Monday, March 23, 2015

One Mo-MET In Time: Al Weis

Baseball does not discriminate when it comes to players of all shapes and sizes.  Babe Ruth was powered by hot dogs instead of hormones, yet still became a legendary home run hitter who also pitched and hit for a high average.  On the other end of the spectrum, players like Freddie Patek and Jose Altuve were vertically challenged - neither measured more than 5' 6" tall - but were not challenged by much else on a baseball diamond, as Patek was a three-time All-Star in the 1970s and Altuve won a batting title and a Silver Slugger award in 2014.

Of course, a man of Ruth's size hitting majestic home runs is not really considered far-fetched.  Similarly, smaller players like Patek and Altuve stroking singles and stealing bases (both players won stolen base titles) are not beyond the scope of anyone's imagination.

But what happens when a player accomplishes something noteworthy on the field that his body is not built for?  And what happens when that player achieves his unlikely feat on the biggest stage of them all?  It happened to one particular member of the Mets in 1969, and his unexpected performance helped the team win its first championship.

Al Weis touched us all when he touched them all in the 1969 World Series.  (Getty Images)

Albert John Weis was originally signed by the Chicago White Sox in 1959 as a rail-thin middle infielder, making his debut with the Pale Hose three years later.  Although Weis was a switch-hitter and solid defensive player, he had trouble cracking the White Sox lineup, even after club legends and future Hall of Famers Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox had left the team.

Only once did Weis manage more than 210 at-bats with the White Sox in parts of six seasons, as he was used mostly as a pinch-runner and late-inning defensive replacement.  From 1962 to 1967, Weis started just 247 of the 521 games he played in, and once the South Siders reacquired Aparicio from the Baltimore Orioles following the 1967 campaign, the writing was on the wall for Weis.  He was no longer needed.

On December 15, 1967, just two weeks after the White Sox brought back Aparicio, Weis and future World Series hero Tommie Agee were traded to the Mets for Tommy Davis, Jack Fisher, Billy Wynne and Buddy Booker.  Weis, whose final year in Chicago was shortened by a knee injury suffered in a collision with Frank Robinson, was finally going to get the opportunity to start with the Mets under first-year manager Gil Hodges.

Hodges had great faith in Weis, despite his anemic .172 batting average in 301 plate appearances during his first year in New York.  But with a young pitching staff, Hodges needed the dependable up-the-middle defense provided by Weis in more than just late-inning situations.  As a result, Weis started 77 of the 90 games he participated in - by far the greatest percentage of his career.

Weis "improved" his batting average to .215 in 1969, but also collected a career-high 13 extra-base hits in 247 at-bats.  Weis split his time between the two middle infield positions, filling in admirably for regular shortstop Bud Harrelson when Harrelson's military duties caused him to miss several weeks during the summer.

From June 25 to July 20, Weis started 25 consecutive games at shortstop, batting .259 with eight extra-base hits and 14 RBI in just 85 at-bats.  During that stretch, Weis collected his only two home runs of the season, with both coming against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.  The extra-base bonanza was particularly surprising, especially when considering that Weis had collected only 43 extra-base hits in 1,420 lifetime plate appearances prior to his month-long residence at shortstop.  Just four of those 43 extra-base hits were home runs, and all came on the road.  Incredibly, Weis never hit a home run in Chicago as a member of the White Sox.  But he hit two in back-to-back games in the Windy City as a member of the Mets.

Once Harrelson returned from his military obligations, Weis went back to filling in wherever Hodges needed him, playing 28 games at second, 17 contests at short, pinch-running ten times and even making a cameo appearance for one inning at third base.  This continued into the postseason, as Weis appeared as a pinch-runner in Game One of the inaugural National League Championship Series and also played second base during the late innings of the Mets' three-game sweep over the Atlanta Braves.  But once the World Series began, Hodges went with a strict platoon at second base, playing lefty hitter Ken Boswell against right-handed pitchers and switch-hitter Weis against southpaws.  That meant Weis would start Games One and Two against Baltimore's magnificent lefties, Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally.

Given the opportunity to perform on the game's largest stage, Weis thrived.  He drove in the Mets' only run in their Game One loss, then produced the game-winning hit in Game Two when he delivered an RBI single in the top of the ninth inning that scored Ed Charles with the tie-breaking run.

Right-hander Jim Palmer started Game Three when the series shifted to Shea Stadium, allowing Hodges to start Boswell at second base in the Mets' 5-0 victory, but Orioles manager Earl Weaver went back to the dynamic duo of Cuellar and McNally for Games Four and Five.  That meant Boswell was back on the bench and Weis was manning second base.  It was a decision that would pay dividends in the most unexpected way.

In the critical Game Four, Weis delivered two hits in his first three at-bats, then came up to the plate in the tenth inning of a 1-1 game with no outs and Rod Gaspar on second base.  Gaspar was in the game as a pinch-runner for catcher Jerry Grote, who had led off the inning with a double.  Weis had already reached base in eight of his first 12 at-bats in the World Series.  It became nine of 13 when he was intentionally walked by Orioles reliever Dick Hall.  The free pass ended Tom Seaver's day after ten strong innings - Seaver was due to bat after Weis - and set up a potential rally-killing double play.  But Baltimore never recorded another out in the inning, as pinch-hitter J.C. Martin dropped a bunt that new pitcher Pete Richert fielded and threw into Martin's wrist.  The error allowed Gaspar to score the winning run.  It also allowed the Mets to potentially end the World Series the following day at Shea Stadium.

