Those of you who’ve waited with bated breath for this annual feature (pause for crickets), my apologies — blame paid work competing for my time and the curdling of my attitude about the 2015 World Series from acceptance to anger, a psychological ambush I’ll delve into one of these days.
Background: I have a trio of binders, long ago dubbed The Holy Books (THB) by Greg, that contain a baseball card for every Met on the all-time roster. They’re in order of matriculation: Tom Seaver is Class of ’67, Mike Piazza is Class of ’98, Noah Syndergaard is Class of ’15, etc. There are extra pages for the rosters of the two World Series winners, the managers, and one for the 1961 Expansion Draft. That page begins with Hobie Landrith and ends with the infamous Lee Walls, the only THB resident who neither played for the Mets, managed the Mets, or qualified as a Met ghost.
If a player gets a Topps card as a Met, I use it unless it’s truly horrible — Topps was here a decade before there were Mets, so they get to be the card of record. No Mets card by Topps? Then I look for a minor-league card, a non-Topps Mets card, a Topps non-Mets card, or anything else. Topps had a baseball-card monopoly until 1981, and minor-league cards only really began in the mid-1970s, so cup-of-coffee guys from before ’75 or so are tough. (More on them in a moment.) Companies such as TCMA and Renata Galasso made odd sets with players from the 1960s — the likes of Jim Bethke, Bob Moorhead and Dave Eilers are immortalized through their efforts. And a card dealer named Larry Fritsch put out sets of “One Year Winners” spotlighting blink-and-you-missed-them guys such as Ted Schreiber and Joe Moock.
Another thing that’s slowed me down this year: I decided a while back that every pre-’86 player who never got a “real” Mets card deserved one, so I started making custom cards with Photoshop. That weirdo quest began as a way to solve the problem posed by the legendary Lost Nine.
Who are the Lost Nine? They’re the guys who never got a regulation-sized, acceptable card from anybody. Brian Ostrosser got a 1975 minor-league card that looks like a bad Xerox. Leon Brown has a terrible 1975 minor-league card and an oversized Omaha Royals card put out as a promotional set by the police department. Tommy Moore got a 1990 Senior League card as a 42-year-old with the Bradenton Explorers, which Greg thinks should count and I think shouldn’t, so pppt to Greg. Then we have Al Schmelz, Francisco Estrada, Lute Barnes, Bob Rauch, Greg Harts and Rich Puig. They have no cards whatsoever — the oddball 1991 Nobody Beats the Wiz cards are too undersized to work. So I’ve gone from making cards of the Lute Barneses and Rich Puigs of Metdom to correcting the record for the likes of Larry Foss and Billy Cowan and both Bob Johnsons. Yes, it’s insane.
Anyway, during the season I scrutinize new card sets in hopes of finding a) better cards of established Mets; b) cards to stockpile for prospects who might make the Show; and most importantly c) a card for each new big-league Met. Eventually that yields this column, previous versions of which can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.)
Your 2015 THB Mets!
Without further ado:
Michael Cuddyer: David Wright’s boyhood chum had an odd year, one in which he served as evidence for every debate one could have about roster construction and management. From the get-go, fans fought about whether his signing was welcome evidence that the Mets could spend money again, depressing proof that the Mets had wasted their entire offseason “budget,” and/or a waste given the forfeiture of a draft pick. The Cuddyer-Wright show was largely a bust, as spinal stenosis felled the younger man and the Mets’ paper-thin depth pushed Cuddyer into a full-time role, one his time-worn body clearly could no longer handle. Cuddyer did magic tricks, as innumerable media guides have noted, but the Mets made him the subject of one of their least amusing spectacles, leaving him on the active roster for a month of the summer when he couldn’t play. Once he healed up he played pretty well in the part-time duty originally envisioned, then startled everyone by walking away from the final year of his deal, giving the Mets some financial flexibility they didn’t deserve and winning a final round of well-deserved accolades as a honorable man and a peerless teammate. Cuddyer is probably headed for decades as a minor-league instructor/bench coach/etc., hopefully with our team. Extra points for always reminding me of the silver-haired, flat-topped veteran from cop movies, the guy who’s Seen Too Much of This Shit but still walks the beat because it’s The Right Thing to Do. In THB in a Photoshopped Mets uniform courtesy of Topps. Fortunately, they did a good job.
John Mayberry Jr.: A useful complementary player for the not-so-long-ago Phillies, the younger Mayberry turned in a Mets tour of duty that resembled Chris Young’s, if Chris Young had also been a narcoleptic zombie. If the Mets’ current run of success lasts long enough, Mayberry will go down in franchise lore as a symbol of blue-and-orange bottoming out, the man sent out to hit cleanup against Clayton Kershaw with Eric Campbell for protection. That won’t be entirely fair, but when you hit .164 over 119 plate appearances … actually it is entirely fair. (Please tell me I won’t be copy-pasting this entry for Alejandro De Aza a year from now.) A Topps Phillie in THB.
Jerry Blevins: Won our hearts by adopting a fan-made Twitter avatar. Kept our hearts by being effective against lefties. Had his arm broken by a line drive on April 19. Worked like heck to come back, took a misstep off a curb in Port St. Lucie in August and refractured the same bone. After all that, signed on for another tour of duty. That’s one weird year, folks. He’s a Topps Nat in THB, pending a do-over.
Alex Torres: While pitching for Tampa Bay in 2013, Torres saw his teammate Alex Cobb felled by a line drive to the head off the bat of Eric Hosmer. (Damn that guy.) Cobb missed two months and Torres vowed the same thing wouldn’t happen to him, so he worked with a company called Pinwrest to come up with turban-style protective padding around his cap. Kudos to Torres for prioritizing his own safety above fashion points and to the Mets and most of their fans for being adults about it — it wasn’t so long ago that this team treated Ryan Church’s concussion with scientific rigor and human sympathy better suited to Salem in the 1690s. Unfortunately, Torres walked waaaaaay too many guys while wearing any kind of Mets headgear and was soon banished. He gets a Topps Heritage card; since this is a miracle in itself, I feel bad for whining that his miraculous card depicts him sans distinctive chapeau.
Sean Gilmartin: A Rule 5 guy sticking long enough to become franchise property and not being a liability in the process is a pretty good trick, so kudos to Gilmartin and to the Mets. He could become a useful piece of the puzzle or be one of those Oh Yeah That Guys by next Memorial Day; saying so isn’t to disparage him but to acknowledge that he’s that most confounding of specimens, the middle reliever. Topps Update card.
Danny Muno: Recalled in mid-April and didn’t do much that was particularly memorable, for good or ill. He’s young enough that any grade other than “present” seems presumptuous. Topps Heritage portrait card, since his Topps Update card featured both a whole lot of his rear end and a goofy expression. Thanks Topps!
Kevin Plawecki: His nickname of “The Polish Hammer” never really stuck, not because Plawecki isn’t Polish but because he didn’t do that much hammering. Still, he filled in capably for Travis d’Arnaud; if holding one’s own as a rookie catcher doesn’t seem like grounds for applause, think how many rookie catchers fail to do it. Topps Update card.
Hansel Robles: Handsome, talented, mildly pissy reliever ascended the Mets ranks from warm body to non-blowout middle reliever to setup guy you kind of maybe sort of could trust, which is a pretty good trajectory for a rookie. Plus he made Larry Bowa go ballistic, which is always fun. (But enough with the quick pitches, gang.) Topps Heritage card.
Jack Leathersich: The much-hyped Leather Rocket finally showed up in Queens and looked pretty much like the guy we’d been told about in the minors — he threw hard and was effective when he could find the plate. After a couple of months in New York, he was sent back to Vegas, immediately left in for 57 pitches by Wally Backman, and then needed Tommy John surgery. It’s irresponsible to declare there’s absolutely a causal link in that chain of events, but that’s still no way to treat a pitcher. Leathersich gets a Topps Heritage card on which he sports a beard worthy of the Brooklynite behind the bar who’s easing into the eighth minute of doing something artisanal to your straightforward drink order.
Johnny Monell: Longtime minor-leaguer cracked a pinch-hit two-run double in his second Mets AB and did little after that. I bet every single THB roundup contains a variant of the above written about a momentary catcher. Las Vegas card.
