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Three Times in Fifty-Five Years

For nine innings Saturday night, you might have believed you were watching the Mets perform in historically frustrating fashion, better known as just another game from the past eight weeks. On April 30, the Mets had risen to eight games above .500, Michael Conforto [1] was soaring atop an OPS of 1.118 and the only change any of us could have reasonably requested was a more equitable system of Syndergaarden Gnome distribution [2].

Good times. They didn’t last unabated. Momentum started, sputtered, stalled. Backs, necks, shoulders, wrists, ankles, hips — if it could be connected to a Met bone, it would go aching or worse. Inertia, injuries and plain old inability have contributed to create a lack of fluidity in the current Met season. They’re good enough to win some, not good enough to not lose some more.

These Mets entered Saturday’s shall we say action 24-26 in their previous 50 games. We’ve tended to spiritually process that win one, lose one-point-oh-eight-three-three-three sample as the Mets can’t do anything right. Not true. They win almost as much as they lose (while the Nationals, blessedly, lately lose exclusively).

Sometimes, when the Mets win, they do things you’ve almost never seen them do before.

On Saturday, they won a 1-0 game in extra innings on the road on the strength of a home run. That’s happened exactly three times in New York Mets history (which we know, thanks to the Play Index feature of Baseball-Reference). The Mets have been playing baseball since 1962. It is 2016. Fifty-five seasons, including this one, have transpired, and in 52, what occurred last night never occurred at all.

The lucky seasons before the contemporary edition provided our third episode were 1965 and 1985. Each of the games in question was remarkable and memorable before their respective home runs provided the Mets a climactic penultimate scene.

June 14, 1965: At Crosley Field, Jim Maloney [3] no-hit the tenth-place Mets for ten innings, striking out seventeen along the way. Frank Lary [4] for eight innings and Larry Bearnarth [5] for the next two in no way matched Maloney for epic brilliance, but they did keep the Reds in a zero state of mind. Johnny Lewis [6] led off the eleventh for the Mets and homered. Maloney responded by striking out Ron Swoboda [7] to give him eighteen K’s on the evening. Bearnarth withstood Cincinnati one more time in the bottom of the eleventh to seal the 1-0 win.

October 1, 1985: At Busch Stadium, Ron Darling [8] and John Tudor [9] engaged in a pennant race pitching duel that could be used to illustrate a dictionary definition. Darling scattered seven baserunners over nine innings before giving way to Jesse Orosco [10]. Tudor went ten, yielding six hits, three walks and no runs. In the top of the eleventh, after striking out Keith Hernandez [11] and Gary Carter [12], Ken Dayley [13] gave up one of the most enduringly famous home runs any Met has ever hit: Darryl Strawberry [14]’s shot off the clock. Anybody who watched the game will remember Darryl alarmed Dayley at precisely 10:44 PM CDT. Orosco preserved the 1-0 lead in the bottom of the inning.

That was it for approximately 54½ years, until June 25, 2016, which was already shaping up as a bold-letter date in Mets history, at least around the edges. It was the day Michael Conforto, OPS having plunged to .727, graciously (but necessarily) accepted a demotion to Las Vegas. It was the day Brandon Nimmo [15], the Mets’ No. 1 draft choice from 2011, replaced him, finally earning elevation to the big leagues; his first game is slated to be Sunday’s finale in Atlanta. It was the day Jose Reyes [16], last seen in a Mets uniform the year Nimmo turned pro, was signed to a minor league contract, a formality that will allow him to work out his kinks in Coney Island and soon rejoin the team he still calls home. Judging by the joy he displayed while taking his most recent haircut [17], that day can’t come soon enough for Jose. It was also, sadly, the day Jim Hickman [18], an Original Met whose nickname Gentleman Jim was, by all accounts, well-earned, passed away [19] at the age of 79. (More on that below.)

