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

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

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

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Lost and Found

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

By 2001 I’d been a Mets fan for a quarter-century, which seemed long enough to have things down. But that was the year that introduced a new wrinkle. The Brooklyn Cyclones had come to town, returning pro ball to the borough for the first time since Walter O’Malley ruined everything. Now we could see minor-league games in Brooklyn as well as big-league games in Queens, and root for players who might eventually make their way to Shea.

The Cyclones were an unexpected phenomenon that inaugural season. Manhattan hipsters flocked to Coney Island, joining old-school Brooklyn leather-lungs and families from here, there and everywhere. They packed Keyspan Park, the Cyclones’ trim, sunny ballpark on the beach, tucked beneath the old Parachute Jump. Visiting players used to sleepy games with a couple of hundred spectators would look around in surprise as Cyclones fans made a hellacious racket thanks to the stadium’s metal bleachers. The stadium was great fun, offering between-innings skits that were appropriately bush league with just the right amount of irony added; musical choices a heckuva lot cooler than Shea’s; and an amusingly shambolic ringleader in Sandy the Seagull, a pudgy, sandaled mascot who seemed to have sauntered in through a side door from The Big Lebowski.

That would have been enough for a wonderful summer, but the Cyclones were also good, with a flair for the dramatic. They won their first home game, played before a host of dignitaries, after being down to their last strike in the bottom of the ninth. In the playoffs they beat their fellow newcomers, the Staten Island Yankees, and won the first game of the best-of-three New York-Penn League finals, giving themselves a chance to wrap up the championship at home. Unfortunately, that game was scheduled for Sept. 12, and was never played. The Cyclones had to settle for being co-champions — the tiniest of losses given the terrible circumstances, of course, but also not nothing.

Emily and I were in the stands several times that first giddy summer, and knew we’d be back. The Cyclones were now a part of our baseball lives. And honestly, going to Keyspan was sometimes more fun than a trip to Shea — it was both cheaper and cooler, it had better food, there was stuff to do before and/or after, and the games were typically a crisp two hours instead of a sometimes-soggy three.

The part that was new to us was assessing the players. It would be years before I’d understand the harsh reality of the lower minors: Each year’s Cyclones roster featured a handful of players considered real prospects and a bunch of teammates who were there to fill out the roster. The prospects would be given every opportunity to fail; the others would have to do extraordinary things over and over again to get noticed. It’s a caste system, and a cruel one.

For Emily and me, two players became emblems of that first summer.

One was John Toner, an outfielder with the endearing habit of looking over when the girls in the stands would yell for him. I wasn’t enough of a scout to assess Toner’s baseball abilities, but I’d been around long enough to see he was having the time of his life.

2001 Brooklyn Cyclones Angel Pagan card

Dream a little dream…

The other emblematic player was the Cyclones’ first heartthrob — a lithe, dark-eyed center fielder with a name borrowed from a shoegazer band you wanted your parents to hate. The girls screamed for Angel Pagan; so, in my own nerdy blue-and-orange way, did I. I was certain that he was the one, the Cyclone who’d solve the pitiless math of the minor leagues and show up one day at Shea. Pagan was going to be a star, and I was going to be able to point at him from the back of the mezzanine and tell people how I’d seen him play in a little park on the beach, not so long ago and not so far away, and now just look at him.

Which turned out to be true. Eventually. If you squinted a little.

Toner was back in Brooklyn the next summer, which we were yet to realize wasn’t a good sign; he was out of baseball by 2004. But Pagan kept going: Capital City, St. Lucie, Binghamton, Norfolk. In 2005 he hit .271 with 27 steals in a full Triple-A season. He was only 23; it looked like my dream might even come true a little early.

And then, in the offseason, the Mets sold him to the Cubs.

I was heartbroken — and seethed when Pagan made his big-league debut in Chicago in 2006. He was a part-timer as a Cub, plagued by both injuries and mental lapses, but I didn’t care. He’d been a Cyclone. He’d been meant to be a Met. Anyone could see that — except, apparently, the Mets front office.

And then, a miracle. The Mets reacquired him.

Pagan didn’t become a star in 2008 — in fact, he was lost for the year in July after he hurt his shoulder diving into the stands — but there he was at Shea, just like I’d imagined. (He even rehabbed briefly with the Cyclones.) And when the Mets made the move to Citi Field in 2009, so did he.

2009 — the year to which this profile belongs — was not a good year in Mets annals. We first heard the name “Bernie Madoff” and discovered what he’d done for but mostly to the Wilpons. Not just the country but the entire world was struggling to escape a horrific recession that had been set in motion by arcane investment instruments and the supposed wizards who’d invented them. The new park, emblazoned with the name of those suddenly shaky financial titans, felt more like a monument to Fred Wilpon’s Brooklyn childhood than a home for the actual baseball team he owned.

And the team? The one picked as World Series champs by Sports Illustrated after two heartbreaking finishes in 2007 and 2008? It was a goddamn dumpster fire. Daniel Murphy played left field like a soldier being shelled. In the home opener, Mike Pelfrey served up a home run to the immortal Jody Gerut on his third pitch and later fell down on the mound. Carlos Beltran forgot how to slide. Oliver Perez showed up looking like he’d eaten an entire ZIP code and soon had an ERA to match. Ryan Church missed third base out in L.A. Luis Castillo turned the last out of a win in Yankee Stadium into a walk-off error. Omar Minaya decided that the bizarre behavior of Tony Bernazard, the Mets’ VP of player development, was part of a sinister plot cooked up by beat writer Adam Rubin. David Wright was hit in the head by a fastball, which helped send his glittering career into a tailspin from which it never truly recovered. New acquisition Jeff Francoeur got with the program by hitting into a game-ending unassisted triple play. And the injuries, oh the injuries. Every day seemed to bring a new one: Johan Santana, Carlos Delgado, Wright, Beltran, J.J Putz, Jose Reyes.

If you weren’t there, count yourself lucky.

In a season like that, you take any bright spots you can find, and Pagan was one of them. He somehow avoided the Biblical plague of misfortune, got playing time and showed he deserved it: His final line for the season was a .306 average with 14 steals. The Mets, being the Mets, responded by reacquiring Gary Matthews Jr. for 2009. Matthews proved not to be the answer — it’s hard to play with a giant fork sticking out of your back — and Pagan took his job, then had a breakout year. He hit 11 home runs and brought much-needed speed to the club, stealing 37 bags and playing excellent defense in center. He may not have been the most consistent player — he was still prone to lapses on the bases and on defense, earning himself the nickname El Caballo Loco — but he was definitely exciting, turning a triple play and hitting an inside-the-park home run in the same game. (Alas, the Mets still lost.)

And so there we were — that first Cyclones heartthrob, playing center for the Mets. No, it wasn’t at Shea and there’d been that detour to the Cubs and the Mets were crummy and sometimes Pagan brought too much loco and not enough caballo, but it was at least close-ish to what I’d imagined. Remember those Family Circus cartoons where Jeffy gets sent on an errand and returns later than expected, with a tangle of dotted lines representing his distracted ramblings around the neighborhood? Kid still came home, right?

In 2011, though, Jeffy forgot about the quart of milk for Mom. Pagan got off to a slow start, reacted badly, was plagued by injuries, and alienated both teammates and management. There were highlights — most notably his walkoff homer against the Cardinals, nearly caught by Gary, Keith or Ron in the Pepsi Porch — but there weren’t enough of them, and in the offseason Sandy Alderson sent Pagan to the Giants for a much-needed reliable reliever, Ramon Ramirez, and a similarly dynamic/enigmatic outfielder, Andres Torres.

This time, I wasn’t heartbroken. The caballo/loco ratio was out of whack, and while I still felt affectionate about the original Cyclone who’d made good, I’d also decided Pagan was one of those players who’d benefit from a new clubhouse and new voices. Which turned out to be true — Pagan rebounded to garner some low-level MVP votes as the ’12 Giants won a title, then proved a useful player for them over several more seasons. (The trade was a disaster for the Mets, as Ramirez and Torres both imploded.) Eventually Pagan wore out his welcome in San Francisco too: When the team found itself in desperate need of outfielders in 2017, it was telling that they didn’t ink the guy they’d employed just the year before, the one who was unsigned and loudly advertising his availability. Pagan, by then one of the last of the Shea Mets, never did find a deal; his retirement turned out to be involuntary and more permanent than he’d imagined.

So what does all this mean? I’m tempted to conclude with a warning about how storytelling compels us to search for a moral even when it’s just a bunch of stuff that happened. But that feels both glib and cheap. Here’s a more worthy lesson: Baseball infatuations are part of being a fan, even if they aren’t yet supported by reality. There’s nothing at all wrong with that. Dreaming is free, to quote the philosophers Stein and Harry, and it’s to be celebrated and encouraged. But just remember that even those dreams that do come true might not exactly fit what you saw when your eyes were closed.

1962: Richie Ashburn
1964: Rod Kanehl
1969: Donn Clendenon
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1982: Rusty Staub
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1994: Rico Brogna
2000: Melvin Mora
2002: Al Leiter
2008: Johan Santana
2012: R.A. Dickey

Dates With Destiny

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

They swept away all the streamers
After the Labor day parade
Nothing left for a dreamer now
Only one final serenade

Billy Joel

Eight years and a day ago, Johan Santana faced 32 St. Louis Cardinals. He walked five of them and retired the other 27. This might be how we’d express a no-hitter if there was a superstition that demanded you don’t jinx one after the fact.

If “no-hitter” didn’t roll pithily off the tongue, however, the date it occurred wouldn’t have emblazoned itself onto our brains for good June 1, 2012. Given the monumental nature and relative recency of The First No-Hitter in the History of the New York Mets, it may be the one regular-season game date most every Mets fan knows by heart without rancor. June 15, 1977, is pretty deeply ingrained within Metsopotamia’s collective consciousness, but that’s for reasons of infamy and has nothing to do with the Mets beating the Braves that particular Wednesday night. In this century, June 1, 2012, has competition mainly from September 21, 2001, though that’s a date that is subordinate in every telling to another date, from ten days earlier. “Mike Piazza’s home run in the first game in New York after the tragedy of September 11, 2001…” Mike’s homer was a big emotional deal for reasons we all understand, but too many chronological qualifiers preface the narrative and therefore crowd its clarity.

