Monday, February 24, 2014

The Best On The Worst: Craig Swan

Hard-luck pitchers.  The majors have seen many of them in recent years.  Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners led all of baseball in 2010 with a 2.27 ERA.  He also paced the American League in innings pitched and allowed the fewest hits per nine innings.  His won-loss record for the year was a rather mediocre 13-12.  Similarly, in Matt Harvey's final 22 starts in 2013, he pitched to a 2.53 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and had an astounding 159 strikeouts to only 22 walks.  Harvey won just five of those 22 starts and the Mets' record in those appearances was 9-13.

Matt Harvey has only been in the big leagues for a year and a half, so he should have plenty of opportunities to become a big winner.  Meanwhile, at age 27, Felix Hernandez has already won 110 games and is 24 games over .500 for his career.

Decades before Harvey and Hernandez had their hard-luck seasons, there was a pitcher who spent a dozen seasons in Flushing making a career out of getting tough losses and no-decisions despite pitching better than most of his fellow moundsmen.  In fact, he may just be the most unfortunate pitcher in Mets history.

Craig Swan was one of the unluckiest pitchers in Mets history.

Craig Steven Swan was selected by the Mets in the third round of the 1972 June amateur draft - the same round that produced future Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley and Gary Carter.  Swan pitched for four years at Arizona State University, winning the national championship in his freshman year in 1969 and allowing just one run in 18 innings as a senior for the Sun Devils in the 1972 College World Series.  With all his college experience, Swan needed very little minor league seasoning before making his debut with the Mets in 1973.  But the Mets of the mid-1970s had Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack making 100-plus starts per season, leaving very few starts for a young pitcher like Swan, even though he dominated minor league hitters in 1972 and 1973 (14-8, 2.29 ERA in 28 starts).  Because of the Mets' strong rotation, Swan was only afforded 12 starts at the big league level between 1973 and 1975, winning just twice and posting a 5.81 ERA and 1.69 WHIP.  Finally, in 1976, as the country was celebrating its bicentennial, Craig Swan had a different reason to celebrate.  He had finally earned his first extended stay in the big leagues.

The 1976 Mets finished the year with an 86-76 record, which at the time represented the second-highest win total in franchise history.  The big three of Seaver, Koosman and Matlack combined to win 52 games for the Mets.  Meanwhile, Craig Swan made 22 starts in his first full season with New York.  He got off to a quick start, notching his first-ever complete game shutout against the Atlanta Braves on April 28, adding a career-high 11 strikeouts to his masterpiece.  Swan won his next start as well, allowing just two runs to the defending World Series champion Cincinnati Reds.  But Swan's next four starts were not nearly as graceful, and by early June, his ERA had risen to 5.44.  That's when Swan turned his season around and perhaps saved his career.

In a seven-start stretch from June 7 to July 9, Swan was practically untouchable, posting a 1.59 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and holding opposing hitters to a .193 batting average.  But an elbow injury kept Swan out of action for the entire month of August, putting a damper on the 25-year-old's first full season.  Swan returned in early September and allowed two runs or less in four of his last five starts.  However, despite the strong September efforts, Swan was only able to win one of those five starts.  It was a trend that haunted him for the rest of his career.

After not pitching well in limited action from 1973 to 1975, Swan broke through in 1976, finishing the year with a 3.54 ERA and 1.31 WHIP.  But not even a solid season in those departments could prevent Swan from posting a low victory total.  Swan won just six games in 1976, as the Mets managed to score three runs or less in half of his 22 starts.

It wasn't much better for Swan or the team in 1977.  Tom Seaver and Dave Kingman were traded as part of the infamous "Midnight Massacre" on June 15, leaving the team without its best pitcher and greatest power threat.  Swan made 24 starts in 1977, making him one of seven pitchers on the Mets to start at least ten games.  Although the right-hander finished the year just one win off the club lead (Nino Espinosa led the team with ten victories), he saw his ERA and WHIP rise to 4.23 and 1.43, respectively.  After five seasons in the major leagues, Swan was no longer part of a contending team, as the Mets ended the 1977 campaign in last place with a 64-98 record.  His team may have waved goodbye to its best days, but Swan was about to say hello to a tremendous five-year stretch, a period in which he became one of the most unlikely dependable pitchers in the National League. 

