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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Eighth Wonder

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

Everybody scream and shout
Do the Fonzie
Come on
Do the Fonzie with me

Leather Tuscadero

In 1997, Edgardo Alfonzo came to the plate 68 times in eighth innings. In those eighth innings, he batted .482, reached based at a clip of .545 and slugged .714 for an eighth-inning OPS of 1.260.

Is that good? In 1997 in the National League, it was unmatched. Baseball-Reference allowed me to check. I looked at every single NL team’s eighth-inning statistics (BB-Ref is a miracle). No player with a comparable number of eighth-inning plate appearances came close to Fonzie’s fitness and fortitude when the going got tough. Five other hitters topped 1.000 OPS in the penultimate inning of regulation — Barry Bonds, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Mark Grace and Al Martin — yet none of them was within a thousand points of Edgardo. Biggio and Bagwell are in the Hall of Fame, as are Tony Gwynn, Larry Walker and Mike Piazza. You can certainly make a case for Bonds. There was a ton of lumber in the National League twenty-three years ago, and that’s not even taking into account St. Louis trading for Mark McGwire at the deadline. I looked up all the stars, all the sluggers, all the regulars. I looked basically everybody up. Nobody could touch Fonzie when it came to producing in the eighth inning.

Now, you may be asking, “What’s the big deal about the eighth inning?” That’s a fair question. Here is my answer:

The eighth inning was the inning for the 1997 New York Mets. The Mets did more scoring in the eighth inning than they did in any other inning. The Mets did more scoring than any National League team did in the eighth inning. You could chalk it up to random statitude. I say it’s a sign of outstanding character.

No Met demonstrated more outstanding character across his eight seasons in New York than Edgardo Alfonzo. Or probably ever. Nobody filled me with a greater sense of calm and confidence than Fonzie. Nobody made me think that it was all gonna be all right while leaving less room for doubt. Fonzie’s got this was as good a guiding principle as you could adhere to from 1995 to 2002, never more so than in 1997.

Ohmigod, 1997. I loved 1997. I still love 1997. I still love the 1997 Mets, both the season and the team. There’s a delineation to be made between seasons and teams, but in this case I want to throw my arms around both of them and all of them, even the Mets who needed to peel off early so the rest of the Mets could catapult into legitimate contention.

It was legitimate, you know. In September of 1997, I rooted for the Mets to make the playoffs, something I hadn’t been able to do with a straight face in any September since September of 1990. That the rooting didn’t lead to the playoffs, and that it was already kind of a long shot when September began, is beside the point. They were hanging in there, having won more than they’d lost for the first time in seven years, being the kind of team that couldn’t instinctively be viewed as the team most unlikely to win whatever game they were in. The Mets of the ’90s had tumbled into an orange-and-blue abyss around August of 1991. They were stuck down a couple of weeks into April of 1997.

Then Bobby Valentine made Edgardo Alfonzo his everyday third baseman and everything changed. That’s my version of events. Fonzie off the bench and to third. Huskey was off third and out to right. Huskey wasn’t needed at first anymore because we had gotten Olerud. Butch and John were important, too. So was the pitcher who the Mets picked up from post-strike purgatory, Rick Reed, and the pitcher who had spent four years being just fine suddenly blossoming into the second-best arm to ever emerge from Fresno, Bobby Jones. Rey Ordoñez made all the plays, not just the spectacular ones, at short. Todd Hundley was still knocking those home runs over the wall. Carl Everett had a grasp on opposing pitchers if not always reality. John Franco had help in the bullpen for a change: Greg McMichael, Cory Lidle, Takashi Kashiwada. Carlos Baerga had a little something left. Dave Mlicki had a big night in the Bronx. Bobby V juggled a Jason Hardtke here, a Matt Franco there and made magic as needed.

Fonzie by Zvon.

But it all came back to Fonzie and those wondrous eighth innings. Fonzie — the kid was from Venezuela and had never seen an episode of Happy Days — was a natural shortstop. So was Ordoñez, which meant Fonzie needed to be something else. He’d play anywhere he was asked. He did so for Dallas Green, who didn’t play him all that much. Valentine took over and saw a third baseman. Fonzie saw a regular gig develop around him. He made it his own. Fonzie and Rey-Rey on the left side of the infield constituted the original Great Wall of Flushing.

