Welcome to The Happiest Recap, a solid gold slate of New York Mets games culled from every schedule the Mets have ever played en route to this, their fiftieth year in baseball. We’ve created a dream season that includes the “best” 148th game in any Mets season, the “best” 149th game in any Mets season, the “best” 150th game in any Mets season…and we keep going from there until we have a completed schedule worthy of Bob Murphy coming back with the Happy Recap after this word from our sponsor on the WFAN Mets Radio Network.
GAME 148: September 21, 2001 — METS 3 Braves 2
(Mets All-Time Game 148 Record: 19-28; Mets 2001 Record: 75-73)
Matt Lawton hit 3 home runs during his brief 2001 term as a Met, each of them prior to the bottom of the eighth of the game of September 21, an inning he happened to lead off by grounding out to Braves shortstop Rey Sanchez. Edgardo Alfonzo swatted 15 from Opening Day until he was walked by Steve Karsay with one out in that same frame. The 2001 home run totals, up to that bases on balls, of other Mets who batted from the first inning through the seventh inning that Friday night:
• Robin Ventura: 20
• Tsuyoshi Shinjo: 10
• Todd Zeile: 9
• Jay Payton: 7
• Rey Ordoñez: 3
• Bruce Chen: 0
• Joe McEwing: 7
Combined, those nine Mets had hit 74 home runs in the first 147 games of that Mets season. None had hit one out in the 148th, which was nearing completion when Alfonzo walked and Desi Relaford was sent in to pinch-run for him. While several of those Mets seemed unlikely to hit a homer on veritable demand, it wasn’t inconceivable that a few of them might take an Atlanta pitcher deep. Fonzie, Robin and Shinjo were all in double-digits. Zeile, Payton and McEwing had certainly homered enough that year so it wouldn’t be a novelty.
Yet none of them did homer on September 21, 2001. Mike Piazza, however, did. Mike Piazza hit his 34th home run of the season after Alfonzo walked. It put the Mets ahead 3-2. They’d go on to beat the Braves by that same score.
By now you no doubt recognize the home run in question as the most famous home run hit by any Met in the half-century that there have been Mets. It didn’t end a game. It didn’t ensure a playoff berth or a postseason series victory. It was an eighth-inning home run on a night whose cachet was generated less by competitive context than by the simple fact that more than 40,000 New Yorkers gathered at Shea Stadium to watch a baseball game ten days after terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center and killed more than 2,700 human beings in the process.
A game, yes. But also a civic memorial service and a municipal grief counseling session for more than 40,000. And that was just Friday night. In the days before, the Shea parking lot was where recovery efforts were staged — led at first by Bobby Valentine and aided by Mets players before their schedule resumed in Pittsburgh on September 17. And that was just part of what the Mets did between the stoppage of play on September 11 and its resumption six days later. The players offered themselves up as solace at hospitals and firehouses. When they were back on the field against the Pirates, they wore the caps of the FDNY and the NYPD and the PAPD, all of which lost members who rushed into burning buildings to save total strangers.
The Mets’ overall presence may have been no more than a slight psychological balm for the grieving and the shaken, but it was what a baseball team could give, and the Mets gave it.
As for the game that is generally remembered as more than a game, there was somberness, there was lingering unease and there was a handful of electrifying performances. Among those belting our their best on September 21, 2001 were Diana Ross with “God Bless America,” Marc Anthony with “The Star Spangled Banner,” Liza Minnelli with “New York, New York,” and Mike Piazza with the go-ahead home run off Karsay.
As Fox Sports Net New York focused on the almost dissonant cheering in the Picnic Area bleachers after Mike rounded the bases, Howie Rose emphasized how Piazza’s ball metaphorically reached beyond the scoreboard:
“And why is baseball back? Why was it so important to give fans a few hours to forget about their troubles? Those firefighters smiling — because of a baseball game in Flushing.”
Piazza’s solo was the most memorable star turn of them all, but nothing that Friday night was about standing alone in a spotlight. It wasn’t about any one person. It was about thousands of people, too many of whom could not be at Shea Stadium. It was about the thousands they left behind and the millions who mourned for them. It remains remarkable to understand that the act of going to a Mets game — no matter the opponent, no matter the standings — could represent so much to so many.
