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 Moment 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 
 

Monday, January 19, 2015

One Mo-MET In Time: Steve Henderson

Every once in a while, a player becomes known for something he has no control over.  It's then up to that player to give people something else to think about whenever his name pops up in a conversation.

One such player became known for a trade he was involved in - a trade that was arguably the most hated transaction in Mets history.  He went on to have a decent career in New York, but did not do nearly enough to make Mets fans forget who he was traded for.  But for one night, he became the talk of the town when he launched a ball into the Flushing sky to give the Mets an unexpected come-from-behind victory that is still being talked about to this day - a victory that made fans truly believe that there was something magical returning to Shea Stadium.

Steve Henderson was one of the key players received in the Tom Seaver trade.

Steven Curtis Henderson was one of the Cincinnati Reds' top outfield prospects in 1976.  During that season, he batted .312 with 17 homers and 44 stolen bases.  Henderson continued his onslaught against minor league opponents in 1977.  Through his first 60 games, Henderson batted .326 with seven homers and 19 steals.  It appeared as if Henderson was on the fast track to the major leagues, but there were three obstacles standing in his way.  Their names were George Foster, Cesar Geronimo and Ken Griffey.

The two-time defending champion Reds had one of the best outfields in the league with top slugger Foster in left, perennial Gold Glove winner Geronimo in center and batting title contender Griffey in right, making Henderson instantly expendable.  During their World Series-winning seasons in 1975 and 1976, the Reds had one of the top pitching staffs in baseball, posting ERAs of 3.39 and 3.51, respectively, on their way to back-to-back titles.  But Cincinnati struggled on the mound during the first two months of the 1977 campaign, with the team ERA ballooning above 4.00.  For the Reds to compete with the surging Dodgers, they needed an upgrade in the starting rotation.  They found a perfect suitor in the New York Mets, who were looking to rid themselves of the best pitcher they ever had.

On June 15, 1977, in a trade that was dubbed "The Midnight Massacre" by the New York media, Tom Seaver was shipped off to Cincinnati in exchange for Henderson, infielder Doug Flynn, outfield prospect Dan Norman and pitcher Pat Zachry (who was the 1976 National League co-Rookie of the Year).  Most of the four players who came to New York did not do much to erase the sting left by the trade of The Franchise.

Flynn did become the first - and only - second baseman to win a Gold Glove for the Mets when he took home the hardware in 1980, but he was as close to an automatic out with the bat as he could possibly be.  After hitting a respectable .275 in two and a half seasons with Cincinnati, Flynn posted a .234 batting average and .264 on-base percentage during his time in New York.

Norman played sparingly in his four seasons with the Mets, never collecting more than 110 at-bats in any campaign.  Like Henderson, he was a power/speed guy, hitting as many as 17 home runs and swiping as many as 33 bags in a minor league season.  But that never translated at the major league level, as Norman had a total of nine homers and eight steals in 139 games as a Met.

Zachry's promising rookie campaign with the Reds did not blossom into an illustrious career in New York.  Although Zachry was selected to the National League All-Star team in 1980, he never started more than 26 games in any of his six seasons with the Mets because of nagging injuries.  Zachry's 41 wins from 1977 to 1982 did not make anyone forget about another No. 41, and because Zachry wasn't Tom Seaver, he had no chance to be as good as he could have been in New York.

That left Steve Henderson to be "the guy" in the deal.  Manager Joe Torre was adamant that some day the trade of Seaver was going to be known as the Steve Henderson trade.  Henderson actually had a very good rookie campaign in New York in 1977.  Although he didn't make his Mets debut until June 16, Henderson still managed to post a .297/.372/.480 slash line in 99 games.  Henderson also collected 16 doubles, six triples, 12 HR and 65 RBI, while scoring 67 runs for a Mets team that finished with its worst record since Seaver's rookie season in 1967.

Henderson lost out on the Rookie of the Year Award by just one vote to future Hall of Famer Andre Dawson, despite posting a higher batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage than the Expos' right fielder.  Henderson also scored more runs, drew more walks and tied Dawson in RBI even though he played in 40 fewer games than the Hawk.

The 1978 and 1979 campaigns were mostly forgettable for the Mets, but quite solid for Steve Henderson, as the young left fielder posted career highs in doubles (30), triples (9) and runs scored (83) in 1978, then followed that up with his first .300 campaign, as he batted .306 for the Mets in 1979.  Clearly, Henderson had become one of the bright stars in New York, even with the team going through its darkest period.

In 1980, the team started to alter its course, as new majority owner Nelson Doubleday hired an experienced general manager with a winning pedigree in Frank Cashen.  Doubleday also enlisted the services of advertising executive Jerry Della Famina to come up with a catchy slogan for the Mets.  "The Magic Is Back" proclaimed to Mets fans that the team's losing ways were coming to an end, and that there would be good times to be had at Shea Stadium in the new decade.  Steve Henderson did his part to contribute to this magical feeling, and did it in a most dramatic and unexpected fashion.

Despite the new slogan, there was nothing that would suggest that the 1980 Mets were going to be a much better team than their 1979 counterparts. The '79 squad needed to win its final six games just to avoid a 100-loss season.  The '80 team appeared headed down that 100-loss road during the season's first month, losing 18 of its first 27 games.  But then something - perhaps something magical - began to happen at Shea Stadium.  The Mets started to win with regularity, going 17-10 over their next 27 games.  And they saved their best for last, winning four games in walk-off fashion over the 27-game stretch.

