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.
How did they miss each other? How is it possible that two men who played in the majors for the same 25-season span for 9 franchises apiece (4 of them in common), never took the field as teammates? In an era when players began to move with unprecedented alacrity, nobody seemed to move as much or as often — particularly toward the end — as these two. But at no time were Rickey Henderson and Jesse Orosco officially teammates.
And although both came to the bigs in 1979 and both plied their craft through 2003, they faced each other only six times. Jesse threw with his left arm. So did Rickey, but he batted righthanded. When Jesse was in his closer prime, he was in a different league from Rickey. When they overlapped, Jesse had morphed into a specialist. After a while, that’s what Rickey was, too. Jesse was hired to retire lefties. Rickey was hired to get on base and around them as quickly as he could — and never retire if he could help it.
Yet he did retire, or the game retired on him. That’s why, at long last, there will be Rickey Henderson, our Rickey in the magical season of 1999, taking his place in Cooperstown this Sunday, joining (in chronological order per their Met debuts) Richie Ashburn, Duke Snider, Warren Spahn, Yogi Berra, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Willie Mays, Gary Carter and Eddie Murray as Mets who grace the Baseball Hall of Fame. Nowhere near everybody’s favorite upstate hamlet, unless he happens to be visiting, will be Jesse Orosco.
Rickey began his career with the Oakland Athletics on June 24, 1979. Jesse began his career with the New York Mets on April 5, 1979. Rickey’s final major league game came September 19, 2003 — eight days before Jesse’s. Of a possible 539 votes for the Hall, Rickey received 511. Jesse received 1.
One vote for 24 years of service. One vote for pitching in more games than any other pitcher in the history of baseball. One vote for two All-Star appearances. One vote for closing out two of the most spectacular postseason series ever.
One vote fewer than Jay Bell.
Jesse Orosco’s career received 1/511th the support of Rickey Henderson’s and virtually no respect from Hall of Fame voters. I’m not going to tell you Rickey and Jesse should be going into Cooperstown as a tandem. I do wonder, though, how someone who pitched in 1,252 separate games across four different decades, surpassing the previous recordholder (Dennis Eckersley, himself a Hall of Famer) by 181 appearances, registered almost an asterisk in the balloting, but I understand that merely showing up isn’t all that marks you immortal. True, Jesse played five seasons with a man celebrated far and wide for his ability to show up relentlessly, but Cal Ripken wrapped a few other achievements in there as well.
Thing is Ripken, who played a long time, didn’t play as long as Jesse. Ripken broke in more than two years after Jesse had and went away two years before Jesse did. Even Rickey, as eternal as Rickey was and would be if he had his way, showed up to The Show a bit later and left a touch earlier.
Jesse arrived early and stayed almost forever. While Rickey had to sniff around for baseball-playing opportunities once the Dodgers let him go after 2003 (he was a Newark Bear — for the second time — in ’04, a San Diego Surf Dawg in ’05), Jesse walked away while still in demand. His last pitch was thrown as a Twin, but the Diamondbacks signed him after that. He could have kept facing lefties in the desert as he approached 47; the dry air might have done him good. But he gave it up in January 2004, lacking “the excitement in me to get going” for another spring and another summer.
The getting going got going thirty years ago this past April when Met manager Joe Torre (then 38) called on him on Opening Day at Wrigley Field to quell a Cub uprising with two out in the ninth. He faced one batter, who flied to right to end the game.
That batter was Bill Buckner.
Buckner, of course, would set the stage for what became the defining moment of Jesse’s career. No Buckner failing to bend from the knees in Game Six, no Jesse triumphantly dropping to his knees in Game Seven. Come to think of it, Jesse pitched in Game Six, too. Faced one batter, to extract the Mets from a jam in the eighth. That batter flied to center.
That batter was Bill Buckner.
Both Buckner and Jesse, incidentally, drove in exactly one run in the 1986 World Series. Jesse’s eighth-inning single in Game Seven, chasing home Ray Knight, was the last RBI he’d ever record despite pitching another 17 seasons.
