively deleted its question mark), went out for the year with a broken forearm. Even Rey-Rey, who introduced himself to MLB by throwing out a runner at home from his knees, needed a forearm to play short. Ordoñez’s defense was irreplaceable. His offense, however, was always ripe for an upgrade.

Enter Melvin Mora, fresh from a brief DL assignment himself, as the starting shortstop of the 2000 Mets. His status as a supersub had followed him into the new century, but the Mets now had Super Joe McEwing to fill that role (with at least as much as versatility, if not as much flair), along with Kurt Abbott, who had played the position in previous seasons (and whose continued presence in 2000 was yet another reminder that 1999 was a once-in-a-lifetime year). Melvin had hit another home run since beating the Brewers, which gave him two on the season, or two more than Rey-O had produced. Melvin’s postseason defense had drawn rave reviews from the outfield, but he was billed as a shortstop when he came to St. Lucie prominence two Marches before. It would be a tradeoff, but the Mets didn’t have much of a choice

Sadly, they didn’t have much of a shortstop in Melvin Mora. It was jarring to watch him not pick up ground balls after four-plus seasons of Rey Ordoñez erecting and patrolling a veritable force field between second and third. Rey played 154 games at shortstop in 1999 and made four errors. Melvin Mora made seven errors in a 26-game span that covered late June to late July of 2000. Ordoñez was a high bar. Even Ordoñez wasn’t clearing it before his injury (six errors in 44 games), but between Mora in for Ordoñez and Zeile in for Olerud, nobody was asking any longer whether this was The Best Infield Ever.

Instead, they asked if there was something more the Mets could do about shortstop. Mora was contributing offensively as an everyday player, adding four homers to his ledger and coolly and calmly accepting ball four on a three-two count to build the legendary ten-run rally of the eighth inning of June 30. It’s most famous for Mike Piazza’s three-run laser of a homer. Usually unnoted is that it was Mora who scored the run to tie things up at eight. Melvin hadn’t lost his knack for making the Braves sweat late in games that were cluttered with runs.

What Melvin would lose before July was over was his role as starting shortstop for the New York Mets. His parking space, too. He was traded to the Orioles on July 28 for Mike Bordick, one of those guys talked up as a “surehanded” or “two-out” shortstop. Hit a grounder to Bordick with two outs, he was sure to pick it up and throw it cleanly to first. Mora did so much well, yet he didn’t necessarily inspire that kind of confidence at that precise position, and a sense of security is what the Mets craved at this stage of 2000.

“Melvin Mora has a chance to be a star,” Bob Costas had said, but it was no longer the Mets who thought so.

***
Did this trade have to be made? Did any trade have to be made? The Mets were determined to make one. They thought they had one done for Barry Larkin, but veteran Larkin had the right to decline to leave the Reds, and he exercised his veto. Mora wasn’t rumored to be a part of that swap. Had Barry embraced New York, Melvin could have returned to his supersub ways, perhaps been available in October when Bell went down with an injury in right, and given the Mets the same spark they benefited from in 1999. Instead, they turned to Timo Perez as their emergency right fielder. Perez was all spark until his flame burned out on a trip from first to not quite home in the World Series. It’s impossible to imagine Melvin Mora not running hard on a fly ball.

Did the Mets need surehanded shortstop Bordick to reach October again? It couldn’t have been known on July 28, but after the Mets took leadership of the Wild Card standings on July 27 — Mora’s last day as a Met — they’d never let it go. They’d have their September hiccups (they always did), but they were never headed on their path to the playoffs despite their disturbing habit of losing too many games with not too many weeks to go. The 2000 Mets were particularly sizzling in August, and Bordick was a part of that. He might have been part of a World Series win had he not gotten hit in the hand by a pitch during the NLCS. As it was, Bordick ached and by Game Five, Abbott was the Mets’ starting shortstop with everything on the line and, well, you know.

Do trades have to take place? Philosophically, the exchange of human beings strikes a sour note. Purely from a baseball perspective, there is something that seems a little untoward about trades. Why not stick with who you have? Why not depend on your Mets to get better together? It, like the 1999 Mets, is a romantic notion. The 1999 Mets wouldn’t have been the 1999 Mets without a trade for Piazza. Or Leiter. Or several other beloved members. So maybe let’s not question trades too deeply.

Melvin Mora was a beloved 1999 Met, despite rattling around the All Other section of the roster for 161 games. The last dozen, though — the Melvin Mora Game; the One-Game Playoff; the NLDS which we won in four; the NLCS which we gave all of ourselves for for six — he was a star attraction. We couldn’t take our eyes off him. We didn’t want to.

In 2000, we moved on without him. That’ll happen in baseball. The Mora-less Mets went to the World Series. It proved risky business. They could’ve used a guy like Melvin. Same for the rest of the first decade of the 21st century, a time when Melvin Mora cashed in on the opportunity to become a star. It was as an Oriole, not as a Met. It was as a third baseman, not as a shortstop. He won a Silver Slugger in Baltimore and made two All-Star teams. True, the Mets were promoting David Wright in the first half of the first decade of the 2000s, but they probably could have found something for Melvin Mora to do at another position. Or gotten more for Mora than two-and-a-half months of Mike Bordick.

Then again, Bordick did help the Mets win a Wild Card and two postseason series. It’s easy to slag trades that don’t work in the long-term, but in the short-term, the Mets made the World Series with Mike Bordick. It’s a reality the Mets chose to pursue.

The fantasy that they’d hung onto Melvin Mora and that Melvin Mora would have kept doing Melvin Mora things — 1999 things — remains tantalizing in hindsight. In hindsight, Melvin Mora makes a wonderful Met in any century.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1969: Donn Clendenon
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1982: Rusty Staub
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1994: Rico Brogna
2002: Al Leiter

Face of the Franchise

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.

Under a big ol’ sky
Out in a field of green
There’s gotta be something
Left for us to believe

—Tom Petty, “Kings Highway

It’s Opening Day 2002 at sunny Shea Stadium. The Mets have been reconfigured to dominate after they deteriorated in 2001. It won’t work out that way, but we don’t know that yet. Besides, it doesn’t much matter that the cast has been so thoroughly shuffled from the year before. On Opening Day, your team is YOUR team. Just let somebody try to steal your sunshine.

On sunny Opening Day 2002, Al Leiter is OUR starting pitcher. On many days between the beginning of 1998 and the end of 2004, Al Leiter was our starting pitcher. The only thing Al Leiter ever did as a Met (other than triple) was starting-pitch: 213 games, 213 starts. That’s more starts as a Met pitcher without a single pitch thrown in relief than anybody else. Jacob deGrom is second by more than a conceivable season’s worth of starts — a real season, not whatever 2020 is shaping up as on corporate drawing boards.

We didn’t coordinate with one another, but Al Leiter is also the career leader in starting games I’ve attended, and I’ve been attending games since 1973. Al and I were by no means a bad pairing, no matter how intuitively unlikely it seems in retrospect that we’d get together as frequently as we did. We all believe that when we buy a ticket to a ballgame, the fine print subjects us to a steady uninspiring stream of Trachsels and Nieses. I’ve had my share of those, too. Plenty of Kevin Appier the one year he was here. A load of Bobby Jones, a dash of Randy Jones, a pinch of Pete Smith for mediocre measure. I’m not convinced I won’t see Mike Pelfrey slog through six innings the next game I go to, and he hasn’t been on the Mets since 2012. Go to enough games, you’ll see just about everybody take a start or ten. Go to more than enough games, though, specifically between 1998 and 2004, and you’ll get your Leiter on repeatedly.

It was the right time and the right place. The lefty’s face was charming. It was the right face.

