Monday, February 13, 2012

One Season Wonders: Dave Magadan

In 1986, the Mets were rolling towards their first division title in 13 years.  Entering September, the Mets' lead in the NL East had increased to 20 games and the inevitable clinching was only days away.  As with any other team, the Mets called up a number of minor leaguers once the rosters expanded on September 1.  One of those players was a lanky first baseman from Tampa who was an excellent contact hitter, even if that contact produced mostly singles.

In four minor league seasons, the first baseman never hit lower than .309 and never had an on-base percentage lower than .411.  But of his 495 base hits, only 104 went for extra bases and a mere four left the ballpark.  Despite his penchant for collecting singles and drawing walks, the Mets didn't call him up to the big leagues until after he had amassed over 1,500 minor league at-bats.  But he made a name for himself quickly once he got his first start.

On September 17, 1986, the Mets were playing before a packed house at Shea Stadium, needing a win to seal the deal on the NL East crown.  However, team leader Keith Hernandez was unable to start because of the flu, so the start was given to the rookie with the singles bat.  Four plate appearances, three hits and two RBIs later, the September call-up took a seat so that Hernandez could take part in the on-field celebration.  Before September 17, no one had heard of the Mets' rookie, but after his performance in the Mets' first division clincher since 1973, everyone knew who Dave Magadan was.

Dave Magadan never met a single he didn't like.

David Joseph Magadan wasn't the only baseball player in his family.  The cousin of Lou Piniella, Magadan played the game much like his famous family member.  Just as Sweet Lou had done before him, Magadan carved out a nice résumé for himself in the minor leagues before getting an opportunity to play in the majors.  (Piniella was drafted in 1962 but did not become a regular in the big leagues until 1969.)  Also like his cousin, Magadan followed in the family tradition of lashing single after single.  (1,257 of Piniella's 1,705 hits went for one base.)  But the one difference in Magadan's game was his ability to draw a walk.  Piniella never walked more than 35 times in any of his 18 years in the big leagues, while Magadan had never walked less than 51 times in any of his four seasons in the Mets' minor league system.  And it was because of that ability that Magadan never returned to the minor leagues as a Met, even with Keith Hernandez still blocking his path to first base.

In 1987, Keith Hernandez was still the Mets' regular first baseman, but with the departure of third baseman Ray Knight, the Mets needed a backup at the hot corner now that Howard Johnson was taking over the position.  Unfortunately for Magadan, HoJo had a breakout season in 1987, so he was mostly relegated to pinch-hitting duties, appearing in only 85 games and collecting 192 at-bats.  But things began to change in 1988 when Hernandez started to show his age at first.

After a letdown in 1987, the Mets were back atop the NL East in 1988, although they were doing it without the help of their co-captains.  Gary Carter went through a prolonged power slump as he was seeking to hit his 300th career home run and Keith Hernandez injured his hamstring twice.  With the Mets needing a replacement at first base, Magadan stepped in, but for the first time in his professional career, failed to hit .300, finishing the year with a .277 batting average in 112 games.  The next year, Hernandez was hurt again and Magadan found himself playing more than he did in 1988.  But for the second straight year, Magadan was not able to maintain a lofty batting average, although it did improve slightly to .286 in 127 games. 

As the '80s turned into the '90s, Dave Magadan had been with the Mets for parts of four seasons.  However, he still had not become an everyday player, with less than 900 at-bats over those four seasons.  He mainly served a pinch-hitter or an injury replacement.  But when the Mets chose not to re-sign Keith Hernandez after the 1989 season, a full-time spot finally opened for Dave Magadan.  He responded with the best season of his career.

After four years in Keith Hernandez's shadow, Dave Magadan set his sights on a career year in 1990.

Dave Magadan appeared to finally have the everyday first baseman's job once Keith Hernandez signed a free-agent contract with the Cleveland Indians in early December 1989.  But two weeks after Hernandez was officially an ex-Met, the team swung a deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers for reliever Alejandro Peña and first baseman Mike Marshall.  Dave Magadan was back on the bench and Mike Marshall was named Keith Hernandez's replacement at first base by manager Davey Johnson.