The 1978 season began with Tom Seaver in Cincinnati and Jon Matlack in Texas.  Jerry Koosman was still a Met, but he was coming off an 8-20 season (the first 20-loss campaign for a Mets pitcher since 1965) and was quite unhappy about the direction of the team.  After another terrible year on the mound, one in which he lost 15 of 18 decisions, Koosman was traded to the Minnesota Twins for Jesse Orosco.  The pitching staff of Seaver, Koosman and Matlack - the rotation that kept Swan out of a regular spot until 1976 - was no more.  And Swan took full advantage of being the new go-to guy on the staff.

Despite nagging injuries that kept him out of action for two-week spells in June and September, Swan managed to make 28 starts for the Mets in 1978.  Swan was brilliant in the first half of the season.  He won his first start of the season by pitching a complete-game shutout against the Cubs (although hardly anyone can claim to have witnessed Swan's gem in person, as the announced attendance at Shea Stadium that day was only 3,751).  Swan continued to pitch beautifully throughout the first half of the season.  Through games of July 15, Swan had a 2.59 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and had limited opposing batters to a .221 batting average and .281 on-base percentage.  In addition, Swan allowed two runs or less in 11 of his first 16 starts.  Unfortunately, by July 15, Swan was still searching for his second victory of the season.  As incredible as it may seem, despite allowing just 32 earned runs in 15 starts following his shutout in his first start, Swan did not win any of those 15 games, as he was saddled with five losses and ten no-decisions.

Part of the reason why Swan appeared to be allergic to victories was his bullpen.  During a six-start stretch from April 15 to May 12, Swan left three games with the Mets in front.  The bullpen coughed up the lead all three times.  Then on July 15, Swan was removed the game with Mets holding a three-run lead.  But the relief corps of Paul Siebert, Dale Murray and Skip Lockwood combined to allow six runs over the next two innings in a game the Mets lost the Reds, 7-5.

The bullpen wasn't the only reason for Swan's low win total.  The offense also failed to show up when Swan was on the mound.    The Mets were shut out three times in Swan's first 16 starts and scored three runs or less in eight others.  As a result, half of Swan's first 16 starts resulted in one-run games.  And of course, with an offense that couldn't extend leads and a bullpen that couldn't hold them, the Mets were unable to give Swan the "W" in the 15 starts following his first-start shutout.  But after July 15, things finally started going right for the Mets whenever Swan took the hill.

From July 19 to August 30, Swan was a perfect 7-0 with just two no-decisions.  The offense clicked for Swan, scoring eight runs or more in four of those nine starts, and the bullpen was more efficient, holding opponents scoreless in six of the nine contests.  Swan continued to keep opposing batters off the bases (.287 OBP) and actually had a lower ERA during the nine-start stretch (2.33) than he had during his 15-start winless streak.  Swan bookended his season-opening victory with a win in his final start, a 3-1 gem over the St. Louis Cardinals in which he allowed one run on just three hits in seven innings.  It was the sixth time Swan allowed three hits or less in 1978 and the 12th time he gave up no more than one earned run.

Swan finished the year with a league-leading 2.43 ERA, making him just the second Met ever to lead the league in that category (Tom Seaver won ERA titles in 1970, 1971 and 1973).  Swan also finished second in the league with a 1.07 WHIP and surpassed 200 innings pitched for the first time in his career.  But of course, his inability to secure a win for three months kept his record at 9-6, one of the lowest win totals for an ERA champion in major league history.  Swan's unluckiness was a team-wide problem, as the Mets finished in last place in the NL East for a second straight season in 1978 with a 66-96 record.

As good as Swan's 1978 season was, his 1979 campaign may have been his best.  It certainly was the weirdest season for a Mets pitcher when compared to his fellow starters.

