Everything about baseball goes by too fast. It needs to be slowed down, stretched out, made to last longer. Eight balls for a walk, with the intentional kind requiring sworn affidavits pertaining to original intent as well as footnoted dissertations regarding the true meaning of purpose. Seven strikes for an out. Five…no, six outs to an inning. Twenty-three innings to a game, unless it’s tied after twenty-three, then they gotta play twenty-three more.
Batters need to step out between pitches every pitch. Pitchers need to meet with their catchers between every batter and pull up a chair if the count reaches seven-and-six. Coaches, managers, therapists and spiritual advisors can and should visit the mound frequently enough to earn a nightly footlong from Subway.
The season needs to start sooner, say January 1. The season needs to end later, say a year from January 1. Spring Training can take place during mound visits from October to December. All games should begin five minutes after the hour every hour. If we don’t like the way the game that began at 7:05 is going, we layer a new score on top of it at 8:05, and we keep going until we’ve put twenty-three or forty-six or more innings in the books.
The goal of lengthening baseball is to make it less and less like other sports, endeavors and distractions. All of life that isn’t baseball is a distraction from baseball. Baseball is essentially perfect as is, but these changes will make it more perfect and presumably more attractive to people who haven’t yet figured out how perfectly attractive baseball is. The more baseball, the better. Baseball fans can attest to that. Non-baseball fans will now be given every opportunity to figure this out for themselves.
By keeping going and never stopping, baseball will become more pervasive until there is no chance that it can be avoided, though why anyone would want to avoid baseball is beyond the comprehension of baseball fans — the people who already love baseball and can’t get enough baseball and support baseball and anticipate baseball and find the defensive posture of those who wish to make baseball more palatable to the portion of the population that doesn’t recognize its essential perfection absurd.
Speaking of defensive posture, all fielders will henceforth shift so much that we will forget what positions they play. Should balls get by them, time will be called and they will be summarily replaced by another fielder on the 85-man roster, except in September, when there are 105 players available (half of them lefty relievers), and November, when there are no limits on personnel and all mitts come equipped with handwarmers.
An alternative to this total-immersion approach to broadening the essentially perfect game’s appeal is to more or less leave it the fudge alone. I’m good with that, too. I’m good with what works for those who’ve embraced baseball their entire lives and those who are intrigued enough to begin embracing baseball at first sight. Baseball is for everybody. If everybody isn’t for baseball, that’s everybody else’s problem.
I have a new book coming out that Amazon recently decided was the No. 1 Hot New Release in its genre — and who am I to argue with hourly algorithms? Piazza: Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star will be officially released March 14, meaning I will be on the loose talking it up shortly thereafter.
On Sunday afternoon March 19, from noon to two, I’ll be at Foley’s NY, 18 W. 33rd St., between Fifth and Sixth, convenient to Penn Station, not far from Grand Central. Foley’s is simply the best baseball bar and restaurant in all of New York and I’m delighted to be returning to the site of past book and blog soirées. Copies of Piazza will be on hand and I’ll bring a pen if you want one signed. Cap tip to Friend of FAFIF Sharon Chapman for serving as a guiding light in putting together this event.
Two nights later, on Tuesday, March 21, at seven o’clock, I’ll be making my Connecticut debut (as an author; I’ve been in the state before), speaking about Piazza and all matters Met at Staples High School at 70 North Ave. in Westport, home of the perennial powerhouse Wreckers baseball team. The program is open to the public; admission is free and books will be available. My thanks to Staples Baseball and the Diamond Club for inviting me up and Rob and Ryder Chasin for helping to make it happen.
I look forward to seeing you in one or more components of the Tri-State Area next month. In the interim, I hope you’ll check out Piazza, the story of how we went from having one Met in the Hall of Fame to two. If you lived to root for this team in the 1990s and survived, this is the book for you.
I saw something about the Mets having drills today. Pitching drills? Hitting drills? Fielding drills? Could have been fire drills. Doesn’t matter. My heart was aflutter.
The charms of Spring Training can wear thin quickly, but today, in a Metropolitan Area momentarily having sat on its thermometer and thereby warming it to 62 degrees, I am captivated. I’ve seen pictures. Mets are standing around batting cages. Mets are stretching on grass. Mets are signing their names for kids. Mets are going to dinner, which is all there is to do in Florida after a certain hour.
Mets live. Mets exist as Mets. Mets are in bloom even without Adam Rubin recording their every move. Mets wear oversized numbers on their sleeves and white letters on their backs. Mets speak in assured platitudes. Mets coaches are repairing the confidence of those who have reason to be less sanguine. Kevin Long’s gonna fix Travis d’Arnaud’s swing. Glenn Sherlock’s gonna fix Travis d’Arnaud’s everything else. Travis d’Arnaud’s gonna play a hundred games. David Wright’s gonna play first. So are Michael Conforto, Jay Bruce, Neil Walker, Wilmer Flores and maybe first baseman Lucas Duda. Jose Reyes is gonna play everywhere. Juan Lagares can still play center, I seem to recall.
Yoenis Cespedes is focused on baseball, not cars. Asdrubal Cabrera will make Venezuela’s loss our gain. Noah Syndergaard will throw harder than ever. Zack Wheeler feels no discomfort. How long will Jeurys Familia be unavailable, and will we notice, given how sharp Addison Reed was and is? Have I just jinxed Addison Reed? Is Matt Harvey gonna be Matt Harvey again now that he has one fewer rib? Have you noticed Terry Collins has morphed into Col. Sherman T. Potter without the forced puns and laugh track?
Can you believe the nerve of those Phillies co-opting our mantra? Can we start the ovation for R.A. and Bart now so we don’t have to applaud them as Braves on Opening Day? How much damage will Brandon Phillips do visiting us three series a year? What does Thor really think of Bryce? Does Murph have a limitless reservoir of revenge? When will Loria leave the country and how many Marlins fans have volunteered to chauffeur him to the airport?
Drills and squads and assorted welcome nonsense all week. Real pretend games by week’s end. Then numbness sets in and the WBC interferes and it probably won’t be 62 degrees in New York for very long, but we’re getting where we need to be. Is the season only six weeks away or is the season six long weeks away?
In the interim, feel free to partake in resumption of related baseball activities.
• Watch me chat with Art Shamsky at QBC, courtesy of Mediagoon, here.
• Listen to me talk about the subject of my new book with John Strubel of Mets Rewind here.
• Stay tuned for a couple of announcements soon regarding appearances on behalf of Piazza: Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star, one in Manhattan on March 19, one in Connecticut on March 21.
• Pre-order Piazza for a nifty price on Amazon here.
A dozen years ago on this date, Faith and Fear in Flushing debuted, buoyed by the notion that there was nothing inconsequential about the Mets or being a Mets fan. No triviality was too trivial if you decided you cared about it. Certainly your choice of baseball team wasn’t trivial. It wasn’t a necessarily accepted fact of life in the early months of 2005 that the Mets mattered truly, madly, deeply to people at large. But we knew it and you knew it. Others may have condescended to our interests or flat-out ignored them, but we — you and us — kept on deciding to care about the Mets without apology. It wouldn’t have occurred to us not to, so we were all in for writing and reading about the Mets and being Mets fans.
We are all of consequence: as human beings, as baseball fans, as Mets fans…as Mets even, a qualifier that applies to the 1,026 gentlemen who have played in the major leagues as Mets. Don’t let anybody tell you any different. We all shine on. And, no doubt, we reserve a little extra sheen for genuine New York Mets baseball players, present and past.
But, let’s face it, some Mets are less consequential than others, and I say that knowing full well that every Met will always, by dint of having been a Met, be enormously consequential in the scheme of things we have chosen to construct. It’s not like a single Met will ever spend a second mulling how inconsequential I am — and there’s plenty of inconsequentiality to go around where my existence is concerned.
Anyway, how do you measure a Met’s lack of consequence?
It is not enough to have not been great, because greatness is, by definition, confined to a small subpopulation of any group.
It is not enough to have not been a champion, because the Mets have only been champions twice and neared the pinnacle of their sport only a few other times.
It is not enough to not be particularly well-known, because if you’re known even a little, you’ve broken through. Maybe you’re known for having created a fleeting impression or leaving a terrible taste or, oxymoronically enough, being incredibly obscure. Obscurity in the eyes of the hardcore fan is its own kind of fame. If it wasn’t, some of you wouldn’t be tempted right now to blurt out “Joe Hietpas!” or “Shaun Fitzmaurice!”
It may be enough, however, to be Jose Santiago.
Jose Santiago is, I am prepared to declare, the Least Consequential Met of the first 55 years of the franchise. Not the worst Met nor the most reviled Met nor the absolutely least accomplished Met per se. Jose Santiago is the least consequential of Mets mostly because he existed as a Met during the lifetime of this blog and I swear I don’t remember a damn thing about him.
