Monday, March 28, 2016

The Most With The Least: Wayne Garrett (1969-76)

In the early 1980s, James Ingram sang, "I did my best, but I guess my best wasn't good enough."  The opening line from his hit song, "Just Once", referred to a relationship that continued to fail despite the repeated attempts to make it work.  The lyric could also apply to an infielder on the Mets who gave his best effort to the team for nearly eight full seasons, yet could never do enough to satisfy the club.

Although this player was equally adept at three infield positions (second base, shortstop and third base), the Mets already had two middle infielders starting most of their games in Ken Boswell and Bud Harrelson.  The team then acquired three-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner Felix Millan to play second, leaving third base as the only position with a vacancy sign on it.

Despite having good pop and a tremendous eye at the plate, the Mets were still reluctant to give this young and talented player a longer look at third base.  As a result, the club made two ill-advised trades to acquire veteran players who were deemed better suited to handle the hot corner.  Neither third baseman panned out in New York, while the players they were traded for went on to become legends for their respective teams.  And while all this was happening, the player who was never trusted to play third base on a regular basis ended up having a solid career of his own - one that could have produced fantastic numbers had the team just had a little more faith in his abilities.

Wayne Garrett could have solved the third base conundrum, if only the Mets had noticed.  (Focus On Sport/Getty Images)

In 1965, Ronald Wayne Garrett, a 17-year-old infielder from Sarasota, Florida, was selected by the Milwaukee Braves in the sixth round of the inaugural June amateur draft.  A year later, the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta, just as Garrett was moving from one minor league affiliate to another.  Following the 1968 campaign - his fourth in the Braves' system - Garrett was scooped up by the New York Mets in the Rule 5 draft, which required him to stay on the Mets' 25-man roster for the entire 1969 season.

Even before Garrett took the field for the first time as a Met, the team had already set its sights on acquiring a regular third baseman in five-time All-Star Joe Torre.  But Mets general manager Johnny Murphy decided not to complete the deal with the Braves, as Atlanta GM Paul Richards was asking for outfielder Amos Otis and pitcher Nolan Ryan in return - a price Murphy considered too steep.  When their plans to acquire Torre fell through, the Mets decided to go with an assortment of players at third base, hoping to find one player who could stand out above the others.

Although Garrett was in the starting lineup as the Mets' third baseman more than any other player on the roster in 1969, he still only started 63 games at the position, as manager Gil Hodges used Ed Charles at the hot corner 45 times and Bobby Pfeil on 40 occasions.  The three players combined to produce a .222 batting average and .281 slugging percentage.  At a position known for power hitting, Garrett, Charles and Pfeil hit just four home runs between them in 780 at-bats.  But as the sole left-handed hitter among the three third basemen, Garrett got the nod to start at the hot corner in the National League Championship Series against the Braves, who used right-handed starting pitchers in all three games.  The move paid off for the Mets, as Garrett reached base seven times in the series, tying him for the team lead.  Garrett didn't just reach base often; he also reached base during key moments of the series.

In Game One, the Mets trailed the Braves, 5-4, as the teams moved to the eighth inning.  Garrett began the frame with a double off starting pitcher and future Hall of Famer Phil Niekro.  He then scored the tying run on a single by Cleon Jones.  Garrett's hit kicked off a five-run rally by the Mets, giving them a 9-5 lead, which became the final score an inning later.

Garrett contributed in several ways in Game Two, coaxing a walk from pitcher Ron Reed in the first inning, then participating in a double steal with Jones, which eventually led to the game's first run.  Two innings later, Garrett delivered an RBI single off reliever Paul Doyle to give the Mets a 6-0 lead.  In his next at-bat, Garrett doubled and scored to increase the lead to 9-1.  The extra runs were crucial, as the Braves rallied for five runs in the fifth inning to cut the lead to 9-6.  But the bullpen combo of Ron Taylor and Tug McGraw kept Atlanta off the scoreboard the rest of the way to seal the victory for the Mets.

The third game saw the series go back to New York, and Garrett saved his most clutch at-bat for the Shea faithful.  Trailing 4-3 in the fifth inning after Orlando Cepeda took Nolan Ryan deep for a two-run homer, Garrett returned the favor, blasting a go-ahead two-run shot of his own off Braves starter Pat Jarvis.  The Mets then tacked on two more runs to win the game and the series, with Garrett fielding a Tony Gonzalez grounder and throwing to first baseman Ed Kranepool for the pennant-clinching out.

Garrett's star turn in the NLCS didn't lead to many at-bats in the World Series, as the American League champion Orioles used left-handed starting pitchers in four of the five games.  But Garrett still reached base twice in four plate appearances in the Fall Classic to give him an impressive .357/.500/.714 slash line in the 1969 postseason.

