Monday, February 23, 2015

One Mo-MET In Time: Mike Vail

Every once in a while, a player is anointed as "the next big thing" by baseball pundits.  Whereas some of these players do proceed to have spectacular careers, others end up being complete duds.

The Mets have had both types of "next big thing" players.  They've had the success stories who played incredibly well in a Mets uniform, like Tom Seaver and Darryl Strawberry.  But they've also had guys who didn't quite live up to the lofty expectations.  Players like Gregg Jefferies and Paul Wilson come to mind.

It's bad enough when one of these supposed sure things flames out at the big league level.  But it's far worse when that player is so highly touted that he ends up replacing an established veteran - only to have the veteran continue to play at a high level long after the so-called phenom's star has fizzled.

In 1975, the Mets fell into that trap, letting a one-month hot streak by a neophyte dictate whether or not they needed to keep an aging star.  They made the wrong decision, and in doing so, changed the fortune of the team for the better part of a decade.

Mike Vail's one good month caused the Mets to have seven bad years.

Michael Lewis Vail was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1971 as an infielder who occasionally played in the outfield.  Vail struggled as a hitter in his first two minor league seasons, batting .235 in just under 500 at-bats, causing him to be demoted from the Double-A level back to Single-A for the start of the 1973 season.  But Vail started to turn things around in 1973, raising his average to .278, while banging out 31 doubles, nine triples and 15 homers.  In 1974, Vail's power production remained consistent, but his batting average soared to .334.  That caught the eye of the Mets' front office, who traded utility player Ted Martinez to the Cardinals for Vail and infielder Jack Heidemann in December.

Leaving the Cardinals organization did nothing to impede Vail's development, as he proceeded to bat .342 at Tidewater in 1975, posting an outstanding .888 OPS with the Mets' Triple-A affiliate.  For his efforts, Vail was named the International League Player of the Year and earned his first promotion to the big leagues.

Prior to Vail's promotion in August, the Mets had used six different left fielders, with none of them having started more than 64 games at the position.  Vail made his major league debut on August 18, collecting a pinch-hit single off Houston's hard-throwing right-hander J.R. Richard.  Vail became the seventh Met to start a game in left field two days later, but went 0-for-5.  Through his first four games at the big league level, Vail collected three hits in 11 at-bats.  He more than doubled his career hit total in his fifth game - a game that began Vail's march into the record books.

Facing the San Diego Padres on August 25, Vail went 4-for-4 with a walk, becoming the first Met to collect four hits in a game during his first month in the big leagues.  Vail collected three hits the following day and two more hits in the series finale against the Padres.  But as August turned to September, the Mets faded from the NL East race.  A victory over the Pirates on September 1 - a game in which Vail hit his first major league home run - moved the Mets to within four games of first place Pittsburgh.  The joy was short-lived, however, as the Mets proceeded to lose eight of their next nine games to fall ten games out of first.

The Mets may have stopped winning in September, but Vail never stopped hitting.  By September 9, Vail was hitting .358 and had recorded eight multi-hit games in his first 18 starts.  Three days later, Vail extended his hitting streak to 20 games, making him just the third Met to collect a hit in 20 or more consecutive games, joining Tommie Agee and Cleon Jones, who both accomplished the feat in 1970.  The hit streak by Jones eventually reached 23 games, and on September 15, Vail matched him.

Trailing 2-0 in the sixth inning against the Montreal Expos, Vail delivered a two-out, run-scoring single off Steve Rogers.  Vail not only cut the Expos' lead in half, but he extended his hitting streak to 23 games, tying Cleon Jones's franchise record and the modern National League record for rookies.  Vail joined Joe Rapp (1921), Alvin Dark (1948) and Richie Ashburn (1948) as the only Senior Circuit rookies to string together a hitting skein of 23 games.  Two innings later, Vail delivered his second hit of the game, an RBI single that scored the decisive run in the Mets' 3-2 victory.

Unfortunately, Vail could not break the Mets' record for longest hitting streak, even though he got plenty of opportunities to do so.  On September 16, during an 18-inning marathon against the Expos, Vail drew a first-inning walk, then failed to collect a hit in his next seven plate appearances.  When Del Unser drew a bases-loaded walk to force in the winning run in the Mets' 4-3 victory, Vail was two batters away from getting a ninth chance to extend his streak.

With the streak now in the past, the Mets could contemplate their future - one that involved Mike Vail as an everyday player.  But Vail's future in New York was not in left field.  Rather, it was in right, a position that was occupied by Rusty Staub, who had just completed the first 100-RBI campaign in Mets history.

Staub had already played 13 seasons in the major leagues and was thought to be entering the downside of his career.  Plus, with slugger Dave Kingman setting a franchise record by hitting 36 home runs in 1975, Staub was deemed expendable.  The Mets were also searching for a fourth starter to use behind Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack, and believed they had found him in Detroit in 207-game winner Mickey Lolich.  General manager Joe McDonald was certain that Vail was ready to replace Staub in right, and thought of something the Brooklyn Dodgers had done in the early 1940s.



"When we won in 1973, George Stone won 13 games.  But the last two years, we haven't had a consistent fourth starter.  Stone had arm trouble and Randy Tate and Craig Swan couldn't quite do it.  In getting Lolich, it reminds me of when the old Brooklyn Dodgers were winning with Larry French as their fourth starter."



If that was the reason McDonald acquired Lolich, then the Mets were in serious trouble.  For one thing, French only started 15 games for the Dodgers in 1941 and 1942, appearing in relief 29 times.  In his only full season with the Dodgers (1942), French did pitch beautifully, going 15-4 with a 1.83 ERA.  But the Dodgers didn't win the pennant in 1942, finishing two games behind the eventual World Series champion Cardinals.  They did advance to the World Series the previous year, but French only started one game for the Dodgers in 1941.  (And not to nitpick, but McDonald's selective memory also pegged George Stone as a 13-game winner in 1973 when he only won a dozen games.)

While it was true that Mickey Lolich had had a solid career in the majors, winning 207 games prior to being traded to the Mets for Rusty Staub, McDonald failed to notice one important detail about Lolich's career.  In his first eight years in the big leagues (1963-70), Lolich never pitched more than 280⅔ innings in any season.  But from 1971 to 1974, Lolich never pitched fewer than 308 innings, peaking in 1971 when he tossed a mind-boggling 376 innings in 45 starts.

Staub had come off a 1975 season in which he received MVP consideration.  Lolich was coming off a 1975 campaign in which he went 12-18 and pitched just 240⅔ innings, his lowest total since 1968.  Lolich might have been able to give the Mets the innings they needed out of a fourth starter, but he certainly wasn't going to help them win.  In other words, Lolich was not going to be the Mets' version of Larry French, something that was confirmed when Lolich went 8-13 and pitched just 192⅔ innings in his only season as a Met.

While Joe McDonald was busy trading away his MVP candidate for a washed-up pitcher, Mike Vail was busy getting hurt playing basketball.  A dislocated right foot suffered in January caused Vail to miss half of the 1976 season.  Upon his return, Vail spent most of June and July on the bench, starting just six games over the two months.  Vail played in just 53 games in 1976, batting .217 in 143 at-bats.  His total of 31 hits during the 1976 campaign was three fewer than the number of hits he collected during his 23-game hitting streak the previous summer.

Vail played one more season with the Mets in 1977, but never hit enough to play every day.  He shared right field duties with Dave Kingman and Ed Kranepool during the season's first half, then ended the year in a right field platoon with Bruce Boisclair.  Vail was then claimed off waivers by the Cleveland Indians prior to the start of the 1978 season.

In three years with the Mets, Vail produced a total of 25 doubles, 11 homers and 61 RBI.  In his first three years with Detroit following the trade to make room for Vail, Rusty Staub averaged 31 doubles, 20 homers and 106 RBI per season.  Needless to say, Vail didn't exactly make Mets fans forget about Rusty Staub.

Throughout the team's history, many young players have been viewed as the next great Mets prospect.  For Mike Vail, an unexpected long hitting streak that began a week after he made his major league debut gave the team hope that it had found its newest young star - one that could shine at Shea Stadium for many years to come.

