The World Series has come and gone, as has a rather lengthy trip to Europe for Yours Truly, the arrival of Topps Updates and Highlights and various busyness and procrastination. Which means that at long last, it’s finally time for the fourth annual rundown of players who made their Met debuts last season and are now to be immortalized atop Cardboard Olympus. (Previous annals here, and see this year’s class photo here.)
Brief review for newcomers and the similarly obsessive: I have a pair of binders, dubbed The Holy Books (THB) by Greg, that contain a baseball card for every Met on the all-time roster. They’re ordered by year, with a card for each player who made his Met debut that year: Tom Seaver is Class of ’67, Mike Piazza is Class of ’98, Jose Reyes is Class of ’03, etc. There are extra pages for the rosters of the two World Series winners, including managers, and for the 1961 Expansion Draft, with the latter including the infamous Lee Walls, the only THB resident who neither played for nor managed the Mets.
When a player has a Topps card as a Met, I use that unless it’s truly horrible — Topps has been around a decade longer than the Mets, so they get to be the card of record. No Met Topps card? Then I look for a Zephyrs card, a non-Topps Met card, a Topps non-Met card, or anything I can get my hands on.
Topps had a baseball-card monopoly until 1981, and minor-league cards only really began in the mid-1970s, so cup-of-coffee guys from before ’75 or so are a problem. Companies like TCMA and Renata Galasso made odd sets with players from the 1960s — the likes of Jim Bethke, Bob Moorhead and Dave Eilers are immortalized through their efforts. And a card dealer named Larry Fritsch put out sets of “One Year Winners” spotlighting blink-and-you-missed-them guys such as Ted Schreiber and Joe Moock.
Then there are the legendary Lost Nine — guys who never got a regulation-sized, acceptable card from anybody. Brian Ostrosser got a 1975 minor-league card that looks like a bad Xerox. Leon Brown has a terrible 1975 minor-league card and an oversized Omaha Royals card put out as a promotional set by the police department. Tommy Moore got a 1990 Senior League card as a 42-year-old with the Bradenton Explorers. Then there are Al Schmelz, Francisco Estrada, Lute Barnes, Bob Rauch, Greg Harts and Rich Puig, who have no cards whatsoever — the oddball 1991 Nobody Beats the Wiz set is too undersized to work. Best I can tell, Al Schmelz never even had a decent color photograph taken while wearing his Met uniform. (I’ve asked him — he doesn’t respond to letters and emails on the subject. Possibly he too is bitter about the lack. More likely I frightened him.) Anyway, the Lost Nine are represented in THB by fake cards Photoshopped together out of scrounged yearbook photos.
A 10th Lost Met seems unlikely — today it’s rare to sign a pro contract and not wind up on a card somewhere. During the season I scrutinize new card sets in hopes of finding a) better cards of established Mets; b) cards to stockpile for prospects who might make the Show; and most importantly c) a card for each new big-league Met. At season’s end, the new guys get added to the binders, to be studied now and then until February. When it’s time to pull old Topps cards of the spring-training invitees and start the cycle again.
Enough yip-yap. Let’s meet the Class of 2008, those players who probably donned the blue and orange thinking they were safe because there ain’t no way one team can finish blowing a lead on the final day of the season two years in a row. Suckers.
Here they are, in order of matriculation:
Johan Santana — Well, it wasn’t his fault. Grand slams to pitchers aside, Santana pitched ably in the first half of the year, only to watch canvas after canvas get spray-painted by bullpen pinheads. In the second half he was flat-out brilliant, culminating with his complete-game throttling of the Marlins in his final start of the year. Unfortunately, the Mets had another game to play. Updates & Highlights #330 captures him in mid-flight, a classic card that will make you think of springtime and redemption.
Brian Schneider — Unlikely car pitchman arrived with a reputation for defense, then let an unseemly number of passed balls and untagged runners occur on his watch. Mike Piazza hasn’t been gone long enough for us to remember that lousy catching is the baseball norm — you get some warm body to catch and hope he’s the pitching version of “The Horse Whisperer,” a reputation all lousy catchers get as a prerequisite for continuing to ply their mediocre trade. Schneider gets a rather desultory card from the New York Mets team pack hawked at Shea, but then he had a rather desultory year.
