Monday, January 2, 2012

One Season Wonders: Bernard Gilkey

In the music business, many artists have recorded one big hit and then never went on to score another.  When In Rome spent more than a day near the top of the charts in 1988 with "The Promise" but made no promises about creating another hit.  One year earlier, T'Pau gave us a little bit of "Heart and Soul" but never gave us another hit.  Recording a hit song doesn't guarantee success with future recordings. (Isn't that right, Biz Markie?)  Similarly, having a breakout season in the major leagues doesn't mean a player is headed for the Hall of Fame.  In fact, for some Mets, one good season was all they had in them.

For the next thirteen weeks, we'll be focusing the spotlight on some of the biggest one season wonders in Mets history.  These players had some of the greatest seasons in club annals, but don't look for them on the career leaderboard.  All they had was 162 games of fame with the Mets, which I guess is more than the 15 minutes of fame some players had (I'm talking to you, Richard Hidalgo).

So sit back and enjoy the first part of One Season Wonders, as we take a look at a Met who had one of the most complete offensive seasons in franchise history, but never came close to replicating his magical season.  It's time to party like it's 1996 and the host of this party is Bernard Gilkey.

One season wonder Bernard Gilkey sporting the snow white cap that itself was a one season wonder.

Otis Bernard Gilkey was a man of many firsts.  He was the first player in Mets history to go by the name Bernard (or Otis for that matter - Amos Otis doesn't count since that was his last name).  He was also the first Met to be bopped in the head by a fly ball while an alien spaceship flew over Shea Stadium.  (He can thank Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones for that fielding error.)  Despite all that, it was his first season as a Met that really opened eyes in Flushing.

Prior to the 1996 season, the Mets were desperately seeking a cleanup hitter.  With most available power-hitting free agents already off the table, GM Joe McIlvane traded for the best available player who wouldn't cost him too much talent.  The Cardinals had just signed outfielder Ron Gant to a five-year contract and were looking to cut payroll to have the finances to acquire 41-year-old closer Dennis Eckersley.  Gilkey became the odd man out in St. Louis despite having a solid year for the Cardinals in 1995 (.298, 33 doubles, 17 HR, 69 RBI in 121 games).

On January 22, 1996, the Mets got their man, trading minor league prospects Erik Hiljus, Eric Ludwick and Yudith Orozio to St. Louis for Bernard Gilkey.  Hiljus never pitched for the Cardinals and only logged 124 innings over parts of four seasons in the major leagues.  Ludwick pitched even less over his four-year major league career (74.2 innings), but at least 16.2 of those innings came in a Cardinals uniform.  Orozio never made it to the majors and was out of professional baseball by 1998, at the tender age of 23.  By that time, Gilkey had already given the Mets more than they ever could have expected from him.

The 1996 Mets went into the season with high expectations following a surprising second-place finish in the strike-shortened 1995 campaign.  The outfield of Gilkey in left, the newly-acquired Lance Johnson in center and the Butch Huskey/Carl Everett platoon in right was loaded with raw talent and athleticism.  The only question was how they'd play together as neither of the four had ever played in the same outfield with the others prior to 1996.

Although Joe McIlvane was seeking a cleanup hitter when he traded for Gilkey, manager Dallas Green inserted the new leftfielder into the two-hole on Opening Day 1996.  It didn't take long for Gilkey to hit his way into the middle of the lineup.  Beginning with his Opening Day performance, in which he helped erase a six-run deficit to the Cardinals with a sixth-inning home run and a game-tying RBI single one inning later, Gilkey scorched opposing pitchers.

Over his first 11 games, all as the Mets' No. 2 hitter, Gilkey hit .375.  But Gilkey wasn't just slapping singles around the ballpark in compiling that high average.  In those 11 games, he lashed four doubles and blasted four home runs, giving him an impressive .708 slugging percentage.  He also drove in 13 runs over the first two weeks of the season, while not hitting in a traditional RBI spot in the batting order.  It was clear early on that Gilkey had to be moved down in the batting order, and Dallas Green did just that on April 16, when Gilkey batted third for the first time.  It would be the spot from which he would primarily bat for the rest of the season while assaulting the Mets' single-season record book.

Now firmly entrenched in the No. 3 spot in the Mets' batting order, Gilkey continued to pound out the extra-base hits in May.  During the season's second month, Bernard ripped 13 extra-base hits (seven doubles, six home runs) and collected 24 RBIs.  Gilkey "only" hit .295 in May, but it was the only month during the 1996 season in which he failed to hit .300.

In June, Gilkey went on his most prolonged slump of the season, going hitless in 15 at-bats against his former team when the Mets traveled to St. Louis.  How did Gilkey respond to this mini-slump?  Very well, thank you very much.  Over the next nine games following his oh-fer at Busch Stadium, Gilkey reached base an astonishing 20 times (17 hits, three walks).  He slugged at an .800 clip in those nine games, mostly on the strength of seven more extra-base hits (five doubles, two homers).

