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Saving Ron Gardenhire (Instead of Tom Seaver)

This weekend, in honor of November 17 being Tom Seaver’s 63rd birthday, we offer you the following eleven pitchers…

Kevin Brown (not to be confused with the Kevin Brown who hit the wall [1] for the Yankees in 2004 or the Kevin Brown who pitched two innings [2] for the Mets in 1990), Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Wes Gardner, Dwight Gooden, Tim Leary, Jesse Orosco, Doug Sisk, Craig Swan, Walt Terrell, Floyd Youmans

..two catchers…

John Gibbons, Junior Ortiz

…seven infielders…

Hubie Brooks, Dave Cochrane, Ron Gardenhire, Keith Hernandez, Kevin Mitchell, Jose Oquendo, Eddie Williams

…and six outfielders…

Terry Blocker, Lenny Dykstra, Stanley Jefferson, Darryl Strawberry, Herm Winningham, Mookie Wilson.

We give you those 26 players because that’s what the Basic Agreement in effect on January 20, 1984 said we could do what we want with them. Every other Met was up for grabs.

In case you’ve forgotten or were never quite sure, the Mets and every Major League team were annually required to offer just about everybody in their organization to a monstrosity known as the free agent compensation pool. That’s what the 50-day strike of 1981 boiled down to: free agent compensation. Owners wanted direct compensation from the team that signed a free agent, but players objected because they feared it would limit their employment possibilities. The pool was the settlement. The owners wanted to protect somewhere between 15 and 18 players. The players wanted to protect 40. It wound up being 26 for a Type A free agent, 24 for a Type B.

And that is how we lost Tom Seaver the second time. Pitcher Dennis Lamp (Type A) left the Chicago White Sox as a free agent and signed with the Toronto Blue Jays on January 10, 1984. Ten days later, the White Sox were permitted to choose any player whose club did deem him unpoachable. They didn’t have to choose a Blue Jay. They could choose from any franchise.

The Mets franchise did not protect the Mets’ Franchise. The White Sox noticed and picked Tom Seaver to replace Dennis Lamp.

We get so worked up recalling M. Donald Grant, Dick Young [3] and June 15, 1977 [4] that we tend to gloss over January 20, 1984. Of course the seasons that succeeded the latter black date in New York Mets history were a vast improvement over what had come directly before, so it was easy to sort of look past the second Seaver debacle while we were contending again. The Mets won 90 games in 1984, so no harm done, right?

But it wasn’t any less of a spiritual debacle [5] than the first time the Mets let Seaver go. The PR was bad and the competitive aspect wasn’t all that helpful either. It was shameful and disgraceful and incompetent. If Grant’s trade of Seaver in ’77 was unforgivably malevolent, Frank Cashen’s decision to gamble on Seaver not being chosen by another team in ’84 was criminally negligent. It had taken more than five years to bring Seaver back where he belonged. It took one quick year to watch him walk away again. Where once we got Henderson, Flynn, Norman and Zachry, now we got nothing but grief.

The worst part? Worse than no longer having Tom Seaver be a New York Met a second time? It’s looking at the list of players who were deemed more worthy of protection by the Mets than Seaver.

Mind you, Tom had turned 39 the previous November 17, so he wasn’t quite in Cy Young trim any longer. Still, he had given the Mets a pretty good show in 1983, beginning with his triumphant walk in from the bullpen at Shea on Opening Day [6]. The W-L was tepid (9-14 on a 68-94 club) but the ERA was respectable (3.55) and the 231 innings were hefty — led the team, in fact. Plus he was Tom Seaver, a Hall of Fame head attached to a capable arm linked to a stature second to none among New York Mets.

“As soon as I got their list, I looked to see which kids they protected,” White Sox GM Roland Hemond said in Jack Lang’s The New York Mets: Twenty-Five Years of Baseball Magic. “But when I saw the list and saw that Seaver was not protected, I almost jumped out of my seat. Seaver, in my mind, was still a quality pitcher who could win ten or fifteen games. Where are you going to get someone who can guarantee you that? That’s the reason we picked Seaver.”

Still, if you had to choose between protecting 39-year-old Tom Seaver and 19-year-old Dwight Gooden (who turned 43 on Friday, though I contend he’ll always be 24-4), there was no question you’d go with Doctor K. You’d have to see some kind of doctor if you didn’t. Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez…these pitchers were clearly the future of the team. Of course you wouldn’t risk exposing them in a draft, even one that was cockamamie.

But didja see some of the other names, names of Mets players who were protected instead of Tom Seaver? I do believe the acronym “WTF?” was invented for just this scenario.

As we are almost 24 years beyond Debacle II, we know a few things. We know it was right to hold Doc and Ronnie and El Sid in abeyance. We know you wouldn’t have dangled Keith Hernandez or Darryl Strawberry if your life depended on it. We know Jesse Orosco had just come off a legitimate All-Star season and was, save for Bruce Sutter, the best closer in the N.L. at the time. In January 1984, these six Mets were unquestionably untouchable and history bears out that designation.

That leaves twenty Mets considered less expendable than Tom Seaver. Two of them, Hubie Brooks and Mookie Wilson, had established themselves as regulars, though neither was quite untouchable at this juncture. Brooks was an adequate third baseman with not a lot of power. Centerfielder Wilson didn’t get on base enough for a leadoff man (new manager Davey Johnson would drop him in the order). But they were regulars and in the spirit of Hobie Landrith, you were going to have a lot of balls get by third and through center if you lost your starters at those positions. Hubie and Mookie had plenty of good baseball left in them, so we can’t argue with reserving their spots.

That brings us to 18 Mets, several of whom had shown promise in 1983. Doug Sisk — don’t laugh — was a sharp setup man in his first full Met year. Somebody had to get the ball to Orosco in 1984, and Sisk would indeed be very good at that for a while. Junior Ortiz was considered something of a coup when he was acquired the previous June, an outstanding defensive catcher who was penciled in to get most of the work behind the plate in the coming year. Jose Oquendo was just a baby, having turned 20 in ’83 and had longtime starting shortstop written all over him. Walt Terrell, while not in the sensation class of Gooden, Darling and Fernandez, showed flashes of dependability in his midseason callup (and, as everybody who was a sentient Mets fan then probably remembers, he hit three homers as a rookie).

Let’s give Cashen those four players in the context of January 1984, which leaves us 14 Mets to consider instead of Seaver. Really 13, because before you can say “Craig Swan was clearly washed up by 1984,” he had a no-trade clause, which made him poolproof. So you couldn’t replace Seaver with Swannie on the unprotected list even if you wanted to.

Some guys clearly look like very bad choices in hindsight, but let’s try to think in January 1984 terms. Five of the remaining 13 protected players had been top picks in a fairly recent June amateur draft. Just as you wouldn’t take a chance on giving up Strawberry (1980) or Gooden (1982), it was reasonable for the Mets to keep their hands on Eddie Williams (their No. 1 and fourth in the nation in 1983) and Terry Blocker (same status, 1981). You could argue they were not genius picks in the first place, but that’s another story. You can’t risk them while they’re still practically in utero. Likewise, Stanley Jefferson (’83) and John Gibbons (’80) had been first-round picks in years when the Mets had a surfeit of first-round choices. Those two still had a real shot at big league success.

The other top June pick was Tim Leary, the Mets’ first selection in 1979, a hard-throwing righty who had gone through all kinds of arm-rehab hell to get back in the Mets’ plans by 1984. In fact, he was supposed to become Tom Seaver once and, as he was only 25, perhaps again.

So let’s give the benefit of the doubt to not making available these five youngsters thought to have high ceilings entering ’84. That brings the total down to eight players the Mets protected instead of Tom Seaver. Since I don’t think we have to think too hard about Lenny Dykstra and Kevin Mitchell given what they would contribute in short order and become in the long term, we’re really down to six Mets. Let’s examine them individually.

Floyd Youmans was a second-round amateur pick the same year Gooden was selected in the first round. In fact, he was Gooden’s pal. He hadn’t put up hellacious numbers in the minors like Doc, but he was the same age as Dwight. You can’t be risking Floyd Youmans in January 1984.

Herm Winningham was the Mets’ first pick in the old January amateur draft in 1981. He swiped 50 bags at Lynchburg in ’82. That’s a lot of stolen bases in an era when speed was highly valued. You can’t be risking Herm Winningham in January 1984.

Kevin Brown, one of twelve different Kevin Browns who have been drafted by Major League clubs since 1981 if not nearly the most famous of them, was a first-round January pick in 1983. In his first professional season, at Columbia, he struck out 221 batters in 170.2 innings. Though he would never rise above Double-A, you can’t be risking this particular Kevin Brown in January 1984.

Frank Cashen is pardoned for those three. In fact, he’s pardoned for everybody mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, which encompasses 23 of the 26 Mets who were protected instead of Seaver. Some contributed big-time to the Mets of ’84, ’85 and especially ’86. Three — Brooks, Youmans and Winningham — helped bring Gary Carter to the Mets, not a bad historical consolation prize if we’re talking Mets Hall of Famers. Some did nothing but sure looked like they’d do something. You can’t fault Cashen for not having the clearest crystal ball on the block.

But the remaining three? The three who had to be kept at arm’s length from the White Sox instead of Tom Seaver? Ensuring their continued Metliness in lieu of Seaver’s was worse, worser and worst. In terms of risking Tom Seaver, they were January 20, 1984’s Worst Decisions in the World.

1) The Mets took precautions to reserve Dave Cochrane instead of Tom Seaver. Who the hell was Dave Cochrane?

Dave Cochrane was a third base prospect chosen in the fourth round by the Mets in 1981. He wasn’t quite 21 on the day Tom Seaver was plucked by the White Sox. Would have Dave Cochrane been chosen instead? Cochrane did show pop in the low minors: 22 homers in 70 games at Little Falls in ’82, then 25 in 120 at Lynchburg. Of course he struck out more than 100 times in both seasons. The Mets had Hubie for third base, though as mentioned, Hubie wasn’t much for homers. Hmmm…you know, the White Sox would eventually accept Dave Cochrane in a trade for Tom Paciorek in 1985 (the Jeff Conine of his day, as our friend CharlieH put it to me this past September), but that seemed more an out-of-it team dealing a veteran for whomever they could get swap than Dave Cochrane as holy White Sock grail. Cochrane’s Met stock dropped like a rock after Howard Johnson came aboard. It kept dropping as Dave journeyed through five American League seasons, accumulating about 500 at-bats with the Sox and Mariners and homering only eight times. Couldn’t have known that in ’84, but scouting’s got to be worth something.

The Mets were never satisfied with Hubie Brooks or third basemen in general, yet here we have to go with hindsight. It was a bad call to protect Cochrane over Seaver.

2) The Mets took precautions to reserve Wes Gardner instead of Tom Seaver. Who the hell was Wes Gardner?

Wes Gardner is the first Met prospect I can recall being groomed (or at least hyped) as a potential closer. Drafted in the 22nd round of the June 1982, draft, the righty struck out around a batter an inning at Little Falls and Lynchburg, saving 15 while used exclusively in relief in 1983. He would be 23 in 1984, when he eventually made it to the big club off a big year at Tidewater (20 saves, 1.61 ERA). It was almost foresightful of the Mets to think in terms of cultivating a reliever instead of just converting a failed starter. I almost can’t blame the Mets for being certain they would hold onto him. I can definitely understand the attraction. And Lamp, the guy who started all the trouble, led the White Sox in saves in ’83 with 15. Chicago needed to replace him.

But freaking Wes Gardner proved to be freaking Wes Gardner when he actually got a chance in New York, and if you can remember freaking Wes Gardner when he got his chance, you know he was totally freaking Wes Gardner. After 37.1 mostly dispiriting innings in ’84 and ’85, Wes was shipped north to Boston as part of the deal that brought us Bobby Ojeda. As the Red Sox had tired of Ojeda after ’85, I have to believe Gardner wasn’t the make-or-break element of that key trade. It was a bad call to protect Gardner over Seaver.

3) The Mets took precautions to reserve Ron Gardenhire instead of Tom Seaver. We knew who the hell Ron Gardenhire was.

And you have to be totally kidding me that Ron Gardenhire was protected from the compensation pool instead of Tom Seaver.

For that matter, Ron Gardenhire was protected instead of Calvin Schiraldi, Mike Fitzgerald, Brent Gaff, Tom Gorman, Wally Backman, Brian Giles, Ed Lynch, Mike Torrez, Rusty Staub, Danny Heep, Ron Hodges, John Christensen, John Stearns and George Foster to name a whole bunch of 1984 Mets who, whatever their perceived liabilities that January or in retrospect, I would have protected over Ron Gardenhire. The Mets protected Ron Gardenhire over Dave Kingman, who was still rotting on the roster in wait of his inevitable release, and I would have kept Kingman — no matter that he was completely obsolete as a Met after the acquisition of Keith Hernandez — over Gardenhire.

Ron Gardenhire hit .062 for the Mets in 1983. He drove in one run. He stole no bases. He lost his shortstop job early to Oquendo. What was clever on his part that year was by getting demoted to the Tides, he wound up catching the eye of Davey Johnson, who totally dug his spit and vinegar. Ron Gardenhire remastered Triple-A in 1983 after having done the same in 1981. Gardy became a Davey special in ’84, like Backman, like Kelvin Chapman, like Jerry Martin. He hit .246, ceded short to Rafael Santana after an injury (before Santana got hurt and gave way to Brooks who had given way to Ray Knight at third down the stretch) and wasn’t a regular or semi-regular again. Where the unforeseen revival of the Mets in 1984 is regarded, Gardenhire wasn’t on the same map as Wally Backman, was less of a help than the shockingly resuscitated Kelvin Chapman and not that much more of a factor than the legendarily useless Jerry Martin [7], no matter how much spit and vinegar he displayed at Tidewater a year earlier.

He would eventually become a heckuva manager for the Twins, but protecting Ron Gardenhire over Tom Seaver was a hellaciously bad call by the Mets general manager. Cochrane and Gardner at least had promise attached to them. Gardenhire had peaked in the minors and hadn’t proven anything in the majors.

And who the hell, given the chance to peruse 25 organizations’ depth charts, was going to skip over everybody else available in all of baseball to grab a 26-year-old middle infielder of limited range in the field and no particular accomplishment at bat? Admittedly, the White Sox were no great shakes at short (though the combination of Scott Fletcher and Jerry Dybzinski had just helped them to a division title in ’83), but they did have Ozzie Guillen developing in the minors. In other words, there was no legitimate chance in this or any life that Chicago would have chosen Ron Gardenhire instead of Tom Seaver…or any of the couple of thousand players left unprotected by every other club. None.

And even if they had, so what?

But the Mets protected Ron Gardenhire and left Tom Seaver hanging on the vine. And as Seaver himself would learn in his future endeavors [8], you always pick the most enticing grape you see. The White Sox thrived on starting pitching in 1983, and adding Tom Seaver figured to make them that much stronger. It didn’t, but it wasn’t Seaver’s fault. Seaver went to a new league and won 15 games in 1984 and 16 more (including his 300th) in 1985. Even at ages 39 and 40, he clearly had Amoco Unleaded left in the tank.

The Mets, on the other hand, had to improvise those two years among a series of fourth and fifth starters, none of whom — Lynch, Leary, Torrez, Bruce Berenyi, Rick Aguilera chief among them — was a better bet than Tom Seaver at that stage of their careers. Aguilera was the best of them, winning 10 games in ’85, yet when it fell on his young shoulders to keep the Mets alive in the final week against the Cardinals…well, imagine you could throw Tom Seaver in a pennant race instead of a visibly nervous rookie.

There was a mid-’80s narrative that suggested the absence of Seaver accelerated the arrival of Gooden, but it’s hard to imagine the presence of Seaver would have impeded the arrival of Gooden for very long. The kid was too much of a phenom to be kept down on the farm. Imagine that phenom [9] and that Hall of Famer [10] on the same pitching staff [11] in ’84 and ’85 and maybe ’86 and ’87.

In the aftermath of Debacle II, Don Fehr of the Players Association told Murray Chass in The Sporting News that Seaver’s involuntary transfer “indicates that everybody would have been better off if they had left everything alone” where free agent compensation was concerned. “The system forced the Mets to make choices they didn’t want to make. The system put the Mets in a position to make choices and run risks. It’s needless and it’s silly.”

Soon enough, everyone basically agreed the Basic Agreement could do without the compensation pool. It died in the next negotiation…but not before any chance that Tom Seaver would finish his brilliant career as a Met, win his 300th game [12] as a Met, pitch in another World Series (or two) as a Met and enjoy an uncomplicated retirement as a Met died as well.

Dennis Lamp was a good pickup by the Blue Jays. He went 11-0 for Toronto’s division winners in ’85. And I curse his name every time I see it.