- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Stolen Plate Appearance

If you’ve ever watched me try to make an eastbound LIRR connection at Jamaica while my intended train is pulling away, you already know I’ve never been any kind of a runner. Nevertheless, I’ve run into a most fascinating box score by way of a game story from 28 years ago, which gives me a good excuse for introducing an occasional series that will “run” here from time to time, The Pinch-Running Files. You know what pinch-running is, but do you ever really think about it? Trust me, I have.

What is a person doing thinking about pinch-running? Better question: what is a person doing reading game stories from 28 years ago, other than seeking any engaging port in a quarantine? For this diversion from baseball-nothingness, I thank a fellow Mets fan on Twitter who goes by the handle of @SportsSightings [1]. The account was initially devoted to pictures of ballplayers in the “wrong” uniform — Mike Piazza as a Florida Marlin, that sort of thing — but lately it’s been dedicated to dutifully keeping day-by-day tabs on the 1992 Mets.

Why the 1992 Mets? Because, @SportsSightings explained a couple of months ago, 1992 is running on the same calendar track as 2020. Their season opened on Monday, April 6. This year, April 6 was a Monday (even if no season has opened). That’s my kind of reasoning. Plus, you can’t beat, for either notoriety or infamy, the 1992 Mets, eventually immortalized as the title subjects of beat writers Bob Klapisch’s and John Harper’s The Worst Team Money Could Buy [2]. Revisiting that veritable car crash of a campaign in detail not as it looked in the rearview mirror but as it slowly grows more and more gruesome is an experience that defies the averting of eyes.

On Friday, April 24, 1992, when we had no more than an intuitive inkling that the 1992 Mets were destined to fester in memory as “the 1992 Mets,” the Mets lost in Philadelphia, 4-3. I’d love to tell you I remember the game. I don’t. For what it’s worth, I remember the 1-0 game of the day before, Thursday, April 23, 1992. That one went thirteen innings at Shea and ended only when, with the bases loaded and zeroes proliferating, Juan Agosto didn’t so much plunk Daryl Boston [3] as gently deposit a pitch inside his uniform top. It was all very genteel, right down to Boston plucking the ball from his shirt and handing it to home plate ump Mike Winters before heading to first as pinch-runner Rodney McCray [4] trotted in with the winning run.

(“Pinch-runner Rodney McCray.” Remember that name and job description. It will come up again and again.)

April 23 was a triumph for fabric, not to mention the cliché about balls getting lost in white shirts. Most importantly, it was the fourth consecutive victory for the water-treading Mets, whose expected dominance of the National League East was taking its sweet time rising above sea level. The chemistry wasn’t exactly right for the 1992 Mets (to put it mildly [5]), but high-priced talent seemed likely to cash in eventually. Following three starts that set his ERA at 13.15, Bret Saberhagen [6] threw his first Cy Young-caliber start in the Daryl Boston shirt game: 9 IP, 0 BB, 5 H, 7 SO and nary a run allowed. Coming directly after wins started by Sid Fernandez, Dwight Gooden and David Cone, Sabes’s resurrection indicated the rotation might live up to its hype. Factor in the 3-4-5 hitting of Bobby Bonilla [7], Howard Johnson [8] and Eddie Murray [9] that was bound to heat up, and what were the chances that Jeff Torborg’s team wasn’t finally taking off?

On Friday night the 24th at the Vet, projected Met ascent got stuck in flight. Anthony Young [10] started and provided quality. Six innings, three runs, the very definition of a quality start, at least minimally. Young’s luck was establishing itself as such that Klapisch in the News reported Veterans Stadium’s artificial turf aided and abetted each Phillie tally. Get some grass in Philadelphia and maybe AY succeeds Saberhagen’s scoreless line with one of his own. Meanwhile, Danny Cox, better recalled as a vexing Cardinal from the ’80s, yet sighted here in Southeastern Pennsylvania crimson, kept the Mets off the board until the sixth when HoJo, starting in center field for a spell, homered.

Young left after six, trailing, 3-1. The score remained the same into the eighth when the Mets got simultaneously patient and aggressive. Facing future teammate Barry Jones (we’d scoop him up in August), Bonilla walked on a full count. Bobby Bo then had an idea about stealing, which is an interesting impulse because Bobby Bonilla was not signed to a five-year, $29 million contract for his base-swiping proclivities; feel free to insert your own “he’s still stealing money” witticism here. From his debut in 1986 through 1991, the erstwhile Pirate star had stolen 28 bases…and been caught stealing 30 times. If 30 times you don’t succeed and your getting thrown out more than half the time, try, try again, apparently. To be fair to Bobby Bo — which, admittedly, is no fun — he was safe the previous Friday night in Montreal in his only 1992 stolen base attempt.

