One of your Mets trivia staples is, “Name the Mets players who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.” For the longest time, you had but four names to memorize if you wanted to answer in full:
• Yogi Berra, inducted 1972
• Warren Spahn, 1973
• Willie Mays, 1979
• Duke Snider, 1980
You understood each of these men were Hall of Fame Mets only because they played here after establishing their Hall of Fame bona fides elsewhere. Yogi Berra, dubbed the “Eternal Yankee,” by Allen Barra, had all of nine at-bats as a Met before re-retiring to serve as Casey Stengel’s first base coach in 1965. Warren Spahn spent only the first half of his final season, also ’65, as a Met starter; the longtime Brave finished up in San Francisco. Willie Mays gave Joan Payson the gift of almost two seasons back in New York in 1972 and ’73, and while he made an indelible impression, his Cooperstown credentials were secured as a Giant. Similar circumstances surrounded the Met tenure of signature Brooklyn Dodger Duke Snider, a Met mostly for sentimentality’s sake in 1963 (who, like Spahn, bolted to the Coast to end his career with the Giants).
We were along for the ride on their induction days. Berra was managing the Mets when he went in and Mays was in his sixth season as a Mets coach, so their hoopla wasn’t completely foreign to us, but they weren’t Hall of Fame Mets players. They were Hall of Fame players who had been Mets.
We knew we’d get one who was truly our own once Tom Seaver spent five full seasons retired from baseball — and we did. In January 1992, we got the news that 98.8% of Hall of Fame voters voted Seaver in the first chance they got. The five Baseball Writers Association of America members (of 430 voting) who didn’t check off Seaver? There were three, I think, who said they’d never select anybody on the first ballot and two older gentlemen who copped to missing Seaver’s name altogether and felt embarrassed by it.
After Seaver, it was back to trivia. Richie Ashburn became the first Met voted in by the Veterans Committee, in 1995. Like the pre-Seaver inductees, Ashburn was a Met at the end of the line, though he was, by the standards of 1962, the first good Met. Still, he was a Hall of Famer because of what he’d done as a Phillie. In 1999, Nolan Ryan became the second player inducted who had started his career as a Met. Unlike Seaver, however, his career wasn’t defined by his Mets days.
The eighth and ninth Mets went into the Hall together, in 2003. Eddie Murray was from the old school: in because he stood out as something else (an Oriole), a Met mostly in the just-passing-through sense. Gary Carter, on the other hand, became the first Met in the Hall who can be said to have burnished his credentials as a Met. He established them as an Expo, but raised his profile with us, particularly by being — judged on camera time — the face of the franchise when the Mets were at their most visible in the mid-’80s. Carter’s the second Met whose NEW YORK, N.L. line on his plaque isn’t incidental.
Rickey Henderson was elected last year, the tenth Met player in the Hall of Fame and the fifth, following Mays, Seaver, Ryan and Carter, to appear with the Mets in the postseason, indicating his stay with us was more than a footnote. But Henderson’s Mets time was a season-plus in a career that spanned four different decades. We weren’t his first team, we weren’t his last team. We’re a line on his résumé, mostly, and he’s a tenth of our trivia answer.
This afternoon, there will likely be an eleventh component to, “Name the Mets players who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame,” when Roberto Alomar is presumably announced as heading the class of 2010. Should it happen, then his plaque will — below a recitation of his many accomplishments as the game’s premier second baseman — note he was a member of NEW YORK, N.L. in 2002-2003.
If it were up to me, they’d cut off his plaque at 2001.
I saw nothing that made me think I was watching a Hall of Fame player when Roberto Alomar was a Met. If they gave me a ballot for this election, I’d have sent it back to the BBWAA blank because the only reason I’d want to vote would be to not vote for Alomar…at least not the Alomar I watched give it his none for a season-and-a-half. And unlike those two guys who missed Seaver, I wouldn’t be embarrassed by it at all.
If they gave me a ballot with two Roberto Alomars, the one who excelled from 1987 through 2001 and the one who came to the Mets and completely imploded, I’d happily vote for the first Alomar. That guy was a lock Hall of Famer. I didn’t watch him every day when he was a Padre, Blue Jay, Oriole and Indian, but I was familiar with his work. It was stellar and deserving of all the praise that will be heaped on him today.
But I’m not terribly interested in the Roberto Alomar from before 2002. He was just some superstar on some other teams. He became my baseball concern when he became a Met, and when he became a Met, he practically vanished from the face of the Earth.
I’m fine with Yogi Berra’s NEW YORK, N.L. His nine at-bats (two hits) were understood in their time as an emergency cameo. Berra had been hired to coach or publicity’s sake and because of Stengel’s high regard for his baseball acumen. After he hung up his chest protector for good, Berra went right back to coaching full-time. He spent nearly eleven seasons in a Mets uniform, before and after his induction into Cooperstown. There’s nothing wrong with Yogi Berra being thought of, however fleetingly, as a Hall of Fame Met.
