The Braves shoved nine runs down the Mets’ throats Monday. They shoved nine more there Tuesday. They were en route to dishing up their usual nightly serving on Wednesday when they realized it was hardly worth the trouble. Why bother scoring nine runs when no more than two would be necessary? Mighty thoughtful of Bobby Cox to call off the dogs after his team scored four runs in the first two frames.
The Mets are counting backwards these days. They scored thrice on Monday, twice on Tuesday and once on Wednesday. You’re on your own if you decide to bet against a Braves shutout tonight.
Two hits for our boys in toto on Wednesday, or more than they accumulated with runners in scoring position Monday (1-for-14) and Tuesday (0-for-5). For the record, the Mets were 1-for-5 in those situations on Wednesday, which I find incredibly surprising.
The Mets had five runners in scoring position against Tommy Hanson, Jonny Venters and Billy Wagner? Really? Didn’t seem like it. Didn’t seem like we lost only 4-1 either. Not that the evening was sans highlights. In presumed tribute to their traded teammate, the Mets nailed two Braves at home. Alas, as was the case across the recently concluded Era of Frenchy, two highlight plays at the plate don’t make for an actual win.
But there was one other Met clip worth watching repeatedly: Lucas Duda’s all-out sliding corral of Brian McCann’s sinking foul fly ball to left. It took extreme effort to catch it and Duda showed plenty of enterprise in tracking it down. It also took the slightest major league experience to know that with Martin Prado on second and one out, Prado could very well attempt to tag up and advance. Thing is, it was Duda’s very first inning in the bigs, so no, he did not have the slightest major league experience. Confused, perhaps, by the sphere he had just successfully cradled in his glove, Duda hesitated for, oh, about ten minutes before seeking a cutoff man. By the time he found one, Prado was on third.
No harm done for two reasons:
• Prado would be thrown out at home to end the inning;
• And, really, what’s the difference at this point?
Lucas Duda had to leave in the eighth with cramps in one of his hamstrings, but otherwise didn’t suffer any more calamities the field or star in any more star-crossed highlights for the rest of the evening. At the plate, he was, like several of his teammates, 0-for-3, meaning he awaits his first safety and his concomitant liberation from what we shall dub the Sandy Senior Tour — that unfortunate group of position players who batted as Mets but never recorded a hit in the blue, orange, white and/or black.
The Sandy Senior Tour — named for Sandy Alomar, Sr., its most prolific compiler of unsuccessful at-bats — forever journeys through purgatory seeking redemption…or just a scratch single. It never comes and, thus, their Tour never ends
Given the shortage of fully functioning Met outfielders (to say nothing of vital signs), Duda should get a crack at substantial playing time the rest of the way and therefore sooner or later avoid the previously noted ignominy that haunts the likes of feisty Alomar (0-for-22 as a Met), Bart Shirley (0-for-12), Rich Puig (0-for-10), Joe Nolan (0-for-10) and Keith Hughes (0-for-9). They are the leaders of the 23-member Ohfer Pack…24, technically, if you count young Lucas.
That’s not a club the kid wants to be in, and here’s hoping his stay in it is as short as he is tall. But there is another club Lucas Duda joined the moment his manager inked his name onto Wednesday’s lineup card.
Let’s call it the New Toy Club.
It was September 1. The Mets called up Duda and they immediately gave him first taste of major league action. That’s a distinction he shares with ten other New York Mets: minor league callups with no previous major league experience getting into a game on the very first day the rosters expanded.
That, of course, as the toys of Toy Story 3 would tell you, is the way to do it. Toys are supposed to be played with.
The New Toy Club’s members were the Lucas Dudas (Dudii?) of their day…of their September 1, to be precise. There was no sitting, observing and absorbing for them. It was deep end of the pool time. They got wet immediately and the Mets got to see right away if they sank or swam.
NTC’s pair of charter members joined on September 1, 1965. The first of them, Rob Gardner, wasn’t just told to sink or swim. Instead, Wes Westrum named him starting pitcher and tossed him square into a circle of sharks disguised as Houston Astros. A life preserver was not included.
