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Take Our Outfield…Please

Sandy Alderson’s infamous Internet search for outfielders [1] — fictional or otherwise — wouldn’t have turned up the name Ed Bouchee. Bouchee was a first baseman. Besides, the Mets already gave him a shot. He was an Original Met, our very first pinch-hitter. He batted for Roger Craig in the top of the fourth on April 11, 1962, with two out and nobody on as the Mets trailed Stan Musial’s Cardinals [2], 5-3.

Ed walked. Then he sat, which wasn’t to his liking. Few are the players who prefer bench duty to taking the field, but Ed Bouchee really made an impression as someone who did not accept being passed over with good humor. In Danny Peary’s 1994 oral history on postwar baseball, We Played The Game, Bouchee didn’t shy away from criticizing the legendary Met figures who he believed blocked his path three decades earlier.

Casey Stengel, inventor of the Amazin’ Mets?

“He shouldn’t have been managing that team. He was worthless. Worthless!”

Gil Hodges, with whom Stengel went when healthy enough to go?

“How could he play Gil Hodges, a one-legged first baseman you had to shoot up with Novocaine, just because he had a name in the New York area and would draw people? How can you play a cripple? I was the guy that should’ve been playing first base.”

The New Breed, who embraced the 40-120 Mets of 1962 with minimal qualification and only semi-ironically?

“I’m not even sure the Mets fans were as great as they were cracked up to be. I just remember they liked to boo.”

Forget Chico Escuela [3]. Ed Bouchee wrote the first draft of Bad Stuff ’Bout The Mets. If he’d hung around a little longer, one assumes he would’ve found fault with Mr. Met (“just a ball hog with a big head”). Whatever merit there was in the man’s observations — Casey was not necessarily revered by every single Met; Gil was on the last legs of a brilliant career by the time he arrived at the Polo Grounds; and we Mets fans, no matter how sweet-natured our collective disposition, are inherently incapable of suppressing our more unflattering opinions — it can’t be ignored that Ed Bouchee was a .161 hitter in 50 games as a 1962 Met. Even on the 1962 Mets, that was pretty lousy. No Met position player who got into that many games that year recorded so low an average.

Ed Bouchee died last week at the age of 79 [4], making him the eighth of fourteen Originals from the Mets’ first box score to have passed on. True, he left behind a light statistical legacy and a few sour grapes, but I invoke him here out of a degree of respect. One of the sentiments attributed to him in Peary’s book I still find pretty solid:

“I resented the portrayal of the 1962 Mets as a comedy act.”

Not that Ed — whose uniform, informed sources say [5], made baseball card history as the first full Mets outfit portrayed by Topps — didn’t think the whole scene “was a circus”. And not that great Met stories didn’t outnumber all Met wins by approximately the same three-to-one ratio by which defeats overwhelmed victories in 1962. But still, nobody in a competitive, professional endeavor wants to be written off as some kind of clown…a reserve clown, at that. More than thirty years after it mattered, Ed Bouchee pictured himself as a good enough player to start on the worst team in baseball history and stuck up for that team as one that deserved to be taken as a reasonably serious enterprise.

Which brings me back to Sandy Alderson at last weekend’s BBWAA dinner, and the zinger he got off at the dual expense of Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o and his own ballclub’s most glaring void:

“A message to Mets fans: There’s been a lot of talk about our outfield. And I want you to know that I’m in serious discussions with several outfielders I met on the Internet. There’s one I really like. He says he played at Stanford.”

Alderson has good writers, bracing self-awareness and, like Bouchee, certainly knows how to make an impression. A week since delivering one of the most talked-about performances at a baseball writers gala since Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca dueted [6] on “Because Of You,” I find myself dwelling on Sandy’s comedic turn. I’m thinking about Michael Bourn and the value of draft choices as well, but nothing seems to be going on there, so I keep returning to the gag.

If the best free agents are sometimes the ones you don’t sign, perhaps the best lines are sometimes the ones you don’t deliver, no matter how sly they sound in your head. I could’ve done without Alderson’s, even if that puts me in the curmudgeon column and tars me as a bit of a hypocrite. After all, I make fun of the Mets [7]. You make fun of the Mets. We all now and then make fun of the Mets. Our stake in the Mets is emotional. If we as Mets fans don’t laugh, we as Mets fans cry — or perhaps punch something. You know how that goes.

Sandy Alderson’s stake is a little different. He’s general manager of the Mets. He’s also one of the brand’s primary ambassadors, particularly when there is no 2013 won-lost record — or immediate prospective upgrade from 2012’s — to speak for itself. If the Mets are winning, nobody much cares what anybody who works upstairs has to say about anything. It’s when things aren’t so great that words maybe matter a little more. Casey Stengel understood that, even if Ed Bouchee wasn’t interested in his skipper’s never-ending public relations offensive. When he had an epically bad team, Stengel knew enough to draw attention away from his players’ shortcomings. He didn’t pretend he had worldbeaters on his roster, but he knew how to massage his message. He didn’t call them the Amazin’ Mets because they amazed anybody with their skill and success. Yet it clicked. That’s why there wasn’t nearly as much booing as Bouchee might have thought he heard.

A half-century after Casey regularly held court, Sandy got a good, topical laugh at that widely reported dinner. If he had gone out the next day and gotten a good, reliable outfielder for this season, it would have been a true showstopper. Instead, we continue to sit and wait for Terry Collins to sort through Duda, Nieuwenhuis, Baxter, Cowgill and whoever else [8] until further notice. The Mets, who finished tenth in the National League in 1962, finished tenth-worst in the majors in 2012, yet hold no better than the eleventh draft pick for 2013. If they were to sign mixed-bag Bourn — speedy, defensively gifted, strikes out a ton, bears the mark of Boras — the Mets would forfeit their first pick by a quirk of compensatory practices [9], and being out your first pick when you’re aiming to rebuild is no small setback. Entering a regularly priced 162-game season without one full-time, established outfielder in his prime [10], however, is no obvious step forward, either.

It’s not an easy call philosophically, let alone financially (for this operation in particular), though between Scott Boras and the vexing tenth/eleventh slot business [11], the GM indicates Michael Bourn’s probably no closer to playing for the 2013 Mets than is Ed Bouchee [12]. I’m not sure I mind. Alderson has acted consistently in the interests of a future he judges as palpable if not quite ready for prime time. I appreciate that aspect of his act.

As for the jokes, I’d appreciate them more if he could tell them in a context where the audience is laughing with us instead of at us. Just assemble a team worthy of applause. Once we have that, everything’s a lark.

Want real comedy? Check out Faith and Fear’s erstwhile fantasy camp correspondent Jeff Hysen [13] tonight at 8, at Gotham Comedy Club [14], 208 W. 23rd St., between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. He’s very funny and I’m not at all uptight about it.