Monday, February 9, 2015

One Mo-MET In Time: Tim Harkness

In the early days of the New York Mets, fans attended the team's home games to see many things.  They went to see manager Casey Stengel, who was as entertaining as any comic actor they could watch on television.  They also went to catch a glimpse of former members of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, who were closing out their careers in the city they called home prior to going out west.  Some fans even went to see stars from other teams - players they hadn't been able to see in a National League park since the defection of the Dodgers and Giants following the 1957 campaign.

What fans didn't get to see too much during the team's early days were wins.  In the two years the Mets called the Polo Grounds home, the team won a total of 56 games there.  That's fewer wins at home in a two-year period than the Cincinnati Reds won in their home park in 1962 alone, and the Reds were a third-place team that year.

Needless to say, most of the excitement generated on the field during the team's short stay at the Polo Grounds had nothing to do with the players wearing "Mets" on their chests.  If the team had a lead, they had a good chance of blowing it.  And if they trailed in the late innings, there seemed to be little chance of a happy recap.  But during the team's second season, an unlikely hero stepped up to the plate on an early summer afternoon, trying to erase a two-run deficit in extra innings.  What happened next was something that would not be seen again during a Mets home game for nearly three decades.

Tim Harkness had a left-handed power swing made for the short distance to right field at the Polo Grounds.

Thomas William Harkness, better known as Tim, was a power threat from a very young age.  The Canadian slugger signed with the Phillies in 1956, then played in the Dodgers minor league system over the next five years.  A year after putting up a 28 HR, 111 RBI season at the Double-A level, Harkness made his major league debut with the Dodgers.  But Harkness never caught on as a first baseman in Los Angeles.  He started just six games at the position in two seasons, appearing primarily as a pinch-hitter before being traded to the Mets at the conclusion of the 1962 campaign.

With the Mets, Harkness became the team's primary first baseman in 1963, although he did share the position at times with Duke Carmel (17 starts), Frank Thomas (15 starts) and an 18-year-old Ed Kranepool (15 starts).  Harkness was a streaky hitter, hitting home runs and driving in runs in bunches - he had four homers and 14 RBI during a 17-game stretch in May - but experienced many more cold periods than hot ones.  In fact, from May 30 to June 25, Harkness batted .125, collecting nine hits in 72 at-bats.

Harkness, who once had a .276 batting average in late May, was now in danger of dropping below the .200 mark, entering the June 26 tilt against the Chicago Cubs with a .208 batting average.  Coming into the game, Harkness had collected just 53 hits in his brief three-year career in the majors, never having more than three hits in any single game.  Through nine innings against the Cubs, Harkness had picked up one hit in four at-bats.  But the game was tied through nine, as the Mets had chipped away at an early four-run deficit to send the game into extra innings.  The team's day wasn't quite done, and neither was Tim Harkness.

Harkness doubled to lead off the 11th inning, but was stranded in scoring position when pinch-hitter Norm Sherry grounded into an inning-ending double play.  Two innings later, a single by Harkness put runners on the corners with one out.  But the Mets couldn't capitalize on Harkness's third hit of the game, as two groundouts ended the scoring threat.

It was on to the 14th inning at the Polo Grounds, where the Cubs looked to score for the first time since taking a 4-0 lead in the fifth inning.  Mets reliever Galen Cisco was one out away from getting out of the inning, but surrendered a two-run, inside-the-park home run to future Hall of Famer Billy Williams, giving Chicago a 6-4 lead.  The Mets, who had squandered numerous scoring opportunities in the previous innings, had one more chance to come up with a game-winning rally.  What they got was a seminal moment in team history.

Jim Hickman led off the Mets' half of the 14th inning with a single.  Ron Hunt followed with a single of his own, but Hickman was thrown out after he accidentally ran past second base.  Cubs pitcher Jack Warner then walked Jimmy Piersall to put the tying runs on base for Frank Thomas.  Thomas, who led the Mets with 34 home runs during the team's inaugural season in 1962, entered the game with just four home runs in 1963.  But Thomas had hit a two-run homer earlier in the game, and was another clout away from winning it.  With the crowd of just over 8,000 hoping for Thomas to blast his second homer of the game, all they got was a fly ball to left off Cubs reliever Paul Toth.