Neither, I’m close to convinced, does any other Mets fan.
Mind you, I’m not the default barometer for determining the consequentiality of every Met, but Jose Santiago pitched among us for four games in 2005, the first season of FAFIF. I was hyperaware of all Met matters that year. I committed myself to not missing a trick or a beat, or so I thought I did, because I seem to have missed the entirety of the Jose Santiago Met experience. Never mind that I know I watched each of the four games in which he appeared. I know I did, because 2005 was the first season in which I witnessed the entire Met schedule, which that year ranged from April 4 to October 2. The Mets were priority viewing and listening for me that season as they had never been before.
Jose Santiago pitched on July 25, July 29, August 2 and August 9 of 2005. I saw all those games. August 2 was a home game. Jason and I were at Shea for it. I remember it feeling incredibly shvitzy (90 degrees at first pitch), getting extraordinarily late (11:38 at last pitch) and being eventually victorious (9-8 on Mike Piazza’s bases-loaded pinch-walk in the eleventh inning). I remember a surprising amount from that long-ago Tuesday night.
But I don’t remember Jose Santiago from August 9. I don’t remember him making his Met debut on July 25 amid the malaise of Coors Field. I don’t remember him standing out on July 29 as Minute Maid Park booed erstwhile playoff hero Carlos Beltran upon his Houston return. I don’t remember his August 9 role at Petco Park, which is to say 1 IP, 1 ER, on the night made otherwise noteworthy when his successor on the mound, Dae-Sung Koo, threw a pitch looped to short left field by Brian Giles and caught barehanded by David Wright. I remember Heath Bell, but I don’t specifically remember Jose Santiago replacing Heath Bell on the roster on July 25. I remember Mike Jacobs, but I don’t remember Mike Jacobs specifically replacing Jose Santiago on the roster on August 18. Jose flew under the radar, then burrowed underground until only Elias could trace his footprints.
Further, I have never had an organic conversation about Jose Santiago with anybody but Jason, and that conversation consisted of him guessing I was trying to remember the name “Jose Santiago” when in fact it was Juan Padilla who was on the tip of the part of my tongue that wasn’t explaining, “…no, not Jose Parra…” We may have had the conversation twice, and neither time was I searching for Jose Santiago — yet both times I found myself thinking, “Jose Santiago…I don’t remember a Met named Jose Santiago.” I remember Juan Padilla (very decent 2005, did card tricks in the clubhouse). I remember Jose Parra (wore the wrong alternate uniform in a Sunday night game at Yankee Stadium in 2004). I not only don’t remember Jose Santiago now, I’m willing to admit I wouldn’t have remembered him the four times he was pitching right in front of my eyes.
As for the rest of Met-loving humanity’s contact with me, direct or incidental, his name has never come up. He is nobody’s go-to, nobody’s stand-in, nobody’s bête noire. To have been a Met relief pitcher in modern times and not live on as a shudder-inducing flashback-trigger is its own talent. From what I can tell, nobody blames Jose Santiago for anything.
On Ultimate Mets Database, for eighteen years the love-laden/hate-laced repository of recollections and anecdotes, here is what the “Fan Memories” section of Jose Santiago’s page has to offer: nothing. Nobody has left a word, good or bad, obvious or revelatory, regarding Jose Santiago. Nobody said he was a really nice guy who gave their kid an autograph. Nobody said he snubbed them on a back field during Spring Training. Nobody recalls running into him on a street or in a parking lot or at Arby’s. Nobody who went to high school with him vouches for his character. Nobody references his delivery or repertoire or that time Ralph called him Santiago Chile Con Carne. Nobody expresses anger over that hit he gave up in that game the Mets really needed. On a site where somebody remembers something about everybody, Jose Santiago is a ghost.
Can a ghost sign his name? Maybe not. The Amazing Shea Stadium Autograph Project, a site devoted to the collection and display of the signature of every Met who played at Shea between 1964 and 2008, 712 of 791 Mets are listed as present and accounted for. Among the missing 89? Jose Santiago. Furthermore, both editions of the indispensable Mets By The Numbers consign Santiago’s use of ol’ No. 33 — borrowed between Mike DiFelice’s callups from Norfolk — to “all other” treatment. Deep in the MBTN.com archives, all that the preternaturally intrepid Jon Springer has had to add to the Jose Santiago dossier is dismay that during Spring Training of 2006, the Mets never revealed a new pair of digits for him once his previously tenuously held digits were transferred onto the front and back of John Maine.
Which is OK, one supposes, since there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that Jose Santiago actually materialized during Spring Training of 2006. He was first preoccupied helping Puerto Rico compete in the inaugural World Baseball Classic, then moved on to pitch for Olmecas de Tabasco of the Mexican League. He realighted on the New Orleans Zephyrs — remember them? — in 2007 and 2008, but during seasons when the Mets were spinning a revolving relief door, there was no mention of recalling the unrecallable Jose Santiago from their Triple-A affiliate…at least not that I recall.
Much of what one discovers upon Googling Jose Santiago Mets is possibility. He’s been invited to camp. He might make the team. He might be called up. He was designated for assignment but he’s signed a minor league deal and he’s been invited to camp once more, albeit the far end where the corn grows high and the players retreat never to be seen again.
If Jose Santiago can be said to have been known for anything as a Met, it was the time he wasn’t really a Met, perceptions to the contrary.
Early in 2005, after he didn’t make the team, the Mets found themselves short a starting pitcher when Kris Benson strained a muscle. Santiago was considered a candidate, bumped up to favorite when he was reported as sitting behind the Mets dugout at Great American Ball Park during the first series of the season. He wasn’t on the roster yet, but obviously the Mets had told him to haul ass to Cincinnati and be ready to take the ball over the subsequent weekend in Atlanta.
Good powers of deduction there, save for the little detail that the fellow who MSG Network cameras spotlighted as Jose Santiago and other outlets described as Jose Santiago was not Jose Santiago. Rather, it was an acquaintance of Pedro Martinez’s. According to the ever diligent (and lately missed) Adam Rubin, in his book, Pedro, Carlos and Omar, the guy on TV didn’t really bear much resemblance to the pitcher.
The Mets made do sans Santiago and didn’t call Jose to the majors until late July, more in deference to Willie Randolph’s impatience with Bell than any great desire to deploy their not precisely hidden in plain sight secret weapon. The manager did allow, “Santiago’s been throwing the ball well this year. We want to keep guys in the mix, see how they look and see what they can do.”
If that strikes you as the most generic quote a manager ever offered in advance of a pitcher’s first game with his team, consider what Willie said afterward: “He just kept the ball down for the most part. He had good movement, he threw the ball well. Just his first outing. I don’t take a lot from first outings like that. He threw OK. I liked what I saw. Pretty much what I remember seeing in Spring Training. He’s part of our bullpen and I don’t get too giddy over just one little outing.”
I get the sense Willie Randolph, like me, must have subconsciously tuned out Jose Santiago, for there is almost nothing specific to his assessment. Makes sense, as there was little to distinguish Santiago’s overall performance in his four 2005 Met appearances. The Mets lost three of those games by more runs than Jose gave up. The one they won, the sweatfest versus Milwaukee, theoretically wouldn’t have gone to extra innings had he not permitted a run in the sixth, but the Mets made up for it, so no harm, no foul, no overarching impact. Twelve of the twenty-seven batters he faced as a Met reached base via hit (10) or walk (2). Three struck out. Four stroked doubles. One grounded into a double play. His earned run average, accumulated across five-and-two-thirds innings, was 3.18, which doesn’t tell you much.
You know what else doesn’t tell you much? The Faith and Fear in Flushing stacks from 2005. If our goal was to cover the Mets from soup to nuts, we simply forgot to heat up the Jose Santiago course. We wrote about everything that first year. We wrote about imported superstars Beltran and Martinez, homegrown wunderkinder Reyes and Wright, the robust run production of Cliff Floyd, the rumors swirling around a trade for Manny Ramirez (Mike Cameron and Lastings Milledge allegedly going to Boston), the sporadic successes of Benson and the generally dismissed Victor Zambrano, the sparkplug contributions from Marlon Anderson and Chris Woodward, the delightful punch provided by Ramon Castro, our grudging if tentative acceptance of T#m Gl@v!ne, the twilight of Mike Piazza and, good lord, yes, the bullpen. We kvetched plenty about Braden Looper and Roberto Hernandez and Mike DeJean and sneered as appropriate at the shuttle that deposited or disposed of interchangeable arms that couldn’t attain every crucial out while the Mets tiptoed around the Wild Card fringe through spring and summer.
Yet we said almost nothing of Jose Santiago. If you can’t say something nice, discretion is the better part of valor, or something like that.
During the first week of the season, Jason speculated that Santiago might appear in Atlanta (though it was mostly an excuse to invoke badly miscast pennant race callup of yore Julio Valera).
