Monday, March 23, 2015

One Mo-MET In Time: Al Weis

Baseball does not discriminate when it comes to players of all shapes and sizes.  Babe Ruth was powered by hot dogs instead of hormones, yet still became a legendary home run hitter who also pitched and hit for a high average.  On the other end of the spectrum, players like Freddie Patek and Jose Altuve were vertically challenged - neither measured more than 5' 6" tall - but were not challenged by much else on a baseball diamond, as Patek was a three-time All-Star in the 1970s and Altuve won a batting title and a Silver Slugger award in 2014.

Of course, a man of Ruth's size hitting majestic home runs is not really considered far-fetched.  Similarly, smaller players like Patek and Altuve stroking singles and stealing bases (both players won stolen base titles) are not beyond the scope of anyone's imagination.

But what happens when a player accomplishes something noteworthy on the field that his body is not built for?  And what happens when that player achieves his unlikely feat on the biggest stage of them all?  It happened to one particular member of the Mets in 1969, and his unexpected performance helped the team win its first championship.

Al Weis touched us all when he touched them all in the 1969 World Series.  (Getty Images)

Albert John Weis was originally signed by the Chicago White Sox in 1959 as a rail-thin middle infielder, making his debut with the Pale Hose three years later.  Although Weis was a switch-hitter and solid defensive player, he had trouble cracking the White Sox lineup, even after club legends and future Hall of Famers Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox had left the team.

Only once did Weis manage more than 210 at-bats with the White Sox in parts of six seasons, as he was used mostly as a pinch-runner and late-inning defensive replacement.  From 1962 to 1967, Weis started just 247 of the 521 games he played in, and once the South Siders reacquired Aparicio from the Baltimore Orioles following the 1967 campaign, the writing was on the wall for Weis.  He was no longer needed.

On December 15, 1967, just two weeks after the White Sox brought back Aparicio, Weis and future World Series hero Tommie Agee were traded to the Mets for Tommy Davis, Jack Fisher, Billy Wynne and Buddy Booker.  Weis, whose final year in Chicago was shortened by a knee injury suffered in a collision with Frank Robinson, was finally going to get the opportunity to start with the Mets under first-year manager Gil Hodges.

Hodges had great faith in Weis, despite his anemic .172 batting average in 301 plate appearances during his first year in New York.  But with a young pitching staff, Hodges needed the dependable up-the-middle defense provided by Weis in more than just late-inning situations.  As a result, Weis started 77 of the 90 games he participated in - by far the greatest percentage of his career.

Weis "improved" his batting average to .215 in 1969, but also collected a career-high 13 extra-base hits in 247 at-bats.  Weis split his time between the two middle infield positions, filling in admirably for regular shortstop Bud Harrelson when Harrelson's military duties caused him to miss several weeks during the summer.

From June 25 to July 20, Weis started 25 consecutive games at shortstop, batting .259 with eight extra-base hits and 14 RBI in just 85 at-bats.  During that stretch, Weis collected his only two home runs of the season, with both coming against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.  The extra-base bonanza was particularly surprising, especially when considering that Weis had collected only 43 extra-base hits in 1,420 lifetime plate appearances prior to his month-long residence at shortstop.  Just four of those 43 extra-base hits were home runs, and all came on the road.  Incredibly, Weis never hit a home run in Chicago as a member of the White Sox.  But he hit two in back-to-back games in the Windy City as a member of the Mets.

Once Harrelson returned from his military obligations, Weis went back to filling in wherever Hodges needed him, playing 28 games at second, 17 contests at short, pinch-running ten times and even making a cameo appearance for one inning at third base.  This continued into the postseason, as Weis appeared as a pinch-runner in Game One of the inaugural National League Championship Series and also played second base during the late innings of the Mets' three-game sweep over the Atlanta Braves.  But once the World Series began, Hodges went with a strict platoon at second base, playing lefty hitter Ken Boswell against right-handed pitchers and switch-hitter Weis against southpaws.  That meant Weis would start Games One and Two against Baltimore's magnificent lefties, Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally.

Given the opportunity to perform on the game's largest stage, Weis thrived.  He drove in the Mets' only run in their Game One loss, then produced the game-winning hit in Game Two when he delivered an RBI single in the top of the ninth inning that scored Ed Charles with the tie-breaking run.

Right-hander Jim Palmer started Game Three when the series shifted to Shea Stadium, allowing Hodges to start Boswell at second base in the Mets' 5-0 victory, but Orioles manager Earl Weaver went back to the dynamic duo of Cuellar and McNally for Games Four and Five.  That meant Boswell was back on the bench and Weis was manning second base.  It was a decision that would pay dividends in the most unexpected way.

In the critical Game Four, Weis delivered two hits in his first three at-bats, then came up to the plate in the tenth inning of a 1-1 game with no outs and Rod Gaspar on second base.  Gaspar was in the game as a pinch-runner for catcher Jerry Grote, who had led off the inning with a double.  Weis had already reached base in eight of his first 12 at-bats in the World Series.  It became nine of 13 when he was intentionally walked by Orioles reliever Dick Hall.  The free pass ended Tom Seaver's day after ten strong innings - Seaver was due to bat after Weis - and set up a potential rally-killing double play.  But Baltimore never recorded another out in the inning, as pinch-hitter J.C. Martin dropped a bunt that new pitcher Pete Richert fielded and threw into Martin's wrist.  The error allowed Gaspar to score the winning run.  It also allowed the Mets to potentially end the World Series the following day at Shea Stadium.

After scoring a total of two runs in the previous three games, the Orioles put up a three-spot against Mets starter Jerry Koosman in the third inning of Game Five.  A two-run homer in the sixth inning by Donn Clendenon (which followed Cleon Jones's infamous Shoe Polish incident) cut Baltimore's lead to a single run.  Koosman then retired the Orioles in order in their half of the seventh inning.  Al Weis was due to lead off the bottom of the seventh against Dave McNally.  What happened next was something Weis had never done before and never did again.


Video courtesy of MLB.com's YouTube channel

With Dave McNally clearly still reeling from the events of the previous inning, Weis surprised everyone in the ballpark by hitting a game-tying home run into the left field bleachers - the first and only time he ever went deep in front of his home fans.  The 57,397 fans at Shea Stadium went crazy, and broadcaster Lindsey Nelson also showed disbelief at what had unfolded before his eyes.

"The Mighty Mite has become the hitting star of the World Series for the New York Mets," said Nelson in response to Weis's heroics.  "That is his fifth hit in this World Series."