Jesse began a four-decade career by retiring a four-decade player himself (Buckner came up in 1969 and lasted to 1990). He ended it by striking out Warren Morris of the Tigers in the ninth inning on September 27, 2003 at Comerica Park, which sounds like a perfect ending, except Morris swung at a wild pitch and Alex Sanchez, who had walked and stolen second and third, scored to give Detroit its 42nd win of the season, thus avoiding, in the 161st game of the year, tying the 1962 Mets’ record for futility. They won that Saturday, they’d win that Sunday, they wouldn’t lose 120.
Thus, in his way, Jesse not only preserved history for the best Mets team ever by locking down the 1986 world championship, he helped ensure the worst Mets team ever would maintain its statistical niche. As for Warren Morris, he went 1-for-5 as a Pirate against the Mets on July 27, 1999…against the Mercury Mets, whose leadoff hitter was Rickey Henderson. Because the Mets embraced the Century 21 promotional weirdness like no other team (as if you’ve forgotten, it was Turn The Clock Ahead Night, allegedly to 2021), Rickey was portrayed on DiamondVision with three eyes.
The third was in his forehead.
Rickey didn’t care for three eyes. Rickey didn’t care for the Space Age togs either: “We’ll look like Bozo the Clown out there.” Rickey went 0-for-3 in the Mercury Mets’ only game ever, a 5-1 loss to the earthbound Bucs (winning pitcher Kris Benson, losing pitcher Orel Hershiser; the two would meet again with far more celestial stakes in the balance that October 3). Rickey departed Mercury in a double-switch, replaced by Melvin Mora…something else Rickey eventually wouldn’t care for. But Rickey, at 40, was vintage Rickey for the New York Mets in 1999. As Dave Anderson noted in the Times after the original Futures game, he was as hot as the planet closest to the sun, “playing lately as if he would still be leading off in 2021.”
Rickey being Rickey, that didn’t last. Oh, the numbers held steady through 1999. He was batting .315 when the Mercury Mets burned up on re-entry, and he was batting .315 when the season was over. On October 4, in the Mets’ final regular-season game of the 20th century, Rickey led off, singled and scored on Edgardo Alfonzo’s home run. Just like that, the Mets led the Reds 2-0 in the play-in that would determine the National League Wild Card. Rickey added a homer of his own in the fifth, extending Al Leiter’s lead to 4-0. The Mets would win 5-0, go the playoffs and Rickey would shine…for a while.
There are two realities to Rickey Henderson’s lone October with the Mets.
He was brilliant.
He was maddening.
In four games against the Diamondbacks in the League Division Series, Rickey came to the plate 18 times, walked three times and collected six singles. That’s a .500 on base percentage. He scored five runs in four games. He attempted six steals and he was successful six times. Six stolen bases are a division series record. That’s the Rickey Henderson the Mets signed. Rickey was the leadoff hitter in 1999 who the Mets lacked in 1998 when Brian McRae, Tony Phillips and eleven others proved unequal to the task. The task of leading off was invented to be carried out by Rickey Henderson. In his 21st season in the majors, Rickey did what Rickey always did: he got on (.423 OBP), he stole (37 times) and he scored (89 runs in 121 games). When MLB rolled out as many of its living hundred candidates for the All-Century Team at the 1999 All-Star Game, two of the honorees wore a Mets cap: Tom Seaver and Rickey Henderson. Rickey was already a legend. He was brilliant.
