Friday night in Phoenix didn’t offer enough positive developments to encourage the pessimistic yet likely didn’t dampen the stubborn enthusiasm of the optimistic. Jon Niese pitched well enough to win until he fell behind. From there, the bullpen pitched poorly enough to ensure he’d lose. Oh, and once again nobody hit. Or “nobody” hit, as the Mets are fast running out of healthy somebodies with whom to fill their widening holes.
The Mets are still close to first place and still in the thick of ancillary playoff scraps, so optimistic your head off if that’s the tune to which you care to march. Also, the Mets are still rippling with injuries, still trying to nail down who and how many their starting rotation encompasses and still maintaining a low profile in the area of reserve players, so let that define your worldview if you must.
Me, I’m still fascinated by something I noticed the night before last in Phoenix. It has nothing to do with whether the Mets are reaching for the stars or are keeping their feet glued on the ground. It has to do with a series of numbers.
These were the numbers that caught my eye:
No need to decipher a secret code. Those are merely the uniform numbers of four of the Mets who composed Thursday’s starting lineup. Good Mets fan that you are, you recognize them as representing second baseman Ruben Tejada, catcher Kevin Plawecki, pitcher Matt Harvey and right fielder John Mayberry.
So I was watching Thursday night, saw the lineup and thought, “11…22…33…44…that’s sure a lot of double-numbers.” My next thought was to wonder why that seemed so striking. They’re common enough uniform numbers. The Mets have had plenty of guys wear each of them.
But together? When, I pondered, was the last time a Mets starting lineup filled my eyes with such double vision?
It seemed a foreign enough phenomenon to dig a little. A person can do that in the Internet age, particularly if one is savvy enough to employ the essential services of Mets By The Numbers, Ultimate Mets Database and Baseball Reference. It’s a marvelous age we live in when we can follow up on our impulses and find the answers we seek.
The answer I sought turned out to be April 29, 1993, a Thursday afternoon at Candlestick Park. The Giants were off to a roaring start. The Mets were crumbling into a million little pieces. The final score reflected the respective directions each opponent was heading in: San Francisco 10 New York 5. The box score confirms that the starting left fielder and leadoff hitter for the visitors was Vince Coleman, No. 11. Batting in the three-hole, at first base, was Eddie Murray, No. 33. In center and hitting seventh, Ryan Thompson, No. 44. The catcher, batting eighth, Charlie O’Brien, No. 22.
11. 22. 33. 44. It wouldn’t happen again until June 4, 2015. It didn’t happen all that much before April 29, 1993.
The Mets have trotted out an 11, a 22, a 33 and a 44 to begin a game only sixteen times in their history. That’s despite having had many distinguished double-number players occupy their rosters through the years.
Al Leiter. Ray Knight. Wayne Garrett. Donn Clendenon. Ron Hunt. Jack Fisher. Jay Payton. Ray Sadecki. John Maine. They wore twin digits as Mets of tenure and a certain amount of distinction. And they weren’t alone in doing memorable things while modeling two identical numerals. Jason Isringhausen garnered Rookie of the Year consideration. Eric Young won a stolen base title. John Buck lit up an April. Alex Ochoa cycled. Lastings Milledge whetted appetites. Kelvin Chapman contributed to an unlikely run at first place. Jason Bay challenged walls with his head. Duke Snider, for whom 4 was initially unavailable in 1963, hit his 400th home run as No. 11.
That’s an eclectic group of 11s, 22s, 33s and 44s. They span the early days of the franchise to the recent days. They are featured players from some of the greatest days the Mets have ever had. Yet none was ever part of a Daily Double Superfecta, if I can mash up a couple of horse racing terms on this potential Triple Crown day.
Delve into the twin-digit data in hopes of having your search pay off with all of them in a starting lineup and you’ll be amazed at how little return you can cash in. How is it possible that Garrett, for example, never got in one of these? He was No. 11 from 1969 to 1976. He played with Clendenon, No. 22, through 1971. They played with Sadecki, No. 33, for a pair of years.
Ah, but where’s the 44 in all that? There’s always some uniform number that doesn’t fit between 1962 and 1986. In the early ’70s, 44 was lightly assigned. Jim Bibby had it but never got into let alone started a game. Leroy Stanton had it but saw little action. The pieces refused to fit.