Noah Syndergaard: On a staff of wonderful young starters, here’s betting he turns out to be the best of all. Syndergaard already has better stuff than Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom, and he made great strides in the more difficult business of learning how to pitch. During the summer he went through a series of starts where he became predictable in the early innings and wound up paying for it, but by September he’d learned to counterpunch, mixing up his pitches and his approaches. And in October he showed off a little meanness, famously pointing out to the Royals that if they didn’t like being pitched inside, he was 60 feet six inches away. A mild boo for an invitation that didn’t have to be public — that was a young man’s misstep — but sustained applause for the philosophy and the willingness to defend it. Nothing about the 2016 Mets excites me more than the thought of seeing what Syndergaard does next. Topps Update card.
Darrell Ceciliani: Fill-in outfielder with a silly chin beard and a 51s card.
Akeel Morris: Came and went while I was on a family trip to Mexico, so I suppose it’s possible his cameo is actually an elaborate Truman Show-style prank being played on me. For now he gets an old Bowman card I had stockpiled for things like this.
Logan Verrett: Currently chatting with Jerry Blevins and Kirk Nieuwenhuis about odd years, Verrett was taken by the Orioles in the Rule 5 draft, grabbed by the Rangers on waivers, pitched for them in April and was then returned to the Mets. He made his debut in June and proved useful enough to be handed the ball for a seemingly sacrificial start at Coors Field when Harvey needed some innings shaved off his infamous limit. Verrett responded with a sparkler, scattering four hits and a single run over eight innings, and is now seen as a useful spot starter/long man type. Of such things are long, lucrative careers made. Topps Update card.
Steven Matz: Elbow woes wrecked his ascent, but when he arrived in late June it was worth the wait. Still-young Matz — between the name and the Long Island upbringing how could he pitch for anybody else? — allowed a home run to Brandon Phillips, the first big-league hitter he faced, but not much after that, and he was a terror at the plate, collecting two singles and a double and four RBIs. Those four RBIs in a big-league debut are a Mets club record, by the way — not for pitchers but for anybody. By the end of the day two folk heroes were born — Steven and his grandpa Bert, whose mix of delight and disbelief was the perfect pantomime of what we all were thinking. His first full season should be a treat. Topps Heritage card.
Michael Conforto: With that name Matz should have been the 1,000th Met in club history, but the honor went to Conforto instead on July 24. Having seen Conforto as a Brooklyn Cyclone just last year, I wrote off his debut as a cynical publicity stunt meant to distract us from ownership’s lack of interest in opening the coffers enough to mount a real pursuit of the sputtering Nats. Happily I was wrong: Conforto turned out to be more than ready, combining a perfect swing with a precocious sense of the strike zone. He kept getting better, capping his season with two home runs in Game 4 of the World Series — and a split-second adjustment in timing would have resulted in a 10th-inning walkoff homer to win Game 5. If I’m most excited about watching Syndergaard grow in ’16, Conforto is a close second. For now he gets a Topps Pro Debut card on which he’s still a Cyclone, but no matter; within a couple of years Conforto’s bats, uniforms and possibly armpit hair will be recycled into relics cards.
Kelly Johnson: One of those quietly valuable professional hitters, Johnson arrived with Juan Uribe from the Braves in late July and immediately made his seventh big-league team better, homering in his Mets debut against the Dodgers and tying up the finale of the Mets’ D.C. sweep of the Nats with a long ball off Stephen Strasburg. Extra points for his cold fury in denouncing Chase Utley’s roll block in the NLDS. Topps Update card.
Juan Uribe: Well-traveled, beloved in clubhouses and invariably dressed like a superhero, Uribe showed a knack for big hits down the stretch and served as valuable insurance for the still gimpy Wright. Unfortunately, he landed hard on his chest down the stretch, damaging cartilage that proved slow to heal and limited him to a single AB in the postseason. (He got a hit, of course.) Topps Update card.
Tyler Clippard: A million years ago, the bespectacled, given-to-squinting Clippard made his debut as a Yankee fill-in starter, beating the Mets at Shea. Clippard then became a capable setup guy and closer for the Nats before being jettisoned and finding his way to Flushing. He was on and off down the stretch, probably hampered more by a back injury than anyone admitted, and Terry Collins arguably leaned too hard on him during the postseason, trusting his Veteran Status more than he worried about his iffy recent results. Still, Clippard pitched as well as he could whenever asked to do so, and we’ll always remember his endearingly terrible dance moves during a trio of postseason celebrations. And that’s a heckuva lot better than being that damn larval Yankee who beat us that time. Topps Update card.
Yoenis Cespedes: Look, we always knew it was going to be a summer romance. Cespedes arrived as Plan E or F for the Mets, and contrary to eventual legend didn’t immediately set Citi Field on fire — he started his Mets career 1 for 8, prompting the usual muttering because New York. But he then broke out with a four-RBI night against the Marlins, beginning a stretch when he made the impossible seem routine at the plate. No display was greater than his evisceration of the Nats in D.C. — 6 for 14, 7 RBIs, and a lifetime of therapy bills for the luckless Drew Storen. In all, Cespedes put up 17 HRs and 44 RBIs for the Mets in a little more than a third of a season, catapulting them into the playoffs. He didn’t do much in October, it must be admitted — a big game against the Dodgers, another against the Cubs, but a shamefully botched play to start things off against the Royals and a final, unfortunate one-footed swing he never should have been forced to take. Still, what a lot to remember — years from now, someone will mention parakeets or compression sleeves and wonder why on earth you’ve suddenly become misty-eyed. Topps Update card in which he’s just connected. The card’s wonderful too.
Eric O’Flaherty: Arrived in August as part of the Mets’ star-crossed quest for a lefty specialist, and was mind-bogglingly terrible. Eighteen hits in 8 2/3 innings is no way to go through life, son. Some old Braves card.
Addison Reed: Reed’s had an interesting career already, racking up 100+ saves for the White Sox and Diamondbacks but only turning 27 on Sunday. He pitched capably enough for the Mets down the stretch and should have a role to play for the ’16 club. 2015 D-Backs card. I hate looking at it.
Tim Stauffer: The last newcomer of 2015, as Matt Reynolds was activated for the playoffs but never appeared, becoming the 10th Met ghost instead of the 1,008th Met. Stauffer was … hmm. He was better than Eric O’Flaherty, OK? Old Padres card.
One of the most fascinating sets of figures I ever came across grabbed my attention forty years ago this month. The Sporting News printed what every member of every qualifying team received in the way of a postseason share. In those four-division days, shares were allocated to teams that finished first, second and third in their respective divisions (a remnant of the old “first-division” mindset). As you probably know or at least can intuit, the World Series winner got the biggest chunk of the pot, followed by the World Series loser, then the teams that lost their respective LCSes and then the second-place finishers and, at last, the third-place finishers. If there happened to be a tie for third in a given division, then those two teams would split the smallest bonus pool possible.
I mention that last point because in 1975, the Mets and Cardinals tied for third in the N.L. East and split the third-place money. The Sporting News’s printing of the specific amounts given to specific people stayed with me. Now and then, I’d think about strange it was that what seemed like private business was published for all to see. (Then again, we know everybody’s salary these days, even though individual World Series shares stay under wraps). Because I’m a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR, I have access to The Sporting News archives. Because I’m a curious sort, I searched and pulled up the article I remembered from four decades ago to refresh my memory regarding which Met received which sum.
The 1975 Mets were given $5,707.08. Not per man, but for the whole team to split amongst themselves. Had they finished one game ahead of St. Louis and attained sole possession of third place, their pot would’ve doubled. Had they finished one game behind, alone in fourth, they would’ve received bupkes. As it was, the spoils of finishing third, even in 1975 terms, didn’t add up all that lucratively.
The most any Met got on that 82-80 club, as determined by a vote among players who populated the roster the bulk of the year, was $136.70, a decent bit of change in the pockets of major leaguers at the end of the reserve clause era, but not what you think of when you think of a “World Series share”. Tom Seaver was awarded $136.70. So was rookie Randy Tate. So was utility infielder Jack Heidemann. Twenty-four players took home the Met maximum, as did interim manager Roy McMillan, dismissed manager Yogi Berra, five coaches (including Willie Mays), two trainers, clubhouse man Herb Norman, the grounds crew (The Sporting News lists them as a unit, so presumably Pete Flynn and the lads had to split $136.70 in an equitable fashion), four batboys (also apparently in receipt of one share for the quartet to divide) and a pair of batting practice pitchers.
