Friday, January 31, 2014

A "Best On The Worst" Side Story: The Donne Wall For Johnny Damon Non-Trade

Every year, I write a 13-part weekly series that spotlights former Mets players who are connected via the theme of the series.  This year's theme, "The Best On The Worst", focuses on Mets players who experienced their best seasons on some rather lackluster Mets teams.

This past week, I turned the focus of the series over to Steve Trachsel, a pitcher who won 66 games as a Met, with 50 games of those victories coming between 2001 and 2004, a four-year period in which the team was nearly 60 games under .500.  While doing research for the piece, I came across a news article that caught me by surprise.  It was so shocking that I felt the need to write a side story to the Trachsel post.  And it's all because of a certain relief pitcher on the Mets who could have been traded for a dynamic leadoff hitter in his prime, but wasn't - the Donne-for-Johnny trade that never was.

Back in December 2000, the New York Times published an article by Murray Chass on the signing of Steve Trachsel.   Chass discussed the flurry of activity by Mets' general manager Steve Phillips, which included the free agent signings of starting pitchers Kevin Appier and Trachsel, as well as a trade for relief pitcher Donne Wall.  At the time, the Mets had a strong bullpen with right-handers Turk Wendell and Armando Benitez and left-handers Dennis Cook and John Franco.  Chass noted that because of the Mets' bullpen depth, Wall could have been flipped to Kansas City as part of a deal that would have brought 27-year-old Johnny Damon to Flushing.

Wall had pitched beautifully for San Diego prior to his acquisition by the Mets, posting a 2.92 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in three years with the Padres.  Meanwhile, Damon had come off a season in which he hit .327 with a league-leading 136 runs scored and 46 stolen bases.  But Damon was a center fielder, and the Mets already had one of those in Jay Payton, who had just finished third in the Rookie of the Year vote.  Damon was also a Scott Boras client, which posed a problem for the Mets for two reasons.

  • Damon was about to become a free agent, and Boras had made it clear that Damon would not sign an extension with any team under he first dipped his feet in the free-agent waters.
  • A month prior to the acquisition of Donne Wall, the Mets had strained their relationship with Boras because of a botched attempt by Phillips to sign another of Boras' clients - free agent shortstop Alex Rodriguez.

Eventually, the Royals did trade Damon to Oakland, as part of a three-team deal that also included the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.  The Mets were left with Payton in center and Wall in the bullpen.  Payton failed to approach his 2000 numbers again as a Met, and within two years, he had been traded to Colorado, where he had a tremendous season (.302, 28 HR, 89 RBI) for the Rockies in 2003.

Wall, on the other hand, was horrible in his one season in New York, losing all four of his decisions and posting a 4.85 ERA and 1.59 WHIP.  Wall allowed multiple runs in a quarter of his 32 appearances and became a part of major league history on August 23, when he allowed a home run to Rockies' starting pitcher Jason Jennings in the ninth inning of a 10-0 loss.  Jennings was making his major league debut in the game, making him the first pitcher in modern major league history (since 1900) to pitch a complete-game shutout and hit a home run in his first big league appearance.

It's no wonder a certain Mets blogger who attended that game will never forget what he witnessed on that infamous night at Shea Stadium when Jennings took Donne "over the" Wall.

Jason Jennings - #NeverForget

Like Donne Wall, Johnny Damon also had an off-year for his new team in 2001.  But for Damon, his off-year in Oakland still produced 108 runs scored and 27 stolen bases, even though his batting average dropped to .256.  However, unlike the Mets, Oakland reached the postseason in 2001, and Damon was outstanding in his first playoff experience (.409 batting average, .591 slugging percentage).  Damon parlayed his October brilliance into a free-agent contract with the Red Sox and became a legend in Boston.  Wall became an ex-Met following the 2001 season and an ex-baseball player by June 2002.

Imagine how things could have turned out different for the Mets had they actually acquired Johnny Damon for Donne Wall and friends.  Steve Trachsel might never have been a candidate for "The Best On The Worst" because the Mets might never have become a last-place team.  It's a non-trade Mets fans will never forget.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Best On The Worst: Steve Trachsel

There have been dozens of Mets teams that finished with mediocre or losing records.  Yet despite the poor records sported by these teams, there have always been players on each squad who performed well and became fan favorites.

In the early-to-mid 1960s, Al Jackson performed better than his Mets colleagues and became the first ace on a team that lost in spades.  During the late 1970s to early 1980s, the Mets fell on hard times again, but Lee Mazzilli thrived on the diamond and off it.  And during a six-year, sub-.500 stretch in the 1990s, Todd Hundley caught his share of pitchers, then caught the eye of Mets fans as the team's best player.

The Mets had a fourth period of non-competitiveness in the early-to-mid 2000s, one that produced three consecutive losing seasons that could easily have ballooned to five had the team not finished strongly in 2001 and 2005.  Those teams had their share of popular players, such as Mike Piazza, Al Leiter and two budding talents in Jose Reyes and David Wright.  But one of the better players on the Mets during that frustrating five-year period was never going to win any popularity contests.  In fact, a sizable contingent of Mets fans would rather forget he was ever on the team.  But well-liked or not, there's no question that he was one of the most successful players on a team that did not enjoy much success.

Like him or not, Steve Trachsel was a big winner for the Mets when the team wasn't doing much winning.

Stephen Christopher Trachsel was never supposed to be a big winner for the Mets.  In fact, when the Mets signed him to a two-year, $7 million contract in December 2000, he was coming off a two-year stretch in which he was a combined 16-33 for the Chicago Cubs, Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Toronto Blue Jays.  Trachsel's 33 losses in 1999 and 2000 were the most of any pitcher in baseball, three more than Brad Radke lost for the Twins.  But Trachsel was also coming off his fifth consecutive season of 200 or more innings, making him quite valuable to the Mets, who were unable to retain the services of 15-game winner and NLCS MVP Mike Hampton and were not interested in bringing back Bobby Jones.

Trachsel, along with fellow free agent signee Kevin Appier, was part of general manager Steve Phillips' plan to incorporate more right-handed pitchers in the starting rotation because, as he put it, "the Braves are much better against left-handed pitching".  Appier, who won 12 or more games eight times from 1990 to 2000 (one of only nine pitchers to do so), managed just 11 victories for the Mets in 2001, his only year in Flushing.  Trachsel also won 11 games in his first season with the Mets, but his road was far bumpier than the one taken by Appier.

On April 7, 2001, Trachsel made his debut for the Mets.  His effort - or lack of one - was memorable for all the wrong reasons.  Trachsel allowed ten earned runs in a 10-0 loss to the Montreal Expos, becoming just the third pitcher (and second starting pitcher) in Mets history to allow ten or more earned runs in a single game.

The debacle in his first start was just the beginning of a six-week nightmare for Trachsel, who slogged his way to a 1-6 record and an 8.24 ERA in his first eight starts.  That, and the endless chorus of boos from unforgiving Mets fans, led to Trachsel's demotion to the minor leagues after becoming the first pitcher in team history to allow four home runs in one inning on May 17.  It was an embarrassing and unexpected development for the right-hander, but one that produced a stunning resurgence after he was called back up to the Mets in June.

Trachsel spent three weeks in the minors at AAA-Norfolk trying to correct his flaws.  It took him only two starts to regain his confidence, as Trachsel fired a no-hitter for the Tides in the first game of a doubleheader on May 30.  A week later, he was back in the majors.  Trachsel pitched slightly better upon his return to the Mets, but a lack of run support prevented him from winning games.  Trachsel lost three of his first four appearances following his call-up.  In the game he didn't lose, he earned a no-decision, despite allowing just one run against the Expos.

