Monday, January 5, 2015

One Mo-MET In Time: Mookie Wilson

A legendary player is known for many things.  Mention Willie Mays to a casual baseball fan and that person might bring up the Say Hey Kid's catch in the 1954 World Series or his 660 career home runs.  Fans questioned about Tom Seaver could discuss his near-perfect game in 1969, his three Cy Young Awards or the Midnight Massacre trade to Cincinnati.

But what about players who weren't first ballot Hall of Famers?  Or those who didn't even make an appearance in an All-Star Game?  Naturally, those players are going to be known for far less.  However, every once in a while, a player will do something that he will forever be remembered for.  Whether it be a memorable season, a special game or just a bizarre play, that athlete will have to live with that moment and be linked to it long after his baseball career is over.  And those moments are not always positive - even if the rest of the player's career was - much to the chagrin of that player.

There have been numerous Mets players who will always be known for one thing above anything else they accomplished on a baseball field.  This series will focus on some of those players and discuss not only the primary things for which they are remembered, but also the events and occurrences that may not immediately come to mind or have simply been forgotten that each player was responsible for.

One such player spent an entire decade in a Mets uniform and when he played his final game as a Met, he was the team's all-time leader in multiple offensive categories.  He was also one of the most exciting and beloved players in team history.  But ask anyone about his career and it will always come down to just one moment.

Mookie Wilson should be known for far more than just one memorable moment.

William Hayward Wilson was a second round draft pick in 1977 and quickly advanced through the Mets' minor league system.  His blazing speed helped him leg out 25 triples and steal 87 bases between the Double-A and Triple-A level in 1978 and 1979.  But with All-Star and fan-favorite Lee Mazzilli playing center field at Shea Stadium, Wilson had no position to play at the big league level, so he began the 1980 campaign at AAA-Tidewater.  Also hurting Wilson was the fact that he was solely a right-handed hitter, while Mazzilli batted from both sides of the plate.  So upon returning to Tidewater for a second season, Wilson took it upon himself to learn how to hit left-handed.

The decision paid off beautifully, as the new switch-hitter batted .295 for the Tides with 14 triples, 92 runs scored and 50 stolen bases.  His year at Tidewater caught the eye of the front office, and despite having Mazzilli entrenched in center field, the Mets called up Wilson in September for his first taste of the big leagues.  Wilson batted .248 with three triples, seven steals and 16 runs scored in 27 games.  He wouldn't return to the minors again for six years.

As the 1981 season opened, Wilson still did not have a regular position because of the presence of Lee Mazzilli, so manager Joe Torre platooned Wilson with Joel Youngblood in right field.  But an injury to newly-reacquired first baseman Rusty Staub forced Torre to move left fielder Dave Kingman to first, causing Mazzilli to move to left field, which opened up a spot for Wilson.  Wilson took advantage of the opportunity, leading the team in runs scored (49), triples (8) and stolen bases (24) in the strike-shortened season.

With Wilson claiming center field as his own, the Mets used the opportunity to trade Mazzilli - their main box office attraction since Tom Seaver was dealt away in 1977 - to Texas for two young pitchers, Ron Darling and Walt Terrell.  Darling would go on to become a vital cog in the Mets' resurgence during the mid-'80s, while Terrell was sent to Detroit in a deal that brought Howard Johnson to New York.  Wilson, on the other hand, became a mainstay in the Mets lineup for the next three seasons.

From 1982 to 1984, Wilson was one of the premier leadoff hitters in the National League.  Although he didn't walk much (76 free passes during the three seasons) and struck out a little too much (295 Ks), Wilson ranked in the top ten among all National League hitters in several categories during those three campaigns, including hits (516; 7th in the NL), triples (25; T-3rd), runs scored (269; 7th) and stolen bases (158; 4th).  The lofty stolen base totals allowed Wilson to become the Mets' all-time leader in that category, as he supplanted Lee Mazzilli - Mookie always seemed to be taking something away from Maz whenever he could - when he stole his 140th career base in a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 27, 1983.  And who got a great view of the record-setting theft from the Pirates dugout?  That would be none other than Mazzilli, who by then had been traded to Pittsburgh and had been relegated to pinch-hitting duties.

