Monday, February 3, 2014

The Best On The Worst: Rico Brogna

There have been numerous occasions in which a Mets player burst onto the major league scene, captivating fans with a jolt of rookie energy.  But for every Tom Seaver, Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, who parlayed quick fame into long and successful careers, there exists the other side of the neophyte spectrum.  This side is home to players like Mike Vail, whose 23-game hitting streak in 1975 set a franchise record for rookies, but was the lone bright spot for a player who collected just 153 total hits as a Met.  Another such player is Benny Agbayani, who launched ten home runs in his first 73 at-bats in 1999, but only hit 25 more homers in a four-year career with the Mets.

Another former Met had a fantastic late-season performance for the team nearly two decades after Vail captured the hearts of the Flushing faithful.  But unlike Vail, this Met continued to play exceptionally well after his torrid start, becoming a fan favorite who appeared to have a bright future on a rebuilding Mets team.  But injuries slowed the progress of this sweet-swinging first baseman, and less than two years after making his debut with the team, he had played in his final game as a Met before he got a chance to play for a winning team.  Such was the unfortunate Mets career of Rico Brogna.

Photo by Otto Greule/Allsport

Rico Joseph Brogna grew up in Watertown, Connecticut, just a three-hour drive from Shea Stadium.  Brogna's talent on the diamond turned to gold in 1988 when he was selected by the Detroit Tigers in the first round of the June amateur draft.  But Brogna was a first baseman, and although he was named by Baseball America as one of baseball's top 100 minor league prospects in 1990, 1991 and 1992, the Tigers already had the über-powerful Cecil Fielder firmly entrenched at the position.  That made Brogna expendable.  On March 31, 1994, Brogna was traded to the Mets for fellow former first round draft pick Alan Zinter.  It didn't take long for Brogna to get his first extended stay in the majors.

In six years with the Tigers organization, Brogna collected only 26 at-bats at the major league level.  But after an impressive start at AAA-Norfolk in which Brogna was averaging an extra-base hit every eight at-bats, it was becoming increasingly difficult for the Mets to keep him in the minors.  Brogna finally got his first chance at regular action in the majors when first baseman David Segui was placed on the disabled list with a hamstring injury in late June 1994.  The Connecticut kid made sure to take full advantage of the opportunity.

After going for 0-for-5 in his first three games with the Mets, Brogna responded with three consecutive multi-hit games.  He also hit five home runs in a two-week stretch from June 28 to July 10, which was the final game before the All-Star Break.  The Midsummer Classic did nothing to slow the red-hot Brogna, as he went on the type of tear that hadn't been seen by Mets fans in several years.  From July 15 to August 2, Brogna batted .473 with nine extra-base hits in 17 games.  The Mets, who had just come off their first 100-loss season in over a quarter century in 1993, won 11 of those 17 affairs.

Brogna had two particularly memorable games during his summer sizzle.  On July 25, Brogna became the 11th Met to go 5-for-5 in a single game.  His three singles and two doubles helped the Mets defeat the Cardinals, 7-1.  The next night, Brogna was held to just two hits, but one of them was a two-run homer that broke an 11th-inning tie.  Brogna drove in a career-high four runs in the Mets' thrilling, 10-9 victory over St. Louis.

It wasn't just Cardinals pitchers who had a tough time with Brogna in 1994; it was the entire league.  In fact, the only thing that stopped Brogna in '94 was the players' strike that ended the season prematurely on August 11.  But what an incredible seven-week run it was for Brogna.  In 39 games, Brogna hit .351 with 11 doubles, two triples, seven homers and 20 RBI.  He also played stellar defense, making Mets fans quickly forget about David Segui.  Although the strike ended the team's run at the .500 mark (they were 55-58 at the time of the work stoppage), Mets fans were no longer feeling as negative about the team as they were during its 103-loss season in 1993.  And Rico Brogna was part of that new positive feeling at Shea Stadium.

Brogna went into the 1995 campaign as the team's starting first baseman.  He began his first full season in the majors as if the strike had never occurred, batting .410 with five doubles and three homers in his first 12 games.  But then the Mets went into a tailspin for two months going into the All-Star Break, losing 36 of 55 games from May 12 to July 9.  The main reason for the poor stretch was the pitching, as the Mets allowed five or more runs in 28 of the 55 games.  But it wasn't just the pitching.  In fact, the Mets' slump in the win column coincided with Brogna's first extended slump in the majors.

During the 55-game stretch prior to the All-Star Break, Brogna posted a .247/.294/.379 slash line, producing just seven doubles, six homers and 23 RBI while striking out 49 times.  After giving fans hope by approaching the .500 mark in 1994, the Mets were a pitiful 25-44 at the break in 1995.  But once again, the Mets came together as a team in the second half of the season, with Brogna serving as the catalyst for the team's resurgence.

