Monday, February 20, 2017

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets: Joan Whitney Payson

All things considered, I've had a pretty fortunate run as a Mets fan.  Shortly after signing up to bleed Met blue at a very young age, they won a championship shortly into my run as a fan and were a very celebrated team.  An organization comprised of very colorful individuals (Mex, Kid, to name a few) and budding superstars (Straw, Doc, to complement the veterans) helped cement me as a Mets fan for life.

Thanks, Dad.

Being a student of history and literature as well, I was always fascinated by the Mets' overall past and how they came to be.  Little did I know, at age 10, that 1962 was just a mere 25 seasons prior in 1986.  As someone who celebrated her Tom Seaver birthday recently, 25 years is a drop in the hat.

Then by watching the video An Amazin' Era, I realized how the Mets were born.  It was hard for me to imagine at age 10, and even later in my 20s and 30s by reading books like Bums, Amazin', and Boys of Summer, what it might be like to see one of my teams (or my teams' rivals) leave town and go straight cross the country.  Because without the loss of the Brooklyn Dodgers (now of Los Angeles) and New York (baseball) Giants (now San Francisco), the Mets may not exist.  I'm sure I'd still love baseball.  But the idea of no Mets is disconcerting to me, despite how much they like to mess with my feelings.                                                                                                                                             

In the 2007 HBO documentary, The Ghosts of Flatbush, an older fan who was quite young when the Dodgers left town in 1957 said that "Los Angeles may have been Siberia, it was so far away."  So from 1958 through 1961, there was no New York National League baseball team.  And according to many amateur baseball historians (like my father, who I have to blame for being in this mess), New York always was and always will be a National League city.  Despite what those pinstripe dummies in the Bronx try to tell you.

Meanwhile, in that same documentary, not to mention countless books written about those bums of Kings County, a few lines were devoted to "that other" National League ball club that shared success in the same municipality but rival boroughs, and their fans shared a heated passion that was reminiscent of the Hatfields and the McCoys.  You'd never know, given the ink and video devoted to reminding us about the Brooklyn Dodgers, that the other team that inspired the Mets' color orange played at the Polo Grounds, the Mets' first home.  The other team that won a championship as late as 1954 in New York.  And had storied players like Willie Mays, who made the infamous "Catch" in that same World Series. (And Mays is why I believe I'd have been a Polo Grounds inhabitant).

And the other team, that according to the many books written on the era, made majority owner Horace Stoneham out to be a "patsy" who was cajoled by Dodger owner Walter O'Malley to provide a natural rival to the Dodgers on the west coast, who had one proverbial foot out the door to L.A. 

Stoneham's team was his primary source of income.  It was an eat or be eaten situation for him to move the team to make it more profitable.  While he originally thought "midwest," to go further west wasn't much of a stretch for him.

Yet, a Giants' minority shareholder was very vocal about the team not leaving town.  In fact, hers was the only dissenting vote to move the team to San Francisco.  Several years later, that voter got her own wish: to bring National League baseball back to the Big Apple in a big way.

(Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

Joan Whitney Payson was not only a philanthropist, coming from a very well-known and well-to-do socialite family, but she was a huge baseball fan as well.  She was a known art collector, but she mostly wanted to collect ticket stubs to baseball games.  (I also believe her to be my spirit animal).

Yet for how revered Mrs. Payson (as she is still referred to this day by several prominent former Mets like Tom Seaver and Ed Kranepool) was and is in Mets lore, she presided over some of the most disastrous Mets teams.  While no one would ever question her Mets love and baseball fandom, her baseball legacy was tarnished by her family who inherited the team after she passed.  A family who didn't give a hoot about baseball or running a team, and allowed the team franchise player to be traded on their watch, a move that ultimately led to several years of hardship in Queens.

We know how the current front office ownership is viewed by most fans today.  But would Mrs. Payson been given the benefit of the doubt had she owned the team today?  I mean, would Joan Payson have been essentially "Frederica" Wilpon, someone who loved baseball so much that they just wanted to own a team, and thought fans were a means to an end to obtain that goal?

That may be a bit of an unfair judgment, but let's take a look at how the team operated in the Payson years.  (This also accounts for the de Roulet ownership after her death, since they inherited the team.)

