Word is it was 99 in the shade at Citi Field Sunday, yet right here, it feels a bit like ’99 in the Shea: The Mets are hot on the Braves’ heels, Bobby Valentine is basking in the media’s glare and the Mets’ infield has been warming to its task with uncommon aplomb.
Highly uncommon, but wonderfully reminiscent of the way it used to be around first, second, short and third. Very wonderfully. So wonderfully, in fact, I’m going to sprint about a mile ahead of the starter’s pistol on an evaluation I don’t make lightly. Accuse me of jumping the gun. I don’t care. I’m too enraptured by what I’ve been seeing around the diamond lately. So here goes:
Ike Davis, Ruben Tejada, Jose Reyes and David Wright are fielding their positions in a manner comparable to that of John Olerud, Edgardo Alfonzo, Rey Ordoñez and Robin Ventura eleven years ago.
Is that giddy or what? Or is that even in the realm of possibility? Are we witnessing the larval stages of Best Infield Ever, Version 2.0? Or is it just a mirage from the heat?
Perhaps you remember the Sports Illustrated cover from that ever more distant steamy summer of 1999, the one that asked instead of flat out declaring the obvious. Yes, it was the Best Infield Ever. A few weeks of watching Oly, Fonzie, Rey O and Robin would convince anyone they were watching maestros at work. I was convinced long before the SI cover appeared. I clearly recall thinking weeks ahead of publication, “You know who should be on the cover together…?” That infield was perhaps my favorite element of what remains my favorite Met season.
Thus, it borders on sacrilege to hear myself now thinking, “THESE guys may someday be as good as THOSE guys…” But I am thinking it. I’m seeing signs. I’m seeing a shortstop who has raised his game from very good to routinely dynamic. I’m seeing a third baseman who has corrected all his bad habits and makes nothing but outstanding plays. I’m seeing a first baseman who was born to play first base. And — this is what’s truly revving my motor — I’m seeing a second baseman who’s smart, agile and fits in perfectly to create this dream infield.
I’m seeing something great developing, I swear I am. I know it’s early. I know this wasn’t the alignment projected even a month ago when some old dude with an onerous contract was dutifully gobbling up every ball hit six inches on either side of him. I know Ruben Tejada is a 20-year-old converted shortstop who’s just getting his feet wet. I know Ike Davis, natural to his position as he is, is also technically a neophyte. But I’m riding the edge of the wave here. I’m seeing this group turn double play after double play, scoop up troublesome ball after troublesome ball, defend like no Met infield has defended since the infield of sepia-toned 1999 memory sealed shut the border between the grass cutout and the outfield.
Even better, they’re all hitting. Wright and Reyes have track records on offense. Davis came advertised as heavy and so far there’s truth in advertising. Tejada was the unknown quantity when Luis Castillo entered the Disabled List, but he’s on a ten-game hitting streak and most of his hits during it seem to have been crucial. Ruben’s a cool customer, an ideal complement to his new keystone partner. Jose runs hot at all times. Ike’s shockingly professional, the closest thing I’ve ever seen to the quote I read about Tom Seaver when he was coming up through Jacksonville: a 21-year-old arm attached to a 35-year-old head (the diametric opposite of what the Mets were usually sending to the mound circa 1966). Ike is still learning how to hit everything he sees — it’s a thrilling process to watch — yet he seems to have quietly mastered the art of being The Man on his team already. Check out his dugout interaction with everybody else, including the vets. That’s no timid rookie. David, who never looked comfortable answering those “when are you going to be named captain?” questions, may be more relaxed than ever in response. He now outright owns the Citi Field career home run record and drives a Lincoln (which is what Met home run hitters drive, apparently…hey, it’s better than watching another Ford Edge commercial).
And of course, they’re all ours in a way the 1999 aggregate never could have been. They’re all ours from the beginning. Each has never been anything but a Met. I grant you I didn’t look at Robin Ventura (or Keith Hernandez or Doug Flynn in their Gold Glove heydays) and dismiss him for the crime of once having come from somewhere else. But there’s something exhilarating about an infield consisting of four players who were signed as Mets, developed as Mets, brought up as Mets and are thriving as Mets.
It’s also quite rare. How rare? Let’s put it this way: If you want to scale back my enthusiastic prognostications for this group’s potential greatness and tell me they should first prove they’re the best homegrown Met infield ever, I’d have to tell you they already are.
