Bravo, pretty much without exception and with only limited debate, for the 50th Anniversary Mets’ All-Time Team as revealed Sunday night at the 92nd Street Y and broadcast Thursday night on SNY. The committee empowered to choose the all-timers — Howie Rose, Gary Cohen, Marty Noble, John Harper, Mike Vaccaro and Mike Lupica — gave us a starting eight, a righty and lefty starting pitcher, a righty and lefty reliever and a manager. Its choices were as justifiable as they were fairly predictable.
Mike Piazza (catcher), Keith Hernandez (first base), Edgardo Alfonzo (second base), Darryl Strawberry (right field), Tom Seaver (righthanded starter), Jerry Koosman (lefthanded starter) and Roger McDowell (righthanded reliever) are precisely where we left them from the 40th Anniversary All-Amazin’ Team that was voted on by the fans in 2002. No reason to change any of those selections emerged in the intervening decade, though my one quibble might be with McDowell over Armando Benitez. If you’re measuring Met accomplishments in gross tonnage, Benitez has McDowell beat fairly cold. But if you’re the type who insists on using the net method of accounting — that is, deducting points for the Armando implosions that remain painfully clear and present in the Metsian memory — well, McDowell is your man, as he was the committee’s. (Perhaps the management of the 92nd Street Y pleaded with Howie, Gary, et al, to not pick Benitez so their facility wouldn’t be subject to the ire of rioting Mets fans.)
Cleon Jones (left field) was robbed in 2002, when the ballot asked for three outfielders and ignored positions, thus leaving the door open for Lenny Dykstra to steal Cleon’s slot. That historical injustice has since been corrected. No left fielder in Mets history has touched Cleon for longevity or impact — and I’m not just saying that because I shared pizza and conversation with the man last week.
Jose Reyes (shortstop), David Wright (third base) and Carlos Beltran (center field) didn’t exist for our intents and purposes ten years ago. Their respective arrivals and flourishings between 2002 and now are gratifying to consider since it would be unnerving to think the Mets don’t keep coming up with better all-timers all the time. (It is, however, unnerving to realize this trio played together for most of seven seasons yet made one postseason, but that’s another story.)
Wright’s on the verge of owning most Met records that don’t involve speed, yet he vamoosed past Howard Johnson pretty quickly. Reyes, despite being in kind of an all-timers’ limbo in light of his present business address, thoroughly supplanted the steadfast Bud Harrelson with a series of seasons unimaginable for shortstops of Buddy’s era (when Buddy was certifiably among the best at his craft). Beltran somehow lacks the innate ur-Metness of his All-Amazin’ counterpart Mookie Wilson and, for that matter, Wilson’s “all-time” predecessor Tommie Agee, but made up for it by being probably as fully formed an everyday player as the Mets ever had in his prime. Bittersweet to watch HoJo, Buddy and Mookie step aside — just as it was to see Agee give way to Mookie and Gary Carter take a bit of a back seat to Piazza — but Excelsior is the motto of New York State, so ever upward.
Except where lefty reliever was concerned, where the committee did a chronological U-turn, tossing All-Amazin’ choice John Franco out of the car and anointing Tug McGraw in his stead. Given that Franco, who was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery when the 2002 vote was taken, pitched 80.1 more Met innings in 2003 and 2004 and Tug hadn’t thrown a pitch for our side since 1974, this change of heart was rather surprising. It definitely went against the prevailing Department of Franco vibe that pervaded the Mets’ treatment of their hometown boy during his extended tenure with the club and it flat out dismissed a shisl of saves.
But it’s the right call. Put aside Tug’s XXL place in the Met mythology and just look at what he did as a fireman in the heart of his career here, from 1969 to 1973. “Closer” has replaced “fireman” in the baseball vernacular since Tug left and went away, but really, there’s a difference. Relief aces of McGraw’s day literally put out figurative fires. It didn’t matter what inning it was and it didn’t matter how many innings it took. The sport was just getting used to the bullpen being something more than a court of last resort. Tug was pretty close to a pioneer of modern relief pitching and a very successful one at that.
Then bring over Tug’s XXL place in the Met mythology, and you wonder what we were thinking when we didn’t give him the nod in 2002.
That leaves manager, and that one was, if not utterly unwarranted, then something of a shock, because it is so at odds with the Met mythology. Davey Johnson was selected ahead of Gil Hodges, a reversal of the call from the 40th anniversary. Neither Gil nor Davey has managed a single Mets game since 1990, so it can’t be recent successes or failures responsible for the switch. And given the demographics of the committee, it’s not like there’s a generational disconnect at work. These guys know from Gil Hodges and his sainted perch in family lore.
