We didn’t have any great, great superstar players where one guy got all the shots. It wasn’t that kind of a team.
—Willis Reed to Dennis D’Agostino, “Garden Glory“
My earliest, most serious sports allegiances were to the 1969 Mets and the 1969-70 Knicks, both champions in the making. I haven’t stopped since ’69 where the Mets are concerned but I was never again the Knicks fan I was at ages 6 and 7. I can’t say I’m a Knicks fan at all these days. Haven’t been remotely enthusiastic about them for more than a decade.
Why? Lots of reasons, but the one that comes back to me now is I was spoiled at an early age. Not so much by the success but by the personalities. My introduction to basketball was Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley and Dick Barnett. The starting five. After your first exposure to something comes at its highest, most sublime level, maybe everything that follows is bound to disappoint.
I can still see and hear those Knicks. My parents were huge fans and holders of season tickets not that many rows from the floor. When they weren’t at the Garden, they had the radio on and we’d listen to home games during dinner via Marv Albert on WNBC. If the Knicks were on the road, we’d watch on Channel 9. It was an article of faith in our house that Willis was exactly what his title said he was, The Captain; that Clyde was one cool customer; that Dave The Butcher (which is what I could swear they were calling him on TV) was tougher than Gus Johnson; that Dollar Bill was brilliant; that quiet Dick Barnett with his “fall back, baby” jump shot was every bit as important as his more celebrated teammates.
Every week the Post printed a list of the league scoring leaders. There never seemed to be any Knicks at the top of it. I once asked my father about it, and he explained it was because Red Holzman didn’t want any of them to score all that much. He wants them each to pass the ball, to play smart, to hit the open man, to keep everybody involved, to play as a team on offense and to get back on defense. If the players wanted to, he said, they were each capable of scoring 30 points a game.
The math as processed by my unnuanced, six-year-old way of looking at things — five guys each scoring 30 points every night would mean the Knicks would have 150 points in the bank — didn’t add up to anything bad, but whatever Red was doing was working. The Knicks of Reed, Frazier, DeBusschere, Bradley and Barnett started the year 5-0, lost to the San Francisco Warriors and then won their next eighteen, an NBA record. They were 23-1 in a blink. If none of them scored as much as that Al Cinder guy from Milwaukee everybody made such a big deal about (turned out his name was Lew Alcindor and he would eventually become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), it didn’t matter. They won together.
Neither basketball nor the Knicks ever captured my fancy the way it did the first time around, but I still revere that starting five to a degree that remains almost unmatched in my affections. If I love how much larger than life the ’86 Mets were (and I do), it was the way the ’70 Knicks were perfectly lifesized — one inch equaled one inch — that stays with me to this day.
I don’t know that I’d seen anything like them until now. But now I have.
The first five batters of the 2006 Mets composed a unit within a unit that I’d imagine has set an unreasonably high standard for Mets fans who have just taken their first steps on the orange and blue brick road. As marvelous as the entire team effort was, in the same sense that those champion Knicks needed the Minutemen contributions of Cazzie Russell, Dave Stallworth and Mike Riordan (and even backup center Nate Bowman whom my mother dismissed as if he were a proto-Danny Heep), the 2006 Mets were defined in black ink by those who hit first through fifth most every night.
Isn’t every good baseball team, though? I suppose. You can’t talk about 1986 without Dykstra, Backman, Hernandez, Carter and Straw, right? No, you can’t. But Lenny and Wally were often spelled by Mookie and Teufel, and Ray Knight batted sixth and there was some very impressive pitching mixed in there. The ’69 Mets were a platoonist’s dream. Even the ’99 Mets, who crafted their own ideal top of the order with Rickey, Fonzie, Oly, Mike and Robin, had everybody from Orel Hershiser to Pat Mahomes to Shawon Dunston saving their bacon when the pressure was on.
This past year was absolutely a team effort as well. That wasn’t just lip service paid to Greatest 2006 Mets Nos. 49 through 6. Glavine was important. Chavez was crucial. Pedro was Pedro. You could argue that Wagner, Sanchez and Heilman comprised the firewall that maintained the sanctity of the fortress. I wouldn’t argue against the bullpen as an MVP candidate unto itself.
Yet who was irreplaceable? No starter stayed healthy for the duration. Duaner gave way to Guillermo. And Endy…Endy was great. We don’t win as much as we did without Endy. Or Valentin. Or, believe it or don’t, Trachsel.
Ah, but the Top Five was really the Top Five on this team. When I think of the Knicks of my childhood, I don’t immediately think of Dave Stallworth, y’know? So when I think of the Mets who were the Mets as I settled into middle age, the first five guys who come to mind will be the first five guys on Willie Randolph’s lineup card.
2006 was 2006 because somewhere within the first twenty minutes of any given game, depending on the site, Jose Reyes strode to the pate, Paul Lo Duca loosened in the on-deck circle, Carlos Beltran waited in the hole, Carlos Delgado hung around the bat rack and David Wright took practice swings. Those actions right there…that’s why we had the kind of year we had.
Individual players in other uniforms rolled up gaudier stats. Somebody from somewhere else will be named the National League’s Most Valuable Player next week. But I’ll take these five, our five, over any other five, starting last April and into eternity for as long as I’m capable of remembering 2006.
