Luis Hernandez’s imminent professional fate doesn’t appear to include a spot on the Mets’ 25-man roster. The largely blank slate that is Brad Emaus has been all but coronated our starting second baseman (good luck, kid; don’t turn into Don Bosch if you can help it) and Chin-lung Huuuuuuu! can be rightly identified as the utility infielder of record. With those spots spoken for, Hernandez has reportedly headed for the waiver wire. By Friday night, when we’re focused on mauling the Marlins, it’s likely Luis will be something other than a New York Met.
If his playing time in the organization is over and we never again see him in the blue and the orange, then we have, I believe, genuine reason to salute this otherwise ordinary journeyman baseball player (besides the fact that each of us would kill to make a living as an “ordinary journeyman baseball player”). Our motivation revolves around the only thing any of us will remember about Hernandez a year or ten from now.
We now turn the podium over to former prospective director of Mets scouting George Costanza so he can explain why what Luis did the last time we saw him so special:
“I knew I had hit my high note, so I thanked the crowd and I was gone.”
Luis didn’t follow George’s example to the letter. If he had, after fouling a ball off his right foot and breaking a bone and then — after being tended to by assistant trainer Mike Herbst — homering to right last September 18 against the Braves’ Tim Hudson, he would have limped around the bases and then simply hobbled out of sight. Instead, silly man that he is, Luis rehabbed his foot and came to Spring Training. But Spring Training, as we shall learn when real games resume, is merely Brigadoon. Its games don’t actually exist. Thus, technically, Luis Hernandez’s last act as a New York Met batter (if he never puts one foot in front of the other en route to the plate for us again) was to swing, to connect and to go deep.
Now that’s showmanship. When you hit that high note, per George’s pal Jerry Seinfeld, you say “good night” and walk off.
Or, in Hernandez’s case, limp off.
Though nobody else was quite as dramatic in his staging of the Costanzan philosophy, Luis Hernandez did have predecessors in making a last Met swing count for as much as one could. There were at least five previous instances of a New York Met stepping up to the plate, launching a home run and never coming to bat as a Met again. I say “at least,” because these five (plus potentially Luis’s) are the ones I know about. You’re welcome to inform me of others.
• There was much excitement at Shea Stadium the day Mike Cubbage hit his first, last and only Met home run in his final Met swing, though the excitement had little to do with Cubbage’s feat of October 3, 1981. That Saturday afternoon is better remembered in baseball annals for the Montreal Expos clinching their first, last and only postseason berth, as winners of the second-half division title of the strike-sundered 1981 season. That would come after the bottom of the ninth inning. In the bottom of the eighth, however, with one out, Cubbage was sent up by manager Joe Torre to pinch-hit for Doug Flynn. It was Cubbage’s 51st appearance as a pinch-hitter, and it was clearly his most powerful. Mike’s home run off closer Jeff Reardon cut Montreal’s lead to 5-4 but did not substantively impede Montreal’s impending celebration. Reardon retired the next five batters, and a passel of other Expos with past or future Met ties — Gary Carter, John Milner, Mike Phillips and Jerry Manuel — dogpiled him on the Shea mound.
Cubbage’s slugging swan song as a major leaguer served as prelude to a long coaching career inside the Mets organization, highlighted by a 3-4 stint as interim manager at the end of the 1991 season. That week when he replaced Bud Harrelson allows Cubbage to be mentioned in the same breath with Joe Frazier for two reasons. Besides sharing inscription on the Mets wall of managers, Cubbage and Frazier each homered in their last big league swings. Frazier — batting ahead of young Brooks Robinson — did so for Baltimore in 1956.
• It’s one of the best trades the Mets ever made. The Mets sent Ed Hearn, Rick Anderson and Mauro “Goose” Gozzo to Kansas City for minor league catcher Chris Jelic…and pitcher David Cone. OK, so it’s not particularly known as the Chris Jelic Trade, but a good deal is a good deal, and by the time Coney established himself as a top-flight Met starter, anything the Mets got out of Jelic would be gravy. And a drop of gravy, served at the very last instant, is better than none. Jelic’s ladle came out to play on October 3, 1990, the final game of that season. The Mets had been eliminated from contention a few days earlier. so what loomed as a division-deciding showdown with the first-place Pirates was merely the last bit of string the team was playing out. Yet the game was not without consequences. Frank Viola, who generally avoided winning meaningful games in September, entered the afternoon with 19 victories. A win wouldn’t help the Mets catch the Bucs but it would ensure David Cone would not go down as (likely) the last 20-game winner in Mets history.
Viola wasn’t particularly sharp, but the Pirates didn’t particularly care what happened. As regulars like Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke took their cuts and called it a day in order to rest up for the playoffs, Sweet Music persevered. The Mets gave him a 4-3 lead in the seventh when Pat Tabler tapped his happy talent for driving in runners with the bases loaded (he was hit by a pitch, scoring Viola). One inning later, Jelic, as the starting left fielder, gave Frankie V a little cushion with his first major league hit…a home run to left-center at Three Rivers Stadium off Mike York. Having extended the Mets’ margin and raised his batting average from .000, Jelic helped close Viola’s season on a pitch-perfect note while ending his own Met and major league career in style.
