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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Even The Losers

If you played for the Worst Teams Money Could Buy, plural, then chances are you ended your evenings on the short end of a lot of baseball scores. By that standard, the universe might owe Jeff McKnight a handful of high-fives.

Few Mets played as many games as McKnight did and lost a larger percentage of them. Jeff, who died at 52 on Sunday after a decade spent battling leukemia, played a little for the contending 1989 Mets when they were going badly; a little more for the 1992 and 1994 Mets, neither of whom went particularly well; and nearly two of every three games played by the legendarily godawful 1993 Mets (in between, he was a recurring member of a pair of not-so-hot Orioles clubs). Overall, McKnight saw action in 173 Mets contests. The Mets lost 123 of them. That works out to a winning percentage of .289, or the prorated equivalent of a 46-116 season. The entirety of Jeff McKnight’s Met career was trapped somewhere between 1962 and 1963, except thirty years later, when that sort of thing was supposed to be well behind us.

Chuck Hiller, Joe Christopher, Jesse Gonder and Hawk Taylor are the only players to have ever played in as many as 173 Mets games and experience more losing on a proportional basis. Those fellows were Stengel Mets and Westrum Mets of occasional accomplishment. Christopher hit .300 for the ’64 Mets. In 1966, Taylor became the first Met pinch-hitter to deliver a grand slam. For a season or a swing, they could be a bright light in a dim era.

By contrast, Jeff McKnight didn’t provide a whole lot of happy distractions, never mind get himself mentioned amid too many happy recaps. The Mets of the Nineties, from before Bobby Valentine plumbed their perennial sub-.500 depths and rescued them from their watery doom, were a team effort, to be sure. When books were being devoted to their overpaid ineptitude and headlines were testifying to their truculent behavior, it wasn’t about McKnight. The Mets of that period were never supposed to be about a utilityman who, in the mind’s eye, is perpetually riding the agate transactional type to New York from Norfolk or vice-versa, his contract having been purchased or his option having been exercised or whatever rule they invoke that allows someone who fills in everywhere but starts hardly anywhere to be used like a yo-yo.

Those Mets were built on the expensive yet ultimately shoddy foundation of Bobby Bonilla and Bret Saberhagen and Eddie Murray and Vince Coleman. They wound up patched together by Chico Walker and Steve Springer and Tom Filer and Jeff McKnight. Guys like those were continually recalled from the minors to do a job. They were basically baseball day-laborers, never too proud to don whatever uniform was available and do whatever they were asked (which included sitting for spells that turned into stretches). McKnight got his share of work in this manner. He took on the assignments the established major leaguers didn’t want to deal with. He got the Mets — and their fans — through the seasons that were ordered in April and had to be completed no later than the beginning of October.

McKnight did participate in the occasional memorable Met win during his 173-game stint. Remember that Sunday night in 1992 when the Mets and Reds wore their 1962 threads and Bonilla blasted a walkoff homer to beat Rob Dibble and Dibble, that old hothead, slammed his retro vest to the Shea grass? Jeff pinch-hit for Dick Schofield an inning earlier (popped out) and stayed in to play short for an inning. How about the 1993 night Anthony Young finally ended his eternal losing streak? McKnight pinch-hit for Tim Bogar to lead off the ninth, managed a single and scored the tying run. Or Opening Day in Chicago in 1994, popularly known as the Tuffy Rhodes Game? Rhodes jerked three over the ivy, yet the Mets prevailed, 12-8; at a juncture the Mets led, 11-7, Dallas Green sent Jeff up to pinch-hit for Eric Hillman. He grounded out, but he played. It was the only Opening Day in which McKnight found himself listed in a box score.

The last of his 173 Met appearances came on 1994’s Closing Night, an unscheduled event that speaks to the spirit of Jeff McKnight’s relatively ad hoc tenure. The season wasn’t supposed to end on August 11, but a players’ strike had been called and the owners weren’t budging and suddenly it was clear this thing was going to end wherever it was going to end. For the Mets, that spot was Veterans Stadium. Jeff had been on the DL since the second week of June, his strained rib cage and .115 batting average left to unhurriedly heal. He was 31, eleven years removed from the amateur draft that made him Met property. It took him six years to rate a maiden voyage to the big leagues, which lasted all of six games in 1989. The Mets brought him back from Baltimore prior to ’92 but never found more than passing utility for his services.