Although the Mets had not yet taken the lead, the Orioles' confidence had left them almost as quickly as Weis's ball left the yard.  And once Ron Swoboda delivered the go-ahead run an inning later, followed by a run-producing error by first baseman Boog Powell, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that the Mets were going to win the World Series, which is exactly what they did once Cleon Jones squeezed Davey Johnson's long fly ball on the edge of the left field warning track.

Although Clendenon received a trophy and a new car as the MVP of the 1969 World Series, batting .357 and clubbing three of the team's six Fall Classic homers, Weis received the lesser known Babe Ruth Award, which was given out by the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America to their World Series' most valuable player.

Prior to the trade that sent Al Weis and Tommie Agee to New York, the Mets had never won more than 66 games in a season.  Although the Mets surpassed 70 wins for the first time in 1968, both Weis and Agee had subpar seasons, combining to hit .198 with only 27 extra-base hits in 642 at-bats.  But both players rebounded in 1969, contributing greatly to the Mets' unexpected success.

Al Weis hit seven regular season home runs during his ten-year major league career.  Two of them came in 1969 in back-to-back games against the Chicago Cubs, the team the Mets had to pass in their quest for the division title.  None of the seven came in his home park - not at White Sox Park (as Comiskey Park was known from 1962 to 1975) and not at Shea Stadium.  The only home run Weis ever hit at home did not occur during the regular season.  Rather, it took place in a World Series-clinching game.

The Mets were trailing the Orioles by a run in the bottom of the seventh inning and were facing the prospect of returning to Memorial Stadium in Baltimore for a potential Game Six.  But once Weis delivered his jaw-dropping blast, the Mets never trailed again.  The next time the Mets would get together after Game Five would not be in Baltimore, but in the Canyon of Heroes in Lower Manhattan to celebrate their miraculous championship with a ticker tape parade.

Donn Clendenon and Al Weis celebrate after both hit home runs to erase Baltimore's three-run lead.  (NY Times photo)

Al Weis wasn't acquired by the Mets for his bat.  In fact, the Long Island native was one of the worst hitters in franchise history.  His .191 batting average and .253 slugging percentage in 714 plate appearances with the Mets were both lower than Dwight Gooden's figures in the same categories.  (Doc produced a .197 batting average and .260 slugging percentage in 837 plate appearances as a Met.)

No other position player with as many plate appearances as Weis batted lower than .219 (Duffy Dyer and Dave Kingman both produced that mark) and no other non-pitcher slugged lower than .275 (Roy McMillan flexed his muscles to put up that number).

But somehow, Weis led the Mets with a .455 batting average in the 1969 World Series and hit one of the biggest home runs in franchise history in the Fall Classic.  The home run in Game Five off Orioles starter Dave McNally was not a first for Weis, as he had taken McNally deep before as a member of the White Sox in 1964.  However, it was the first time he had ever homered while wearing his home whites.  It was also the last time he ever hit a ball out of his home ballpark.

In a year full of miracles, Al Weis saved the best miracle for last.  The 1969 Mets had to contend with players leaving for military training, black cats running on the field and baseballs stained with shoe polish.  They also had to contend with the Chicago Cubs during the regular season, the Atlanta Braves during the National League Championship Series and the 109-win Baltimore Orioles in the Fall Classic.  The Mets vanquished all of those threats mostly with quality pitching.  But on occasion, they needed to pull a rabbit out of their hat to help them reach the pinnacle of the baseball world.  And sometimes, that rabbit was in the form of a mighty mite named Al Weis.

Some players have the bodies to hit towering home runs.  Others are built to be scrappy players - players who don't have all the talents required to succeed on the baseball field, but will always find a way to beat you.  For ten seasons, Al Weis was a 160-pound scrappy utility player - the prototypical good-field, no-hit middle infielder.  But on one magical day at Shea Stadium, Weis was so much more than that.  He may not have had the body to hit many home runs throughout his career.  But his body of work will always have that wonderful moment in time when he showed that even the littlest player can come up with the biggest hit.


"I had an average career in the majors as a utility man.  But I had two good weeks of baseball and they came in the 1969 World Series."

--Al Weis, 1969 World Series champion




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
February 23, 2015: Mike Vail
March 2, 2015: Matt Franco
March 9, 2015: Shawn Estes
March 16, 2015: Dae-Sung Koo 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Cram All You Want, You'll Still Lose With The Mets

Every once in a while, I'll find a statistic or story about a Mets player that's so far out there, I have to share it.  Similarly, on occasion I'll think of a title for a blog post that will go over everyone's head until they actually read the piece.  And sometimes those two worlds collide.  Today is one of those days.

About a month and a half ago, I wrote a piece on Anthony Young, the Mets pitcher who set a major league record by losing 27 consecutive decisions.  However, the Mets didn't lose every game he appeared in during his losing streak.  From the time his skein began on May 6, 1992 until he recorded his 27th straight loss on July 24, 1993, Young appeared in 77 games, making 17 starts and appearing in relief 60 times.  The Mets actually won 25 of those 77 games, but Young did not receive credit for a victory in any of those contests.

This morning, I woke up with Young on my mind and decided to do some research on which Mets player appeared in the most games without ever celebrating a victory after any of those affairs.  Well, thanks to the good folks who run the Baseball Musings Day-By-Day Database, I have my answer.  Now excuse me while I "cram" this information into your brain.

The name is Cram.  Jerry Cram.

Entering the 2015 season, a total of 62 players have appeared in at least one game for the Mets without ever going out for a winning hot dog and soda afterwards.  Of those 62 players, more than half of them (37) appeared in no more than three games for the team - all losses, of course.  But only four of those 62 players found their way into a game's boxscore at least 11 times.  And of those four, the Met who appeared in the most losses without ever seeing a win did so 14 times.  The unfortunate player's name was Jerry Cram.

Jerry Cram made his major league debut for the expansion Kansas City Royals in 1969, appearing in five games.  The Royals actually won two of those games, probably spoiling Cram for life.  He didn't appear in another major league game until 1974, a year after he had been traded to the Mets.

Cram pitched beautifully for the Mets in two seasons with the team, posting a 2.30 ERA in 14 relief appearances, tossing 27⅓ innings in those outings.  His greatest effort came on September 11, 1974, when he pitched eight shutout innings against the St. Louis Cardinals.  Cram entered the game in the 17th inning and pitched through the 24th frame, scattering seven hits and two walks.  He also went 1-for-3 at the plate, collecting the only hit of his career in the 18th inning.