This was one of Wayne Garrett's few at-bats in the 1969 World Series.  (Focus On Sport/Getty Images)

Despite Garrett's heroics in October, the Mets did not trust him to be the team's starting third baseman in 1970.  A year after not wanting to trade Amos Otis to the Braves for Joe Torre, general manager Johnny Murphy parted ways with the outfield prospect, sending Otis to the Kansas City Royals for third baseman Joe Foy.  Within six weeks of the deal, Murphy suffered two massive heart attacks and died.  The Mets' dreams of repeating as world champions, along with Foy's career, died as well in 1970.

Foy, who was never comfortable defensively at third base, committed 18 errors in 94 starts at the position for the Mets in 1970.  He also underachieved as a hitter, batting .236 with 12 doubles, six homers and 37 RBI in his one season in New York, after averaging 20 doubles, 13 homers, 61 RBI and a .250 batting average in his first four major league seasons.

While Foy was flushing away his career in Flushing, Garrett was continuing his development as a fine major league player.  Garrett started 67 games at third base and 34 games at second.  Despite collecting only 366 at-bats (just 44 more than Foy had in 1970), Garrett was third on the team in homers (12), second in runs scored (74), second in walks (81), fourth in slugging percentage (.421), third in OPS (.811) and he led the Mets with a .390 on-base percentage.  With the Mets losing Foy to the Washington Senators in the 1970 Rule 5 draft, Garrett's road to the starting third base position appeared to be free of obstacles.  That is, until the United States military came a-callin'.

Because of the ongoing conflict in Vietnam, Garrett was required to spend the first half of 1971 on active duty.  Once he completed his service, the Mets sent him to AAA-Tidewater, where he hit three home runs in 11 games.  With Garrett away, the Mets handed over the third base job to veteran Bob Aspromonte, who was the last member of the Brooklyn Dodgers to play in the majors (he had one at-bat for Brooklyn in 1956).  The 33-year-old Aspromonte - who was nearly ten years Garrett's senior - hadn't started more than 74 games at the hot corner in any season since 1967, but Hodges inserted him in the starting lineup at third base in 73 of the Mets' first 95 games.  Aspromonte was a disappointment as Garrett's fill-in, batting .244 with a .298 on-base percentage and grounding into as many double plays (12) as he had doubles (7) and homers (5) combined.  Just as disappointing was Wayne Garrett, who returned from Tidewater in late July to bat just .213 with one homer and 11 RBI in 235 plate appearances.

General manager Bob Scheffing, who took over for Johnny Murphy after his untimely passing, had grown impatient with the lack of production at third base.  Garrett's poor production despite having been away from baseball for several months while serving his country led Scheffing to make what many still consider to be the worst trade in franchise history, as he sent Nolan Ryan and three other players to the California Angels for shortstop Jim Fregosi, who had never played a single inning at third base in his 11 seasons with the Angels.  Scheffing assumed Fregosi could make a smooth transition from one infield position to another, yet failed to consider that Fregosi's offensive production in 1971 (.233, 5 HR, 33 RBI in 107 games) was eerily similar to what the Mets got from Aspromonte in the same campaign (.225, 5 HR, 33 RBI in 104 games).  Needless to say, Fregosi was a bust as a Met, while Ryan embarked on a Hall of Fame career as an Angel.

(Focus On Sport/Getty Images)
Garrett did not perform particularly well as the understudy to Fregosi in 1972, batting .232 with two homers and 29 RBI in 298 at-bats, but despite the low batting average, he still managed to lead the team with a .374 on-base percentage (Fregosi reached base at a relatively unimpressive .311 clip).  In doing so, Garrett accomplished something no other Met - past or present - has been able to match.  During the 1972 campaign, Garrett collected 69 hits and walked 70 times in 114 games, making him the only Mets player who played in at least 100 games to have more walks than hits.  The only players to come close to matching Garrett were Bud Harrelson in 1974 (75 hits, 71 walks in 106 games) and Ike Davis in 2013 (65 hits, 57 walks in 103 games).

When the 1973 season started, the Mets were four years removed from their world championship season and had yet to win more than 83 games or finish higher than third place in the division in any subsequent season.  Once again, the Mets turned to Fregosi at third base, with the veteran starting seven of the team's first eight games.  But by early May, Fregosi's batting average had dipped below .200, he had yet to produce a home run and he had driven in just three runs, all while striking out once every four at-bats.  Meanwhile, Wayne Garrett was off to a fantastic start, posting a .268/.388/.439 slash line in his first 99 plate appearances through the middle of May.  In early June, shortstop Bud Harrelson was placed on the disabled list with a fractured wrist, moving Fregosi to his natural position and allowing Garrett to become the team's everyday third baseman for the first time in his five-year career.  By late June, Fregosi was still not producing at the plate, causing the Mets to cut ties with the six-time All-Star by selling his contract to the Texas Rangers.

