Monday, March 10, 2014

The Best On The Worst: Joel Youngblood

In baseball, the big bucks go to the power hitters, speed demons and flamethrowers.  If you can hit a baseball 500 feet, you're going to get a lucrative deal.  Similarly, if you can cover two-thirds of the outfield while stealing 50 bases, you can run your way to the bank.  And hit 100 on the speed gun, you're set for life.

All of those players can contribute to the success of a team.  But sometimes the most invaluable player is the one who finds many ways to contribute.  Occasionally, that player is needed to fill more than one role on the team, either because of injuries to a teammate or because of extenuating circumstances that don't allow that player to remain tied down to one position on the field.  This player is known as the utility player.

The Mets have had a number of utility players in their 50-plus seasons.  The original Mets had Rod Kanehl hot rodding his way around the field, playing all three outfield positions, as well as all four infield positions.  But utility players aren't just reserved for last-place Mets teams, as Kanehl was.  Ted Martinez played five or more games at six different positions during the 1973 pennant-winning campaign.  Kevin Mitchell might have forgotten to put on his protective cup during the 1986 World Series, but he never forgot to pack all his gloves, as the rookie played six positions for the world champion Mets.  And who can forget Super Joe McEwing, who could hit Randy Johnson and play eight positions (including designated hitter) during his five seasons in New York, although he "only" played six positions for the 2000 National League champions.

As invaluable as Kanehl, Martinez, Mitchell and McEwing were, none of them were All-Stars during their time with the Mets, and only Kanehl had a season of more than 350 at-bats, barely getting there in 1962, when he had 351 official at-bats for the original Mets.  But the Mets have had a utility All-Star in their history, one who had multiple seasons of 500 or more at-bats despite never settling into one position on the field.  Unfortunately, he never shared in the team success experienced by the utility office of Martinez, Mitchell and McEwing during his six years with the Mets.

Joel Youngblood became a star in front of many empty seats at Shea Stadium.

Joel Randolph Youngblood was selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the second round of the 1970 January draft.  Youngblood's ascent to the majors was slow, as he was mired at AAA-Indianapolis for three full seasons from 1973 to 1975 because the Big Red Machine didn't have any openings on their star-laden team.  The outfield consisted of up-and-coming slugger George Foster in left, Gold Glove-winner Cesar Geronimo in center and All-Star Ken Griffey in right.  And Youngblood wasn't about to crack an infield filled with all-time greats Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, Dave Concepcion and Pete Rose.

Despite Youngblood showing a penchant for playing multiple defensive positions in the minor leagues, he was a man whose talent just wasn't good enough for the team that drafted him.  Youngblood did eventually make it to the Reds in 1976, but he was relegated to mostly pinch-hitting, as he played in 55 games but only managed 57 at-bats with Cincinnati.  The extended time on the bench did nothing for Youngblood's confidence, as batted just .193 in his limited action.

With no future in Cincinnati, Youngblood was traded in March 1977 to the St. Louis Cardinals.  Eleven weeks later, Youngblood was on the move again, as he was dealt to the Mets for infielder and singles hitter Mike Phillips at the trade deadline - the same day of the infamous "Midnight Massacre".  It was the one trade made by the Mets on June 15, 1977 that was viewed as a positive move by the team, even though it didn't exactly lead to a bigger number in the win column.

After playing in 80 games but amassing just 84 at-bats for the Reds and Cardinals in 1976 and 1977, Youngblood started at third base in his first three games as a Met, collecting a hit in each contest.  But Youngblood came off the bench in 11 of his next 15 games, batting just .150 over the three-week period.  His second month in New York proved more productive, as Youngblood got more chances to start, playing games at second base, third base, center field and right field.  From July 24 to August 16, Youngblood batted .370, starting more than half the games he played in.  Youngblood finished his first half-season with the Mets batting .253 with 12 extra-base hits in 182 at-bats.  Although he didn't hit any homers, he showed he was capable of playing wherever manager Joe Torre put him.  He also proved he wasn't just a singles hitter, like the man he was traded for - Mike Phillips.

The 1978 season saw Youngblood without a position of his own again, as the Mets used Steve Henderson, Lee Mazzilli and newcomer Elliot Maddox in the outfield.  They also had Doug Flynn at second and Lenny Randle at third, two of the other positions played by Youngblood.  As a result, the 26-year-old Youngblood had just 266 at-bats in 1978.  But Youngblood made the most of his limited playing time, batting .252 with 27 extra-base hits.  He also hit seven homers after not hitting a home run in his first two major league seasons.  Most impressive was his eight triples, which placed him in a tie for 10th place in the National League.  But of all the NL players who had at least eight three-baggers in 1978, Youngblood was the only one to do it in fewer than 437 at-bats.

