Monday, January 24, 2011

M.U.M.'s The Word (Most Underrated Mets): Kevin McReynolds

The 1986 Mets were perhaps the most beloved team in franchise history. They combined a great pitching staff along with veteran leadership (Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Ray Knight) and youthful exuberance (Darryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra, Kevin Mitchell) to win their second World Championship.

However, after the season ended, general manager Frank Cashen decided that Kevin Mitchell had too much youthful exuberance, which was the polite way of saying that Mitchell was a bad influence on Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. It was time for the versatile rookie to go, and so Cashen traded Mitchell (along with Shawn Abner, Stanley Jefferson, Kevin Armstrong and Kevin "No, not that one" Brown) to the San Diego Padres for pitcher Gene Walter, minor leaguer Adam Ging and a good ol' country boy from Arkansas named Walter, although Mets fans probably know him better by his middle name.

You can't call him Wally, but you can call him underrated.

Walter Kevin McReynolds was coming off a 1986 season in which he set career highs in batting average (.288), runs scored (89), home runs (26), RBI (96) and stolen bases (8). It was not his first good year in the majors, as he had a stellar 1984 season for the Padres, finishing 17th in the NL MVP voting and helping the Padres advance to their first World Series. However, McReynolds broke his hand in Game 4 of the 1984 NLCS and did not play in the World Series, which the Padres lost to the Detroit Tigers in five games.

Although McReynolds was the Padres' primary centerfielder, the Mets acquired him to play left field, a position he had only played for 43 games over his first four seasons in the majors. The Mets had gone through four and a half years of the underachieving malcontent, also known as George Foster, from 1982 until midway through the 1986 season, when they released him soon after he stayed glued to the bench during a bench-clearing brawl between the Mets and the Cincinnati Reds.

There's a better chance you'll find Waldo in this donnybrook than George Foster.

The Mets used four leftfielders after Foster's release, never starting Mookie Wilson, Kevin Mitchell, Danny Heep and the newly re-acquired Lee Mazzilli for more than five consecutive games at a time. The team needed a steady leftfielder, one that wouldn't be a cancer in the clubhouse (a la Foster) or a bad influence on the young stars (a la Mitchell). Kevin McReynolds fit the bill perfectly and gave the Mets quite the ballplayer in left field.

McReynolds' career as a Met didn't start off with a bang. After a loss to the Chicago Cubs on June 9, 1987, the Mets slipped to fourth place with a .500 record (28-28). One of the reasons for the poor start to the season was the hitting (or lack thereof) of Kevin McReynolds. Big Mac's numbers at the plate (.249, 9 HR, 26 RBI) weren't that much different than what George Foster was giving the Mets in 1986. All that changed the following afternoon (June 10), when McReynolds collected four hits (two singles, two doubles), scored two runs and drove in another. That began a two-month stretch where McReynolds and the Mets simultaneously caught fire.

From June 10 to August 7, McReynolds played in 53 games (52 starts). Over that time period, he batted .338, with 13 doubles, two triples, 10 home runs and 42 RBI. The 25 extra-base hits over the two months gave him an exceptional .572 slugging percentage. The Mets needed McReynolds' power in the lineup because Darryl Strawberry was not driving in runs at his usual pace (30 RBI over the same 53-game stretch). When McReynolds woke up from his early season slumber, so did the Mets, as the team went 35-18 during Big Mac's hot streak. In two months, the Mets went from a fourth-place, .500 team to a second place team that was within striking distance of the first place St. Louis Cardinals.

Then September 11 happened. No, not THAT September 11. On the night of September 11, 1987, the Mets and Cardinals squared off at Shea Stadium, with the Mets trying to close to within half a game of the first place Redbirds. Everything was going perfectly for the Mets. Ron Darling took a no-hitter into the sixth inning and the Mets had a 4-1 lead (St. Louis scored their run on two walks and two groundouts).

Then Vince Coleman dropped a drag bunt that not only ended Darling's no-hitter, but his season as well, as Ronnie injured his thumb while diving to make a play on the ball. Once Terry Pendleton hit a two-out, two-run game-tying homer in the ninth inning off Roger McDowell, the Mets' chances to catch the Cardinals in the standings vanished. The Cardinals went on to win the NL East, denying the Mets an opportunity to defend their World Series title.

