Marlon Byrd joined the Mets’ 20-home run club Monday. As exclusivity goes, it’s an honor that falls somewhere between the United States Senate and one of those Facebook groups that requires an invitation. It’s not that incredible that you’d get in, but making it there probably says something about your interests and perhaps your capabilities.
Byrd was interested in proving he was still capable of playing in the major leagues in 2013. Just getting an invitation to camp from a team whose lead executive wondered if he had an outfield at all was a small victory for Byrd. He’s certainly piled up the wins, for the Mets and for himself, ever since. With Byrd having done more as a slugger and a fielder than we would have dared dream, many among us have transitioned from wanting the soon-to-be 36-year-old wonder swapped for whatever he could bring back to mildly pining for retention of his services in 2014.
It’s not all about the 20 homers, but they help. Twenty home runs isn’t really much of a milestone for a hitter. Pitchers go for 20 with gusto. We went berserk for R.A. Dickey’s 20th victory. We mostly nodded approvingly when Marlon took Jared Burton over Target Field’s left field wall. If you still have your notes from last September, you know Dickey became the sixth Met two win a 20th game, crafting the ninth Met season in which the feat was accomplished.
The cachet for 20 home runs isn’t quite the same. Twenty isn’t a widely recognized standard for powerful performance, but within the realm of the New York Mets franchise, it rates something a bit weightier than agate type because, let’s face it, these are the Mets. They’ve rarely hit home runs by the ton, bushel or bucket.
Byrd plays right field. Right field is considered a power position. Henry Aaron played right field and hit 755 home runs. Babe Ruth played right field and hit 714 home runs. Marlon Byrd won’t be confused with either of those gentlemen, but he’s a lot closer (albeit in miniature) to their standard than any Met right fielder since Richard Hidalgo launched 21 across only 86 games in 2004. Hidalgo rode a magic carpet from Houston to Flushing. He wasn’t hitting at all as an Astro. He went gangbusters for one month as a Met (10 HR in July, including one per game in five consecutive games, three of which were Subway Series affairs) and then just kind of Daughters of the American Revolution busters the rest of the way. By the end of ’04, Victor Diaz had replaced Hidalgo as the object of our affection in right and there was no popular fervor to re-sign Richard, whose life and career took all kinds of detours after a 2005 stay in Arlington.
Before Hidalgo, Butch Huskey hit 24 home runs playing mostly right field in 1997. Technically, Butch went yard 14 times as the right fielder, 4 times as the first baseman, 3 times as the left fielder, once as the first baseman and twice as a pinch-hitter. To look at his impressive frame, you wouldn’t think Butch Huskey was as versatile as Super Joe McEwing, but you would think he’d rack up loads of home runs. Twenty-four, however, was his Met and MLB high.
The other Met right fielders to slug approximately in the tradition of Aaron and Ruth were a little more predictable. Bobby Bonilla hit 34 playing a little more right than he did third in 1993; Dave Kingman spent most of a summer in right in 1976 and belted a then-Met record 37; and Darryl Strawberry topped 20 home runs every single season he played for the Mets, walloping between 26 and 39 home runs annually between 1983 and 1990.
Straw was a singular Met when it came to four-baggers, not just among right fielders. But hoo-boy, did he break the mold as soon as he cast it. Four right fielders in 21 post-Darryl seasons have hit 20 or more home runs. That’s where the Timos, the Churches, the Frenchys, the Cedeños, the Ochoas and Greens and Burnitzes and ultimately disappointing Victor Diazes come home to roost but not to score on one swing of the bat. You don’t have to have a right fielder blasting home runs if you’re deriving your power from multiple sources elsewhere on the diamond (think Piazza, Ventura and Alfonzo all together in one place), but Byrd getting to 20 and likely beyond is a pleasant reminder that sometimes the Mets can do what other teams can do on offense.
Overall, the Mets have had only 34 players hit 20+ home runs in a season, adding up to 78 20-homer seasons in all. Strawberry leads all comers with eight such powerful campaigns. David Wright’s compiled six, same as Mike Piazza. Howard Johnson put up five. Other names you’d likely expect to see appear in multiples, too, among them Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, Kevin McReynolds, Gary Carter, Todd Hundley and George Foster as well as SkyKing and Bobby Bo. The intriguing entries to me are the 16 Mets who did it once and never again, at least not as Mets. They don’t include some of the names you might guess. No Cleon Jones. No Keith Hernandez. No Rusty Staub. No Lee Mazzilli. Authors of some of the finer seasons of their eras, these Mets icons hit in the teens, but not in the twenties.
Byrd, Hidalgo and Huskey, however, are in the Twenty & Out Club. Frank Thomas founded this fraternal organization, swatting a pre-Kingman standard of 34 in 1962 before coming back to the pack in ’63. Scott Hairston was the club’s previous inductee prior to Marlon and quite the surprising entrant given his part-time status. Hairston some of us sort of wanted back in 2013 after he reached 20 homers on the final day of 2012. The Mets remained undecided on the matter long enough for Scott to sign with the Cubs. They’ve since dealt him to the Nationals. If you’re a fan of cautionary tales, he’s a dozen home runs short of 20 as we speak.
Ike Davis has one year of 20 or more home runs, also from 2012; we’ll see if he gets another. Bernard Gilkey topped 20 once; he’s widely understood to have had the season of his life for us in 1996. Eddie Murray never looked happy in his two Met seasons; he was presumably satisfied to take his business elsewhere after mashing 27 taters in 1993. Donn Clendenon took out his Scripto Pen and signed his name across the 1969 World Series with three homers to earn the Fall Classic’s MVP award; No. 22 came back and stamped 22 regular-season circuit clouts in the books in 1970.
