60. Hubie Brooks: It is, sadly, the human condition to lock in one’s perception of a situation even when faced with evidence to the contrary. For example, the New York Mets have never been able to do anything with that nettlesome (or Nettlesless) third-base position. We all know that throughout their entire history it’s been one disaster after another, from Cliff Cook to Joe Moock to, god help us, Joe Foy. It’s a charming enough storyline to have inspired the ditty about the Seventy-Nine Mets Who Played Third on An Amazin’ Era, the team’s 25th anniversary video. Yessir, playing third for the New York Mets is like drumming for Spinal Tap: Sooner or later, you’re bound to blow up, and not in the way the kids mean. Except that by 1986, the third-base curse was, for all practical purposes, reversed and buried by Hubie Brooks. The organization did its best to perpetuate the tepid image of the hot corner even when confronted with a competent practitioner. Called up in September 1980, Hubie was handed No. 62, as if to say, third base will eat you alive, kid, don’t even bother. After acquitting himself reasonably in his trial (and working his way down from 62 to 39 to 7), Hubie showed up to spring training 1981 to find Joe Torre handing the job to outfielder Joel Youngblood, who didn’t want it, and then catcher John Stearns, who stepped on a ball and couldn’t play it. Left with only a third baseman to play third base, Torre had no choice but to pencil in Hubie Brooks at the 5-slot, and Hubie Brooks stayed there for the better part of the next four seasons. He didn’t move off of third until, team man that he was, he shifted to short to make room for Ray Knight in the late summer of ’84. Hubie was shortly thereafter packaged for Gary Carter, a trade nobody could rationally dispute. He left two legacies in his wake: 1) Brooks was followed at third by, roughly, Knight, HoJo, Magadan, Bonilla, Kent, Alfonzo, Ventura, Alfonzo again, Wigginton and Wright. Sure there were some gaps and yeah, the total’s grown from 79 when that song was recorded to 129 through 2004 (including exactly one inning of one game played by Kevin Morgan in 1997, the only inning of the only game he ever played in the Majors), but the position’s been held down by reasonably able men for decent stretches of time; 2) When Mike Piazza hit safely in 24 straight games in 1999, it was Hubie Brooks’ 15-year-old mark that he matched with an eighth-inning homer off Vic Darensbourg. Gary Cohen announced it with something like “Move Over Hubie!” It’s not so bad to root for a team on which Hubie Brooks could endure so long as an aspirational figure, even for the greatest-hitting catcher of all time.
59. Todd Zeile: Put aside the inconvenient fact that Todd Zeile never should have been a Met. Forget that Todd Zeile never would have been a Met if Steve Phillips had negotiated with John Olerud instead of recklessly and casually allowing him to walk to Seattle. And ignore that replacing Olerud with Zeile in 2000 weakened what had been The Best Infield Ever and destroyed the L-R-L-R symmetry that was the heart of the 1999 order. If you can do that, you can appreciate what Todd Zeile meant to the last Mets team to win a pennant. Not so much the .368 average and 8 RBIs in the NLCS (though that wasn’t cotton candy) or the .400 clip he hit for in the Series. Todd Zeile proved the living embodiment of that Stengel-period banner, TO ERR IS HUMAN, TO FORGIVE A METS FAN. Todd Zeile was human, as human as they came, and those 2000 Mets were, collectively, extraordinarily human. They were, when all was boiled down, one human, Todd Zeile. He was a third baseman playing first, yet he learned. When you were sure he wouldn’t come through — BANG! — double off the wall. He was as star-crossed as they came. Interference play? Two of them? Same game? Guess who’s on the wrong end of both. His Game One shot in the Bronx was so obviously a homer (dying inches from the hands of the solitary enemy fan who knew enough not to touch it) that as Timo was trotting, even Zeile was pumping his fist. Somehow we forgave Todd, probably because all through that season and post-season, he was the quiet pro who showed up here from everywhere else and became the calm team spokesman: articulate, thoughtful, irritatingly reassuring when the division was slipping away in September, self-aware enough to enjoy everything about October. We’re about to play for the championship of the world — where’s Todd? There he is, shagging flies with his kids. There he is again, posing them with the Baha Men. He’d regularly sign autographs practically up to first pitch and fill a reporter’s notebook with the truth after the final out. When the World Series slipped into darkness, Zeile was told of the polite, preprogrammed remarks Derek Jeter had just made about what fine opponents the Mets had been. Zeile’s response was, “Is he just being patronizing?” At that moment, even the most diehard John Olerud torch-carrier was overjoyed that Todd Zeile was a New York Met.