It goes without saying that in 1962, the Mets were historically bad.  Monumentally bad.  Horrific.  Yet, fans were so hard up for National League baseball in the Big Apple, that they went and root root rooted for the Metsies (and went home not too happy 120 times in '62, but that's okay).  Though by 1968, they didn't have another 100+ loss season.  So that's a plus, I guess. 


Year W L W-L% Finish
1962 40 120 0.250 10th of 10
1963 51 111 0.315 10th of 10
1964 53 109 0.327 10th of 10
1965 50 112 0.309 10th of 10
1966 66 95 0.410 9th of 10
1967 61 101 0.377 10th of 10
1968 73 89 0.451 9th of 10
1969 100 62 0.617 1st of 6
1970 83 79 0.512 3rd of 6
1971 83 79 0.512 3rd of 6
1972 83 73 0.532 3rd of 6
1973 82 79 0.509 1st of 6
1974 71 91 0.438 5th of 6
1975 82 80 0.506 3rd of 6
1976 86 76 0.531 3rd of 6
1977 64 98 0.395 6th of 6
1978 66 96 0.407 6th of 6
1979 63 99 0.389 6th of 6


And yet the two standout seasons, 1969 and 1973, almost happened by accident.  The Mets were hardly world beaters during Payson's ownership, but they did have success that ultimately made the struggles worth it.  Some high highs, and low lows, if you will. 

On the back end of the operation, though, Payson seemed to be a shrewd investor, but establishing her own level of cronyism that impacted the team well after her death.  According to Amazin' by Peter Golenbock, Mrs. Payson was approached to be an investor in the "Continental League" team that would be based in New York.  Initially, she declined, until she was given a piece of information that this was a ploy to get the National League to expand in New York.  She later bought out the original minority shareholders, ultimately acquiring 80% of the team (A percentage, related in her obituary, that she wasn't even sure of, and responded with child-like glee, "Oh I think I own somewhere around 80-85%!").

The remaining 20% was held by a relative of the political Bush family, Herbert Walker...and M. Donald Grant, her personal stockbroker.

Oh.

Yet, from a business standpoint, the Mets probably would not exist had she not been eager to bring baseball back to New York.  But she did not seem interested in fielding a winning team, or at the very least, not willing to invest much in the team.  Also according to Amazin', when Branch Rickey was approached to run the new team, he insisted on a $5 million budget.  (In today's dollars, it would be in the neighborhood of $41 million...which is chump change for today's baseball, but back then probably astronomical, pre-free agency era).

They declined Rickey's demands...and named Grant team president.  On the general manager front, they hired George Weiss to run the team who had a reputation of being, shall we say, "frugal."  Weiss was tasked with finding "retreads" (i.e. ex-Giants and Dodgers who were beloved by the fans who stayed behind).  These players were also tasked to bring fans back to the Polo Grounds.  Basically, every Mets game early on was a Old Timers' Day parade featuring old Dodgers or Giants.

Until 1967, though, when a young upstart pitcher named Tom Seaver joined the team, the Mets had a nondescript team fielding some flashy but mostly nondescript players. 

If you think about it, the team got lucky when they got Seaver.  THEY WON A FREAKING LOTTERY DRAWING, FOR PETE'S SAKE.

Sporting News/Getty Images)
Yet the drafting of Seaver, not to mention the breakout of 1968 rookie pitcher Jerry Koosman (who finished in second to future Hall of Famer Johnny Bench in the ROY awards that year...I just like throwing that out there), the addition of former Brooklyn Dodger great Gil Hodges as team manager, plus some trades that got the likes of Tommie Agee, along with Mets old schoolers Cleon Jones and Ed Kranepool got them to a 100-win season in 1969...AND a World Championship. 

Mrs. Payson, from most reports though, preferred to stay in the shadows, and was more than happy to just funnel the funds and be a matronly figure for her boys.  Yet, by anointing Grant (not a baseball guy) with decision-making powers, well, she may have had more of a Nelson Doubleday attitude towards being an owner (minus getting the correct baseball guys making the baseball decisions).  Grant himself certainly operated from a Wilpon very-hands-on perspective.

