Monday, January 28, 2013

The Mets That Got Away: Amos Otis

Many players in major league history are so attached to one team that people have trouble thinking of them in another uniform.  For example, when someone mentions Babe Ruth, no one thinks of him as a Boston Brave.  Similarly, no one thinks of Reggie Jackson as a Baltimore Oriole.  But Ruth finished his storied 22-year career playing on Boston's National League team in 1935, while Jackson spent one season in the prime of his career playing for Charm City's best in 1976.

This doesn't just apply to Hall of Famers and it doesn't only apply to former Yankees.  There have been a number of players who suited up for the Mets whose names were so attached to other teams that people always say, "wait, those players played for the Mets?"

As ESPN loved to remind us, Frank Tanana "threw 90 in the 70s and 70 in the 90s", referring to his pitch velocity at various stages in his career.  Of course, he was throwing 90+ MPH while blowing away hitters as Nolan Ryan's teammate on the California Angels from 1973 to 1979.  Then he was soft-tossing 70 MPH pitches as a member of the New York Mets in 1993, going 7-15 for the 103-loss Metropolitans before being traded to the Yankees for Kenny Greer, a player who is mostly only known for being mentioned in the afterword of Greg Prince's "Faith and Fear in Flushing" book.  Similarly, Jeff Conine, otherwise known as Mr. Marlin for his contributions to each of Florida's two World Series championship teams, played the last 21 games of his career as a member of the New York Mets in 2007. 

But there is another famous player who is so associated with the team for which he played the majority of his career, that hardly anyone remembers that he got his first taste of the big leagues in a Mets uniform.  When this player ended his major league career after the 1984 season, he was the Kansas City Royals' all-time leader in numerous offensive categories and to this day, remains in their top five in virtually every cumulative offensive statistic.  Yet somehow, the Mets traded him away because they needed help with their offense and decided he was expendable.  Shows how much they knew about the potential of Amos Otis.

Amos Otis as a Met, before he became an All-Star with the Royals.

Amos Joseph Otis was originally drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the fifth round of the 1965 amateur draft.  After playing in the Red Sox minor league system for two seasons, Otis was selected by the Mets in the December 1966 minor league draft and sent to AAA-Jacksonville to start the 1967 season.  Otis played well in Jacksonville, batting .268 with 21 extra-base hits in 126 games.  But the best part of his game was his speed, as Otis swiped 29 bases in 34 attempts for the Suns.  His successful season in the minors earned Otis his first call-up to the big leagues in September.  But in 19 games with the Mets, his minor league success failed to translate at the big league level, as Otis hit .220 with two doubles and one RBI.  He also was thrown out in all four of his stolen base attempts.

Otis spent the entire 1968 season at AAA-Jacksonville, where he had a tremendous season.  Otis batted .286 and led the team in doubles (29), RBIs (70), runs scored (76) and stolen bases (21).  He also showed more power at the plate, belting 15 homers for the Suns.  In two seasons with the organization, Otis had become "the best piece of property we've got", according to farm director Whitey Herzog.  The Mets' belief in Otis was so high that they refused to send him to the Braves when Atlanta was trying to unload Joe Torre after the 1968 season.  Atlanta eventually dealt Torre to the St. Louis Cardinals prior to the 1969 season, where he became a batting champion and National League MVP.  Otis remained in New York, but didn't stay for long.

After a successful 1968 season at the Triple-A level, Otis forced himself onto the Mets' 1969 Opening Day roster.  But manager Gil Hodges had a plethora of talent in the outfield, with four players (Tommie Agee, Cleon Jones, Ron Swoboda, Art Shamsky) all competing for playing time.  As a result, Hodges decided to play Otis at third base, a position that had seen nearly four dozen players participate in a game of musical chairs with each of them losing their hold on the hot corner when the music stopped.  Otis was not pleased with Hodges' decision and struggled at the plate, batting .136 (9-for-66) with no homers and no stolen bases in 36 games, despite starting only three games at third base.

