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The Class of ’62 Comes Through

In the great contemporary tradition of making everything about ourselves, congratulations to the New York Mets’ expansionmates, the Houston Astros on winning their first World Series [1] and, after fifty-six seasons, minting the Expansion Class of 1962 as the first in which everybody can bring a Commissioner’s Trophy to show and tell.

Eleven World Series have now been won by seven expansion franchises. The Mets in 1969 were and shall always be first, a point of next-generation pride for those of us who keep score. When someone of our ilk matches our achievement, it speaks well for baseball’s broadened horizons. There was, through 1960, the musty old order of sixteen teams that didn’t necessarily crave company before Branch Rickey’s Continental League threatened to rumble into existence [2]. Then came the vanguard of tomorrow, emerging in waves of two and four, spawned periodically between 1961 and 1998. We and Houston showed up in the second wave. Houston took longer to earn access the champions club — not to be confused with Citi Field’s Champions Club, formerly known as the Ebbets Club, eventually known as the Hyundai Club until the next sponsor comes along.

The Mets own two world championships; the Royals (Class of ’69) two we wish were one, in which case we would have three; the Blue Jays (’77) two; the Marlins (’93) two; the Angels (’61) one; the Diamondbacks (’98) one; and the erstwhile Colt .45s one at last. Still waiting to get on the board, in chronological order by birth or relocation, are the Padres (’69), Brewers (’70), Rangers (’72), Mariners (’77), Rockies (’93), Rays (’98) and Nationals (’05). If you wish to saddle the teams that moved with the additional years racked up in their previous places of residence, be my guest.

The Astros, who holstered their guns in favor of shooting for the moon identitywise in 1965, never left Houston and remained frustratingly earthbound for five-and-a-half decades. At last they have slipped the surly bonds of also-ran and touched the face of November. That it’s dripping with Champagne has made the culmination of their long journey all the sweeter, if stickier.

This should be about them, not us. This should be about an organization that fathomed whatever it had been doing wasn’t going to get them where they wanted to be, so they stripped the whole enterprise to its foundation and started over, switching leagues and inflicting deep discomfort on their won-lost balance sheet in the early 2010s, confident that they were launching something eminently spaceworthy. In the understatement of the century, losing is no fun. I can’t imagine Astros fans who hung in there across seasons of 106, 107 and 111 losses were having a blast (getting blasted…maybe). I can only imagine how rewarding the transformation that led to 101 wins and a scintillating seven-game World Series triumph over the Dodgers feels today.

It probably feels a little like 1969 and 1986 did for us, actually, but that was a while back now. Maybe winning it all these days feels different. There seems to be more merchandise available. I hope Houstonians who are able partake to their heart’s content. They, like their team, have had to persevere plenty of late. I’m particularly happy for my college-era friend Jo Ann and her family. She moved to Houston for law school and settled there. Shortly after midnight, as Wednesday became Thursday and a crown descended over her city, she sent me a text that consisted of a simple inquiry:

“So, how ’bout those Astros?”

Jo Ann married a fellow attorney, Bob, who attended the first exhibition game at the Astrodome in ’65 and saw the last regular-season game there in ’99. Bob claims he could hear the ruckus during Game Six in the ’86 NLCS from his office, “and my office was five miles from the Dome.” Bob is now a Harris County judge. I move court be adjourned this Friday when Houston holds its first World Series victory parade.

I’m delighted for Jo Ann and Bob and their kids, especially Alex, the eager incoming college freshman Stephanie and I met this past summer when the brood visited New York. Alex wanted to let me know that he’d heard from his dad that Nolan Ryan was a pretty good pitcher, a judgment I willingly seconded. Less than two months later, Jo Ann and Bob were wading through the flood damage wrought by Hurricane Harvey and notifying us of a new address. A World Series championship is a stupendous gift anywhere any year. For Houston, this year, you gotta believe it’s kind of a blessing.

Since we’re intent on steering the conversation back to us, let’s hear it for the Astros with Mets ties, most of them vague to begin with and fairly frayed by now. But if we want in on reflected glory, we gotta reflect.

So, how ’bout Astros pitching coach Brent Strom, a Met in 1972 for eleven games, five of them starts, one of them good? Brent was traded to Cleveland, enjoyed some success with San Diego and then succumbed to arm problems. For years Strom lived on in conversations between my friend Chuck and me because the Met pitcher from our youth shared a last name with a colleague of Chuck’s, thus we always referred to that person as “Brent Strom”. I don’t know exactly what “Brent Strom” is up to, but it was good to see the actual Brent Strom up and at ’em during the postseason just past, out to the mound again and again to wisely confer with and presumably calm down one Astro pupil after another.

And how ’bout their third base coach Gary Pettis? Do you remember Gary Pettis as Mets first base coach in 2003 and 2004? His Flushing tenure has been stored undisturbed in my baseball subconscious since he was swept away in the purge of all things Art Howe. Pettis served as our baserunning and outfield coach as well. The Mets had some pretty good outfielders then and ran the bases to fairly positive effect. Jose Reyes and David Wright took their first leads off first base with Pettis urging them on. He seemed very well suited to third base in Houston, waving runners home by the plethora.

