In his career, he was — among other things — an Astro, a Giant and a Met. He stood in the batter’s box representing the last shred of doubt as to where a hard-earned National League flag would fly. If he succeeded, his team would know life and a possible world championship. If he didn’t, there’d be a lasting image of triumph for somebody else and a lingering legacy of what might have been for him, his franchise and its legion of fans.
As it turned out, he experienced a series-ending third strike from the worst vantage point possible. And six years later, he wound up a part of the team that once upon a time made him a famous final victim.
So went the story of Kevin Bass, 1986/1992. So goes the story of Carlos Beltran, 2006/2012.
Beltran is winging his way to St. Louis, about to become a Cardinal a half-dozen years after succumbing to the Cardinals. That would have been weird if this were, say, December 2008 or 2009. It would have been Too Soon. But it’s about to be six years from Called Strike Three, not to mention two teams later. Carlos’s San Francisco stopover took care of the “he sure looks strange in that alien uniform” factor, though he never wore it in our presence. Thus, the first time we get a look at post-Met Beltran in our midst (June 1 at Citi Field) it will be as a member of the outfit that transformed otherwise beautiful 2006 into a living dwell. I personally dwelled on 2006 for five full years until the calendar advised me it was time to let it go. So I did.
My renouncement of continual hard feelings about the way the last NLCS the Mets played ended — not just Beltran not swinging at a probably unhittable curveball, but the whole of Game Seven — means I have to view Carlos the Cardinal as not all that much materially weirder than the news that Anderson Hernandez (pinch-running for Paul Lo Duca, who had just walked) has signed a minor league contract with the Pirates; or Endy Chavez (on second three innings after making a certain Catch) has gone Oriole; or that Jose Valentin (on third) is nowadays managing in the Padre chain.
Players move on in this game we love to watch progress yet sometimes tend to freeze in place. They’re necessarily professional about it. At the Mets holiday party, I asked Justin Turner how strange it is seeing so many of his 2011 teammates — Beltran, Jose Reyes, Francisco Rodriguez, Angel Pagan, Chris Capuano, Nick Evans, Ryota Igarashi, Jason Pridie (whose wedding he’d recently attended) and whoever I’m leaving out — land in other places so soon after they were his 2011 teammates. “You get pretty accustomed to it,” the former Red farmhand and Oriole shrugged. And sure enough, within a week of my getting to meet Justin Turner of the New York Mets, his name was linked to a trade rumor that says he might be headed for Colorado.
Turner as a prospective Rockie, Pridie as an Athletic, Capuano as a Dodger, Pagan as a Giant or even the celebrated Reyes breathing through Marlin gills, however, aren’t images that quite pack the historical dissonance of Carlos Beltran joining the Other Side from a pitched playoff battle of yore. Beltran’s now with Yadier Molina. He’s now with Adam Wainwright. He’s going to try to help the guy who stuck the knife in our backs with a ninth-inning homer and the guy who twisted it in fatally with a ninth-inning strikeout.
That’s business. That’s time. It’s still weird, just less so because of business and time.
Anyway, the Beltran bulletin brought me back a little to August of 1992 when the Mets did the historically dissonant thing and imported their version of the Beltran the Cardinals are getting for 2012. Well, the Kevin Bass for whom the injury-riddled Mets were compelled to deal nearly twenty years ago wasn’t anywhere near the player Beltran was in 2011. He was never on Carlos’s level save maybe for 1986, which loomed as inconvenient for the Mets that October.
Kevin Bass was having the season of his life 25 years ago, helping to lead the Houston Astros to the National League West title. He batted .311, made the All-Star team and finished seventh in MVP voting. He and Glenn Davis were what made the Astro lineup formidable enough to forge a postseason berth behind the club’s otherworldly starting pitching. If a big game was on the line, Kevin Bass was not who you wanted facing you.
Of course the Mets had Kevin Bass facing them with their biggest game to date on the line in 1986, the Sixth Game of the National League Championship Series. He was the fella who came to bat in the bottom of the sixteenth, the Mets ahead by one run, the Astros with two on and two out, Jesse Orosco bone-tired and Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter preparing for fisticuffs should anything but a slider be called for. Anybody would have been a formidable foe with the tying run on second base in those circumstances, but it was Bass’s contemporary stature that made the moment a little extra legendary in the instant retelling.
We know what happened. Orosco threw nothing but sliders. Bass swung through the last one. Carter caught it, Hernandez delivered no punches, Mike Scott went into dry dock for the winter and everybody connected to the Mets went nuts on the United flight home.