I’m fine with Warren Spahn’s NEW YORK, N.L. Serving as pitching coach and regular starter, Spahn stormed from the gate, at 44, in 1965. He registered two complete game victories in April, and by early May was 2-2 with a 2.83 ERA for a still-horrendous Mets club. Eventually age and stubbornness caught up with him and, refusing assignment to the bullpen, he was released in July. Shea was only a stopover, but there’s nothing wrong with Warren Spahn being thought of, also fleetingly, as a Hall of Fame Met.
I’m fine with Ashburn and Snider in this regard, too. They were our 1962 and 1963 All-Stars, respectively. Snider (14 homers) wasn’t the happiest of Met campers, and Ashburn’s sense of irony at being the best player (.306 average) on the world’s worst club told him it was time to call it a career after one year. But they have their positive places in team history. There’s nothing wrong thinking of Richie Ashburn and Duke Snider as Hall of Fame Mets.
Willie Mays wasn’t an unvarnished vase full of roses as a Met. He could be choosy about when would play (his presence hastened the departure of Tommie Agee) but when he did play, he was still, as much as he could be, Willie Mays. You know he hit a home run in his first game back in New York to beat his old team for his new team; you might know he drove in a crucial run in the deciding game of the 1973 NLCS while scoring another; and I hope you’ve seen at least part of his “Say Goodbye to America” farewell at Shea (echoed the following week at a valedictory press conference). What may have been most life-affirming about Willie Mays as a Met is he was still playing the game mentally as he always had physically. which transcended the village limits of Cooperstown. Take Ira Berkow’s 2001 remembrance of how he played it in just another game in 1973.
Well, let me tell you about the greatest play in baseball I ever saw — or thought I saw. Few recall it, though it was probably the greatest play Johnny Oates, a second-string catcher and later a big league manager, also ever saw — or thought he saw.
Oates was the hapless catcher in the play, which was executed by the wondrous and wily Willie Mays, who incidentally, is in the news, being frequently lauded by his godson, the basher Barry Bonds.
I was reminded of the play at the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Cooperstown last weekend when I saw Mays. I had wondered what he saw on that play — if he even remembered — it being so subtle, so long ago and his career so crammed with highlights.
The play was not, to be sure, the famous, stupendous back-to-the-plate catch in center field off the Vic Wertz drive in the 1954 World Series, or any other of Mays’s acclaimed swats or snares.
It took place when Mays was a Met, in a Saturday afternoon game at Shea Stadium in July 1973. The great Say Hey Kid was no longer a kid, and no longer even greeting people with, ”Say hey.” Mays was then 42, and in the 22nd and last season of his brilliant, Hall-of-Fame career.
In my mind’s eye, sitting in the press box that day, this was the situation:
Close game. I forget the opponent. Late innings. Mays is on second base. The batter — don’t remember who — drives a hit to right field. Normally, the runner would score from second fairly easily, but this is no ordinary runner. Mays seems to trudge around third, like, well, an old man, and heads home, cap still on head — remember, in his heyday the cap used to fly off his noggin as if he were in a wind tunnel. The right fielder winds up to fire the ball to the plate, certain to nail Methuselah Mays. But incredibly, Mays picks up steam and there he is racing to the plate like, well, the Say Hey Kid!
He beats the throw and is safe at home. Not only that, but because he drew the throw to the plate, the batter is able to go to second, sitting there now in scoring position.
In an instant, Mays had craftily set the whole thing up in his marvelous baseball brain. He obviously had run slowly at first to draw the throw, knowing all along he could make it home.
For me, there is nothing quite as exciting in sports as watching a player — particularly an aging veteran— use his experience, his intelligence and his considerable if waning skills to accomplish something remarkable under pressure.
One hesitates to use the word genius in such endeavors — especially with such folks as Einstein, Picasso, Freud and Frost looking from the stands — but in my view certain athletes performing certain feats may indeed possess a kind of genius.
Some three decades later I recalled the play to Mays, describing it as I remembered it. Did he remember it?
”Absolutely,” he said, in that familiar high-pitched voice. ”It was against the Braves. But there’s more to it. See, I was on second base and Felix Millan was a runner on first. Ralph Garr was in right field. But not only did I score, I slid into the catcher — it was Johnny Oates — and I pinned him to the ground so Millan could score, too.”
I didn’t remember the pinning business, so I later called Oates, at his home in Virginia. ”I always tell that story at banquets,” Oates said. ”It was the smartest play I’ve ever seen, and an embarrassing one for me.”
I told Oates what Willie told me.
