Nothing could be more terrifying on Halloween than coming into contact with ghosts of Mets Who Almost Were. Tonight, with however many leftover fun size Milky Ways you choose as your companions, you’ll have the opportunity to turn on your television (your actual television) and have the blue and orange scared out of you by one such ghostly image.
Meet Nelson Cruz — the latest in a very spooky subset of players who were taken from this Met-al coil before they could reach what appeared to be their earthly destination. Instead, they were rerouted to the great beyond.
Beyond the Mets, that is. And it turned out great for them in at least one of their Octobers to be named later.
Cruz, I’ve only just learned, previously resided in the Met minor league system. It was so long ago that it’s practically harrowing to consider. The Texas Rangers’ corner outfielder, who doubled to lead off the bottom of the second in Game Three and scored on Mitch Moreland’s decisive blow, developed in 2009, at age 28, into an All-Star. Despite injuries, he’s slugged 55 home runs over the past two seasons and is one of the main reasons Texas is in its first World Series.
Cruz’s journey to this moment began more than a decade ago, and it began as Met property. It was February 1998, and Nelson (presumably named for Lindsey Nelson) was just a kid from the Dominican Republic, all of 17 years old. As such, he began his professional career playing rookie ball in the Dominican Summer League.
How’d he do? I couldn’t tell you, since (befitting a spooky story on Halloween) no statistics seem to exist from that league and time. They might exist, but they were not published in the Mets media guides of the day and they do not show up on otherwise richly textured Web sites like Baseball Reference and Ultimate Mets Database.
Why, it’s almost a Halloween mystery.
Except for this: Steve Phillips was the general manager during Cruz’s Mets minor league tenure, from 1998 to 2000, and Phillips wasn’t particularly picky about which prospects he offered up in trade. As September 2000 approached, Phillips saw a need for another utility infielder, and he targeted, for some reason, Jorge Velandia of the Oakland Athletics. His counterpart, A’s GM Billy Beane, was happy to send him Velandia and accept that 20-year-old from Monte Cristi, D.R., as if he was doing his old pal Steve a favor.
To be fair, I don’t know for sure that it didn’t happen the other way around, that Beane didn’t approach Phillips about Cruz and Steve was so busy being suave and debonair around the office that he said, sure, whatever, gimme whoever ya want. Either way, it’s absolutely spooky! the way Jorge Velandia oozed ordinariness in four callups during three Met seasons and Nelson Cruz is these nights batting fifth for the American League champions.
You can take that as what trick-or-treaters might say from behind their monster masks or what I’d say if I saw Steve Phillips crossing the street en route to his next sex addicts meeting.
To be fair again, it took Cruz nine years to fully blossom between Phillips’ distracted dismissal of him to his eventual All-Star appearance. The genius Beane, protégé of the god Alderson, gave up on him, too, as did the minds in Milwaukee. You’d have to be Captain Hindsight to bitterly blame the Mets for not holding onto Nelson Cruz much longer than they did.
Still, he’s in the World Series in 2010 and the Mets aren’t, even though the Mets signed him and commenced to nurture him once upon a time. Learning that he was in line to someday man left or right for the Mets…frankly, it torments the soul just a little.
This is not the first incident of an exiled Met prospect haunting our TVs as a postseason nears its conclusion. In fact, by my research (aided immeasurably by the aforementioned Baseball Reference), Cruz is the eleventh Halloween Hindsight Haunter — once our minor leaguer; dispatched from our ranks before he made the majors; and ghoulishly appearing in the World Series without ever having worn a Mets uniform.
Who else sort of made the Mets look like great pumpkins in retrospect? Who else got to bob for World Series baubles while the Mets sat by the door wondering if anybody was going to ring their bell so they could get rid of those boxes of store-brand raisins they bought to give to the neighborhood kids who just as soon skip this door?
Hold someone dear close to you and meet the other…
Halloween Hindsight Haunters!
Paul Blair — No relation to Linda Blair from The Exorcist, but no doubt somebody under George Weiss’s command must have wished he could have exorcised the decision that left the future Gold Glove center fielder unprotected in the old minor league first-year draft. Blair spent his first pro season — the frightening annum known in Met lore as 1962 — with Class C Santa Barbara, where he batted a paltry .228. According to Mike Huber, writing for SABR’s Baseball Biography Project, Blair picked up the offensive pace in that offseason’s Florida Instructional League. It was apparently enough to impress the Baltimore Orioles, who plucked him from the Mets. Paul made himself at home in the Birds’ nest, holding down center at Memorial Stadium from 1965 to 1976, earning eight Gold Gloves and playing in four World Series with the O’s, and then two more with the Yankees. The Mets searched most of the 1960s for a suitable center fielder before scooping up Tommie Agee in 1968. You can’t say the Mets missed Blair in October 1969. All those other years, however…spooky!