After a productive 1978 season in limited action, the stage was set for Youngblood to have a breakout year for the Mets in 1979.  All he needed was the playing time.  The Mets made sure to oblige and they were rewarded with one of the best all-around seasons by a player in their short history.

The 1979 season began with Steve Henderson and Elliot Maddox once again starting in left and right field, respectively.  But simultaneous injuries to both players allowed Joel Youngblood to start more games in the outfield.  With Henderson out two months with a severe ankle sprain and Maddox sidelined for a month with a pulled hamstring, Youngblood made it impossible for the Mets to keep him on the bench.  The utility man played in a career-high 158 games in 1979, batting .275 with 37 doubles, five triples, 16 homers, 60 RBI, 90 runs scored and 18 stolen bases.  He also had an accurate arm in the outfield, finishing second in the league with 18 assists.

Youngblood's 37 doubles in 1979 tied a franchise mark set by Felix Millan in 1975.  Youngblood's co-ownership of the club's single-season doubles record lasted until 1989, when Howard Johnson ripped 41 two-base hits.  Youngblood also became the fourth Met to score 90 or more runs in a season, joining Tommie Agee (1969, 1970), Cleon Jones (1969) and Rusty Staub (1975).  In addition, Youngblood became just the fourth Met to finish a year with at least 15 homers and 15 stolen bases, after Agee (24 HR/31 SB in 1970), Lee Mazzilli (16 HR/20 SB in 1978, 15 HR/34 SB in 1979) and John Stearns (15 HR/25 SB in 1978).  And Youngblood's 58 extra-base hits in 1979 represented the fourth-highest total in club annals, behind Agee (61 XBH in 1970), Frank Thomas (60 XBH in 1962) and Dave Kingman (59 XBH in 1975).  Defensively, Youngblood became the third Met with at least 18 outfield assists in a single season, joining Rusty Staub (19 assists in 1974) and Steve Henderson (18 assists in 1978).

Very quietly, Youngblood had a great all-around season for the Mets in 1979 without having a regular defensive position.  He played most of his games in the corner outfield positions, starting 82 games in right field and 53 games in left.  But he also saw time at third base (seven starts), second base (six starts) and center field (four starts).  The thing he saw the most in 1979 was the other team celebrating a victory, as the Mets needed to win their last six games to avoid their first 100-loss campaign since 1967.

In 1980, the Mets began to move away from using their overpriced veteran players and started to dig into their minor league system for talent more often.  As a result, Youngblood had almost 100 fewer plate appearances in 1980 than he did during his breakout 1979 campaign despite never missing more than two consecutive games at any point in the season.  Youngblood's .276 batting average remained consistent with his 1979 performance, but his other numbers fell off a tad, as you would expect from a player who spent more time watching the kids play.

Youngblood finished the 1980 season with 26 doubles, two triples, eight homers and 14 steals.  Although he hit half the number of home runs as he did in 1979, Youngblood did manage to drive in a career-high 69 runs in 1980, batting .290 with men on base as opposed to a .257 average in similar situations in 1979.  He also benefited from batting lower in the order in 1980.  Youngblood was the team's leadoff hitter 51 times in 1979, hurting his RBI chances.  A year later, his name was penciled in the fourth, fifth or sixth spot in the batting order nearly 100 times.

Going into the 1981 season, Youngblood had become one of the team's veterans.  He was also two years removed from his best season in the majors and was about to turn 30.  If Youngblood was going to prove that he should remain an everyday player with so many capable youngsters ready and willing to take playing time away from him, he was going to have to force the Mets to play him, even if his all-out style of play was conducive to injuries.  He did force the Mets to play him in 1981, but he also forced his way out of the lineup by being too aggressive.

Youngblood spent most of the first month of the 1981 campaign on the bench because manager Joe Torre had gone with an outfield of Lee Mazzilli in center, first-year player Mookie Wilson in right and the recently-reacquired Dave Kingman in left, despite Youngblood being one of only two players on the team to play in over 300 games in 1979 and 1980.  Torre didn't start Youngblood until the seventh game of the season and went with a Kingman-Mazzilli-Wilson outfield alignment in ten of the team's first 18 games.  In early May, a slumping Wilson finally forced Torre to give Youngblood the opportunity he needed to produce on a consistent basis.  And boy, did he ever produce when he got that chance!

Joel Youngblood is living proof that determination always leads to success.

From May 2 to May 26, Youngblood started 22 games for the Mets, batting a whopping .430 (37-for-86) and posting an eye-popping 1.150 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage).  The new everyday right fielder produced a dozen extra-base hits (six doubles, two triples, four homers) and drove in 19 runs in the 22 games.  By the time his streak came to an end, Youngblood was leading the league with a .368 batting average and had opened the eyes of All-Star voters across the country.  But Youngblood's storybook season was about to change, and not in a good way.