Although the Mets failed to advance to the postseason in 1987, it was not the fault of Kevin McReynolds. In fact, McReynolds was one of the reasons why the Mets stayed in the division race for as long as they did. He batted .276, and set career-highs with 163 hits, 32 doubles, 29 HR and 14 stolen bases. He also picked up 95 RBI while showing great discipline at the plate, striking out only 70 times in 639 plate appearances. Big Mac didn't help the Mets to the postseason in 1987, but 1988 was a different story.

McReynolds started the 1988 season with a bang, going 4-for-5 with two homers on Opening Day in Montreal. The two blasts were part of a six-homer barrage by the Mets, which included a monster shot by Darryl Strawberry that hit the roof of Olympic Stadium. The Opening Day fireworks by McReynolds were just a prelude for what was to come. Over his first six games of the season, Kevin hit .565 (14-for-23). He slid back to reality after his dominant start to finish the first half of the season with respectable numbers (.281, 11 HR, 47 RBI, 11 SB). Once he returned from the All-Star Break, McReynolds took his game to another level, starting with the first game in Atlanta.

On July 14, the Mets and Braves were engaged in a seesaw battle. The Braves had an early 3-0 lead, but the Mets poured it on, scoring eight unanswered runs to take an 8-3 lead. The big blow was a three-run homer by McReynolds in the fourth inning. The Braves refused to lose quietly, storming back with five runs of their own to tie the game at 8. Darryl Strawberry led off the top of the ninth inning by reaching first on an error. Unfortunately, he was thrown out trying to steal second in the hopes that McReynolds would drive him in. Darryl's over-aggressiveness might have cost the Mets the go-ahead run, as McReynolds doubled into the gap in left-center. A ground ball double play by Gary Carter ended the Mets threat and the game moved on into extra innings, where the Mets won the game in the 11th inning on a base hit guessed it...Kevin McReynolds.

For the game, Big Mac was true to his nickname, going 5-for-6, with three runs scored, two doubles, a home run and four RBI. July 14 wasn't the last time McReynolds had a big game in the second half. Two weeks later against the Phillies, he went 4-for-4, hitting another home run and driving in five runs. In August, he had another five-RBI game, this time against the Cubs. But he saved his hottest RBI streak for the most important time of the year.

Over a two-week stretch in September, McReynolds was a one-man wrecking crew. In 14 games, he batted .400, with six home runs and 18 RBI. While McReynolds was rockin', the Mets were rollin'. New York won 13 of those 14 games, including the game against the Phillies on September 22 which gave them their second NL East title in three years. Not surprisingly, McReynolds went 2-for-4 with an RBI in that game. It was the third of five consecutive multi-hit games for the leftfielder, who was now in the middle of everyone's MVP conversations.

Unfortunately, the MVP Award was not to be, as Kirk Gibson's performance for the Dodgers (.290, 25 HR, 76 RBI, 31 SB) was considered more valuable than McReynolds' season (.288, 27 HR, 99 RBI, 21 SB) and teammate Darryl Strawberry's year (.284, 39 HR, 104 RBI, 36 SB). It was widely agreed that voters who picked an MVP candidate from the Mets split their votes between Strawberry and McReynolds, allowing Gibson to sneak away with the award. However, had the voters noticed that McReynolds also led the league with 18 outfield assists (including seven runners thrown out at the plate) and set a major league record by having the most stolen bases in a season without being caught (later broken by Chase Utley in 2009 with his 23-for-23 season), perhaps they would have changed their vote to the player who was truly the most complete player in the National League in 1988.

McReynolds continued his dynamic 1988 season into the playoffs, where the Mets faced off against Orel Hershiser and the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team they had defeated 10 out of 11 times during the regular season. Hershiser had finished the 1988 season by pitching 59 consecutive scoreless innings and he continued to do the same in Game 1 of the NLCS, holding the Mets to zero runs through eight innings. But things began to unravel for "The Bulldog" in the ninth inning.

In 1988, the National League was schooled by Hershiser and his "Orel" exams.

After a leadoff single by w√ľnderkind Gregg Jefferies, Keith Hernandez moved him to second base with a groundout. Darryl Strawberry then lined a double to right field, plating Jefferies and ending Hershiser's scoreless streak and his night, as he was removed from the game for closer Jay Howell.

