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A Good Year to Honor Ron Hunt

The Mets tell us things in dribs and drabs [1]. Like who’s gonna fill out the starting rotation. Like who’s gonna be in the outfield. Like what they’ll be giving away besides the occasional late-inning lead.

The franchise that keeps as low a profile as possible in winter (no fanfest, no caravan [2], as little noticeable effort at generating enthusiasm as possible) quietly scheduled seven promotional dates [3] for April and May; I assume they’ll see how the first two months go before committing to a full baseball season in 2013. The goodwill surprises of 2012 are back — Banner Day and bobbleheads portraying Mets greats (Ron Darling on April 21 and John Franco on May 25) — along with hardy perennials the magnetic schedule, the drawstring bag, Bark in the Park and one Mr. Met Dash thus far. Huzzahs for banners and bobbles, no complaints for the rest.

As for June through September, we can’t judge what we can’t see, but we’ll make a suggestion since all we see is a gaping void: Ron Hunt Day. Or Ron Hunt something.

Ron Hunt: Something else for Mets fans from 1963 to 1966. [4]

Ron Hunt: Something else for Mets fans from 1963 to 1966.

Ron Hunt — the first player the Mets can be said to have stolen from somebody else (the Milwaukee Braves, who sold their 21-year-old minor league infielder to New York following the 1962 season).

Ron Hunt — the Mets’ first young star of any discernible wattage.

Ron Hunt — who drove in the first game-winning run the Mets could claim in his very first season, which just happens to have been 50 years ago, getting the Mets off to their fastest start ever (1-8 in 1963 versus 1-9 in 1962).

Ron Hunt — who was the first Met to win votes for anything that wasn’t ironic in the world at large, finishing second to Pete Rose for National League Rookie of the Year in 1963.

Ron Hunt — who can’t leave his body to science because he gave it to the Mets via 41 hit-by-pitches between 1963 and 1966, still a career franchise record.

Ron Hunt — whose heart and soul was nearly as orange and blue as his body was black and blue, an assessment gleaned from his reaction to being traded with Jim Hickman for Tommy Davis on November 29, 1966:

“I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to leave the New York fans. These have been the greatest years of my life. I wanted to stay here and be part of this team and play in the first World Series for the Mets. My wife is all broken up, too. She loved New York and the people and all the kindnesses. We can’t forget the flowers Mrs. Payson sent us and all the nice letters I got when I was in the hospital. I don’t want to be traded.”

Then, as if for emphasis, he repeated the sentiment:

“I don’t want to be traded.”

As Maury Allen put it in The Incredible Mets, “Ron Hunt, the toughest kid on the block, was in tears.”

Finally, Ron Hunt — the starting second baseman for the National League in the 1964 All-Star Game…which was played at…that’s right, Shea Stadium. Hunt was a second-year player, Shea was a first-year ballpark and the two entities trotted out to the baseball spotlight on July 7, tipping their caps, taking their bows and making an impression. Hunt was judged by his peers (there was no fan voting) the best second baseman in the senior circuit for the first half of that season. He was chosen to start over future Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski and he singled on the first pitch he saw from soon-to-be Cy Young winner Dean Chance. Two years later, Hunt became the first two-time All-Star in Mets history, sharing backup second baseman duties with another future Hall of Famer, Joe Morgan.

Until this year, Ron Hunt has been a New York Mets All-Star more often than the New York Mets have been an All-Star Game host. Now Hunt and the Mets move into a tie. The All-Star Game comes to Citi Field on July 16. Hopefully the Mets will have more than one representative. Matt Harvey was a promising rookie last year who might blossom this year, as Hunt did from 1963 to 1964, and they do have some youthful promise if you avert your gaze from the outfield. Maybe this is the year Ruben Tejada or Jon Niese or Ike Davis or the MLB Network’s tenth-best second baseman Right Now [5] Daniel Murphy moves up in leaguewide esteem. Or maybe we just hope David Wright stays healthy and Pablo Sandoval’s fan club takes off the first week of July.

We don’t know who we’ll be able to send out for cap-tipping and bow-taking in 2013. We do know who we had in 1964. We do know an All-Star Game in Flushing is a rare enough phenomenon that hosting a second one is a great excuse for celebrating the first one just short of its golden anniversary. We also know that Hunt, who went on to a solid if bruised career that lasted through 1974 with four other clubs (including 50 HBP in one year, for cryin’ out loud), was nervy enough to opine in late 1966 that someday the Mets would be World Series-bound. That such talk could be less than three years from reality — and that the trade of Hunt and Hickman for Davis would help set the stage for 1969 given that Davis and Jack Fisher were flipped to the White Sox for Tommie Agee and Al Weis in 1967 — seemed as unlikely as clearing October 2015 on our calendars right now for bigger and better things.

But Hunt talked the talk. He walked the walk…right after taking a ball to the ribs or the thigh or the shoulder. He loved being a Met even after the not exactly enlightened Wes Westrum questioned his desire to play through pain. The affection shouldn’t be unrequited, nor should it be considered to have an expiration date that’s lapsed. The All-Star festivities themselves are a Major League Baseball production, but since the Mets have used their hosting status as an inducement for season-ticket sales [6], it’s reasonable to infer they will, by June, make the All-Star Game the focus of some kind of promotion. Knowing the Mets, it will involve a logo on a plastic cup.

Make it about more than the logo. If we can indulge in the language of marketing, activate some Mets-hosted All-Star equity this summer. Give us 1964 All-Star Day at Citi Field. Issue an invitation to every living 1964 All-Star who graced Shea Stadium’s foul lines 49 years ago [7]. Give us a chance to stand and applaud for Willie Mays, for Henry Aaron, for Brooks Robinson, for Orlando Cepeda, for Juan Marichal, for Sandy Koufax, for Billy Williams, for Jim Bunning, for Mazeroski, for Chance, for Jim Fregosi and Joe Torre even. And save for last, as our hometown favorite, Ron Hunt of the New York Mets.

If you want to give us a Ron Hunt bobblehead while you’re at it, Gold’s Horseradish should be honored to sponsor. If you want to get creative with the Mets Hall of Fame and induct three splendid second basemen — seems Felix Millan and Edgardo Alfonzo are overdue — while perhaps waiting to sync up with Cooperstown on Mike Piazza [8], that wouldn’t be inappropriate, either. But if you could give Ron Hunt a day he’ll never forget while giving Mets fans the impetus to remember their first incandescent spark of hope, that would be a truly All-Star promotion.

Read more about Ron Hunt and all the Mets who created Amazin’ wins in their time in The Happiest Recap: First Base (1962-1973), available via Amazon [9].

Image courtesy of Shlabotnik Report [10].