Monday, March 27, 2017

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets: Jerry Koosman

"We're No. 2!  We're No. 2!"

Those are words you will never hear at a sporting event.  In baseball, like in any other sport, the object is to come out on top, not ride someone else's coattails.  But for one Mets pitcher, being No. 2 became second nature.

He was the first runner-up in the Rookie of the Year vote in 1968.  Eight years later, he finished second in the Cy Young Award ballot.  And for over a decade, he was No. 2 in the starting rotation behind the team's first Hall of Famer.

But when the stakes were highest, it was this perennial second fiddle who became the team's top banana.  He was on the mound when the club won its first championship in 1969 and helped fuel a miraculous late-season run to the postseason four years later.  Just imagine how drastically different the history of the franchise would have been had it not been for the pitcher who wasn't "The Franchise".

Jerry Koosman strikes a pose at Shea Stadium.  (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Jerome Martin Koosman might never have been a Met if not for his catcher in the Army.  After he was drafted to serve in the military in 1962, Koosman went to basic training and was eventually transferred to Fort Bliss in Texas where he could play baseball.  His catcher at Fort Bliss was the son of an usher at the newly-opened Shea Stadium.  Word of Koosman's pitching prowess eventually traveled from the mouth of a catcher to the ears of an usher to the office of farm director - and future general manager - Joe McDonald, who sent scout Red Murff to watch Kooz perform on the mound.  Murff loved what he saw and offered Koosman a $2,000 bonus to sign with the Mets.  Wanting more money, Koosman rejected the offer, only to eventually sign when the amount of the offer went down by 20 percent.

Koosman's first year as a pro in 1965 was mostly forgettable, as he combined to go 5-13 with a 4.61 ERA between Single-A Greenville and Double-A Williamsport.  The southpaw was nearly released by the Mets after his subpar season, but the team decided against it.  It wasn't because they thought Koosman would turn a corner in his second professional campaign; it was because he owed the team fifty bucks.

In 1966, Koosman - with his newly-learned curveball - showed tremendous improvement on the mound (and supposedly settled his loan), going 12-7 with a brilliant 1.38 ERA at Single-A Auburn.  As Koosman was fulfilling his potential, future teammate Tom Seaver was toiling at Triple-A, completing a .500 campaign with an ERA north of 3.00.  Despite the varying degrees of success from Koosman and Seaver in the minor leagues, the dynamic duo made their major league debuts one day apart in April 1967, with Seaver starting the second game of the season for the Mets and Koosman pitching in relief the following night.

Seaver remained with the team the entire season and became the first Met to win the N.L. Rookie of the Year Award.  Koosman, on the other hand, made just three starts and six relief appearances in 1967, with the Mets losing each of Koosman's nine games.  However, because he spent most of the season in the minors (he was demoted to AAA-Jacksonville in mid-May and wasn't called back up until early September), Koosman retained his rookie status for the 1968 campaign.  And under new manager Gil Hodges, Koosman got every opportunity to shine as a full-time starting pitcher.

In 1968, Koosman was tabbed by Hodges to be the team's No. 2 starter.  After not having appeared in a Mets victory in 1967, Koosman pitched a complete-game shutout at Dodger Stadium in the team's second game of the '68 campaign.  Koosman's next start took place in the Mets' home opener on April 17.  A delighted crowd of 52,079 witnessed Koosman's second shutout in as many starts, as well as the first-ever victory by the Mets in a home opener.  Koosman went on to pitch five more shutouts in his rookie year and his ERA didn't rise above 2.00 until his next-to-last start of the season.  He also had a brilliant 12-inning performance in which he allowed no runs to the San Francisco Giants but was saddled with a no-decision because the Mets couldn't find a way to cross the plate in their 17-inning, 1-0 defeat.  The lack of run support would become a common theme for Koosman throughout his career.

Although Koosman finished the 1968 season with 19 wins, a 2.08 ERA (fourth in the N.L.) and 178 strikeouts (tenth in the league), not to mention earning a save in that summer's All-Star Game, he failed to become the Mets' second consecutive Rookie of the Year, as Johnny Bench and his just okay numbers (.275, 15 HR, 82 RBI) edged out Kooz by a single vote.  But just as Bench didn't succumb to the sophomore slump, neither did Koosman.  In fact, Koosman did far more in 1969 than anyone could have imagined.

Koosman pitches with bunting adorning the Shea Stadium walls.  And no, it wasn't Opening Day.  (Bettmann/Getty Images)

After making four starts in April, Koosman missed nearly a month of action with an injury.  But in his second start following his stint on the disabled list, Koosman became the first Met to strike out 15 batters in a game, as he pitched ten shutout innings in the Mets' 1-0, 11-inning victory over the San Diego Padres.  Koosman didn't earn the win - there goes that lack of run support again - but the team did, and that hard-fought effort kicked off a franchise-record 11-game winning streak that instantly made the Mets contenders for the first time in their brief history.  

Koosman's performance against the Padres began a six-start stretch in which he was practically unhittable and virtually unscored upon.  Kooz allowed just 32 hits and two earned runs in 53 innings, with the Mets winning five of those six starts.  (The one loss came in a game in which Koosman allowed no earned runs.)

In July, the Mets hosted the Cubs at Shea Stadium in a series remembered for Seaver's Imperfect Game (Seaver retired the first 25 batters before allowing a single to Jimmy Qualls).  But it was Koosman who provided the opening act to Seaver's headlining effort, as Kooz outdueled future Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins to earn a complete-game victory.  Three months later, Koosman delivered another statement to the Cubs, one that let Chicago know that the Mets weren't going to be anyone's pushovers.

The Mets had pulled to within 2½ games of the first-place Cubs when the North Siders made their final trip to Shea Stadium in early September for a two-game series.  Once again, the memorable moment occurred in Seaver's start, as Tom Terrific was on the hill when a black cat wandered onto the field and walked in front of Chicago's dugout.  The cat may have been given credit for delivering the knockout punch on the Cubs' season, but it was actually Koosman who supplied the first blow to Chicago in the series opener.

In the bottom of the first, Cubs' manager Leo Durocher wanted to set the tone for the series and ordered pitcher Bill Hands to throw at Mets' leadoff hitter Tommie Agee.  Hands threw a fastball that was up and in to Agee, but did not hit him.  Not liking what he saw, Koosman retaliated in the top of the second, drilling Ron Santo with a pitch.  Koosman's message to Durocher kept the Cubs on their heels all game, as the lefty went on to strike out 13 batters - the second-highest total of his career - in the Mets' 3-2 victory.

Four days after Koosman's victory over the Cubs, the Mets swept a doubleheader from the Pittsburgh Pirates, winning both games, 1-0, with Koosman and fellow moundsman Don Cardwell driving in the only runs in each game.  Cardwell's feat wasn't totally unexpected, as the veteran right-hander knew how to handle a bat.  Entering the game, Cardwell had amassed 15 homers and 51 RBI in 749 career plate appearances.  But Koosman was the definition of "automatic out" at the plate, as he was just 10-for-161 with 102 strikeouts for his career up to that point.

"Kooz kept telling me he hit a line drive," Cardwell said of the rare occurrence.  "I checked with the other guys and they said, 'Cardy, he hit it off the end of the bat, it was a blooper.'"

The face of a man who doesn't hit bloopers.  (Focus On Sport/Getty Images)

Of course, Koosman was convinced the ball was hit solidly off his bat, even if it wasn't.  But no one needed to be convinced that the Mets were about to clinch their first postseason appearance.  Koosman's 1-0 win over the Pirates was the first of three complete-game shutouts he pitched in September, helping the Mets coast to the first-ever N.L. East title.  Koosman finished the regular season - his second as an All-Star - with a 17-9 record, 2.28 ERA, 180 strikeouts (despite spending most of May on the disabled list) and a career-best 1.058 WHIP.

Koosman's first postseason start didn't go according to plan, as he allowed six runs and was knocked out of the game in the fifth inning.  But the Mets bailed him out by doing what they had rarely done before in a Koosman start; score a plethora of runs.  In fact, the Mets' 11-6 victory over the Atlanta Braves in Game Two of the NLCS marked the first time in Koosman's 70 career starts that the team reached double digits in runs scored.

Kooz's next playoff start was a complete turnaround from his first.  After the Mets lost Seaver's start in Game One of the World Series, Koosman carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning of Game Two before Paul Blair singled to lead off the frame.  Blair later stole second and scored the tying run on a single by Brooks Robinson.  The Mets retook the lead in the eighth on a run-scoring hit by Al Weis and Koosman and closer Ron Taylor did the rest, keeping the Orioles off the scoreboard in the ninth to tie the series.

