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A Baseball First Husband

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series [1] in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

Some political raconteur (no one agrees exactly who) tattooed George H.W. Bush with the line that he reminded every woman of her first husband. It’s a good line — a put-down, but one delivered with an undertone of affection, however grudging. And it stuck with me as I thought about how to sum up Todd Hundley [2], our Met for All Seasons representative of the less-than-lamented 1992 Mets.

Hundley first arrived in the spring of 1990, seemingly destined to be a curious footnote in team history. He was not yet 21, a catcher who could be charitably described as slight and less charitably called undersized — his first Topps card records his weight as all of 170 pounds. His pedigree also made historically minded Mets fans scratch their heads: Todd was the son of Randy Hundley [3], a key player for the 1969 Cubs. Maybe you recall or read about Hundley Sr. jumping in the air during the Bill Hands [4]Jerry Koosman [5] duel on Sept. 8 at Shea, protesting Satch Davidson having called Tommie Agee [6] safe at home. (Indeed, Agee sure looks out to me [7] — sorry, Randy.)

In his first campaigns with the Mets, Hundley fils did little to dispel that first impression. He hit .209 in limited time in 1990, then .133 the next year, with the kind of power you’d expect from a reedy shortstop. But his defense was considered big-league quality, and the Mets were certain the bat would come around. A decent campaign at the plate for Tidewater in 1991 made Hundley a regular in 1992, even amid doubts that he was ready. It didn’t go particularly well — nothing went well for the Mets that star-crossed season — but he earned respect from teammates and the beat writers as both tough and likable. Despite his modest success, he was a stand-up player in a clubhouse with far too many pointed fingers.

Todd Hundley's 1994 Topps card [8]

Possibly the most embarrassing baseball card of the modern era. Who at Topps hated Hundley and why?

From there, he turned into a useful player, hitting 42 homers over the next three seasons. And then, in 1996, Todd Hundley hit 41 home runs. Drove in 112. Those 41 dingers set a Met single-season mark, eclipsing the 39 hit twice by Darryl Strawberry [9], and set a new N.L. record for homers by a catcher, beating the record that belonged to Roy Campanella [10]. What had changed?

For once thing, Hundley had, well, grown. The little bantamweight catcher from 1990 looked like an action figure, with huge shoulders and biceps and forearms. Eleven years later, the Mitchell report portrayed Kirk Radomski, once a Mets clubhouse attendant, as a Johnny Appleseed for the steroid era. Radomski, the report said, had told Hundley before the 1996 season that steroids would let him hit 40 home runs, then sold Hundley Deca-Durabolin. The report named Hundley and teammate David Segui [11] as important links in Radomski’s steroid chain, with Hundley connecting Paul Lo Duca [12] with Radomski after Hundley moved on to the Dodgers. Lo Duca, in turn, would tell more friends. It was like that old shampoo ad [13], albeit with very different stuff in the bottles.

Hundley was retired by the time the Mitchell report came out in 2007, but finding his name in there was about as surprising as waking up in the morning to discover the sun had risen again. Todd Hundley’s power surge might not have been entirely natural? Hell, I was surprised he hadn’t glowed in the dark during night games.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back in the mid-1990s, steroids was still a fringe concern among the media and fans. Yes, astute Met fans remembered the anecdote about Lenny Dykstra [14] showing up way back in 1987 looking like an inflated steer and blithely telling a shocked Wally Backman [15] that he’d been taking “those good vitamins.” But we were years away from questions about the bottle in Mark McGwire [16]‘s locker, from the furor around McGwire and Sosa and Bonds and Clemens, from a shrunken McGwire telling Congress he wasn’t there to talk about the past, from suspicions and suspensions and testing, and from the first of about a billion Hall of Fame debates that convinced absolutely no one of anything.

And you know what? I loved Todd Hundley.

I loved that he hit home runs, of course. But I also loved that he had swagger and that he actually said interesting things to the newspapers. Despite the media glare of New York and his pedigree as a big-leaguer’s kid, he gave answers that weren’t carefully sanded down to meaninglessness, and you always had the sense that he was in on the cosmic joke of it all. His scraps with Bobby Valentine [17] were particularly eventful, variously exhausting and entertaining. Valentine was a Billy Martin [18] for a more psychological, media-saturated age — a genius whose greatness was fueled by paranoia about not only enemy managers but also his own clubhouse and organization. That paranoia extended to his catcher, the team’s most popular player, who didn’t fear the spotlight that his manager also craved. At least they had that in common; otherwise they were polar opposites. Hundley struck the fanbase as almost comically straightforward, while we all knew Valentine was maniacally at work behind the curtain at all times, leaking and jabbing and spinning clubhouse webs.

Hundley’s 41st home run came on Sept. 14, 1996 [19], a day game at Shea. It was a three-run shot off future Met Greg McMichael [20], turning a 5-2 lead into a tie. Hundley took a curtain call and the Mets beat the Braves on a walkoff in the 12th. I recall that I was there, though perhaps that’s wishful thinking — I don’t have a ticket stub from the game, which I probably would have held onto. But let’s say I was. Whatever my location, I recall cheering madly for Hundley as he stomped around the bases, and hoping that blow had made Bobby Cox [21] — who always wore the expression of a man who’d just sat in a puddle — even grumpier than usual. At the same time, that cheering felt like spitting in the eye of a bully who’d finally taken a breather because he was tired of pummeling you. The Braves were comfortably in first place and operated like a sleek machine; the Mets were 14 games under .500.