There was little hint of phenomenon to it, no boasting within your social circles that you hit the Al Leiter game last week, no future posting for posterity on Facebook that you were a part of Leitermania, here’s a picture of my ticket stub! But if Al Leiter was a notch below the perceived glamour of acedom, he hovered discernible cuts above the middle of the pack. Sometimes an ace is an inherently imposing mound presence. Sometimes he’s just the best guy you’ve got handy. When somebody whose credentials glittered a little more brightly than his was acquired in some ambitious offseason, Al Leiter would be courteously consigned to 1A status — still conferred the organizational respect he’d earned, yet no longer automatically tabbed as the first choice to start a season or a series, assuming there was ample opportunity to line your pitching up according to preference.

When nobody better was around, or you simply had to win the next game in front of you, you could do a lot worse than Al Leiter. In contemplating the Metsian legacy of the lefty who was never exactly “my guy” despite my seeing him so regularly, I’m reminded of a tribute to Tom Petty that I read in the wake of the singer’s death in 2017. It referred to Petty’s music as good for the middle of a weekday afternoon, or something to that effect. I don’t recall the exact phrase or precisely what the author meant, but I liked the description and I think I got it. I was by no means the biggest Tom Petty fan, but I admired how he used his repertoire, how he threw himself into his game, and how he left me feeling better for having experienced him doing what he did anytime I’d hear him do it.

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

Al Leiter. All right. Let’s go.

In transactional terms, Al Leiter became a Met because the Florida Marlins were dumping their champion players left and right following their 1997 world conquest. But really, Al Leiter became a Met because Al Leiter was always supposed to be a Met. Before Todd Frazier invented being from New Jersey, Al Leiter was from New Jersey — the same town as Todd — and he grew up a Mets fan, old enough to tell us that as a lad he witnessed the Mets’ 1969 flag run up the center field pole on Opening Day 1970. Depending on the interview he was giving, he also seemed to grow up not immune to the charms of other teams within driving distance of Toms River, but fealty to the Metropolitan cause fit his story and personality most snugly.

Two starts into his Met tenure, he looked the part of prominent Met pitcher. Not that he was as graceful as Seaver or as overpowering as Gooden, but he was as preoccupied with the Mets winning as any of us. Leiter probably wanted to win for Leiter, as starting pitchers are prone to do, but you couldn’t wipe the familiar concern off his face. He grimaced. He grunted. He gritted. He looked like us. His look certainly got the attention of my wife, who had the game on before I came home on April 7, 1998. The Mets were at Wrigley that afternoon and Stephanie, usually a passive consumer of baseball telecasts, wanted to know what the deal was with this guy with the face.

That face was the deal. He was the cat of a thousand expressions. That’s what we call our kitty Avery. The concept originated with our watching eternally expressive Al Leiter. He was always doing something that fascinated us, not the least of which was pitching effectively. Leiter steadily put the “1” in “1A” as 1998 got rolling, emerging as first among a staff of approximate equals, missing the All-Star team only because of an ill-timed knee injury in late June. While the Mets mostly melted down around him, Leiter stayed strong in September. Al finished his first Flushing year 17-6 with an ERA of 2.47 and garnered token Cy Young support, the first Met to be so acknowledged in four years. You couldn’t run it up the center field pole, but it was surely worth saluting.

Once Leiter opened a World Series and tried desperately to keep the same World Series going.

Leiter never had quite as brilliant a campaign for the Mets as he did in his initial one, but he never had a genuinely bad season over his remaining six. Three times he opened the season. Once he opened a World Series — and tried desperately to keep the same World Series going. Al Leiter being entrusted with the ninth inning and all its inherent implications in Game Five of 2000 and not getting all the way out of it versus I forget who never hung around his or Bobby Valentine’s neck quite the way a close facsimile from 2015 sticks to the respective shoes of Matt Harvey and Terry Collins. Al is remembered better for coming through than coming apart. He stopped a potentially lethal losing streak down the stretch in ’99; clinched a playoff spot via masterful two-hitter less than a week later; and held the Mets aloft for much of what was to become known as the Todd Pratt game less than a week after that.

Leiter’s one truly godawful postseason outing, when, on short rest, he didn’t retire a single Brave in the first inning of ultimately decisive Game Six of the 1999 NLCS, is relatively obscure in the scheme of Al’s career. In the annals of abysmal first innings proffered by titular Met southpaw aces at the worst imaginable juncture, it doesn’t hold a candle in the realm of public perception to T#m Gl@v!ne’s least finest hour, which took place somewhere between 1:10 and 1:30, September 30, 2007. For that matter, Leiter’s horrifying first inning from the night of October 19, 1999, at Turner Field (0 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 2 HBP, 5 ER) is obscured in common memory by the work of another veteran lefty, Kenny Rogers, ten innings later.

Maybe it was because locally sourced Leiter put his heart into every start he took as a Met. And his face, which you couldn’t miss. Plus he was always good for a detailed explanation of why he may not have won on a given evening and what he (along with his teammates) could have done more ably. Al’s starts could feel like struggles even when he was shutting down opponents, which is why his victories registered as triumphs of the Mets fan soul. He seemed properly bothered by everything that went wrong when anything went wrong.

Fortunately, plenty went right for seven seasons, so even with the occasional rough patches on the mound, Al Leiter remained OUR starter in generally good standing pretty much to the end of his time as a Met. His last start for us — and for me — came at Shea on October 2, 2004, a Saturday night against the Expos, the last game that franchise won under its original name. Omar Minaya, Montreal’s former GM, had just been hired to do the same job for the Mets. It was obvious Minaya’s Mets were going to have to put the current futile era behind them ASAP.

That meant the imminent end of Al Leiter, pending free agent, who had two Met eras under his belt (three counting his childhood allegiance to Seaver and Koosman). Before Opening Day 2002, Al was right in the middle of every big series the Mets had contested for four mostly successful, uniformly scintillating years. Those Mets of 1998-2001 were kind of a 1A operation themselves. When somebody better-credentialed was on hand, the Mets took a back seat. When nobody better was around, you could do worse.

The Mets did worse in 2002, 2003 and 2004, lacking for big series altogether after dismal reality set in, but on Opening Day 2002, we didn’t know that further deterioration rather than a surge toward dominance was in store. We just knew Al Leiter would be starting. We just knew, as of April 1, 2002, that Al Leiter was always starting…OK, often starting. But he was on the mound a lot, giving us his all, and it most always gave us a reason to be reasonably confident that we might win this game. Like on Opening Day 2002, a 6-2 middle-of-a-weekday afternoon Mets win in which Leiter pitched six innings and gave up no runs. Like so many other days. Leiter won 95 games as a Met, sixth-most in club history. That implosion in Atlanta notwithstanding, he was usually money in the postseason for us, even if he never pulled down a W. It was telling that we were in the postseason enough during Leiter’s first era that he could mount an October sample size worthy of measurement. He made seven starts, six of them undeniably quality.

In 2005, the next Met era, Al Leiter was essentially replaced by Pedro Martinez. That was an ace you didn’t need to append an “A” to. He was an undisputed No. 1 pitcher, starting games that were destined to be billed as bona fide events all summer long. Time to move on. Time to get going. The first time Pedro started at Shea as a Met, on April 16 versus the Marlins, the joint jumped with anticipation. His mound opponent was his predecessor, now a Recidivist Fish, marking the fortieth and final time I saw him pitch in person. Martinez vs. Leiter. Giddily promising present vs. suddenly distant past. Pedro cheered wildly by a sellout crowd. Leiter booed obligatorily for what he wasn’t: for not being Pedro; for not being ours.

Al’s expression told me he got it.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1969: Donn Clendenon
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1982: Rusty Staub
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1994: Rico Brogna

A Baseball First Husband

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.

Some political raconteur (no one agrees exactly who) tattooed George H.W. Bush with the line that he reminded every woman of her first husband. It’s a good line — a put-down, but one delivered with an undertone of affection, however grudging. And it stuck with me as I thought about how to sum up Todd Hundley, our Met for All Seasons representative of the less-than-lamented 1992 Mets.