One more Astro coach was a Met coach — and scapegoat. Dave Hudgens was brought on as primary hitting instructor in December 2010 [3] and let go in May 2014 [4]. When the Mets hit, we didn’t trip over ourselves to praise him. When the Mets slumped, Hudgens had to be doing something wrong. That’s how it works with coaches and the rest of us. We rarely know what impact they’re having behind the scenes. The Mets replaced him during the season, usually a sign that nothing is going right. The Astros picked him up in advance of 2015, the season they rose from the nether regions of the A.L. West and into the playoffs, same year our guys (under the tutelage of the recently departed Kevin Long) slugged their way from mediocrity to a pennant. Maybe Hudge knew what he was doing all along. Maybe some fits are better than others. What is indisputable is he is now a world champion hitting coach.

When the Mets were as bad as they could get without being quite as bad as the Astros got, Alex Cora was kind of the face of the franchise. Or the face of the franchise’s futility. If Cora, who demonstrated no range, no power and no talent for reaching base, was playing at brand spanking new Citi Field, it must have meant somebody better wasn’t, usually because anybody better was injured. Cora, 33, was to lousy 2009 in my mind what Howe was to miserable 2003: depressing as hell to ponder in a Mets uniform. But there was one episode I remember warmly where Alex was concerned (one more than I associate with Art). This was in 2010, after the All-Star break as a promising first half dissipated on a West Coast road trip that began in San Francisco and ended down the drain. Following a loss in Arizona, Cora barked in the clubhouse at a knot of reporters who were sharing a few laughs with Mike Pelfrey to “have some respect”. The reporters reportedly apologized (as did Pelf). Cora responded, “Nothing against you guys. It was just a one-time thing. But it was too much.” I was impressed that somebody on the Mets still cared about such niceties. Cora had won a championship with the Red Sox three years earlier and would be picked up by Texas for their playoff push within a month. That kind of “veteran presence,” easy to mock in the context of meager slash lines, still had some kind of value in the game. It’s little wonder Houston would go on to hire him as bench coach and less wonder he is moving on, another championship in tow, to manage Boston.

Tyler Clippard pitched fourteen innings for the 2017 Astros, none of them in the postseason. He threw more than twice as many for the 2015 Mets, shoring up our bullpen just in time for that crucial series against the Nationals in late July and early August. Perhaps the Mets’ mistake was keeping him on the World Series roster. I can still see him, from Promenade, repeatedly missing the strike zone in Game Four, just ahead of Daniel Murphy’s lethal fielding foibles. Cripes. Anyway, he gets a ring now.

On September 25, 2013, Mets catcher Juan Centeno zipped a throw to shortstop Wilver Tovar to nail Cincinnati’s previously unstoppable Billy Hamilton from stealing second base. We didn’t know for sure that would be the highlight of Centeno’s (let alone Tovar’s) Mets career, but it seemed a pretty good guess. Juan played in fourteen games as a Met in ’13 and ’14. He backed up Brian McCann in the 2017 World Series. Didn’t appear in a single game. Neither did Ed Hearn in 1986. They’re still world champion catchers forevermore.

You play for the Mets at the wrong moment, you know first-hand only the agony of defeat. For example, in the waning weeks of 2017, the thrill of victory particularly eluded callups Tomas Nido and Kevin McGowan. Nido played in five games this past season. According to a handy tool on the Baseball Musings [5] site, the Mets lost all of them. McGowan’s Mets outlost Nido’s, going 0-8. Hopefully better box scores await both of them. They sure did for Collin McHugh, the top-notch blogger [6] and mid-level pitching prospect who joined the Mets only to be greeted by the hardest of hard-luck losses. Collin’s line from the afternoon of August 23, 2012, at Citi Field: 7 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 9 SO, 0 R and a no-decision before Bobby Parnell gave up an eighth-inning run to the Rockies. Colorado won, 1-0. McHugh never again pitched so well for the Mets nor ever pitched in a game won by the Mets. Eleven Mets games across 2012 and 2013, eleven Mets losses. Soon, McHugh was swapped to Colorado for Eric Young, Jr. Later, he materialized in Houston and linked himself with winning. Collin put 43 W’s on his personal ledger between 2014 and 2016. An injured right elbow derailed McHugh’s 2017, forcing him to miss more than half the season. He was a minor contributor to the Astros’ World Series surge, but a contributor — and a winner — nonetheless.

Oh, and Carlos Beltran. I think you’re all familiar with his body of work, both since 1998 as a major league superstar and between 2005 and 2011 when he was one of the best players the Mets ever featured. It seemed to take Beltran almost as long as the Astros themselves to finally win a championship. He won’t physically be mistaken for the October missile that exploded across the October sky in 2004, the one that largely earned him the contract that brought him to Queens, but he never ceased being the Carlos Beltran his teammates have continually praised and credited. Some of the first words out of World Series MVP George Springer’s mouth in an interview following Game Seven were thanks to Carlos Beltran [7]. Our old center fielder didn’t play much this autumn, but his impact was palpable in Houston. Going by the word of those who would know, it will be displayed indefinitely on dozens of ring fingers, one of them most deservedly his own.