So, with HoJo batting and taking two balls, Bonilla generates a lead off first. Mitch Williams, who’s replaced Jones, proceeds to pick Bobby off, but the throw gets away and Bobby scoots to third. Now it’s Williams who finds himself taking a Met to three-and-two, and once again a Phillie pitcher gives up a walk. HoJo, a three-time 30-30 man, soon darts for second while Murray bats and chalks up his seventh steal of the season. Eddie’s eyes grow big at a situation ideal for an accomplished RBI collector. The former Oriole and Dodger sends a ball to what Baseball-Reference identifies as “Deep 1B,” though Klapisch in the newspapers.com-generated News clip graciously provided by @SportsSightings [11] said it landed in the right field corner. What was it Becker & Fagen said in “Barrytown [12]”?

“I just read the Daily News and swear by every word.”

Wherever the ball went, it constituted a two-run, game-tying double for Murray. Mets 3 Phillies 3.

The Mets would continue to blend aggressiveness with patience in an effort to grab the lead and their fifth consecutive win. Torborg inserted McCray to pinch-run for Murray. Can ya blame him? McCray was far faster than Murray. Besides, what’s the use of having wheels in the garage if you’re not gonna take them out for a spin? Dave Gallagher grounded to short. McCray, with the play in front of him, lit out for third. As ducks go, you’d seen livelier ones. Rodney was out, Dave was on first.

Patience, Mets. It got you this far. Todd Hundley walked on the third full count of the inning, pushing Gallagher to second. Dave Magadan, always on the lookout for a base on balls, struck out looking. Charlie O’Brien came up to pinch-hit for reliever Paul Gibson. Eschewing patience, the Mets opted to double-steal. It worked! Gallagher was on third, Hundley was on second. Now all the Mets needed was for Charlie O’Brien to replicate Eddie Murray.

Instead, O’Brien grounded to second to end the visitors’ eighth (though Klapisch reported it took a nice play from Mickey Morandini to effect the putout). In the bottom of the inning, Wally Whitehurst came on to pitch, replacing Gibson, who’d replaced Young. Because Murray had been lifted for speed, Bonilla moved from right field to first base. And because he had access to and documented experience with a glove, pinch-runner Rodney McCray stayed in to play right. The Phillies went down in order.

The order would be in the Mets’ favor in the ninth because they’d be batting from the top of it. The table-setters were up: second baseman Willie Randolph and shortstop Dick Schofield. Who would you want up more than your leadoff man and the guy in the two-hole? Alas, Randolph grounded to short and Schofield’s plot to get on by bunt was foiled by a 1-3 forceout.

OK, so table-setting didn’t work. That’s all right, because the main courses were about to be served — the meat of the order. Bonilla singled. HoJo singled, sending Bonilla to third. This is the kind of run-producing meal Murray had been feasting on since 1977.

Ah, but wait a minute. Murray was lifted in the eighth. McCray was batting in his spot. It was news that McCray was batting in any spot. To this point in the 1992 season, Rodney McCray may as well have been Herb Washington [13], the speedster Charlie Finley placed on the Oakland A’s roster in the 1974 and 1975 seasons despite Herb Washington not being a baseball player. Washington, a track star in college who hadn’t played baseball since high school, was the majors’ only designated runner, pretty much the only pinch-runner anybody thinks about more than fleetingly, save maybe for Dave Roberts in Game Four of the 2004 ALCS. No, “designated runner” was not actually a position, but that was Herb’s role. He pinch-ran and did nothing else for the Athletics.

McCray was capable of doing more than that for the Mets. We knew he was because, as mentioned above, there was documentation. If baseball fans knew Rodney McCray’s name heading into 1992, it was because they had seen The Highlight [14]. In the summer of 1991, Rodney, then a Triple-A Vancouver Canadian, chased a fly ball, one hit by Portland Beaver Chip Hale. The future Mets coach whacked a ball to deep right. McCray didn’t catch it, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Rodney’s effort took him, literally, through a wall and what coach doesn’t love a player who’ll run through a wall, brick or otherwise? The kid — 27 at the time, but playing with youthful abandon — sprinted straight through Portland’s wooden right field fence, the section emblazoned with an ad for FLAV-R-PAC. The clip immediately became a sensation on SportsCenter, George Michael’s Sports Machine and videotape-going anchors’ sportscasts across North America. CNN, which used to cover sports, declared the wallbuster its play of the year.