But better times were ahead. In ’97 the Mets won 88 games and Hundley hit a more modest but still glamorous 30 homers. He might well have hit more, except his right elbow had betrayed him. He’d wind up needing Tommy John [22] surgery, which claimed the first three months of his 1998 campaign — and helped pave the way for the Mets’ acquisition of Mike Piazza [23].

Somehow that acquisition was 22 years ago, meaning I could easily revise how I reacted at the time. But I won’t. I hated the trade. Piazza was a catcher, I fumed, and we already had a perfectly good catcher.

Except a) we didn’t, as Hundley was still rehabbing; and b) even a fully armed and operational Todd Hundley was not Mike Piazza.

The Mets, to their credit, didn’t think the way I did. (Less to their credit, they assured Hundley no such deal was in the works.) They grabbed one of the game’s marquee players and reasoned that the problem of too many catchers would work itself out. Which it did — as an oh-so-Metsian tragicomedy.

Hundley returned in July, but as a left fielder. He even mostly said the right things about this hasty recasting, vowing that if it worked out he’d burn his catcher’s gear.

It didn’t work out. Oh man did it not work out. If you weren’t there, it was a disaster wrapped in a farce. Daniel Murphy [24] staggering around in left in Miami? He was great compared with Hundley. J.D. Davis [25] and Dom Smith? Gold glovers and UZR gods next to Hundley.

It was brutal and unfair and thoroughly unsuccessful. But Hundley somehow rose above it, or at least didn’t let it drown him. He took responsibility for the misplays, he waved at the fans when they gave him a standing ovation for a routine catch, and he shook off the usual anonymous Met sources who pilloried him for everything from his nocturnal habits to how he’d handled rehabbing the elbow. He even took an odd stab at perspective, noting he’d flipped away from highlights of one of his misplays and wound up watching an Anne Frank documentary [26]. His conclusion was that “the bad night I had doesn’t even come close.” Somehow the idea of a supersized Hundley squinting at grainy pictures of Bergen-Belsen and deriving life lessons from it strikes me as iconically late-90s.

Hundley got better in left field, which isn’t to say that he got good at it, just that he stopped butchering every routine fly ball. But his surgically repaired elbow wasn’t up to throwing, leading to a carousel of runners. He also wasn’t hitting, accumulating strikeouts by the bushel. The Mets mercifully ended the left-field experiment in late August; Hundley said he was burning his outfielder’s glove. When he returned from a DL stint, it was as a backup catcher and pinch hitter.

Which led to the one great moment of the surreal, misbegotten Hundley/Piazza era. On Sept. 16, with the Mets battling for a wild card, they trailed the Astros 2-0 in the top of the 9th. With two out and two on, Piazza connected off Billy Wagner [27] for a three-run shot [28], the 200th of his career. The Astros retied the game in the bottom of the 9th, but Hundley won it with a pinch-hit homer in the 11th.

I tried to convince myself that this was the start of something grand, when everything suggested otherwise. After the game, Hundley and Piazza stood side by side, but their body language clearly communicated that both really wanted to be somewhere else. Which was only natural, given that they were sharing a position to which each had good reason to feel entitled. As for the something grand, the Mets went 2-6 the rest of the way, with the Braves administering the coup de grace with a final-weekend sweep. That winter, the Mets signed Piazza to a seven-year deal and traded Hundley to the Dodgers. Hundley’s time in L.A. was reasonably productive, but a homecoming to Chicago and the Cubs was a disaster, one made more painful by how beloved his dad had been wearing the same uniform. Hundley feuded with his manager, flipped off fans, and worst of all he didn’t hit. The Cubs sent him back to L.A. and he retired at 34.

Hindsight is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope, which gets us back to that first-husband crack. Looking through our wrong-way telescope, Hundley was the catcher subtracted to make room for Piazza. He was a lone bright spot in a dim and dismal period followed by a Piazza-led Mets resurgence. Which isn’t incorrect, exactly. But it is incomplete. It ignores the pretty good ’97 campaign and the agonizing near-miss of ’98, for one thing. And it’s colored by what we now know about that era of the game.

Yes, Hundley was transformed into a ridiculously brawny action figure and hit 41 home runs. And yes, we have a pretty good guess about how that happened. But he was surrounded by ridiculously brawny action-figure ballplayers. You could go from 1995 to 2005 (to pick a possibly arbitrary range) and I don’t think there’s a baseball player I’d be shocked to learn used PEDs. Disappointed? Sure, at least in one case. But shocked? Uh-uh. If you’re still capable of being shocked by such a revelation, you weren’t paying attention.

It was a mildly ridiculous era, both for baseball in general and for New York in particular. But I loved Hundley anyway — for the now-suspect feats of strength, but also for surviving innumerable swims with sharks and emerging with both his sense of humor and his sense of self intact. And there’s no asterisk on the latter.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1969 [29]Donn Clendenon [30]
1972 [31]: Gary Gentry [32]
1973 [33]Willie Mays [34]
1982 [35]Rusty Staub [36]
1991 [37]Rich Sauveur [38]
1994 [39]Rico Brogna [40]