After Koosman got the Mets back on the winning track, New York returned to Shea Stadium and promptly won Games Three and Four.  Manager Gil Hodges then gave the ball to Koosman for Game Five, hoping the lefty would pitch the Mets to a championship.  Koosman got off to a rough start, allowing home runs to pitcher Dave McNally and slugger Frank Robinson.  But after Robinson's blast, which gave Baltimore a 3-0 lead, Koosman settled down, retiring 19 of the next 21 batters to face him.

In the sixth, the Mets began their rally with a little help from Koosman's foot.  Cleon Jones, who had just two hits in 18 at-bats in the World Series, led off the inning by appearing to get out of the way of a ball in the dirt.  But manager Gil Hodges convinced home plate umpire Lou DiMuro that Jones had been hit by the pitch, presenting a ball stained with shoe polish as evidence.  DiMuro agreed with Hodges, sending Jones to first.  Koosman, though, had an idea whose shoe polish was on the ball.

"(The ball) came to me," Koosman recalled.  "I wasn't sitting but a couple of yards from Gil and he says 'slide it on your shoe and throw it here' and I did it.  And he took it and he walked out to the umpire with it.  And there was shoe polish on the ball.  Whether it was mine or Cleon's is debatable.  I didn't have time to look (to see if there was shoe polish on it), it all happened so fast.  Hodges was way ahead of me.  He was a genius."

Hodges' quick thinking gave the Mets a base runner.  One batter later, it gave the Mets two runs, as Donn Clendenon followed Jones' phantom HBP with a lead-slicing home run.  As Koosman continued to mow down Orioles' hitters, the Mets proceeded to take apart the Orioles' pitchers.  Light-hitting Al Weis tied the game in the seventh with a rare home run.  The Mets then took the lead an inning later on a run-scoring double by Ron Swoboda and an an error by first baseman Boog Powell.  This time, Koosman wouldn't need relief help from Taylor, as he pitched a scoreless ninth, retiring Davey Johnson on a fly ball to Jones to end the game and give the Mets an improbable World Series victory.

The No. 2 pitcher in the Mets' rotation was No. 1 after defeating the Orioles.  (Walter Iooss Jr./Getty Images)

Alas, neither Koosman nor the team couldn't repeat the success from 1969 in subsequent seasons, as the Mets won exactly 83 games in each year from 1970 to 1972.  Koosman dealt with nagging injuries in the first two seasons following the team's championship, missing three weeks in 1970 and over a month in 1971, then was relegated to the bullpen by new manager Yogi Berra after a poor start to the 1972 campaign.  After going 36-21 with a 2.18 ERA in his first two full seasons in the majors, Koosman was a disappointing 29-30 with a 3.41 ERA from 1970 to 1972.  Koosman entered the 1973 campaign determined to turn his career around.  It nearly took him the entire season, but Koosman kept his promise and delivered one of the most memorable stretch runs in franchise history.

The 1973 season began with Koosman almost being traded to the San Francisco Giants for slugger Dave Kingman, but general manager Joe McDonald turned down the deal because the Giants wanted Jon Matlack instead.  With Koosman still on the team, the Mets got off to a great start, going 12-8 in April and ending the month on a high note, as Koosman pitched a complete-game shutout in the month's final game.  The victory earned Koosman (4-0, 1.06 ERA in April) his first N.L. Player of the Month Award.  Koosman eventually ran his record to 5-0 before losing 14 of his next 17 decisions.  Once again, Koosman was victimized by poor run support during his rough patch, more so than any of his pitching brethren.  From May 27 to August 14, the Mets scored one run or fewer 25 times; 11 of those games were started by Koosman.  So if the Mets weren't going to score for Koosman, he would have to keep opposing hitters from circling the bases.  He did just that, and in doing so, helped the Mets go from last to first in the span of six weeks.

On August 19, the Mets were 12 games under .500 and bringing up the rear in the mediocre N.L. East.  Then Koosman defeated the Cincinnati Reds, 2-1, with the Reds' only run scoring on an error.  After allowing the unearned run to cross the plate, Koosman proceeded to toss 31⅔ consecutive scoreless innings, setting a new franchise record that wouldn't be broken for nearly four decades.  As Koosman was putting up zeroes, the Mets were reeling off wins, and by the time Koosman allowed his next run on September 7, the Mets had leapfrogged over two teams and were just four games out of first place.  Incredibly, New York continued to win and chip away at the deficit.  When the Mets faced the first-place Pirates at Shea Stadium on September 20, they were just 1½ games out of first.  And that's when "The Ball on the Wall" became part of the Mets' lexicon, which of course, happened in a game started by Koosman.

Koosman pitched eight solid innings, allowing just one earned run and four hits, but got a no-decision because, you know, run support.  In the top of the 13th inning, the Mets kept the Pirates off the scoreboard when Cleon Jones fielded Dave Augustine's double off the top of the left field wall, then fired to shortstop Wayne Garrett, who made a perfect throw to catcher Ron Hodges to nail Richie Zisk at the plate.  Hodges then delivered the game-winning hit in the bottom of the frame.  A day later, the Mets completed the sweep of the Bucs to move into first place by half a game.

Once the Mets took over the lead in the N.L. East, they never gave it up, as Koosman made two starts in the season's final week and failed to allow an earned run in either of them.  For the second time in five seasons, the Mets were N.L. East champions, and Koosman was one of the main reasons why the team was playing in October again.  In his final ten starts, Koosman went 6-1 with a 1.30 ERA.  That included a start on September 11 in which he allowed six runs to the Phillies.  Take out that start - his only loss during the season's final six weeks - and his ERA was just 0.65.

The Mets' opponent in the NLCS was the Cincinnati Reds, who were attempting to win their third pennant in four seasons.  Koosman refused to be intimidated by the Big Red Machine, even after Pete Rose and Buddy Harrelson started a bench-clearing brawl at second base in the fifth inning.  Despite the long wait for the fight to settle and for the fans to stop throwing things at Rose when he took the field in the bottom of the fifth, Koosman was not rattled, allowing no runs and only two hits the rest of the way.  His complete-game victory gave him a 3-0 postseason record in four starts, with the Mets winning the game in which Koosman earned a no-decision.

The Reds could only watch from the dugout as Koosman defeated them in the NLCS.  (Focus On Sport/Getty Images)

The World Series against the Oakland A's did not have the happy ending the Mets were hoping for, as the Mets dropped the series in seven games.  Koosman started two of the three games won by New York in the series and put the Mets within a victory of the title pitching on short rest in Game Five.  The A's may have led the American League in runs scored in 1973, but none of that mattered to Koosman, who shut them out for 6⅓ innings in the critical fifth game.  Short rest clearly didn't affect Koosman in his Game Five victory.  The same could not be said for Seaver and Matlack, as both pitchers fell behind early in Games Six and Seven and the team couldn't recover.  Koosman could only watch from the bullpen, where he was warming up to come into Game Seven in relief had his manager deemed it necessary.

"I never got into that ballgame," Koosman said.  "That's the game I remember most, being in the bullpen and just so ready to come in."

The Mets needed seven wins in the 1973 postseason to win the championship.  They managed just six, with Koosman starting half of the team's victories.  In fact, between 1969 and 1973, Koosman made six postseason starts for the team.  The Mets won all six.  On a team with two former Rookie of the Year Award winners (Seaver, Matlack), it was Koosman who became their most dependable postseason pitcher.  A year later, he became the team's best pitcher.

With Seaver enduring the worst season of his eight-year career in 1974 (11-11, 3.20 ERA), it was Koosman who carried the load for the team, winning 15 games for the first time since 1969 and pitching a career-high 265 innings.  Unfortunately, the rest of the club couldn't follow Koosman's lead.  Kooz finished the year with a 15-11 record.  The team's other pitchers were a combined 56-80.  It was New York's first losing season since Koosman's rookie year.

The Mets recovered to win 82 games in 1975, winning the final game of the season to finish above .500.  Koosman had a strong finish for the team, pitching to a 2.41 ERA in his final ten appearances, which included two saves in a couple of rare relief efforts by the lefty.

In 1976, the Mets got off to a poor start and were out of contention by the middle of June.  On the morning of June 23, the Mets' record was 33-37 and they were 14½ games behind the first-place Phillies.  Koosman was also off to a mediocre start, as he was 6-6 with a 4.36 ERA.  But just as the Mets found their second wind as spring turned to summer, so did Koosman.  The Mets went 53-39 in their last 92 games, with Koosman being the team's main contributor, going 15-4 with a 1.79 ERA in 20 appearances (19 starts).  The year ended with the Mets winning 86 games - the second-highest total in franchise history at the time - and Koosman posting his first 20-win season.  Koosman finished the year with a 21-10 record, 2.69 ERA, 1.096 WHIP and a career-high 200 strikeouts.  But just as he did eight years earlier when he finished behind Johnny Bench in the Rookie of the Year vote, Koosman had to settle for second-best on the 1976 Cy Young Award ballot, as the Padres' Randy Jones took home the prize as the league's top pitcher, even though Koosman had a higher winning percentage, lower ERA and more than twice as many strikeouts as Jones had.