Gardner’s first batter, Bob Lillis, tripled. His second, Joe Morgan, singled (and probably didn’t shut up about it for half-an-hour). His teammates consoled him by immediately committing consecutive errors behind him, allowing Jimmy Wynn and eventual Met third baseman Bob Aspromonte to get on base. It was 2-0 when another name from the unforetold Amazin’ future, Rusty Staub, reached Rob for a three-run homer.
Top of the first, 5-0 Astros, nobody out. Welcome to the big leagues, kid.
Gardner, 20, would make it through three innings, giving up another homer, a two-run job to Jim Gentile (who was then in his fourth year of being wronged by the Orioles — check out what took 49 years to rectify and how it was done) and leaving trailing 7-1. Westrum mercifully pinch-hit for Gardner in the bottom of the third with the second New Toy of the day, 19-year-old Kevin Collins. Youth struck out and then moved to short in a double-switch. Collins wound up going 0-for-4 striking out twice in what became an 8-5 Met loss, the first L of Gardner’s career.
The two New Toys from 1965 would each have one moment in the Met sun…or, in the pitcher’s case, the moon.
After losing his next three decisions, Gardner was given what loomed as the penultimate start of the year, on the season’s final Saturday. He pitched — and this is not a typo — fifteen shutout innings. Yet it wasn’t enough. His opponent, the Phillies’ Chris Short, did exactly the same. Two relievers for each side also gave up nothing. The Mets played an eighteen-inning game on October 2, 1965 that, thanks to a curfew (New York State’s, not the National League’s), went into the books as a tie. Nothing for Gardner. Nothing for Short.
And the teams had to make it up as part of a doubleheader the next day. Gardner didn’t pitch. The Mets lost both games.
As for Collins, he helped the Mets win the 1969 World Series, not so much by hitting .150 as a part-time infielder in April and May but by being packaged with Steve Renko, Dave Colon and Bill Carden in June. The foursome were crated up and shipped to Montreal in exchanged for first baseman Donn Clendenon. Four months later, Clendenon was World Series MVP for the World Champion Mets.
It was unfathomable that such designations were just over two years away from Flushing when, on September 1, 1967, the Mets unwrapped another New Toy — which the Mets were doing in one form or another constantly in 1967. They did it so much that you’d have thought they were operating under their own roster-expansion rules.
The Mets ran through 54 different players 43 years ago, including a staggering 35 who made Met debuts. But only one was Joe Moock, a 23-year-old third baseman who entered his first game on 9/1/67 as a defensive replacement for Jerry Buchek in the bottom of the eighth of an 8-2 loss at Wrigley Field. He’d lead off the top of the inning and strike out in his first at-bat. At least it was to a Hall of Famer: Ferguson Jenkins. Moock’s next action came nine days later, his first start. He again went up formidable competition in Reds ace Jim Maloney. And he struck out twice.
All told, Moock got into thirteen games at the tail end of 1967, going 9-for-40. His final hit — of the year and his major league career — came off yet more intimidating talent, the Dodgers’ headhunting Don Drysdale. Moock kept his head against this Hall of Famer, however, knocking in Tommy Davis and Ron Swoboda with a first-inning single. (He also holds the distinction of being one-quarter of the Mets’ first purebred homegrown infield, a distinction you can read about here.)
The next New Toy wasn’t scooped out of his box until September 1, 1981. And when it was, an audible sigh of disappointment could be heard among Mets fans, as if we had asked Santa Cashen for a Davey Concepcion, and all we got to play shortstop was a lousy Ron Gardenhire.
Today Gardy is a successful manager in Minnesota. In the early 1980s, I found Gardenhire a most dispiriting (.232/.277/.296) presence on the Mets roster, from his debut as a 23-year-old pinch-runner for Staub at the Astrodome (he didn’t score), through his mysterious survival of the dreaded Compensation Pool process (the hideous contraption that cost us Tom Seaver the second time) right up to his last game, on the last day of 1985, when he tripled (but again didn’t score) the day after the Mets were eliminated from an emotionally draining pennant race.