On June 14, the Mets were trying to pull to within one game of the .500 mark as they hosted the San Francisco Giants at Shea Stadium.  But after falling behind by five runs going to the bottom of the eighth inning, it appeared as if the team would have to wait another day before continuing their march to the .500 mark.  That is, until Steve Henderson took control of the night's festivities.

The Mets were four outs away from dropping a 6-1 decision to the Giants when Henderson lashed a two-out RBI single off John Montefusco.  It appeared to be a meaningless hit when John Stearns struck out to end the rally, leaving the Mets within four runs of the Giants going into the ninth inning.  Reliever Jeff Reardon struck out the side in the top of the ninth, giving the Mets one last chance to erase the seemingly insurmountable deficit.  But a pair of groundouts sandwiched around a Doug Flynn single left the Mets an out away from defeat with the tying run sitting somewhere on the bench.  The Mets needed, for lack of a better expression, magic to come back against Giants closer Greg Minton.  And magic they received.

With wands shaped like bats, New York mounted a furious comeback.  First, Lee Mazzilli drove in Flynn with a single to make it 6-3.  Then Frank Taveras walked to bring up the tying run to the plate in Claudell Washington.  Washington then singled to center, bringing home Mazzilli and putting the tying runs on base for Henderson.  Giants manager Dave Bristol then called upon reliever Allen Ripley to face Henderson.  Ripley was prone to serving up the long ball, having allowed 20 homers in 150 career innings prior to his tête-à-tête with Henderson. But that was the furthest thing from Bristol's mind when he brought in Ripley because Henderson, surprisingly enough, had yet to go deep in 1980.

After reaching double digits in home runs in two of his first three seasons with the Mets, Henderson had not homered in any of his first 188 plate appearances in 1980.  His strength was in the batting average department, where he was hitting .340 to find himself among the National League leaders.  But with one swing of the bat, Henderson made Bristol pay for doubting his ability to hit with power and proved that at least for one night, the magic was indeed back at Shea Stadium.

(Please scroll to the 50:58 mark of the video to see the full ninth inning or just click on the link above.)

YouTube video courtesy of Larry Arnold/ClassicMLB11 


Henderson's three-run opposite-field homer completed the miraculous five-run rally against the Giants, giving the Mets a thrilling 7-6 victory and moving the team to within one game of the .500 mark.  New York would eventually reach the break-even point in mid-July, but couldn't maintain its good fortune throughout the season, although they did manage to stay out of the NL East cellar for the first time in four seasons.

Steve Henderson finished the 1980 campaign with a .290 batting average, 17 doubles, eight triples, eight home runs and 58 RBI.  He also scored 75 runs and stole a career-high 23 bases.  But by not hitting a home run until mid-June, even though that homer was the liveliest moment for a moribund team, the front office decided that there needed to be a more consistent power threat in the lineup.  After all, no Met had hit as many as 20 homers in a season since Dave Kingman launched 37 blasts in 1976.  With no internal options appearing to be headed toward a 20-homer season, Frank Cashen did what worked for the Mets in the mid-'70s.  He brought Kingman back to New York, trading Henderson to the Chicago Cubs for the surly slugger.

The irony of bring traded for Kingman, another victim of the Midnight Massacre trades conducted by the Mets in 1977, did not escape Henderson.



"It seems every time I get traded, it's for the big guy.  Tom Seaver in 1977.  Now, Dave Kingman."



Henderson was correct.  Seaver was a three-time Cy Young Award winner when he was traded to Cincinnati for a package that included Henderson, while Kingman crushed 111 homers and made the All-Star team twice in the three and a half years he was away from New York.

Upon his return to the Big Apple, Kingman produced the first 20-homer campaign for the Mets in five years when he collected 22 round-trippers during the strike-shortened 1981 season.  He then hit a league-leading 37 homers in 1982.  But by 1983, Kingman had worn out his second visit to New York and was released.  He was later signed by the Oakland A's, producing three seasons of 30-plus homers, the latter two as a teammate of Steve Henderson, who by then was a part-time outfielder and occasional designated hitter.  Henderson spent his final season in the big leagues in 1988 as a member of the Houston Astros, then played in the Pittsburgh Pirates' minor league system in 1989 until announcing his retirement from professional baseball at age 36.

When Tom Seaver was dealt to the Cincinnati Reds at the trade deadline in 1977, Steve Henderson became one of four players who were asked to fill the huge void left by the departure of The Franchise.  Doug Flynn, Dan Norman and Pat Zachry never became the players the Mets expected them to be.  But Joe Torre knew that Steve Henderson wasn't going to fail, which is why he expected the deal to someday become known as the Steve Henderson trade.  That didn't quite happen, but it wasn't because Henderson didn't become a good player.

Steve Henderson was one of the offensive leaders on a Mets team that didn't have much offense.  During his four years with the Mets, Henderson led the team in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS.  His 31 triples led all Mets players from 1977 to 1980 and only Lee Mazzilli had more hits and scored more runs.  When he played his final game as a Met, Henderson was the team's all-time leader in batting average (min. 1,000 plate appearances).  Henderson was also among the top ten leaders in runs scored, triples, stolen bases, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, while falling just outside the top ten in hits, doubles, walks and RBI.

Entering the 1980 campaign, the Mets had a new owner, a new general manager and a new attitude, proclaiming that the magic was back at Shea Stadium - magic that had been lost since Tom Seaver's last full season as a Met.  And for one night in mid-June, the magic did indeed come back on the strength of an incredible ninth-inning rally capped off by Steve Henderson's long overdue first home run of the season.  Fans at Shea Stadium on that glorious June evening did not want to leave the park, celebrating until minority owner Fred Wilpon urged Henderson to come back onto the field to acknowledge the euphoric crowd.

