Monday, March 12, 2012

One Season Wonders: Willie Montañez

In 1977, the Mets were in the middle of dismantling the team that brought them much success in the first half of the 1970s.  They weren't just massacring the team at midnight, they were chopping the players up and spitting them out for other teams to enjoy.  The Mets traded away "The Franchise", their best power hitter (Dave Kingman) and their rock behind the plate (Jerry Grote) during the 1977 season.  But they weren't done yet.

After the season was over, the Mets were involved in a complicated four-team trade with the Atlanta Braves, Texas Rangers and Pittsburgh Pirates.  On December 8, 1977, former Rookie of the Year Jon Matlack was shipped off to Texas and slugging first baseman/leftfielder John Milner packed his bags for Pittsburgh.  In return, the Mets received outfielders Tom Grieve and Ken Henderson from the Rangers.  Neither player performed very well for the Mets.  In fact, both of them were rarely seen on the field in a Mets uniform, with Grieve's career in New York lasting 54 games (.208, 2 HR, 8 RBI) and Henderson (.227, 1 HR, 4 RBI) playing in only seven games.

The Mets received one other player in the deal that sent Matlack and Milner away.  Unfortunately, it was not future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven, who was also involved in the trade; he went from Texas to Pittsburgh.  No, the third player sent to the Mets came via the Atlanta Braves.  It was a player who was no stranger to trades, as he had already been a part of five organizations (St. Louis Cardinals, California Angels, Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants, Atlanta Braves) before becoming a Met.  He was also no stranger to trades involving All-Stars and future Hall of Famers.

In 1970, he was the player sent to the Philadelphia Phillies from the St. Louis Cardinals when Curt Flood refused to report to his new team, paving the way for the birth of free agency.  In 1975, he was traded to San Francisco for the Secretary of Defense, Garry Maddox.  This is the same Garry Maddox who went on to win eight Gold Glove Awards and was immortalized by Ralph Kiner when the Mets' legendary broadcaster proclaimed that "two-thirds of the Earth is covered by water, the other third is covered by Garry Maddox".  In 1976, he was traded to Atlanta for Darrell Evans, who went on to hit 414 HR in his major league career.  Then came the trade in 1977 that sent him to the Mets.  Willie Montañez didn't play for very long in New York, but he did have one phenomenal season as a Met.

The Mets were entering the dark ages in 1978, but they did have a bright star in Willie Montañez.

Guillermo Montañez Naranjo was a well-traveled player before coming to the Mets.  Although he was only 29 at the time of the trade to New York, he had already completed a number of great seasons with multiple teams.  His 1971 campaign for the last-place Phillies (.255, 30 HR, 99 RBI) almost won him the National League Rookie of the Year Award, as he placed second in the voting to Atlanta's Earl Williams.  In 1975, he recorded his first 100-RBI campaign, although he split the season between the Phillies and the San Francisco Giants.  In 1976, he recorded career-highs in batting average (.317), hits (206) and games played (163).  But once again, he split the season between two teams, beginning the year in San Francisco and ending it as a member of the Atlanta Braves.

When he joined the Mets in 1978, it was Montañez's sixth professional organization.  (He was in the St. Louis Cardinals organization twice although he never played for them at the major league level, and he recorded two at-bats as a California Angel in 1966, five years before his "rookie" season for the Phillies in 1971.)  As a Brave in 1977, Montañez was a first-time All-Star, finishing the year with a .287 batting average, 31 doubles, 20 HR and 68 RBI.  The 1977 Mets, on the other hand, had no player with more than 25 doubles, 12 HR or 65 RBI.  It goes without saying that Willie Montañez was expected to carry the bulk of the offensive load for the Mets in 1978.  The team may not have produced on the field, but Willie Montañez gave the Mets solid production with his bat.

The season did not start off so well for Montañez and the Mets.  The Mets and the Braves were playing a game of musical chairs in the National League basement.  At the same time, Willie Montañez was struggling with his new team, batting .206 with two home runs and 12 RBI through the team's first 36 games.  He also had more strikeouts (29) than hits (28), which was disconcerting for a player who was only two years removed from a season in which he recorded 206 hits while striking out only 47 times.  But with one visit from his former Braves teammates at Shea Stadium, Montañez turned his season around in a big way.

On May 18, 1978, in the final game of a three-game series against Atlanta, Montañez went 3-for-3 and drove in four runs.  In the first inning, Montañez gave the Mets a short-lived 1-0 lead with a sacrifice fly, but the Braves scored four runs in the top of the second to take a three-run advantage.  In each of his next two at-bats, Montañez cut the Braves' lead to a single run.  His RBI single in the third cut the lead to 4-3, while his run-scoring double in the fifth made it a 6-5 game.  The Mets finally tied the Braves in the bottom of the seventh, with Montañez providing the game-tying RBI double, and went on to win the game in the tenth inning, when Steve Henderson drove in Lee Mazzilli from second base with a single.  The first person to greet Mazzilli at home plate was Willie Montañez, who was on deck at the time.  As great as his 3-for-3, 4 RBI effort was against the Braves, he came up even bigger the following night against the Phillies.