 In 1979, if you didn't see Craig Swan pitch at Shea Stadium, you probably didn't go home with a win.

The 1979 Mets were a team in complete disarray.  They bumbled, fumbled and stumbled their way to a league-worst 63-99 record, winning their last six games to avoid their first 100-loss season since 1967.  It was also the first time since 1967 that the team was outscored by 100 or more runs, as the '79 squad allowed 706 runs while scoring just 593 times.  The Mets used 15 different starting pitchers in 1979, which was the highest number of starters used by the squad since they needed 20 in - you guessed it - 1967.  But despite being on the team that was the laughingstock of the league, Craig Swan continued to be one of the NL's most consistent pitchers, even when his teammates were not.

Swan finished the 1979 season by setting new career highs in just about every pitching category.  Among his new highs were starts (35), innings pitched (251), complete games (10), shutouts (3) and strikeouts (145).  Those career-high numbers placed Swan in the league's top ten in all five categories.  In addition, Swan's first full season of good health saw him finish in the league's top ten in WHIP (1.19; 8th in the NL) and K/BB ratio (2.54; 4th), as well as completing the year with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage (no errors in 46 chances).  And on a team level, Swan's 251⅓ innings made him just the fifth Mets pitcher to surpass 250 innings pitched in a single season, joining Jack Fisher (1965), Tom Seaver (1967-73, 1975-76), Jerry Koosman (1968, 1973-74) and Jon Matlack (1974, 1976).

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Swan's 1979 campaign was not what he did on the mound, but what he did compared to what his fellow moundsmen did.  Swan won 14 games in 1979.  No other Mets pitcher won more than six.  Swan pitched ten complete games.  No one else had more than one.  Swan pitched three shutouts in '79.  The rest of the team combined to pitch two.  As much as the 1979 Mets stunk, they couldn't even draw flies to Shea Stadium, let alone fans, as only 788,905 fans came to Flushing to watch the team play.  Those die-hards didn't see many wins that year, but at least they knew they had their best chance to leave Shea Stadium in a victorious mood whenever Craig Swan was on the mound.

As the Mets entered a new decade in 1980, the team embarked on a new philosophy.  Gone was the "Grant's Tomb" version of the Mets, as new owners Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday vowed to do whatever it took to make the Mets competitive again.  The new owners also brought in general manager Frank Cashen, who promised that the team would be turned around within five years.  One of Cashen's first moves as the Mets' new GM was to sign Craig Swan for five years and $3 million, which at the time was the most lucrative deal for a pitcher in franchise history.

Swan thanked the team by remaining one of the toughest pitchers to score against.  In his first 12 starts in 1980, Swan recorded a 2.21 ERA and 0.91 WHIP, limiting opposing hitters to a .203 batting average and an almost unheard-of .244 on-base percentage.  During the last seven starts of his two-month streak of excellence, Swan authored four complete-game victories, including a ten-inning gem won on a walk-off grand slam by Mike Jorgensen on June 11.

But Swan struggled over his next nine starts, going 0-5 with a 6.28 ERA.  A sore right shoulder was the original reason given for Swan's struggles, which landed him on the disabled list for a month after a loss to the Braves on July 16.  When Swan returned to the team on August 16, he continued to pitch in pain and was forced to end his season prematurely two starts later as the result of a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder.  The Mets were flirting with the .500 mark and the division lead when Swan first went on the disabled list in mid-July.  They were an NL-worst 24-52 after July 17, never recovering from the loss of their ace pitcher, who finished the year winning just five of his 21 starts.

The injury bug afflicted Swan once again in 1981, as a rib fracture (caused on a throw by his own catcher, Ron Hodges) and shoulder discomfort caused him to miss most of the season.  Swan made only three starts and two relief appearances in the strike-shortened '81 campaign and did not pick up a win.  However, when Swan was able to pitch, he was vintage Swan, allowing only 11 base runners in 13⅔ innings and posting a 3.29 ERA.  Through the first two years of his team-record contract, Swan had given the team just five victories, making it seem like the deal was a bust.  But a return to form in 1982 brought relief to Swan and the front office.  The only problem was that the team's new manager insisted on using all of his starters in relief.