Easy enough to point to the milestones they reached, but what impresses me about (in alphabetical order) Beltran, Delgado, Lo Duca, Reyes and Wright is they knew what they were doing. Talent? Sure, loads of it. But these guys knew how to work counts, where to hit to, why they should take and what they should be looking for. They knew who they were. You didn’t hear it enough, but they were five smart players.
They played both sides of the ball. We think of them as hitters, but they could defend. All right, Delgado isn’t much of a first baseman, but after a half-decade that included more Vaughn and Phillips and Piazza and Jacobs and Offerman than Mientkiewicz, he was a pro. The rest were more than above average at their positions. Beltran earned his Gold Glove by floating through the air with the greatest of ease. Lo Duca was a ballast behind the plate. Wright and the third base line had an interesting relationship but when he closed the gap between him and it, it was something to see. Reyes? He’s pretty handy in a hole.
None of them was one-dimensional, not on the field, not off it. Wright was a touch wide-eyed and Reyes’ joie de ball was as innocent as it was contagious, but you know they didn’t get this far this soon without being savvier than their years. Beltran was stoic, but not beyond smiling widely when relaxed, which he usually was for his and our good. Delgado was the brains of the outfit, a de facto life and hitting coach, but the emotion of making it to a playoff series positively glittered off of him. Lo Duca was tough, was hot, was indomitable. One also assumes that with his divorce and his diversion making unlikely headlines, he was hurting. He did a good job of hiding it.
Delgado (38 HR, 114 RBI) made the lineup dangerous. Lo Duca (.318 as a catcher batting second) replaced an icon and never looked back. Beltran (41 HR, 116 RBI, 127 R) radiated excellence. Wright (116 RBI, .311) demonstrated some mighty strong shoulders. Reyes (122 R, 64 SB, 17 3B, .300 along with 19 HR, 81 RBI from the leadoff spot…leadoff!) keeps running. These five, from the guy who finally learned to take four balls to the guy who was never stressed out by two strikes, acted as one. They built rallies. They built streaks. They built a season. Sports Illustrated picked the right five to feature when it wanted to spotlight the intrepid Mets.
So who was the greatest Met of 2006? I’m tempted to say it didn’t and doesn’t matter.
One lit up the basepaths and roused appreciative choruses.
One lured the malleable into our lair and created an army of loyalists.
One powered up at the plate and wrote down everything he hit.
One demonstrated an uncommon facility for every aspect of his trade.
One yielded not a single speck of ground to those who’d charge toward him or those who’d call him out.
I like the sum, but each part has its merits. Take your pick if you must.
If I wanted to give it to Carlos Delgado for providing all kinds of heart to the order, I wouldn’t be wrong. I have him fifth.
If I wanted to give it to David Wright for busting out of the gate and fronting the franchise, I wouldn’t be wrong. I have him fourth.
If I wanted to give it to Paul Lo Duca for playing through every kind of pain and never not producing, I wouldn’t be wrong. I have him third.
If I wanted to give it to Jose Reyes for creating a renewable energy source and electrifying all of our fanly impulses (not to mention being so irresistibly serenadeable), I wouldn’t be wrong. I have him second.
I want to give it to Carlos Beltran. I have him first.
Carlos Beltran should have stood up sooner for that first curtain call and shouldn’t have stood by staring at that last pitch, but otherwise, for my money, he did everything to the best of his ability in 2006. And his ability is enormous.
When the Mets ascended to the mountaintop, when they emphatically put the rest of the division and the league behind them in May (10 HR, 25 RBI) and June (8 HR, 25 RBI), it was Carlos Beltran who planted the flag so it and they would not be moved.
When the Mets buried the curse of Turner Field once and for all in late July, it was Carlos Beltran who turned over the heftiest spade of dirt (12 games vs. Atlanta, home & away: 9 HR, 19 RBI, .318).
When the Mets refused to succumb in Houston, it was Carlos Beltran who pulled the plug on his old team, putting to rest his own personal demon even if it meant taking on a Minute Maid wall to deliver the last rites.
He swung the single most dramatic swing of the year at home, the one that trumped Pujols and the Cardinals. He ended the longest game of the year, the one against Madson and the Phillies. He hit more home runs, recorded more extra-base hit and scored more runs than any Met ever had. He answered almost every ball dialed into his area code and was rightly awarded by N.L. managers and coaches for it. He rose up from the kind of first New York year that would have crushed lesser spirits and made everybody just about forget it ever happened. He wasn’t completely healthy in April or September, yet he had maybe the best year any Met has ever had.
In a sport that values strength up the middle, it’s no coincidence that Carlos Beltran hits third and plays center. Whatever surge or slump the two teammates who batted before him and the two teammates who batted after him were enjoying or enduring, every pitcher who faced the Mets had to worry about the man in the middle.
I think I’m right in declaring Carlos Beltran the Greatest Met of 2006. But however you choose among Beltran, Reyes, Lo Duca, Wright or Delgado, I know you couldn’t possibly go wrong.
Up next from 2006: Something that doesn’t matter anymore.