With his record sitting at 1-9 and the Mets losing patience in him, Trachsel turned in his most important performance of the season on June 29.  The right-hander pitched seven strong innings in Atlanta, holding the Braves to one unearned run and five hits.  It would be the first of nine victories for Trachsel over the Braves over the next four seasons, as his general manager expected him to do when he signed him the previous winter.  It would also be the first of many wins Trachsel would earn over the last three months of the 2001 season.

The Mets limped their way to the All-Star Break in fourth place, 13 games behind the first place Braves.  With a 38-51 record, New York looked nothing like the team that won the National League pennant just nine months earlier.  Steve Trachsel was a huge reason for the team's first-half failures, going 2-10 with a 6.72 ERA.  But once the Mets returned from their mid-season hiatus, Trachsel became one of the best pitchers in the league.

From July 16 to September 22, Trachsel made a dozen starts for the Mets, going 8-2 with a 2.72 ERA.  His eighth win in that stretch, a 7-3 decision over the Braves, pulled the Mets to within 3½ games of first place Atlanta.  Unfortunately, it would be the closest the Mets would get to the Braves in 2001, as Atlanta held on to win the division title.

After a horrid start to his Mets career - a start that included a three-week stint in the minors - Trachsel rebounded to finish the year with a 4.46 ERA.  His 11 wins tied Al Leiter and Kevin Appier for the team lead.  Trachsel's second half numbers (9-3, 2.74 ERA, 0.95 WHIP) were nothing short of spectacular.  He made 14 starts after the All-Star Break and pitched at least seven innings in 11 of them, including a complete-game two-hit shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates in his final start of the season.

Trachsel had regained his confidence after his poor start in 2001 and hoped to carry his second-half success over to the 2002 season.  He would, but the same could not be said for the rest of the team, as the new-look Mets, with Roberto Alomar, Mo Vaughn and Jeromy Burnitz, fizzled at the plate and in the standings.

The Mets finished the 2002 campaign in the NL East cellar with a 75-86 record, their first sub-.500 season since 1996.  It was also the first time they had finished in last place since 1993.  Once again, Trachsel won 11 games for the Mets.  But Trachsel had a more complete season for the Mets in his sophomore year with the team, lowering his ERA to a team-leading 3.37.  He also carried a perfect game into the seventh inning in a matchup against the Minnesota Twins on June 20.  A year later, Trachsel would flirt with no-hit history on more than one occasion.

Just like their 2002 counterparts, the 2003 Mets finished in last place under new manager Art Howe.  With a 66-95 record, the '03 squad remains the only Mets team in the last 20 years to lose at least 95 games.  But Steve Trachsel, who was re-signed by the Mets prior to the 2003 season, barely noticed he was pitching for a last place team.  In fact, he had his best year as a Met during their worst season in the last two decades.  Trachsel finished the year with a 16-10 record and a 3.78 ERA, leading the team in wins, starts, innings pitched, complete games and shutouts.  And those two complete-game shutouts made team history.

On June 15, Trachsel pitched the 24th one-hitter in franchise history, allowing just a sixth-inning double to the Angels' David Eckstein.  Trachsel's gem would be the first of three consecutive one-hitters the Mets would participate in, as New York was held to one hit by the Marlins' Dontrelle Willis on June 16 just one day before three Mets pitchers combined to one-hit Florida.  Two months later, Trachsel was at it again.  This time, it was Rockies pitcher Chin-hui Tsao who provided the only hit against him, as his double in the sixth inning ended Trachsel's bid to become the first Met to throw a no-hitter.  Although he failed to pitch the team's first no-no, Trachsel did become the first pitcher in team history to toss two complete-game one-hitters in the same season.  (David Cone participated in two one-hitters in 1991, but he needed relief help in the first game - a game he ended up losing.)

Trachsel's 2004 season wasn't quite as good as his 2003 campaign, but he still managed to win a dozen games for a Mets team that finished 20 games under .500.  And yes, those 12 victories once again led the team.  It was the third time in four years with the Mets that Trachsel led or tied for the team lead in wins.  Trachsel defeated the Braves three times in 2004, which was quite an accomplishment considering the Mets only won seven of 19 games against their division rivals.

From 2001 to 2004, the Mets won 294 games and lost 352.  Yet somehow, Steve Trachsel - the pitcher who led the majors in losses in the two seasons prior to becoming a Met - managed to go 50-47 over those four seasons.  No pitcher on the Mets won as many games as Trachsel did from 2001 to 2004.  In fact, Trachsel and Al Leiter were the only pitchers on the team to record more than 20 wins during those four otherwise forgetful years. 

Injuries kept Trachsel off the field for most of the 2005 season, limiting him to just one win in his fifth year with the Mets.  Trachsel didn't pitch for manager Willie Randolph until August 26, when he tossed eight scoreless innings against the San Francisco Giants.  In that game, a 1-0 victory at SBC Park, Trachsel held the Giants hitless until Randy Winn laced a two-out single in the sixth inning.  Trachsel continued to pitch well during the season's final month, posting a 2.78 ERA going into his final start of the season.  But a shellacking at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies on September 28 inflated his ERA to a rather pedestrian 4.14.

After spending much of his career with the Mets getting poor run support (he recorded a solid 3.91 ERA in his first five years as a Met, yet only managed to win 50% of his decisions), Trachsel finally got the bats he coveted in the lineup in 2006.  With Jose Reyes and Paul Lo Duca setting the table for Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and David Wright, the Mets became an offensive juggernaut, with Trachsel receiving unprecedented support when he was on the mound.  Trachsel allowed four earned runs or more ten times in 2006.  The Mets won six of those starts.  By late August, Trachsel had a 14-5 record, which put him among the league leaders in winning percentage.  But he had an ERA approaching 5.00, which was his highest since becoming a Met in 2001.  Trachsel's ERA did go above 5.00 in early September, but went below the mark on September 18, when he pitched 6 shutout innings against the Florida Marlins to clinch the Mets' first division title in 18 years.  In doing so, Trachsel became the fifth pitcher to win a division-clinching game for the Mets, joining Gary Gentry, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and Ron Darling.

After the game, Trachsel reflected on his career with the Mets.  As the longest-tenured player on the team, he had seen his share of highs and lows.  When he became a Met, he expected to be part of a perennial playoff powerhouse.  After all, the Mets had just appeared in two consecutive postseasons and were coming off a World Series appearance in 2000.  Instead, he saw the team get completely rebuilt, before finally seeing the payoff in 2006.  Trachsel went on to say:

"[Making the playoffs] was the whole point of me coming over here.  It took a little longer than I hoped, but now that we're here, we've got to make the best of it and get this thing finished."


At the end of the 2006 regular season, Trachsel was the owner of a 15-8 record and a 4.97 ERA.  But the division clincher ended up being his last victory in a Mets uniform, as Trachsel's first postseason experience as a Met did not end well for him or the team.  Although Trachsel started the NLDS-clinching game on October 7, 2006, he had already been sent to the showers by the time the Mets rallied to take the lead from the Dodgers in the sixth inning.  Trachsel allowed just two runs in 3⅓ innings, but he was constantly pitching under pressure, as eight of the 17 batters he faced reached base.  As ineffective as he was against Los Angeles in the NLDS, he was even worse against the Cardinals in the NLCS.

In his one LCS start (Game 3), Trachsel faced 12 batters.  Ten of those batters reached base, including opposing pitcher Jeff Suppan, who homered off Trachsel to lead off the second inning.  The Mets recovered from that loss to force a seventh game, but chose not to start Trachsel on normal rest.  Rather, they sent Oliver Perez to the mound on three days rest with the Mets' season riding on his left arm.  Perez pitched well, but the Mets lost the deciding game when Yadier Molina hit a home run off Aaron Heilman to break a ninth-inning tie.  Steve Trachsel, who could have entered the game had it gone into extra innings, could only watch from the bench as his season - and his Mets career - had come to an unexpected end.

Steve Trachsel was never beloved as a Met.  After all, when fans came to see the team on a day he was scheduled to pitch, they knew they were in for a long game, especially if Trachsel got into trouble on the mound.  Trachsel was very deliberate to the plate when runners were on base, causing many a fan to yell "throw the ball" whenever Trachsel wasn't.  Trachsel also didn't have a promising debut with the Mets, nor did he fare well at the end of his career when the games mattered the most.  In many ways, his Mets career was similar to Carlos Beltran - another player who started off slowly, then had a number of successful seasons, but will always be remembered (unfairly) for not coming through against the Cardinals when his team needed him the most.

Mets fans remember Trachsel's inauspicious debut, the four homers in one inning, the demotion to the minors and the postseason failures.  But they might have a tough time remembering his numerous flirtations with no-hitters, including his two complete-game one-hitters in 2003.  They also would be hard-pressed to remember that Trachsel won 15 or more games twice with the Mets, making him one of only seven pitchers in team history with multiple 15-win seasons.  To put that into perspective, David Cone, Frank Viola and R.A. Dickey were all 20-game winners for the Mets.  Neither pitcher won as many as 15 games in any other season with the team.  And finally, unless you're a Mets savant, you'd have a tough time believing that Steve Trachsel's 66 wins as a Met put him in the team's all-time top ten victory leaders.  But there he is, sitting at No. 10, ahead of several formidable pitchers in team history like Rick Reed, Craig Swan, Bob Ojeda, Johan Santana and ... ahem ... Tom Glavine.

Steve Trachsel was a solid pitcher for six years as a Met.  But most of those seasons were spent with bad or mediocre teams, making it easy to overlook his success.  It also didn't help that Trachsel was often overshadowed by the loquacious Al Leiter at the beginning of his Mets career and by future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine at the end of his tenure with the team.  Trachsel was never going to be crowned Mr. Popular, nor was he ever going be confused for the Flash, especially with runners on base.  But man, was he a good pitcher!  It's too bad no one seemed to notice.

Smile, Steve!  You had a heck of a Mets career.  Seriously, you did.

Note:  The Best On The Worst is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting the greatest Mets players who just happened to play on some not-so-great Mets teams.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 6, 2014: Todd Hundley 
January 13, 2014: Al Jackson
January 20, 2014: Lee Mazzilli

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Best On The Worst: Lee Mazzilli

When the Mets made their debut in 1962, they did so by employing a manager and several players who had achieved various levels of success on the New York baseball stage.  But Casey Stengel, Roger Craig, Gil Hodges and Don Zimmer did not replicate that success with the Mets.  Attempts to bring native New Yorkers into the fold also failed to generate fan-demonium at the Polo Grounds and Shea Stadium, as Brooklyn-born backstop Joe Pignatano failed to catch on with the Mets and Bronx-bred Ed Kranepool played well, but not nearly at the level expected from a player who broke Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg's home run records at James Monroe High School.

Other than Kranepool, whose team records were set more through longevity than actual successful seasons, the Mets did not have a true blue (and orange) New York success story with any of their players.  The athletes who contributed to the team's rapid rise in the late '60s and early '70s were mostly out-of-towners, with few native New Yorkers in the mix.  If the Mets drafted a native son, he was traded away before becoming a star (see Singleton, Ken).  Likewise, if the team traded for a player born in the Big Apple, it was usually after he had played his best baseball (see Torre, Joe).

After over a decade of existence, the team finally drafted a native New Yorker, developed him, and turned him into a fan favorite at Shea Stadium.  Unfortunately, once he became a star, there weren't that many fans coming to see the team play at the ballpark.

Lee Mazzilli was a hometown boy through and through at a time when fans were through with the Mets.

Lee Louis Mazzilli was a typical New York kid growing up in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn.  His parents were children of Italian immigrants and his father worked in the family business.  As a young man, Mazzilli was a two-sport athlete.  But his second sport wasn't a team sport.  In fact, as much as he loved baseball, Mazzilli was probably better at speed skating.

Mazzilli won several speed skating tournaments as a teenager, but knew he had a brighter future as a baseball player.  The Mets noticed Mazzilli's baseball skills as well, drafting him with the 14th overall pick in the 1973 June amateur draft, just a few selections behind future Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Dave Winfield.

Growing up, Mazzilli idolized center fielder Willie Mays.  Like Mays, Mazzilli played stickball on the streets of New York.  Mazzilli would also corral fly balls using the same basket catch made famous by the former Giant.  Now Mazzilli was going to play for his hometown team, the New York Mets, the same team that employed the soon-to-be retired 42-year-old Mays.  Mazzilli never got to play with his boyhood idol on the field at Shea Stadium, but when he finally reached the big leagues in 1976, everyone had their eyes on him, just like they used to watch Mays.  But not everyone was looking at Maz for his baseball talent.

Before playing in his first game with the Mets, Mazzilli was a five-tool talent in the minors.  With blazing speed that he honed on the ice skating rink, Mazzilli turned fly balls in the power alleys into routine outs.  He also averaged over 40 steals per season from 1974 to 1976, while reaching double digits in home runs in each of those three campaigns.  The Mets finally called him up on September 7, 1976, but Mazzilli did not hit for a high batting average in the final month of the season, managing a .195 mark in 24 games.  However, Mazzilli did display a keen eye at the plate, drawing 14 walks in 93 plate appearances to give him a respectable .323 on-base percentage.  He also stole five bases and hit two homers, including a three-run blast for his first major league hit a day after making his big league debut.  Mazzilli's other homer was even bigger, as he crushed a walk-off two-run shot off Pirates closer Kent Tekulve on September 20, a blast that effectively ended the Bucs' reign atop the NL East.  (Pittsburgh won five division titles in six seasons from 1970 to 1975.)

Despite an up-and-down month at the plate in September, Mazzilli's future looked bright in New York.  And who could blame him for being optimistic?  He was 21 years old and in the major leagues playing for a Mets team that had just finished the 1976 season with 86 wins, the second-highest win total in franchise history.  Mazzilli appeared to have everything going for him except for one thing - his "franchise" teammate.

Tom Seaver was never one to keep his feelings to himself, especially when it came to his feelings on the state of the Mets.  When team chairman M. Donald Grant refused to join other teams by participating in the new concept of free agent signings, Seaver was livid.  "The Franchise" was in favor of the Mets signing outfielder Gary Matthews to a free agent deal after the former Rookie of the Year posted career highs in several offensive categories in 1976.

Photo by Harry Harris/AP
Matthews was not a center fielder by trade, but he would have provided much-needed stability in the Mets' outfield - an outfield that featured nine different players who started at least ten games for the team in 1976 and no player starting more than 111 games.  Center field alone saw five players start at least 14 games at the position, including Mazzilli.  But after Grant would not budge on his free agent stance, Seaver was quite upset, saying "how can you not even try" to sign Matthews.  With each passing day, Seaver was one step closer to becoming a former Met.  Finally, on June 15, 1977, the team's greatest player was traded to Cincinnati.  By then, Lee Mazzilli was on his way to becoming the team's new best player.  But that wasn't good enough to keep the rest of the team from returning to its pre-Seaver depths.