Though it’s probably worth noting from a purely baseball standpoint, the opponent was the archrival, first-place Atlanta Braves, whom the Mets had battled so fiercely through Valentine’s tenure as manager, and that the standings were something the Mets were rapidly climbing. The two teams embraced as part of a pregame show of unity, but at the end of the night, it couldn’t help be noticed (if you were so inclined) that New York had moved to within 4½ of the top spot in the National League East. That was a nine-game improvement from where they sat in the middle of August.
And in the center of everything — the final score, the psychological boost, the sense that maybe life does go on — was Mike Piazza. There’s no tangible reason it had to be Piazza who hit the home run that recalibrated our municipal emotions. It could have been Ventura or Alfonzo or Shinjo. In theory, it could have been Ordoñez.
But if you were at all cognizant of the Mets during his eight-season tenure in orange and blue, you knew it had to be Piazza. These types of moments always found Piazza. Or maybe Piazza and the moments always met in the middle. Anybody who would go as deep as Piazza did on a night that ran as deep as that one did would deserve to be remembered, but it’s near-impossible to picture anybody else doing it. On some other Friday night in some other circumstance, sure, anybody could swing and connect. Not that night. That was the sort of thing Mike Piazza did. We accepted it as extraordinary and perfectly normal, which is what the 40,000+ in attendance were seeking on September 21, 2001, ten days after the events of September 11, 2001. We as Mets fans went on to hold it fondly and we hold it still. We hold the days and nights of Mike Piazza in the same regard.
It’s a moot question, but if the home run had come off the bat of another Met, would we have embraced it immediately and continued to grip it like it mattered beyond a 3-2 lead in the eighth?
Honestly, it’s probably never seriously occurred to any Mets fan that it could have been anybody else.
Now and again from 1998 to 2005, Mike Piazza stepped up and played the hero for the Mets. On September 21, 2001, on the heels of ten days that sent a city reeling, we realized that’s exactly what a baseball player who hits a big home run is doing: playing. Piazza, we understood, wasn’t a hero. But at a Mets game — specifically that singular Mets-Braves game — nobody could have possibly filled the role better.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 14, 1996, Todd Hundley was only a year removed from being statistically lumped in among second-tier power-hitting catchers. He hit 15 in all of 1995, 14 in games he caught. This, according to Baseball Reference’s Play Index, placed him in the approximate company of non-sluggers like Mike Macfarlane and Terry Steinbach and proverbial miles from the major league leader for home runs by a catcher, 31, hit by the Dodgers’ Mike Piazza. Todd’s power totals for 1995, when he played in 90 games, were fairly consistent with those he put up in 1994, when he hit 16 home runs and played in 91 games.
Yet as 1996 wound down, Todd Hundley was rewriting a pair of record books…in the home run section. Obviously, something was up.
Specifically, Todd Hundley’s home run production.
If there were any suspicions that something broader was awry, they were murmured quietly and disseminated lightly. The same could be said for all of baseball in a year when the balls started flying out of parks with stunning frequency.
In 1993, the last non-strike season, the National League produced 1,956 home runs. In 1996, the same 14 teams would slug 2,220. The contrast was even more pronounced in the A.L., where homer totals rose from 2,074 to 2,742. Andres Galarraga, playing in the literally rarefied air of Denver, led the National League with 47 home runs in 1996 despite having hit only 31 the year before at the same elevation (and in only 16 fewer games); those 31 represented his pre-’96 career high. The American League, bolstered by the DH rule, came up with far gaudier power numbers. It showcased five hitters with 47 or more home runs, including Baltimore’s Brady Anderson, whose 50 placed him two behind Mark McGwire for the league lead. Anderson had never hit more than 21 in a single season before.
So if a relatively undistinguished-hitting catcher was going to pick a year to start going deep with regularity, 1996 was as good a year as imaginable.
Todd hit his first home run of the year in the first game of the year, which was great timing for a Mets team that had fallen behind 6-0 by the fourth inning. Hundley’s two-run shot at Shea off Andy Benes helped set the stage for a fairly miraculous 7-6 comeback win over the Cardinals, a game most notable for shortstop Rey Ordoñez unveiling his defensive prowess in his major league debut. As spectacular as Ordoñez was in the field — he threw out Royce Clayton at the plate from his knees — the game also served very much as a harbinger for what Hundley was about to do over the course of 1996.