On June 15, the Mets acquired Donn Clendenon from the Montreal Expos to give the team an offensive boost, sending the unhappy Otis back to the minor leagues.  While Clendenon was turning into the offensive spark the Mets were counting on Otis to be, Otis sparkled once again at the Triple-A level, batting .327 with ten homers, 43 RBIs and 19 stolen bases in only 71 games at Tidewater.  With the Mets closing in on their first division title, Otis was recalled by the team on September 13 and played in 12 of the Mets' final 18 games.  But once again, Otis failed to make an impression, batting .185 (5-for-27) with no homers and two RBIs, although he finally did steal his first base on September 17.  The Mets went on to win the World Series in 1969, but Otis did not participate in the postseason.

Amos Otis, who had been deemed untouchable at the beginning of the year, was now becoming very touchable entering the 1969-1970 off-season.

Less than two weeks after third baseman Ed Charles danced joyously on the mound following the Mets' World Series victory, he was released by general manager Johnny Murphy.  With Amos Otis clearly not turning into the third baseman of the future, the Mets decided to part ways with him as well.  After parts of two seasons in New York, where he batted .178 with no homers and five RBIs in 152 at-bats, Otis was dealt to Kansas City (along with pitcher Bob Johnson) for third baseman Joe Foy.  Foy enjoyed some success for the Royals in their inaugural season, batting .262 with 11 home runs, 37 stolen bases and a team-leading 71 RBIs and 72 runs scored.  In other words, he had produced the numbers the Mets were expecting out of Otis.

Although Foy did produce a career-high .373 on-base percentage for the Mets in 1970, his other numbers were far short of what the Mets expected from him.  Foy batted .236 with six homers, 37 RBIs and 22 stolen bases.  He also crossed the plate a mere 39 times in 99 games.  In addition, Foy was a horrible defensive third baseman, committing 18 errors at the hot corner despite starting only 94 games there.  Needless to say, Foy's 1970 campaign was his only one butchering balls at third base for the Mets, as Foy was taken by the Washington Senators in the 1970 Rule 5 draft.  Amos Otis, on the other hand, finally displayed the talent the Mets expected to see when they wouldn't trade him for Joe Torre.

Upon acquiring Amos Otis from the Mets, Kansas City wasted no time in naming him the team's starting centerfielder.  Batting primarily out of the three-spot in the lineup, Otis rewarded his new team immediately, batting .284 with 11 homers, 58 RBIs, 91 runs scored and 33 stolen bases in 1970.  Otis also finished tied for the American League lead with his 36 doubles and was named to his first All-Star team.

Otis continued to grow as a five-tool player in 1971, batting .301 with 15 HR, 79 RBIs, 80 runs scored and a league-leading 52 stolen bases.  In just their third year of existence, Otis became the first Royal to surpass 50 steals in a season.  By comparison, no Met stole 50 or more bases in a season until the team was in its third decade.  (Mookie Wilson became the first man to accomplish this feat when he stole 58 bases for the Mets in 1982.)  For his efforts, Otis was named to the American League All-Star team for the second straight year, won his first Gold Glove Award and placed eighth in the AL MVP vote.

All-Star nods, Gold Glove Awards and Most Valuable Player consideration became a common theme for Otis during his tenure in Kansas City.  From 1970 to 1978, Otis made the All-Star team five times, won three Gold Gloves and finished in the top ten in the MVP vote four times, including a third-place finish in 1973 when he blasted a career-high 26 homers and led Kansas City to a then-franchise best 88-74 record.

As consistent as Amos Otis was, his team was not.  In Otis' first six seasons in Kansas City, the team alternated winning and losing seasons.  In each odd-numbered year (1971, 1973, 1975), the Royals averaged 88 wins and finished in second place in the American League West.  But in even-numbered years (1970, 1972, 1974), Kansas City had two fourth-place finishes and a fifth-place finish and averaged 73 wins.