For as much as Henderson did in his four years as a Met, no moment was as big as what became known as the "Hendu Can Do" home run.  The Mets were a lousy team from 1977 to 1983, but even a second division squad can have its bright spots.  And that's exactly what Steve Henderson provided on June 14, 1980.  Henderson never quite replaced Tom Seaver in the hearts of Mets fans, but still provided a seminal moment during a time when Mets fans needed something to cheer about.

And it's a moment that still resonates with Mets fans who experienced it.


Note:  One Moment 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

Monday, January 12, 2015

One Mo-MET In Time: Dave Mlicki

Some players have careers that are so nondescript, it's fairly simple to find their greatest moment on a baseball diamond.  For Chicago Cubs rookie Jimmy Qualls, it was his clean single to left field that ended Tom Seaver's bid for a perfect game in 1969.  The safety was Qualls' 12th hit in the big leagues.  He would have just 19 more over a major league career that lasted parts of three seasons.

Qualls' career was quite brief, as he played in only 63 total games with the Cubs, Expos and White Sox.  It should come as no surprise, then, that the hit off Seaver would be the one he'd always be remembered for.

Sometimes, players who have just one defining moment can play in the majors for a decade or longer and never do anything else remotely worth remembering.  Their lengthy careers would be instantly forgotten if not for that one shining moment.  One such player played for the Mets in the mostly forgettable mid-1990s.  But no one will ever forget what he did on a late spring night in the Bronx.

Arguably the most memorable end-of-game reaction by a Mets pitcher since Jesse Orosco.  (Getty Images)

David John Mlicki was as average as average could be.  And that's probably giving him too much credit.  Mlicki pitched in the power-happy 1990s and early 2000s, spending a total of ten seasons in the big leagues.  In seven of those ten years, he made at least ten starts.  His ERA was 4.00 or higher in all seven of those seasons.  Mlicki also never had a season in which he finished more than two games above .500 and was within two games of the break-even point in seven of his ten campaigns.

In addition, Mlicki made 193 starts and pitched 69 games in relief, posting a 4.72 ERA in those 252 appearances.  That made Mlicki one of just eight pitchers in the long history of baseball to make that many starts and that many relief appearances with an ERA of at least 4.72.  Needless to say, Mlicki was lucky to have lasted in the big leagues as long as he did.

Mlicki made seven starts for the Cleveland Indians in 1992 and 1993.  He won none of them.  But that didn't discourage the Mets when Cleveland packaged him with two other pitchers - Paul Byrd and Jerry Dipoto - in exchange for Dallas Green doghouse resident Jeromy Burnitz.  The former 30/30 player in the minor leagues had incensed Mets manager Green with his poor plate discipline and perceived lack of hustle, making himself expendable.

Burnitz went on to become an All-Star and MVP candidate after the trade, while Byrd and Dipoto joined Burnitz as former Mets following the 1996 season.  Entering the 1997 campaign, Mlicki was the only player remaining from the ill-fated Burnitz trade.  Splitting time between the starting rotation and the bullpen, Mlicki had gone 15-14 with a 3.91 ERA and 1.36 WHIP in his first two years with the Mets, numbers that were fairly average but slightly better than the team's cumulative 4.06 ERA and 1.37 WHIP.

Under new manager Bobby Valentine, Mlicki became a full-time starter in 1997.  But while fellow starting pitchers Rick Reed and Bobby Jones were off to All-Star caliber starts, Mlicki regressed.  The Mets got off to a disappointing 8-14 start under Valentine, but the team then went on a roll, winning 20 of the next 29 contests from April 27 to May 28.  Mlicki did not receive credit for any of those 20 wins, going 0-2 with three no-decisions and an eye-popping 5.61 ERA during his team's unexpected hot streak.

By mid-June, Mlicki had won just two of his 13 starts, and his spot in the rotation was potentially in jeopardy.  But Valentine stuck with his beleaguered starter, putting him under the spotlight for the highly anticipated first-ever regular season matchup between the Mets and Yankees on June 16.  It was a decision that would be remembered well past the end of the 1997 season.

"I give Dave Mlicki a 50/50 chance at beating the Yankees on June 16."

The Yankees were the defending World Series champions, and by winning their first title in 18 years, had taken over the city much like the Mets had done so a decade earlier.  The Mets, on the other hand, had completed their sixth consecutive losing season in 1996.  But they were off to an impressive start in 1997 and were poised to claim bragging rights in the first regular season game played between two New York teams since the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants squared off against each other on September 8, 1957.

Before a raucous Yankee Stadium crowd, the Mets got off to a quick start, scoring three runs in the top of the first.  Lance Johnson led off the game by grounding out, but over the next 16 pitches, the Mets produced two doubles, a walk, a single and a steal of home by the normally slow-footed Todd Hundley.  The unlikely theft occurred when Butch Huskey appeared to be picked off first base by Yankee starter Andy Pettitte.  Huskey stayed in the rundown long enough to allow Hundley to scamper home with the third tally of the inning.  The botched rundown gave Mlicki a comfortable lead before he had thrown his first pitch.

That first pitch by Mlicki, a single by Jeter - who reached second base on an error by center fielder Johnson - immediately gave the Yankees a chance to erase some of the momentum generated by the Mets in the top half of the inning.  But in a portent of things to come, Mlicki induced a groundout by Pat Kelly, followed by back-to-back strikeouts of Paul O'Neill and Cecil Fielder.  The Yankees had just gone 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position, and Mlicki wasn't done stranding base runners.