When the season was over, I perhaps presciently suggested Jose would rank fifth on a list of five “2005 Mets pitchers who will elicit a ‘they were?’ in all but the savviest quarters by 2010” (behind Felix Heredia, Mike Matthews, Tim Hamulack and Manny Aybar, each of them 2005 Mets pitchers I have no problem recalling).
In his first edition of The Holy Books annual, Jason processed Santiago’s budding inconsequentiality with deft efficiency (“Tides card. Completely unrecognizable because he’s Jose Santiago. Deserves nothing.”)
And the following February, when erstwhile No. 33 was on the cusp of reporting (or not) to Port St. Lucie, I imagined what he’d be told by whoever checked in Pitchers & Catchers…though not until I’d done the same drill for twenty-two other pitchers.
“You heard what I told Parra…next!”
I’m pretty sure that was the last time I’d given a single thought to Jose Santiago, relief pitcher, 2005 New York Mets, until 2014 when I began discussing the topic of Least Consequential Met with Jason. Actually, I told him I wanted to craft a Top 1,000 Mets list when the all-time roster reached the magic number (which it did in 2015, but I still haven’t). I knew Tom Seaver would be No. 1, but who would be No. 1,000? The guy didn’t have to be dismal, just incredibly vague.
“You mean like Lou Klimchock?” he asked. Yes, exactly like Lou Klimchock, I blurted, but not Lou Klimchock because we’ve just now instinctively made him the avatar of incredibly vague Mets, meaning we automatically know him for that, ergo he is too well-known, if only to us.
It isn’t easy being vague.
Shortly after that evening, I set out on a highly disciplined quest to identify whose consequentiality among Mets was most minute. But the journey didn’t last very long, because I just knew it was Jose Santiago. At the dawn of FAFIF, an extended 162-game moment when I was laser-focused on everything every Met was doing, I allowed this guy to all but completely escape my notice. It’s not so much that I don’t remember Jose Santiago. I have a strong sense that I was never aware of Jose Santiago, give or take something in the paper about MSG showing somebody at a game in Cincinnati. To be honest, I have no idea how I managed to toss Jose Santiago’s name into those two roundup pieces I did after 2005 and before 2006. There’s almost no way I knew who he was.
And — how can I say this? — I’m me. I remember at least a little something about every Met since I started rooting in 1969, certainly since I started blogging in 2005.
Every Met but one, apparently.
Here’s the kicker, though. Jose Santiago enjoyed a respectable baseball career. After a couple of cups of coffee, he stuck with the Royals in 1999 and, by 2000, working exclusively out of the bullpen, he was piling up decisions, going 8-6 for 77-85 Kansas City. The next year, the Phillies, contending for the NL East lead, traded ex-Met Paul Byrd for his services in June and trotted him out to the mound 53 times over four months. He was pitching to Robin Ventura in the ninth at the Vet on Labor Day 2001 when he helpfully failed to catch Todd Pratt’s return throw to the mound, allowing Todd Zeile to ultimately advance two bases and score, tying an already nutty game that the Mets would go on to win, 10-7.
That I remember.
From 1999 through 2003, Santiago never pitched in fewer than 25 games, peaking at 73 combined between KC and Philly in ’01. After spending a season with Cleveland, he signed with the White Sox for 2004, but was assigned to Triple-A Charlotte and never pitched in Chicago. New York — Norfolk, mostly — was next on his travel manifest. Working as a starter most of the time for the first time in his career, Jose posted an unimpressive ERA and WHIP for our old Virginia cousins, but, what with the throwing the ball well and all, maintained his knack for Ws, going 7-6. It was enough to make him a rising Tide that summer. In the spring of 2006, after recording a win in the WBC, he opted for Mexico. He told the Royals podcast Clubhouse Conversation that “the Mets approached me” after the Classic, but he preferred, regardless of previous minor league contractual commitments, to go south of the border. A few years in a few countries later, he was done pitching. August 9, 2005, the night of Wright’s barehanded grab, was his final game in the majors.
Jose Santiago finished as a Met and nobody noticed. I’m not sure Jose Santiago noticed. As alluded to in the above paragraph, Jose was interviewed at length about his career, generously and affably dwelling on every stop he dropped his bags, but both host and guest glossed over his Mets days, all four of them, very quickly. We don’t remember him? Maybe he doesn’t remember us. The Jose Santiago Pitching Academy (sixteen professional seasons gives a man wisdom to impart) makes mention of his stint in New York, but, à la MBTN, he essentially consigns us to the “all other” category. What’s fair is fair.
Is it fair to bestow the title of Least Consequential Met on Jose Santiago based mostly on feel? There is, after all, worthy competition for the, uh, crown. So let’s look beyond my ample gut and take some Baseball Reference-generated criteria into account.
• Seventy Mets played more than one and fewer than five games as Mets. One is too few, because then you’re ironically famous for playing just one game as a Met. Five, while not too many, is half a round number. Two to four won’t draw anybody’s attention if you’re careful not to attract it.
• Twenty-two Mets who played in between two and four games did so as relief pitchers, relief pitchers being the most fungible of personnel. Any given game you’ve got like eight of them sitting around.
• Of those twenty-two, sixteen threw with their right hand, making them even more disposable (know a lot of ROOGYs?).
• Within this inconsequential universe, several names jump out as too famous to qualify regardless of their Met bullpen context.
Dallas Green managed the Phillies to a world championship and the Mets deeper into the hole Jeff Torborg fracked and drilled.
Clem Labine was both a Boy of Summer and an Original Met.
Bob Johnson, if nothing else, is a brother in good standing within Beta Lambda Gamma, the sacred fraternity of Mets who shared first and last names, founded in 1962 when Bob L. Miller roomed with Bob G. Miller and Casey Stengel called one of them Nelson (Jose Santiago shares his name with one of the starters from the 1967 Red Sox, but that cuts no ice here). Besides, there is something else to Bob Johnson the Met pitcher besides the fact that there was Bob Johnson the Met infielder. Bob Johnson pitched for the Mets in 1969, and inclusion on the 1969 Mets by definition precludes inconsequentiality.
Kevin Tapani went on to a quality career (143 wins) after being packed off to Minnesota with Rick Aguilera, David West, Jack Savage and Tim Drummond for Frank Viola. Viola was supposed to help bring another championship to Shea. Instead, Tapani helped bring another championship to the Metrodome.
Darren O’Day is the guy Omar Minaya blithely DFAed in 2009 to ease a momentary roster jam. He’s still pitching in 2017.
Dean Chance won a Cy Young before landing on the Mets to furnish pennant race depth. Dean furnished no such thing, but he is always going to appear on lists of Mets who won Cy Youngs elsewhere. He brought his consequentiality with him and it won’t shed easily.
Lino Urdaneta came to the Mets with a lifetime earned run average of infinity. You don’t forget a fact like that.
Brad Clontz threw the wild pitch that kindly nudged ajar the Mets’ postseason door in 1999. His Met consequentiality is transcendent, even if it came in a Pirate uniform.
Eddie Kunz was a first-round flameout. The Mets chose him with their first pick in 2007. He was done for all intents and purposes by 2008. Infamy beats inconsequentiality.
With those fellas excused, we are left with seven righthanded relief pitchers who pitched more than once but less than five times as a Mets. One of them is Al Schmelz, and Al Schmelz is a Klimchockian cult figure in these parts; it may be more accurate to consider Lou Klimchock Schmelzian. I never saw Al Schmelz pitch, but oh the lore that is attached to his name.
The other six I experienced. I can tell you something about them. I can tell you Henry Owens was a converted catcher who threw real hard if not noticeably effectively, but give him a break, he was a converted catcher. I can tell you Mickey Weston is a big man in Michigan and is complicit in crimes against baseball by association with the 1993 Mets. I can tell you Mike Fyhrie showed up at Shea in tandem with Rick Trlicek and I knew instantly that the Annual Met Spelling Bee would never be the same. I can tell you Brian Rose was called up in early 2001 when the Mets were desperate (a condition not ameliorated by the presence of Brian Rose) and that in 2000 I came to recognize Jim Mann as the just-passing-through reliever who wasn’t Eric Cammack (also, Cammack tripled).
That eliminates everybody but Jose Santiago. May his elevation to Least Consequential Met raise his profile marginally. Or infinitesimally.
I’ll admit that I’ve grown blase about pitchers and catchers reporting. OK, more than blase — indifferent, jaded, cynical, all of the above.
Obviously this has nothing to do with a disdain for baseball basics. Rather, it’s that the happy moment is a mere moment. Yes, those are Mets pitchers and Mets catchers out there doing vague baseball things next to David Wright, who’s been there dutifully taking grounders for several months. Those pitchers and catchers look about the same as last time you saw them. A few who now sport zipper scars on the inside of the elbow will say positive things about that. Ball is thrown, hiss. Ball hits mitt, pamm.
