Game Four, 1988 NLCS: Nobody’s finest hour. Game 4, 2000 NLDS: Somebody’s finest hour. There are a lot of somebodies here who at one time or another appeared to be nobodies. But we knew better.
40. Bobby Jones: Underrated competitor until he got noticed (12-3 start in ’97, consecutive All-Star K’s of Griffey and McGwire), overpaid schlub thereafter, the Bobby Jones we wished he would be resurfaced in the second half of 2000, the first patient to respond to the Norfolk Miracle Cure. Asserting himself as an honest-to-goodness money pitcher, Bobby Jones was named starter for the fourth game of the division series. It wasn’t a given that he’d get the ball. Leading off the visitors’ fifth, Jeff Kent doubled just over Ventura’s glove. He advanced to third on Ellis Burks’ fly ball to right. Two unintentional intentional walks bracketed a second flyout. Three men on, two men out. The pitcher’s spot arrived. Trailing 2-0, Dusty Baker stuck with Mark Gardner, who popped to second. Inning over. Facing the kind of adversity which had eviscerated him regularly since the second half of 1997, Bobby Jones bore down and got out of a bases-loaded jam. From the first through the fourth and from the sixth through the ninth, right up to the series-clinching out, Bobby Jones allowed no Giant to reach; he was perfect. In the fifth, when he wasn’t, he was even better.
39. Jon Matlack: Mystery guest, please sign in. OK, let’s get started. Is your middle name Trumpbour? Yes. Were you the second Met to win Rookie of the Year? Yes. Were you named to the National League All-Star team twice? Yes. Did you get the win in one of those games? Yes. In your first five full seasons, did your record 75 victories? Yes. Was that the most any Met not named Seaver or Gooden ever totaled in his first five seasons? Yes. Was your ERA for those five years a mere 2.84? Yes. With the Mets trying to win a division in a five-team scramble on what was supposed to be the final day of the regular season, did you strike out nine Cubs in eight innings? Yes. Did you wind up losing that game 1-0 on a run scratched out in the eighth? Yes. Was this kind of run-support typical of what you received while you were a Met? Yes. Was the only game you pitched in a playoff series a two-hit shutout against one of the greatest-hitting teams of all time? Yes. Were those two hits collected by Andy Kosco? Yes. Not Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez or Johnny Bench, but Andy Kosco? Yes. Did you start three games in the ensuing World Series against another historically great team? Yes. Did you yield no earned runs in 14 innings over those first two starts? Yes. Did you pitch two more shutout innings in Game Seven before running out of gas in the third? Yes. Would have you avoided that situation had Yogi Berra pitched George Stone in Game Six, thereby saving Seaver for Game Seven? Yes. But you took the ball? Yes. And did you come that far in 1973 despite Marty Perez of the Braves whacking a liner off your head and fracturing your skull? Yes. Yet were you back pitching eleven days later? Yes. On June 29, 1974, did you pitch a one-hitter against the Cardinals at Shea Stadium? Yes. Was it the first win ever witnessed in person by at least one eleven-year-old Mets fan? Yes. Shouldn’t you be mentioned more often as one of the best pitchers the Mets ever had? You tell me.
