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Contiguity Connects Three

On September 15, 1983, a 33-year-old lefthanded pitcher from West Chester, Pa., appeared in a major league baseball game for the 361st time in a career that dated to July 11, 1971. In 318 games, he was the starting pitcher. This wasn’t one of those games. On this day, a Thursday afternoon in Oakland, Jonathan Trumpbour Matlack pitched in relief for the Texas Rangers. He entered in the seventh inning to protect a 6-4 lead. In the seventh, he gave up a triple to Davey Lopes and a run-scoring single to Mike Davis, but in the eighth, he struck out Jeff Burroughs and got a double play liner that erased a walk to Bill Almon.

Jon Matlack [1] departed the mound with the Rangers still up, 6-5. For his trouble, he was awarded a hold. Soon enough, though, he lost his grip on the job he’d held in two places over the previous dozen years. September 15, 1983, was the final game of Matlack’s career. Texas manager Doug Rader didn’t use him again in the two-and-a-half weeks that remained in the season, and on Halloween, he was released.

As of September 15, 1983, Matlack’s 361 appearances understandably dwarfed the total compiled by a recently promoted pitcher for the New York Mets, the team for whom Matlack pitched 203 times (199 of them starts) between 1971 and 1977. This other pitcher, a righty born in Honolulu and raised in Millbury, Mass., had debuted on September 6 at Shea Stadium versus the Phillies, losing, 2-0, despite giving up only one in run in six-and-a-third innings. In his rematch with the same team six days later, it was much the same story: seven innings, two runs and a 2-1 loss to the eventual National League champions at Veterans Stadium.

Interesting venue for Ronald Maurice Darling to get his traveling feet wet. One road start hardly made Darling a veteran, but he was on his way, following in the footsteps of Matlack. When 1983 ended, Darling would have five starts to his credit; by the middle of 1991, the same pitcher would work in 257 games as a Met, 241 of them as a starter. Then, as was the case with Matlack, Darling was sent elsewhere to ply his craft. Come August 15, 1995, pitching for Oakland at Kansas City, Darling took the ball for the 382nd time in a career that stretched about as long as Matlack’s had. Unlike Matlack on 9/15/83, Darling on 8/15/95 was starting (his 364th such assignment). Exactly like Matlack, this would be it for Darling. Against the Royals on a Tuesday night, Darling lasted five-and-a-third innings, surrendering five earned runs in a 7-4 loss charged to his record. His final inning of work consisted of a double to Keith Lockhart; a lineout to retire Wally Joyner, an intentional walk to Jon Nunnally and a run-scoring single to David Howard, the hit that moved Tony La Russa to remove him from the game and, ultimately, his profession. Six days later, the A’s released Darling.

By the day Ron Darling [2], 35, found himself a man without a team, an infielder born in Santa Teresa del Tuy, Venezuela, had played in 88 major league games, the first of them on Opening Night of the 1995 season in Denver. The year started late, on April 26, thanks to the 1994 strike that took far too long to conclude. When it did, however, this 21-year-old who could play three positions was ready to go, skipping Triple-A and making Dallas Green’s roster out of truncated Spring Training. Edgardo Antonio Alfonzo pinch-hit in the tenth inning on a chilly Wednesday evening at Coors Field, the first game ever at Coors Field. With one out and Todd Hundley on second, Green inserted Alfonzo to bat for John Franco. Facing the Rockies’ Bruce Ruffin, the rookie lifted a fly ball to center, moving Hundley to third. The Mets would neither score nor win. Alfonzo would not stay in what became an 11-9 loss.

But he wasn’t going anywhere in 1995, except a little further into his manager’s plans. Alfonzo chalked up his first start on April 30; notched his first hit on May 2; and rounded the bases for his first homer — and inside-the-park job — on May 6. All that could stop the progress of the Mets’ sometimes second baseman, sometimes third baseman and once-in-a-while shortstop was a herniated disc, a setback that placed Alfonzo and his .276 batting average on the disabled list on August 18, retroactive to August 11, a week encompassing Darling’s final start. When Alfonzo was activated on September 1, he continued pretty much where he left off. When his first, briefly injury-interrupted season was over, Alfonzo had put 101 games in the books, posted a .278 average and provided versatility for a ballclub groping for stability.

There’d be another year of coming off the bench for Alfonzo in 1996, then six seasons as a starter, three years at third, three years at second, through 2002, by which time the righthanded-hitting infielder had logged 1,086 games as a Met. In the four years that followed beyond that, he play another 420 in other uniforms, bringing his total in the majors to 1,506, the last of them for the Toronto Blue Jays on June 11, 2006. The final time Alfonzo reached base came in the sixth inning that Sunday afternoon at Rogers Centre, via a single off Detroit’s Jason Grilli. Two innings later, versus Joel Zumaya, he’d ground out. A day later, the Blue Jays released him.

