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.
On the telephone, Andy Pafko said that it would be nice to get together, but that he didn’t belong in a book about the team. “I wasn’t in Brooklyn long enough,” he said. “I don’t rate being with Snider and Furillo. I wasn’t in that class.”
—Roger Kahn, “The Sandwich Man,” The Boys of Summer
If I didn’t know what Joe Orsulak was doing here, I wouldn’t know what Joe Orsulak  is doing here. Every other Met whom we’ve spotlighted as A Met For All Seasons to date makes a certain kind of contextual sense. Either they were around for a very long time or an ostentatiously short time; they achieved great feats or were known for slighter but indelible achievements; they’re somebody who inevitably gets talked about if the conversation is headed in the direction of an era with which they are instinctively identified; there is a story around them begging to be told; there is a statistic attached to their career that deserves enhanced awareness; there is something relentlessly Metsian about them.
I don’t believe any of the above apply to Joe Orsulak, yet I chose him as A Met for All Seasons. And of all seasons, I chose him for 1993, inarguably among the worst of all Met seasons . Mind you, I don’t associate Joe Orsulak with “the worst”. Honestly, although I’ve tended to very closely match players with seasons throughout this series, I don’t really associate Joe Orsulak all that much with 1993. I associate 1993 with Met misery. I don’t hold Joe Orsulak the least bit responsible for any of it.
Trust me, though, this isn’t some kind of thought exercise, or an effort to be contrary to the spirit of whatever it is we’re doing here, or ironic about picking a player who doesn’t quite fit the ur-Met mold in some category or another. I suppose I could have made a case for Joe Orsulak as the avatar of ordinary players who’ve played for the Mets after playing for a couple of other teams and before playing for a couple of other teams besides, the way I think of Harold Baines as a Hall of Fame player  bearing the standard for all players who weren’t judged quite good enough to make the Hall of Fame yet maybe we oughta have one from their ranks in the Hall. I like that angle for Joe Orsulak now that I’ve thought about it (“The Master of the Middling”; “The Sultan of So-So”; “The King of Basically Just OK”), but I’d be retrofitting it inauthentically.
No, Joe Orsulak is my choice to profile here because at any point over the past quarter-century, if you were to ask me to name my all-time favorite Mets and you gave me the leeway to work my way down into a second tier, I would absolutely name Joe Orsulak ahead of many other bigger-deal Mets. And, indeed, nestled with that fistful of Mets I’ve really, really liked, just beneath the handful of Mets I’ve really, really loved, Joe Orsulak is right there. He is one of my favorite Mets ever.
Which leads me to wondering about something else: why did I decide, somewhere toward the end of his perfectly representative but objectively unremarkable three-year tenure in our midst, that Joe Orsulak is one of my favorite Mets ever?
Honest to god, I really don’t know. But just as honestly, he really is.
I can’t determine whether Orsulak is my Red Dawn or my You’ve Got Mail in this allegory, but I think of the scene when I think of Joe. It’s not like I’m hiding my sentiment on his behalf, but I also have the feeling it says something about me that I must want to be known, or otherwise I wouldn’t put him out there as one of my favorite Mets.
Who, me? Why I’m a Seaver man! A Gooden man! An Orsulak man!
How’s that again?
Uh, never mind. I really like Keith Hernandez, too.
During Orsulak’s first year as a Met, I don’t think he made more than the most perfunctory of dents in my consciousness. I wasn’t at all excited to see him on Opening Day 1993, which, for our purposes today, raised the curtain on the Joe Orsulak Era. For the Mets’ purposes, Opening Day 1993 was supposed to bring down the curtain on two astonishingly embarrassing years. In 1991, our veritable Empire of the Eighties — finishing first or a reasonably strong second for seven consecutive seasons — crumbled suddenly and thoroughly, as the Mets without Darryl Strawberry proved lightweights in a division where everybody but the Expos was better than them (and the Expos had to play their last few weeks on the road when the Olympic Stadium infrastructure collapsed nearly as bad as the Mets’). In 1992, remade to contend for a title with the additions of Eddie Murray, Bret Saberhagen and Bobby Bonilla, the Mets somehow got even worse, not to mention exponentially less pleasant.