Kevin McReynolds was the first batter to face Howell, and he was able to draw a walk. After Howard Johnson struck out, the Mets were down to their final out, but they still had their two MVP candidates on the bases and Gary Carter at the plate. With the Dodger Stadium crowd on their feet in anticipation of the final out, Carter silenced the ballpark by looping a double in front of a diving John Shelby. Strawberry had already scored the tying run as McReynolds was rounding third. The throw from Shelby to Mike Scioscia arrived at the same time as McReynolds' lowered shoulder did. The jarring home plate collision led to the go-ahead run for the Mets and they held on to that lead, taking Game 1 in their final at-bat, with the winning run scoring on the shoulders of Kevin McReynolds.

The Mets split the next two games of the NLCS, taking a 2-1 series lead into Game 4, the game forever known as the Mike Scioscia game. With the Mets about to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series, manager Davey Johnson left Dwight Gooden on the mound the start the ninth inning. At the time, the Mets led the game 4-2. Gooden stayed in the game even after issuing a leadoff walk to John Shelby. The reasoning for the non-move was simple. The next batter was light-hitting catcher Mike Scioscia, who had hit only three home runs in 408 regular season at-bats and was a prime candidate to hit into a double play. There was no double play, unless if you can start one from behind the outfield wall.

One former Dodger who wore #14 helped the Mets win the World Series in 1969. Nineteen years later, another one prevented the Mets from reaching the World Series.

With Mike Scioscia tying the game with his Pendletonian blast, the momentum shifted over to the Dodgers, especially after Kirk Gibson's two-out, solo homer in the 12th inning off Roger McDowell gave Los Angeles a 5-4 lead. The Mets fought back in their half of the inning, as the first two batters reached base against former Met Tim Leary. After retiring Gregg Jefferies, another former Met came into the game to face lefties Keith Hernandez and Darryl Strawberry. That man would be Jesse Orosco.

Orosco was able to induce a popup from Strawberry that could not score the tying run. The next batter was Kevin McReynolds. Orosco would not get a chance to face Big Mac, as future Met and current Bulldog Orel Hershiser would get the call to come in from the bullpen.

McReynolds had already contributed greatly to the game. His solo homer in the fourth inning had given the Mets a 3-2 lead, a lead that was extended to 4-2 in the sixth inning when McReynolds hit a ground rule double and scored on Gary Carter's triple. Big Mac had also drawn a walk in the 11th inning, followed by a stolen base to put his potential winning run in scoring position. However, that is where he was left stranded. Now the game was in the 12th inning, and it was up to him not to leave anyone stranded.

With the Shea Stadium crowd expecting another comeback victory, McReynolds lifted the third pitch from Hershiser into short center field. Everyone's thoughts went back to the ninth inning of Game 1, when John Shelby failed to catch Gary Carter's short fly ball, allowing the tying (Strawberry) and go-ahead (McReynolds) runs to score. That Game 1 moment would not be revisited in Game 4, as Shelby raced forward and tumbled onto the Shea Stadium grass, this time with ball in glove. Game 4 went to the Dodgers, as did Game 5.

You mean to tell me that the Mets were beaten by a guy wearing braces?

The series shifted back to Dodger Stadium for Game 6 with the Mets trying to stave off elimination. Their chances looked good with 20-game winner David Cone on the mound, although he had already been defeated by the Dodgers in Game 2. A repeat performance by Cone in Game 6 would mean that the hitters would have to come through to save the Mets' season. That's exactly what Kevin McReynolds did.

Batting with the bases loaded and one out in first inning, McReynolds hit a sacrifice fly to right field, giving the Mets the early 1-0 lead. In the third inning, after a leadoff single by Strawberry, McReynolds followed with a base hit of his own, moving Strawberry into scoring position, where he eventually scored on a double by shortstop Kevin Elster. The Mets still had a slim 2-0 lead in the fifth inning when McReynolds delivered the crushing blow, a two-run homer to left that knocked out starting pitcher Tim Leary. The blast gave the Mets a 4-0 lead and they went on to win the game 5-1, on the strength of David Cone's complete game and Kevin McReynolds' fireworks at the plate.

