As we approach the mountaintop of The One Hundred Greatest Mets Of The First Forty Years, I glance around. I glance at the Cardinals and try to think very quickly of who some of their greatest have been: Stan Musial, Joe Medwick, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Pepper Martin. The Pirates: Roberto Clemente, Honus Wagner, Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Ralph Kiner. The Dodgers: Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Fernando Valenzuela, Pee Wee Reese, Steve Garvey.
No fair, I’m thinking. Those teams have been around forever. So how about our expansion brethren, the teams who entered the world around the same time we did? Off the top of my head, here are ten greats from each of those entrants.
Astros: Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Billy Wagner, Jimmy Wynn, Cesar Cedeño, Mike Scott, J.R. Richard, Bob Watson, Jose Cruz, Nolan Ryan.
Angels: Tim Salmon, Don Baylor, Bobby Grich, Garret Anderson, Troy Percival, Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson, Darrin Erstad, Jim Fregosi, Nolan Ryan.
Senators/Rangers: Frank Howard, Jeff Burroughs, Ivan Rodriguez, Rafael Palmiero, Juan Gonzalez, Mike Hargrove, Kenny Rogers, Ruben Sierra, Jim Sundberg, Nolan Ryan.
Other than a disturbing pattern of getting more out of Nolan Ryan than we did (wonder if their trainers used pickle brine), do those teams seem a lot better represented, celestially speaking, than us? I don’t know, but I do wonder, because after counting down from 100 to 11, I have to admit I’m a little disappointed at who our greats have been.
Don’t get me wrong. I love or have loved virtually every one of the ninety players listed to this point. They’ve done wonderful things for us in one way or another, many of them in multiple ways. We wouldn’t be the Mets without them.
But we’re the Mets. Do we have truly great players, not just Great Mets? Can our Greatest carry their weight in a hypothetical home-run derby? A strikeout showdown for the ages? Can we hit, can we run, can we win?
I still don’t know. But we are who we are and we’ve got who we’ve got. At the top of the list at last (and for real) are our Ten Greatest Mets. And if you doubt these are Mets…
10. Ed Kranepool: Other teams have had Ed Kranepools — guys whose names are code to outsiders and lapsed loyalists for “oh yeah, that guy, huh?” The name brings a chuckle for more innocent times, when the game wasn’t a business, when a guy like that could play ball. It is doubtful that those teams’ Ed Kranepools are quite the force in their all-time record books as the real Ed Kranepool is in ours. He may be emblematic of an era or three of Mets baseball, but he’s not a mascot. He played. He played here forever. Play somewhere forever long enough and you’re going to show up mighty high in a lot of categories. When it comes to Met milestones, Ed Kranepool is the antenna adorning the Empire State Building: First in games played by 500-plus; more than a thousand at-bats ahead of the pack; tops in doubles; a slim lead in total bases; even eighth in triples. And since playing the last of his eighteen seasons or season fragments in 1979, a quarter-century has come and gone without anybody seriously challenging his franchise hits record of 1,418. It is at least partly to Ed Kranepool’s credit that he established such an unbeatable mark. It is also a reflection of the organization for whom he played that it didn’t keep around a guy or two who would’ve broken the record pretty easily in far less time than it took Eddie to set it. The Major League record for career hits is owned by Pete Rose: 4,256. That’s three times as many as Kranepool amassed. Let’s just say that this is not the most distinguished benchmark in baseball, but 1,418 it is and the 1,418 is his. Don’t do the math to figure out what that translates to over eighteen seasons. Don’t look too closely at Ed Kranepool year-by-year. It’s not impressive. He was an All-Star once (for a team that lost 112 games) and found his groove late in life as a timely pinch-hitter. The story of Krane is not what he accomplished but over how long a period he accomplished it. With the reserve clause in full effect until his career was almost over, Ed Kranepool wasn’t going anywhere early, especially since he was the Mets’ first glamour signing, glitz apparently not as lustrous as it would become. He showed up just long enough in 1962 so he could forever be the player who remained from the inaugural season. When Jim Hickman was traded following 1966, Eddie became the longest-tenured Met. The 1967 Yearbook refers to him as “The Dean”. For thirteen of his eighteen seasons, Ed Kranepool was in a league of his own on the Mets. He had seen it all: The Polo Grounds; the Memorial Day 1964 marathon doubleheader against the Giants (he played in all 32 innings that Sunday after having played in a twinbill that Saturday in Buffalo); a homer of his own in Game Three against the Orioles; a brief dip down into Tidewater at Hodges’ behest; a renaissance thereafter. He was always the guy who dated back over all those years. It was amusing when a placard went up in the ’60s to ask if Ed Kranepool was over the hill. It’s astonishing to realize that because Eddie was so young at the beginning — 17 when he played his first game — that in none of his eighteen Met years, not even 1979, was he ever the oldest player on the team for an entire season. When ancient Eddie Kranepool played his final game, he was all of 34.