June 1, 2012, doesn’t need any explanation in the Mets fan calendar-to-significance translator. It’s the no-hitter! We all know it, we all love it. I’m not exclusionary as a rule, but it you don’t love it, you’re not part of “we” for the balance of this discussion. Party poopers of the worst order (and, yup, our ranks contain them) can dwell on the five walks; the one ball that may have landed a scooch on the foul side of the left field line without being detected by the only person whose judgment mattered; or the two hands required to count how many starts Johan had left in him after proving himself willing to march into hell for our heavenly cause. Santana spent all of 2011 on the Disabled List and was destined to while away the entirety of 2013 there, too. In between, in 2012, he pitched as good as new for a few months. You couldn’t ask for anything better than The First No-Hitter in the History of the New York Mets as evidence of an exquisite shoulder anterior capsule repair job. You and Terry Collins surely couldn’t ask for 134 pitches, but with Johan, you didn’t have to ask. He’d have been insulted if you thought he’d have to think about an answer.

That date in history.

I don’t know how many no-hitters have been pitched in the eleventh-to-last start of a pitcher’s career, but Johan’s was, which is too bad because we liked having Johan around and it would have been swell to have had him stay in our midst as long as contractually possible. He was freaking Johan Santana, after all. From the moment in January of 2008 when we learned he’d be arriving on our scene until it was made clear in March of 2013 that he could no longer contribute to our glorious quest (though by 2013, our quests mostly involved slogging through the next 162 dates), it was freaking awesome to realize that one of the most imposing pitchers of the generation was wearing a Mets uniform.

We had Johan Santana! Pretty sweet, right? And we have a no-hitter thrown by Johan Santana. If that was the extent of Johan’s Mets accomplishments, Dayenu, it would have been enough. But Santana gave us more. In light of 46 Met wins, four successful Opening Day assignments, an ERA title, an All-Star selection and a steamy evening when he tossed a shutout and belted a homer (on the twelfth pitch of an obviously epic at-bat), I’d be willing to say “much more”. I want to say “so much more,” but that might be pushing it.

Johan Santana did not pitch us to a world championship, which was kind of the idea when we sent four young players of reasonable promise to Minnesota in order to have the two-time Cy Young winner wear No. 57 for us. That was probably too much to ask of one lefty, regardless of talent, bearing and track record.

Johan Santana did not pitch us to the playoffs. That is a true statement if we ignore that no Met did more to land us in the 2008 postseason than Johan, whose fiercely urgent presence in Flushing was largely attributable to the failure of the 2007 Mets to finish first in their division or anywhere with a Wild Card. We had a lefty with two Cy Youngs in his past in September 2007 yet came up one game short of where we wanted…no, needed to be. The trade to the Twins may have involved Carlos Gomez, Philip Humber, Deolis Guerra and Kevin Mulvey, but what we were really doing in the offseason preceding ’08 was trading up, casting off our no longer reliable Gl@v!ne for a sleek late-model Santana. Sure, it had a few more miles on it that we might have preferred (those Minneapolis winters can really wear on a vehicle), but the salesman said it could get us where we wanted…no, needed to be.

The fine print specified Santana was one of only dozens of Mets on the September 2008 roster. He wasn’t a member of the creaky bullpen, nor was he made available to play any of several on-field positions that cried out for improvement. Johan Santana could only be asked to carry a team from the mound every fifth day. OK, every fourth day when things got dire.

Johan looked good in February, but he was truly phenomenal come September.

Oh, did he carry us that September. My god, do you remember how great Johan Santana was in September of 2008? Mind you, he ranged from pretty darn good to utterly superb from April to August, but in the September of our potential redemption, he was freaking Johan Santana: six starts, four wins, no losses, an earned run average under two, more than a strikeout per inning and the pièce de résistance of pennant-race pitching, an effort whose date you might not instantly recall but whose excellence should never escape you.

The Johan Santana start of September 27, 2008, lives in a class of its own. That it wasn’t a no-hitter — or the no-hitter — is immaterial. We’d never had a no-hitter. We wouldn’t have known what to have done with one. What we had was the cloud that followed us from the previous September to this one. What we required was someone to chase the cloud away.

That September, specifically on a gray Saturday afternoon, the last Saturday afternoon Shea Stadium would ever know, Johan Santana was every element under the sun. He was earth, wind and fire while chasing the clouds away.

What part did you like best? The fact that it was a shutout? That it was a complete game? I mean you had to love that not just for the bookkeeping, but for keeping the pen away. No Heilman. No Schoeneweis. No Ayala. Johan was Santana Claus, and his easily spooked reindeer stayed parked safely beyond the right field fence.

But how about that it was a complete game shutout pitched on three days’ rest when, even then, nobody pitched on three days’ rest? Johan wasn’t nobody. Or just anybody. He was Johan.

Ooh, how about a complete game shutout on three days’ rest with an unmentioned torn meniscus in his left knee, something a pitcher who throws with his left arm probably needs in the scheme of crafting short-rest route-going blankings? The man could have copped to physically falling apart but recognized his team was in more pieces that he might have been, so he strapped it on. Strapped what on, you might ask. Whatever Johan strapped on, it was serious stuff.

Let us not let the legend of September 27, 2008, go the least bit unembellished by the facts. Let us not forget that the three-hit, complete game shutout on short rest and one good knee was prefaced by a note from its author, one he penned in the clubhouse and taped to the wall when he wasn’t busy strapping everything else on. It said, according to contemporary accounts, “It’s time to be a MAN.” At the risk of getting carried away by the concept of manliness as it applies to a silly game of baseball, it might have just as easily said, “It’s time to be JOHAN.”

Why was JOHAN so specific in informing the other Mets what time it was on September 27, 2008? Because it was time for all of them to be as much like JOHAN as they could. It was the 161st game of the 2008 season, or 161 games since many of them gave up a playoff berth in the very same ballpark to the very same opponent, no less. As in 2007, the 2008 Mets held first place in the National League East in September and then, because they must have loved it, set it free. Now they were keeping Cliché Stadium open every bit as much as they were closing down Shea Stadium. This was for all the marbles. There was no tomorrow. Technically, there was one tomorrow, but it was gonna be one marble-less Sunday without a marvelous Saturday defeating the disgustingly pesky Florida Marlins.

Thus, to put it all together, Johan Santana pitched that complete game, bullpen-free shutout on one-kneed abbreviated rest so the Mets could contend for a playoff spot for one more day at Shea. Exactly one more day, as it turned out, because in Game 162 of 2008, the reindeer got loose from the bullpen and, when you got right down to it, it was in fashion if not form Game 162 of 2007 all over again. Santana Claus could give us only Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day, and our stocking came up one lump shy one more time.

But you can’t fairly say Johan Santana didn’t pitch us into the playoffs. He pitched us right up to its front door, or the edge of its chimney. Even Santa had helpers to get him through the necessary portal.

Two-plus months before Johan Santana’s first unforgettable Met date, Billy Joel invited Paul McCartney — a veteran of Shea’s multipurpose utility c. 1965 — on stage to add an indelible climax to the ballpark’s final big-time concert. In retrospect, Alec Baldwin narrated on a DVD commemorating what was billed as The Last Play at Shea, the grand musical performance constituted “the stadium’s last magic moment”.

It was indeed magic. But it took place on July 18, 2008. I don’t have a twelve-year-old calendar handy, yet I’m pretty sure September 27, 2008, came later.

1962: Richie Ashburn
1964: Rod Kanehl
1969: Donn Clendenon
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1982: Rusty Staub
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1994: Rico Brogna
2000: Melvin Mora
2002: Al Leiter
2012: R.A. Dickey

A Bit of a Miracle on 33rd Street

Imagine a world in which you walk down a fairly busy street; you feel perfectly fine; you carry no existential worries as you inhale and exhale without a second thought; you inherently respect everybody you pass, regardless of what they look like or where they come from; they inherently respect you; you take it as a given that everybody’s rights are valued and protected; maybe you have a few extra bucks in your pocket; you’re headed somewhere to say “hey” to those you know, those you’re happy to get to know, those you will greet by touch as well as by word; you’re gonna sit down with them; you’re gonna dig into good food and drink with them; and you’re gonna watch the game with them, whatever the game is. The game is likely secondary, but it’s on, as is the light in this place you’re so glad you know about.

Imagine there’s a Foley’s. It’s easy if you try. For sixteen very recent years, it required no imagination. It was right there on 33rd Street in Manhattan, a few doors west of Fifth Avenue. I knew it from personal experience for about a decade in the middle of its glorious run. You couldn’t have drawn up a better model of or reason for human interaction.

The world in which Foley’s operated is on pause, therefore Foley’s has ceased to be a part of it. That hurts to know. A lot hurts to know these days, but in the context in which we’ve been fortunate to conduct ourselves on our better days — sports; sociability; soda or perhaps something stronger — word that Shaun Clancy is closing Foley’s stings more than a little. It doesn’t take away from understanding larger problems to acknowledge that this, too, leaves our heart aching.

Foley’s advertised itself as an Irish bar with a baseball attitude. I’d add it contained a Yiddish underpinning. It was, as my mother liked to say by way of her highest praise for anything, haimish. As Lou Monte might have translated for you nice ladies and gentlemen out there who don’t understand the Jewish language, that means it was warm, cozy, homey. You know…haimish.

The only problem with the above description is the use of the past tense where Foley’s is now concerned. “Was” doesn’t suit an establishment where you so look forward to returning as soon as the next opportunity arises. Sadly, opportunities have gone on hiatus for bars, restaurants and any place folks get together to do all the things Foley’s was expert at enabling.

Every time I’ve published a book, Foley’s has been there one way or another to support it. Every time almost anybody in New York has published a book or pursued a worthwhile cause, Foley’s has been there to support it. Lunch was splendid, dinner superb, the beer as accessible as you wanted it to be. The warmth was built into its walls in 2004 and radiated with enveloping coziness until COVID-19 did its number on the business. In announcing that this vital baseball shrine — proudly bearing the name of a revered sportswriter in these hysterically press-hostile times — was out for the inning, owner Clancy allowed the game itself hasn’t necessarily been irrevocably called. Hopefully Foley’s gets another at-bat somewhere else in town. Hopefully we all have the chance to pass through its transplanted turnstiles again.