Here’s the thing about homegrown Met infields: There haven’t been any, not in the strictest sense, certainly not for the long term. Perhaps you heard a note or two from Elias on the subject when Tejada joined the cast at the beginning of this month. First it was reported this was the first all-homegrown Met infield since 1996 — Butch Huskey at first, Fonzie at second, Rey O at short, Tim Bogar at third. Then it was amended in deference to Ordoñez playing 13 games as a St. Paul Saint in 1993, as if an independent minor league stint might render the designation “homegrown” inoperative. I don’t agree, but if we play along with that argument, then the previous homegrown Met infield would have been from 1991 — Chris Donnels at first, Keith Miller at second, Jeff Gardner at short, Gregg Jefferies at third. Their last appearance was in support of David Cone’s National League record-tying 19-strikeout performance on the final day of the season (talk about an easy day at the infield office).
Whether it was 1996 or 1991, the point was it hadn’t happened in a mighty long time. Had it ever happened in any tangible way before then? Spurred by a discussion with a friend who wondered just how rare a homegrown Met infield is, I plunged into Baseball Reference and checked.
It is rare to the point of nearly nonexistent. The Mets have never maintained a homegrown infield for any length of time. Through Sunday, here is a comprehensive list of the homegrown Met infields with the most games started together, using 14 games as our not-so-arbitrary baseline:
1) Ed Kranepool, 1B; Ken Boswell, 2B; Bud Harreslon, SS; Tim Foli, 3B — 15 games started.
2) Ike Davis, 1B; Ruben Tejada, 2B; Jose Reyes, SS; David Wright, 3B — 14 games started.
That’s how rare it is for the Mets to deploy four homegrown infielders in the same starting lineup. It’s so rare, we’re seeing an infield that didn’t exist as such on June 1 on the verge of setting the standard before July 1. Even allowing for Jerry Manuel likely giving Alex Cora a sentimental start in Puerto Rico, Davis, Tejada, Reyes and Wright are on track to break the Most Starts By a Homegrown Met Infield record by Wednesday.
Geez, that was fast! But it’s not like there’s a Garvey, Lopes, Russell, Cey lurking in the Met annals.
Mind you, we’re using the standard definition of homegrown: signed by, developed by and brought up by one team, in this case the Mets. That disqualifies any of the many infields that included Wayne Garrett at third base. While we fondly remember Red as our underappreciated hot cornerman from his rookie season in 1969 through his unfortunate trade to the Expos in 1976 (for the overvalued Pepe Mangual), Garrett was neither signed by nor developed by the New York Mets. He was a Rule 5 draftee from the Braves organization in December 1968. That means he was not homegrown.
But for the hell of it, let’s include Wayne Garrett in our discussion since he debuted in the major leagues as a Met. Wayne played in 24 different infield combinations (lots of platooning, lots of injuries) that could be considered homegrown if we expand our definition to players who played their first MLB games as Mets. The most common of them was Kranepool at first, Boswell at second, Harrelson at short, Garrett at third. That was the starting infield in 50 games from ’69 to ’74. Kranepool, Boswell, Teddy Martinez and Garrett, meanwhile, started in 23 different games.
No other homegrown or quasi-homegrown combination is in the running.
Nothing with Ordoñez, Northern League background or not.
Nothing with Kazuo Matsui, either, who can’t really be thought of as homegrown given his All-Star shortstop status in Japan, but technically he never played with another MLB organization before the Mets. Kaz was part of five quasi-homegrown infields in 2004 and 2005, the most unlikely of which featured Craig Brazell at first, Reyes at second, Matsui at short and Wright at third.
Nothing with Kranepool even, despite his being around forever and being part of the first purebred Met homegrown infield on the night of September 13, 1967 when Wes Westrum’s alignment of choice in Atlanta was Krane at first, Bobby Heise at second, Buddy at short and Joe Moock at third. No double plays were turned, but Moock did double home the tying run to help Seaver secure a 2-1 win.
That first truly homegrown combo lasted three games. In the ensuing days, Boswell would replace Moock at third for three games and then Moock would come back for the final three starts of the year, with Boswell at second and Heise at short (Salty Parker: quite the interim innovator). For eleven games in 1968 and ’69, it would be Kranepool, Boswell, Harrelson and Kevin Collins before Kevin went to Montreal in the Donn Clendenon deal.