After nearly five seasons at the helm of a struggling Mets team, Joe Torre was replaced by new manager George Bamberger prior to the start of the 1982 season.  Bamberger already had a strong relationship with the Mets' general manager, as he was the pitching coach in Baltimore during Cashen's tenure as the Orioles' general manager in the 1960s and 1970s.  Naturally, Bamberger's strength would help mold the Mets' staff into a rotation full of solid starters, which included the injury-prone Craig Swan.  At least, that's what was supposed to happen.

The team started the year well under Bamberger.  As late as June 20, the Mets were just three games out of first place with a 34-30 record.  But Bamberger was using all of his starters in relief, sometimes because of injuries and at other times because of poor performances as starting pitchers.  As a result, no pitcher made more than 24 starts for the Mets in 1982 and seven pitchers made at least ten starts.  All seven of those starters made at least eight relief appearances for the team and all but one of them (Randy Jones) recorded at least one save.  But despite the disarray in the rotation and bullpen, Craig Swan managed to keep it together - at least while he was on the mound.

Swan began the season by making two starts before he was moved to the bullpen for 15 consecutive relief appearances.  Swan was brilliant out of the pen, going 3-0 with a 1.47 ERA and holding batters to an incredible .180/.209/.288 slash line.  As a result of his dominance out of the pen, Swan was moved back into the starting rotation in early June.  But Swan struggled in his return to the starting rotation.  Not helping his case, Swan got into an altercation with his manager in late June that stemmed from the team's travel arrangements - the team refused to switch from commercial flights to chartered flights, even after a long flight delay.  Swan and Bamberger had to separated during the shoving match, causing an upset Bamberger to say: "In my mind, he was out of line.  There were 30 or 40 people on that plane who didn't complain.  If he wants a charter, let him charter it himself."

Clearly, the altercation left Swan shaken, as he lost his next two starts after the scuffle, allowing a total of 12 runs in 9⅓ innings.  But in his first start in July, Swan was back to his usual self, and almost accomplished something that no Mets pitcher had ever done before.

On July 2, Swan took the mound against the Phillies, a team that had shelled him for seven runs and nine hits in just 2⅓ innings in his previous start.  But Swan was not going to allow Philadelphia's veteran hitters repeat the feat a second time.  Swan mowed down the potent Phillies lineup, retiring 17 batters without allowing a hit.  But Pete Rose broke up the no-hitter with two out in the sixth inning on a clean single to right.

Swan was cognizant of what was going on throughout his entire effort, which he admitted after the game.  But he was not too disappointed that he didn't notch the team's first no-hitter.  Rather, he was encouraged because his effort indicated that he was back to his usual form after years of pitching through injuries and spending extended periods of time on the disabled list.

"I was aware of it.  The scoreboard was there telling me every time I turned around.  But I was not pitching any differently because of it. ... They told me it would be midseason before I would reach my form.  That's been true.  I wanted to throw a little harder each time out.  Now, the rehabilitation is over."


Beginning with his near no-hitter, Swan finished the year by winning six of his last ten decisions, earning his first major league save along the way.  But Swan was the only pitcher who won regularly during the season's final three months, as the Mets went 27-58 after Swan's victory over the Phillies on July 2.

For the second time in four seasons, Swan was the only pitcher on the Mets to reach double digits in victories.  Swan led the team's main core of starters in ERA (3.35) and WHIP (1.21), while issuing the fewest walks (37).  His return to prominence almost earned him the Comeback Player of the Year Award, as he finished second to Joe Morgan of the San Francisco Giants.  But that was the last good season Swan would have for New York, as Swan would once again flip-flop between the starting rotation and the bullpen in 1983.  This time, however, he faltered in both roles, finishing the year with a 2-8 record and an un-Swan-like 5.51 ERA.  The Mets then protected Swan in the free-agent compensation pool during the '83-'84 off-season instead of Tom Seaver, who had returned to the team in 1983.  Seaver became a member of the Chicago White Sox in 1984 and won his 300th game in the majors a year later.  By that time, Swan was already out of baseball, as he made just ten relief appearances (no starts) for the Mets in 1984 before he was released in early May.  Swan then signed with the California Angels but only pitched five innings for the Halos.  His last game in the majors came just six days after he signed with the Angels.