In the third inning, Yankee catcher Joe Girardi hit an one-out, opposite-field double.  He was stranded at second after Mlicki struck out the next two batters.  An inning later, it was Fielder's turn to hit a one-out double to the opposite field.  But yet again, the Yankees couldn't score the run, as Mlicki got Tino Martinez to ground out and Charlie Hayes to line out to end the inning.

The fifth inning saw the Yankees put another runner in scoring position, this time with two outs.  But Derek Jeter could not produce a clutch hit, and the score remained 3-0.  The Mets, however, were having no problems producing with runners in scoring position.

With two outs and runners on first and second in the top of the seventh, Bernard Gilkey drew a four-pitch walk to load the bases.  Gilkey's free pass was followed by an opposite-field single by John Olerud, which scored two runs.  Two innings later, it was Gilkey who drove in a runner in scoring position, lifting a sacrifice fly to left to make it 6-0.

Armed with a 6-0 lead, Mlicki continued to mow Yankee hitters down.  (Photo by Linda Cataffo/Daily News)

By then, it had become a foregone conclusion that the Mets were going to win the game.  The only thing left to be seen was whether Mlicki could finish off the Yankees without allowing any runs to score.  Mlicki appeared to struggle in the eighth when he allowed back-to-back one-out hits to Kelly and O'Neill.  But just as he had done in the earlier innings, he retired the next two batters, stranding both runners.

With a six-run lead going to the bottom of the ninth, Valentine could have pulled Mlicki from the game.  After all, Mlicki had already thrown 106 pitches and had far surpassed what the Mets expected from him in the game.  But Mlicki had never pitched a shutout in five seasons in the majors, nor had he ever pitched a complete game.  He had the opportunity to do both by getting three more outs against the defending world champions.

He was not coming out of that game.

Charlie Hayes led off the ninth with a single but was thrown out at second trying to take the extra base.  Mark Whiten followed with another single.

He was not coming out of that game.

After Chad Curtis grounded into a fielder's choice, Girardi followed with his third hit of the game.  Mlicki had allowed hits to three of the the first four batters to face him in the ninth inning.  He had thrown 114 pitches.  He was about to face Derek Jeter with two runners on base.  It was the Yankees' 11th at-bat of the game with a runner in scoring position.

He was NOT coming out of that game.

Mlicki alternated balls and strikes with Jeter at the plate.  Finally, on a 2-2 pitch and with thousands of Mets fans in attendance loudly cheering on every pitch, Mlicki froze Jeter, throwing strike three past the Yankee shortstop.  After 119 pitches, Mlicki could finally walk off the mound and into the waiting arms of catcher Todd Hundley, but not before he let out a celebratory whoop as he pumped his fists in victory.

27 outs, no runs.  Dave went where no Mlicki had gone before.  (Photo by Linda Cataffo/Daily News)

For one night, the Mets had taken over New York from the Yankees, and it was the most unlikely candidate who plastered the Mets all over the front and back pages of the following day's New York papers.

Dave Mlicki had never pitched a shutout or a complete game in his first 47 starts in the big leagues.  After holding the Yankees scoreless for nine innings on June 16, 1997, Mlicki started another 145 games until his retirement in 2002, completing just five of those contests and tossing one more shutout.

The win against the Yankees was one of only 24 victories posted by Mlicki in the three and a half years he played with the Mets.  It was also his only shutout as a Met.  In a year the Mets surprised all of baseball by going 88-74 and competing for the wild card until the final week of the season, Mlicki won just eight of 20 decisions.  But it was his third victory of the season that became the biggest of his career.

Since the Mets came into the league in 1962, they've shared the city with the Yankees.  They've also shared the city's baseball fans - supporters who have declared their loyalty to one team and strong dislike for the other.  But prior to 1997, Mets and Yankees fans could only watch the two teams face each other in Grapefruit League action and the Mayor's Trophy exhibition game.

When Dave Mlicki took the mound against Andy Pettitte on a late spring night at Yankee Stadium, it certainly wasn't an exhibition game.  The only thing being exhibited that night was Mlicki's finest performance as a Met.  In a ten-year career that saw Mlicki post a 66-80 won-loss record, it was his 18th career win that stood out above all others.

The Mets and Yankees had shared the spotlight in the city for 35 years.  But no one was going to share the spotlight with Dave Mlicki on the night of June 16, 1997.  Because of that one special moment in time, Mlicki will never be shut out from the minds and hearts of Mets fans.

Charles Wenzelburg/NY Post



"I felt like it was a World Series game.  I still have people who tell me I'm their hero because of that one game.  It's kind of cool."








Note:  One Moment 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 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A Mets Team Is Worth A Thousand Players

According to baseball-reference.com, the Mets have had 984 players appear in a game for them during their first 53 seasons.  From Aardsma to Zimmer, these players have played the field, appeared as a pitcher or had a turn at the plate at least one time in a Mets uniform.  Sixteen of these players made their Mets debuts in 2014.  Another sixteen in 2015 would give the Mets an even thousand.

To mark this soon-to-be occasion that will be probably be old news once the thousand-and-first player sets foot on the field or in the batter's box, I have come up with a few factoids, oddities and other fun bits of minutiae in this, my 1,000th Studious Metsimus post.  (So THAT'S the reasoning behind publishing this now!)  Hopefully, this blog post won't be forgotten once my 1,001st piece is published.  Enjoy!