Yet they picked Davey anyway, which wasn’t a bad pick. It may even have been the right pick. Davey managed more winning seasons than any Met skipper and won more games than any Met skipper. The indisputable best concentrated stretch in Mets history, when the Mets won between 90 and 108 games for five consecutive seasons, made the playoffs twice and won the World Series once, had Davey Johnson at the helm.
It’s still weird, though, because Gil Hodges is Gil Hodges, and 1969 is 1969, no matter how much 1986 is 1986. All these years, Gil has been everybody’s reason 1969 occurred, including the players who did the actual playing. Davey gets plenty of credit in the 1986 retellings, but not quite with that molder-of-men reverence Gil does. Nevertheless, a sterile, objective reading of their bodies of Met work reveals it as not particularly close: 1 to 1 in world titles and each with a massive turnaround in his portfolio, but Davey holds the significant edge (6 to 3) in winning records and it’s Davey by a mile in having his team either in a race or winning it every single year he was permitted to manage from beginning to end.
But Gil is Gil and 1969 is 1969. That’s what it comes back to. In a very loose historical analogy, it’s Gil as the mythic Lincoln, stoically guiding the nation through its essential and definitive struggle before being cut down too soon, versus Davey as FDR, who smilingly led America to triumph in the face of depression and war yet still engenders enmity in those predisposed to find fault with his philosophies and/or style (with father of our franchise Casey Stengel as George Washington and Bobby Valentine a complex LBJ figure). Usually Lincoln wins the historians’ polls as greatest president, as if you can determine that sort of thing like it’s college football. Once in a while FDR beats him out. Of course you’d be hard-pressed to imagine the United States without both of them embroidered into our heritage.
So Davey Johnson (1984-1990) is our 50th Anniversary manager and we know our key players. What we don’t have is a full roster for Johnson to manage.
What say we get him one?
Though Davey was confined to a 24-man attack in managing the 1986 Mets to a world championship — dominating the National League along the way as no Mets team before or since has — we’re going to give him the standard 25. We know who’s starting for him, and we’ll even do him the great favor of crafting a lineup for him.
Reyes SS (B-S; 2003-2011)
Alfonzo 2B (B-R; 1995-2002)
Hernandez 1B (B-L; 1983-1989)
Piazza C (B-R; 1998-2005)
Strawberry RF (B-L; 1983-1990)
Wright 3B (B-R; 2004-Present)
Beltran CF (B-S; 2005-2011)
Jones LF (B-R; 1963, 1965-1975)
We’ve got a guy who once hit .340 batting eighth, so we’re in pretty good shape. I originally had Carlos second, Cleon seventh and Fonzie eighth, but Fonzie was the ideal No. 2 hitter and Beltran switch-hitting in the seven-hole breaks up righties Wright and Jones. Should Davey want to juggle these guys, he’s not going to get shortchanged.
But, y’know, these guys can’t be expected to play every single day. Certainly we need more than two starting pitchers and two relievers. Of course Seaver is our No. 1 and Koosman is our No. 2, just as they were in tandem so often from 1968 to 1977.
And our No. 3 starter? I know what you’re thinking…and let me steer you away from it. What I want to do with this roster is not simply stock it with the runners-up from the 50th Anniversary balloting. That would be easy but also misguided. Carter as a backup catcher? John Olerud as a reserve first baseman? Buddy as Jose’s caddy?
Let’s get real and stay real. I don’t want to do a “second team”. I want to construct an all-time Mets roster that reflects 50 years of who played for the Mets and how they played. I want guys who fit the roles that remain unspoken for. So, no, we don’t just slot Felix Millan in as our second second baseman, we don’t tell Kevin McReynolds to go in for defense in left and, sorry, we don’t simply lay in Doc Gooden to pitch after Koosman.
Admittedly, starting rotations sometimes are bountiful and you can have a handful of aces (and every starter should pitch like an ace no matter what their reputations say about them), but for our purposes, that would feel like cheating. Doc was an ace, let him stay an ace. What we need behind Seaver and Koosman are legitimate No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 starters, Met pitchers who pitched and pitched well in those roles. I’d also like to give Davey a rotation that goes righty-lefty-righty-lefty-righty, because that seems helpful.
All-Time No. 3 Starter: Rick Reed (RHP). Perfect guy for the assignment. Used to pitching in the shadows of bigger names, great control, fearless, different look from the harder-throwing Nos. 1 and 2 pitchers, postseason and pennant race experience.