By 1977, the Yankees had replaced the Mets as the city's top draw.  The Bronx Bombers had just won their first pennant in a dozen years and then signed free agent Reggie Jackson during the off-season, bringing the slugger to New York a decade after the Mets passed on Jackson to draft Steve Chilcott as the top overall pick.  The Mets, who had always ranked in the league's top five in attendance since moving to Shea Stadium in 1964, saw their ticket sales drop dramatically in 1977.  From 1977 to 1983, the Mets finished in the league's bottom four in attendance six times, reaching rock bottom in 1979, when the team averaged fewer than 10,000 fans in attendance per game.  But the fans who did come out to Shea Stadium came out for one reason - to watch Lee Mazzilli.  As the saying goes, men wanted to be like him and women wanted to be with him.  And no one got more attention on those awful Mets teams than Mazzilli.

Mazzilli's looks were all he had going for him during the first month and a half of the 1977 season.  Under manager Joe Frazier, Mazzilli played horribly, batting .217 with no homers and only six RBI in his first 45 games.  But when Joe Torre - a fellow Italian-American from Brooklyn - took over as a player/manager in late May, Mazzilli's career took off.  Maz batted .263 from that point on, collecting 18 doubles, two triples, six homers, 40 RBI and 15 stolen bases.  Mazzilli improved upon those numbers in 1978, batting .273 with 28 doubles, five triples, 16 homers, 61 RBI and 20 steals for the Mets.  But he saved his best for 1979, when he became a first-time All-Star.

In 1979, the Mets reached the depths of their post-Seaver depression.  The team lost 99 games, their highest total since Seaver's rookie season in 1967.  Craig Swan was the only pitcher to win more than six games and the team struggled at the plate, finishing in the league's bottom three in most offensive categories.  But 1979 was also the year Lee Mazzilli fulfilled his five-tool destiny with the Mets.  Mazzilli finished the year with a .303 batting average, 15 homers, a career-high 79 RBI, 34 stolen bases and 12 outfield assists.  He also finished in the league's top ten in hits (181; 9th in the NL), doubles (34; 9th) and walks (93; 6th).  Mazzilli reached base 274 times in 1979, setting a Mets club record that wasn't surpassed for nearly two decades (John Olerud set the new team mark in 1998).  The only players in the National League who reached base more times than Mazzilli in 1979 were Pete Rose and Keith Hernandez, who was the league's co-MVP that year.

As great as his 1979 season was, the highlight of Mazzilli's breakout year occurred in the Midsummer Classic.  Although he sat on the bench for the first seven innings, Mazzilli hit a game-tying pinch-hit home run off Jim Kern in the eighth inning.  Ironically, Mazzilli was batting for Gary Matthews - the same player Tom Seaver wanted just a few years earlier in order to give the Mets an offensive force in the outfield.  One inning later, Mazzilli won the game by drawing a two-out, bases-loaded walk off Yankees pitcher Ron Guidry.

The only thing tighter than the 1979 All-Star Game was Lee Mazzilli's pants. (AP Photo)

In 1980, the Mets' public relations team assured the fans that "the magic was back" at Shea Stadium.  But although the Mets flirted with the .500 mark in the month of July, the only things back at Shea were Lee Mazzilli, his sex appeal and another 95-loss season.  Mazzilli nearly duplicated his All-Star season in 1980, batting .280 with 31 doubles, 16 homers, 76 RBI, 82 walks and a career-high 41 stolen bases.

So how great was Mazzilli's three-year stretch from 1978 to 1980?  Well, Mazzilli had 93 doubles, 47 homers, 95 stolen bases and reached base 739 times in those three seasons.  According to, Mazzilli was the only player in baseball to accumulate all those offensive numbers during that time period.  But despite reaching levels that no other major league player was reaching, Mazzilli's tenure as a Met would soon come to an end.

In 1981, baseball took a two-month sabbatical because of the players' strike.  Mazzilli also took a break at the plate that season, as his average dipped to .228 and he hit just 14 doubles and six homers in 95 games.  Although Maz was only 26, new general manager Frank Cashen had a plan to rebuild the team through shrewd trades, and one of those trades would involve the Mets cutting ties with their top box office draw.

On April 1, 1982, the Mets sent Mazzilli to the Texas Rangers for two pitching prospects.  Obviously, the trade didn't sit well with Mazzilli's adoring fans.  (It also didn't go over well with Rangers farm director Joe Klein, whose sole reaction to the deal was saying "this meeting is over; we're going to the bar".)  But Mets fans soon got over Mazzilli's basket catches, blazing speed and Brooklyn charm, especially when Ron Darling started to become one of the team's all-time great pitchers and Walt Terrell was flipped for Howard Johnson in a subsequent trade.

Mazzilli, on the other hand, had a tough time accepting the trade, but insisted he would remain a New Yorker, even though he would play his home games in Texas.  Mazzilli went on to say,

"I still don't really know where I am.  Mentally I'm not here yet.  Physically, I'm O.K., but emotionally and psychologically, there's a lot going through my mind.  One thing I'll tell you though - I'm going to stay the same way and there's no way I'm wearing a cowboy hat or boots." 

Mazzilli's six-year career with the Mets was over (or so everyone thought).  From 1976 to 1981, the center fielder was one of the best position players to ever put on a Mets uniform.  At the time of the trade, Mazzilli was among the team leaders in runs scored (349; 5th all-time), hits (714; 6th), doubles (133; 4th), triples (21; 6th), home runs (61; 8th), RBI (303; 7th) and walks (376; 4th).  He also left the team as its all-time leader in stolen bases.  Mazzilli's 139 thefts were two dozen more than what Bud Harrelson achieved in 13 seasons with the team.

For all of Lee Mazzilli's success with the Mets, he never got to play for a team that finished above fifth place in the division after his 24-game tryout in 1976.  He also never had a season of more than 323 at-bats after the trade to Texas, as Maz batted just .248 and averaged five homers and ten steals per season from 1982 to 1985 as a member of the Rangers, Yankees and Pirates.  His 1985 season in Pittsburgh was particularly difficult, as he started only 15 games for a Pirates team that lost 104 times.  In July of '86, Mazzilli reached a personal nadir, as the 31-year-old was released by the Bucs.  Mazzilli was now an unemployed 11-year veteran who had never played for a team that won more than 86 games.  But things were about to change for Maz, in a most unexpected way.

Less than two weeks after he was released by the Pirates, Frank Cashen decided to take a chance on the man he had traded away four years earlier, signing Lee Mazzilli to be a pinch hitter and corner outfielder.  The move irked George Foster, who considered the signing to be racially motivated against him, even though Foster had already lost playing time to fellow African-Americans Mookie Wilson and Kevin Mitchell.  Foster was released four days later.

Mazzilli was a key contributor off the bench as the Mets steamrolled their way to a division title.  He reached base in 30 of his 72 plate appearances (.417 OBP) and started games at first base, left field and right field, giving much-needed rest to Keith Hernandez, Mookie Wilson and Darryl Strawberry.  After more than a decade in the big leagues, Mazzilli was finally going to participate in the postseason, and he made the most of his opportunity.

For most of the NLCS and World Series, Mazzilli was quiet, collecting one hit in seven at-bats prior to Game 6 of the Fall Classic.  But Mazzilli got over his 1986 postseason doldrums just when the Mets needed him the most.  With the Red Sox just six outs away from a World Series title, Mazzilli stepped up to the plate as a pinch-hitter to lead off the eighth inning of Game 6.  On a 1-2 pitch from Calvin Schiraldi, Maz stroked a single to right field to get the Mets' rally started.  Four batters later, Mazzilli scored the tying run on Gary Carter's sacrifice fly.  The Mets would go on to win the game in dramatic fashion in the tenth inning.  Two nights later, in the seventh and deciding game, Mazzilli and the Mets found themselves down by three runs going to the bottom of the sixth.  Sid Fernandez had been dominant in relief of starter Ron Darling, but now El Sid's spot was up in the batting order with one out and no one on base.  Faced with a tough decision, manager Davey Johnson took Fernandez out of the game for pinch-hitter Lee Mazzilli.  It was a decision that ended up changing the outcome of the game and the series.