It should be noted that as Gardenhire was swinging, connecting and racing to third, DiamondVision identified him as ON GARDENHIRE. Figured he’d wait until it was too late to be truly on.
There was another double-opening of New Toys on September 1, 1984, as the Mets battled fiercely to remain relevant in a pennant race that was quickly getting away from them. After winning the first game of a doubleheader against the Padres behind Dwight Gooden, Davey Johnson tried to get lucky with another rookie hurler, 22-year-old Calvin Schiraldi. Schiraldi wasn’t so lucky that Saturday at Shea (foreshadowing!), being treated by Tony Gwynn, Steve Garvey and Kevin McReynolds right out of the gate much as Rob Gardner was by the Astros a generation earlier. Schiraldi was pulled in the fourth inning.
Fortunately, the Mets came back and defeated San Diego 10-6 in what we hoped would be (but deep down pretty much understood wouldn’t be) a preview of that year’s NLCS. Helping our cause and getting us to within five games of the Cubs was the other New Toy getting played with that day, Herm Winningham. The 22-year-outfielder was getting quite a workout, being given a first look in the first game as a late-inning replacement for Mookie Wilson and then the start in center in the nightcap. Herm went 2-for-5 and drove in the first run of a five-run fourth by doubling home John Stearns.
It would be a great first month for Winningham, constituting one of the greatest seasons any Met has ever enjoyed. He went 11-for-27, for a .407 batting average, the only Met to ever hit .400 in a minimum of twenty at-bats. If it wasn’t exactly Ted Williams, it was unprecedented in Met annals and remains unmatched since. It also helped make him pretty attractive to the Montreal Expos. Seventeen years after Kevin Collins sacrificed himself to Quebec for the good of New York, Herm did the same, joining a package that also consisted of Mike Fitzgerald, Floyd Youmans and incumbent shortstop Hubie Brooks. Together, they brought back Gary Carter.
Carter’s accomplishments as a Met were myriad and often stirring, but none was more memorable than the two-out single he produced in the bottom of the tenth inning of the sixth game of the 1986 World Series. There were two out and the Mets trailed by two. Their opponents led the Series three games to two; maybe you’ve heard about it. The upshot is if Gary Carter didn’t get on base, the greatest season in Met history would have been kaput. But Carter singled, as did Kevin Mitchell and Ray Knight, setting the stage for a plate appearance by the player for whom Winningham briefly caddied, Mookie Wilson.
Pray tell, who did Carter, Mitchell and Knight single off? The one and only Calvin Schiraldi, who was in his final minutes as implicitly trusted closer for the American League (and nothing more) champion Boston Red Sox. Schiraldi — who would give way to Bob Stanley and the most phenomenal nine-pitch at-bat in baseball history — became a Red Sock the previous winter when the Mets traded him and some other youths to Boston for, essentially, Bobby Ojeda.
The same Bobby Ojeda who started that very same Game Six that was lost by Calvin Schiraldi.
The Met tenure of the next New Toy didn’t carry the same dramatic overtones, but his unwrapping was a big deal in its time. On September 1, 1990, the Mets were locked in a divisional duel with the Pirates, each team taking turns in first place. Our team entered the day a half-game out. Manager Buddy Harrelson needed a pitcher and, despite the presence of ’86 veterans Ojeda and Ron Darling, opted for a kid from Tidewater. His name was Julio Valera, coming off a 10-10 year in Triple-A. Valera, 21, was highly thought of, so he was handed the ball in a must-win game at a juncture of the season when every game was must-win.
Valera did not pitch brilliantly (6 IP, 3 ER; technically a quality start), but he outdid Rob Gardner and Calvin Schiraldi as September 1 babies went. More importantly, he was supported by two Met homers — one by Darryl Strawberry, the other by the just-acquired Tommy Herr — and departed with a 5-3 lead. Ojeda and Darling pitched in relief, John Franco got the save and the Mets moved back into first by a half-game with a 6-4 win over the Giants at Shea.