After scoring a total of two runs in the previous three games, the Orioles put up a three-spot against Mets starter Jerry Koosman in the third inning of Game Five.  A two-run homer in the sixth inning by Donn Clendenon (which followed Cleon Jones's infamous Shoe Polish incident) cut Baltimore's lead to a single run.  Koosman then retired the Orioles in order in their half of the seventh inning.  Al Weis was due to lead off the bottom of the seventh against Dave McNally.  What happened next was something Weis had never done before and never did again.

Video courtesy of's YouTube channel

With Dave McNally clearly still reeling from the events of the previous inning, Weis surprised everyone in the ballpark by hitting a game-tying home run into the left field bleachers - the first and only time he ever went deep in front of his home fans.  The 57,397 fans at Shea Stadium went crazy, and broadcaster Lindsey Nelson also showed disbelief at what had unfolded before his eyes.

"The Mighty Mite has become the hitting star of the World Series for the New York Mets," said Nelson in response to Weis's heroics.  "That is his fifth hit in this World Series."

Although the Mets had not yet taken the lead, the Orioles' confidence had left them almost as quickly as Weis's ball left the yard.  And once Ron Swoboda delivered the go-ahead run an inning later, followed by a run-producing error by first baseman Boog Powell, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that the Mets were going to win the World Series, which is exactly what they did once Cleon Jones squeezed Davey Johnson's long fly ball on the edge of the left field warning track.

Although Clendenon received a trophy and a new car as the MVP of the 1969 World Series, batting .357 and clubbing three of the team's six Fall Classic homers, Weis received the lesser known Babe Ruth Award, which was given out by the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America to their World Series' most valuable player.

Prior to the trade that sent Al Weis and Tommie Agee to New York, the Mets had never won more than 66 games in a season.  Although the Mets surpassed 70 wins for the first time in 1968, both Weis and Agee had subpar seasons, combining to hit .198 with only 27 extra-base hits in 642 at-bats.  But both players rebounded in 1969, contributing greatly to the Mets' unexpected success.

Al Weis hit seven regular season home runs during his ten-year major league career.  Two of them came in 1969 in back-to-back games against the Chicago Cubs, the team the Mets had to pass in their quest for the division title.  None of the seven came in his home park - not at White Sox Park (as Comiskey Park was known from 1962 to 1975) and not at Shea Stadium.  The only home run Weis ever hit at home did not occur during the regular season.  Rather, it took place in a World Series-clinching game.

The Mets were trailing the Orioles by a run in the bottom of the seventh inning and were facing the prospect of returning to Memorial Stadium in Baltimore for a potential Game Six.  But once Weis delivered his jaw-dropping blast, the Mets never trailed again.  The next time the Mets would get together after Game Five would not be in Baltimore, but in the Canyon of Heroes in Lower Manhattan to celebrate their miraculous championship with a ticker tape parade.

Donn Clendenon and Al Weis celebrate after both hit home runs to erase Baltimore's three-run lead.  (NY Times photo)

Al Weis wasn't acquired by the Mets for his bat.  In fact, the Long Island native was one of the worst hitters in franchise history.  His .191 batting average and .253 slugging percentage in 714 plate appearances with the Mets were both lower than Dwight Gooden's figures in the same categories.  (Doc produced a .197 batting average and .260 slugging percentage in 837 plate appearances as a Met.)

No other position player with as many plate appearances as Weis batted lower than .219 (Duffy Dyer and Dave Kingman both produced that mark) and no other non-pitcher slugged lower than .275 (Roy McMillan flexed his muscles to put up that number).

But somehow, Weis led the Mets with a .455 batting average in the 1969 World Series and hit one of the biggest home runs in franchise history in the Fall Classic.  The home run in Game Five off Orioles starter Dave McNally was not a first for Weis, as he had taken McNally deep before as a member of the White Sox in 1964.  However, it was the first time he had ever homered while wearing his home whites.  It was also the last time he ever hit a ball out of his home ballpark.

In a year full of miracles, Al Weis saved the best miracle for last.  The 1969 Mets had to contend with players leaving for military training, black cats running on the field and baseballs stained with shoe polish.  They also had to contend with the Chicago Cubs during the regular season, the Atlanta Braves during the National League Championship Series and the 109-win Baltimore Orioles in the Fall Classic.  The Mets vanquished all of those threats mostly with quality pitching.  But on occasion, they needed to pull a rabbit out of their hat to help them reach the pinnacle of the baseball world.  And sometimes, that rabbit was in the form of a mighty mite named Al Weis.

Some players have the bodies to hit towering home runs.  Others are built to be scrappy players - players who don't have all the talents required to succeed on the baseball field, but will always find a way to beat you.  For ten seasons, Al Weis was a 160-pound scrappy utility player - the prototypical good-field, no-hit middle infielder.  But on one magical day at Shea Stadium, Weis was so much more than that.  He may not have had the body to hit many home runs throughout his career.  But his body of work will always have that wonderful moment in time when he showed that even the littlest player can come up with the biggest hit.

"I had an average career in the majors as a utility man.  But I had two good weeks of baseball and they came in the 1969 World Series."

--Al Weis, 1969 World Series champion

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
February 9, 2015: Tim Harkness
February 16, 2015: Kenny Rogers, Aaron Heilman, Tom Glavine
February 23, 2015: Mike Vail
March 2, 2015: Matt Franco
March 9, 2015: Shawn Estes
March 16, 2015: Dae-Sung Koo 

No comments: