Do we blame this on Hubie Brooks? If we give him the credit for starting a trend at one position, do we pin accountability on him for a far more insidious trend at another position?
It’s Mets 101 that third base was the perpetually hexed corner for a very long time, roughly from the dawn of time through Phil Mankowski in 1980. Consider that the third baseman who began to lift the curse of the hot corner was Hubie Brooks, whose competent play as the undisputed starter for four seasons from 1981 to 1984 set the stage, historically speaking, for Howard Johnson, Edgardo Alfonzo, Robin Ventura and, finally, David Wright to turn a longtime liability into an unquestioned asset. Consider as well that the player who took over in right for Darryl Strawberry, starting on Opening Day 1991 and for 97 games that season was…Hubie Brooks, in his second tour of Met duty.
Right field has never been the same since Buddy Harrelson sent Hubie out there. Hubie just kind of disappeared and he’s taken almost all of his successors with him.
Will Ryan Church be the Mets’ regular starting rightfielder in 2009? Jerry Manuel says yes. Recent and even distant history say absolutely not. He probably won’t even be here come 2010.
Why so fatalistic where Churchy is concerned? Because after carefully studying the relevant pages of baseball-reference, I have concluded there is no such thing as a regular starting rightfielder on the New York Mets.
At various stages of Met development, third base, center field, catcher and, in the modern era, second base have all taken turns as sore thumbs on the Met glove hand, sometimes a whole mitt’s worth. These have all been the unfillable positions for lengthy, uncomfortable stretches until a blue and orange knight emerges to stab grounders, track down flies or dig balls out of the dirt. Third is the most mythical of them all, but David Wright seems to have buried the third base hex for the foreseeable future. Center and catcher were particularly gaping voids in the franchise’s developmental years, but Tommie Agee and Jerry Grote put those spots on track and they’ve been fairly well taken care of most seasons. Second base, since Alfonzo was moved off it in deference to Roberto Alomar (boo), has been a throwback…or a woeback, the position that never finds stability. But second base did have Fonzie as recently as 1999-2001 and, at various junctures, it had Kent, Jefferies, Backman, Flynn, Millan and Boswell for at least three or more straight seasons.
Right has had nobody. Actually, right has had practically everybody, but nobody has claimed right field as his own since Darryl Strawberry. Darryl Strawberry left the Mets in 1990. Quite the arid dry spell has ensued without what you could call a regular starting rightfielder.
The Mets have swung from dreadful to delightful and back and forth in the nearly two post-Straw decades, but they’ve never settled on anything approaching a regular starting rightfielder. In the 18 individual seasons since Darryl skedaddled to L.A., the Mets have had 15 different players serve as their most oft-used starting rightfielder — most oft-used not being the same as regular. Right has become an Amazin’ly irregular outpost.
Let’s think about what it means to be a regular. You figure a guy is the everyday starter. Everyday doesn’t necessarily mean he literally starts every single day. You gotta give him a blow now and then, so he sits maybe once a week on average. But when crunch time comes, you send him out there. A reasonable rule of thumb would have him starting 140 games at his position, which works out to 86.4% of the 162-game season, slightly more often than six games in a seven-game week (85.7%).
You know who the last Met rightfielder to meet that 140-game threshold was? Darryl Strawberry. In 1990, Darryl started 146 games in right. He started 149 games apiece in 1987 and 1988. Those, incidentally, were Darryl’s three MVP-candidate years (finishing sixth, second and third, chronologically). In three other years — ’84, ’86, ’89 — when he battled nagging injuries and/or nettlesome lefties, he started 126, 127 and 128 games. 1985, when he tore ligaments in his thumb diving for a ball, was the only Met year when he was limited to fewer than 100 starts.
Darryl ended another noticeable right field drought — a.k.a. the Youngblood years — when he came up on May 6, 1983 and proceeded to start 114 games. Nobody had been around in right even that much (70.4% of the schedule) since Rusty Staub, who was Le Grand Ironman in right for three consecutive seasons, starting 150, 146 and 153 games, respectively, from 1973 to 1975. His first year in New York was ruined by a broken hand (65 starts in 156 games), but otherwise Yogi Berra and Roy McMillan couldn’t have enticed Staub out of the lineup even had they wielded a rack of New York’s most tender baby back ribs.