I don’t know to what extent Bass was saddled with his strike three, and if it shadowed the balance of his Astro tenure as Beltran’s strike three shadowed his with the Mets. I do know Kevin Bass was never talked about as an All-Star or MVP candidate again and that the Astros didn’t contend all that seriously through the rest of the 1980s. Kevin left for San Francisco as a free agent after the 1989 season. They didn’t go anywhere with him on board, so it was no skin off the Giants’ nose to let the Mets have him for a song in ’92 when the plummeting Flushingites were strapped for outfielders (Bobby Bonilla and Howard Johnson — that season a center fielder — had both gone down during the same weekend series in early August).
When Kevin Bass, Astro obstacle from our last spurt of genuine glory, arrived to don a Mets uniform, it wasn’t treated as a story of any kind. Nobody looked at the guy from the Astrodome’s most searing moment and said, “ironic, ain’t it?” or anything of the sort. Bass simply seemed old and stopgap, never more so than in his third game as a New York Met. It was at Shea on August 10, 1992, against the Pirates, the Mets’ ostensible archrivals, though the Mets’ midseason sag had taken the starch out of their mutual arch. The Bucs were on their way to a relatively easy third consecutive division title (or one more than the Mets won during the epoch when they were considered the class of the East). Our team was wallowing double-digits from first place.
Yet under such inauspicious circumstances, the Mets replicated the length of their contest versus the Astros from October 15, 1986, that sixteen-inning, pennant-determining affair that wasn’t decided until Kevin Bass struck out in its 282nd minute of play. That epic afternoon/evening in Houston wasn’t Bass’s finest four hours and forty-two minutes. After walking in the first and making it to third as the Astros went up by a quick three runs, a squeeze play gone awry marked him a dead duck. Carter nailed Bass in what was scored a caught stealing and it allowed Bobby Ojeda to stanch the early bleeding.
Bass would ground out in his next three at-bats before singling in the twelfth…and then get thrown out trying to steal second when the score was interminably tied at three. He was charged with a throwing error in the fourteenth as the Mets went ahead, 4-3. He struck out to lead off the fifteenth when it was 4-4. And he went down as Houston’s last hope in the sixteenth, making the final an eternally beatific Mets 7 Astros 6.
Six years later, with the stakes considerably lower, Kevin Bass of the Mets proved sixteen-inning games just weren’t his bag. Against the Pirates (who started rookie knuckleballer Tim Wakefield), Kevin Bass avenged his 1986 nemeses by sabotaging them from within. He went 0-for-7, his at-bats growing ever more futile as the 1-1 game groaned on.
• With runners on first and second and a chance to win it off Denny Neagle in the bottom of the tenth, Bass grounded to third to end the threat and the inning.
• With the bases loaded and a chance to win it off Bob Patterson in the bottom of the twelfth, Bass flied a 3-1 pitch to center to end the threat and the inning.
• With runners on first and second and a chance to win it off Stan Belinda in the bottom of the fourteenth, Bass flied to left to end the threat and the inning.
Three shots at ending the damn thing, three outs, eight runners left on base. Throw in the pair he stranded to end the bottom of the third and Kevin Bass left ten Mets on base.
All the other Mets combined left four runners on base.
Finally, the 1992 Pirates made like the 1986 Mets and scored three runs in their half of the sixteenth. But then the 1992 Mets attempted to wake up as the 1986 Astros did in their half of the sixteenth. Bill Pecota homered with two out to make it 4-2. Then Dwight Gooden pinch-hit a single. Vince Coleman came up as the potential tying run…with Kevin Bass on deck…in the bottom of the sixteenth inning!
I wrote the most sensational script in my head. Coleman would somehow get on, Bass would then homer, the Mets would win, and all the talk on the ’FAN that night and in the papers the next day would be about how the spirit of 1986 still lived in these Mets. In the days after, this newly revitalized band of Amazins — energized by an Astrodome ghost, of all things — would commence a roll that would lift them from fourth to first in a matter of weeks, and make room for another pennant, baby!
Except Coleman grounded to second and ended the game with Bass waiting in the on-deck circle for an eighth plate appearance that never came. Nobody mentioned the parallel between the first great Game Six from 1986 and the umpteen-hundredth miserable loss from 1992. Six years was a long time ago then.
It’s a long time ago now, even if it will probably seem shorter when Beltran, the Cardinals and the slightest hint of 2006 come to town in 2012.