We might make it after all.
It’s all nice but then that’s it — hiss and pamm, hiss and pamm. Nothing else happens for a couple of weeks that doesn’t involve fabulously expensive bespoke cars, unless someone shows up on a horse and everyone smiles but then suggests maybe no more horses. You hope what passes for news is a steady diet of best-shape-of-his-life cliches minus the term “altercation in the parking lot.” And then you get spring-training games, a more organized version of nothing. Those are the stuff of jubilation for five minutes, pleasant for 25 more minutes and then I feel bad because I’m fidgety and just sighed.
This year, though? This year I’m all for it, at least right now. Bring me the sight of guys in startlingly colored shorts doing not much. Deliver unto me the leather-lunged fan who thinks the eighth inning of a March 12 split-squad game is sweeps week for hecklers. All winters are depressing and baseball-free, but this one is particularly rich in discontent, and a distraction would be just the thing right now.
As a little preview, I got my Topps set in the mail yesterday and so happily cleared my schedule to geek out for a couple of hours. For openers, the new Topps cards are the first chance of the year to update The Holy Books: newly minted Mets get upgrades from cards showing them as members of various minor leagues (International, Eastern, American), and I scrutinize the new cards of old favorites to see if something better has come along to represent them.
Every year’s design begins as startling and unfamiliar but will soon become routine and ultimately the stuff of history, which if you think about it is a dress rehearsal for what will happen to the season itself.
So, about the 2017 cards: they look a little frenetic, I’ll admit. They’re all planes and angles and vanishing points, and my first response to the design is to draw back rather than lean forward. But I’m old, and these are frenetic times. The photography, happily, is top-notch, from the much-tattooed Robert Gsellman sticking out the tip of his tongue to Seth Lugo staring plateward with one foot up above his head — a pose that would indicate “car-crash aftermath” for a civilian but is completely normal and even graceful for a pitcher.
My biggest gripe comes on the back. I don’t mind that Topps has included players’ social-media handles. That strikes me as harmless and may even give kids a valuable early civics lesson. (“Well, son, actually the First Amendment means the government can’t tell you what not to say — a private-sector employer can still give you both barrels if you tweet something dumb like that.”) What bugs me is that Topps has curtailed the stats so you only get the last several years’ worth.
That’s a shame, particularly now that Topps once more stands alone as the keeper of baseball history in cardboard. As a kid, baseball-card backs were my windows into the sport’s history, lore, connections and trivia, and that exploration began with the stat block. Your first summer reading card backs will teach you that stats blocks can be classified into a few distinctive and useful categories. Can’t-miss prospects have surprisingly abbreviated stat blocks, with a couple of minor-league years and that first line for the varsity. Perennial 25th men’s stat blocks are jagged travelogues of towns, leagues and organizations, with the names of big-league clubs popping above the Walla Walla/Batavia/Johnson City waterline at odd intervals. And there’s the instant respect you feel for a wall of agate type going back decades — the resume of a Hall of Fame candidate looking back on a baseball life well lived. Instagram handles are perfectly fine, but Topps ought not to have messed with something so fundamental to its mission.
A couple of notes before trudging off into the literal and metaphorical snow:
- There’s a controversy about whether Lucas Duda‘s card shows Duda or Eric Campbell. I’m not great at these things so will wuss out by saying that it’s either Campbell or Duda not looking particularly like Duda. Either way, not a Holy Books card so I’m good.
- Blessedly, Topps gave us vertical cards for Lugo, Gsellman and Gabriel Ynoa, the last of whom is already the property of the Baltimore Orioles. Everyone raised with a functioning moral compass understands that horizontal cards are tools of the Devil; Topps thankfully gave us only one horizontal Met this time around, and they’re forgiven because it’s a pretty good shot of David Wright, who already has plenty of cards.
- The inserts are fun — first pitches are back, with Judd Apatow doing the honors at Citi. But the standouts are 1987-style cards for Yoenis Cespedes, Mike Piazza, David Wright, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Michael Conforto. I’m in the midst of a losing campaign to convince myself I don’t need these. Of course I need these. You may too.
And so the baseball-card clock is running again, just when I needed it the most. Soon it will be time for Topps Heritage (this year’s design is the underwhelming burlap-and-scrawl ’68, but points for respecting history), the prepackaged team sets with their oddball alternate shots, the Opening Day set (which gave Ruben Tejada a Mets card last year) and then the countdown to Series 2.
By which time baseball itself will be in full swing again. Needless to say, I can’t wait.
I will worry about the Mets bullpen the first time a starter departs and runs are scored. Then I will stress. For now, I take comfort in the sudden stockpiling of arms, whether strange or familiar (and presumably temporarily un-Familia).
Jerry Blevins is returning. This stands as the front office accomplishment of late winter pending resolution of that Bruce & Lagares-for-Trout rumor I just now decided to invent. Blevins as our primary post-Cespedes get means either it’s been slow time in Flushing or we didn’t have much to fret about to begin with. I’m not sure. Blevins was fairly valuable and extremely likable last season. He wasn’t the perfect portsider we got to know a little in April of 2015 before he disappeared from active duty, but that’ll happen when you give somebody more than two weeks to reveal his imperfections. Southpaws who specialize in retiring lefthanded hitters (who aren’t adorably referred to as southpaws or even portsiders, just lefthanded hitters) may be replaceable, but the good ones aren’t necessarily disposable. That’s my bet-hedging way of saying I’m glad Jerry was persuaded to stay put.
Also rejoining the cast of dozens is righty Fernando Salas. He pitched some credible innings in September. Gave up a home run that lost a game in Washington, too, but it might have been nice had the Mets scored a run before or after Salas got involved. He figures to reprise his Addison St. Bridge role or provide deep depth or maybe be pitching for his figurative life among so many other theoretically viable arms, including the one belonging to Hansel Robles, who should be ready to Step Up, if I may use a hollow phrase that nonetheless describes the current point on his career trajectory. I’d call the potential surplus a pleasant problem, but we’re not at the stage where anything is a problem yet.
Newer limbs? How about the pertinent one attached to 34-year-old Tom Gorzelanny, major leaguer since 2005? OK, not so new, but new to us. Also, like Blevins, a lefty, which implies longevity. Tom’s is a minor league deal. When his career was getting underway, I recall Gorzelanny being hyped alongside his fellow Pirates Zach Duke, Paul Maholm and Ian Snell within a prospective Rotation of the Future that could Core A Apple and everything. Futures are funny things in baseball. Duke grew into a lefty specialist on the order of Blevins. Maholm, who I hadn’t noticed hasn’t pitched since 2014, was the Reed Johnson of his craft, targeting the Mets for fits during a period when they didn’t really require any extra tormenting. He also homered off John Maine in 2009. Snell had a tough go beyond pitching, something he hasn’t done in the majors since 2010…the last season in which Maine pitched for the Mets despite this observer’s deep-rooted impression that John is due to come off the DL any day now. Him and Kelvim Escobar.
Anywho, the rotation of Pittsburgh future never fully coalesced as sunnily forecast, but we have one of its survivors heading to camp. Maybe he’ll become Tom Gorzelanny of the Mets and be recalled by us as relievers often are, as that guy who gave up that lead or, if we’re lucky, that guy who didn’t. Tom figures to be competing with Josh Smoker, Josh Edgin and perhaps Josh Lyman among those capable of bringing it from the left in St. Lucie. Also, Adam Wilk, a southporting pawsider with mostly minors mileage, signed a no-risk deal in January. If he breaks through in the pen, I’m calling dibs on headline use of “Got Wilk?”
Glamour acquisitions like Gorzellany, Wilk and those two righties with interesting deliveries aside, we mostly have Mets we know intimately. Certainly cuts down on the awkward introductions. What it says about our chances I’m not sure. If everybody who ached or pained in 2016 promises to be suitably healed, then keeping the gang together should inspire confidence in management’s loyalty-based/laissez-faire approach. If somehow not enough recovering Mets pick up where they left off when they were at or close to their most recent peaks…well, we can always find things to stress about later.
Keith Blacknick, a.k.a. Media Goon, has been kind enough to post video of the Tom Seaver session I moderated at Queens Baseball Convention. If you’d like to watch, I invite you to tune in here.
The sample size is only four Saturdays, but I can definitively report that it’s always colder the morning of the Queens Baseball Convention than it was at any point in the preceding week. Sometimes it snows. Sometimes it snows a lot. It snowed so much in 2016 that there was no QBC.
That’ll happen in January. Ideally, you’d hold a baseball convention in Queens when the weather is more amenable to baseball in Queens, but then you’d have baseball in Queens, and you wouldn’t need the convention. Depending on how you set your ballological clock, we have baseball for six to eight months out of every year. We’re varying degrees of fine from Pitchers & Catchers until the final out of the World Series. We’re great between Game One and Game One Sixty-Two. It’s January’s white space that envelops us in endless gloom, whether a blizzard is doing its worst or flurries are making a nuisance of themselves.
