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That Sound

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.

The undisputed star of Ken Burns’s Baseball is Buck O’Neil: Negro League veteran, storyteller extraordinaire, and all that’s best about both baseball and humanity. You probably saw this back in the day (and if not, well, the pandemic’s an excellent time to catch up), but here it is again:

OK, so Bo Jackson [2]‘s career didn’t turn out to be the trumpet call O’Neil imagined. That’s not the point. The point is O’Neil’s eagerness to embrace something new rather than linger in the sepia of nostalgia, brought home by his certainty that “I’m gonna hear it again one day, if I live long enough.”

On Opening Day 1996 — the season under consideration in this installment — the Mets opened at home against the Cardinals. They hadn’t been very good the previous season and it was pushing the bounds of optimism to think they’d be very good in the new one, but at least there were some exciting new faces. There was Lance Johnson [3], a wiry, speedy former White Sock, and Bernard Gilkey [4], one of those solid complementary players who may never explode into the firmament of stars but anchor good teams. And there was the great unknown: the rookie shortstop, a Cuban defector named Rey Ordonez [5].

In 1993, the 22-year-old Ordonez had jumped a fence in Buffalo, seeking freedom and a fortune in the U.S. After a year in indy ball with the St. Paul Saints, the Mets won the right to sign him. His trajectory as a hitter was at least a flashing yellow light — .309 at St. Lucie, .262 at Binghamton, .214 at Norfolk — but there was nary a nit to pick about his fielding. Teammate Bill Pulsipher [6] said Ordonez was known as SEGA because he made videogame plays. (For some great accounts of Ordonez, read his SABR biography [7] and our pal David Roth’s terrific VICE Sports remembrance [8].)

Ordonez made the ’96 Mets, and was out there at shortstop on April 1 for Dallas Green [9]‘s troops. The Mets fell behind — 1-0, then 2-0 and then 6-0 — and it looked like one of those Opening Days you endured instead of enjoying, talking bravely afterwards about how a day where your team lost a baseball game was still better than any winter’s day without one. At least that’s the way I felt about it sitting next to Greg in the right-field seats. I don’t remember if it was the loge or the mezzanine, but it was in the back, in one of the few outfield sections at Shea in fair territory, or at least one of the sections very close to it. That was a new vantage point for me at Shea, and it seemed like that was all the novelty this particular Opening Day would offer.

But the Mets fought back. Todd Hundley [10] hit a home run to make it 6-2, and Gilkey hit a solo shot to halve the deficit.

In the 7th, Jerry Dipoto gave up a leadoff single, got a double play, but then surrendered a bunt single to Royce Clayton [11]. Up came Ray Lankford [12], once Gilkey’s other half in the St. Louis lineup. Lankford spanked a ball to Jeff Kent [13]‘s right at third, not a ringing hit but placed so it would roll forever. Clayton was going to make it 7-3, one of those late-game killer runs that let all the air out of the balloon.

Gilkey hurriedly corralled the ball in foul territory and heaved it towards third. Gilkey was an excellent player about to have the best year of his career, but this was not one of his better throws. He alligator-armed it, a little shot put destined to trickle into the vicinity of third while the Cardinals high-fived and Mets fans grumbled.

Except, somehow, Ordonez was in the right spot. From my unfamiliar vantage point out by the foul pole, I saw something confusing — a pinstriped white body going to ground, facing the outfield fence, from which the ball somehow emerged, a one-hop dart down the line to Hundley at home. He slapped the tag on Clayton, who wound up kneeling in the dust beyond home plate, staring up at Ron Gant [14] in disbelief. (By the way, the Mets completed the comeback in the bottom of the inning and won, 7-6 [15].)

If you don’t remember, watch it for yourself:

You hear the cheers — and Howie Rose’s astonished “threw it from his knees!” has endured — but what I remember happened a few seconds later, between innings. It was a sound I’d never heard before in a ballpark, a kind of murmur/mutter all around me and Greg. After cocking my head a moment, I realized it was the noise made by 25,000 people turning to the 25,000 people next to them and asking some variant of, “Did he really just do that?”

Yes, he had. And he’d keep doing it through a seven-year Mets career that was sometimes annoying and occasionally infuriating but never dull.

Let’s get some things out of the way. Ordonez never hit; worse, he never showed the slightest interest in taking an approach to maximize the limited offensive ability he did have. His occasional home runs were to be regretted instead of celebrated, because he’d spend the next three weeks popping balls up or striking out. He wasn’t the greatest teammate, prone to sulking, and you didn’t have to be a master of reading between the lines to gather that he wasn’t a lot of people’s favorite person. There was the family he left behind in Havana and the minimal child support he sent their way after remarrying, a fistfight with Luis Lopez [16] on the team bus, his public complaint that Mets fans were stupid, and too much else besides. (If I can be petty, he also wore zero, which should be banned as a crime against humanity.)

