Two annual rituals of the baseball season cross paths in the middle of every Met June: the instinctive recollection of monumental trades that took place this time of year in years gone by and the reappearance, via clever scheduling nobody asked for, of former friends and foes who now wear American League garb. It seems that this year has given us cause to do both simultaneously.
For example, whatever became of that center fielder we traded for in the middle of June 1989…you know, the guy who used to be good for the Phillies and was abysmal for us and cost us two key players from our fairly recent world championship team? Yeah, right — Juan Samuel. Whatever happened to that guy?
He’s managing the Baltimore Orioles, you probably noticed over the weekend as the Mets began their yearly obligation of gracing junior circuit venues with their stylish presence and jaunty play (a half-game out of first, we can afford to be upbeat). I don’t know how much managing ol’ Sammy is actually doing, however. When you’re the interim skipper of a ship that’s 29 games under .500, and your charges, based on what we witnessed at Camden Yards, do not give off the impression that they are in any way managed, you’re less major league manager than substitute teacher. (Mr. Trembley doesn’t make us take a pitch!)
Still, good to drop in on Juan Samuel as long as he’s not patrolling center at Shea in the mind’s eye. As a Met center fielder, Samuel was a heckuva Phillie second baseman. History tells us trading Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell for Juan Samuel was a disaster, though if you’re willing to read the chapter from before June 18, 1989, you’d be reminded Juan Samuel was a hellacious offensive force from 1984 to 1987…primarily on Astroturf. It just didn’t work for him on grass or in New York. But at least his failed tenure served as a cautionary tale against acquiring players whose entire careers were based on the ball skittering across the most synthetic of carpets. If we hadn’t learned our lesson with Juan Samuel, then we might have done something really stupid, like sign Vince Coleman to a long-term contract a little over a year after we got rid of Samuel.
Anyway, there was Samuel in Oriole threads, summoning the ghosts of disappointing 1989, and there were two other O’s bringing up images of a more recent and far worse season, 2003. That’s the year that felt over barely after it literally began. Who could forget that most frigid Opening Day when that lefty from the Braves mysteriously wandered onto the Shea mound and gave up five runs in fewer than four innings? Can’t remember the name of the Met starting pitcher from that day, but I do remember the opposing center fielder who drove in 7 of the runs the Chicago Cubs would score in their 15-2 rout. It was Corey Patterson. Man, what a game Patterson had on Opening Day 2003. And since?
Turns out he’s a 2010 Oriole. Who knew?
I suppose on some level I knew Corey Patterson hasn’t been keeping Tuffy Rhodes company in Japan. I knew Corey Patterson’s major league career wasn’t — as Rhodes’s essentially was — limited to one Opening Day Cubbiefied bashing of the Mets (though we won Tuffy’s). But I can’t say I’d kept up on his comings and goings. From the looks of how Corey Patterson plays baseball in Baltimore, it seems accurate to say he hasn’t really kept up with hitting and fielding, but that’s Juan Samuel’s interim problem, not ours.
Patterson is keeping company with an eclectic mix of Orioles. Teams whose records are 18-47 can be described as eclectic when you want to be nice and not call them motley. And who wouldn’t want to be nice to the Orioles’ first baseman? Why yes, that was 2003 Met third baseman Ty Wigginton we saw holding down first at Camden Yards, trying to keep it from blowing away with the rest of that perpetually downtrodden franchise.
Wigginton’s name came up twice directly before our layover in Charm City. Last week, on the occasion of the seventh anniversary of Jose Reyes’s callup at age 19, Gary Cohen passed along the tidbit that only two of Jose’s first 24 Met teammates were still active in the majors: Pedro Feliciano and Ty Wigginton. Hours after hearing that latest and most striking example of time flying, I was at Citi Field and noticed, as Jon Niese homed in on his one-hitter, a fan one section over from me wearing that must-have fashion accessory from the summer of 2003: the WIGGINTON 9 t-shirt.