This most recent Saturday, the date of the most recent QBC, was indeed chillier than the most recent Friday and Thursday and so on. It’s a fair trade, I suppose. It’s never warmer in January than it is once you get inside and rub your hands in front a roaring Hot Stove, surrounded by those with whom you relish sharing the fire.
You know how nice it is to come in from the cold? That’s QBC if you’re a Mets fan. QBC is home. You’re where you’re belong when you’re there.
QBC, inaugurated in January 2014, was such a good idea. Still is. We had nothing like this as Mets fans. We should have always had something like this. Other team’s fans have it, arranged by the teams themselves. The Mets don’t do that kind of fan outreach. Perhaps it’s enough that they’ve lately begun to give us seasons worth looking forward to. Let the Mets get spring, summer and autumn right. We’ll handle winter as best we can.
That’s where QBC comes in, a Mets fanfest by and for Mets fans, all of whom take the responsibility seriously. Not just the principal organizers and raft of volunteers (though they work especially hard to make it happen) but everybody who shows up. QBC clicks because we the Mets fans breathe it into existence with our passionate determination. Or maybe our determined passion. Either way, give Mets fans a time and a place to be Mets fans, even without a Mets game, and we will come through.
The 2017 rendition moved from its ancestral home at McFadden’s Citi Field to Katch Astoria, multiple 7 stops and an N trip west of Flushing. On balance, it was an ideal locale. It was in Queens, it opened itself up to baseball and we convened. Plus the staff was friendly and the food was tasty. Can’t ask for much more when you’re already blessed with so much.
Like being in the company of your fellow Mets fans. Like seeing old friends and making new acquaintances over Mets talk. Like getting a load of this jersey and that t-shirt. Like being in a room where somebody’s telling you what the Mets’ record was in 2016 when Yoenis Cespedes wore a compression sleeve on one arm versus their record when he wore it on the other arm and realizing you’re in the lone spot on earth where that’s treated as valuable information. Mets fans should never have to apologize for being Mets fans. I didn’t hear a “sorry I am what I am” all day.
Being a Mets fan means never having to say you’re sorry. Our Love Story won’t allow it.
My QBC day, besides sitting and listening and laughing and loving, was devoted to two assignments. First, I presented an award named for one Met legend to another Met legend on behalf of the ultimate Met legend. I don’t throw around the phrase legend lightly. Each legend in question is connected to the 1969 Mets, engineers of the most legendary championship in world history (we’d also accept 1986 as a correct answer). The prize was the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award, a token of our esteem we came up with before the first QBC to continue to keep the name Gil Hodges aloft in the minds of Mets fans. The recipient this year was Tom Seaver, chosen because a) we are on the cusp of the 50th anniversary of Tom’s major league and Met debut and b) do we really need a reason to give an award to Tom Seaver? He had three Cy Youngs, a Hickock Belt and a plaque in Cooperstown. Tom has been attracting honors for a half-century.
QBC drew hundreds of Mets fans, not to mention special guests Tim Teufel and Bobby Valentine, but a Napa Valley vintner can’t necessarily pop on over to Astoria for every bauble bestowed in his direction. We understood that. We decided to honor him anyway. He’s Tom Seaver. We figured “the academy” would accept on behalf of our winner and we’d continue to talk about him in absentia. Later we could box up the award and ship it to California.
A funny thing happened on the way to the podium. One of the organizers came up to me as Teufel (who hit an extra-inning grand slam with his insights and anecdotes) was wrapping up. Hey, he whispered, Art Shamsky just showed up. He wants to talk to Mets fans. Would you mind moderating?
As requests that come out of right field go, this was a can of corn. Why, yes, I’ll be happy to host Art Shamsky, 1969 Met, for a spell. Then another organizer sought me out. Art’s gonna accept the award for Tom. Can you present it to him?
Yeah, I’m really put upon at these things.
A typical Saturday afternoon in January? Not when you find yourself elbow-to-elbow with Art Shamsky. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Graziano)
For about twenty minutes, it was an afternoon at the Improv at Katch Astoria, but I haven’t been a Mets fan for forty-eight years without being able to vamp a little when positioned elbow-to-elbow with a Mets legend. I once ate pizza in the company of Cleon Jones. After I didn’t faint from delight at that encounter, I realized I possessed the emotional reserves to handle proximity to any 1969 Met.
Art was great at QBC, which goes without saying. Art was a great Met from 1968 through 1971, peaking in unison with a couple dozen other fellows in 1969. He likes to say he played thirteen years of professional baseball, yet nobody asks about the other twelve. I thanked him for 1970 and 1971 because I watched him then and he was one of my childhood favorites. (I omitted his first Met year because I wasn’t yet on board in 1968; my bad for being five.)
Mr. Shamsky did us the solid of accepting for Mr. Seaver and then set up shop at a table to greet his public and offer up his evergreen book about the only season anybody ever asks him about. I went back to being in the audience for the other presentations, particularly enjoying the bejeesus of Bobby V taking what we shall call an unorthodox route to storytelling. He tended to mush together different seasons at times, but he always tracked down the payoff at the wall. Bobby seems as fond of his Mets as we are. (He’s also fond of Japan, but doesn’t sound like he’ll be rushing off there anytime soon despite previous reports.)
At five o’clock or so, the last hour of QBC, I was back on stage for our 50th anniversary Seaver retrospective, my second assigned task. We didn’t have Tom, but we had three writerly perspectives to provide: one from me as moderator not to mention lifelong Terrifophile; one from Bill Ryczek, who wrote and talked about Tom’s rookie year; and one from Matt Silverman, who spoke from one of his many volumes regarding the night the music died forty years ago this June 15. An hour spent delving into what made Seaver Seaver is as good an hour as you’ll have all winter.
When the day was done, January was closer than ever to ending. We who indulged in QBC helped each other clear away excess winter, so you’d have to call it a very productive Saturday. I’d even go so far as to judge the streets of Astoria slightly warmer on Saturday night than they had been Saturday morning. Baseball works wonders sometimes.
You can listen to the presentation I did with Art here and the entire panel discussion among Bill, Matt and myself here. Below is what I wrote in advance for the occasion. It’s not exactly what was delivered verbatim due to the revised-yearbook nature of the proceedings, but the text should give you a sense of why we wanted to talk about Tom Seaver…besides the fact that he’s Tom Seaver.
When we came up with the concept for the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award in 2013, we had two goals in mind.
One was to cast a glow around the memory of the manager who led the Mets to the promised land when nobody else dreamed such a journey was possible. Gil died two days shy of his 48th birthday after four seasons at the helm in Flushing. It was too soon then, it’s too soon now. What Gil did and who Gil was should never be forgotten, and this award is our small way, as Mets fans, of trying to keep his legacy alive.
Our second goal was to annually thank a special figure from Mets history for warming our hearts, brightening our spirits and lighting our way. We meet in winter. Of course we want to spend a few minutes thinking of somebody like that. What is baseball for but to get us through the times when there is no baseball?
In the first three years of QBC, we were honored to present the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award to Gil Hodges, Jr., who accepted on behalf of his late father; to the Glider, Ed Charles; and to Buddy Harrelson. We were canceled by a blizzard last January, but one of QBC’s organizers, Dan Twohig, made the pilgrimage out to Central Islip and gave the award to Buddy between games of a Long Island Ducks doubleheader, and Buddy, like Gil Jr. and Ed, was extremely gracious and talked about how much Gil meant to him.
This year, we don’t have our recipient with us, but he takes a backseat to nobody when it comes to warming hearts, brightening spirits and lighting the way for Mets fans. The 2017 winner of the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award is Tom Seaver.
We’re going to get into Tom’s career later, as we celebrate a truly Amazin’ milestone in his and the Mets’ story, but when you think about Tom Seaver, whether as…
• the rookie phenom immediately establishing himself as one of the best in the business;
• the incandescent star pitching his team toward a most improbable championship;
• the indefatigable ace continually defining and perfecting his craft across a generation;
• the prodigal veteran son bringing everybody out of their seats and everybody’s heart out of their chests upon his overdue return to where it all started;
• the beloved legend trotting to the mound one more time to take another bow as his number, like him, eased into retirement;
• or the all-time great carrying OUR banner for the first time into the Baseball Hall of Fame
…well, I don’t know how you’re not warmed, you’re not brightened and you’re not absolutely lit at the thought of one George Thomas Seaver, a.k.a. Tom Terrific, which he always was and always will be.
Tom, as you probably know, is a vintner in California these days, hard at work making the best of wine, just as he made the best of every pitch. A continent away, we wish to invoke a few of the sentiments he’s shared about the manager and the man he revered, Gil Hodges.