Unfortunately for Vail, his rookie record lasted longer than his time in the major leagues.  And unfortunately for the Mets, Rusty Staub still had several All-Star caliber seasons left in him after they traded him away.

For one brief moment in time, Mike Vail was heralded as the future of the Mets.  Instead, all he did was convince a general manager to make an ill-fated decision, one that brought the Mets back to its ugly past.  It would take years for the team's future to be bright again.



Note:  One Mo-MET In Time is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players who will forever be known for a single moment, game or event, regardless of whatever else they accomplished during their tenure with the Mets.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 5, 2015: Mookie Wilson 
January 12, 2015: Dave Mlicki
January 19, 2015: Steve Henderson 
January 26, 2015: Ron Swoboda
February 2, 2015: Anthony Young
February 9, 2015: Tim Harkness
February 16, 2015: Kenny Rogers, Aaron Heilman, Tom Glavine


Monday, February 16, 2015

Three Mo-METS In Time: Kenny Rogers, Aaron Heilman, Tom Glavine (The Three Enemigos)

A general manager can acquire baseball players in several ways.  These ways include - but are not limited to - trading for players, signing free agents or drafting players.  From 1997 to 2003, the man who traded, signed and drafted players for the Mets was general manager Steve Phillips.

Phillips helped build the Mets into a contender, adding proven talent like Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura to a squad that had ended a six-year run of futility during the first year of Phillips' tenure.  He also set the Mets up for success after his departure by drafting David Wright and signing Jose Reyes.

But Phillips also had his share of duds, as anyone who remembers the 2002 season can attest.  (The law office of Alomar, Vaughn, Burnitz and Cedeño lost a lot of cases for that team.)  He also failed to keep quality players when he had them.

Phillips could not re-sign first baseman John Olerud, who went back home to the Pacific Northwest after Phillips made a poorly-timed comment about the World Trade Organization riots going on in Seattle, saying, "I can't understand why anybody would want to play in Seattle after seeing the chaos.  I would think there'd be a mass exodus."  Olerud went on to win three Gold Gloves and made an All-Star team with the Mariners (he accomplished neither in his three years as a Met).  He also played in the postseason four times after leaving the Mets.

In addition to Olerud, who left via free agency, Phillips also pushed the panic button when shortstop Rey Ordoñez got hurt in 2000, trading Melvin Mora to the Orioles for short-term solution Mike Bordick.  The 35-year-old Bordick, who was having a career year in Baltimore (.831 OPS), underperformed in New York (.685 OPS).  Mora went on to become a two-time All-Star and Silver Slugger recipient in ten seasons with the O's, while Bordick went on to become an Oriole again in 2001, leaving the Mets as a free agent.

Needless to say, Phillips had his ups and downs as general manager of the Mets.  But three players - players who are now vilified in New York - were originally viewed as key pieces to helping the team either make a push for the postseason or bringing the team back to respectability.  One was acquired via a trade.  Another was drafted by Phillips.  The third came to New York as a free agent.  For the most part, they performed well while in New York.  But no one ever remembers that.  The only thing anyone remembers about them was their contribution to three of the lowest moments in Mets history, essentially turning them into the Three Enemigos - enemies of Mets fans who wanted so badly to taste postseason success, only to have it taken from them through three epic meltdowns.

Kenny Rogers, Aaron Heilman and Tom Glavine - the Three Enemigos!

In 1998, the Mets failed to end a ten-year postseason drought, coughing up a one-game lead in the wild card race in the season's final five games.  Although New York added future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza in May, the team only made minor moves at the trade deadline in 1998, dealing for players such as Tony Phillips, Wille Blair, Jorge Fabregas and Mike Kinkade.  Not wanting to use the same approach in 1999, general manager Phillips went all-out at the trade deadline, acquiring veterans Darryl Hamilton and Shawon Dunston.  He also made two separate trades with Oakland, dealing away former Generation K member Jason Isringhausen for reliever Billy Taylor and shipping off outfield prospect Terrence Long (who became the AL Rookie of the Year runner-up in 2000) for starting pitcher Kenny Rogers.

Rogers pitched well for the Mets during the season's final two months, tossing two complete games, one of which was a four-hit shutout against the San Francisco Giants on September 6.  The Mets won ten of the 12 starts made by Rogers, including his critical performance in the first game of the season-ending series versus the Pittsburgh Pirates.  With the Mets two games out of the wild card with three games to play, Rogers held the Bucs scoreless into the eighth inning, striking out a season-high ten batters.  But Rogers allowed a run in the eighth, then watched from the bench as a walk by Turk Wendell and a single off John Franco allowed the tying run to score.  The Mets eventually won the game in 11 innings to keep their postseason hopes alive and three days later, their playoff dreams came true after they defeated the Cincinnati Reds in the season's 163rd game.

In his first nine starts for the Mets following the trade, Rogers was a perfect 5-0 with a 3.23 ERA and 1.26 WHIP.  The Mets won eight of those nine starts, which impressed manager Bobby Valentine.

''He surprises me with his curveball, something I didn't know he had developed so well,'' said Valentine.  ''He's a much better pitcher than I remembered. ... He's everything that we had hoped for.'' 

What Valentine hadn't hoped for was Rogers falling apart in his next two starts, allowing a total of ten runs and not making it past the fifth inning in either game, both of which came against the sub-.500 Phillies.  His strong performance against the Pirates in his final regular season start only served to place a bandage on a cracking dam.  That crack would burst in the postseason.

The Mets lost a total of five games against the Arizona Diamondbacks and Atlanta Braves in the 1999 postseason.  Three of those five losses were charged to Kenny Rogers.  A home run by backup catcher Todd Pratt ended the division series in four games, temporarily making Mets fans forget that Rogers was responsible for the team's only loss in the series, a game in which he allowed four runs in 4⅓ innings.

Rogers didn't fare much better a week later in his first NLCS start.  After dropping the first game to Atlanta, the Mets desperately needed a series-tying win before coming back home to Shea Stadium.  Although Rogers kept the Braves scoreless through the first five innings, he was constantly pitching in and out of trouble, allowing eight base runners in those five frames.  But the Braves squandered several scoring opportunities, grounding into two double plays and getting picked off first base on two occasions.  Rogers was more lucky than good in the first five innings.  His luck ran out in the sixth, as he allowed a game-tying two-run homer to Mets killer Brian Jordan, followed by another two-run homer by light-hitting catcher Eddie Perez.

"I can't believe I just gave up a homer to Eddie Perez." (Steve Schaefer/AFP/Getty Images)

It was bad enough that Rogers had coughed up the lead in the critical Game Two loss to the Braves.  But that's not what Mets fans remember him for.  The moment that truly made Rogers an enemy of the Mets' state happened four games later, when two of his fellow pitchers blew late-inning leads and he was called upon to keep the game tied.  Until it wasn't.

As a result of the game-winning Grand Slam Single by Robin Ventura in Game Five - a game in which Kenny Rogers pitched two scoreless innings of relief, the Mets became just the second team in big league history to force a Game Six after dropping the first three games of a best-of-seven series.  The series shifted back to Atlanta for the sixth game, but the Mets didn't show up for that game until after it had begun, falling behind by five runs in the first inning.

The never-say-die Mets did not panic, despite the early 5-0 deficit.  New York scored eight runs from the sixth through the eighth innings, taking a one-run lead into the bottom of the eighth.  But John Franco allowed a one-out single to Eddie Perez (you may remember him as the aforementioned light-hitting catcher), a stolen base by pinch-runner Otis Nixon and a run-scoring single by Brian Hunter.  Once again, the Mets and Braves were going to extra innings with the Braves a run away from winning the pennant.