Mazzilli delivered a single off southpaw Bruce Hurst, less than 48 hours after Hurst had come within a strike of being named the World Series MVP.  Mazzilli's hit opened the flood gates for the Mets, as the team scored three runs in the inning to tie the game.  The Mets scored three additional runs in the seventh inning and tacked on two more in the eighth to claim the World Series crown.  After 11 seasons in the big leagues - more than half of them coming with the Mets and the majority of them coming with losing teams - Mazzilli had finally tasted the sweetness of victory.

Mazzilli played two-and-a-half more seasons with the Mets, reaching the postseason again in 1988 one year after posting one of the best seasons for a bench player in franchise history.  In 1987, Mazzilli had just 124 at-bats, but was able to record 12 extra-base hits and 24 RBI in very limited action.  He also batted .306 and had a .399 on-base percentage.  The 1988 season was not nearly as good for Mazzilli, as he slumped to .147 in 116 at-bats.  Finally, after batting .183 in 60 at-bats for the Mets in 1989, he was waived by the team, finishing up the year with Toronto.  Mazzilli earned his third postseason trip in four seasons as a member of the Blue Jays, then retired as a player at the end of the season.

After some time away from baseball, Mazzilli returned to the game to become a coach with the Yankees and later managed the Baltimore Orioles in 2004 and 2005.  He also worked as an in-studio analyst at SNY and continues to have an eye on the Mets, especially now that his son, L.J., is a minor leaguer in the Mets' system.

When Lee Mazzilli made his major league debut for the Mets in 1976, he became one of the few native New Yorkers to play for the team.  To this day, only 37 players who were born in the five boroughs have suited up for the Mets.  Ed Kranepool is the most notable of those players, and as the longest-tenured Met in team history, Kranepool is obviously the leader in most offensive categories for native New Yorkers.  But Lee Mazzilli is second to Kranepool in practically every category.  And he was a Met for far less time than Kranepool.

A quarter century after playing his final game as a Met, Mazzilli is still among the team's all-time leaders (regardless of his place of birth) in numerous offensive categories.  You can find his name in the team's top twenty in runs scored, hits, doubles, triples, RBI and OBP.  And he still ranks in the top ten in walks (10th) and stolen bases (6th).  In New York, Mazzilli was a matinee idol at a time when no Mets fan had a player to idolize or ogle.  He was the best player on many bad Mets teams, then he became a bit player on some of the best Mets teams.

Lee Mazzilli put up outstanding numbers for several years with the Mets with little recognition from baseball lovers outside of the Big Apple.  But the Brooklyn kid finally got all the recognition he wanted when he won a World Series ring for the team he grew up with.  When he was a teenager, Mazzilli could have chosen to become a speed skater instead of a baseball player.  Instead, he sped his way into the hearts of Mets fans.  And that's the best anyone could have wished for.

Lee Mazzilli idolized Willie Mays.  Mets fans did the same with Lee Mazzilli.

Note:  The Best On The Worst is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting the greatest Mets players who just happened to play on some not-so-great Mets teams.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 6, 2014: Todd Hundley 
January 13, 2014: Al Jackson

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Best On The Worst: Al Jackson

In 1962, the New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s entered the National League as expansion franchises.  The previous October, a special draft was held so that the two teams could stock their rosters with major league talent.  Houston decided to draft younger players who had bright futures.  The Mets, on the other hand, felt like the best way to go was with veteran players, including several who had ties to New York.  That's just a nice way of saying the Mets drafted older players who had bright pasts.

Roger Craig, Gil Hodges and Don Zimmer - all former members of the Brooklyn Dodgers - were drafted by the Mets in the expansion draft.  By the end of the 1963 season, they were all former Mets.  The Mets also drafted just three pitchers with their first ten selections, so when it came time for the team to announce its 11th pick, the Mets set their sights on a 26-year-old southpaw who had pitched beautifully in the Pittsburgh Pirates' minor league system for half a decade, but had never been afforded much more than a cup of coffee at the major league level.

From 1958 to 1961, he posted a 55-34 record in the minors with a brilliant 2.58 ERA.  But despite his success, he only took the mound for the Pirates 11 times over those four years, making just five starts and six relief appearances.  Needing a left-handed starting pitcher after drafting three right-handers in their first ten picks, the Mets took a chance on the talented, but inexperienced pitcher.  A few years later, he became the team's first ace, or what passed for an ace on a last-place team.

Al Jackson was the best he could be for a team that was the worst anyone did see.

Alvin Neill Jackson wasn't a very tall pitcher.  Listed at 5'10", Jackson was never going to be an intimidating presence on the mound.  But he knew how to pitch, and he gave the fledgling Mets their best chance to pick up a rare victory during their seminal seasons.

Jackson's career as a Met didn't start out very well.  But then again, neither did the Met careers of most of his teammates.  Jackson started the third game for the Mets in 1962, allowing six runs in his first outing for New York, a loss against the team that gave up on him just six months earlier.  He followed that up by allowing another half-dozen tallies in a 9-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.  But after two scoreless relief appearances, Jackson was tapped by manager Casey Stengel to start the first game of a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Phillies on April 29.  Jackson responded by tossing the first shutout in Mets history, scattering eight hits in the team's 8-0 victory.

Despite ending April on a high note, the month of May was not very kind to Jackson.  By the end of the month, Jackson had a 2-6 record and an ERA approaching 6.00.  But his fortunes turned once the calendar turned to June.  From June 6 through August 28, Jackson made 18 starts, allowing two runs or less in ten of them.  Jackson actually won five of those ten games, which was quite an accomplishment on a team that went 28-101 after starting the season with a 12-19 record.  Three of the five victories were shutouts, including the first one-hitter in franchise history on June 22, but one of his better performances came in a game he actually lost.

On August 14, 1962, the Mets hosted the Phillies at the Polo Grounds.  Jackson was dominant in the game, allowing one run on two hits through nine innings.  But Phillies starter (and future Mets manager) Dallas Green was just as stingy, holding the Mets to just one run through the first nine frames.  Green was lifted from the game in the 11th, but Jackson soldiered on, scattering two hits in five scoreless innings from the 10th through the 14th.  Incredibly, Jackson had gotten the Phillies to ground out a whopping 25 times in the first 14 innings.  He appeared to have his 26th ground ball out when Tony Gonzalez led off the 15th inning by hitting a roller to Mets third baseman Sammy Drake, who had entered the game as a pinch-runner for regular third sacker Felix Mantilla six innings earlier.  But Drake's throw was mishandled by first baseman Marv Throneberry, allowing Gonzalez to reach second base.  Jackson then allowed two singles wrapped around an intentional walk, giving the Phillies a 3-1 lead.  Jackson stayed in the game to complete the 15th inning, but the Mets failed to rally for him in the bottom of the inning.  Jackson's final line: 15 innings, three runs (two earned), six hits, five walks, six strikeouts, another loss.  It was as typical as the 1962 Mets got.

For the season, Jackson went 8-20 with a 4.40 ERA.  But those numbers don't accurately represent how good Jackson was for a team that wasn't good at all.  From June 1 through September 10, Jackson posted a 3.38 ERA and was credited with six victories.  The Mets won seven of Jackson's 20 starts during that three-month time period.  They were a woeful 16-66 in the 82 games not started by Jackson from the beginning of June through the middle of September.  Jackson led the 1962 Mets in ERA and tied for the team lead with 118 strikeouts.  He also pitched the only four complete-game shutouts the Mets recorded in their inaugural season.  Considering the team of misfits he played for, Jackson pitched very well in 1962.  The Mets took a small step forward in 1963, but it was Jackson who made the greatest strides in the team's sophomore season.