At Foley’s, Shaun Clancy (left) made everybody feel like a Hall of Famer.

Hopefully by then all of us are the things that none of us can take for granted at this moment. We’ll all feel well. We’re all feel reasonably well off. We’re all feel safe not just from viruses and hardship but from the kind of darkness you keep thinking must have been left to rot in the past, yet keeps resurfacing from the worst instincts of a country you’ve always truly wanted to believe is progressing relentlessly toward fulfilling its brightest ideals, periodic backslides notwithstanding. This should be about lifting a glass to a wonderful bar and its gracious staff and a restaurateur who made everybody feel like a Hall of Famer, but it’s hard to confine your thoughts to a baseball attitude when you know too many Americans are taking a beating figuratively, literally and everywhere in between.

In December of 2012, Friend of FAFIF Sharon Chapman went to typically selfless lengths to arrange a release party for one of my books, an event that doubled as a celebration of my fiftieth birthday, which has pretty much eliminated the need for me to ostentatiously celebrate any further birthdays, because nothing will ever top that Saturday afternoon. Of course it was going to be at Foley’s. Of course it was going to be imbued with a baseball attitude. Of course it was a fantastic day. We sang every verse of “Meet the Mets” loud enough so that maybe even the infiltrating SantaConners upstairs got an earful.

But the day before, I had my doubts about doing it at all because that was the day a madman opened fire at an elementary school in Connecticut and killed children and adults who looked after them. It just didn’t seem right to have a party. Maybe I’d seen one too many Aaron Sorkin productions in which everything comes to a stop because one American’s tragedy is every American’s tragedy. We had the party. I distinctly recall a few side conversations about the horror of Sandy Hook before getting back to the good times. Maybe that’s a metaphor for how we do things in this country when we’re fortunate to have options.

Here’s to everybody having options. Here’s to everybody having health. Here’s to Foley’s. Life may not be the best sports bar you can imagine, but we should all treat each other as well as Shaun Clancy treated everybody on 33rd Street.

Nothing Standardized About Him

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

You’ll never know the pleasure of writing a graceful sentence or having an original thought.
—Aaron Altman attempting to verbally torment a trio of toughs after his high school graduation, Broadcast News

I want to say that the first time I remember encountering the word “literati” was in a story that referenced Peter Gent, author of North Dallas Forty. The conceit was that Gent would come into Manhattan with the Dallas Cowboys in the days when their dates with the Giants awaited at Yankee Stadium and attend kickoff-eve cocktail parties where the football player would make highbrow book editor-types swoon primarily by being a jock who spoke in complete, complex sentences. In the article I’m sure I read yet can find no evidence of despite myriad searches combining “literati,” “Peter Gent” and “cocktail,” there was much backslapping on the Paper Lion circuit when it was learned that this sui generis receiver had been traded to the Giants and would therefore be accessible all autumn long to talk pigskin and existence in terms that went beyond hut-one, hut-two.

Alas, articulate Gent was waived by the Giants as training camp ended. Never a star in the NFL, he didn’t become truly famous until the publication, several years after his retirement, of North Dallas Forty, a novel that told a real story about life in professional football. Maybe he was a cocktail party secret in the ’60s before going big-time in the ’70s (so secret that even Tom Landry must not have realized his player was out and about). Or perhaps I’m confusing something I read in the book written by Gent with something I read in a magazine about Gent. Or Dan Jenkins wrote something similar somewhere about somebody else, actual or fictional, given that Semi-Tough and North Dallas Forty were published around the same time and I got around to reading them around the same time. Or am I conflating these cultural touchstones with that episode of The Odd Couple in which Oscar owes the owner of a football team from Texas (tycoon Billy Joe, portrayed by Pernell Roberts) a large sum from poker losses and, because this is The Odd Couple, Oscar settles up by convincing Felix to let his band the Sophisticados perform at a hoedown, albeit as Red River Unger and the Saddle Sores?

Whatever the hell it is I’m thinking of, the image returned to my consciousness right around this time of year — it’s late May, in case you’ve lost track — ten years ago. That was when R.A. Dickey was called up from what we used to know as the minor leagues and introduced himself to all who love the Mets, but sent out a subtle dog whistle to those of us who not only cherish the Mets but relish the English language. If our little subset had been indulging in a Gent-eel soirée, we’d have all set down our martini glasses and focused our attention at game’s end like a laser on what the stranger from somewhere South of Staten Island was saying on SNY.

He got his picture on baseball cards, too.

Then we’d have each lunged for the nearest Thesaurus to craft a phrase less hackneyed than “like a laser”.

I doubt Dickey knew he was doing it. That’s what made him all the more rootable. He was just being himself — and in the process of evincing authenticity, he was endearing himself to everybody who’d gone after the verbal portion of the SATs with relative gusto while dreading the math portion. R.A. Dickey is to Mets baseball as [blank] is to [other blank]… There is no obvious answer or exact analogy. Rather than sweat a response, better you should fill in your name, settle for however many points a legible signature nets you, and ditch the test in time for first pitch Saturday afternoon. Besides, for as much as aptitude as he demonstrated by throwing a singular knuckleball between his unheralded arrival as a 35-year-old reclamation project in 2010 and the All-Star zenith of his Met tenure in 2012, there was nothing standardized about R.A. Dickey.

It’s been a decade since his Met debut, yet it hasn’t been so long since we tingled to the innings when R.A. baffled batters and the minutes when he described the process. He used words like “anomaly” and “propensity” and “compulsion” and “gingerly”. When he pitched well enough to win, he was satisfied his work “yielded this ripe a fruit”. His best pitch had to be “trustworthy”; it got better via “little mechanical nuances”; one swing could change “the culture of what’s going on in the moment”. The extra-large mitt he lugged from organization to organization so his next catcher could hope to handle his knuckleball? “This glove has a personality of its own.”

And that was just R.A. talking through his first season as a Met. Dickey didn’t have me so much at “hello” as “inconsequential.” That was the word Dickey chose to describe an atmospheric factor a beat writer asked him about after he’d lost a close one to Tim Lincecum in San Francisco. Did the wind play a role?

“Inconsequential,” he said. Swoon! Give Jon Niese a hundred hard-luck starts, he’d never come up with “inconsequential” (nor resist the opportunity to cop an alibi). It wasn’t the first time Dickey speaking about his pitching had gotten my attention, but there was something about casually tossing off five suitable syllables where nobody would have blinked twice at “nah” placed me in his corner forevermore.

The pitching didn’t hurt, either. The pitching was key, actually. The grandest vocabulary in the clubhouse doesn’t say diddly if it comes attached to an ERA over six. English Lit major Dickey and that hard knuckleball only he threw landed like a knuckle sandwich in the face of National League hitters who hadn’t seen anything like it cross a plate near them. R.A. had it going on when he emerged from the exurbs of nowhere in 2010; when he enhanced his knuckler’s strengths in 2011; and, come 2012, when he pulled down twenty wins and the Cy Young. Between revelatory starts, he collaborated on a best-selling not to mention intensely compelling book, co-starred in a delightful documentary about his signature pitch and scaled one of the world’s steeper mountains.

The language-lovers among us who absorbed every step of his Metsian journey, especially his accounts and descriptions thereof, felt a thrill going up our leg, to borrow a 2008 phrase from Chris Matthews (himself more about Hardball than a knuckleball). I noticed that as much as virtually every Mets fan in creation toasted R.A.’s success warmly and effusively, it was those of us who worked closely with the language who seemed most thrilled on the man’s behalf. We intrinsically felt we had one of our own was out there on our behalf. Editors. Writers. Educators. This wasn’t just a Met excelling at pitching. This was a kindred linguistic spirit. We were in awe that somebody like this was so good at the sport we cherished even if most of us had never had any hope of playing it at any competitive level beyond the schoolyard (and even back then not that competitively).

“Dickey is too good to be true on so many different levels that you almost expect to wake up and find out that you’ve dreamed him,” Prof. Dana Brand once wrote. Dana, in case you weren’t around in the latter 2000s and earliest 2010s, was a leading light of Met lit; his two books of essays — Mets Fan and The Last Days of Shea indicate the glow from his writing remains eternal. Before dying too soon nine years ago this week, Dana led the English department at Hofstra University and was putting together the Mets’ 50th-anniversary academic conference there. That Dickey and Dana crossed temporal paths, however briefly, vouches for some kind of cosmic karma in our world.

“He has none of the pretentiousness that ballplayers sometimes have when they use ‘big words,’” Dana elaborated on the subject of the soft-spoken Tennessean. “He uses the English language with thoughtfulness and precision. I hope he’s our ace for the next ten years.”

In December of 2012, barely more than a year-and-a-half after Dana’s passing, R.A. was traded to Toronto for minor leaguers who grew up to become 2015 National League champions Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud. The record will show this trade as a win in the annals of our ballclub. With Dickey on the back end of his career and Syndergaard’s potential blatantly apparent, the deal made extraordinary sense on paper and revealed itself as prescient in pursuit of a pennant.

Still, you miss someone like R.A. Dickey the way you miss someone like Dana Brand, men who could make words dance regardless of the status of their respective ulnar collateral ligaments. I’m sort of sorry R.A. didn’t get to pitch in a more successful Met era, but part of me doesn’t mind that much. R.A. Dickey was an era unto himself every fifth day. He gave us something we never had before during a period when we surely needed an element that surpassed the sum of our sub-.500 parts. We’d be blessed by the presence of superb pitching aces in seasons to come, just as we’d been fortunate to have benefited previously from twenty-game and Cy Young winners.

But to get to continually tell R.A. Dickey stories for three seasons…and to now and then recall suddenly many years later the joy he provided through his elite manner of pitching and his singular style of talking…well, let’s just say R.A. Dickey is to Mets baseball as nothing else ever was or ever will be.

1962: Richie Ashburn
1964: Rod Kanehl
1969: Donn Clendenon
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1982: Rusty Staub
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1994: Rico Brogna
2000: Melvin Mora
2002: Al Leiter

The Man Who Walked Away

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

Richie Ashburn has two Topps cards as a New York Met.

The first, his ’62 card, is what’s known in baseball-card circles as a BHNH. That’s “big head no hat,” a shot taken capless and from chest up, without the team logo showing. Such shots were insurance in case a player was traded — or, in this case, if baseball expanded and Topps had to include players with their new clubs before spring-training photographers got to work. Ashburn, hatless, is wearing Cubs or Phillies pinstripes. He’s working his tongue over his lower lip, as if he’s about to stick it out, and his brows are lowered. He looks perplexed, like he’s sizing up something strange and possibly dangerous.

Ashburn’s second Mets card is from ’63, and shows him in a proper Mets cap, looking heavenward, as if spying some greater reward. It’s what’s known as a “career capper,” one that includes a player’s full lifetime stats. Because Ashburn never suited up for ’63 with the Mets, or with anybody else after ’62.

Between those two cards lies a story.

Richie Ashburn '62 Topps card

Just wait till you see the expression he wears after being a ’62 Met.

Ashburn is one of the towering figures in the lore surrounding the 1962 Mets, they of the historically hapless 40-120 record and our year of consideration. But his role in that oft-told story is an interesting one. He’s not the jester (Marv Throneberry), the ringleader (Casey Stengel), the perpetual victim (Roger Craig), the shocked bystander (Gil Hodges), the sad clown (Don Zimmer), the guy in on the joke (Rod Kanehl), or one of the revealing cameos (Harry Chiti, Joe Pignatano, Choo Choo Coleman, the two Bob Millers as roommates). Ashburn was the straight man, the consummate professional at the center of the carnage and mayhem, perplexed by where he’d found himself and what he’d done to deserve it.

Which isn’t to say he didn’t have a sense of humor about it. Ashburn was Cyrano to Throneberry’s Christian, feeding Marvelous Marv lines from the locker next to his and turning a sad-sack failed minor-leaguer into a shambolic legend. He dined out on ’62 Met tales for years, or at least endured them, patiently answering fan mail and sprinkling the stories into his reminiscences in the Phillies’ broadcast booth and the Philadelphia sports pages.

You’ve probably heard those tales before, but they’re too good not to revisit.

The most famous yarn bestowed a name on a noted indie-rock band: Ashburn manned center for the Mets, but on pop flies he kept getting run over by Elio Chacon, the team’s enthusiastic but erratic Venezuelan shortstop. Eventually Ashburn figured out the problem was the language barrier, and enlisted the bilingual Joe Christopher to help. Christoper taught Ashburn that “I got it!” was “Yo la tengo” in Spanish. Ashburn tried out his new language skills on Chacon, who beamed. “Si, si, yo la tango.”

The next time there was a pop-up behind the infield, Ashburn hustled in to catch it and saw Chacon steaming in his direction. “Yo la tengo! Yo la tengo!” he hollered. Chacon obligingly pulled up and Ashburn camped under the ball — only to be knocked sprawling by Frank Thomas, the left fielder.

(By the way, when I was in college Yo La Tengo played a show in town and got a ride back to wherever they were staying, only to have the driver somehow mistake a pedestrian path for a city street, drive across our cross-campus lawn, and crash into a building. Which struck me as the ’62 Mets of indie-rock touring.)

But my favorite Ashburn story is a subtler one.

Ashburn and Throneberry each received a Chris-Craft cabin cruiser for their contributions to the ’62 Mets. Ashburn got his because he was voted team MVP, but Throneberry won his boat by hitting a Chris-Craft sign more than any other player. (This was the same sign that Thomas kept aiming for while at bat, eventually prompting an exasperated Stengel to holler from the dugout, “if you wanna be a sailor, join the navy!”) The team accountant informed Throneberry that he had to pay income taxes on his boat because it had been earned, while Ashburn’s boat was a gift and therefore tax-free.

That’s the shot, but here’s the chaser: Ashburn lived in Tilden, Neb., and had no conceivable use for a fancy boat. So he arranged for it to be moored in a marina in Ocean City, N.J., while he found a buyer. Whoever put the cabin cruiser in the water forgot to put back the drainage plug, so the boat sank. Then the check written for it bounced.

Yeah, 1962 was that kind of year. But on-field, Ashburn was the Mets’ brightest spot. He hit .306, a single-season mark that would stand until Cleon Jones hit .340 in 1969, and was the team’s All-Star representative. And that season followed a superb career, one that would lead to Ashburn getting the call to Cooperstown. Well, eventually. Which is part of our story too.

Ashburn’s father played semi-pro ball and would shape his son’s career, teaching him to hit left-handed to take advantage of his speed and grooming him as a catcher because he saw that as the quickest route to the big leagues. Noticing his son’s weak arm, he taught him to compensate through positioning, charging balls hit to him and making throws on the run — a technique that would become an Ashburn signature (and saved the 1950 pennant for the so-called Whiz Kids, as Ashburn nailed Brooklyn’s Cal Abrams at the plate in the season’s last game.)

In 1943 Ashburn signed with the Indians, only to have the contract nullified by Kenesaw Mountain Landis because he was just 16 and still in high school. The next year, Ashburn played in the Polo Grounds as an American Legion All-Star, where Connie Mack noted his speed and size and advised him to move off catcher. Ashburn signed with the Cubs, but Landis nullified that deal too because of a clause in the contract that would have paid Ashburn if the Cubs sold their Nashville farm team. Tired of false starts, Ashburn went to college despite being coveted by all of baseball, and had to be convinced to sign with the Phillies. His manager with the 1945 Utica Blue Sox, future Phils skipper Eddie Sawyer, was the one who finally forced Ashburn to quit catching — according to legend, that happened after Ashburn beat a batter to first, gear and all, on a grounder to the infield.

(By the way, Ashburn’s SABR biography is wonderful, and was invaluable to me. Read it here.)

Ashburn missed 1946 because he was in the Army — in a Metsian move, they sent him to Alaska — and made his debut in 1948 at 21. He was an immediate star, hailed as the best center fielder in the game and its fastest runner. Ashburn collected more hits than any big-leaguer in the 1950s, won two batting titles, led the league in hits three times, led or tied for the league lead in walks four times, topped 500 putouts four times, and played 730 games in a row.

After a subpar 1959, the Phillies traded Ashburn to the Cubs, where he always looked out of uniform. The Mets bought his contract in the winter of 1961, inheriting a player who’d lost some of his legendary speed but was still valuable.

The problem was that Ashburn hated losing. Which is the dark side of the ’62 Mets, the theme that usually stays submerged beneath the funny stories. Stengelese dominated headlines (and distracted the press from the wretchedness of the team), but there was no shortage of ’62 Mets who didn’t find their manager’s act particularly funny, or enjoy being National League doormats. Ashburn’s season came down to Sept. 30, 1962, a sparsely attended Wrigley Field matinee featuring two horrible teams. In the eighth, with the Mets trailing 5-1, Sammy Drake singled and Ashburn whacked a 2-2 pitch between first and second, singling and moving Drake up a base. Joe Pignatano came up … and hit into a triple play.

The next spring, Mets GM George Weiss — not known for being free with dollars — offered him a contract with a $10,000 raise. Ashburn said no. When an incredulous Zimmer asked why he’d retire after hitting .300, Ashburn said he couldn’t stand the idea of losing 100 games again. His ’63 Topps card became a retrospective of a career voluntarily cut short.

Ashburn finished up with 2,574 hits, which leads to a question that’s nagged at me for years.

He wasn’t inducted into the Hall of Fame until 1995, when the Veterans Committee voted him in. (His first call was to his 91-year-old mother, who wept with joy.) But calling that a grave injustice is too sentimental. Ashburn was a marginal candidate: He only hit 29 homers in his big-league career, and 82% of his career hits were singles.

But then there’s this. Ashburn would have been 36 on Opening Day in 1963. Granted, 36 was older for a ballplayer then than it is now, and Ashburn had lost some of the speed that was so important to his game. But he was still an effective player, racking up 119 hits in 1962. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine Ashburn playing another couple of years with the Mets and winding up closer to 2,800 hits. (And let’s not forget he lost a year because of military service.) I don’t know if 3,000 hits was the magical number then that it became, but I do know that voters and veterans would have seen his candidacy differently a lot sooner if he’d come closer.

Instead, Ashburn walked away. He became a beloved broadcaster and columnist, a second act that cemented his legend in Philadelphia — next time you get to go to Citizens Bank Park, check out his statue in Ashburn Alley and offer a salute to his 1, retired since 1979. He died on Sept. 9, 1997 in New York, just hours after he’d enlivened a Mets-Phillies game with his usual dry commentary. (The Phils won, 13-4; the next night, Harry Kalas offered a heartfelt tribute to his longtime partner and the Phils won, 1-0, thanks to a Rico Brogna homer off Dave Mlicki.)

That’s a pretty good baseball life. But the part of it that can be statistically appraised was diminished because Ashburn couldn’t stand being part of a baseball joke. He got to be the straight man instead of the heel, sure. But he was still part of a comedy act, and the laughter didn’t sit well with him. And walking away didn’t free him from the farce, as that single miserable year in New York sometimes threatened to overshadow a dozen remarkable ones in Philadelphia. He was good-humored about the whole thing, but I sometimes wondered what he thought more privately, when the microphones were off and the writers had put down their pens.

1964: Rod Kanehl
1969Donn Clendenon
1972Gary Gentry
1973Willie Mays
1982Rusty Staub
1991Rich Sauveur
1992Todd Hundley
1994Rico Brogna
2000Melvin Mora
2002Al Leiter

The First Patron Saint of Ridiculous Causes

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

When I first encountered Rod Kanehl, it was as an example of what not to be.

The story is famous in Miracle Mets lore: After the Mets ascended to the lofty heights of .500 in late May of 1969, the latest they’d ever managed mediocrity, the beat writers entered the locker room expecting a celebration, only to find business as usual. When he figured out what the scribes had expected, Tom Seaver was contemptuous — in his usual indomitable, slightly imperious way.

“What’s so great about .500?” he asked. “I’m tired of jokes about the old Mets. Let Rod Kanehl and Marvelous Marv laugh about the Mets. We’re out here to win.”

As a Met-obsessed kid learning the franchise history through books, I loved that story. I loved what it said about Seaver and standards and winning, which is the context in which it’s usually presented. I also took away from it the thoroughly mistaken idea that every player was intimately aware of his franchise’s past. But it left me wondering: Who were Rod Kanehl and Marvelous Marv, anyway? In time, I’d figure that out — and given more time, I’d discover that Seaver’s name-checking Kanehl wasn’t as random as it sounded.

But let’s not get ahead of the story.

