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Conforto On Deck

Willie Mays. Howard Johnson. Michael Conforto. The connective tissue? Besides having been New York Mets All-Stars? Each can be identified as an on-deck batter.

You don’t see On-Deck Batter listed as a position anywhere. Neither the 1973 [1] nor 1976 [2] Topps set included a graphic to indicate what an On-Deck Batter looked like. Nevertheless, every position player (give or take a Joe Hietpas [3]) has been an on-deck batter, sort of how every airline passenger has been a departure gate denizen. It’s an element of the journey, hardly the destination.

For a few, though, the on-deck circle becomes an intrinsic part of their larger story. Willie Mays accomplished just about everything that could be accomplished on a baseball field, yet one of the most mentioned facts about him is a slice of evergreen trivia. It could be the most oft-asked “hey, betcha didn’t know this” baseball question of the past sixty-five years:

“Who was on deck when Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard ’Round the World?”

I learned the answer on the back of a baseball card when I was a kid. I hear it repeated during baseball broadcasts multiple times per season. It seems the person who took the longest to find out Mays was on deck when Thomson went deep was Mays, at least in terms of how long it should have taken. Willie (his voice rising to a squeal as it will) has said he had no idea the man batting in front of him had just walloped what was about to become the most famous home run in the annals of home runs. Willie, a rookie on October 3, 1951, was too lost in thought over how to handle Ralph Branca to have noticed Thomson had just made that task unnecessary.

“I was on deck,” Willie said several years ago, “and I was the last guy to get to home plate. I really didn’t realize that the game was over so quickly.”

[4]

Where’s Willie?

The game was over, but Willie was just getting started. Among the many achievements ahead of the 1951 National League Rookie of the Year were two seasons for the New York Giants — 1956 and 1957 — in which he’d hit at least 30 home runs and steal at least 30 bases. Thirty years after Mays did it for the second time, Howard Johnson would do it for the first of three times, making HoJo the first National Leaguer to renew his membership in the 30-30 club that frequently. Johnson did many splendid things in a Mets uniform between 1985 and 1993. But at the franchise’s most spellbinding moment, he simply stood by.

HoJo was to the Mets in the earliest hour of October 26, 1986, what Willie was to the Giants a few minutes before four o’clock in the afternoon on October 3, 1951. He was on deck with history about to be written. The swing that served as pen and ink wasn’t a long drive à la Thomson, but a ground ball trickling off the bat of Mookie Wilson. Got by Buckner. Rounding third was Knight. You know how that went. You may also know that had Bill scooped up Mookie’s grounder but lost the foot race to the bag, Ray in all likelihood would have stopped at third…and up next, with the responsibility of keeping the tenth inning of the Mets’ last gasp alive — whereas Thomson was up with one out, Wilson batted with two — would have been Howard Johnson.

HoJo hadn’t been in Game Six against Boston from the start the way Mays had been in Game Three against Brooklyn. The Johnson who called the shots on the ’86 Mets, Davey, didn’t call on the Johnson who was capable of belting them, Howard, until the bottom of the ninth, score knotted at three, Knight on second, Wilson on first, nobody out. Not much pressure there, huh? HoJo, who’d launched ten home runs in 220 at-bats that year (including the April clout off Todd Worrell that effectively eliminated the Cardinals from contention [5]), was up in a classic bunting situation. Davey had Howard attempt one sacrifice before letting him swing away. A strikeout resulted, the Mets didn’t score and the game that began on October 25, 1986, approached might and went to extras.

Everything turned out OK, you might have heard. Sure, the Red Sox plated two in the top of the tenth, and Calvin Schiraldi recorded two quick outs in the bottom of the tenth, and the Mets were down to their final strike approximately a thousand times (or so it seemed), but Mookie did his thing, Ray took off from second, coach Buddy Harrelson escorted him around third, and Howard Johnson led the greeting party at home. HoJo had been in the on-deck circle as the Mets’ potential last hope. He could have been a Bobby or a Mookie. Instead, he became a Willie, which isn’t a bad thing for a HoJo or anybody to be. But unlike Willie Mays, who lagged behind everybody in celebratory sight despite his vantage point from the on-deck circle, Howard Johnson couldn’t have been quicker off the mark. Willie was the last New York Giant to greet Bobby Thomson upon the arrival of the most incredible, unbelievable, Amazin’ run in his franchise’s history? HoJo was the first New York Met to greet Ray Knight upon delivery of his. Perhaps it was a harbinger of the speed Howard would show the following season when he first stole thirty-plus bases.

[6]

There’s HoJo!

