Monday, March 16, 2015

One Mo-MET In Time: Dae-Sung Koo

Throughout the years, there have been many Mets players who were on the team for such a short period of time, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything of interest to remind you that they were ever on the team.  Mention the names Matt Wise, Lino Urdaneta and Jon Switzer to most Mets fans and they'll have no clue who you're talking about, even though all of these players appeared in games for the Mets in the 21st century.

Neither player - they were all pitchers, by the way - spent more than a few months on the major league roster and none of them accomplished anything of note to endear themselves to those fortunate Mets fans who actually saw them play and can vouch that they were not a figment of our collective imaginations.

But every once in a while, there comes a short-term player who saves himself from blue-and-orange obscurity by doing something that no one expected to see him do on a baseball field.  Occasionally, that player will accomplish his feat in front of a sellout crowd.  And sometimes, that packed house will witness that player cementing his legacy against a Hall of Fame pitcher on a legendary team.

Those who were in attendance at Shea Stadium on May 21, 2005 can confirm that one such player will never be forgotten.

How do you do, Mr. Koo?  (Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Dae-Sung Koo was a journeyman pitcher before he ever stepped on a mound in the United States.  From 1993 to 2000, he pitched in the Korean Baseball Organization, winning the league's Most Valuable Player Award in 1996 when he notched 18 wins, 24 saves and posted a league-best 1.88 ERA.  He then spent the next four years of his professional career pitching in the Japanese Pacific League before announcing his desire to play in the major leagues.  Koo was courted by both New York teams, but chose the Mets over their crosstown rivals because the Yankees took too much time to make him an offer.

Upon his arrival at the Mets' spring training facility in Port St. Lucie, Florida, the 35-year-old southpaw immediately let it be known how he wanted to be identified, knowing that his new teammates and fans could have a problem with his name.

"For Americans, my first name is very hard to pronounce," said Koo through his interpreter.  "Over here, I will go by my last name only.  My teammates can call me Koo."

And thus, the legend of Mr. Koo was born.

Although Mr. Koo was a grizzled veteran with a dozen years of professional baseball experience, he was not a lock to break camp with the Mets in 2005.  At Port St. Lucie, Mr. Koo was competing with the likes of Matt Ginter, Scott Stewart and Scott Strickland for a coveted spot in the bullpen.  Ginter, Stewart and Strickland did not come north with the team.  Mr. Koo did.

Mr. Koo got off to a fast start in the big leagues, allowing no runs in his first six appearances and holding hitters to a .200 batting average and .294 on-base percentage.  As with most newcomers to the majors, Mr. Koo had some blemishes during his first few months, allowing three runs to the Washington Nationals in a mop-up role on April 23 and a game-tying three-run homer in an outing against the Chicago Cubs sixteen days later.  But even those hiccups didn't hurt Mr. Koo or the Mets, as the team was victorious in both efforts.

By late May, Mr. Koo had become the team's top left-handed reliever, as fellow southpaw Mike Matthews (10.80 ERA in six appearances) failed miserably and was designated for assignment before completing his first month in a Mets uniform.  That made Mr. Koo a valuable asset when the Mets squared off against the Yankees - a team loaded with left-handed hitters and switch hitters - during the Shea Stadium portion of the Subway Series.  But no one could have expected that his bat and legs would be just as important as his arm.

A sweet swing by a lefty wearing No. 17 at Shea Stadium.  Wait, that's not Keith Hernandez!  (Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

On May 21, the Mets entered the seventh inning of their showdown with the Yankees with a slim 2-0 lead.  But after Alex Rodriguez singled off Mets starter Kris Benson to lead off the inning, manager Willie Randolph decided to bring in his lefty specialist to fan the flames.  Mr. Koo would have to face Tino Martinez, Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano - all left-handed hitters - with each batter representing the tying run as long as Rodriguez was on base.  Unfortunately for the Yankees, A-Rod wasn't on base very long.

On a 1-1 pitch from Mr. Koo, Rodriguez took off for second base.  But upon realizing he was going to be thrown out by catcher Mike Piazza, Rodriguez retreated to first base, only to be tagged out by first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz.  Without the added pressure of facing the tying run, Mr. Koo proceeded to strike out Martinez and Posada to end the inning and give his manager an interesting problem.

Mr. Koo pitched quite well in the top half of the seventh, but was due to lead off for the Mets in the bottom half of the inning.  Meanwhile, the Yankees still had the lefty-swinging Robinson Cano due to bat first in the eighth inning and the Mets had no other southpaws in the bullpen.  Keeping that in mind, Randolph decided to let Mr. Koo bat for himself to lead off the bottom of the seventh against hard-throwing lefty Randy Johnson.

In his short major league career, Mr. Koo had never swung the bat in a game.  That's not to say that he hadn't had an at-bat in a game.  Just five days earlier, Mr. Koo had his first plate appearance when he strolled up to the plate against the Cincinnati Reds, but kept the bat on his shoulders as he watched three strikes from Todd Coffey go untouched into the catcher's mitt.

No one will ever confuse Todd Coffey with Randy Johnson.  So no one would have been upset or surprised had Mr. Koo also taken three straight strikes from the flame-throwing Yankee.  Well, no one except Mr. Koo, that is.