But all that changed in 1976 when the Royals, under the leadership of new manager Whitey Herzog, earned their first crown as AL West champions, ending the Oakland Athletics' five-year reign atop the division.  Less than a decade after declaring Otis as the best piece of property on the Mets, Herzog was now managing the star player to his first - and the team's first - postseason appearance.  However, Otis barely played in the ALCS against the Yankees, injuring his ankle while running to first base on a groundout in the first inning of Game 1.  His loss would go on to hurt the Royals, as they would go on to lose the best-of-five series on a walk-off homer by Chris Chambliss in Game 5.

Kansas City would repeat as division champions in 1977 and 1978, only to lose to the Yankees in the ALCS both times.  Otis did everything he could to help his team in the 1978 ALCS, batting .429 (6-for-14) with two doubles and four stolen bases in the series, but once again was forced to watch the Yankees celebrate winning a pennant at his team's expense.  The Royals were becoming to the Yankees what the Brooklyn Dodgers were in the 1940s and 1950s, a team that was a consistent winner but could never get over the hump.  After many failed attempts, the Dodgers finally defeated the Yankees in the 1955 World Series.  A quarter of a century later, the Royals followed in their footsteps, with Amos Otis leading the way.

In what was a relatively easy three-game sweep of the Yankees in the 1980 ALCS, Otis collected hits in every game, batting .333 with two runs scored and two stolen bases.  With the Royals down by two runs in Game 1, Otis started a rally by singling off Yankees starter Ron Guidry.  He later came around to score on Frank White's game-tying two-run double.  One inning later, Otis hit a ground-rule double and later scored on Willie Aikens' go-ahead two-run single.  The Royals only trailed for one half inning for the rest of the series.

The Royals would go on to play the Phillies in the 1980 World Series, a series won by Philadelphia in six games.  Mike Schmidt won the World Series MVP Award, an honor that surely would have gone to Amos Otis had the Royals emerged victorious.  Otis batted .478 (11-for-23) in the six-game series, batting .550 over the first five games before going 0-for-3 in Game 6.  After not hitting a home run in his first 13 career postseason games, Otis slammed three homers in the World Series.  He also drove in seven runs in the series, including at least one RBI in each of the first five games.  But the veteran Phillies were too much for the youth-infused Royals, who would have to wait another five years before finally winning their first World Series title.

Although Otis had a tremendous postseason for the Royals in 1980, he failed to play in 130 regular season games for the first time since coming to Kansas City.  In fact, from 1980 to 1983, Otis never reached the 130-game plateau, as nagging injuries whittled away at his playing time.  In that four-year span, Otis averaged 107 games per season and only produced one year that could be considered a typical Amos Otis-type campaign (1982, when he batted .286 with 11 HR and 88 RBIs in 125 games).  The 36-year-old Otis played his final season with the Royals in 1983 before finishing out his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1984, playing in only 40 games with the Bucs before he was released in August.

Amos Otis doesn't have to look far to find his place among the greats in Royals history.

Two years after Otis played his final game in the big leagues, the Kansas City Royals established a Hall of Fame honoring their best players.  The original class of 1986 featured two players.  One was Steve Busby, a two-time All-Star who pitched for the Royals from 1972 to 1980 and became the first pitcher to throw a no-hitter in each of his first two big league seasons.  The other was Amos Otis.

On the official website devoted to the Royals Hall of Fame, there is a page devoted to 1986 inductee Amos Otis.  The slideshow devoted to the star centerfielder probably states it best when it discusses the trade between the Mets and Royals that brought Otis to Kansas City prior to the 1970 campaign, saying:

"Originally drafted by the Red Sox, Otis made his major league debut with the Mets.  New York would eventually trade him to the Royals for highly regarded prospect Joe Foy in a deal that would come to be thought as one of the worst in Mets history.  Their misfortune would prove to be Kansas City's gain."

