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Trying to Remember Joe Frazier

The Montreal Expos were slowly infiltrating the field and the Mets were leaving one by one. I did make one more attempt to speak with Frazier. Southern accent and all, he has the face and appearance of an Appalachian moonshiner, a lot like Ron Hodges. “Why do you want to write this book?” he asked. “Why do want a chapter on me? What are you going to ask? What would anyone want to know? I don’t know what I can tell you.” He went on like this until I was beginning to wonder why I was writing the book myself. “Let me think this over,” Joe concluded. “Give me a little more time, and then we’ll talk.” Well, I figured, fair is fair.
Kathryn Parker, We Won Today: My Season with the Mets [1]

Broadly speaking, Joe Frazier had plenty of time. He lived to 88 years of age. One hopes the final 34 of them, far from where he briefly became a central figure in the lives of Mets fans, were perfectly happy.

In Metsian terms, Joe Frazier was as here and gone as any regularly scheduled Mets manager can be said to have been. Joe Frazier managed 207 Mets games, one fewer than George Bamberger, seven more than Jeff Torborg. Save for The Interims, that’s as little skippering as a leader of Mets has done.

Was it fair? Thirty-four years after he was introduced to the door, Joe Frazier’s managerial tenure doesn’t come under the Met microscope too often. It took his passing last week [2] to bring his name out for a posthumous curtain call. It hadn’t been publicly mentioned much since his May 31, 1977 dismissal. Bill Madden wasn’t being disrespectful in Sunday’s News when he referred to Frazier as “the least-remembered Mets manager”. He was quite accurate, and that was after the fact.

Few knew who he was ahead of time, either.

Of the fifteen full-time managers the Mets deployed prior to hiring their sixteenth and current chief of dugout operations, Joe Frazier was the only one who was almost totally unknown when duty called.

• He held no New York baseball pedigree, a trait common to some degree among Messrs. Stengel, Westrum, Hodges, Berra, Torre, Bamberger, Harrelson, Torborg, Green, Valentine, Randolph and Manuel.

• There was no previous major league managing in his past as there was for most of the above as well as the selectively flashy Art Howe (Art Howe lit up a room for Fred Wilpon the way Mr. Ed spoke to Wilbur; not a single other soul could detect the phenomenon in question).

• His playing career, comprised of 217 games spread across four seasons with four teams, wasn’t remotely on the same level as that of the only other Met manager promoted from Tidewater to Flushing with no big league track record, four-time All-Star second baseman Davey Johnson.

Compared to Joe Frazier, erstwhile minor league field coordinator Terry Collins — the first Met manager to be elevated directly from the farm system since Bobby V — boasts a profile as high as Oliver Perez’s ERA. Terry Collins managed the Astros and the Angels. Joe Frazier managed Visalia and Victoria.

For those of you who weren’t around for the entirety of 1976 and the not quite first third of 1977, you’re excused if you haven’t exactly been steeped in the legend of Joe Frazier. Those of us who rooted during what we’ll refer to as his era (if an era can cover no more than sixteen months) can vouch there wasn’t much legendary to what he did and how he did it. The Baseball Digest version is the Mets overcame a midsummer malaise to post their second-best record to date during his one full season, and commenced their long, painful late ’70s swirl down the tubes early in his second.

If there’s something useful to be divined in considering Joe Frazier’s stint as Met manager, it’s that he didn’t seem to make that much of a difference in the overall trajectory of his Mets teams. They were middling when he got here, they stayed middling as long as they could while he was here and they were probably doomed to fall off from middling to miserable no matter what he did before he was forced out of here. Thus, for those who objected to objections to Collins’s appointment on the basis that an individual manager’s impact on the fortunes of a franchise are traditionally overstated, you have your exhibit “A” in Joe Frazier.

Though I doubt “leave few footprints” is the overriding goal any given spring.

