Monday, March 3, 2014

The Best On The Worst: Hubie Brooks

For nearly two decades, the third base position resembled a game of musical chairs for the Mets.  New York used 16 different players at the hot corner in their first 20 Opening Day games, with no third baseman starting more than two season openers.

Don Zimmer was the first third baseman in team history.  After getting the Opening Day nod in 1962, Zimmer went on to play just 13 more games at the position for the Mets.  Similarly, Opening Day starters Charlie Neal (1963), Ron Hunt (1964), Joe Foy (1970), Bob Aspromonte (1971) and Joe Torre (1975) all failed to play 100 games at the hot corner during their Mets careers.

Through 1981, only Wayne Garrett had played more than 250 games at third base for the Mets, as New York had tried (and failed) to acquire players to fill the void at the position for nearly two decades.  For example, in December 1969, the Mets traded Amos Otis to Kansas City for third baseman Joe Foy.  Otis went on to become a five-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner for the Royals, collecting over 2,000 hits in a big league career that lasted until 1984 and included five trips to the postseason.  Foy played one season with the Mets and was out of baseball following the 1971 season.  Two years after the Otis-for-Foy deal, the Mets acquired Jim Fregosi from the California Angels to play third base.  Fregosi played just 103 games at the hot corner and was a former Met by July 1973.  The man he was traded for, Nolan Ryan, went on to pitch seven no-hitters, struck out 5,714 batters and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999.

Clearly, the Mets did not have much success cultivating third baseman or trading for them.  But by the time the team was about to begin its third decade in the National League, they had finally found their man.  And he ended up helping the team in more ways than anyone could have expected.

A young Hubie Brooks before he became the first true regular third baseman for the Mets.

Hubert Brooks was selected by the Mets with the third overall pick in the 1978 June amateur draft.  Like his future teammate, Craig Swan, Brooks went to Arizona State University, helping the Sun Devils to two College World Series appearances and one national championship.  Brooks got off to a slow start at Double-A Jackson in 1978, batting .216 in 45 games.  But Brooks became a hit machine in 1979, splitting time between Jackson and AAA-Tidewater.  The 22-year-old batted .309 with a .389 on-base percentage in 117 games, then followed up his tremendous '79 campaign by finishing ninth in the International League in batting average in 1980 with a .297 mark.

By September 1980, the magic of a promising season at Shea Stadium had long since faded, so the team decided to call up many of its minor league stars in the hopes that some might play well enough to stick around for the 1981 season.  Second baseman Wally Backman and center fielder Mookie Wilson were two of the prized prospects who made their major league debuts in September.  Two days after Backman and Wilson played in their first games, Hubie Brooks joined the party, becoming the team's latest third baseman.  Prior to Brooks' call-up, Elliott Maddox had played third base for the Mets since 1978.  Once Brooks made his debut, the higher-salaried Maddox started just six more games at the position and was released the following February, despite being under contract through the 1982 season.

Brooks had a terrific 24-game tryout with the Mets in 1980, batting .309 with a homer and 10 RBI.  With Maddox gone, there was no one in Brooks' way to claim the everyday job at third base in 1981.  Brooks delivered in his first full season in the majors, batting .307 with 21 doubles, four homers and 38 RBI in 98 games.  Brooks' 110 hits led the Mets, as no other player on the team managed to bang out 90 safeties during the strike-shortened 1981 season.  Brooks' .307 average was also good enough to place him eighth in the National League in batting.

For his efforts, Brooks finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, behind Fernando Valenzuela and Tim Raines.  Brooks became the seventh Met to finish in the top three after Ron Hunt (1963; 2nd place), Tom Seaver (1967; 1st), Jerry Koosman (1968; 2nd), Jon Matlack (1972; 1st), John Milner (1972; 3rd) and Steve Henderson (1977; 2nd).

After years of trying to find a regular third baseman (Garrett played in 711 games at third, but only played 100-plus games at the position in two of his eight seasons in New York), the Mets finally had their man in Hubie Brooks.  Not only was he among the top hitters in the league at a young age, but he was quickly becoming a fan favorite.  And he needed to be loved if he was going to get through a subpar 1982 campaign.

In 1982, Brooks struggled for the first time in the major leagues.  Through June 27, Brooks hit .262 with no homers in 231 plate appearances.  A hamstring injury kept him out of action for almost a month, but when he returned in late July, he performed even worse than he did in the first half, batting .239 with two homers and 16 RBI in 68 games.  One of the reasons for Brooks' poor season was his inability to come through with runners in scoring position, as the 24-year-old batted just .236 in those situations in 1982.  One year later, that problem was fixed.

Although Brooks hit just .251 overall in 1983, he batted .347 with runners in scoring position.  As a result, Brooks drove in 58 runs despite hitting only five homers.  His RBI total placed him third on the team, after sluggers George Foster (90 RBI) and Darryl Strawberry (74 RBI).

Hubie Brooks is congratulated by George Foster and Darryl Strawberry, the only Mets to have more RBI than Brooks in 1983.