Ed Figueroa — Signed by the Mets in 1966 at 17, the righty from Ciales, Puerto Rico, began to break through a year later, going 12-5 with an ERA of 2.05 for Class A Winter Haven. It all began to go wrong the year after that. He told the Daily News in 2008 that he was called to take a draft physical on his home island in 1968. The Mets advised him to take a week; Figueroa took three. “When you’re 18,” the retired pitcher reflected, “you don’t know what you’re doing.” He came back to Raleigh-Durham, hurt his arm and was released by the Mets in the middle of ’68. His next tour of duty was with the United States Marines in Vietnam. When he returned, Figueroa impressed a Giants scout. San Francisco eventually let him go to the Angels where he established himself as a solid big league starter. California packaged Ed with Mickey Rivers for Bobby Bonds in the 1975 offseason and Figueroa was soon enough pitching in the 1976 World Series for the Yankees, and again in 1978 after becoming the first Puerto Rican-born 20-game winner in major league history…spooky!
Jim Bibby — Bibby, who died of bone cancer this past February, fit the description of “big right hander” very nicely, listed as 6’5”, 235 (his brother, Henry, played basketball for the champion Knicks of 1972-73). The native North Carolinian entered pro ball in 1965 at age 20 with the Mets’ Appalachian League affiliate in Marion. Then it was off to Vietnam and the Army for a couple of years. He resumed his career at Raleigh-Durham in 1968, setting the stage for a promising ’69, when he struck out 180 batters in 197 innings between Double- and Triple-A (it earned him a September callup to Shea, but Gil Hodges never used him down the Miracle stretch). Back problems kept him out the entirety of 1970, but the next season, all at Tidewater, showed he was on his way: 15-6, 150 strikeouts in 176 innings. Among those Bibby impressed (especially considering he had his apprenticeship interrupted twice) were the St. Louis Cardinals. They acquired him as part of the eight-player deal that made Jim Beauchamp and Harry Parker Mets. Both of those fellows certainly helped New York to the ’73 pennant, though neither stayed Mets beyond 1975. Bibby, meanwhile, found his groove as a 19-game winner for the surprising Texas Rangers of 1974 and reached the World Series with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979. He pitched in the majors until 1984, 19 years after the Mets first signed him…spooky!
Ned Yost — A first-round pick in the secondary phase of the June 1974 amateur draft, Yost, a 19-year-old catcher from Northern California, worked his way up to Tidewater by 1977, but the Mets left him unprotected that December and he was snapped up by Milwaukee in the Rule 5 draft. He would become a backup receiver on the Brewers and find his moment in the World Series spotlight in 1982, catching the last two innings of a blowout loss in Game Six and walking in his only plate appearance. Noteworthy from a parochial perspective is the ex-Met farmhand caught two former Mets in those two innings: Doc Medich in the eighth and Dwight Bernard in the ninth…spooky!
Joe Klink — The lefty reliever out of Miami’s St. Thomas University was chosen in the 36th round of the 1983 draft and contributed mightily to the 1986 Mets’ championship drive by being included with Billy Beane and Bill Latham in the package that persuaded Minnesota to part with second baseman Tim Teufel. Four years after Teuf aided the Mets’ cause, Klink was one of Tony La Russa’s southpaws on call in Oakland. His lone World Series assignment in 1990 came as Game Three versus the Reds was disintegrating for the A’s. Klink came on to face Cincinnati first baseman Hal Morris in the fourth inning and walked him. La Russa, being La Russa, pulled Klink in favor of Gene Nelson. OK, not so spooky. But consider this: The Reds held on en route to sweeping the Alderson A’s — and on the mound for Cincy to get the last outs in three of their four wins, including the clincher, was 1987-1989 Mets closer Randy Myers, swapped the previous winter for John Franco…spooky in its own right!