Marvelous Marv — that would be Marvin Eugene Throneberry, he of the initials M.E.T. — got more ink when tales of the early Mets got told and retold, but in my opinion it was his roommate Roderick Edwin Kanehl, AKA Hot Rod, who really embodied those teams, and the reason Casey Stengel‘s Mets had been beloved instead of booed.

Rod Kanehl 1964 cardKanehl played baseball hell for leather. Fans loved that. He also played it intelligently, with sound instincts and a hunger to learn. His teammates and coaches respected that. The problem was that for all his verve and brains, Kanehl didn’t play baseball very well. He saw time at seven positions in ’62, a sign of admirable versatility … except for the fact that he somehow made 32 errors playing those positions. Herein lies a question to ponder: Is a utility player who can’t actually play any position still a utility player?

If that sounds philosophical, well, Kanehl was at least a utility-player-level philosopher. “The line drives are caught, the squibbles go for hits — it’s an unfair game,” he once observed, which strikes me as an essential baseball truth and is one of my favorite lines. Which was another reason I came to love Kanehl — he was the first in the franchise’s line of self-aware ironists, guys who demonstrated that they were in on the joke, even when an unfair game meant it was on them. In that sense, Ron Swoboda, Tug McGraw, Robin Ventura, Cliff Floyd and Noah Syndergaard are all descendants of Kanehl.

Kanehl grew up in Springfield, Mo., where baseball took a back seat to track — he was a star runner, high jumper and pole vaulter in high school and college. But he also played pickup games of “Indian ball” in the neighborhood, as well as American Legion and semi-pro ball. His speed prompted Yankee scout Tom Greenwade — who’d signed Mickey Mantle — to take a chance on him, signing him for $4,000. Kanehl debuted in the Class-D Sooner State League alongside Mantle’s twin brothers Roy and Ray, putting together a 32-game hitting streak. But his real break came two years later, when he attended an instructional camp in St. Petersburg, Fla., overseen by Casey Stengel. Kanehl, not far removed from days when losing a single ball meant the end of the game, leapt a five-foot fence topped with barbed wire to retrieve a home run before ball-hawking local kids could get it. As a former high jumper, Kanehl knew the fence was no obstacle, but Stengel was impressed: “Anybody who can save the club $2.50 on a baseball like that can play for me.”

But by the end of 1961, it looked like that would never be the case. Kanehl had learned to play shortstop — a move driven in part by Stengel’s love of versatility — but he’d spent eight years in the Yankees system without a callup. In an odd foreshadowing of Seaver’s arrival, he became available to the Mets because of a commissioner’s ruling. Syracuse, then a Twins affiliate, selected Kanehl in the 1961 minor-league draft, but the Twins switched Triple-A allegiances to Vancouver. The Mets signed an affiliation agreement with Syracuse, raising the question of which club got Kanehl. Commissioner Ford Frick, presumably not picking from a hat, ruled for the Mets.

Kanehl knew expansion had given him a shot at being a big leaguer, and he made the most of it. As he recalled later, “I was 28 years old. I either make it, or I go home.”

And this time he had an advantage, one he wasn’t about to surrender: Stengel knew and trusted him. Kanehl had been through years of Stengel’s standardized workouts and instructional boot camps, which the Ol’ Perfesser brought to the Mets. When Stengel wanted to show his new charges how to take a lead or bunt, he frequently chose Kanehl to demonstrate — Kanehl, the Double-A player without so much as a day in a big-league clubhouse.

That rankled the veterans, who saw Kanehl as Casey’s pet — Richie Ashburn was only one of the best bunters in the game, after all. In an early bunting drill, Roger Craig knocked the rookie down with a fastball below the chin. Undaunted, Kanehl sprang to his feet and told the veteran, “get it over, Meat.” But unlike other managers’ pets — hello, Gregg Jefferies! — Kanehl was accepted by his teammates. He won respect with his fiery play, but also because he had the brains to hang around the veterans’ clubhouse skull sessions, listening attentively as Gil Hodges and Don Zimmer and Gus Bell and Ashburn discussed their craft. In short order, they treated him like one of their own.

Kanehl also had an undeniable flair for the dramatic — and after eight years of toil, his luck was turning. One day in spring training he was asleep at the end of the bench after a too-late night when Stengel called on him to pinch-hit. Kanehl made his bleary way to the plate to find the Mets down by two, with runners on second and third (he had no idea how they got there) and Sandy Koufax glaring at him from the mound. He barely saw the first two strikes and tried to pull his bat back from a vicious curve ball ticketed to be strike three. It hit his bat and flared over the infield for a game-tying two-run double. Felix Mantilla then drove Kanehl in with the winning run. The game was televised in New York, where eager Mets fans saw a potential folk hero.

Stengel saw it too, and won a showdown with GM George Weiss. Weiss was well-acquainted with Kanehl, and wanted no part of him, but Stengel loved the player he called “Kanoo” or “my little scavenger,” observing that he “busts his ass for me.” The manager got his way: Kanehl hit .440 in the spring and won the backup-infielder spot over Ted Lepcio, a slow-footed veteran. Hot Rod was headed to New York.

And he kept getting lucky. He survived cutdown day by starring in a doubleheader against the Giants while playing first base, a position he’d never played before. On April 28, he scored from second on a wild pitch — the winning run in the Mets’ first home game. In another game, he walked, noticed none of the infielders were paying attention, and hurried down to second base. Ralph Kiner and Bob Murphy had taken advantage of a station break to get water, and had no idea how Kanehl had wound up with an extra base, or what to tell listeners.

Maybe they concluded Kanehl was magical. Because he kind of was — or at least as magical as a guy who hits .248 with a dismal fielding percentage can be. Kanehl hit the first grand slam in club history on July 6, a game where Stengel had exhorted the troops to do their best because Joan Payson had just returned from the famous trip to Europe where she’d amended her instructions to only receive telegrams when the Mets won. That feat earned Kanehl a place in the record books and 50,000 King Korn trading stamps, which he traded in at a store in Chicago for “a living-room suite, a Deepfreeze, an end table — a lot of junk.”

He also embraced the city where he’d hoped to play for so many years. Kanehl became an expert at navigating the subway, earning the nickname “the Mole” from teammates. But once again, he impressed the old hands: After games at the Polo Grounds, veteran Mets liked to repair to the Silhouette, a former Dodgers hangout in East Flatbush. (Which is an awfully long way from Coogan’s Bluff, but that’s habit for you.) Kanehl would take the subway instead of traveling by car, and routinely be on his second or third drink when his teammates arrived.

(Credit where credit is due: Kanehl is a major character in David Bagdade’s A Year in Mudville, one of several books I leaned on for the above, and which would make an excellent addition to your baseball library.)

The good times were not to last. Weiss kept trying to replace Stengel’s little scavenger, bringing in Ron Hunt for 1963 and then Amado Samuel and Charley Smith in ’64. 1964 is the year to which this profile nominally belongs, but by then Kanehl’s star — never all that bright to begin with, if we’re being honest — was waning. He slumped for much of the summer and struggled with injuries, and the Mets no longer wanted to be seen as the scrappy, scruffy team of the Polo Grounds. They’d moved to jet-age Shea and wanted to emphasize youth. When Kanehl didn’t make the Mets out of spring training in ’65, he said no to a minor-league contract.

Kanehl would never play another professional game, but neither his baseball story nor his part in the Mets’ tale had ended. He went back to semi-pro ball, suiting up for the Wichita Dreamliners. At the time, semi-pro and amateur leagues played for the National Baseball Congress championship. In the ’65 semi-finals, Kanehl’s Dreamliners faced off against the Alaska Goldpanners, a pitching-rich club whose starting staff included future Mets Danny Frisella, Al Schmelz and Tom Seaver. Seaver started against Wichita and imploded in the sixth; Kanehl stole home as part of a triple steal. The Goldpanners lost, 6-3, and if you think Tom Seaver forgot that, think again.

Kanehl hoped that season would earn him a look as a coach or manager, and he had every reason to think it might. He’d been offered a Class-D managerial job back in 1960, Stengel had used him as a de facto bench coach, and he’d been sent out to coach first at the tail end of the ’63 season. For whatever reason, the call never came. Years later, Kanehl told Sports Illustrated that “I thought there would always be room for a guy who knows the game and has some intelligence. I know the game from underneath. I know what goes on in the mind of a mediocre ballplayer. I know what it’s like to be a bad hitter. I know what it’s like to have to battle every time you go up to the plate.”

Kanehl was in the Mets’ clubhouse after the team won the division in 1969. As the Champagne fountained, he introduced himself to Tommie Agee. The young outfielder chatted genially with his visitor, then turned to ask a bystander, “Who is that?”

Seaver could have told him. So could many a long-suffering Met fan. Kanehl knew the game from underneath, which is a wonderful phrase. He also knew this soon-to-be-miraculous franchise from underneath. The Mets had been his ticket to the big leagues, at long last, and he was savvy enough to know they would be his meal ticket as the legends thickened around Marvelous Marv and Stengelese and the strange events witnessed in the last days of the Polo Grounds and the first days at Shea. He exemplified those days — the futility, sure, but also the raffish exuberance and the roll-your-eyes irony and the crazy, cockeyed hope that could never be extinguished in spite of it all. And while Kanehl didn’t get to manage — which would have been a treat for a new generation of fans — he never forgot to give thanks for what had come his way. In 1975, when Stengel died, Kanehl was the only ex-Met at his funeral.

1969: Donn Clendenon
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1982: Rusty Staub
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1994: Rico Brogna
2000: Melvin Mora
2002: Al Leiter

Mora in America: Melvinnium Approaches

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

I am determined to take our best traditions into the future. But with all respect, we do not need to build a bridge to the past. We need to build a bridge to the future, and that is what I commit to you to do. So tonight let us resolve to build that bridge to the 21st century…
—President Bill Clinton, 1996

There was a time when the 20th century was the only one any of us knew, that the concept of the 21st loomed as too outrageous to realistically contemplate. Even as “the year 2000,” as we reflexively called it, beckoned just up the road, it still struck us collectively as unknowable. Perhaps to prepare us for the mysteries of Y2K and the impending millennium it would usher in, we were granted a transition tool known as the 1999 Mets. They were a team that stretched the bounds of reality late in the last century for as long as they could.