The three most common surnames by Mets players are Hernandez, Johnson and Jones.  Each last name has been represented seven times.  I'm sure you'll remember most of these players very well and some of these players not at all:

This one's Luis.
  • Keith Hernandez (1983-89)
  • Manny Hernandez (1989)
  • Roberto Hernandez (2005, 2006)
  • Anderson Hernandez (2005-07, 2009)
  • Orlando Hernandez (2006-07)
  • Livan Hernandez (2009)
  • Luis Hernandez (2010)

One of the Bobs.
  • Bob Johnson (1967 - infielder)
  • Bob Johnson (1969 - pitcher)
  • Howard Johnson (1985-93)
  • Lance Johnson (1996-97)
  • Mark Johnson (2000-02)
  • Ben Johnson (2007)
  • Rob Johnson (2012)

NOT the Mets' Randy Jones.
  • Sherman Jones (1962)
  • Cleon Jones (1963, 1965-75)
  • Randy Jones (1981-82)
  • Ross Jones (1984)
  • Bobby J. Jones (1993-2000)
  • Chris Jones (1995-96)
  • Bobby M. Jones (2000, 2002)

Of course, one of the most popular Johnsons to ever wear a Mets uniform never played a game for New York, and hence, would not appear on the list of Johnsons above.  That would be manager Davey Johnson, who is the team's all-time winningest skipper and led the club to its second World Series championship in 1986.  He is also the only manager to win two division titles (1986, 1988) during his tenure with the Mets.

Excluding the inaugural 1962 campaign - a year in which every Met player (all 45 of them) suited up for the very first time in a Mets uniform - the year that saw the most new players appearing in at least one game for the Mets was 1967.  Thirty-eight years before Carlos Beltran coined the phrase, there were 35 "new Mets" in 1967, none more famous than The Franchise himself, Tom Seaver.  Unlike Seaver, who set and still holds most of the club's pitching records, a total of 14 players from that squad never played for the Mets after 1967, including Al Schmelz, who is the owner of one team record that's still standing.  His seven-letter surname is the longest last name in franchise history with only one vowel in it.  Of course, if that's the one thing Al Schmelz is going to be known for, then his career must have really stunk.

Conversely, the year that saw the fewest new Mets was 1988, when just four players made their debuts with the team (Bob McClure, Ed Nuñez, Mackey Sasser, David West).  That was the same year New York retired Tom Seaver's number.  And lest we forget, it was also the year Al Schmelz turned 45.

Editor's note:  For those who are curious, Al Schmelz has had a wonderful post-baseball career.  He has been a successful real estate broker in Arizona, where he currently resides, so maybe he's going to be known for more than just having the longest one-vowel surname in Mets history and for turning 45 in 1988.  And I'm sure he doesn't mind that at all.

Of the 984 players who appeared in at least one game for the Mets, only eight of them never played a defensive position while on the team.  Those eight players are Lou Klimchock (1966), Greg Harts (1973), Rick Sweet (1982), Randy Milligan (1987), Brook Fordyce (1995), Terrence Long (1999), Gary Bennett (2001) and Abraham Nuñez (2008).

All eight players appeared in games solely as pinch-hitters or pinch-runners.  Of the eight, Klimchock had the most plate appearances, going 0-for-5 with three strikeouts in five pinch-hitting appearances.  Just four of the eight players (Harts, Sweet, Fordyce, Bennett) collected hits in their brief, non-defensive-playing Mets careers, with Fordyce collecting the only extra-base hit when he doubled in his final at-bat as a Met.

Brook Fordyce never had a chance with the Mets.  Not with that smile.

Greg Harts is unique among all 984 players, as he is the only player in Mets history whose entire major league career consisted of pinch-hitting and pinch-running.  Harts appeared in three late-season games for the 1973 Mets, just as the team was making its unexpected run to the NL East title.  Harts collected a pinch-hit single in his major league debut on September 15.  Two days later, he grounded out as a pinch-hitter for Ray Sadecki.  Three days after that, he pinch-ran for Duffy Dyer.  Harts never appeared in a major league game again for the Mets or any other team.  The other seven players who never played a defensive position for the Mets at least got the opportunity to play the field with other teams, a privilege that wasn't afforded to Harts.

Finally, there have been many players in Mets history who never walked up to the plate with bats in their hands.  Naturally, most of those players were relief pitchers who were usually taken out of games for pinch-hitters when their spots in the batting order came up.  But just two non-pitchers in franchise history got to play defense without getting an opportunity to step into the batter's box while wearing a Mets uniform.

In 2004, catcher Joe Hietpas appeared in his only major league game as a late-inning defensive replacement for Todd Zeile, who was playing in his 2,158th and final major league game.  The contest, which took place on October 3, was also the final game ever played by the Montreal Expos.  Hietpas never batted for the Mets - or any other team - but at least he made two putouts, both on strikeouts by Bartolome Fortunato, and can say he was on the field when future Met Endy Chavez made the final out in Expos history.

Unlike Hietpas, Shane Halter can say he played in several games for the Mets, even if he never took a bat in his hands for the team.  Five years before Hietpas became the final new player to play for the Mets in 2004 (and the 747th overall), Halter appeared in seven games for the 1999 Mets.  Halter was a pinch-runner in five of those games and played the field in the other two.  On September 18, Halter played center field in the eighth inning, then moved to shortstop in the ninth, never collecting a plate appearance.  Two weeks later, in the game against the Pirates that forced a one-game playoff with the Cincinnati Reds, Halter played the final out of the nail-biting ninth inning in right field.  He never got a chance to bat, as the Mets won the game in the bottom of the ninth.  Halter played in seven games with the Mets, but failed to pick up a plate appearance.  He also never made a putout on the field.  At least Hietpas got to do that with the Mets five years later.

