FLUSHING, N.Y. (FAF) — A near-batting champion, a defending Cy Young winner and the franchise leaders in saves will all be on the sidelines as the so-called greatest New York Mets World Series team ever prepares to take on its American League opponent in the upcoming Fall Fantasy Classic.
While there is much talent assembled on the 25-man roster, it is hard to miss the omissions that remain in the wake of manager Gil Hodges’s excruciating decisionmaking.
“There were more tough calls than you could imagine, and most of this exercise is about imagination,” Hodges said after issuing the roster he will use against an amalgamation of previous Mets World Series rivals. “I had a lot of good players to choose from and only so much latitude.”
Hodges referred to the defining rule of the Fall Fantasy Classic, which states the Mets must play with five players apiece from each of their World Series rosters, those used in 1969, 1973, 1986, 2000 and 2015. In all, 113 different players were named to Mets World Series rosters, with 106 playing in at least one World Series as Mets, eight playing in two and seven never seeing action despite being eligible.
“That’s a large pool and it presents a great deal of possibility,” said chairman of the board of general managers Sandy Alderson, who consulted with Hodges and fellow pennant-winning GMs Johnny Murphy, Bob Scheffing, Frank Cashen and Steve Phillips in shaping the final Fall Fantasy Classic roster. “With the ‘five from each year’ caveat, you won’t be able to make everybody happy, nor should you. You want players who want to play. On the other hand, the requirement isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because at the end of the day, this is an entertainment business, and you want to keep fans from each era entertained.”
Certainly the controversy touched off by the construction of this roster — which also had input from the other Mets World Series managers, each of whom will coach for Hodges in the upcoming set of games — will provide conversational fodder in the run-up to the first game of the Fall Fantasy Classic.
“There were many tasty ingredients, but only a few could be added to the stew,” mused Bobby Valentine, the 2000 Mets manager who will take time out from running his Connecticut sports bar and restaurant to serve as Hodges’s third base coach in the Classic. “We all had a say, but the big picture was in Gilly’s hands. You don’t get in the way of the big man.” Alderson confirmed Hodges had final say, acknowledging that their shared background as United States Marines conferred a certain “zone of comfort” on the selection process.
“I don’t think there are too many players who wouldn’t follow Gil into metaphorical or actual battle,” Alderson said.
The Mets who played for Hodges in 1969 were most understanding of their old manager’s ways. Cleon Jones, whose .340 average placed him third in the National League batting race that year, admitted disappointment that he wouldn’t be joining the Fall Fantasy Classic team, but said, “I get it. Gil has his reasoning and I’m better off for it,” before chuckling, “tell him he can use my shoe polish if he likes.”
Jones could have been chosen as a 1969 or 1973 Met, though not both. Luckier in that regard were 1969 selection Jerry Koosman and 1973 representatives Bud Harrelson, Tug McGraw and Tom Seaver, each of whom played for Hodges in ’69 and Yogi Berra four years later.
“Those two had different personalities, that’s for sure,” said Koosman, who figures to join with Seaver, Al Leiter and Noah Syndergaard to form a Fall Fantasy Classic rotation, the order of which Hodges has yet to announce. “But once the game starts, the manager is in the dugout and you’re on the mound.” Berra, one of the great catchers in baseball history, will work as Hodges’s pitching coach in the upcoming series, a new role, but one Berra’s fellow New Jerseyan Leiter is sure the Hall of Famer is suited for.
“Yogi told me throw strikes,” Leiter said. “You can’t argue with that.”
The most notable starter who will not be partaking of Berra’s advice is Dwight Gooden, left off the roster in what Hodges says was a numbers crunch and not a repudiation of a 1986 World Series performance that fell short of his 1985 leaguewide dominance. “I’d love to take everybody,” Hodges explained, “but it’s a seven-game series, and something had to give.” Other starting pitchers who did not make the Fall Fantasy Classic roster cut include Gary Gentry, Jon Matlack, Ron Darling, Mike Hampton, Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey. Hodges did opt to add two hurlers who primarily started in their respective World Series years, 1986’s Bobby Ojeda and 2000’s Rick Reed, to his bullpen. “I think both men bring poise and can give us innings if we need them,” Hodges said, noting each had experience throwing in relief. “We need to be flexible.”
The Mets rounded out their Fall Fantasy Classic pitching staff with two arms from 1973 — lefties Tug McGraw and George Stone — plus Nolan Ryan and Turk Wendell. Ryan went on to a Cooperstown career after leaving the Mets, but the Mets stress he is on the roster as his 22-year-old fireballing self. “Nolie can smoke ’em, that’s for sure,” Berra noted.
Missing from the staff are single-season saves leader Jeurys Familia and John Franco, the Mets’ all-time career saves record holder and a Brooklyn native who grew up rooting for the ’69 and ’73 squads. “Ah, whaddaya gonna do?” was Franco’s reaction. “At least I should get good tickets.”