All-Time No. 4 Starter: Sid Fernandez (LHP). Generally shoved down the rotation in his day because he was a little erratic to go along with being incredibly baffling to hitters. We’ll err on the side of his endless potential and occasional actual greatness here. (Jon Matlack was a little too highly thought of in his heyday to be considered a four.) If we’re in a World Series and we need an extra arm out of the pen in Game Seven, you know on whom we’re calling.
All-Time No. 5 Starter: Jim McAndrew (RHP). This is a tricky position, because we’re asking for a solid contribution from something of a fringe rotation member. But that’s a No. 5 starter for you, and McAndrew had enough stuff to come through often enough and was able to handle being bumped when off days and rainouts made it necessary. (If we wanted a third lefty, we might opt for Glendon Rusch in this spot, but we’re opting for a third righty.)
So our rotation is…
Tom Seaver (1967-1977, 1983)
Jerry Koosman (1967-1978)
Rick Reed (1997-2001)
Sid Fernandez (1984-1993)
Jim McAndrew (1968-1973)
I think we’re gonna get some quality starts. But we’re still gonna need a bullpen, and we have the foundation of a fine one, with Tug McGraw at the back end and Roger McDowell either setting him up or picking him up based on matchups. That gives us seven pitchers altogether, leaving us with the question of how many more we’re going to need. Our rule is we work with our Mets as we know them, and we know Davey Johnson never carried twelve pitchers and won the World Series with only nine. We’ll take our cue from the 1986 Opening Day roster and go with ten.
We have McGraw and McDowell for the eighth and ninth, more or less (each came in earlier as needed), but who else?
All-Time Workhorse: Turk Wendell (RHP). Eighty games for the 1999 Mets. Seventy-seven games for the 2000 Mets. Used in every conceivable pre-save situation. And what a fit with the self-described flake McGraw and practical joker McDowell. No better middle reliever in Mets history (and he might have been an out-of-the-box choice as RH RP for the All-Time team, or at least a more intriguing if mostly save-free nominee than Skip Lockwood or Neil Allen).
All-Time Lefty Specialist: Dennis Cook (LHP). Cook gets the nod over rubber-armed Pedro Feliciano for two reasons: he didn’t seem as risky a proposition against the occasional righty batter and he broke a literal 15-year string of failure where Met lefty specialists were concerned. Playing an important role in two postseasons was great, but expunging the ghosts of Gene Walter and Doug Simons was immense. (He’s also capable of pinch-hitting, though Bobby V never used him in that capacity.)
All-Time Swingman: Terry Leach (RHP). Just as McAndrew could help out in the bullpen, Leach could slip into the rotation, which he did with élan in 1987 as starter after starter went down and Leachie stood tall. Second games of doubleheaders are his. Plus the submarine delivery is a bonus to unleash on the mound, and we can count on him for those games that require long relief in the third or the thirteenth.
Our bullpen, then, is…
Tug McGraw (1965-1967, 1969-1974)
Roger McDowell (1985-1989)
Turk Wendell (1997-2001)
Dennis Cook (1998-2001)
Terry Leach (1981-1982, 1985-1989)
The only thing we don’t really have in our relief corps is a high-volume strikeout pitcher. The best Met relievers I ever saw in that regard were two closers who lost the committee vote: Benitez and Randy Myers, when they were setup men. But because their primary roles in their Met careers were as closers, it seems fudging it to rewrite history and make them seventh-inning pitchers or the like. Besides, the more you rely on hard throwers to get key outs, the more it seems to burn you. We’ll trust these guys to throw it and our outstanding defensive team to catch it.
With ten pitchers and eight positional starters, we need to build a seven-man bench for Davey, with several spots cast by easily defined role.
All-Time Backup Catcher: Todd Pratt. Tank caddied dutifully and boisterously for Mike Piazza, so why mess with a good thing (no offense, Duffy Dyer). We already know he can hit a big home run in the biggest of situations.
All-Time Pinch-Hitter Deluxe: Rusty Staub. This is Rusty Staub II, if you will, the 1981-1985 edition who excelled coming off the bench for four managers, the last of them Davey Johnson, which means we’re not counting on the younger, lither Rusty of 1972-1975, though we are permitted to know that redhead lurks within. He can still play a little first and some outfield in an extreme marathon, but he’s on this team for one big reason. When we look down the bench for a lefty bat late in a game, it’s Staub we want…and it’s the older, more…substantial Staub we’ll see putting on those black batting gloves. The Mets have been blessed with phenomenal lefty PHs dating back to Ed Kranepool in the ’70s (he batted .447 as such from 1974 through 1977) and running through Matt Franco, Lenny Harris and Marlon Anderson. But the absolute presence of Rusty Staub is too alluring to ignore.