After Johnson's first two pitches to Mr. Koo - both of which were taken by the Mets reliever - FOX analyst Tim McCarver opined that Mr. Koo was going to be completely overmatched by the future Hall of Famer, basically saying that the 35-year-old "rookie" might as well just give up against Johnson.

"I'm just going to go out on a limb and say that this is, thus far in this young season, this is the biggest give-up at-bat."

Before McCarver had even finished his statement, Mr. Koo had already taken the bat off his shoulders for the first time in his short career, taking a hack at Johnson's third pitch.  To everyone's amazement and amusement, Mr. Koo made solid contact, driving the ball over the head of center fielder Bernie Williams, who was playing as shallow as can be expected against a hitter of Mr. Koo's caliber.

The ball landed just in front of the center field fence, approximately 400 feet from home plate.  Mr. Koo rounded second base and thought about stretching his first major league hit to a triple, but thought better of it, choosing to remain at second base.

With the energetic crowd and his teammates in the dugout all serenading him with a thunderous "KOOOOOOOOO!!!", Johnson turned away from the unlikely slugger and prepared to face shortstop and leadoff hitter Jose Reyes.  On Johnson's second pitch, Reyes dropped a successful sacrifice bunt, moving Mr. Koo to third base and putting him in position to score on something other than a hit.  Except the next batter never got a chance to drive him in, because by the time No. 2 hitter Miguel Cairo stepped up to the plate, Mr. Koo had already crossed it.

When Reyes dropped his bunt, catcher Jorge Posada ran out to field the ball and throw it to first.  Johnson, perhaps still disgusted with himself for allowing a hit to a relief pitcher who had never swung the bat in a major league game, forgot to cover the plate.  Johnson's mental fart allowed an astute Mr. Koo to round third and make a break for home.  Posada raced back and took first baseman Tino Martinez's throw about ten feet in front of the plate, then lunged toward a diving Mr. Koo.

With Reyes's bat resting across the batter's box, Mr. Koo used a head-first slide as he somehow maneuvered around both Reyes's lumber and the lumbering Posada before looking up to see that home plate umpire Chuck Meriwether had called him safe.  The daring base running by Mr. Koo gave the Mets a 3-0 lead, and gave Mets fans (and Tim McCarver) something they would talk about long after they left Shea Stadium that afternoon.

Mr. Koo finishes the most incredible trip around the bases in recent memory.  (Vincent Laforet/NY Times)

Following Mr. Koo's 360-foot Tour de Flushing, the Mets added another run in the seventh on a solo home run by Cairo just moments after Mr. Koo had scampered home.  They tacked on three additional runs an inning later to blow the game wide open.  By then, Mr. Koo's day was already done, as he exited to a thunderous ovation from the 55,800 fans in attendance after striking out Robinson Cano in the top of the eighth.  The Mets won the game handily, 7-1, leaving the Yankees to wonder about the Koo-tastrophe that had occurred before their stunned eyes.

Prior to May 21, 2005, Randy Johnson had excelled against the Mets, going 6-3 with a 2.32 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in ten regular season starts.  But beginning with the game of Mr. Koo's life, Johnson struggled mightily versus New York's National League squad.  The Big Unit shriveled in his last six starts versus the Mets, going 0-4 with an ungodly 7.90 ERA and 1.75 WHIP.

Johnson's 6-7 lifetime record against the Mets was the only losing mark he posted against any National League team.  The 4.26 ERA he put up in 16 career starts was also his worst against any of the sixteen Senior Circuit squads.  (Houston moved to the American League in 2013, four years after Johnson retired.)

As for Mr. Koo, he never batted again for the Mets, appearing exclusively on the mound for each of his final 15 appearances on a major league diamond.  Perhaps it was for the best that Mr. Koo never took a bat in his hands again, as two weeks after he completed his memorable day on the mound, at the plate and around the bases, Mr. Koo was placed on the disabled list with a rotator cuff injury that he suffered during his Slide Heard 'Round The World.  Despite pitching well upon his return from the DL, posting a 1.04 ERA in 11 appearances, Mr. Koo was optioned to AAA-Norfolk in late August and was designated for assignment a month later.  He never pitched again in the majors, but that didn't deter him, as he is still playing professionally at the age of 45 for the Sydney Blue Sox in the Australian Baseball League.

In 33 appearances with the Mets during his only season with the team in 2005, Mr. Koo did not record a win, loss or save.  His 33 career appearances remain the most by any pitcher in franchise history whose name never appeared in the win column, loss column or save column.  But just because he had a zero in all three categories doesn't mean he couldn't be a hero for one glorious day in 2005.

Dae-Sung Koo was respectfully known as Mr. Koo by his teammates and fans.  And although he barely played for the Mets, he earned his respect with an unlikely series of events that made him the talk of the town during a spring weekend in 2005.  The Subway Series made household names out of players like Dave Mlicki, Matt Franco and Shawn Estes.  It did the same for a journeyman pitcher from South Korea.

When he first came to the Mets, Mr. Koo didn't expect anyone to know how to pronounce his first name.  But by the end of his short tenure on the team, everyone certainly knew his last name.  Fifty-five thousand Koo-ing fans can vouch for that.

YouTube video courtesy of kifan

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

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