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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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Once in a Blue Monell

In another century, you could easily discern the difference between frontline and rear-echelon Mets. The starters were the starters and the bench guys were held in reserve until needed. When one of the bench guys got in the lineup, it usually meant a regular was aching or slumping or simply needed a blow. It was probably a Sunday, maybe the second game of a doubleheader, if you saw more than one of them in the same lineup. Or maybe you didn’t see any of them until the seventh inning on a Sunday (in the mind’s eye, these fellas only got into games on Sundays, perhaps indicating the starters stayed out too late taking advantage of their exalted status on Saturday nights).

If things were going reasonably well, your hardy band of backups would rally around their circumstances and adopt a collective nickname. One of the more famous, perhaps thanks to its presence on a superstation, was The Bomb Squad, Atlanta’s mid-’80s corps of veteran reserves who had the good sense to deploy the initials TBS. They played the bit to the hilt, posing in bomber jackets, goggles and other evocative surplus military gear.

The Bomb Squad wasn’t the first such group, however. Preceding them by a few years, albeit not building much of a profile or lasting terribly long, were the Mets’ own Bambi’s Bandits, the seasoned pros George Bamberger could call on in a pinch — which is precisely when a manager calls on seasoned pros. “Seasoned pros” are traditionally those players who would prefer to play every day (who wouldn’t?) yet have accepted their roles in the interest of extending their careers and maybe improving the health of their team. Circa 1982, at least before things began to crumble beyond Frank Cashen’s immediate repair, Bambi’s Bandits were comprised of a crack crew loaded with seasoned pro archetypes.

The backup catcher who’d been here forever: Ron Hodges.

The surehanded caddy to a defensively disinterested lumbering slugger: Mike Jorgensen.

The cursed with versatility utilityman: Bob Bailor.

The grumbly fourth outfielder: Joel Youngblood.

The sweet-swinging pinch-hitter deluxe: Rusty Staub.

Actually, if memory serves, Staub kept a dignified distance from identifying with Bambi’s Bandits — he was never a scrub and he wasn’t about to begin to adopt the persona of a scrub — but if you were talking “in a pinch,” how could you not talk about Rusty?

Before long, injuries and inertia took a toll on Bamberger’s starting lineup and Bambi’s Bandits inevitably blended into the everyday patchwork that became the 1982 Mets. Hodges took over for John Stearns. Bailor was pressed into continual service all over the diamond. Grumbly Youngblood was famously traded to Montreal early enough one Wednesday afternoon so he could record hits in Chicago and Philadelphia on the same day. The Mets limped home with 97 losses. Come June 1983, Bambi himself resigned, giving way to interim manager Frank Howard. The name “Hondo’s Heroes” was floated in the paper after somebody came off the bench and did something well, but I don’t recall it ever catching on.

The golden age of Met benches is long past, largely because eight-armed bullpens and six-man rotations have made backup players a luxury and lately because of the personnel blur that has overtaken Terry Collins’s best-laid plans. 2015’s nominal starting third baseman hasn’t yet resumed “baseball activities,” which could mean anything from taking grounders to spitting seeds. The starting catcher of record is magnetically drawn to the 15-day DL. The starting second baseman is, à la Joan Rivers on The Tonight Show, permanent guest host at third. There’s a starting left fielder who seemed to have started down the path to taking a load off his left knee, though he’s still active even if he hasn’t exactly been vibrant. There are also a couple of starting middle infielders who seemed permanently in flux until very, very recently.

Never mind not being able to tell the players without a scorecard. How can you keep track of who’s on the bench if everybody on the bench always seems to be playing?

Monday night in San Francisco, labels appeared useless. It’s hard to say who’s a solid “starter” in a lineup in which your catcher never figured to rise above fourth on the organizational depth chart, your left fielder is a guy you literally couldn’t give away twice and your first baseman is your first baseman only because a) that knee business must be killing him and b) your actual first baseman hasn’t made anything but the most accidental/incidental of contact in at least a month.

When this game began, the catcher, Johnny Monell, was batting .182; the left fielder, Kirk Nieuwenhuis — recalled more out of desperation than any crying need for another look at Las Vegas’s favorite frequent flyer — was at .100 on his major league season, a scant .079 counting only his earlier Met tenure; and Michael Cuddyer, to whom millions upon millions were given last November, had sunk to .236. His body of work from June 20 through July 5 consisted of 36 at-bats and two base hits.

Cuddyer. Nieuwenhuis. Monell.

Diminished. Discarded. Dubious.

In Collins’s batting order, they were 5-6-7. And to make their inclusion in a major league lineup found anywhere outside a split squad game on a St. Lucie back field at 10:30 in the morning that much more absurd, they were asked to face the only pitcher in the past two decades to have no-hit their team.