Ah, but this was a new year. Opening Day is always a new year. In 1993, you could forget the plunge from 91-71 to 77-84 to 72-90. You could forget Jeff Torborg turned from the American League Manager of the Year you couldn’t believe the Mets snagged out of Chicago to the hapless steward of the S.S. Disaster in New York. You could forget how Bonilla had been no Strawberry, how Saberhagen was no workhorse, how the Vince Coleman-catalyzed chemistry was all wrong. This was a bright, brisk day at Shea Stadium. Everybody was getting a mulligan.
And we were getting Joe Orsulak starting in center field instead of Ryan Thompson, because Thompson was nursing a sore hamstring, which amid all the promise and pageantry of Opening Day (the first I’d ever attended and the first anywhere ever involving the Colorado Rockies) disappointed me. Thompson had been obtained the previous August with Jeff Kent for David Cone. If that trade was going to work out in the slightest, it would take Thompson living up to all the five-tool hype he toted with him from Toronto. C’mon, let’s see Ryan Thompson do his thing. Instead of the biggish-deal prospect potentially putting on a show, we got Joe Orsulak.
Yup, that’s what we got ever since bringing him aboard to little notice late in 1992. As the Times reported this earth-stilling event in December, “The Mets yesterday effectively completed their 1993 roster with the signing of Joe Orsulak, a versatile, free-agent outfielder who came cheap and who could wind up playing a lot.”
The Mets’ advertising slogan entering 1992 was “Hardball is Back.” Now it was “Orsulak is here and it didn’t cost much”? As for Joe, he expressed his excitement succinctly: “We didn’t have any other serious offers. No one came up with serious dollars.” Al Harazin extended the sense of suppressed jubilation when he added, “We’ve added interesting people. They may not be headline people. But they help you win.”
Perhaps I should have learned my lesson from headline people not helping us win in 1992 (the book The Worst Team Money Could Buy had already been excerpted and was being released right after Opening Day), but I found it hard to get particularly excited that the Mets had Joe Orsulak batting behind Murray, Bonilla and Howard Johnson versus the Rockies. Nevertheless, Joe did register a base hit and, after shifting to right once Dave Gallagher came in for defense, he did catch the final out of Dwight Gooden’s Opening Day shutout of expansion Colorado. A “9” on the scorecard in a fairly stealthy debut for the latest to wear No. 6. I’d just seen Doc! I’d just seen an franchise born! I’d just seen a season start! As I left Shea Stadium, I didn’t find myself thinking or saying, “That was great, except for the presence of Joe Orsulak.”
None of it was the fault of the versatile, free-agent outfielder who came cheap and, in fact, wound up playing a lot. Maybe anybody who plays a lot in a season that inarguably stands (or cringes) among the worst of any Met campaigns shouldn’t be considered blameless, but Joe Orsulak didn’t bother anybody. No firecrackers out a car window in a stadium parking lot filled with fans. No bleach pumped toward reporters doing their job in the clubhouse. No tours of the Bronx generously offered to one media member in particular. Joe was not the reason you covered your eyes that summer. In 134 games, Orsulak batted .284 while starting 95 times. Not that a person really put a lot of 1993’s sins on Ryan Thompson when Vince Coleman, Bret Saberhagen and Bobby Bonilla were leading the high jinks out in Flushing, but Thomspon and his tools didn’t exactly explode onto the scene, either (though perhaps that’s a less than ideal phrase to invoke when discussing the year of Coleman’s penchant for making things go boom).
Whatever glamour was attached to the image of the New York Mets entering 1993 had dissipated completely exiting 1993. House was cleaned and disinfected as best as could be arranged under the auspices of GM Joe McIlvaine and manager Dallas Green. Their predecessors Harazin and Torborg, much like the Mets’ dignity, didn’t survive 1993.