At the quarter-mark of the season, Hundley belted his 12th home run. On June 13, when the Mets were playing their 67th game, Todd made it 17, or his career best. He finished the statistical first half of the season with 20 and roared into the All-Star Game (as Piazza’s backup) with 23.
And then he got really hot, blasting 13 home runs in a span of 26 games played between July 17 and August 11. The Mets had completed just a little more than two-thirds of their season, and Todd Hundley had hit 36 home runs, second-best in the N.L., three behind Chicago’s Sammy Sosa. Longball fever was running so high, that the two sluggers agreed to partake in a pregame home run derby when the Cubs came to Shea in mid-August…though cooler front-office heads prevailed and cancelled the showdown.
Besides, Hundley was already in two other contests, and he seemed clearly on the verge of winning them easily. The Mets’ single-season home run record belonged to Darryl Strawberry, who banged out 39 in 1987 and another 39 in 1988. The most home runs ever struck by a catcher — while participating in a game as catcher, as opposed to taking busman’s holidays at first base and such — was 40, totaled by Brooklyn Dodger legend Roy Campanella in 1953.
Cake. Hundley was just a handful in back of Straw and Campy with 49 Mets games remaining. Surely he’d overtake Darryl, then Roy, then maybe even Sammy (whose season was about to be cut short by injury). There would be no stopping Todd Hundley’s home run barrage.
But there’d sure be some slowing of it.
Hundley began to press for home runs and he couldn’t help but wear down. There’s a reason no catcher had hit more than 40 homers in a season: catching takes a lot out of a player, and Todd wouldn’t sit (or wasn’t sat by manager Dallas Green) for very long. Perhaps it ran in the blood, as Todd’s father, Randy, set the major league record for most games caught in a single year when he crouched in anger an almost unbelievable 160 times in 1968.
Whyever it happened, Todd stopped popping balls over fences with ease. Starting with the Cubs series that included the aborted showdown with Sosa, Hundley went six straight games without a homer. That included the Mets’ trip to Mexico to play the Padres, where the elevation soared higher than 1,700 feet above sea level and the fences down the lines at Monterrey Stadium measured no more than 325 feet from home plate. But Hundley went homerless in his two games South of the Border and didn’t recover his power stroke until a pair of games at what was then called 3Com Park in San Francisco. He homered two days in a row there, for Nos. 37 and 38, and appeared back on track.
Yet he wasn’t. Nine more game went by — encompassing the firing of Green and the hiring of Bobby Valentine as Mets manager — before Hundley launched No. 39, on September 2 at Shea, off the Dodgers’ Pedro Astacio to tie Strawberry. Six days later, against Brave reliever Joe Borowski at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Todd took advantage of the Launching Pad’s reputation. His launch was a solo blast of “the first 2-0 fastball I’ve seen in a month” in the seventh inning for No. 40, making him the all-time Mets home run king for any given year.
It took 35 years for a Met hitter to break out of the thirties and 136 games (of 143 the Mets had played thus far) for Hundley to be the one to do it. “That’s where the goosebumps come in: being mentioned after Darryl Strawberry in this organization,” the homegrown catcher enthused. “That’s what means more than anything. So many people in this organization stuck with me and didn’t give up on me. Now they’re starting to reap the rewards.”
The achievement drew a slew of Mets out of the dugout to greet the conquering slugger. “I think the guys who didn’t hit the ball,” Valentine observed, “were as happy as the guy who did hit it. It was a burden they were carrying around for him.”
“The way the team’s been playing,” Tim Bogar added in a fit of honesty, “there’s not been much to think about except him hitting that home run.”
In addition to passing Strawberry, the switch-hitter (the only one besides Mickey Mantle with at least 40 home runs in an individual campaign) was now tied with Campy, and he really wanted to become the sluggingest one-season catcher ever as soon as possible. “Patience,” Todd admitted, “isn’t really one of my strong points.”
Hundley’s strength would be on display six days later at Shea, a Saturday Game of the Week televised by Fox. The opponent would again be the Braves and Todd would still be stuck on 40. The Mets were down 5-0 in the seventh when a rally gathered steam. Bernard Gilkey, in his own pursuit of Howard Johnson’s club record of 117 RBIs, knocked in his 113th and 114th runs of the year to cut the Atlanta lead to 5-2. Hundley was up next, with two men on versus righty Greg McMichael.