His debut would be the sole highlight of Julio Valera’s Met career. The Pirates would knock him around the following week, he’d not look good against the Cardinals five days after that and Buddy never used him again in 1990 as the Mets faded into second place as precursor to disappearing from serious contention for the next six years. Julio would make two relief appearances in 1991 and be traded to California early the next season for shortstop Dick Schofield.
Schofield happened to be starting for the Mets on September 1, 1992, when the next New Toy got to make his maiden appearance. Ryan Thompson, unlike the other contents of the toy chest, did not come through the Met farm system. He’d been a Blue Jay prospect right up to his debut day, when he was officially identified as The Player To Be Named Later in what Mets fans were bemoaning as the David Cone trade. We surely weren’t thinking of it as the Jeff Kent trade. Kent was the slightly more established name in the surprise deal (Coney was going to be a free agent and general manager Al Harazin decided to cut his losses without shopping his most attractive commodity), but it was hinted, in the best tradition of Dan Norman, that the outfielder who’s coming with him from Syracuse might be a genuine stud.
Might be. Manager Jeff Torborg was excited that Thompson had “all the tools,” while assistant GM Gerry Hunsicker acknowledged, “He’s a question mark.” Per usual, the 1992 Mets had trouble getting their story straight.
Thompson, 24, may have worn a genuine stud in one ear — he carried a reputation as quite the fashion hound — but mostly he was a genuine bust. That is if you took the reports on his promising future seriously…which we probably did because, as September 1992 dawned, we really needed something to cling to. We’d be clinging a little sooner than planned on 9/1/92. Thompson wasn’t in the starting lineup that night at Shea, but Torborg inserted him to play center in the fourth inning, replacing Vince Coleman. Why? Because Coleman was ejected for protesting a called strike three to end the third and, for Vince measure, shoved his manager, who had taken the field to protect his player, as said player argued vehemently with umpire Gary Darling.
Amid that mess, Thompson debuted, struck out, flied out and was removed in a double-switch that engendered no shoving of the Jeff Torborg. As they would on the occasion of Lucas Duda’s introduction to the bigs, the Mets lost to the Braves, 4-1. Ryan would spend parts of four seasons as a Met, not particularly helping a team that wasn’t going anywhere anyway.
You may have noticed that to this point, we’re 0-for-8 as regards long-term Met impact for members of the New Toy Club. These guys had a few Met moments among them, but mostly the best you could say about any of them was a few of them made for pretty good trade bait (Thompson marginally so — he and Reid Cornelius landed us Mark Clark in 1996). Happily the next September 1 kid actually contributed positively to a winning Mets ballclub.
If the gods didn’t have an interesting sense of humor, Jay Payton would not be part of the New Toy Club. His debut should not have come on September 1, 1998, but rather in May when he was up from Norfolk to fill in for the disabled Bernard Gilkey. Torrential rain, however, interfered with those plans, postponing consecutive weekend games, so it was back to the minors for the next four months for Payton, who shouldn’t have had to have waited until 1998 at all, as he was one legitimately one of the Mets’ best prospects upon his being drafted in 1994. Injuries, serious ones, delayed his development indefinitely. He was out all of 1997 recovering from surgery on his right elbow — his fourth operation — and saw limited action the year before that.
It would take the annual widening of the roster to make Payton, 25, a New York Met, and his first game, at Jack Murphy Stadium, turned into quite a doozy. San Diego jumped all over Hideo Nomo and took a 5-0 lead after four. It was 5-1 in the bottom of the sixth when Bobby Valentine replaced left fielder Tony Phillips with Jay. Mel Rojas entered the game at the same time and, naturally, the Padres extended their lead, making it 6-1 going to the seventh.
Then the Mets woke up, with Payton’s first at-bat coming in the middle of a seven-run rally. He singled and scored on a Jorge Fabregas two-RBI hit (Jay would single in his second at-bat as well). Now up 8-6, the Mets promptly gave it back, with Turk Wendell and Dennis Cook faring worse than Rojas in the bottom of the seventh. The Pads went in front 9-8 and held on. It was the kind of maddening “almost” game the Mets had a habit of losing in 1998, the kind of game that left the Mets and their personnel hodgepodge (Nomo? Phillips? Fabregas?) just shy of winning the Wild Card.