58. Nolan Ryan: Where Nolan Ryan and the Mets are concerned, there’s what could have been and there’s what was. Under the heading of what was, Nolan Ryan pitched in three post-season games at Shea Stadium. In the first one, Game 3 of the 1969 NLCS, he replaced Gary Gentry and inherited a second-and-third, no-out scenario in the third, the Braves ahead 2-0. Nolan struck out Rico Carty, intentionally walked Orlando Cepeda, struck out Clete Boyer and induced a harmless fly ball from Bob Didier. The home team soon got to Pat Jarvis, and after seven innings of two-run, seven-strikeout ball, Nolan Ryan had pitched the Mets into their first World Series. Eight days later, Ryan pitched in his second post-season game at Shea Stadium, Game 3 of the fall classic. Again, Gentry was the starter, this time ahead 4-0. In the seventh with two out, he walked the bases loaded. Again, in came Nolan. His first batter, Paul Blair, lined a sinking drive to center. Tommie Agee dove for it, nabbed it and saved three runs. Thus rescued, Ryan pitched the eighth without incident, got the first two Orioles in the ninth and then loaded the bases on a walk, a single and a walk before facing Blair once more. Nolan struck him out to end the game. Three times across 9-1/3 innings that October, he hurled with the sacks full and allowed nobody to score. Nolan Ryan pitched his third post-season game at Shea Stadium exactly seventeen years later, Game 5 of the 1986 NLCS. He started, went nine, gave up one run, two hits, struck out twelve and departed with the score tied. It may have been the most brilliant post-season pitching performance that Shea has ever seen. The only problem was that it was performed by an Astro. When it comes to Nolan Ryan, you see, it’s impossible to wipe away what could have been.
57. Frank Viola: Mets management believed its own hype in 1989. Having commissioned a graphic, a blue and orange 1, to symbolize that their team had compiled the best winning percentage in the game over the previous five seasons, Frank Cashen’s front office was profiled in Manhattan Inc. magazine as “The IBM of Baseball”. The story opened with Joe McIlvaine and Al Harazin taking in a spring training game: Harazin needled African-American umpire Charlie Williams for calling out one of the “brothers” and McIlvaine cringed in embarrassment. Caught up in its spiffy logo and its great press, it’s no wonder that when Doc Gooden went down for the year with a tear in his right shoulder, the Mets executive braintrust decided the only pitcher worthy of replacing him was Minnesota’s Frank “Sweet Music” Viola. To obtain the reigning American League Cy Young winner, the pitching-rich New York Mets gave up five young arms, Rick Aguilera, Kevin Tapani and David West foremost among them. St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz moaned that the big, bad Mets had done it again, buzzing the Eastern Division like they always did with a Big Apple-sized acquisition sure to separate them from the small-time Cardinals, Cubs and Expos. Didn’t happen that way. Viola was ordinary down the stretch in ’89. Aguilera, Tapani and West contributed, in varying degrees, to the Twins’ 1991 world championship. Frankie V never did any such thing for the Mets. But despite three consecutive losses across three critical September starts, he did win 20 games in ’90 — the last time any Met won that many. The Mets have commissioned zero 1 logos since.
56. Richie Ashburn: Future Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn was the most valuable player of and spiritual leader to the most dreadful assemblage of talent in baseball history. A keen observer of irony, Ashburn retired the moment 1962 ended. He bats leadoff and plays center on the All-Kafkaesque Team to this day.