Swinging lefty, Todd was behind oh-and-two when he unleashed a three-run opposite-field homer that tied the score and put him forever ahead of Roy Campanella. In the annals of big league baseball, no catcher had ever gone through a single season and hit more home runs than…Todd Hundley?
Yes, Todd Hundley.
“When I got it,” he said with the self-assurance of a seasoned slugger, “I knew it was gone. There’s a click you’re looking for and I got the click.” That he had the “blessing” of Campanella’s widow, Roxie (whom he met at Dodger Stadium) was important to this son of a major leaguer, and that he hit it at Shea meant a great deal to the seven-year Met veteran: “I wanted it for the fans. I’ve been through a lot with them. I’ve gone from being booed by 40,000 people to being cheered by the 20,000 or 30,000 that were here.” Indeed, 22,857 gave Hundley a hearty ovation, while DiamondVision played a reel of his previous home runs.
“It was nice to get the curtain call and be able to wave to them,” Hundley beamed later. “I wanted to just stand there a while, but the game was going on.”
The game did go on and it became another reason for the Mets to gather at home plate and celebrate. In the bottom of the twelfth, Lance Johnson — who had already set a club record when he passed Felix Millan’s 191 for most hits in a season — singled for his 207th safety of 1996, driving in Matt Franco for a 6-5 Mets win. Johnson would wind up the year with 227 hits (and a team record 21 triples), while Gilkey would finish with 117 runs batted in, tying HoJo.
Hundley’s 41 home runs stayed 41 home runs, ultimately good enough for fourth in the league behind Galarraga, Barry Bonds and Gary Sheffield. Todd kept going behind the plate over the last two weeks of the season (he’d catch 150 games in all), but the chase for 41 had taken a ton out of him. “Getting that one off me,” he acknowledged, “is like getting a house lifted off my shoulders.”
The pace at which Hundley hit balls out of National League ballparks in 1996 gave everybody watching him the impression that Todd was strong enough to carry any structure he chose, including his team. Not long after taking over as Met skipper, Valentine marveled at his catcher’s power.
“They can say all they want about the ball being juiced,” Bobby V said, “but the two [homers] I’ve seen would have been out in the dead-ball era. He’s a force to be reckoned with.”
GAME 149: September 18, 2006 — METS 4 Marlins 0
(Mets All-Time Game 149 Record: 15-32; Mets 2001 Record: 91-58)
Six years without a postseason berth. Three times as long without a division flag. Five-and-a-half months of inevitability. One wasted weekend in Pennsylvania (a resonant echo of 1986) when the academic matter of clinching an October reservation eluded the most fully loaded team the National League had to offer.
But the 2006 Mets and their magic number of 1 were too loaded to be denied or delayed any longer from their mission: Win the N.L. East for the first time since 1988, qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2000, have a “title to show” for running “roughshod” over the senior circuit, as Gary Cohen would put it after nine efficient innings this Monday night at Shea.
Tastes of redemption were evident everywhere as Joe Girardi’s Florida Marlins made the league’s last, unsuccessful stand against inevitability.
There was one for the starter, the guy who came to the Mets in 2001, just after the last sip of Metropolitan glory. He had been sometimes good, more often lucky, generally kind of pokey, not generally loved. The starter, Steve Trachsel, put in 6⅓ innings of shutout ball.
There was one for a failed pinch-hitter turned ad hoc second baseman who was nowhere to be found on that position’s depth chart in March and didn’t take over his job until June. The second baseman, Jose Valentin, hit two home runs.
There was one for a middle reliever whose only association with the club was negative, thanks to a little too much chin music directed at the chin and other body parts of one of the franchise’s most beloved figures. He came on board in August and earned a place by throwing hard and getting outs. The middle reliever, Guillermo Mota, did that per usual in the seventh.
There was one for a setup man who had been zigged out of the rotation and zagged into the bullpen and stepped up into a role he didn’t want. The setup man, Aaron Heilman, made the eighth inning a breeze.
There was one for a closer who never enjoyed the mass confidence of his audience but proved a damn sight of an improvement over his immediate predecessors. The closer, Billy Wagner, generated a popout to second and a flyout to center and then a fly to left.
