Thursday, January 27, 2011

Wait, You Gave Him Hu's Number?

Yesterday at Citi Field, new Mets utility infielder Chin-lung Hu was introduced at a press conference. The soon-to-be 27-year-old Hu was acquired by the Mets from the Los Angeles Dodgers in an attempt to find Jose Reyes an adequate backup.

If by adequate backup, the Mets mean a .191 career hitter in the major leagues over 96 games, then they've found the perfect man for the job.

Chin-lung Hu did have a good minor league career, batting .299 in 754 games. He provided some speed, hitting 154 doubles, 28 triples and stealing 97 bases. He also makes good contact, striking out only 332 times over those 754 games. However, he does not draw many walks (190 bases on balls in 3,434 career plate appearances between the minors and majors) and provides little pop, hitting 47 HR over his minor league career and only two in parts of four seasons in the major leagues, none since 2007.

Still, the Mets are not just handing him a major league job. He will have to earn it out of Spring Training. And if he does, he will have to deal with a Citi Field crowd that is quick to let you know whether or not they appreciate what you're doing on the field.

Does Hu have a chance to succeed at Citi Field? If you look at the recent history of the number he wore on his back during Wednesday's press conference, he might need a "Hu"-lot of luck.

When you think of current Mets who regularly receive one-finger salutes, the first names that come to mind are Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo. But if you go back just a few years, say from 2004-2006, the boobirds at Shea were reserved for another Met wearing number 25, Kaz Matsui.

When he was signed to a three-year deal prior to the 2004 season, Kaz Matsui looked like a savior from overseas. He was so highly regarded that the Mets immediately put him at shortstop, moving the incumbent (and injured) Jose Reyes over to second base. The move appeared to pay off after Matsui's first game of the season, a game in which he homered in his first major league at-bat and reached base all five times he batted.

Matsui's hot start continued over the first two weeks of the season. In his first 12 games, he hit .333 and carried an on-base percentage of .456. He almost looked like a bargain at $20.1 million over three years. Then came this thing called reality, also known as the rest of the season.

After April 18, Matsui played in 102 games, hitting only .265. His on-base percentage (.315) was far below what was expected from the Mets' leadoff hitter. As the oh-fers piled up, so did the boos at Shea Stadium.

Matsui was traded to the Colorado Rockies on June 9, 2006, but not before he compiled jaw-dropping numbers. And by jaw-dropping, I mean everyone's jaw would drop whenever they thought about how much the Mets paid for a stiff like Matsui. Over the course of his 239-game Mets career, Matsui batted .256, with 106 runs scored, 11 HR and 75 RBI. Compare that to what Jose Reyes did in 2006 alone, when he hit .300, with 122 runs scored, 19 HR and 81 RBI. Is it no wonder that Matsui sounded more like Mat-BOO-i at Shea Stadium?

Prior to the failed Matsui experiment, another Met wore #25 for more years than he should have. The number was given to a hometown boy who was trying to bring the Mets back from the abyss. Instead, he pushed them further in to a place they didn't return from until after he left the team.

Is striking out something they do in the Bronx, Bobby?

Bobby Bonilla was part of a fearsome twosome in Pittsburgh. Along with the skinny Barry Bonds (not to be confused with the asterisked Barry Bonds*), the Pirates won division title in 1990 and 1991. Bonilla was a major part of Pittsburgh's divisional dynasty, hitting 39 doubles, 32 HR and driving in 120 runs in 1990. He followed that up by hitting .302 in 1991 with a league-leading 44 doubles and another 100 RBI season. As one of the most feared sluggers in the league, the Mets made him a prime target during the 1991-1992 offseason.

On December 2, 1991, the Mets got their man, signing the Bronx-born Bonilla to a five-year, $29 million deal. How did the perpetually-smiling Bonilla handle his first year in New York? How does a .249, 19 HR, 70 RBI, 23 doubles season sound to you?

The team that Bob Klapisch and John Harper immortalized in their book "The Worst Team Money Could Buy: The Collapse of the New York Mets" was one of the biggest underachieving teams in franchise history. With Eddie Murray, Bret Saberhagen and Bonilla on board, along with new skipper Jeff Torborg, the Mets were supposed to return to the top of the NL East standings after finishing the 1991 season with their first losing record in eight years. Instead they continued their downward spiral.