The Pirates lost 104 games in 1985, yet went 8-10 against the Mets. Three times in September, they took games that to my biased 22-year-old mind belonged to the Mets. In each of those games, this Joe Orsulak whom I’d basically never heard of or at least never noticed from previous Mets-Bucs encounters delivered a key hit in a decisive inning. In the last of those games, the Friday night when much of Long Island was without electricity after Hurricane Gloria, Joe Orsulak produced four hits, drove in two runs and scored twice. The Mets blew a lead and lost, 8-7. The lights appeared out on them, too. They’d rally to win Saturday and Sunday to set up their last stand in St. Louis the next week, but we finished three games behind the Cardinals — same quantity as the three games we lost to the stupid Pirates and Joe Orsulak.
Then, except for the occasional late-night ruminating on how did we not win in ’85?, I pretty much forgot about Joe Orsulak. In 1988, he joined the Orioles, who proceeded to lose their first twenty-one games with him on the premises. But he survived the worst start in baseball history and hit .288. The next year the Orioles shocked the portion of the baseball world that wasn’t preoccupied shaking its head at the Mets’ having traded McDowell and Lenny Dykstra for Juan Samuel and very nearly won the AL East. Orsulak was a big part of that monumental turnaround, too, batting .285. Maybe he wasn’t a power hitter, but he could sure rip his share of base hits. He rarely struck out and he had a knack for gunning down runners from whichever corner of the outfield he was stationed. In 1991, he led the American League in assists from left field. In 1992, he landed in the AL Top Five for assists from right field.
This is mostly stuff I’m looking up now. I didn’t know any of this soaring into 1993 and wasn’t conscious of it limping toward 1994. I knew Joe Orsulak killed us in 1985 and then disappeared from my consciousness until the Mets acquired him. Then I knew he was perfectly all right and that it was perfectly fine he’d survived the worst Met year imaginable, give or take one that includes a mule named Mettle .
That rosy forecast emanated from a letter Joe McIlvaine sent to season ticket holders in November of 1993 (somebody posted it to Facebook a while back). If the hardiest among us were tempted to desert our sunken ship, it was Joe Mac’s job to suggest our feint toward the life boats might be a little on the hasty side. “We will work to improve our Major League club for 1993 and beyond,” McIlvaine pledged, “and feel strongly that our farm system will have a mother lode of talent ready to harvest shortly.” The GM didn’t name names of those who weren’t already in the bigs, but he did spotlight the members of the Mets’ suddenly burgeoning youth movement whom we’d seen a bit in ’93. There was Jeff Kent, “who led National League second basemen in RBI’s”; there was “starting pitcher Bobby Jones”; and there were not one but two “promising outfielders in Jeromy Burnitz and Ryan Thompson”.
Thompson was still a selling point. Orsulak went without mention, but come Opening Day 1994, Joe was out there in right at Wrigley Field. He hadn’t started, but he did finish. Just as at Shea versus the Rockies, he caught the final out, this time tumbling to the ground as he fought off the winds of the Near North Side. He was in the lineup the next day, and the day after. Nobody was selling season tickets off the glove, arm, bat or amiably unkempt hair of Joe Orsulak, but the Mets were going nowhere but up, albeit without an exclamation point, and Joe was surely part and parcel of the rebound. Granted, it would have been close to impossible to have gone down after 1993, but this was a legitimate turnaround. Maybe not Oriolesque c. 1989, but close enough for my tastes.
The 59-103 Mets of 1993 had morphed into the 55-58 Mets of 1994. Orsulak played in 96 of the 113 games they got in before the strike lopped off the back end of the schedule. Joe’s average dipped to .260, but there were a couple of big hits in there. On May 17, he led off the sixth inning at Shea against the Marlins with a game-tying homer. In the ninth, with the Mets down by one, he stroked a single into right to drive in two and win the damn thing. No Gatorade buckets were emptied and no jerseys were torn, but Joe kept the Mets above .500 at a juncture of the season and maybe the Mets’ overall journey when it seemed imperative to win more than lose for a change.
Ryan Thompson socked eighteen homers, but batted .225 and struck out nearly a hundred times in fewer than a hundred games. Jeromy Burnitz inspired Dallas Green’s enmity and was earmarked for an offseason trade. Joe Orsulak finished fifth among national right fielders in assists.