There was one for a leftfielder whose on-field presence was, because of injury, fringe for large stretches of the year, but whose off-field presence was too enormous to ever be discounted. The leftfielder, Cliff Floyd, was where he belonged — in left field awaiting that one final fly ball off the bat of Josh Willingham.
He caught it.
When he did, it resulted in all the redemption 46,727 fans and the franchise it adored could ask for in the wake of 6,570 days since clinching its previous division title. The Mets and their believers were the champs of all there was to be champs of as of September 18, 2006.
Five less thrilling Septembers later, Jose Reyes, one of those who celebrated most jubilantly when Floyd caught that last ball, was moved to tell reporters, “I remember 2006. Man, that was fun.”
It really was.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 11, 1968, a promising young pitcher was learning what life on the Mets could be like, particularly during a year notorious for pitching, pitching and nothing but pitching.
Which pretty well describes the 1968 Mets’ offense.
When it came to run support, Jim McAndrew of Lost Nation, Ia., consistently found himself on the mound figuratively naked…though Jim might read into that characterization, given that he studied psychology at the University of Iowa. His earliest Met experience was practically a recurring nightmare. He’d stand in the middle of the field, pitch his heart (and everything else) out and have nothing to show for it. Consider McAndrew’s first four starts as a midseason callup:
• 2 earned runs
• 2 earned runs
• 1 earned run
• 1 earned run
With results like that, the righty could expect…well, nothing. The Mets scored the following for McAndrew in those first four starts:
• 0 runs
• 0 runs
• 0 runs
• 0 runs
Four starts into his major league career, the hard-throwing 24-year-old had an ERA of 1.82 — and a won-lost record of 0-4. Then Jim had the nerve to have a bad outing in San Francisco, hiking his earned run average to 3.38 and dropping his mark to 0-5.
Not, by all indications, the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
Deliverance came on August 26, in his sixth start, against formidable competition. Taking on the pennant-bound Cardinals at Busch Stadium (and facing off against emerging lefty star Steve Carlton), McAndrew figured out that the only way to win was to give up absolutely nothing, and then hope against hope that his batting teammates would give him just a little something with which to operate.
The plan worked. Tommie Agee scored on Cleon Jones’s eighth-inning sacrifice fly to give Jim a 1-0 lead, and Jim made it stand up by retiring the final six Redbirds of the night. McAndrew’s first major league shutout lowered his ERA to 2.58, and raised his record to 1-5.
Then he went out, pitched eight and seven innings in his next two starts, gave up two runs in each of them, and — as the Mets continued to not score behind him — saw his record plunge to 1-7 even as his ERA dipped some more.
To “salvage” his career, Jim McAndrew revisited his August 26 formula on September 11, a Wednesday afternoon in Chicago. First, he made sure to oppose yet another future Hall of Famer, Ferguson Jenkins. Then he decided he would give up nothing all day, which in Jim’s case constituted 8⅓ innings. And he trusted his teammates to do the least they could do for him: score one lousy run. That occurred in the top of the fourth, when two Mets catchers (who could presumably come closest among all position players to understanding a run-starved pitcher’s mental anguish) doubled. Jerry Grote’s two-base hit drove in J.C. Martin, that day’s first baseman, from second to provide Jim with a 1-0 lead.
He took it to one out in the ninth, when a Don Kessinger single and a Ken Boswell error on Glenn Beckert’s ground ball convinced Gil Hodges that McAndrew had given all he could. Jim was removed after striking out seven and allowing only two hits and two walks. Relievers Billy Short and Cal Koonce each recorded an out and McAndrew was a winner again.
The Met victory — their 66th of the season, or as many as they’d ever accumulated in one year to date — brought Jim McAndrew’s record to 2-7, yet his ERA to 2.19. He’d started nine games to that point; the Mets scored six runs for him and five times they decided to not score at all. The only way he could win was by a) prevailing 1-0 and b) besting all-time greats just as they were getting good.
Hard to imagine they covered that kind of stress in psychology class.