A month after that, following a detour to the Atlantic League’s Bridgeport Bluefish, the Mets signed Alfonzo to a minor league contract and sent him to the Norfolk Tides, the stop he’d skipped on his early ’90s ascent to the big leagues. When the Mets first signed Alfonzo, in 1991, he was 17. Now Alfonzo was 32, not quite as old as Matlack was in 1983. Matlack had been a Tide when the franchise was known as Tidewater. Darling was a Tidewater Tide, too, just after he’d pitched for the Tulsa Drillers, top farm club for the Texas Rangers in 1981. Come Spring Training 1982, owing to his status as a No. 1 draft pick, Darling was in major league camp with the Rangers, aiming for a spot in the same rotation that had included Matlack since 1978. Instead, Darling was traded to the Mets and spent most of two years developing with the Tides. Matlack could have related. A No. 1 pick himself in 1967, Matlack pitched for Tidewater most of 1969, 1970 and 1971. When he came up for good in 1972, there was no doubting he was prepared, winning 15 games and capturing the National League Rookie of the Year.

Darling’s Tidewater apprenticeship yielded similar results. In 1984, he made 33 starts for the Mets, won 12 games and earned a few Rookie of the Year points for himself. In his second full year, Darling made the NL All-Star team. Matlack would have to wait until his third full year, 1974, to claim the same honor, one he’d receive three times as a Met. Darling never made it back to the All-Stars, but by the end of his third full season, he was a world champion, having started three games in the 1986 World Series, performing brilliantly in two of them. Matlack had also made three World Series starts, in 1973, with similar individual results.

Alfonzo? He’d be an All-Star in 2000, his sixth season, though that felt overdue. His third season, 1997, was the year he put himself on the map, attracting MVP votes for the first of three times in his career. In his fifth season, 1999, he’d ascended to the cusp of superstardom, winning a Silver Slugger for a team that went to the National League Championship Series largely on the strength of ethereal infield defense, a quarter of which was the doing of Alfonzo. A year later, he’d be as good a reason as any that the Mets were in the World Series.

Whereas erstwhile Tides/Mets Matlack and Darling stopped actively seeking pitching opportunities once their American League teams released them, Alfonzo the former Met plugged away as a Tide. A poetic coda to twelve major league seasons would have had him called up to Shea Stadium in September of 2006 for the Mets’ coronation as division champs. But that never happened. Another game in the majors never happened, either, though not for lack of trying. Edgardo Alfonzo [3] played for the Long Island Ducks in 2008, the Yomiuri Giants in 2009 and Newark Bears in 2010. He kept playing in the Venezuelan Winter League for a few years more, until he was approaching 40.

Then he, too, stopped. He turned to coaching, then managing in the minor leagues. By 2019, he was a champion at that, guiding the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Mets short-season Single-A affiliate, to their first undisputed NY-Penn League title. Instruction had also come to define Matlack’s next chapter in baseball. He ran the Tigers’ minor league pitching operations from 1997 to 2011 and then took on a similar role for the Astros. Darling hadn’t pursued any kind of coaching, but he also stayed close to the game. For fourteen going on fifteen seasons, he’s been one of the TV voices of the New York Mets.

We don’t know SNY’s booth schedule for 2020, but we have learned Darling is definitely going to be at Citi Field on Sunday, May 17, to be inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame. Matlack will be there for the same reason. Alfonzo, too. As much as they have in common, it figures to be the first time they stand on a field together in Flushing. Matlack wasn’t there for Shea Goodbye in 2008, the best opportunity the three had to meet up until the Mets announced on Tuesday that the trio would be the club’s first Hall honorees in seven years [4] — with Al Jackson [5] posthumously recognized via the Mets Hall of Fame Achievement Award for “contributions to the organization”.

The Mets have put more than one person in their Hall at the same time before, but this is the first time they’ve created a class so chronologically diverse. When you dig into their respective career ledgers, you see Matlack’s time overlapped slightly with Darling’s, and Darling’s overlapped slightly with Alfonzo’s. But when you take a step back, you realize that the contiguity forged by these three Met greats covers more than a half-century in baseball, featuring 36 consecutive seasons in the majors, highlighted by a whole bunch we rightly consider outstanding. Jon, Ronnie and Fonzie weren’t quite contemporaries, but now they are certified as peers of the highest Met order.

It would have been sweeter from our admittedly biased perspective had Jon Matlack not thrown his last pitch as a Texas Ranger, had Ron Darling not left his last game as an Oakland Athletic, had Edgardo Alfonzo not taken his last swing as a Toronto Blue Jay. What is undeniably sweet, however, is that at last, they end up grouped exactly where their legends deserve to endure.