Pretty good for a non-catch, but not so good that when the Mets signed him as a free agent that they envisioned the erstwhile White Sox farmhand patrolling the pasture for more than a stray inning here or there. Nor was it so good that he would be encouraged to much follow up on the two hits and one walk he recorded in two brief stints in Pale Hose under Torborg in ’90 and ’91. For the Mets, McCray was going to be, at most, a weapon tactically deployed. He was speed off the bench, something Jeff — a veteran of those go-go Dodger clubs of the mid-’60s — valued more than any Mets manager since, and most every Mets manager before him.

Sure, Al Harazin anted up for Bonilla and Murray in his first offseason as GM, providing on paper (when combined with Johnson) uncommon pop in the middle of the Met order. But Jeff Torborg’s actions said what he really wanted to do was run. What he really wanted to do was pinch-run. He must have. According to Baseball-Reference and my desire to peer deep within its soul, Torborg used pinch-runners 72 times in 1992.

Is that a lot? Historically speaking from a Mets standpoint, it is. Consider that Casey Stengel used 86 pinch-runners the first year there were Mets, in 1962, and then, over the next 29 years, no Mets team used more than 63. The season before Torborg arrived, under Bud Harrelson and Mike Cubbage, the Mets deployed pinch-runners 38 times. In 1993, the year Torborg was bounced in May in favor of Dallas Green, the Mets inserted all of 17 pinch-runners. The total has ebbed and flowed ever since, but no Mets team to come along during the rest of the ’90s or in this century has come close to Torborg’s 72.

Perhaps it was because, for all the hip hooray and ballyhoo attendant to the construction (and subsequent meltdown) of the 1992 Mets, Torborg’s Mets were packed with pinch-running types. You hear “1992 Mets” and you think Bonilla, Murray, Saberhagen and a galaxy of stars in perilous flicker mode. But listen closely and you’ll hear the sound of players lacing up their spikes and stretching urgently, ready to go in at a moment’s notice and hoof it like HoJo had collaborated with Roger McDowell on a hotfoot. Sixteen Mets pinch-ran in 1992. For several, pinch-running amounted to a core competency.

D.J. Dozier (4 pinch-running appearances).
Pat Howell (5).
Bill Pecota (11).
Junior Noboa (12).
And, yes, Rodney McCray.

McCray, on the roster in April because Vince Coleman went on the disabled list (as was his wont), would play in eighteen games as a Met. In fourteen of them, he entered as a pinch-runner, sometimes sticking around immediately thereafter to play the field, sometimes simply sprinting straight back to the bench or perhaps into the clubhouse, his core competency spent, his day undeniably done. Four times he came on strictly for defense, inevitably in relief of big-boned Bonilla. Rodney not only never started for the Mets, he never played between the first and seventh innings. Thus, getting to bat in Philadelphia on April 24 was a big moment for him. It was his first plate appearance as a Met despite it being his sixth game. Should he come through with runners on first and third, it could open Torborg’s eyes. If he gets the base hit that gives the Mets the lead, especially if they hang on to win, his manager might look at him differently. Now McCray isn’t just a pinch-runner. He’s a big league hitter. He’s a clutch RBI man. He’s got more tools than previously estimated by scouts and other professional observers. We know he runs well. We know he runs through walls. Now, if he can get his pitch from Mitch Williams…

Just as Rodney McCray’s baseball career potentially hangs in the balance, who should come rumbling down the line from third base but the man for whom Rodney has been caddying, Bobby Bonilla? Yup, it’s Mr. Gets Thrown Out Every Other Time He Tries Stealing thinking he’s gonna steal home.

Intriguing thought, but not prescient. Williams’s pitch arrived in plenty of time for Darren Daulton to tag Bonilla for the third out. The top of the ninth is over, the game is tied, and left standing at the plate, appearing there yet not officially, is Rodney McCray. That’s how it goes down in the box score. Or doesn’t go down. The agate type of 4/24/92 indicates a pinch-runner/right fielder who never batted. It’s only because of Klapisch’s Daily News story from newspapers.com that @SportsSightings shared that I know McCray’s non-appearance happened.

With two out, Howard Johnson on first and Bonilla on third, the Mets failed in baseball’s boldest play. Bonilla broke for the plate just as Mitch Williams began his windup to Rodney McCray. Bonilla was thrown out, ending the inning.

Baseball-Reference’s line-by-line description for the game [15] confirms this phantom PA in Pa., noting that after Williams ran the count to one-and-one, “Bonilla Caught Stealing Hm (P-C); Johnson stays at 1B.”

And McCray stays out in the netherworld of having batted without having batted. Twenty-nine million dollars wasn’t enough for Bobby Bo. He had to take Rodney McCray’s only official plate appearance to date in 1992, too, McCray’s only official plate appearance as a Met to that point.