GAME 150: September 15, 1975 — METS 3 Expos 2
(Mets All-Time Game 150 Record: 20-27; Mets 1975 Record: 76-64)
Could it be? Could the Mets, notorious for giving away Amos Otis and Nolan Ryan only to watch them turn into stars, actually have fleeced another team in a trade? It sure looked that way in September 1975.
The Mets, after all, stole Mike Vail.
Technically, they traded utilityman Teddy Martinez to the Cardinals for utilityman Jack Heidemann, and Vail, a minor league outfielder of modest renown, was considered a “throw-in” from St. Louis. “When Bing [Devine, the St. Louis GM] and I decided to swap Martinez and Heidemann,” Mets general manager Joe McDonald told Jack Lang in the Sporting News, “I felt we need another player in the deal. I asked for Vail, and Bing said OK.”
The 23-year-old Californian actually showed a bit of promise in his final year in the Cardinal chain, batting a combined .334 at Modesto and Arkansas, but with a major league outfield of Lou Brock, Bake McBride and Reggie Smith, they seemed pretty secure at three positions. “I just didn’t see any future with the Cardinals,” Vail told Mets beat writer Jack Lang, “and I asked [player personnel director] Bob Kennedy to trade me. I felt that the Cardinals were going for more speed in the outfield and that I didn’t figure in their plans.”
So on December 11, 1974, the Cards dealt Vail to the Mets. Vail went to Tidewater and kept hitting, putting up a .342 average — and a 19-game hitting streak — prior to his mid-August debut with New York. His first appearance came as a pinch-hitter at the Astrodome, versus flamethrowing J.R. Richard. Vail singled.
It was a sign of things to almost immediately come. After 20 at-bats, Vail had 10 hits, a .500 average at any level. In his first start, at San Diego Stadium, Mike went 4-for-4 before being walked intentionally in the ninth inning with an open base and Mets RBI leader Rusty Staub up next.
Mike Vail looked that good that early in his big league career…and he was just getting started. Vail started eight games at the end of August and hit in all eight of them, finishing his first calendar month batting .381. His first at-bat at Shea, against the Pirates’ John Candelaria on the first day of September, produced his first home run, or all the runs starter Tom Seaver would need en route to a couple of personal milestones. Seaver was the undisputed star that day, but Vail was catching on fast in Flushing. He was playing every day and he was hitting every day.
As if he were Elton John with a Louisville Slugger, the hits just kept on coming. Vail made his hitting streak nine on September 1 versus the Pirates. The rest of that series wasn’t kind to the Mets’ pennant chances, but Mike was relentless. When the Bucs left town, the streak was up to eleven. The Cardinals came to Shea to see what they gave up on and were presented with compelling evidence that it was a lot: three games, a hit or more in each of them. The streak reached 14.
A trip to Montreal showed going through Customs couldn’t invalidate Vail’s momentum. Three games at Jarry Park raised the hit streak by three, to 17. Two at Three Rivers and a trio at Busch Stadium — where Vail had been deemed expendable barely nine months earlier — ratcheted it up to 22.
Now Mike Vail was in some heady territory. The longest Mets hitting streak ever was 23, a standard established by Cleon Jones in 1970. The longest National League rookie hitting streak was the same, set in 1921 by the Phillies’ Goldie Rapp and equaled 27 years later by future Original Met Richie Ashburn. Mets fans, deprived of much of substance to cheer for when they fell out of contention a couple of weeks earlier, clung to Vail’s quest to keep hitting. Their goal was Joe DiMaggio’s 56 (and beyond), but for now, these benchmarks would do nicely.
The moment of truth arrived on a selectively attended Monday night at Shea with the Expos in town. After a groundout in the first and a hard lineout in the fourth, Vail faced Steve Rogers with two out and Del Unser on second. The Mets trailed 2-0.
But then they didn’t. Vail singled to center, halving the Montreal lead, doubling the number of Mets hitting streak recordholders and nudging aside Rapp and Ashburn among N.L. rookie hit-streakers. Mike Vail, after playing in a total of 26 major league games, had now hit in 23 consecutive contests. His became the longest hitting streak forged anywhere in the majors in 1975.
The sparse crowd of 7,259 that had been chanting, “LET’S GO MIKE!” stood and applauded for two solid minutes. But they’d have a little more to cheer two innings later when, with the score tied, Vail came up again, this time with runners on first and second, and stroked another single off Rogers, this one to left. Gene Clines came home to give the Mets a 3-2 edge, one maintained in the ninth on Skip Lockwood’s first Mets save.