Chris Jelic didn’t mean to do that, though. Not the homer, but the ending. The Mets released him and he caught on with the Padres, but they stuck him in the minors for the next three seasons, never seeing fit to bring him up to San Diego. While Jelic disappeared from view, two of his post-Met managers are still in the majors: Jim Riggleman, helming the Nats, and Bruce Bochy, defending the world championship he achieved with the Giants.
• The first time most us noticed Chico Walker, we were struck by his ability to generate a crowd. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth and his team trailing the Mets 4-2 on September 17, 1986, the Cubs’ right fielder grounded to Wally Backman and in an instant, the flash mob was born. The throngs that stormed the field at Shea Stadium that night were less thrilled by the presence of Walker than the clinching of the Mets’ first division title in thirteen years.
And that’s where we left ol’ Chico, as the answer to a satisfying trivia question, the kind that already encompassed Joe Torre and Glenn Beckert and would later expand to include Lance Parrish, Dmitri Young, Keith Lockhart and Josh Willingham. What other reason would there ever be for Mets fans to take note of Chico Walker except for his having made the last out of a game that sent the Mets to a postseason?
The Shea infield was long cleared of intruders when Chico Walker next got our attention. It was 1992 and Walker was now a Met. He’d stay a Met through the end of the 1993 season, which was the next time he’d do something particularly noteworthy. The scene was Joe Robbie Stadium (as it was known about eight-dozen names ago) in Miami. The first-year, sixth-place Marlins are dueling the 32nd-year, seventh-place Mets on the last day of the only season in the history of divisional play when there can be seventh-place Mets; it’s a battle of titans, it is. With Pete Schourek nursing a 4-2 edge, Ryan Thompson leads off the top of the ninth by doubling. Dallas Green goes to his bench for a pinch-hitter…so deep into his bench, in fact, he’s in his rotation. Dwight Gooden’s the pinch-hitter. Thrilled to live up to his reputation as a good hitter, and not just a good hitter for a pitcher, Doc triples home Thompson. The rout is now on. The Mets are up 8-2 when Chico Walker makes like the cherry atop this otherwise dismal Sunday and homers off Matt Turner.
Per Warner Wolf, you could have turned your sets off right there. Seriously. It was raining in Miami, the Mets would get to the middle of the ninth with a 9-2 lead, the Marlins would send up one batter and…the tarp came on the field. The umps waited and waited and waited, and while they waited, Chico Walker was released. Well, it only seemed like he was gone before the game was officially called. Whatever the sequence of events, Chico’s last swing was a home run swing.
And Dwight Gooden would never again triple or pinch-hit.
• When you think of definitive Met endings involving home runs or something like them, you can’t go too long before the name Todd Pratt springs to mind. After all, the catcher we knew as Tank rolled up an entire National League Division Series with one thundering swing off Matt Mantei of the Diamondbacks on October 9, 1999. Eight days later, Pratt would add another signature action to Met lore by tackling Robin Ventura in the midst of an aborted fifteenth-inning home run trot of note.
Not nearly as famous was Todd Pratt’s last Met home run. Good reason, too. It came with no fanfare, to little cheer, amid no sense of occasion. The Phillies were leading the Mets 10-0 at the Vet on July 20, 2001. Two were out, nobody was on, it was the top of the ninth. Ex-Met Robert Person was thisclose to tossing a shutout when Tank broke it up with potentially most meaningless solo home run of all time. Pratt rounded the bases (nobody stops you before you reach second when you’re down by double-digits) and, four pitches later, Todd Zeile struck out and the game was over, just another desultory 10-1 loss for the going-nowhere Mets in the summer of 2001.
Unknown to anybody still listening or watching was that would be that for the walkoff hero of the ’99 NLDS. Following the Mets-Phillies series, the Mets and Phillies arrange a trade, backup catcher for backup catcher, Todd Pratt for Gary Bennett. If you blinked, you absolutely missed the entirety of Bennett’s Mets career (1-for-1 before being sent down and eventually dealt to Colorado). As for Pratt, he had 23 more home runs in him as a Phillie and Brave through 2006. Though last swings suit his legend most, it’s worth noting his first Met at-bat, on July 4, 1997, produced a home run. And just as his last Met homer came off an ex-Met, that first Met homer came off a future Met: Al Leiter, then of the Marlins.
• Todd Zeile couldn’t have choreographed his goodbye any better had he been Gower Champion. The veteran of 127 different major league teams chose Shea as his farewell stage on October 3, 2004. What a production: some pregame ceremonies, some theatrics in which he strapped on the catching gear of his youth; and then, in the sixth, with two on and nobody out and the Mets leading the about-to-be-extinct Expos 4-1, Zeile took his last swing as a major leaguer, versus future Met Claudio Vargas, and turned it into three-run home run that brought the house down and the audience to its feet. Todd Zeile wasn’t really a Met icon in his time, but for one day, nobody was more of a leading man.
Luis Hernandez will likely catch on somewhere and swing for somebody before long. When he does, here’s hoping he does it pain-free.
UPDATE, MARCH 30: Luis cleared waivers and has been outrighted to Buffalo. Not a Met, but not necessarily never again a Met. Way to step on your own great ending with two good feet.