9. Edgardo Alfonzo: 1995 started late. It felt like it would never start at all, but thanks to Judge Sonia Sotomayor, an injunction was rendered against the playing of regular-season replacement games and teams scrambled to assemble abbreviated training camps. In Port St. Lucie, Dallas Green shepherded a host of new names. Brett Butler was inked as a free agent and slotted in as the leadoff hitter. Starting pitcher Pete Harnisch came over from Houston. Youngsters Ricky Otero, Kevin Lomon and Brook Fordyce made the team, as did veteran utilityman Bill Spiers. Somewhere amid all that activity, Dallas Green managed to find a 21-year-old infielder who was in Double-A the year before. As long as he was bringing a passel of new names north, he figured he might as well bring one more. And with that one uncharacteristically foresightful decision, professionalism crept onto a baseball team that sorely lacked it. That was the story of spring training 1995, something no fan could possibly realize for a couple more years. Only in Metrospect is the mysterious obvious, and back then, it wasn’t Butler or Harnisch or any of the slew of pretenders who shuttled in and out of Shea who would be the key to the team’s future. It was the kid infielder, Edgardo Alfonzo, a reminder that great things sometimes happen for those fans who wait just a little. While Fonzie did show the capacity to play and think at the same time (a rare combo in the Green era), he wasn’t a Rookie of the Year candidate in ’95. He wasn’t a starter. Nor was he for the balance of 1996. He didn’t have a position. He had three of them. By all appearances, he was a utility guy, an understudy to the likes of Jose Vizcaino and Jeff Kent and Bobby Bonilla. But that was temporary. He was on his way. We didn’t necessarily understand that because as fans we live in the present. In the present of ’95 and ’96, Edgardo Alfonzo was not yet a fully formed product. Maybe it took a change of managers from Green to Valentine or it took a good, long look at Butch Huskey’s hot-corner skill set, but Alfonzo didn’t stake a claim to a starting job, third base, until the 1997 season was under way. Seemingly overnight, Edgardo Alfonzo became one of the best third basemen and most deadly clutch hitters in the National League. He’d been playing pro ball since 1991 but now he was new again. His insertion into the lineup coincided neatly with the rise of the Mets from disaster to contender. Fonzie may have been fairly anonymous in the big picture, but he quickly gained traction among the Metsnoscenti. We told our friends about him. “We’ve got this third baseman who is so sound and so dependable. You’ve gotta see him.” Those who should have known better didn’t. Tim McCarver, doing a Fox game in ’97, dismissed Valentine’s assertion that Alfonzo was going to be a very big player as typical manager hyperbole. Then Edgardo hit a home run. Well, admitted McCarver, Bobby could have something there. He did. Alfonzo didn’t always succeed, but he rarely failed. The next year, Fonzie’s average declined noticeably (.315 to .278), and it would’ve been natural to figure, oh, this guy isn’t that good after all. But patience, Mets fans. Edgardo was still learning. His power numbers rose. His game was expanding.