38. Todd Hundley: In the summer that Todd Hundley chased his two cherished milestones, the all-time catcher’s single-season home run record and the all-time Mets’ single-season home run record, he was running second to Sammy Sosa for the NL lead. Before a Mets-Cubs game, Fran Healy rounded up the two of them and challenged them to stage their own home run derby during batting practice the next time the teams played. Hundley couldn’t wait to do it. Sosa shrugged his agreement. The authorities stepped in and put an end to it, but Todd Hundley was so brimming with confidence in 1996 that he was willing to do anything that would allow him to show off his new toy…his power. He had never hit more than 16 homers in any one season, but now he was closing in on 40 to top all Mets, 41 to be king of the catchers (tortured explanations abounded of how Johnny Bench hit 45 one year but was moonlighting at other positions just enough so they didn’t count here). Slugging his way relentlessly to No. 38 on August 21, Todd had 34 games remaining. Obviously he’d blow by those records and put newer, greater marks out of the reach of future Mets, future catchers and future Mets catchers — not that Hundley figured to be relinquishing backstop anytime soon. But like Joe Hardy or maybe Dorothy, the closer he got to his goal, the further from it he seemed. His power stroke disappeared and he almost reverted to the player who nearly lost his starting job to Kelly Stinnett two years earlier. It took him ten more games to swat No. 39 and tie Darryl Strawberry. Another five games got him to 40, breaking Straw’s back and knotting Roy Campanella. Finally, on September 14, in the 148th game of the season, Todd took Greg McMichael deep at Shea. No. 41 at last. Todd Hundley was no longer just Randy Hundley’s son or the player Dallas Green said couldn’t hit, couldn’t catch, couldn’t throw and couldn’t call a game. He was The Man. A year later he was hurt. A year after that he was a failed leftfielder and completely superfluous on what had been
his team. Mike Piazza took over as catcher and pre-empted any reason to miss his predecessor. Eventually, Javy Lopez hit 43 home runs as a catcher. But check the Mets’ record book. On at least one line, Todd Hundley remains The Man.
37. Rick Reed: John Pappas paid his way to St. Petersburg in 1962 and asked the Mets for a tryout. He told them he’d heard they needed pitchers. Pappas had been throwing under the 59th Street Bridge all winter and said he was ready to help the new team in town. Egged on by reporters, the Mets gave in to the stranger’s request. Suffice it to say John Pappas wasn’t good enough to pitch for the 1962 Mets, which says all you need to know about John Pappas’ ability and self-perception. The point is the Mets gave him a chance. That’s all anybody can ask for in baseball, it’s what everybody ideally should get. Thirty-five years later, the Mets gave a chance to another pitcher whose backstory made him, relatively speaking, almost as much of a long-shot as John Pappas. Rick Reed was 32 years old entering 1997. Across parts of eight seasons, he yo-yoed between the Majors and the minors for four different teams, never pitching in more than 19 games. Worse, he carried a scarlet S for scab after participating in the Reds’ replacement camp of ’95. Dire family circumstances drove him there, he said, but nobody wanted to listen. He spent all of 1996 as a Norfolk Tide, which wound up not so bad because his manager was Bobby Valentine, soon to assume the Met helm. And in Valentine’s first spring training, Bobby gave Rick a chance. Rick, in turn, gave the Mets a chance to win almost every time he took the mound for the next five seasons. Reed had impeccable control. They called him the mini-Maddux for a reason. He would be an All-Star in ’98 and ’01, but it was ’97 that defined Reeder as a Met: 31 starts, 208-1/3 innings, 28 starts of at least 6 innings, 16 wins, 2.89 ERA, 31 walks…from somebody nobody expected to find pitching for anybody. There was this one game on a Monday night against Atlanta and Smoltz, following an extra-inning slugfest versus the Pirates the day before. Valentine had used everybody out of the pen on Sunday. Monday, Reeder had to give his team innings. He gave them nine. The Mets won 3-2, establishing themselves once and for all as contenders. Later on, Rick Reed would give the ’99 Mets a chance to stay alive to make the playoffs. Against the Pirates in Game 161, he pitched a shutout, striking out 12. They made the playoffs. Rick Reed would give them a chance to clinch a Wild Card in 2000. He went eight. They clinched. Rick Reed would give the Mets chances to win the five post-season games he started. They won four of them, including their only victory in the 2000 World Series. John Pappas notwithstanding, it pays to give a guy a chance.
36. Rey Ordoñez: On Opening Day 1996, Howie Rose, broadcasting his first game on SportsChannel, got to describe a sequence no announcer could have possibly seen before: “Lankford gets one down the left field line. Clayton rounds second. Lankford’s going into second AND CLAYTON’S gonna try to score! ORDOÑEZ THROWING FROM HIS KNEES…AND THEY GOT HIM! There is your first look at what Rey Ordoñez is capable of doing. He was on his knees, Fran.” Down on one knee, up the third base line, receiving the relay from Gilkey, then turning and crouching and dropping to both knees to throw. To watch it is to see a play in which every other Met in the picture between third and home is rendered irrelevant once Ordoñez releases. Jose Vizcaino, the second baseman (shifted from short to make room for Rey), ducks. Rico Brogna, the first baseman, lets it fly, declining to cut it off; “it’s perfect,” he thinks. Hundley, who makes the tag, calls the throw “as good as it could be.” Clayton is indeed out. He sought the seventh St. Louis run of the day. All he got for his hustle was Ron Gant, the stranded on-deck batter, offering condolences. Royce Clayton, if he’s known for anything, will be noted as the Texas Ranger struck out by old Jim Morris, The Rookie, in the movie starring Dennis Quaid. All due respect, it was this rookie, Rey Ordoñez, who made the more cinematic debut, fired the more flamboyant throw, displayed the more amazing motion. And this was only his first game. But with that throw from his knees, Rey Ordoñez, not yet a Gold Glove winner or a defensive record setter or the star of his own highlight video (Rey O!) — wearing No. 0 of all numerals — became in an instant the greatest fielding shortstop ever. “I’d rather not compare anyone to Ozzie, he’s the best,” Gilkey said of his ex-teammate after the game. “But Rey is coming.” He was right. A little bit of Rey spoiled you forever. Mortal shortstops were a monumental comedown, and every shortstop was a mortal compared to Rey Ordoñez.
35. Lee Mazzilli: In the spring of 1979, the Sunday Daily News magazine declared on its cover that “If this team has a future, its name is MAZZILLI”. This may have been a slight overreaction to a glance at the league leaders as they stood after the games of April 18. Mazzilli, NY led all National Leaguers in batting with a .462 average. Could he keep it up? Well, no, but on a roster larded with disgruntled Hebners, itinerant Hasslers and preposterous Sergio Ferrer types, a future was hard to come by. 1979 would make Lee Mazzilli into the MAZZ of back page headlines. Mazz (not Maz) went to the All-Star Game. Mazz bested Ron Guidry with a bases-loaded walk. Mazz batted .303. Mazz got his own pin-up poster — think Tony Manero with a slightly less embarrassing pose. As for the Mets, the fruition of their future lay seven years hence. In August 1986, Lee Mazzilli, since traded and despondent from almost five years in the baseball wilderness, was called home to fill in, not star, on a Mets club headed to the post-season with him or without him. Once there, they played better with him than they would have without him. As a pinch-hitter, Lee started the rallies that tied Game Six and Game Seven of the World Series. He was the final piece of the championship puzzle, thus when this team reached its future, its last name was Mazzilli.
34. Armando Benitez: The good was 104 regular-season saves between July 1999 and September 2001 when the Mets were almost always playing must games. The good was taking to the closer role fairly seamlessly when Franco’s finger (the middle one, appropriately) went awry. The good was setting team records in ’00 and ’01, with 41 and 43 saves, respectively. The good was an uncommonly intimidating presence unlike anything the Mets had ever had in the late innings. The good was the way he established himself as a bulletproof setup man in ’99, defining the newly configured Mets bullpen — Cook, Wendell, Benitez, Franco — into a fantastically effective weapon early on, showing hitters a panoply of different looks, speeds and styles. The good was keeping the door slammed on the Pirates that all-important final Sunday of 1999 and closing out the Braves in Game Four and keeping them at bay in Game Five and saving Game Three of the 2000 World Series. There was some substantial good with the bad. On the other hand, the bad has paid for more therapists’ summer homes than all off Woody Allen’s neuroses combined.