In Game Five, Todd Pratt tied the game in the 15th inning with a bases-loaded walk.  Two days later, Pratt gave the Mets an extra-inning lead, hitting a sacrifice fly to score Benny Agbayani in the tenth.  But once again, the Mets bullpen could not hold the lead, as Armando Benitez allowed a one-out RBI single to yet another light-hitting Brave - pinch-hitter Ozzie Guillen.  The game was now tied, 9-9, as the teams moved on to the 11th inning.  This time, the Mets could not push across a run to take the lead in their half of the inning, a frame that saw the Mets use Shawon Dunston as a pinch-hitter for Benitez.  New York had used nine pitchers in their Game Five victory.  With Benitez now out of the game, the Mets needed an eighth pitcher to start the bottom of the 11th in Game Six.  Valentine rolled the dice and turned to Kenny Rogers.  The decision ended up costing the Mets their magical season.

Rogers allowed a leadoff double to Gerald Williams, who advanced to third on Bret Boone's sacrifice bunt.  Valentine then had Rogers intentionally walk Chipper Jones and Brian Jordan to set up a force play at every base.  But that also forced Rogers to pitch with pinpoint control to slugger Andruw Jones.  Finally, on a 3-2 count, Rogers threw a pitch that wasn't even close to the strike zone, allowing Williams to scamper home with the pennant-winning run and the Mets to fly home with their season coming to a screeching halt.

Although he pitched fairly well during the regular season following his mid-season trade to the Mets, Rogers fell apart in the postseason, going 0-3 with a 6.75 ERA.  Rogers pitched 12 innings in two starts and two relief appearances, allowing 26 base runners (16 hits, nine walks, one hit batsman).  The Mets eventually did win the pennant in 2000, but they did so without Rogers, who signed as a free agent with the Texas Rangers following his postseason pratfalls.  For many Mets fans, he left the team four balls too late.

After the Mets lost the 2000 World Series to the Yankees (without Rogers), Steve Phillips went into the 2001 June amateur draft hoping to find a talented arm who could help the team in the near future.  After all, four of the club's five starting pitchers in 2001 were already in their thirties and the team had just lost starting pitcher Mike Hampton to free agency.  However, as a result of Hampton's defection to the thin air and utopian school system in Denver, the Mets received two first round draft picks from the Rockies.  With their supplemental pick from Colorado, the Mets chose infielder David Wright and with their compensation pick, New York selected pitcher Aaron Heilman.

At least David Wright turned out okay.  (Doug Benc/Getty Images)

As a student-athlete at Notre Dame, Heilman set school records in career wins (43) and strikeouts (425).  He also rarely gave up home runs, allowing just 12 homers in 393⅔ innings.  That trend continued in the minor leagues, as Heilman surrendered just 15 homers in three minor league seasons before making his major league debut for the Mets in 2003.  Unfortunately, Heilman took some time to adjust to major league hitters, especially ones with power.

From 2003 to 2004, Heilman made 18 starts for the Mets, allowing 17 homers in 93⅓ innings.  It was more of the same for Heilman in his first start of the 2005 campaign, as he allowed home runs to noted Met-killers Brian Jordan and Chipper Jones in a loss to the Braves on April 9.  His next start was a revelation, as Heilman pitched a complete-game one-hit shutout against the Florida Marlins, allowing just a fourth-inning single to future Met Luis Castillo.  But when Heilman faced the Marlins again in his next start, he allowed seven runs and 11 hits in just four innings of work.  A month later, Heilman had lost his spot in the starting rotation.

The home run ball was one of the reasons why Heilman never made it as a starting pitcher, as he served up 22 taters in his first 25 career starts.  But once he moved to the bullpen, Heilman thrived.  He allowed just one homer in 45 relief appearances, with that long ball coming in garbage time on August 24 during the late innings of an 18-4 Mets victory over the Diamondbacks.

In 2006, Heilman once again finished strongly.  From July 19 to the end of the season, Heilman made 33 relief appearances, posting four wins, 12 holds, a 2.29 ERA and a stellar 0.93 WHIP.  Opposing batters hit just .190 off Heilman in those 33 games and most importantly, failed to hit any home runs off him in 35⅓ innings.  Heilman went nearly three months without allowing a home run until he surrendered what appeared to be a meaningless home run to Wilson Betemit in Game Two of the division series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.  It was the only run allowed by the Mets in a 4-1 victory.  Two weeks later, Heilman allowed another home run.  This time, the blast wasn't so meaningless.

In a tension-filled seventh game of the NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Mets and Cards were tied, 1-1, going to the eighth inning.  As he had done throughout the season, manager Willie Randolph brought in Heilman to pitch the eighth inning.  Heilman rewarded his manager by pitching a scoreless frame, sandwiching two strikeouts around an intentional walk to Albert Pujols.  But instead of bringing in closer Billy Wagner to start the ninth, even though there was no chance for a save situation with the Mets playing at home, Randolph decided to hold Wagner in case the game went into extra innings, allowing Heilman to pitch the ninth.

Heilman had pitched beautifully in 2006, but he was most effective as a one-inning pitcher.  During the regular season, Heilman was asked to pitch more than one inning in 17 of his 74 relief appearances.  He allowed runs in nine of those 17 outings.  When asked to pitch no more than one inning, Heilman held the opposition scoreless in 45 of those 57 appearances.  But Game Seven was a different animal, and Heilman was going to pitch as long as Randolph needed him to stay on the mound.  Three batters into the ninth, Heilman became a part of Mets history, but not for a moment he wanted.

I wonder what's got everyone's attention in this photo.  (Photo by Bill Kostroun/AP)

During the 2006 regular season, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina batted .216 and had a .271 on-base percentage.  He also was not a threat to go deep, as he had notched just 16 career homers in 1,033 plate appearances.  Clearly, Molina was not a Mike Piazza-type hitting catcher.  In fact, he couldn't even be compared to someone like, oh, let's say Mike Scioscia.  Although Molina's power was comparable to Scioscia, who hit 35 homers in 3,295 plate appearances through 1988, at least Scioscia knew how to reach base (.263 batting average, .350 on-base percentage during the same span).

In 1988, Scioscia had 31 plate appearances against the Mets during the regular season.  He produced no homers and one RBI against them.  Similarly, in his short career, Molina had 32 lifetime regular season plate appearances versus the Mets entering the 2006 NLCS.  Those plate appearances produced - you guessed it - no homers and one RBI for Molina.  In the 1988 National League Championship Series, Scioscia pulled a two-run homer off Dwight Gooden in the ninth inning at Shea Stadium in what was considered the turning point of the series.  Eighteen years later, a catcher with little power was batting in the ninth inning at Shea during a critical moment of the NLCS.  Once again, the light-hitting catcher had a runner on base and was facing a homegrown, first round draft pick.  And once again, the ball was pulled out of the yard.

Ever since becoming a relief pitcher in 2005, Aaron Heilman had become a master of keeping the ball in the park, allowing just six homers in 119 relief appearances during the 2005 and 2006 campaigns.  But once Molina beat him for a pennant-winning two-run homer in Game Seven of the 2006 NLCS, Heilman became quite susceptible to the long ball, serving up 18 homers in 159 games over the next two seasons.  And it wasn't just the fact that he was giving up homers.  He was also giving them up with men on base.

From 2003 to 2006, Heilman allowed 28 homers.  Exactly half of them (14) were solo shots.  After giving up the fateful home run to Molina, Heilman yielded 18 homers in his final two years as a Met.  Only four of them were hit with no one on base.  Six of them came with at least two runners aboard (four three-run homers, two grand slams).

Aaron Heilman was supposed to be a top prospect for the Mets who prided himself on keeping the ball in the park.  As a relief pitcher in 2005 and 2006, he was one of the best at doing just that.  That is, until Yadier Molina took a page out of the Mike Scioscia Guide to Hitting Devastating Home Runs.  Heilman - and the entire Mets franchise, for that matter - never recovered.

Speaking of being devastated, one player who signed with the Mets as a free agent during Steve Phillips' tenure as general manager was present at both the Kenny Rogers and Aaron Heilman meltdowns.  As a member of the Braves in 1999, he was in a celebratory mood when Rogers walked Andruw Jones to force in the decisive run, but seven years later he was more somber as a member of the Mets who witnessed the Molina home run.  One year after the Molina bomb, he put up a stinker of his own, not that he was all that destroyed by it.

