Since New York and environs have been subject to the whims of nor’easters lately, let’s amble out to the northeast of the standard baseball field diagram and consider right field and its most practiced Metsian occupants thereof. We could forecast the weather, but the weather is revealing itself. We could forecast the Mets’ rotation, but it, too, will make its composition clear once the games begin to count. Let’s fetch our topic from out of right field.
I think Stan Isaacs, whose cheeky Newsday column was titled “Out of Left Field ,” would appreciate our counterintuitive approach.
Let’s first spend a moment on Darryl Strawberry, who played more games in right field — 1,062 — than any other Met. Darryl’s been floating through my subconscious ever since he started making the media rounds last fall to promote Don’t Give Up On Me: Shedding Light on Addiction with Darryl Strawberry , a book tied into the work he’s dedicated himself to  via the Darryl Strawberry Recovery Centers, surely a very serious and worthwhile subject. The book plays off of Strawberry’s experiences in baseball to illustrate how addiction can bedevil, but Don’t Give Up On Me is not a baseball book, per se.
Still, when Darryl speaks, memories of his baseball career eventually arise. Our right fielder of record has always had a knack for attracting attention (otherwise Darryl wouldn’t have been struck so many bookers as a get). You may remember some buzz about Strawberry insisting he was through with the Mets organization , or some titters regarding the between-innings escapades  to which he copped. Me, I’m just happy he played baseball between between-inning escapades, and now lives to tell about it for the greater good. Either way, nobody who ever wore a Mets uniform generated more electricity whether he was wearing his uniform or not.
It’s easy to lose sight of just how freaking good Darryl Strawberry was as a New York Met. Controversy, self-stirred and otherwise, may have shadowed his excellence between 1983 and 1990, but it couldn’t eclipse it. There is a knee-jerk reflex to bemoan how splendid his career could have been had he not let personal problems get the best of his talent. I’d suggest inverting the thought. It’s amazing how great his career was despite all of his problems (the truly regrettable aspect is what he experienced as a person, not as a player…and the impact his actions had on those close to him). Not too many whose lives were plagued by addiction, abuse and anxiety also managed to belt 335 home runs and drive in a thousand runs across seventeen major league seasons. Strawberry’s first 252 homers were blasted as a Met, the most of any Met now and — barring the miracle it would take to enable David Wright’s return — for the foreseeable future.
David is sitting on 242 home runs, emphasis on sitting. Next-most by an active Met as a Met? Jose Reyes, 34 and never a power-hitter, at 104. Yoenis Cespedes has 65, Wilmer Flores 57, Michael Conforto 48, Travis d’Arnaud 46 and Asdrubal Cabrera and Jay Bruce 37 each. Age, injury history, contract length and common sense combine to suggest no more than one current Met has a realistic shot to someday catch up to Straw. Maybe…maybe Conforto stays healthy, sticks around and keeps pounding the ball. He’s only 25.
Of course before Darryl turned 25, he had 108 home runs, or 60 more than Michael. I’d love for Wright to heal or Conforto to chug along, but honestly, the Met most likely to hit more home runs than Strawberry has yet to make himself known to us. Or possibly his parents.
The numbers are more impressive than generally remembered with Strawberry, because Strawberry was so memorable just for being Strawberry. The two factors went hand-in-hand during the heart of Darryl’s extensive prime. They still do. For example, at the outset of his aforementioned media tour, I listened to Straw hold court on WOR’s Sports Zone. This was just before he made headlines about being upset with the Mets (the organization, not the fans, he stressed). The host that night, filling in for Pete McCarthy, was the iconic Warner Wolf, who at the time was nearing eighty, yet still getting his breaking stuff over. Both Wolf and Strawberry were huge in New York in the 1980s. No wonder their conversation trickled back in time.
Warner asked Darryl how felt about the taunting chants of Dar-ryl…Dar-ryl that originated at Fenway Park during the 1986 World Series and caught on around the National League. Darryl’s response was so calm, matter-of-fact and perfect, that I went to the audio tape and took down every word of his answer:
“I realized that everybody knew that I was in the ballpark. I needed to get my job done. Especially when I was on the road, I kinda like really fed off of that, I thought it was pretty cool that everybody knew I was there, so I figured I’d just hit a couple of long home runs and that would just like make everybody sit down and be quiet.”
When Darryl didn’t come through or when perhaps his demons got the best of him, it wasn’t tough to lose patience with someone who defined superstar for us in his twenties and was gone from Shea before he turned thirty. But that little explanation brought back for me just what it was like rooting for Darryl Strawberry’s Mets — especially Darryl Strawberry — when he was piling up those games as our all-time right fielder.
You’d just stand up and be loud.
More than 500 games behind Darryl among right fielders, though no less a legend in Queens, is Rusty Staub. We’ve been compelled to think about Rusty of late for sad reasons , but we can also think about Rusty for the joy he provided us, at the bat and in the field. It’s why we’re so adamant about wanting him to pull through his current condition.
