Billy Beane recently told Sports Illustrated that “emotional decisions can be devastating” to managing a payroll an building a roster. With Jason Phillips following Joe McEwing out the door, unemotional decisions kind of hurt, too. Only Mets fans would get a touch misty for a guy who had to rev it up in September to hit .218. But that’s why we’re Mets fans. Phillips joins the Dodgers on the heels of his induction into the Stephanie Prince Hall of Backup Catcher Favorites, which previously enshrined straphanging Brent Mayne and mellifluous Orrrrlando Merrrrcado. As long as we’re on the subject of better halves, we’ve officially reached the upper reaches of The Hundred Greatest Mets Of The First Forty Years.
50. John Milner: On the Tigers or the Reds or someplace where they’ve hit home runs as a matter of course for generations, John Milner would be an afterthought if thought about at all. On the Mets, he was power personified for quite a few seasons. Between 1972 and 1977, he led all Mets in home runs four separate times. Only Strawberry and Piazza, at five apiece, have surpassed this feat. None of Milner’s home-run-king years yielded more than 23 dingers, but he made an impression. His highest total, featuring two grand slams, came in the ’73 pennant year. Three years later, he mashed the ungodly sum of three grand slams, an unheard of salami accumulation in those pre-Ventura days. By the time John was traded to Pittsburgh, he trailed only Endless Eddie Kranepool on the all-time Met homer list. As Hammers went, Milner barely showed, finishing well off the pace set by Henry Aaron and Stanley Burrell, but as mid-’70s Mets went, U Couldn’t Touch Him.
49. Al Weis: Al Weis hit two homers in the 1969 regular season. Both were launched in the heat of summer at Wrigley Field. Al Weis never hit a home run at Shea Stadium before he went deep to lead off the seventh inning of the fifth game of the 1969 World Series, tying the score at three. He never hit another at Shea. Al Weis, in 1,577 at-bats across 800 Major League games, was a career .219 hitter. In five 1969 World Series games, he came to bat eleven times and registered five hits, good for a .455 average. Al Weis knew from timing.
48. Kevin McReynolds: For a couple of years there, Kevin McReynolds had no serious flaws as a ballplayer. The term “five-tool” wasn’t applied to him, but he hit better than .280, homered almost 30 times annually and was good for close to a hundred RBIs. His left-field defense was above average (led the league’s LFs in assists more than once) and he stole 35 bases in 36 attempts in 1987 and 1988. Darryl Strawberry and not Kirk Gibson might have won the NL MVP in ’88 had Darryl’s less famous teammate not siphoned off support — Straw finished a close second, Mac third — but a case could be made that McReynolds was the key man for the Eastern Division champions. Indeed, he hit two homers in the NLCS against the Dodgers. All the tangible evidence applied fairly will reasonably lead one to conclude that Kevin McReynolds was, during the period of his employment by New York’s National League representative, an all-around very good to excellent ballplayer. But when you get right down to it, he made for a lousy Met.
47. Doug Flynn: “Ground ball to second. Doug Flynn looks it into his glove and fires to first. Side retired.” Not “happy recap,” not “he could’ve hit that in a silo,” not even “brought to you by Manufacturers Hanover Trust” were likely uttered as much by Bob Murphy as the words above were between June 1977 and October 1981 while Doug Flynn anchored the Met infield. No better than the third piece of silver wrung from the Reds for Tom Seaver at the time of the four-for-one debacle, Dougie emerged as a Gold Glove second baseman in 1980. If that doesn’t sound like much, consider what it takes to win a Gold Glove: reputation and repetition. The other National League winners that year were Phil Niekro, Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, Mike Schmidt, Ozzie Smith, Andre Dawson, Garry Maddox and Dave Winfield. Most of those players were superstars at other facets of the game and all were or would become multiple Gold Glove recipients. Doug Flynn was none of these things. He earned his hardware as a power-free .255 hitter on a virtually invisible team because he was that a good fielder. He missed a solid month’s worth of games when he broke his wrist in August, but was voted the award because he was that good a fielder. A squirming Frank Cashen donned a cowboy hat to celebrate the re-signing of the Kentucky native in the winter of ’81. Flynn, you see, was moonlighting at the Lone Star Cafe, playing in his buddy Greg Austin’s country band. A picture exists of the second baseman inking the new deal on the uptight, upright Cashen’s back. Why would The Bowtie play along with such an uncharacteristic photo-op? Because Doug Flynn was that good a fielder. (On an unrelated note, Flynn mysteriously drove in 61 runs as the eighth-place hitter on the 99-loss Mets of ’79. He wasn’t nearly that good a hitter.)
46. Bobby Ojeda: On a staff that encompassed so many talented, callow, live wires, Bobby Ojeda arrived on the 1986 Mets with a left arm that must’ve been coated in leather. Betcha it had a map of the world etched into it. He was only 28, but the arm was wise beyond its years. Judged as fifth-starter insurance, Ojeda broke through as the dominating Mets’ most dominant starter early on, tossing dead fishes, going 18-5 and posting a 2.55 ERA, the second-best in the league. His presence took enormous pressure off young Gooden, Darling, Fernandez and Aguilera. Long before Art Howe made the phrase a punchline, Bobby O battled. Everything about him said business, never louder than in the two Game Sixes, the tensest baseball matches of their day. In Houston, he gave up three irritating runs in the first, wriggled out of it after a botched squeeze and hung tough for five, giving up nothing more. Against the Red Sox, he held up under the massive strain of an elimination game while competing with Clemens’ no-hit caliber stuff, and kept the Mets in it, 2-2, through six. When asked during the World Series if he had conflicting emotions facing his old club, Bobby Ojeda pointed to the NY on his jacket. This, he said, is who I work for now.
