Welcome to Flashback Friday: I Saw The Decade End, a milestone-anniversary salute to the New York Mets of 1969, 1979, 1989 and 1999. Each week, we immerse ourselves in or at least touch upon something that transpired within the Metsian realm 40, 30, 20 or 10 years ago. Amazin’ or not, here it comes.
They were young. They were guns. But the hopes of a franchise didn’t hang on their rifle arms. They were just the easiest, most inexpensive options available. So they were opted for. In retrospect, they were quite a bargain.
Seventeen years before Generation K went down in flames and infamy, there was Generation Pre-K, if you like. Not as celebrated in advance as Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson but a lot more durable in Met lore was this trio: Neil Allen, Jesse Orosco and Mike Scott. It was three decades ago this spring that each made the Mets.
If 2009 has anything in common with 1979 — and perhaps most springs — it’s that the Mets came to camp with holes in their pitching staff, particularly their starting rotation. You could count on 1978 National League ERA champ Craig Swan. You could hopefully count on 1978 National League All-Star Pat Zachry, a great first half to his credit, but also a fractured foot that kept him out of action in the second half after he gave up a record-tying single (longest modern N.L. hitting streak) to old teammate Pete Rose. Kevin Kobel had a shot in March, but his own foot sprain put him out of action until May. Lightly used outfielder Tom Grieve was swapped to St. Louis for Brooklyn’s own Pete Falcone, whose claim to fame, at least in my eyes, was the Mets always beat him; we were 9-0 against him since he came up in ’75, 0-4 in ’76 alone. His other claim to fame was his cousin was eternal bullpen coach Joe Pignatano
After those relatively sure things, 1979 was full of pitching question marks. As punctuation went, they surely outnumbered dollar signs. That became evident when that season’s prospective No. 4 starter, Nelson Briles, was disinvited from Spring Training for having some wear on him. You’d think the ’79 beggars wouldn’t be choosers (even if Briles, 35, hadn’t been particularly effective since 1976), but they chose not to pay him the $60,000 a veteran of his stature would have demanded. Joe Torre wanted his former St. Louis on the teammate, perhaps to keep him company, perhaps to remind of him of what it was like to play behind a rotation of Gibson, Carlton and a much younger Nellie Briles. But sixty-thou was big money to the Lorinda de Roulet Mets. As Jack Lang recounted in his essential The New York Mets: Twenty-Five Years Of Baseball Magic, “the austerity campaign was on and [GM Joe] McDonald would not or could not pay Briles the money a veteran commanded.”
So count Briles — whose lasting contribution to Mets history was his cameo in Bill Murray’s coverage of Chico Escuela’s courageous Spring Training comeback — out of St. Petersburg. And count Nino Espiñosa and his impressive afro out, sent to Philly with ten days to go for slugging (if not sunny) Richie Hebner. The Mets headed for Opening Day in Chicago with three experienced starters: Swan, Zachry and Falcone.
This is where the youth movement drifted in. This is where the Major League Baseball minimum of salary of $21,000 per year came in to play. This is how Neil Allen, Jesse Orosco and Mike Scott became, at the respective ages of 21, 21 and 23, 1979 New York Mets. Three rookies for just over the price of one Briles? A steal.
Their ascension onto the roster was not completely without merit. These weren’t California Penal League refugees, not even at that tender stage of their nascent careers. Jesse Orosco, the player to be named later in the Jerry Koosman deal (named after Greg Field), showed up in St. Pete as a non-roster invitee and chalked up six scoreless appearances. Allen had a 10-2 single-A season under his belt from just two seasons earlier. Scott threw nearly 200 innings two consecutive years in the minors. Time would bear out that each belonged in the bigs. But that time was a ways off.
There were moments. Orosco’s came first, in the Opener at Wrigley, a whale of a game the Mets led 10-3 (Richie Hebner, four hits, four RBI) behind eight solid frames out of Craig Swan. Dwight Bernard — of whose Met career absolutely nothing positive can be said — came in to mop up and quickly set the ivy ablaze. In a blink it was 10-6. Torre called on young Jesse Orosco to face Bill Buckner with a runner on second. Not a save situation, but close enough. Orosco flied Buckner to right and that was that. The Mets were 1-0 and Jesse was golden.
For about a minute. Orosco wasn’t ready. Allen served as de facto fourth starter when the first doubleheader rolled around and pitched the barest of quality starts (6 IP, 3 ER) before going down to a vengeful Espiñosa. He lost to Nino and the Phils again six days later, looking less impressive. Neil wasn’t ready. Scott’s first start went well, a romp over Vida Blue and the Giants. But Mike proved progressively less able and the Mets, even the 1979 Mets, were not willing to wait for him to be ready. He and Jesse were sent down in mid-June. Neil lost his spot in the rotation by May and was scheduled to join his fellow young guns as Tides after a Disabled List stint, but then closer Skip Lockwood had a shoulder problem (joints were killing the Mets; Zachry’s year was ruined by a bad elbow), so Allen stayed a Met. He began pitching effectively in relief and eventually succeeded Lockwood to save whatever Mets wins there were to save.
Cheapness was the reason they got their break, but their youth would be served, albeit once they matured. Allen was probably the brightest spot of the bleak second half. He was the closer of record clear to early 1983 and a darn good one, too, at least through ’82. Orosco would need time to hone his craft, but at about the time Neil was crumbling in New York (and becoming legendary trade bait), Jesse moved into the closer’s slot and earned All-Star honors twice. Scott never amounted to much as a Met, but you likely know he became quite the craftsman — particularly with sandpaper — in Houston.
By October 1986, the discount seeds of the spring of ’79 had blossomed all over the postseason: Scott scuffing and stifling the Mets, Orosco asphyxiating the Astros and Red Sox and the bounty Allen brought to Queens, Keith Hernandez, driving in the runs that turned around the final game of that Fall Classic. Neil Allen pitched until 1989, Mike Scott until 1991, Jesse Orosco, a.k.a. Methuselah, until 2003. I’m not sure that three pitchers with zero big league innings among them every came up to the Mets together at one season’s beginning and went on to have three individual tenures quite as long.
Sometimes you can’t judge at face value what you see in a given Spring Training. And sometimes you just have to reserve judgment.
Don’t be left off the final roster: get yourself a copy of Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets before Opening Day! Available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, other online booksellers and fine bookstores throughout the Greater Northeast. Discuss the Damn Thing, too, at Facebook with other FAFIF fans.