The 1976 season signified the last hurrah for Koosman and the Mets, as the dawn of the free agent era caused the team to count its pennies rather than use them to bring the top tier of talent to Flushing.  As a result, the team plummeted in the standings in 1977.  By the time the trade deadline arrived in mid-June, the Mets were ten games under .500 and mired in last place.  They were also a team of disgruntled players, as several veterans were becoming well aware that if they were going to continue playing in New York, they would have to do so earning far less money than if they were playing somewhere else.  Tom Seaver was the first to go.  He would be followed by Dave Kingman, who became a Met just two years earlier without the Mets having to trade Koosman or Matlack to acquire him.  Two months later, catcher Jerry Grote was dealt away, followed by Matlack and Harrelson during the off-season.  Needless to say, Koosman was not happy with the state of the Mets.

"How could they trade him?" Koosman said about his long-time pitching mate.  "Tom was one of the first, and after Tom we kept dropping like flies.  (General manager Joe) McDonald was making trades that just did not make sense.  We were not getting better.  We were getting worse.  It was like every general manager in the league was taking advantage of us."

"Pssst, Jerry.  We're trading you next."  (William N. Jacobellis/NY Post Archives)

Through all the tumult, Koosman remained, even though he had just followed up his first 20-win campaign with his first season of 20 losses.  Koosman finished the 1977 campaign with an 8-20 record, despite having a respectable 3.49 ERA and a league-leading 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings.  But on a team that finished dead last in batting average, on-base percentage, runs scored and home runs, it should come as no surprise that in 16 of Koosman's 20 losses, the Mets scored no more than two runs.

It was more of the same for Koosman in 1978, as he went 3-15 with a 3.75 ERA and watched his teammates score two runs or fewer in ten of the 15 defeats.  The pitcher who was second in the Rookie of the Year vote, second in the Cy Young balloting and second to Tom Seaver in virtually every pitching category didn't want to spend another second in New York.  At the conclusion of the 1978 campaign, Koosman demanded a trade back home to Minnesota and the Mets obliged, shipping him to the Twins for minor league pitcher Greg Field and a player to be named later, who ended up being Jesse Orosco.  Koosman's departure was bittersweet, but all parties involved ended up benefiting from the transaction.

"It was sad to leave New York, but New York was in a rebuilding process at the time," Koosman said.  "I wanted to move on and play for a club that had a chance to win."

Of course, Orosco became a mainstay in the Mets' bullpen for eight seasons and became as good a postseason pitcher for the Mets as Koosman was, winning three games in the 1986 NLCS and saving two others in that year's World Series, including the seventh and deciding game against the Boston Red Sox.  Koosman, meanwhile, had already retired before the Mets won their second championship, but not before he won 82 more games in the majors, including the second 20-win season of his career in 1979 while he was pitching for the Twins.  Koosman also made a return to the postseason in 1983 as a member of the Chicago White Sox, pitching one game in relief in the ALCS against the Baltimore Orioles.

In all, Koosman won 222 games in the majors, with 140 of them coming in a Mets uniform.  Only Seaver and Dwight Gooden ended their Mets careers with more.  Seaver, Koosman and Gooden are also the answer to just about every trivia question pertaining to the top three starting pitchers in franchise history.  But Seaver and Gooden were right-handed pitchers.  No discussion about the greatest left-handed pitchers in club annals can be had without Koosman being mentioned at the top.  The pitcher who was constantly No. 2 throughout his career with the Mets has no rival among southpaws.

Jerry Koosman played his first game with the Mets on a squad that would go on to lose over 100 games.  When Koosman played his final game in New York, he was on a team that nearly reached triple digits in losses.  In between, Koosman became the greatest postseason pitcher in franchise history despite playing for a team that provided him with very little offensive support.  Koosman also provided many key late-season moments that helped the team qualify for the playoffs.  And of course, Koosman never let anyone intimidate him, always pitching with ice in his veins and a fire in his heart.

With a career that lasted nearly two decades, including a dozen seasons in a Mets uniform, Koosman lived through all the highs and lows a player can experience in baseball, but one of those moments always stood out above the others.  That's what becoming a champion tends to do to a player.

"It is no doubt the highlight of my baseball life," Koosman said.  "Winning the World Series changes your life.  There's a closeness that comes from it, you're kind of like brothers to your teammates.  You have a much different relationship with them when you have that in common."

For a player who had become accustomed to being second-best, finishing on top made it all worthwhile.

Koosman and Seaver will always be linked, especially as champions.  (Bettmann/Getty Images)



Note: The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets was a thirteen-part weekly series (that's "was" - as in the past tense of "is" - because you just read the final installment) spotlighting those Mets players and personnel who experienced the best of times and the worst of times with the team.  For previous installments, please click on the names below:

January 2, 2017: Tom Seaver
January 9, 2017: Mike Piazza
January 16, 2017: Wally Backman
January 23, 2017: Daniel Murphy
January 30, 2017: Frank Cashen
February 6, 2017: Ed Kranepool
February 13, 2017: Doug Sisk
February 20, 2017: Joan Whitney Payson 
February 27, 2017: John Franco and Armando Benitez 
March 6, 2017: Dwight Gooden
March 13, 2017: Bobby Valentine
March 20, 2017: Jesse Orosco

 

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets: Jesse Orosco

In 1964 and 1965, the Mets finished at the bottom of the National League standings, losing a total of 221 games between the two seasons.  The team would not suffer through back-to-back last place finishes again until 1977 and 1978.  But between 1965 and 1977, New York posted seven winning seasons, raised two league pennants and claimed one miraculous World Series title.  Jerry Koosman, who was on the mound as the Mets were clinching that title, was also around for the team's regression in '77 and '78.  But following the club's second straight losing campaign in 1978, Koosman was given his walking papers.

Wanting to play in his home state of Minnesota, Koosman was dealt to the Twins in December 1978 for former Southern League Pitcher of the Year Greg Field and a player to be named later.  It took nearly two full months for that player to finally be named.  It took another seven years for that player to repeat one of Koosman's signature moments for the Mets.

Jesse Orosco was just a baby when he became a Met in 1979.  (B. Bennett/Getty Images)

Jesse Russell Orosco had only pitched in 20 rookie league games in the Twins' minor league system when he got the call in February 1979 that he was traded to the Mets.  Less than two months after being dealt to New York, Orosco found himself on the mound at Wrigley Field for his major league debut.  Injuries to left-handed pitchers Bob Myrick and Kevin Kobel left the team with a dearth of southpaws, which forced the club to promote Orosco much earlier than expected.  Orosco pitched to one batter in his debut and retired him on a fly ball.  The batter's name was Bill Buckner.  It would not be the last time Buckner and the Mets crossed paths.  It would also not be the last time Orosco stepped on a major league mound.  Not by a long shot.

After his successful first appearance on Opening Day 1979, Orosco slumped to a 5.73 ERA by the end of May.  In early June, manager Joe Torre moved Orosco from the bullpen to the starting rotation for two games before Orosco was ultimately sent back down to the minors.  Orosco bounced back and forth between Double-A and Triple-A for two-and-a-half seasons, waiting for a return trip to the majors.  He finally got that opportunity during the last month of the 1981 campaign and showed great improvement in his eight late-season appearances, posting a 1.56 ERA and 1.096 WHIP.

In 1982, Orosco completed his first full season in the majors.  Orosco lost ten out of 14 decisions, but two of the defeats came as a starting pitcher.  In those starts, Orosco allowed nine earned runs in 9⅔ innings.  Orosco excelled as a reliever, however, posting a solid 2.17 ERA in just under 100 innings.  His pitching coach, Bill Monbouquette, noticed the stark difference between Orosco's starts and relief outings, and decided that Jesse should not start again.

"He'd go four innings and his (velocity) would drop into the 70s," Monbouquette said.  "We thought Jesse should be a relief pitcher, and we could see Jesse was pitching defensively.  It wasn't exactly fear of the bat, but he was nibbling.  You're not going to get the calls from the umpire that way and you're not going to finish off the batter that way.''

Monbouquette and new manager George Bamberger eventually had a discussion with Orosco about his inconsistent first half (3.49 ERA, 1.341 WHIP), hoping to get the reliever to be more aggressive on the mound.

"We dug into him," Monbouqette said.  "It wasn't exactly an ultimatum, but we told him he could be a good relief pitcher if he learned to attack the hitters.''

After the talk with his pitching coach and manager, Orosco became one of the few bright spots in the bullpen, pitching to a 1.92 ERA and 1.063 WHIP after the All-Star Break.  Even more impressive was that Orosco pitched so effectively despite having to deal with the sudden passing of his father in August.  The death of the Orosco patriarch caused Jesse to focus more on honing his craft, not just as a tribute to his baseball-loving father, but because he wanted to support his family financially, which he would only be able to do if he became a mainstay in the bullpen.  Orosco responded by posting one of the greatest seasons by a Mets' reliever in franchise history.

Prior to June 15, 1983, Neil Allen had been the Mets' closer, with Orosco serving mostly as a set-up man.  But once Allen was traded to St. Louis for first baseman Keith Hernandez, Orosco received the bulk of the save opportunities.  Orosco finished the year with a 13-7 record and 17 saves in a career-high 110 innings.  He also posted an incredible 1.47 ERA, which to this day remains the lowest single-season mark for any Mets pitcher who threw at least 100 innings.

Not Doc.  Not Tom.  Not Kooz.  It's Orosco who has the lowest ERA of the 100-plus inning pitchers.

Orosco's efforts did not go unnoticed, as the reliever became an All-Star for the first time in 1983.  He also finished third in the race for the Cy Young Award - Orosco even received a first place vote - and was 17th on the MVP ballot, four spots ahead of Hernandez.  In doing so, Orosco became the first Mets pitcher not named Seaver or Koosman to finish in the top three of the Cy Young vote and the fourth (after Seaver, Koosman and Tug McGraw) to receive any MVP consideration.

''It's nice to have a good year,'' Orosco said.  ''Now, if I can go out and have two more years like this, I'll prove that I'm for real.''

It was clear that Orosco had arrived as a top-notch reliever in 1983.  It was also clear that he was on his way to proving he was "for real".  But the Mets had still not followed suit, as the team suffered through its seventh consecutive losing season in '83.  That was about to change, and Orosco played a key role in the club's long-awaited return to playoff contention.

The Mets lost five games in 1983 when they led going into the ninth inning and blew leads in 37 games overall.  A big reason for that was Neil Allen, who was charged with seven losses and two blown saves in 21 appearances before his trade paved the way for Orosco to take over his role in the bullpen.  In 1984, the Allen-less Mets lost just once when they held a ninth-inning lead and suffered 29 defeats in games where they once had a lead.  With Orosco and fellow reliever Doug Sisk combining for a 2.35 ERA in 110 appearances, the bullpen became one of the team's strong points.  In addition to Orosco's team-leading 1.057 WHIP (which was lower than N.L. Rookie of the Year Dwight Gooden's 1.073 mark), the closer became the first reliever in team history to reach the 30-save mark, notching 31 on the season.  He was also named to the All-Star team for a second consecutive year, becoming the first Mets reliever to be selected to multiple All-Star squads.

For only the second time in team history, the Mets won 90 games in 1984.  They looked to improve upon that in 1985 and did, winning 98 contests, although they fell short in their quest to qualify for the postseason.  Once again, Orosco was called upon to hold late-inning leads for the team's blossoming starting rotation, but this time he had a partner.  The success of right-handed rookie Roger McDowell allowed manager Davey Johnson to use either reliever in save situations depending on the pitcher-batter matchups.  As a result, both Orosco and McDowell finished the season with 17 saves.  The closing partnership continued into the 1986 campaign, a year in which the club finally had the season its long-suffering fans had been waiting for.

In 1986, the Mets won a franchise record 108 games, with Orosco and McDowell becoming the first - and only - pair of Mets teammates to each record 20+ saves in a single season.  That wasn't the only oddity the two relievers shared during the team's magical season.  They also relieved each other multiple times during a brawl-filled game in Cincinnati in July.

The game at Riverfront Stadium on July 22 appeared to be over without incident when Keith Hernandez lofted a fly ball to right field with two outs in the ninth inning.  But right fielder Dave Parker - the proud owner of three Gold Gloves for defensive excellence - dropped what would have been the final out of the game, allowing the tying runs to score.  In the tenth inning, Eric Davis, pinch-running for Reds' player-manager Pete Rose, slid hard into third base and received a fist to the face courtesy of Ray Knight.  Benches emptied, fights broke out all over the field and there were ejections aplenty.  In fact, there were so many players tossed that the Mets were left without a third baseman and an outfielder in the extra-inning affair.  (Right fielder Darryl Strawberry had been ejected earlier in the game for arguing balls and strikes.)  So Davey Johnson was forced to improvise.  He moved Gary Carter from behind the plate to the hot corner.  And he played musical chairs in the outfield by rotating Orosco and McDowell between the mound and right field.

For five innings, when one pitcher was on the mound, the other was in the outfield spot least likely to have a fly ball hit to it.  McDowell pitched three scoreless innings between his multiple trips to the mound and fortunately did not have any fly balls hit in his direction when Orosco was pitching.  Orosco, who contributed two zeroes of his own, wasn't as fortunate, as future Hall of Famer Tony Perez lifted a fly ball in his direction in the 13th inning.  But unlike Parker four innings earlier, Orosco got to the ball, used two hands and made sure he held on to it for the out.

"I squeezed it so hard," Orosco said after the game, "the stuffing could have come out."

Jesse Orosco, Ball Squeezer.  (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

An inning after Orosco's defensive "gem", Howard Johnson made sure his pitchers would not have to play in the outfield much longer.  Johnson's three-run homer off reliever Ted Power gave the Mets the lead and a couple of insurance runs.  Orosco didn't even have to move in right field as McDowell proceeded to retire the Reds in order in the bottom of the 14th on three routine ground balls.

"It was fun," Orosco said of his outfield debut.  "I was laughing out there.  But I'd better stay on the pitcher's mound.  I'm less nervous out there."

Fun was what the Mets had during their regular season ride to a division title.  Nervous was what the fans were during the team's tightly-contested postseason games.

In the NLCS, the Mets and Astros played four one-run games, with the Mets emerging victorious in three of the four affairs.  All three victories were credited to Jesse Orosco, who became the first pitcher in club history to win three postseason games in the same series.

Orosco earned the win in Game Three after Lenny Dykstra blasted a walk-off two-run homer against Dave Smith in the bottom of the ninth.  Orosco helped keep the game close, pitching two shutout innings.  Three days later, Orosco hurled two more scoreless frames in relief of Dwight Gooden, who had tossed ten innings of one-run ball.  Orosco would get credit for the win in Game Five once Carter singled home Wally Backman in the bottom of the 12th inning.  And then came Game Six in the Astrodome.

After playing a dozen innings in New York the previous day, the Mets appeared lifeless in Houston for the first eight frames in Game Six.  But a spirited rally against starter Bob Knepper and the now hittable Smith tied the game and sent it to extra innings.  Again.  The score remained tied until the 14th, when a single by Backman drove in Darryl Strawberry from second base.  Orosco was then called upon to finish the Astros and deliver the pennant to New York.  But Billy Hatcher had other things in mind.

Hatcher, who had hit just eight home runs in parts of three major league seasons, delivered a blast that hit and rolled down the netting attached to left field foul pole.  With the game tied once again, Orosco settled down and retired the next two batters to send the game to the 15th.  After the Mets failed to score in their half of the inning, Orosco had a stress-free bottom of the 15th, striking out Kevin Bass and Jose Cruz before getting Alan Ashby to ground out to end the inning.

In the 16th, the Mets finally broke through against the Astros' bullpen in a big way.  New York used two singles, a double, a walk, a well-placed sacrifice bunt (by Orosco) and two wild pitches to push three runners across the plate.  It appeared as if the Mets had punched their ticket to the World Series.  But as the saying goes, everything's bigger in Texas.  So are rallies by the home team.

Houston refused to begin their off-season quietly, as Hatcher once again drove in a run against Orosco in the bottom of the 16th.  Two batters later, Glenn Davis cut the Mets' lead to a single tally with a base hit of his own.  Up strolled Bass, with the tying and winning runs on base.  Orosco ran the count full, then paused as first baseman Keith Hernandez came over to him to offer some words of encouragement.

"Jesse, you throw another fastball, we're going to fight."

And with that, Orosco threw a slider to Bass, who went fishing for the pitch and missed.  The only fighting Orosco did that evening was in an effort to free himself from the avalanche of teammates who had descended upon him to celebrate their National League pennant.

This would've been a great shot of Jesse Orosco if not for his photobombing teammates.  (Ray Stubblebine/AP Photos)

As good as Orosco was against the Astros in the NLCS (0.875 WHIP, 10 Ks in 8 IP), he was even better against the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.  Orosco pitched in four of the seven games, earning two saves.  He struck out six batters, walked none and allowed just two base runners in 5⅔ innings.  In Game Three, Johnson brought in Orosco to record the final four outs of the game.  He ended the eighth by retiring future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs on a groundout and the ninth by striking out another future Cooperstown enshrinee, Jim Rice.  Game Six saw Orosco face just one batter, but it was one he was quite familiar with, as it was Bill Buckner, the first batter he ever faced in the major leagues.  And just as he retired Buckner seven years earlier in his debut, Orosco coaxed the first baseman to fly out to end a scoring threat in the eighth.  Two innings later, the Mets turned a scoring threat of their own into the most memorable rally in team history.

After the events of Game Six, the Mets needed to win just one game to cap their greatest season since they won it all in 1969.  Once again, the team came from behind, turning a 3-0 sixth-inning deficit into a 6-3 seventh-inning lead.  But McDowell struggled to hold the lead in the top of the eighth, allowing two runs and exiting with the tying run on second base.  In came Orosco, hoping to save the Mets' season.  He proceeded to retire Rich Gedman on a liner, Dave Henderson on a strikeout and Don Baylor on a groundout, preserving the slim lead.

Four months earlier, Orosco found himself in an odd position - right field - and it worked out well for him and the team.  On this chilly night in late October, Orosco found himself in another unusual place; the batter's box.  After Strawberry had given the Mets a two-run cushion with a majestic home run, the Mets put two more runners on base which brought up Orosco's spot in the batting order.  Not wanting to take out his most dependable reliever, Johnson allowed Orosco to hit for himself and he discovered that Orosco was not only good at putting out fires, but he was equally adept at providing insurance.

"It was a 35-hopper up the middle," Orosco said of his Game Seven at-bat.  "Only my teammates remember it, but I like to remind people."

Indeed, Orosco shocked the Red Sox by grounding a ball past pitcher Al Nipper and into center field, scoring Knight from second base to give the Mets their second three-run cushion of the game.  Given some breathing room, Orosco proceeded to retire Ed Romero, Wade Boggs and Marty Barrett in order in the ninth inning to give the Mets the ultimate thrill of victory.  Gloves were flying, fans were crying and a 17-year championship drought was dying.  The Mets had won the World Series.

In 1969, Shea Stadium celebrated its first title with Jerry Koosman on the mound.  Seventeen years later, the man who came to the Mets in return for Koosman rejoiced on the hill as the team won its second championship.  It was perfect symmetry for a team that had come full circle from the time Orosco first pitched for the Mets in 1979.  But Orosco's time at the top was short-lived, as everything came crashing down for him and the team in 1987.

The Mets failed to repeat as world champions in 1987, as the entire starting rotation missed significant time due to injuries or rehabilitation.  The bullpen faltered as well, as McDowell posted a 4.16 ERA in 56 appearances and Orosco's ERA ballooned to 4.44 in 58 outings; nearly two runs higher than the 2.48 ERA he posted from 1979 to 1986.  Orosco's lifetime WHIP was just 1.178 entering the '87 campaign.  Orosco couldn't keep opposing hitters off base in 1987, posting a 1.416 WHIP and allowing more hits than innings pitched for the first time in his career.

Orosco lost nine games in 1987 while saving just 16.  His final loss came on September 30, when he allowed a walk-off homer to the Phillies' Luis Aguayo that all but ended the Mets' faint hopes of repeating as division champions.  (The Cardinals officially clinched the N.L. East title the following day.)  It was the second game-ending home run allowed by the southpaw on the season; he served up Tom Herr's walk-off grand slam in April.  It was also the final straw for Orosco in a Mets uniform.

Orosco wore the script uniform in 1987, just as the writing was on the wall for his departure.  (Dunn/Getty Images)

Two months after the conclusion of the 1987 campaign, the Mets sent Orosco to the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of a three-team, eight-player trade.  The deal was a relief to Orosco, who had been the team's co-closer for three seasons and was set to lose more playing time due to the emergence of fellow lefty Randy Myers.

"I have no regrets," Orosco said after the transaction was finalized.  "Since 1985, I knew it was a lost opportunity for me.  Once Roger came up, I could see I was doomed.  He seemed to get more opportunities than I did.  Now, it's just time to move on."

With Orosco going west, three young pitchers were making their way east.  To complete the trade, the Mets received pitcher Jack Savage from the Dodgers and pitchers Kevin Tapani and Wally Whitehurst from the Oakland A's.  Of the three, only Whitehurst produced any results in a Mets uniform, although his "results" amounted to 11 wins in 33 decisions as a starter and reliever in four seasons with the Mets.  Savage and Tapani were traded to Minnesota in 1989 for Frank Viola, but by the early '90s, both Viola and Whitehurst had pitched their final games in New York.  Meanwhile, Jesse Orosco was only halfway through his career.  And he had another World Series ring to go with it.

In 1988, the Dodgers used several players to close out ballgames.  Right-handers Jay Howell (21 saves) and Alejandro Peña (12 saves) split time as the ninth-inning relievers, while Orosco, as the sole left-hander of the group, saved nine games.  Manager Tom Lasorda also began using Orosco in shorter outings, as Orosco made 55 appearances but pitched just 53 innings.  Lasorda's stellar bullpen (Howell, Peña, Orosco and Brian Holton combined for a 2.03 ERA) was just as key to the Dodgers' success as N.L. MVP Kirk Gibson and Cy Young winner Orel Hershiser were.  The Mets found out just how good their bullpen was when they faced Los Angeles in the NLCS.

With all eyes on Hershiser, it was pitchers like Peña (one win, one save, one hit allowed in 4⅓ IP), Holton (one save, three base runners allowed in 4 IP) and Kiner's Korner devotee Ricky Horton (no runs allowed in 4⅓ IP) who kept the Mets at bay in the late innings.  But one of the biggest moments of the series came when Jesse Orosco took the mound at Shea Stadium to face his former team in Game Four.

The fourth game of the 1988 NLCS is the one that shifted the momentum of the series in the Dodgers' direction.  First, it was Mike Scioscia who delivered the game-tying homer off Dwight Gooden that sent the game into extra innings.  Then, it was Kirk Gibson who put the Dodgers ahead with a 12th inning blast of his own.  In the bottom of the 12th, the Mets put two runners on base before Lasorda summoned Orosco from the bullpen to face Hernandez and Strawberry.  A walk to Hernandez loaded the bases with one out, but Orosco induced a weak pop-up from Strawberry when a longer fly ball would have tied the game.  His job done, Orosco was removed for Hershiser, who retired Kevin McReynolds to end the game.  The Dodgers won the pennant three games later and went on to defeat the other team involved in the three-way trade that netted them Orosco, taking the Fall Classic from the Oakland A's in five games.

Jesse gave us thrills in the Mets jersey in '86 and agony in the Dodgers uniform in '88.  (Sandy Huffaker/NY Times)

Orosco had now won two championships in three seasons with two teams.  Although he never played in another World Series, he did become accustomed to changing teams.  Following his title with the Dodgers, Orosco played three seasons in Cleveland followed by three years in Milwaukee.  He then played four full seasons in Baltimore from 1995 to 1998, leading the American League with 65 appearances in 1995; the only time in his lengthy career that Orosco led the league in any pitching category.  Orosco's time with the Orioles also reunited him with manager Davey Johnson, who led Baltimore to back-to-back postseason berths in 1996 and 1997.  Orosco pitched 12 times for the Orioles in the playoffs, matching the number of postseason appearances he made for the Mets and Dodgers combined.

From 1999 to 2003, Orosco bounced around from team to team, pitching for the Orioles, Cardinals, Dodgers (again), Padres, Yankees and Twins.  He also made his way back to the Mets, as he was traded to New York in December 1999 for reliever Chuck McElroy.  But after some photo-ops in a Mets uniform and some appearances in Grapefruit League games, Orosco became the casualty of a crowded bullpen and was traded to St. Louis for utility man Joe McEwing before the 2000 season began, not getting the opportunity to make a victorious return to the Shea Stadium mound as a member of the Mets.

"We had too many lefties and somebody had to go," Orosco said.  "I'm glad it wasn't a pink slip."

After becoming a peripatetic pitcher for the last five seasons of his career, which included a cup of coffee with the team that originally traded him to the Mets, Orosco tried to hook up with one more team in 2004, signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks.  By then, the 46-year-old Orosco had already pitched 24 seasons in the big leagues and had appeared in a record 1,252 games.  But he never got a chance to make his 1,253rd appearance, as he announced his retirement from the game he loved prior to the start of Spring Training.

"To take it a quarter-century - I never imagined that," Orosco said.  "It's a sad day that I have to call it quits.  But it's a great day, too, for the fact I fulfilled my dream."

Jesse Orosco grew up as one of seven children in his household.  The son of a baseball-obsessed father, Orosco lived out his dream - as well as his dad's - by making it to the major leagues.  He was a part of two championship teams and made the playoffs with a third club.  And by the time he hung up his uniform for the last time, he had worn it on the field more often than any other pitcher in the history of the game.

As a member of the Mets, Orosco was a two-time All-Star and one of the better relievers in club annals.  His 2.73 ERA in eight years with the team is lower than every other pitcher to wear a Mets uniform other than Tom Seaver.  Orosco also ranks in the team's top five in games pitched (372) and saves (107).  In the playoffs, Orosco was even better, striking out 16 batters while walking only two in 13⅔ innings.  He posted a 1.98 ERA, 0.659 WHIP and earned three wins and two saves.  And of course, Orosco tossed two gloves up in the air; one to celebrate a pennant and one to fete a World Series title.

"We didn't have anything going on in the early '80s, took our licks the first few years," Orosco said upon his retirement.  "That was great, that was very memorable, to go from the worst to the best."
  
The Mets were regularly brought to their knees in surrender by their opponents when Orosco first played for the team in 1979.  Seven years later, Orosco falling to his knees became the symbol of a championship season.  To long-time Mets fans, there's no greater thrill of victory than that moment.

Victory!  (Focus On Sport/Getty Images)


Note: The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players and personnel who experienced the best of times and the worst of times with the team.  For previous installments, please click on the names below:

January 2, 2017: Tom Seaver
January 9, 2017: Mike Piazza
January 16, 2017: Wally Backman
January 23, 2017: Daniel Murphy
January 30, 2017: Frank Cashen
February 6, 2017: Ed Kranepool
February 13, 2017: Doug Sisk
February 20, 2017: Joan Whitney Payson 
February 27, 2017: John Franco and Armando Benitez 
March 6, 2017: Dwight Gooden
March 13, 2017: Bobby Valentine

 

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets: Bobby Valentine

There are moments in history that are so unforgettable, people can always remember where they were at the moment the historic events took place.  Where were you on November 22, 1963?  Probably mourning the death of President John F. Kennedy.  Do you remember what you were doing on July 20, 1969?  Most likely it involved a small step for man and a giant leap for mankind.  (For some of you, it might also have involved the Mets and Expos splitting a Sunday doubleheader at Parc Jarry.)

Mention the date June 15, 1977 to a Mets fan, however, and they'll all respond with the same two words: Midnight Massacre.

The darkest day in Mets history saw the team deal its best player, Tom Seaver, to the Cincinnati Reds at the trade deadline.  In a separate transaction, the Mets rid themselves of their best power hitter, Dave Kingman, sending him to the San Diego Padres for a seldom-used relief pitcher and a light-hitting utility player.  By the end of the 1978 campaign, the reliever (Paul Siebert) had pitched his final game in the majors.  The other player acquired for Kingman wore a Mets uniform far longer than Siebert did.  And when he took his jersey off for the final time, he had managed to make a little history of his own.

The field general responsible for a great run in Mets history.  (Scott Jordan Levy/Getty Images)

Robert John Valentine became a Met because of a Massacre.  He then proceeded to kill what was left of his playing career, producing a .222/.295/.280 slash line for the Mets in 1977 and 1978 before he was released by the team mere days before the start of the 1979 campaign.  Valentine, who was originally selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers with the fifth overall pick in the 1968 June Amateur Draft, played briefly for the Seattle Mariners after he was let go by the Mets before calling it a career at the age of 29.

Despite never quite fulfilling the expectations that come with being a top-five pick in the draft, Valentine spent much of his playing career studying the game.  One of his minor league managers, Tom Lasorda, was influential in Valentine's decision to continue to be a part of the game once his playing career had come to an end.

"Tommy had told me to start thinking about how I could stay in baseball," Valentine said.  "That's what I wanted to do.

Valentine became a coach with the Mets just four years after playing his final game in the majors.  Two years later, he was hired by the Texas Rangers to replace Doug Rader after the Rangers got off to a miserable 9-23 start.  Although Texas finished in last place in the American League West in 1985, Valentine turned things around in his first full season as the team's skipper in 1986, leading the team to a second-place finish and an 87-75 record.  Valentine remained in Texas until 1992, when he was fired by then-managing general partner George W. Bush after getting off to a 45-41 start.

Although Valentine never led Texas to the postseason, he was the Rangers' all-time leader in managerial wins for over two decades.  Valentine was not surpassed in that category until Ron Washington bumped him down to No. 2 in 2014.  But once he was fired, the always opinionated Valentine made sure to remind his former employers who he thought was responsible for the Rangers' turnaround from cellar dwellers to contenders.

"I don't think anybody would've done better than I did while I was here," Valentine said.  "People are going to look back and say in 1985, this is where the Texas Rangers were and in 1992, this is where they were when he left.  I think people are going to say that's one hell of a job."

After working for the Cincinnati Reds in 1993 as a scout and third base coach, Valentine returned to the Mets' organization in 1994 to manage the team's Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk.  With major league players on strike from 1994 to 1995, Valentine took the opportunity to become a manager in Japan in 1995 before he returned to Norfolk to manage the Tides once again in 1996.  Under Valentine, the Tides went 82-59, which was the second-best record in the ten-team International League.

Meanwhile, the Mets, who were on their way to a sixth consecutive losing season, had gotten tired of manager Dallas Green's comments about their young pitchers not belonging in the majors.  With 31 games left in the 1996 season, Green was fired, allowing Valentine to make the jump from Triple-A to the big leagues to manage the Mets.  And just like he did with the Rangers, his leadership was instrumental in the revival of a moribund franchise.

The 1996 Mets finished the year with a 71-91 record, with Valentine going 12-19 after replacing Green at the helm.  Valentine, who had a reputation of getting the most out of otherwise ordinary players, continued to thrive in that respect during his first full season as the Mets' skipper.  Butch Huskey (.287, 24 HR, 81 RBI) had a career year in 1997, while Edgardo Alfonzo batted .315 and reached double digits in home runs and stolen bases for the first time.  On the pitching side, Bobby Jones (15-9, 3.63 ERA) became an All-Star and journeyman Rick Reed (13-9, 2.89 ERA, 1.042 WHIP) finally found a home in New York.  What did all four of those players have in common besides having breakout years for the Mets in 1997?  They all played for Valentine at Norfolk during his two stints as the Tides' manager.

Fonzie was one of many who thrived under Bobby V in both the minors and majors.  (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

New York surprised the league in '97, staying in contention for the National League wild card berth until the final week of the season.  The Valentine-led Mets finished the year with an 88-74 record, which represented a 17-win increase from the previous year.  Only the 1969 and 1984 Mets had shown a greater improvement from one year to the next.

Another reason why the Mets were so successful in 1997 was the acquisition of first baseman John Olerud, who batted .294 with 22 homers in his first season with the Mets.  Olerud led the team in doubles (34), runs scored (90), RBI (102) and on-base percentage (.400), while providing Gold Glove-caliber defense at his position.

The Mets' sudden rise to contention in 1997 caused a flurry of transactions during the off-season.  First, the Mets re-signed Olerud to a two-year deal.  They then traded for veteran left-handed starting pitcher Al Leiter.  But the coup de grâce didn't come until the season had gotten underway, when general manager Steve Phillips acquired All-Star slugger Mike Piazza from the Florida Marlins.

Olerud and Piazza batted .354 and .348, respectively, making Valentine's job of filling out the lineup card that much easier.  But they weren't the only players who helped prove that the previous season's resurgence wasn't a fluke.  Alfonzo continued to blossom under Valentine, improving his power numbers (17 HR, 78 RBI) from the previous year.  In addition, new center fielder Brian McRae's vision of a 20/20 season came to fruition, as he hit 21 homers and stole 20 bases.  But it was Valentine's use of the bullpen that really helped the team succeed.

For the first time in franchise history, five relievers appeared in 50 or more games.  Closer John Franco set a team record with 38 saves, while Dennis Cook and Turk Wendell combined to appear in 139 games, with Cook becoming the first left-handed reliever to pitch in 70 or more games for the Mets in a single season and Wendell appearing in a club-record nine consecutive games during the team's playoff push in September.

Alas, Valentine and the Mets fell short in their quest to end their decade-long postseason drought, as the team lost its final five games of the season to once again finish the year with an 88-74 record.  Valentine had now managed over ten years in the major leagues with nary a playoff berth to show for his efforts.  He was poised to finally crash the postseason party in 1999.  But first, he had to stop everything from crashing down on him.

The Mets played decently, but not spectacularly over the first two months of the season before losing eight straight games from late May to early June.  The eighth defeat in the skein gave the Mets an unsightly 27-28 record, which moved them under the .500 mark for the first time since their Opening Day loss to the Marlins.  The loss also led to the sudden firing of the team's hitting, pitching and bullpen coaches.  Although Valentine's job was spared, he knew that if the team didn't improve quickly after their less than mediocre 55-game start, his days as the team's skipper were numbered.  And so, Valentine decided to share a few numbers of his own.

"In the next 55 games, if we're not better, I shouldn't be the manager," Valentine proclaimed. "I'd rather have a sustained run; something like 40 and 15 would be good."

The team responded to the firings by winning their next three games in lopsided fashion, outscoring the Yankees and Blue Jays by a combined 26-7 score.  The outburst of offense seemed to come to an end in the series finale against Toronto, as the Blue Jays took a 3-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning.  But a three-run rally by the Mets, which included a rare stolen base by Piazza, sent the game to extra innings.  In the 12th, a questionable catcher's interference call led to Valentine's ejection.  Valentine left the dugout briefly, only to be replaced a few minutes later by what appeared to be his mustachioed doppelganger.  Except it wasn't his hirsute twin.  It was Valentine himself attempting to go incognito behind Orel Hershiser in the corner of the dugout.  The disguise was discovered by Major League Baseball and Valentine was fined $5,000 and suspended for two games.  One thing that couldn't be disguised, however, was the Mets' newfound streak of success, as two innings after Valentine was ejected, the Mets won in walk-off fashion for their fourth consecutive victory.

The Mets were winning again?  That's incog-NEAT-o!  (Fox Sports Net screen shot)

By early August, the Mets' 27-28 record had turned into a 67-43 mark, as the team did indeed win 40 of their next 55 games as per Valentine's prophetic statement.  New York had five separate winning streaks of four or more games during their torrid two-month stretch, while never losing more than two in a row.  The Mets briefly took over first place in August before the Braves reclaimed their customary spot in the division by the end of the month.  New York then pulled back to within one game of Atlanta as they entered a critical three-game series at Turner Field on September 21.  When the series was over, the focus had shifted from the division race to the wild card chase, as the Chipper Jones One-Man Wrecking Crew had essentially torn down the Mets' N.L. East aspirations.

No matter who Valentine put on the mound, Jones found a way to take that pitcher deep.  Jones homered four times in the series, hitting long balls off southpaws (Al Leiter, Dennis Cook) and right-handed hurlers (Rick Reed, Orel Hershiser).  Jones drove in seven runs in the three games, or one more run than the Mets scored in the series.  After the final game, Jones reflected on what had transpired in the Braves' three-game sweep of the Mets.

"It was one of those dream series," Jones said.  "It's almost like the ball is hitting my bat.  I don't think I'm doing anything different, but it seems like the ball keeps hitting my sweet spot."  

Meanwhile, in the other clubhouse, Valentine had his own feelings on the sweep, one that increased the Braves' lead in the division to four games over the Mets.  He was particularly vocal about what Jones had been able to accomplish.

"They sure did the job they needed to give themselves some room.  At least Chipper did," Valentine said.  "It's uncanny that he's so hot right now."

The use of the word "uncanny" caused the media to suggest that Valentine was accusing Jones of cheating, especially after Jones had hit several well-placed pitches with authority.  Valentine, who was known to occasionally suffer from foot-in-mouth syndrome, had to quickly recant his unfortunate utterance, saying: "Maybe I shouldn't have used that word."

Although the Mets' dreams of winning the division were derailed by the Braves, the wild card was still well within reach, as New York still had a two-game lead over the Cincinnati Reds with nine games to play.  There was only one problem.  The Mets kept losing.  And losing.  And losing some more.

Following the sweep in Atlanta, the Mets traveled to Philadelphia and promptly lost three more games.  This wasn't the perennially contending Braves the Mets got swept by; it was a Phillies team that was 11 games under .500 entering the series.  The loss in the series finale officially gave the Braves the division title.  It also vaulted the Reds over the Mets in the wild card race.

The Mets limped home from Philadelphia to open their final homestand of the season, still having memories of the previous season, when the team lost its final five games to deny them a spot in the playoffs.  Their losing streak extended to seven games in the opener of a three-game set against the Braves.  New York finally won a game when they walloped Greg Maddux in the middle game of the series, thanks mostly to a grand slam by John Olerud, but then dropped an extra-inning heartbreaker in the finale after coming back twice in the late innings to tie the game.  After the game, the uncanny Jones made a very candid statement, one that forever made him Public Enemy No. 1 in Flushing.

"Now all the Mets' fans can go home and put their Yankees stuff on."

If Jones's comments suggested that the fans would be watching playoff baseball from their couches instead of from their seats at Shea Stadium, he was gravely mistaken.  With the Mets two games out of the wild card spot with three games to play, they responded by sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Starting pitchers Kenny Rogers and Rick Reed struck out 22 batters between them in the first two games, while Orel Hershiser and four relievers combined to pitch a three-hitter against the Pirates in the series finale.  But it was a move by Valentine in Game No. 162 that may have saved the Mets' season.

Melvin Mora had played in 65 games for the Mets coming into the season's final home game.  He had started just three of them, with Valentine using him mostly as a late-inning defensive replacement.  Mora had just 38 plate appearances in those 65 games, which didn't allow him to remain fresh as a hitter and resulted in a .133 batting average entering the finale against the Pirates.  With the game tied, 1-1, in the bottom of the seventh, Mora came into the game as a pinch-runner for Rickey Henderson.  Although it was the tenth time Valentine had used Mora to run for a teammate, it was the first time Mora had run for the game's all-time stolen base leader.  The Mets failed to score in the inning, but Mora stayed in the game as the new left fielder.  More importantly, he took over Henderson's leadoff spot in the batting order.  That came into play two innings later, when the bottom of the ninth rolled around with the game still tied.

Pinch-hitter Bobby Bonilla led off the inning by grounding out.  That brought up Mora, who had just four hits in 30 at-bats.  Rather than replacing the light-hitting Mora, Valentine rolled the dice and allowed him to take his turn at bat.  The gamble paid off, as Mora delivered an opposite-field single.  Two pitches later, Edgardo Alfonzo also went the other way with a hit, pushing Mora over to third base.  An intentional walk to Olerud set up a force play at every base.  But it also brought up Mike Piazza to the plate.  New pitcher Brad Clontz didn't even have time to get nervous about facing the future Hall of Famer, as his first pitch bounced up and over the tall protective screen behind the plate, allowing Mora to scamper home with the winning run.

The mojo was risin' for Melvin Mora when Bobby V allowed him to hit in the '99 finale.  (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The sweep of the Pirates, coupled with the Reds losing two out of three to the Milwaukee Brewers, forced a one-game playoff to determine the wild card winner.  After the tight affair that forced the 163rd game, the Mets had a relatively easy time in Cincinnati against the Reds, scoring early and extending their lead throughout the game before Al Leiter put the icing on the cake with a masterful complete-game, two-hit shutout.

For the first time since 1988, the Mets were going to the postseason.  That drought wasn't nearly as long as Valentine's, as he had endured ten seasons as a player without appearing in the playoffs, followed by a decade as a manager with his season ending after the 162nd game.

Valentine's first postseason series ended on a high note, with backup catcher Todd Pratt hitting a game-winning home run off Arizona closer Matt Mantei in Game Four of the National League Division Series.  The thrilling victory sent the Mets to the NLCS to face Chipper Jones and the Braves.  During the regular season, Atlanta had taken nine out of 12 matchups against New York, outscoring the Mets, 63-40.  But Arizona had been just as dominant against the Mets in the regular season, winning seven of nine games by a combined 63-39 tally before the Mets defeated the Diamondbacks in the NLDS.  That gave the Mets hope against an experiences Braves squad.  By the end of Game Three, however, that hope was nearly gone.

Atlanta took the first three games of the series, defeating Masato Yoshii, 4-2, in Game One, followed by two one-run victories in Games Two and Three.  The Mets recovered to eke out a comeback win against Braves' closer and renowned people watcher on the No. 7 train, John Rocker, forcing a fifth game at Shea Stadium.  The 15-inning, rain-soaked affair featured Valentine at his best.  First, he removed Yoshii after three innings even though he had allowed just two runs.  He then brought in Turk Wendell in the seventh inning to face Chipper Jones.  Wendell's trademark slider proved to be too much for the switch-hitting Jones, who struck out much to the home crowd's delight.  Valentine also ordered five intentional walks during the game.  None of the recipients of the free passes came around to score.

The game remained tied until the 15th inning, when the Braves finally broke through for a run against the Mets' tired bullpen.  New York could have easily conceded the pennant right there, but Valentine and his players would have nothing of it.  Shawon Dunston, who had been put into the game by Valentine five innings earlier, ran the count full before fouling off six consecutive pitches.  On the 12th pitch of the at-bat, the man who wore No. 12 for the Mets hit a sharp ground ball up the middle for a single.  Dunston then stole second.  After reliever Kevin McGlinchy walked pinch-hitter Matt Franco, Alfonzo bunted the runners over to second and third.  An intentional walk to Olerud brought up cleanup hitter Todd Pratt, who came in for Piazza in the 14th inning when Piazza injured his left forearm.  Pratt drew the third walk of the frame, tying the game and bringing Robin Ventura up to the plate, who delivered his famous Grand Slam Single to win the game for the Mets.

After five hours and 46 minutes, the Mets had finally forced their way back to Atlanta for a Game Six showdown.  Tired and bruised, the Mets fell behind by five runs in the first inning before coming back to tie the game in the seventh.  An inning later, they had gone out in front of the Braves.  The Mets failed to hold that precarious lead, then coughed up another one-run lead in the tenth.  Finally, in the 11th inning, after the two teams had played for over ten hours in their last two games, Valentine went to starting pitcher Kenny Rogers in an attempt to extend the game and their season.  It was one of the few decisions that did not go right for Bobby V in his first postseason experience.  A double, a sacrifice bunt, two intentional walks and one unintentional walk later, the Braves had ended the Mets' storybook season, leaving a stunned Valentine to repeatedly say "no, no, no" while pounding his fists on the dugout railing as Gerald Williams crossed the plate with the pennant-winning run.

The look of disappointment on Bobby V's face says it all.  (NBC Sports screen shot)

The most successful year in over a decade had come to a crashing halt for the Mets after their Game Six defeat.  But despite the sudden end to the season, Valentine was proud of his players and praised their ability to fight back when all appeared lost.

''I'm going to take some time in the winter to watch these games, and try to enjoy them,'' Valentine said.  ''I told my guys after the game that it might be a shorter winter or a longer winter for them but I think they played like champions.  They should feel like champions.  It's very difficult to come back from five runs and have a couple of leads.  It's difficult to give it up, but we gave everything we had."

A year after being told by their manager that they played like champions in defeat, the Mets became champions of the National League.  Unlike the 1999 campaign, the Mets did not need to produce a 40-15 record during the middle of the 2000 season, nor did they require a frenetic finish to qualify for the playoffs.  Instead, they clinched the wild card with several games to play and nearly beat out the Braves for the division title.  And once the St. Louis Cardinals knocked off Atlanta in the division series, the Mets were faced with the reality that they would not have to go up against the Hall of Fame triumvirate of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.  Rather, they'd be facing a Cardinals' pitching staff that had produced a 4.38 ERA during the regular season and allowed a then-franchise record 196 home runs.  It was enough to make the Mets' hitters salivate in anticipation of their NLCS feast.

New York defeated St. Louis in five games, scoring six or more runs in each of their four victories.  In addition to going homer happy against the Cards, the Mets produced a deluge of doubles, with four balls leaving the park and a dozen more ending up with the Mets' batter on second base.  The Mets were on their way to the World Series for the first time since 1986, as Valentine joined the pantheon of pennant-winning managers in franchise history.  Their opponent was the crosstown New York Yankees, creating the first Subway World Series since 1956.  But just like they did in 1999, the Mets came up short in a series where every game was decided by one or two runs.

Going into the 2001 season, Valentine was trying to become the first manager in Mets history to lead the team to back-to-back World Series berths.  At the same time, he was trying to keep general manager Steve Phillips off his back.  Just like Davey Johnson and Frank Cashen couldn't see eye-to-eye at the end of their respective tenures with the Mets, Valentine and Phillips were also in a strained professional relationship.  Valentine wasn't a fan of some of the trades Phillips made.  He also didn't like that Phillips wouldn't allow him to talk to other teams about their vacant managerial positions after gaining some leverage with his consecutive postseason appearances.  The feud would continue into the 2001 campaign, and got progressively worse once the Mets got off to an awful start.

By mid-May, New York was ten games under .500 and showing no signs of improvement.  Instead of being buyers at the trade deadline, they started to part ways with several of the key players that helped them rise to the top of the baseball world.  In an eight-day span, the Mets traded backup catcher and 1999 postseason hero Todd Pratt, cut ties with set-up men Turk Wendell and Dennis Cook and dealt starting pitcher Rick Reed, all of whom were favorites of Valentine.  Phillips had raised the white flag on the season.  Valentine, on the other hand, never surrendered his dreams of raising another kind of flag at Shea.

After the Mets reached their nadir in mid-August with a 54-68 record, Valentine led his troops to victory in 17 of the team's next 22 games.  Although the Mets still had a losing record at 71-73, they had climbed to within eight games of the first-place Braves with 18 games to play.  It would still take a monumental effort to cut further into the Braves' lead.  But then September 11 happened.  And Valentine had a new mission to accomplish.

Bobby Valentine was a healer at the helm.  In more ways than one.  (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

On the morning of September 11, 2001 the Mets were in Pittsburgh, waiting to open a three-game series against the Pirates that night.  But after the terrorist attack on the United States, the series was postponed and the Mets returned via bus to New York.  Upon arriving in their home city, Valentine immediately went to Ground Zero to offer assistance.  Valentine also worked tirelessly at Shea Stadium, working to distribute relief goods to those in need.  John Franco, himself a native New Yorker, noticed how involved his manager was in the healing process.

"Bobby was a great leader," Franco said.  "He had us out there, and even when we were done, he stood out there by himself helping everybody else, all the volunteers."

When baseball resumed a week later, the Mets returned to Pittsburgh with the entire country supporting them.  Overcoming fatigue and emotional stress, New York emerged victorious in all three games, moving them back over .500 and within five games of first place.  The Mets then returned to Shea Stadium to face the Braves and gave the patriotic crowd a reason to smile again.  Mike Piazza's home run in the series opener turned a loss into a thrilling victory.  The second game also went to New York, as RBIs by Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Rey Ordoñez and Armando Benitez (not a typo) helped turn a one-run lead into a four-run cushion.  It also moved the Mets to within 3½ games of the division lead.

Unfortunately, the Mets dropped the series finale to the Braves, then lost two out of three games in Atlanta the following week.  Although the Mets managed to finish the year with a winning record - Valentine's fifth straight as manager of the team - they failed to catch the Braves and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1998.  A year later, the Mets couldn't repeat their late-season magic and finished below .500 for the first time since Valentine took over for Dallas Green in 1996.  Valentine's first season of failure became his last season at the helm of a rapidly sinking ship, as he was fired by the Mets a few days after the season came to an end.  General manager Phillips got to keep his job, which finally brought out all the animosity Valentine had felt for him over the years.

"What (Phillips) has done isn't proper," Valentine said.  "He's done what he could so I wouldn't be around.  I told Fred (Wilpon) that he had to give the next manager authority in the clubhouse and on the field, that he had to get Steve off the field and out of the clubhouse.  You can't let a GM high-five guys and joke around after a win and then after a loss act like it's the end of the world.  Get him out of there for the sake of the next guy."

The Mets did indeed get Phillips out of there, but waited until the 2003 season was nearly half-over to do so.  By then, the manager with the second-most wins in franchise history was just a distant memory.

When Bobby Valentine became the Mets' manager in 1996, he took over a team that hadn't had a winning season since 1990 and was a combined 91 games under .500 since the start of the 1991 campaign.  He proceeded to lead the team to five consecutive winning seasons, which included two postseason appearances and a National League pennant.  Despite his final season in which he went 75-86, Valentine's .534 winning percentage ranks third in team history behind Davey Johnson (.588) and Willie Randolph (.544).

(Focus On Sport/Getty Images)
As controversial as Valentine was with his outspokenness and relationship with his general manager, his players - especially the ones that played for him in the minor leagues - remained fiercely loyal to him.  Benny Agbayani, who played for Valentine at Norfolk in 1996 and in New York from 1998 to 2001, followed his manager to Japan in 2004, then retired from the game once Valentine was unceremoniously fired in 2010.  Eric Hillman, who pitched for the Mets from 1992 to 1994, blossomed under Valentine in both the United States (Norfolk) and Japan (Chiba Lotte) before injuries ended his career in 1997.  Once he retired, Hillman had a telling statement about what it was like to play for Valentine.

"Either you love Bobby Valentine or you hate him," Hillman said.  "There's no middle ground.  I'll tell you what - I'd take a bullet for that guy.  He did everything for me in my career."

Valentine was both respected and reviled.  He was also cherished and criticized.  But no one can deny that Valentine was part of the Mets' renaissance in the late 1990s.  His relationship with management may have been testy at times, but his relationship with the win column was always strong.

He first came to the Mets in 1977 during one of the darkest periods in franchise history.  By the time Valentine left the team for good a quarter century later, he was responsible for some of the club's brightest moments.

Mets fans with vivid memories of the late '90s and early '00s will always have a place in their hearts for Valentine.


Note: The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players and personnel who experienced the best of times and the worst of times with the team.  For previous installments, please click on the names below:

January 2, 2017: Tom Seaver
January 9, 2017: Mike Piazza
January 16, 2017: Wally Backman
January 23, 2017: Daniel Murphy
January 30, 2017: Frank Cashen
February 6, 2017: Ed Kranepool
February 13, 2017: Doug Sisk
February 20, 2017: Joan Whitney Payson 
February 27, 2017: John Franco and Armando Benitez 
March 6, 2017: Dwight Gooden