In Jackson's second season with the Mets, he posted a 13-17 record with a 3.96 ERA and a team-leading 142 strikeouts.  His 13 wins represented 25.5% of the team's 51 victories in 1963.  To this day, Jackson remains one of only five Mets pitchers who were credited with victories in more than one-quarter of the team's wins in a single season.  The other four are Tom Seaver (1967, 1972, 1975), Jerry Koosman (1968), Bret Saberhagen (1994) and R.A. Dickey (2012).  Jackson was particularly strong over the final two months of the season, going 7-3 with a 2.49 ERA over his last 11 appearances (10 starts).  Unfortunately, the team went 9-29 in games Jackson did not appear in over that same stretch.

The Mets combined to win just 91 games in 1962 and 1963, but Jackson won 21 of them, more than any other pitcher on the team.  When the team moved from the Polo Grounds to Shea Stadium in 1964, Jackson found the new digs much to his liking.  Although Jackson's final record (11-16, 4.26 ERA) wasn't overwhelming, he pitched his best games that year at Shea.  Included among them was the first shutout (as the well as the first victory) in Shea Stadium's short history, a 6-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 19.  Overall, Jackson went 7-5 with a 3.68 ERA at the new park in 1964.  But he didn't save all his best games for the home fans.

On October 2, Jackson won a 1-0 pitcher's duel over future Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in St. Louis.  It was the second time Jackson had defeated Gibson by that score in three seasons, having previously accomplished the feat on July 27, 1962, also in St. Louis.  Those twin shutout victories by Jackson over Gibson were the only two times the Mets defeated the Cardinal legend from 1962 to 1966, as Gibson went 15-2 against New York in the years prior to the debut of their own Hall of Famer, Tom Seaver.  But by the time Seaver came aboard, Al Jackson was already gone.

After two seasons in which he led the team in wins, Jackson lost 20 games for the second time in 1965.  Jackson's ERA also went up to 4.34, while his innings decreased to 205⅓ - his lowest total in four seasons as a Met.  Although his 8-20 record said otherwise, Jackson wasn't horrible in 1965.  He still tossed three complete-game shutouts and posted a career-best 1.354 WHIP.  It was the team around him that got worse, especially when Jackson was on the mound.  Jackson made 31 starts in 1965.  The Mets scored two runs or less in 15 of those starts, putting extra pressure on Jackson to be as flawless as possible.  Even in his three complete-game shutouts, the Mets only managed to score a total of five runs for him.  And all but one of Jackson's eight wins in 1965 came in complete-game efforts.

By the end of the 1965 season, the Mets realized they needed two things.  They needed to abandon their "let's go with the proven veterans" philosophy.  They also needed a third baseman, a need that continued to haunt them into the 1970s when they inexcusably traded away future All-Stars like Nolan Ryan and Amos Otis in order to get help at the hot corner.  Apparently, their need for a third baseman was greater than their need to get younger.

Just weeks after the 1965 campaign ended, the Mets traded Jackson and Charley Smith to the St. Louis Cardinals for Ken Boyer, an 11-year veteran who was the league's MVP just a year earlier.  But after winning the award following a 1964 season in which he hit .295 with 24 homers and a league-leading 119 RBI for the World Series-winning Cardinals, Boyer regressed in 1965, batting .260 with 13 homers and 75 RBI.  Still, that didn't stop the Mets from trading Smith and their 29-year-old left-handed starting pitcher, who was also the team's all-time leader in wins at the time.

Boyer performed miserably as a Met, batting .258 with 17 homers and 74 RBI in one-and-a-half seasons in New York.  Meanwhile, Jackson went on to post his best season in the majors with the Cardinals in 1966, going 13-15 with a career-best 2.51 ERA and 1.148 WHIP.  Jackson finished 6th in the league in ERA in 1966 and 10th in WHIP.  He followed up his 1966 campaign by going 9-4 in 1967, although the 31-year-old Jackson was used mostly in relief by the team.  The Cardinals returned to the World Series that season, but by then, Jackson had already fallen out of favor with the team.  One day after St. Louis won their second championship in four seasons, Al Jackson was traded back to the Mets.

By 1968, the Mets had a young and talented starting rotation, led by Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman.  New manager Gil Hodges liked the youth in his starting rotation, which eventually also included 21-year-old Nolan Ryan and two 24-year-olds in Dick Selma and Jim McAndrew.  As a result, Al Jackson was only allowed to start nine games for the Mets in 1968.  He did not fare well as a starter in his second go-round with the Mets, going 2-6 with a 4.42 ERA.  But he did have great success coming out of the bullpen.  In 16 games as a reliever, Jackson posted a 2.52 ERA and 0.981 WHIP, holding opposing batters to a .257 on-base percentage.  Jackson had found a new home with a Mets team that was clearly better that they were when he left them after the 1965 season.  But his homecoming didn't last very long.

Jackson was brutal to start the 1969 season, recording a 10.64 ERA in nine relief appearances.  In five of those nine games, Jackson allowed two or more runs.  The final straw came on May 22, the day after the Mets had reached the .500 mark for the first time in team history in the month of May.  In that game, a 15-3 loss to the Braves, Jackson came into the game in the seventh inning with the Mets already trailing by ten runs.  By the time the inning was over, the Mets were down by two touchdowns, as Jackson allowed an inherited runner to score, plus three of his own runners.

Soon after his meltdown in Atlanta, the Mets rolled off a team-record 11-game winning streak, but Jackson did not pitch in any of those games.  With the team feeding off its young pitchers, Jackson was no longer needed, so he was sold to the Cincinnati Reds on June 13.  The Mets went on to win the World Series without him, and Jackson went on to finish his career as a Red, as Cincinnati released him on April 13, 1970.  A career that began in Pittsburgh in 1959 was now over, but Jackson's life in baseball, especially with the Mets, was not.

Since throwing his final pitch in the big leagues, Jackson has coached at many levels.  He managed the Kingsport Mets for a spell in 1981, then served as Davey Johnson's pitching coach before Johnson's eventual promotion to manage the Mets in 1984.  Jackson molded the young arms that became All-Stars for the Mets in the mid-to-late '80s, and eventually made it back to the big club himself, serving as the team's bullpen coach for the only Mets squads to earn back-to-back postseason berths in 1999 and 2000.  Jackson had just missed appearing in the World Series on two separate occasions, first with the Cardinals in 1967 and then with the Mets in 1969, but he finally got to experience one in 2000, nearly four decades after pitching in his first game for the Mets.  His career had come full circle, and as noted in David Ferry's book, "Total Mets: The Definitive Encyclopedia of the New York Mets' First Half-Century", Jackson still hasn't reached the end of his baseball journey.

"The years that I spent [with the Mets], as a player, coach, whatever, it was a great ride.  An outstanding ride.  And I really haven't finished yet."

Al Jackson was diminutive in stature, but he was quite large for the Mets when it came to giving the team its best chance to win during its formative years.  From 1962 to 1965, Jackson went 40-73 with a 4.24 ERA for a team that was a combined 194-452 over its first four seasons.  During those four years, Mets pitchers hurled 25 complete-game shutouts.  Jackson was responsible for ten of them.  (Jackson is one of only six pitchers to toss ten shutouts as a Met.  The others are Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Dwight Gooden, David Cone and Ron Darling.)  Jackson also led or tied for the team lead in wins three times, strikeouts three times, and ERA once.  His highs of 13 wins and 142 strikeouts in 1963 remained single-season team records until they were broken by Seaver and Koosman - two pitchers who went on to set a lot of club records in their time with the Mets.