We were learning. And in 1999 and 2000, the whole world would learn, if it was paying attention the least little bit, that Edgardo Alfonzo was one of the most complete players in all of baseball. By then, for the good of the team, he shifted to second and accounted for a quarter of The Best Infield Ever. He won a Silver Slugger in ’99, an All-Star berth in ’00, shining in both post-seasons. Now it was fashionable for everybody to recognize Fonzie the way Baseball Digest did in the winter of 2001: The Majors’ Most Underrated Player. Perhaps nobody had been as famous for not garnering adequate esteem since Joe Rudi in the mid-’70s. Alfonzo’s arc, from somebody ignored altogether to somebody praised as not being praised enough, is fun to think back on. But the real treat for us was watching it all develop even if we didn’t know right away what we had under our nose.
8. Bud Harrelson: Buddy Harrelson is a Met. Buddy Harrelson will forever be a Met the way we wish all Mets were Mets: all the way, from his first sacrifice to his last dying day. His dossier reveals he played close to fourteen percent of his Major League games for other teams. That sounds high. Buddy Harrelson is a Met. He must’ve made those stops in Philadelphia and Texas to tell them about it. How he came up a skinny kid tutored by Roy McMillan in 1965. How he stayed skinny but became the starting shortstop in 1967 behind a starting pitcher named Seaver. How they became roomies. How he played short behind lots of Mets pitchers over thirteen seasons, but never with quite as much purpose as when his roomie pitched, not because they were roomies but because Seaver was Seaver. How he wasn’t there the night of July 9, 1969 because he had to fulfill his military obligation that week. How he watched that game against the Cubs with other soldiers from Fort Drum in Watertown and wanted to tell them that the guy on the mound who’s closing in on a perfect game? That’s my roomie. How he told it to one guy who gave him a look like, whatever, bud. How he was the glue of a world championship infield. How he made two All-Star appearances almost completely based on his defense. How he won a Gold Glove in ’71. How he played short for another championship team. How he became forever linked with one of the most famous ballplayers of all time because no matter how big Pete Rose was, Buddy Harrelson wasn’t going to be pushed around by him. How he became such a part of the fabric of the Mets that he’d get to introduce the commercial breaks on Kiner’s Korner, something no other player was privileged to do. How he kept going on the Disabled List and kept coming off it sure that everything was going to be fine. How he told a ladies’ booster-club meeting that as soon as he got back into action in ’75, don’t worry, we’ll win the Series. How even after being dispatched for a minor-league infielder in the spring of ’78 and finishing his career elsewhere he came back to coach and broadcast, and even offered to be activated when there was a paucity of healthy infielders in ’82. How he managed in the Mets’ minors and then coached third for the big club and was in uniform for every post-season game the Mets ever played through 1988. How he was named skipper of the Mets in 1990, turning around a moribund group for one more spirited run at glory. How the managing didn’t work out but he came back for Old-Timers Day and was cheered as if the ultimately poor managing had never happened. How he hung around Long Island as a Met legend on call. How even though he decided to become a Long Island Duck well afterwards that he remained a Met at heart. How he extended the baseball life of a shortstop named Kevin Baez by making him a Duck because he had him as a Met a decade earlier. That’s the only possible reason Buddy Harrelson would’ve spent even a fraction of one percent of his time in the big leagues as something other than a Met. To let them know that stuff.