It was in the fouth game of the Arizona series, however, when the Mets were reminded of the mixed bag that was Rickey Henderson. With Leiter cradling a 2-1 lead starting the eighth inning of the potential LDS clincher, Bobby Valentine opted for younger legs and better arm for defense in left, removing Henderson (who had made the last out of the seventh) for Mora. Word was Rickey didn’t like being removed from such a tight and important affair. It wasn’t a big deal in the aftermath of what immediately became known as the Todd Pratt Game — Mora’s peg to nail Jay Bell at the plate to end the eighth was also one of many details glossed over in the shadow of a walkoff series-winning homer — but it was another sign of Rickey being Rickey, and not in the positive sense. Rickey had taken his time at a couple of inopportune junctures during the season. He turned a triple into a double on the Jack Murphy Stadium basepaths in August; he did not try particularly hard to beat out a DP grounder at the Vet in September. Now he was said to be sulking. That’s the Rickey who came with an expiration date, as if there was only so much good to be tapped from his brilliance before it and he soured. He was brilliant. But he was maddening.
The two realities of Rickey manifested themselves in the greatest game any Mets team ever lost or maybe even played, the 10-9 defeat to the Braves in the sixth game of the 1999 National League Championship Series. Henderson was at the heart of the comeback that erased Leiter’s first-inning meltdown (six up, six on, down five). Trailing 7-3 in the top of the seventh, with John Smoltz on to presumably seal the pennant, Rickey doubled home Matt Franco from second; he moved to third on an Alfonzo flyout; he scored on a John Olerud single to make it 7-5. The next batter was Mike Piazza and the next thing Smoltz knew, it was 7-7. The 1999 Mets, a team that personified the impossible comeback, had just come back from impossible circumstances. They tied the Braves.
Who on Earth (or Mercury) with any kind of connection to the Mets could take his two (or three) eyes off this kind of game?
Rickey Henderson, that’s allegedly who. After trotting to his position for the bottom of the eighth, he was pulled in a double-switch, with the Mets at last leading by a run. Rickey wasn’t having it. He was off to the clubhouse, allegedly offended that in an even tighter, even more important affair than the Todd Pratt Game, Bobby decided he didn’t need Rickey. What followed would be the alleged card game heard ’round the world, the Mets pouring their heart out on Ted Turner’s field, Rickey Henderson allegedly playing hearts with Bobby Bonilla.
This was a detail that wouldn’t be glossed over as the Mets went down scuffling in the eleventh inning. Rickey was no longer eligible to play once he was removed. That’s baseball. Keith Hernandez, who was technically still in the game when he made the second out of tenth inning of the the sixth game of the 1986 World Series, made his way to Davey Johnson’s office for one of Gussie Busch’s beverages. While Keith drank and sighed, a rally started. He and those who joined him wouldn’t leave. They couldn’t leave. It’s part of Met lore that Keith and the boys stayed in the manager’s office for luck. It worked. (If Buckner had successfully picked up Mookie’s grounder and beaten him to the bag, forcing an eleventh inning, one can only speculate about what the Mets first baseman, having hit the ol’ Budweiser in the bottom of the tenth, would have done on a little dribbler up the first base line.) Rickey, who has never actually announced his retirement, also retired to the clubhouse amid postseason tension and drama. In one telling of the story, he swears he had the TV tuned to the game and was cheering on “Dotey” (Octavio Dotel, one assumes). Other accounts had him and Bonilla dealing away, oblivious to the action outside and pissing off everybody trudging in from the wars once Kenny Rogers did what he did. Was Rickey being quirky? Or was Rickey being incredibly self-absorbed and unbelieveably unprofessional? It’s all alleged to this day, so maybe it’s all moot.
Rickey was Rickey then and Rickey was Rickey the following season, though not for as long. He turned a triple into a single against the Marlins and everybody had seen enough Rickey. Rickey Henderson would become the only 2000 Met to not recieve a National League championship ring. Even Ryan McGuire (one game in June) was ringed. When the Padres, Rickey’s team du mois in May 2001, came to Shea with Bobby Jones and Bubba Trammell in tow, those two former Mets were presented with their celebratory jewelry. Steve Phillips was asked, what about Rickey, also a Padre, also here last year? Phillips made up something about eligibility extending only to Mets who didn’t compete in the 2000 playoffs with another team. The only 2000 Met who fit that description was Rickey Henderson. Then the GM was asked, you’re still mad at Rickey for jaking it, aren’t you? Phillips said yes.