Good glove. Good bat? During his first two seasons as a part-timer, Fonzie hit .269 overall with four home runs each year. Given the chance to show his stuff, he flourished, batting .315, with 10 homers and 72 RBIs. His OPS+, which didn’t exist as far as I knew in 1997, was 119. Hundley’s, with power that was a known quantity after his record-setting ’96, was 148. Ordoñez’s, with a bat that presumably came free with a fill-up of Sunoco unleaded, was 36. Fonzie was closer to Hundley than Ordoñez on offense, no piker next to Rey on defense.

As the year went on, anybody who relished watching the Mets daily realized there wasn’t anything Edgardo Alfonzo couldn’t do well. He wasn’t particularly fast, but he wouldn’t get himself thrown out unnecessarily. If you needed a runner moved along, he could handle the bat. There was pop. There was savvy. There was silky smoothness at a position that had been missing dexterity since…well, forever. The Mets had steadily received some fine production out of third base dating back to the days of Hubie Brooks, but nobody stationed at the hot corner — not Brooks, not HoJo, not Knight or Magadan or Bonilla or Kent — was assigned its challenges in deference to defensive skill. Third wasn’t even Fonzie’s first position, but you would have thought he was born to play it.

As the Mets ascended from a typical 8-14 start to a rousing 88-74 finish, it was Fonzie who led them from nowhere to somewhere. He placed ninth in the league in hitting and thirteenth in MVP balloting for a team that almost nobody noticed was building itself into a winner. One of my fondest memories of Fonzie, 1997 and eighth innings was when the three of them converged on a FOX Saturday affair at Shea, Mets versus Pittsburgh, the home team trailing, 2-1. Tim McCarver, who saw enough of Fonzie to understand that this was a special player, explained to Joe Buck that as National League third basemen of the moment went, Edgardo Alfonzo, batting with Hardtke on first, was having as good a season as any of them. Buck, who probably flew in that morning, practically guffawed at the notion that this nobody could be somebody he had to take seriously.

Then Fonzie homered to left-center to give the Mets the lead and ultimately the win. Listening to Buck swallow his dismissive words was a delight.

Eighth innings, as noted, were a Met specialty in 1997. It was the “we’re not giving up” inning, the indicator that you don’t dare dismiss us until we’ve had every last up. Sure, the ninth inning gets all the walkoff glory that extra innings don’t, but don’t sleep on eighth innings. The Mets were walkup winners repeatedly in ’97, walking up and swiping a win from an unsuspecting foe eighth after eighth. “HEY!” I would have warned the rest of the league had I not wanted to keep our core competency on the down low lest it be discovered and neutralized, “WE’RE NOT DONE HERE YET!” That’s the outstanding character I alluded to above. Finish your homework. Clean your plate. Make sure you take advantage of every last opportunity to score. The 1997 Mets were raised right.

The Mets were tied or behind entering the eighth inning 95 times in 1997, yet they went on to win more than a quarter of those games. Overall, they won from behind 47 times, more than anybody in either league. Sometimes it was dramatic, but often it was reasonably too quiet for the likes of Baseball Tonight to amplify at a high volume. You can’t pound the bearer of the go-ahead run in the top or bottom of the eighth on the back or urge him to fling his helmet in triumph because, fellas, we’ve still got a little work to do here.

Nobody had to tell Fonzie. I’m sure Edgardo enjoyed giving and receiving a high-five as much as anybody, but his demeanor always expressed wariness. We might need to score more. One of us may need to make a diving stop. Johnny from Bensonhurst might not close this thing out so easily. Fonzie stayed ready.

In 1999, he was ready to move to second base when asked, a request motivated by the offseason signing of Robin Ventura. Fonzie did the shift. The Mets, who’d seen their progress stall in 1998, were better off for having Fonzie play second. What a DP combination he formed with Ordoñez! What an infield with Ventura and Olerud at the corners! Best ever, according to a national magazine! In the interim, between 1997 and 1999, the Mets had picked up one of the players who finished ahead of Alfonzo in the MVP race. Yeah, that guy, Piazza, helped. Plenty of turnover in two years’ time, but Fonzie was at the heart of that 1999 team that made the playoffs, just as Fonzie was at the heart of that 1997 team that first allowed us to dream of getting there. He may have been even better in 2000 when we went even further.

In 2002, because the chance to land Roberto Alomar seemed too good to pass up rather than too good to be true, Fonzie graciously bid adieu to second base and greeted third anew. Talk about a splendid team man. Talk about a lousy response in return. When Edgardo Alfonzo became a free agent after ’02, GM Steve Phillips decided Fonzie was too low-key a character to merit a significant commitment. Phillips like marquee names. Fonzie’s whole thing was being underrated and overlooked. Fonzie just did his job. As did Olerud, who was allowed to leave as a free agent after 1999. As did Reed, who was traded at the first dip in team fortunes during 2001. Phillips tended to get stars in his eyes and mostly ignore the glittering performers on his roster.