While the Mets finished in third place in each of the 1970-72 seasons, the only time Mrs. Payson "intervened," for lack of a better term, in baseball operations was to bring Willie Mays back to New York.  As legend had it, Mays was her favorite former New York Giant, and wanted him so badly on the Mets that, as Golenbock reported in Amazin', she offered to buy him from the San Francisco team for $1 million years before the actual trade went down.  Horace Stoneham ultimately acquiesced in 1972, and she brought Mays back to the city where he started defining his legacy as one of the all-time greats.

1973 was Mays' last year in baseball, but he managed to be part of a wild run for the "Ya Gotta Believe" team that won the NL East, went on to win the National League Championship, but lost to the Oakland A's in a seven-game World Series. 

By 1975, the Mets had finished two seasons, finishing in fifth and third place, respectively, after their YGB run.  Yet, the biggest loss of all that was a catalyst for sending the team into relative obscurity in the late '70s was the loss of Mrs. Payson herself, who passed away in September of '75.   Unfortunately, her love for baseball wasn't inherited by her family, who were now in charge of the Mets.  The de Roulet family entrusted M. Donald Grant with more baseball powers, preferring to follow his lead.

Generally, the landscape of baseball as we know it today also changed after the 1975 season with the advent of free agency.  With Mrs. Payson gone, and her family knowing little about baseball and caring less, M. Donald Grant had more reign over the team's payroll than ever before.

Under her family's watch, the team lost Tom Seaver in the "Steve Henderson" trade (Joe Torre once referred to the deal as such, and it always made me laugh).  Grant got rid of basically anyone who contributed to the Mets' successful years, because Grant had unquestioned power, and therefore, wanted to keep the payroll as low as possible.  The new baseball team owners didn't know squat about running a baseball team.

I have to wonder, actually, if that Midnight Massacre trade that has defined so many Mets fans' identities, would have taken place if Mrs. Payson was still alive. Here's my genuine curiosity: if free agency existed on the level when Mrs. Payson was still alive, would she have encouraged Grant to write out the blank checks?  I have to believe she would have personally intervened with Seaver and not allowed that infamous hatchet job by Dick Young to happen.  Even she knew how important Tom Terrific was to the Mets' name.

Evidence points to the fact that while the team loved her and thought she was a good owner who didn't meddle, it's possible that she, too, might have listened to Grant's suggestions to keep payroll low.  The alternative is that she would have done what she needed to do to keep her players happy - namely Seaver, Koosman and Dave Kingman - and would've made sure they were paid to market standards.

Joan Whitney Payson, original Mets owner.  Source: Pinterest

There aren't many quotes attributed to Joan Payson, mostly because she let her front office do the talking for her.  Her talking was to sign the checks and go to the games.  Unfortunately, it wasn't enough.

But with the passing of Mrs. Payson, and the Mets being sold to the Doubleday/Wilpon consortium in 1980, it was the end of an era.  That era being a throwback to how baseball used to operate under a "gentlemen's agreement" where owners called the shots and were nice enough to give jobs to scrappy baseball players.

But one woman broke that glass ceiling, and it's a shame we never knew how the team would have operated had she not put cronies at the top who didn't keep her best interests and wishes for a successful team at heart. 

So to recap, Joan Whitney Payson was a wealthy woman who loved baseball so much, she owned her own team.  Preferring to stay in the background, she let people loyal to her do the baseball work for her.  Yet, under her ownership, the team had two very successful years culminating in a World Championship and a National League Championship.  For those "highest of highs," the team suffered some abominable lows, like their 120-loss inaugural season to the trade of the team's "Franchise player" after her death, whose loss took years to overcome, even after the team was sold by the surviving de Roulet family.

Since 1962, the Mets have had four major ownership changes: Mrs. Payson, the de Roulets (her surviving family), Nelson Doubleday/Fred Wilpon, then the Wilpon/Katz Sterling Equities consortium.  There's been some overlap, yet no owner was quite as beloved as Mrs. Payson, who was the old grande dame of the organization and of baseball.

As Terence Mann spoke in Field of Dreams, the one constant through the years has been baseball.  It has been erased, rebuilt and erased again.  Mrs. Payson's ownership brings us back to a simpler time of baseball, and clearly could adapt to changes that sadly the people she put in the charge were not able to do.  There are signs of Mrs. Payson around Citi Field today, especially in the Mets Hall of Fame, where she was enshrined as a member in 1981.