"Here's to you, Mr. Hietpas.  Mets fans love you more than you will know, wo, wo, wo."

A total of 984 players have played in at least one game for the Mets.  Some of them had long and distinguished careers in the majors, while others had careers that were over before you could say Schmelz, Harts and Hietpas.

At least four new players have joined the team every year they've been in existence.  Sixteen of those players became Mets in 2014.  If that number repeats itself in 2015, the number of players to have appeared in at least one game with the team will reach one thousand.

A picture is worth a thousand words.  Pretty soon, the Mets will have reached a thousand players.  And that's a picture that's over half a century in the making.
 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Mets Almost Traded For Randy Johnson In 1991

(Photo by Elaine Thompson/AP)

In 1991, the Mets posted their first losing season in eight years.  After winning 87 or more games from 1984 to 1990, New York finished the 1991 campaign with a disappointing 77-84 record.  As a result, general manager Al Harazin decided to shed salaries without going through a rebuilding phase.

Kevin McReynolds, one of the team's best offensive players during his five-year tenure in New York, was dealt to Kansas City.  Hubie Brooks, who returned to the Mets for one season as Darryl Strawberry's replacement in right field, was jettisoned to the Angels.

The McReynolds trade (which also sent Gregg Jefferies and Keith Miller to the Royals) brought two-time Cy Young Award winner Bret Saberhagen to Flushing.  Saberhagen was part of Harazin's plan to create a top-notch starting rotation, as long-time Met Ron Darling had been traded to Montreal during the 1991 season and Frank Viola was about to leave via free agency.

But Saberhagen was not Harazin's first choice to lead a starting rotation that already featured David Cone, Dwight Gooden and Sid Fernandez.  His original plan was to send McReynolds to Seattle for one of the Mariners' top two young starting pitchers.

Coming to New York in exchange for McReynolds would have been either Erik Hanson, a 26-year-old right-hander who posted an 18-win, 211-strikeout campaign in 1990, or a lanky 28-year-old southpaw with a 37-34 career record, 4.01 ERA and a 1991 season in which he walked 152 batters - the first time since 1977 that a pitcher had issued over 150 bases on balls.

That skinny lefty was future Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson.

Harazin knew Seattle was in need of a left fielder, and was willing to part ways with the veteran McReynolds, who had signed a three-year, $10 million contract extension the previous off-season.

But Seattle did not want to trade Hanson or Johnson for McReynolds, whose salary was supposedly too high for the penny-pinching Mariners.  (Seattle's $17.5 million team payroll had the fifth-lowest in the majors in 1991.)  At least that's what Harazin was led to believe.




"The conversation we had with them was such that I didn't think they were interested in anyone's $3 million player."





That's when Harazin opted for Plan B, trading McReynolds and two others to Kansas City for Saberhagen and infielder Bill Pecota.  There was only one problem.  Seattle ended up trading for a left fielder who was due more money than McReynolds, and parted ways with three pitchers to get him.

Former Met Kevin Mitchell, who was traded for McReynolds just five years prior, was acquired by the Mariners from San Francisco for pitchers Bill Swift, Mike Jackson and Dave Burba.  Mitchell was due $10.5 million through the 1994 season, an average of $3.5 million per year.

Mitchell flopped in Seattle, hitting just nine home runs in 99 games after averaging 36 homers per season during his final three years in San Francisco.  McReynolds wasn't much better in Kansas City and was out of baseball after the 1994 season.

Randy Johnson, on the other hand, learned how to control his wildness.  After one more subpar season in 1992 (12-14, 3.77 ERA, league-leading 144 walks), Johnson became one of the game's most dominant pitchers.  Over his next dozen campaigns, the Big Unit posted three 20-win seasons (and four other years with 18+ victories) and won nine strikeout titles.  He also led the league in winning percentage four times, ERA four times, complete games four times, shutouts three times and WHIP on three occasions - all in a span of 12 years.  And most importantly, he never walked 100 batters in a season again.

Almost a quarter century ago, Seattle was willing to trade three pitchers to San Francisco for a left fielder making $10.5 million for three seasons.  Had they listened to Al Harazin, they could have saved half a million dollars over those three campaigns and would have lost just one pitcher to acquire the Mets' left fielder.

But Seattle would have potentially lost a future Hall of Famer in Randy Johnson.

Imagine how different the histories of two franchises would have been had the McReynolds-for-Johnson trade been consummated.


Monday, January 5, 2015

One Mo-MET In Time: Mookie Wilson

A legendary player is known for many things.  Mention Willie Mays to a casual baseball fan and that person might bring up the Say Hey Kid's catch in the 1954 World Series or his 660 career home runs.  Fans questioned about Tom Seaver could discuss his near-perfect game in 1969, his three Cy Young Awards or the Midnight Massacre trade to Cincinnati.

But what about players who weren't first ballot Hall of Famers?  Or those who didn't even make an appearance in an All-Star Game?  Naturally, those players are going to be known for far less.  However, every once in a while, a player will do something that he will forever be remembered for.  Whether it be a memorable season, a special game or just a bizarre play, that athlete will have to live with that moment and be linked to it long after his baseball career is over.  And those moments are not always positive - even if the rest of the player's career was - much to the chagrin of that player.

There have been numerous Mets players who will always be known for one thing above anything else they accomplished on a baseball field.  This series will focus on some of those players and discuss not only the primary things for which they are remembered, but also the events and occurrences that may not immediately come to mind or have simply been forgotten that each player was responsible for.