Through four seasons as a Met, Brooks had hit just 12 homers, far fewer than what is normally expected from a corner infielder.  Although he had given the Mets a stable presence at a position that was known for its instability, he still had a lot of work to do to become the third baseman the Mets truly wanted.  The Mets hadn't had a third baseman hit more than 15 homers in a season since Garrett accomplished the feat in 1973 - the last time the Mets qualified for the postseason.  Brooks would eventually join Garrett in the pantheon of powerful third basemen, just in time for the team to return to contention for the first time since Garrett's last game as a Met.

In 1984, new manager Davey Johnson guided the Mets to their first winning season since 1976 and only the second 90-win campaign in club history.  Keith Hernandez and Darryl Strawberry, who were in St. Louis and Tidewater, respectively, at the beginning of the 1983 season, were two of the Mets' top players going into the 1984 season.  Also new to the team were Ron Darling and rookie phenom Dwight Gooden, who would comprise two-fifths of the starting rotation for the rest of the decade.

With Brooks no longer needing to be one of the top offensive threats on the team, he went on to post his best season as a Met in 1984, although he started off poorly, batting .203 with eight RBI in the month of April.  He did, however, hit three homers in the season's first month.  It would be a portent of things to come for the once power-starved Brooks.

From May 1 to June 1, Brooks batted .398 and posted a .530 slugging percentage.  More importantly, he collected at least one hit in all 24 games he played, breaking Mike Vail's franchise-record 23-game hitting streak.  Brooks' 24-game skein would remain unsurpassed for nearly a quarter century, until David Wright hit in 26 straight games from 2006 to 2007.  Brooks' single-season record remained intact until Moises Alou posted a 30-game hitting streak in August and September 2007.  (Mike Piazza had tied Brooks' record with a 24-game streak of his own in 1999.)

After going 2-for-24 in his first six games following the 24-game streak, Brooks continued to pound the ball, batting .352 with ten doubles, five homers and 20 RBI over his next 43 games.  More importantly from a team perspective, the Mets went 31-12 over those games to move into first place in the NL East.  But when the Mets lost seven consecutive games in late July and early August to fall out of first place, general manager Frank Cashen decided the team needed to add a veteran presence to the lineup.  In late August, that presence arrived in the form of third baseman Ray Knight, which forced Hubie Brooks to move to the shortstop position in place of the light-hitting, but sure-handed Jose Oquendo.  The Mets never recovered from their seven-game losing streak, conceding the division to the Chicago Cubs, but Brooks finally had his breakout season, batting .283 with 16 homers and 73 RBI.

Brooks' offensive contributions at the shortstop position opened eyes in the Mets organization as well as another team up north.  And with the Mets seeking an upgrade at catcher after Mike Fitzgerald, Ron Hodges, Junior Ortiz and John Gibbons combined to hit .219 (129-for-588) with three homers and 56 RBI in 1984, the Montreal Expos began to engage in a discussion with Cashen and the Mets.  The Expos, needing offense and steadiness at the shortstop position (no Expo started more than 57 games at short in 1984 and the six players who played the position combined to hit .212 with no homers), coveted Hubie Brooks as well as a few other prospects in the Mets organization.  They would send the Mets perennial All-Star Gary Carter in exchange.  The deal was a no-brainer, as Carter would not only improve the Mets' offense dramatically, but he would help mold the young pitching staff into a powerhouse.  Once the Mets threw in pitcher Floyd Youmans, outfielder Herm Winningham and Fitzgerald, the Mets had their new catcher.  On December 10, 1984, Hubie Brooks became an ex-Met and the Gary Carter era began in New York.

Gary Carter waved hello to New York as Hubie Brooks said his goodbyes.

Carter produced two epic seasons for the Mets in 1985 and 1986, helping the Mets win their second World Series championship.  Meanwhile, Brooks continued to play for middle-of-the-division teams in Montreal during his five-year stay with the Expos.  However, his growth as a Met in 1984 continued as an Expo, as Brooks became one of the top offensive threats in the league.

In his first season with Montreal, Brooks produced career highs in hits (163), doubles (34), triples (7), runs scored (67) and RBI (100).  Brooks continued to be an exceptional hitter with runners in scoring position, as he achieved his first 100-RBI campaign despite hitting only 13 homers.  At the end of the season, Brooks received MVP consideration and won his first Silver Slugger Award.

Brooks continued to be a star in Canada, winning his second Silver Slugger in 1986 and making the All-Star team twice (1986, 1987).  Because of an assortment of injuries, Brooks played only 80 games in 1986 (his season ended, coincidentally, in a series against the Mets), but at the time of his season-ending thumb injury on August 1, Brooks was leading the league in batting with a .340 average.  He had also smacked 14 homers and driven in 58 runs, putting him on pace to become the power-hitting infielder the Mets had always wanted him to be.