Alas, the Mets would not be celebrating a pennant after Game 7, as Orel Hershiser pitched a five-hit shutout to send the Dodgers to the World Series. McReynolds' 0-for-4 performance in the NLCS finale did not take anything away from his otherwise stellar series. Over the seven games, he collected seven base hits, including two doubles and two homers, scored four runs, drove in another four and stole two bases. For his efforts, he was rewarded with a three-year, $5.5 million contract during the off-season.

Although the Mets did not return to the playoffs in 1989 and 1990, it was not the fault of McReynolds. In fact, his two seasons were very similar:

  • 1989: .272, 22 HR, 85 RBI, 74 runs, 25 doubles, 15 SB, 9 assists
  • 1990: .269, 24 HR, 82 RBI, 75 runs, 23 doubles, 9 SB, 12 assists

Going into the 1991 season, things had changed for the Mets. The team McReynolds joined in 1987 was a shadow of its former self. Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Lenny Dykstra, Mookie Wilson and Darryl Strawberry were no more. Those veteran players had been replaced by a new group of veterans. It's too bad the new cast of non-characters included Rick Cerone, Vince Coleman, Hubie Brooks, Garry Templeton and Tommy Herr, players who would have made a formidable team had they brought their DeLoreans with them with the time coordinates set for 1980-1985.

The Mets could've used 1.23 gigawatts of electricity in their bats in 1991.

The team was in disarray. There was no chemistry among the diverse group of players. As a result, performances suffered and the team fell apart, as they finished with their first losing season since 1983. McReynolds was not immune to the underachievement virus being passed around in the clubhouse, as he finished the 1991 season with his poorest numbers as a Met (.259, 16 HR, 74 RBI, 65 runs scored, 32 doubles, 6 SB, 9 assists). His only bad season in New York was also his final one, as McReynolds was traded to the Kansas City Royals (along with Gregg Jefferies and Keith Miller) for Bret Saberhagen and Bill Pecota (whose sole claim to fame as a Met was that he became the first position player to pitch in a regular season game when he did so in 1992).

Saberhagen had a Pedro Martinez-like Mets career, pitching four years in New York, with almost half of his victories coming in one of them (Saberhagen won 29 games as a Met, with 14 of them coming in 1994. Martinez won 32 games in New York, with 15 of them coming in 2005), while Bill Pecota only collected 269 at-bats in his one season as a Met.

The move to Kansas City did not help McReynolds' career, as he failed to hit .250 or pick up 400 at-bats in either of his two years there. In fact, his cumulative power numbers during the 1992 and 1993 seasons in Kansas City (24 HR, 91 RBI) were similar to what he produced in one average season during his prime with the Mets.

Despite the fact that McReynolds' career was on the downside, the Mets re-acquired him prior to the 1994 season. The main reason for McReynolds 2.0 was not to try to resuscitate his dying career. The Mets pulled off this deal in order to rid themselves of Vince Coleman (a.k.a. Vincenzo Grucci), who left his career in St. Louis, but brought his fireworks to New York.

Was Vincenzo Grucci responsible for this as well? (Photo by David G. Whitham)

Unfortunately, injuries took their toll on the 34-year-old McReynolds, as he was placed on the disabled list three times during the 1994 season. But before his second stint on the DL, McReynolds was showing signs of his former self. In his last eight games before his second trip to the disabled list, McReynolds hit .308, with a .400 on-base percentage and a .731 slugging percentage. He also scored seven runs, drove in nine and stole a base. Once he returned from the DL on July 8, he picked up right where he left off, batting .300 over his next nine games. His start on July 19 was vintage Kevin McReynolds.

The Mets were trailing the Dodgers 4-2 going to the bottom of the eighth inning. It was the second time the Mets had trailed by two runs in the game. In the fourth inning, the Mets were losing 2-0 when Todd Hundley cut the lead in half with a solo home run. With one out, Kevin McReynolds put himself into scoring position with a double off Dodger starter Kevin Gross. He later came around to score on a triple by Jeff Kent (who probably received a cheer or two from the 22,045 fans in attendance) that tied the game at 2.

In the sixth inning, with the Mets down 4-2, McReynolds delivered his second hit of the game, but was erased when Joe Orsulak followed Big Mac by grounding into a 6-4-3 double play. The next time Big Mac got an opportunity to hit, he would make sure the Mets would not go quietly.