The Mets were now an out away from losing a heartbreaker to Chicago.  Seldom used catcher Sammy Taylor stepped up to the plate.  Left-handed pitcher Jim Brewer was summoned from the bullpen to face the lefty-swinging Taylor.  Taylor was already 0-for-6 in the game and had collected just eight hits all season up to that point.  But Brewer had not pitched in a major league game in 17 days and had been awful since May 19 (7.59 ERA in his last six appearances).  Taylor was able to coax a walk from Brewer to load the bases, bringing up Tim Harkness.

Harkness had already tied his career high in the game by notching three hits, including two in extra innings.  A fourth hit would almost surely tie the game.  A long hit would win it.  Harkness worked the count full.  Then with one mighty swing, Harkness delivered something no Met had accomplished before and no Met would accomplish again for almost 30 years.

With the right field wall looming just 257 feet away from home plate, Harkness pulled a grand slam over that wall, giving the Mets a thrilling 8-6 victory.  The game-winning blast was Harkness's fourth hit of the game - a new career high - but most importantly, was the first walk-off grand slam in the brief history of the team.

Tim Harkness emerges from the Mets clubhouse to greet fans following his extra-inning heroics. (UPI Photo)

Although the Mets hit a handful of walk-off grand slams over the next few decades, including one by Jim Hickman just six weeks after Harkness's game-winner, most of them occurred with the score tied.  But the grand slam by Harkness turned a potential two-run loss into a two-run win.  No Mets player would hit another walk-off grand slam with the team trailing at the time until Kevin McReynolds turned the trick against the Montreal Expos on June 25, 1991, nearly 28 years to the day after Harkness's heroics.  It would be another 23 years before a third Mets player - Ike Davis in 2014 - slammed the Mets from an apparent loss to a last-licks victory.

Harkness would go on to hit another walk-off homer for the Mets in 1963 - although this one was only a two-run shot in September - but for the most part, his grand slam against the Cubs was his last highlight of the season.  After victimizing Jim Brewer on June 26, Harkness went into a deep slump, going 9-for-87 with no homers and two RBI over his next 35 games.  A six-game hitting streak to end the season kept his average above .200, but also showed the Mets that the team needed to go in a different direction at first base.

The Mets moved into Shea Stadium in 1964, a park whose right field fence was nearly 100 feet deeper down the line than the one at the now-defunct Polo Grounds, and Harkness's power suffered.  Harkness played 39 games for the Mets in 1964, hitting just two homers.  Only one of those homers came at Shea Stadium.  Harkness was traded to Cincinnati in July, then bounced around in the minors for the next three seasons, never making it back to the majors.

In four big league seasons, Harkness never matched his power production in the minors.  His 28 HR, 111 RBI campaign in the minors in 1960 didn't translate to the majors, as Harkness managed just 14 homers and 61 RBI as a member of the Dodgers and Mets.  But for one amazing day in June 1963, Harkness became a hero in New York, powering the Mets to a dramatic, come-from-behind victory.

Manager Casey Stengel probably said it best (as he usually did) when discussing how important Harkness's homer was to the team at that moment.

"It was one of those good ones.  We just about had to end it there because I'd run out of men."

As the saying goes, if you watch baseball long enough, you're bound to see something you've never seen before.  On June 26, 1963, Mets fans saw something they had never seen before when Tim Harkness sent the small, but lively, Polo Grounds crowd home happy, turning a loss into a win with a game-ending grand slam home run.  It was the only time a Mets player ever snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat on a grand slam at the Polo Grounds.  Twenty-eight years later, Kevin McReynolds became the only Met to repeat Harkness's feat at Shea Stadium.  And twenty-three years after that, Ike Davis became the first Met to do it at Citi Field.  It has become a once-in-a-stadium's-lifetime event.

Tim Harkness may not have had a long career in New York, nor was it particularly a successful one.  But for one memorable moment, he provided Mets fans with a thrill that would not soon be forgotten.  It would also be a moment that would rarely be duplicated.

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.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 5, 2015: Mookie Wilson 
January 12, 2015: Dave Mlicki
January 19, 2015: Steve Henderson 
January 26, 2015: Ron Swoboda
February 2, 2015: Anthony Young

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