Nowadays we like Ike. Back then we would sigh “Ty…” If his merchandise sold it was because it, like Rodney Dangerfield in his bit about what to tell pesky customers who demanded immediate service, was all alone here. Ty Wigginton in 2003 was the only mainstay those Mets had. I think of Wiggy and I think of his unbreakable determination to tame the hell out of third base. The phrase “hard-headed” comes to mind. My friend Jim thought he was a dead ringer for Sluggo, slightly skeevy, comic-strip companion of the equally creepy Nancy. To me Ty was a little more a modern take on the star of the eponymous Henry.
Either way, he wasn’t Superman. But he kept running out to his position every damn day of that endlessly damned season, crafted himself into an adequate fielder, hit what he could and, for his troubles and t-shirts, was traded before 2004 was over. Ty Wigginton, stalwart of the 2003 Mets, was made instantly obsolete by rookie third baseman David Wright. He was swapped to Pittsburgh for Kris Benson in a trade that can be said to have helped only Anna Benson.
Hard to believe Ty didn’t try Japan à la Tuffy Rhodes. Even harder to believe the Mets haven’t reacquired him. He’s been good for twenty homers a year several times on teams that had no reason to keep him around except to torture him with their futility. Wiggy’s been a Met, a Pirate, a Devil Ray, an Astro and an Oriole since debuting in 2002. He’s never been to the playoffs with any of those clubs. He’s barely been to .500 with any of those clubs. Poor Ty. I really felt bad for him over the weekend. Reyes or Wright would spend a couple of minutes as baserunners next to him, and I could swear Wiggy was asking for a good word to be put in on his behalf. Bro! Take me with you! I play like every position! I gotta be a better fit than Jesus Feliciano! If the Mets are really contenders, and we could do a Mazzilli 1986-type addition from our dark past for bench strength, who would you rather have returning for a belated soupçon of success than Ty Wigginton?
For now, he’s an Oriole, one of an eclectic flock. There’s the old Met Wigginton whose truth marches on in t-shirt form. There’s the one-day Met nemesis Patterson. And there, stoically embodying the future of the Orioles for a fifth consecutive year, is Nick Markakis. I didn’t know what Samuel or Patterson were up to until recently. I had heard Wigginton was leading the A.L. in homers early but, occasional WIGGINTON 9 sighting notwithstanding, he hadn’t been remotely top of mind. Nick Markakis, though…I’ve known about him since the middle of June 2006 when the Mets came home from their triumphant road trip and ran into a young and pugnacious Baltimore buzzsaw. The Orioles weren’t any good that year — they are not good in any year — but they gave the Mets fits in their last Shea appearance, taking two of three. In the middle of it all was Nick Markakis, with four hits and three runs. He was the “young talent” the O’s were going to build around. He’s a star by now, I would assume. I don’t know if the Baltimore Orioles have stars, but if they do, Nick Markakis must be theirs, right? He’s been there longer than Matt Wieters, he’s healthier than Brian Roberts, and he had a great weekend in 2006. That’s all I need to know.
You know who else looked good in 2006? Or was thought well of at this time four years ago? The familiar face that has popped up on the current stop of our world tour, the one belonging to Manny Acta. I must confess that although he was a part of the Metscape every day for two years, I never knew why he was considered such hot stuff. But there he is, managing Cleveland after managing Washington and holding greater job security than Juan Samuel to boot.
I’m still at a loss regarding the hot stuff reputation. The Nats hired him and he brought them home next-to-last once, very much last once and incredibly last until he was let go by a Nationals ownership group that was also left to wonder, “Why did we hire him again?” The Acta management mystique was off and running, however, and despite running Washington into the ground, he was named chief of the Tribe for 2010.
At 25-38, they don’t seem to be benefiting from his leadership.