On August 11, 1994, however, he was the perfect fit. The Mets had two young players they liked a lot: Jeromy Burnitz and Fernando Viña. They preferred they not waste a crucial portion of their development walking a picket line. To keep them busy, they were dispatched to Norfolk. To take their places, the Mets activated a couple of Arkansans from the DL: Kevin McReynolds (in his immediately forgotten Recidivist Mets phase) and Jeff McKnight. Hence, it would be in the final Major League Baseball game that anybody would play in the Eastern time zone of the United States until late the following April that McKnight got his last chance. He made what he could of it. In the top of the twelfth, with two out and nobody on, he pinch-hit — it was his 31st game of 1994; he started none of them — and Jeff McKnight singled off Toby Borland.

Sure, he got himself thrown out at second when Billy Hatcher nailed him from left. Sure, he went back to the bench for the bottom of the inning. Sure, the Mets went down, 2-1, to the Phillies in fifteen, saddling the Mets with an eight-month losing streak to take into 1995 and sticking the pinch-hitter with a 50-123 personal record for the ages. Twenty men played their last MLB game ever the night the strike hit. Five of them were 1994 Mets. One of them was Jeff McKnight.

So he didn’t go out a winner. But he did spend the prime of his life a player.

10 comments to Even The Losers

  • Jon

    Great! I’m so sad for this guy, and so sorry I never got the opportunity to talk to him.

  • Harvey Poris

    Jeff was the true utility guy. In his major league career, he played every position except pitcher and centerfield.

  • Dave

    Think he also holds the record for most different uniform numbers worn as a Met, including a few for which he has pretty illustrious company (5, 17, etc). That, of course, is a by-product of the assumption he wasn’t coming back so numbers were assigned to someone else, but that he did keep coming back says something too.

    To be a Mets fan is to always celebrate the Jeff McKnights of the world. RIP.

  • Rob

    You know, this is the stuff that you just can’t get anywhere else. Every single paragraph is filled with stuff you wouldn’t find ANYWHERE else. It’s unfortunate that Jeff McKnight never got a chance to read this, because something like this shows that you MATTERED. Somebody noticed and it meant something, even if the part you played doesn’t involve hoisting a trophy (like most of us). Nicely done, Sir! Kudoos, even…

  • DaveG.

    Once again Greg, another well written tribute article. I remember watching Jeff play. Also I recall the many numbers he wore for our beloved Mets. R.I.P. Jeff McKnight.

  • APV

    Jeff McKnight may not have been a Hall of Famer but he deserved so much better than to get lumped in with the most deplorable team in the history of the franchise. At least he got to play in the majors, something he did 173 times more than any of us ever did. Hope he’s at peace and that time will ease the family’s pain. R.I.P. indeed.

    On another note, McKnight was a Met in 1989? I’d be lying if I said I remembered that. Yes I remember Don Aase, Jeff Musselman, and Bob McClure having been on the team that year but not Jeff McKnight.

  • James Preller

    My friend and I have this conversation about our respective careers. We say, in short, we don’t have to be superstars. We just want our baseball card. You know, we lwant to leave ourmark. Jeff McKnight got himself a few cards along the way. May he rest in space.

  • open the gates

    I may be misremembering, but I seem to recall McKnight coming up in ’89, getting one hit in one at-bat, then promptly bring shipped back to the minors, leaving him for an indecent amount of time atop the Mets stat sheet with a 1.000 BA. Of course, he was later recalled and inevitably tarnished his record. But still, he could always say that for a few weeks he had a higher average than Hernandez, Carter, Straw, Kevin Mac, etc. Tragic that he was taken at such a young age.

    • A hit in his first game, but he stuck around for a couple of weeks thereafter. His last game in ’89 was the day Dykstra and McDowell were sent to Philadelphia for Juan Samuel, the Center Fielder of the ’90s, who the Mets also got rid of in 1989.