You could get less. Half-shares of $68.35 went to clubhouse man Jimmy McMahon and five players who were around for only part of the year, including eleven-season veteran Cleon Jones, who was released in July; you’d figure the man who caught the last out of the first World Series the franchise won would rate at least as much as Tom McKenna and Joe Deer (your 1975 trainers). If that doesn’t sound very generous, you could do worse. Quarter-shares of $34.17 were voted to three players who weren’t on the roster very long, most notably the best Met of the season’s final six weeks, Mike Vail, he of the 23-game National League rookie-record hitting streak.
Vail shouldn’t have felt bad, however. His Met teammates could have voted him even less. Five Mets of limited tenure/performance were sent checks of $27.34, or one-fifth shares. One of those Mets was Ron Hodges, two years removed from his 1973 heroics and in the midst of a dozen-year Met career (but summering at Tidewater most of ’75). Another of those one-fifth Mets never even played as a Met: Jerry Moses, the former American League All-Star catcher who briefly alighted on the active roster and sat tight for several weeks. Before he could enter a game in orange and blue, his contract was sold to San Diego. He must’ve been a heckuva clubhouse presence, though, because months after the fact, he was voted a little something for his trouble.
A very little something, but something nonetheless.
Baseball players aren’t always so thoughtful toward their sic transit teammates. Life may be too short to be considerate. Last year, Jim Caple examined how teams distribute their postseason booty and found a range of impulses, from the exceedingly generous to the, shall we say, exclusive. Former outfielder Chili Davis, who’d been in on a number of these meetings, told Caple the discussions often come down to, “Do you give the guys a full share or do you break up a share and give them an eighth each?” Davis remembered instances when the players who made the call would “name a guy who came up with the team for two days or something” and ask, “‘What do we give him?’” A not uncommon reply, according to Chili: “‘Fuck it, give him a McDonald’s gift certificate.’”
On the other hand, as Caple wrote, there was the action of the 2007 Rockies, who voted a full pennant-winning share to the widow of Double-A coach Mike Coolbaugh, who had been killed after absorbing a line drive to the head during a game that season. Then-Rockie and future Met LaTroy Hawkins explained, “She had several small kids. She was pregnant, and he had lost his life on the baseball field. His family loved baseball. We just wanted to show we were thinking about them and wanted to help.”
It didn’t take such tragic circumstances for Rickey Henderson to dig deep. As Mike Piazza recalled in his memoir, “whenever the discussion came around to what we should give one of the fringe people — whether it was a minor leaguer who came up for a few days or the parking lot attendant — Rickey would shout out, ‘Full share!’ We’d argue for a while, and he’d say, ‘Fuck that! You can change somebody’s life!’” Piazza admitted that while he “admired Rickey’s heart,” he “usually came down somewhere in the middle”.
As you can see, there are a lot of ways to divvy up a pie, and I wouldn’t want to be responsible for who gets an enormous slice and who gets the crumbs…at least in real life I wouldn’t. But here, in the aftermath of the first time in nine years that the Mets earned their way into the postseason money, I will.
Here are my rules:
• The manager, coaches, batboys — not my problem, at least initially. Let ownership sell a building and take care of them properly. My primary job in this exercise is to reward the 50 players who were active for the Mets in 2015.
• The pot is the same one the Mets received for placing in runner-up position in the World Series: $16,771,715.82, which represents approximately 24% of the postseason revenue directed toward the players on all playoff teams (the Royals, those bastards, received about 40%).
• I will be guided by custom, but not bound by it.
OK, here I go, giving out $16,771,715.82…
Yoenis Cespedes: Considering he was very recently named Most Valuable Met of 2015 by Faith and Fear in Flushing, he should get the largest share. I’m putting him down for $600,000, or a nice, little going-away present.
David Wright: The Captain missed much of the season, but he’s The Captain. A Captain’s share of $500,000 for No. 5.
Curtis Granderson, Jacob deGrom, Jeurys Familia, Matt Harvey, Daniel Murphy, Wilmer Flores. They were our other plausible MVM candidates. That should be worth $450,000 apiece.
Travis d’Arnaud, Lucas Duda, Michael Cuddyer, Juan Lagares, Bartolo Colon, Jon Niese: All of them were on the Opening Day roster, played the entire year (except when injured) and made the postseason roster for each round. $400,000 per man.
Ruben Tejada, Carlos Torres, Sean Gilmartin: Tejada was Utleyed out of everything after Game Two of the NLDS. Torres never went on the DL (his staying power was legendary until it wasn’t) but a September strain effectively removed him from postseason consideration. Gilmartin nurtured his Rule 5 presence clear to the end of the regular season, but he was cast aside for the NLDS, only to return for the next two rounds. They all just missed stalwart status. $350,000 each.
Kirk Nieuwenhuis: A Met, then an Angel, then a Met, with some DL and Triple-A time thrown in. Made the most of his scant production, lasted through the World Series. $300,000. (FYI, $300,000 was mentioned in various reports as the actual average Met share.)
Kevin Plawecki, Hansel Robles, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, Michael Conforto: Five rookies who came up during the course of the year, five rookies who made the World Series roster. $275,000 each.
Juan Uribe, Kelly Johnson, Tyler Clippard, Addison Reed: Midseason acquisitions who contributed tangibly. $250,000 each.
Bobby Parnell, Dillon Gee, Anthony Recker: Thank you for your service. $200,000 each.
Eric Young, Jr.: Another Met who wore the scars of less bountiful campaigns, EYJ was brought back from the Braves to pinch-run in the postseason; pinch-ran very well in September (no hits; nine runs!); and was left off the postseason roster. $175,000.
Erik Goeddel: I didn’t quite get why he made the NLDS roster over Gilmartin. Made one appearance vs. Dodgers, got lit up, left with ERA of infinity, was replaced by Gilmartin in advance of NLCS. But pretty good in spots during season. $125,000.
John Mayberry, Jr., Eric Campbell, Alex Torres: Synonymous with the part of the season that did not scream “pennant,” but somebody had to take those swings and pitch those innings. $100,000 each.
Logan Verrett: Filled the thankless role on the staff. $90,000.
Buddy Carlyle, Jerry Blevins, Dario Alvarez: Relatively few innings, enormously important outs. $80,000 each.
Dilson Herrera, Darrell Ceciliani: A key hit or two during their respective brief stays. $75,000 each.
Johnny Monell: Also a key hit or two, though I find it hard to believe. $50,000.
Jenrry Mejia: Limited to seven appearances, mostly by his own PED-fueled decision-making. They were seven good appearances, for what it was worth…which we’ll say is $700.
Rafael Montero, Danny Muno, Tim Stauffer, Jack Leathersich: For these bit players, the same full shares disbursed to the 1975 Mets. $136.70 each.
Akeel Morris: One stray outing, eight batters faced, two batters retired, earned run average unmentionable in polite company. The 2015 equivalent of a 1975 one-fifth share. $123.69.
Matt Reynolds: Like Jerry Moses, he was activated but never used. We’ll follow Moses on this one. $27.34.
Eric O’Flaherty: McDonald’s gift certificates — now known as Arch Cards — come in various denominations. We’ll be sports and go for the second-highest. $25.00.
All right, then. I have distributed $12,006,422.83, which leaves $4,765,292.99. So tell ya what, here’s $4,000,000 for Terry, his coaches, the batting practice pitchers and catchers and everybody else who had a non-playing hand in making 2015 happen. They can figure out who gets what. I’m sure a lot of people worked hard to get this team pennant-ready. Hopefully, $4 million covers them.
Of the remaining $765,292.99, let’s cut Zack Wheeler, Josh Edgin and Vic Black in for $21,764.33 apiece. Wheeler, Edgin and probably Black would have been on the team (and been more useful than O’Flaherty) if not for injury. Twists of fate did them in.
We have $700,000 left. Let’s do the right thing and direct $100,000 to Rusty Staub’s New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund and another $100,000 to Tuesday’s Children. Both organizations have strong Met connections.
As for the final half-a-million…pick a Mets fan at random, someone who’s given roughly $500,000 worth of his or her soul (and who knows how much of his or her income?) to the cause of supporting this team through thin and finally thick. It would be a superb gesture and, as Rickey said, you can change somebody’s life.