Just 38 days after Jackson played his last game with the Mets in 1969, Seaver broke the lefty's franchise record of 43 career wins.  But Jackson's 80 losses were not surpassed until May 27, 1974, when Seaver lost his 81st game as a Met.  By then, Seaver had amassed 137 wins, nearly 100 more than Jackson's total.  To this day, only four Mets pitchers have lost more than 80 games - Seaver, Koosman, Gooden and Jon Matlack.  All four of those pitchers are considered to be among the best in franchise history.  However, all four of them also pitched for more successful Mets teams.  Jackson had the unfortunate luck of being the best pitcher on the worst Mets teams.

Al Jackson could have played for a number of World Championship teams.  He played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1959 and 1961.  The Bucs won the World Series in 1960.  He was a member of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1967, but he didn't participate in their run to the World Series crown.  He also pitched for the 1969 Mets, though he was a member of the Cincinnati Reds when his former teammates celebrated their title on the Shea Stadium mound.

When Jackson was afforded the opportunity to pitch, it was usually for teams that did very little to help him earn a victory.  Jackson was the Mets' de facto ace from 1962 to 1965, although all that title got him was hard-luck loss after hard-luck loss, with a pinch of a one-hitter here and a couple of dashes over Bob Gibson there.  Jackson deserved better from his teammates, but that was like asking Marv Throneberry to play more alertly on the field.  You knew he would try his best, but in the end, he would just miss a base or two or drop a throw to cost his teammate a chance at a complete-game, 15-inning victory.

If anyone can define being the best on the worst, it's most definitely Al Jackson.  His final numbers as a Met certainly don't look pretty when compared to those posted by the likes of Seaver, Koosman and Gooden.  But his numbers were far better than the ones his teammates were putting up on the board.  Little Al Jackson may have been small in stature, but he was as big as they came in the early days of the New York Mets.

Photo by Herb Scharfman/Getty Images

Note:  The Best On The Worst is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting the greatest Mets players who just happened to play on some not-so-great Mets teams.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 6, 2014: Todd Hundley

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Best On The Worst: Todd Hundley

With apologies to Jerry Grote, the two most beloved catchers in Mets history are Gary Carter and Mike Piazza.  Both Carter and Piazza were considered to be the best hitting catchers of their time and both made their teams better while they were in their prime.  Carter helped the Mets win two division titles and one World Series championship, while Piazza led the team to its only back-to-back postseason appearances and the 2000 National League pennant.

Because of their success and popularity, the uniform numbers of Carter and Piazza have been taken out of circulation, with fans clamoring for both No. 8 and No. 31 to be retired by the team.  Carter's five years with the Mets coincided with the team's greatest era, as New York won more games from 1985 to 1989 than any other team in baseball.  Similarly, Piazza kept the Mets competitive during his first four years with the club (1998-2001), with the team playing meaningful games in September and October all four seasons.

Carter entered the Hall of Fame in 2003.  Piazza hopes to follow in Carter's footsteps in 2014.  But there was a gap of nearly a decade between last game as a Met in 1989 and Piazza's inaugural contest with the team in 1998.  And there was one backstop who was behind the plate for most of that time, bridging the gap from one championship-caliber catcher to another.

This catcher never led the Mets to the playoffs, and most of his seasons ended with the team playing out the stretch in September in front of empty Shea Stadium seats.  But that didn't deter him from giving his best performance day in and day out, regardless of where the Mets stood in the division race.  It's too bad that he saw more losses behind the plate than any Mets catcher since Jerry Grote.

A young Todd Hundley keeps his eye on the ball. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Todd Randolph Hundley was born on May 27, 1969, at a time when his father, Randy, was behind the plate for the division-leading Chicago Cubs.  Less than four months after Todd was born, Randy's squad had let its division lead slip away to the Miracle Mets.  It was something the Hundley family would get used to once Todd became a Met two decades later.

The Mets drafted Todd Hundley in the second round of the 1987 June amateur draft via the Baltimore Orioles, who lost a draft pick when World Series MVP Ray Knight signed a free agent contract with the O's following the 1986 season.  Hundley was a skinny kid with a familiar last name, especially within the catching community.  But Hundley made it to the majors on more than just nepotism; he made it with his superb talent.

Hundley struggled as a teenager in his first two minor league seasons, batting .146 in 34 games in 1987 and .186 in 53 games in 1988.  But everything came together for the young catcher in 1989, a year in which he batted .269 with 23 doubles, four triples, 11 homers and 66 RBI.  By 1990, Hundley was ranked as one of Baseball America's top prospects, earning him his first call-up to the big leagues in May.

Davey Johnson, who had a penchant for wanting good, young players on his team since becoming the Mets' manager in 1984, inserted Hundley into the starting lineup on May 18 against the San Diego Padres, and Hundley delivered a double off Bruce Hurst, who just four years earlier had almost been named World Series MVP as a member of the Boston Red Sox before the aforementioned Knight snatched it away from him.  Hundley would go on to start each of the next three games for the Mets, but would fail to get another hit.  Four days after his major league debut, Hundley saw his manager relieved of his duties by general manager Frank Cashen.  A week later, Hundley was back in the minor leagues and Mackey Sasser, with his .300-plus batting average, was named the team's primary backstop.  It would be another two years before Hundley took the job back from Sasser.

Hundley spent most of the 1990 and 1991 campaigns in the minor leagues, putting up excellent offensive numbers there, but struggling during his various call-ups to the big leagues.  Hundley combined to play in 57 games for the Mets in 1990 and 1991, batting .173 with one homer and nine RBI.  Hundley finally took over as the team's top catcher on Opening Day of the 1992 season, but by then, the Mets had turned into The Worst Team Money Could Buy.  A number of veteran players had been added to the team to complement Hundley, but many of them underachieved.  Players like Bobby Bonilla and Bret Saberhagen couldn't live up to the hype of the big stage in New York, and the team wilted in the hot, summer months.  As the team struggled, so did its young catcher, as Hundley could only muster one home run and 12 RBI in his last 68 games after posting six homers and 20 RBI in his first 55 contests.  But perhaps the misfortune of the team was a blessing in disguise for the 23-year-old Hundley, as the team focused more on the shortcomings of its high-priced veterans, allowing Hundley (who still had a .200 career batting average through 1992) to continue his development at the major league level.  The team sunk to new depths in 1993, but Hundley's star was just beginning to rise.

The 1993 season was one to forget for the Mets and their fans, as the team suffered its first 100-loss campaign since 1967.  But it an important year for Todd Hundley, as the switch-hitter reached double digits in home runs for the first time.  Hundley managed just a .228 batting average (which represented a career-high at the time), but he also had 11 HR and 53 RBI in 417 at-bats.

Over the next two seasons, both of which were shortened because of the players' strike, Hundley's power continued to evolve.  Because of the truncated seasons, Hundley combined to produce only 566 at-bats in 1994 and 1995, but in those at-bats, Hundley hit 31 homers and drove in 93 runs.  How far had Hundley advanced in the power department in those two years?  The only National League catcher with more home runs than Hundley in those two seasons was the Dodgers' Mike Piazza.  That's how much Hundley had improved.   In addition to his newfound power stroke, Hundley also showed dramatic improvement in his plate discipline, batting .258 with a .343 on-base percentage in '94 and '95, after posting .213 and .261 marks in those respective categories from 1990 to 1993.