In 1986, SportsChannel conducted a fan survey to determine the Mets’ all-time 25th Anniversary team. It listed three players at each position. Strawberry and Staub had a very tight race in right, splitting almost the entire vote between them, with Darryl edging Rusty and Ron Swoboda finishing a very distant third. Pending what happens the next couple of seasons, you could run the very same poll for the Mets’ 50th anniversary by listing the same three rightfielders with no accuracy lost. Except for Staub, Strawberry and, to a certain degree, Swoboda, no Met has left a long-term mark in right.
Keeping Jerry Manuel’s Team First mantra in mind, none of this matters of its own accord. If the team wins, you can start one rightfielder 70 times, another 61 times and still another 27 times and nobody’s going to get caught up in the math. That was the equation the platoon-savvy Gil Hodges executed in 1969: Swoboda with 43.2% of the starts, Art Shamsky with 37.6%, Rod Gaspar with most of what remained (though only once after August 4). Rocky led Mets rightfielders in starts four consecutive seasons, ’67 to ’70, but never with more than 117 turns. Some of it is attributable to Hodges discovering what worked, some of it was determining what would work. Some Swoboda, it turned, worked better than all Swoboda.
Stability is a desired trait at any position, but no manager is going to be tethered to one player if the player’s not producing. That’s a decision that helps explain why right field, with the exception of Strawberry and Staub, has been a black hole. There is a great tradition of — to put it in layman’s terms — guys not getting the job done full-time. Less organically, you might not have the same guy in right every day less because of performance and strategy and more because of unavoidable circumstances. Injuries happen. Military reserve duty used to happen. Trades happen. Your rightfielder on Tuesday might have to be your leftfielder or first baseman on Wednesday. None of this is particularly mysterious.
What’s mysterious is why it keeps happening to Mets rightfielders, why almost none of them has ever taken the proverbial bull by the proverbial horns and held said proverbials for any significant period of time. It’s always happened to Mets rightfielders not named Staub or Strawberry. It’s not an exaggeration.
• Exactly one Met rightfielder prior to Rusty in 1973 started as many as three-quarters of a given season’s games: Joe Christopher in 1964.
• No Mets rightfielder besides Swoboda, Staub and Strawberry has led Mets’ rightfielders in starts in more than two seasons.
• Only two rightfielders since Darryl have led the team in right field starts in two consecutive years, none in more than a decade.
• This decade we’re on our tenth year of has been an absolute rightfield whirlpool, with nine different rightfielders taking the most starts in each of the past nine seasons.
How transient and treacherous has right field become? Nobody since Jeromy Burnitz in 2002 has started more than two-thirds of the games out there; he wouldn’t be a Met by the end of 2003. The leader in games started in any one year in the 2000s is 2000 rightfielder Derek Bell, with 136 starts. Bell started the first game of the ’00 playoffs, slipped on the grass at Pac Bell and was, in terms of playing for the Mets, never heard from again.
Timo Perez stepped up when Bell fell down and sparked the Mets to series wins over San Francisco and St. Louis. Somehow it’s appropriate that he couldn’t keep his right field job clear to the end of the 2000 postseason. Game Five of the World Series was started by Bubba Trammell — his last game as a Met. Timo trotted out to right in more innings (427) than anybody else in 2001, but the most starts were covered by the fleeting presence of Matt Lawton (a scant 46). Nine different Mets started in right in ’01, with Tsuyoshi Shinjo (28) the most colorful, Alex Escobar (6) the most promising and Darren Bragg (9) fighting it out with Mark Johnson (4) as the most forgettable. No matter: None of these gents was a Met in 2002. Neither was Opening Day rightfielder Darryl Hamilton nor one-day cameo rightfielder Lenny Harris. Perez and Joe McEwing were the only survivors of 2001’s 162-game experiment.