“I was under the impression that it was a sacrifice fly,” Oates said. ”And I don’t remember him on top of me. He made a perfect slide and took my legs out from under me. My recollection is that I wound up on top of him. But definitely we were lying on the plate, and somehow Willie wouldn’t let me get up. The throw went over my head, and the runner behind him did indeed score — how he found the plate with us lying on it I don’t know.”
To check further for details, I called the Elias Sports Bureau, located in Manhattan, the record keeper for Major League Baseball. Elias confirmed the play essentially the way Mays remembered it, with him and Millan scoring on a hit by Wayne Garrett.
Seaver’s Met HOF credentials need no introduction. Nor Carter’s. Ryan was an integral piece of the 1969 World Champions. Henderson was the catalyst for the 1999 playoff club. Eddie Murray wasn’t particularly pleasant to the outside world as a Met in 1992 and 1993, and his Mets teams were rancid and then some, but he drove in 93 and 100 runs, respectively, and was generally vouched for as a veteran leader among his teammates.
Does any of the above sound like Roberto Alomar as a Met? Did anybody say nice things about his clubhouse presence? Were his intangibles on display? His tangibles certainly weren’t. He carried what appeared to be an air of indifference onto the field and it translated into his performance. From April 1, 2002 until his July 1, 2003 trade to the White Sox, he put up distressingly subpar numbers — certainly below the standards he set when earning the Hall of Fame votes he will surely collect.
It’s all right for a veteran to fall off. It was disturbing to see Alomar fall so far so fast in 2002 since he was in a Mets uniform while plunging, but it happens. Snider and Spahn ran out of gas, too, But you can be more than your numbers. Mays, by key accounts, was. Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Tug McGraw all credited Mays — despite the lingering image of him falling down and missing fly balls in the sun-drenched Oakland Coliseum outfield — as a big influence on their ’73 pennant run that brought them to the World Series. Snider attempted to mentor a young Ed Kranepool. McGraw said Spahn helped straighten out his wayward ways when he was a rookie. Ashburn is widely renowned as the soul of the ’62 team — he midwifed the legend of Marvelous Marv Throneberry, no small task it its time.
My memory could be foggy, but I don’t remember Roberto Alomar accomplishing anything of substance or style as a Met. He exhibited lackadaisicalness and, at best, emitted disinterest. He got off to a slow start and struggled from there. Off the field? We only know what we read and hear, but this, from William Berlind, writing in the New York Times Magazine in 2002, stays with me:
Next to Piazza, Alomar is also getting changed, but they don’t say anything to each other, not even hello. Alomar has been a perennial All-Star second baseman, and the Mets expected him to become a significant part of the team, another star to pair with Piazza. Alomar lives alone in a Long Island City condo, and whenever he gets a chance, he flies back to his home in Cleveland, which is crammed with posters and paintings of himself. Earlier in the season, outfielder Roger Cedeño tracked down a picture of Alomar’s rookie baseball card and taped it up in his locker. When he saw it, Alomar flipped, and they nearly came to blows in the dugout before the game.
Alomar was supposed to be Piazza’s co-equal in 2002. He was going to help lead the team back to prominence after a mediocre 2001. He did no such thing. He didn’t do it as a second baseman, as a hitter, as a future Hall of Famer. Lots of players let down the 2002 Mets. None was a bigger downer than Alomar.
My partner nailed all of this four years ago when he consigned Roberto Alomar to the Eighth Circle of Mets Hell:
In 2002 he hit .266, drove in 53 runs and stole 16 bases. Mediocre numbers, but rarely has a player shown so little in achieving mediocrity. Shea Stadium didn’t seem to agree with him: There were mutterings (always secondhand) that he was dismayed to see previous years’ home runs turn into flyouts, that he was miffed to find Shea’s thick grass turning ground-ball hits into 5-3s and 6-3s and 3-1s. Maybe that was the explanation for his mulish insistence on dropping down bunt after bunt, regardless of whether or not the situation called for one. And then plenty of times Alomar would snatch defeat from the jaws of questionable ideas, turning potential bunt hits, however ill-conceived, into outs by trying to dive head-first into first base.
In the field, that Gold Glove turned into pyrite. Balls that he snapped up in San Diego and Toronto and Baltimore and Cleveland skittered by him, but the worst thing was watching him turn the pivot. One of the most-acrobatic second basemen in the history of the game had turned into Gregg Jefferies: He’d take throws from shortstop with his rear end heading for left-center, shot-putting a lollipop throw that would float into the first baseman’s glove or bounce into it after the batter crossed first. It happened again and again and again, as Met announcers wondered what was going on and the boos came down from the stands.