33. Ron Darling: Of all the what-ifs that haunt Mets fans, there’s one whose implications are as tantalizing as the talent that the player at the center of the question never displayed quite enough of. What if Ron Darling doesn’t tear the ligaments in his thumb while trying to field a Vince Coleman bunt at Shea on September 11, 1987? What if that doesn’t finish him for the season? At the time, the top of the sixth, the Mets led the Cardinals 4-1. Darling had a no-hitter going. Two months earlier, the Mets were in fourth place, trailing St. Louis by 10-1/2 games. Now they were in second, 1-1/2 back. The no-hitter would have been dandy, but a healthy Darling finishing out the Cardinals and trimming the deficit to a half-game would’ve been, for all practical purposes, more important. One can only imagine the Mets, led by a lights-out Ron Darling (and not scrambling with the likes of John Candelaria), storming past their blood rivals and taking the division, the pennant and a second consecutive World Series, and the ’80s Mets being acknowledged as a dynasty instead of a disappointment. Like the Mets, Darling had scuffled for too long in ’87, spinning his wheels at 2-6, making the Goodenless void of the first two months yawn that much wider. But between July 7 and September 5, he went 10-2, remaining the only starter to not lose time to injury or drugs. He was, at last, fitting into the ace role it was assumed he could fill as needed. It wasn’t like he hadn’t thrived as the No. 2 or 3 pitcher on the staff at any given moment since coming up at the end of ’83. Twice an all-star, he won 43 games in his first three full seasons. The Mets won 26 of his 34 starts in 1986 and he pitched gems in a Game One loss and a Game Four win against the Red Sox. Yet despite compiling 99 regular-season victories as a Met, fourth most ever, Darling had his problems in the extraordinarily big games. He dug a 0-4 hole in Game Three against the Astros, saved only by Darryl and Lenny. He didn’t settle down in Game Seven versus Boston until it was almost too late. Two years later, in another Seven, he didn’t show up at all versus Hershiser, getting knocked out in the second. What became known as the Terry Pendleton game might have changed all that. Sadly, it never got to be the Ron Darling game.
32. Ron Swoboda: Casey was right. The Youth of America was on its way. There was no greater line of demarcation between what had been and what was at hand than the promotion of raw, righty slugger Ron Swoboda, all of 20, to start the 1965 season. It was the difference between importing veteran lovable characters to guffaw at and cultivating our own guys, even if they were unintentionally laughable for a while. If you’re going to watch a ballplayer stumble around helplessly, the least he can do is give you hope that he’s something to build on. Rocky Swoboda fit the mold of the old absurd Met. Attacked fly balls like they were grenades, necessitating the insertion of late-inning defensive replacements on his behalf. Celebrated on a banner as STRONGER THAN DIRT. Had a Chinese grandfather (which was considered colorful in those unenlightened days). But he could hit: Fifteen homers in the first half of his rookie year. Old-timers still talk about the three-run pinch job he blasted off the Giants’ Bill Henry in the bottom of the ninth in August ’66. It capped a comeback that had been started against one of the Mets’ most unforgiving oppressors, Juan Marichal. At 22, Swoboda was a folk hero if not a particularly well-rounded baseball player. The Mets grew unimpressed by the former while seeking more of the latter. In 1969, Ron Swoboda played less than he had in any of his previous four seasons. He says he resented Gil Hodges for it. But Hodges, who had it all over dirt in the strength department, knew how to pick spots for his players. Swoboda platooned with Shamsky in right field. In the Series, the Orioles threw lefties in four of five games, so Ron started four times. He hit .400 and drove in the winning run of Game Five. And the day before, in the ninth inning of Game Four, he was not replaced for defense, even with Seaver clinging to a 1-0 lead, even when the O’s put runners on first and third with one out, even as Brooks Robinson came to bat. Robinson lined a sure double, maybe a triple to right. Swoboda dove, lunged and stuck out his glove. When the ball got by him, it would probably go for an inside-the-parker. Except Ron Swoboda, all of 25, made the greatest catch in World Series history. Casey was right. The Youth of America had arrived.
31. Sid Fernandez: Nobody had better stuff than El Sid. That was a given. He won 98 games in ten Met seasons, yet usually left you wanting more because his stuff didn’t always translate into success. Except during Game Seven when he relieved Ron Darling in top of the fourth, the Mets down 3-0. Sid had his stuff that night. With a man on and two out, he walked Boggs then retired Barrett. In the fifth, three up and three down, two strikeouts. In the sixth, three up and three down, two more strikeouts. Sid Fernandez pitching 2-1/3 hitless innings in any given start was a commonplace occurrence. Doing it at the juncture at which he did it in Game Seven — methodically squashing the Red Sox’ momentum and holding the fort until the bottom of the sixth when the Mets would at last nick Bruce Hurst and tie the game at three — that’s the stuff that dreams are made of.