Maybe they will. Saying I have no idea why Manny Acta was considered presidential timber cuts both ways. I’ve seen only his miserable results. Maybe there’s magic going on in the Cleveland clubhouse of which I’m not aware. Believe me, I’m going to stop paying attention to the Indians by Thursday night, so, barring an incredible turnaround, I’ll remain unaware of anything he does under the auspices of Chief Wahoo.
Actually, I do remember one thing about Manny Acta from when he was the Mets’ third base coach in 2005 and 2006, and it has nothing to do with his third base coaching. It was from the apex of Acta’s second season, the night when the Mets accomplished the most they would accomplish in ’06. New York traveled to Los Angeles and concluded a three-game sweep of the Dodgers to win the National League Division Series. First, 97 regular-season wins and a division title for the first time in eighteen years, then a playoff steamrolling. Things could have not looked or sounded better. And you know who made sure of that?
Manny Acta. Long before we ever heard of Chris Carter, this guy was apparently an animal. Who else — coach, player, manager — would have done what Manny Acta did in the jubilant Met clubhouse after Game Three of that NLDS? It made for delicious sidebar material in the midst of the celebration and it was recorded for posterity in Adam Rubin’s Pedro, Carlos & Carlos! & Omar, the dutiful and definitive 2005-06 account of what shaped up as the dawn of a glorious era of Mets baseball.
Inside the victorious clubhouse, third base coach Manny Acta led Reyes, Sanchez, Chavez and Mota in a chorus of “Meet the Mets”. Acta then proclaimed: “Party in Queens, entierro in the Bronx,” using the Spanish word for burial. “Party in Queens, entierro in the Bronx,” Reyes repeated, referring to the Yankees’ ouster in Detroit.”
I think it’s fair to say, all things being equal, that our wildest dreams involve our players and coaches loving their Metsiness enough to be found singing our theme song and gloating over the misfortune of our most bitter psychic rivals. But that’s what they are — wildest dreams. Mets singing “Meet the Mets”? Taking the time after dooming the Dodgers to bury the Yankees?
Acta shouldn’t have been made manager of the Nationals. He should have been elected Queens borough president. But, no, he was made manager of not one but two teams, neither of which have responded to his motivational genius on any tangible scale to date. Manny Acta isn’t interim in Cleveland like Juan Samuel is in Baltimore, but they do have last place in common.
That’s not the only thing they share, in a way…which brings us back to mid-June and the role this time of year plays in the Mets fan psyche.
June 15 ceased being the no-waivers trading deadline in baseball with the institution of a new Basic Agreement in 1986. By 1989, when Dykstra and McDowell were shipped to Philly without waivers on June 18, the new and (and still current) deadline was July 31. That’s when we acquired Frank Viola. The last June 15 deal the Mets made was in 1984, for Bruce Berenyi, a pitcher for the Reds. Probably a few Mets fans remember that. Probably no Mets fan, however, thinks of Bruce Berenyi when it comes to June 15 trades with the Reds.
With all due respect to Berenyi, to Donn Clendenon (1969), to Dock Ellis and Andy Hassler (1979), to Keith Hernandez (1983) even, no mention of “trade” and “June 15” elicits the seismic reaction in Mets fans as the set of swaps that went down on June 15, 1977.
The Midnight Massacre. The Wednesday Night Massacre. The End of the Innocence. M. Donald Doomsday. Whatever you all it, you know it by heart and by the feeling you still get in the pit of your stomach.
No need to recount the whole sorry episode yet again (not when others did a splendid job of recounting it yesterday), except to mention two ancillary thoughts that came up this particular mid-June on the 33rd anniversary of the June 15 that casts the longest shadow of any date in New York Mets history.