Following the comeback victory against the Braves, the Mets once again fell behind by three runs.  In the bottom of the eighth, the Phillies led the Mets, 3-0, when Willie Montañez came up to bat.  Although he grounded into a fielder's choice, he did drive in the Mets' first run of the game.  Three batters later, Montañez scored on Lee Mazzilli's two-run single off former Met hero Tug McGraw.  The game was tied at 3, and the Mets now had the opportunity for their second consecutive walk-off victory.  In the bottom of the ninth, the Mets loaded the bases with one out for (you guessed it) Willie Montañez, who delivered the game-winning single off McGraw.  It was Montañez's second consecutive three-hit game and gave him a total of six RBI over the two games.  It also served as the impetus for a tremendous hot streak.

Beginning with the series finale against the Braves in mid-May, Montañez went on a tear, hitting .396 through the end of the month.  In 14 games, the Mets' first baseman lashed four doubles, five home runs and drove in a whopping 21 runs.  By the All-Star Break, Montañez's numbers (.267, 12 HR, 54 RBI) made Mets fans forget his slow start.  But the team went into a free fall following the All-Star Break, losing 21 of 28 games from July 27 to August 29 to fall into last place in the NL East.  As the team slumped, so did Montañez, as he hit .238 with three home runs and 26 RBI from the break to late August.  The Mets weren't able to recover from their slump, but Montañez had one final good month in September.

Over a two-week stretch in the season's final month, Montañez returned to his pre-Midsummer Classic form.  In 12 games from September 7 to September 20, Montañez batted .298 with five extra-base hits (four doubles, one homer) and 10 RBI.  One game in particular stood out for Montañez on a personal level, as he drove in all three runs in a 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 8.  Montañez produced run-scoring singles in the first and third innings, then delivered the game-winner with an RBI double in the eighth.  All three run-scoring hits were hit off the same pitcher, Bert Blyleven, who was one of the players involved in the trade that brought Montañez to New York.  Although the Mets were just playing out the schedule by that point, they did win eight of the 12 games during Montañez's final hot streak.

For the year, Willie Montañez batted .256.  However, he did lead the team with 32 doubles, 17 HR and 96 RBI.  At the time, the only two Mets who had registered more doubles in a season than Montañez were Rusty Staub (36 doubles in 1973) and Felix Millan (37 doubles in 1975).  Montañez's RBI total was also only surpassed by two Mets - Donn Clendenon (97 RBI in 1970) and Rusty Staub (105 RBI in 1975).  The Mets finished 1978 with a 66-96 record, but they entered the 1979 campaign knowing they had a bona fide slugger in their lineup.  Unfortunately, the key word in that last sentence was "had".

The 1979 Mets had a horrendous start to their season and by the end of May, they were already 13 games out of first place.  Unlike the previous campaign, when Willie Montañez did all he could to keep the Mets fairly relevant over the first few months of the season, in 1979, he was one of the main reasons why they got off to a 16-28 start.  Through May 9, Montañez's numbers (.150, 1 HR, 4 RBI) looked more like a pitcher's offensive figures than a slugging first baseman's stats.  Although he did raise his average to a more respectable .234 by mid-August, he did it mostly with singles.  (In June and July, Montañez managed just seven extra-base hits in 213 plate appearances.)  As a result, by August 11, Montañez had only produced five home runs and 47 RBI for the season.

By then, the Mets had been all but mathematically eliminated in the NL East race, and decided to trade away their veteran first baseman to the Texas Rangers for Ed Lynch and Mike Jorgensen.  After his trade from the Mets, Montañez returned to his peripatetic ways, playing for the Rangers, Padres, Expos, Pirates and Phillies over his final three-plus seasons in the majors before retiring after the 1982 season.

Willie Montañez was known as a hot dog throughout his days in the major leagues, drawing the ire of opposing players and managers throughout his long major league career.  But despite his antics, he was still a very productive player.  For one season in New York, he was as productive a hitter as the Mets had ever seen.  Then his production fell off the table and his Mets career soon followed.  The Mets might not have had many good players or teams to root for from 1977 to 1983, but in 1978, Willie Montañez was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dark period of Mets history.  It was only one season, but for the era in which it occurred, it was a welcome sight to have a one-season wonder like Willie Montañez take the field for the Mets.

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 
February 13, 2012: Dave Magadan 
February 20, 2012: Pedro Martinez
February 27, 2012: Bret Saberhagen 
March 5, 2012: Robin Ventura

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