Once Cram was taken out of the game for pinch-hitter Rusty Staub in the bottom of the 24th, the Cardinals took advantage, as speedy center fielder Bake McBride led off the top of the 25th inning with a single, then came all the way around to score on an errant pickoff throw by reliever Hank Webb, who was making his first appearance of the season for the Mets.  Webb's battery mate, Ron Hodges, was charged with the team's second error on the play, as he was unable to hold on to the throw by first baseman John Milner, allowing McBride to score the go-ahead run.

The Mets lost the game in 25 innings, which to this day remains the longest game in National League history that did not end in a tie.  (Brooklyn and Boston played a 26-inning affair in 1920 that ended in a 1-1 tie.)  The game was also Cram's fifth appearance for the Mets in 1974, with all of them ending in losses.  Cram appeared in five more games that month following his eight-inning relief effort and never celebrated a victory with his teammates.  The Mets went 0-10 in Cram's ten appearances in 1974.

Cram didn't appear in as many games during his second season with the Mets in 1975, making just four relief appearances for the team in April and May.  Once again, the Mets failed to win any of those games.  In fact, in all 14 of his games during his two-year tour of duty in Flushing, Cram never pitched with the lead.  Three times he entered a game with the score tied - the Mets eventually lost each game - and 11 times he came into a game with the Mets trailing.  They were trailing at the end of those games as well.

Three pitchers in Mets history appeared in exactly 11 games with nary a happy recap to show for it.  Jerry Hinsley made two starts and seven relief appearances for the Mets in 1964, then came out of the bullpen twice in 1967.  The only constant in Hinsley's career was that he only pitched in games the Mets lost.  Hinsley was a teammate of Joe Grzenda in 1967.  Like Hinsley, Grzenda was also used exclusively in relief during the 1967 campaign, making 11 appearances.  Each of those contests ended with the other team shaking hands after the game.  Finally, we have Collin McHugh, who made five starts and appeared in relief six times for the Mets between 2012 and 2013.

Collin McHugh fell short of Cram's mark.
McHugh pitched seven shutout innings in his major league debut, becoming the second Met to strike out as many as nine batters in his first big league start (Matt Harvey set the record with 11 strikeouts a month before McHugh.)  But unlike Harvey's effort in his debut, McHugh didn't earn a win in his, as no Mets hitter was able to cross the plate while McHugh - or any other Mets pitcher - was in the game.  That was as close as McHugh came to appearing in a Mets victory, as his next ten appearances in a Mets uniform resulted in ten losses for the team.  Now pitching for the Houston Astros, McHugh has left the losing behind, as he won 11 games in 2014 and posted a stellar 2.73 ERA in 25 starts.  Although the Astros finished 22 games under .500 in 2014, they posted a winning record (13-12) in McHugh's starts.

Hinsley, Grzenda and McHugh never appeared in a game won by the Mets, but at least they weren't as unlucky as Jerry Cram.  He and his teammates all experienced the agony of defeat in each of Cram's 14 appearances in a Mets uniform.  And for those of you curious about what happened to Cram after he pitched his final game for the Mets in 1975, well, he went back to Kansas City to pitch for a much-improved Royals team in 1976.  Kansas City won its division in 1976, finishing the year with a 90-72 record.  Cram appeared in four games for the A.L. West champions.  What happened in those games?  The Royals lost them all, meaning Cram never got to experience a victory in a game he pitched after the 1969 season.

Anthony Young lost 27 straight decisions, but at least his teams won 25 times when he took the mound during his 14-month streak of individual futility.  Jerry Cram probably wished he could have had Young's good fortune as a Met.
 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Joey's Soapbox: The Mora Things Change, The Flores Stays The Same

I feel like I'm stuck in a snow globe writing about our Mets this off-season.

Greetings, everyone!  This is Joey Beartran, taking over the Studious Metsimus blogging duties on this snowy first day of spring.  My colleague, Ed Leyro, has finally allowed me to write something on the current Mets since he seems to have forgotten they still exist, what with all the ten-million word "One Mo-MET In Time" posts he's been writing this off-season.  Maybe you have the patience to read them, but I'm a fast-talking bear in a fast-moving world.  I don't have time for that.  What I do have time for is telling you about a mistake I hope the Mets don't make regarding the current shortstop situation - a situation that goes by the name of Wilmer Flores.

But before I get to Flores, I have a question to ask you.  Do you remember the 2000 season?  That was the year Mets were coming off a memorable 1999 campaign in which they made the playoffs for the first time since the Reagan administration.  That was also the year Rey Ordoñez got hurt, fracturing his left forearm on a tag play at second base in late May.

Ordoñez was a three-time Gold Glove winner at shortstop, swallowing up ground ball after ground ball, sometimes in spectacular fashion.  But once he got hurt at Dodger Stadium, the Mets were left with a defensive hole at the shortstop position.  They tried to fill it with Melvin Mora, who was in his first full season with the Mets, but he was much more comfortable with a bat in his hands than a glove.

Mora started 37 games at the shortstop position, batting .265 with four homers, 18 RBI and 27 runs scored in just 147 at-bats.  Compare that to Rey Ordoñez, who had a total of four homers in his five-year career up to that point.  Mora also boasted a .442 slugging percentage and .750 OPS in his seven-week trial at short while Ordoñez had a lifetime .292 slugging percentage and .580 OPS prior to his season-ending injury.

The Mets scored 216 runs in Mora's 37 starts, averaging nearly six runs per game.  They scored 212 runs in the 44 games started by Ordoñez prior to his injury, an average of 4.8 runs per game.  Now let's compare the offensive numbers put up by the two players while playing shortstop during the 2000 campaign, especially since they both had almost the same number of plate appearances in their abbreviated seasons.

  • M. Mora (164 PA): .265/.308/.442, 12 doubles, 1 triple, 4 HR, 18 RBI, 27 runs, 5 SB.
  • R. Ordoñez (155 PA): .188/.278/.226, 5 doubles, 0 triples, 0 HR, 9 RBI, 10 runs, 0 SB.

There's no question that Mora was clearly the better offensive contributor of the two in a similar sample size.  But from a defensive standpoint, Mora was no Ordoñez.  In fact, he wasn't even average.  In the 37 games he started at short as Ordoñez's replacement, Mora committed seven errors in 144 chances for a .951 fielding percentage.  He also participated in just 14 double plays and had 93 assists.  According to baseball-reference.com, Mora's defensive WAR was -0.1 in 2000.  For all you kids out there, that means from a defensive standpoint, he wasn't better than nothing.  Nothing was better than him.

Meanwhile, Ordoñez had a lifetime 8.8 dWAR leading up to his injury.  That's the highest dWAR through five seasons of any Met in the history of the club.  To this day, only Bud Harrelson (13.6 dWAR in 13 seasons) and Jerry Grote (11.2 dWAR in 12 seasons) have posted a higher lifetime dWAR than Ordoñez.