Wilson was the starting center fielder for the Mets entering the 1985 season, but a sore shoulder limited him to pinch-running duties in late April and early May.  Darryl Strawberry had filled in for Wilson for five games, but the Straw Man was not a center fielder.  Once the Mets realized that Darryl belonged in right, they called up Lenny Dykstra to fill the void left by Wilson.  Dykstra caught the Mets' eye in 1983 when he stole 105 bases at Class A-Lynchburg.  He was a scrappy player who was tough as nails and would go all out to help his team win.  In other words, he was just the type of player manager Davey Johnson loved.

Eventually, Wilson's shoulder required surgery, and the center fielder was out of action for two months during the latter part of the season.  In his absence, Dykstra gave the Mets everything Mookie did.  He ran down fly balls in the gap.  He stretched singles into doubles and doubles into triples.  He stole bases.  But there was one thing Dykstra did far better than Wilson.  He was patient at the plate and had a good eye.  Whereas Mookie struck out four times for every time he walked, Dykstra was more likely to walk than strike out.  In fact, when Dykstra's major league career ended following the 1996 season, he had drawn more walks than strikeouts in ten of his 12 seasons.

Although Wilson wasn't thrilled with losing playing time to the younger Dykstra, he took his new platoon role as a challenge.  Gone were the days when he racked up 600-plus plate appearances.  But in his diminished role, Wilson learned how to become a better hitter.  From 1980 to 1984, Wilson batted .275 with a .309 on-base percentage and a .688 OPS.  Over his next four seasons - all of which involved sharing time with Dykstra - Wilson posted a .290 batting average, reached base at a .345 clip and upped his OPS nearly 100 points to .781.

By the time Wilson played his final game as a Met in 1989, he was the team's all-time leader in runs scored (592), triples (62) and stolen bases (281), and was third in hits (1,112) and doubles (170).  In ten seasons with the Mets, Wilson had become one of the team's best players and had accomplished many positive things with the club.  But one moment stood above all others, and it occurred in what is perhaps the most memorable game ever played by the franchise.

After six-plus seasons in New York, Mookie Wilson finally made it to the postseason in 1986.  A year that began with a dangerous eye injury in spring training (one that required a rehab assignment that saw him play minor league games for the first time since 1980) ended with the Mets' first division title in 13 years.  Mookie's first playoff experience did not start out well on an individual level, as the veteran collected just four hits in his first 36 postseason at-bats.  But one of those hits was a single that plated the first run in the Mets' three-run ninth-inning rally in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series against the Houston Astros.

As hard as it was for Wilson to reach base in his first nine postseason games, it seemed like he was always on base during the final four games of the World Series.  In those four games, Wilson collected six hits, one walk and was hit by a pitch.  He also reached base another way, and did it when the Mets needed it the most.

With the Red Sox one win away from securing their first championship in 68 years, the Mets had to win Game 6 at Shea Stadium to force a deciding seventh game.  The game was tied, 2-2, as the Red Sox came to bat in the seventh inning.  But a walk, a throwing error by third baseman Ray Knight and a groundout produced the go-ahead run for Boston.  The Red Sox had a chance to score a second run in the inning when catcher Rich Gedman lashed a single to left, but Wilson ended the Red Sox rally by throwing out Jim Rice at the plate.

Two Hall of Famers exchange pleasantries at the plate, courtesy of Mookie Wilson's throwing arm.  (Peter Southwick/AP)

New York eventually tied the game to send it to extra innings, but there may not have been a tenth frame had it not been for Mookie Wilson's accurate throw to nail Rice.  Had the Mets won the game in nine innings, Wilson's legacy might have been based on that throw, but the game did not reach its conclusion after each team had recorded 27 outs.

In the top of the tenth inning, Dave Henderson homered to left as Mookie could only watch the ball sail over the wall.  Boston added an insurance run on a Marty Barrett single, which was followed by Bill Buckner getting hit by a pitch.  But Jim Rice, who ended a Red Sox rally in the seventh inning, did so again in the tenth, as he flied out to right.