Tom Glavine was an enemy before and after he became an "enemigo".  In 17 years with the Braves (1987-2002, 2008), Glavine made 36 regular season starts against the Mets, posting a 17-7 record and 2.82 ERA.  His .708 winning percentage versus New York made him one of just three pitchers (min. 35 starts) who won at least 70% of his decisions against the Mets, joining two former Giants - Juan Marichal (26-8, .765 winning percentage) and Mike Krukow (22-7, .759).  But when Phillips needed to make a splash following the Mets' first losing season in six years, he turned to the Mets' nemesis, signing Glavine to a three-year, $35 million contract with a fourth-year option.  Glavine, who had 242 career wins at the time, thought he needed four productive seasons to reach 300 victories.

''I want to have the opportunity to win 300 games, and I think in order to do that, I have to pitch four years,'' said Glavine.  ''So I don't want to make a decision and in three years have to find a team to pitch for in the fourth year.  That fourth year is an important part of it.''

Glavine needed more than four years to reach 300 wins, as he produced 48 victories in his first four seasons as a Met.  But after becoming the only Mets pitcher to win multiple games during the 2006 postseason and needing just ten wins to become the first pitcher to win his 300th game while wearing a Mets uniform, the Mets almost had to bring Glavine back, which they did when they signed him to a one-year, $10.5 million contract to pitch for the team in 2007.

The Mets weren't nearly as successful in 2007 as they had been a year earlier.  Neither was Glavine, for that matter.  After going 15-7 with a 3.82 ERA in 2006, allowing three runs or fewer in all but seven of his 32 starts, his 2007 campaign was quite pedestrian (13-8, 4.45 ERA).  Glavine also allowed six runs or more in seven of his 34 starts in 2007.  One of those seven poor efforts came in Glavine's next-to-last start of the season, when he allowed six runs in five innings against Washington.  The Mets scored six runs in the ninth inning to make the Nationals sweat, but fell short by a single tally, losing a 10-9 heartbreaker.

Although Glavine could have easily been remembered for that subpar performance, the Mets still had a two-game lead in the division over the Phillies with five games to play.  Glavine would get one more opportunity to pitch before the end of the regular season, with the Mets hoping that the division could be clinched before then.  But it wasn't.  And Glavine's final start would determine if there would be October baseball at Shea Stadium.  Spoiler alert: There wasn't.

One day after John Maine had one of the best pitching performances in franchise history (no runs, one hit allowed, 14 strikeouts, no-hitter broken up with two outs in the eighth), Glavine had one of the worst.  Four batters into the game, Glavine had already given up more hits than Maine did the previous day.  Glavine faced every batter in the Marlins' lineup in the regular season finale.  He retired one of them.  The southpaw allowed four singles, a double, two walks and made a throwing error before hitting opposing pitcher Dontrelle Willis with the bases loaded to force in a run.  When reliever Jorge Sosa allowed a two-run double to Dan Uggla - the only batter Glavine retired in his abbreviated outing - the book on Glavine was closed.

In the Mets' biggest game of the season, Glavine pitched one-third of an inning, allowing seven runs - all of them earned.  His ERA for the day was an unfathomable 189.00.  The only thing larger than his earned run average was the enormity of the loss, as the 8-1 defeat, coupled with the Phillies' 6-1 victory, gave Philadelphia its first division crown in 14 years.  The crushing loss also sent the Mets home prematurely after the team held a seven-game lead in the division with 17 games to play.

As upset as Mets fans were with the team's collapse during the final three weeks of the season, they became even more incensed after hearing how Glavine felt about his performance, especially his choice of words when asked by a reporter if he was devastated by the loss.




"I'm not devastated, but I am disappointed.  Devastated is a word used for greater things in life than a game.  I was disappointed in the way I pitched."





For Mets fans who lived and died with the team since before Glavine had thrown his first pitch in the majors, the season-ending loss in 2007 was one of the toughest to comprehend, almost as difficult to swallow as Glavine's post-game comments.  Glavine's performance not only capped an historic collapse, it reinforced the notion that the Mets could not win the big game, similar to Kenny Rogers' loss in Game Six of the 1999 NLCS and Aaron Heilman's defeat in Game Seven of the 2006 NLCS.

The Mets once again lost a late-season division lead in 2008, although that one was just a three-and-a-half game lead, then followed that up with six consecutive losing seasons.  If only Kenny Rogers had not suffered a postseason meltdown in 1999, or if Aaron Heilman had known that light-hitting catchers can indeed become supermen at Shea Stadium in October, or even if Tom Glavine had been a little more terrific and a little less horrific in his final start as a Met, the history of the franchise could have been quite different.

Steve Phillips helped put together a team that made the only back-to-back playoff appearances in club annals.  He also helped lead the team down a dark path with some ill-fated trades, draft picks and free agent signings.  Three of those acquisitions had success with the Mets for most of the time they toiled in New York.  But they wilted horribly when the team needed them the most.

Kenny Rogers (traded to the Mets), Aaron Heilman (drafted by the Mets) and Tom Glavine (signed as a free agent with the Mets) could have been remembered for many things.  But their legacies will always come down to three heartbreaking defeats, turning three potential heroes into villains in the eyes of long-suffering Mets fans.

Nothing the Three Enemigos did prior to their untimely performances with the Mets will ever matter.  Whether they admitted it or not, those three moments in time will always be devastating.


Note:  One Mo-MET In Time is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players who will forever be known for a single moment, game or event, regardless of whatever else they accomplished during their tenure with the Mets.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 5, 2015: Mookie Wilson 
January 12, 2015: Dave Mlicki
January 19, 2015: Steve Henderson 
January 26, 2015: Ron Swoboda
February 2, 2015: Anthony Young
February 9, 2015: Tim Harkness


Monday, February 9, 2015

One Mo-MET In Time: Tim Harkness

In the early days of the New York Mets, fans attended the team's home games to see many things.  They went to see manager Casey Stengel, who was as entertaining as any comic actor they could watch on television.  They also went to catch a glimpse of former members of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, who were closing out their careers in the city they called home prior to going out west.  Some fans even went to see stars from other teams - players they hadn't been able to see in a National League park since the defection of the Dodgers and Giants following the 1957 campaign.

What fans didn't get to see too much during the team's early days were wins.  In the two years the Mets called the Polo Grounds home, the team won a total of 56 games there.  That's fewer wins at home in a two-year period than the Cincinnati Reds won in their home park in 1962 alone, and the Reds were a third-place team that year.

Needless to say, most of the excitement generated on the field during the team's short stay at the Polo Grounds had nothing to do with the players wearing "Mets" on their chests.  If the team had a lead, they had a good chance of blowing it.  And if they trailed in the late innings, there seemed to be little chance of a happy recap.  But during the team's second season, an unlikely hero stepped up to the plate on an early summer afternoon, trying to erase a two-run deficit in extra innings.  What happened next was something that would not be seen again during a Mets home game for nearly three decades.

Tim Harkness had a left-handed power swing made for the short distance to right field at the Polo Grounds.

Thomas William Harkness, better known as Tim, was a power threat from a very young age.  The Canadian slugger signed with the Phillies in 1956, then played in the Dodgers minor league system over the next five years.  A year after putting up a 28 HR, 111 RBI season at the Double-A level, Harkness made his major league debut with the Dodgers.  But Harkness never caught on as a first baseman in Los Angeles.  He started just six games at the position in two seasons, appearing primarily as a pinch-hitter before being traded to the Mets at the conclusion of the 1962 campaign.

With the Mets, Harkness became the team's primary first baseman in 1963, although he did share the position at times with Duke Carmel (17 starts), Frank Thomas (15 starts) and an 18-year-old Ed Kranepool (15 starts).  Harkness was a streaky hitter, hitting home runs and driving in runs in bunches - he had four homers and 14 RBI during a 17-game stretch in May - but experienced many more cold periods than hot ones.  In fact, from May 30 to June 25, Harkness batted .125, collecting nine hits in 72 at-bats.