All-Time Fourth Outfielder: Endy Chavez. We don’t expect Davey to need to pull Cleon in the second games of any doubleheader blowout losses to the Astros (we don’t expect many losses at all from our All-Time team), but it’s a long season, and everybody needs a blow. In 2006, Endy filled in smoothly at all three outfield positions throughout the year and when called upon to start in left in the NLCS, he caught on pretty well. Can hit a little, can run a good deal and his fielding is just about without peer.
The defined roles taken care of, we need to fill the less obvious niches on the All-Time roster. We don’t have any backup infielders yet. We don’t have a strong righty bat. We don’t know if it will ever come up in a game situation, but we don’t have an emergency catcher. We could definitely use some versatility. And you know Davey would love to spring a couple of surprises on the opposition.
All-Time Utilityman: Melvin Mora. This is the Met version of Melvin Mora, not the one who started at third base for the Orioles for a decade or so (nice trade, Steve Phillips). This is the Melvin Mora plucked from obscurity just in time to rescue the team that ignored his existence most of 1999 and the Melvin Mora who played three infield and three outfield positions as a Met before being sent away in the middle of 2000 (did we mention nice trade, Steve Phillips?). Our Melvin Mora bats right, can run, can throw, can hit an occasional homer, can do whatever it is Davey needs. He might also elicit trade offers from other GMs, but our All-Time executive, Frank Cashen, isn’t going to listen to any of them. (He’s also not going to hire Steve Phillips to do as much as wash his car.)
All-Time Secret Weapon: Kevin Mitchell. Again, this is the Kevin Mitchell the Mets knew, so we’re not shoehorning an MVP onto our bench — we don’t know he’s going to be an MVP. We’re having faith in a righty-swinging rookie who only Davey seems to understand can do and will do anything he is asked. This is the Kevin Mitchell who played six positions (including shortstop, for goodness sake) in 1986 and got big hits, especially with two out in the bottom of the tenth. We think he’ll be a good influence overall.
All-Time Disgruntled Versatile Reserve: Joel Youngblood. Every team needs someone who thinks he’s being overlooked, underestimated or generally getting the shaft. This was Joel Youngblood from 1977 to 1982. He got his shots as an everyday player and sometimes played very well — made the All-Star team in 1981 with a .359 average despite not having had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title at the time — yet the Mets were always bringing in what they figured was a better option, like a Claudell Washington or an Ellis Valentine. Youngblood would get moved out of whatever position in which he’d recently settled because he could play just about anywhere, if not field as well as he did when they simply left him alone in right, where he displayed the best outfield arm the Mets ever employed. In the meantime, the man could hit with some power (16 home runs in 1979) and run, albeit with reckless abandon (32 stolen bases in 57 attempts in ’79 and ’80). Joe Torre and George Bamberger could never quite make the most out of him, but we’ll bet Davey Johnson could channel his aggravation beautifully.
All-Time Supersub: Rod Kanehl. My head tells me Bob Bailor or Joe McEwing if we need someone who can play anywhere competently and bust out occasionally, but what the hell? This is the All-Time team and the All-Time team can handle a dash of sentimentality out of its 25th man, .577 OPS be damned. What’s the point of celebrating the Mets’ 50th anniversary without an Original Met, and they didn’t get much more original than the Met who played seven positions, legendarily took one for the team with the bases loaded, made a proto-Endy catch in center field in one epic 1964 game, inspired the very first banner was raised by a Mets fan at the Polo Grounds — a bedsheet that paid homage to HOT ROD — and whom Casey Stengel himself described as “the guy who busts his ass for me.” Hot Rod will do the same for Johnson.
With Youngblood and Kanehl making the cut, every year in Met history but one is represented on the All-Time roster. Apologies to the 1994 Mets, particularly Joe Orsulak, whose quiet classiness didn’t quite make up for his frankly ordinary production between 1993 and 1995, which in turn didn’t make enough noise to fit in among Davey’s brassy bunch.
Gil probably would’ve taken Joe, if that’s any consolation.
Todd Pratt (B-R; 1997-2001)
Rusty Staub (B-L; 1972-1975, 1981-1985)
Endy Chavez (B-L; 2006-2008)
Melvin Mora (B-R; 1999-2000)
Kevin Mitchell (B-R; 1984, 1986)
Joel Youngblood (B-R; 1977-1982)
Rod Kanehl (B-R; 1962-1964)
Ladies and gentlemen, your complete All-Time 50-Year Mets Team.