“It is a vital part of American sports that the present is tethered to the past,” Tim Layden recently wrote in Sports Illustrated. As a line of thinking, it’s completely understandable and not necessarily undesirable. If we’re any kind of long-term fans, we root for whom we root because we’ve rooted for whom we’ve rooted. We connect what are seeing to what we’ve seen. It provides us with a common shorthand. We know what we’re talking about if we can speak with some certainty on what has preceded the moment in which we currently exist. Precedent provides us with a comfortable cushion.
But there are times when its utility is limited. Adjust it all you want, it won’t give you all the back support you seek. Sometimes, you just have to lean forward. Sometimes, as Benjamin Franklin explained the idea of American independence to a doubting Continental Congress colleague in 1776, “It’s a new idea, you clot! We’ll be making our own precedent!”
In 2015, as our team was declaring its independence from the shortcomings of the immediate past, we saw Dr. Franklin’s notion in action. What the Mets did was something somewhat similar to what we had seen, but when you got right down to it, it was as new and novel as it was wondrous and wonderful. Thus, in recognition of the freshest of Metropolitan accomplishments, we designate Precedent — Or The Lack Thereof as our Nikon Camera Player of the Year, the award bestowed upon the entity or concept that best symbolizes, illustrates or transcends the year in Metsdom.
Precedent is a useful tool, yet it has its limitations. In 2015, it went only so far in helping us understand the season it seemed we were always trying to make sense of. We reflexively reached back and constructed cases for how this or that situation was just like that or this episode from our past.
Except it almost never was.
This is not to say there weren’t elements of 2015 that legitimately brought to mind certain touchstones. Unless you had just wandered into Mets fandom, of course you were going to view the goings-on at least partly through the prism of what you knew. An entity with 53 years of history behind it is sprinkled with examples applicable to any given moment unfolding in its 54th. But after a while, there was no stringing them together. 2015 wasn’t “just like” any Met year that preceded it. It was, when all was said and won, its own thing.
And it wasn’t so many other things.
2015 wasn’t 1962, when everything about the Mets was literally new. Nobody was seriously comparing the first and latest iterations of Mets baseball, but I’ll cop to drawing a parallel in a fit of frustration in May. The Mets had just lost in Pittsburgh, 9-1, which looked pretty bad, especially considering that the very first triumph the very first Mets managed was a 9-1 win in Pittsburgh. When you have a “1962 Mets” in your portfolio, you’re inevitably going to pull them out to make a point once in a while. The 2015 Mets outwon their Originators by 50 victories, so — 9-1 symmetry notwithstanding — Met-a culpa from me.
2015 wasn’t 1984, which was the popular preseason wishful thought for what 2015 might be. Despite the plethora of young pitchers, the invigorating turnaround and the 90-win total, 2015 exceeded second-place 1984 in the standings. 1984 peaked in late July. 2015 was just getting going.
2015 wasn’t 1972, even with the successful early-season launch and the string of debilitating injuries. The two teams shared eleven-game winning streaks before Memorial Day and a crowded disabled list well into summer, but whereas the 1972 Mets flailed without their regulars, the 2015 Mets persevered while healing.
2015 wasn’t 1970, when extremely capable Met pitching was undermined by hitters using (in the words of SI’s Alfred Wright) bats “made of Styrofoam and rolled up copies of the Daily News.” It felt that way in May and June, but offensive help was on its way.
2015 wasn’t 1996, when outstanding Met pitching disintegrated before it could truly materialize. Generation K became the default cautionary tale for every time we got our hopes up in arms because the Big Three of its day — Bill Pulsipher, Jason Isringhausen and Paul Wilson — never got the chance to function as a trio. Pulse missed the 1996 season. Izzy and Paul struggled and then disappeared onto the DL. There’d be no critical mass of homegrown pitching for more than a decade and a lingering sense that you couldn’t count on young pitching to carry you because, well, look what happened last time we tried that. In 2015, we didn’t have Zack Wheeler, but we had everybody else. However good we imagined Generation K would become, it wasn’t as good as what Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard became (with Steven Matz not too far off the pace).
2015 wasn’t 2014, which should have been evident after the 13-3 spurt that started April, but once things got a little dicey, it was very tempting to slip into another rendition of “same old Mets”. Except they weren’t.
2015 wasn’t 2010, a mostly forgotten club that briefly rose to eleven games above .500 and clung barnacle-style to the side of the National League Wild Card race until late July. They headed across the continent and — following a 2-9 swing through San Francisco, Phoenix and Los Angeles — sank from contention’s view. It was the most extreme example available of how the Mets “always” crumble on the West Coast. In 2015, the Mets teetered on the edge of potential extinction entering July, traveled to California, won four of six from the Dodgers and Giants and came home to sweep the Diamondbacks.
2015 wasn’t 2004, the year Fred Wilpon targeted for playing (and you know this one by heart) “meaningful games in September”. There is meaning in every baseball game, but the team finishing 71-91 has substantially less significance attached to the final sixth of its schedule than the team en route to raising a divisional flag.
2015 wasn’t 2007, no matter how much instinctual fretting we succumbed to as August became September. The 2007 Mets held a formidable lead and mishandled it. The 2015 Mets held a formidable lead and expanded it.
2015 wasn’t 2008, the most recent winning season before this one. The 2008 Mets sagged in spring (42-44) and surged in summer (40-19), only to sputter in fall (7-10). The 2015 Mets worked their trajectory — 15-5; 21-32; 16-13; 38-22 — a little more effectively. It also didn’t hurt that the ’15ers swept three of three from their primary rivals, the Nationals, in early September, whereas the ’08ers lost two of three to the then-dreaded Phillies at approximately the same time of year.
2015 wasn’t 1981, not even in the sense that it felt like the Mets were playing a split season this year: the first marked by pre-Cespedes sluggishness, the second saved by post-Cespedes slugging. In 1981, everybody played two mini-seasons because of the strike that knocked 50+ games from everybody’s midsummer docket. The 1981 Mets were dreadful in their first half-season (17-34-1), competitive enough to dream in their second. They even dramatically swept the first-place Cardinals that September the way the 2015 Mets dramatically swept the second-place Nationals this September. But those Mets of 34 years prior couldn’t maintain their brief momentum and their spirited run (24-28-1) was all but lost to history. If only Frank Cashen could have traded for Yoenis Cespedes, who, it should be stressed, wasn’t born until 1985.
2015 wasn’t 1998, when the Mets were highly active before and at the trading deadline. The Kelly Johnsons and Juan Uribes of seventeen seasons before were Lenny Harris and Tony Phillips. The role of Mr. Cespedes was played by Mike Piazza. There were Willie Blair and Jorge Fabergas added along the margins à la Eric O’Flaherty. The ’98 Mets got busy swapping sooner than their successors, but it didn’t do them quite as much good, as they pulled up one game shy of a Wild Card (though that Piazza feller stuck around a spell).
2015 wasn’t any of the aforementioned years, not to mention any year in which the Mets missed the postseason. Once the Mets clinched their sixth division title and eighth playoff berth, the comparison to any campaign that didn’t extend meaningfully into October was rendered moot.
At least on the surface, then, 2015 had something in common with 1969, 1973, 1986, 1988, 1999, 2000 and 2006. But was it “just like” any of those years? Was there definitive precedent for what we just experienced embedded somewhere between nine and forty-five years earlier?
In the regular season, 1969 reared its beautiful head a few times. It was the last utterly unanticipated playoff year; who was going to pick a team that was coming off seven consecutive losing records? The eleven-game winning streak evoked ’69’s first coming of age milestone. Cespedes was Donn Clendenon (but more so). The Nationals were Durocher’s Cubs (but less so). Harvey, deGrom and Syndergaard pitched something like Seaver, Koosman and Gentry. Chris Heston and Max Scherzer stymied these Mets like Bob Moose blankety-blanked those Mets. Veteran third basemen wearing No. 5 provided their own kind of spiritual leadership then and now. 1969 had a black cat. 2015 had a rally parakeet. Both pennants were won in a sweep. Second baseman Al Weis against Baltimore (.455/.563/.727) provided a postseason template for second baseman Daniel Murphy against Chicago (.529/.556/1.294).
The Mets won the World Series in 1969. They didn’t in 2015. Even if they had, would have “2015 Mets” become an aspirational avatar for underdogs everywhere for generations to come? Magical baseball and miraculous feats have intermittently occurred from 1970 forward, but there was only one full dose of Mets Magic and only one Miracle Mets. 1969 is a lot to ask any successor to live up to.