Hundley first arrived in the spring of 1990, seemingly destined to be a curious footnote in team history. He was not yet 21, a catcher who could be charitably described as slight and less charitably called undersized — his first Topps card records his weight as all of 170 pounds. His pedigree also made historically minded Mets fans scratch their heads: Todd was the son of Randy Hundley, a key player for the 1969 Cubs. Maybe you recall or read about Hundley Sr. jumping in the air during the Bill HandsJerry Koosman duel on Sept. 8 at Shea, protesting Satch Davidson having called Tommie Agee safe at home. (Indeed, Agee sure looks out to me — sorry, Randy.)

In his first campaigns with the Mets, Hundley fils did little to dispel that first impression. He hit .209 in limited time in 1990, then .133 the next year, with the kind of power you’d expect from a reedy shortstop. But his defense was considered big-league quality, and the Mets were certain the bat would come around. A decent campaign at the plate for Tidewater in 1991 made Hundley a regular in 1992, even amid doubts that he was ready. It didn’t go particularly well — nothing went well for the Mets that star-crossed season — but he earned respect from teammates and the beat writers as both tough and likable. Despite his modest success, he was a stand-up player in a clubhouse with far too many pointed fingers.

Todd Hundley's 1994 Topps card

Possibly the most embarrassing baseball card of the modern era. Who at Topps hated Hundley and why?

From there, he turned into a useful player, hitting 42 homers over the next three seasons. And then, in 1996, Todd Hundley hit 41 home runs. Drove in 112. Those 41 dingers set a Met single-season mark, eclipsing the 39 hit twice by Darryl Strawberry, and set a new N.L. record for homers by a catcher, beating the record that belonged to Roy Campanella. What had changed?

For once thing, Hundley had, well, grown. The little bantamweight catcher from 1990 looked like an action figure, with huge shoulders and biceps and forearms. Eleven years later, the Mitchell report portrayed Kirk Radomski, once a Mets clubhouse attendant, as a Johnny Appleseed for the steroid era. Radomski, the report said, had told Hundley before the 1996 season that steroids would let him hit 40 home runs, then sold Hundley Deca-Durabolin. The report named Hundley and teammate David Segui as important links in Radomski’s steroid chain, with Hundley connecting Paul Lo Duca with Radomski after Hundley moved on to the Dodgers. Lo Duca, in turn, would tell more friends. It was like that old shampoo ad, albeit with very different stuff in the bottles.

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

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back in the mid-1990s, steroids was still a fringe concern among the media and fans. Yes, astute Met fans remembered the anecdote about Lenny Dykstra showing up way back in 1987 looking like an inflated steer and blithely telling a shocked Wally Backman that he’d been taking “those good vitamins.” But we were years away from questions about the bottle in Mark McGwire‘s locker, from the furor around McGwire and Sosa and Bonds and Clemens, from a shrunken McGwire telling Congress he wasn’t there to talk about the past, from suspicions and suspensions and testing, and from the first of about a billion Hall of Fame debates that convinced absolutely no one of anything.

And you know what? I loved Todd Hundley.

I loved that he hit home runs, of course. But I also loved that he had swagger and that he actually said interesting things to the newspapers. Despite the media glare of New York and his pedigree as a big-leaguer’s kid, he gave answers that weren’t carefully sanded down to meaninglessness, and you always had the sense that he was in on the cosmic joke of it all. His scraps with Bobby Valentine were particularly eventful, variously exhausting and entertaining. Valentine was a Billy Martin for a more psychological, media-saturated age — a genius whose greatness was fueled by paranoia about not only enemy managers but also his own clubhouse and organization. That paranoia extended to his catcher, the team’s most popular player, who didn’t fear the spotlight that his manager also craved. At least they had that in common; otherwise they were polar opposites. Hundley struck the fanbase as almost comically straightforward, while we all knew Valentine was maniacally at work behind the curtain at all times, leaking and jabbing and spinning clubhouse webs.

Hundley’s 41st home run came on Sept. 14, 1996, a day game at Shea. It was a three-run shot off future Met Greg McMichael, turning a 5-2 lead into a tie. Hundley took a curtain call and the Mets beat the Braves on a walkoff in the 12th. I recall that I was there, though perhaps that’s wishful thinking — I don’t have a ticket stub from the game, which I probably would have held onto. But let’s say I was. Whatever my location, I recall cheering madly for Hundley as he stomped around the bases, and hoping that blow had made Bobby Cox — who always wore the expression of a man who’d just sat in a puddle — even grumpier than usual. At the same time, that cheering felt like spitting in the eye of a bully who’d finally taken a breather because he was tired of pummeling you. The Braves were comfortably in first place and operated like a sleek machine; the Mets were 14 games under .500.

But better times were ahead. In ’97 the Mets won 88 games and Hundley hit a more modest but still glamorous 30 homers. He might well have hit more, except his right elbow had betrayed him. He’d wind up needing Tommy John surgery, which claimed the first three months of his 1998 campaign — and helped pave the way for the Mets’ acquisition of Mike Piazza.

Somehow that acquisition was 22 years ago, meaning I could easily revise how I reacted at the time. But I won’t. I hated the trade. Piazza was a catcher, I fumed, and we already had a perfectly good catcher.

Except a) we didn’t, as Hundley was still rehabbing; and b) even a fully armed and operational Todd Hundley was not Mike Piazza.

The Mets, to their credit, didn’t think the way I did. (Less to their credit, they assured Hundley no such deal was in the works.) They grabbed one of the game’s marquee players and reasoned that the problem of too many catchers would work itself out. Which it did — as an oh-so-Metsian tragicomedy.

Hundley returned in July, but as a left fielder. He even mostly said the right things about this hasty recasting, vowing that if it worked out he’d burn his catcher’s gear.

It didn’t work out. Oh man did it not work out. If you weren’t there, it was a disaster wrapped in a farce. Daniel Murphy staggering around in left in Miami? He was great compared with Hundley. J.D. Davis and Dom Smith? Gold glovers and UZR gods next to Hundley.

It was brutal and unfair and thoroughly unsuccessful. But Hundley somehow rose above it, or at least didn’t let it drown him. He took responsibility for the misplays, he waved at the fans when they gave him a standing ovation for a routine catch, and he shook off the usual anonymous Met sources who pilloried him for everything from his nocturnal habits to how he’d handled rehabbing the elbow. He even took an odd stab at perspective, noting he’d flipped away from highlights of one of his misplays and wound up watching an Anne Frank documentary. His conclusion was that “the bad night I had doesn’t even come close.” Somehow the idea of a supersized Hundley squinting at grainy pictures of Bergen-Belsen and deriving life lessons from it strikes me as iconically late-90s.

Hundley got better in left field, which isn’t to say that he got good at it, just that he stopped butchering every routine fly ball. But his surgically repaired elbow wasn’t up to throwing, leading to a carousel of runners. He also wasn’t hitting, accumulating strikeouts by the bushel. The Mets mercifully ended the left-field experiment in late August; Hundley said he was burning his outfielder’s glove. When he returned from a DL stint, it was as a backup catcher and pinch hitter.

Which led to the one great moment of the surreal, misbegotten Hundley/Piazza era. On Sept. 16, with the Mets battling for a wild card, they trailed the Astros 2-0 in the top of the 9th. With two out and two on, Piazza connected off Billy Wagner for a three-run shot, the 200th of his career. The Astros retied the game in the bottom of the 9th, but Hundley won it with a pinch-hit homer in the 11th.

I tried to convince myself that this was the start of something grand, when everything suggested otherwise. After the game, Hundley and Piazza stood side by side, but their body language clearly communicated that both really wanted to be somewhere else. Which was only natural, given that they were sharing a position to which each had good reason to feel entitled. As for the something grand, the Mets went 2-6 the rest of the way, with the Braves administering the coup de grace with a final-weekend sweep. That winter, the Mets signed Piazza to a seven-year deal and traded Hundley to the Dodgers. Hundley’s time in L.A. was reasonably productive, but a homecoming to Chicago and the Cubs was a disaster, one made more painful by how beloved his dad had been wearing the same uniform. Hundley feuded with his manager, flipped off fans, and worst of all he didn’t hit. The Cubs sent him back to L.A. and he retired at 34.