The oft-injured Swan is now helping others from getting hurt, as he is currently a practicing physical therapist specializing in rolfing, a technique named after its creator, Dr. Ida Rolf.  Rolfing attempts to  rid the body of pain through alignment and lengthening the tissues that cover the body's muscles.

Craig Swan pitched twelve seasons in the majors, with all but two of big league appearances coming as a member of the New York Mets.  His final record with the Mets (59-71, 3.72 ERA, 1.27 WHIP) suggests that he was just average at best, but he was much better than average for a five-year stretch from 1978 to 1982.  He just didn't have the wins to show for it.  Then again, neither did the team.

From '78 to '82, Swan was the owner of a 3.12 ERA and 1.147 WHIP.  He also held opposing hitters to a .288 on-base percentage.  Swan was one of only seven National League pitchers to post an ERA under 3.15 during those five seasons (minimum 700 innings pitched).  He was also one of just three NL hurlers to have a sub-1.15 WHIP from 1978 to 1982, as well as one of three to keep opposing hitters below a .290 on-base percentage.  The other two pitchers in both categories were Hall of Famers Steve Carlton and Don Sutton.  Of the seven pitchers who kept their earned run averages under 3.15, all but Swan won at least 56 games during the five seasons.  Similarly, the other two pitchers who had a WHIP under 1.15 and OBP under .290 both won at least 64 games from 1978 to 1982.  Swan could only manage a 39-37 record.

It's true that Craig Swan didn't win many games.  But he did have a winning record during his best five seasons, a time in which the Mets had a combined record of 302-449.  Felix Hernandez has been a great pitcher for the Mariners since making his major league debut in 2005.  But his greatness has produced just one season of more than 14 victories.  Similarly, Matt Harvey has only won 12 games in 36 big league starts despite a stellar 2.39 ERA, a sub-1.00 WHIP and more than one strikeout per inning.

If Hernandez and Harvey ever get frustrated with their lack of wins, they have a former Met they can contact who can relate to their pain.  After all, Craig Swan knows what it's like to be the best pitcher on some of the worst Mets teams.  

Craig Swan couldn't help himself to more wins, but now he's helping others feel like winners.

(Photo by Richard Harbus/NY Daily News)

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
January 27, 2014: Steve Trachsel
February 3, 2014: Rico Brogna
February 10, 2014: Skip Lockwood 
February 17, 2014: Ron Hunt

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Best On The Worst: Ron Hunt

Throughout the years, a number of men have handled second base duties for the Mets.  Some of those second sackers contributed to World Series champions (Ken Boswell, Wally Backman), while others used their bats and gloves to lead their teams to pennants (Felix Millan, Edgardo Alfonzo).  Yet for all their successes from a team standpoint, those four players were rarely recognized on a national level, as Boswell, Backman, Millan and Alfonzo combined to make one All-Star team (Fonzie in 2000) and none of them started a Midsummer Classic.

But there is one second baseman in franchise history who received All-Star treatment on more than one occasion, and to this day he remains the only Met to earn a starting nod at second base in the All-Star Game.  All this from a player who wallowed for years in Milwaukee's minor league system before becoming the first young star in Mets history.

Don't let that smile fool you.  Ron Hunt was as tough as any player the Mets had in their early days.

Ronald Kenneth Hunt was signed by the Milwaukee Braves in 1959 as an 18-year-old fresh out of high school.  From 1959 to 1962, Hunt's minor league production resembled a roller coaster ride, going from to a .284 batting average in 1959 all the way down to .191 in 1960.  Then in 1961, Hunt produced 16 home runs but dropped to two homers in 1962 despite playing in seven more games than he did in '61.