Chris Heston wasn’t nearly as untouchable in San Francisco as he had been in New York last month. Ruben Tejada, who struck out to complete history on June 9, broke up Heston’s no-no with one out in the first. So much for drama. But it wasn’t like Chris was getting touched, either. The Giants were undeniably sloppy and most likely sleepy — much was made of their courageous decision to go back to their hotel in Washington Sunday night before flying home on Monday morning — but it didn’t damage them in the tops of innings at Phone Company Park. Heston walked four, fumbled a relay and threw away a pickoff, yet yielded only three singles in seven-and-a-third innings.

If getting a hit off Chris Heston was on the Mets’ bucket list, mission accomplished. But scoring a run eluded them through eight. Meanwhile, Heston’s mound opponent, Jon Niese, continued to reap the benefits of the six-man rotation, a dicey configuration set up to benefit basically everybody but Jon Niese. Niese has been close to brilliant on extra rest every time out. Pitching for the Mets, however, has prevented him from laying claim to any wins for two months.

Perhaps the Mets would like to consolidate their rotation by having Niese pitch for another team (in exchange for a useful bat attached to a useful swinger of said bat). He’s certainly making himself attractive in his weekly appearances. Monday night Jon went eight, scattered three hits, walked two and didn’t implode when presented the opportunity, which certainly offered a welcome twist to the usual storytelling. A brief bout of wildness loaded the bases in the sixth, which is the inning most Niesewatchers circle in anticipatory dread as the money inning. Bet on Niese finding a way to give up a run or more in the sixth and collect big. Even the New York Lottery advertises, “If Niese is in it, the other team will win it!” Except this time — with the bestest Buster since Keaton standing approximately 60½ feet away — Niese persevered in the other direction. He found a way to retire Buster Posey and kept the game tied at zero.

Keeping a game knotted at zero is generally the best a Mets starting pitcher can hope for. Save for the occasional oddball offensive outburst that surrounds (and is instigated by) Steven Matz, we know the Mets don’t hit for any of their starting pitchers. We know their starting players are relentlessly disappointing and that their bench has faded faster than Marty McFly’s family picture. There are never more than four players attached to it and there is rarely an air of dependability to their presence. There is mostly the Las Vegas 51s Alumni Club having its nightly meeting, save for those nights when one or more of them is starting because it’s not like the starters are getting anything going.

The top of the ninth arrived scoreless and the cynical assumed it would stay that way. Due up were first baseman Cuddyer — in there because Lucas Duda is rapidly devolving into what certain Civil War historians would call a lost cause; left fielder Nieuwenhuis — in there because relative phenom Ceciliani lost his shine from incessant exposure to big league pitching; and catcher Monell, whose ability to leapfrog Anthony Recker may have been his greatest athletic feat to date in a Mets uniform before last night.

Oh, but last night…last night the Mets we deride most were the Mets from whom we derived the most pleasure, the most exhilaration, the most — dare we say it? — hope.

Cuddyer singled sharply to left off Sergio Romo, the same Sergio Romo who managed to give up a game-ending single to the same Michael Cuddyer 25 days (and 9 Cuddyer base hits) ago.

Nieuwenhuis, somehow back after his designation for oblivion, failed to bunt Cuddyer to second, which was great, actually, because it left him no viable option other than to double to right. Cuddyer, barking knee and all, put on the speed of a man half his age (which isn’t really 103, despite all that snow on his well-compensated roof), and threatened to score. It was an idle threat. Michael stopped at third. Kirk refamiliarized himself with second. Two in scoring position, nobody out.

Monell would face Santiago Casilla, which begged the question of 1982 Mets backup catcher from after Stearns got hurt (which means he wasn’t good enough to play in front of perpetual scrubeenie Hodges) Bruce Bochy, “You’re actually bringing in a pitcher specifically to face Johnny Monell?”

Johnny Monell, the .182 wonder?

Johnny Monell, who got to .182 from .095 the week before by getting on what for him qualified as a torrid streak yet .200 was a distant dream?

Johnny Monell, who the legendarily wise, lavishly bejeweled Bochy saw no need to keep around despite an eight-game front row seat to his talents in 2013?

Yes, indeed. One of the greatest managers of the modern era brought in a pitcher specifically to face Johnny Monell. Or simply decided he’d seen enough of Romo, the man who gave up two ninth-inning hits in the same season to Michael Cuddyer. Or was so tired from that Sunday Night Baseball ordeal that he nodded off and inadvertently unhinged the receiver to the bullpen phone.

Whatever. It was Johnny on the spot I don’t think anybody would have forecast when he and Nieuwenhuis were tearing up Spring Training (note to self: disregard everything about Spring Training). It was the ninth inning, the score was nonexistent, the game was on the line, the Mets were facing the defending world champs and the batter was Johnny Monell.

