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.
Sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make (even the ones you dare to darkly fantasize about aloud in service to your surprisingly deep-seated disgust-driven desire to Get Rid Of Almost Everybody after two-plus years of Amazin’ frustration with the stagnant status quo that has strangled your team in the mire of seemingly immovable mediocrity…logic as regards sending 26-year-old stars to division rivals for lesser talents notwithstanding). Yet sometimes you make a trade in the course of the season and it’s absolutely for the best.
Did any in-season trade ever work as immediately and dramatically well as the one the Mets made for Donn Clendenon? If you were to go with sudden, results-oriented impact, you’d have to say no.
Mind you, the Keith Hernandez trade floats above all Mets trades, in-season or otherwise, in a league of its own. When Keith was acquired exactly fourteen years after Donn, he brought with him a transformative effect that would take root soon enough. Everybody points to June 15, 1983 as a turning point in the history of the franchise and rightly so. If there’s no Keith Hernandez, there’s no glorious era to follow. But on June 15, 1983, the Mets were in last place, 14 games under. 500 and 9½ games out of first. Four months later, their season two weeks over, the Mets were in last place, 26 games under .500 and 22 games out of first. And that was actually progress. The trade of Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey for Keith Hernandez bore seedlings in 1983, honest-to-goodness blossoms in 1984 and bushels of delectable fruit en route to a championship grove on October 27, 1986.
But the Met evolution signaled by the acquisition of Hernandez would proceed at a glacial pace when compared to what happened when the Mets got Donn Clendenon. On June 15, 1969, the day the Mets made their deal with Montreal, they were in a better place — second — than their 1983 successors, an astounding (for then) four games over .500…but a similar 9 games out of first. What would happen as Donn Clendenon took over half of first base for the Mets over the next four months would reveal itself as both unprecedented and, as of today, yet to be matched.
From 30-26 on June 15, the Mets would finish 100-62. That’s 70-36, just a shade under .667 for a span covering two-thirds of the season. Of course the Mets would make up those nine games on first-place Chicago and win their division by eight. And of course the Mets would breeze through Atlanta and take Baltimore in five. Four months plus one day after the Mets sent perennial prospect Kevin Collins and three minor leaguers — Steve Renko, Bill Carden and Dave Colon — to the Expos, they were champs of everything.
Donn Clendenon didn’t pitch, didn’t hit one through nine, didn’t field every position. Heck, he only shared first base with Eddie Kranepool. But his impact was immediate enough and positive enough to trace the Mets’ growth from pleasant surprises in mid-June to world beaters by mid-October directly back to his acquisition.
Now that’s what you call a successful in-season trade.
Teammates would forever recall Donn Clendenon, then in his ninth season in the bigs, as the steadying, stabilizing influence that was needed on such a young team, the absolute definition of a clubhouse leader. He was also a bona fide slugger in a lineup that perennially lacked stick. Jim McAndrew told Bill Ryczek in the essential The Amazin’ Mets, 1962-1969, “As far as I’m concerned, the big difference in the club was Clendenon. He was the one guy who could strap you on his back and carry you for a week or two if he got hot. That’s what he did. Instead of losing 1-0 or 2-1, we were winning 2-1 and 3-2.”
To look at Donn Clendenon’s 1969 stats is not to be overwhelmed. In 72 games as a Met, he drove in 37 runs. But about a quarter of them came in one very key stretch of road games, in the prelude to the first Big Series the Mets ever played, the instantly legendary three-game set against Chicago at Shea, which encompassed the contests that would make the names Don Young and Jimmy Qualls indelible footnotes to Mets history. But let’s not forget how the Mets arrived on the doorstep of the Cubs’ consciousness, by creeping up on them prior to that July 8-10 showdown.
The Mets sat eight games in back of the Cubs entering play on July 2, with five games in St. Louis and Pittsburgh ahead of them. The Mets would win all five, cutting their deficit in the N.L. East to 5½ by July 8. Clendenon would start four times and would produce each time he did.
• The second RBI of a 14-inning 6-4 victory over the Cardinals on the Second of July.
• A two-run single that helped build an 8-1 blowout at Busch on the Third of July.
• A two-run tiebreaking double that set up an 11-6 victory in the opener of a Fourth of July doubleheader at Forbes Field.
• An RBI double in the first and, coup de grâce style, a three-run homer in the sixth to give the Mets a lead they would never relinquish as they beat the Buccos 8-7 on the Sixth of July.