One such player spent an entire decade in a Mets uniform and when he played his final game as a Met, he was the team's all-time leader in multiple offensive categories.  He was also one of the most exciting and beloved players in team history.  But ask anyone about his career and it will always come down to just one moment.

Mookie Wilson should be known for far more than just one memorable moment.

William Hayward Wilson was a second round draft pick in 1977 and quickly advanced through the Mets' minor league system.  His blazing speed helped him leg out 25 triples and steal 87 bases between the Double-A and Triple-A level in 1978 and 1979.  But with All-Star and fan-favorite Lee Mazzilli playing center field at Shea Stadium, Wilson had no position to play at the big league level, so he began the 1980 campaign at AAA-Tidewater.  Also hurting Wilson was the fact that he was solely a right-handed hitter, while Mazzilli batted from both sides of the plate.  So upon returning to Tidewater for a second season, Wilson took it upon himself to learn how to hit left-handed.

The decision paid off beautifully, as the new switch-hitter batted .295 for the Tides with 14 triples, 92 runs scored and 50 stolen bases.  His year at Tidewater caught the eye of the front office, and despite having Mazzilli entrenched in center field, the Mets called up Wilson in September for his first taste of the big leagues.  Wilson batted .248 with three triples, seven steals and 16 runs scored in 27 games.  He wouldn't return to the minors again for six years.

As the 1981 season opened, Wilson still did not have a regular position because of the presence of Lee Mazzilli, so manager Joe Torre platooned Wilson with Joel Youngblood in right field.  But an injury to newly-reacquired first baseman Rusty Staub forced Torre to move left fielder Dave Kingman to first, causing Mazzilli to move to left field, which opened up a spot for Wilson.  Wilson took advantage of the opportunity, leading the team in runs scored (49), triples (8) and stolen bases (24) in the strike-shortened season.

With Wilson claiming center field as his own, the Mets used the opportunity to trade Mazzilli - their main box office attraction since Tom Seaver was dealt away in 1977 - to Texas for two young pitchers, Ron Darling and Walt Terrell.  Darling would go on to become a vital cog in the Mets' resurgence during the mid-'80s, while Terrell was sent to Detroit in a deal that brought Howard Johnson to New York.  Wilson, on the other hand, became a mainstay in the Mets lineup for the next three seasons.

From 1982 to 1984, Wilson was one of the premier leadoff hitters in the National League.  Although he didn't walk much (76 free passes during the three seasons) and struck out a little too much (295 Ks), Wilson ranked in the top ten among all National League hitters in several categories during those three campaigns, including hits (516; 7th in the NL), triples (25; T-3rd), runs scored (269; 7th) and stolen bases (158; 4th).  The lofty stolen base totals allowed Wilson to become the Mets' all-time leader in that category, as he supplanted Lee Mazzilli - Mookie always seemed to be taking something away from Maz whenever he could - when he stole his 140th career base in a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 27, 1983.  And who got a great view of the record-setting theft from the Pirates dugout?  That would be none other than Mazzilli, who by then had been traded to Pittsburgh and had been relegated to pinch-hitting duties.

Wilson was the starting center fielder for the Mets entering the 1985 season, but a sore shoulder limited him to pinch-running duties in late April and early May.  Darryl Strawberry had filled in for Wilson for five games, but the Straw Man was not a center fielder.  Once the Mets realized that Darryl belonged in right, they called up Lenny Dykstra to fill the void left by Wilson.  Dykstra caught the Mets' eye in 1983 when he stole 105 bases at Class A-Lynchburg.  He was a scrappy player who was tough as nails and would go all out to help his team win.  In other words, he was just the type of player manager Davey Johnson loved.

Eventually, Wilson's shoulder required surgery, and the center fielder was out of action for two months during the latter part of the season.  In his absence, Dykstra gave the Mets everything Mookie did.  He ran down fly balls in the gap.  He stretched singles into doubles and doubles into triples.  He stole bases.  But there was one thing Dykstra did far better than Wilson.  He was patient at the plate and had a good eye.  Whereas Mookie struck out four times for every time he walked, Dykstra was more likely to walk than strike out.  In fact, when Dykstra's major league career ended following the 1996 season, he had drawn more walks than strikeouts in ten of his 12 seasons.

Although Wilson wasn't thrilled with losing playing time to the younger Dykstra, he took his new platoon role as a challenge.  Gone were the days when he racked up 600-plus plate appearances.  But in his diminished role, Wilson learned how to become a better hitter.  From 1980 to 1984, Wilson batted .275 with a .309 on-base percentage and a .688 OPS.  Over his next four seasons - all of which involved sharing time with Dykstra - Wilson posted a .290 batting average, reached base at a .345 clip and upped his OPS nearly 100 points to .781.

By the time Wilson played his final game as a Met in 1989, he was the team's all-time leader in runs scored (592), triples (62) and stolen bases (281), and was third in hits (1,112) and doubles (170).  In ten seasons with the Mets, Wilson had become one of the team's best players and had accomplished many positive things with the club.  But one moment stood above all others, and it occurred in what is perhaps the most memorable game ever played by the franchise.

After six-plus seasons in New York, Mookie Wilson finally made it to the postseason in 1986.  A year that began with a dangerous eye injury in spring training (one that required a rehab assignment that saw him play minor league games for the first time since 1980) ended with the Mets' first division title in 13 years.  Mookie's first playoff experience did not start out well on an individual level, as the veteran collected just four hits in his first 36 postseason at-bats.  But one of those hits was a single that plated the first run in the Mets' three-run ninth-inning rally in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series against the Houston Astros.