Not every Met who didn’t make the Fall Fantasy Classic roster accepted rejection so matter-of-factly. Nowhere within the Mets championship universe were omissions processed as slights more forcefully than among the 1986 world champions. Because of the five-per-year rule, only five ’86ers could be tabbed. To no one’s surprise, Hodges selected the heart of the 1986 batting order: right fielder Darryl Strawberry, first baseman Keith Hernandez and catcher Gary Carter; it’s unclear how Hodges will divide catching duties between Carter and his fellow Hall of Fame inductee Mike Piazza.
The only other 1986 Met besides the All-Star trio and Ojeda to make the club was Wally Backman, who is projected to see action off the bench. That meant a slew of well-regarded Mets who were vital in earning the franchise its second championship trophy will not be available.
“You know, I did win the Most Valuable Player award in the last World Series the Mets won,” an obviously miffed Ray Knight said when informed he wouldn’t be part of the roster. “I’m not saying there weren’t lots of great options and lots of tough decisions. I love Gil like a second or third father. I love the guys who did make it, but I can’t help the team if I’m not a part of it. I hit a home run in the seventh game of the World Series. I scored the winning run in Game Six, which everybody remembers as one of the greatest games ever played. I’d think there’d be room for someone with those capabilities, but I gotta respect the rules and pull as hard as I can for the guys, even the ones I didn’t play with, the ones who are darn good but didn’t win 108 games.”
Similarly disappointed was 1986 Mets center fielder Lenny Dykstra. “Dude, seriously?” Dykstra asked, before unleashing a string of profanities that concluded with another “dude.”
Harrelson and second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo will serve as Hodges’s double play combination, with David Wright, from 2015, manning third base across from Hernandez. Wright’s contemporary, Yoenis Cespedes, will likely start in left, projected to flank 1969 center fielder Tommie Agee. Agee’s selection precluded the inclusion of 1986 hero Mookie Wilson. “That was maybe the hardest one,” Hodges said. “I appreciate Mr. Wilson’s abilities, but Tommie gives us speed and power, and we know his defense.” Wilson, like teammates Roger McDowell, Jesse Orosco and Sid Fernandez, declined to comment.
Rounding out the roster are two players Hodges managed to great effect in the 1969 World Series, slugging first baseman Donn Clendenon and utility infielder Al Weis; Berra’s leading hitter from the 1973 Series, Rusty Staub; and two of Terry Collins’s 2015 National League champions, Curtis Granderson and Juan Uribe. Hodges admitted he wasn’t necessarily as familiar with Uribe’s work as he is with his higher-profile players, but he was impressed by his earlier World Series track record, in which he helped the White Sox and Giants to titles, and liked his 1.000 batting average from the ’15 Series. “He went 1-for-1,” Berra added. “You can’t do better than perfect.”
Hodges’s coaching staff will be rounded out by 1986 Mets manager Davey Johnson at first base and Collins, who will handle bullpen duties.
The full squad will work out at Shea Stadium, site of Game One and potential Game Seven, before the beginning of the Fall Fantasy Classic. Games Two and Six (if necessary) will take place at adjacent Citi Field. The three middle games, in which the designated hitter will be used, thus giving Hodges the opportunity to start both Carter and Piazza, are scheduled for the three American League parks: Fenway in Boston (Game Three), Memorial Stadium in Baltimore (Game Four) and Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum (Game Five). Neither Kansas City’s Kaufman Stadium nor renovated Yankee Stadium were considered as venues.
“These gentlemen are all champions in my eyes,” said Hodges. “Now it’s time for the rest of the world to see it.”
NEW YORK METS FALL FANTASY CLASSIC ROSTER
Koosman, Jerry (LHP) – 1969
Leiter, Al (LHP) – 2000
McGraw, Tug (LHP) – 1973
Ojeda, Bobby (LHP) – 1986
Reed, Rick (RHP) – 2000
Ryan, Nolan (RHP) – 1969
Seaver, Tom (RHP) –1973
Stone, George (LHP) – 1973
Syndergaard, Noah (RHP) – 2015
Wendell, Turk (RHP) – 2000
Carter, Gary (R) – 1986
Piazza, Mike (R) – 2000
Alfonzo, Edgardo (R) – 2000
Backman, Wally (S) – 1986
Clendenon, Donn (R) – 1969
Harrelson, Bud (R) – 1973
Hernandez, Keith (L) – 1986
Uribe, Juan (R) – 2015
Weis, Al (S) – 1969
Wright, David (R) – 2015
Agee, Tommie (R) – 1969
Cespedes, Yoenis (R) – 2015
Granderson, Curtis (L) – 2015
Staub, Rusty (L) – 1973
Strawberry, Darryl (L) – 1986
MANAGER: Gil Hodges
COACHES: Yogi Berra (Pitching), Terry Collins (Bullpen), Davey Johnson (First Base), Bobby Valentine (Third Base)
NOTE: Fall Fantasy Classic roster must consist of five players apiece from each New York Mets World Series roster. If a player is injured during the Classic, he may be replaced, but only by a member of his year’s World Series roster.