On May 29, Youngblood was forced to leave a game versus the Chicago Cubs in the third inning with back spasms.  That night, the team acquired right fielder Ellis Valentine from the Montreal Expos for reliever Jeff Reardon.  To add insult to Youngblood's injury, Valentine was acquired by the Mets while he himself was on the disabled list.  Youngblood was limited to one pinch-hitting appearance over the next five games before he was able to start a game against the Houston Astros on June 5.  A day later, Youngblood doubled and scored a run against the Astros, but had to be removed for a pinch-hitter prior to his next at-bat.  This time, it wasn't back spasms that kept Youngblood from continuing.  It was a ligament strain in his left knee.  And it required him to go on the disabled list.

Less than a week after Youngblood doubled against the Astros to hike his average back up to .359, Major League Baseball went on strike.  The strike actually helped Youngblood, as the two-month layoff caused him to miss just four games.  It also kept his average atop the National League leader board, which helped Youngblood make his first All-Star team.  As the Mets' sole All-Star representative in 1981, Youngblood made his return from the disabled list in the delayed All-Star Game, which was held in Cleveland on August 9.  Youngblood was the first player off the bench for the National League, pinch-hitting in the second inning for über-phenom Fernando Valenzuela, who would go on to win both the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards in the strike-shortened season.  Youngblood flied out in his lone All-Star plate appearance.

Upon returning from the All-Star Game, Youngblood was back in the Mets lineup, collecting hits in four of his first five games following his time on the disabled list.  Youngblood has shifted over to left field to accommodate Ellis Valentine in right.  But just five days after playing in the Midsummer Classic, Youngblood had to be removed from a game once again due to injury.  And this time, he didn't have a players' strike to keep him from missing too much time.  Youngblood had injured his left knee for a second time, and he would not play again in 1981.  His final season totals in just 43 games played were excellent (.350, 16 extra-base hits in 143 at-bats), but Youngblood still considered his season a disappointment because he couldn't stay healthy and be a part of his team's unexpected march into second-half contention.  The Mets finished the second half of the season with a 24-28 record, competing for a split division title until the final two weeks of the season.

Despite the front office's insistence on bringing in veterans to play in the outfield (Ellis Valentine, Dave Kingman, etc.), Joe Torre had always been able to find a spot for Joel Youngblood in the lineup during his four-plus seasons as manager of the New York Mets.  It started immediately after Youngblood was traded to the Mets, when Torre removed the "player" from his player/manager status, opening up a roster spot for Youngblood.  (Torre was officially "released" by the Mets on June 18, 1977 to fully focus on managing the team.  Six days later, Youngblood made his Mets debut.)  But Torre was relieved of his managerial duties on the final day of the 1981 season, leaving Youngblood without the manager who believed in his ability.  The move shocked Youngblood, as well as several of his teammates, some of whom had difficulty coping with general manager Frank Cashen's decision.

(video from Eyewitness News broadcast posted by Jon Bois on YouTube)

Cashen's firing of Torre (as well as long-time pitching coach Rube Walker) was the first of many moves the club made during the off-season in an attempt to end a five-year stretch of losing seasons.  Speedster Frank Taveras was traded to Montreal and Gold Glove-winning second baseman Doug Flynn was shipped off to Texas in December.  Lee Mazzilli was also sent to Texas, in a deal that wrangled Ron Darling and Walt Terrell away from the Rangers.  The Mazzilli trade opened up a spot for Mookie Wilson to become the everyday center fielder.  With Ellis Valentine firmly entrenched in right field, that left one outfield spot for Youngblood to claim.  The only problem was that Cashen had already found his man for the position.

George Foster, one of the many stars of the Big Red Machine in the mid-'70s, became a Met on February 10, 1982.  Cashen traded three players to Cincinnati for the slugging left fielder, then signed Foster to a five-year, $10 million contract, which at the time was the most lucrative deal ever given to a player by the Mets.  Six years after Foster contributed to keeping Youngblood out of the Reds' outfield mix in Cincinnati, he reprised that role with the Mets.  And this time, Youngblood didn't have Joe Torre to put him somewhere in the lineup.

The new Mets manager in 1982 was George Bamberger, a man who had no allegiance to the veteran Youngblood.  Bamberger used Foster and Wilson as his everyday left fielder and center fielder, but platooned Youngblood, Valentine and rookie Gary Rajsich in right.  Through the team's first 46 games, Youngblood had started 19 games in right, with Valentine starting 17 times and Rajsich getting the call on ten occasions.  Neither man played well enough to claim the everyday job so Bamberger started Mike Jorgensen and Rusty Staub in right field 17 times in July and August.  Still, no one player could make the position his own.