With Mora, the Mets sacrificed defense for offense.  They did the opposite when Ordoñez was in the starting lineup.  But back in 2000, general manager Steve Phillips panicked when Mora couldn't cut it defensively, even with the team scoring a run per game more than they did when Ordoñez was in the lineup.  So just days before the trade deadline, Phillips, in his infinite wisdom, dealt Mora to the Baltimore Orioles for shortstop Mike Bordick.

O, Melvin Mora.  If only you could have fielded like Rey O.  (James Lang/US Presswire)

Bordick basically did what Mora did as a Met, both offensively and defensively, although Bordick played more games at the position for the Mets than Mora.  In 56 games with the Mets, Bordick batted .260 with eight doubles, four homers, 21 RBI and a not-so-impressive 0.1 dWAR.

So what happened in the years after the Bordick-for-Mora trade?  Well, Bordick went back to Baltimore as a free agent at the conclusion of the 2000 campaign, where he became Mora's teammate.  In nine full seasons with the Orioles, Mora reached 20 doubles eight times, 20 homers three times, double digits in stolen bases four times, batted over .300 twice, led the league in on-base percentage once (.419 in 2004), made the All-Star team twice (2003, 2005) and won a Silver Slugger award (2004).  Meanwhile, Ordoñez played two more seasons with the Mets and played his final game in the big leagues as a member of the Chicago Cubs in 2004 - right around the same time Mora was becoming a legitimate star.

That brings us back to the current day shortstop situation with our good pal, Wilmer Flores.  (You thought I had forgotten about him, didn't you?)  In case you've been hibernating in a cave somewhere, let me remind you that Flores is generally not considered a good fielder.  But no one is complaining about how much better he is at the plate than Ruben Tejada.  In 2014, Flores split his season between AAA-Las Vegas and the Mets, spending approximately half of his time at the big league level.  Flores's numbers were strikingly similar to the overall numbers put up by Melvin Mora in 2000 prior to his trade to Baltimore.

  • W. Flores (2014): 78 games, .251 average, 13 doubles, 1 triple, 6 HR, 29 RBI, 28 runs.
  • M. Mora (2000): 79 games, .260 average, 13 doubles, 2 triples, 6 HR, 30 RBI, 35 runs.

Taking it a step further, Flores's offensive and defensive WAR in 2014 were also right on par with what Mora produced 14 seasons before him, as Flores had a 0.7 oWAR and -0.2 dWAR, while Mora put up a 0.6 oWAR and -0.1 dWAR with the Mets in 2000.

Let me give it to you straight.  Tejada is a good fielder, one who's clearly better with the leather than Flores.  But the difference between Tejada and Flores defensively doesn't even compare to the difference between Ordoñez and Mora.  Ordoñez was one of the best defensive shortstops of his era.  The nicest things we can say about Tejada is that he has nice eyebrows and he won't hurt the Mets in the field.

We've already seen how big of a mistake it was to let Melvin Mora go without giving him a chance to prove himself for more than 37 games.  We can't make the same mistake with Wilmer Flores, especially since Flores is also five years younger now than Mora was in 2000 and can still mature in every facet of the game.

Wilmer Flores may never become a Silver Slugger-winning All-Star like Melvin Mora was, but he certainly has the potential to establish himself as a very good baseball player.  We already know he can hit.  Let him prove to us that he can learn from his mistakes on the field.

At the very least, it would prove that the Mets are trying to learn from their mistakes off the field.  The team certainly doesn't need another Mike Bordick situation in Flushing.

Let him play!  Let him play!  (Brad Barr/USA TODAY Sports)

Monday, March 16, 2015

One Mo-MET In Time: Dae-Sung Koo

Throughout the years, there have been many Mets players who were on the team for such a short period of time, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything of interest to remind you that they were ever on the team.  Mention the names Matt Wise, Lino Urdaneta and Jon Switzer to most Mets fans and they'll have no clue who you're talking about, even though all of these players appeared in games for the Mets in the 21st century.

Neither player - they were all pitchers, by the way - spent more than a few months on the major league roster and none of them accomplished anything of note to endear themselves to those fortunate Mets fans who actually saw them play and can vouch that they were not a figment of our collective imaginations.

But every once in a while, there comes a short-term player who saves himself from blue-and-orange obscurity by doing something that no one expected to see him do on a baseball field.  Occasionally, that player will accomplish his feat in front of a sellout crowd.  And sometimes, that packed house will witness that player cementing his legacy against a Hall of Fame pitcher on a legendary team.

Those who were in attendance at Shea Stadium on May 21, 2005 can confirm that one such player will never be forgotten.

How do you do, Mr. Koo?  (Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Dae-Sung Koo was a journeyman pitcher before he ever stepped on a mound in the United States.  From 1993 to 2000, he pitched in the Korean Baseball Organization, winning the league's Most Valuable Player Award in 1996 when he notched 18 wins, 24 saves and posted a league-best 1.88 ERA.  He then spent the next four years of his professional career pitching in the Japanese Pacific League before announcing his desire to play in the major leagues.  Koo was courted by both New York teams, but chose the Mets over their crosstown rivals because the Yankees took too much time to make him an offer.

Upon his arrival at the Mets' spring training facility in Port St. Lucie, Florida, the 35-year-old southpaw immediately let it be known how he wanted to be identified, knowing that his new teammates and fans could have a problem with his name.

"For Americans, my first name is very hard to pronounce," said Koo through his interpreter.  "Over here, I will go by my last name only.  My teammates can call me Koo."

And thus, the legend of Mr. Koo was born.

Although Mr. Koo was a grizzled veteran with a dozen years of professional baseball experience, he was not a lock to break camp with the Mets in 2005.  At Port St. Lucie, Mr. Koo was competing with the likes of Matt Ginter, Scott Stewart and Scott Strickland for a coveted spot in the bullpen.  Ginter, Stewart and Strickland did not come north with the team.  Mr. Koo did.

Mr. Koo got off to a fast start in the big leagues, allowing no runs in his first six appearances and holding hitters to a .200 batting average and .294 on-base percentage.  As with most newcomers to the majors, Mr. Koo had some blemishes during his first few months, allowing three runs to the Washington Nationals in a mop-up role on April 23 and a game-tying three-run homer in an outing against the Chicago Cubs sixteen days later.  But even those hiccups didn't hurt Mr. Koo or the Mets, as the team was victorious in both efforts.