As hard as it was for Wilson to reach base in his first nine postseason games, it seemed like he was always on base during the final four games of the World Series.  In those four games, Wilson collected six hits, one walk and was hit by a pitch.  He also reached base another way, and did it when the Mets needed it the most.

With the Red Sox one win away from securing their first championship in 68 years, the Mets had to win Game 6 at Shea Stadium to force a deciding seventh game.  The game was tied, 2-2, as the Red Sox came to bat in the seventh inning.  But a walk, a throwing error by third baseman Ray Knight and a groundout produced the go-ahead run for Boston.  The Red Sox had a chance to score a second run in the inning when catcher Rich Gedman lashed a single to left, but Wilson ended the Red Sox rally by throwing out Jim Rice at the plate.

Two Hall of Famers exchange pleasantries at the plate, courtesy of Mookie Wilson's throwing arm.  (Peter Southwick/AP)

New York eventually tied the game to send it to extra innings, but there may not have been a tenth frame had it not been for Mookie Wilson's accurate throw to nail Rice.  Had the Mets won the game in nine innings, Wilson's legacy might have been based on that throw, but the game did not reach its conclusion after each team had recorded 27 outs.

In the top of the tenth inning, Dave Henderson homered to left as Mookie could only watch the ball sail over the wall.  Boston added an insurance run on a Marty Barrett single, which was followed by Bill Buckner getting hit by a pitch.  But Jim Rice, who ended a Red Sox rally in the seventh inning, did so again in the tenth, as he flied out to right.

The Mets were now facing the reality of losing the World Series in front of their home crowd to a team that had not won a title since 1918.  And after Wally Backman and Keith Hernandez flied out to start the bottom of the tenth, that heartbreaking conclusion was becoming more and more likely.  But singles by Gary Carter, Kevin Mitchell and Ray Knight - the latter coming on an 0-2 pitch - brought the Mets to within one run and put the spotlight on the shoulders of Mookie Wilson.

Wilson was never a good breaking ball hitter, and Red Sox closer Bob Stanley - who had been brought into the game to face Wilson - specialized in palm balls, sinkers and sliders.  Four pitches into the at-bat, Wilson had two strikes on him.  It was then that he decided to go to with his mantra, a phrase he had heard in church.

"Thou shalt not pass without offering."

Mookie Wilson was not going to go down without a fight.  He was determined to swing at every pitch, not allowing the game to end on a called third strike.  Simply stated, he was not going to let a pitch pass by without offering at it.  And that's exactly what he did.

Pitch No. 5 was foul tipped.  Barely.  Pitch No. 6 was then fouled off to his left.

Wilson was sticking to his guns, taking aim at every ball fired his way by Stanley.  That is, until pitch No. 7 took aim at him.

With Rich Gedman setting up on the outside part of the plate, Stanley's pitch went inside.  An acrobatic Wilson threw his body out of the way as Gedman's lunged in vain for the errant pitch.  Scoring from third base with the tying run was Mitchell, as Knight moved into scoring position.  The Mets were now a well-placed hit away from tying the game, but Wilson kept placing balls in the left and right field stands.

Pitch No. 8 was fouled off near the first base dugout.  Pitch No. 9 was lined down the left field line and into the crowd.  Then came the tenth pitch of the at-bat, a pitch that Mookie made sure to keep in fair territory.

Wilson chopped the ball into the dirt along the first base line.  The ball took three hops in the direction of a running (some might say hobbling) Bill Buckner.  Buckner, who was already playing with a bad Achilles tendon and had been struck in the ribs by a Rick Aguilera pitch in the top of the tenth, was only on the field because manager John McNamara wanted him to celebrate the final out with his teammates.  Late-inning defensive replacement Dave Stapleton, who had replaced Buckner in the final inning of each of Boston's three victories over the Mets, remained on the bench as the ball took a fourth hop and rolled by Buckner's glove into right field, giving the fragile first baseman a bruised ego to go with his bruised ribs.

Mookie Wilson did not let any strike pass without offering at it, and in doing so, hit the most famous ground ball in Mets history.  It gave the Mets an unlikely victory in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series and helped set up their championship win two nights later.

In the late 1970s, Mookie Wilson's path to the majors was blocked by Lee Mazzilli.  But through perseverance and the will to get better at his craft, Wilson finally achieved his dream of playing in the major leagues.  Similarly, in 1986, Mookie refused to make the final out of the World Series.  And that refusal to give up allowed him to run down the first base line and into the hearts and memories of Mets fans everywhere.

Mookie Wilson was a dynamic player who brought excitement to the game.  He could make an acrobatic catch as easily as he could leg out a triple, steal a base or score from second base on a groundout.  He could do so many things so well that he became the team's all-time leader in several categories.  But all that was overshadowed by a little roller up along first in the biggest game of his life.

Perhaps Mookie said it best in his memoir, "Mookie: Life, Baseball, and the '86 Mets", when he discussed the play that forever changed the course of his life and the Mets franchise.

Photo by Christian Oth/NY Times

  
 "I think everyone has to have a moment that defines them. ... But if you take that moment away and just look at my career numbers, there's nothing that jumps out at you.  So while there may be some regrets over how the play has become the focal point of my career, I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world."





Mets fans wouldn't trade his defining play either.  The tenth inning of Game 6 was one of many reasons why Mookie Wilson will forever be a beloved figure in the Mets community.  But it should come as no surprise that one little dribbler will always overshadow all the other wonderful moments in his career.  It would be almost impossible for it not to.


Note:  One Moment 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.  Please come back next week for the next installment.