Teddy Martinez played third with Ed, Ken and Bud in 1971. Ted was also at second while Foli anchored third the same year. There was a single lineup card made out in September 1974 that listed John Milner at first, Rich Puig at second, Martinez at short and Boswell at third. Fourteen years later, there’d be a two-game cameo by Dave Magadan, Wally Backman, Kevin Elster and Jefferies. Huskey, Alfonzo, Ordoñez and Bogar got five starts from first to third in September 1996, though in one other game Bogar would play second while Alfonzo would start at third.
But that was it before Ike, Ruben, Jose and David. It’s taken 49 seasons to prospectively forge an infield of tenure consisting of nothing but homegrown, quasi-homegrown or even proto-homegrown players. By proto-homegrown, we mean four players who made their debuts as Mets but came along too early in the franchise’s life to have been developed in the team’s minor leagues. These are the infields who beat the 1967 bunch to the punch.
The first proto-homegrown Met infield trotted out to its positions on September 25, 1963, (tail ends of seasons were when many of these types of combos were given a shot, given that minor leaguers had been recalled and nothing was on the line…hence explaining names like Joe Moock, Rich Puig and Jeff Gardner). Casey Stengel started Dick Smith at first, Hot Rod Kanehl at second, Al Moran at short and Jim Hickman at third. Alas, the Mets lost 1-0 to Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers in L.A. that September 25, but don’t blame the proto-homegrown Met infield — Roger Craig threw away a pickoff attempt that was supposed to nail future Met Tommy Davis at first. On April 19, 1964, Al Jackson pitched the Mets’ first-ever shutout at Shea Stadium backed by the second proto-homegrown Met infield: Smith, Ron Hunt at second, Moran and Kanehl at third. They’d get one more start before being broken up for good.
In 1964, Charley Smith would be back in the lineup and Roy McMillan would be acquired from Milwaukee. In later years, there would be an Ed Charles, a Felix Millan, a Frank Taveras, a Howard Johnson, a Carlos Baerga, a Joe McEwing, clear up to the era of Carlos Delgado. Veteran infielders from other clubs, occasionally for better, often for worse, would preclude homegrown infields from blossoming. As long as the Mets were winning, it wasn’t a priority that their infielders or any of their players had blue and orange birth certificates
But who doesn’t love the notion of some baby Met coming of age right before our very eyes? Hunt may have been the first star Mets fans could call their own, but he, like his proto-homegrown compatriots, had been originally signed by another team (in his case, the Braves). Still, he came close to fulfilling Casey’s Youth of America pledge when he played second alongside genuinely homegrown Kranepool, Harrelson and Collins four times in 1965 (after Stengel stepped down). There would be others in the Hunt/Garrett category who helped comprise quasi-homegrown infields down the road:
Amos Otis (originally Red Sox property, he played third on an infield that included Cleon Jones at first); Bobby Pfeil; Gary Rajsich; Jason Hartdke; Shawn Gilbert; Marco Scutaro; Anderson Hernandez; and Argenis Reyes. They were mixed and matched alongside the likes of genuine homegrown infielders like Hubie Brooks, Ty Wigginton and a fellow I vaguely recall by the name of Nick Evans. All such combinations were on display for no more than a handful of games.
I enjoy wading into trivial waters, but the substantive takeaway from all of this is Ike Davis, Ruben Tejada, Jose Reyes and David Wright are doing something unprecedented in Mets history. They are, knock wood, about to commence on a fantastic journey. Two of them are already great players. Two of them have a chance to be, at the very least, good players. Together, the four of them are capable of maturing as a unit and creating a new infield standard. Their combined defensive efforts may never result in anything quite as breathtaking as the legacy John Olerud, Edgardo Alfonzo, Rey Ordoñez and Robin Ventura left behind, but based on the admittedly small sample size to date, I can see envision this infield enduring as no Met infield of any pedigree ever has.
Rationally, it’s too soon to evoke comparisons to the Best Infield Ever. I understand that. I also understand that if by some front office machination, second base were to become manned by, say, Brandon Phillips, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad move. But this infield with which we’ve suddenly been gifted is exciting, y’know? These guys are here now and these guys are good now. With none of them older than 27, they’re all upside at this point. How often do we get to see something like this or envision it continuing and projecting it to evolve? The homegrown part imbues it with more than a little extra oomph, the kind these four kids are giving it between first and third every game they play.
Too soon? I say it’s never too soon to dare to dream.