Going into the 1963 season, the Mets were looking to get younger after a season in which familiar faces (which is a polite way to say old faces) "helped" the team break a modern major league record for futility.  Gone were players like future Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn, as well as former Brooklyn Dodgers Joe Pignatano and Don Zimmer.  In all, 24 players took the field for the Mets for the first and last times in 1962.  The novelty of their inaugural season had worn off.  It was time for the Mets to put a competitive team on the field.  And the first piece of that puzzle was going to be Ron Hunt.

The Braves had plenty of depth in their middle infield and the Mets had just as much depth in their pockets.  Less than two weeks after the Mets put their half-memorable, half-forgetful 40-120 season to rest, they purchased Ron Hunt from the Braves for $50,000.  Six months later, the 22-year-old Hunt would become the Mets' regular second baseman.  And Hunt started his major league career with a bang.

After watching Larry Burright start the first six games of the 1963 season at second base, Hunt made his major league debut on April 16, 1963.  The rookie reached base all four times he batted, going 2-for-3 with a walk (he also reached base on an error) and a run scored.  But of course, the Mets lost Hunt's debut, dropping a 7-4 decision to the Cincinnati Reds.

Three days later, Hunt contributed greatly to the Mets' first victory of the season, going 3-for-5 with three RBI, falling a homer short of a cycle.  Hunt's two-run double in the bottom of the ninth inning gave the Mets a thrilling and improbable 5-4 walk-off win.  Making the victory more special for Hunt was that it came against the Braves - the team that sold him to the Mets just half a year earlier.  The Mets went on to sweep the four-game series from Milwaukee, with Hunt reaching base eight times in the four games.  It was the first four-game winning streak for the Mets in the team's short history.  It also marked the end of Larry Burright's time as the team's starting second baseman, as he only made seven more starts at the position for the Mets.

Hunt was an on-base machine for the Mets in the season's first few months, as the second baseman found a way to get on base by any means possible.  Hunt reached base safely in 36 of his first 39 games and by the end of May, his on-base percentage was still hovering around the .400 mark.  There were just nine games in which Hunt failed to collect a hit through late May.  However, despite going hitless in those nine contests, Hunt still managed to draw nine walks and get hit by a pitch once.  No matter what they threw when he was at the plate, opposing pitchers just could not keep the pesky Hunt off the bases.

By season's end, Hunt was the team leader in several offensive categories.  Hunt finished first in batting average (.272), hits (145), doubles (28) and runs scored (64).  He also led the team in various "unsexy" categories such as sacrifice hits (8), sacrifice flies (6) and times hit by a pitch (13).  The latter category would eventually become the one most associated with Hunt as his career progressed.  Hunt also stroked ten homers and drove in 42 runs, numbers that don't look all that impressive, but they came for a team that finished the season with a .315 slugging percentage, which to this day remains the lowest team slugging percentage in club annals.

For his efforts, Hunt was the runner-up to Pete Rose in the National League Rookie of the Year vote, receiving two votes to Rose's seventeen.  Rose may have dominated the Rookie of the Year ballot, but he didn't dominate Hunt statistically, as Hunt finished the year with more doubles, homers and RBI than the future all-time hits leader.  Additionally, both players had virtually identical batting averages and on-base percentages (Rose hit .273 and reached base at a .334 clip - the same OBP as Hunt).  Rose did score 37 more runs than Hunt, but he did so in almost 100 more at-bats and he had a far more potent lineup batting behind him.

The 1964 season saw the Mets move from the Polo Grounds to the state-of-the-art Shea Stadium.  Shea was also going to serve host to the All-Star Game that year, but since the team had already said goodbye to Richie Ashburn (an All-Star in 1962) and Duke Snider (a 1963 All-Star), it did not have a surefire All-Star in its lineup.  That is, until Ron Hunt proved that he could avoid having a sophomore slump.

