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Aguilera 53 Prince 52

When they want a batter
Filled with terror
They call on me
Rick Aguilera [1]

—“Get Metsmerized,” technically a song [2], 1986

Today is Rick Aguilera’s 53rd birthday, which means it’s my 52nd birthday. We are calendar brothers, born exactly one year apart to different families in different places, but connected by the Brotherhood of December 31. Rick — or Aggie, as he was referred to in his playing days — is the only Met who extinguishes candles the same day as me.

Maybe Rick was as delighted as I was a child to discover, as some stranger put it to me, “the whole world celebrates your birthday!” Or maybe he was as dismayed as I eventually became that on New Year’s Eve people are essentially celebrating that our birthday is ending. Nobody says, “Let’s count down to the moment we can stop wishing Rick Aguilera and Greg a happy birthday!” but they don’t have to say it.

Aggie and I should know the score by now.

Perhaps Rick didn’t think about it all that much as a kid. While I was getting older and philosophizing about months and dates and years, he was keeping his right arm loose and his head free of burdensome thought. Rick’s process took him from Edgewood High School in West Covina, Calif., to Brigham Young University in Provo, Ut., to the third round of the 1983 baseball draft, where the Mets selected him with the 58th overall pick. They could have taken Wally Joyner [3], who was still on the board nine picks later when the Angels grabbed him. “Wally World” went on to make a more immediate impact in the majors, and one could despair that the Mets missed out on a better player than Aguilera, except a) the Mets had drafted first base prospect Dave Magadan [4] in the second round, so who needed Wally Joyner?; b) the Mets were about to trade for Keith Hernandez [5], so who needed Wally Joyner?; and c) Wally Joyner’s birthday is June 16, so who needs Wally Joyner?

Rick Aguilera signed with the Mets and pitched for Little Falls, Lynchburg, Jackson and Tidewater. On June 12, 1985, in Philadelphia, Aggie pitched for the Mets for the first time. I remember it well not because I’d been eagerly tracking my calendar brother’s progress through the minor leagues but because the night before, the Mets lost, 26-7. You don’t forget when your team loses, 26-7. The Mets needed a solid effort following a 26-7 loss. Baseball teams generally need solid efforts every night, but June 12, 1985, presented a particularly pressing engagement in damage control.

On June 11, 1985, Tom Gorman [6] went one-third of an inning, surrendered six runs and gave way to Calvin Schiraldi [7], who was somehow worse. The Mets trailed, 16-0, heading to the third. They cut it to 16-7 by the fifth, but Joe Sambito [8] came on and gave up another ten runs. You’d call up a new pitcher after a night like that whether he was born on December 31 or not.

December 31-born Aguilera entered the tenth inning of a 3-3 game on June 12. His first batter was Garry Maddox [9]. You know the old saying: Two-thirds of the earth is covered by water and Rick Aguilera got Garry Maddox to foul out to Gary Carter [10] to record his first out in the majors. Aggie pitched a perfect tenth. The Mets scored three runs in the top of the eleventh, positioning Rick to be pitcher of record. In the bottom of the inning, Aggie walked leadoff man Juan Samuel [11] before retiring Mike Schmidt [12], Glenn Wilson [13] and Von Hayes [14] to chalk up the win.

Rick Aguilera was exactly one year older than me and had exactly one more big league victory than me.

Aggie was inserted into the starting rotation right away. His fourth start was the same brand of memorable as his first appearance. It came in Atlanta on July 5, 1985, another of those occasions when the Mets needed a solid effort considering what happened the night before. The night before was July 4, 1985, and you don’t have to maintain a Mets memory on the order of some of us born on December 31 to recognize that date as significant. On July 4, 1985, the Mets commenced playing a game that didn’t conclude until July 5, 1985, was close to four hours old. The game itself went nineteen innings. There were a couple of rain delays and enough absurdities to fill Chief Noc-A-Homa’s teepee.

Rick Aguilera and I are old enough to remember a professional sports team employing a mascot named Chief Noc-A-Homa and nobody much stopping to think it might not have been the most enlightened thing to call a person of Native American persuasion.

On July 4 and 5, 1985, the Mets beat the Braves, 16-13. Everybody seems to remember the game ended at 3:55 in the morning. Rarely is it mentioned that less than sixteen hours later the same teams would be required to play another nine innings. In the contest that began July 4, the Mets used seven pitchers, including their two All-Star starters, Dwight Gooden [15] and Ron Darling [16], for a total of three-and-a-third innings. In the contest that was wholly confined to July 5, the Mets used only Rick Aguilera. He pitched all nine innings as the Mets won, 6-1. One of those runs was doubled in by Aguilera, who brought his batting average to .333 in the course of his complete game.

The July 5 game boosted Rick’s record to 3-1. Two of his wins were destined to be afterthoughts to the epics that preceded them if they were ever thought of again at all. But as anybody born on December 31 can tell you, there’s always a tomorrow. The year might end on your birthday, but people don’t let you forget you and your old year are not the be-all and end-all. They gather in large numbers and shout and toast and blow into things to create noise to remind you that January 1 is about to make that calendar page you share with Rick Aguilera yesterday’s news.