Rickey was a catalyst for the Mets as he was everywhere. He fired up the offense early and often in 1999. He fired up Roger Cedeño, teaching him several tricks of his trade well enough so Roger, no baseball genius, figured out how to harness his talents and steal a then team record 66 bags. Later, under a new regime, Rickey was forgiven past Met sins and brought in as a special instructor. He instructed Jose Reyes and Reyes began walking as the king of bases on balls instructed him. Eventually, Rickey became the Mets’ first base coach. It was fun for a while, as it was in 1999. Then it ended badly, as it did in 2000.
It ended badly for Jesse Orosco, too, at least as far as we could tell in assessing an ending point. It didn’t begin all that great in 1979 after he got Bill Buckner for that final out on Opening Day. Jesse was 21 years old and clearly not ready. He had come over as a minor leaguer from Minnesota for Jerry Koosman in December ’78. Nobody would have guessed how they’d be linked by one mound and two final outs less than eight years later. Jesse was a Met in ’79 because management was too cheap to employ veterans. Alas, it was too early for Jesse. He failed as a reliever and didn’t do any better as a starter, which he was in his final 1979 appearance against the Reds. In the last inning he pitched for New York that season, the first batter he faced was Ray Knight, the baserunner Jesse drove home with his final-ever RBI. But that, like the Koosman linkage, was far off. Knight singled on June 11, 1979, and three batters later, Jesse was a Tidewater Tide.
He’d stay Virginian for another two years until a September callup when the Mets were involved in a modest travesty known as the second-half pennant race of 1981. That was the year of the strike and resulting split season. The Mets didn’t win the second-half pennant race, but it wasn’t Jesse’s fault. Most notably, he pitched in the last tie the Mets ever played, a 2-2 deadlock at Shea on October 1 versus the Cubs in which he faced former Met Steve Henderson, future Met Pat Tabler and, yup, Bill Buckner.
Jesse wasn’t much good as 1982 unfurled but George Bamberger stuck with him and Jesse became, by year’s end, the only Met who seemed to improve. He succeeded Neil Allen (traded for Hernandez) as closer in ’83 and absolutely blossomed under Frank Howard of all people. He was an All-Star, he was third in the Cy Young voting, he was almost unstoppable. When the Mets commenced to contending in ’84, Jesse’s 31 saves (a franchise best until 1990) were as key as anything else. He was an All-Star for the second time…and the last time despite pitching 19 more seasons.
The worm began to turn in ’85. He was still the closer of record, but closing for the Mets, as seems a requrement of the position, eventually becomes an adventure. The Shea crowd grew impatient. Jesse may have been beloved for what he did in October of ’86 — three wins in the NLCS and the save of saves in the World Series — but he was booed heavily in September of ’86 for blowing a ninth-inning lead to the Expos in a game so crucial that, combined with a Phillie loss the same evening, it kept the Mets’ divisional lead at a paltry 21…with 24 to play.
By 1987, Jesse Orosco was a precursor to Armando Benitez and Aaron Heilman. Mets fans didn’t trust him despite what he’d done in the immediate past and what he was still doing now and then. Unlike the previous jubilant autumn, Jesse’s glove wasn’t the object that flew high in the air until it disappeared from view in ’87. A 3-9 record, a 4.44 ERA and a season-killing home run to Luis Aguayo meant a change of scenery was in order. That December, Jesse was sent to the Dodgers where he spent another championship season (one whose road wound straight through Shea Stadium). Then it would be off to the American League where his career underwent a kind of suspended animation. He’d become the lefty specialist. He’d have things to do, just not very many of them. After 1990 he would never again accumulate more innings than appearances in a single season. His job was to get the lefty out. He did it well enough so that there was always work. On August 17, 1999, Jesse entered a major league game for the 1,072nd time, surpassing Hall of Famer Eckersley who had, three years earlier, surpassed Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm. The Orioles gave him the mini-Ripken treatment, counting off his march to the mark on the Camden Yards warehouse.