After starting the season well, batting .291 through May 24, Hunt went on a one-month tear.  From May 26 to June 18, Hunt batted .425, reaching base 39 times in 19 games.  By the end of his hot streak, Hunt was among the league leaders in batting average with a .338 mark and was approaching a .400 on-base percentage just weeks before the Midsummer Classic.  Because of a ballot-stuffing incident by fans of the Cincinnati Reds in 1957, players were given the honor of voting for the All-Star Game participants through the 1970 season, meaning Hunt's All-Star fate would be left in the hands of his peers.  His fellow players would not disappoint him.

Hunt was voted to be the National League's starting second baseman in the only All-Star Game played at Shea Stadium, becoming the first Met to start in a Midsummer Classic.  Hunt went 1-for-3 for the Senior Circuit and almost had a chance to be the hero before the hometown fans.  But with two on and one out in the bottom of the ninth, manager Walter Alston had Hank Aaron pinch-hit for Hunt, a move that nearly backfired when Aaron struck out.  One batter later, the decision to remove Hunt from the game was forgotten by the Mets fans in attendance, as Phillies' right fielder Johnny Callison launched a three-run homer near the right field foul pole to give the National League a 7-4 victory.

Ron Hunt looked right at home in Shea Stadium's only All-Star Game.  (Photo by Whitney Curtis/NY Daily News)

The All-Star Game start wasn't the only time Hunt received national recognition in 1964, as the Mets' second baseman became the first player in team history to receive an MVP vote at the end of the season.  Hunt finished 25th in the race for the NL MVP Award, ending the year with a team-record .303 batting average, .357 on-base percentage and a career-high .406 slugging percentage, leading all National League second basemen in each category.  Hunt also became one of the toughest hitters to strike out in the league, fanning just 30 times in 521 plate appearances.  As hard as it was to strike Hunt out, it was just as easy to strike Hunt - anywhere on his body.  Once again, Hunt had a target on his Mets uniform, as he was hit by 11 pitches, the second-highest total of plunks taken by a National Leaguer in 1964.  Hunt did not just earn MVP consideration because of his ability to handle the bat.  He also vastly improved his defense at second base, reducing his errors from 26 in his rookie year to 12 in his sophomore season.  More importantly, the team improved their performance in 1964, losing fewer than 110 games for the first time - not that a 53-109 record is something to get overly excited about.

The Mets had increased their win total by nearly one-third from 1962 to 1964 and there was reason to believe the team could continue their rise to respectability in 1965.  But two events caused the team to backpedal in its fourth season.  An off-season finger injury caused Hunt to miss the team's first 15 games in 1965.  Then, after reaching base 14 times in his first ten games following his DL stint, Hunt suffered a shoulder injury that kept him out of action for nearly three months.  Although Hunt's shoulder had him disabled for half a season, another injury changed the team forever, as manager Casey Stengel was forced to retire after breaking his hip in a fall.  Stengel never returned to a big league dugout, but Hunt did.  Unfortunately, once Hunt returned to the Mets, he was not the same player he was before his shoulder injury, as he batted .235 and reached base at a .298 clip over his last 47 games.  Hunt's full season totals (.240, 1 HR, 10 RBI, 14 walks) were his worst as a Met.  The team didn't didn't fare much better, regressing to a 50-112 record in 1965.

Hunt began the 1966 campaign not knowing if he could return to his pre-1965 form.  His first month didn't help ease his concerns, as Hunt was batting just .220 through May 4.  It was then that manager Wes Westrum sat Hunt on the bench for the first time, allowing Eddie Bressoud to play second base for a game.  When Hunt returned after his one-game respite, he was a changed man.  In his first dozen games following his unexpected day off, Hunt batted .479 (23-for-48), reaching base an astounding 29 times.  Hunt wasn't just slapping singles either.  In those 12 contests, Hunt collected four extra-base hits, drove in seven runs and scored 12 times.  Hunt's greatest game during his hot streak came on May 20, when he reached base five times (three hits, one walk, one HBP) and drove in a career-high five runs against the San Francisco Giants.  Hunt's three-run homer in the eighth inning broke a 4-4 tie, helping the Mets defeat the Giants, 7-5.