To that point. No, there is no solace or redemption or payoff to Rodney McCray’s night on April 24. Not only doesn’t he get to hit or even walk in the top of the ninth, he doesn’t get the team-first satisfaction attached to congratulating another Met for winning the game in extras, let alone get another chance for himself. In the bottom of the ninth, the Phillies loaded the bases versus Whitehurst, setting up Dave Hollins as the hero. The third baseman, gaining traction in what would be his breakout season (27 HR, 93 RBI), delivered a single past first baseman Bonilla to score future Met Jim Lindeman and give the home team the victory, 4-3.

McCray, however will have his moment at the plate eventually. It will take two weeks, another nailbiter, and a soaked Shea. On May 8, a rainy Friday night in Flushing, Torborg will mostly run through his bench against the Dodgers, bringing him to the bottom of the ninth in a 3-3 game and limited options; his last reserve, other than pitchers, is O’Brien, and old catcher Torborg doesn’t want to burn Charlie’s bat and thus lose his mitt, lest the Mets go to extras and something happens to Hundley (the Mets carried a third backstop, Mackey Sasser, but he’d already pinch-hit). Rodney, in his sixteenth game as a Met and the twelfth he’s entered as a pinch-runner, comes up in the order and comes up for real. The bases are loaded. There are two out. It’s the second time he’s stood in against a pitcher all year…but officially the first. As long as Junior Noboa, the baserunner on third, doesn’t try to pull a Bonilla and attempt to steal home, this one will count.

Rodney makes it count. Versus L.A.’s Tim Crews, he makes contact, pushing a grounder past a drawn-in infield. Noboa scampers home. McCray sprints to first. The other runners — Bonilla being one of them — run the ninety feet required of them to prevent a revisitation of Merkle’s Boner. There is no doubt about it. The Mets have won, 4-3, thanks to Rodney McCray, who is now a certified big league hitter, clutch RBI man and walkoff winner before the term is in common use. He’s a 1.000 hitter.

Further, he remains a 1.000 hitter, because Rodney McCray plays twice more as a Met, pinch-running both times and staying in for defense on each occasion. On May 8, he makes us believe that maybe the “1992 Mets” will stand for something joyous. On May 18, his heroics ten days old and a week removed from his last activity, he’s optioned to Tidewater. He’s yo-yo’d later in May, never getting in another Mets game before being dispatched back to Tidewater. On June 11, the Mets, rapidly going nowhere en masse, unconditionally release him from their disheveled organization.

And that’s it. That’s the major league career of Rodney McCray, the guy who ran through that wall in that highlight. His final pro ball stops, in 1993, are with the Sultanes de Monterey in Mexico and the Thunder Bay Whiskey Jacks in Canada. That means he ended his final big league season by batting 1.000, slugging 1.000 and reaching base at a clip of 1.000. It’s kind of perfect.

Kind of.

For while we who engage in Metsian minutiae have long admired McCray for his membership in an exclusive club of a half-dozen Mets who made the most of their lone Met plate appearance by registering a base hit — the other five are pitchers Ray Searage (winning percentage 1.000, for that matter), Eric Cammack (he tripled in 2000) and Buddy Carlyle and catchers Dave Liddell and Gary Bennett — we now must also bemoan that, quite frankly, Rodney got robbed. He had a second plate appearance swiped from him by Bobby Bonilla. Bobby Bo couldn’t steal home, but he could steal this.

And, what of it? The man does have a pair of calling cards that few can claim. Rodney told the Mets Insider blog [16] this past December, in advance of his scheduled coaching stint at the club’s most recent fantasy camp, “A lot of players don’t have things to hang their hats on when they retire. I have two things: the crash and my 1.000 career batting average as a Met.” The Highlight is The Highlight. But The Average? Had McCray really and truly batted in Philadelphia on April 24, 1992, he might not have gotten that big hit the way he did on May 8 at Shea. He’d be 0-for-1 in the interim, no better than 1-for-2 in the semi-knowable universe. We don’t know what all would have played out. Rodney McCray, pinch-running specialist with a .500 average, before being sent down? Rodney McCray, with an .000 average, sent down maybe on April 25 because Torborg, who loved being aggressive with pinch-runners, maybe loses patience with a player he’s decided can’t do anything but pinch-run? Rodney McCray not being spoken of eternally by the likes of Mark Simon [17] and me in hushed trivial tones because he’s not in the 1.000 club and not the only Met to win a game in his only Met plate appearance?

I don’t know, but it seems if you come to the plate, it should state for the record that you appeared. Officially, I mean.