By late May, Mr. Koo had become the team's top left-handed reliever, as fellow southpaw Mike Matthews (10.80 ERA in six appearances) failed miserably and was designated for assignment before completing his first month in a Mets uniform.  That made Mr. Koo a valuable asset when the Mets squared off against the Yankees - a team loaded with left-handed hitters and switch hitters - during the Shea Stadium portion of the Subway Series.  But no one could have expected that his bat and legs would be just as important as his arm.

A sweet swing by a lefty wearing No. 17 at Shea Stadium.  Wait, that's not Keith Hernandez!  (Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

On May 21, the Mets entered the seventh inning of their showdown with the Yankees with a slim 2-0 lead.  But after Alex Rodriguez singled off Mets starter Kris Benson to lead off the inning, manager Willie Randolph decided to bring in his lefty specialist to fan the flames.  Mr. Koo would have to face Tino Martinez, Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano - all left-handed hitters - with each batter representing the tying run as long as Rodriguez was on base.  Unfortunately for the Yankees, A-Rod wasn't on base very long.

On a 1-1 pitch from Mr. Koo, Rodriguez took off for second base.  But upon realizing he was going to be thrown out by catcher Mike Piazza, Rodriguez retreated to first base, only to be tagged out by first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz.  Without the added pressure of facing the tying run, Mr. Koo proceeded to strike out Martinez and Posada to end the inning and give his manager an interesting problem.

Mr. Koo pitched quite well in the top half of the seventh, but was due to lead off for the Mets in the bottom half of the inning.  Meanwhile, the Yankees still had the lefty-swinging Robinson Cano due to bat first in the eighth inning and the Mets had no other southpaws in the bullpen.  Keeping that in mind, Randolph decided to let Mr. Koo bat for himself to lead off the bottom of the seventh against hard-throwing lefty Randy Johnson.

In his short major league career, Mr. Koo had never swung the bat in a game.  That's not to say that he hadn't had an at-bat in a game.  Just five days earlier, Mr. Koo had his first plate appearance when he strolled up to the plate against the Cincinnati Reds, but kept the bat on his shoulders as he watched three strikes from Todd Coffey go untouched into the catcher's mitt.

No one will ever confuse Todd Coffey with Randy Johnson.  So no one would have been upset or surprised had Mr. Koo also taken three straight strikes from the flame-throwing Yankee.  Well, no one except Mr. Koo, that is.

After Johnson's first two pitches to Mr. Koo - both of which were taken by the Mets reliever - FOX analyst Tim McCarver opined that Mr. Koo was going to be completely overmatched by the future Hall of Famer, basically saying that the 35-year-old "rookie" might as well just give up against Johnson.




"I'm just going to go out on a limb and say that this is, thus far in this young season, this is the biggest give-up at-bat."





Before McCarver had even finished his statement, Mr. Koo had already taken the bat off his shoulders for the first time in his short career, taking a hack at Johnson's third pitch.  To everyone's amazement and amusement, Mr. Koo made solid contact, driving the ball over the head of center fielder Bernie Williams, who was playing as shallow as can be expected against a hitter of Mr. Koo's caliber.

The ball landed just in front of the center field fence, approximately 400 feet from home plate.  Mr. Koo rounded second base and thought about stretching his first major league hit to a triple, but thought better of it, choosing to remain at second base.

With the energetic crowd and his teammates in the dugout all serenading him with a thunderous "KOOOOOOOOO!!!", Johnson turned away from the unlikely slugger and prepared to face shortstop and leadoff hitter Jose Reyes.  On Johnson's second pitch, Reyes dropped a successful sacrifice bunt, moving Mr. Koo to third base and putting him in position to score on something other than a hit.  Except the next batter never got a chance to drive him in, because by the time No. 2 hitter Miguel Cairo stepped up to the plate, Mr. Koo had already crossed it.

When Reyes dropped his bunt, catcher Jorge Posada ran out to field the ball and throw it to first.  Johnson, perhaps still disgusted with himself for allowing a hit to a relief pitcher who had never swung the bat in a major league game, forgot to cover the plate.  Johnson's mental fart allowed an astute Mr. Koo to round third and make a break for home.  Posada raced back and took first baseman Tino Martinez's throw about ten feet in front of the plate, then lunged toward a diving Mr. Koo.

With Reyes's bat resting across the batter's box, Mr. Koo used a head-first slide as he somehow maneuvered around both Reyes's lumber and the lumbering Posada before looking up to see that home plate umpire Chuck Meriwether had called him safe.  The daring base running by Mr. Koo gave the Mets a 3-0 lead, and gave Mets fans (and Tim McCarver) something they would talk about long after they left Shea Stadium that afternoon.

Mr. Koo finishes the most incredible trip around the bases in recent memory.  (Vincent Laforet/NY Times)

Following Mr. Koo's 360-foot Tour de Flushing, the Mets added another run in the seventh on a solo home run by Cairo just moments after Mr. Koo had scampered home.  They tacked on three additional runs an inning later to blow the game wide open.  By then, Mr. Koo's day was already done, as he exited to a thunderous ovation from the 55,800 fans in attendance after striking out Robinson Cano in the top of the eighth.  The Mets won the game handily, 7-1, leaving the Yankees to wonder about the Koo-tastrophe that had occurred before their stunned eyes.

Prior to May 21, 2005, Randy Johnson had excelled against the Mets, going 6-3 with a 2.32 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in ten regular season starts.  But beginning with the game of Mr. Koo's life, Johnson struggled mightily versus New York's National League squad.  The Big Unit shriveled in his last six starts versus the Mets, going 0-4 with an ungodly 7.90 ERA and 1.75 WHIP.

Johnson's 6-7 lifetime record against the Mets was the only losing mark he posted against any National League team.  The 4.26 ERA he put up in 16 career starts was also his worst against any of the sixteen Senior Circuit squads.  (Houston moved to the American League in 2013, four years after Johnson retired.)

As for Mr. Koo, he never batted again for the Mets, appearing exclusively on the mound for each of his final 15 appearances on a major league diamond.  Perhaps it was for the best that Mr. Koo never took a bat in his hands again, as two weeks after he completed his memorable day on the mound, at the plate and around the bases, Mr. Koo was placed on the disabled list with a rotator cuff injury that he suffered during his Slide Heard 'Round The World.  Despite pitching well upon his return from the DL, posting a 1.04 ERA in 11 appearances, Mr. Koo was optioned to AAA-Norfolk in late August and was designated for assignment a month later.  He never pitched again in the majors, but that didn't deter him, as he is still playing professionally at the age of 45 for the Sydney Blue Sox in the Australian Baseball League.