Burnitz would be an essential part of the self-inflicted wound that the Mets brought on themselves in 2002. Jeromy loomed as the regular starting rightfielder in 1993 and 1994, though in each year had fewer starts, respectively, than Bobby Bonilla (shifted to third when HoJo got hurt, no doubt winning friends and influencing people in the process) and Joe Orsulak (48 times to the gate vs. 41 for Burnitz in a strike-truncated campaign), but he was gone after ’94. His homecoming in ’02 was going to be a feelgood story, like Roger Cedeño’s. Cedeño, incidentally, was the starting rightfielder of record in 1999 (89 starts) but was ousted before the century’s end via the Mike Hampton trade.
Neither Burnitz nor Cedeño made anybody feel good in 2002, and the pain continued in 2003, with Roger inheriting right once Jeromy was sent packing to L.A. Cedeño hit pretty well down the nonexistent stretch in ’03, making him just attractive enough to be traded to St. Louis the next spring. 2004 is notorious as the year the Mets skipped the opportunity to sign Vladimir Guerrero and opted for a Karim Garcia/Shane Spencer platoon, the kind of arrangement that was just too good to last. Neither fellow lasted past August, and midseason acquisition Richard Hidalgo led the Mets RF unit with 81 starts.
Natch, Hidalgo was outta here! by 2005, a more star-crossed year than usual in right. Mike Cameron was the Mets’ centerfielder in 2004, generally living up to his defensive notices. But he was no Carlos Beltran, which was a quantity the Mets lacked in ’04, but committed themselves to for ’05 and beyond. To put it just short of politely, that meant they were stuck with Cameron, so they stuck him in right pretty much against his will. Mike missed the first month with an injury and was wiped out in August by his horrendous Petco Park collision with Beltran, two centerfielders diving for the same ball, one of them miscast as a rightfielder. Cameron never played for the Mets again, temporarily giving way to Victor Diaz, who wound up with more starts (74 to 67) than his fallen comrade.
Ah, Victor Diaz. He would trickle ever so briefly into 2006 but march to the front of the brigade of lost rightfielders immediately, never playing the position for the Mets again after 2005. Diaz’s signature swing was the one on which he connected for a ninth-inning, two-out, game-tying homer off the Cubs’ LaTroy Hawkins on September 25, 2004. It was one of those teases in which Met right field prospects seem to specialize, dating back to Ron Swoboda’s bursting onto the scene with a first-half power surge in 1965. Swoboda was otherwise unready for the majors and, some indispensable baseball heroics notwithstanding, never formed fully as a player. Yet since Swoboda, we’re regularly suckered by some come-hither stud who — with the singular exception of Mr. Strawberry — leaves us in the morning feeling cold, alone and used.
• Ken Singleton gave us one year as a young, athletic regular starting rightfielder, 74 games in 1971, before being dispatched to Montreal for Staub. Can’t complain about receiving Staub in return, but the yen for young and athletic would go unsated in right, leaving us vulnerable to the next half-decent prospect who lit up an otherwise dreary September.
• Mike Vail was going to take over for Rusty in 1976 after his rookie 23-game hitting streak. It was going to be worth taking on Mickey Lolich even. But Mike played basketball in the offseason and dislocated his foot before he could relocate from left. Vail led Met rightfielders in starts with 67 in 1977, was waived before ’78.
• Carl Everett could do it all…sometimes. He did it as the starting rightfielder a plurality of 1995 — 67 out of 144 games, but couldn’t hold the job into ’96.
• Alex Ochoa introduced “five-tool player” to the Met lexicon (or revived it from the halcyon days of Ellis Valentine) when he came up in the middle of 1996 and hit for the cycle in Philadelphia. He solved the rightfield problem for 72 starts before recreating it anew when he couldn’t hit for his life in ’97. Alex Ochoa’s legacy was making sure we wouldn’t get too hung terribly hung up when we gave up early on Alex Escobar.
• Butch Huskey was long touted as the best power prospect in the Mets’ system. He was also touted as a third baseman in one of the less accurate toutings in memory. Huskey would settle in right for the duration of 1997 (68 starts) and a majority of 1998 (94 starts) before being exchanged for Lesli Brea, not a rightfielder, but also never a Met.