But you didn’t go to the park or switch on SportsCenter to watch Rey Ordonez hit. You were there to see what he’d do with the glove.

Ordonez pioneered going into the hole, using his foot as a brake to slam himself to a halt, then bracing and firing the ball to first. Plays like that came with a sound that was new to Robin Ventura [17], as he told Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci: “I can hear his spikes moving through the dirt. It’s a very distinctive sound, like nothing I’ve ever heard before. There have been times when a ball has been hit to my left and I’ll think, I can reach that with a dive. But I can hear Rey’s feet moving so quickly that I know he can get it. So I don’t dive, and he’s there.”

He was there. That was the first amazing thing. On seemingly impossible plays, Ordonez would somehow materialize where he needed to be, and where you never expected a shortstop could be: in foul territory behind third to corral a weak throw, deeper in the 5.5 hole than you thought possible, tumbling through the air on the wrong side of second base. Somehow he’d be there. To quote my co-blogger, “he changed the defensive map the way the Louisiana Purchase altered America’s.”

The second amazing thing was the arm. Not so much the strength, but the way Ordonez knew exactly where his target was, regardless of what base he needed to throw to or whatever unlikely position he’d put his body in. Poor Royce Clayton was the first to find this out, gunned down out of nowhere from somewhere up the left-field line, but he wouldn’t be the last. Ordonez could kick himself to a stop in the hole or somersault over second and it didn’t matter — his eyes and brain and arm would hone in on first base without needing to look. He turned infield defense into jazz, allowing you a peek at a master improvising art out of chaos. These displays were greeted with applause, of course, but also with that strange sound — the quiet processing needed while seeing a position you thought you knew redefined on the fly into something else.

There was a funny, albeit bittersweet sequel to that moment from Opening Day. The play that doomed the 2000 Mets in the Subway Series was of course Luis Sojo [18]‘s hideous bouncer up the middle off Al Leiter [19] in Game 5, a four-hopper that just eluded Kurt Abbott [20] and Edgardo Alfonzo [21] behind second. Soon after that the Mets had lost the World Series, and to the goddamn Yankees no less, and as we donned sackcloth and ashes, we assured each other in woebegone consolation that “Ordonez would have had it.”

Ordonez hadn’t been there because he’d broken his arm just before Memorial Day. He’d return in 2001, with a plate in his arm and his otherworldly abilities diminished, though we didn’t know that at first. As fate would have it, Leiter was on the mound again at Shea for the next game the Mets and Yankees played: It was June 15, the first game of the Subway Series [22]. In the top of the first, Sojo hit another infuriating little bouncer off Leiter — a carbon copy of what he’d done the previous autumn.

This time, Ordonez was out there instead of Abbott. But the ball got through — so perfectly placed that not even the Charlie Parker of shortstops could work his magic. And I heard that sound again, or something close to it. This time, it was 25,000 people telling the 25,000 people next to them, “Turns out Ordonez wouldn’t have had it.”

But baseball’s funny that way, isn’t it? It’s filled with echoes heroic and ironic, governed by rhythms and rhymes that link plays and players and seasons. Listen carefully, though, and you’ll hear not just classic melodies and familiar refrains but also new music — possibilities you never imagined, exploded into glorious realities. And then you’ll wait, with joy and anticipation, to hear something like that again.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962 [23]Richie Ashburn [24]
1964 [25]Rod Kanehl [26]
1966 [27]Shaun Fitzmaurice [28]
1969 [29]Donn Clendenon [30]
1972 [31]Gary Gentry [32]
1973 [33]Willie Mays [34]
1977 [35]Lenny Randle [36]
1978 [37]Craig Swan [38]
1981 [39]Mookie Wilson [40]
1982 [41]Rusty Staub [42]
1990 [43]: Gregg Jefferies [44]
1991 [45]Rich Sauveur [46]
1992 [47]Todd Hundley [10]
1994 [48]Rico Brogna [49]
1995 [50]Jason Isringhausen [51]
2000 [52]Melvin Mora [53]
2002 [54]Al Leiter [19]
2003 [55]David Cone [56]
2008 [57]Johan Santana [58]
2009 [59]Angel Pagan [60]
2012 [61]R.A. Dickey [62]
2013 [63]Wilmer Flores [64]