An active Met day, indeed, before the night’s business commenced. When pitches started being thrown in earnest, the action at Turner Field failed to encompass hitting. If it wasn’t exactly Lary vs. Maloney or Darling vs. Tudor on this steamy Georgia night, Jacob deGrom [20] and Julio Teheran [21] replicated the essential results. Control on each side was impeccable. The Brave starter walked nobody in his eight innings, while deGrom, this year’s poster pitcher for snakebit (no W’s since those 15,000 Gnomes were a hot topic), walked only one. Singles came and went. DeGrom produced double play grounders in three consecutive innings, making best friends everywhere he went.

Met (or Royal Giant) baserunning was the enemy on a couple of occasions. Yoenis Cespedes [22] and his battery of bruises didn’t or couldn’t slide into second in the third, short-circuiting a legitimate scoring opportunity. In the tenth, during a sequence that seems destined to represent Alejandro De Aza [23]’s calling card for the rest of his Met time — which looms as limited — the Braves turned a DP of the SMH variety. Matt Reynolds [24] was on first, pinch-running for Wilmer Flores [25]. De Aza bunted badly, popping up toward pitcher Jim Johnson [26]. That was routine failure, but what made it horrendous was De Aza’s decision to slam his bat into the ground and dawdle in his dismay. Johnson took note, let the bunt fall to the grass and threw to second to easily nail Reynolds. De Aza, inferring that he wasn’t out, scrambled down the line in a mad dash to compensate for his shortcoming, leading with his head (if not his brain), in a sliding attempt to beat the relay to first.

It didn’t work, as De Aza continues to absorb the hard lesson Tom Haverford did on Parks & Recreation after the ultimately fleeting retirement of office scapegoat Jerry Gergich: ecosystems abhor a vacuum. Without Jerry (also known as Larry, Terry and Garry over the life of the show) around, Tom would be the colleague to get dumped on. De Aza may not bumble as a matter of course, but with a batting average of .169 and Eric Campbell [27] nowhere in sight, somebody’s gotta serve as Soup.

Once De Aza committed the kind of misjudgment we’d have reflexively associated with Campbell until his late-May disappearance, there were two out, soon to be three. It was still nothing-nothing in Atlanta, going to the bottom of the tenth, a status maintained when Addison Reed [28] struck out two and flied out Jeff Francoeur [29]. Reed had entered the game in the midst of the bottom of the ninth, eliciting two foulouts with a runner on base, a nice recovery from the Adonis Garcia [30] incident a couple of nights earlier [31].

The next pitcher to enter the fray was Dario Alvarez [32], a Met for not very long in 2014 and 2015, but one who looked like he could be a useful lefty reliever had injuries not interfered; he was the pitcher of record when the Mets stormed from behind to annihilate the Nationals last Labor Day [33], fanning Bryce Harper [34] and saving all our bacon. His Atlanta assignment was Kelly Johnson [35], who was surely playing for one team or the other in attendance. Johnson, as you know, is the Brave who became a Met who became a Brave who became a Met who started as a Brave before sojourning to all of the American League East as well as Arizona.

Lemme check…yeah, he’s a Met now. Not only is he a Met, but he is a Met who homered in the eleventh inning of a nothing-nothing game. It’s not stunning that Johnson would muscle up and send a ball out of a park as a pinch-hitter. It’s something he did last September against the Nationals, coming through for us in the very same series in which Alvarez shone [36]. The way things were going last night, it was surprising anybody scored, and, at the risk of feeding the woe-is-Mets narrative, a little shocking it was one of our guys.

Lemme check again…Kelly Johnson, yeah, still a Met. A Met a second the time way Lary was in 1965 (he was the first of 41 Recidivist Mets to date), the way Reyes will be within the week (he’ll be the 42nd).