The Mets were now facing the reality of losing the World Series in front of their home crowd to a team that had not won a title since 1918.  And after Wally Backman and Keith Hernandez flied out to start the bottom of the tenth, that heartbreaking conclusion was becoming more and more likely.  But singles by Gary Carter, Kevin Mitchell and Ray Knight - the latter coming on an 0-2 pitch - brought the Mets to within one run and put the spotlight on the shoulders of Mookie Wilson.

Wilson was never a good breaking ball hitter, and Red Sox closer Bob Stanley - who had been brought into the game to face Wilson - specialized in palm balls, sinkers and sliders.  Four pitches into the at-bat, Wilson had two strikes on him.  It was then that he decided to go to with his mantra, a phrase he had heard in church.

"Thou shalt not pass without offering."

Mookie Wilson was not going to go down without a fight.  He was determined to swing at every pitch, not allowing the game to end on a called third strike.  Simply stated, he was not going to let a pitch pass by without offering at it.  And that's exactly what he did.

Pitch No. 5 was foul tipped.  Barely.  Pitch No. 6 was then fouled off to his left.

Wilson was sticking to his guns, taking aim at every ball fired his way by Stanley.  That is, until pitch No. 7 took aim at him.

With Rich Gedman setting up on the outside part of the plate, Stanley's pitch went inside.  An acrobatic Wilson threw his body out of the way as Gedman's lunged in vain for the errant pitch.  Scoring from third base with the tying run was Mitchell, as Knight moved into scoring position.  The Mets were now a well-placed hit away from tying the game, but Wilson kept placing balls in the left and right field stands.

Pitch No. 8 was fouled off near the first base dugout.  Pitch No. 9 was lined down the left field line and into the crowd.  Then came the tenth pitch of the at-bat, a pitch that Mookie made sure to keep in fair territory.

Wilson chopped the ball into the dirt along the first base line.  The ball took three hops in the direction of a running (some might say hobbling) Bill Buckner.  Buckner, who was already playing with a bad Achilles tendon and had been struck in the ribs by a Rick Aguilera pitch in the top of the tenth, was only on the field because manager John McNamara wanted him to celebrate the final out with his teammates.  Late-inning defensive replacement Dave Stapleton, who had replaced Buckner in the final inning of each of Boston's three victories over the Mets, remained on the bench as the ball took a fourth hop and rolled by Buckner's glove into right field, giving the fragile first baseman a bruised ego to go with his bruised ribs.

Mookie Wilson did not let any strike pass without offering at it, and in doing so, hit the most famous ground ball in Mets history.  It gave the Mets an unlikely victory in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series and helped set up their championship win two nights later.

In the late 1970s, Mookie Wilson's path to the majors was blocked by Lee Mazzilli.  But through perseverance and the will to get better at his craft, Wilson finally achieved his dream of playing in the major leagues.  Similarly, in 1986, Mookie refused to make the final out of the World Series.  And that refusal to give up allowed him to run down the first base line and into the hearts and memories of Mets fans everywhere.

Mookie Wilson was a dynamic player who brought excitement to the game.  He could make an acrobatic catch as easily as he could leg out a triple, steal a base or score from second base on a groundout.  He could do so many things so well that he became the team's all-time leader in several categories.  But all that was overshadowed by a little roller up along first in the biggest game of his life.

Perhaps Mookie said it best in his memoir, "Mookie: Life, Baseball, and the '86 Mets", when he discussed the play that forever changed the course of his life and the Mets franchise.

Photo by Christian Oth/NY Times

 "I think everyone has to have a moment that defines them. ... But if you take that moment away and just look at my career numbers, there's nothing that jumps out at you.  So while there may be some regrets over how the play has become the focal point of my career, I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world."

Mets fans wouldn't trade his defining play either.  The tenth inning of Game 6 was one of many reasons why Mookie Wilson will forever be a beloved figure in the Mets community.  But it should come as no surprise that one little dribbler will always overshadow all the other wonderful moments in his career.  It would be almost impossible for it not to.

Note:  One Mo-MET In Time is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players who will forever be known for a single moment, game or event, regardless of whatever else they accomplished during their tenure with the Mets.  Please come back next week for the next installment.

No comments: