On Wright batting eighth: Yeah, it’s insidious and insulting and makes one suspicious that Randolph and Down were sent here as spies from the north — and don’t they know that David Wright, after 69 big-league games, established himself as The Future/The Blossoming Present? For Cameron? That’s a Howe motive if it’s true (still think Cammy’s not gonna last the year). Down’s quote about how Wright’s lucky he’s not on the bench should get him transferred back to Columbus or whatever rock he crawled out from under. Randolph (he’s been downgraded from first-name status for the duration of this crisis) said something somewhere to the effect that he’s not a lineup-juggler. Gosh, Skip, on what do you base that? I mean, where among your many stops as a manager have you established this iron grip on 1-through-8, day-in, day out? Listen, if it works, then hallelujah, we’re packing thunder every place ya look. When it doesn’t, watch how quickly Mr. Non-Juggler “tweaks” the order. To be fair to Randolph, he’s new at this and this group of eight players as a starting eight is an unknown quantity. (Bobby V, you’ll recall, was crazy enough to lead off with the likes of Brian Downing and Benny Agbayani.) I’m willing to cut Randolph just a bit of slack on this one because, quite frankly, the first batting order of the year is one of the most overrated things in the sport. The dynamic of these things changes faster than the price of parking at Shea. Finally, who knows? Why, the SPSP — Statistic Proving Somebody’s Point — is the last word on the subject! Fine, we’re screwed before even one guy has batted. My apologies to the figure filberts, if I may use a crochety pejorative. (This does not change my general support for getting worked up over every little thing that hasn’t gone wrong yet but might; what else is Spring Training for?)
On Galarraga retiring: After battering us as an Expo, a Cardinal, a Rockie, a Brave (if not a Pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king), I was looking forward to Andres blasting at least one into the visitors’ bullpen, preferably on Home Opening Day. He’d tip his cap, take a bow and skedaddle. The man is 87. He’s also hellishly hard not to root for when he’s not wearing a tomahawk across his chest. May a fine man find great health and a long life. Too bad about not getting to 400, but Al Kaline, forever “stuck” on 399, isn’t bad company. Neither is Ted Lepcio. I’ll always think of Andres Galarraga the way Murph described him: The Big and Gracious Cat.
At least somebody somewhere gave him a long look this spring. I can think of first basemen of more recent accomplishment who have gone wanting for as much as an invite. I can think of one anyway…
20. John Olerud: Catch the breeze and the winter chills in colors on the snowy linen land. On December 20, 1996, the Mets traded Robert Person to the Toronto Blue Jays for John Olerud, allegedly on the downside of his career, supposedly too fragile of psyche for New York. Look out on a summer’s day with eyes that know the darkness in my soul. In three seasons that didn’t last nearly long enough, Oly batted .315, including the eternally untoppable .354 of 1998. While almost every other Met froze down that pitiful stretch, John sizzled. Fourteen plate appearances, fourteen straight trips to first or beyond. Spent virtually all of the late ’90s on base. Caught everything everybody threw him or hit toward him. Started a triple play against the Giants in ’98 — got two assists and a putout. Entered the final week of 1997 with 88 RBIs and finished with 102. Hit for the cycle against Montreal earlier that September, a cycle that, like every other cycle, required a triple. It was the only triple he hit that entire season because John Olerud ran with two packs of freshly chewed Bazooka stuck to the bottom of each spike. Weathered faces lined in pain are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand. His one Mets post-season went like this: .349; first homer by a lefty off of Randy Johnson in two years; deep fly that Tony Womack couldn’t catch; homer off Smoltz, then, when no hope was left in sight on that starry, starry night, the perfectly placed bouncer between Ozzie Guillen and Bret Boone to win Game Four; homer off Greg Maddux to start Game Five, providing the entirety of the Mets’ offense for fourteen innings. Colors changing hue, morning fields of amber grain. In a game that is all but forgotten because both the protagonists and the antagonist went on to do so many more interesting things, John Olerud lifted the 1999 Mets to perhaps the most thrilling May victory in franchise history, driving home the tying and winning runs off a stubborn, faltering, previously infallible Curt Schilling in the ninth at Shea. It was a sign of good things to come.
Swirling clouds in violet haze reflect in Vincent’s eyes of China blue. Unlike, say, Kevin McReynolds, Olerud’s quietude actually enhanced his personality. His muteness along with his omnipresent hard hat were shown off as signatures in those hilarious Nike Subway Series stickball commercials. The other players swore by him. Flaming fl’ors that brightly blaze. Cataloguing all the good baseball John Olerud committed in three short seasons should have been enough to earn him at least five more as a Met. They would not listen, they’re not list’ning still, perhaps they never will. Instead, Steve Phillips turned his back on him. John didn’t go on the open market, though. He and his wife headed home for Seattle, where his parents and in-laws could regularly babysit the Oleruds’ infant son. I could’ve told you, Oly. This team was never meant for one as beautiful as you.
19. Rusty Staub: While M. Donald Grant is rightly pilloried for a trade he made in June 1977, he should’ve gotten the effigy treatment in December 1975 when he sent Rusty Staub and Bill Laxton to Detroit for Mickey Lolich and Billy Baldwin. Rusty had just gotten done being the Mets’ best player for four years, not nearly inoculation enough against his tendency to speak his mind and his impending status as a 10-and-5 man. Before Rusty could veto a trade, Grant vetoed Rusty. Never mind effigy — where was the rope it was needed? Rusty was a New York Met waiting to happen all those years in Houston and Montreal. Rusty was a sophisticate. He could barbecue the classiest ribs. He was opening a restaurant. He was a bon vivant. How many of those have we had? And how many guys were worth Ken Singleton, Tim Foli and Mike Jorgensen all at once, all while they were young? Who led the Mets into first in ’72 where they stayed until he took one off the hand from George Stone? Who was determined to outhit the Reds all by his redheaded self (three homers in the first four games) until he literally hit a wall saving Game Four in the eleventh inning? Who suffered a bum shoulder but batted .423 in the World Series anyway? Who was the first 100-RBI man the Mets ever had? It was Rusty’s second Met tour of duty, when he refined the pinch-hitting role as few others had (eight straight at one point to tie a Major League record) and became an icon for what would have to be termed his Rustyness: homering to join Cobb in the 40/19 club; switching back and forth between right and left in the eighteen-inning marathon against the Pirates to avoid having him try to make
any catch; catching Rick Rhoden’s looper down the RF line despite Davey’s best-laid plans; driving Keith and other Manhattan Mets to the park in the Rusty’s van; finishing up in a Mets uniform, too rare a phenomenon among the Greatest Mets. It was being Rusty circa 1981-85 that won him his own Day (remember the orange fright wigs?) and the sinecure behind the mike, but it was the Rusty of 1972 through 1975 who really earned it.
18. Jesse Orosco: In 1983, Jesse Orosco was probably the most awesome relief pitcher the Mets ever had. In eleven consecutive appearances between July 31 and August 21, he won six games and saved five. The first two wins came in both ends of a doubleheader. The first one was earned with four shutout innings of relief. In fact, this stretch encompassed 21-1/3 innings and Orosco didn’t give up a single earned run. Those wins weren’t vultured, those saves weren’t Eckersleyed — as an All-Star in his first year as closer, the lefty pitched more than one inning in seven of the eleven aforementioned appearances. Jesse Orosco could throw fastballs and sliders then. By the end of 1983, Orosco was 13-7 with 17 saves and an ERA of 1.47 over 87 innings, finishing third in the Cy Young balloting. If George Bamberger and Frank Howard deserve credit for anything as managers, it was the establishment of Jesse as a top-notch late-inning man. Jesse Orosco’s Mets legacy would be pretty strong based solely on 1983 and 1984. when he saved 31. It’s important to know that Jesse Orosco did something besides throw his glove in the air twice. Not that those weren’t extremely wonderful deals unto themselves.
17. Howard Johnson: As his best seasons came amid major disappointments for the team as a whole, one can debate whether Howard Johnson was a true impact player. The power-speed combo that made him a 30-30 man in ’87, ’89 and ’91 was all the more stunning because he preceded each of those years (which were all better for the Mets than the seasons that followed them) with relatively wan performances. Taken another way, Howard Johnson carried the Mets on his back in three years when nobody else was playing up to their full potential. HoJo exceeded everything that was expected of him on three separate occasions. For shock value, his 1987 was the most spectacularly surprising single season by any Met: 36 HRs, 32 SBs as an infielder and switch-hitter, both firsts, one RBI shy of a hundred. He could already turn on a fastball (especially Todd Worrell’s) like nobody’s business but now he was catching up to the slower stuff. Bettered his numbers two years later when he led the league in runs scored (104) and stole 41. And two years after that, he wore the NL homer and RBI crowns, with 38 and 117, respectively. He never completely nailed down the third base job — Davey’s mouth watered at the vision of all that offense at short and Buddy shoved him into the outfield toward the end — but he wound up playing more games than any Met at that mythical minefield and burial ground. His name figures prominently among all-time Met leaders: third in homers and ribbies, second in steals and total bases, all the more noteworthy considering he was never
the marquee player around here. More than a decade removed from his last Met at-bat, Howard Johnson’s success remains at least a little bit of surprise.
16. Tommie Agee: Who needed Bobby Bonds? Heck, who needed Wilie Mays in 1969 and 1970 when Tommie Agee was setting the world on fire from center field at Shea Stadium? Though his numbers for the two seasons (50 homers combined, 31 steals in ’70) were good the way Mets’ numbers were good, his real-time performance was world-class. Shaking off his miserable, headachy 1968, Tommie Agee became, in 1969, the leadoff guy and centerfielder the Mets had always craved. In August, he hit a homer off Juan Marichal in the fourteenth (yes, the fourteenth) to beat the Giants, 1-0. In September, he avenged Bill Hands’ first-inning headhunting with a two-run dinger in the third and a beautiful slide home under Randy Hundley’s tag in the sixth to accelerate the Cubs’ decline, 3-2. In October…well, after batting .357 in the NLCS, Tommie Agee owned an entire World Series game, the third one: Two deservedly legendary catches (the snow-cone and the dive) warded off five Orioles runs, and a leadoff Agee shot gave the Mets the immediate upper hand. Without Agee, it’s Orioles 5 Mets 4. A horrifying thought. With Agee, it was Mets 5 Orioles 0. Much better. Tommie rode ’69 into a Gold Glove season (only Met OF to win one) in ’70, by which time he was probably the most popular baseball player among elementary-school children in the Metropolitan Area. Sometimes, kids know best.
15: Cleon Jones: Between October 17, 1960 (National League awards expansion franchise to New York) and June 3, 1980 (Darryl Strawberry selected as first pick in amateur draft), the best all-around, everyday player signed and developed by the Mets was Cleon Jones. It is not clear anybody was ever second. Cleon was the Mets’ offense or certainly a significant chunk of it for a decade or so. He was huge (six HRs in the final ten games) in September ’73 and placed in the Top Ten in the league in ’68 and ’71. Cleon Jones’ entire Mets career wasn’t 1969. But if it were, nobody would’ve complained. His .340 was the team standard for nearly thirty years, placing him third in the National League. Nobody’d ever heard of it, but his OPS was a staggering (for then) .904. And despite the image of Gil escorting him to the dugout for not hustling, he led NL left fielders with a .991 fielding percentage. Of course as it is with all Great Mets, it was symbolism as much as accomplishment that defined Jones. Cleon’s shoes were polished generously before Game Five, which let the manager prove beyond the shadow of a smudge that he had been hit by a Dave McNally pitch, sending him to first base and positioning him to score the first Met run. Plus he caught Dave Johnson’s fly ball for the final out in the ninth, the lovely last image of that most Amazin’ season. What is generally overlooked is Cleon Jones started the rally that won the damn thing in the eighth, doubling to lead it off and scoring the winning run. See, there was a lot of pixie dust sprinkled over Shea in 1969, but Cleon Jones could actually play ball anytime.
14: Jerry Grote: Crank. Sourpuss. Ornery cuss. Beyond his station as the best defensive catcher of his time, beyond his nurturing of a fistful of some of the era’s greatest pitchers, beyond a bat that showed steady, solid improvement between the mid-’60s (when he was stolen for Tom Parsons) and the mid-’70s, there was what Jerry Grote was said to be like: not pleasant. Maybe the beat guys minded, but for the fans, he remained, in his way, endearing. He caught, he threw, he prevailed. We knew less about our heroes then and maybe that wasn’t so bad. Of course his longstanding bristle would explain why it was Sharon and not Jerry Grote who fronted those commercials for Gulden’s Spicy Brown Mustard. It must’ve been all he could do to look happy biting into a bologna sandwich after 22 takes.
13: Jerry Koosman: Nineteen wins as a rookie, seventeen as a sophomore and — after arm problems interrupted what could have been a borderline Hall of Fame career — 21 wins in 1976 underscored the likable Jerry Koosman’s undisputed place as the best lefthanded starter in team history. No responsible Mets fan would argue the designation. But his regular-season numbers, even his most impressive (his total of 140 wins is third among all Mets pitchers), weren’t what made him great. It was the post-season. Push came to shove? Kooz came to pitch. Jerry Koosman started six games in the 1969 and 1973 tournaments. The Mets won all six. He was 4-0, which was swell for him, but the 6-0 was awesome for everybody. Kooz is recalled accurately as the quintessential good guy, but he was bad news for the other team when it really, really counted.
12: John Franco: For the entire decade of the 1990s, John Franco registered 268 saves. All but perhaps five felt worthless. He’d pass milestone after milestone and the Mets would hold ceremonies in his honor, but it all came off as very hollow given the state of the team most of the time. By the end of 1999, once he was no longer closer, the main goal of the Mets’ playoff push seemed to be Get Johnny In. He’d been pitching since 1984 and missed the post-season every one of his first fifteen years. He was killer effective for the Reds in the ’80s, but they didn’t win anything until he left…for the Mets. That was when the Mets crumbled, despite all those Franco saves. On October 3, 1999, when Melvin Mora duckwalked across home plate with the run that guaranteed no worse than a one-game playoff for the National League Wild Card, just about every set of eyes turned toward John Franco as he led the charge from the dugout. For maybe a half-minute, the collective consciousness of Shea Stadium thought, “John Franco is finally going to get his chance.” DiamondVision found him and the crowd erupted for someone who had been, at best, a Rorschach Test for most Mets fans.