With one out and two runners in scoring position, McReynolds came up to bat in the bottom of the eighth inning. A sacrifice fly would score a run, but a base hit would tie the game. Big Mac would come through with the latter, delivering a base hit to left that scored the tying runs. Later on in the inning, the Mets would load the bases against former Met Roger McDowell. First baseman David Segui hit a ground ball to his counterpart at first, Eric Karros, who threw home to force out McReynolds. But centerfielder Ryan Thompson followed that up by clearing the bases with a double to left, giving the Mets a 7-4 lead, a lead that John Franco protected in the ninth inning.

The Mets' five-run eighth inning, fueled by McReynolds two-run single, ended a two-game losing streak. But during his slide into home plate during the game-changing inning, McReynolds jammed his knee. It was later revealed that he had suffered cartilage damage in his right knee, necessitating a third trip to the disabled list. McReynolds did not start another game for the Mets, although he did come off the disabled list to appear as a pinch-hitter against the Philadelphia Phillies on August 11, the day before the 1994 players strike was set to begin. In his final turn at-bat, McReynolds pinch hit for starting pitcher Jason Jacome and flied out against Fernando Valenzuela (yes, El Toro was a Phillie then) in the eighth inning. The Mets went on to lose the game 2-1 in 15 innings, then went on strike an hour later.

During the players strike, McReynolds decided that baseball was no longer in his future, so he retired back home to Arkansas for a life as an outdoorsman and duck hunting entrepreneur.

Duck season? Wabbit season? In the late '80s, it was Big Mac season at Shea.

Kevin McReynolds played 12 years in the major leagues, six of those seasons with the Mets in two separate stints. His 122 home runs as a Met are good for eighth on the all-time club leaderboard, but at the time he retired in 1994, only three Mets had ever hit more home runs than McReynolds (Darryl Strawberry, Howard Johnson, Dave Kingman). Also, McReynolds remains in the top ten on the franchise's all-time RBI list with 456, but was sixth at the time of his retirement (surpassed only by Darryl Strawberry, Howard Johnson, Ed Kranepool, Cleon Jones and Keith Hernandez). In addition, he was one of the smartest baserunners in franchise history, stealing 67 bases in 83 attempts (80.7% success rate). He also registered 60 outfield assists during his six seasons in New York, making him one of the better defensive players among Mets outfielders.

When Kevin McReynolds became a Met prior to the 1987 season, he was supposed to be the player the Mets thought they were getting when they signed George Foster five years earlier. They got far more than that. They got a player who wasn't a cancer in the clubhouse and one who was consistently good in all aspects of the game. Yes, sometimes he seemed to have his mind on hunting a little too much, but that was just a little bit of Arkansas that he brought with him to the big city.

Kevin McReynolds might be the best leftfielder in Mets history (no offense to Cleon Jones), yet so many people forget how valuable he was to the Mets during his time in New York. No leftfielder had a better stretch as a Met than McReynolds did from 1987-1990. If a big hit was needed, you could count on Big Mac to come through. If you needed a runner in scoring position, a successful steal attempt would soon follow. Need a strong and accurate throw from the outfield to cut down a run at the plate? McReynolds was your man. Without question, Kevin McReynolds is one of the most underrated Mets of all-time. It's just that he was too quiet to let you know it himself.


Julie said...

I loved Big Mac when I was growing up. This was a great post! Really enjoyed it. And I had no idea that he has his own business in Arkansas. A duck hunting one, nonetheless.

Ed Leyro (and Joey) said...

Big Mac always had his heart set on the outdoors and duck hunting. It just happened that he ended up being really good at baseball which prevented him from going into duck hunting sooner. Thanks for the comment!

Rich said...

Big Mac's personality certainly didn't fit that group of guys, but better yet, he let his play do the talking.

Anonymous said...

McReynolds was a solid player. Very underrated and unappreciated, indeed. He averaged around 22HR, 85RBI, and close to a .260AVG per year during his career. Yes, he tailed off rather quickly at the end, but was fairly reliable throughout his career. He was a smart (not the fastest) baserunner and a great defensive player. He should have won the MVP award in 1988. He was quiet and kept to himself - in this day in age - perhaps we need more professional athletes like him.

Anonymous said...

I love this article! Kevin McReynolds was and will always be my favorite Met. I always admired the way McReynolds didn't run his mouth off but let his play speak for itself. To this day, the #22 is my favorite number.