Greg Olson — The Mets drafted the Minnesotan catcher in 1982, and Olson steadily worked his way up to Tidewater by 1988. With Gary Carter’s time about up in New York, you’d have thought Olson might be in line to compete for the imminent opening behind the Flushing plate. Instead, he was granted minor league free agency and signed with his home state Twins. After a cup of coffee up north, Greg was headed south, to Atlanta. His date with destiny was the 1991 World Series, when the worst-to-first Braves faced off with the similarly risen Twins in quite possibly the greatest World Series ever played. Olson caught all seven games of that epic…spooky!
Manny Lee — Three seasons as a Met minor league infielder earned the 19-year-old Dominican a trade to Houston in August 1984, one of three prospects who became Astros so Ray Knight could become a Met. Let’s not pretend this was horrifyingly spooky. Knight was the Most Valuable Player of the 1986 World Series for the Mets. Lee, however, served as starting shortstop for the 1992 champion Blue Jays, who had picked him up as a Rule 5 selection in December 1984. As a Jay, he participated in four postseasons, culminating with Canada’s first World Series. OK, maybe a little spooky!
Quilvio Veras — The Dominican second baseman signed with the Mets in the fall of 1989 (shortly after the birth of Ruben Tejada) and, at nineteen, began playing professionally the following spring. His journey would be familiar to anyone who watched the ascension of Mets minor leaguers in the early ’90s: Gulf Coast, Kingsport, Pittsfield, Columbia, Binghamton, Norfolk…but then Veras made a U-turn to Miami. The Mets traded him to the recently born Florida Marlins for toolsy outfielder Carl Everett on the eve of the 1995 season. Veras sped off and led the National League in stolen bases (as well as most times caught stealing). Two seasons later, he was a San Diego Padre, and one season after that, he was the starting second baseman in the 1998 World Series, albeit on the losing side. Seven years later, Everett won a World Series ring — as a member of the Chicago White Sox…spooky!
(Thanks to a sharp-eyed reader from the Crane Pool Forum for noticing the Q-omission of Veras in the Q-original version.)
Scott Kazmir — Eighteen-year-old first-round draft choice in 2002. Reportedly a little cockier than some veterans cared for by Spring Training 2004. A hard-throwing lefty with plenty of promise, but not as established as righthander Victor Zambrano of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, which was presumed critical as the Mets flirted with Wild Card contention at the ’04 trade deadline. Kazmir was swapped for Zambrano. The Mets stopped flirting with contention. Zambrano stopped pitching for the Mets by May of 2006. Kazmir was starting Game One of the 2008 World Series for the Rays. So spooky! that the chain of events surrounding Kazmir’s trade made us toast the hiring of general manager Omar Minaya the way we have been celebrating the coronation of his successor.
A.J. Burnett — Drafted out of North Little Rock (AR) High School in 1995. Pitched his way to Class A Pittsfield by 1997. Then the righty found himself shipped to Florida to help net Marlin lefty Al Leiter. It was a great trade for the Mets, at least until Leiter (allegedly) began critiquing Kazmir’s clubhouse demeanor in 2004. Burnett’s pretty good career caught fire in 2008, just in time for free agent riches to come rolling his way via the Yankees. He pitched one outstanding game in the 2009 World Series. Nelson Cruz’s presence in the 2010 World Series indicates Burnett is absent this year. We’ll save the spooky! on this one.
Honorable mention in all this to a Tidewater Tide from 1979 who, by all indications, was never “Met property,” but rather on loan to the Mets’ Triple A affiliate from the Dodgers (a not altogether uncommon practice through baseball history). This infielder batted .264 as a teammate of Mookie Wilson and Hubie Brooks, among others. The Dodgers would thereafter trade him to the Twins, where he’d carve out a respectable playing career. When it was over, he’d try his hand at minor league coaching with the Tides for a couple of years, manage another Met farm club, the Capital City Bombers, for a couple more, and then coach another season in Norfolk. He’d eventually coach eleven seasons for the Oakland A’s and, at age 54, be given his first shot at managing in the big leagues. He maintains that initial job to this day.
Literally, to this day.
The manager of the American League champion Texas Rangers — filling out a World Series lineup card with Nelson Cruz’s name on it tonight — is someone who never wore a Mets uniform but spent six seasons (one playing, three coaching, two managing) gaining experience in the Met minor leagues: Ron Washington. Our new GM is in the midst of searching for the next Met manager, yet one who’s done one of the best jobs in baseball in 2010 cut his managerial teeth working in the Met organization.
Now THAT’S spooky!