Repping 13 then and now.

I never forgave the Mets for letting Edgardo Alfonzo go, at least not within the narrowly defined parameters relating to forgiving the Mets for letting Edgardo Alfonzo go. I mean, yeah, I’m still a Mets fan and never stopped being a Mets fan, but I spent all of 2003 being sore that Fonzie was a San Francisco Giant more than I did being enthusiastic about anybody who was a New York Met. Part of 2004, too. I don’t particularly care that Fonzie as a Giant was not the force he was as a Met, that his back was giving him trouble, that he bounced around during the last year of his lucrative four-year contract. Screw you, I say to nobody and everybody, he’s Fonzie. On the all-time team of Never Should’ve Worn Another Uniform, Fonzie is my starting second baseman, just as he was named the starting second baseman on the Mets’ 40th and then 50th anniversary teams. Fonzie should have been around to nurture Reyes and mentor Wright. It should have been Fonzie’s all-time team hit record that the two of them chased and surpassed. It shouldn’t have taken until 2008 to have Fonzie return to Shea Stadium in a Mets jersey, then only ceremonially to Shea Goodbye. This was six years after the departing player said goodbye by taking out ads atop yellow cabs, letting us know FONZIE ♥ NY.

Again, outstanding character!

The Mets signed him to a Triple-A contract in 2006 yet somehow failed to call him up in September; I don’t forgive that, either. And what was up with letting him go as Cyclones manager last year after winning a championship in Brooklyn? While we’re doing an impromptu airing of heretofore repressed grievances, how did it never occur to anybody to invite Henry Winkler to Shea for a Fonzie summit? That would have been worth the price of an entire yearbook. Well, maybe when they officially induct Edgardo Alfonzo into the team’s Hall of Fame, which was supposed to happen in 2020 and should have happened no later than 2015. I was gonna be there this year for Fonzie. If they let people into the ballpark, I promise I will be there next year for Fonzie.

When it comes to Fonzie, my favorite position player ever, I say what Cheap Trick said about whatever it was Cheap Trick was singing about in 1988. I will be the flame. I will carry the torch. The spark was lit in 1997. It’s burned quietly ever since.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962: Richie Ashburn
1963: Ron Hunt
1964: Rod Kanehl
1965: Ron Swoboda
1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1967: Al Schmelz
1969: Donn Clendenon
1970: Tommie Agee
1971: Tom Seaver
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1974: Tug McGraw
1975: Mike Vail
1977: Lenny Randle
1978: Craig Swan
1981: Mookie Wilson
1982: Rusty Staub
1983: Darryl Strawberry
1986: Keith Hernandez
1988: Gary Carter
1990: Gregg Jefferies
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1993: Joe Orsulak
1994: Rico Brogna
1995: Jason Isringhausen
1996: Rey Ordoñez
1998: Todd Pratt
2000: Melvin Mora
2001: Mike Piazza
2002: Al Leiter
2003: David Cone
2004: Joe Hietpas
2005: Pedro Martinez
2007: Jose Reyes
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Angel Pagan
2010: Ike Davis
2011: David Wright
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Wilmer Flores
2014: Jacob deGrom
2017: Paul Sewald
2019: Dom Smith

1 comment to Eighth Wonder

  • open the gates

    Ah yes, the late-’90’s Mets. Other than the mid-’80’s champs, I can’t think of a team with more truly enjoyable players to follow. Mike Piazza, of course. The Best Infield In Baseball, featuring the wizardry of Rey-O at short. Quirky heroes like Hawaii’s own Benny Agbayani and backup catcher supreme Todd Pratt. The most underrated pitching rotation in Mets history, protected by the forever underrated John Franco. But to me, Fonzie is the first guy I think of from that blessed period of Metrolore. Piazza was the stud, but Edgardo was the heart of the team. And when he left, the heart left with him.

    And for what it’s worth, when history looks at the last year of Wilponia, one of the most shameful episodes will be their canning of Fonzie a month after he won them a championship in Brooklyn. Then again, he was probably better off having nothing to do with 2020, although managing last season in an amusement park may have had him better prepared than most.

    By the way, after last episode’s un-Vail-ing, I made a list of the remaining seasons with my guesses of which Mets you guys would choose to reminisce about. So far, I’m 1-for-1.