With your first selection of what to do on Thursday night, June 15, at 7 o’clock, I hope you’ll choose to make a visit to Bergino Baseball Clubhouse, 67 E. 11th St. in Manhattan . I’ll be there talking about my book Piazza: Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star with gracious owner and podcast host Jay Goldberg, going deep on the catcher who went deep more than any other, especially how the Mets came to be the unlikely landing spot for the unlikely superstar. Copies will be available, and if you’d like me to sign yours, I’d be delighted to bring out the ink.
Though it’s Piazza’s name atop the marquee, the Mets of the 1990s — particularly before they ever got together with Mike — are as intrinsic to the story as the title character. One of my goals in writing this book was to trace was how a franchise and its eventual face could have no common ground in the middle of a decade yet become eternally enmeshed and synonymous with one another before that decade was done. Thus, I spent a good deal of the early chapters exploring who the Mets were when Piazza was revving up his bat in L.A. and how they tried to morph into something better before he arrived in New York — and how tough that was for them to accomplish.
Maybe it would have been had they drafted better.
A tentpole of the Piazza legend is where he stood in the amateur draft. Essentially, he had no status. You probably know the numbers most associated with 31’s humble professional beginnings: drafted in the 62nd round with the 1,390th overall pick by the Dodgers in 1988 because Tommy Lasorda was pals with Mike’s father, Vince Piazza. Mike’s power potential was recognizable, but he didn’t have a position, hadn’t done much as a college player and, well, he needed a break if he was gonna get picked by anybody. Enter the “courtesy pick,” as it was called. A favor for Lasorda who wanted to do a favor for the elder Piazza? Pals, schmals. The Dodgers were smart to give a kid who might hit an opportunity. Mike took it from there.
Where in that era, I wondered, was the Mets’ draft choice who nobody saw coming but broke through? Where, for that matter, was the Mets’ draft choice who was seen coming, made it big and kept the club’s streak of winning seasons going? Ah, there was the rub. The Mets weren’t drafting so hot in those days. Or most days.
I wrote a lot about the Mets’ draft history within the context of Piazza’s ascent, culminating in his veritable national debut at the 1993 All-Star Game, where Mike was one of the glittering attractions alongside Ken Griffey and Barry Bonds. The last-place Mets had nobody like any of them in terms of performance or personality or both. Their All-Star was Bobby Bonilla, having a decent season at the plate but at the bottom of the league in public relations. Alas, I wound up cutting almost all of it for space. Since another MLB draft is right around the corner — the Mets will pick 20th on Monday night, June 12 (and higher, probably, in 2018) — I thought it would be timely to share this deleted scene from Piazza.
To paraphrase Troy McClure from “The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular,” if that’s what was cut, what was left in must be pure gold.
No wonder the Dodgers’ 1988 draft was the stuff of legend. But you know whose 1988 draft you didn’t hear much about in 1993? Or ever? The New York Mets.
The amateur draft behaved more like a stiff wind that blew in the face of their efforts to move forward, particularly where top draft picks were concerned. The Frank Cashen Mets were constructed on a foundation of sturdy high school choices: Darryl Strawberry (first selection in the nation, 1980) and Dwight Gooden (first round, fifth overall, 1982). It was enough to make a fan forget how little the Mets derived from their upper-echelon picks in the alternating years. The Mets drafted high in the early ’80s because they were constantly finishing low. They didn’t always make the most of it. Witness the choices of Terry Blocker (with the fourth overall pick in 1981) and Eddie Williams (No. 4 in 1983).
The missed opportunities of Mets drafts past were beginning to echo down the halls of time. From 1965 — the year the June amateur draft was instituted — to 1976, the Mets selected three major league mainstays with their respective first-round picks: Jon Matlack (1967), Tim Foli (1968) and Lee Mazzilli (1973). Before, between and after these diamonds in the rough were harvested, it was all fool’s gold. Whether injuries or overestimation undermined the best efforts of their scouts and decisionmakers, the Mets derived virtually no big league help from the first round on nine separate occasions. It seems cruel to dredge up the classic example of highly regarded catching prospect Steve Chilcott being the apple of the Mets’ eye when they owned the first overall pick in the 1966 draft, leaving outfielder Reggie Jackson on the table for the Kansas City Athletics to pluck, but that choice was indeed made.