Marshall, who hit 137 home runs in nine years as a Dodger, was a complete disaster at first base, hitting .226 with four home runs and 20 RBI through May 27.  His performance at the plate mirrored the team's performance on the field, and on that date, the Davey Johnson era came to a close with the firing of the Mets' most successful manager.  Long-time Mets player and coach Buddy Harrelson replaced Johnson as skipper, immediately making the team his own.  After only two weeks on the job, Harrelson took Mike Marshall out of the lineup, replacing him with Dave Magadan.  This time, there was no one in Magadan's way to prevent him from breaking out.  And it all started with a windy day at Wrigley Field.

On June 12, 1990, the Mets were playing the second game of a four-game series at Wrigley Field in Chicago.  At the time, Magadan was hitting .307 in 75 at-bats, with one home run and six runs batted in.  By the time the game was over, those numbers had doubled.  In what became Dave Magadan's breakout week, the first baseman went 4-for-4 with a triple, home run and six RBI.  The next day, Magadan collected four more hits in a doubleheader against the Cubs.  The Mets then traveled to Pittsburgh.  Different venue, same result, as Magadan went 4-for-4 with two doubles, a run scored and an RBI in a 7-5 victory over the first place Pittsburgh Pirates.

In his first seven days as an everyday player, Magadan collected an astounding 18 hits, but what was more amazing was that he was collecting his share of extra-base hits as well.  For the seven-game period, Magadan hit .563 (18-for-32), with three doubles, a triple and a home run.  He also scored eight runs and drove in ten, all with an un-Magadan-like .813 slugging percentage.  By the time the week was over, Magadan was hitting .383, which would have led the league had he collected enough at-bats to qualify.  But with Magadan now firmly entrenched at first base, it wouldn't be long before his name appeared among the league leaders in batting average.

Every once in a while, Dave Magadan put on a glove, but it was his bat that did the talking in 1990.

From June 24 until the end of July, Magadan continued his torrid pace.  In 35 games (33 starts), Magadan hit .336 with 15 extra-base hits (ten doubles, three triples, two home runs), 25 runs scored and 19 RBI.  He also continued to show exceptional discipline at the plate, drawing 18 walks while striking out only 12 times.  By the time July was over, Magadan was officially among the National League's leading hitters, while Mike Marshall was on his way to Boston, traded for minor leaguers Ed Perozo and Greg Hansell (the same Greg Hansell who was the losing pitcher against the Mets in the 162nd game of 1999, the game that sent the Mets to Cincinnati for the one-game playoff to determine the National League wild card berth).

As hot as Magadan was, the Mets were even hotter.  In a two-month stretch from June 4 to August 3, the Mets' record was 40-15.  They had gone from a season-high 9½-game deficit on June 7 to a one-game lead on August 3.  The Mets had become Buddy Harrelson's team, a scrappy bunch that won games in every possible way.  And this feisty attitude had brought them back into division contention, with Dave Magadan leading the way.

On August 24, Dave Magadan was second in the league in batting, hitting .337 to Lenny Dykstra's .341.  Willie McGee was right on their tails with a .336 batting average.  Five days later, a trade was made that would influence the National League batting race when Willie McGee was shipped off to the Oakland A's.  Since McGee was switching leagues, his .335 batting average at the time of the trade would stay frozen and McGee's batting average in the American League would remain separate.  Therefore, regardless of what McGee did in Oakland, his season-ending batting average in the National League was locked in at .335.  At the time of the deal, Dykstra was still leading the league with a .340 batting average, but McGee had passed Magadan into second place, as the Mets' first baseman had dropped to .333.  There was one month to go in the season to see if Magadan was going to become the Mets' first batting champion, but more importantly, the Mets were down to their final month if they wanted to take the division from the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Mets were still leading the division by a half-game on September 3, but a five-game losing streak, which included a three-game sweep at the hands of the Pirates, knocked them 3
½ games back.  Magadan did his best to keep the team afloat, batting .350 with a double, two triples and a home run in the six games he played from September 4 to September 9.  But by then, his teammates had gone into a team-wide slump, and the Mets never took over first place again.  The only thing left to decide was the National League batting race, and one of the participants was also in the midst of a slump.