Angel Pagan — A Cyclones favorite in the team’s inaugural season, Pagan was a nice early-season story, prompting a cute fan pantomime of angels’ wings in the bleachers. Those pinions bore him too close to the sun, however — his batting average plummeted and then so did he, landing on his shoulder in the stands in L.A. His season was over a week later. Pagan gets the honors from U&H, about to make what looks like it will be solid contact. He’ll likely never be heard from again, but we’ll always have Brooklyn.
Ryan Church — Arrived from Washington in much-decried trade for Lastings Milledge, and accompanied by fooferal about his having expressed gape-mouthed wonder over some nutbag Bible-thumper’s explanation that the Jews didn’t accept Christ as their personal savior and were therefore damned. Not the best start for a career in New York, but Church then displayed a rifle arm, a line-drive bat and a hard-nosed approach to the game. He won over the town, made fans feel bad about doubting Omar, and seemed headed for a breakout season. But in late May he took a Yunel Escobar knee to the head, a blow that would begin a by-turns farcical and frightening odyssey in which the Mets alternated having him play in mountain cities that lack air and making him sit in the dark for days on end. The end result was a rather convincing demonstration that the Mets were blithely stupid about the effects of concussions, and a lost season for Church. Here’s hoping for better news on both fronts in ’09. Church gets a team-set card a la Schneider.
Matt Wise — Next time you or someone you know is getting a little too amped up about deciding on the final middle reliever to break camp, remember the name Matthew John Wise. Wise hurt his forearm two games into the season, came back and pitched abominably, and was gone by Memorial Day with a bad shoulder. After the first two or three guys, anybody else who breaks camp as a middle reliever has the life expectancy of spastic in a minefield — don’t even bother learning their names until it gets warm. Somehow got a Met card from Upper Deck.
Nelson Figueroa — Figgy was a nice homecoming story, a Brooklyn kid who’d almost made it to the bigs with the Mets a decade ago, only to be traded away. Remember his extended family hooting and hollering from Billy Wagner’s box on those cold April nights? The league caught up with him soon enough, though, and the feel-good story turned into a tale of endurance. Made it back in September, and (like everybody else summoned from the bullpen) was fine when it didn’t matter and horrible when it did. Figgy did get a Met card for his troubles — one of the five “bonus cards” inserted into the Met-themed full set of ’08 cards.
Raul Casanova — If you had the initials R.C. and looked like you were familiar with the bottom of many a bag of Cheetos, you got to catch for the 2008 Mets. The joke within the joke is that all those blobby R.C. backup catchers acquitted themselves decently enough — Casanova, a veteran of 19 pro seasons, hit .273 in his 20-game stint. He gets another full-set bonus card, one whose back includes a rather stupefying factoid about his ’07 season: “…came within one of setting a record for most HRs by a catcher playing in fewer than 30 games.” Oh.
Gustavo Molina — Despite the name and the job description “catcher,” not related to any of the 45,932 Molina siblings. This can’t be true. Zephyrs card.
Fernando Tatis — Arrived as seemingly incontestable proof that the Black Hole of Left Field had devoured any conceivable talent at the position, then did away with the Chan Ho Park jokes by putting together a courageous, stirring comeback season. Tatis was back in the big leagues in large part because his hometown in the Dominican Republic needed to buy land to build a church. So, with apologies to “The Blues Brothers,” he really was on a mission from God. Got a well-deserved U&H card which unfortunately shows him from the back, rendering him thoroughly anonymous. Better luck in ’08.
Claudio Vargas — Stats indicate he had some solid starts before he got figured out, but I confess he’s all but gone from my memory. Zephyrs card.
Nick Evans — Broke in with a bang in Denver, then immediately started hitting like a kid airlifted in from Binghamton, which is exactly what he was. But hung in there and quietly put up a pretty good rookie season as half of what may go down as baseball’s All-Time Most Successful Platoon of Double-A Kids Playing Out of Position. Has annoying horizontal Binghamton card that will be dumped once his Topps Red Hot Rookie Redemption card arrives.
Abraham Nunez — Pointless June call-up. Zephyrs card.