Mo Vaughn hit 26 home runs in 2002 despite widespread rumor that Mo Vaughn didn’t manage to take the field 26 times as a Met.
That left fielder Cliff Floyd hit 34 home runs eight years ago still gratifies me. That center fielder Mike Cameron hit 30 home runs nine years ago still surprises me. That Brian McRae hit 21 home runs fifteen years ago probably speaks for what was going on throughout baseball c. 1998. That Todd Zeile hit 22 home runs as John Olerud’s first base replacement diminishes slightly my theory that Todd Zeile sucked as John Olerud’s first base replacement in 2000. That Rico Brogna hit 22 home runs in 1995 reminds me I was furious that the Mets dared replace my favorite player with some washout from Toronto. (Oly topped 20 twice as a Met and won me over pretty quickly.)
And then there’s Charley Smith, which is to say “Charley Smith?” Yes, Charley Smith. That’s Charley with an “ey,” which you don’t see much anymore. Two years in a row I’ve gotten caught up in a discussion of Mets who hit 20 or more home runs at least once as Mets and both times I completely whiffed on Charley Smith being one of those fellows. (I also forgot about Zeile — and this year Hairston.)
I won’t accept Charley Smith’s career predating my personal baseball memories as an acceptable reason for overlooking his 20 home runs from 1964. I didn’t see Frank Thomas sock any of his 34, either, and I’m plenty conscious of Frank Thomas’s slugging. I became fully aware of Smith during the Mets’ Old Timers Day in 1990…something that couldn’t happen today, I suppose. The theme of the celebration was a salute to many of the men who had manned third base as Mets in their not quite three decades of existence to date. Since the advent of Wright, we don’t grope for full-time third basemen; we grope for full-time right fielders. But it was an instant element of the Met mystique that this silly team could never find a steady third baseman and, even deep into the age of HoJo, the image stuck.
Anyway, the Mets, working with dedicated MLB sponsor Equitable, staged their Old Timers festivities around third base. Smith was a participant. Howie Rose informed the attentive listener that Charley had held the record for most home runs hit by a Mets third baseman before Johnson came along. He communicated this data with a bit of disbelief, not that Smith had once knocked 20 out of the park —erstwhile trivia answer Eddie Bressoud long held the Met shortstop home run record with 10 — but that when it came time to play the actual Old Timers game, Smith was asked to suit up with the “opponents” instead of Met alumni.
I instantly agreed a miscarriage of history had been executed…and then pretty much stopped thinking about Charley Smith. But moved by Byrd’s 20th home run Monday, I grew curious about where Smith stood in the club. Well, he was the second Met to join it, two years after Thomas. He would be the last Met to hit as many as 20 until ultimate two-timer Tommie Agee did so in 1969. By the time of the season Agee and his teammates were scaling the heights of bigger and better things that fall, Smith had taken his last swing in the bigs. His career spanned the Mad Men era, beginning in ’60, ending nine Aprils later at the age of 31 as, of all things, a ’69 Cub.
Charley, who would pass away in 1994, missed the Mets-Cubs rivalry that was about to sprout. He missed every pennant race of which he was ever in the chronological neighborhood, actually. He started with the Dodgers in one of those rare years when they weren’t going anywhere. He was a Phillie a little before they almost won the National League title. He bounced to the Yankees during their blessed fey period. His season in St. Louis (from whence he was sent packing for Roger Maris) occurred between World Series appearances. And the team that traded him to the last-place Mets, the White Sox, dispatched him early in 1964 and then sped off to win 98 games.
You might say Smith had terrible timing, but when it came to etching his name onto the Twenty & Out Club’s membership parchment he was as clutch as they came.
On Saturday, October 3, 1964, Smith hit his 19th home run of the season in service to spoiling one of his future employers’ pennant chances. The night before, Al Jackson — another guy who kept missing the big prize — shut down Bob Gibson and the Cardinals, 1-0. Now, on the second-to-last day of the schedule, the Metsies jumped all over 20-game winner and Met-to-be Ray Sadecki in a 15-5 massacre. George Altman homered. Ed Kranepool homered. Bobby Klaus homered. Joe Christopher homered. And Charley Smith added to the carnage by taking it to Miracle Met-in-waiting Ron Taylor.
Chaos loomed as the Cardinals suddenly couldn’t beat the Mets. If Casey’s boys could pull off one more October miracle on Sunday the Fourth, it was likely you’d have the Redbirds, the Redlegs and even the collapsing Phillies all tying for first. Could they wreak enough havoc to shake the senior circuit to its core and force a round-robin playoff for the flag?
No. They were the 1964 Mets, not the 1969 Mets. But although Gibby would emerge from St. Louis’s bullpen and quell the final Met threat of their 109-loss season, leading his team to an 11-5 triumph and the pennant, Smith got his. In the fourth, Charley homered off starter Curt Simmons to knot the score at one and give himself 20 dingers for the year.
How significant was it? Hell, we’re talking about it today, aren’t we?
Of surpassing significance this Friday night: Social Media Night at Citi Field. Buy a ticket, get a Jay Horwitz bobblehead, watch Marlon Byrd chase 30 home runs and a new contract, determine how good the Tigers are, listen to Third Eye Blind and, mostly, give a hand to one of the best causes imaginable: Hope Shines for Shannon, which is raising funds to help Mets communications person extraordinaire Shannon Forde in her fight against breast cancer. Please check it out here.