But surely a lock for Cooperstown made his teammates better with his intangibles? Ha ha ha. Alomar sulked about being moving around in the batting order and took such umbrage to needling about his rookie card from Roger Cedeño (who may not be able to play baseball but has always been hailed as a prince of a guy) that Mo Vaughn had to intervene in the dugout in front of TV, God and everyone. Then in April 2003 he was part of the double-play tandem that blamed Jae Seo — a rookie — for the well-coiffed, Bentley-driving Rey Sanchez’s failure to cover the bag against the Expos. That’s veteran leadership! (Given that Jose Reyes’ first two double-play mates and counselors were Alomar and Sanchez, it’s a testament to his character that he isn’t Maurice Clarett.)
Then, in late June 2003, a miraculous thing happened. Suddenly Alomar was hanging in there on the pivot. Suddenly plays not made for a season and a half were being made. Suddenly he looked like…well, suddenly he looked like Roberto Alomar. The source of this miracle? The Mets were openly shopping him on the trade market. (Talk about testaments to character.) When Alomar was sent to the White Sox, he departed without mentioning the mysterious Other Roberto Alomar: “I didn’t feel real comfortable with the situation. Sometimes teams don’t work for you. I think the New York Mets weren’t the right team for me.”
Of course, sometimes players don’t work for teams. Gary Cohen, witnessing the Miracle of Robbie, turned the blowtorch on, offering a furious, dead-on indictment of his halfhearted play and famously calling him a disgrace. The response from Alomar (who was honoring the White Sox by showing actual interest in the game he was paid millions to play) was to boycott the New York media. “I heard the tape,” he said of Cohen, adding that “I did the best I could. It just didn’t work out. But to say I was a disgrace or I didn’t play hard, I don’t understand that.”
Amen to Jason’s summation. And shame on Alomar still not copping to being such an immense non-entity across nine months of Metsdom. Just the other day, he told Tyler Kepner of the Times, “A ballplayer doesn’t make excuses. In New York, I don’t think we all clicked together as a team. If we would have clicked as a team, maybe we would have done a little bit better. There were a lot of big expectations from Day 1. We played good in spring training, but when it was time to play during the season, we didn’t play good, we didn’t pitch good, and we didn’t hit good. You can’t win games like that.”
Sounds like an excuse/alibi to me.
It’s not a crime to come to the Mets and play baseball badly. (Imagine how overcrowded our prison system would be if it were.) But playing as badly as Alomar did, and showing as little as Alomar did is going to make me think twice about punching his ticket to the Hall of Fame. His time here wasn’t a Yogiesque walk-on. He came here to be the center of the team. He drifted offstage instead. There was no evidence of a Hall of Famer in either his conduct or his results.
It doesn’t mean I wish him ill in any way. I just don’t want to bestow on him the highest honor baseball has. He lost that in my eyes.
I understand that the Hall of Fame does not induct only on what a player does as a New York Met. My eyes watched Alomar most closely as a Met, but I’m not blind to his career before 2002. I comprehend his previous accomplishments as sizable, but they were disembodied from what I saw and was passionate about. From my reading about them, I can see why Berra, Spahn, Ashburn and Snider were held in fairly high regard as Mets en route to the Hall of Fame despite their not playing at that caliber as Mets. From my watching them, I could see why Mays, Murray and Henderson, while no longer shining as they did earlier in their careers, were Mets on their way to the Hall — the vestigial greatness within each of them would still reveal itself in flickering flashes and medium doses. I can remember Ryan as a youngster and can make out, in hindsight, the outlines of his greatness to come. I was privileged enough to enjoy Seaver across his prime and Carter before his waned. Those were Mets who were Hall of Famers as Mets, to be sure.
Someday I’ll say the same of Mike Piazza. I’ll say it of Pedro Martinez and even T#m Gl@v!ne, to some degree, because I was able to discern why they were considered the stars they were before they got here, and marveled at how well they continued to ply their craft (at times) even as their skills diminished. I’d go as far to swear that if Hall of Fame membership were based solely on the ability to steal bases, I’d support Vince Coleman’s induction, because amid all his myriad Mets Hell nonsense, he showed off his once-awesome base-theft ability pretty well his first Met year (even if what he ultimately stole, mostly, was money).
I never saw anything in Roberto Alomar, as a Met, that suggested to me, without knowing what he did before he got here, why he’d ever be considered a Hall of Famer for anybody. Let others whose eyes fixed on him from 1987 to 2001 consider him an indisputable Hall of Famer and celebrate his imminent induction.
I’ll just look at NEW YORK, N.L. 2002-2003 and see nothing more than trivia.
ADDENDUM: Son of a gun, Roberto Alomar didn’t get in after all. Just as with us in advance of the 2002 season, I guess this proves you can’t always count on receiving what you expect.
Also entering the Hall this summer with a blue and orange pedigree of sorts (via the Veterans Committee) is Whitey Herzog, former archnemesis when he managed the Cardinals, but quite an important figure in building the first championship Mets club. For more on the Rat from before he was such a rodent, check out Jim Burns (James H. Burns) in the Village Voice and Mark of Mets Walkoffs.