Harkness, who once had a .276 batting average in late May, was now in danger of dropping below the .200 mark, entering the June 26 tilt against the Chicago Cubs with a .208 batting average.  Coming into the game, Harkness had collected just 53 hits in his brief three-year career in the majors, never having more than three hits in any single game.  Through nine innings against the Cubs, Harkness had picked up one hit in four at-bats.  But the game was tied through nine, as the Mets had chipped away at an early four-run deficit to send the game into extra innings.  The team's day wasn't quite done, and neither was Tim Harkness.

Harkness doubled to lead off the 11th inning, but was stranded in scoring position when pinch-hitter Norm Sherry grounded into an inning-ending double play.  Two innings later, a single by Harkness put runners on the corners with one out.  But the Mets couldn't capitalize on Harkness's third hit of the game, as two groundouts ended the scoring threat.

It was on to the 14th inning at the Polo Grounds, where the Cubs looked to score for the first time since taking a 4-0 lead in the fifth inning.  Mets reliever Galen Cisco was one out away from getting out of the inning, but surrendered a two-run, inside-the-park home run to future Hall of Famer Billy Williams, giving Chicago a 6-4 lead.  The Mets, who had squandered numerous scoring opportunities in the previous innings, had one more chance to come up with a game-winning rally.  What they got was a seminal moment in team history.

Jim Hickman led off the Mets' half of the 14th inning with a single.  Ron Hunt followed with a single of his own, but Hickman was thrown out after he accidentally ran past second base.  Cubs pitcher Jack Warner then walked Jimmy Piersall to put the tying runs on base for Frank Thomas.  Thomas, who led the Mets with 34 home runs during the team's inaugural season in 1962, entered the game with just four home runs in 1963.  But Thomas had hit a two-run homer earlier in the game, and was another clout away from winning it.  With the crowd of just over 8,000 hoping for Thomas to blast his second homer of the game, all they got was a fly ball to left off Cubs reliever Paul Toth.

The Mets were now an out away from losing a heartbreaker to Chicago.  Seldom used catcher Sammy Taylor stepped up to the plate.  Left-handed pitcher Jim Brewer was summoned from the bullpen to face the lefty-swinging Taylor.  Taylor was already 0-for-6 in the game and had collected just eight hits all season up to that point.  But Brewer had not pitched in a major league game in 17 days and had been awful since May 19 (7.59 ERA in his last six appearances).  Taylor was able to coax a walk from Brewer to load the bases, bringing up Tim Harkness.

Harkness had already tied his career high in the game by notching three hits, including two in extra innings.  A fourth hit would almost surely tie the game.  A long hit would win it.  Harkness worked the count full.  Then with one mighty swing, Harkness delivered something no Met had accomplished before and no Met would accomplish again for almost 30 years.

With the right field wall looming just 257 feet away from home plate, Harkness pulled a grand slam over that wall, giving the Mets a thrilling 8-6 victory.  The game-winning blast was Harkness's fourth hit of the game - a new career high - but most importantly, was the first walk-off grand slam in the brief history of the team.

Tim Harkness emerges from the Mets clubhouse to greet fans following his extra-inning heroics. (UPI Photo)

Although the Mets hit a handful of walk-off grand slams over the next few decades, including one by Jim Hickman just six weeks after Harkness's game-winner, most of them occurred with the score tied.  But the grand slam by Harkness turned a potential two-run loss into a two-run win.  No Mets player would hit another walk-off grand slam with the team trailing at the time until Kevin McReynolds turned the trick against the Montreal Expos on June 25, 1991, nearly 28 years to the day after Harkness's heroics.  It would be another 23 years before a third Mets player - Ike Davis in 2014 - slammed the Mets from an apparent loss to a last-licks victory.

Harkness would go on to hit another walk-off homer for the Mets in 1963 - although this one was only a two-run shot in September - but for the most part, his grand slam against the Cubs was his last highlight of the season.  After victimizing Jim Brewer on June 26, Harkness went into a deep slump, going 9-for-87 with no homers and two RBI over his next 35 games.  A six-game hitting streak to end the season kept his average above .200, but also showed the Mets that the team needed to go in a different direction at first base.

The Mets moved into Shea Stadium in 1964, a park whose right field fence was nearly 100 feet deeper down the line than the one at the now-defunct Polo Grounds, and Harkness's power suffered.  Harkness played 39 games for the Mets in 1964, hitting just two homers.  Only one of those homers came at Shea Stadium.  Harkness was traded to Cincinnati in July, then bounced around in the minors for the next three seasons, never making it back to the majors.

In four big league seasons, Harkness never matched his power production in the minors.  His 28 HR, 111 RBI campaign in the minors in 1960 didn't translate to the majors, as Harkness managed just 14 homers and 61 RBI as a member of the Dodgers and Mets.  But for one amazing day in June 1963, Harkness became a hero in New York, powering the Mets to a dramatic, come-from-behind victory.

Manager Casey Stengel probably said it best (as he usually did) when discussing how important Harkness's homer was to the team at that moment.




  
"It was one of those good ones.  We just about had to end it there because I'd run out of men."





As the saying goes, if you watch baseball long enough, you're bound to see something you've never seen before.  On June 26, 1963, Mets fans saw something they had never seen before when Tim Harkness sent the small, but lively, Polo Grounds crowd home happy, turning a loss into a win with a game-ending grand slam home run.  It was the only time a Mets player ever snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat on a grand slam at the Polo Grounds.  Twenty-eight years later, Kevin McReynolds became the only Met to repeat Harkness's feat at Shea Stadium.  And twenty-three years after that, Ike Davis became the first Met to do it at Citi Field.  It has become a once-in-a-stadium's-lifetime event.

Tim Harkness may not have had a long career in New York, nor was it particularly a successful one.  But for one memorable moment, he provided Mets fans with a thrill that would not soon be forgotten.  It would also be a moment that would rarely be duplicated.


Note:  One Mo-MET In Time is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players who will forever be known for a single moment, game or event, regardless of whatever else they accomplished during their tenure with the Mets.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 5, 2015: Mookie Wilson 
January 12, 2015: Dave Mlicki
January 19, 2015: Steve Henderson 
January 26, 2015: Ron Swoboda
February 2, 2015: Anthony Young
 

Monday, February 2, 2015

One Mo-MET In Time: Anthony Young

A moment, by definition, is a brief period in time.  The ground ball hit by Mookie Wilson is the 1986 World Series took three hops before it scooted by the closed glove of Bill Buckner.  All told, Mookie's moment lasted a few seconds, which was about two hours and 44 minutes less than the time it took Dave Mlicki to toss his gem against the Yankees in the first regular season matchup between the two city rivals.

It took three seconds for Wilson's moment to become legendary.  It took nine innings for Mlicki to do the same.  But what happens when a moment lasts just a tad bit longer?  And what happens when that moment becomes a microcosm of an era that most Mets fans do not look back upon fondly?

For one Mets player, his "moment" lasted for the better part of two seasons.  And although he and millions of the team's fans were at a "loss" to explain how his moment could have endured for as long as it did, he never became a hated Met for what he accomplished (or in his case, failed to accomplish).  In fact, despite his achievement becoming synonymous with the era he played in, he became somewhat of a beloved figure when all was said and done.

If Anthony Young looks happy here, it's because this photo was taken before his losing streak.  (Photo by Barry Colla)

Anthony Wayne Young was never supposed to make it to the major leagues.  As a 38th round draft pick in 1987 taken behind "studs" like Chris Kocman and Elgin Bobo, Young had to work his way to becoming a top prospect.  Young was inconsistent during his first three professional seasons, never advancing past the Single-A level until 1990, when he unexpectedly opened eyes with a phenomenal 15-3 record and 1.65 ERA in 23 starts for AA-Jackson.