In 33 appearances with the Mets during his only season with the team in 2005, Mr. Koo did not record a win, loss or save.  His 33 career appearances remain the most by any pitcher in franchise history whose name never appeared in the win column, loss column or save column.  But just because he had a zero in all three categories doesn't mean he couldn't be a hero for one glorious day in 2005.

Dae-Sung Koo was respectfully known as Mr. Koo by his teammates and fans.  And although he barely played for the Mets, he earned his respect with an unlikely series of events that made him the talk of the town during a spring weekend in 2005.  The Subway Series made household names out of players like Dave Mlicki, Matt Franco and Shawn Estes.  It did the same for a journeyman pitcher from South Korea.

When he first came to the Mets, Mr. Koo didn't expect anyone to know how to pronounce his first name.  But by the end of his short tenure on the team, everyone certainly knew his last name.  Fifty-five thousand Koo-ing fans can vouch for that.


YouTube video courtesy of kifan


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
February 23, 2015: Mike Vail
March 2, 2015: Matt Franco
March 9, 2015: Shawn Estes
 

Monday, March 9, 2015

One Mo-MET In Time: Shawn Estes

The 1999 season marked the first time that both the Mets and Yankees qualified for the postseason in the same year.  Although the two teams failed to meet in the World Series in 1999, they did provide several memorable moments during their regular season matchups, including Matt Franco's game-winning hit against Mariano Rivera on July 10.

But the day before the Franco walk-off, the Mets used a late three-run homer by catcher Mike Piazza off Yankees starter Roger Clemens to break a 2-2 tie in a game the Mets eventually won, 5-2.  It was Piazza's second career homer off Clemens, with the first one coming in the Rocket's previous start against the Mets a month earlier at Yankee Stadium.

One year later, Piazza continued his torrid hitting against Clemens, launching a grand slam to straightaway center field - just the second grand slam allowed by Clemens in 17 seasons - to help the Mets cruise to a 12-2 victory.  A single in his next plate appearance gave Piazza seven hits in 12 at-bats against Clemens, including three homers and nine RBI.   The next time Clemens started a game against the Mets, he hit Piazza in the helmet with a fastball, knocking the Mets catcher out of the game.  General manager Steve Phillips shared his thoughts on the beaning after the game, saying, "I don't know if things are ever over.  Guys have long memories in baseball."

Things weren't over between Clemens and Piazza.  And apparently, the memory of Piazza's ownership of Clemens resonated more with the Rocket than it did with the Mets' All-Star catcher.

When the two teams squared off in the 2000 World Series, Piazza faced Clemens for the first time since he was the target of Clemens's head-seeking missile.  It only took four pitches for Clemens to once again have Piazza in his sights, although this time it was with a broken bat instead of a fastball.  Swinging on a 1-2 pitch, Piazza hit a foul ball that shattered his bat into several pieces, with one of the shards bouncing toward the pitcher's mound.  Instinctively, Clemens fielded the sharp piece of wood, then threw it in the direction of a dumbfounded Piazza, claiming that he thought it was the ball.  Never mind that Clemens's initial reaction was to hop around as if a spear was coming right at him (which it was) instead of a spherical, blunt object (which it wasn't).

The Yankees went on to win the game and the World Series.  Although Clemens was fined $50,000 for his unexpected javelin toss, he could easily afford to pay for it with his World Series-winning share of $294,783.41.  A year later, Clemens didn't have to worry about retaliation by the Mets because Yankees manager Joe Torre went out of his way to ensure that Clemens wouldn't have to pitch at Shea Stadium, where he'd be forced to bat.

By the 2002 season, much had changed for the crosstown rivals.  The Yankees were no longer the defending World Series champions and the Mets were no longer playoff contenders in the National League.  One thing that hadn't changed was that the Mets were still fuming over Roger Clemens and his approach to facing Mike Piazza.  Three years after Piazza took Clemens deep for the first time and two years after Clemens aimed a fastball and a fast bat in the direction of Piazza's body, the stage was set for Clemens to finally step up to the plate as a hitter at Shea Stadium.  And it was up to a new member of the Mets - one who wasn't present for each of the previous incidents - to show Clemens exactly how the Mets felt about him.

Shawn Estes may have missed Roger Clemens with a pitch, but he didn't miss a Roger Clemens pitch.  (Getty Images)

Aaron Shawn Estes was a former first round draft pick who had his share of ups and downs in the big leagues.  In 1997, Estes was an All-Star for San Francisco, going 19-5 with a 3.18 ERA to help the Giants reach the playoffs for just the fifth time in 40 seasons in the Bay Area.  But the '97 campaign was also the first of three seasons that Estes reached triple digits in walks.  Estes was never known for his control, as evidenced by his 521 walks in seven seasons as a Giant, a number that puts him in the team's top 20 in free passes - a team that has been in existence since 1883 and has used 731 pitchers through the 2014 season.

When Mets general manager Steve Phillips wanted to overhaul the team after it barely finished above .500 in 2001, he added several former All-Stars to the roster (Roberto Alomar, Mo Vaughn) and re-acquired players who used to call Flushing home (Jeromy Burnitz, Roger Cedeño).  Phillips also looked to bolster his pitching staff, sending utility infielder Desi Relaford and popular outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo to the Giants in exchange for Estes.

Estes's first win as a Met was a complete-game, one-hit shutout on April 26, a game in which the left-hander didn't allow a base runner until the seventh inning.  Ironically, Estes's masterpiece came against Milwaukee's Glendon Rusch, the pitcher he essentially replaced in New York's starting rotation and the last hurler to start a one-hitter for the Mets.  (Rusch combined with Armando Benitez on a one-hitter in 2001.)

Following his gem against the Brewers, Estes struggled mightily.  The southpaw won just one of his next seven starts, posting a 5.84 ERA and allowing opposing hitters to bat .343 against him.  Not once in those seven starts did Estes pitch into the seventh inning and in five of the seven outings, he failed to pitch more than five innings.  Needless to say, Estes was not winning over many fans in New York, especially after a five-inning, six-run debacle against the Indians on June 9 that brought him into his first Subway Series experience in his next start.  And what a start it would be, as Estes would be facing none other than Roger Clemens in his first Shea Stadium appearance since the 1999 season.

Shawn Estes was toiling a coast away in San Francisco during the 1999 and 2000 seasons when the Clemens-Piazza feud was at its peak.  But it would fall upon Estes to protect his new battery mate by sending a message to Clemens and the Yankees that the Mets were not going to be bullied by anyone.  On an unusually cool mid-June afternoon at Shea Stadium, the tension was palpable.  Estes started the game by striking out four of the first eight Yankee batters to face him.  That brought up Roger Clemens, as Public Enemy No. 1 was also Yankee batter No. 9.