7. Tug McGraw: One pitched. One talked. No, check that — both talked, but only one got paid for it, technically speaking. In 2004, the Mets’ soul absorbed two body blows delivered by the deaths of Tug McGraw in January and Bob Murphy in August. The genuine sadness that greeted their departures was so deep that it had to go further than proper respect for two people so associated with one ballclub. It came from this: For the better part of the fortysomething seasons that the Mets have existed, the optimism and limitless possibilities expressed long ago by McGraw and continually by Murphy were articles of faith for fans who saw past won-lost results that would discourage more rational folks. Tug and Murph, in their own fashions, told the Mets faithful to ignore mere statistical and empirical evidence. Forget the Games Behind column. Don’t worry about the score if it’s not in our favor. Good things can always happen. The essential nature of the Mets fan accepted this throughout the tenure of Tug and right up to the end of Murph’s days. By the early 2000s, operating in a city overrun by Yankees and a division controlled by Braves, Mets fans, the hardest core of us, dug in and unfurled miles and miles of hope, nightly and yearly. A singular sentence uttered by Tug and the consistent tone set by Murph goes a long way toward explaining our perpetual state of delighted delusion. Whatever brought them to their own brands of hopefulness and their impulse to share it, each was infectious. Behind a mike or leaping off a mound, they channeled Churchill: Never give in…never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy…not even down two in the tenth with two out and nobody on or 6-1/2 back and behind five teams at the end of August. While the modern-day Mets marketing department churns out obtuse come-ons like “Catch The Energy” for sub-.500 goods, Tug caught the zeitgeist of the Mets fan in 1973 and tossed it back to us for safe keeping. “You Gotta Believe” was a simple enough directive. Echoing down the decades, it spoke to Mets fans then and later. We can do it, said Tug — I’ll pitch, you persevere and together we’ll figure this thing out. It worked in 1973, as the Mets rose from a late last to a furious first, and it cobbled its way into the Met DNA. Every unlikely scenario since, whether it’s gone in the Mets’ favor (the Buckner affair, the grand-slam single) or not, has played out under Tug’s rule. Murph’s game, meanwhile, wasn’t just a game of inches, as the cliché allows, but more universally, “a game of redeeming features.” In more cynical times, his reliable forecast that the sun’ll come out tomorrow — breaking through a few harmless, puffy, cumulus clouds — would qualify as shilling. But for Bob Murphy, it was natural and, by all accounts, real. Thus it resonated. What sold McGraw’s and Murphy’s chin-up admonitions was their audience’s desire to buy them, hold onto them and never let them go. It became the Mets fan’s nature to, yes, believe. No season was so far gone until mathematical elimination struck that you couldn’t. No game was beyond the reach of one of Murph’s happy recaps until the third out of the final inning was recorded. If the Mets lost, the recap may have been less giddy, but it was never morose. In a game of redeeming features, redemption is only a day away, all you need is belief. That and a bitchin’ scroogie.
6. Gary Carter: They called him Camera Carter for reasons that were pretty apparent to anybody with a TV, but the most telling photographic evidence of what Gary Carter was all about as a Met was a still picture taken by George Kalinsky. It’s of the eventual Hall of Fame catcher standing on a table in the trainer’s room having his right knee taped. Gary Carter literally smiled through his pain. And because he did, we smiled almost as brightly. There was a moment right before the All-Star break in 1985, his first year in New York, when news of his knee’s perilous condition spread. He might have to have surgery. He might be gone the rest of the year. If he went to the DL, Davey Johnson could have handed the keys to the Eastern Division to Whitey Herzog right then and there. Instead, Carter got taped and played. He was mummified underneath his uniform. Outside, he was alive and well, making with the teeth so we could wear a continuous grin. Rarely has a player of Gary Carter’s credentials come to the Mets, and even more infrequently has he done exactly what he was acquired to do. In ’85 and ’86, the Kid came through early and often, never more so than in that first September, arguably the most intense month of the most intense season in Mets history. Gary Carter, two months removed from almost shutting it down, was the National League Player of the Month: .343, 13 homers, 34 RBI, including eight game-winners. For someone with a fresh pair of joints, it would be stupendous. For a creaky veteran to turn it on like that at crunch time was the stuff of great video. The Kid would be the big bat on the ’86 team as well, never bigger than in Game Five of the NLCS (sticking it to a rightly forgotten clown named Charlie Kerfeld to win it in the twelfth) and throughout the World Series (first hit in that tenth inning plus two home runs and nine ribbies). He caught every pitch of that post-season, something little remarked upon at the time. It had to be a tremendous strain, but this Camera never blinked.
5. Dwight Gooden: See Nineteen Eighty-Five Season, The. If you already saw it, nothing more needs be said. If you didn’t, get yourself a time machine…unless they’ve all been rented out to Mets fans who saw Doc Gooden’s 1985 in first-run and would give anything to see it again. If you can’t make the trip to 1985, you might want to check out 1984. That was pretty spectacular, too. All the other sequels? Not so much. Seeing young Doc Gooden being young Doc Gooden is enough to make you forget any spoilers you ever learned about the later, older Dwight Gooden.
4. Darryl Strawberry: There wasn’t anything Darryl Strawberry couldn’t do on a baseball field. There wasn’t all that much he didn’t do. Certainly, there was a slew of things that he and only he ever did for the Mets. Nobody hit more homers and drove in more runs. Nobody was voted on to more All-Star teams. Nobody carried this team on his back for greater stretches. Nobody looked more like a great ballplayer. Nobody was as fast and as tall and as powerful at the same time. He was, for his eight seasons as a Met, the single most electrifying presence this franchise ever had. He had no serious predecessor and no legitimate successor in terms of a Met who could do everything Darryl Strawberry could do. Yet it was never enough. Darryl didn’t hustle. Darryl couldn’t get out of his or the second baseman’s way on fly balls to short right. Darryl never had the “monster season” he promised, just three or four very, very good ones. Darryl hit some of the most dramatic shots in Mets history, like that bolt off the clock in St. Louis, but they didn’t necessarily lead to pennants. Two of his ’86 post-season homers, Games Three and Five against the Astros, were great, but geez, it was Dykstra and Carter who delivered the decisive blows. His ninth-inning bomb in Game Seven off Al Nipper was crucial insurance, putting the Mets up 7-5, but didja see that Cadillac trot of his? And what about the game before? While Knight was scoring, this guy was sulking.
By the standards which almost every baseball player is judged, Darryl Strawberry was the best position player the Mets ever produced and his Mets career was perhaps the most productive in team history. Yes, yes, but… But what? Sigh, he coulda been so much more.
3. Mike Piazza: Don’t wanna burst your bubble, sweetie, but all the whispers turned out to be true. Mike Piazza really was a queen as a Met. He’s the biggest drama queen we ever had. Sure, it seems like he played catcher, crouched behind the plate, took all those blows, smoked all those line drives, was popular enough to get elected to all those All-Star teams without throwing a hissyfit in front of those hordes of reporters who followed his every move. But don’t tell me it wasn’t all about the drama with him. Everything had to be a production with Our Miss Thing. Like that first year when he looked like he was so not coming back. We played that series in Houston with everything riding on it and we were down 6-4 in the ninth with two out and two on and facing Billy Wagner and that nasty fastball of his. What does Piazza do? Three-run homer. Oh, just like that. And what about that National League Championship Series against Atlanta? He’s hurting the whole time so he can’t even play against Arizona but he comes up in that sixth game, facing John Smoltz and guess what? Another big home run. Oh look at me, I’m Mike Piazza and just like that I’ve got our team back in this do-or-die game that’s gonna go on all night thanks to moi. And wait there’s more: That game against the Braves at Shea the next year. You know: The Mets are losing 8-1 to their archrivals again and all hope is lost again. So what happens? Oh just a bunch of walks and hits and such. Before you know it, we’re down 8-6. Then it’s 8-8 with two men on. Guess who’s up. Oh look! It’s Mike! And on the first pitch, what does he do? Three-run homer. Again. We’re supposed to believe that, right? The go-ahead runs against the Braves and tying a team record by scoring ten in the inning all on one swing? Like he couldn’t have driven in those runs before the eighth?
Puh-leeze. Forget about those games against the Yankees and all the blows he dealt Miss Clemens. Of course Rog-ette threw at him. He knows he can’t compete with a real man. Look what Mike did to Ramiro Mendoza in that silly 9-8 win at Shea in ’99. Another three-run homer, except this one hasn’t come down yet, girlfriend. Not even close. And don’t get me started on that post-9/11 game where Mike hits the home run that makes everybody forget just for a minute every horrible thing that’s just happened beyond the walls of the stadium. That was just too dramatic.
2. Keith Hernandez: The Mets ran this ticket special in the 1980s that was incredibly successful. For the price of one admission, you could see the most fearsome competitor in the game, a peerless clutch hitter and first-base play that was as revolutionary as it was nonpareil. They were also willing into throw in for that one ticket a consistent .300 hitter, a guy who ran the game like a point guard and a window into the mind of the most intelligent ballplayer you’d ever see or hear. Oh and if that wasn’t enough to lure you in, you’d watch somebody who was looked up to by almost all his teammates, experience the hit that turned around Game Seven of the World Series and, if you requested it, the second-hand effects from a stream of Marlboros. Actually, you got the cigarettes whether you wanted them or not. Still and all, a really great deal. The Mets sold a lot of baseball with that package, especially in ’86. It was an incredible deal. So was the one they made in ’83 that made it possible.
1. Tom Seaver: The baseball fan who isn’t a Mets fan could look at an all-time roster of Mets and examine the credentials of every Met during his time as a Met and rightly wonder what the hell the rest of us have been going on about since 1962. Even many of those whom we would choose to stand among the Greatest Mets would not meet an objective, reasonably informed observer’s criteria for greatness. You could sit down and write all night over several nights why as many as 99 of them deserve our vigilant recognition, our deepest remembrance, our highest regard. At some point, your unbiased, impartial, hypothetical friend who knows baseball would take a gander at your rankings. He’d carefully remove that last can of Rheingold from your mousing hand and have a heart-to-heart with you. “Look,” the friend would say, “I know you love the Mets and I know you love a lot of the Mets as individual players. But c’mon. Great? What’s great about these guys?” Your friend would work his way up your list and, in a baseball intervention, take apart the statistics and the story of each Met you’ve selected as “great” pretty easily. As he’d reach the upper echelon of your rankings, it might get a little more difficult, but your friend means to set you straight, so he might have to break it to you that no matter how great you think they were, Ed Kranepool played a long time with little to show for it; Edgardo Alfonzo had only two big years; Bud Harrelson couldn’t hit his weight; Tug McGraw pitched terribly most of 1973 and reverted to that form in 1974; Gary Carter broke down rapidly after ’86; Dwight Gooden left you high and dry, if you will, twice; Darryl Strawberry seriously never fulfilled his potential; and while Piazza and Hernandez had some really good seasons for you guys, honestly, they put up much better numbers with
L.A. and St. Louis. Your friend would set down that Rheingold of yours, look you in the eye and tell you all that to your face. And you’d all but acquiesce to his cool, clear logic because deep down, you’ve quietly suspected this, that no matter how passionately you make the case for these so-called Greatest Mets, the team you’ve rooted for since you were six years old hasn’t had a single truly great player. Your friend is right. These 99 guys were not “great” by objective standards. You feel like a fraud. Your friend doesn’t gloat. He wants to help. He’s going to take you somewhere where you can get that help. While he looks through your closet for a jacket that isn’t blue and/or orange, you realize you’ve been wasting your time on a team whose greatness existed only in the eye of the beholder. You. But wait a second…you only went through 99 players with your friend. This is a list of One Hundred, and you showed him everybody from 100 to 2. What about No. 1? You call your friend over. He’s still rifling through your closet, amazed at how little clothing you own that doesn’t say NY or METS or both on it. Hey, you tell him — you didn’t see this. He humors you. “Fine, let me look at your ‘Greatest Met’. Who is it? Oh, it’s Tom Seaver. I forgot about Tom Seaver. Of course Tom Seaver was great. He wasn’t just a Great Met. He’s one of the all-time great baseball players and he did most of great things as a Met. I just have to see his name to know that. No doubt about it, the Mets had a great player. Seaver. One of the best pitchers ever.” Your friend gives you back your list and shakes your hand. You shake his hand. Then you crush your Rheingold can on his head. He passes out. You call the police. “Officer,” you say, “some nut got into my house in the middle of the night talking nonsense about the Mets. Then he said he was going to kick the ass of the first cop he saw. Can you come over? You can? Great.”