Like Willie Howard Mays, Howard Michael Johnson would be known for much more than a footnote to somebody else’s accomplishment. And like Willie and Howard, Michael Thomas Conforto looms as a ballplayer with a whole lot more in front of him besides an instant in an on-deck circle. Yet on Sunday, Conforto’s ultimate role was to be that guy who waits. Bobby Thomson wasn’t up at the Polo Grounds. Mookie Wilson wasn’t up at Shea Stadium. This time, it was Travis d’Arnaud up at Citi Field. The stakes, when compared to the game that decided the 1951 National League pennant or the one that staved off elimination in the 1986 World Series, couldn’t have been smaller. It was just one game in July between two teams — the Mets and the A’s — who were meeting only at the schedule’s behest. Neither opponent figured to be busy beyond October 1 no matter the outcome on July 23.

Still, the outcome on July 23 was very much in doubt in the home ninth, just as it was when those aforementioned October affairs had yet to go final. The A’s led, 3-2. The score had settled there partly via Rafael Montero’s dizzying ascension to the precipice of competence (seven professional innings pockmarked only by three solo Oakland homers; he also singled), partly because Michael Conforto continues to blaze. The Mets’ only 2017 All-Star has cranked up his credentials to become a perennial candidate since the break, batting .350 over the past ten games while dripping with extra-base power. Three doubles. Five home runs, including the one that put the Mets on the board in the third inning Sunday. Michael was 2-for-4, the only Met to succeed twice versus A’s starter Daniel Gossett.

Gossett went six. He was followed to the mound by Daniel Coulombe, who gave up nothing; Blake Treinen, who gave up nothing; and Santiago Casilla, who, with one out, allowed Saturday night’s object of affection [7], Wilmer Flores, to dunk a single into left-center. It was a wee bit of hope on a Sunday when the Mets didn’t play like they usually do on Sunday, so maybe they wouldn’t lose like they usually do on Sunday. A wee bit of hope, as we were reminded Saturday, can grow exponentially and quickly if nurtured correctly.

Faster-by-default Matt Reynolds pinch-ran for slow-footed Flores. Theoretically threatening Yoenis Cespedes pinch-hit for René Rivera. They were giving away Yoenis Cespedes compression sleeves Sunday, but the Mets weren’t putting Yoenis anywhere near the starting lineup. He probably needed a day to decompress. A dramatic ninth-inning appearance would suffice if Yo could shake off the doldrums and drum up the drama. This had been a better Sunday in New York than most for these Mets, but it wasn’t going to be that good. Yoenis flied to center.

The Mets had one more out with which to play. D’Arnaud, who’s been showing his own signs of life of late, was welcome to reassert his power locally. Travis has hit nine home runs this season. None of them has raised the Apple that the catcher once bruised badly enough to require it be bandaged [8]. I wasn’t asking for Td’A to be summoned to HR, however. A home run would have been swell — hell, it would have won the Mets the game and swept the Mets the series — but I didn’t need that. I just needed Travis to get on base and for Matt to not get thrown out in the bargain.

I didn’t need more in that moment because Michael Conforto was on deck, and I was thinking, “If we can just get Conforto up here…”

I’m not sure what the conclusion of that conditional scenario was going to be. I’d hoped it would be stupendous. It might have been disappointing. It could have inspired Yoenis Cespedes Manager of the Decade Bob Melvin to direct Casilla to pitch around Conforto in order to take on Curtis Granderson, who’s recently been slumping almost as badly as Cespedes. With Conforto up, Granderson would have been the on-deck batter. With Granderson up, Jay Bruce would have been the on-deck batter. Had Granderson tied the game and brought Bruce up, Lucas Duda would have been the on-deck batter, which would have been the most superfluous notation at Citi Field since the last convenience fee charged to a ticket-buyer, because as we work our way down the lineup in this theoretical fashion, Bruce either wins the game in the ninth or we go to the tenth. You reach a point where the on-deck batter is no more than a creature of the circle that surrounds him.

But we were nowhere near that point with d’Arnaud up. It was Travis trying to keep it going and Conforto waiting. For the first time I could remember all season, I was more excited about the on-deck batter than I was about the actual batter. No offense to Travis. It’s a reflection on how much Michael has come on and how far Michael might go — and I mean that in a good way. On a roster where every other reasonably familiar face — Granderson, Bruce and Duda among them — is considered trade bait, Michael isn’t going anywhere, except to the outfield most days and to the plate on Sunday should Travis somehow get on. If we can just get Conforto up here…

We couldn’t. Travis popped out to end the game. The Mets lost [9]. Oh well. Michael will be up again very soon, probably leading off tonight in San Diego. I can’t wait.

I also can’t wait for Varsity Letters [10] at 7:30 this evening, when I’ll be discussing and reading from Piazza: Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star [11], on a bill with three fellow baseball authors. Please join Ron Kaplan, Jay Jaffe, Mark Feinsand and me at Le Poisson Rouge [10], 158 Bleecker St. in Manhattan. Admission is free. Books will be available. The Good Time Probability Index throbs with positive indicators.