Yes, under Joan Payson, the Mets had the thrill of some victorious years, but there was plenty of agony to go around.


Editor's note:  In case you hadn't noticed, this piece was written by Taryn "The Coop" Cooper", because she knows a thing or two about being a woman who loves baseball.


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
February 13, 2017: Doug Sisk

 

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 baseball-reference.com 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 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

 
 

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets: Ed Kranepool

In the film "Forrest Gump", the titular character ran across the country from one ocean to the other just because he "felt like runnin' ".  His travels took him across flat land, up the highest mountain, back down again, and even through a pile of dog ... ahem ... poo.  After spending three years, two months, 14 days and 16 hours on the roads of America, Gump decided to stop running because he was tired.  There was no fanfare as his run came to an end.  He just quit and went home.

Gump's spirited jog commenced around October 1, 1979, as a news broadcast that was airing at the beginning of his cross-country trek was reporting that President Jimmy Carter had collapsed that day while attempting to complete a six-mile race.  Just one day before Gump began his long run in the fictional town of Greenbow, AL, another long run was coming to an end in the very real city of St. Louis, MO.  And when this run of 18 seasons with a single major league franchise came to an end, it also had no fanfare.  It just marked the quiet close to the career of the last man who played for the original Mets.

He was steady.  He was Eddie.  But as a teenager, was he ready?  (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Edward Emil Kranepool was barely out of his James Monroe High School cap and gown when the Mets signed the amateur free agent to an $85,000 contract in June 1962.  The new expansion team was enamored with the young man who broke Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg's home run records at Monroe, promoting him to the big club before its inaugural season was over.  At age 17 and just three months out of high school, the Bronx-bred Kranepool collected his first major league hit at Manhattan's Polo Grounds - an opposite field double off Cubs reliever Don Elston.

In 1963, Kranepool split his time between AAA-Buffalo and the Mets, producing an impressive .310 batting average and .507 slugging percentage in 53 minor league games, while being overmatched at the major league level, batting .209 and slugging .289 in 86 games.  The following year, his last as a teenager and his first at the newly opened Shea Stadium, Kranepool became just the 13th player to appear in 100 or more games in a single season prior to blowing out 20 candles on his birthday cake.  The first baseman improved greatly during that 1964 campaign, batting .257 and finishing among the team leaders in hits (108), doubles (19) and home runs (10).

Although Kranepool was blossoming into an offensive talent, the Mets continued to bring up the rear in the National League standings.   After losing 111 and 109 games in 1963 and 1964, respectively, the Mets found a way to regress in 1965, finishing the year with a 50-112 record.  The team could actually have been a lot worse had it not been for Kranepool's performance in the first half of the season.

Through games of June 3, Kranepool batted a hefty .344 and produced a .922 OPS, while racking up 21 extra-base hits and 29 RBI.  As a result, Kranepool was chosen to be the Mets' sole representative in the All-Star Game, his first and only selection for the Midsummer Classic.  Kranepool didn't get to play in the game, as N.L. manager Gene Mauch chose to play Ernie Banks at first base during the entire contest, but the Mets' first baseman did become the youngest player at that position to become an All-Star - a distinction Kranepool still holds to this day.

Kranepool ran out of gas in the second half of the 1965 campaign, as evidenced by his .216/.268/.292 post-All-Star Game slash line.  He also had to deal with the unexpected retirement of the only manager he had ever played for in the big leagues, Casey Stengel, who broke his hip in a fall in late July and called it a career a month later.

When the Mets signed Kranepool in 1962, they were hoping to get the player who broke all of Hank Greenberg's high school records.  Instead, they got a mediocre player who seemed to be living out a real life "Groundhog Day" situation, doomed to repeat the same campaign year after year.  From 1964 to 1967, an average season for Steady Eddie saw him put up a .258/.312/.383 slash line with 19 doubles, 12 homers and 52 RBI.  Kranepool never hit below .253 or above .269 in any of those four seasons.  He also hit exactly ten home runs in three of the four years (he flexed his muscles in 1966 when he bashed a career-high 16 homers) and produced between 45 and 57 RBI during the quadrennium.  Kranepool was also playing almost every day, averaging over 500 plate appearances per season.  That all changed in 1968, when a new manager came aboard and ended up extending Kranepool's career by playing him less.

Prior to 1968, the Mets had lost 100 or more games in five of their first six seasons.  They had also established a permanent residency in the National League cellar, coming out for a sniff of ninth place just once in 1966.  But after six seasons of playing like a first-year expansion team, the arrival of skipper Gil Hodges shifted the mindset of the team.

"Spring Training, Gil Hodges wanted you to lead by example," Kranepool said about his former teammate and current manager.  "He built the ballclub around leadership."

Kranepool made his debut as a defensive replacement for Hodges, then played under him.  (Herb Scharfman/Getty Images)

The Mets won 73 games in '68, fueled by the pitching of rookie Jerry Koosman and sophomore starter Tom Seaver.  Unfortunately, Kranepool had his worst season since 1963, batting .231 with only three homers and 20 RBI despite getting the majority of the starts at first base.  Kranepool continued to get the bulk of the playing time at first base during the early part of the 1969 season as the team got off to an 18-23 start.  But after a club-record 11-game winning streak in late May and early June suddenly thrust the Mets into second place, the team felt the need to upgrade its offense, especially after being held to three runs or fewer in 34 of their first 56 games.  The team addressed the problem by trading for veteran slugger Donn Clendenon.

At the time of the trade, Kranepool was back to his typical pre-1968 self, which meant he was batting .256 with six homers and 26 RBI while getting most of the starts at his customary position. The lefty-swinging Kranepool and the right-handed batting Clendenon were then platooned at first base by Hodges, which maximized power production at the corner infield spot.

From June 15 until season's end, Kranepool and Clendenon combined to produce 17 homers and 60 RBI in 441 plate appearances.  Kranepool also produced some huge hits along the way.  His walk-off RBI single off future Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins on July 8 capped a three-run, ninth-inning rally and gave the Mets a thrilling victory over the rival Cubs, just one day before Seaver shut down Chicago with his Imperfect Game.  Five days after his hit against Jenkins, Kranepool delivered another game-winner, this time a tie-breaking RBI double in the eighth inning against Montreal that gave New York a 4-3 victory.  The Expos were once again victimized by Kranepool on September 18, when the veteran homered and drove in both runs in the Mets' 2-0 victory.  Six days later, the Mets wrapped up their first N.L. East division title.

"We kept applying the pressure, and the Cubs knew they were in a pennant race," Kranepool said.  "Every time we played a big series, we won it.  We beat the Cubs head to head in every series after that.  We got some breaks - but look, a winning team makes its breaks."

Buoyed by their late-season push for the playoffs, the Mets miraculously won it all in 1969, sweeping the Atlanta Braves in the inaugural National League Championship Series and needing just five games to upset the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.  Kranepool started four of the Mets' eight postseason games, collecting a hit in each contest.  In the Mets' first-ever playoff game, Kranepool scored two runs and delivered the fielder's choice that plated the go-ahead run in the eighth inning.  The following day, Kranepool got the Mets on the board first with an RBI single in the first inning.  Kranepool played in just one World Series game because the Orioles started left-handed pitchers in four of the five games, but he made the most out of his sole appearance, clubbing a home run in the Mets' Game Three victory - the first Fall Classic game ever played in Flushing.

The look of a champion.  (Focus On Sport)
Although he was only 24 at the time, Kranepool had become the longest tenured Met.  He was also a world champion and one of the leaders in the tight-knit clubhouse.  Third baseman Ed Charles, the poet laureate of the Mets, said it best when he discussed the team's camaraderie during their championship season.

"We felt like a family," Charles said.  "It started with Mrs. Joan Payson, the owner, who had a habit of making people feel at home.  It included the leadership of Gil Hodges.  And there was the chemistry of the team.  We were all close.  I went to barbecues at the home of Kranepool, (Art) Shamsky, (Ron) Swoboda.  We went out together on the road.  I never saw a team with so much closeness."