With all eyes in the Shea Stadium crowd focused on the Estes-Clemens matchup, Estes fired his first pitch to the plate.  Naturally, aiming at a particular target - even a six-foot, four inch target - wasn't a strong suit for a pitcher who had walked 100 or more batters in a season three times in his career.  Estes's first pitch went behind Clemens, missing his rear end by about a foot.  Home plate umpire Wally Bell issued warnings to both dugouts and Clemens continued his at-bat against Estes, eventually striking out on a 3-2 pitch.

To most fans at the time, Estes had failed in doing his job, just as he had done in most of his starts during the season's first two months.  Striking out Clemens wasn't what they wanted to see.  Striking him was.  And by not doing so, the two-year wait for retribution lingered on.  After Estes retired the side in order in the top of the third, it was his turn to take a bat in his hands to face Clemens.  Although Estes's sacrifice bunt did allow shortstop Rey Ordoñez to score all the way from second base - the Yankees left home plate unattended - to give the Mets an early lead, it still didn't give fans what they desired.  Two innings later, Estes made up for missing Clemens in the third.  He didn't miss this time.

Shawn Estes hits Roger Clemens in a way no one expected.  (Photo by Steve Crandall/Reuters)

With the Mets clinging to a 1-0 lead in the fifth, Roger Cedeño led off the inning with a double down the left field line.  Rey Ordoñez then swung away at the first pitch he saw, flying out to center fielder Bernie Williams, which left Cedeño at second and brought up Shawn Estes.  Had there been no outs, Estes would have been instructed to bunt the runner to third base.  But with one out, Estes was allowed to swing away - and what a swing it was!

Estes hit a high fly ball down the left field line that cleared the outfield wall for a jaw-dropping two-run homer.  Estes's first hit as a Met - he began the season by going 0-for-18 - was not the first time he had taken an opposing pitcher deep, as he had homered once in 1997 and also hit a grand slam in 2000.  But it was the first time Clemens had ever allowed a long ball to a fellow moundsman in his 19-year career.  (Clemens would allow just one more homer to an opposing pitcher, serving up a two-run shot to Montreal Expos starting pitcher Jon Rauch in 2004.  It was one of only 11 starts made by Rauch in his career and his only home run.)

Clemens would later stroke a double off Estes in the top of the sixth - just the third hit of the Rocket's career - but was left stranded on the bases.  If Clemens thought he had gotten some sort of payback off Estes by banging out an extra-base hit of his own, he was in for a rude awakening when he went back to the mound for the bottom of the sixth when his nemesis, Mike Piazza, stepped into the batter's box to lead off the inning.

Piazza, who claimed that he "never really went to the plate with any ulterior motive",  took Clemens's first offering and deposited it over the wall to give the Mets a 4-0 lead.  Clemens was never allowed to finish the sixth inning, as he was taken out of the game two batters later.  The Mets went on the win the game, 8-0, with Estes picking up his third win of the season.

Estes pitched seven shutout innings against the Yankees, allowing five hits, one walk and matching a career high with 11 strikeouts.  But despite pitching (and hitting) beautifully against the Yankees in June, Estes became a former Met less than two months later.  The southpaw would win just one more game in New York, as he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds in August as part of a package that netted the team long-time middle reliever Pedro Feliciano.

Roger Clemens had been disliked by Mets fans since the 1986 World Series, when he was seen clean-shaven prior to what he thought was going to be a championship-clinching win by his team at the time, the Boston Red Sox.  (Clemens had a five-o'clock shadow during the game, but shaved off his stubble in anticipation of a celebratory post-game interview that never happened.)  More than a decade later, Clemens infuriated fans once again when he took out beloved catcher Mike Piazza with a fastball to the helmet, then tried to do the same with a broken bat in that season's Fall Classic.

The Mets waited patiently for two seasons to get their revenge on Clemens.  The opportunity almost passed them by when Shawn Estes failed to hit Clemens with a pitch on a cool June day in 2002.  But before the day was over, Estes found a different way to hit Clemens, shaming him more than a fastball to the body ever could.  Piazza also exacted a modicum of payback against Clemens by homering off him an inning after Estes took him out of the park.  It turned out to be Piazza's final hit off Clemens after spending the previous half-decade hitting rockets off the Rocket.



''I don't think revenge mattered.  Hopefully today beating the Yankees and doing it the way we did is the key to getting some momentum.  That was really all we were trying to do.''

--Mike Piazza, following the June 15, 2002 game against the Yankees 


Shawn Estes never did bolster the starting rotation as general manager Steve Phillips expected, going 4-9 with a 4.55 ERA in 23 starts.  But he did provide the team and its fans with one magical day at Shea Stadium.  Estes was pitching across the country when the bad blood between Clemens and Piazza started to boil in 1999.  But when the book on the storied feud was closed, it was Estes who provided one of the final chapters, nailing a Roger Clemens pitch just two innings after he failed to nail Clemens at the plate.

A total of 72 players in Mets history (through the 2014 season) finished their careers in New York with just one home run to their credit.  Of those six dozen players, none of them hit a blast that resonated more with Mets fans than the one hit by Shawn Estes on June 15, 2002.

The man who came to New York with a history of being wild around the plate couldn't hit Roger Clemens with a pitch (yet still managed to get fined $750 for his efforts).  However, he did hit Clemens where it hurt the most - his ego - when he did something no pitcher had ever done before against him.  And in doing so, he helped provide closure to one of ugliest pitcher-batter feuds in recent memory.

Shawn Estes couldn't have picked a better time to have his one memorable moment as a Met.


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
February 23, 2015: Mike Vail
March 2, 2015: Matt Franco

Monday, March 2, 2015

One Mo-MET In Time: Matt Franco

Prior to 1997, the Mets had only faced their crosstown rivals from the Bronx in Grapefruit League games and Mayor's Trophy exhibitions.  In addition, neither the Mets nor the Yankees had ever qualified for the postseason in the same year.  But thanks to interleague play, meaningful games between the two squads became a reality as the 20th century came to a close.

The first regular season contest between the two teams in 1997 ended with Dave Mlicki pumping his fists on the Yankee Stadium mound in celebration of the Mets' 6-0 victory over the Bronx Bombers.  It was the defining game for the journeyman Mlicki - an extraordinary moment in an otherwise ordinary ten-year major league career.

The Subway Series has become a venue for some of the most dramatic victories in Mets history.  Entering the 2015 season, the Mets have won 42 regular season games against the Yankees, including 13 one-run victories and six walk-off wins.  Perhaps the most dramatic of these one-run, walk-off triumphs occurred on July 10, 1999, as both the Mets and Yankees were trying to reach the playoffs in the same season for the first time.  And when the game ended, one Met became a hero for life, delivering the game-winning hit in a pinch.