Joe Frazier came to New York from a pretty successful minor league managing run, culminating in his Tides having made the Junior World Series as International League champs in 1975. Upon meeting the big city press, he talked a very good game…which placed him in the same company as everybody who’s ever taken over a major league team.

“If I have my way,” Frazier said, “you’re going to see a ballclub that hustles. I stress fundamentals, real fundamentals. I want my players to be aggressive. I want to see them go from first to third base and from second to home on base hits. That’s how you win games.”

The Mets had been leadfooted under Yogi Berra and Roy McMillan in 1975, not so much stealing bases as accidentally wandering into them once or twice a week. They were last in the National League with 32 bags…or fewer than seven individual players in that theft-happy era. Frazier came along and the Mets more than doubled their stolen base output — still last in the league, but no longer outpaced by any one player.

The ’76 team’s actual progress on the basepaths proved as molasseslike as any pair of contemporary Met legs. From 1972 through 1976 — Frazier’s first year included — no Met stole more than a dozen bases in a season. It was as if the Mets were participating in one sport, while the signature speedsters on their opponents’ rosters (Brock, Lopes, Morgan) were taking part in another.

Things certainly felt faster, however. Frazier, Jerry Koosman observed in his new manager’s first May, had the Mets “running, stealing, playing hit-and-run. Yogi wasn’t the type to move the ballclub.” Ed Kranepool agreed that “Joe does all the little things … [He] keeps you in the game. He’s all over the place. He’s in your locker. He’ll tell you something about how to field or how to hit. I like that.”

“I love Terry. He’s a guy who has a lot of energy, a lot of passion for the game, just like me.”
Jose Reyes to Mike Francesa, February 18, 2011

“[W]hen he pulls you aside one-on-one, it’s just a different intensity or a different volume. He’s just that excited about baseball and that excited about this season that he gets all fired up and it’s like a snowball.”
David Wright [3] to Adam Rubin, February 21, 2011

These days, stolen bases aren’t necessarily considered the golden key to scoring runs, but however one chose to get around the diamond in 1976, there wasn’t — despite Frazier’s declarations and whatever vibe his veterans picked up — as much going from any base to home as there had been in ’75. The Mets scored fewer runs in our nation’s Bicentennial year and they drifted further downward from the league average. The shortfall likely had little to do with hustle or fundamentals.

The Mets were ill-equipped for the nine or so times per game they were forced to bat (bat — not hit). The team Frazier took over was essentially the offensively limp 1975 unit minus Rusty Staub [4], who had been shipped off to Detroit for Mickey Lolich out of Chairman Grant’s pique over ballplayers who thought for themselves. Slow as Le Grand Orange may have been, he led the ’75 Mets with 93 runs. A year later, no Met scored more than 70.

Even if Cobra Joe had subscribed to Earl Weaver’s pitching and three-run homer philosophy, he was half-constricted considering the Mets were unlikely to have two men on when Dave Kingman was up. Kingman constituted the Mets’ offense for a little more than half of 1976, swatting 32 home runs before making the mistake of attempting to catch a fly ball. A SkyKing-sized power shortage followed the resulting injury.

Still, those first Frazier Mets had their moments. An 11-2 stretch catapulted them into first place at 18-9 after a month of play, and the manager was receiving his share of the credit. “I don’t like to say we’re gonna win a pennant this early in the season,” he said, “but we’re playing pretty good ball.”

That ended soon enough. The Phillies took off on a historic blitz of the N.L. East (72-34 by the first week of August) and the Mets’ competitive aspirations lapsed in their wake. John Milner’s three grand slams notwithstanding, Kingman’s absence reduced them to pitching and no-run homers. The starting — Tom Seaver, Jon Matlack [5] and 21-game winner Koosman all in their prime — was characteristically splendid, but the offense was close to nonexistent, and fundamentals (9th in errors, 12th in double plays turned, 4th in caught stealing) weren’t particularly in evidence.

