Monday, February 13, 2017

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets: Doug Sisk

Mets fans love their team.  It doesn't matter if the club is mired in last place or fighting for a title; the fans will always be supportive.  Occasionally, however, the team's fans have been known to show their disdain for a player or two, even though those individuals are wearing the team's colors and are playing on the same side as the athletes who get the loudest cheers.

Richie Hebner didn't like playing in New York.  The fans noticed.  Hebner, who was a gravedigger when he wasn't playing baseball, dug his own grave during his one season with the Mets.

Bobby Bonilla was actually from New York.  But after the Mets acquired him, he rubbed everyone the wrong way with his exploits, both on and off the field.  Bonilla called the press box during a game to dispute an error.  He then wore earplugs on the field to silence the boo birds at Shea.  The coup de grâce was when he offered to be a Bronx tour guide to a Daily News reporter.  And let's just say it probably would have been more violent than the seas during Gilligan's three-hour tour.

Besides hearing constant boos from the fans, Hebner and Bonilla shared something else.  They both played for awful Mets teams.

It's easy to dislike a player when the entire team is playing poorly.  But what about the player who receives negative reactions from fans when the team is playing reasonably well, perhaps even well enough to win a championship?  Or even worse, what if the player being booed was actually having a decent career with the Mets but no one remembers because they were too busy booing him?  Such was the plight of one championship reliever who was made to feel like less of a champion during the latter part of his career.

Doug Sisk didn't throw heat.  But fans often threw heat at him.  (Jacqueline Duvoisin/Getty Images)

Douglas Randall Sisk was drafted by the Mets in 1980 as an amateur free agent.  The Washington state native, who was born and raised approximately 2,400 miles away from where the 1969 and 1973 Mets played their home games, grew up rooting for those pennant winners despite the geographical distance between himself and the team.

"I can recall the '69 World Series and I could always name every player on that team," Sisk said to author Erik Sherman.  "And then I could always recall the '73 National League playoffs when Willie Mays was on the club.  I mean, how many kids from the Seattle area back then could name the rosters from those two teams?  I might have been the only one."

Sisk may have been the only Mets fan he knew in the Pacific Northwest, but he wasn't the only Mets farmhand making a rapid ascent to the big club.  After years of ineptitude brought about by a flawed front office and the dismantling of the team's minor league system, the Mets were committed to restructuring their farm with an influx of young talent.  By 1982, several of those players had become regulars at the major league level, with Wally Backman, Mookie Wilson and Hubie Brooks in the starting lineup just about every day, and Ed Lynch, Jesse Orosco and Neil Allen finding themselves on the mound more often than not.  Just weeks before the curtain closed on the 1982 campaign, Sisk was on the big stage as well.

Making eight relief appearances for the Mets following his September call-up, Sisk was quite effective, allowing just one run (a home run by future Hall of Famer Andre Dawson) in 8⅔ innings.  Sisk, who prior to his late-season promotion had never pitched above the Double-A level, broke camp with the Mets in 1983 and continued to shine.  Used in various relief situations, Sisk notched 11 saves and posted a 2.24 ERA in 104 innings.  In doing so, he became just the fifth pitcher in team history to throw 100 or more innings while pitching exclusively in relief, joining Tug McGraw (1972), Skip Lockwood (1977), Jeff Reardon (1980) and Jesse Orosco (also in 1983; Orosco reached the 100-inning mark two weeks before Sisk did).

Amazingly, Sisk allowed just one home run in those 104 innings in 1983, and once again, it was a future Hall of Famer who took him deep (Mike Schmidt).  To this day, Sisk is the only pitcher in club annals to pitch more than 100 innings in a season and allow fewer than three home runs in that campaign.

As great as Sisk was in 1983, he was even better in 1984, especially during the first half of the season.  Through July 1, Sisk had recorded 11 saves and was the owner of an otherworldly 0.50 ERA, allowing three earned runs in 53⅔ innings.  Opposing hitters were batting just .165 against the right-hander and slugging (if you want to call it that) at a .188 clip.

Sisk had always pitched to contact, nibbling at corners hoping to get batters to swing at his best pitch - the sinkerball.  As a result, hitters didn't collect many hits (just 29 of them through July 1), but they did draw their share of walks (31 bases on balls).  Still, the object of the game for a pitcher is to keep the opponent off the scoreboard and few pitchers were as effective at doing that during the first half of the 1984 season as Sisk was.