Lenny Dykstra, who appeared ready to win his first batting title for the Phillies, completely lost it at the plate in the month of September.  On the morning of September 8, Dykstra was still leading the league with a .343 batting average.  Eight days later, he had already fallen behind Willie McGee and his stationary .335 average.  By season's end, Magadan had also passed Dykstra.  The former Met had to settle for a .325 batting average, the result of hitting .213 over his final 20 games.  As cold as Dykstra was, it was a future Met who went on a tear of his own in September.  Eddie Murray, then a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, hit .411 over his final 30 games to insert his name into the batting race.  Murray's blazing finish raised his average to .330 by season's end, just five percentage points behind Willie McGee.  Unfortunately, Murray's average had also surpassed Dave Magadan, who settled for a .328 average and a third-place finish in the National League batting race.

Although Dave Magadan fell short in his quest to become the Mets' first batting champion, his .328 average was still the second-highest batting average ever recorded by a Met who qualified for the batting title (Cleon Jones set the franchise record of .340 in 1969).  However, since Jones was a right-handed batter, Magadan's average was the highest recorded by a left-handed hitter in Mets' history.  (Both Jones' and Magadan's marks were erased by John Olerud in 1998, when the sweet-swinging lefty set the new team standard with a .354 batting average.)

We're not worthy!  We're not worthy!  Such was life in Dave's World.

Dave Magadan's 1990 season was by far the best year of his career.  The first baseman set career highs in batting average (.328), slugging percentage (.457), OPS (.874), hits (148), doubles (28), triples (6), home runs (6), RBI (72) and runs scored (74).  It was also the only time in his career that he received MVP votes, as Magadan earned four votes to finish 22nd in the NL MVP vote.

As quickly as Magadan rose to the top, his star faded quickly.  In 1991, his average plummeted to .258 and in 1992, he played in only 99 games, batting .283 with 12 extra-base hits.  By then, the Mets had already signed Magadan's old batting champion rival, Eddie Murray, to be the team's first baseman, and Magadan was back to splitting his time between first base and third base.  The 1992 season would turn out to be Magadan's last season in New York.

After the 1992 season, Magadan became a journeyman.  Just as Don Zimmer became the first Met to play the hot corner, Dave Magadan became the first Florida Marlins' third baseman, playing the position in the Marlins' inaugural game in 1993.  Magadan's stay in Florida didn't last very long, as he was traded to Seattle in June.  Magadan returned to the Marlins in 1994, followed by stints with the Houston Astros (1995), Chicago Cubs (1996), Oakland A's (1997-98) and San Diego Padres (1999-2001).  Although he played for nine seasons after leaving the Mets, Magadan was never able to duplicate his successful 1990 campaign.  Still, Magadan's longevity made him the only position player from the 1986 team to extend his playing career into the 21st century.  (Pitcher Jesse Orosco hung up his spikes after the 2003 season.)

Dave Magadan was never a great player, but he was still good enough to play 16 seasons for seven different teams.  He was a decent hitter, finishing his career with a .288 batting average and had a great eye at the plate (.390 lifetime on-base percentage).  As a result, Magadan is still in the major leagues, serving as the hitting coach for the San Diego Padres from 2003 to 2006, before joining the Boston Red Sox in the same role in 2007.  Magadan won a World Series ring with the Red Sox 21 years after making his major league debut for another World Series winner.  He is now entering his sixth season as the Red Sox hitting instructor and his first under former Mets manager Bobby Valentine.

After spending four seasons in the minor leagues, Dave Magadan finally got a chance to play in the big show.  He waited four more years to become an everyday player.  It was his patience at the plate that first got him noticed and it was his patience on the bench that allowed him to have one of the most unexpected seasons in Mets history.  The Mets might not have won the division title in 1990, but Dave Magadan proved to be a winner that season.  He's still winning today.

Note: One Season Wonders is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets who had one and only one memorable season in New York.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:
January 2, 2012: Bernard Gilkey
January 9, 2012: Terry Leach 
January 16, 2012: George Stone
January 23, 2012: Roger Cedeño
January 30, 2012: Frank Viola
February 6, 2012: Joe Christopher

No comments: