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Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye

Johnny Estrada has a 2008 New York Mets baseball card.

2008 Topps Heritage #378, to be specific — a set made in the fashion of the 1959 Topps cards, down to the goofy personal info. (Johnny has a juco degree in recreation, which apes old-style Topps cards perfectly in that it’s simultaneously ridiculous and made to sound slightly demeaning.) He gazes out from it, black bat held ready, in a Milwaukee Brewers uniform whose cap has been airbrushed into a perfectly plausible Met hat.

Desktop publishing has transformed such baseball-card trickery — in the old days Topps was infamous for obviously recolored caps and hand-drawn logos that crept across players’ hats like spiders, but now they’ll recast an action shot of a player without a second thought. What they can’t alter, however, is memory — we know perfectly well that Johnny Estrada isn’t a 2008 Met, however much we might be willing to entertain the notion, standing as we do at the dawn of the era of Raul Casanova or Robinson Cancel or Gustavo Molina. (I was surprised — and, oddly, a little disappointed — to find Gustavo isn’t, in fact, part of the seemingly inescapable Molina catching clan. Perhaps “molina” means “receiver” in some Spanish dialect, much the way someone named Cooper can bet he had an ancestor who made barrels. Or perhaps it will mean that one day.)

Anyway, Estrada’s in D.C. with the growing cast of vaguely affronted ex-Mets, destined to be remembered in these parts (absent some future, Molinaesque blow struck against us) as being the return on exiled Guillermo Mota and one of those oddball winter-only Mets, like Joe Randa. (Who, come to think of it, had a blow struck against us that was at least a minor Molina.) But Estrada will forever be a member of the 2008 Topps Heritage roster — and that makes him a throwback to a baseball-card era I thought had vanished.

Back in the day, Topps issued cards in series, giving kids a few weeks to collect 100 or so cards before the next series arrived. (Which is why the “high numbers” from old sets are the most expensive — they were the year’s tail-enders.) One consequence of that was that Topps would periodically anoint players who’d switched clubs as regulars (or at least roster-fillers) for their new teams, posing them hatless or inking them into new hats and tops as described above. Inevitably, some of those bets proved wrong. For a kid collecting that year, this was no big deal — he’d remember that oh yeah, Joe Shlabotnik got sent down to Stumptown before the team went north. But for someone like me, collecting years later, the presence of these players was baffling. Who were these unfamiliar names? Errors in a checklist? Real Mets I’d somehow forgotten about?

These Non-Mets shouldn’t be confused with other fringe members of the blue-and-orange cardboard tribes. They aren’t guys who played briefly for the Mets but never got a Met card (Don Zimmer, famously, wears his honest-to-goodness, unairbrushed Met hat on a 1962 card identifying him as a Cincinnati Red), cup-of-coffee guys who never got a big-league card (a long list that begins with Ray Daviault in 1962), or members of the infamous Lost Mets, those who never got a card of any kind. (Al Schmelz is the king of this little-surveyed hill.) Prospects don’t count — the likes of Bill Haas, Randy Bobb and Nelson Figueroa may never have got into a game as Mets, but their placement on part of a Met card was speculative from the get-go. (And Figueroa may yet make it — he’s the player in Port St. Lucie I’m rooting for most.) Nor are we discussing Phantom Mets — your Jerry Moseses and Mac Suzukis and Billy Cottons and Terrell Hansens who took up a roster spot and wore the uniform but never got into a game. (Randy Bobb’s one of those, too.)

The Non-Mets begin with Neil Chrisley in ’62. Chrisley was a basically useless outfielder the Mets acquired from the Milwaukee Braves in October 1961, one of those odd “purchased from/sold to” deals that seem to have vanished from the baseball landscape. His biggest claim to fame is that his first name was Barbra. That oddity would have made him a good fit as an Original Met, but the Mets had no use for him, and returned him to Milwaukee on April 2, 1962. He never played in the big leagues again, and stares out from ’62 Topps #308 like a man who’s baffled by the general proceedings. If I’d been saddled with the name Barbra, I’d probably feel the same way.

Next up, 1963’s Wynn Hawkins, a blonde Midwestern pitcher whose gigantic, faked Met logo appears to be sneaking off the front of his cap, possibly to conduct a secret mission or out of sheer embarrassment. (You can also tell Wynn wore No. 34 with the Indians — it’s on his sleeve in a location the Mets never put a uniform number.) Hawkins was another purchased player — he arrived from Cleveland around Thanksgiving, 1962. ’63 Topps #334 states that “Wynn is sure to see lots of duty with the Mets.” It also says that “Wynn is a great fan of motion pictures.” The latter is, presumably, the more accurate of these two statements.

Third on the list is Mike Joyce, whose suspicious expression and brush cut on ’64 Topps #477 suggest he’s got a hankering to beat up a member of the Beatles or some other longhair. Joyce was purchased from the White Sox on the final day of March in 1964, then optioned to Buffalo on April 13. (As Topps mentions in an addendum on the cardback, perhaps with vague disapproval.) Joyce never made it back downstate — as with Chrisley and Hawkins, his Met card serves as a gravestone for his baseball career.

1966 brought Ernie Bowman, a former Giants shortstop whose forehead still bears the line of a just-removed cap on ’66 Topps #302. The cardback states that “the hustling veteran is given a good shot at making the 1966 starting team,” then introduces an unfriendly note of doubt by following that with “Ernie is eager to resume his big league career.” This mixed message probably led a lot of young Met fans to scan his card, and note that in 205 big-league at-bats, Ernie Bowman had hit one homer, collected 10 RBIs and hit .190. You probably know this is coming by now, but there was never a 206th at-bat. Bowman, who’d arrived in September 1965 from the Braves along with Lou Klimchock in exchange for Billy Cowan, departed in October 1966 (again with Klimchock) in a trade to the Indians for someone named Floyd Weaver.

The next Non-Met was Dick Kenworthy, a pleasant-looking young man posing hatless in a White Sox uniform on ’68 Topps #63. Kenworthy is billed by Topps as a “flashy fielding infielder,” which of course meant that he couldn’t hit. He did, however, escape the Curse of the Non-Mets, racking up 122 at-bats in ’68, once again in a White Sox uniform. There’s a transactional mystery there — Topps says Kenworthy became a Met to complete a deal for Ken Boyer, and my copy of 1968’s Who’s Who in Baseball (complete with a receipt showing it was bought for 64 cents at Andan News in Huntsville, Ala.) reports that he was sold “conditionally” to the Mets on Oct. 17, 1967. Conditionally? Based on what? Being good? Liking St. Petersburg, Fla.? Laughing at Tug McGraw’s jokes? I’m not sure exactly how Kenworthy got back to the White Sox; I like to imagine being a Met didn’t agree with him, so he just wandered off one day and showed up back where he was still wanted.

Then, finally, there’s 1971’s Jerry Robertson. Robertson was an original Expo, and pitched 1.1 innings in their first game against the Mets — the 11-10 Opening Day Met loss that turned out to augur absolutely nothing about the close of 1969. The Tigers traded him to the Mets on March 30, 1971 in return for Dean Chance and Bill Denehy. (Denehy occupies a different place in baseball-card lore: He had the misfortune to share a rookie card with Tom Seaver.) ’71 Topps #651 offers little in the way of interesting info: We’re informed that Jerry had a fine year at Tulsa in 1968, which is like someone trying to brag on me by saying I was in great shape in 2005. One can’t help but note that Robertson looks decidedly morose on his card. Is it that he’s stuck wearing a completely blank hat? Or that he suspects he’s seen in his final day in the Show? Since both of these things are true, I suppose you can take your pick.