Staub was a damn fine right fielder for 535 Mets games, the bulk of them during his initial New York tenure between 1972 and 1975. He didn’t have Strawberry’s gait, grace or height, but he got the job done along the same segment of Flushing real estate. The Shea Stadium right field wall could attest to the impact a Rusty Staub right shoulder could make in pursuit of a pennant. And nineteen baserunners thrown out in 1974 would second that emotion as regarded his right arm (he famously batted left, but threw from the other direction, whereas Cleon Jones in left batted right but threw left). Forty-four years later, Rusty still holds the Mets’ single-season record for assists by an outfielder.
That milestone was carved in Staub’s right field prime, before the American League and time conspired to mostly confine him to hitting. He still got his mitts on the ball as a Met the second time around, though. When he returned to New York in 1981, Staub was slotted in as the starting first baseman. Indeed, Joe Torre penciled him in there 40 times that strike-split season, including Opening Day, when Rusty homered in a 2-0 victory over the Cubs. George Bamberger, however, wasn’t afraid to ask the ol’ redhead to patrol familiar territory. At 38, and carrying the title player-coach, Rusty started in right field fifteen times for the 1982 Mets. The next May, Strawberry arrived and Rusty’s days of being around in right — except under emergency circumstances — essentially ended.
As with Straw, the hitting made the deepest impression. A few months ago, my friend Dave Jordan, who collaborated with John D’Acquisto on the decidedly big league memoir Fastball John , riddled me this: “When did Rusty Staub, in 702 plate appearances, bat .276, with a .350 OBP, 13 HRs, 102 RBIs and 31 2B?” I told him I didn’t know. Dave responded it was 1981 through 1985 as a Met. What a find on Dave’s part — over the equivalent of a very full season, Rusty Staub as a part-timer, pinch-hitter and right fielder emeritus compiled an incredibly representative Rusty Staub bottom line.
I suppose another line has been attributed to several highly skilled players, but I know I also heard it said of Rusty that if he awoke in the middle of the night in the middle of winter and picked up a bat, he would line a double into the gap. I believe he’d have done it before his eyes were fully open and his yawn was fully done.
One-hundred one games behind Rusty and in third place among those out in right field for the Mets is Ron Swoboda. Maybe you haven’t entered Citi Field through the right field gate lately. Take a look at the silhouette that designates the position the next time you pass through its turnstiles. The diving figure portrayed, his glove outstretched to reel in a miracle, is Ron Swoboda. The Mets didn’t mark much history as they erected the new ballpark in 2009, but they did remember to remember Swoboda’s game-saving catch from Game Four of the 1969 World Series.
Good catch on their part.
Admittedly, Ron was not known as a defensive wizard through most of his six Met seasons, but what’s 434 run-of-the-mill regular-season games in right when you have one shining moment in the sun robbing Brooks Robinson? Thirty-one years later, Swoboda’s catch was immortalized in the movie Frequency with the line, “Man, I’ll love Ron Swoboda till the day I die.”
By then, there was one market where moviegoers must have been jarred by the mention, not because Ron Swoboda wasn’t worthy of a lifetime’s affection, but because Swoboda meant something different to them than he did to us. Long before Warner Wolf became a household word among TV viewers in New York, Ron Swoboda did the sports on Channel 2, weekends mainly. Lots of former players get such gigs. Swoboda stuck with it. He left New York for Milwaukee by the end of the ’70s to get better at it and, before the ’80s were over, put down stakes in New Orleans.
He’s still there, a broadcasting fixture who became a regional institution. Though their roles differed, you can compare Swoboda and Ralph Kiner. Pittsburgh idolized Ralph Kiner for home runs. We adored him for talking about home runs. In the Big Easy, Swoboda became what Kiner became to us in the Big Apple. We still think of him as the Met who made the catch. Down there, he’s the guy who talks about those who make or maybe prevent catches.
Two instances from the offseason caught me off guard where Swoboda’s second life is concerned. The first occurred while I was watching an NFL Network documentary about the late Sam Mills, stellar linebacker for the New Orleans Saints during their first heyday. Who showed up as a talking head, identified as a New Orleans sportscaster, in this film? Why, it was Ron Swoboda, fondly recalling the exploits of the Dome Patrol, as the stars of that outstanding Saint defense were collectively known. I waited for the narrator to explain that Ron Swoboda made an unbelievable diving catch for the 1969 Mets, that he was as responsible as anybody for the most improbable World Series championship in baseball history, that millions of New Yorkers will love Ron Swoboda till the day they die. But no. Swoboda was already introduced properly via chyron graphic for the position he was playing. Not the Mets’ right fielder, but a Saints’ observer.
