Monday, February 8, 2016

The Most With The Least: Claudell Washington (1980)

There have been many players to have long and distinguished careers in baseball who made brief pit stops as members of the Mets.  Warren Spahn, Willie Mays and Roberto Alomar had already established themselves as future Hall of Famers before they reported for duty in Flushing.  But by the time they joined the Mets, they were a shadow of their former selves and were out of baseball soon after their Mets debuts.

Very rarely has a player come to the Mets as a former All-Star, played well for the team, then left New York to become an All-Star again.  One such example was a player who came to the team as a gifted 25-year-old athlete who had tremendous speed and solid pop in his bat.  He exhibited both of those qualities during his brief tenure with the Mets, but once his 17-year stay in the majors was over, his time with the team was mostly met with "oh, he was once with the Mets?" comments from even the most die-hard fans.

He spent less than four months in a Mets uniform, but his mostly overlooked time with the team produced several magical moments, giving Mets fans credence that "The Magic is Back" was more than just a team slogan.

In 79 games as a Met, Claudell Washington had a full year's production compared to most of his teammates.  (Topps Image)

Claudell Washington was a superstar at a very young age.  Drafted as a 17-year-old amateur free agent by Oakland in 1972, Washington rocketed through the A's minor league system.  After batting .361 with 11 homers and 33 stolen bases in just 74 games at the Double-A level in 1974, Washington was promoted to the majors eight weeks before his 20th birthday, winning a World Series ring with the A's just three and a half months after his call-up.  In his first full season in the big leagues (1975), Washington made the American League All-Star team, collecting a hit and stealing a base in the Midsummer Classic, before getting picked off by Mets pitcher Jon Matlack, who earned the victory in the game.  Washington ended the 1975 campaign with a .308 batting average, ten homers, 40 steals and placed 14th for the A.L. Most Valuable Player award.

But Washington had a disappointing 1976 campaign, showing very little power (5 HR) and having his batting average drop more than fifty points and his OPS tumble by more than one hundred points.  At the same time, the A's were a team in transition.  The advent of free agency caused team owner Charlie Finley to part ways with most of the players that helped the team win five consecutive division titles from 1971 to 1975.  Free agent departures, trades and player releases resulted in four future Hall of Famers - Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Billy Williams and Rollie Fingers - leaving the team.  Veteran players weren't the only casualties of Finley's fire sale, as 22-year-old Claudell Washington was dealt to the Texas Rangers just days before the start of the 1977 season for two minor league players and cash.  It would not be the last time Washington changed uniforms.

Washington was traded five times and signed three free-agent deals with new teams over the course of his lengthy career.  In 1980, he was traded from the Chicago White Sox (his third team) to the Mets.  At the time of the deal, the Mets had recently undergone an ownership change and were desperately trying to attract fans to Shea Stadium.  The team was the first in baseball to hire an advertising agency when they brought in Jerry Della Famina and his partners to come up with a slogan for the team.  "The Magic Is Back" sought to foreshadow that good times were just around the corner at Shea.  But by mid-May, the team was mired in the N.L. East cellar with a 9-18 record.  A month-long burst of energy gave the Mets hope, as the team went 13-8 in their next 21 games.  That was when new general manager Frank Cashen decided he had to bring in a big bat to help the team continue down the winning path, and he did so by trading for Washington.

The Mets had homered just 11 times in their first 48 games, with two of the homers coming in the season's third game.  From April 16 to May 23, the team managed to hit just three homers in 30 games.  Although Washington wasn't a classic slugger, he had an innate ability to drive the ball, as evidenced by his 33 doubles and 13 homers in 131 games for the White Sox in 1979.  And given that Washington was only 25 years old when the Mets acquired him, he still had the potential to develop more power.

His first hit as a Met came during one of the most memorable innings in Mets history, as his RBI single with two outs in the ninth on June 14 brought Steve Henderson to the plate, who delivered a game-ending three-run homer off San Francisco Giants reliever Allen Ripley to complete the improbable five-run ninth-inning rally.  Washington's single in the "Hendu Can Do" game was the only hit he produced in his first two weeks with the team.  His next three hits traveled just a little farther than his first.

Image courtesy of Fleer
On June 22, the Mets played the finale of a three-game series at Dodger Stadium, hoping to escape with a victory after dropping the first two contests, which included a shutout loss to Jerry Reuss the day before.  New York wasted no time putting runs up on the scoreboard, using Washington's first home run as a Met to take a 2-0, first-inning lead.  Washington then homered again in the fifth, becoming the first player on the power-starved Mets to have a multi-homer game in 1980.  Two innings later, he completed the trifecta, becoming the third player in franchise history - after Jim Hickman in 1965 and Dave Kingman in 1976 - to hit three home runs in one game.  Washington had a chance to hit a fourth homer in the ninth inning, but singled instead.  He then stole second base, becoming the first Met to have three homers and a stolen base in the same game.  No Mets player matched Washington's feat until Yoenis Cespedes turned the trick in Colorado on August 21, 2015.

Washington's three-homer game was the first time since June 30, 1979 that the team had hit three home runs in one contest.  It was also just the second time during the 1980 campaign that the club had homered more than once in a game.  It didn't take long for the Mets to produce another three-homer game, doing so the next time they took the field two days later in Chicago, and once again Washington left the yard.  With the Mets trailing by two runs in the fifth inning, Washington clubbed a three-run homer off Cubs starting pitcher Rick Reuschel, giving the Mets a 6-5 lead, which the bullpen was able to hold at windy Wrigley Field.

The four homers in two games for Washington proved to be contagious, especially once the calendar turned to July.  After hitting just 15 homers in their first 62 games, the Mets hit 19 home runs in the first 19 games they played in July.  Washington's prodigious power displays rubbed off on fellow outfielder Lee Mazzilli, who hit 11 of those 19 home runs.  Washington played in 14 of the 19 games, putting together a streak where he drove in at least one run in 10 of 11 games.  He also doubled once, legged out three triples, homered twice and stole six bases in the 14-game stretch.

New York reached the .500 mark during the Mazzilli and Washington-fueled hot streak, but then stumbled in August, going 9-20 from August 3 (when the team was just one game under .500 and six games out of first place) until the end of the month.  The Mets scored just 98 runs in those 29 games, as the team's early summer magic went poof.  But the one player who continued to wave a magic wand in August was Claudell Washington.

Washington played in 25 of the 29 games, batting .352 with a .545 slugging percentage.  While his teammates were dormant at the plate, Washington contributed six doubles, a triple, three homers and 14 RBI in just 88 at-bats.  When Washington finally cooled down, the team completely stopped winning.  Literally.  From August 31 to September 27, Washington played in 18 games, putting up a .169/.210/.220 slash line.  The Mets lost all 18 games.

Once the 1980 season had come to its conclusion, with the advertised magic not being all the way back, Washington left the Mets as a free agent, signing a five-year, $3.5 million contract with the Atlanta Braves.  The contract was ridiculed by most baseball pundits, and several baseball owners were stunned by the money Braves owner Ted Turner was throwing at Washington.  Yankees owner George Steinbrenner called Turner "crazy", while Baltimore Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams said the deal was "the most outrageous contract I have ever heard of" and went on to add other opinions on the signing, saying "it's absolutely crazy" and "a touch of madness".  Mets general manager Frank Cashen, who engineered the trade for Washington just five months earlier, had just one word to say on the subject.

(Keith Torrie/NY Daily News)


Washington was reunited with his former Mets manager, Joe Torre, in Atlanta after Torre was relieved of his managerial duties in New York following the 1981 season.  Torre's leadership and Washington's bat (he achieved a career high in home runs, RBI and runs scored, while adding 33 stolen bases) helped lead the Braves to a division title in 1982 - the team's first since losing to the Mets in the NLCS in 1969.  Two years later, Washington made his second All-Star team and first as a National League player, entering the game as a defensive replacement for Mets superstar Darryl Strawberry.  Ten years after he played his final game with the Mets, he retired from baseball, spending the final five seasons of his 17-year major league career with the California Angels and New York Yankees.

Claudell Washington's career with the Mets lasted all of 79 games.  He started just 68 times, but still managed to be one of the team's top offensive stars.  He produced a .275/.324/.465 slash line in 306 plate appearances and had 16 doubles, four triples, 10 homers, 42 RBI and 17 stolen bases.  Despite playing in less than half of the team's games in 1980, Washington was second on the Mets in home runs, sixth in doubles, third in triples, sixth in RBI and fourth in steals.  He also led the team in slugging percentage and his 121 OPS+ was second to Lee Mazzilli (126 OPS+).

In 1980, the Mets assured their fans that the magic of the team's past was on its way back to Shea Stadium.  Although the team did not fulfill their end of the bargain for a few more years, the team did give its fans a reason to come out to the ballpark when the trade for Claudell Washington was made.  Washington's performance at the plate and on the basepaths allowed him to leave for greener pastures after the season was over, but he still thrilled Mets fans during the brief time he called Flushing home.

Yes, it's true.  Claudell Washington was actually a Met, even if it was only for four months out of his 17 years in the majors.  If you blinked, you missed it.  But if you were an opposing pitcher facing the Mets during the summer of 1980, then you had a front row seat to what Washington was capable of doing on a baseball diamond.  It's no wonder Ted Turner broke the bank (and the minds of his peers) for a player like Washington.

Note:  The Most With The Least is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players who performed at a high level without receiving the accolades or playing time their more established teammates got, due to injuries, executive decisions or other factors.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 4, 2016: Benny Agbayani
January 11, 2016: Donn Clendenon
January 18, 2016: Tim Teufel
January 25, 2016: Hisanori Takahashi
February 1, 2016: Chris Jones

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