With 73 days to go in the 1900s, the Mets played a baseball game they have yet to equal for sheer insanity in the 2000s. It wasn’t over until there were 72 days to go in the 1900s, and it came directly on the heels of one at least as lunatic, which they played when there were 75 days to go.

Time was flying just as we were having the most fun of our pre-millennium lives. Also flying everywhere he needed to be was Melvin Mora, one of the ornaments of the inimitable 1999 stretch drive and playoff spurt. Mora was one of those players who made 1999 what it was, even if he didn’t arrive to stay until it neared its conclusion. But then he made it better. He made it his own.

The Mora era began in earnest in the bottom of the ninth inning of October 3, 1999, the Mets knotted with the Pirates, 1-1, in Game 162, the game the Mets needed to win to guarantee they’d have a Game 163 and a chance at the jewels that waited beyond. After two topsy-turvy weeks that topped off a topsy-turvy year (that hadn’t seen anything yet), the Mets and Reds were tied for the National League’s sole Wild Card. The Mets were well-equipped to grab it. It was the year of Piazza, the year of Ventura, the year of Alfonzo, the year of so many 1999 Mets.

But when it mattered most, it was the moment of Mora.

Melvin — we were instantly on a first-name basis — came up with one out, following Bobby Bonilla not coming through as a pinch-hitter, and lined a single to right field off Greg Hansell to imbue Shea Stadium with the fierce urgency of hope. So many stars twinkled in our sky in 1999, yet here was this distant light coming into focus to show us the way.

The autumnal festival of Mora had commenced. In what flickers through the frames of the mind’s screening room as quick succession, Edgardo Alfonzo singled; Mora flew to third; John Olerud was intentionally walked; Gene Lamont replaced Hansell with Brad Clontz; Clontz warmed up; Mike Piazza stepped up with the bases loaded; Clontz went into his delivery; Clontz’s delivery skittered past catcher Joe Oliver; and Melvin Mora

Well, Melvin Mora was now at the heart of the Melvin Mora Game. We’d call it that forever because, as Oliver chased the pitch that got away and Piazza stood appropriately dazed in a state of inoperativeness, Melvin — who spent two-thirds of the day on the bench, then worked the box score as PR-LF-RF-LF the rest of the way — dashed from third to home. There was no doubt he was going to cross it safely. The last few steps, almost for show, turned into a duckwalk. Quack, quack, quack; the secret word is “playoffs”.

A one-game playoff, anyway. At the end of Game 162, with Robin Ventura leading the charge of the hug brigade and the Mets beating the Pirates, 2-1, we celebrated as if we knew there’d be more playoffs. If it didn’t read as a foregone conclusion in the standings, you could guess confidently that we were going places.

Mora is partially obscured by a hugging Ventura, but after scoring the winning run of his namesake game, he’d never be obscure again.

First, to Cincinnati, to break the Wild Card tie. The Mets gave miracles a rest and opted for excellence. It was one of their underlying conditions in 1999. They didn’t win 96 games for nothin’. In fact, thanks mainly to Rickey Henderson leading off with a single, Edgardo Alfonzo following Rickey with a two-run homer, and Al Leiter giving up only two hits over nine innings, they won a 97th, 5-0, which punched their ticket to their next stop: the NLDS in Phoenix.

It didn’t really matter where the Mets’ next game was going to be. The important thing was that there were going to be next games. There hadn’t been since 1988. It would be too simplistic to say “no wonder — there hadn’t been Melvin Mora, either,” but, actually, yeah. One gets the feeling that Melvin Mora, had he been insightful enough to arrive in some other season, would have pushed the Mets an extra step. He would have kept Mike Scioscia in the park in 1988; would have neutralized the Bonilla & Bonds Bucs of 1990; would have convinced Vince Coleman to roll up his window in 1993; would have held together 1998 when it was falling apart.

But you can only ask Melvin Mora in retrospect to do what Melvin Mora actually did. The lithe Venezuelan product wasn’t born until 1972, didn’t sign a professional contract until 1991, and needed to play a little in Taipei in ’98 to draw attention to talents that went undetected during his looong tenure in Houston’s minor league system. The Mets noticed, signed him, invited him to Spring Training in ’99. He tore up the Grapefruit League. Howie Rose referred to him as the mayor of Port St. Lucie. It wasn’t enough to get him elected to the Opening Day roster. Melvin Mora didn’t appear in a major league game — for the Mets or anybody — until May 30, 1999.

Mora started that day. And on July 17. And July 25. Otherwise, he served as a spare part for an engine that was revving on most cylinders most of the time. Defensive replacement. Pinch-hitter. Pinch-runner. Then, after the trade deadline yielded Veteran Experience, back to Norfolk, see you in September. Which we did, mostly in late innings.

Mora’s magic at the end of games (one in particular) was the reason the Mets had somewhere to be in October for the first time in eleven years besides on their way home. Mora helped bring them to Phoenix to take on Randy Johnson and the fancy 100-win Diamondbacks. The Diamondbacks had more wins than the best Mets team of its generation, and nobody’d ever heard of them until a couple of years before. Then again, none of us had ever heard of Melvin Mora until the previous spring, so it was a fair fight.

Melvin’s first postseason appearance came in the sixth inning of Game One, a little earlier than usual, but this was the playoffs, and Bobby Valentine’s state bird was the double-switch. Masato Yoshii was coming out. Dennis Cook was coming in. “BUT,” as the announcer on the commercials would say, “THAT’S NOT ALL! YOU ALSO GET MELVIN MORA IN FOR SHAWON DUNSTON!” It was always Melvin Mora in for somebody, with somebody else going out so a reliever’s spot in the batting order would take its time coming around again. Melvin Mora was the perfect cog for Bobby V’s constantly cranking game-management mechanism.

In the ninth inning, the Big Unit was Buck Showalter’s irreplaceable cog. He’d thrown what amounted to two starts in the Diamondbacks’ first-ever postseason game. In the first one, the Mets nailed the perennial Cy Young winner good. Fonzie homered. Oly (a lefty!) homered. Even Rey Ordoñez bunted a run home. The imposing Johnson was apparently no bother to these Mets.

Then, in the fifth, Randy Johnson got back to being serious, and the Mets could no longer touch him. Around the same time, Yoshii remembered he was no match for Randy Johnson and, before Valentine could pull his double-switch, the game was tied at four, which is where it was in the ninth. Robin Ventura singled to lead off. Roger Cedeño bunted unsuccessfully. Ordoñez, practically having the offensive game of his life (1-for-3, plus that sacrifice), singled to left. Rey batted eighth. Pitchers usually bat ninth in the real league here, but because Bobby V played as many dimensions of chess as was necessary to outpoint his opponent, he had Melvin Mora up in this crucial spot in this crucial juncture of this crucial game.

Crucially, Melvin walked. Not only did it load the bases, it forced Showalter’s hand. Out went Johnson. In came Bobby Chouinard. Two batters later, Chouinard gave up a grand slam to Alfonzo to give the Mets an 8-4 lead that became an 8-4 win. Mora’s run made it 7-4. Mora’s walk off the Unit, just like Mora’s hit against Hansell, made all good things possible.

Melvin just kept it coming as the series proceeded. Valentine didn’t use him in the Game Two loss and didn’t need him to more than caddy in the Game Three win, but in Game Four at Shea, with the Mets poised to advance in a postseason for the first time since 1986, Melvin’s presence became crucial once more. In for defense in the eighth, the utilityman’s utility explained itself in a hurry. A 2-1 lead carefully nurtured by Leiter dissolved into a 3-2 deficit that resulted from Jay Bell’s two-run double off Armando Benitez (gosh, usually he’s so reliable). The game threatened to get away once Matt Williams singled and Bell steamed toward home, but the left fielder — Mora — fired in to Todd Pratt to nail Bell and keep the Mets down by only one run.

Pratt’s name will be attached to this game after he homers in the tenth, but who knows if there’s a tenth without Mora in the top of the eighth? Not only does Melvin imbue the concept of “defensive replacement” with game-changing impact, but we saw in the bottom of the eighth that moving fielders around doesn’t come without risk. Tony Womack had started at short for Arizona. Showalter shifted him to right and, two batters in to his new station, Womack muffs a fly ball that sets up the tying run.

Too bad for Buck that he didn’t have Melvin. Much better for us that we did.

In the NLCS that Mora and Pratt (among others) facilitated, Melvin’s defense, particularly his arm, was on full display. In Game Three, Melvin throws out Bret Boone at the plate from center in the first. In Game Five, Melvin throws out Keith Lockhart at the plate from right in the thirteenth. The Braves were given extra innings to scout Mora’s skills — he’d been playing the whole day and changed positions twice — but they chose to attempt to run on him, anyway.

By the thirteenth inning of Game Five — the Grand Slam Single Game, as it’s known for eternity — Melvin Mora has played 41 innings of postseason baseball and has recorded an assist from each outfield position. Plus he’s hit the first home run of his major league career in NLCS Game Two. Oh, and in Game Four, with the Mets as backed against the wall as can be imagined (though the imagination would be given a strenuous workout in the games ahead), he walks in his first plate appearance, in the eighth inning, concentrating on getting on base while Cedeño is busy stealing second base. Then, as the trail runner, he engineers a double-steal with Roger, placing them on second and third for Olerud. Then he scores the winning run on Olerud’s single, something he was situated to do because of that double-steal.

In Game Six, the third must-win contest the Mets have contested in a 72-hour span, word is getting around on New York’s erstwhile secret weapon. When Mora comes up in the top of the eighth as a pinch-hitter for Orel Hershiser, score tied at seven, Benny Agbayani on second, Bob Costas and Joe Morgan spotlight over NBC the “27-year-old rookie” most nobody had heard of when October began.

Melvin “has a chance to be a star,” according to Costas. “At least the Mets think so. He’s shown his stuff down the stretch and in the playoffs.”

“He’s going to be a valuable asset to the Mets in the next few years,” affirms Morgan, who lists the “lot of little things to help you win” that Mora does, which he ticks off as “plays good defense”; “has a good arm”; and “swings the bat pretty well.” Those little things sound mighty big. Mora is mighty big in the scope of this game, as he’s been in so many games since he got on base versus the Pirates a little over two weeks before. He singles to center and brings home Agbayani.