Hindsight is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope, which gets us back to that first-husband crack. Looking through our wrong-way telescope, Hundley was the catcher subtracted to make room for Piazza. He was a lone bright spot in a dim and dismal period followed by a Piazza-led Mets resurgence. Which isn’t incorrect, exactly. But it is incomplete. It ignores the pretty good ’97 campaign and the agonizing near-miss of ’98, for one thing. And it’s colored by what we now know about that era of the game.

Yes, Hundley was transformed into a ridiculously brawny action figure and hit 41 home runs. And yes, we have a pretty good guess about how that happened. But he was surrounded by ridiculously brawny action-figure ballplayers. You could go from 1995 to 2005 (to pick a possibly arbitrary range) and I don’t think there’s a baseball player I’d be shocked to learn used PEDs. Disappointed? Sure, at least in one case. But shocked? Uh-uh. If you’re still capable of being shocked by such a revelation, you weren’t paying attention.

It was a mildly ridiculous era, both for baseball in general and for New York in particular. But I loved Hundley anyway — for the now-suspect feats of strength, but also for surviving innumerable swims with sharks and emerging with both his sense of humor and his sense of self intact. And there’s no asterisk on the latter.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1969Donn Clendenon
1972: Gary Gentry
1973Willie Mays
1982Rusty Staub
1991Rich Sauveur
1994Rico Brogna

Pitchers Break

I was five months old when the Mets completed their ascent from doormats to destiny’s darlings, and by the time I started collecting cards in 1976, the miracle makers had been largely dispersed. Just six were still Mets. The rest had become Pirates and Astros and Phillies and other questionable things, or started doing whatever people did when they no longer played baseball. Two were no longer with us at all.

In an era before videotapes, let alone YouTube, I learned the saga of ’69 through books, snapping up every quickie paperback I could find about the Miracle Mets. Which turned out to be a terrific education, as a lot of those books were genuinely great reads, thanks to a deep bench of talented New York sportswriters. George Vecsey’s Joy in Mudville, Paul Zimmerman and Dick Schaap’s The Year the Mets Lost Last Place and Maury Allen’s The Incredible Mets were particular favorites, with a special place in my heart reserved for Screwball, written by Tug McGraw with X amount of help from Joe Durso. And there was the peerless Roger Angell, whose meditations on baseball convinced me that other teams were sometimes worth pondering too. But I wasn’t discriminating — I’d read anything about the Mets, or that might be about the Mets.

That was how I learned the gospel. About Tom Seaver refusing to celebrate .500, and Gil Hodges taking the long walk out to speak with Cleon Jones. About the black cat and Leo Durocher and Ron Santo clicking his heels. About Frank Robinson calling Rod Gaspar “Ron Stupid” and the Met wives unfurling a banner in the stands in Baltimore. About the scoreboard saying LOOK WHO’S NUMBER 1 and the shoe-polish ball being brought to Lou DiMuro. I read about Tommie Agee and Ron Swoboda catching balls dozens of times before I ever got to see them do it, and could tell you in great detail how J.C. Martin should have been out but I was glad he wasn’t, despite no visual reference. I’d studied the picture of Jerry Koosman jackknifed in Jerry Grote‘s arms while Ed Charles danced happily nearby so many times that I could draw it from memory.

There was stuff I didn’t understand yet, like the controversy around Seaver and the Vietnam war and a flag that absolutely should or shouldn’t have been at half-mast, or why anyone thought it was significant that the Mets’ black and white players all seemed to get along. And there were random pieces of the adult world that those books lodged in my brain because of their Mets connection. I was foggy on who John Lindsay, Nelson Rockefeller, Jackie Onassis, Ed Sullivan or Pearl Bailey were, but I knew they were part of the tale and that was good enough for me. (I still don’t really know who Pearl Bailey was.) I knew it was funny that Swoboda had yelled, “they’ve sprayed all the imported and now we have to drink the domestic,” and repeated that endlessly despite not knowing why it was funny. Oh, and for some reason I could tell you that Nancy Seaver wore a tam o’shanter. (There it was atop her head in last night’s SNY airing of Game 4, just like the books taught me.)

But there were discordant notes in the saga, things that seemed strange to me but not to adults. Some of the Miracle Mets had retired because they were old, at least for baseball, but others had disappeared before their time — what had become of Gaspar, or Jack DiLauro? As I kept reading and learning, I figured out that Gaspar and DiLauro had been the last guys on the roster, the kind of guys who had to keep fighting for big-league jobs. But that still left one mystery: What had happened to Gary Gentry?

Gentry and Seaver on the mound

From Jace’s front hall to this post.

He’d been a rookie in 1969, and even I knew he was young for a ballplayer then. Heck, he even looked young to me, for whom everybody was old. One of my favorite Mets photos is of Gentry and Seaver standing on the mound after the Mets clinched the division and security guards wrested the field back from the sod-pillaging mob. Their uniforms are in disarray, as is the field. The photographer caught Gentry while trying to get his bearings in this strange new world, but the first thing you notice is he looks about 12.

I knew Gentry had been a good pitcher — a really good one, in fact, part of the Mets’ front line with Seaver and Koosman. But Seaver and Koosman were still Mets, and Gentry wasn’t. He’d become an Atlanta Brave, grown a mustache that made him look vaguely dissolute, and then vanished. The explanation given by Mets books and the occasional Baseball Digest mention was that he’d hurt his arm, which was both annoyingly vague and raised more questions than it answered. Was hurting your arm really that common? Could it happen to any pitcher?

The answers turned out to be yes, and yes.

I’d learn that eventually — a brutal baseball truth that in my mind will always be bound up with Gary Gentry.

As I got older, I realized that not all of the Mets had actually been baseball gods, and the ’69 championship had been less about destiny than superlative pitching, smart platooning and some good old-fashioned luck. (OK, so maybe there was a little destiny involved.) But Gentry really had been that good. He was a position player in high school, attending the wonderfully named Camelback High in Phoenix, before taking the mound for Phoenix Junior College and Arizona State. As a junior at Arizona State, Gentry went 17-1, fanning 229 in 174 innings; in the College World Series semifinal he went 14 innings against Stanford, striking out 15 and scoring the winning run. He was drafted by the Orioles, Astros and Giants, but his dad — a former World War II and Korean War pilot — refused to let him sign. The offers kept getting better, and after the College World Series Ed Gentry left the decision up to his son. Gary signed with the Mets for $50,000, blitzed through Williamsport and Jacksonville, and made the Mets out of spring training in 1969, when he was all of 22.

Gentry was two years younger than Seaver, but there were a lot of similarities between them. Gentry was smart, a student of the game eager to learn how to carve up enemy hitters. (The Mets put his locker between Seaver’s and Koosman’s, an excellent place to learn this craft.) He was ornery, though sometimes he directed his fire at teammates or management instead of the opposition. And, like Seaver, he had no patience for the dysfunctional romance around the Mets as lovable losers. Gentry’s juco team had won a national championship and just missed another one, he’d won a College World Series with the Sun Devils, and both his minor-league teams had been league champions. He wasn’t overawed by being a big leaguer, and he expected to win.

And he did. Gentry won 13 games as a rookie in ’69 and could have won 20 with better run support and less bum luck. (And, perhaps, with more ability to shake off misfortune — but, again, he was 22.) He won the division clincher, then started the NLCS capper against Atlanta (Shea Stadium’s first postseason game) and Game 3 of the Series, best known for Agee’s two sparkling catches. His performance against Baltimore came as a surprise to both Earl Weaver and Frank Cashen, who knew about Seaver and Koosman but whose scouting reports had badly underestimated Gentry. Years later, Cashen would still grow visibly irritated about the rookie who’d beaten his Birds — and Gentry, when asked, would still be irritated about Cashen being surprised.