Then four months later, on December 10, they packed him up and shipped him off to the Mets for Chuck McElroy.
It had been twelve years since Luis Aguayo, but nobody held that against Jesse Orosco any longer. It had been thirteen years since he struck out Marty Barrett, hit those knees, tossed that glove, hugged that Kid who caught his last strike. All hadn’t been right with the world since October 27, 1986, since Jesse Orosco was closing games for the Mets. Of course it would be a treat to have him back. He had stopped by for an Interleague matchup in ’98 and his Oriole uniform hadn’t prevented a warm ovation from ensuing. Now he’d be on our side. If, at 42, he could neutralize a lefty or two, all the better.
Jesse was wearing No. 47 again. He was introduced at the same press luncheon that gave us Mike Hampton, Derek Bell and that extra Bobby Jones we never quite knew what to do with. It was true, Jesse Orosco from the 1986 Mets was going to be Jesse Orosco on the 2000 Mets.
My mind raced. Jesse Orosco…
Threw that final pitch to Gary Carter. Carter was retired.
Struck out Marty Barrett. Barrett was retired.
Struck out Kevin Bass. Bass was retired.
His infield of record — Ray Knight, Rafael Santana, Wally Backman and Keith Hernandez — had been gone from active duty since 1993. His bullpen buddies Sisk and McDowell were through. So was Sid Fernandez. So was Ron Darling.
My mind raced some more. Jesse Orosco…
He had beaten Ripken to the majors. He had beaten another O’s teammate, Harold Baines, to the majors. Baines had been a star in Chicago, was traded away, had his number retired, came back and moved on. Yet Jesse had been around longer than Harold Baines. And Harold Baines was freaking ancient by December 1999. The man had his uniform number retired by the White Sox already!
He predated and outlasted all kinds of professional sports stars. Dan Marino, John Elway, that whole quarterbacking class of ’83 — all done by the time Jesse would report for Spring Training. Phil Simms…boy, Phil Simms was part of my life forever, from the Sunday in eleventh grade when he took over the Giants QB job until the 49ers ended his career fifteen Januarys later. Jesse was a pro in New York before Simms and was still around long after Simms had become a broadcaster. Joe Montana began quarterbacking in the NFL the same year as Simms. That, too, was after Jesse. And he was also history by 2000.
He was in the process of making the 1979 Mets on March 26 while two schoolboys named Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were competing for the college basketball championship. Ten days after their big dance, Jesse was inducing a harmless fly ball from Bill Buckner. Johnson and Bird wouldn’t join the NBA for many more months. And they’d be done playing well before Jesse’s second tour of duty as a Met would begin.
He was a Met before there was a Stanley Cup on Long Island. Before the WHA was absorbed by the NHL. Before there were New Jersey Devils. Before all that, there was Jesse Orosco of the New York Mets.
He was a Met when no one outside of Arkansas knew of the boy wonder of politics, 32-year-old governor Bill Clinton. He was a Met when George W. Bush, also 32, was 0-1 in elections, having lost a congressional race in Texas the previous November. In December 1999, Bill was president, George was a frontrunner and Jesse was a Met for the second time.
He was a Met when disco had yet to encounter a demolition night, when there were piña coladas but no “Piña Colada Song,” when the greatest hits of the ’70s were still being compiled. Jesse was giving up hits while ABBA was still making them. Now Mamma Mia! was playing in London and Jesse was preparing to pitch just off Broadway.
But enough distractions. The mind raced back to baseball.
How many Rookies of the Year had come along and hung ’em up between Jesse’s first and next pitch? Had anybody heard from Ron Kittle lately? Steve Sax? Todd Worrell? Joe Charboneau? The dreaded Vince Coleman? Not by 1999 they hadn’t.
How many Cy Youngs? How many MVPs? And how many 21st century Mets were going to be able to say the following?