45. Benny Agbayani: If Benny Agbayani played in New York, they’d name a coffee after him. Oh wait, they did: Benny Bean Coffee. It was perfect product placement. He was instant: After a non-descript cameo in ’98 (a cold cup of coffee, if you will), Benny was called up in May ’99 and started hitting right away. He was piping hot: Benny’s ten home runs in his first 73 at-bats established a team record. He was a trendy blend: His decidedly non-jockish demeanor combined with his awesome output turned Benny into BEN-NEE! among the Shea faithful, a folk hero to go. He’d shake you of your morning drowsiness: Live from Tokyo, it was Benny’s grand slam, stroked at around 8:30 AM New York time, that secured the Mets’ first win of the 2000 season. He was stirring: With one out in the bottom of the thirteenth, Benny ended Game Three of the NLDS against the Giants with a deep-brewed shot off Aaron Fultz. He was good to the last drop: Benny’s eighth-inning double plated the run that beat the Yankees in Game Three, halting their bitter World Series winning streak and refreshing, at last, the Mets’ hopes. All in all, Benny Agbayani was no drip.
44. Randy Myers: Leave no doubt behind. Come on in the ninth and throw heat. Radiate fire to entice the fans. Seem a little off-kilter to frighten the opposition. Wear camo. Pose in it for a poster. Pump iron to make the front office nervous. Let a few stories circulate, like how you and your aunt have started your own fan club. See to it that your parents give you a middle name like Kirk so the announcers will refer to you as Randall K. Myers. Compel them to emphasize the K. Don’t nibble. Don’t mess with sliders and curves and offspeed stuff. Announce your presence with authority. Bring that heat. Do it well enough to keep your team in contention when the established closers are flailing. Do it long enough to install yourself as the new closer. Do it right into the playoffs where you should be protecting every ninth-inning lead whether the manager remembers to get you up or not. Don’t get traded for some guy who in the long run may be nominally more reliable but is never as exciting.
43. Donn Clendenon: Steve Renko, Kevin Collins, Bill Carden and Dave Colon turned eternally into trivia answers on June 15, 1969. The question was, “What four young players did the New York Mets trade the very first time they stopped building for the future to concentrate, once and for all, on the present?” Not incidentally, the player who arrived to show the world that Baby Met was no longer a kid was 33-year-old Donn Clendenon. A real veteran. An experienced right-handed bat. A first baseman to split time with Kranepool. When the Mets dealt for Donn, they were a distant second, nine games behind the Cubs. But they decided they had matured enough to behave like adult pennant contenders. Four months and a day later, Clendenon hit his third Series homer, leading the charge that would overtake Baltimore in Game Five and capping the performance that would land him MVP honors. The Mets were fully grown.
42. John Stearns: John Stearns deserved better. No Met who played on so many bad teams — he showed up a bit too late for ’73 and was forced to leave a little shy of ’86 — ever looked like he ached to win so badly. John Stearns played so hard on so many losers that it hurt to watch. He parlayed his effort into four All-Star selections. He showed no mercy to runners — regardless of their size — who thought they had a right to home plate, a piece of real estate that belonged to him. He didn’t suffer the hijinks of clowns professional (Chief Noc-A-Homa comes to mind) or amateur (pity the fool who jumped the rail and entered the field of play where the Dude earned his pay). Sure it would’ve been wonderful if John Stearns could’ve sprayed a little bubbly as a player. But anyone can give it his all when things are going well. It takes a special man to throw his body, his soul and whatever minimal caution he bothered with to the wind when the only reward is the likelihood of disappointment and the chance to feel it again tomorrow.
41. Turk Wendell: Middle relief is so overlooked in baseball that even in this stat-happy age, there is no definitive data used to verify success in the role. Holds? What’s a hold? Nobody cares. Inherited runners? Fine, but what about entering at the start of the inning? Things go wrong there, too. The middle reliever’s lot is tougher than that of the closer. The closer gets loads of blame if he blows a game, but he also has the chance to pile up saves and cash in on them. Middle relievers are just as easily booed off the mound for their transgressions in the sixth or seventh as their fireman counterparts are in the eighth or ninth. But they’re deemed far more readily replaced, and often are. In this climate — particularly on a staff that had starters give out with troubling regularity after five innings — Turk Wendell may have been the most vital cog in Bobby Valentine’s wobbly Mets machine. The whomping of the rosin bag, the extracted animal teeth dangling from his neck, the impertinent remarks toward Vlad Guerrero (suggesting he should go back to the Dominican if he didn’t like being pitched close), the Turkishness of his being…none of it should detract from the fact that for the better part of three seasons and two post-seasons, Turk Wendell entered a gaggle of games that were on the line and, more often than not, kept them in line. Nobody keeps stats on it, but he was the best middle reliever the Mets ever had.