Matt Franco proves that even bench players can become Mets legends.  (AP Photo)

Matthew Neil Franco was born for Hollywood endings.  His uncle, Kurt Russell, has been an actor since childhood, following in the footsteps of Franco's grandfather, Bing Russell.  Franco also has immediate family working behind the scenes, as his father is acclaimed movie producer Larry Franco.

Franco was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the seventh round of the 1987 June amateur draft.  As is the case with many struggling actors, it took Franco several years to make it to the big show.  He didn't advance past the Double-A level until his seventh professional season and didn't make his major league debut until the final month of the 1995 campaign.

Following his 16-game cup of coffee with the Cubs in 1995, Franco was traded to the Mets at the outset of the 1996 season.  Once again, Franco's only time spent in the big leagues in 1996 was during a brief September call-up.  But after starting the 1997 campaign in the minors, Franco was called up by the Mets following an injury to outfielder Andy Tomberlin, who also served as the team's primary pinch-hitter from the left side of the plate.  Tomberlin never played for the Mets again as Franco took over as the team's top lefty-swinging pinch-hitter, batting .306 with three homers and 13 RBI in 66 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter.

In 1998, Franco continued to be one of the baseball's most productive pinch-hitters, reaching base 26 times (14 hits, 12 walks) in 68 pinch-hitting appearances.  But his best season off the bench came in 1999, and he punctuated his year with a dramatic at-bat against the top closer in the game.

On July 10, the Mets and Yankees entered the second game of their three-game set at Shea Stadium with both teams playing their best baseball.  The Yankees were in first place in the AL East and were owners of the third-best record in the game.  Meanwhile, the Mets were the hottest team in the sport, winning 22 of their last 32 games to move them within striking distance of the first-place Braves.

The Mets took the first game of the series, 5-2, with the deciding runs scoring on a tie-breaking three-run homer by Mike Piazza off Roger Clemens in the sixth inning.  Power was on full display in the second game - a Saturday matinee at Shea - but most of it came from the players sitting in the road team's dugout.

The Yankees hit six home runs that afternoon (two by Paul O'Neill, two by Jorge Posada, one each by Ricky Ledee and Chuck Knoblauch), becoming the seventh team to hit at least six homers in one game against the Mets.  The Mets had lost the six previous contests in which they were taken deep half a dozen times, losing those games by a combined 94-26 score.  They were determined not to go 0-for-7 in those situations.

Mike Piazza did his part, hitting one of the longest home runs in Shea Stadium's history - a 482-foot blast over the picnic area tents in left field - to give the Mets a temporary 7-6 lead in the seventh inning.  But a two-run homer by Jorge Posada an inning later helped the Yankees retake the lead.  The score remained 8-7 as future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera came into the game in the ninth inning.

Rivera had never allowed a run to the Mets in four career appearances, notching saves in all four games.  But that streak was in jeopardy when Edgardo Alfonzo followed Rickey Henderson's one-out walk with a double.  With the tying and winning runs in scoring position, John Olerud grounded out to first baseman Tino Martinez, leaving Henderson and Alfonzo on base and Yankees manager Joe Torre with a decision to make.  Should he have Rivera face cleanup hitter Mike Piazza or should he walk him intentionally to face Melvin Mora, who had entered the game two innings earlier as a late-inning defensive replacement for Benny Agbayani?  Torre chose the latter, and had Rivera issue a four-pitch free pass to the Mets catcher.

Mets manager Bobby Valentine counteracted by inserting Matt Franco into the game to pinch-hit for Mora.  Franco had never gotten a hit against Rivera in two previous plate appearances, but he had drawn a walk.  And a walk against Rivera with the bases loaded would have tied the game.  But Franco had his eye on a bigger prize, and with the Mets down to their final strike, Franco delivered.


YouTube video courtesy of Courtside Tweets


After taking a borderline 0-2 pitch from Rivera that was called a ball by home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg - a call that did not please Torre, who could be seen mouthing "that ball's not low" in the Yankee dugout - Franco laced a single to right on Rivera's next offering.  Running on contact, Henderson scored easily from third base and Alfonzo slid home safely ahead of Paul O'Neill's throw, giving the Mets a thrilling 9-8 victory before 53,792 raucous fans at Shea Stadium.

The two-run single by Franco would be the only safety he'd record against Rivera in four career plate appearances.  Franco's clutch hit was also the first of four times the Mets defeated Rivera during his illustrious career.  The only teams to defeat Rivera more often during his 19-year tenure with the Yankees were the Orioles (nine losses), Red Sox (seven) and Rays (six) - all teams that played in Rivera's division.

Matt Franco's game-winning single on July 10 was one of 14 pinch-hits he collected in 1999.  Franco also set a major league record in 1999 when he walked 20 times as a pinch-hitter.  By reaching base 34 times in 80 pinch-hit appearances, Franco posted a stellar .425 on-base percentage, one of the highest marks in team history.

But despite being one of the best substitute players in club annals, Franco is mainly remembered for his one big hit on a warm summer day at Shea.

Photo by Ed Leyro



''In batting practice alone, I've been through that same situation a million times.  Everyone has.  Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two outs, two strikes.  To get the game-winning hit at Shea Stadium, playing the Yankees, with 53,000 people in the stands, the bases loaded, down a run, in the bottom of the ninth, I don't know how it's going to get any better than that.  It's a dream come true.''




Ed Kranepool set a team record with 90 pinch-hits.  Rusty Staub's 72 RBI are also best among all Mets' subs.  Both figures are nearly double the amount of hits and RBI put by Matt Franco as a pinch-hitter (58 hits, 37 RBI) during his five seasons with the Mets.  But for all the regular season records set by Kranepool and Staub during their times as the top hitter off the bench for the Mets, none of their hits or runs batted in have resonated as much with Mets fans as Franco's game-winner off Mariano Rivera.

Matt Franco was born to a family that spent a lot of time in front of the camera.  But in a season where the Yankees and Mets qualified for the postseason together for the first time and one year before the teams squared off in the first Subway World Series in 44 years, it was Franco who took center stage in a mid-July game at Shea Stadium.

Hollywood is known for producing storybook endings in film and television.  On July 10, 1999, Matt Franco produced a storybook ending of his own.  And in doing so, he became a beloved Met for life, all because he came through in a pinch against one of the most dependable pitchers of this or any other generation.

No script could have produced a better ending.


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
February 23, 2015: Mike Vail

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