(Oh, and he’s one of the most enthusiastic Mets belting out “You Gotta Have Heart” on the Ed Sullivan Show — behind McGraw, of course, and maybe Gaspar. Though nothing in that video will ever be funnier than Nolan Ryan, who can’t be bothered and doesn’t care that it’s obvious.)

After 1969 things went sideways for Gentry — sideways and then south. In ’71 Gentry groused about getting second-class treatment in the rotation and struggled with his emotions on the mound, repeatedly showing up teammates who didn’t make plays. He was still a prized commodity, though — the Angels settled for Ryan as the price for Jim Fregosi after being refused Gentry. In ’72 arm problems that had plagued him since 1970 became worse, and after the season the Mets traded him and Danny Frisella to the Braves for Felix Millan and George Stone.

As it turned out, Gentry had been pitching with a bone chip in his elbow, which the Braves’ doctors found after arm woes derailed his 1973 season. The operation to fix the chip would have been simple in 1970, but now it put him on the shelf for the rest of the year. He came back in ’74, but the highlight of his campaign was standing in the bullpen hoping to catch Hank Aaron‘s 715th homer. (Tom House caught it instead.) After another operation and lost year, Gentry returned for a third try in ’75, but feuded with Atlanta about a pay cut and wound up exiled to the bullpen. After getting shelled in a mop-up assignment despite being given minimal time to warm up, the Braves told Gentry he was being released to make room for younger pitchers. He was 28 and his arm felt fine, but he was done.

Done except for a tantalizing what-if. The Mets’ pitching staff was in tatters and they signed Gentry a month after Atlanta sent him home. He reported to Double-A Jackson with a promise that he’d be called up as soon as he showed the club all was well. Unfortunately, Gentry hadn’t picked up a ball in a month. He was in a hurry when he should have taken it slow. He warmed up for his first game, threw two pitches and heard something rip. Another pitch, another rip. He never so much as recorded an out for Jackson and went home to Phoenix to learn the real-estate business.

Remember when Jason Isringhausen and Bill Pulsipher were about to lead the Mets back to the top of the mountain, with Paul Wilson waiting in the wings? The debate was who was Seaver and who was Koosman and should we maybe be talking about Jon Matlack. But there was another possibility, a disquieting one that nobody wanted to mention. What if they all turn out to be Gary Gentry?

That wasn’t a knock on Gentry, but a knock on wood against the cruelties of baseball — a knock on wood that didn’t work. Only Isringhausen survived to have a notable career, and his top similarity score over on Baseball Reference isn’t Tom Seaver but Bob Wickman. As for Pulsipher and Wilson, they did indeed turn out to be Gary Gentry. Which might also be the fate of Noah Syndergaard. Or David Peterson. Or the next Met phenom you haven’t heard of yet.

What went wrong? You could blame Mets coaches, or Mets doctors, or their counterparts with the Braves, or any of a host of targets. But when it comes to injured pitchers, decades of advances in baseball science and sports surgery have brought us all the way from groping in the dark to groping in the dim. You wait for the pop, the shake of the arm, the visit from the trainer, the uncertainty and rehab and further uncertainty that follows, and it all still boils down to a simple, cosmically unfair truth about the game. Learning that truth was the solution to the mystery of Gary Gentry’s disappearance, a cruel lesson that generation after generation of Met pitchers has reinforced and will reinforce.

He hurt his arm. Pitchers break.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1969: Donn Clendenon
1973: Willie Mays
1982: Rusty Staub
1991: Rich Sauveur
1994: Rico Brogna

Mets Legend Willie Mays

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.

When Willie Mays returned to New York, many saw it — may God forgive them — as a trade to be debated on the merits of statistics. Could the forty-one-year-old center fielder with ascending temperament and waning batting average help the Mets? To those of us who spent our boyhood, our teens, and our beer-swilling days debating who was the first person of the Holy Trinity — Mantle, Snider, or Mays? — it was a lover’s reprieve from limbo. No matter how Amazin’ the Mets were, a part of our hearts was in San Francisco.
—Joe Flaherty, “Love Song to Willie Mays,” 1972

Maybe it was when I opened to the baseball chapter of the New York Times-branded book of sports records I was given for a seventh birthday present, examined the all-time home run list, and realized the player listed as second was still playing. Maybe it was the cumulative effect of hearing repeated endorsements by announcers — ours as well as the ones who spoke glowingly of him on national telecasts. I could’ve picked it up in the papers during my early, precocious infatuation with sports sections. However the notion embedded itself within my head and heart, by the time the first All-Star Game I tuned into rolled around on July 14, 1970, there was no doubt in my mind.

Willie Mays was the best player in baseball. Maybe not the best at the moment (Johnny Bench seemed to have that title well in hand). Maybe not the best ever (Babe Ruth did have the most home runs). But, nearly twenty years before Tina Turner would make bank off the phrase, and three years before his emotional 1973 retirement choked up the portion of the nation whose pastime would always be baseball, Willie Mays reigned as simply the best. It’s no surprise that leading off in that All-Star Game for the best of leagues, the National, was simply the best player there was.

Of course Willie Mays came first.

Thanks to NBC, I was exposed to a passel of future Hall of Famers that Tuesday night. Twenty players introduced at brand new Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati fifty summers ago now have plaques in Cooperstown. I lapped up all those gallons of greatness swirling through the portable Sony black & white set stationed in my sister’s room that she rarely watched. At seven years old, my July nights were already about baseball. My days, too. The names — Aaron, Clemente, two Robinsons, Seaver obviously, Bench and Perez from the home team, Carew, McCovey, Palmer and on and on — were already familiar to me. I’d seen them everywhere I’d looked. Baseball cards. Baseball lists. Baseball stories. Now they were all together in one baseball place.

But first and foremost among them was Willie Mays, center fielder for the San Francisco Giants with now more than 600 home runs and the irresistible nickname the Say Hey Kid. He was the best, and as the best, I really wanted his card. Couldn’t get one in 1970, not even in that “Super Series” where the cards were absurdly oversized and incredibly thick. Couldn’t get one in 1971, either. Come 1972, however, my interminable dry spell came to an end (interminable being a relative matter when you’re nine and you’ve been wanting something since you were seven). The very first pack of spring in third grade, purchased at the Cozy Nook on the walk home from East School, revealed his name in a serif font above his smiling face which was framed under a yellow banner from which his team name fairly exploded: GIANTS. I couldn’t believe I had Willie Mays in my hand. I sat in the kitchen, cradled it, marveled at my fortune, and smiled at his smile.

Make me smile.

Then I flipped him over. Even at nine…even at seven, I was always more taken by words, numbers and facts than I was images.

Will ya look at that set of statistics? They start in 1950 in the minors (those don’t really count). A year later, he’s in the majors, where he’s stayed ever since. There’s one year that’s blank when he’s “In Military Service,” but otherwise Willie Mays is always playing and always posting titanic totals. As many as 52 homers in one year. As many as 127 RBIs. Batting averages regularly over .300. Those are the main numbers if you’re a baseball fan of any vintage, though the Topps people are kind enough to list ancillary stats like runs and hits and doubles and triples and believe you me (whatever that means; it’s something people said on TV), Willie Mays has a ton of those, too. The yearly accumulations grew a little lighter as the 1960s were ending and the 1970s were beginning, but that, I infer in the spring of 1972, is to be expected. Willie Mays’s birthdate is listed as 5-6-31, which makes him 40 going on 41. He’s almost as old as my father. Eighteen home runs, sixty-one runs batted in and a .271 average — his totals from 1971 — are pretty good for someone over forty. In 1971, Willie Mays helped lead the Giants to a division title. In 1971, Willie Mays had more home runs and more RBIs than anybody on the Mets.

Funny thing about the back of the 1972 Willie Mays card, No. 49 in the first series from Topps (No. 50 was Willie Mays In Action). Where they list “TEAM” and “LEA” for his first bunch of years in the big leagues, Mays isn’t with San Francisco, which is where I know him from. Instead, from 1951 through 1957, including his military service year of 1953, the card says he played for “New York N.L.” I do a double-take. At the age of nine, I know better than to think there was some sort of secret Willie Mays past nobody’s mentioned regarding a long-ago tenure with the only “New York N.L.” I’ve ever experienced. I know my New York Mets of the National League have, like me, been around only since 1962.

I also know, albeit vaguely, that the San Francisco Giants used to be the New York Giants, the way the Los Angeles Dodgers used to be the Brooklyn Dodgers. It doesn’t come up very often in conversation, but it’s one of those myriad ancient, as in before I was born, baseball lessons I’ve absorbed since entering the game’s thrall as a lad of six. I’m nine now. I’ve been around. I pay attention on Old-Timers Day, I’ll have you know. I even remember getting Hoyt Wilhelm’s card in 1970 (it said he was on the Braves but his cap was disturbingly blank), and on the back he got the “New York N.L.” treatment. It was hard to fathom that anybody who played in the 1950s was still playing baseball in the 1970s, but at least a few of those guys were. A couple played for “New York N.L.” before it meant what I know it means now.

Yet here in the spring of 1972, when one has achieved what may have been his first longstanding lifetime goal, a person can dream. I’m looking at this Willie Mays card I finally have. I’m looking at these credentials of his. I’m looking at “New York N.L.” and how it’s attached to him despite the orange SF insignia on his black cap in his picture on the front, the cap the announcers like to mention flies off his head a lot when he’s running. The theoretical juxtaposition lingers for a moment. Willie Mays. New York. Mets.

Then, within two months, the punctuation changes. Willie Mays, New York Mets.

Willie Mays, New York Mets!

The mind boggled. It remains boggled. I’ve since lived numerous times through the happy shock of learning that big Met trades had been made and that big names were suddenly Met names: George Foster; Keith Hernandez; Gary Carter; Mike Piazza; Roberto Alomar; Johan Santana; Yoenis Cespedes. And regardless of the for-better-or-for-worse impact that rippled out of those respective big frigging deals, nothing — nothing — measures up in my formerly nine-year-old mind to learning that Willie Mays was suddenly of the New York Mets.

Willie Mays, New York Mets!

There was a backstory that made sense as to how and why this could have happened and had to happen, and it was connected to the lines below Trenton and Minneapolis and above San Francisco on 1972 Topps Card No. 49. “New York N.L.” wasn’t just dusty ledgerkeeping. “New York N.L.” was where Willie Mays became Willie Mays. It was about more than a Rookie of the Year award in 1951 or an MVP in 1954. It was about an impression made and an impression left and a heart that couldn’t be transported lock, stock and barrel to San Francisco. Willie Mays hadn’t been a home team player in New York for fifteen years, but when the orange NY, which was now embroidered onto royal blue caps, was provided for him anew, he put it on and it fit perfectly. The trade became official as of May 11, 1972: pitcher Charlie Williams and cash that Horace Stoneham needed, for Willie Mays and a return to the loving arms of Joan Payson and the city that never forgot him. Jim Beauchamp, acquired from St. Louis in the offseason for Art Shamsky, graciously gave up the 24 he’d inherited from Art and handed it over to Willie, because Willie Mays, 24 for the New York Giants, was now going to be 24 for the New York Mets.

The mind boggled some more.

Willie Mays, you likely know, played in his first game as a Met versus the Giants, at Shea Stadium on Mother’s Day, in the Mets’ 24th game of the year. You’d think that would be too much symbolism for one ballgame to hold. In the bottom of the first inning, Willie, starting as first baseman rather than center fielder in deference to his being 41, led off the Sunday affair of May 14 by walking and then scoring on Rusty Staub’s grand slam in the first (getting Rusty Staub from the Expos in April was also pretty mind-boggling). In the fifth, with the score tied at four, Willie led off again. This time he homered for the 647th time in his career. The heavens wept. Technically, it was a little rainy, but c’mon. You didn’t need to go back to 1951 with Willie Mays and the New York Giants to understand that this was transcendent. You didn’t need to know the word “transcendent,” even. You could be nine, a fan since you were six, and soak in the wonder of it all. This was a Foxwoods commercial before there was a Foxwoods.

Willie’s homer won the Mets that game over the Giants, and Willie’s play continued to help the Mets win for weeks to come. They were the best team in baseball with the best baseball player there was, and all it took to get him was a Quadruple-A pitcher, Mrs. Payson’s discretionary funds and unabashed sentimentality. The Mets reeled off eleven wins in a row at one point and were 30-11 as June dawned. Willie reached base in the first twenty games in which he came to the plate. Baseball cards didn’t include on-base percentage in 1972, but had Topps had the capability and foresight to rush a modern rendition out to reflect the first not quite seven weeks of Willie Mays’s second “New York N.L.” tenure, it would have noted his OBP between May 14 and June 27 was .463 and his OPS was .914.

Coming home and going, going, gone! (Photo by Life magazine)

Better from my perspective than a new Willie Mays card was the gander I got at the May 26 issue of Life magazine. It, like me, was sitting in the waiting room of my sister’s orthodontist, a fellow soon to become my orthodontist, lucky me. I’d be bracing myself for life with braces long after Life ceased weekly publication. George Wallace was on the cover. Him I wasn’t too concerned with. Inside, on pages 38 and 39, was a spread that made me say, in so many words, “HEY!” It contained — along with an appropriate headline (“Willie Forever!”); a brief explanation of Mays’s May 14 exploits; and a picture of the Mets first baseman’s glorious swing off Giants reliever Don Carrithers as San Francisco catcher Fran Healy watches helplessly — a reproduction of every Willie Mays Topps baseball card from 1952 through 1972. There was the one I got in that first pack. And there were the 1971 and 1970 ones I opened pack after pack in unanswered hopes of getting. And there were what Willie Mays cards looked like in the years before, not just the years from when I’d had cards, but back to the early ’60s and the ’50s, which was the first time I’d ever seen what a baseball card manufactured prior to 1966 looked like.

Most breathtakingly, there was Willie Mays wearing a black cap with an orange NY over and over, representing the New York Giants, which floored me. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen that cap, but it was the first time it truly hit me what this homecoming was all about — and from whence the Mets sprung in terms of lineage. I knew we were an expansion team. I knew something about Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. But here, in living color, was current New York Met Willie Mays — the best of baseball players — being then-current New York Giant Willie Mays. This array of baseball cards said a million words.

There was something familiar about that NY.

It was then and there that I pledged retroactive fealty to the New York Giants and their orange NY. And it was then and there that I became intractable in my belief that there was nowhere Willie Mays was supposed to be in 1972 and 1973 other than in a uniform that allowed to him to finish his career wearing that orange NY.

Mays didn’t keep up his blistering on-base pace and the Mets didn’t keep up theirs in the winning percentage column. Staub got hurt. Everybody got hurt. The Mets fell from first to a not especially compelling third. Willie was a legend who apparently required a bit of care and feeding regular players didn’t rate. Yogi Berra, the legend who never sought to manage the Mets but had the job thrust on him after the death of Gil Hodges, was put in an awkward position of calculating when he could play him and when he could sit him. After the initial burst of euphoria, Willie Mays in his superstar emeritus phase and the Mets just trying to finish the season didn’t necessarily constitute an ideal marriage.

I didn’t grasp any of that at age nine. I spent the rest of 1972 in a haze of ecstasy that Willie Mays the New York Giant was a New York Met who had hit a home run to win a game versus the San Francisco Giants and that he was — past tense notwithstanding — the best player in baseball. It didn’t matter to me that Hank Aaron passed him on the all-time home run list. I rooted for Aaron to catch Ruth. I liked Aaron from a distance, but there wasn’t nothing particularly New York about him. Mays, as Life made clear, was meant to be ours. Mays was meant to be on my team. Mays was meant to be a Met. It wasn’t that he was the best. It was that he was the best here, for us — for the version of us that preceded us. That orange NY spoke volumes to me.