Chris Aguila — Since ’07 U&H came out, Topps has obviously hired some obsessive Met fan. How can I tell? Because Chris Aguila got a Met card. Chris Aguila, who did OK in Triple-A and then went 2-for-12 in two tours of lukewarm summer duty with the big club. And it wasn’t just Aguila — luminaries such as Tony Armas Jr., Robinson Cancel and Trot Nixon were similarly honored for showing up in blue and orange, and former minor Mets Chip Ambres, Matt Ginter and Jorge Velandia all got cards. As an obsessive with a dual major in Mets and baseball cards, I was thrilled by these questionable marketing decisions. I doubt a nation of kids shares my joy.
Trot Nixon — See above. How does hitting .171 in a brief tour of duty that ended before July get you a baseball card? U&H, for no apparent reason.
Robinson Cancel — Surprisingly fast for an endomorphic catcher. Basically useless, but still fun to watch — if you don’t root on at least some level for the Robinson Cancels of the baseball world, something within you is dead. The back of his U&H card chronicles a bizarre career that includes repeat visits to such bush-league hot spots as Beloit, Stockton and Huntsville.
Andy Phillips — DFA’d by the Reds on June 22 to make room for scorned former Met Jeff Keppinger. Claimed by the Mets on June 25. DFA’d by the Mets on July 1. Claimed by the Reds on July 3. This string of transactions seems unnecessarily complex. Yankees card.
Tony Armas Jr. — Pitched OK in winning his first start against the Cardinals, threw a scoreless inning against the Phillies, then got bombed in the 10-9 win the Mets recorded against the Phils in homage to Bob Murphy’s “They win the damn thing” call. And that was his year. U&H card, God knows why.
Argenis Reyes — Former Indian farmhand whose abundant spunk, obvious love of the game and friendship with the Other Reyes made you try your hardest to overlook the fact that by any statistical measure he was a terrible baseball player. Needless to say, would still rather see him than Luis Castillo. Zephyrs card.
Brandon Knight — Began his Met career by getting incinerated by the Cardinals, ended it by pitching capably enough against the Nationals. Won a bronze medal in Beijing, which, because Bud Selig hates America, didn’t count for an extra game in the standings. Zephyrs card.
Daniel Murphy — The bright young hope of sentimental Met fans everywhere, a serious-as-a-heart-attack kid with a beautiful swing, a jeweller’s eye for the strike zone and no position to play. Infamously left standing on third after a leadoff triple as Wright struck out. One hopes that will be an “oh yeah, that was him” moment instead of a defining memory. Until it’s settled one way or the other, GODFUCKINGDAMMIT. Binghamton card, pending arrival of his Topps Red Hot Rookie.
Eddie Kunz — Hulking closer-in-waiting revealed as not ready in brief trial. One of many Binghamton cards this year.
Brian Stokes — Tampa Bay refugee briefly raised hopes with electric fastball before quashing them with said fastball’s utter lack of movement. Could be a very valuable arm if a pitching coach could find a way to add a little wrinkle to that fastball, but we’re not the first team to have thought that. Card from oddball Mets gift set, showing him in wretched spring-training motley.
Luis Ayala — Pitched bravely but not very effectively as emergency closer. Gets a pass for bearing up as best he could under the weight of injuries and various misfortunes. Represented by 2005 card from Washington Nationals inaugural set. Like Ayala himself, not a great answer but the only one available.
Jonathon Niese — Undone by nerves against Brewers in first start. Brilliant in whitewashing the Braves in second start. Shellacked by Cubs in third and final start. Exactly what you’d expect from a hurler barely old enough to take a legal drink, in other words. Born on the day the Mets won their last World Series, but unfortunately not only 25 months old. Binghamton card.
Ricardo Rincon — Oh yeah, he really did pitch for us. 2004 Topps Total card.
Ramon Martinez — Briefly a cult hero for big late-season hit against Marlins, which makes me feel bad for remembering his failure to go first-to-third against the Nats in a September game the Mets lost 1-0. Not Pedro’s brother. 2007 Topps card in a Dodger uniform.
Bobby Parnell — Thrown into the fire in mid-September when Jerry Manuel ran out of bullpen bodies, and fared about as well as his mates. Yet to pitch in a Met victory. 2008 Bowman card.