This from an interview published in 1974, reflecting on Gil’s influence and his passing:
“He was an outstanding man. He was a man’s man and demanded total respect. I learned many things about the game from him. Probably the most important was what it meant to be a professional, and how important self-control was for you to perform as a professional. It was almost like losing a second father. I loved the man and I tremendously admired him. I had a tremendous amount of respect for him.”
This from his Hall of Fame acceptance speech in 1992:
“The one guy who taught me how to be a professional, to really be a pro, [was] Gil Hodges. If [there were] other people [who] taught me how to get here and what to do when I got here, Gil Hodges told me how to be a pro and stay here — the most important man in my life from the professional standpoint of my career. And God, I know that you’re letting Gil look down here today and I know that he is part of this.”
And this from just last year when a reporter asked him if he was bothered — like so many of us are — that there’s no Tom Seaver statue outside of Citi Field:
“I’m not dead yet. So I’d rather it be Gil Hodges. He’s the most important person in the franchise.”
And that’s coming from THE Franchise. So it seems more than appropriate…it seems Terrific that we can take it upon ourselves to, one more time, link manager and pitcher where they belong, at the peak of our appreciation.
So ladies and gentlemen and Mets fans of all ages, let’s transport ourselves to Shea Stadium, to 1969, to pregame introductions during the World Series. Let’s give it up for No. 14, the manager of the New York Mets, and No. 41, starting pitcher for the New York Mets. Let us, from the upper deck of our souls, say “thank you” to Gil Hodges and to Tom Seaver.
I mentioned a milestone. It’s one of those anniversaries I’m still getting used to since 2012, when the Mets — and I — turned 50. As someone who’s approximately the same age as the Mets, I find it hard to believe we both have things that happened to us 50 or more years ago, but time will do that to a person and a team.
On April 13, 1967, the best of things happened to the Mets. Wes Westrum, the manager between Casey Stengel and Gil Hodges (give or take a Salty Parker), handed the ball to a rookie right-hander, to start the second game of the season, at Shea. It was the rookie’s major league debut. The team and the sport would never be the same.
Tom Seaver faced the Pittsburgh Pirates that Thursday afternoon. The Mets won. A precedent was established. Seaver and winning went together like no Met and no such result ever had before. Tom was about to become one of the best pitchers baseball has ever known and, hands down, the greatest Met we have ever known. There was nobody remotely like him prior to April 13, 1967, and there’s been nobody quite like him since.
It’s been fifty years and he’s rarely been matched by any pitcher from any team and he hasn’t been touched by any Met at any position. I think it’s fair to say he’s had quite the half-century.
Tom’s primacy as the Met of Mets is so established and so obvious, that after 50 years, we might not fully comprehend the texture of what he achieved on the mound for us from 1967 forward or his apparently immovable place atop Met history. Our mission today, then, is to explore the accomplishments and legacy of Tom Seaver as we celebrate 50 years of Tom being our indisputable best player.
We could frame Tom Seaver’s grandeur by quoting statistics, and I’ll be happy to note a few a little later, but to get us started on our commemoration of 50 Years of No. 41, I want to take us to any given year in the early to mid 1970s and either remind you if you were around or let you know if you weren’t what life was like for a Mets fan coming of age in the Age of Seaver.
In January, you leaf through the sports section and your face lights up because there’s a picture of Tom Seaver, maybe posing in the snow at Shea Stadium, maybe indoors, and he’s signing his contract for the upcoming season. Spring Training can’t be far off.
In February and March, you go to your local candy store or newsstand and you start to look for preseason magazines, and somewhere on their covers, you find Tom Seaver. You grab those and, either at that place or maybe at a bookstore, you find the paperback guides to the season ahead. If Seaver’s picture isn’t on those covers, his name figures prominently in the text as soon as you turn to the Mets preview. You grab those, too.
By March, baseball cards are out, and of course you’re buying as many packs as you can reasonably handle. You rip them open in hopes you’ll find a Tom Seaver. If you’re fortunate, your year of collecting is made. If you’re not, there’s a very good chance you’ll find some kind of insert with Tom’s picture, or a leader card with Tom’s face, because he’s always leading the league in something. You might get Tom Seaver In Action, or Tom Seaver’s Boyhood Photo or something referring to how Tom Seaver helped the Mets to the playoffs and World Series the year before. Those are pretty good cards, too.
Come April, Opening Day is upon us. You don’t need to check to see the probable pitchers because you know who’s starting the season for the Mets. Tom Seaver has been the Opening Day starter every year since he established himself and no Met manager is going to mess with that tradition. It works. The Mets almost always win on Opening Day.
As the season gets going, you take special pride in scouring the statistics in the Sunday papers. You don’t have to scour far, because Seaver, NY is inevitably at the top, whether you’re looking at wins or innings pitched or winning percentage or earned run average or strikeouts. If you’re going to a game, you hope he’s pitching. Even if he’s not, you can’t miss him. He’s on the cover of the yearbook. He’s on the cover of the scorecard. He’s Tom Seaver. He’s everywhere.
July comes along and it’s All-Star selection time and your question about who will be representing the Mets goes simply, “Tom Seaver and who else?” Tom is the personification of an All-Star, whether he’s starting the game, coming on in relief or just tipping his cap among his peers. Coincidentally or not, the National League is always winning these games.
The season wears on. Seaver keeps pitching. Usually, he wins. Sometimes he pitches more than well enough to win but the Mets don’t score for him. But every start you can anticipate greatness. Maybe he’ll throw a complete game. Maybe he’ll throw a shutout. Dare we dream of a no-hitter? Probably he’ll be on Kiner’s Korner, where he and Ralph have a second-nature rapport, legend to budding legend. You’ll hear Tom talk seriously about his pitching and you’ll hear Tom cackle giddily about his hitting.
By September, if the Mets are in the race, you’ll look forward to those nights or afternoons when Tom starts. You’ll figure you’ll pick up ground on the Pirates or put more distance in front of the Cubs. If the Mets aren’t in the race, there’s still plenty to get excited about. Tom is nearing 20 wins or Tom is extending another strikeout record or Tom is lowering his ERA out of reach of any other pitcher. Whether at the beginning or end of the season, Tom Seaver always keeps you in the game.
If Tom is still pitching beyond earliest October, you know it’s been a great year to be a Mets fan, and you can keep watching him on TV doing what he does best. If Tom is done, you look forward to November and reading about the Cy Young voting. Tom probably deserves to win another award. If he wins it, you’ll be happy. If he doesn’t, you’ll be sure he should have. If nothing else, you’ll have another reason to have Tom Seaver on your mind, which is the next best thing to having Tom Seaver on the mound, which will happen again soon, because by January, there’ll be a picture of Tom at Shea, signing another contract, ready to begin another year. Once more, Spring Training can’t be far off.
This is what it was like to grow up and mark time with Tom Seaver. It was hard to fathom it hadn’t always been this way and that it wouldn’t always be this way.
The beauty of Tom Seaver was twofold. There was watching him, his aesthetically perfect drop and drive motion, the power-pitcher who led with his legs, got his right knee dirty and blended rising fastballs, curves and sliders consistently for strikes. That was what you could see. You could only imagine or wait for his postgame remarks to get a handle on what he was thinking. As ideal as he was physically, he was just as beautiful when it came to the mental game.
Then there were the numbers No. 41 put up. The basics of his career are easy enough to quote: 311 wins, 3,640 strikeouts, an ERA of 2.86 over 20 seasons, 3 Cy Youngs, 12 All-Star selections, 16 Opening Day starts, 5 one-hitters, 1 no-hitter — albeit in the wrong uniform — and a 10-inning complete game World Series victory that put the Mets on the brink of a world championship.
Though they didn’t show up in the box score, there also seemed to be a new book about or “by” Tom Seaver every year, including one I remember using for a book report in sixth grade. I made the last paragraph nothing but his year-by-year statistics to date, and even at the age of 12, I knew that was a bit much, so I don’t want to drown us in numbers. Still, those numbers never fail to floor.
Here, as promised, are a few numerical notes to consider when considering Tom Seaver.
• In the first ten years of his career, 1967 through 1976, when he was becoming and had become “Tom Seaver” for us, Tom compiled 182 wins, 2,334 strikeouts and a 2.47 earned run average. You know who else in the major leagues could match that profile? Nobody. Nobody else did that during the first ten years of Tom Seaver’s career. It wasn’t just bias that convinced us he was the best pitcher in baseball. He was.
• Those were the traditional markers of what made a pitcher outstanding when Tom was coming up. WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, did not enter our lexicon for several decades. When it did, we found, according to Baseball Reference, that Tom Seaver was worth 71.2 Wins Above Replacement for the ten years starting in 1967 and ending in 1976. You know what pitcher did better in baseball? None. Nobody else has a better WAR for that decade. Gaylord Perry finished about 5 wins above replacement behind, and Fergie Jenkins more than 10. They’re the runners-up.