From 1987 to 1989, Brooks averaged 29 doubles, 16 homers and 77 RBI for the Expos, producing his first 20-homer season in the majors in 1988.  After signing a free agent contract with his hometown Dodgers, Brooks put up his second 20-homer campaign in 1990.  But by then, Brooks was a right fielder, as he had been moved there by the Expos in 1988.  And when Los Angeles ripped Darryl Strawberry away from the Mets with a lucrative free agent deal, Brooks was a man without a position.  He was also about to be a man reunited with his former team.

A month after the Dodgers signed Strawberry, Brooks was traded back to the Mets for pitchers Bob Ojeda and Greg Hansell.  Brooks was a fan favorite during his first stint with the Mets in the early '80s.  But this was a new decade and Brooks was replacing one of the most popular players in franchise history.  The pressure proved to be too much for the Mets' new right fielder, as Brooks batted .238 with 16 homers and 50 RBI in 1991.  By comparison, in Strawberry's last season in New York, he had 21 homers and 56 RBI by the All-Star Break.

Brooks averaged 56 extra-base hits per season from 1984 to 1990, but produced half of that amount in '91, adding 11 doubles and one triple to his 16 homers.  As a result of his poor season, Brooks did not get another chance with the Mets to prove himself as a capable major league hitter.  After a one-year return (and seven years to the day after the Mets traded him to Montreal in 1984), Brooks was shipped back to California, this time to the Angels in return for outfielder Dave Gallagher.  Brooks was a part-time player for the Angels in 1992 before finishing out his career as a member of the Kansas City Royals in 1993 and 1994.  Although his career was over, Brooks had no regrets about his time in the big leagues, saying:

"The best thing that happened to me was to start my career where and when I did.  I really enjoyed it.  To see it change, it was so exciting to see. ... I never won (a World Series) and it would've been nice to have won one.  But that's how the game is.  That trade (for Gary Carter) had to be made for them to get what they wanted.  I've never felt bad about that.  Something had to go and it was me.  I never took it personal.  At least the Mets thought well enough of me to give me my first opportunity." 

Hubie Brooks played 15 seasons in the major leagues, but only six of them came with the Mets.  From 1980 to 1983, Brooks played on teams that finished in last place or next-to-last.  Then, after finally tasting success with the Mets in 1984, the team traded him to Montreal.  During his six seasons away from the team, the Mets won two division titles and were runners-up in the NL East the other four years.  But once Brooks returned in 1991, he was a shadow of his former self and so were the Mets, finishing below .500 for the first time since 1983.

When Brooks was traded to the Expos after the 1984 season, he was only the second Met to play in more than 250 games at third base, manning the hot corner in 516 contests.  He was also the first player in club history to have three seasons in which he played 100 or more games at third base, basically making him the first regular third baseman to suit up for the Mets in the team's first quarter century.

Brooks played his final game with the Mets in 1991, ending his second stint with the team among the team leaders in various offensive categories.  But among third basemen in franchise history, Brooks ranks in the top five in virtually every category.  For players who played at least 50% of their games at third base, Brooks ranks highly in hits (640; 4th among Mets third basemen), doubles (96; 3rd), triples (12; 5th), home runs (44; 5th), RBI (269; 4th) and runs scored (244; 4th).  Before Howard Johnson and David Wright became the best offensive third basemen in franchise history, the clear star at the position was Hubie Brooks.

In addition to his fine play as a Met, Brooks was also a great offensive player during the time between his two stints in New York, particularly as a shortstop.  Through the 2013 season, Brooks remains one of just seven National League shortstops to ever win multiple Silver Slugger Awards at the position, joining Garry Templeton (1980, 1984), Dave Concepcion (1981-82), Barry Larkin (1988-92, 1995-96, 1998-99), Edgar Renteria (2000, 2002-03), Hanley Ramirez (2008-09), Troy Tulowitzki (2010-11) and Ian Desmond (2012-13).

Brooks played 1,645 in the major leagues with five teams.  But he never made the playoffs with any of them.  Only 43 players have played in more games without appearing in the postseason.  And Brooks is one of only 32 players in history to play at least 15 seasons without a sniff of October baseball.  Of course, that's what happens when you play on just five winning teams in 15 years.  And that was expected if you were a member of the Mets in the early '80s or early '90s.

Hubie Brooks had the misfortune of playing for some lousy Mets teams during his decade and a half in the big leagues.  But if that's all you remember about Brooks, then you missed out on a pretty special ballplayer.  There was a reason why Brooks was cheered loudly with choruses of "HUUU-bie" during his time as a Met.  Ending a two-decade game of musical chairs at third base had quite a bit to do with that.  So did timely hitting on a team that desperately needed something to cheer about.  The kid from California was quite the hit in New York.

Hubie Brooks should be proud of his career.  He was certainly a fan-favorite playing for teams that did not have many fans.

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
February 3, 2014: Rico Brogna
February 10, 2014: Skip Lockwood 
February 17, 2014: Ron Hunt
February 24, 2014: Craig Swan

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