Yet there was a second-half surge to enjoy. It didn’t jar the Mets out of their third-place standing, but it did boost their record to new post-1969 heights as Frazier, perhaps true to his minor league managerial roots, came to rely more and more on “my kids”. There was hot corner hypee Roy Staiger; pinch-hitting prodigy Bruce Boisclair; fleet Leon “Motor” Brown (who possessed, in Bob Murphy’s words, “a world of speed”); versatile Leo “Bananas” Foster; Expo exile Pepe Mangual; never quite recovered Mike Vail; and, come September, the ambidextrous pride of Sheepshead Bay, Lee Mazzilli. Bolstered by this infusion of promising youth, the Mets reeled off a 34-16 stretch that lifted them to as many as 15 games over .500, all but eliminating the Pirates from the pennant race with a spoiler’s zeal along the way.

Just as the Mets felt faster, they seemed better when they landed on 86-76 after 162 games. Despite not hitting their Pythagorean mark (91-71), they were trending younger and we could feel hopeful about 1977. The big three pitchers would be back. Kingman figured to be healed. Mazzilli and Staiger and John Stearns would all be gaining that panacea for all youngster shortcomings, experience. And Joe Frazier…he’d be back. After working under a one-year contract in ’76, he earned a return to Shea.

But Joe Frazier’s sophomore season was a different story. Its narrative was shaped by chaos. After the brave new world of free agentry left Grant unmoved to pay major league stars major league star wages, the veterans grew unhappy. Seaver wanted to be traded — one night sending the following peevish message to Frazier through pitching coach Rube Walker when Walker was sent to visit the ace on the mound: “Tell him to leave me alone.” Kingman didn’t say nearly as much but he wanted to be traded, too. So did Matlack. Those were your three 1976 Met All-Stars right there, and the last place they wanted to be in 1977 was right here.

Alas, last place was exactly where Frazier’s Mets found themselves twenty games into their schedule. At 15-30, just swept a doubleheader by the fifth-place Expos and languishing fourteen games behind the first-place Cubs, Joe Frazier was put out of his misery, replaced by player turned player-manager Joe Torre.

“I was ready to get out from under,” Frazier told the UPI’s Milt Richman as he hustled to the exit. “It was driving me up a tree … If Joe can do better with the team, more power to him, but I honestly didn’t see anything encouraging on the outskirts.”

You can’t say Joe Frazier wasn’t a visionary where the fortunes of the 1977 Mets were concerned. Except for a brief spurt of changed-guard momentum — going 7-1 in Torre’s first eight games as skipper — the Mets of Frazier were essentially the Mets of the rest of the decade. Those who wished to be traded were briskly accommodated (Seaver and Kingman in June, Matlack in December) and a full-steam youth movement was well underway. Joe Torre would prove a Hall of Fame-caliber manager, but not for another two decades and three uniforms.

The Frazier footprint was indeed faint. Only five major leaguers could claim Cobra Joe as their first manager and only one — Mazzilli — would carve out a substantial career in the bigs. Lee remembered him with some fondness, however. One night in 2008, when Mazz was in-studio as an SNY analyst, Matt Yallof fed him a postgame question about the impact of managers on players. I don’t remember the precise topic or answer, but Mazzilli referenced Joe Frazier without irony, to which Yallof (per the modern style of sports anchoring) smirked ironically.

“Joe Frazier was a good man,” Mazzilli shot back, which erased Yallof’s smirk instantly.

In real time, Joe Frazier could be sly. Upon the Mets getting off to a dreadful 0-7 Spring Training start in 1976, he likened himself to “the illegitimate son at a homecoming.” The North Carolinian could also stuff his foot way up into his mouth, which he did after the Mets lost an extra-inning affair to St. Louis, a result on which he largely blamed African-American umpire Artie Williams’s ball-and-strike judgment. Managers lashing out at umpires was nothing new, but Frazier’s characterization of Williams’s qualifications — “We all know the reason he’s here” — sounded as bad in 1976 as it reads in 2011. When the Mets began to take heat over the comment, Frazier offered his resignation (declined by GM Joe McDonald) and issued a heartfelt apology, though he managed to mix in a dig at the beat writers of the day:

“In regards to all my good black friends in this country, I meant nothing racist in what I said. It’s terrible to think it came out that way. You guys blew it up like I was some kind of I don’t know what. In the thick of battle, I get riled up. Everybody does.”