55. Willie Mays:In successive years in the early 1980s, the Mets traded for George Foster, then Keith Hernandez, then Gary Carter. At decade’s end, a deadline deal brought Frank Viola. The winter meetings of 1991 resulted in the arrival of Bret Saberhagen. A pleasant May afternoon in 1998 got a whole lot more pleasant when the word went forth that Mike Piazza was now a Met. And on a cold December morning in 2001, New York was awakened to the news that Roberto Alomar was on his way to Shea. MVPs, Cy Youngs, Hall of Famers in their apparent prime. Trading for every one of them at the time it happened caused waves of excitement for Mets fans. But none of those trades compared to the moment the Mets got Willie Mays. The Mets got Willie Mays! Willie Mays became a Met. More than thirty years after the fact, it’s still hard to believe that the absolute icon of baseball in post-war America was, just like that, one of ours. It was explained clearly in the papers how it happened. Willie Mays was old, 41. His career was nearing a finish. The Giants’ owner, Horace Stoneham, needed money. The Mets owner, Joan Payson, loved Mays dating back to his days in New York. Now she would bring him home. Made sense as far as that went. But it also seemed impossible that we could come upon him because he was too great a player to fall into the hands of a team like ours. As long as we were dealing in the unfathomable, Willie’s first game as a Met came against the Giants, at Shea. He beat them with a homer. Willie played much younger than 41 in those early days — he reached base at least once in each of his first twenty games as a Met. He was a happening. To commemorate the national sensation that was his homecoming, Life printed a picture of every one of his Topps Giants cards dating back to 1952, the first several of which portrayed him in a black cap with the same NY the Mets sported. (Pretty sharp.) Come June’s Old-Timers Day, when the Mets liked to pile on the sentimental shtick, a cable car rolled down the left field line to the infield. To underscore what had taken place over the last six or so weeks, Willie Mays disembarked. In a Mets uniform. Willie Mays was a Met. Willie Mays said Goodbye to America as a Met. Willie Mays played in the 1973 World Series for the Mets. That he was only technically Willie Mays by then is beside the point.
54. Ron Hunt: “Oh yeah? Well, we have Ron Hunt! What do you mean you never heard of Ron Hunt? He finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting to Pete Rose last year. And this year he started at second for the National League in the All-Star Game, right here at brand new Shea. That’s right — Ron Hunt, not some other second baseman. Not Rose, who probably won’t even be playing second for very long. Not Mazeroski, who backed him up. Not even Tony Taylor of the Phillies. Taylor’s not so great anyway. The Phillies choked and the only thing Taylor did was lead the league in getting hit by pitches thirteen times. Hunt batted .303 and had eleven HBPs himself. Ron could get hit lots more if he wanted to. Anyway, we’re gonna get good someday soon and mark my words: Ron Hunt’s gonna lead us there.”
53. Craig Swan: Amazin': The Miraculous History of New York’s Most Beloved Baseball Team by Peter Golenbock is unquestionably the worst thing ever written about the New York Mets. Published on the occasion of the Mets’ fortieth anniversary, it is the living, breathing apotheosis of “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” because its cover, like its title, is beautiful. Its insides are wretched. Golenblock, who must have accepted the assignment, gone on a long vacation and returned with a week before his deadline, mindlessly cut and paste a boatload of old quotes from other works, presenting them out of context and with no discernment. He then mixed them in willy-nilly with the few new interviews he bothered to do. The essence of Amazin’ is this: Every season in Mets history between 1962 and 2001 — those first forty years — included one of three players. Ed Kranepool (1962-1979), Mookie Wilson (1980-1989) and John Franco (1990-2001) covered the entire chronological spectrum of the Mets experience. Golenbock interviewed none of them. And yet, in the sense that even a blind pig finds an acorn, the book is almost redeemed by the tenth page of a ten-page chapter recording the ramblings of Craig Swan. Swannie was the ace of the late ’70s and early ’80s losing Mets. On his best days, he was a low-rent Seaver. He won the National League ERA title in 1978. By the time he was deemed obsolete, he stood fourth on the franchise’s all-time victory chart. But what you couldn’t know about Craig Swan without Amazin’ is that he went hunting with Joel Youngblood once. Blood was the experienced hunter, Swannie the novice. After Joel spied some turkeys, he told Craig, “Swannie, go behind the bush over there, work your way over, and flush those turkeys to me.” Swannie wanted no part of it: “He was treating me like I was his dog. I said, ‘I’m not flushing any turkeys to you. Go flush your own turkeys.’ And I never hunted with him again.”