As close as Kranepool was to his teammates in 1969, he ended up playing far away from them for most of the 1970 campaign.  Kranepool batted just .222 in April, then went 0-for-May, failing to collect a hit in the 12 games he appeared in during the month.  After not collecting a hit in five June games, which dropped his batting average to a pitcher-like .118, Kranepool was unceremoniously demoted to AAA-Tidewater, spending the next two months there trying to regain his hitting stroke.  Kranepool batted .310 in 47 games with the Tides and was called back up to the Mets in mid-August, where he was used exclusively as a pinch-hitter.  His final major league stats for the year: .170 batting average, eight hits, no homers and three RBI in 43 games.

While Kranepool was in the minors in 1970, his bat wasn't missed in the starting lineup, as Clendenon batted .288 with 22 homers and a then-franchise record 97 RBI.  But Clendenon saw a significant drop-off across the board in 1971 (.247, 11 HR, 37 RBI in 88 games), which allowed Kranepool to re-establish himself in the big leagues.  Kranepool's renaissance season ended with a .280 batting average, 14 homers and a career-high 58 RBI.

At the conclusion of the 1971 campaign, Clendenon was released by the Mets, allowing Kranepool to take over first base on a full-time basis for the first time since before Clendenon's arrival.  But the sudden death of Gil Hodges prior to the start of the 1972 season changed the direction of the club, with Yogi Berra tabbed to replace the beloved Hodges.  The passing of his manager and mentor also affected the play of Kranepool, who batted just .204 with four homers and 14 RBI through the team's first 87 games.  Kranepool eventually recovered after a three-month mourning period, batting .326 with 15 extra-base hits and 20 RBI over his final 195 plate appearances.

As good as Kranepool was during the second half of the 1972 season, he was surely going to lose playing time the following season to John Milner, who finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year vote in '72.  Milner played mostly in left field during his stellar rookie season, but was more suited to play first base.  In 1973, Milner and Kranepool switched positions, with Milner getting most of his starts at first base and Kranepool splitting time between first and left.  Kranepool did not respond well to the switch, batting .239 in 1973 with just one homer and 35 RBI.  He was also mostly a spectator during the Mets' run to their second division title in five seasons, appearing solely as a pinch-hitter during the last two weeks of the regular season.  But even in limited action, Kranepool was instrumental in getting the Mets back to the World Series.

The Mets played a dozen games during the 1973 postseason; Kranepool started one of them.  That lone start occurred in the first do-or-die playoff game in franchise history and only happened because right fielder Rusty Staub injured his shoulder in Game Four of the NLCS while making a spectacular catch against the outfield wall.  With the Mets and Cincinnati Reds having split the first four games of the best-of-five series, Kranepool got the nod from Berra to start Game Five in left field, with Cleon Jones moving to right in lieu of the injured Staub.  Kranepool rewarded his manager immediately, driving in the first two runs of the game with a bases-loaded single.  The Mets never trailed in the game and advanced to their second World Series, which they lost in seven games to the Oakland A's with the underhand-throwing Staub returning to right field and the healthy Kranepool returning to the bench.

The bench became a familiar place for Kranepool for the rest of his career.  From 1974 to 1978, Kranepool started just 317 games over the five-year period, making more than 82 starts in just one of the five seasons (1976).  Although he performed well as a part-time starter, batting .286 with a .399 slugging percentage, Kranepool was lethal as a pinch-hitter.  When he came off the bench from 1974 to 1978, Kranepool batted an eye-popping .396 (57-for-144) and slugged .590.  Included in the torrid stretch was a .486 batting average as a pinch-hitter in 1974 - the first of four consecutive seasons in which Kranepool batted .400 or higher as a sub - and a .300 pinch-hitting average in 1978, which doesn't seem as impressive until you consider that he hit .065 (2-for-31) during the season when he batted in other roles.

In the mid-to-late '70s, Kranepool was the team's top pinch-hitter and top mustache-grower.  (Michael Zagaris/Getty Images)

By the time 1979 rolled around, the team was in shambles.  Gone were Seaver and Koosman, with The Franchise being traded to Cincinnati as part of the Midnight Massacre in 1977 and Kooz being dealt to the Minnesota Twins following the 1978 campaign.  Not a single player from the '73 pennant-winning team remained at the start of the 1979 season.  Except for Kranepool.  And his days as a Met were also about to come to an end.