“Melvin Mora, who only a few years ago was playing in the Chinese professional league in Taiwan,” Costas marvels, “gives the Mets the lead in Game Six.”

How good was this guy? Darn good.

Yes, indeed, the rookie who “does not have any fear,” according to Morgan, has put the Mets up, 8-7, in a game that seven innings earlier they trailed, 5-0. It’s been crazy, it’s been a team effort, and now it’s Mora more than anybody else levitating the Mets until they can outlast the enemy Braves. Hold onto this lead, go to Game Seven. Win Game Seven (like they’d lose it after getting there), go to the World Series. Go to the World Series, and the world will know the legend of Melvin Mora as it continues to unfold before its eyes.

Except Bobby Valentine doesn’t move Mora to the mound, which is a mistake in retrospect, because Mora, who’s played three infield and three outfield positions in 1999, can do it all, and Franco, Mr. 400+ saves, gives up the tying run. The game will go to the tenth, Mora will come up, having stayed in as the right fielder, and again, Mora does it all, or at least all he can do. Agbayani is on second again. Mora singles again. Benny goes to third before scoring on Pratt’s fly to Andruw Jones, of all people. The Mets are ahead, 9-8, in the tenth inning of the sixth game of the National League Championship Series, an NLCS whose first three games they lost, and an NLCS from which they’ve courted elimination so steadily that you’d think somebody would have put a ring on it.

But Melvin Mora keeps the Mets and their chances going together.

MORGAN: “How good is this guy?”
COSTAS: “Darn good.”

Mora doesn’t pitch the bottom of the tenth, which dawns after midnight. Benitez does and gives up the tying run. Mora doesn’t bat in the top of the eleventh. It’s not his turn and the Mets don’t score. Mora doesn’t pitch the bottom of the eleventh, either. Kenny Rogers does. He’s not darn good. The Mets and the 1999 season break up. Their dissolution was as inevitable as their romance was beautiful.

But this, ostensibly, isn’t about 1999. It’s about 2000. That other wildly successful Mets year. The one that felt different. The one that was different. The one that had Melvin Mora at its beginning rather than its end.

The good news is there was going to be 2000. We’d get through the 20th century and cross the bridge into the next one. The computers and lights would stay on, and life would resume pretty much as it functioned in 1999. Parochially speaking, this meant we could look forward to Melvin Mora on the New York Mets. True, the element of surprise wouldn’t burst from every swing he took or every throw he gunned, but we had him. World, you’ve been warned.

Melvin makes the team out of Spring Training. Melvin goes to Japan as a bona fide component of the defending Wild Card champs/NLDS winners (the banner has never been succinct). Melvin is on base when Benny Agbayani slams grand to win the Tokyo finale in the eleventh inning, an early-morning outcome that feels like something the 1999 Mets would have concocted.

Except it’s not 1999 anymore, which by default is the bad news. Where’s John Olerud? Where’s Orel Hershiser? What are Derek Bell and Todd Zeile doing here — and in Japan? If Jerry Seinfeld had awakened pre-dawn to watch the Mets and Cubs (he was in the stands at Turner Field for Game Six, so maybe he was at the Tokyo Dome, too), he might very well have asked, “Who are these people?”

These people were the 2000 Mets. They’re not exactly the 1999 Mets, but they’re plenty good. What they lack in that certain something, they make up for with comparable competitive capabilities, which isn’t nearly as romantic as that certain something. No, it never is 1999 again, but the millennium odometer had made that explicitly clear.

Melvin Mora is still pretty much Melvin Mora, which is a very 1999 sign for 2000. On April 20 at Shea, in the tenth (the bottom of an inning when he’s been double-switched into the game), Mora steps up and homers off Curtis Leskanic to give the Mets a 5-4 win over Milwaukee. It’s his first major league home run, not counting the one he launched off Kevin Millwood in the playoffs…though why wouldn’t you count a home run you hit in the playoffs?

The Mets’ sights were aimed directly at a return to the playoffs from the moment they took flight for Tokyo. It wasn’t going to be easy. In the Bobby Valentine era, no matter how much talent the players provided the manager, and no matter how much wizardry the manager provided the players, it never was. They wouldn’t have been the Mets of just before and just after the millennial divide had it been. Their road got bumpy as hell in Los Angeles on May 29 when Ordoñez, who bold-typed the “Best” in “The Best Infield Ever?” (and definitively deleted its question mark), went out for the year with a broken forearm. Even Rey-Rey, who introduced himself to MLB by throwing out a runner at home from his knees, needed a forearm to play short. Ordoñez’s defense was irreplaceable. His offense, however, was always ripe for an upgrade.

Enter Melvin Mora, fresh from a brief DL assignment himself, as the starting shortstop of the 2000 Mets. His status as a supersub had followed him into the new century, but the Mets now had Super Joe McEwing to fill that role (with at least as much as versatility, if not as much flair), along with Kurt Abbott, who had played the position in previous seasons (and whose continued presence in 2000 was yet another reminder that 1999 was a once-in-a-lifetime year). Melvin had hit another home run since beating the Brewers, which gave him two on the season, or two more than Rey-O had produced. Melvin’s postseason defense had drawn rave reviews from the outfield, but he was billed as a shortstop when he came to St. Lucie prominence two Marches before. It would be a tradeoff, but the Mets didn’t have much of a choice

Sadly, they didn’t have much of a shortstop in Melvin Mora. It was jarring to watch him not pick up ground balls after four-plus seasons of Rey Ordoñez erecting and patrolling a veritable force field between second and third. Rey played 154 games at shortstop in 1999 and made four errors. Melvin Mora made seven errors in a 26-game span that covered late June to late July of 2000. Ordoñez was a high bar. Even Ordoñez wasn’t clearing it before his injury (six errors in 44 games), but between Mora in for Ordoñez and Zeile in for Olerud, nobody was asking any longer whether this was The Best Infield Ever.

Instead, they asked if there was something more the Mets could do about shortstop. Mora was contributing offensively as an everyday player, adding four homers to his ledger and coolly and calmly accepting ball four on a three-two count to build the legendary ten-run rally of the eighth inning of June 30. It’s most famous for Mike Piazza’s three-run laser of a homer. Usually unnoted is that it was Mora who scored the run to tie things up at eight. Melvin hadn’t lost his knack for making the Braves sweat late in games that were cluttered with runs.

What Melvin would lose before July was over was his role as starting shortstop for the New York Mets. His parking space, too. He was traded to the Orioles on July 28 for Mike Bordick, one of those guys talked up as a “surehanded” or “two-out” shortstop. Hit a grounder to Bordick with two outs, he was sure to pick it up and throw it cleanly to first. Mora did so much well, yet he didn’t necessarily inspire that kind of confidence at that precise position, and a sense of security is what the Mets craved at this stage of 2000.

“Melvin Mora has a chance to be a star,” Bob Costas had said, but it was no longer the Mets who thought so.

Did this trade have to be made? Did any trade have to be made? The Mets were determined to make one. They thought they had one done for Barry Larkin, but veteran Larkin had the right to decline to leave the Reds, and he exercised his veto. Mora wasn’t rumored to be a part of that swap. Had Barry embraced New York, Melvin could have returned to his supersub ways, perhaps been available in October when Bell went down with an injury in right, and given the Mets the same spark they benefited from in 1999. Instead, they turned to Timo Perez as their emergency right fielder. Perez was all spark until his flame burned out on a trip from first to not quite home in the World Series. It’s impossible to imagine Melvin Mora not running hard on a fly ball.

Did the Mets need surehanded shortstop Bordick to reach October again? It couldn’t have been known on July 28, but after the Mets took leadership of the Wild Card standings on July 27 — Mora’s last day as a Met — they’d never let it go. They’d have their September hiccups (they always did), but they were never headed on their path to the playoffs despite their disturbing habit of losing too many games with not too many weeks to go. The 2000 Mets were particularly sizzling in August, and Bordick was a part of that. He might have been part of a World Series win had he not gotten hit in the hand by a pitch during the NLCS. As it was, Bordick ached and by Game Five, Abbott was the Mets’ starting shortstop with everything on the line and, well, you know.

Do trades have to take place? Philosophically, the exchange of human beings strikes a sour note. Purely from a baseball perspective, there is something that seems a little untoward about trades. Why not stick with who you have? Why not depend on your Mets to get better together? It, like the 1999 Mets, is a romantic notion. The 1999 Mets wouldn’t have been the 1999 Mets without a trade for Piazza. Or Leiter. Or several other beloved members. So maybe let’s not question trades too deeply.

Melvin Mora was a beloved 1999 Met, despite rattling around the All Other section of the roster for 161 games. The last dozen, though — the Melvin Mora Game; the One-Game Playoff; the NLDS which we won in four; the NLCS which we gave all of ourselves for for six — he was a star attraction. We couldn’t take our eyes off him. We didn’t want to.

In 2000, we moved on without him. That’ll happen in baseball. The Mora-less Mets went to the World Series. It proved risky business. They could’ve used a guy like Melvin. Same for the rest of the first decade of the 21st century, a time when Melvin Mora cashed in on the opportunity to become a star. It was as an Oriole, not as a Met. It was as a third baseman, not as a shortstop. He won a Silver Slugger in Baltimore and made two All-Star teams. True, the Mets were promoting David Wright in the first half of the first decade of the 2000s, but they probably could have found something for Melvin Mora to do at another position. Or gotten more for Mora than two-and-a-half months of Mike Bordick.

Then again, Bordick did help the Mets win a Wild Card and two postseason series. It’s easy to slag trades that don’t work in the long-term, but in the short-term, the Mets made the World Series with Mike Bordick. It’s a reality the Mets chose to pursue.

The fantasy that they’d hung onto Melvin Mora and that Melvin Mora would have kept doing Melvin Mora things — 1999 things — remains tantalizing in hindsight. In hindsight, Melvin Mora makes a wonderful Met in any century.

1969: Donn Clendenon
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1982: Rusty Staub
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1994: Rico Brogna
2002: Al Leiter

Face of the Franchise

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

Under a big ol’ sky
Out in a field of green
There’s gotta be something
Left for us to believe

—Tom Petty, “Kings Highway

It’s Opening Day 2002 at sunny Shea Stadium. The Mets have been reconfigured to dominate after they deteriorated in 2001. It won’t work out that way, but we don’t know that yet. Besides, it doesn’t much matter that the cast has been so thoroughly shuffled from the year before. On Opening Day, your team is YOUR team. Just let somebody try to steal your sunshine.