The batter who drove in the go-ahead run and the insurance run — and would next carry on his very own back an additional run besides — was also Johnny Monell. Coincidence? I looked it up, and nope. It’s the same guy. It’s the same Johnny Monell who lashed a double to drive home Cuddyer and Nieuwenhuis to make it Mets 2 Giants 0. The part where Cuddyer and Nieuwenhuis score, let alone the part where the Mets take a late lead, reads as strange. But Cuddyer was once good and Nieuwenhuis we can vaguely recall doing something a couple of seasons ago. But Johnny Monell? Johnny Monell gets the big extra-base hit? Then comes around when Juan Lagares suddenly singles? And probably thinks to himself, “So, this is what home plate looks like from the vantage point of the baserunner — who knew?”

Yup. That’s the Johnny Monell who swiped a lead in San Francisco, not to mention caught Niese’s eight shutout innings, along with oughta-be All-Star Jeurys Familia’s perfect ninth. Those are the Mets, who have no bench, but somehow found enough in reserve to defeat the Giants after taking two of three from the Dodgers. Those are the Mets — DFA-laden, Quadruple-A-speckled, too often classified 4-F — who have outscored their opposition 14-0 over the last 20 innings.

These are our Mets, and just when you’re ready to write them off, you best check the waiver wire, because sometimes the guys you least suspect will be designated for excitement.

26 comments to Once in a Blue Monell

  • Ks

    I gotta tell ya, that is a great piece of writing my friend. Forget the names and characters if you want but, hands down, nicely written. Bravo

  • damrat

    Brilliant, as always, Greg. You only left out the part where Monell looked almost laughably bad on those first two strikes before Casilla oddly began throwing balls so far out of the strike zone that Johnny couldn’t imagine swinging at them, much less get his bat started. Monell went from looking badly over-matched to being in control of the at bat. A pendulum swing I know I didn’t see coming. The final result had me almost screaming out loud. Which would have almost certainly awoken my sleeping fiance and led to a semi-chewing out for still being up at 12:30am and glued to MLB.TV on my iPad like a silly teenager…

  • mikeL

    yes, wonderful piece greg.
    tejada broke up heston’s no-no in the first!
    unlike damrat, i crashed after neise inexplicably got out of trouble with the bases loaded, awoke to a wee-hours infomercial about which i had been dreaming (also did that a week or so ago – try it, it’s cool ;0)
    i groggily checked the score on the online expecting to see a loss…but a win…by that cast?
    thank you for filling in the blanks, sharing some history and making me laugh!

  • Eric

    Props to Niese matching the young stud starters again and another no-fuss save by Familia. I would like to have seen the complete game by Niese, but I can accept staying with the pinch-hitter for Niese with a 2-run lead and the reliability of Familia, even if right now, Duda is hitting like a pitcher.

    So much good pitching is spoiling for a fan. In the 6-man rotation so far, Matz, Syndegaard, and Niese have been strong. deGrom and Harvey struggled.

    Who does Mejia replace? Mejia should boost the bullpen, although the patchwork bullpen has pleasantly surprised by holding up as a team strength.

    Murphy’s fielding range is down with his leg injury. The Mets need Tejada’s fielding protection on the left side. Hard to see Tejada being moved off starting SS for that reason alone.

    When D’Arnaud’s brittle body and live bat come back, switching right away to LF is too much of a stretch, but switching between C and 1B isn’t a big transition, right?

  • sturock

    Great piece, Greg! (“Designated for excitement” indeed.) Hey, how come there are fewer responses when we win than when we lose?

    I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but the pendulum had to swing back for this team sometime. Maybe the Mets get a good week in before the dreaded and interminable All-Star Break.

    • Hey, how come there are fewer responses when we win than when we lose?

      You noticed that, too, huh?

      • Rob E

        Since the Usual Suspects — payroll, Wilpons, defense, Terry Collins, and backup players (with guest appearances by Niese) — only contribute to losses and not wins, there is much less to write about.

  • Daniel Hall

    “Designated for oblivion” will certainly go into my baseball repertoire. Awesome piece, and you keep getting me to chuckle about the (offensively) horribly inept Mets. Thanks for that!

  • APV

    Ok, whatever they’re smoking in San Francisco, i want some of that right now. Jon Niese pitched eight innings of shutout ball — and the Mets won?! Frankly, after Lagares’ baserunning faux pas (I swear it’s contagious like a bad disease with the Mets) I was pretty sure this would be a 1-0 walkoff loss and turned the game off. Oh baseball, still can’t figure you out and probably never will. Good win last night, let’s hope Matt Cain remembers that he hasn’t beaten this team since 2011 and that the bats can get Colon at least three runs tonight.