Reggie Jackson was at the All-Star Game in Baltimore. He’d be at Cooperstown later in July as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, going in as so many before him had, as a Yankee. There was thought that since he established himself as a superstar in Oakland, that he, like Rollie Fingers the year before, would be portrayed on his plaque with an Athletic A. Or he could have followed Catfish Hunter’s example. When the righty was voted in by the writers in 1987, he chose to not choose between his tenures with the A’s and Yankees and asked to be enshrined with a blank cap. But a front-office position in the Bronx materialized for Jackson and that other NY won out. Mr. October, as ever with an eye on the bottom line, declared upon his election, “Going into the Hall of Fame with players like Mantle, Ford, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Ruth, is good for Reggie Jackson, so I’ll go in as a Yankee.”
Take that, Rollie.
Chilcott, meanwhile, would have for eternal company several other Met first-rounders who never saw the majors. George Ambrow (1970), Richard Bengston (1972) and Tom Thurberg (1976) also never rose to the heights of their profession. Another, Cliff Speck, taken seventeenth overall by the Mets in 1974, bounced around the minors for more than a decade before finally making the majors as a Brave a dozen years later. Speck pitched in thirteen games for Atlanta in 1986, but was back at Triple-A in 1987, never to return to what we soon, thanks to Bull Durham, learned to call The Show.
Cliff Speck’s thirteen games in the majors didn’t amount to much, unless you’re Les Rohr (Mets first top pick, 1965), Randy Sterling (1969) and Rich Puig (1971), and together the three of you combined for thirteen major league games in toto. Throw in Speck’s résumé and you’re up to 26…or about half as many as the first Mets pick of 1975, Butch Benton, compiled for three teams in four non-consecutive seasons over an eight-year span. Nevertheless, one resists the temptation to say Speck fell of a cliff or that Cliff’s career amounted to little more than a speck on the MLB map, because who wouldn’t want to pitch in thirteen major league games? When Kevin Costner as Crash Davis explained to his celluloid teammates what The Show was like in 1988 — white balls for batting practice, cathedrals for ballparks, room service back at the hotel — we in the audience could all picture ourselves enduring the 377 minor league games Cliff Speck pitched in the minors to experience the thirteen greatest games of his life.
For mere mortals, the 377 minor league appearances Speck made between ’74 and ’88 sound pretty good. As Crash’s manager in Durham told him, going to the ballpark and getting paid to do it beats the hell out of working at Sears.
Drafting amateur baseball players is an inexact science for all. College baseball doesn’t yield the same sense of certainty the higher-profile college sports do, and when you’re talking about high school athletes, you’re attempting to project not just what a baseball player might achieve but discern what kind of an adult an adolescent might turn into. Scouting reports that don’t include a bevy of question marks simply aren’t being honest.
Still, you’d figure you’d get a few right now and then, if just by accident. The Met eye for amateur talent turned keen between 1977 and 1979, with Wally Backman, Hubie Brooks and Tim Leary each a top pick destined for a solid career (though Leary had to endure a debilitating injury as a Met before succeeding as a Dodger). Beyond Strawberry and Gooden, the Mets either lucked or skilled their way into some fine picks once Cashen took over baseball operations.
Blocker, the head of the class of ’81 might have fizzled, but underclassman Lenny Dykstra, chosen in the thirteenth round, went on to flourish, as did the Mets’ twelfth-round pick, a high school pitcher from Texas named Roger Clemens…though Clemens rejected the Mets’ offer and headed for college for the time being. Nineteen Eighty-Three yielded the underwhelming Williams, but also righty starter Rick Aguilera, eagle-eyed batsman Dave Magadan and submarine-flinging reliever Jeff Innis. Behind Gooden in 1982, they took bullpen stalwart Roger McDowell in the third round; in the old secondary phase of that June’s draft, they scooped up closer-to-be Randy Myers in the second round. In the soon-to-be-discontinued January amateur draft of 1984, they took shortstop Kevin Elster with their second selection. Names not associated with great feats in Met uniforms — John Christensen, Floyd Youmans, Calvin Schiraldi — were drafted as well in this era, proving their true value once they were inserted into trades that brought to New York players — Bobby Ojeda, Gary Carter — who are indelibly associated with great feats in Met uniforms.
On a lesser scale, the Mets’ and nation’s first pick of 1984, Shawn Abner, proved himself valuable as trade fodder in the wake of the 1986 World Series when the Mets used him to help nab San Diego’s sound-as-a-pound left fielder Kevin McReynolds. And in June 1985, with the twentieth overall pick in the nation, fifteen spots after the Pirates took Barry Bonds, the Mets went for Gregg Jefferies, who emerged as Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year twice and played in the same 1993 All-Star Game as Piazza.