With Garrett finally entrenched as the team's starting third baseman, the 25-year-old produced his best season in the majors.  In July, Garrett reached base 50 times (31 hits, 19 walks) in 128 plate appearances and he also scored 19 runs while driving in a dozen.  Even though Garrett was finally enjoying personal success, the team was not, as the Mets found themselves in last place with a 58-70 record on August 26.  But on August 27, in the Mets' 6-5 victory over the San Diego Padres, Garrett reached base four times as the team's leadoff hitter and scored the run that gave the Mets a lead they never relinquished.  That win began a season-ending stretch in which the Mets went 24-9, overtaking every team in the N.L. East to win their second division title in five years.  A key reason for New York's surge from worst to first was the play of Wayne Garrett.

Beginning with his effort on August 27, Garrett started 30 of the Mets' final 33 games, producing an impressive .328/.415/.603 slash line.  Garrett collected 16 extra-base hits (seven doubles, two triples, seven homers) and scored 26 times during the five-week stretch.  He also drove in 18 runs - a phenomenal total for a leadoff hitter in such a short period of time.  On the defensive side, Garrett played a key role in the memorable "Ball On The Wall" play, which took place on September 20 against the first place Pittsburgh Pirates.  In the top of the 13rd inning, Bucs outfielder Dave Augustine hit a long fly ball that bounced off the top of the left field fence, staying in the park before it settled into the glove of left fielder Cleon Jones.  Jones then fired the ball to cutoff man Garrett, who had replaced Bud Harrelson at shortstop three innings earlier, and Garrett threw a perfect strike to catcher Ron Hodges to nail Richie Zisk at the plate.  The Mets won the game in the bottom of the 13th on an RBI single by Hodges and moved into first place the following night.  Less than two weeks later, they were crowned champions of the National League East.

Looking back at the pivotal play that helped propel the Mets into first place, Jones admitted that he knew the ball was not going to clear the left field fence, and credited Garrett's positioning as the cutoff man as the main reason why the Mets were able to retire Zisk at the plate.

"Luckily, Garrett was at short," said Jones.  "If Harrelson had been there, he would have taken the relay much further in the outfield and we would never have gotten Zisk."

YouTube video courtesy of Warren Zvon

In 1973, Garrett started 118 games at third base - the first time he started more than 70 games at the position.  Garrett produced career highs across the board, finishing the regular season with 20 doubles, 16 homers, 58 RBI and 74 runs scored.  He was either first, second or third on the team in almost every offensive category and finished fourth in the National League in assists by a third baseman (280) and second in double plays turned (36) despite not starting at the hot corner in 43 of the team's 161 games played.

Garrett's second trip to the postseason wasn't as productive as his first, as he reached base just twice in 24 plate appearances against the Cincinnati Reds.  But he made up for it in the World Series, reaching base ten times in the seven-game loss to the Oakland A's.  Garrett homered off Vida Blue in Game Two and led off Game Three with a home run against future Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter.  But he also made the final out of the Fall Classic, popping out to shortstop Bert Campaneris with two runners on base when a third home run of the series would have tied the game.

After a disappointing end to the 1973 season, Garrett went into the 1974 campaign knowing he was the everyday third baseman for the first time in his career.  Garrett started a career-high 136 games at third in 1974, but the team suffered through its first losing season since 1968 - when Garrett was still bouncing around in the Braves' organization.  Garrett continued to be one of the Mets' more productive players at the plate (13 HR, 53 RBI, 89 walks), but his teammates were not as successful with a bat in their hands, as the Mets finished the season at or near the bottom of the league in many offensive categories.

Although Garrett had proven himself to be a capable third baseman and one of the better offensive players on the team in 1973 and 1974, the front office felt the Mets needed to upgrade their offense, acquiring power-hitting Dave Kingman to play left field and 15-year veteran Joe Torre to play third base - the same Joe Torre who could have been a Met six years earlier had the Mets wanted to part ways with Amos Otis and Nolan Ryan.

Once again, Garrett stood to lose playing time to a more experienced player and once again, Garrett's replacement did not perform well.  Just four years removed from his MVP season in which he led the league in batting average (.363) and RBI (137), Torre had the worst full season of his career, batting a career-low .247.  Torre's six home runs ended a streak of 12 consecutive seasons in which he reached double digits in homers.  He also managed just 35 RBI in 400 plate appearances, or more than 100 fewer than he had during his MVP campaign.