On sunny Opening Day 2002, Al Leiter is OUR starting pitcher. On many days between the beginning of 1998 and the end of 2004, Al Leiter was our starting pitcher. The only thing Al Leiter ever did as a Met (other than triple) was starting-pitch: 213 games, 213 starts. That’s more starts as a Met pitcher without a single pitch thrown in relief than anybody else. Jacob deGrom is second by more than a conceivable season’s worth of starts — a real season, not whatever 2020 is shaping up as on corporate drawing boards.

We didn’t coordinate with one another, but Al Leiter is also the career leader in starting games I’ve attended, and I’ve been attending games since 1973. Al and I were by no means a bad pairing, no matter how intuitively unlikely it seems in retrospect that we’d get together as frequently as we did. We all believe that when we buy a ticket to a ballgame, the fine print subjects us to a steady uninspiring stream of Trachsels and Nieses. I’ve had my share of those, too. Plenty of Kevin Appier the one year he was here. A load of Bobby Jones, a dash of Randy Jones, a pinch of Pete Smith for mediocre measure. I’m not convinced I won’t see Mike Pelfrey slog through six innings the next game I go to, and he hasn’t been on the Mets since 2012. Go to enough games, you’ll see just about everybody take a start or ten. Go to more than enough games, though, specifically between 1998 and 2004, and you’ll get your Leiter on repeatedly.

It was the right time and the right place. The lefty’s face was charming. It was the right face.

There was little hint of phenomenon to it, no boasting within your social circles that you hit the Al Leiter game last week, no future posting for posterity on Facebook that you were a part of Leitermania, here’s a picture of my ticket stub! But if Al Leiter was a notch below the perceived glamour of acedom, he hovered discernible cuts above the middle of the pack. Sometimes an ace is an inherently imposing mound presence. Sometimes he’s just the best guy you’ve got handy. When somebody whose credentials glittered a little more brightly than his was acquired in some ambitious offseason, Al Leiter would be courteously consigned to 1A status — still conferred the organizational respect he’d earned, yet no longer automatically tabbed as the first choice to start a season or a series, assuming there was ample opportunity to line your pitching up according to preference.

When nobody better was around, or you simply had to win the next game in front of you, you could do a lot worse than Al Leiter. In contemplating the Metsian legacy of the lefty who was never exactly “my guy” despite my seeing him so regularly, I’m reminded of a tribute to Tom Petty that I read in the wake of the singer’s death in 2017. It referred to Petty’s music as good for the middle of a weekday afternoon, or something to that effect. I don’t recall the exact phrase or precisely what the author meant, but I liked the description and I think I got it. I was by no means the biggest Tom Petty fan, but I admired how he used his repertoire, how he threw himself into his game, and how he left me feeling better for having experienced him doing what he did anytime I’d hear him do it.

Thirty-seven regular-season games at Shea Stadium Al Leiter was my starting pitcher, plus twice in the playoffs and, to be rotationally retentive about it, once as an opponent. I don’t ever remember thinking in advance, “Leiter? Not again.” Nor, probably, did I think, “Oh boy, Leiter!” It was more like, “Al Leiter…all right, let’s go…” The games could get edgy when Bobby Valentine was managing, but a bit of the edge was taken off knowing Al Leiter was starting. His near-constant presence was comforting. That was where my head was at on Opening Day 2002, just as it was more than two-dozen times before. Standing and applauding in the right field boxes, it was exciting to welcome Alomar and Vaughn, welcome back Burnitz and Cedeño, value as ever Piazza and Alfonzo. But when we got to “pitching and batting ninth, warming up in the bullpen…”

Al Leiter. All right. Let’s go.

In transactional terms, Al Leiter became a Met because the Florida Marlins were dumping their champion players left and right following their 1997 world conquest. But really, Al Leiter became a Met because Al Leiter was always supposed to be a Met. Before Todd Frazier invented being from New Jersey, Al Leiter was from New Jersey — the same town as Todd — and he grew up a Mets fan, old enough to tell us that as a lad he witnessed the Mets’ 1969 flag run up the center field pole on Opening Day 1970. Depending on the interview he was giving, he also seemed to grow up not immune to the charms of other teams within driving distance of Toms River, but fealty to the Metropolitan cause fit his story and personality most snugly.

Two starts into his Met tenure, he looked the part of prominent Met pitcher. Not that he was as graceful as Seaver or as overpowering as Gooden, but he was as preoccupied with the Mets winning as any of us. Leiter probably wanted to win for Leiter, as starting pitchers are prone to do, but you couldn’t wipe the familiar concern off his face. He grimaced. He grunted. He gritted. He looked like us. His look certainly got the attention of my wife, who had the game on before I came home on April 7, 1998. The Mets were at Wrigley that afternoon and Stephanie, usually a passive consumer of baseball telecasts, wanted to know what the deal was with this guy with the face.

That face was the deal. He was the cat of a thousand expressions. That’s what we call our kitty Avery. The concept originated with our watching eternally expressive Al Leiter. He was always doing something that fascinated us, not the least of which was pitching effectively. Leiter steadily put the “1” in “1A” as 1998 got rolling, emerging as first among a staff of approximate equals, missing the All-Star team only because of an ill-timed knee injury in late June. While the Mets mostly melted down around him, Leiter stayed strong in September. Al finished his first Flushing year 17-6 with an ERA of 2.47 and garnered token Cy Young support, the first Met to be so acknowledged in four years. You couldn’t run it up the center field pole, but it was surely worth saluting.

Once Leiter opened a World Series and tried desperately to keep the same World Series going.

Leiter never had quite as brilliant a campaign for the Mets as he did in his initial one, but he never had a genuinely bad season over his remaining six. Three times he opened the season. Once he opened a World Series — and tried desperately to keep the same World Series going. Al Leiter being entrusted with the ninth inning and all its inherent implications in Game Five of 2000 and not getting all the way out of it versus I forget who never hung around his or Bobby Valentine’s neck quite the way a close facsimile from 2015 sticks to the respective shoes of Matt Harvey and Terry Collins. Al is remembered better for coming through than coming apart. He stopped a potentially lethal losing streak down the stretch in ’99; clinched a playoff spot via masterful two-hitter less than a week later; and held the Mets aloft for much of what was to become known as the Todd Pratt game less than a week after that.

Leiter’s one truly godawful postseason outing, when, on short rest, he didn’t retire a single Brave in the first inning of ultimately decisive Game Six of the 1999 NLCS, is relatively obscure in the scheme of Al’s career. In the annals of abysmal first innings proffered by titular Met southpaw aces at the worst imaginable juncture, it doesn’t hold a candle in the realm of public perception to T#m Gl@v!ne’s least finest hour, which took place somewhere between 1:10 and 1:30, September 30, 2007. For that matter, Leiter’s horrifying first inning from the night of October 19, 1999, at Turner Field (0 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 2 HBP, 5 ER) is obscured in common memory by the work of another veteran lefty, Kenny Rogers, ten innings later.

Maybe it was because locally sourced Leiter put his heart into every start he took as a Met. And his face, which you couldn’t miss. Plus he was always good for a detailed explanation of why he may not have won on a given evening and what he (along with his teammates) could have done more ably. Al’s starts could feel like struggles even when he was shutting down opponents, which is why his victories registered as triumphs of the Mets fan soul. He seemed properly bothered by everything that went wrong when anything went wrong.

Fortunately, plenty went right for seven seasons, so even with the occasional rough patches on the mound, Al Leiter remained OUR starter in generally good standing pretty much to the end of his time as a Met. His last start for us — and for me — came at Shea on October 2, 2004, a Saturday night against the Expos, the last game that franchise won under its original name. Omar Minaya, Montreal’s former GM, had just been hired to do the same job for the Mets. It was obvious Minaya’s Mets were going to have to put the current futile era behind them ASAP.

That meant the imminent end of Al Leiter, pending free agent, who had two Met eras under his belt (three counting his childhood allegiance to Seaver and Koosman). Before Opening Day 2002, Al was right in the middle of every big series the Mets had contested for four mostly successful, uniformly scintillating years. Those Mets of 1998-2001 were kind of a 1A operation themselves. When somebody better-credentialed was on hand, the Mets took a back seat. When nobody better was around, you could do worse.

The Mets did worse in 2002, 2003 and 2004, lacking for big series altogether after dismal reality set in, but on Opening Day 2002, we didn’t know that further deterioration rather than a surge toward dominance was in store. We just knew Al Leiter would be starting. We just knew, as of April 1, 2002, that Al Leiter was always starting…OK, often starting. But he was on the mound a lot, giving us his all, and it most always gave us a reason to be reasonably confident that we might win this game. Like on Opening Day 2002, a 6-2 middle-of-a-weekday afternoon Mets win in which Leiter pitched six innings and gave up no runs. Like so many other days. Leiter won 95 games as a Met, sixth-most in club history. That implosion in Atlanta notwithstanding, he was usually money in the postseason for us, even if he never pulled down a W. It was telling that we were in the postseason enough during Leiter’s first era that he could mount an October sample size worthy of measurement. He made seven starts, six of them undeniably quality.

In 2005, the next Met era, Al Leiter was essentially replaced by Pedro Martinez. That was an ace you didn’t need to append an “A” to. He was an undisputed No. 1 pitcher, starting games that were destined to be billed as bona fide events all summer long. Time to move on. Time to get going. The first time Pedro started at Shea as a Met, on April 16 versus the Marlins, the joint jumped with anticipation. His mound opponent was his predecessor, now a Recidivist Fish, marking the fortieth and final time I saw him pitch in person. Martinez vs. Leiter. Giddily promising present vs. suddenly distant past. Pedro cheered wildly by a sellout crowd. Leiter booed obligatorily for what he wasn’t: for not being Pedro; for not being ours.

Al’s expression told me he got it.

1969: Donn Clendenon
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1982: Rusty Staub
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1994: Rico Brogna

A Baseball First Husband

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

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

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

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

Todd Hundley's 1994 Topps card

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

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

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

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

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

And you know what? I loved Todd Hundley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1969Donn Clendenon
1972: Gary Gentry
1973Willie Mays
1982Rusty Staub
1991Rich Sauveur
1994Rico Brogna