From July 13 to September 20, Brogna batted .319 with 14 doubles, two triples and 13 homers.  He also scored 40 runs and drove in 39.  The Mets, who were a season-high 22 games under .500 in early August, went 34-18 in their last 52 games to finish the year with a 69-75 mark, which tied them with the Philadelphia Phillies for second place in the NL East.  Brogna finished his first full season in the majors as the team leader in doubles (27), home runs (22), runs scored (72) and RBI (76), becoming just the fifth player in franchise history to lead the team in all four categories.  The other four were Frank Thomas (1962), Tommy Davis (1967), Lee Mazzilli (1980) and Howard Johnson (1989, 1991).

After two seasons in which the Mets finished close to the break-even point, the team had reason to be optimistic going into the 1996 season.  The Mets added a leadoff hitter in Lance Johnson, a defensive wizard in shortstop Rey Ordoñez, and a productive left fielder in Bernard Gilkey.  They were also about to unleash former No. 1 overall draft pick Paul Wilson, the third member of the much-heralded "Generation K" trio of young starting pitchers.  It looked as if Rico Brogna was finally going to be part of a winning team in New York.  And then he wasn't.

Brogna was healthy throughout the 1995 season, playing in 134 of the Mets' 144 games.  But he was far more brittle in 1996.  After undergoing off-season arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, Brogna missed four games in early May, then sat out nine straight games a month later, both times because of right shoulder pain that required cortisone shots.  When he was able to play, Brogna continued to produce at the plate.  In 188 at-bats, Brogna collected 18 extra-base hits and drove in 30 runs.  He even hit a walk-off homer on May 11 to defeat the Chicago Cubs in a brawl-filled game at Shea.  But Brogna's aches and pains never subsided, and the team placed him on the disabled list on June 21.  Ten days later, Brogna underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder.  He never played for the Mets again.

After completing their sixth consecutive losing season in 1996 (their third with Rico Brogna as the team's first baseman), the Mets decided to upgrade their bullpen.  The team felt that they were fine offensively and were also not ready to give up on Generation K even though Wilson and Jason Isringhausen combined to go 11-26 with an ERA over 5.00 in 1996.  (Bill Pulsipher did not pitch for the team in '96.)  So Jerry Dipoto (4.19 ERA), Paul Byrd (4.24 ERA) and Doug Henry (4.68) became ex-Mets, and Greg McMichael, Takashi Kashiwada, Toby Borland and Ricardo Jordan joined the team's relief corps in 1997.  The latter two hurlers were acquired by the Mets after the team completed a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies.  The cost?  Rico Brogna.  And no one was more surprised by the trade than the 26-year-old Brogna himself.

"I've come to learn that anything can happen in baseball, but I didn't figure I would be traded.  I came here when the Mets were rebuilding and I thought I'd be a mainstay with them.  It's a sad time, but I guess it's part of the game."

Borland and Jordan combined to pitch 35 games for the Mets in 1997.  Neither pitcher was with the team in 1998.  Meanwhile, Brogna became a star in Philly, averaging 21 HR and 92 RBI per season from 1997 to 1999.  Brogna recorded back-to-back 100-RBI campaigns in 1998 and 1999, becoming just the ninth Phillie to record consecutive seasons of 100 or more RBI in team history.  But as successful as he was on a personal level in Philadelphia, Brogna couldn't shake being "the best on the worst" in his new city.  The Phillies never won more than 77 games in any of Brogna's three full seasons with the team.  Meanwhile, Brogna's replacement in New York, John Olerud, helped the Mets record the first of five consecutive winning seasons in 1997.

Just as the injury bug helped end Brogna's career with the Mets in 1996, several maladies contributed to the end of his playing days in 2001 after playing one season with the Atlanta Braves.  Brogna was just 31 when he left the game as a player for good, retiring to become a high school football coach in his home state of Connecticut after an eight-year career in the big leagues.  After a 12-year absence, Brogna is now back in majors, working as a special assistant to Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto - the same Jerry Dipoto who was part of Mets general manager Joe McIlvaine's Great Bullpen Purging of 1996.

Rico Brogna played in his first game with the Mets on June 22, 1994.  Less than two years later, on June 19, 1996, he played in his final game with the team.  But in one full season and parts of two others, Brogna became a fan favorite on a Mets team that had very few players who were worth rooting for.

Although he only played in 228 games with the team, he still managed to hit .291 and posted a .495 slugging percentage.  Only four players in Mets history have batted .290 or higher, while posting a slugging percentage of .490 or greater in at least 200 games with the team.  Those players are Mike Piazza (.296 BA, .542 SLG), David Wright (.301 BA, .506 SLG), John Olerud (.315 BA, .501 SLG) and - like you need to ask - Rico Brogna.

Brogna never played for a winning team when he was on the Mets.  But he was still a beloved player.  He also never played for a winning team in Philadelphia, even though he had his best years in the majors as a member of the Phillies.  The fans in Philly, who don't love much of anything, cheered for Brogna.  That's a testament to how special a player Brogna was.  It wasn't his fault the teams he played for had so many flaws.

A sweet swing.  A solid glove.  A great player.  That was Rico Brogna in a nutshell.

Note:  The Best On The Worst is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting the greatest Mets players who just happened to play on some not-so-great Mets teams.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 6, 2014: Todd Hundley 
January 13, 2014: Al Jackson
January 20, 2014: Lee Mazzilli
January 27, 2014: Steve Trachsel

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