We had to Believe in 1973. We had to jump-start an injury-riddled enterprise. We had to get hot at just the right moment and stay hot just long enough. We did and we were rewarded almost totally for it. That sounds a good bit like 2015. What doesn’t? 1973’s team got lost along the way but didn’t come out of nowhere. That was a blend of experienced 1969 hands and solid additions who’d come on board between pennants. Had the ’73 Mets stayed healthy throughout their campaign, they might have won the N.L. East fairly handily…in which case, they wouldn’t be the ’73 Mets whose legend we fire up when it suits our purposes.
In more mundane terms, the 2015 Mets were never as buried as the 1973 Mets were, even if it felt like it. The Mets of last summer were never as many as five games out of first place and they never dipped below second. The 1973 Mets were in last on the last morning of August and wallowed 12½ out in July. Their path to a divisional and league championship was tortuous. That they succeeded in traversing it is why we invoke them continuously. There was a taste of what they did in 2015, to be sure, but not necessarily a heaping helping.
The 1986 and 2015 Mets shared the same dizzying record after sixteen games, each based on winning eleven in a row. The ’86ers barely paused thereafter. They were 20-4 on May 10; 44-16 on June 16; 60-25 on July 17; 108-54 on October 5. You could be extremely confident that 1986 was going to be the Mets’ year coming off of 1985 and have no doubt whatsoever well in advance of the All-Star break. The 2015 Mets fell to earth for most of three months before resuming their April powerhouse ways in August. It worked for them just fine. But they were not in 1986’s stratosphere (nor were they populated by as many fascinating individuals). Also, there’s the little matter of the World Series and how only one team lost Game One by one run and Game Two by six runs and won Game Three by six runs as prelude to taking the whole enchilada.
Mike Scioscia obscured everything good about 1988, of which there was plenty. They had a resounding start and a spectacular finishing kick that separated themselves from their worrisome competition. They had aces going practically every night and they were bolstered by a born hitter plucked from the minor leagues in the second half. They even had a homegrown closer who, for a change, didn’t unleash butterflies in the Metsopotamian stomach. The 2015 Mets — featuring Michael Conforto and Jeurys Familia — won ten fewer games than the 1988 Mets of Gregg Jefferies and Randy Myers (among many talented others), but the 2015 Mets didn’t run into a Scioscia on the way to late October.
In 1999, peril lurked as an eight-game losing streak shoved the Mets’ won-lost mark a game below .500. In 2015, discomfort reigned when seven straight losses left the Mets a game below .500. The 1999 Mets dramatically altered the course of their season by firing coaches and winning 40 of their next 55. The 2015 Mets stayed the brain trust course and muddled along for a while before igniting their fuse. Both Met editions were extremely entertaining at their peak, but the 2015 club produced a relatively staid narrative compared to the twists and turns of 1999. Nothing wrong with being extremely entertaining, however.
The 2000 Mets lost the World Series in five games after winning a tight NLDS and a less stressful NLCS. Sound familiar? It should, though until October, there wasn’t all that much that bound 2000 to 2015. 2000’s Mets were a Wild Card, thanks to their inability to dethrone Atlanta. 2015’s Mets overthrew the defending divisional champs in one fell swoop. The 2000 team had pretty good starting pitching. The 2015 rotation announced its presence with authority. The 2000 Mets already had their Piazza. The 2015 Mets had to get theirs at the deadline. The 2000 Mets were coming off a season when they came achingly close. The 2015 Mets emerged from a void. The 2000 Mets transmitted the sense they had unfinished business. The 2015 Mets played with house money. That they both wound up with the same hand at the end seemed more coincidental than inevitable.
David Wright played for the 2006 and 2015 Mets, so there’s definitely that. Both teams enjoyed fast starts. The 2006 team never looked back. The 2015 crew gave up their first-place lead twice. Both teams could put together a sturdy lineup, but the ’06 Mets hit all year long. It took until September for the 2015 Mets to deploy their best eight-man unit — encompassing a healthy Wright, Duda, Murphy and d’Arnaud alongside Cespedes and Conforto plus Granderson and Flores — all at once. The 2006 Mets didn’t ever depend on an Eric Campbell or a John Mayberry to anchor the middle of their order. The ’06 Mets swept a playoff series, just like the ’15 Mets did, but, because of what came next, it didn’t resonate. The 2015 Mets got to the stage the 2006 were supposed to get. David probably had a better post-NLCS experience this time around.
Let’s take this exercise back to 1969 for a moment, via the night of September 9, 2015, the third and final game of the Mets’ series at Nationals Park. Stephen Strasburg was outdueling Jacob deGrom, as the Mets trailed Washington, 2-1. With Strasburg having struck out twelve through seven innings, Howie Rose suggested what the Mets needed to lead off the eighth was a Ron Swoboda, immediately explaining to those who didn’t get the reference that Steve Carlton was in the midst of striking out nineteen Mets one September night in 1969, but Swoboda hit two homers and the Mets improbably pulled that long-ago game out. As if on cue, pinch-hitter Kelly Johnson launched his own missile right at the heart of the opposing pitcher’s gem. He sent a ball over the fence that tied the game at two and essentially rendered Strasburg’s effort moot.
“Who needs Swoboda?” Rose asked excitedly in an instant of — for him, especially — near-blasphemy. “The Mets have Johnson!”
Lesson, perhaps: Precedent can only get you so far. Present is what you need in the here and now. The Mets of 2015 stocked theirs with moments that brought them farther than anyone could have expected, moments that will last in the Metsian consciousness for as long as anybody chooses to care about this franchise.
If the mind jumped during 2015 to some other Met year, that was a reasonable reflex. It’s great to nurture that thread. It’s also great to extend the thread. Someday, Mets fans will witness a player come over from the other league, put the team on his shoulders and say we’ve got another Cespedes (before Cespedes was allowed to leave as a free agent). Someday, Mets fans will watch a pretty decent hitter raise his game exponentially for a week in October and say we’ve got another Murphy (before Murphy went and signed with our archrivals). Someday, Mets fans will be awed by incandescent young pitching and say we’ve got another Thor and Jake and Dark Knight (who were something else when they were together for however long they stayed together). Someday, a Mets team will do glorious things and win more than was previously dreamed and Mets fans will say, gosh, this is like 2015 — maybe not “just like” 2015, but it sure feels similar. It won’t be exactly the same; it never is. It doesn’t have to be, which I think we learned all over again in the year just past.
We made our own precedent in 2015. It was a helluva thing.
FAITH AND FEAR’S PREVIOUS NIKON CAMERA PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
2005: The WFAN broadcast team of Gary Cohen and Howie Rose
2006: Shea Stadium
2008: The 162-Game Schedule
2009: Two Hands
2012: No-Hitter Nomenclature
2013: Harvey Days
2014: The Dudafly Effect
Happy days in the hazy summer
Happy days being with each other
We’re gonna take a break by the rolling sea
The perfect summer, just you and me
—Chris Difford & Glen Tilbrook, “Happy Days,” 2015
Several players pushed the New York Mets to the brink of a breakthrough in 2015, but one more than any other was the reason they broke on through to the other side. For definitively opening the doors that allowed the Mets to gallop in the direction of the World Series, Faith and Fear in Flushing chooses Yoenis Cespedes as its Most Valuable Met of 2015.
I suppose this could be considered a controversial choice if one were to assume an award I made up on the spur of the moment ten years ago could inspire controversy. The arguable element would be the relatively brief tenure Cespedes had as a 2015 Met, never mind as a Met in general (probably). We’re bestowing the honor based on what he meant over 57 regular-season and 14 postseason games, admittedly a slight body of work.
But, oh, what a beautiful body.
There’d have been no contender to transform into a champion had it not been for the work of those who preceded Cespedes to the Metropolitan forefront. They deserve acknowledgement in any discussion of Mets who were most valuable.
• Curtis Granderson grew increasingly reliable as 2015 progressed and was the team’s best player as it vied for a world title.
• When all the Mets had was their pitching, no pitcher meant more to their ability to stick close to the Nationals than Jacob deGrom.
• Jeurys Familia greatly diminished the anxieties we associated with ninth-inning leads for an eternity.
• Matt Harvey returned from a prolonged absence, almost seamlessly resumed his place among baseball’s elite starters (innings-limit kerfuffle notwithstanding) and elevated the Mets’ rotation from promising to formidable to practically unmatched.
• Daniel Murphy owned a stretch of October in a fashion no batter before him had.
• Wilmer Flores signed his name across the heart of a glorious season when he hit its signature home run.
Each one of them, a Met from Opening Day to Closing Night, made an indelible let alone valuable contribution to perhaps the best Met year in almost three decades.
Yet quality overwhelmed quantity in selecting Cespedes as our MVM. Rarely can a Met be said to have changed everything for the better in an instant. Yoenis did. On the last morning Cespedes woke up as a Detroit Tiger, the Mets were two games over .500 and three games out of first place. Within four weeks, the Mets were fifteen above the break-even mark and six-and-a-half ahead of second-place Washington.
It was no coincidence. Cespedes’s presence and performance reconfigured a team that had been struggling to score runs for months to a team that scored eight or more runs eight separate times in those first four weeks. He made everybody around him better, starting with his first night in the lineup, August 1, when Nationals manager Matt Williams intentionally walked Cespedes to get to Lucas Duda in a critical situation. Duda had already homered twice that Saturday night, but the notion of facing Cespedes worried Williams more. There’s no telling what Yoenis would have done against Matt Thornton with Curtis Granderson on second and one out, but we know that Duda lashed a double, gave the Mets a 3-2 lead that turned into the second win in that showdown series. The Mets swept the Nats the next night and the N.L. East was never the same.
You hadn’t seen that kind of protection pay off since My Bodyguard.
Donn Clendenon was, for 45 years, the blue and orange standard for in-season impact acquisitions. Clendenon came to the Mets from Montreal on June 15, 1969. On October 16, 1969, he was accepting the World Series MVP award. It’s impossible to imagine the Mets coming of age in four months without the contribution of Clendenon. He was the righty bat Gil Hodges needed to platoon with Ed Kranepool at first. He was a veteran voice on a youthful team. He was an essential element of a budding world champion. His production in 72 regular-season games as a 1969 Met — 12 HR, 37 RBI — was contextually solid if not statistically spectacular. Clendenon deserves the reverence in which he is held these many decades later.
Yet all told, Yoenis Cespedes was the approximate equivalent of four, maybe five Donn Clendenons. We have a new example to throw at future GMs when trading deadlines roll around in seasons to come. “What we really need,” we will insist to one another, “is another Cespedes.”
The 2015 Mets had nobody like Cespedes before Sandy Alderson poached him from the Tigers on July 31. The Mets in 54 years of existence never had anybody like the Cespedes who went on the tear of tears almost immediately. In 41 games, Yoenis belted 17 home runs, drove in 42 runs and batted .309. His OPS required four digits: 1.048. By no coincidence, the Mets won almost three of every four games they played and put the division away. In the single most important September series they played in this century — September 7-9 in Washington — Peerless Yo from near Manzanillo was beyond scalding: three doubles, two homers, seven ribbies and game-altering swings in the second (three-run double that drew the Mets from 7-3 to 7-6 in the seventh) and third (two-run homer that sent the Mets ahead, 5-3 in the eighth) games.
Plus there was the style, which only sometimes made an impression in the box score but always got your attention. The neon compression sleeve that dazzled clear up to Promenade. The parakeet that seemed born to be his wingman. The custom tune (“Cespedes!”) to which he strolled to the plate at Citi Field. The cannon of an arm, which yielded a memorable 8-5 assist, when he threw Sean Rodriguez of the Pirates the hell out at third. The follow-through down to one knee that evoked images of Willie Mays in the batter’s box. The steal of third on the night he launched three home runs in Denver because you can never have too many runs at Coors Field. The sense of inevitability his bat brought to bear when the Mets absolutely, positively had to win nearly every night. Cespedes started twelve games between September 1 and September 14; he homered in nine of them.
By then, the Mets’ lead over the Nationals had risen to 9½ and their Magic Number to clinch the East had dwindled to 10. Yoenis Cespedes was acquired to make a difference in the franchise’s first pennant race in seven years, and he made all the difference.
Good thing he was so effective so soon, because beginning September 15, his mojo started wearing off. The man had been all mojo all the time for more than six weeks. Then he was hit on the hip by a Tom Koehler pitch and he wasn’t quite the same in form or result. He absorbed another blow late in the year, this one off his fingers from Justin De Fratus. By then, the mojo was a memory. The division that fell so easily to the Mets was already clinched and the concern was whether Cespedes was going to be all right for the playoffs…the playoffs that probably wouldn’t have materialized without him.
Physically, he was fine in the postseason. Occasionally, he made you remember how he injected the summer with an adrenaline shot straight outta Pulp Fiction. There was a home run he catapulted into the Left Field Landing against the Dodgers. There was a key run he swiped against the Cubs. But the Yoenis of autumn was a more mortal creature. The regular-season shortcomings that were almost charming in that at least they proved he was human — blips in which he didn’t field crisply or resist pitches patiently or run to first urgently — came to define his game. The World Series was a nightmare for Cespedes: dismal defense that put the Mets behind immediately in Game One; horrid basepath judgment that snuffed out the Mets’ hopes in Game Four; a debilitating foul ball off his leg in Game Five, which is one of those things that could happen to anybody, but it was accompanied by a foolish insistence on staying in to (futilely) finish his at-bat when he could barely walk. A Kirk Gibson moment it wasn’t. Cespedes had to leave, and without him, the Mets went down to their final defeat of the year.
Yoenis couldn’t have been less valuable in the World Series. And the Mets wouldn’t have landed anywhere near it without him.
Intermittently, our summer guest made polite noises about wanting to remain a Met for the long term. It was an alluring idea when everything was going great, but when Yoenis’s flaws started to obscure his talents, it was easy to envision recurring statements circa 2018 along the lines of “once Cespedes’s contract is off the books, maybe the Mets can fill some of their gaping holes.” That was if you dared to envision the Mets digging deep (or Yoenis offering an adopted-hometown discount) to extend his stay. The club showed no inclination to pay a player of Cespedes’s caliber before they picked up the final months of his old deal and they’ve given no indication they are of a mindset or in a position to commence doing so now.
The remainder of the offseason will confirm what seemed likely from the end of July to the dawn of November, that Yoenis Cespedes was a loaner vehicle. It was kind of a shame when we realized we almost certainly couldn’t keep him, but in retrospect, it was shocking we were handed the keys at all. What a sweet ride he gave us.
FAITH AND FEAR’S PREVIOUS MOST VALUABLE METS
2005: Pedro Martinez
2006: Carlos Beltran
2007: David Wright
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Pedro Feliciano
2010: R.A. Dickey
2011: Jose Reyes
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Daniel Murphy, Dillon Gee and LaTroy Hawkins
2014: Jacob deGrom
Still to come: The Nikon Camera Player of the Year for 2015.
A word of thanks is in order to all those who attended Monday night’s Varsity Letters salute to the 2015 National League Champion New York Mets, a program in which I was honored to participate. It was great to meet or get reacquainted with a passel of Faith and Fear readers and wonderful to be on the same bill as David Roth of Vice Sports and Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal, two writers whose voices I’ve admired for years.
Available for pre-order, now with cover!
I talked about and read excerpts of my forthcoming book, Amazin’ Again, which now seems to have a cover (you can pre-order the whole package here), and after we each had our say at the podium, we were invited to form a panel and answer all manner of Met questions, one of which led me to recall a plan I had in the event the Mets won the World Series.
Which they didn’t, but you already knew that.
The question, which came from a pretty gifted writer in his own right, Brian P. Mangan, concerned how each of us dealt with particular factors that might influence what we write. For a beat reporter like Jared, Brian wanted to know about keeping the confidences of the players he covers. For David and me, the issue veered toward objectivity regarding the team of which we’re obviously lifelong fans.
I’m not quite sure how I found myself talking about it, but Brian’s inquiry got me onto my trying to keep in mind something I’ve learned over nearly eleven years of blogging: people eventually read what you write about them or their family members. Somewhere somebody (probably somebody long out of the public eye) is Googling his or her name or the name of a loved one. It’s been my experience to hear from former players who were delighted to read something nice I had written about them…and once in a while get a good-natured tweak from somebody I might have written something less than nice about.
In essence, I said just because somebody made an error that caused me aggravation when I was in my teens, there’s no reason to go overboard in my smoldering criticism of him decades after the fact. Yeah, we’re fans; and yeah, they were players; but y’know, be respectful.