Otis played 14 of his 17 big league seasons in Kansas City, helping the Royals to four full-season division titles (1976, 1977, 1978, 1980) and one split-season division crown (1981).  When he played his final game as a Royal in 1983, Otis was the team's all-time leader in a multitude of offensive categories, most of which were surpassed by Hall of Famer George Brett, who remained in Kansas City until his retirement in 1993.  But still, to this day, Otis' name can be found all over the Royals' all-time leaderboard.

Amos Otis is in the Royals' top five in games played (1,891; 3rd all-time), at-bats (7,050; 3rd), hits (1,977; 3rd), doubles (365; 4th), triples (65; 3rd), home runs (193; 3rd), total bases (3,051; 2nd), runs scored (1,074; 2nd), RBIs (992; 3rd), walks (739; 2nd) and stolen bases (340; 2nd).  Had he produced those numbers for the Mets, he'd be the team's all-time leader in games played, at-bats, hits, doubles, total bases, runs scored, RBIs and walks.  He would also be second in triples, fourth in home runs and second in stolen bases.  But alas, none of this was allowed to happen because the Mets desperately needed Joe Foy.  Long-time Mets fans are still saying "Foy Vey!" over the deal.

Otis' career is not one that can be defined by one great season.  Whereas some players attain personal bests in various offensive categories in the same year, Otis spread out his best years throughout his entire career.  In 1970, he posted a career-best 176 hits.  He followed that up in 1971 by setting career highs with a .301 batting average and 52 steals.   In 1973, he achieved his personal best by hitting 26 homers.  In 1976, his 40 doubles set a new personal benchmark.  The 1978 season saw him reach his high in RBIs with 96.  And in 1979, he scored a career-best 100 runs.  He also finished in the top ten in the AL MVP vote at age 24 and repeated the feat at age 32.  That's one decade of greatness for one great former Met.

(Amos Otis video shared on YouTube by Kerry Kellermeyer)

If Nolan Ryan is the best Mets pitcher to get away, then Amos Otis is arguably the best Mets hitter that got away.  But that's not the only distinction shared by the two former Mets.  Both players were sent packing before they got a chance to blossom in New York for the same reason - because the Mets needed an offensive-minded third baseman.

In 1969, Amos Otis was part of a package sent to Kansas City for Joe Foy, who was supposed to be a marked improvement at the plate over the recently-released poet laureate, Ed Charles.  But when Foy produced Glider-like numbers for the Mets in 1970, he was taken off the team and was scooped up in the Rule 5 draft by the Washington Senators.  Following the 1971 season, the Mets once again coveted a good-hitting third baseman and traded Nolan Ryan for shortstop - not third baseman - Jim Fregosi.  Needless to say, Fregosi failed at the hot corner for the Mets and Ryan became a Hall of Famer.  Otis didn't quite make it to the Hall of Fame, but he did become a legend in Kansas City.

In the late '60s and early '70s the Mets took a page out of Shakespeare's "Richard III", offering their kingdom for a third baseman.  But instead of getting durable horses to play third, they received broken down players who should been been put out to pasture long before the Mets acquired them.  Amos Otis was one such player who galloped away and became a star elsewhere, while the player he was traded for was anything but a stud.  Not even Shakespeare himself could have penned the tragedy that became the ill-advised Otis-for-Foy transaction.

Note:  The Mets That Got Away is a thirteen-part weekly series that spotlights those Mets players who established themselves as major leaguers in New York, only to become stars after leaving town.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 7, 2013: Nolan Ryan
January 14, 2013: Melvin Mora  
January 21, 2013: Kevin Mitchell 


Prairie Perspective said...

AO was a true all-around talent. His offensive and defensive skills made him a near-HOFer.

Ed Leyro (and Joey Beartran) said...

And somehow Gil Hodges thought he was the answer at third base. Then again, had Otis somehow accepted his role and had he performed reasonably well at third perhaps the Mets don't make the Ryan for Fregosi trade two years later.

Mets history would have looked a lot different!