So he’d stay into 1973 when, save for the occasional reminder of what had made him famous more than twenty years before, he played like a 42-year-old. He was still Willie Mays. He was still named to the All-Star team because he was Willie Mays. He still drew ovations at Shea because he was Willie Mays. He didn’t play like the Willie Mays everybody who’d seen him in 1951 and 1954 swore by. He didn’t play like the Willie Mays I saw for myself in May and June of 1972. He was said to be about as done as the last-place Mets were in the summer of 1973.

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

Perfect ending…except there was that little matter of the Say Hey Kid being pressed into center field action in the literal glare of the Oakland Coliseum in the second game of the World Series and the image of old man Mays being overmatched by fly balls and gravity. By not being as ageless as he had to be (in a game that, oh by the way, the Mets would win in extras on Willie’s RBI single), the best player in baseball became a metaphor for athletes who hang on too long, and Willie Mays’s presence in a Mets uniform would embody something that it was generally decided never looked right. “Mets legend Willie Mays” is supposed to be a guaranteed chuckle-generator on social media, as if coming home to play before appreciative fans who never forgot you somehow factors out to a net negative. Even the stupendous Joe Posnanski, in recently declaring Willie Mays the No. 1 baseball player who’s ever lived — better than Ruth, better than everybody — fell down the well of Willie falling down in center.

Tom Seaver, you may recall, tried to make a comeback with the Mets in June of 1987. The pitching staff was riddled by injuries and Tom was sitting home in Greenwich without a contract. He was 42, but had been solid enough for the Red Sox when he was 41 and, technically, he had never retired. Apparently, though, 41 was the upper limit for 41, because Tom’s comeback attempt lasted only a few weeks and never resulted in his actually coming back. After Barry Lyons roughed him up in a simulated game, Tom definitively announced his retirement at a press conference, admitting his fabled right arm contained no more competitive pitches.

But what if Tom had hung in there a little longer and convinced himself as well as Frank Cashen and Davey Johnson that he had something left. The Mets were sorting through Don Schulze and John Mitchell and whoever that summer. It’s not inconceivable that Tom Seaver could have reached down a little deeper and given the Mets the quality innings they needed to bridge the gap from June to October. So let’s say that happened. Let’s say Tom Seaver helps pitch the Mets to the 1987 division title, then the 1987 National League pennant and, finally, the 1987 World Series. And then, because this is all hypothetical, let’s say Tom Seaver takes the mound at the Metrodome and, figuratively if not literally, falls down on baseball’s biggest stage and that’s how his career ends, forty-two-year-old Tom Seaver, who didn’t know when to quit, implodes with everybody watching.

Someone like me, an adult with precious memories of robust Tom Terrific, might have cringed and wished he’d just stayed in Connecticut looking at proposals for wineries, just as those who went back to the Polo Grounds with their childhood hero didn’t want to see the old Willie Mays of 1973 besmirch the memory of young Willie Mays from 1954. I just now, in 2020, had to invent a hypothetical to get there, but I acknowledge the “Willie falling down in center” trope wasn’t invented in hindsight; there were people who loved Willie Mays who couldn’t bear to see Willie Mays be several levels short of Willie Mays; who couldn’t stand that something as ostensibly sweet as sunshine might get the best of the Say Hey Kid. Yet give me this: had that Seaver scenario played out, there would have been a kid of nine or maybe ten who read stories and saw pictures from 1969 and legitimately tingled from seeing Tom Seaver pitch for the 1987 Mets…and that kid would never forget it. That for that kid, even if Tom Seaver was 42 and no longer fully 41, the Franchise was the Franchise and he belonged on a mound for Mets for as long as he could toe its rubber.

Looks perfect to me.

It’s not a perfect analogy, just as Willie Mays’s time as a Met wasn’t without flaws. But to me, it was perfect. To me, Willie Mays is a New York Met. To me, no other Met should wear 24. I could dive into a grubby argument about what represents a retirable number, one of those chintzy debates that inevitably diminishes everybody whose number is namechecked, but I prefer to lean on what Joe Flaherty, an old Giant fan who had converted to the Mets while waiting for his baseball heartthrob to come home, had to say in the Village Voice in 1972.

“Willie, like Scott Fitzgerald’s rich,” Flaherty wrote, “is very different from you and me.”

He was very different from every player. He started with one “New York N.L.” He ended with the other “New York N.L.” And, in between, he was better than every player.

One more number to consider before saying “hey” to 24: 89, as in happy 89th birthday to Willie Mays. That comes tomorrow (5-6-20), another candle atop all of his incandescent yesterdays. I am honored that I was able to witness a few of them where I did when I did.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1969: Donn Clendenon
1982: Rusty Staub
1991: Rich Sauveur
1994: Rico Brogna

With & Without Donn Clendenon

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.

“Fuck, 33, too soon.”
“No, dying in thirties is tragic. As is forties. Sympathy dissipates from there. Fifties is ‘such a shame’. Sixties is ‘too soon’.”
“Seventies: ‘a good run’.”
“And eighties, ‘a life well lived’. Nineties?”
“That’s a fucking helluva ride.”

—Axe and Wags, Billions

Where would have the Mets been last year without Pete Alonso? Or Jacob deGrom? Or Jeff McNeil? Or Seth Lugo?

I don’t know. Nobody does. Yet we impose that hypothetical upon the actual regularly as a compliment to any Met we think made a positive impact on our team’s fortunes. I’m not sure what purpose it serves. Why shouldn’t have we had the players who helped the Mets be better than they presumably would have been without them? The Mets secured the services of those players via legally recognized contractual processes. While it’s possible the parties might not have reached a mutually satisfactory agreement and therefore Alonso or deGrom or whoever wouldn’t have worn the uniform of our choosing, that didn’t happen.

Every Met who’s been a Met has been a Met when he’s been a Met. (Got that?) Musing that we would have been worse off had we not had a given Met at a given time seems a fatalistic offshoot of the dreaded “this is why we can’t have nice things” self-flagellation to which we too often reflexively resort when things don’t go as nicely as we’d prefer.

We can have nice things. We can have the players who do nice things. We might not maintain the exact aggregation necessary to achieve our hopes and dreams in this season or that, but let’s enjoy what we get when we get it (whenever we next get anything of a baseball nature). Let’s not assume every Met who performs optimally for us is a clerical error waiting to be rectified by a vengeful karma last seen wearing a Nationals cap.

Where would have the Mets been without Donn Clendenon in 1969? Again, I don’t know. Nobody does. What we do know is that the Mets started 1969 with neither Donn Clendenon nor the slightest track record of success and that they ended 1969 with both Donn Clendenon and a world championship. If you wish to conclude that there is a direct correlation between the presence of the title and the presence of the slugging first baseman, go ahead. Clendenon was, chronologically speaking, the final member of the World Series roster to become a Met. Most of the 1969 Mets who made it to October were Mets before 1969. They didn’t win us any world championships before Clendenon came along, did they? Ergo, all that ticker tape must’ve sprung from Donn’s big bat.

That’s an awfully superficial way of determining a player’s intrinsic value to a ballclub. Still it’s tempting. The 1968 Mets had a whole bunch of their future champions already on board…yet lost 89 games. Plenty of 1969 Mets were 1967 Mets…but the 1967 Mets lost 101 games. Cover one eye, squint with the other and you can convince yourself that all the Mets of the late ’60s needed to transform themselves dramatically was Donn Clendenon donning orange and blue.