Young's breakout 1990 campaign turned him into Baseball America's 26th-ranked prospect prior to the 1991 season.  The former 38th round draft pick was now the Mets' top minor league prospect and was on the fast track to the major leagues.  On August 5, 1991, his train pulled into Shea Stadium, where he made his big league debut against the Chicago Cubs.  Young pitched well in his debut, tossing 2⅓ innings of one-run ball in relief of starting pitcher (and fellow 1991 top prospect) Pete Schourek.  Four days later, Young faced the Cubs again in relief, allowing no runs and no hits in two innings.  He was then inserted into the starting rotation on August 29, where he remained until season's end.

In eight late-season starts for the Mets, Young was quite good, allowing more than two earned runs just twice in those eight appearances.  However, in a portent of things to come, Young lost his final four starts, with the Mets scoring a total of seven runs in those four efforts.

Change was in the air entering the 1992 season.  The team's first losing record in eight years caused a changing of the guard prior to the start of the '92 campaign, with Jeff Torborg coming aboard to sail the ship that now had a crew of All-Stars Bobby Bonilla, Bret Saberhagen and Eddie Murray.

A team chock full of veteran players was going to be a tough one to crack for the 26-year-old Young, but after holding opposing hitters to a .127 batting average and posting a team-best 2.23 ERA in four spring training starts, Torborg couldn't wait to pencil him as the team's No. 4 starter.

"Anthony Young has been as good as anybody," raved Torborg.  "He's blown the competition away."

Young had such a dominant spring that he was listed ahead of Dwight Gooden in the rotation - the same Gooden who had received the Opening Day assignment in each of the last four seasons and six of the previous seven.  Young rewarded Torborg by having a solid April, going 2-0 with a 2.96 ERA in four appearances (three starts).  But just three short months after his manager proclaimed him to be "as good as anybody", Young was better than no one, although he was not completely at fault.

In 1992, Anthony Young couldn't see anything at Shea Stadium but losses piling up.  (Keith Torrie/NY Daily News)

In May and June, Young lost eight consecutive decisions and watched his ERA balloon to 4.65.  The first three losses were squarely on his shoulders, as the right-hander allowed a total of 14 earned runs in losses to the Reds, Padres and Dodgers.  But in his next five defeats, Young pitched well, allowing no more than three runs in any of those appearances.  Of course, the Mets scored a total of five runs in those five games, making it a tough task for any pitcher to post a "W".

Despite pitching relatively well during his hard-luck losses in June, Young was replaced in the starting rotation by Wally Whitehurst at month's end.  Moving to his new role in the bullpen, Young earned his first major league save on July 1 in the Mets' 12-inning win over the Cubs.  Three days later, Young was tagged with his ninth straight loss before turning his season around in a new role.

With John Franco suffering from an inflamed tendon in his pitching elbow, Young began to share closing duties with the left-handed Franco and thrived in the role.  In fact, from July 7 through September 2, Young had one of the best extended stretches by a relief pitcher in the history of the franchise.  Seriously.

Young made 23 appearances during the two-month period, recording 11 saves and two holds.  More impressively, Young held opposing hitters to a ridiculously low .155/.212/.165 slash line, allowing 15 hits (14 singles, one double) in 28⅓ innings.  All told, Young allowed just one run in those 23 appearances for a miniscule 0.31 ERA.

Alas, Young's magical ride entered the station before the season ended, as his final ten appearances resulted in five blown saves, all of which saddled him with losses.  Young finished the year with 15 saves - an impressive total for a pitcher who made 13 starts from April to June - but also 14 consecutive losses.  Young became the 24th pitcher in history to have losses in 14 straight decisions and the fourth Met to do it, joining Craig Anderson (19 consecutive defeats from 1962-64), Roger Craig (18; 1963) and Skip Lockwood (14; 1978-79).

As a team, the 1992 Mets posted their first 90-loss season since 1983, but the club didn't hit rock bottom until the 1993 campaign, when they reached triple digits in losses for the first time in 26 years.  Once again, Anthony Young contributed several of those losses, and just like he did the year before, Young's performance was far better than his won-loss record suggested.

Photo by Mark Lennihan/AP
Following a rough first outing on April 9, a game in which he allowed four runs in two innings en route to his 15th consecutive loss, Young pitched beautifully over his next 14 appearances, posting a 1.53 ERA in 17⅔ innings.  But the Mets couldn't help him out, as Young failed to earn a win in any of those 14 relief efforts.  However, he did succeed in picking up his 16th, 17th and 18th straight defeats, even though he allowed just two earned runs in those three losses.  After picking up his 19th consecutive "L" on May 28, new manager Dallas Green - who had replaced Torborg just eight days earlier - tried to change Young's misfortune by inserting him back in the starting rotation.  But instead of helping Young earn a victory, the only thing Green's decision accomplished was helping Young rack up losses faster.

A no-decision in Young's first appearance as a starter on June 1 was followed by losses in each of his next seven starts.  His first eight starts of 1993 should have earned him at least a win or two, as he allowed three earned runs or fewer in six of those starts.  But once again, the Mets left their bats at home during Young's starts, averaging two runs per game in the eight appearances and not scoring more than three runs in any of them.

By failing to earn a win, Young broke an all-time major league record when he dropped his 24th straight decision on June 27 against the St. Louis Cardinals.  The loss broke the 82-year-old record held by Cliff Curtis, who lost 23 consecutive decisions for Boston's National League squad from 1910 to 1911.

A month after breaking Curtis's record, Young still had not earned a win.  He had notched two holds and a save, but had also added three more defeats, extending the new record to 27 straight losses.  Then on July 28, Young came on in relief to face the expansion Florida Marlins in the ninth inning of a 3-3 tie, but allowed a two-out, bunt single to speedster - and former Mets teammate - Chuck Carr to score the go-ahead run for the Marlins, a run that was unearned because of an earlier throwing error by catcher Todd Hundley.

Carr's hit moved Young ominously closer to his 28th consecutive loss, but the Mets were facing the Marlins, who were the only team they had success against in 1993.  New York's 9-4 record versus Florida in '93 was the only winning mark posted by the team against any of its opponents.  And when the Mets came up to bat in the bottom of the ninth, they were determined to continue that success against the Marlins.

Pinch-hitter Jeff McKnight led off with a single against Marlins closer Bryan Harvey.  Dave Gallagher then moved McKnight to second base with a sacrifice bunt.  Ryan Thompson followed by flaring an excuse-me single between first base and right field, scoring McKnight with the bloop hit.  Young was now off the hook for the loss.  Two batters later, he was on the field celebrating with his teammates, as Eddie Murray followed Joe Orsulak's fly out with a two-out double down the right field line, scoring a sprinting Thompson all the way from first base after right fielder Darrell Whitmore bobbled the ball.



Video courtesy of MLB.com's YouTube channel


Anthony Young first win since early in the 1992 campaign was one of the few highlights of an otherwise forgetful 59-103 season for the Mets in 1993, but it was retribution for the pitcher once deemed one of the top prospects in baseball.

Young didn't pitch terribly during his 27-game losing streak.  During the skid, he appeared in 77 games (17 starts, 60 relief appearances).  In the 50 games he was not credited with a loss, he pitched 75⅔ innings, allowing just 60 hits, of which only 11 went for extra bases (nine doubles, two homers).  Young also gave up just 14 earned runs in those 75⅔ innings for a stellar 1.67 ERA, racking up 16 saves along the way.

It wouldn't be a stretch to say that Young was one of the best pitchers the Mets had in 1992 and 1993.  He did just about everything he could possibly do as a pitcher during those two campaigns.  He started games when asked to.  He pitched in middle relief.  He went out there in mop-up duties.  He also served as the team's temporary closer.  He just didn't earn wins.

Young finished his three-year Mets career with a 5-35 record.  His .125 winning percentage as a Met is by far the lowest of any pitcher who pitched at least 250 innings for the team.  (The second-lowest winning percentage is the .246 mark posted by Roger Craig in 1962 and 1963, when he pitched 469⅓ innings en route to a 15-46 won-loss record.)  Young's final 15-48 record over his six-year major league career was helped only by the 10-13 mark he put up from 1994 to 1996 as a member of the Cubs and Astros.