As the weather got hotter in July, so did the race for the N.L. East crown between the Mets and Chicago Cubs.  But one player who melted in the heat was Sisk, who allowed runs in six of his 12 outings during the month.  From July 28 to August 6, Sisk made three appearances on the mound.  All three times he pitched against the Cubs.  All three times he allowed runs.  And all three times the Mets lost.  His appearance on July 28, one in which he allowed four runs (three earned) without retiring a batter, caused the fans at Shea Stadium to serenade him with a chorus of boos once he left the mound.  It was a sound Sisk was not yet accustomed to.

It's scary how quickly fans turned on Sisk.
"You know, that's the first time I've ever been booed," Sisk said after the game.  "Oh well, I guess you've got to get booed once in a while."

Once in a while turned into every time he set foot on the mound, as the Shea faithful continued to show a lack of faith in their reliever.  Finally, after his third straight disappointing appearance against the Cubs on August 6, the Mets found a way to keep their once-dependable pitcher away from the hostile home crowd, placing Sisk on the disabled list with what the team called shoulder stiffness.  But the reliever begged to differ, claiming the transaction should not have happened.

''I don't think they should have disabled me,'' Sisk said.  ''I've had soreness in the shoulder in the past, and have pitched with it.  It's demeaning to me to be put on the disabled list.  It wasn't necessary.  It makes me feel they intend to trade me before next season.''

Upon his return from the disabled list, Sisk appeared in five more games in 1984.  He held the opposition scoreless in four of them.  The one time he was scored upon was - you guessed it - against the division-leading Cubs on September 8.

Sisk came into the game with the Mets trailing the Cubs by two runs.  He faced 14 batters in two innings, allowing eight of them to reach base.  But just two of them scored.  Wes Gardner then relieved Sisk and allowed two more Cubs to score.  Cubs pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, who went on to win the Cy Young Award that season, pitched a complete-game shutout as Chicago knocked off New York, 6-0.

It's obvious that Sisk didn't have his best stuff in that game, just as it's obvious that any loss by the second-place Mets to the first-place Cubs was going to sting.  But did Sisk deserve to get viciously booed by the fans on that late summer evening at Shea?  The Mets failed to cross the plate in nine innings.  Sisk came into the game with the Mets already trailing by two runs.  After he was taken out for a pinch-hitter, Gardner pitched an inning and two more Cubs circled the bases.  That means the Mets would have lost the contest anyway even if Sisk had pitched two perfect innings.  Going back to the three consecutive appearances against the Cubs prior to his stint on the disabled list, the first loss (July 28) was definitely on Sisk.  But the other two?  Not so much.

On July 29, Sisk took the mound in the ninth inning with the Mets trailing the Cubs, 2-0.  He then allowed the Cubs to tack on an insurance run.  The Mets failed to score in the bottom of the ninth and lost, 3-0.  That final result was certainly not Sisk's fault, as once again the team could not generate any offense.  Eight days later, Sisk entered the game against the Cubs with the Mets already trailing, 7-3.  He pitched a scoreless sixth, then put up another zero in the seventh.  Sisk then allowed two runs in his third inning of work and the Mets lost to Chicago, 9-3.  Again, New York would have lost even if Sisk had not allowed two runners to cross the plate after he had already pitched two scoreless innings.

When Sisk pitched his final game before being disabled, the Mets' record was 62-45.  When he returned on August 31, the Mets were 73-58.  That means the team posted a losing record (11-13) while Sisk was recovering from his injury.  They also lost four games to the Cubs in the N.L. East standings during Sisk's recovery, going from a slim 1½-game deficit to nearly being out of the race at 5½ games back.  The boo birds probably found a way to blame Sisk for that as well.

Overall, Sisk finished the 1984 campaign with 15 saves and a 2.09 ERA - numbers that were still quite impressive, but not enough to make fans stop booing.  Sisk then began the 1985 season with an 8.53 ERA in his first 11 appearances, which earned him a demotion to AAA-Tidewater.  His manager, Davey Johnson, was as tired of Sisk's poor outings as he was of the fans' reactions to them.

"It was a tough decision to make, but I couldn't think of anything else to do," Johnson said.  "I just felt that his failure, plus the way New York fans were getting on him that I thought this was my only option.  In Tidewater he'll get playing time and a chance to iron out his problems."