It was dramatic enough that Clendenon was traded for on June 15, 1969, in a deal that sent one fairly established major leaguer (utilityman Kevin Collins) and three minor leaguers of varying levels of promise (pitchers Steve Renko, Jay Carden and Dave Colon) to Montreal. It was additionally intriguing because Clendenon, a veteran of eight seasons with Pittsburgh, had rejected an earlier trade, in January, one that would have shipped him off to the Astros from the expansion Expos. Donn had been around long enough to know that he didn’t want to play for Houston manager Harry Walker and, unlike most ballplayers, he had an imminent and appealing career option outside baseball. Clendenon didn’t have to be an Astro when he knew he could be a Scripto (an executive for the pen company, that is). Montreal, which had drafted Clendenon from the Pirates, made other arrangements with Houston — allowing them to keep the erstwhile Astro they wanted, Rusty Staub — and held on to their ex-Buc a few months longer than planned.

The Mets had always angled to trade for a big bat of Clendenon’s caliber. They were just never successful at it. The best they could come up with was a bat that had been big — Ken Boyer in advance of 1966; Tommy Davis ahead of 1967; someone who’d put up some really fine numbers a while back and if he could regain some of that MVP-type form in New York, well, incremental improvement is better than none for a team that had yet to prove remotely competitive. The Mets were never successful enough for any trade to seem all that vital in the moment. The best they could do on the market was trade for what amounted to future considerations: prying loose 23-year-old Jerry Grote from the Astros in 1965 plugged a longstanding catching hole; landing 25-year-old Tommie Agee from the White Sox in 1967 accomplished the same end for center field. In a best-case scenario, both young men served as legitimate building blocks for a team that maybe someday wouldn’t be an automatic bet to finish in the second division, yet neither Grote nor Agee was acquired with an eye on climbing into first place at the very next conceivable opportunity. There was no conceivable first-place opportunity looming for the Mets in 1966 or 1968. Hallucinogenic drugs might have been gaining popularity in certain circles, but Harry M. Stevens didn’t sell them at the Shea concessions.

The exchange of players from June 15, 1969, however, transpired in a whole other beautiful world, one where Mets general manager Johnny Murphy could look at the roster he and his predecessors had been crafting when no one was taking them seriously and realize they were at last at the juncture when that mythic big bat could make a meaningful noise. Enter the strong, long and lanky Clendenon, albeit a couple of years removed from his most muscular production (28 home runs, 98 runs batted in and a .299 average in 1966 — adding up to an OPS+ of 141, not that anyone knew what the hell that was then). But the 1969 Mets, while they craved a legitimate cleanup hitter, didn’t necessarily have to have a superstar; nor were they willing to give up too much of their awesome young pitching to nab one. They needed someone who’d been around the league, someone who could get around on a fastball, and someone who would be OK playing sometimes. They needed a dependable right-handed hitting first baseman to complement their perennially developing lefty-swinging incumbent Ed Kranepool. Kranepool was 24. Clendenon was a month from 34. Between them, they averaged out as a 29-year-old switch-hitter, forging an ideal everyday player within Gil Hodges’s platoon of platoons.

Strong, long, lanky and just what a growing team needed.

The second-place Mets of mid-June 1969 were 30-26, better than they’d ever been after 36 games…and 8½ games behind the first-place Cubs. That only sounds like a large margin until you realize the Mets had never been far enough above .500 or near enough to first place to realistically measure themselves against lofty goals or stiff competition. Finishing in ninth place a couple of times seemed pretty heady stuff. But 8½ games out with more than a hundred games remaining and no one sitting between them and the team at the top constituted a legitimate shot. In 1969, the Mets were taking it. And they were taking Clendenon for the win.

You basically know what happened. I already gave away the ending. Donn Clendenon joined the Mets, and the Mets won the World Series. Clendenon’s impact was most helpful if not quite Cespedesian in its immediacy. Despite Donn delivering the kind of big hits befitting a big bat, the Mets of August 15 were actually farther from first place — 9½ out and in third — than they were two months earlier. But they were carrying a winning record, 62-51. They were unquestionably alive.

Then, in a hurry, they were alive and well and damn near unstoppable, racing up to and past the Cubs in what amounted to a blink. On September 24, with Donn Clendenon belting two home runs, the Mets beat the Cardinals to clinch the National League East. On October 16, with Donn Clendenon launching his third home run of a five-game set, the Mets beat the Orioles to win the World Series. Somewhere between showers of champagne, Donn was informed he had been named the MVP of the Fall Classic.

He hadn’t been a Met a year before. He hadn’t been a Met until four months before. Now he was certified most valuable, with the ultimate “nice thing” of its time, a 1970 Dodge Charger, to prove it. So, yeah, you can argue that for all the critical contributions made by every 1969 Met, they wouldn’t have gotten where they were going without Donn Clendenon grabbing the wheel.

But why would you want to think that we wouldn’t have had Donn Clendenon? Or any of the 1969 Mets?

***
On September 17, 2005, the concept of “without Donn Clendenon” became literal when the MVP of the 1969 World Series died at the age of 70. In a way, it represented the second milestone moment Clendenon gave me in my life as a Mets fan. The first was that Thursday afternoon he put the Mets on the board in Game Five versus Dave McNally. I can’t say I would have stopped being a Mets fan had they not won the World Series for me when I was six (and had been a Mets fan not even as long as Donn had been a Met), but it seems safe to infer that once they became champs, I was all in forevermore.

Donn’s death was something else. Obviously, it was sadder. Are there ballplayer passings that aren’t? When we separate the occupation from the humanity, it’s depressingly logical that everybody eventually dies. That’s biology, though maybe it’s chemistry. I barely made it through biology and avoided taking chemistry. But a human who you know as a ballplayer…as a ballplayer from when you were a kid…even if it’s decades removed from when you were a kid and he was playing ball…I can’t say he’s not supposed to die, but it’s at odds with everything you love about loving ballplayers.

Donn Clendenon certainly wasn’t the first ballplayer from my youth to pass on, nor was he the first of the 1969 Mets to leave us permanently, but he was the first to go when I had this platform. We started Faith and Fear in Flushing in February 2005. When I learned Clendenon was dead, it was pure instinct for me to sit down at this very spot and remember him in pixelish print. I can’t imagine it would have occurred to me not to.

That’s been my self-assigned role ever since, sharing a few hopefully appropriate words on behalf of the deceased after a respectful moment of silence. A Met — technically “a former Met,” but once a Met, always a Met — dies, I try to make sure I have something to say on this blog about him. Same for any Met figure and often for others in baseball. But definitely when it’s a Met who shaped what it meant to root for the Mets, especially when it’s a Met whose name evokes the Series from when I was six and the summer from when I was seven. Donn Clendenon hit home runs two of the three times the Mets captured titles in 1969. He spent all of 1970 driving in runs: 97, for a new club record. He was at the core of my formative experiences.

May my science teachers forgive my perpetual difficulties absorbing their lessons, but someone who does that for a kid is not supposed to die, or at least not die so soon. Not that I can pinpoint where 70 falls on the spectrum of too soon. Do 70-year-olds rate the condescending “70 years young” treatment, or does that kick in when a person has made it to 80? I kind of remember that when I sat down to memorialize Clendenon, it felt a little different from what I’d been moved to write in other forums when John Milner, Tommie Agee and Tug McGraw died, to name three other Mets from when I was a kid. Milner was 50; Agee, 58; McGraw, 59. I was somewhere between 37 and 41 when they died. I could tell they were too young to go.

I was 42 when Donn Clendenon died at 70. Seventy, from the perspective of my early forties, seemed maybe (maybe) a little less cruel from an actuarial standpoint, but who was I to say? We the living can be haughty in making such appraisals. I did know that I found it was inherently surprising that the eternally young 1969 Mets had a 70-year-old alumnus. These days every living member of the 1969 Mets is at least 70 — and I’m fifteen years older than I was in 2005.

Without Donn Clendenon, am I quite the Mets fan I am today? I don’t know. But I know Donn Clendenon became the Mets’ big bat when I was six, and here I am, 57 years old/young, and I’m a Mets fan still.

For an in-depth examination of the remarkable life of Donn Clendenon, I highly recommend the SABR biography Ed Hoyt authored. You can find it here.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1982: Rusty Staub
1991: Rich Sauveur
1994: Rico Brogna