But Young's career wasn't entirely sponsored by the letter "L".  He actually became the first pitcher in major league history to accomplish a positive pitching feat, which seems almost impossible for a pitcher who had more consecutive losses than there are letters in the English alphabet.

Since the save became an official statistic in 1969, Anthony Young became the first pitcher to have a minimum of 15 saves in a year he made at least 13 starts when he posted his 13-start, 15-save campaign in 1992.  Young remains just one of four pitchers to accomplish the feat, as he has since been joined by Tim Wakefield (1999; 17 starts, 15 saves), Octavio Dotel (2000; 16 starts, 16 saves) and Dustin Hermanson (2004; 18 starts, 17 saves).

Young also posted 18 total saves during his short time in New York, despite never being groomed to be a closer.  When he pitched his final game for the team in 1993, Young's 18 career saves as a Met was tied for the 12th-highest total in franchise history.  Incredibly, through the 2014 season, Young still ranks among the team's all-time top twenty leaders in career saves.  In addition, Young's 15 saves in 1992 remained the highest total by a homegrown pitcher until Bobby Parnell saved 22 games for the Mets in 2013.

Looking back on his career, Young believed he shouldn't be remembered for his two-year "moment" in the spotlight.  Rather, he'd prefer to be known as a pitcher who pitched well enough to win, but was a victim of circumstance.



"I always said I didn't feel like I was pitching badly.  It just happened to happen to me.  I don't feel like I deserve it, but I'm known for it.  It was an 82-year-old record and it might be 82 more years before it's broken.  Everything that could happen, happened.  It was just destiny, I guess."



Anthony Young played on a Mets team that was vilified for having several overpaid underachievers.  But Young himself was not one of those players.  In fact, he fulfilled everything he was asked to do by his managers.  But because of an unfortunate and untimely streak, Young will always have a connection to the team now referred to as "The Worst Team Money Could Buy".

If only Anthony Young could have bought a victory for himself along the way, there could have been many more happier moments for a pitcher whose talent was greater than his won-loss record.


Note:  One Mo-MET In Time is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players who will forever be known for a single moment, game or event, regardless of whatever else they accomplished during their tenure with the Mets.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 5, 2015: Mookie Wilson 
January 12, 2015: Dave Mlicki
January 19, 2015: Steve Henderson 
January 26, 2015: Ron Swoboda

Monday, January 26, 2015

One Mo-MET In Time: Ron Swoboda

There are complete baseball players who are good at everything on the field (see Mays, Willie) and then there are one-dimensional players, who are excellent in one aspect of the game but are considered a liability at other facets (Rob Deer comes to mind).  When Deer retired, he was known for being a great power hitter and not much else.  A fan would be hard-pressed to recall any memory of Deer that did not involve a trot around the bases.

More often than not, a player who specializes in one aspect of the game is known just for that.  There are some exceptions, however.  Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski was a defensive wizard at second base for the Pittsburgh Pirates from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s.  During his 17-year career, Mazeroski won eight Gold Glove awards, a number that has been surpassed by just two second basemen, both of whom are in the Hall of Fame (Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar).  But unlike Sandberg and Alomar, who were as lethal with the bat as they were with the glove, Mazeroski was not a particularly good hitter.

Mazeroski's lifetime .260 batting average and .299 on-base percentage weren't exactly Hall of Fame-caliber numbers.  Neither were his 138 homers, 853 RBI or 769 runs scored.  But one post-season home run catapulted Maz to legendary status and became one of the contributing factors in his selection to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran's Committee nearly 30 years after he played his final game.

That World Series-winning blast against the heavily-favored Yankees in 1960 became Maz's calling card, almost completely overshadowing what he did on the field with his glove.  Mazeroski is one of a few players who specialized in one thing on the baseball field, but whose signature moment came in a spot that was ordinarily his weakness.

Likewise, the Mets had such a player in the early days of the franchise - a player who was one of the team's best power-hitting prospects when he was first called up in 1965, then became a player of legend four years later.  But of course, it wasn't his bat that made him a storied Met.  Rather, it was one spectacular defensive play at a most critical juncture that elevated him to heroic levels.

A young Ron Swoboda was an all-hit, no-glove player.  But Mets fans loved him for his glove in 1969.

Ronald Alan Swoboda was known as a power hitter from a very young age.  As a 19-year-old, his penchant for hitting balls a long way caught the eye of the Mets, who signed him in 1963 after he completed his freshman year at the University of Maryland.  Swoboda played one season in the Mets minor league system before making the team's Opening Day roster in 1965.

Swoboda became an instant success in New York, collecting 10 home runs in his first 90 at-bats.  In addition, half of Swoboda's first 28 hits went for extra bases.  Although Swoboda collected only 399 at-bats in 1965, he still managed to lead the team in home runs (19) and slugging percentage (.424), while finishing third on the club in RBI (50) and second in runs scored (52).

Casey Stengel was an ardent supporter of Swoboda, and he showed his loyalty to the 20-year-old outfielder by starting him in 67 of the team's first 96 games.  But once Casey was forced to step down as Mets manager because of a hip injury in late July, Swoboda's performance on the field suffered and his playing time decreased.  Swoboda started just 37 of the Mets' final 67 games in 1965, batting .191 with three homers and 11 RBI over the final two and a half months of the season.

Swoboda did not play as much in 1966, collecting only 342 at-bats, but he drove in 50 runs for the second straight season despite batting just .222 with 21 extra-base hits.  The reason why Swoboda drove in so many runs in limited playing time was because he was an excellent clutch hitter.  With no one on base, Swoboda batted .197 in 1966.  But with runners in scoring position, his average ballooned to .326.  Swoboda also posted a .605 slugging percentage and a whopping 1.037 OPS in RBI situations in 1966.  He followed that up with a similar season in 1967, batting .320 with runners in scoring position.

Although Swoboda was never much of a high average hitter (he batted above .242 just once in his six seasons with the Mets), he always hit well and hit with power when there were runners on base.  More than half (36) of his 69 career homers as a Met came with runners on base.  He also batted .275 with two outs and runners in scoring position.

From 1965 to 1969, Swoboda never amassed more than 450 at-bats in any season.  However, he did manage to drive in 50 or more runs in each of his first five seasons with the Mets.  In doing so, he became just the 26th player (and first Met) in modern National League history to accomplish this feat, joining all-time greats such as Johnny Mize, Ralph Kiner, Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda and Frank Robinson.

After the retirement of Casey Stengel, Swoboda never fully took over as the everyday player Stengel projected him to be, especially after Gil Hodges became the team's manager in 1968.  In 1969, Swoboda - a right-handed hitter - shared duties in right field with the lefty-swinging Art Shamsky and switch-hitter Rod Gaspar.  As good as Swoboda was hitting in the clutch and hitting with power, he was just as bad with a glove on his hand.  Never known for his fielding prowess (although he did possess a fine arm in the outfield), Swoboda occasionally lost playing time to the slick fielding Gaspar, even when a left-handed pitcher was on the mound.  Because of his fielding ineptitude and Hodges' strict adherence to the outfield platoon, Swoboda collected just 327 at-bats in 1969 - his lowest total in his first five years.  But Swoboda made the most of his limited opportunities.

During the Mets' miraculous late-season run in 1969, Swoboda hit his first career grand slam, an eighth-inning shot against the Pirates that a broke a 1-1 tie and sent the Mets to their tenth consecutive victory.  Two days later, Swoboda hit another go-ahead homer in the eighth inning.  It was Swoboda's second two-run homer of the contest against Cardinals starting pitcher (and future Hall of Famer) Steve Carlton.  Swoboda was only in the starting lineup because Carlton was a southpaw.  But without Swoboda's heroics, the game would have been remembered more for Carlton's epic 19-strikeout performance - the first time in major league history that a pitcher had as many as 19 whiffs in a nine-inning game.

With all the success he had as a hitter during his first five seasons in the majors (especially during the September run to the NL East crown in 1969), one would think that Swoboda would forever be part of Mets lore because of what he accomplished with the bat.  Perhaps that would have been true had it not been for what transpired in the ninth inning of Game Four in the 1969 World Series.