Huskey was the last man to nominally hold down right for two consecutive seasons, the first since Bobby Bonilla. Bonilla, literally a mammoth presence in right early upon his 1999 return (before inertia and common sense prevailed), was supposed to be an answer of some sort when he was signed prior to the 1992 season. It will be recalled that Bobby Bonilla’s major contribution as a rightfielder in ’92 was wearing earplugs to drown out the fans’ appraisal of his no-tool play. At one point that year, Bonilla said the fans still hadn’t gotten over the departure of Strawberry. The track record in right indicates they’ve had no reason to.
Anyway, Victor Diaz didn’t last and neither did Xavier Nady, whose crime as the regular starting rightfielder for 70 of the first 104 games in 2006 was playing well enough to be desirable to another team (Pittsburgh) who had what the Mets badly needed (relief pitching) when the Mets flukishly (cab accident) found themselves feeling desperate. Roberto Hernandez was not fair market value for Xavier Nady, though throw-in Oliver Perez made it a perfectly decent trade in the big picture. But if you focus just on right field, Nady’s disappearance down the right field hole simply continued a long-running trend of futility.
Into that hole stepped Shawn Green. Bereft of the hitting and fielding skills that made him a star in Toronto and an icon in Los Angeles, Green meandered from adequate stopgap to aging liability, good enough for the eventual N.L. East champs in ’06, not nearly the answer for the far more tenuous division leaders of ’07. Green, who would retire after 2007, started 107 games in right, the most any Met rightfielder started in five years; alas, they and he weren’t enough to help fend off a most infamous finish.
Lastings Milledge and Carlos Gomez were given shots in right in ’07, but, like Green, neither would be a Met by 2008. In fact, no Met who made the most starts in right in a given season during the decade spanning 1998 through 2007 — that would be Huskey, Cedeño, Bell, Lawton, Burnitz, Cedeño II, Hidalgo, Diaz, Nady and Green — would be in the Mets organization by the end of the succeeding season.
Which brings us to Ryan Church, right field starter for 81 of 162 games last year, more than anybody else on the Mets. Acquired from Washington for Milledge, Church had a great start, a dismal end and a dizzy middle, thanks to the second of two 2008 concussions that definitively derailed his first season as a Met. But he was still here when camp opened ten days ago and he was a presumed lock to start regularly in right in 2009. Then, over this past weekend, Manuel mentioned something about Daniel Murphy being the everyday leftfielder and allowed that maybe Church would platoon in right with Fernando Tatis, previously penciled in as sharing left with Murph.
Nah, not really, Jerry says now. The Murph part stands. He’s in left, but Churchy is supposedly secure in his position.
“You’re getting ready to be the rightfielder for the Mets,” Ryan Church’s manager told him Monday.
“I knew that,” the player responded.
Oh, Ryan. If you only really knew what you’re probably in for.
Admittedly, eerie precedent isn’t stone destiny. Ryan Church could possibly break the mold if he doesn’t break his head first. He could become the first rightfielder since Bell to start in more than two-thirds of the Mets’ games, the first rightfielder since Huskey to start the most games out there two consecutive years, the first since Bonilla in ’92-’93 to total 200 starts in a two-year span. Ryan Church is 30 years old and not without talent. He could blossom into if not another Strawberry then maybe a top banana on the Mets for years to come. Hexes, jinxes and whatever else that randomly doom one position on the field to an eternity of misfortune do come to an end.
Back to where we started, with Hubie Brooks, the Mets’ regular starting third baseman from late 1980 until late 1984, traded for Gary Carter directly thereafter, reacquired for Bobby Ojeda six years later. Straw, at the time of Hubie’s homecoming, was heading out west, universally acclaimed as the best everyday player the Mets had ever signed and developed. That acclimation remained universal and largely unchallenged until right about now, with David Wright’s tenure and stats clearly catching up to Straw’s. The Daveotronic 5000 may be an unstoppable machine in this regard.
The Mets’ first top-flight third baseman went to right field. Eighteen years of mishaps ensued in right. A third baseman stands on the verge of usurping a rightfielder’s crown as the Mets’ best-ever position player. I don’t know what it means, but one of these days, somebody’s not gonna get sucked into that vortex.
All the bases are covered and all fields are hit to in Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets, available for pre-ordering now via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other fine retailers.