It was always that way. Fisher, No. 22, and Hunt, No. 33, were teammates for three seasons, arguably the leading pitcher and hitter the Mets had from 1964 to 1966. The shortstop of record in those times was the esteemed Roy McMillan, who wore No. 11. And wearing No. 44 was…literally nobody. The Mets gave it to Harry Chiti for a spell in 1962 (before giving Chiti back to Cleveland) and stashed it until 1967, when it fell onto the backs of short-termers Bill Denehy (future compensation for Gil Hodges, you damn well know) and Al Schmelz, the notorious Topps ghost. By then, Hunt had been traded to L.A., so 33 was no longer on the back of an everyday player.
Eventually your 33s and 44s seemed to bounce among relief pitchers (Mac Scarce, Ken Sanders, Bob Rauch, Bob Myrick, to name a few). 22 grew obscure (Jack Aker, Bob Gallagher, Jay Kleven). 11 had its moments — Lenny Randle and Frank Taveras ran wild — but it couldn’t sync up with its “twin brothers,” shall we say.
Even in 1986, when the Mets could do it all, it couldn’t produce a lineup with 11, 22, 33 and 44 together. They would have to win a world championship and then find a reason to retool to make this particular dream work.
In the weeks after gloriously riding up Lower Broadway, the Mets made some changes. They let Ray Knight, the second No. 22 to earn World Series MVP honors for them, walk as a free agent. Knight was by many accounts the heart of the champs, but business was business and Knight was getting on. Kevin Mitchell was still young and also considered an intrinsic element of the Met chemistry. But business continued to be business, plus the future league MVP might be a bad influence on certain other young players. Thus, Kevin was traded in a multiplayer swap that brought to Shea another Kevin…and another 22.
Kevin McReynolds donned No. 22 for 1987, just as Tim Teufel continued to go to work in No. 11. As they played themselves into shape in St. Petersburg, the Mets made another deal, this one containing absolutely no recriminations for Mets fans. They sent likable but eminently replaceable backup catcher Ed Hearn to Kansas City for a kid pitcher who drew raves, David Cone. Cone was handed No. 44 and suited up for the Mets. Meanwhile, with Hearn gone, the club went back to its backup catcher who began 1986 in New York before being demoted to Tidewater. That was Barry Lyons. He wore No. 33.
The pieces were all in place. And they sat in place until the 35th game of the 1987 season, Sunday, May 17. On that afternoon, against the Giants at Shea, Davey Johnson wrote them all into the same starting lineup. Lyons caught. Teufel played second. McReynolds was in left. Cone pitched. The Mets won, 6-4.
They were 1-0 with 11, 22, 33 and 44 in their lineup. It was a combination that worked so well, it wouldn’t be deployed again for more than a year.
There’s a reason. There’s always a reason. In this case, it was Cone breaking a finger while attempting to bunt at Candlestick a little more than a week later. David went out for several months. When he was reactivated, in the midst of a division title struggle versus the Cardinals, there was no time for Gary Carter to rest, therefore no Lyons catching.
Stars would not align again until June 19, 1988. Same 11, 22, 33, 44. Same bottom-line result. More drama. Coney carried a no-hitter into the eighth. Lyons nursed him along. McReynolds homered. Teufel chipped in a couple of hits. The Mets blanked the Phillies, 6-0, on David’s complete game two-hitter. With that kind of magic, you’d expect Johnson to deploy his 11-22-33-44 weaponry more often.
You’d be disappointed. Lyons wound up ceding the primary backup role to Mackey Sasser. Teufel became less of a factor in Davey’s thinking, especially once he had new toy Gregg Jefferies in his grasp. There would be only two more starting lineups to bring the 11-22-33-44 noise in 1988. Both times the outcome was suitably loud. The Mets beat the Cubs on August 2 and the Phillies on September 20. In the latter game, Cone raised his record to 18-3 and McReynolds bopped his 24th and 25th homers. Unfortunately, Teufel was batting .228 and Lyons was at .215. The Mets were a couple of days from clinching the N.L. East, but also done with twin-digiting to the extreme for a while.
This same quartet would make one more appearance in a starting lineup together, on May 6, 1990, a Sunday at Shea against Houston. It was the opener of a contentious doubleheader. New Met closer John Franco exchanged heated words with home plate ump Doug Harvey over a balk call in the first game. The Mets went on to win in an appropriate number of innings — 11 — anyway. Teufel’s double tied the game and McReynolds’s homer won it. Cone, in the turn after his legendary ball-still-in-play blowup in Atlanta, was no-decisioned, while Lyons didn’t realize he at about to be victimized by a Met decision. Barry, who was miscast as the successor to Carter, would be sent down in mid-May, never to return. His absence signaled a procession of in-season catcher tryouts that resulted in the next wave of twin-digitmania.