Sisk may have ironed out his problems at Tidewater, but the fans at Shea still had a few creases.  (Duvoisin/Getty Images)

When Sisk returned to the team after three weeks with the Tides, he did not pitch well at first.  On June 7, he was brought into an extra-inning affair against the St. Louis Cardinals, allowing six runs (five earned) in his one frame.  Of course, the game took place at Shea Stadium, where the home team's fans got to witness the carnage and voice their displeasure.

A week after his trouncing at the hands of the eventual division champion Cardinals, Sisk was still the owner of an ungodly 7.68 ERA.  But after June 14, Sisk turned his season around, going 3-0 with a 2.95 ERA the rest of the way.  Included in his revival was a yeoman-like effort against the Braves on July 4, when he pitched 4⅓ shutout innings in the Mets' epic 16-13 victory.  Sisk also hurled two scoreless frames against his previous year's nemesis, the Cubs, on August 2, then followed it up with two shutout innings versus the Giants and two more zeroes against the Dodgers, earning the victory in each game.  Unfortunately for Sisk, all of those brilliant efforts took place on the road.  When he returned with his teammates to Flushing, those games in Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles were distant memories for throaty Mets fans.

For the second straight year, the Mets fell short in their quest for a division title, making them more determined to advance to the postseason in 1986.  Also determined to recover from his worst season in the majors was Doug Sisk.  In late September 1985, Sisk was found to have bone chips in his right elbow and was thought to be lost for a significant part of the '86 campaign, if not all of it.  The bone chips, as well as a spur that was found in his pitching elbow, were the reason why Sisk did not pitch well in 1985.

"I kept mentioning all year that I wasn't right," Sisk said.  "I wasn't getting any leverage.  They thought I was a mental case.  They had me throwing sidearm in the bullpen.  Sidearm.  And I sat for 18 days, twice.  I was scared."

Despite a prognosis that cautioned against any pitching-related activities, Sisk spent the off-season swimming and chopping wood back home in Tacoma.  He then did some soft tossing, with his wife serving as his catcher.  Defying the odds, Sisk was back with the team in 1986 before Memorial Day.

Although Sisk got off to a bumpy start, posting a 4.02 ERA over his first 18 appearances, this time the heat of the summer brought back his effectiveness.  From July 29 to September 21, Sisk was one of the best relievers in baseball, posting a stellar 1.02 ERA in 35⅓ innings, while holding opposing hitters to a .238 batting average and .628 OPS.  However, fans still found the need to mercilessly boo Sisk despite his solid recovery from an awful 1985 campaign, causing Johnson to use him primarily when the team was trailing.  Johnson also tried not to use Sisk in games played at Shea Stadium, especially after the All-Star Break.  Once players returned from the mid-season hiatus, Sisk pitched just seven times in his home park until the Mets clinched the division title on September 17.  In the postseason, Sisk did not allow a run in two appearances.  But of course, both of those outings came in mop-up duty, as he pitched the final innings of games the Mets lost.

For the season, Sisk lowered his ERA by more than two runs, finishing the year with a 3.06 mark.  He also didn't allow a single home run in 70⅔ innings - not even to a future Hall of Fame slugger.  How unusual has it been over the years to pitch that many innings for the Mets and not give up a single long ball?

Without generating this chart for me, you'd still be booing Doug Sisk.

Since coming into the league in 1962, only five Mets pitchers have thrown at least 30 innings in a season without allowing a home run.  The only one to surpass 36⅓ innings in a tater-free campaign was Sisk in 1986, and he pitched almost twice as many innings as the next closest gopherless pitcher.

It's been more than half a century since the Mets played their inaugural season.  Since then, only ten pitchers have thrown more innings in a season than Sisk without allowing a single ball to leave the yard, as detailed in the chart below.

I wonder if the other pitchers on this list had to put up with constant boos from their home crowd.

The Mets failed to repeat as world champions in 1987, but Sisk had another solid season.  He pitched 78 innings - his highest regular season total since his fabulous 1983 campaign - and posted a 3.46 ERA.  He also walked just 22 batters, averaging 2.5 walks per nine innings, which was the lowest ratio of his career.