Ron Swoboda had the third-highest RBI total on the 1969 Mets despite having the eighth-most at-bats on the team.  But even though Swoboda had displayed a keen ability to drive in runs, manager Gil Hodges stayed true to his style and kept him on the bench during the Mets' three-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves in the inaugural National League Championship Series.  Atlanta's three starting pitchers in the series - Phil Niekro, Ron Reed and Pat Jarvis - were all right-handed, thereby allowing Hodges to start Shamsky in right field for all three games, with Gaspar coming in as a defensive replacement in the late innings.  But the World Series was a different story, as the American League champion Baltimore Orioles had two left-handed starters in Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally.  Swoboda would finally get his first taste of the postseason in Game One of the 1969 World Series.

After striking out and flying out in his first two World Series at-bats, Swoboda caught fire.  He reached base seven times in his next 14 plate appearances, collecting five singles, a double and a walk.  But it was what he did between his 11th and 12th World Series plate appearances that may have helped save the season for the Mets.

The Mets had won two of the first three games against Baltimore and were looking to take a commanding 3-to-1 series lead in Game Four at Shea Stadium.  Any loss by the Mets at home would guarantee that the series would go back to Memorial Stadium, where the Orioles posted a league-best 60-21 record in 1969.  Needless to say, the Mets did not want to go back to Baltimore.

Game Four was a pitchers' duel between Tom Seaver and Mike Cuellar.  Cuellar pitched seven innings of one-run ball, while Seaver held the Orioles scoreless through eight innings.  Clinging to a precarious 1-0 lead in the ninth inning, Seaver was sent back to the mound to finish what he started.  But after retiring Paul Blair on a fly ball to Swoboda, Seaver allowed back-to-back hits to Frank Robinson and Boog Powell, with the latter hit moving Robinson to third base.  That brought up third baseman Brooks Robinson, who lined a ball that appeared headed for the gap in right-center.  But Swoboda ran at full speed and made a diving lunge at the ball, catching it a millisecond before it hit the outfield grass.

 
"If that shot had been hit straight at me, it might still be rolling.  For me, it was one of those do-or-die plays.  There's one chance in a thousand I'm going to catch it, but I had to go for it.  Chalk it up to a blind squirrel finding an acorn."



Although Frank Robinson scored the tying run from third base on the sacrifice fly by Brooks Robinson, it was Swoboda's athletic grab that prevented the ball from rolling all the way to the wall, keeping the Orioles from taking the lead.  As a result, Baltimore failed to score the go-ahead run in the ninth inning, allowing the Mets to push across the winning run in the bottom of the tenth inning on a throwing error by relief pitcher Pete Richert.

The catch by Swoboda did not win the series, let alone the game, for the Mets, but it thwarted Baltimore's best chance to come back in a series that by all intents and purposes, was theirs to lose.  The Orioles had come into the series with 109 regular season victories - a number that had been surpassed by just four teams before them.  But after Swoboda's catch and the subsequent win by the Mets an inning later, the wind was knocked out of Baltimore's sails.

Brooks Robinson clearly felt as if Swoboda's catch was the turning point of the series.  "If the ball gets by Ron," said the Orioles' 16-time Gold Glove winner, "two runs score, we win 2-1, and the Series is tied 2-2.  I'll always feel that way.  That play was a killer."

One day after his unbelievable and unexpected catch, Swoboda once again came through for the Mets in the late innings, although this time it was with his more familiar weapon of choice - his bat.

The Mets had rallied from an early three-run deficit, tying it on a two-run homer by slugger Donn Clendenon in the sixth inning and a solo shot by non-slugger Al Weis in the seventh.  With the game now tied, 3-3, the Mets were poised to take the lead in the eighth inning.  Cleon Jones led off the frame with a double off reliever Eddie Watt.  Jones remained at second after Watt coaxed Clendenon to ground out to third.  Up stepped Ron Swoboda, clutch hitter extraordinaire, with a chance to be the hero for the Mets.  And as he did so many times before, Swoboda came through.


Video courtesy of the MLB.com YouTube channel

Swoboda ripped a double near the left field line, a hit that fell just in front of a non-diving Don Buford, who chose not to take a page out of the Ron Swoboda Handbook for Game-Saving Plays.  The two-bagger scored Jones from second to give the Mets a lead they would not relinquish, as Swoboda scored an insurance run on Boog Powell's error later in the inning and Jerry Koosman got the final three outs in the ninth to secure the Mets' first World Series championship.

Although Donn Clendenon was voted the 1969 World Series Most Valuable Player, the award could have easily gone to Swoboda, as the Mets' right fielder produced a .400 batting average with a team-leading six hits, despite not playing in Game Three because right-handed starting pitcher Jim Palmer was on the mound for Baltimore.  Swoboda also made the game-saving catch in Game Four and delivered the game-winning hit in the Mets' World Series-clinching victory.

Ron Swoboda was a tremendous run-producer with the Mets in a limited number of plate appearances.  And on a team that has seen so many All-Star sluggers and run producers, Swoboda matches up favorably when it comes to producing runs.  Here are some things you may not have known about Swoboda as a hitter:

  • Ron Swoboda's total of 19 home runs as a rookie in 1965 has been surpassed by just one Mets first-year player - Darryl Strawberry.  The Straw Man's 26 homers in 1983 broke Swoboda's rookie mark nearly two decades after the mark was set.  Only Ike Davis in 2010 has been able to match Swoboda's mark in the years since Strawberry broke the team record for homers by a rookie.
  • When Swoboda played his final game as a Met in 1970, he was the team's all-time leader in home runs (69) and RBI (304).  He wasn't knocked out of the top ten in homers until 1988, when Keith Hernandez passed him on May 18.  Swoboda was in the team's top ten in RBI until 1986, when Lee Mazzilli displaced him on August 13.
  • Through the 2014 season, Swoboda remains just one of 11 players in Mets history to have at least five seasons with 50 or more RBI.  The other ten are a who's who of great Mets hitters - Keith Hernandez, Howard Johnson, Kevin McReynolds, Edgardo Alfonzo, Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, Cleon Jones, Darryl Strawberry, Mike Piazza and David Wright.
  • Swoboda produced five 50-plus RBI seasons with the Mets despite never having more than 450 at-bats in any season.  He remains the only Met to have that many 50-RBI campaigns in seasons he didn't surpass 450 at-bats.  Stretching it out by 50 at-bats, Swoboda joins all-time great Mike Piazza as the only Mets to achieve five 50-RBI seasons in years with 500 or fewer at-bats.

Ron Swoboda didn't possess a high batting average, nor did he wear a glove made of gold in the field.  But he did have many memorable moments, primarily as a hitter and especially during the months of September and October in 1969.  Yet despite those impressive credentials as a hitter, Swoboda will always be remembered for one thing before anything else.

In 1969, the Mets needed to win Game Four of the World Series to potentially avoid a return trip to a hostile environment in Baltimore.  The Orioles won 60 games at home in 1969, which was a higher win total than the Mets produced in all games, at home AND on the road, in each of their first four seasons.  Ron Swoboda, a Baltimore native, had done whatever he could with the bat to help his team.  But in Game Four, he stretched his baseball ability - and his body - to a place no one expected.  With one Amazin' catch, Swoboda propelled the Mets to victory in Game Four, and helped seal the team's improbable championship the following day.

Ron Swoboda was supposed to be a great catch by the Mets when they signed him to a contract in 1963.  Six years later, he gave the team his own version of a great catch.  Swoboda may have originally been coveted for his bat, but it's his glove that will always provide fond memories for Mets fans young and old.  His defining moment occurred during one of the greatest times to be a Mets fan and will always be among the brightest spots in the history of the franchise.

Miracles do happen.  Just ask Ron Swoboda.


Note:  One Mo-MET In Time is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players who will forever be known for a single moment, game or event, regardless of whatever else they accomplished during their tenure with the Mets.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 5, 2015: Mookie Wilson 
January 12, 2015: Dave Mlicki
January 19, 2015: Steve Henderson