Although Youngblood had played in 80 of the team's first 104 games, he had only started 45 times through early August.  As usual, Youngblood bounced around the diamond, playing six defensive positions and starting games at four of them.  But since he was in the last year of a three-year contract signed after his breakthrough 1979 campaign, the Mets decided it would be better to trade him than to keep him mired on the bench.  On August 4, after going 1-for-2 against future Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins, Youngblood was removed from the day game at Wrigley Field, having been traded to the Montreal Expos for a player to be named later (Tom Gorman).  An ex-Met for just five hours, Youngblood then collected a hit off another future Hall of Famer, Steve Carlton, in Montreal's night game at Philadelphia.  In doing so, Youngblood proved his versatility in a different way, becoming the first player in major league history to collect hits for two teams in two cities on the same day.

The Youngblood trade was supposed to give Ellis Valentine the everyday job in right, but Bamberger continued to platoon several players at the position, causing Valentine to declare that there was a "conspiracy" against him by an organization that was "the worst in baseball".  Valentine also went on to say that Youngblood should have been traded earlier in the season, and was displeased by Youngblood's trade destination, saying "they traded Youngblood right back into our own division, and to a contending team.  That was stupid."

Needless to say, Valentine was also a former Met at the conclusion of the 1982 season.  Youngblood, on the other hand, never caught on with the Expos after his historic debut, signing a free-agent contract with the San Francisco Giants prior to the 1983 season.  Youngblood played six years in the Bay Area, spending more time in the infield during the beginning of his Giant tenure.  But after committing 36 errors in just 117 games as the Giants' third baseman in 1984 - tied for the fourth-most errors at the position in a single season since the end of World War II - Youngblood was moved back to the outfield in 1985 and spent most of his remaining years with the Giants alternating between the three outfield positions.  Although Youngblood was a member of San Francisco's division-winning team in 1987, he never played for the team in the postseason.  Two years later, Youngblood closed out his career as a member of the Cincinnati Reds, appearing mostly as a pinch-hitter, just as he did when he made his major league debut with the Reds 13 years earlier.

Joel Youngblood was a fine major league player, whose longevity in the big leagues was due mostly to the fact that he wasn't able to hold down a steady position.  Youngblood always knew his versatility would be advantageous to whichever team employed him, and to this day remains grateful that his former manager in New York noticed that as well.

"From a manager's standpoint, I gave (Torre) an insurance policy on the bench that could go in and play anywhere.  But it took away some of the opportunities for me to play regularly at one position because I was so valuable I could play all positions quite well. ... Joe's always been my favorite manager and I've had great managers - Sparky Anderson, Frank Robinson.  I always felt (Torre) was fair, he was open and listened.  It was great in New York."

Youngblood played in over 1,400 major leagues during his 14-year career, but never once became a regular at any one position.  In six seasons as a Met, Youngblood played 309 games in right field.  But he also spent time in left field (102 games), second base (99 games), center field (75 games), third base (53 games) and even found himself playing shortstop twice.

There are only ten other players in Mets history besides Youngblood who split time between second base, third base and the three outfield positions.  None of them played is as many total games as Youngblood did (Joe McEwing ranks second to Youngblood with 502 games as a Met, which is still more than 100 games short of Youngblood's total in New York) and none of the utility players came close to matching Youngblood's offensive production with the Mets.

From 1977 to 1982, Youngblood was one of only three Mets to produce 100 doubles, score 200 runs and collect 200 RBI.  (Lee Mazzilli and John Stearns were the others.)  When Youngblood played his final game as a Met, he ranked in the team's top twenty in several offensive categories, including hits (519; 14th all-time through 1982), home runs (38; 15th), runs scored (241; 15th) and RBI (216; 14th).  Youngblood cracked the top ten in doubles (108; 9th), triples (18; T-10th) and stolen bases (39; 10th).  All this from a player who could do everything on the field except claim a defensive position of his own.

In 1981, Robert Sullivan wrote an article in Sports Illustrated claiming Youngblood was "a star, not a starter".  It's true that Youngblood was never a fixture at any one position for the Mets or any of the other teams he played for.  But that didn't stop him from becoming an All-Star in 1981.

Although he played hundreds of games there, you couldn't really pigeonhole Joel Youngblood as an outfielder.  He also couldn't be referred to as a second baseman or a third baseman.  But if you had to define Youngblood's role on a team, it would be simple.  Joel Youngblood was a baseball player, and a damn fine player at that.

The Mets weren't very good between 1977 and 1982.  But that didn't mean they were bereft of good players.  Joel Youngblood was a very good player on some very bad teams.  It wasn't his fault he couldn't catch a break with the Big Red Machine.  Nor could anyone blame him for the Mets' troubles in the late '70s and early '80s.  Youngblood just did what he knew how to do - play baseball - and that's something Mets fans will always appreciate.

That's the smile of a much-appreciated Met.

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 
March 3, 2014: Hubie Brooks

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