In Bonilla's second season in New York, he actually improved upon his atrocious 1992 season, batting .265, with 34 HR and 87 RBI. But despite his good season on the field, what he did off the field kept him stranded in Boo York City. Still fuming over his representation in the book, Bonilla confronted Bob Klapisch, threatening to "show him the Bronx", which was perceived as a not-so-veiled threat against the author. This was not the only time Bonilla's conduct became headline-worthy.

During his Mets career, he once called the press box to complain about an error given to him by the official scorer. He also made a famous fashion statement at Shea Stadium, wearing earplugs during a game to drown out the sea of boos that threatened to envelop him.

Bonilla was finally relieved of his Met duties when he was traded on July 28, 1995 to the Baltimore Orioles for supposed five-tool stud Alex Ochoa and Damon Buford, neither of whom ever became big-time players on the Mets. His time away from "home" was short-lived, as the Mets re-acquired Bonilla on November 11, 1998, by sending another boo-worthy player, Mel Rojas, to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Bobby Bo.

Just because the fans had more to cheer about in 1999 didn't mean everything was fine and dandy for the former superstar. Bonilla had a (how shall we say this to avoid being shown the northern-most borough of New York) putrid season in 1999. He played in 60 games and collected only 19 hits. His .160 batting average was lower than pitcher Masato Yoshii's .164 mark. Fans who weren't around during his first stint in New York got a quick education on how to boo Bobby Bonilla properly.

What was once a star player had shriveled into an aloof, uncaring "athlete", one who seemed to be more interested in getting to the World Series of Poker with Rickey Henderson during Game 6 of the 1999 NLCS than the actual World Series.

Pick a card, Bobby. Any card. If you can't hear me because of the earplugs you're wearing, have Rickey pick the card out for you.

Thankfully, Bonilla was given his walking papers on January 3, 2000, never appearing in a Mets uniform again. However, due to a clause in his contract, Bobby Bonilla is back on the Mets payroll, receiving an estimated $29 million over the next 25 years. Although the deal is actually a good one from a financial standpoint, it's given Mets fans another reason to hate Bobby Bonilla.

So now it's Chin-lung Hu's turn to wear the number once worn by Kaz Matsui and Bobby Bonilla. Will he become the latest player to receive the boo treatment, which appears destined for anyone wearing #25? Pedro Feliciano seemed immune to it, as he wore the number from 2006 until his last game as a Met in 2010, but perhaps that was only an aberration.

For Chin-lung Hu to avoid the boobirds at Citi Field, he must play at a level expected of a major leaguer. If he doesn't improve upon his career .191 batting average, he won't be able to block out the boos, even if he finds one of Bobby Bonilla's old earplugs.

Hu's that standing next to Sandy Alderson? Naturally!

Hu must remember that he is there to back up Jose Reyes, not to be Jose Reyes. No one on the Mets is like the effervescent Reyes. His charismatic personality and All-Star caliber play on the field has endeared him to Mets fans since 2003. Hu can't possibly expect to achieve that status overnight. But what he can do is play as hard as he can, whether it be in a pinch-hitting role or just giving Jose Reyes a day off here and there.

Chin-lung Hu will either be accepted as a quality utility player in New York or he will be booed out of town if his performance warrants it. Hu's it going to be?

2 comments: said...

This guy's a bigger scrub than Bill Pecota, who should have been on that 1992 scorecard cover with Sabes, Eddie, Torborg, and Bobby Boo. Brought back some painful memories. I'll think of #25 as Del Unser, my first Mets CF as a kid, shipped north of the border with Wayne Garrett for the out for the immortal Pepe Manguel (they got Jim Dwyer, too, but the '76 Mets got rid of him quickly--too talented).
Your story also made me realize we had Hu's number wrong on the roster for the Maple Street Press Mets Annual. (The Mets made a late switch from #17, a number that would have given you a whole different story today.)

Ed Leyro (and Joey) said...

I'm so glad he didn't get to keep #17. After all, we couldn't have him wearing Graeme Lloyd's number, could we?

If not for Bill Pecota, who would we have inserted into that 19-2 drubbing against the Pirates? Mackey Sasser? It would have been interesting to see him try to throw as a pitcher to the catcher. We all know what he did trying to throw TO the pitcher AS a catcher.