What a maiden voyage into the big leagues for Michael Lewis Vail. In crafting his record-tying streak, he batted .364, with 36 hits in 99 at-bats — a “steady rat-atat-tat of base hits,” in Lang’s language. Better than the numbers was the hope he represented. The Mets hadn’t developed many hitters in their 14-year history. Mike might not have been homegrown, but he did hone his skills as a Tide, and Mets fans embraced him as The Next Big Thing.
“I’ve got to keep it going,” Vail insisted after the game. Outright ownership of the records he shared awaited, and after that, who knew?
Who knew, for example, that the very next night, the Mets and Expos would play 18 innings, and Vail would bat eight times…only to go 0-for-8 to end his run at 23?
Or that Vail, who played left field throughout his streak, would be anointed the starting right fielder for 1976 after Staub was traded to Detroit for Mickey Lolich…only to foil the Mets’ best-laid plans by dislocating his right foot and damaging its Achilles tendon while on the basketball court during the offseason?
Or that he wouldn’t see action again until the following June, and that he’d bat .217 as a part-timer, never stringing together more than five consecutive games with at least one base hit in all of ’76?
Or that Vail would be claimed off waivers by the Indians after a lackluster 1977 and bounce around to four other teams besides before registering the last of his 447 career hits in 1984?
In the year Mike Vail hung ’em up, Hubie Brooks hit in 24 consecutive games for the Mets, erasing Vail from the Met record books. Mike Piazza would tie Brooks’s mark in 1999, and Moises Alou would come along in 2007 and set the new Met mark at 30. Yet if you ask a Mets fan of appropriate vintage to name a Met in the context of a hitting streak, chances are that fan won’t say Alou or Piazza or Brooks or Jones.
At the conclusion of the 1975 season, Lang listed Vail as “the real surprise” of the year, and “when he continued to hit after one full month in the majors, the Mets knew he was no Hurricane Hazle…no flash in the pan like the Milwaukee phenom of 1957 who hit .403 in September and was gone the following year.”
Actually, hindsight — and not a lot of it — revealed Vail was exactly that. He was the guy who came up from the minors when the season was nearing its end, hit like crazy, made everybody believe they’d uncovered a rare gem and allowed Metsopotamia to let its collective imagination run wild. He still is that guy. Any unproven talent who excels out of the box tends to be tabbed “another Mike Vail” until proven otherwise.
It’s a designation not necessarily applied with outsized affection. But for 23 games in 1975, it was the highest compliment a Mets fan could offer.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 20, 1976, a kid from Brooklyn showed what he could do in Queens…and to Pittsburgh. Lee Mazzilli, the Mets’ No. 1 draft choice from 1973, was given his big chance two weeks earlier after his callup from Double-A Jackson and he was making the least of it. He homered in his second game in the bigs, at Wrigley Field, then went ice cold. After twelve games (eight of them starts), the pride of Sheepshead Bay was batting a paltry .152.
Nevertheless, manager Joe Frazier continued to use September to see what he had in Lee. Also finding out was Pirates skipper Danny Murtaugh. His club was barely hanging on in a late bid to dislodge the Phillies from first place this Monday afternoon at Shea, and they were one out from leaving New York with a much-needed 4-3 win. Alas, Buc fireman Kent Tekulve gave up a single to pinch-hitter John Milner, which brought up Mazzilli as the potential winning run.
Sure enough, Mazzilli flashed his potential and brought down the curtain on the Bucs’ chances. He hit his second major league home run, his first at Shea, sending the Pirates to their watery doom, 5-4. Fewer than 6,000 were on hand to witness Lee’s inaugural walkoff, but for the 21-year-old center fielder, it felt immense enough — “I floated around the bases” — to have taken place before 60,000.
“It’s incredible, I just can’t believe it,” the youngster gushed. “Two weeks ago, I was in the minors, and now this. It’s a fantasy, having a part in the pennant race. I still can’t believe it.”
Neither could elder Buc statesman Willie Stargell, who saw his team slide to 4½ in back of Philly with the Mets’ third win in the four-game series. “I don’t want to talk,” Stargell sulked. “I’ve run out of words.”