He survived some more.
He was still here, at any rate, and that wasn’t the easiest thing for him for reasons that had little to do with his offensive production or defensive skill set. Just as actual Spring Training was getting underway that April, Jennifer Frey wrote in the Times about the extra burden Orsulak was operating under. His wife Adrianna had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor the previous summer, just before the strike. While the rest of us missed baseball, Joe was glad to have the extra time with Adrianna and their kids. Once in a while as the season approached, he would figure to have to miss a game now and then. Life could be bigger than baseball that way.
“Part of the reason we feel special about him is the way he is handling it,” Dallas Green told Frey. “He’s being typical Joe. He appreciates the thoughts, but I think he just wants to approach the work like he always has and contribute where he can.”
“She’s doing so well right now, she wanted me to come and play,” Orsulak said. “If things were different, health-wise, I wouldn’t be here.”
For maybe the first time since he’d joined the Mets, I really took notice of Joe Orsulak.
Somewhere along the way, without warning, the time to rise was at hand. It was too late to do anything about a playoff race in 1995, but the Mets transitioned when almost nobody but we hardy souls who survived the competitive wreckage of 1993 and the labor strife of 1994 without our interest intact was looking. The Mets were 35-57 on August 5. The next day, the Mets won. They won six in a row. They had traded Bonilla to Baltimore and Saberhagen to Colorado. They would trade Butler, a quick fix in center, back to Los Angeles. The young Mets were finally taking hold. Young Mets who win are the best Mets who win when you’ve gone years without winning. These were indeed the young Mets of Kent and Thompson, of Alfonzo and Brogna, of Carl Everett and Butch Huskey, of Todd Hundley finally coming of age behind the plate, of that “mother lode” of pitching, featuring Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen. Damon Buford, who’d come over from the Orioles in the Bonilla trade, was seeing a lot of playing time. The main piece from that swap with Baltimore, Alex Ochoa, was going to be up soon as well.
Continuing to survive in the mix, unobtrusively serving as de facto clubhouse elder among the position players, was Joe Orsulak. Joe was 33 that summer. I was 32. As I was getting to know my online friend Jason, I recall telling him I was born “the same year as Joe Orsulak”. He was a touchstone now. I also remember something else about those nascent AOL “you’ve got mail” days, when it became habitual for me to go on a Mets message board the weeknight after the previous night’s game (it was the only time I had access to the one computer that was properly wired at work). I remember somebody on the board took a shot at Joe Orsulak. I don’t know what, if anything, Joe did to merit it or if it was just one of those inventories of the current roster a fan conducts to remedy what must be done to achieve a championship ASAP.
“Joe Orsulak,” this person wrote, “is deadwood.”
Damned if I know why, but I was moved to immediately respond, “JOE ORSULAK IS NOT DEADWOOD.”
I didn’t care that capitalizing was tantamount to shouting. I was angry in that way I get when somebody insults one of my favorite players. Except I don’t recall concluding at any point prior to that one that Joe Orsulak was one of my favorite players.
Yet there I was, defending him as if he was. So, yeah, I guess he was.
Maybe I was being a little ironic at first. “Orsulak” tripped off the tongue a bit like “Shlabotnik,” Charlie Brown’s perpetually futile Joe of choice, but though I probably lightly made the comparison to my AOL pals, Orsulak was no Shlabotnik, no schmendrick, no readily replaceable cog. From 1993 to 1995, only Jeff Kent played in more games and for the Mets than Joe Orsulak. Constancy wasn’t as exciting as youth but it wasn’t nothing. Keeping it together while your spouse is enduring an incurable disease surely wasn’t nothing. Grace under pressure, survival instincts, a .283 average with a few more outfield assists thrown in…blended with whatever makes a fan a fan and, gosh, maybe that’s how you arrive at an all-time favorite.
Orsulak tripled. I thought about saying something. I think I just smiled.
The Mets stranded Orsulak on third and played past the ninth. Green double-switched Joe out of the game in the top of the eleventh. Tim Bogar walked with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eleventh to win it for us, 1-0. We finished the season 69-75, tied for second place. It was nowhere near first place except on paper, but we had just picked up a half-game on 1996, a season none of us who stood and cheered at the end of 1995 could wait another second let alone six months for.