Following the death of team owner Joan Payson in 1975, control of the club went to her husband, Charles, and daughter, Lorinda de Roulet, neither of whom shared the same passion for the game that Mrs. Payson had.  Baseball operations fell into the hands of team chairman M. Donald Grant, who had no intention of spending much money to better the team.  Instead, he pared the roster of veteran players who were asking to be paid like their counterparts in other cities.  The camaraderie that existed between the players when the Mets won the World Series in 1969 was completely gone a decade later, and so was Grant, who was removed as the team's chairman by the club's board of directors prior to the 1979 season.

Kranepool, who was never one to mince his words, had some harsh feelings about the questionable transactions made by the team during the ill-fated M. Donald Grant era.

"Look at some of the deals they made," Kranepool said.  "They were horrendous.  They unloaded everybody and didn't make a good deal."

And although most of the negativity surrounding the team following the death of Payson fell on Grant, Kranepool always dished out more vitriol towards general manager Joe McDonald.

"I didn't have a good relationship with Joe McDonald," Kranepool said matter-of-factly.  "I didn't respect him.  I didn't like him; he didn't know anything about baseball.  There were termites who ate away at the organization, and he was part of the termites.  Donald Grant got blamed for it, but Joe McDonald was the one who made the trades."

Because of his testy relationship with McDonald, Kranepool knew that when his contract expired at the end of the 1979 season, he would no longer be a Met, regardless of how he performed.  In what would be the final year of his long career, Kranepool batted .232 and managed just two homers and 17 RBI in 174 plate appearances.  To add insult to injury, the Mets closed out their season at Shea Stadium on September 23 by honoring Lou Brock of the Cardinals, who set a major league record when he stole the 938th base of his career in his final appearance at Shea.  Kranepool, the only man to play for the Mets in each of the franchise's first 18 seasons, didn't even get to play in the game and received no ovation from the home crowd.

Following the season, Kranepool was not tendered a contract and became a free agent.  Although he was only 34 at the conclusion of the 1979 campaign, Kranepool never played another game in the majors.  He finished his career as the Mets' all-time leader in nearly offensive category, even though a good chunk of his career was spent riding the pine.

Ed Kranepool wasn't just a hometown kid living out his dream on the baseball diamond.  He was also a stockbroker and a restaurateur.   He appeared in commercials, movies and TV shows, doing everything from plugging shaving cream to being accused of stealing Chico Escuela's soap in a classic Saturday Night Live sketch.  And on multiple occasions, he used his business savvy to try to purchase the team he once played for.

Krane.  (Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images)
Following the 1979 campaign, the newly-retired Kranepool joined forces with a small group of investors in a failed attempt to buy the Mets from the Payson/de Roulet family.  The Mets were eventually sold to the team of publisher Nelson Doubleday and real estate investor Fred Wilpon.  Three decades later, when Wilpon encountered financial difficulties due to his connections with Ponzi scheme swindler Bernard Madoff, he attempted to sell a small percentage of the team to increase his cash flow.  Once again, Kranepool stepped up to the plate, this time with a group of investors that included Martin Luther King III, but no purchase was ever made.

When Doubleday and Wilpon bought the Mets in 1980, Kranepool officially ended his career in baseball.  His retirement as a player ensured that he couldn't affect the Mets on the field, and his inability to purchase a part of the team meant that he couldn't have a say off it.  But despite his numerous failures - not being able to buy a part of the team, not developing into a perennial All-Star and not even being an everyday player for the majority of his career - Kranepool remains beloved by Mets fans to this day.

His career began as a 17-year-old when the expansion Mets called the Polo Grounds home.  He developed into a serviceable player as the team moved into their new home in Queens.  He owned a World Series ring before he turned 25.  He thrived as a pinch-hitter during the latter part of his career.  And he was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame after his playing days were over.

Forrest Gump got to experience and influence many key moments in American history just by being there.  Ed Kranepool's longevity did the same for him, as he witnessed and participated in many of the Mets' seminal moments.  Kranepool was there for the highs of two pennants and one World Series championship.  He was also present for the decline and dismantling of a once-proud team.  And when his run as the longest tenured Met was done, the native New Yorker just went home.

Kranepool will always have a home when it comes to the Mets.



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