In the first game of that series against Chicago, it would be Clendenon, as a pinch-hitter, coming through yet again, doubling off Fergie Jenkins (a deep drive the dashing Don Young couldn’t quite snare) and scoring the tying run in the sunsplashed ninth inning, the one that shone on the Mets and rained on the Cubs’ premature parade.
In less than four weeks from his arrival in New York, the Mets had gone from a distant second to challenging for first. We know they met their challenge and we know it was Clendenon leading the charge at the very end. He didn’t see a wink of action against Atlanta in the NLCS thanks to the Braves throwing righties and Gil Hodges sticking with his lefty lineup (team first, baby), but we do know that Donn did extraordinary damage to southpaw 20-game winners Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally in the World Series, homering off the former once and the latter twice en route to earning MVP honors. In each game that he homered, as if to underscore McAndrew’s point precisely, Clendenon’s shot provided the exact margin of victory.
The Mets have had two World Series Most Valuable Players and both were in-season acquisitions. Ray Knight would take home the hardware in 1986 after coming over from Houston in August 1984 (not impacting the race all that much in ’84 or ’85, however). Both were considered positive forces off the field, too. Funny that one tends to think of the offseason as the time when all the scrupulous planning that can create a champion takes place, yet here are the Mets, with two titles to their credit, and each was sealed, you might say, on the fly. A great deal can break out at any moment.
Lifting Clendenon from the Expos was almost certainly GM Johnny Murphy’s finest hour on the job. Considering most of the pieces that became the 1969 World Series roster were just about in place before Murphy took over for Bing Devine, the two best things Murphy did as general manager were trading for Clendenon and turning down proposals from other teams that would have cost him young pitching. The only youthful moundsman Murphy had to surrender via trade who ever amounted to the proverbial hill of beans was Steve Renko, who pitched with some success for Montreal and lasted clear to 1983 but was never particularly missed as a Met (though he gets his Red Sox due of sorts here, courtesy of the sublime Josh Wilker). He was certainly fair ransom for a World Series MVP who would drive in nearly a hundred runs as a defending champion Met a year later.
To draw one more parallel between Donn Clendenon and his descendant in June 15 first base thievery Keith Hernandez, it will be recalled that Mex was an unwilling participant on the “Stems” as he said the Mets were thought of in baseball circles in 1983. He loved St. Louis, feared New York and didn’t plan to stay at Shea once his trial period was up. The Hernandez mythology has it that it took convincing from his impeccably wired dad and Frank Cashen to remain a Met after ’83, that they assured him help was on the way from the minors and that he bought into the promise. The decision was in Keith’s hands, and aren’t we glad he made the right call? In 1969, the decision was in Donn’s hands, too, which was highly unusual considering there was no free agentry in his day. Part of the Clendenon legend is he almost didn’t see ’69 in the major leagues due to his reluctance to play for some perpetually dismal club — though in his case, it wasn’t the Mets but the Astros that turned him off.
As recounted in Ryczek’s book, Donn was left unprotected by the Pirates in the 1968 expansion draft. Chosen by the Expos, he hesitated to join the expansion team — he wanted to get to a World Series — but eventually warmed to the idea and planned to report. But before ever getting to take a single swing at Parc Jarry, Montreal dealt him to Houston for future Met Rusty Staub. This he wanted no part of given his distaste for manager Harry Walker whom he didn’t like playing for in Pittsburgh and wasn’t going to like any better in a more Southern venue. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Clendenon had options. At 33, he decided to retire from baseball and take a job as an executive with the Scripto Pen Company where he’d already made an impression in previous winters. Such leverage allowed him to write his own ticket out of Houston, a personal power play that offended baseball’s establishment greatly. But an option is an option, and baseball’s only option was to save face on the eve of the season opener by allowing Clendenon to return to Montreal and sending two Expos (Jack Billingham and Skip Guinn) to Houston as compensation. Donn wasn’t active when the Expos began their existence at Shea Stadium, but he’d have plenty of time in Flushing as 1969 proceeded. You wouldn’t have forecast it in April. You surely knew it by October.
The Mets announced this week that they will honor the fortieth anniversary of the Miracle Mets on Saturday, August 22. Mark at Mets Walkoffs recently offered up some great ideas on how they could make the occasion even more of an affair to remember.
Donn Clendenon’s first year as a Met is also where another story begins in earnest: Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets, available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or a bookstore near you. Keep in touch and join the discussion on Facebook. And join Jason and me as we ride the Seven Train to Shea with Matt Pignataro, Sunday night at 7.
Plus, the long-awaited Podcast from my recent appearance with Mark and AJ on SportstalkNY can be heard here.