In 129 career at-bats as a Pirate, a Marlin and an Expo, Joe Orsulak recorded 35 base hits versus the New York Mets. I’m convinced at least 32 of them were lethal to our fortunes.
Orsulak wouldn’t play in the majors after 1997. He tried to make a team in the Spring of 1998, however. That team was the Mets. I was quietly ecstatic that he was coming home to me. It was just a matter of winning a bench role. How hard could that be for good ol’ Joe? We had a different manager and a different general manager from the end of Joe’s first tenure, but Steve Phillips and Bobby Valentine had to see what Joe’s lefty bat and dependable arm could bring to our team as it rose. In one exhibition game televised on Channel 9, Joe homered. Gary Thorne practically fainted from surprise. Joe Orsulak, he said, was only with the Mets this Spring as a favor to Cal Ripken, Jr.
HUH? I hadn’t read that anywhere before Thorne opened his mouth and I didn’t read it anywhere afterwards. It seemed rather uncouth to mention it if it were true. Joe’s wife was still battling cancer, he’d given the Mets three solid years, he’d given professional baseball close to twenty, and now you’re telling a television audience he’s not good enough to get a look except that somebody asked somebody else for a favor? And since when were in the Mets in the business of doing favors for Cal Ripken, Jr.?
Joe Orsulak hit .213 in Spring Training of 1998 and was released. The Mets were plagued by injuries a few weeks into their season and I hoped Phillips had saved Orsulak’s phone number (or could ask Ripken for it), but no dice. As far as I can recall, Joe Orsulak was never heard from again where the Mets were concerned. He was certainly never mentioned prominently in Queens or St. Lucie.
Nevertheless, he looked happy to be back in his element at Camden Yards in 2019. The occasion was a reunion of those 1989 Orioles who almost won their division. It was a big enough part of Baltimore lore (and Baltimore hadn’t had much else to get amped up over lately) that the Orioles chose to commemorate their thirtieth anniversary the way I wish all teams would commemorate all their delightfully surprising squads who don’t necessarily go all the way. Joe’s amiably unkempt hair was mostly a memory, and he did not appear ready to take a few fly balls, but you could tell he was still Joe Orsulak. He told the Oriole pregame hosts about how much he loved throwing out runners — more than hitting home runs, he swore — and what it meant for the survivors of the 1988 last-place club to have come together and make their run in 1989; it bonded them forever, he said. In my mind, I substituted 1993 for 1988, last two months of 1995 for 1989, and Mets for Orioles
It was obvious that Orsulak, by dint of the bird on his polo shirt and his inclusion in this reunion, likely considers himself an old Oriole when he considers himself an old ballplayer. Yet that won’t stop me from considering him an old Met, or at least a veteran Met from when he and I were at an age that wasn’t quite indicative of a youth movement. And it won’t stop me from continuing to consider him one of my favorite Mets ever, whatever the reason I do.
I still really don’t know why. But he remains right there.
PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962 : Richie Ashburn
1963 : Ron Hunt
1964 : Rod Kanehl
1966 : Shaun Fitzmaurice
1969 : Donn Clendenon
1970 : Tommie Agee
1972 : Gary Gentry
1973 : Willie Mays
1977 : Lenny Randle
1978 : Craig Swan
1981 : Mookie Wilson
1982 : Rusty Staub
1983 : Darryl Strawberry
1990 : Gregg Jefferies
1991 : Rich Sauveur
1992 : Todd Hundley
1994 : Rico Brogna
1995 : Jason Isringhausen
1996 : Rey Ordoñez
1998 : Todd Pratt
2000 : Melvin Mora
2001 : Mike Piazza
2002 : Al Leiter
2003 : David Cone
2004 : Joe Hietpas
2005 : Pedro Martinez
2008 : Johan Santana
2009 : Angel Pagan
2012 : R.A. Dickey
2013 : Wilmer Flores
2014 : Jacob deGrom
2019 : Dom Smith