What made Torre's acquisition seem like more of a bust was that Garrett - who was never a high-average hitter - produced a higher batting average (.266) than Torre.  Garrett also matched Torre in homers and finished just one RBI short of Torre's total, even though Garrett had nearly 100 fewer at-bats than Torre did in 1975.  And for the third time in his seven seasons with the team, Garrett led the Mets in on-base percentage, this time with a robust .379 mark.

Wayne Garrett poses with The Coop and Joey Beartran in 2011.  (Photo by Ed Leyro/Studious Metsimus)

In 1976, the Mets posted the second-highest win total in franchise history, going 86-76 under new manager Joe Frazier.  But Garrett was long gone before the team got to celebrate its successful season.  After starting 58 of the team's first 90 games at third base, Garrett was traded to the Montreal Expos, ending his long career with the Mets.  At the time of the trade, Garrett was among the team leaders in runs scored and walks, but he was only hitting .223 and had produced just four homers - his lowest total in four years.  Although Garrett did not believe the Mets would trade him, he knew his lack of production wasn't doing him any favors.

"I am surprised, certainly, but it hasn't been a good year for me," said Garrett.  "I guess that was the reason (for the trade)."

Garrett played nearly eight seasons with the Mets, reaching the postseason twice.  His three postseason homers have been surpassed by just seven Mets players (through 2015) and only eight Mets have walked more times in the playoffs than Garrett, who drew nine bases on balls in 17 career postseason games.  When he played his final game for the Mets in 1976, Garrett ranked among the team's all-time leaders in several offensive categories, despite starting more than 70 games at his familiar third base position in just two of his eight seasons with the team.  Garrett was fifth in hits (667), eighth in doubles (93), tied for fourth in triples (20), ninth in homers (55), sixth in RBI (295), fourth in runs scored (389), fourth in stolen bases (33) and second in walks (482).  Through the 2015 season, Garrett still ranks in the team's all-time top thirty in hits, triples, RBI and runs scored.  He's also in the top twenty in games played (883; 16th), on-base percentage (.348; 19th) and WAR (13.9; 19th).  And only David Wright, Darryl Strawberry, Bud Harrelson and Howard Johnson drew more walks in their Mets careers than Garrett.

Despite the Mets' best efforts to replace him at third base with players such as Joe Foy, Jim Fregosi and Joe Torre, Garrett ended up playing 711 games at the position for the Mets, while Foy, Fregosi and Torre combined to play just 287 games at the hot corner.  To this day, only David Wright and Howard Johnson have played more games at third than Garrett.

Wayne Garrett probably would have liked to play more for the Mets, but the team always felt there was someone better suited to play third base.  After not wanting to part ways with Amos Otis and Nolan Ryan for third baseman Joe Torre in 1969, the Mets eventually did trade away both players in separate deals for two third basemen who both flopped in Flushing.  Otis went on to become a five-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner and had four top-ten finishes in the MVP vote, while Ryan became the greatest strikeout pitcher and no-hit artist of all-time, eventually being inducted in the Hall of Fame and having his number retired by every team he played for after he left the Mets.

In Matthew Silverman's book, "Swinging '73: Baseball's Wildest Season", Garrett explained how he never changed his approach to playing the game even as the Mets were constantly trying to change the identity of their starting third baseman.

Image courtesy of Topps

"I would just go out and play.  I'd play every game the same, as hard as I could. ... I can't go out and make demands.  They're the ones that make the choices as to who plays and who doesn't play.  I'd just do the best that I could and if they wanted to play me at third base, then I'd play third base."

For nearly eight full seasons, Wayne Garrett did his best for a team that always seemed ready to replace him.  But the Mets constantly wanted the next best thing at third base instead of using a player they already had.  And through it all, Garrett just kept on chugging, making his way up the Mets' all-time leader board even as the team kept sitting him on the bench more often than he probably deserved.

The team lost so much when it traded away Amos Otis and Nolan Ryan.  Imagine what the Mets could have gained had they just noticed that the solution to their third base conundrum was wearing No. 11 the whole time.

Note:  The Most With The Least was a thirteen-part weekly series (that's "was" - as in the past tense of "is" - because you just read the final installment) 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
February 8, 2016: Claudell Washington
February 15, 2016: Moises Alou
February 22, 2016: Pat Zachry
February 29, 2016: Art Shamsky
March 7, 2016: Mark Carreon
March 14, 2016: Jose Valentin
March 21, 2016: Pat Mahomes

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