If you're looking for highs in the course of a season, you start with wins. But next to those, I can't think of anything more uplifting than the big-time position prospect who makes an unexpected middle-of-the-schedule debut. It's little wonder that we all got fairly excited when Lastings Milledge became the 789th Met Wednesday. He didn't look scared in doing so and he didn't sound scared talking about it afterward. The scary part is wondering what's next.
For a hotshot to get a shot between Opening Day and September 1, it usually means something has gone wrong, often terribly wrong. Appendicitis striking your starting rightfielder would qualify.
David Wright was that rare phenom who got the mid-season call when things were going reasonably well for the big club. The Mets hadn't yet fallen out of the 2004 playoff picture and Ty Wigginton was representing professionally at third. Wright was a case of we can't keep 'em down on the farm anymore. Jose Reyes' promotion a year earlier reflected his readiness but also the dreck that the 2003 Mets had shown themselves to be. Or was anybody particularly satisfied that Rey Sanchez was our starting shortstop?
Neither Wright nor Reyes, for all their advance pub, was the classic franchise-saver, the five-tool power bat we'd been promised since the day we signed on as Mets fans. Wright was going to be a real good hitter, it was said, but I don't remember being guaranteed a classic slugger. He hit more homers last year as a Major Leaguer than he did in any one season in the minors (though his combined bushes/bigs total in '04 was a nifty 32). Reyes was about defense, then speed and then hitting, certainly not power-hitting. Even today, he is patronized after home runs with “you sure hate to see him do that.” Yes, I can't stand the way he drives in runs and matures at the same time.
As you indicated, there was no one whose recall was more hyped than Darryl Strawberry. What had gone terribly wrong to precipitate his arrival was the Mets as a whole. 1983: Seaver starts his emotional homecoming and the Mets win on Opening Day. Craig Swan starts the second game and the Mets win again. Then it was toilet time in Flushing. We were 6-15 when the clarion call to Tidewater went out. Up came Darryl and Tucker Ashford. Tucker Ashford? Yeah, the Mets called up two players to make their debut on May 6, 1983. Ashford was the pack of gum you buy at the CVS so the cashier doesn't think you're some kind of weirdo for buying whatever the other, far more obvious thing is.
Tucker Ashford very briefly took over for Hubie Brooks at third. Darryl Strawberry replaced a vacuum in the heart of the Mets' batting order, one that had been sucking the life out of rallies since 1962. There was almost always a hole there, but in 1983 it was astoundingly noticeable. You could drive the National League East through it. Darryl Strawberry becoming a Met had been a dream since that Sports Illustrated article introduced him to the world. Hey, we have the No. 1 pick in the draft… We had waited almost three full years for Strawberry specifically, let alone all of our lives for anyone remotely like him.
Of course it was a jolt to have him here in the flesh, but the occasion of his promotion was also tinged with sadness. From May 6, 1983 on, there would be no more looking forward to the day Darryl Strawberry arrived. This was it. If he failed, there'd be no “well, at least we still have Darryl Strawberry on his way…D'OH!” I felt a little of that with Milledge Wednesday just as I've felt it with every gonna-be-great Met since Straw. It's a perverse endorsement of the “Me & Bobby McGee” school of scouting: I'd trade all of their tomorrows for one single yesterday of imagining what huge stars they were going to be.
Darryl? Can't say he wasn't a huge star. Can't say he was Ted Williams in any shade either. It's not a wash. He did become the No. 4 Greatest Met of the First Forty Years. He also became at least the second-greatest disappointment among human beings in Mets uniforms whose youths were so promising. I'd rather not go on about this, because Lastings Milledge isn't Darryl Strawberry.
There are some others I sure hope he's not.
I hope Lastings Milledge is not Jeromy Burnitz. Burnitz, like Milledge, like Straw, was a No. 1 draft pick. He wasn't quite as ballyhooed but he did serve as a glimmer of hope amid a present of mud, his future arriving in June of 1993, the world's worst season. Jeromy was a raw rookie, the way I've always read Ron Swoboda was. Very strong. Very unpolished. Like Rocky, you just kind of knew it was never all going to come together for Jeromy. Let's not sell Burnitz altogether short, however. He's had a productive, power-hitting career in distant precincts. His Mets tenures were honorable if ultimately lame. Rumor has it he's still plying his trade in the National League Central.
I hope Lastings Milledge is not Alex Ochoa. Ochoa brought “five-tool player” into our vernacular, almost exclusively as a laugh line. Too bad. Technically, he was a September ('95) callup, but he was tearing up AAA the following summer when he was resummoned for real. As with Straw's '83 and Burny's '93 milieus, 1996 was a Met disaster area. Perfect for a phenom. And Alex was phenomenal. Hit for the cycle in Philadelphia in the eleventh game of his second stay. Was hitting .390 after that. New York profiled him as The Cuban Missile. But the Missile missed most of its targets. Sold to us as the key to the Bobby Bonilla deal (as if Damon Buford and getting rid of Bobby Bonilla weren't plenty enough), Ochoa simply came up short. He didn't work any of his tools all that consistently or superbly; great arm, though. He was sent away for Rich Becker — pretty close to the ultimate insult — and persevered as a helpful spare part on other clubs, eventually earning a ring as a reserve outfielder on the 2002 World Champion Angels. Hasn't played since.
I hope Lastings Milledge is not Alex Escobar. Goodness gracious, I hope Lastings Milledge isn't Alex Escobar. This Alex got his call to glory in May of 2001 for Nadylike reasons. Shorts in the outfield necessitated two shots of Escobar before his time. Neither Jay Payton nor Tsuyoshi Shinjo played Wally Pipp to Escobar's Iron Horse. Alex seized no opportunities. When he returned very late in 2001, he displayed a little pop, just enough to supplement those glowing organizational reports that said Alex Escobar was three matching jackpots on a dollar scratcher. Next thing we knew, he was swapped to Cleveland for Robbie Alomar. It was a trade that helped nobody. Escobar recently resurfaced in Washington. As a National, not a lobbyist.
You can name your own examples of guys we waited and waited for only to be kept waiting. Some, like Payton, had numerous false starts, succeeded for a time and then went away unmourned. Others, like Preston Wilson, never finished their cup of Shea Stadium coffee before moving on (with our slightly reluctant blessing) to tealer pastures. And the Ken Singletons and the Dan Normans and the Gregg Jefferieses and…ah, you know.
But we're not always wrong. We as a people were all over a bonus baby first baseman who debuted to great fanfare on September 22, 1962. Ed Kranepool would come to bat six times in the Mets' first season and get one hit. He was 17 years old. Noted Leonard Koppett amid the luxury of post-Miracle hindsight, “The funny part was, there were Met fans who said, 'This may be our first championship player.'”
Incidentally, Ed Kranepool is 13 years and 9+ months older than Julio Franco. Julio Franco is 26 years and 7+ months older than Lastings Milledge. Ed Kranepool, at 17, was no more than 22 years younger than any 1962 Met (Gene Woodling, whose career ended the same week Eddie's started). The spread between Franco and Milledge is unprecedented on any Mets roster. Warren Spahn, born in April 1921, and Krane, hatched November 1944, set the record, if it can be called a record, in 1965. Julio Franco (August '58) and Jose Reyes (June '83) broke that record* on Opening Day. Franco and Milledge (April '85) set it anew last night.
So what else is old? The last player born before Franco to make a Mets debut was Pat Tabler in 1990. The last Met born before Franco still playing as a Met? Tim Teufel in 1991.
On the other side of the age coin, Milledge is the most recently born of all 789 Mets, bumping Reyes back one notch. They are two of thirteen Mets to have been born in the 1980s. In chronological order of first Met appearance:
2002: Pat Strange
2003: Reyes, Danny Garcia
2004: Wright, Craig Brazell, Jeff Keppinger, Victor Diaz
2005: Royce Ring, Mike Jacobs, Anderson Hernandez
2006: Brian Bannister, John Maine, Milledge
Three of those guys are on the roster right this very minute. Three have lately seen the DL. Three others are rattling around Norfolk. The other four have scattered to the wind.
With Reyes and Wright, the team that spawned the Youth of America is nicely making up in quality what it clearly lacks in fresh-faced quantity. Lastings Milledge isn't supposed to stick around all that long for right now, but maybe he'll be our next championship player.
Him and Franco and the 23 other kids who first saw light somewhere between 1958 and 1985.
*I consulted a very helpful spreadsheet shared by Ultimate Mets Database on the Crane Pool Forum to check dates and make assumptions. If I failed to cite an age spread that topped Spahn-Krane before Julio Franco-Reyes did, it's my fault for not being more diligent in looking.