Wonders didn’t cease when, around the same time, I was directed by my funny friend Jeff to the blog of comedian Elayne Boosler. She was addressing the mounting (not to mention highly unfortunate) revelations of aggressively sexist behavior infecting show business. Her point was it hardly should have rated as news, considering it had been going on too long. Boosler remembered an episode that took her to Louisiana to represent HBO and accept a check on behalf of the long-running charitable endeavor Comic Relief. The site was a basketball arena. She showed up for the gig, during a game, and was told, “No women in the booth.” This happened in the latter stages of the 20th as opposed to the 17th century.
The presence of a hero shouldn’t have been required, but a hero in Boosler’s tale emerged .
“Real men often ride to the rescue, and who just happened to be present (and stopped the heart of this lifelong baseball fan)? Only the gentleman who made ‘The Catch’ in the 1969 World Series, Ron Swoboda. You never know who’s a fan. Mr. Swoboda first apologized to me (he had nothing to do with any of it; he just apologized as a human being). He then went into that booth and read those shit kickers the riot act, letting them know exactly who I was, forcing them to hand over the check, was for charity, for fuck’s sake.”
A broadcaster and a gentleman. And a heckuva right fielder when it mattered most. That’s our Ron Swoboda. New Orleans’s too.
The gentleman description surely works for the Met who holds down No. 4 on the Mets right field list, and I imagine if he wants to go into broadcasting, he’ll succeed at that — though that’s a little ways away because he’s still a ballplayer. Like the three fellows he trails, he topped 400 games in right as a Met and added some World Series games besides. He’s Curtis Granderson, a stalwart who rode to the rescue of a position in dire need of stability.
Remember right field after Strawberry and before Granderson? You found it in the vicinity of a revolving door . Mets right fielders came, Mets right fielders went. Some were pretty good for a little while. None endured for long.
And then along came Granderson. In 2014, according to Ultimate Mets Database , Curtis played 130 games in right, the most by any Met in any season since Jeromy Burnitz in 2002. In 2015, Granderson outdid himself and a slew of his recent predecessors. He played 155 games out there, the most ever in a single season by a Mets right fielder. What’s more, by leading the team in games played in right field in two consecutive years, he became the first Met to achieve that seemingly simple feat since Alex Ochoa in 1996 and 1997. In neither of those seasons did Ochoa play more than 84 games in right, and he surely didn’t help lead the Mets to a National League championship.
Granderson, on the other hand, was the rock of the Mets’ first pennant-winning club since 2000, the only Mets who you could count on finding virtually every day from April to November where you needed him to be. That included the World Series, when Granderson was one of the few Mets who let no Mets fans down. Should they sensibly set a Frequency reboot in 2015, for accuracy’s sake somebody better swear he’ll love Curtis Granderson till the day he dies.
Grandy was still holding down right in 2016, still chasing down fly balls, still drawing his share of walks and slugging his cache of big home runs. By late in the season, in deference to the acquisition of Jay Bruce and the lack of better options, Curtis, 35, sprinted to center field and helped nail down a Wild Card. He still led the Mets in games played as a right fielder. Nobody had strung three such seasons in a row as a Met since the prime of Mr. Darryl Strawberry.
That all happened while Curtis Granderson was being one of baseball’s premier citizens, a distinction recognized when he was voted the 2016 Roberto Clemente Award, reflecting the acts of someone who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.” Yup, that was Curtis Granderson as a Met, all three and two-thirds seasons of him. The Mets sent him to Los Angeles last August as his contract wound down. The Dodgers were winning nightly and you could envision Grandy being fitted for the ring he didn’t quite grasp as a Met two years earlier. Alas, the Dodgers left Curtis off their World Series roster and they got what they deserved, losing to Carlos Beltran’s Astros in seven.
Given the fading finish to his 2017, there was some thought that Granderson would be finding something else to do in 2018. The Toronto Blue Jays had a more appealing idea, namely playing the outfield in Ontario. Newly Blue Grandy’s about to turn 37 and about to enter his fifteenth season. Meanwhile, Bruce, after a brief Cleveland detour, figures to work his way seriously up the Mets’ right field chart. Despite bolting in August, Jay led the Mets in games in right in ’17 with 90. He’s currently tied with Dave Kingman for 20th on the Mets’ all-time list, having played right 134 times during his first Mets tenure. If he stays put and stays well, Jay could soar as high as seventh this season.
But after close to two-and-a-half decades when replacing Darryl Strawberry proved challenging, it’s best to take right field one game at a time.
If you’d like to know what our top four right field practitioners consider the hit that meant the most to them in their major league careers, I’d recommend Mark Newman’s wonderfully conceived new book Diamonds from the Dugout: 115 Baseball Legends Remember Their Greatest Hits . Newman, a veteran baseball reporter, asked scores of ballplayers to answer that one question with one hit, Straw, Rusty, Rocky and Grandy among them. Plenty of other Mets, not to mention immortals, weigh in with their memories as well, and it makes for a delightful trip through the annals of baseball.
The foreword was contributed by Brooks Robinson. He mentioned Swoboda, too.