That moment of controversy aside, I don’t remember being all that stirred or shaken by Joe Frazier during his 207-game reign of Met caretaking. The farm wasn’t raising pitchers like it used to and Grant was dead set against going to market for hitters. No wonder the vets were growing impatient as surely as they were growing old. Against that backdrop, you had Frazier, an organization man in the theoretical mold of Earl Weaver and Walt Alston. They had been promoted to their signature gigs in Baltimore and Brooklyn from the minor league ranks without so much as a major league coaching background.

Joe Frazier wasn’t Earl Weaver or Walt Alston. Few are — so few that you rarely see managers promoted in that fashion anymore.

Honestly, the most interesting thing about Joe Frazier was his heavyweight name. The best thing he did was generally leaving Seaver (and Matlack and Koosman) alone to pitch. The worst? Besides that crack about Artie Williams?

By my judgment, it was an in-game move that irked me when it happened and irks me still. In terms of every Mets manager leaving behind a default image — Casey Stengel explaining the “Metsie…” phenomenon; Gil Hodges marching out to left field to check on Cleon Jones’s mysteriously aching leg; Davey Johnson audibly preparing to “dominate” the National League; Bobby Valentine going rogue upon ejection — I have one thing I automatically think of when I think of Joe Frazier.

He once pinch-ran Felix Millan.

I don’t mean he pinch-ran for Felix Millan. He used Felix Millan as a pinch-runner. If you’re not old enough to recall Joe Frazier as manager of the Mets in 1976 and part of 1977, then you don’t recall that Felix Millan was, in those years, nobody’s idea of a pinch-runner.

But there he was, being inserted into the game of April 23, 1977 [6], in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Mets trailing the Pirates by the eventual final score of 6-5. Ed Kranepool had led off the home half with a single off Pittsburgh closer Goose Gossage. Kranepool tended to run with a grand piano bolted to his back. You didn’t really want Ed Kranepool representing the tying run if you had someone faster available. Having otherwise deployed all position players who would bring speed to bear — and apparently not considering the gams of any spare pitchers — Frazier replaced Kranepool with Millan.

The same Felix Millan who ran with a Thomas organ on his back.

I didn’t care that it was Kranepool who was coming out. It baffled me that anybody would consider Felix Millan a viable option as a pinch-runner. I had never seen any indication that Felix Millan, a slow 33 (when 33 was old), could gain you a step in any baseball situation. Geez, it hadn’t been two years since Felix Millan singled four times in one game and was immediately forced out as the lead runner on four Joe Torre ground ball double plays — a major league record for the both of them.

What the hell, I wondered then and wonder still, was Joe Frazier thinking?

The strongest case I could come up with at age 14 was Joe Frazier knew of other Puerto Rican players who were swift and therefore decided Felix Millan must have some sort of innate speed he’d been hiding from the rest of us. Or maybe he confused the geographic “P.R.” abbreviation for Puerto Rico with the “pr” box score designation for pinch-runner.

However he wound up there, Millan was on first…as a pinch-runner. Stearns came up and flared a Gossage pitch that fell into short right. Fantastic! We’re gonna have first and second, nobody out and…

Pinch-runner Felix Millan, practicing caution rather than some of that trademark Joe Frazier aggressiveness, held up to see if the ball would drop. And because Felix Millan was the slowest pinch-runner Joe Frazier could have called on, Dave Parker picked up the ball from the right field grass and threw to Pirate shortstop Frank Taveras, who waited at second with one foot on the bag.

Pinch-runner Felix Millan was forced out 9-6 on what should have been a single to right.

Because Ed Kranepool couldn’t have done that himself.