1) On the eve of the third anniversary of the trade that turned Tom Seaver into a surreal Cincinnati Red, one of the four players the Mets obtained in return hit inarguably the most memorable home run of its era. M. Donald Granted, it was the most miserable era Mets baseball has ever known and, unless Flushing Bay is targeted for offshore drilling, will ever know, but it didn’t matter when it was hit. All that mattered was it was hit. Steve Henderson hit a three-run homer with two outs to cap a five-run ninth inning against the San Francisco Giants on June 14, 1980. The Mets won the game 7-6 after having fallen behind 6-0. The Mets of Steve Henderson, Doug Flynn, Pat Zachry and sometimes Dan Norman were, all at once, a legitimate major league outfit for the first time since June 15, 1977. It was that important. It was that uplifting. It was, yes, that Magical.
Since that moment, I’ve thrilled to ninth-inning grand slams and fifteenth-inning grand slam singles and extra-inning playoff walkoff home runs and playoff series clinching home runs and home runs that transcended fun and games, but for sheer emotional fan impact — one swing unleashing equal parts validation and vindication — nothing has topped Steve Henderson’s three-run homer off Allen Ripley.
If nothing has after thirty years, chances are nothing will.
The Steve Henderson home run holds a unique place in the souls of a generation of Mets fans. On June 14, 1980, you didn’t stop to think that Steve Henderson wouldn’t have been hitting that home run had Tom Seaver not been traded. I’ve never really linked the two events, the absolute worst I felt as a Mets fan in my adolescence with the absolute best I felt then, and it almost never occurs to me that June 14, 1980 was practically the exact third anniversary of June 15, 1977. And I’m the guy who remembers dates.
2) The Wednesday Night Massacre wasn’t just Seaver to Cincy. You know that. You know the Mets compounded their eternal error by exiling Dave Kingman to San Diego. Because it wasn’t enough to dispatch your all-time greatest pitcher. Because you had to eliminate all traces of the only pure slugger you ever had. Because you had to shed budget and show the peon players who was boss. Seaver and Kingman gone (Mike Phillips, too, ostensibly for Joel Youngblood, but maybe to let fellow utilityman Leo Foster know he shouldn’t get too cocky). Fan interest was soon to follow our superstars out the door.
If you are too young to have experienced it or were one of those who sat out the Mets starting June 16, 1977 and not ending until after Hernandez arrived six years later, you didn’t have the pleasure of meeting Henderson and Zachry and Flynn (Norman went to the minors). You also missed the coming of assembly-line lefty reliever Paul Siebert — hit him all you want, he’ll throw more — half of the package the Padres overnighted in exchange for Kingman. Siebert’s better half, so to speak, at least the better-known component of the San Diego duo, would go on to play a part in Mets history ultimately bigger than Kingman’s, bigger than Henderson’s, bigger than almost any Met has in the nearly half-century that there have been Mets. Not as big as Seaver or Hernandez, but quite substantial the more you think about it.
We met Bobby Valentine on June 17, 1977. He had been a big-deal prospect with the Dodgers. He wrecked one of his legs as an Angel. He was mostly hanging on as a Padre. Now the Connecticut native was heading back east. I’d love to tell you that Bobby Valentine distinguished himself as a Met handyman, but to tell you the truth, I don’t remember much of what he did on the field. I do kind of recall he seemed pretty happy to be traded here, though. Big smile at the introductory press conference during which his younger new teammates appeared justifiably dazed and confused.
Bobby Valentine batted .222 as one of Joe Torre’s spare parts in 1977 and ’78. His place in Met history could have been a footnote no greater than Siebert’s. Yet without June 15, 1977 and the insult-to-injury trade of Dave Kingman, I’m pretty sure Bobby Valentine doesn’t get a job as a minor league infield instructor in the Mets’ system in 1982. Without that, he probably doesn’t become third base coach under George Bamberger in 1983, where he stays through Bambi’s resignation to serve under Frank Howard and, eventually, Davey Johnson. Without the third base coach experience at the beginning of the Mets’ most triumphant (or, perhaps, triumphal) era, he probably doesn’t seem a logical fit to manage Tidewater in 1994 and again in 1996. Bobby Valentine got his first big league shot at the helm of the Texas Rangers in 1985, lasting parts of eight seasons, and he honed his credentials with the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1995, but there was something utterly unsurprising about his appointment to succeed Dallas Green in late August of 1996. It was almost as if he and the Met managerial post had been waiting for each other for nearly twenty years.