By then, Gregg was a member of the Cardinals, having worn out his hotly anticipated welcome in New York, but that’s another story. Or maybe it isn’t. Jefferies couldn’t have shown more talent rising up the Met chain. His first few weeks as a regular, coinciding with the stretch drive of 1988, were so electrifying you could picture him doing public service spots for Con Edison. Heaven, earth and Backman were moved to make the 21-year-old rookie the everyday second baseman for 1989 and, presumably, the decade ahead.
From there, Jefferies didn’t exactly flop, but it couldn’t be said that he flourished. Mostly he rubbed his teammates the wrong way. Jefferies was a prodigy with a bat, a liability with a glove and maybe not mature enough to handle his workplace environment. It is less recalled that he garnered Rookie of the Year votes in both 1988 and 1989 and that he led the league in doubles in 1990 than it is that he was the subject of veteran enmity (Myers scrawled “Are We Trying?” across a lineup card in a not-so-veiled shot at the struggling tyro), made allies of enemies (McDowell fought him as a Phillie and the Mets weren’t exactly rooting against their old teammate) and faxed a cease-and-desist letter of sorts to WFAN that constituted a public plea to be left alone.
That he had talent was borne out once he fell into the nurturing hands of St. Louis manager Joe Torre. That his ability to cope wouldn’t outstrip his ability to lash line drives in Flushing was not immediately evident when the Mets drafted and signed him out of Serra High School in San Mateo, California. But because these things are inexact, and because someone of Jefferies’s ilk did not stick around to anchor the Met offense in post-Strawberry New York…and because Jefferies was an absolute success story relative to the top Met draft picks that followed him, you can see — certainly with hindsight — that a subterranean down year like 1993 was bound to materialize and wash away whatever good vibes remained from up year nonpareil 1986.
In the draft conducted during the June the Mets were running and hiding from the National League East like they had never run and hid before, the Mets used their first pick on the son of a major leaguer. Lee May, Jr., like Ken Griffey, Jr., was the progeny of a component of the Big Red Machine, albeit a slightly earlier version that hadn’t yet worked all its bugs out. The elder May was a serious slugger, knocking 111 home runs out of NL ballparks between 1969 and 1971. He was at the center of the package that was sent to Houston to obtain Joe Morgan. Morgan added a new dimension to Cincinnati, revving the Reds — once they tightened their bolts with the likes of Griffey, Sr. — toward their two world championships. When Junior was taken first overall by the Mariners in 1987, you took his championship bloodlines seriously.
When the Mets picked May out of a Cincinnati high school…well, to be honest, in 1986, the draft didn’t grab your attention the way it would in years to come, but you recognized a name like Lee May. You figured the son of a man who produced 354 home runs, made three All-Star Games and earned MVP votes on six occasions was at least going to show up at Shea one of these days.
He didn’t. Lee May, Jr., topped out at Tidewater, failing to reach double-digits in home runs in an eight-year career, never batting higher than .257 at any of his minor league stops. May would later find a place in the game as a hitting instructor (his son, Jacob, was drafted by the White Sox in 2013), but he was not around to help Jefferies and the Mets as 1986 commenced receding in the immediate collective consciousness.
Nor was Chris Donnels very much. In the same first round that bestowed Griffey on the Mariners, the Mets took Donnels. Being defending world champs, they drafted 23 picks later. To say Donnels didn’t belong in the same round as Griffey isn’t exactly a slam at Donnels. Griffey proved a draft unto himself.
But could have the Mets done better for themselves than the third baseman from Loyola Marymount University? They did, in later rounds of the 1987 draft, taking yet another MLB legacy, slowly developing catcher Todd Hundley, in the second round and intermittently promising lefty pitcher Pete Schourek in the third. With their 38th-round pick, the Mets tabbed Anthony Young, who may not have succeeded a great deal more than Donnels — 82 games as a Met in ’91 and ’92 before drifting to the Florida Marlins in the expansion draft — but he was still on hand in ’93 and he certainly became more famous.
The reinforcements simply weren’t bubbling up from beneath the surface. If the Mets were trying to patch together the remnants of their would-be dynasty with expensive dollops of Krazy Glue, it was because there wasn’t bonding element otherwise available to them. Once the Mets reached the mountaintop with so many homegrown stars and studs, they got very little out of the drafts that followed. 1988, the Year of Piazza, was par for the uninspiring course.
They got no Strawberry. They got no Gooden. In terms of who they selected and signed from that draft, they got exactly two players who would reach the major leagues with them: shortstop Kevin Baez (batted .179 in 63 games between 1990 and 1993) and second baseman Doug Saunders (28 games in 1993, encompassing 73 plate appearances without a single run batted in, the franchise record for offensive unproductivity among non-pitchers).
But both did make The Show, knowing the delights Crash Davis went wistful over for moviegoers. So did Joe Vitko, drafted by the Mets in the 38th round of 1988. The righty pitcher declined to sign, continued at college and remained attractive enough to the Mets for them to pick him in the twenty-fourth round of 1989. This time he said yes. Three years later, he was in the majors, carving out his own Saunders-like niche in the Met annals as the first Met player to be born in the 1970s, unwittingly heralding a lost generation of prospects. Joe pitched in three games in September 1992, then never again in the majors.
Dave Proctor had the “never” part down cold. Dave was the Mets’ first-round pick in 1988, sixty-one rounds and 1,369 slots ahead of Piazza. The righthanded pitcher from Allen County Community College in Kansas was as good a bet as any to pay off in the world of the amateur draft. The Dodgers themselves thought so two years earlier when they picked him as a high school senior in the twenty-ninth round. Like Clemens in 1981 (and many throughout the history of the amateur draft), he decided to go to school and see if he could do better. Proctor’s stock had only risen since. Dave had a family tie of his own not just to baseball, but to the Mets. His uncle was Mike Torrez, the Opening Day starter for the Amazins in 1984, filling the George Lazenby role between Tom Seaver in ’83 and Gooden in ’85.
With Torrez serving as his nephew’s negotiator, the twenty-year-old looked forward to inking his pact and getting on with his career. “He’s always told me how good New York is to pitch in,” the draftee said, adding patiently of his new employer, “I think they’re looking to me for more in the future, not going in right away. They want to develop me, and the Mets have a tradition of good arms, and I’m hoping they can mold me into one.”
It didn’t happen. Proctor tried. The Mets tried. His arm didn’t cooperate. An injury halted his rise at Double-A Binghamton, where one final start in 1992 resulted in an ugly 23.62 ERA. It doesn’t mean his JC coach was off base when he declared in 1988, “Dave’s got the world by the horns. I think he’s ready to go out and have a bright future in major league baseball.” The Mets agreed. Fate refused to concur.
May. Donnels. Proctor. In a more predictable enterprise, these were the players who should have been surrounding the likes of Jefferies when the Mets faced off against Piazza and the Dodgers in 1993, presumably pre-empting the need to lure free agents to Flushing. Yet none of the above was a New York Met during what projected as the primes of their major league careers. Conversely, Piazza wasn’t supposed to be hitting home runs at Shea or any other National League ballpark, never mind tipping a cap among All-Stars at Camden Yards.
Did we mention how unpredictable baseball can be?
On first-round Russian roulette went, the Mets almost always finding the bullet in the chamber. Alan Zinter in 1989. Al Shirley in 1991. Jeromy Burnitz, their top pick in ’90, actually made the majors in June of 1993, injecting a little thump into the Met lineup and a little hope into the Met future, and Preston Wilson — Mookie’s stepson — was going to benefit from all the goodwill possible after getting the nod in ’92. But in 1993, when Mets fans could have used the biggest jolt of optimism possible, their team took Kirk Presley.
Presley as in Elvis. Kirk was the King’s third cousin, born in Tupelo, Mississippi, and everything. Talk about a family connection. It had nothing to do with baseball, but it was something to remember Kirk by, as his potential, too, succumbed to aches and pains. An otherworldly 37–1 right-hander with a 0.58 ERA and multiple no-hitters on his scholastic ledger, the youngster who never knew his outsize older relative didn’t get the chance to shape a professional identity of his own, beyond that of yet another failed top Mets draft pick. “It is frustrating when that’s the first question they ask,” the 18-year-old admitted of Elvis the summer he was drafted, “but I guess that’s part of it.”
It could have been worse. Right around the time Presley was getting fed up with every reporter’s obvious angle, the Mets were being hounded and dogged (sorry, Kirk) by questions they were tiring of answering. When you’re a last-place team plumbing new depths of notoriety, it’s hard to hew to Crash Davis’s timeless interview advice and stick with “we gotta play it one day at a time” as your all-purpose thoughtful response.
To paraphrase the other Elvis — Costello — every day the 1993 Mets rewrote the book. Bonilla may never have taken Bob Klapisch on that tour of the Bronx, but in a way, Bobby got his revenge on Bob, for The Worst Team Money Could Buy was already and instantly out of date.