Unless, I added, it’s somebody like Richie Hebner, a convenient target in the moment since David had invoked his name fleetingly earlier in the evening. For those of you not aware, I said, Hebner was a “miserable” sort who played one year for the Mets long ago and made no secret of his displeasure with being stuck here. Surely we could all agree that taking a shot at Richie Hebner is never out of bounds.
Without malice, Jared mentioned that he covered Richie Hebner when he was a reporter in Norfolk and Hebner was the Tides’ hitting coach (after they’d unaffiliated themselves from the Mets) and, actually, Richie was a really nice guy.
Oh well, so much for my ironclad exception to the rule. Even Richie Hebner, reliable sources were indicating, was a human being.
“It was nothing personal” that Richie held against Mets fans in 1979, Jared assured me after the panel was over. “He just didn’t want to be in New York at that stage of his career.” As a mature person in the present, sure, I could understand that. Hebner had played for nothing but contenders throughout the 1970s, and the Mets of ’79 were anything but. Hell, I kind of understood his objections then, though that was the first time I remember reading a player express his absolute disgust with the Mets upon learning he was going to be a Met (usually they waited a few innings). Hebner snarled during his stay at Shea, played with minimal vigor and didn’t leave behind a sparkling legacy.
Ten years ago, Jason and I took it upon ourselves to populate what we called Met Hell, a repository for those Mets who brought to bear “something that still makes the blood boil, something that made Met fans dread the smirking approach of the Yankee fans in their offices or on their blocks during that player’s tenure. Mental or physical incompetence that stemmed from not being prepared. Being a quitter, a lousy teammate, spectacularly obnoxious to fans or the media, a bad citizen, a traitor.”
Richie Hebner earned the Sixth Circle of Met Hell all for himself. It took me a Part I and a Part II to adequately express my disdain.
That was 2005, and I was still stewing over 1979. In 2014, I found myself in a song parody contest elsewhere on the Internet. You had to come up with something about a Met and set it to a Beatles number. My entry was titled “Richie Hebner Wants Off This Club Bad/Hebner Wasn’t Here To Make Friends”. The tune was “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band/With A Little Help From My Friends”.
Sample lyric from the first part:
Richie Hebner wants off this club bad
He can’t believe the deal was made
Richie Hebner wants off this club bad
He’s dying to demand a trade
Richie Hebner’s mumblin’
Richie Hebner’s grumblin’
Richie Hebner wants off this club bad
And from the second:
If you were sent from a team near the top
To a club that was down on the floor —
Would you do your best to help them improve
Or just whine as you raced for the door?
Yo, Richie Hebner wasn’t here to make friends
No…not even with Steve Henderson
Oh, don’t worry, he didn’t make friends
In late 2015, I took a moment from my league championship intoxication to continue publicly harboring a grudge against this vouched-for really nice guy — and I was doing so in practically the same breath that I was insisting I had matured into the kind of fan who would think twice before flagrantly denigrating long-retired players who were just going about their business in the here and now. Truly it is a challenge tough to put aside well-honed animus.
But I would have had the Mets won the World Series. See, I was going to do something very classy (you can tell it would have been classy because I just termed it so). I was going to institute Met Amnesty. Or maybe just a Met Pardon. I’m not clear on the difference, but when President Carter pardoned Vietnam-era draft evaders, he carefully avoided the word amnesty, so one or the other. The point is that in our hypothetical era of extraordinary feeling, I was going to commit to thirty days of writing only positive assessments of every Met whom we’d never otherwise forgive for having kept us from winning a World Series since October 27, 1986.
I was going to laud Bobby Bonilla’s slugging.
I was going to applaud Vince Coleman’s speed.
I was going to find something pleasant to say about Roberto Alomar’s veteran demeanor.
I was even going to spell T#m Gl@v!ne the way it generally appeared prior to September 30, 2007.
Ambiorix Concepcion? Intense competitor. Guillermo Mota? Always looking for an edge. Gene Walter? The mere existence of his ERA indicates he likely got a batter out at least once. The 2008 bullpen? A unit that made every game exciting. Jason Bay? A .165 hitter only on paper. Armando Benitez? Forget the blowns, cherish the saves. Kurt Abbott? Surely not the most useless shortstop in the history of civilization. Kenny Rogers? Had a real sense of theater.
If we’d won the whole thing, there’d be no reason to be down on any Met who brought us down, at least not until the euphoria wore off. My real hope was to emphasize the contributions each Met made in his journey and to make us think an extra beat before defaulting to our usual venom toward these less than treasured members of our extended baseball family. Eventually we’d get back to cursing out their names, because it’s what we do (and perhaps what we must do), but as world champions, we’d be magnanimous.
Richie Hebner wouldn’t have been eligible for Met Amnesty under my chronological paramaters. He’d have been pardoned in the wake of winning it all in ’86, alongside Joe Foy, Jim Fregosi, Dale Murray and anybody else who symbolized post-1969 frustration and futility. But in the spirit of the gesture we never got to make, I do hereby grant a full, complete and unconditional albeit temporary pardon to Richie Hebner for all offenses against the New York Mets which he may have committed or taken part in during the period from April 5, 1979, to September 30, 1979. The pardon is in effect for the remainder of the calendar year 2015.
He wasn’t much of a Met, but somebody I trust told me the other night that he was a really nice guy. That should be enough to buy him two weeks of grace in the wake of a pennant.
Gelf Magazine refers to Faith and Fear as the unofficial recapper of “the soap opera that is the Metropolitans”. I’m more restless than young (and some days barely more active than the very recently retired Michael Cuddyer), but I’ll take that and point you back to Gelf for this Q&A they were kind enough to do with me in advance of my speaking at tonight’s edition of Varsity Letters.
You should come to that if you can. David Roth of Vice Sports and Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal will also be talking about the bold and beautiful 2015 Mets. And if you can’t, well, keep tuning in here.
Because December needs it badly, the Varsity Letters sports discussion and reading series will devote itself to baseball this Monday night — and not just any baseball, but National League Champion Mets baseball. I will have the honor of speaking there and hope you will be there to listen and speak back.
I’ll be previewing my forthcoming book, Amazin’ Again: How the 2015 New York Mets Brought the Magic Back to Queens (available for pre-order right this very minute), and generally basking in the afterglow of our very recent pennant-winning campaign. David Roth of Vice Sports and Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal are also on the announced roster of speakers, ensuring a fine and necessary night of Mets talk.
Varsity Letters happens at Le Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleecker St. (between Thompson and Sullivan streets in the Village), easily accessible by subway. Admission is free. Doors open at 7, the program begins and 7:30, plenty of time will remain later to watch the Giants take a lead deep into the fourth quarter of their game in Miami…but that’s another sport. As Casey Stengel once told a Senate subcommittee, “I am not going to speak of any other sport. I am not here to argue about other sports, I am in the baseball business.”
Or as the Mets’ new shortstop might add, get your Asdrubal down to Varsity Letters on Monday night. You’ll be glad you did.
Second base, like the beverage-branded seating section that overlooks it at Citi Field, has a new occupant. Neil Walker, unlike Ben Zobrist, turns out to be the real thing.
The former Pirate did not get a tour of our leafy suburbs. The Mets don’t care where he lives as long as he shows up for work somewhere between short and first. Walker’s a sound second baseman, a solid hitter and not owed more than one year’s arbitration-eligible salary. Zobrist can enjoy his proximity to Joe Maddon and Nashville all he wants from now through 2019. We have indeed moved on, not just from the free agent we didn’t get, but from the pitcher we had forever.
Jon Niese was the price that had to be paid to Pittsburgh to obtain Walker. Niese was signed to a team-friendly contract in 2012. The team it’s friendly to now is the Pirates.
It’s a little strange to consider Niese without the Mets and the Mets without Niese. For so long they went together like C&C Cola and Bachman Cheese Jax — not the most glamorous of brands, but presumably they’d get the job done if that’s what your mom stuck in your sixth-grade lunch bag (when I was 12, I had a friend who brought those items to school every single day and he made it to 13 just fine).
Of course the Mets very recently earned eye-level shelf placement and Niese was a part of that. He had to take on a new role to make himself extraordinarily useful, and he did. Niese was a reliable lefty specialist in the postseason and a valuable contributor to the first pennant-winner here since the turn of the century. I would have loved to have kept tapping that newfound equity, considering the one out you get in the seventh or eighth is often the tipping point of a given ballgame, but his contract wasn’t friendly enough to justify ongoing specialization.