It was September, the same season, but on the cusp of a different Met world. Buddy Harrelson was manager. Charlie O’Brien was catcher, the seventh the Mets would use in 1990. He wore Lyons’ old 33. He saw Cone through to a 10-6 victory over San Francisco at Shea. McReynolds homered. With Jefferies ensconced at second, Teufel filled in at first. The same four would man their positions in concert next at Chicago on September 21, a 4-3 loss that damaged the Mets in their chase of the Pirates and snapped their six-game 11-22-33-44 winning streak. Five days later, Teufel was back at second, McReynolds was still in left, Cone was on the mound and O’Brien was behind the plate. The Mets won in Montreal, 4-0. It was part of the 1990 Mets’ last gasp. They’d be eliminated from pennant contention in their next series. They wouldn’t contend for a mighty long time.
As for 11-22-33-44, we’d see its likes a lot in a concentrated span two years later. O’Brien was the stalwart. He had switched to 5 in 1991 before settling in as 22 through 1993. The other numbers, however, hosted a new set of players. Dick Schofield, the slick-fielding, light-hitting shortstop, inhabited 11 (Teufel had been traded to San Diego in 1991). Eddie Murray, the all-time Oriole, arrived in Flushing and put 33 on his back to complement the chip on his shoulder. No. 44 was something of a shock. Cone, who had shifted to 17 in ’91 as homage to Keith Hernandez, was shipped to Toronto in late August of 1992, just ahead of his contract’s expiration. The bounty he brought back consisted of two young players who were supposed to more than make up for his absence. One was the rookie infielder Jeff Kent. The other was prospect outfielder Ryan Thompson.
Thompson was given 44 and promoted in September. He joined a lineup that included Murray, Schofield and O’Brien on September 8 in Philadelphia. The Mets lost, 2-1. They’d play together four more times that month, losing the next three but succeeding at last on September 23 at St. Louis. By then, Schofield was batting .209, O’Brien .208, and the great Ryan hope .176. Murray was still driving in runs but wasn’t a happy man. The 1992 Mets had no reason to harbor much happiness. They certainly didn’t generate a ton of elation. They were on their way to an unsympathetic 72-90 finish.
Changes were afoot. Schofield would be gone, replaced at short by four-time (if never again) All-Star Tony Fernandez. Fernandez took No. 1, which had been on the uniform of Vince Coleman for two miserable years. Vince went for a change of number and maybe luck (if not mood) and switched to 11 for 1993. With O’Brien, Murray and Thompson, they made for the fourth different 11-22-33-44 combination in Mets history when Jeff Torborg penciled each of them into his starting lineup at Mile High Stadium on April 15. The Mets lost, 5-3, to the expansion Rockies. Two weeks later came that 10-6 loss in San Francisco.
And then, nothing of an 11-22-33-44 nature for 22 seasons.
Why the hell not?
Well, Thompson was off to a terrible start in 1993, so two days after the April 23 game, with his average languishing at .125, he was dispatched to Norfolk. His return in late July coincided with the banishment of Coleman following the firecracker event that made Vince infamous. So 11 and 44 missed each other. It was emblematic of how the next two-plus decades would go. The Mets would bring up one set of twin-digits but eliminate another set. The Aaron Ledesmas would just miss the Jason Isringhausens. The Jason Tyners would be traded for the Bubba Trammells in the shadow of the Al Leiters and Jay Paytons. The Lastings Milledges would be called up to take over for the disabled Xavier Nadys, and when the two of them managed to overlap, it wasn’t when the John Maines were pitching to the Ramon Castros. Paths would be crossed, but just barely. As late as 2013, when Harvey, Tejada, Buck and Young were in 40-man roster proximity, there was simply no grouping them in a single starting lineup.
It just kept happening this way until June 4, 2015, when Matt Harvey got sick of losing, John Mayberry woke the hell up, Kevin Plawecki broke out of a nasty slump and Ruben Tejada continued an unfathomable hot streak. 11, 22, 33 and 44 came together to defeat the Diamondbacks, 6-2, in Arizona, raising the Mets record when those four uniform numbers populated their starting lineup to 9-7 all-time and 1-0 in the current century.
I was curious to know and now you know.