As it was after Johnny Lewis and Darryl Strawberry, the Mets led, 1-0, heading to the bottom of the eleventh. And as it was in those contests, the dramatic swing wouldn’t mean a thing if it wasn’t followed up by some clutch pitching. In the best tradition of Larry Bearnarth and Jesse Orosco, Jeurys Familia [37] — having the night before set a Mets record I’m confident neither he nor I knew existed (most consecutive saves at the start of a season, never mind four-run leads that get away) — had to put in the books what Johnson lined up at the edge of the last chapter. It didn’t come easily, because why would it, but it got put. Jace Peterson [38] led off with a single to center, Ender Inciarte [39] bunted him to second (and ran to first) and Freddie Freeman [40] was wisely intentionally walked. Nick Markakis [41], however, grounded to Mr. Familia, who pivoted and fired to Asdrubal Cabrera [42] covering second. One out. Cabrera threw to electric defender James Loney [43] (Lucas Whoda?). Two out. For the inning, three out.

The Mets won a 1-0 game in extra innings on the road, fueled by a solo home run for the third time in their existence, proving yet again that if you watch enough baseball, you’ll see something you’ve only seen infrequently [44].

***

If you watched the Mets in their early years, you saw plenty of third baseman and outfielder Jim Hickman. The club jettisoned most of its veterans as soon as they could. Twenty-eight Mets went north in April of 1962; sixteen were gone by April of 1963. Rookie Hickman, however, outlasted everybody, persevering in Manhattan, then Queens, until the end of 1966, no small feat on a team that lost 547 games in five years.

Hickman lasted and occasionally flourished. In 1963, he became the first Met to hit for the cycle. In 1965, he became the first Met to hit three home runs in one game. The only other Met to accomplish both feats? Jose Reyes in 2006, both feats achieved in losses for a division champion, whereas Hickman’s big days occurred in rare and therefore precious wins. Jim’s biggest hit as a Met occurred two days after his cycle. On August 9, 1963, in the bottom of the ninth at the Polo Grounds, with the scored tied and the bases loaded, he lofted a fly ball that, given the dimensions of the Mets’ original environs, flew just high and just deep enough to have “just ticked the overhang of the upper stands,” per Jerry Mitchell’s reporting in The Amazing Mets. Not only was it a walkoff grand slam, it halted Roger Craig [45]’s personal eighteen-game losing streak.

Craig was ready to do more than greet Hickman at home plate. Had the batter not touched it, the pitcher said, “I’d have tackled him to make him do it if I had to.” In those days, Mets wins were wonderful, but the Mets not losing was enormous.

Jim’s relative longevity amid constant turnover allowed him a leg up on the Met record books. After five seasons, he stood as our all-time home run (60) and RBI (210) champ. It was Hickman’s opinion, shared with Bill Ryczek in the always marvelous The Amazin’ Mets, 1962-1969, that he might have had better years early in his career had he gained the kind of sub-MLB experience someone like Nimmo has in the minors. Hickman hadn’t exactly been rushed to the bigs as a Met — he had been a Cardinal minor leaguer since 1956 when he was scooped up in the expansion draft — but some players, like some people, are late bloomers. It was generally agreed during his New York tenure that Hickman had the talent to flourish (“a beautiful swing,” Sports Illustrated raved in 1963), but also that the humble Tennessean might not have been a temperamental match for the bright-lights situation into which he was thrust in the Big Apple.

His day came, however. In 1970, Jim Hickman made the National League All-Star team, the final 1962 Met to ever be selected for the Midsummer Classic. His manager for the occasion was his erstwhile teammate Gil Hodges [46], but it was selection based on merit. Jim hit 32 home runs and drove in 115 runs while batting .315 for the Cubs that year. It was good enough to net him eighth place in the N.L. MVP voting.

Those glittering statistics were compiled shortly after Leonard Shecter wrote of him, “For years, Jim Hickman was one of the Mets’ best players. They didn’t go anywhere until they got rid of him.” It sounds like a knock, but Shecter was right. Hickman and Ron Hunt [47] were traded to Los Angeles following the 1966 season to bring Tommy Davis [48] to New York. Davis, in turn, was packaged with Jack Fisher [49] after 1967, sent to the White Sox for Tommie Agee [50] and Al Weis [51]. With Agee and Weis, the Mets went very far. Before them, there were but a few Mets who took the team anywhere at all. Jim Hickman was definitely one of them.