    Speaking of broadcasters, let me add my get-well wishes to Howie in case he’s reading this blog wherever he is at the moment.

  • LA Jake

    In a networking meeting this morning, we were informed the average adult laughs 17.5 times per day. Clearly, that average is raised considerably by those of us who read FAFIF!

    Thanks to my Burbank address, I’m able to watch these games in their entirety without forgoing sleep. I was fired up by Cuddyer’s great piece of two-strike hitting, only to assume the worst when Nieuwenhuis fouled off and then hideously stabbed and missed his bunt attempts. The shock of the double had barely worn off when Monell delivered, causing me to stand up and shout loudly at the screen.

    With the rotation set to include Colon today vs Cain, deGrom Wednesday vs Peavy, Thor Friday and The Dark Knight Saturday against the D’Backs, plus another Matz outing on a Sunday that will no doubt involve an offensive outburst and result in a win, I’m now way too excited about this run to the break.

    • Eric

      After the Cubs sweep, then doing better than expected on the road against the Dodgers and so far against the Giants, I’m a little nervous the home/away mojo has flipped back to last season so that the Mets drop the series to the Diamondbacks.

      Also, I’m sorry to see Logan Verrett demoted, but one of the young pitchers had to go down to make space for Mejia. I would have been sorry to see Robles go down, too. I wonder what number Verrett will wear with Gee on his team?

  • Bob

    To “LA Jake”
    I’m next door in North Hollywood and should you
    ever want to check out large Mets flag flying in my yard-just let me know!

  • Dave

    Even a guy hitting .100 gets a hit once every 10 times up. Key is the timing of that one at-bat vs the other nine. And while I’m sure Kirk is a very nice guy and would be fun to have a beer or two with, I can’t say I’m happy – or surprised – to see him back.

    Not sure what to make of a manager formulating strategy around Johnny Monell. What’s he going to do tonight, intentionally walk Colon?

  • meticated

    What if we created a campaign to acquire a professional hitter by collectively filling citifield? I’m very sincerely proffering this idea…we publicize our purpose, make it extremely obvious and compel the owners at the point of mass ridicule to spend our contribution as we dictate…how many sellouts would this extortion require?….

  • LA Jake

    Verrett goes but Carlos Torres stays? Can’t say that makes baseball sense (tho probably makes penny pinching sense). Or am I missing something?

    Verrett 12.1 IP, 12 Ks, 4 BBs, 0.73 ERA.

    Meanwhile Carlos Torres has a track record of being as mediocre as possible for years.

    • Dave

      Jake, I’m with you 1000%. Torres was one of those dumpster diving acquisitions that worked out surprisingly well for a while, but he’s about 90% turned back into a pumpkin by now. These middle inning guys always outlive their usefulness…maybe something we can call “Heilmaning.” Torres is definitely Heilmaning. Alex Torres, on the other hand, is damn close to Oliverperezing.

  • LA Jake

    meticated, Mets ownership/management could care less about being ridiculed. That idea will only encourage them to continue to treat fans as suckers.

    • Rob E

      Again, I’m not sure what “treating fans as suckers” means exactly. Since Madoff happened they’ve brought up Harvey, deGrom, Wheeler, Syndergaard, Matz, and Familia (trading for two of those guys). We hear about all the guys they DIDN’T sign, but they gave more than $250 million to Wright, Granderson, Cuddyer, Colon, and Lagares. And oh, yeah…they built a top 5 minor league system along the way (according to Baseball America). Where are they playing us as suckers?

      • Dave

        They’re billionaires and we’ve watched 6 consecutive seasons of sub-.500 baseball, and during most of that time have had a small market payroll…while paying major market prices to come to the stadium. You don’t fear watching them trade off everyone you mention because they can’t afford them or won’t pay them?

  • LA Jake

    Bob, let me know how to contact you

  • LA Jake

    Rob E, the Mets have spent as few dollars as possible in Free Agency the past 4-5 years while “convincing” the fans they are trying to win and hoping they come out to watch the young pitching stars.

    Since 2010 they have hoped to catch lightning in a bottle with Chris Young, Omar Quintanilla, Taylor Teagarden, Kyle Farnsworth, John Lannan, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Shaun Marcum, Ronny Cedeno, Frank Francisco, Scott Hairston, John Rauch, Blaine Boyer, Taylor Buchholz, Chris Capuano, D.J. Carrasco, Willie Harris, Ronny Paulino and the other Chris Young.

    The two biggest signings were overpaying for a RF with no arm who strikes out a ton (and passing on Nelson Cruz) and a LF who has previously hit well but has fallen apart (while passing on Nelson Cruz again).

    If you don’t think they believe the fans are suckers, then I don’t know what to tell you.

  • Biggie

    AS Casey once asked, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”