When the Mets were battling it out with the St. Louis Cardinals for the division title in September, it wasn't Sisk who gave up the crushing, season-changing homer to Terry Pendleton.  That was Roger McDowell.  And when New York was still mathematically alive during the last week of the season, Sisk wasn't on the mound giving up a walk-off blast to light-hitting pinch-hitter Luis Aguayo.  That was Jesse Orosco.  In fact, from August 31 until the end of the season, Sisk pitched ten times and recorded a 2.08 ERA.  Even more impressive was the slash line against him, as opposing hitters could only manage a .208/.240/.229 mark in those ten appearances spanning 13 innings.

The Mets used three relievers in high-leverage situations in 1987 (McDowell, Orosco and rookie Randy Myers).  McDowell finished the year with a 4.16 ERA, while Orosco's ERA ballooned to 4.44.  Myers, who finished sixth in the N.L. Rookie of the Year vote, had the lowest ERA of the three, but it was still a relatively high 3.96 mark.  And that was still half a run higher than the ERA posted by Sisk, who was traded to Baltimore at the end of the season.

Doug Sisk was a Met for six seasons.  He had a rough patch against the division-winning Cubs in 1984, but was mostly stellar against the rest of the league.  He admittedly had a difficult year in 1985, but an elbow injury was later revealed to be the reason for his ineffectiveness.  Still, fans viewed him as a scapegoat, booing him just about every time he stepped on the mound at Shea Stadium during the final three-and-a-half seasons of his tenure in New York.

They booed the owner of 3.10 lifetime ERA as a Met, which is tied for the seventh-lowest mark for all pitchers who threw at least 400 innings in franchise history.  Other pitchers in the top ten include Tom Seaver (2.57), Jesse Orosco (2.73), R.A. Dickey (2.95), Jon Matlack (3.03), Jerry Koosman (3.09) and Dwight Gooden (3.10).  Those pitchers were either Cy Young Award winners, Rookie of the Year Award recipients or pitchers who recorded final outs in the World Series for the Mets.  In other words, Sisk is in good company.

In addition, the man who was on the receiving end of the fans' vitriol during the latter part of his career allowed just 11 home runs in 412⅓ innings during his time with the Mets.  That's an average of 0.24 homers per nine innings - the lowest of any pitcher with at least 400 innings in club annals.  The only other hurler with a ratio under 0.50 is Roger McDowell.  The ten players directly behind Sisk on this list include the usual suspects - Seaver, Koosman, Matlack, Gooden, Orosco - as well as other notable pitchers like Nolan Ryan, Bob Ojeda and David Cone.

Three world champion relievers.  Only one was booed regularly.  (NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

The 1985 season happened for Sisk.  It can't be erased.  But the other five years he was in New York, he pitched to a 2.63 ERA and held his opponents to a .248 batting average and .656 OPS.  He did this despite the fact that he wasn't a strikeout pitcher and had his share of walks when hitters were able to lay off his sinker.  But once a player is disliked in New York, he's always disliked in New York, even if his full résumé suggests that the hatred is unwarranted.

Doug Sisk experienced everything after being signed by the Mets in 1980.  He made his way through the minor league ranks quickly.  He joined Jesse Orosco to become a force in the bullpen just as the Mets were shedding their losing ways.  He was part of a world championship team.  But he couldn't get the fans on his side, no matter how hard he tried.  When his then-fiancee asked him why he didn't do anything about the constant derision, he only had one response.

"I can't beat up 60,000 fans."

Richie Hebner heard it from Mets fans.  Bobby Bonilla did, too.  The slow, rising crescendo of fans voicing their displeasure is enough to run the toughest players out of New York.  But not every player deserves that kind of treatment.  And certainly, a player who is a significant part of a team's rise to contention, culminating in an eventual championship, shouldn't have to be subjected to that kind of vocal negativity.

But that's what Sisk had to put up with for several years as a Met.  And unjust as it may be, that's also what he has had to deal with ever since he played his final game in New York.  Such is the agony of Doug Sisk, a player who wanted nothing more than to cherish being part of a victorious team accomplishment.


Note: The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players and personnel who experienced the best of times and the worst of times with the team.  For previous installments, please click on the names below:

January 2, 2017: Tom Seaver
January 9, 2017: Mike Piazza
January 16, 2017: Wally Backman
January 23, 2017: Daniel Murphy
January 30, 2017: Frank Cashen
February 6, 2017: Ed Kranepool


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