Despite an amazing first half of the season in which he hit .302 with 21 doubles, 16 HR, 62 RBI and 10 stolen bases, Gilkey was snubbed for the National League All-Star team.  Any frustration Gilkey might have felt for the obvious oversight was taken out on National League pitching after the break.  And boy, did he ever take out those frustrations.

From July 11 (the first game following the All-Star Break) through August 25, a span of 43 games, Gilkey gave new meaning to the term "raking the ball".  During those six weeks, Bernard hit .356 with 15 doubles, two triples and 12 home runs.  He also scored and drove in almost a run per game, crossing the plate 40 times and driving in 40 as well.

Whereas the 1995 Mets closed out the season on a 34-18 tear, the 1996 squad took the other fork in the road and ended their season poorly, losing 35 of their final 54 games and their manager (Dallas Green was replaced by Bobby Valentine in late August).  Despite the poor finish by the team, Bernard Gilkey just kept on chuggin'.

Beginning with the Mets' final game in August, Gilkey batted .329 and reached base at a .440 clip over his final 22 games.  Of course, the extra-base hits kept on coming as well, as Gilkey hit seven more doubles, one triple and two home runs over the final three weeks of the season.

Bernard Gilkey's 1996 season was one of the most complete seasons by a non-pitcher in Mets history.  For the year, Gilkey hit .317 with 44 doubles, three triples, 30 HR, 117 RBI, 108 runs scored and 17 stolen bases.  In addition, he finished with a .393 on-base percentage, a .562 slugging percentage and was deadly with runners in scoring position, batting .406 (63-for-155) in those situations.  But Gilkey was not just an offensive threat on the field, as evidenced by his National League-leading 18 outfield assists in 1996.

At the time, Gilkey's .317 batting average was the fifth highest single-season mark in Mets history for players who qualified for the batting title.  Only Cleon Jones (.340 in 1969 and .319 in 1971), Dave Magadan (.328 in 1990) and Lance Johnson (.333 in 1996) had ever posted a single-season batting average higher than Gilkey's .317.  Furthermore, Gilkey's .562 slugging percentage in 1996 was the second-highest single-season mark in the franchise's first 35 years, surpassed only by Darryl Strawberry's .583 slugging percentage in 1987.

With his 44 doubles in 1996, Gilkey broke Howard Johnson's franchise record of 41 two-baggers in a season, a record that still stands.  Gilkey also became the second Met to record 40 doubles and 30 homers in the same season, following Johnson's 41 HR/36 double campaign in 1989.  In addition, Gilkey tied Johnson's club record with his 117 RBIs, a record that would eventually be surpassed by Mike Piazza, Robin Ventura and David Wright.  Finally, Gilkey became the third Met to reach triple digits in runs scored and RBIs in the same season, joining Darryl Strawberry (1987, 1988) and Howard Johnson (1989, 1991) as the only Mets to accomplish this feat during the team's first 35 seasons.

Unfortunately, Gilkey's breakthrough season in 1996 did not carry over into the 1997 campaign.  Although the Mets did far better in the standings in '97, finishing 88-74 and competing for the National League wild card berth until the final week of the season, Gilkey's performance left a lot to be desired.  The leftfielder saw his batting average drop to .249 and he didn't hit for as much power (18 HR) or drive in nearly as many runs (78 RBI) as he did during his stellar '96 season.

 Was Gilkey's close encounter with aliens over Shea the reason for his dropoff in 1997?

Given one final chance by Bobby Valentine to regain his 1996 form, Gilkey was moved back into the two-hole after the Mets acquired Mike Piazza from the Florida Marlins in late May 1998.  Despite having excellent protection by having Piazza and John Olerud hitting behind him, Gilkey floundered in the No. 2 spot.  In June and July, Gilkey hit a mere .168 and his power disappeared, as he hit only five doubles and two home runs in 45 games.

The Mets were in contention for the wild card, but having Gilkey in the lineup every day was hurting them more than it was helping them, so a day before the trade deadline, Gilkey was sent to Arizona for pitcher Willie Blair and catcher Jorge Fabregas.  Neither Blair nor Fabregas contributed much to the Mets, and the team fell one game short of ending their decade-long playoff drought, a skein that ended in 1999 when the Mets defeated Gilkey's new team, the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLDS.  Gilkey literally did nothing against the Mets in the NLDS, going 0-for-6 against his former team in two games.

When the Mets acquired Bernard Gilkey prior to the 1996 season, the team was looking for a veteran player with some pop in his bat who could bat cleanup.  They didn't get a cleanup hitter, but they did get one of the finest offensive seasons ever recorded by a Mets player.  Alas, it was the only great season by Gilkey in a Mets uniform, making him one of the biggest one season wonders in team history. 


Rich S said...

I liked Gilkey. It's a shame he lost his ability to hit after that stellar 1996 season.

Ed Leyro (and Joey Beartran) said...

After '96, the only positive thing I can remember him doing for the Mets was the walk-off three-run HR into the mezzanine level in the 11th inning against the Expos in Sept. '97, two innings after Carl Everett hit the two-out game-tying grand slam off Ugueth Urbina to erase a 6-0, ninth-inning deficit.