There were times when Bobby managed the Mets that every night felt like June 14, 1980, that whole months and seasons embodied the feeling that The Magic Is Back. Valentine led a more talented team than Torre ever did at Shea, but the situation he inherited from Green wasn’t tangibly rosier than the one Torre took over from Joe Frazier. The Mets were down in the dumps in August 1996, yet Bobby V steered his team clear up and out of them by May 1997. They’d stay well above ground for the next half-decade.
It didn’t end well for Bobby Valentine in New York. He wore on his veterans. He was on a different page from his general manager. He’d guided his Met expedition about high up the mountain as he could before the whole traveling party began to lose its footing. It wasn’t Seaver and Kingman going away on the same night when Bobby V was fired in 2002, but it felt like a pretty raw deal (even if it wasn’t wholly shocking that it happened).
Bobby went on to Japan, back to the Chiba Lotte Marines. Now and then we’d hear he was working wonders. He won a championship there. He was a national treasure there. And through circumstances beyond his control, he was let go. He’s now part of ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. He hasn’t managed anywhere since 2009 or been employed by a Major League Baseball team since 2002.
But you know who has? Everybody else…or so it seems.
While Bobby Valentine was turning Japan on its ear, the Baltimore Orioles — a losing proposition since their inane dismissal of Davey Johnson in 1997 — have given shots to Lee Mazzilli, Sam Perlozzo and Dave Trembley before handing the temporary reins to Juan Samuel. We loved Mazzilli here and we had nothing against Perlozzo from when he was coaching, but Bobby Valentine was ostensibly on the market (his Japanese contract had an out for a U.S. opportunity) and they didn’t grab him three separate times? And what about the Cleveland Indians? They replaced Joel Skinner with Eric Wedge around the same time the Mets were jettisoning Valentine in favor of Art Howe. Wedge had his moments, but when they were over, where did the Tribe turn? They talked to Bobby Valentine, but they hired Manny Acta.
Manny Acta? ¿Manny Sí, Bobby No?
The Nationals had a chance for Bobby but went with Jim Riggleman. The Marlins had a chance for Bobby but stuck with Fredi Gonzalez. Now the Orioles have an opening and have spoken to Bobby Valentine. That they did shows they may finally be serious about resuscitating their sorry franchise. That the conversation didn’t end with “how much?” and “sign here” indicates they didn’t deteriorate into baseball’s worst team by accident.
How does a team like the Orioles or any of the others bypass Bobby Valentine? He turned around Texas when Texas was nowhere. We know that he lifted the Mets out of their second-worst morass ever. Japan idolized him — they named a beer after him, for crissake. He’s got a big personality, he presumably commands a big salary and for those whose nerves he gets on, he gets on them in a big way.
But he’s Bobby Valentine. He’s an extraordinary manager in-game and out. He sees talent in untapped sources and doesn’t shy away from deploying it. He thinks three steps ahead of whatever poor sap is in the other dugout. He takes the pressure off his players and wears it for himself like a badge of honor. He’s one of the truly special people who makes baseball more worth watching than it is without him. How in the name of Paul Siebert can the Baltimore Orioles be stalling on hiring Bobby Valentine?
I know if my team wasn’t on a roll and it desperately needed a new manager, he’s who I’d want. In fact, if my team wasn’t on a roll, I’d be keeping quiet about Bobby Valentine’s availability lest he get away. But since my team is doing just fine, let somebody else do the right thing and put a great manager back where a great manager belongs: managing.
As for pitching, Mark Simon of ESPN New York recently polled several parishioners on their favorite Met pitching performance ever. Jason picked a lefty who pitched last night. I went with a righty who was traded 33 years ago last night. See what we and some other folks had to say here.
In related news, Shannon Shark of Mets Police hates me. Find out why here.