Before Niese’s brief rebirth out of the bullpen, he made 177 starts for the Mets between 2008 and 2015. Several of them were stellar, many of them were adequate, enough of them grew frustrating enough in the middle so that you could resist growing attached to the most accomplished homegrown lefty starter the Mets had produced since Jon Matlack. The Mets didn’t produce many homegrown lefty starters of tenure after Matlack, so Niese is sort of a default victor of that title.
Jon plugged away, as best as we could tell. He wasn’t the most fascinating postgame deconstructor of his outings and his in-dugout tantrums seemed to speak volumes. A fan could be forgiven for losing patience with Niese. Niese could be forgiven for not blossoming in an uninterrupted fashion. He did throw a lot of innings for a lot of clubs that weren’t going a lot of places. By the time they were stepping up, it was primarily via pitching younger and stronger. Niese, who quietly turned the same age as the Mets’ most recent world championship during the last World Series, became that browser the URL you sought no longer supported.
Niese was promoted to the Mets amid the last pennant race of their Shea lives. He and current free agents Daniel Murphy and Bobby Parnell — all of whom played at the stadium that no longer exists — stuck it out longer than anybody who wasn’t David Wright. Now Jon’s gone, Murph’s clearly not coming back and, unless there’s a minor league Spring Training deal issued, Parnell is going to be a former Met, too. Behind Wright in the longevity pecking order now are Jenrry Mejia (tendered a contract but still PED-suspended) and Ruben Tejada, each of whom debuted as Mets on April 7, 2010. They were each 20 years old. They’ll enter 2016 at 26 apiece. They are veterans.
Time marches on, but it leaves a plethora of images in our rearview mirror. The one of Niese I’ll keep won’t be from the field or those moments when he couldn’t entertainingly explain what went wrong (or right) to reporters. I’ll think of him in Long Beach, my hometown, doing his best to help the victims of Superstorm Sandy. I realize Niese was there because the Mets were dedicating their community relations to the towns, villages and cities hit hard in the fall of 2012 and it was probably just Niese’s turn to be the player in the middle of it. But Niese seemed to make the most of it, handing out badly needed supplies, cordially greeting those who recognized him, lending unyielding support to those who didn’t. He wasn’t Jon Niese of the Mets that day. He was Jon Niese, human being. What he did for a living didn’t matter.
When he went back to his craft the following spring, he was good sometimes, he was less good other times and people like us judged him accordingly. In a realm without uniforms, I’d like to think I saw him at the top of his game.
There’s been a breach of security. A Chicago Cub has seen our northern suburbs. Talk about intelligence falling into the wrong hands.
Ben Zobrist was made intimately acquainted with the leafy cul-de-sacs of Westchester and Fairfield counties by the management and ownership of the New York Mets. This is as bad as the Russian ambassador seeing the Big Board in Dr. Strangelove. They just let this…this…erstwhile Royal…look out the window from the back seat of a luxury SUV and form images in his head of Greenwich; of Rye; of Larchmont.
Of Larchmont, for crissake. God help us all.
And what is Zobrist, the new second baseman on the National League Championship Series runners-up going to do with this precious information? That’s the disturbing part. He’s going to share his impressions of Westchester and nearby Connecticut with Joe Maddon, and Joe Maddon will immediately proceed to work wonders.
He always does, except when playing the Mets in October.
Maddon will find out about the lush lawns of Mammaroneck and ride a mower into the Cubs’ next team meeting, loosening up his squad and sparking a nine-game winning streak. He’ll learn of the Rockefellers of Tarrytown and hand out canvas sacks marked “$” on them, but being Maddon he’ll fill them with gourmet candy. The Cubs, propelled by a high-end sugar rush, will storm out of their clubhouse and reel off ten wins in a row.
Zobrist’s bag will have actual $ in them — 56 million over the next four years. That plus a reunion with his once and future skipper plus the appeal of the bucolic ivy on the Wrigley Field walls (where Wilmer Flores’s Game Three triple went to lose 33.33% of its value) apparently add up to why Ben’ll be the Cubs’ second baseman and not the Mets’ next year.
I can’t believe the T#m Gl@v!ne memorial upscale “New York’s not really New York” tour didn’t win him over.
Phooey on Zobrist for spurning us and turning down whatever else the Mets were going to give him and only him. I found the Mets’ entire “BEN! PLEASE COMPLETE US!” approach rather unbecoming, quite frankly. Behave like league champions. Show him the money and show somebody else the money. You had enough money to take him to a fancy neighborhood. Maybe you have enough to go after somebody/anybody else? “No obvious Plan B” is the word from Nashville. Next year, let’s try to imagine the apple of our free agent eye won’t be impressed by expansive backyards and in-ground swimming pools.
Would I be singing a different tune if Zobrist decided it was his childhood dream to get paid by the Mets? You bet my hypocritical ass I would. Honestly, I had no strong baseball opinion about obtaining his services. I know he’s been a unique WAR producer and I know he’s a little too shall we say experienced to merit a four-year deal. I could have seen his arrival helping in the short term and morphing into “once Zobrist’s contract is off the books, the Mets can fill other desperately pressing needs” before long. Nothing personal against this guy, but all eight-figure contracts seem to become that after a couple of years. Cuddyer’s contract is that and it’s only a two-year deal.
I’ll also cop to a slight ick factor in that I didn’t want to start rooting for a guy I just spent the last five games of my life rooting against. I suppose that would have dissipated after a nice introductory press conference and a couple of Metcake photos in his new garb, but I really dislike anything to do with the Royals in this hot stove winter of 2015-16. I’d like to ride that bitterness a little longer.
My only genuine disappointment in this — besides discovering it never occurred to the Mets to target another player just in case Benny the Z said nix to them — is that we were pretty much guaranteed he was going to be a Met. Whether I really wanted him or not is immaterial. I bought into the proposition, going so far as to mentally dress him in our colors. Instead, we are left with a new second baseman on the all-time Never Met team (take a hike, Grudzielanek).
So let Zobrist be a Cub; let Starlin Castro, who was also forever rumored on his way here, merge into the wrong lane on the Triborough and find his own palatial estate wherever American Leaguers in these parts reside; let Don Zimmer maintain his spot at the end of the franchise’s alphabetical roster, where he’s been bookending, in chronological order, Craig Anderson (1962-1964), George Altman (1964-1967), Sandy Alomar (1967-1968), Tommie Agee (1968-1989), Don Aase (1989-2013) and David Aardsma (2013-present). The front of the line keeps changing, but Zimmer’s been bring up “z” rear from the very beginning.
We don’t necessarily need a new Met to play second base. We’ve got Dilson Herrera, about to enter his third season as the Next Big Thing. We’ve got Wilmer Flores, albeit in a walking boot at the moment. We’ve got Daniel Murphy…no, we don’t, but nobody else does yet, so rule nothing out.
We ruled Ben Zobrist in prematurely and see where that got us.
I was part of a rousing roundtable discussion on the Rising Apple Report the other night, which I hope you’ll listen to while ignoring the part where we all heartily agree Zobrist is going to be a Met any minute now.
If this is the day you shop online for the holidays — and if you define “the holidays” as the approach of the next baseball season — then do I have a deal for you.
Go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble and pre-order Amazin’ Again: How the 2015 New York Mets Brought the Magic Back to Queens. It’s a book so fresh it’s still being written.
By me. Some of you asked for it and, son of a gun, it’s on its way.
I’ll tell you more about it as it becomes closer to real, but it is about to exist and it will capture the events and emotions surrounding the season we just lived through, the one where our team won the pennant and made us all proud.
Helluva story, huh? Man, I can’t wait to read it as soon as I finish writing it.
I’d love to tell you you can place it by the tree or adjacent to the menorah or wherever you like immediately, but it won’t be published until March. But that’s OK. Spring Training is our version of the Advent calendar. Come March, you’ll be anticipating 2016 and hoping it will exceed 2015 and you’ll be thinking about 2015 and there’ll be a book in your hands to bring it all back to you.
So pre-order now if such a proposition entices you. And please excuse me while I get back to writing the final portion of it.
And if you need a lovely baseball book as the non-baseball holidays near, you can’t go wrong with this one or this one.