52. Mike Hampton: In the One Year And One Year Only club, Mike Hampton rules. Nobody got more out of a single season in [whatever combination of team colors tickled Charlie Samuels’ fancy on any given day] than Hampton did as lead pitcher of the 2000 Mets. He struggled early in classic trying-too-hard fashion, but ran a 7-2 record over twelve starts between May 9 and July 9, culminating in the crucial-for-our-self-esteem two-zip whitewashing of the Yankees the Sunday night after that fetid cross-borough doubleheader. Hampton finished strong at 15-10 and was voted Most Valuable Player of the NLCS, the only one the Mets have ever had, in recognition of his two wins and sixteen shutout innings, nine of which came in the fifth and final game. (No MVP was awarded in ’69 and ’73, and Mike Scott stole it for the losers in ’86.) He never looked particularly comfortable as a New Yorker, so it wasn’t terribly surprising he bolted as a free agent after ’00. The business about the sterling credentials of Denver-area schools forever erased all goodwill toward him, but the record remains intact: No Mets pitcher since Mike Hampton has stood tall on the mound soaking in the euphoria of having clinched his team a pennant.
51. Todd Pratt: The good news — the very good news — is Todd Pratt hit that homer in the bottom of the tenth off Matt Mantei to win the 1999 National League Division Series, three games to one. The amazing news remains the company Todd Pratt keeps by having done so. He became the fourth player in baseball history to win a post-season series with a last-swing home run. Bill Mazeroski, Chris Chambliss and Joe Carter preceded him. Two others — Aaron Boone and David Ortiz — have followed. Of the six, the five were considered big-time players. Mazeroski’s in the Hall. Carter, Chambliss, Ortiz, even bleeping Boone were All-Stars. Todd Pratt? Tank? An All-Star? Don’t make him laugh. His whole career right up to October 9, 1999 was about caddying, first for Darren Daulton, then in a higher calling, Mike Piazza. Barely 24 hours before his at-bat against Mantei, it was reported that Mike’s elbow ached so severely that he wouldn’t be able to play against the Diamondbacks that night or the next afternoon. It was conceivable…hell, it was sensible to conclude that the great struggle to push the Mets into the playoffs was likely for naught if their biggest hitter wasn’t going to be available. Piazza hit forty home runs in 1999; Todd Pratt hit three. Fortunately, Game Three was a Met cakewalk. Game Four was another story. Leiter pitched a crisp 7-2/3 innings, but Benitez, for the first time in his Mets tenure, couldn’t hold the lead in an extraordinarily tight spot. Only a throw by Mora and a juggle by Tony Womack assured extra innings. Though the Mets enjoyed a 2-1 series cushion, this game was the one to get. Lose it and everybody piles on a plane to Phoenix where it’s Randy Johnson and the BOB’s funky late afternoon shadows versus Masato Yoshii and who knows what. Instead, Todd Pratt swung and launched Shea into hysteria. Yes, that was amazing. The potentially awful news was what happened immediately after Tank connected. It was deep all right, all the way to deepest center. Patrolling the 410 sign out there was none other than ex-Padre Steve Finley, dasher of dreams on so many late nights in San Diego. It was a staple of ’90s West Coast road trips for Finley to rob at least one Met of at least one Jack Murphy home run every visit in. Todd Pratt seemed to know this, for as he left the box, he jogged to first, watching the flight of his ball every step of the way. Steve Finley would spring into the air and catch it and Tank would be out. Or the ball would somehow elude Steve Finley and Tank would be the hero. Either way, Tank saw no reason to run. The third possibility, that the ball would not be caught but would not leave the park, never occurred to the backup catcher. From 410 feet away, Pratt could not have definitively dismissed the chance that the ball would, say, bounce off the wall and into Finley’s glove and that Finley would turn, fire and nail a fatally malingering Pratt at second. But he did dismiss it, because once Finley jumped, Tank pulled up dejectedly near first. As it turned out, a silly millimeter separated Finley’s glove from Pratt’s shot, and the ball indeed sailed over the fence. First-base ump Bruce Froemming twirled his right index finger and Tank broke into a happy sprint for home. Nobody much mentioned the disaster that could have been. The next time we noticed Todd Pratt, he was tackling Robin Ventura between first and second, costing the Mets three thankfully superfluous runs in the fifteenth inning of Game Five of the NLCS. One does not earn the nickname Tank, apparently, without a strong tendency to roll full-bore through life oblivious to the notion that for every action there is a consequence.