Hundley's final 51 games in 1995 were very Piazza-like, as he batted .311 with 11 HR and 32 RBI.  The team also responded, going 27-24 in those 51 games.  For the first time since Hundley became a regular in the Mets' lineup, the team had something to look forward to in 1996.  Not only was Hundley turning into a top offensive threat, but a young trio of starting pitchers was about to burst onto the scene for the Mets.  The group of Jason Isringahusen, Bill Pulsipher and former No. 1 overall draft pick Paul Wilson, dubbed Generation K, was supposed to herald a new era of greatness in Mets history.  The threesome didn't become the second coming of Seaver, Koosman and Matlack, but the man who tried to mold them behind the plate did produce an historic season of his own.

In 1996, the Mets finished the year with a 71-91 record.  It was the sixth consecutive losing mark for a once-proud team who had ridden the championship wave just a decade before.  But when the trio of Isringhausen, Pulsipher and Wilson failed to live up to the lofty expectations, it was another trio who took baseball by storm in '96, as Bernard Gilkey, Lance Johnson and Todd Hundley set their sights on breaking as many offensive team records as they could.

Gilkey produced one of the most complete seasons ever put up by a Mets' everyday player in 1996, setting or tying club records in doubles (44) and runs batted in (117), while adding 30 homers, a .317 batting average and a league-leading 18 outfield assists.  Gilkey also became the first Met ever to have an 8.0 WAR in a single season.  Johnson, meanwhile, broke team records in hits (227), triples (21), total bases (327) and runs scored (117), becoming an All-Star for the first time.  But as mentioned in the 1990s Nike commercial, "chicks dig the long ball", and in 1996, everyone was digging the long balls being hit by Todd Hundley.

Hundley began the 1996 season the way he ended the previous year, batting .323 with eight homers and 19 RBI over his first 18 games.  Although his average dipped below .300 by May 1, Hundley continued to hit bombs with aplomb.  By the time the All-Star Game rolled around, Hundley had already taken 23 balls over the wall and had driven in 66 runs.  It was a Midsummer Classic Hundley would not miss, as the Mets' catcher was named to his first All-Star team in July.  After the break, Hundley continued to mash the ball.  By season's end, Hundley had become the first Met to reach 40 homers in a season.  His 41 taters also set a major league record for home runs by a catcher.  Furthermore, he became the first switch-hitter in National League history to hit more than 40 homers in a season.  The only major leaguer who had accomplished the feat before 1996 was Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle.  When all was said and done for the 1996 season, Hundley had batted .259 with 32 doubles, 41 homers and 112 RBI.  But he still had not played a meaningful game in September since his rookie season in 1990.  That all changed in 1997.

Under new manager Bobby Valentine, the losing attitude that had permeated the Mets clubhouse from 1991 to 1996 vanished.  Gone were the Vince Colemans, Bobby Bonillas and Bret Saberhagens from the previous six seasons.  Replacing them were players like Hundley, Butch Huskey (who posted a career-best .287, 24 HR, 81 RBI season in 1997) and veteran trade acquisition John Olerud, who brought an exceptional bat and glove with him to Shea Stadium from Toronto.  The pitching staff also finally came together, with Bobby Jones becoming an All-Star and Rick Reed getting a second chance to make a first impression.  Turk Wendell also came over to the Mets in an August deal that included center fielder Brian McRae.  Those extra pieces helped the Mets finish the year with an 88-74 record, with the team remaining in competition for the wild card until the final week of the season.  The seeds for success were planted in 1997, and Todd Hundley continued to blossom.

Although Hundley hit 11 fewer homers in 1997 than he did in '96, he still became the first Mets catcher to post multiple 30-homer seasons.  Hundley also made the All-Star team for a second consecutive season and walked a career-high 83 times in 1997, en route to posting a career-best .394 on-base percentage.  But a late-season slump by Hundley irked Bobby Valentine, causing him to lash out against his All-Star catcher.  The skipper caused headlines of his own when he was quoted as saying...


"I think he doesn't sleep enough.  He's a nocturnal person.  He needs more rest.  He has a really tough time getting to sleep after games.  I heard one night he stayed out until 4 o'clock in the morning before he was ready to go to sleep."

At the time, Hundley was going through many personal issues.  His wife was pregnant with their third child and his mother was very sick.  In addition, Hundley was recovering from nagging injuries to his toe and ribs.  But Hundley persevered through all of his distractions and still managed to lead the team to its best record since his rookie campaign.  The distraction he had in 1998, however, was one he could not recover from.

At the conclusion of the 1997 season, Hundley underwent a major surgical procedure on his right elbow.  It was a procedure his surgeon, Dr. David Altchek, claimed could have him out of action until the following April or could wipe out his entire 1998 season.  Mets general manager Steve Phillips prayed for the best but prepared for the worst.  The Mets began the season with Tim Spehr and Alberto Castillo as their top two catchers, but also used Rick Wilkins and Todd Pratt behind the plate in May.  By mid-May, it was clear Hundley was not going to be back any time soon.  It was also clear that the four-headed monster at the catcher's position needed a big-time upgrade.  Phillips immediately went to work, and despite denying he was interested in Mike Piazza, claiming he "wasn't a fit" for the Mets, acquired the slugging catcher in a trade with the Florida Marlins.

With Piazza now on the team, Hundley was out of a job.  And despite a valiant effort to redefine himself as an outfielder, the experiment flopped, as Hundley batted .161 with three homers and 12 RBI in 53 games.  During the offseason, the Mets signed Piazza to a seven-year, $91 contract and traded Hundley to Piazza's first team, the Dodgers.  Hundley played five more seasons in the majors with the Dodgers and Cubs, hitting 24 homers in both 1999 and 2000 for his first major league manager, Davey Johnson, who was now managing in Los Angeles.  Hundley had two subpar seasons in Chicago and 2001 and 2002, before returning to the Dodgers for his final major league season in 2003, the same year the Cubs won their first postseason series in 97 years.

In 14 major league seasons, Hundley hit 202 home runs, making him one of only 18 players who played the majority of his games at catcher to hit at least 200 homers.  As a Met, Hundley hit 124 home runs, which is currently the seventh-highest total for any player in franchise history.  Hundley also ranks in the team's top 20 in games played (829; 18th all-time), runs scored (340; 18th), RBI (397; 13th), walks (299; 20th), doubles (118; 19th), total bases (1,116; 16th) and slugging percentage (.438; 17th).  But most of those numbers were compiled on some bad Mets teams.  And Hundley also had some of the worst timing of any player in recent history.

Hundley began his career just two seasons after the Mets won a division title.  By his second year, the Mets were beginning the third-longest stretch of sub-.500 seasons in franchise history.  Hundley also played his last year as a Met just before the team embarked on their only back-to-back playoff appearances in club annals.  And Hundley's bad timing continued after he left the Mets, as he went back to Los Angeles from Chicago the year before the Cubs came five outs away from advancing to their first World Series in nearly six decades.

Wearing white or black, Todd Hundley knew how to attack.  (Photo by David Seelig/Getty Images)

Todd Hundley was one of the best players to ever put on a Mets uniform.  Unfortunately for him, his time with the team came during one of the most embarrassing eras in team history.  It also occurred between the careers of two of the most beloved catchers who ever called Flushing home - Gary Carter and Mike Piazza, two Hall of Fame-caliber players who are still respected and revered by Mets fans.

Hundley's Mets career began under the tutelage of Davey Johnson and ended with Bobby Valentine as his skipper - the two winningest managers in team history.  But Hundley saw very little winning during his nine seasons in New York.  The years Hundley spent with the Mets may have been some of the worst the team has experienced in the last few decades.  That doesn't mean Hundley shouldn't be remembered as one of the best players the team has ever seen.  He was one of the few reasons to look forward to a Mets game in the mid-1990s.

Note:  The Best On The Worst is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting the greatest Mets players who just happened to play on some not-so-great Mets teams.  Please come back next week for the next installment.