• Go on Baseball-Reference, go to the page with National League pitching leaders for 1973 — a good Met year, to be sure — and check out who led the league in SEVENTEEN different statistical categories, traditional and advanced. Wins weren’t even among them, a symptom of the Mets not being the most offensively robust of clubs throughout Seaver’s stay. For the record, Tom had “only” 19 and won the Cy Young anyway.
• The one truly troubling season in Seaver’s first decade was 1974, when he was bothered by a sciatica condition and finished a horrifying — for him — 11-11, his ERA skyrocketing to 3.20. And yet, when you click the Baseball Reference page forward from 1973 to 1974, you still see Seaver’s name dotting the leaderboards, in the Top 10 across all kinds of interior categories and placing fourth in Pitcher WAR. We didn’t know it at the time, but even when Seaver was at his worst, he was among the best. As an aside, when Seaver was nearly at his best, we weren’t easily satisfied. I clearly remember a comment from Bill Mazer, the longtime sportscaster in New York, then, in 1972, the host of the Met postgame show on WHN, saying very definitively, sure, Tom Seaver has won 20 games, but “it hasn’t really been a Tom Seaver year.” That’s how high a standard he set for himself and for all of us.
• One more quick statistical glance, from 1983, at which point Tom, a Met for the first time since, if you’ll excuse the expression, June 15, 1977, was 38 and pitching for a last-place team. The won-lost record wasn’t much — 9-14 — and the ERA, 3.55, indicated he was clearly on the back end of a fabulous career. Even with age and wear and a not very good Mets squad behind him, Tom comes in tenth in the NL in innings pitched, ninth in games started and seventh in fewest hits allowed per nine innings. If he’s not one of the best pitchers in the league by his seventeenth season he’s definitely one of the better ones. And, as we’d find out over the next three years, he still had plenty left in the tank.
But the tank would be found elsewhere in 1984, just as it was transferred to points west in 1977. “Tanks for nothing” we’d find ourselves saying twice to two sets of Mets management.
Tom Seaver pitched his last official inning in 1986, curtailed a comeback in 1987, had his number retired in 1988 and entered the Hall of Fame in 1992. He hasn’t added to his Met totals since any of those milestones, yet he maintains his place as the Greatest Met Ever, unchallenged 50 years after he basically invented the concept of Great Mets.
Have you ever seen a Greatest Met list that wasn’t topped by Tom Seaver? Have you ever tried to make one? It’s not so much that it would be sacrilege — it would be inaccurate.
Dwight Gooden’s 1985 might have surpassed any of Seaver’s individual seasons as the crown jewel of pitching years, but Doc couldn’t keep up that kind of accelerated pace for long.
Mike Piazza, the second player to go into the Hall as a Met, gave us indelible memories, connected on critical swings and was primarily responsible for perhaps the most dramatic era of Mets baseball — there’s a book coming out about it, I hear — but he established the first half of his legend elsewhere.
David Wright is all Met all the time and he already owns almost every Met offensive record there is, but the Captain, ever the good soldier, would be the first to tell you that as Terrific as we think he is, his cumulative impact on the franchise hasn’t come close to that of The Franchise.
Darryl Strawberry hit more home runs than any Met. Dave Kingman hit them longer than any Met. Yoenis Cespedes is as breathtaking as any Met. Buddy Harrelson was about as reliable as they came. Nobody was more dynamic on the basepaths than young Jose Reyes, unless it was Mookie Wilson. If anybody swung sweeter than Rusty Staub, it was John Olerud. Gary Carter pushed the Mets close to a championship after Keith Hernandez steered the ship around. Carlos Beltran did almost everything right. So did Edgardo Alfonzo. Rey Ordoñez did one thing well, but might have done it better than anybody, Met or otherwise. Ed Kranepool, for eighteen seasons, is a chapter unto himself. Jerry Koosman still hasn’t lost a postseason start for the Mets, and he made a bunch. You Gotta Believe in Tug McGraw, in Jesse Orosco, in John Franco, even, when it comes to closing games. We cross our fingers that someday we’ll be at a discussion like this and praising to the high heavens the likes of Syndergaard and Harvey and Matz and deGrom and all they did and how long they did it for.
We have no shortage of great Mets. But we have only one Tom Seaver, the greatest of Mets. He started being great fifty years ago this April. He has yet to stop.
Come to Astoria this Saturday for a Terrific time. The Queens Baseball Convention will be there, at Katch Astoria, 31-19 Newtown Avenue, and I’ll be there, talking up Tom Seaver at 5 PM. I’m moderating a panel commemorating and celebrating the 50th anniversary of Tom’s major league debut and his legacy as the greatest Met ever, culminating in the presentation of the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award (albeit in absentia) to Tom. Joining me on the panel will be two authors who know their Seaver: Bill Ryczek, who wrote the essential The Amazin’ Mets, 1962-1969, and Matthew Silverman, who’s written just about everything else. We should each have some of our work on hand if you’re interested.
Doors open at 11:30 AM. Other panels include Q&A with Bobby Valentine and Tim Teufel and an array of deep Met dives. Best of all, you’ll be surrounded by Mets fans and Mets baseball in January. For more information, take a look here. For a great day, see you there.
And listen in here, to the Rising Apple Report, for a mountain of Seaver talk and general Metsian joviality.
Tim Raines can stop retroactively beating the Mets now. Ever since his Hall of Fame election came into view a couple of months ago, I’ve seen two clips repeatedly: Tim Raines beating the Mets with his baserunning (sliding into second base on a successful stolen base attempt) and Tim Raines beating the Mets with his bat (hitting a grand slam off Jesse Orosco when neither a World Series-saving lefty nor the scourge of collusion could stop him). Based on archival footage, a Montreal Expo continuously ran wild and slugged mightily against the New York Mets, thus making the rooting life of a Mets fan endlessly miserable.
Did anybody tape Raines doing anything else besides beating the Mets?
Whoever picks the clips to illustrate the essence of a Hall of Fame candidate pretty much got it right, because those actualities are actually how I remember Raines, a fearsome opponent on a regular basis throughout the 1980s, when if you were asked when you thought Rock might roll into Cooperstown, you’d say he’s on his way there now and he’ll no doubt make it before long.
He was on his way, but he ended up there after long…way after. Raines, who debuted with Montreal in September 1979 and partook of a few more sips of coffee the next year, was around forever before anybody had heard of his fellow Class of 2017 inductees Jeff Bagwell and Ivan Rodriguez. I was watching this guy beat the Mets when I was in high school, and I assure you I haven’t been in high school for quite a while. The writers, not some veterans committee, just voted him in. Such a development implies recency. It’s as if I wasn’t in twelfth grade two-thirds of my lifetime ago. Thanks for the shot of youth, BBWAA. See what you can do about giving the Grammy for Record of the Year to “Bette Davis Eyes” next month.
I graduated the same spring Tim Raines truly burst onto the scene, 1981 — and if any ballplayer could be said to have burst onto a scene, it was Raines. I was hoping it would be another leadoff hitter.
Nineteen Eighty-One was the second year in which the Mets were scheduled to rise from the valley of the ashes the late ’70s left behind in Flushing. The Magic was evanescently Back in 1980. It was advertised as Real going forward. One of the wizards who was going to abra-ca-dabra us out of the second division was a speedy rookie outfielder named Mookie Wilson. The prospect reports predicted Mookie, who we glimpsed late the previous season, was gonna get on base and run like no Met before him.
And he did. Just not immediately. Mookie got off to a shaky start in his first full season, batting only .216 and stealing one solitary base through the Mets’ first dozen games. He wasn’t walking, he wasn’t running, he was just getting his feet wet. Fair enough, except someone I hadn’t given much thought to leading up to Opening Day was stealing bases and Mookie’s thunder like crazy. In that same stretch during which Mookie scuffled at the top of the Mets’ order, Tim Raines — batting in the same leadoff spot for another team — excelled. Over the Expos’ first thirteen games of ’81, Raines was a .380 batter, a .952 slugger and on base almost half the time. He had thirteen steals in his back pocket, or one for every game he’d played.
This, I reasoned, was what we were supposed to be getting from Wilson. The wrong rookie was shaping up as the Mookie of the Year. My impression was forged from an up-close perspective. The Mets and Expos faced off six times between April 18 and April 26. The Expos took five of them. Raines starred. Wilson didn’t. Mookie would have his day. Tim was having plenty of them early and often.