Of course one could also point to a baserunning mistake made later that September by rookie callup Jay Payton. Pinch-running for Phillips on the final Friday of the season at Turner Field, Jay attempted to go from first to third on a John Olerud single to center with only one out. He was gunned down by Andruw Jones; the Mets lost 5-4; the Mets finished one game behind the Cubs and Giants; the Mets missed a playoff spot that seemed surely within their grasp.
It wasn’t all Payton’s fault, but it wasn’t the brightest of first months. Fortunately, though he was only a bit player in September 1999 after another year in Norfolk, he emerged as the Mets’ starting center fielder in 2000 and, at age 27, turned in a splendid rookie season. He placed third in Rookie of the Year voting behind Rafael Furcal and 2010 Brave center fielder Rick Ankiel, and went on to start every game of the postseason for the 2000 National League champs.
Flanking Jay Payton most of that October was someone he likely had never met prior to that September. But on September 1, 2000, he and all of us were introduced to the mixed blessing we came to know as Timo Perez. At just about the same moment Payton and his teammates were getting acclimated to Tokyo in advance of their 2000 season-opening series with the Cubs, the Mets were purchasing the contract of the speedy 25-year-old outfielder from the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. After a solid minor league season, the Mets brought him up at the beginning of September and tried him out immediately. Pinch-hitting in the ninth inning of a tie game at St. Louis, he singled on the fifth pitch he saw in the majors and immediately lit out for second in quest of his first stolen base.
He was thrown out.
As the Mets scuffled that September (1-7 to start the month), Valentine deployed his New Toy more and more. Timo showed flashes, most notably an inside-the-park homer at Philadelphia, and earned his way onto the postseason roster, thus becoming the first September 1 Met New Toy to see playoff action the same year he was brought up. Timo would, following an injury to starting right fielder Derek Bell in San Francisco, prove indispensable in pursuit of the National League championship. He took over right, batted leadoff and personified “catalyst” as the Mets captured their fourth pennant. He even caught the final out against the Cardinals to clinch the flag.
Then, in the 2000 World Series, he personified “idiot” or perhaps a more unkind word. In brief, it was the top of the sixth at Yankee Stadium, opening game, zero-zero score. Perez singled against Andy Pettitte to lead off the inning. With two outs, Todd Zeile launched a long fly ball to left. It looked very much like a home run on TV.
It must have looked the same way from first base because Timo Perez, playing in his thirty-fourth major league game, broke into a trot — clapping his hands so as to put a little swirl on it. The ball, however, did not clear the wall; instead, it hit high off the fence and was played there by left fielder David Justice. Justice fired to shortstop Derek Jeter, who wheeled and threw to catcher Jorge Posada. Somewhere along the way, Timo accelerated, but not soon enough.
He was thrown out.
The Mets blew their first chance to take a lead. The Mets blew all kinds of chances in that game and in the games that followed. I never gave up, not until the final out of Game Five, but honestly, I knew the World Series was lost when I saw Jeter making a relay throw on a runner who would have scored had he been RUNNING FROM FIRST BASE.
Which Timo Perez wasn’t.
He would be a Met until 2003. He’d do a few good things. Nobody remembers them. Nobody remembers the NLDS and the NLCS. Nobody remembers anything but Perez clapping and trotting (while Zeile did much the same). Gads, what an image.
Lucas Duda won’t have to deal with World Series protocol this year. He is, as one assumes his ten New Toy predecessors were on their Firsts of September, just happy to be here. He was sure happy last night — unabashedly so.
“It was pretty awesome, even though I had to leave in the eighth because I had cramps in my hamstring,” he said after his first game. “Who makes their major league debut and comes out due to cramps? That’s not the way I wanted to start it. Hopefully, maybe I’ll get back in there and finish a game.”
And when he reaches first, I don’t expect he’ll take a darn thing for granted.