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Promises, Promises

There are no guarantees in baseball (just as there are no “slam dunks” or “no-brainers” [1]), but I guess you can make a promise. Sick kids have been known to return to good health on promises of home runs hit in their name [2] — not just in the movies and Felix Unger-produced radio serials, either — and at least one free agent outfielder signed on the dotted line after he was made a promise…and, y’know, offered $7.25 million.

It stuck out among the offseason platitudes I was jotting down at the Mets’ holiday party when Sandy Alderson mentioned that “we promised Chris Young some at-bats.” I’ve heard him say it in other venues, too. I wondered how that would work and what that meant exactly. What is “some”? How many ABs fulfills what was “promised”? Does an April average of .200, which is what CY2 batted as an Athletic for all of last year, render the promise null and void? And though it may be just baseball semantics, it’s a little intriguing that the general manager of the ballclub that stresses hitters working counts and values walks as much as hits doesn’t say “we promised Chris Young some plate appearances” instead.

Of course Young could come out smoking like a Seventh Avenue office worker on a mid-morning break and nobody would have to be reminded to keep any playing-time promises because he’d never be removed from the lineup. John Buck wasn’t made any specific promises of playing time that were mentioned publicly. Buck was the starting catcher by universal pre-d’Arnaud acclamation and he commenced to own April of 2013 lock, stock and RBI barrel. Then May, June and July evicted his bat from the premises of effectiveness, but hardly ever from Terry Collins’s immediate plans, save for the occasional breather or baby.

Geez. It seems the Mets have been stuck in the mud so long that I’m now reflexively wary of new guys getting off to blazing starts because I just assume they won’t keep it up and then the whole thing will sink into more mud. Chris Young hasn’t had one AB or PA yet [3] and I’m wondering what can go wrong — besides Juan Lagares’s glorious glove going unused [4] for uncomfortable stretches. Apologies in advance to CY2, who should at least get the meaningless exhibition schedule under his belt before I grow precautionarily discouraged about his Met tenure.

I think I’m in backlash mode against my long-held instinct to automatically embrace former All-Stars joining the Mets. Chris Young is a former All-Star, even if I had no idea who he was [5] when he made the N.L.’s stellar squad in 2010, and that should be enough to earn him February goodwill. But, oh gosh, so much “former” in those former All-Stars and too often so little left when they join the Mets. The lesson that credentials aren’t necessarily transferable to imminent Metsian success had to be learned and relearned many times over before I began to figure out that bit about no guarantees. It probably didn’t finally kick in until the Mets traded for 2010 A.L. All-Star catcher John Buck in December 2012 and I managed to keep my enthusiasm in check.

My first hint of how these things can go and, more frustratingly, how they can stall was probably dropped in my youthful lap when the Mets went out and bagged themselves a six-time All-Star to fill a glaring positional void and most of what it took to obtain him was a pitcher who sometimes threw as if the strike zone was in the next county.

That transaction was better known as Jim Fregosi for Nolan Ryan. Out of respect for Fregosi — someone acknowledged far and wide upon news of his passing [6] last week as a great baseball man in every sense of the phrase — let’s just say it was a heckuva trade for the California Angels [7].

Six-time All-Star? To the Mets? Excitement was in the air. [8]

Six-time All-Star? To the Mets? Excitement was in the air.

In the months before it revealed itself as kinda the opposite for the New York Mets, there was no guarantee that Fregosi, the premier American League shortstop of the 1960s, was going to solve the Mets’ perennial third base shortcomings, which was the organizational plan in December 1971, but he arrived with an outsize reputation and it was at the very least promising to imagine a name of Fregosi’s caliber wedged in among the Joneses, the Agees, the Grotes and the Harrelsons to whom we were accustomed by the spring of 1972. Then the Mets traded a few kids for another former All-Star, Rusty Staub, and it appeared we had a genuine major league lineup on our hands. By May, the Mets would acquire the most glittering All-Star there ever was, Willie Mays, and now it felt like were stacked.

We were. The Mets roared into late May, cresting at 25-7 and leading the N.L. East by six games. One of the reasons they heated up was Jim Fregosi, who, despite a nagging Spring Training injury and his own sense that he was done as an everyday player, shook off a chilly April and contributed a sizzling seven-game span in which he hit .462, drove in a half-dozen runs and lifted his season average over .300.

That was basically it for Fregosi and the Mets [9] in 1972 when it came to meeting expectations. The team fell back to third place and Jim wouldn’t last through 1973 in New York, while Ryan…ah, hell, you know what happened with Ryan [10]. For that matter, one of the three additional throw-ins to the Angels, Leroy Stanton, accumulated 101 hits in ’72, which isn’t remarkable except it was five more than any Met collected that same season. There were a lot of injuries on that club. There was also, sad to say, more than a dollop of used-to-be in that lineup.

Fregosi’s career got back on a righteous path once he left the Mets. He’d be considered a valuable pinch-hitter type for a few years, manage Ryan and the Angels to their first division title, run the White Sox between Tony La Russa and Jeff Torborg, lead a most colorful Phillies squad to an improbable pennant and keep the Blue Jays very respectable amid the heat of the hypercompetitive A.L. East. After managing, he served as a top major league scout for the Braves [11], who you might have noticed have been more than pretty good for a very long time.

No, it didn’t work out for Jim Fregosi, New York Mets third baseman. But it was exciting thinking it might.