The days became the better part of a decade. The Expos didn’t necessarily live up to their Team of the ’80s projections, but Raines remained formidable, never somebody you wanted to see the Mets let get on base, for if he reached first, there was a good chance he was going to extend his trip to touch second, third and home. When he became a free agent after 1986, a bidding war for his services seemed a decent bet to break out. Pitchers and catchers couldn’t prevent Raines from running, but colluding owners cut down his options on the not-so-open market. Twenty-six major league franchises were suddenly run by true gentlemen who, my word, would never attempt to poach another team’s star, never mind that stars like Raines were supposed to be unencumbered by previous contractual obligations. The way things went, Raines couldn’t go anywhere, leaving him no choice except to go back from whence he came, which was Montreal, which happened to be in New York on May 2, 1987, the date of the first game he was eligible to play after a May 1 deadline redirected him back to the Expos.
Raines burst all over again onto the scene that Saturday afternoon, going 4-for-5 versus the Mets, the fourth of those hits being the grand slam off Orosco MLBN will be happy to cue up for you in case you require visual evidence of Raines’s excellence. It seems to be the only video that exists of Raines’s hitting skills.
I guess there are other clips out there. Raines played until 2002, by which time tape and digital technology presumably managed to capture a few other highlights of his. He left Montreal following 1990 and bounced around a bit as his production inevitably leveled off. To me he would always be the Mookie of the Year from 1981, mercifully removed from my eighteen-times-per-annum field of vision. Your divisional opponents can get on your nerves. The Expos got on my nerves in the era that Raines made them go. That’s a compliment. I’ve intermittently mourned the Montreal Expos since they morphed into the Washington Whatchamacallits, but constant opponents aren’t for mourning. They’re for spiting. I spite the Phillies, the Marlins, the Braves, the Whatchamacallits even. I spite the Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates when applicable for crimes committed to the Metropolitan psyche between 1969 and 1993. The Expos, due to their lack of existence, I tend to give a pass to.
Bygones should be bygone, even if you prefer Raines’s Montreal Expos weren’t. Defeats inflicted decades ago are irreversible. Life went on in 1981 and 1987 and so forth. Life stopped going on for the Expos and their fans in 2004. Who would root against a memory that won’t be coming to bat ever again? Spite has an honest place in a fan’s heart, but it shouldn’t overshadow our better angels.
Except the Expos live again through Raines stealing second and homering against the Mets over and over. Seeing him as he was in those contexts doesn’t touch off the best of my instincts. I may like and respect Raines and appreciate what his induction will mean to a group of partisans who’ve had nothing except memorialization of their memories to cheer since 2004, but I gotta tell ya: when I see Raines playing against the Mets the way I remember Raines playing against the Mets, I bristle as I did when Tim and his team were in their prime.
I’m enjoying disliking the Montreal Expos again. A Mets fan should dislike the Expos. Opponents are not to be cherished. They are to be, at best, grudgingly acknowledged for their splendor. They can also be detested. That’s what they’re for. That’s what the Expos were there for from 1969 through 2004, same as everybody else the Mets opposed in the National League East. When the Expos vanished from the face of the continent, the proper emotion to tap when they crossed the green fields of the mind was wistfulness. There were no more Montreal Expos. It was a sad state of affairs. They were a part of our lives several series a year for thirty-six years and brought spice and variety to our schedule. There was élan to playing the Expos, particularly visiting the Expos. There was something special.
Of course you’re gonna miss that. But what you don’t realize you’re missing is the enmity of opposition, of gritting your teeth and snarling and conjuring up whammies to stick it to those stupid Expos. It’s a skill set that no longer has any application, as pointless as raising a hackle at the sight of a Kentucky Colonels logo or having it in for the Ford-Dole ticket.
So, even if it’s just for a little while, in the immediate aftermath of Raines’s election and then again this summer when the scene shifts to Cooperstown, bring on the dormant notion of the hated Expos. Bring on the deep-seated resentment of a great player doing great things and how it made your innings miserable. It’s better to remember Expos for being Expos, not for being bygone.
Mookie Wilson, who had himself a fine career, was a Met in part because of the work of an outstanding scout, Harry Minor; Tracy Ringolsby explains their connection here. Minor also signed off on the drafting of Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Wally Backman, Hubie Brooks, Kevin Elster, Kevin Mitchell and Gregg Jefferies, among others. On the same night Raines, Bagwell and Rodriguez learned they would be inducted into the Hall of Fame, I was in the audience for a fascinating discussion of baseball scouting, and the hightly entertaining speaker brought up Minor’s name, ironically for something Harry considered the worst miss of his long and distinguished scouting career. Minor watched a young Greg Maddux and reported back to the Mets that whatever his potential, he was probably a little too small to make it in the majors, so maybe the Mets shouldn’t select him in the next draft.
Oh well, you can’t win them all. On the other hand, you can’t win anything in baseball without men like Harry Minor skillfully deciphering talent. Minor was enormously important to the Mets as a scout between 1967 and 2011, encompassing the championships of 1969 and 1986, accomplishments that have Harry’s fingerprints all over them. The Mets honored him with their Hall of Fame Award the same day they inducted Mike Piazza into the team shrine in 2013, the last time the Mets held such a ceremony. You can be forgiven if you didn’t much notice Minor that Sunday. Piazza cast an enormous shadow and scouts tend to thrive where nobody else is looking.
Minor died on January 18, just as baseball was celebrating the newest class of Hall of Famers. Scouts don’t receive Cooperstown consideration. The shadows apparently stretch to Upstate New York that way. Yet there is no obscuring the results of the work they do. Harry Minor, who was in baseball one way or another for sixty-five years, forty-five of them with the Mets, helped provide us with some of our best days.
Friday night, as I was watching the Nets lose — an activity surely signifying the depths of winter for both me and the team to which I’ve clung through four post-Julius Erving decades as if I’m convinced the Doctor will be coming out of the locker room shortly to start the second half — we lucky viewers were enticed with the promise of even more Nets basketball, Nets and Sixers, at a special start time of noon on Sunday. I was thinking how that sounds awfully early for a basketball game, though I reasoned that once in a great while the Mets will play a makeup doubleheader on a Sunday starting at noon, and that would sound great right about now.
But there was to be no Mets baseball on Sunday, only more Nets basketball (another loss, which I forgot was in progress until the third quarter) and Giants football. There will be more Nets basketball imminently; January is lousy with the stuff. The Giants, having lost their playoff game in Green Bay later in the day, find themselves on hiatus sooner than desired, though it does clear their schedule for sailing and other tropical pursuits.
The Mets, meanwhile, are nowhere to be found.
The last we heard from them, the Mets were signing righthanded relief pitchers Ben Rowen and Cory Burns to minor league contracts. Ben Rowen is a submariner. Cory Burns is said to have a deceptive delivery. Actual submarines are supposed to be deceptive, but you can tell a submariner from a mile away. If only we were a mile from baseball season. Instead, it sits an eternity up the road.
Ben Rowen and Cory Burns, however they contort their arms in service to pitching, are nowhere in sight. Nor are any Mets doing any actual Met thing. Bring on the sidearming reliever. Bring on the unconventional reliever. Bring on somebody who can get somebody out. Bring on loaded bases and something to get out of.
This winter is endless. The next Met season’s gestation period is endless. It snowed on Saturday. There was no sense of baseball being blanketed. The Mets weren’t trading for George Foster or Johan Santana as they sometimes used to in the dead of winter. They weren’t even inviting Ben Rowen to camp. They already did that, just as they already preemptively directed Cory Burns to frolic among the minor leaguers. We got our big name taken care of weeks or maybe months ago. It’s hard to remember anymore. Yoenis Cespedes is in the fold, which is splendid. Everybody else who’s contractually bound to the Mets is very familiar. Nothing wrong with that. Cuts down on the awkward introductory phases.
Then there’s Ben Rowen, the submariner with twelve games as a Ranger and Brewer to his credit. Should he make the Mets, he might come through in the seventh inning and we will praise Ben Rowen. Or he might implode in the sixth inning and we will condemn Ben Rowen. We will have our Ben Rowen plot points on the graph of perception and adjust accordingly. But I’d love a look at Ben Rowen warming up about now. Or Cory Burns, who’s been a Padre and a Blue Jay, though neither lately. Last year Cory was a Lancaster Barnstormer, which is not to say he couldn’t make a fine New York Met if given the chance. Or a terrible New York Met if given the same chance. You know how relievers are, in that you never know how relievers are. Every member of your bullpen should sign the Hippocratic oath: first do no harm. Then have a colorful delivery, a colorful shtick, a colorful backstory of how you chilled on Justin Bieber’s yacht on your off day before entering the frozen tundra and not dropping the ball…I mean striking out Bryce Harper.
You remember relievers, don’t you? And starters? And baseball in general? This past weekend I’d have given all the Nets basketball (of which there’s a surfeit) and all the Giants football (of which there is none any longer) for a 12:10 doubleheader, or even a 1:10 single game.
Same deal all week. Go ahead, make me an offer.