I played with Ed Kranepool.
Jesse Orosco’s first year as a Met was Ed Kranepool’s last. Ed Kranepool played for the Mets in 1962. Ed Kranepool played on the same team as Gil Hodges. Gil Hodges broke in as a Brooklyn Dodger before Jackie Robinson. Jesse Orosco played with a guy who played with a guy who entered baseball when it was segregated, for crissake.
Jesse Orosco played with a guy who was managed by Casey Stengel. Casey Stengel was managed by John McGraw. John McGraw kind of invented baseball.
Jesse Orosco had his first major league paycheck signed off on by somebody whose last name was DeRoulet. When Jesse Orosco warmed up, he could smell whatever Mettle the Mule left on the warning track. His exploits (Jesse’s, not the mule’s) were described by Steve Albert. He had to avoid tripping over the lifeless body of Richie Hebner to get to his locker.
And he played with Ed Kranepool. Jesse Orosco was a 1979 Met in the year 2000…a Millennium Met to be.
Then, faster than you could say “Y2K,” he wasn’t. Steve Phillips traded him to St. Louis on March 18 for Joe McEwing. Just like that, all my dreams of Jesse Orosco striding the Met annals in a fashion that truly transcended time were over. McEwing turned out to be a nice utilityman for a couple of years. Jesse, just by making it to 2000 as a Met, was going to be enormous.
And he would have played alongside Rickey Henderson until May 13 when the Mets released Rickey. But it didn’t happen. So we have to settle for two extremely long, extremely accomplished careers. I’ve detailed many of Jesse’s highlights, not so many of Rickey’s. You won’t need me for that. Rickey will be well spoken for Sunday. He was maddening, but he was brilliant and he leads the known universe in being both…along with runs and steals. Of course he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, cards or not.
Their careers spanned 25 seasons. They played for nine teams apiece, four of them in common, including the Mets. They just missed being teammates. And they faced one another, pitcher vs. hitter, only six times. How did that go?
Rickey Henderson went 1-for-5 with a walk against Jesse Orosco between 1989 and 1997, never facing him more than once in any individual season. His one hit came on May 5, 1991. Jesse’s Indians were beating Rickey’s A’s 15-4 when the Cleveland manager decided to give his lefty some work. He retired the first two batters. Up stepped Rickey, who lined a single to center. He didn’t steal, however. He didn’t have to. The next batter brought him home with a long home run over the Oakland Coliseum center field fence.
That batter was Dave Henderson, the same batter who put the Red Sox up 4-3 in the tenth inning of Game Six by homering off Rick Aguilera five years earlier.
And Jesse’s manager that Sunday in Oakland when the Tribe prevailed 15-6? None other than onetime Boston skipper John McNamara, the man who left Bill Buckner in to play first base on two bad legs after Dave Henderson seemed to have won the 1986 World Series for the Red Sox.
Did I mention the first Oakland batter Jesse faced in that 1991 inning was Walt Weiss, the Braves’ shortsop in the sixth game of the ’99 NLCS, the same night Rickey allegedly sulked and played hearts in the clubhouse with Bobby Bonilla? Or that the pitcher who closed out the first game Rickey ever played, a loss to the Rangers, was Jim Kern, the same Jim Kern who gave up a home run to Lee Mazzilli in that year’s All-Star Game? That’s the same Lee Mazzilli who played with Jesse Orosco in 1979 and again in 1986. Mazzilli played with Ed Kranepool, too, but didn’t last nearly as long as Jesse or Rickey.
Not too many did.
Rickey, Jesse and more Mets than you could shake a stick at — which is a strange phrase, actually — make themselves felt in 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.
Get a little 1969 flavor from Will Sommer’s interview with the greatest Met not named Rickey Henderson or Willie Mays to wear No. 24, Art Shamsky at Mets Fans Forever. And experience that Metsapalooza feeling all over again when Section 528 grabs a seat at Amazin’ Tuesday and tells you all about it.