Hell, they throw the entire calendar away when our birthday is over.

When Aggie’s first year as a Met turned to Aggie’s second year as a Met, he honed his knack for not being noticed. In 1986, he was the fifth starter on a playoff team that barely needed four. Rick endured a tough first half. He may have been the Mets’ best pitcher in the second half — 9-4, 2.64 ERA — though by the second half, the Mets were so far out in front they could have started Tom Gorman, Calvin Schiraldi and Joe Sambito and it probably wouldn’t have mattered. Being slotted behind Gooden, Bobby Ojeda, Darling and Sid Fernandez [17] meant Aggie would be a long reliever for the playoff duration.

Rick pitched five scoreless innings in the 1986 NLCS. Nobody remembers. The first two of those frames came in the game Lenny Dykstra [18] won with a walkoff home run. Who’s thinking about solid middle relief when you have Nails taking Dave Smith [19] deep? The next three, innings six through eight in the sixth game of the Houston series, deserve to live prominently in Met memory, except only so much lives prominently in Met memory. Aguilera’s three shutout innings while the Mets trailed, 3-0, and couldn’t solve Bob Knepper [20] were crucial in real time, yet they were instantly obscured by what happened once Rick was pinch-hit for by Dykstra to lead off the ninth.

Dykstra tripled. The Mets scored three runs to tie the Astros. Roger McDowell [21] came on and threw five one-hit innings. He became the pitching hero of that Wednesday afternoon-turned-evening under the Astrodome roof. Then Jesse Orosco [22] became the mythic figure by persevering through three innings, not giving up a tying run a second time, not having to break up a fight between Carter and Hernandez had he thrown a fastball and not catching his glove after firing it in the air.

If Rick Aguilera had given up a run in Game Six of the NLCS, the Mets would have lost and faced the presumably unhittable Mike Scott [23] in Game Seven. Nobody ever frames it that way.

On the other hand, Rick Aguilera was horrible in the World Series, once in Game Two, which was a lost cause by the time he gave up five consecutive singles to Red Sox batters in the seventh inning; and then in Game Six, which was about to be a lost cause after Aggie allowed a leadoff homer to Dave Henderson [24] and another run besides in the top of the tenth. The Mets were about to lose, 5-3, the loss deservedly bound for their last pitcher’s ledger.

The bottom of the tenth redeemed Rick Aguilera through absolutely no doing of his own. With two outs and nobody on, you might have heard, Gary Carter singled. Aguilera was due up next. Rick’s reputation as a good-hitting pitcher was firm after two years in the majors. In 1986, when teams decided to go with 24 instead of 25 players on their rosters, Davey Johnson [25] used Aggie as a pinch-hitter four times (he walked once). As a starting pitcher, Rick homered twice.

But Aguilera wasn’t going to hit for himself with the Mets’ season as literally on the line as it was ever going to be. Per legend, Kevin Mitchell [26] hung up the clubhouse phone, pulled on some pants, pinch-hit for Aggie and singled to continue to the dismemberment of Schiraldi, now very conveniently the Red Sox’ “closer”. Then Ray Knight [27] singled. Then Schiraldi exited, Bob Stanley [28] entered, Mookie Wilson [29] stepped up to bat and so on and so forth and what have you.

You know about the wild pitch that scored Mitchell from third, the less wild pitches Wilson kept fouling off, the fair ball that trickled and got by Bill Buckner [30]…yeah, you know the Mets won, 6-5. It is only the most famous episode in Mets history.

The winning pitcher when the episode was said and done was Rick Aguilera. Few remember that part. No wonder. We December 31ers aren’t used to receiving such gifts on October 26. (Yes, the game was October 25, but ended after midnight, and when you’re born on December 31, you become keenly conscious of the difference between dates when midnight falls in the middle of something.)

When next Rick Aguilera won the sixth game of a World Series, it was five years later. Rick was a Minnesota Twin, having been shipped with four other Mets to Minneapolis in exchange for Frank Viola [31] in 1989. The trade was supposed to catapult the Mets back to a championship. It didn’t. Instead, Aggie developed into a top-notch closer and helped the 1991 Twins to an unlikely American League pennant. One potential run from elimination, they were kept alive in Game Six because Rick Aguilera pitched a scoreless tenth and eleventh, holding the Twins’ fort long enough for Kirby Puckett [32] to take Charlie Liebrandt over the wall to force Game Seven, the one in which Jack Morris [33] didn’t need any relief help to defeat the Braves, 1-0, in ten.

Aggie transitioned to the bullpen his final season in New York. He saved seven games as a Met…and 311 as everything else, pitching for the Twins, the Red Sox and Cubs through 2000. Rick made his retirement official at the outset of Spring Training in 2001 when he was 39 and I was 38. The Twins inducted him into their Hall of Fame in 2008 (three years after doing the same for Viola). He finished his career having compiled 318 saves, 86 wins and 3 home runs. I am stuck at zero in all those categories. That one-year head start has apparently been supertough to overcome. Then again, I’m 52 and have yet to announce my retirement.

Happy 53rd, Rick Aguilera. We may never meet, but I’ll always remember your birthday.