- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Luckless, Blameless, Playoffless

Layered into the manifold embarrassment of growing up nonathletic was gym class and the indignity — the season or sport didn't matter — of being picked last or close to it. In my case, there was usually someone considered slightly more pathetic than me so I didn't necessarily go down as Mr. Irrelevant [1], but being in the final four was hardly solace.

Standing around in a dwindling semicircle as the faster, stronger kids who were inevitably assigned captaincies chose first those comparably capable to their skill sets; then their popular friends; then the less inept-appearing strangers and kids who had just moved into the district; then some kid who I knew I was better than; then some kid whose left arm was in a cast; then some kid who had to be convinced to put down his looseleaf notebook because he'd rather do algebra extra credit than sports; then me…that's a cliché, no matter how authentic its roots. The phenomenon has been covered well on television from Les Nessman's haunting right field flashbacks [2] on WKRP in Cincinnati to Bill Haverchuck's vengeful phone calls [3] on Freaks and Geeks. Funny how there's always a writer around who can relate those feelings years after the fact.

Y'know what didn't help (even if it did in the F&G softball episode, a total classic of the genre) was the well-meaning phys ed teacher who took the schlubs of the class and made us the captains for a day. First jock-type I'd pick (after making a statement by choosing one of my own leadfooted kind) would immediately complain that, “oh, we're not gonna win if Prince is on the team.”

Come to think of it, any time one of the teachers wanted to be a gym class hero and tell one of the regular captains to pick me or a member of my cohort for a change, I'd hear the same thing. Sometimes I'd just shut up and take it, sometimes I'd speak up and mention that's a pretty lousy attitude — how are we supposed to win if you've already decided it's the fault of the (theoretically) worst player in advance of the game?

I may not have had much in the way of talent or stamina, but I sure had desire. I took this stuff so seriously that I still consider the nicest thing anybody wrote in my high school yearbook to be these encouraging words from the gym teacher who took notice of my first-one-on/last-one-off Super Joe tendencies for any game we played: “You're really better than you think. —Mr. L.” (He couldn't have been talking about dodgeball, however.)

This particular rite of humiliating passage occurred to me recently when I was considering the plight of our friend Damion Easley. As noted the morning after the night [4] he went down with that third-degree ankle sprain, I thought of how sad it is that Easley has been playing in the bigs since 1992 and never made it to the playoffs and this appeared to be his golden shot at it and now, barring miraculous rehab and roster [5] rejiggering, he's out of luck.

Bad break for Damion. Nobody's at fault, per se, but it got me wondering about others who have not made it to the business end of October. I've heard all my life, for example, what a shame it was that Ernie Banks never played a postseason game. Given that there are so many more opportunities for a player to move around and for a team to earn a playoff berth, it's not surprising that, according to Baseball-Reference.com [6], Banks still owns the dubious record of 2,528 games played without a sniff of a championship tournament. It was always “poor Ernie, stuck with the Cubs.”

I guess that's a fair assessment of his fate. I mean Ernie did his part, 512 home runs and tireless lobbying for a schedule that included a daily doubleheader [7], but I never cared for the implication that as a member of a team, it was all the crappy Greg-like players who dragged him down. Ever hear of putting the team on your back, Ernie? You and Santo, who's also high on this list? I also don't like the Cubs, so how can I expected to go overboard with sympathy for “Mr. Cub”?

Easley was leading all active players with most games played sans playoffs when he went down (he's since been passed by Jeff Cirillo whose recent acquisition by Arizona and unsprained ankle may remove him from the rolls). Was it Damion's doing? Should Damion Easley have on his own dragged terrible Tiger teams and atrocious Angel armies and post-hangover schools of Marlins to October? Hard to imagine the bulk of the futility surrounding him was entirely Easley's fault. But he must have wondered more than once why he couldn't have been picked by a more able team.

Other Mets dot the list of most games played without a postseason appearance. How responsible should we as Mets fans (thus representatives of the Mets) for the bottom line fruitlessness of their long careers?

Let's see…

Joe Torre Sixth all-time with 2,209 games and no postseason appearances. Torre ended his playing days as a Met when the Mets were at least nominally contenders, especially in his first year, 1975 [8]. Hard to say it's his fault we didn't make it to the NLCS against the unstoppable Reds (would have more Wayne Garrett taken care of business?), equally hard to say it's our fault he didn't make it. We bear some responsibility for keeping him out in '73, I suppose, when the Cardinals fell short. But that's our job. Of course Joe Torre has more than made up for his October deficit as a manager, so as one of my favorite magazine art directors would have said, “Miss Torre? Screw her!”

Roy McMillan Tenth all-time with 2,093 games and no postseason appearances. Roy had the misfortune to leave the Reds before they made the '61 World Series and join the Braves just past their Milwaukee prime. He was a Met from '64 to '66. He couldn't have possibly been thinking World Series. As he's credited for helping bring young Buddy Harrelson along, I'd like to think his spirit was on the field against the Braves and Orioles in 1969.

Jim Fregosi Nineteenth all-time with 1,902 games and no postseason appearances. I sure hope Fregosi didn't think in 1972 what those bastards in my gym classes were thinking all those years. “Oh great, I'm on the Mets, I have no chance right now.” If you had been either better or not here, the '72 Mets might have made a stiffer run at the division title. Or if you had been less bad, you might have been kept on for the run to glory in '73. But you not only sucked, you cost us Nolan Ryan (well, lots of people cost us Nolan Ryan, but never mind them right now). Fregosi, like Torre, got a bite of the October apple as a manager though unlike Torre, not repeatedly and not altogether successfully.

Frank Thomas Thirty-second all-time with 1,766 games and no postseason appearances. The lousy Mets of 1964 practically stamped Thomas' ticket to the World Series by dealing him to the lock of the year, the Philadelphia Phillies. No way the 1964 Phillies would blow a big lead and lose the pennant, right? Well, there was a way, but don't blame us — hell, I don't blame Thomas for our not being instantly successful.

Jimmy Piersall Thirty-fourth all-time with 1,734 games and no postseason appearances. Piersall's brief stay with the Mets (made possible by the trade of Gil Hodges to Washington so Gil could hone his managerial craft out of town) in 1963 is noteworthy for his running around the bases backwards on the occasion of his hundredth home run. You'd have to be thinking backwards to believe we were your pass to a championship match.

Jeromy Burnitz Thirty-eighth all-time with 1,694 games and no postseason appearances. I blame Burnitz for our not being better in 2002. If he had been, instead of finishing 75-86 and in last, we're probably good for 79-82 and creeping past Florida for fourth. OK, he wasn't alone in dragging us down. If anything, I'm mad at Roberto Alomar for ever having gone to the postseason…which he did for the three teams he played with directly before playing for us. (Somebody's gotta take the fall.) As for Burnitz, he managed to miss Cleveland's multiple joyrides to the playoffs by not making the '96 roster and then getting traded to Milwaukee. We did what we could for him by sending him to the Dodgers as they pursued a division title but they fell short in 2003. I always kind of liked Jeromy, more so during his first unsuccessful stay in '93 and '94, but he seemed to have had a Schleprock [9] thing floating over his head no matter his affiliation.

Hubie Brooks Forty-fourth all-time with 1,645 games and no postseason appearances. Dear Hubie: We're sorry. We're sorry we weren't a little more highly developed in 1984. We're sorry we traded you before 1985 even though getting Gary Carter was a primary reason for our reaching The Promised Land in 1986. We're sorry that we brought you back in time for the great decline in 1991. We're just sorry you never got a better deal. It's our fault, not yours.

Willie Montañez Forty-fifth all-time with 1,632 games and no postseason appearances. Willie, unlike Ernie Banks, put his team on his back in 1978 and lifted the Mets from a dismal 64-98 to an uplifting 66-96. No harm, no foul, I suppose. Montañez was another of those players whose best bets for October were foiled by bad timing, leaving the Phillies just as they started winning division titles and returning just after they were about done. I honestly thought he'd get us out of the basement and push us at least ahead of the Expos and Cubs. He didn't.

Easley's ninth on the list among playoffless Mets at the moment, No. 50 all-time with 1,599 games and no postseason appearances. Somewhere down the line behind him are Joe Orsulak, Ron Hunt, David Segui, Jerry Morales, Jim Hickman and Joel Youngblood. Every one of these luckless fellows was on the Mets when they were in the toilet and no single player could have been expected to make much of a difference.

In fact the only Met player with a long Mets career (parts of nine seasons) who never saw the postseason with the Mets or anybody else was Todd Hundley. Hundley was a coffee-cupper on the last-gasp 1990 Mets and the main man on the surprising 1997 Mets [10]. You could make a reasonable case that if he had adapted better to left field in 1998 and hit like he had pre-Piazza, then maybe the Mets make up that one-game deficit on the Cubs and Giants and win the Wild Card.

Maybe. Maybe not. It's hard to pin a team's failure on just one hapless participant. So to the other kids in the gym classes of my youth…get off my back.