By early June, Hunt was hitting above .300 and was still one of the top offensive producers at his position, which proved to be key when his colleagues put together the 1966 All-Star Game roster, taking Hunt for the second time in three seasons.  Although Hunt didn't start the game, he did play a key role in the National League's victory.  Hunt entered the game as a defensive replacement in the seventh inning.  Three frames later, Hunt dropped a perfect sacrifice, moving Tim McCarver to second base after the Cardinals' catcher led off the bottom of the tenth inning with a single.  Hunt's bunt was immediately followed by Maury Wills' single, which plated McCarver with the winning run in the Senior Circuit's 2-1 victory.

As important as Hunt's sacrifice was to the National League's victory in the 1966 All-Star Game, the scrappy second baseman received little recognition for his contribution, just as he received little to no mention for what he did a week before the Midsummer Classic.  On July 7, Hunt lined a single to center in the second inning of a game against the Phillies.  He would score one batter later on Jerry Grote's two-run homer, which gave the Mets a 3-1 lead in a game they eventually won, 9-6.  At the time, Hunt's hit was viewed solely for what it was - it began a rally in an inning where the Mets broke an early tie.  But for a team playing in just its fifth season, it was a much bigger deal, as it gave Hunt 415 career hits as a Met, making him the team's all-time hits leader as he passed Jim Hickman for the club record.  It was a record Hunt would hold until Ed Kranepool - the man who held the mark for most of the next 35 years - passed him a year later.

By the time the 1966 season came to a close, Hunt had pounded out 474 hits in four seasons as a Met.  Once again, Hunt finished the year as the team leader in an assortment of categories, including batting average (.288), on-base percentage (.356), hits (138), sacrifice hits (10) and times hit by a pitch (11).  Hunt also finished second on the team in runs scored (63), doubles (19), stolen bases (8) and walks (41), while remaining the toughest player to strike out on the team (34 Ks in 543 plate appearances).  Hunt's performance helped the Mets avoid a 100-loss season and finish out of the National League basement for the first time in team history.  The Mets were on the rise, and so was Hunt, as one of the peskiest players in the league.  But when Bing Devine became the team's general manager at the end of the 1966 campaign, Hunt did not factor into the new GM's long-term plans.

The Mets had always been a poor hitting team, finishing near the bottom of the league in batting average in each of their first five seasons, and never hitting above .246 as a team despite Hunt's .282 career batting average.  So when the opportunity arose for Devine to acquire a two-time batting champion with a .304 career average in seven big league seasons, he had to pull the trigger on the deal, even if it involved trading the Mets' all-time hits leader and the man he replaced atop the hits leader board.  On November 29, 1966, the trade was consummated, as Ron Hunt and Jim Hickman were shipped off to Los Angeles for two-time All-Star outfielder Tommy Davis.

Davis played well as a Met in 1967, leading the team in almost every major offensive category and setting the single-season franchise record for hits (174) and doubles (32).  But Davis wasn't a second baseman, and Hunt's departure left a huge void at the position, as five players started at least ten games at second base for the Mets in 1967.  Jerry Buchek played most of the games at second, starting 92 games there, but he only batted .236 and had more strikeouts (101) than hits (97).  Buchek's on-base percentage (.283) was barely higher than Hunt's career batting average (.282) as a Met.  Davis was just a Met for one year, as the Mets dealt the high-priced outfielder to the White Sox in December for former Rookie of the Year and two-time All-Star Tommie Agee, along with middle infielder Al Weis.  Both players would become instrumental in the Mets' rise from perennial cellar dwellers to unexpected penthouse occupants just two years later.

Meanwhile, Ron Hunt continued to excel at what he did best, which was getting on base by any means possible.  From 1968 to 1974, Hunt led the league in being hit by pitches all seven years.  Hunt set a modern major league record in 1971 when he was plunked 50 times as a member of the Montreal Expos.  Those bruising free passes helped Hunt finish the year with a .402 on-base percentage.  Two years later, he bettered that mark, reaching base at a .418 clip.

Getting hit by a pitch was just one of the many ways Hunt tried to reach base against an opposing pitcher.  He became so adept at it that he later admitted to doing whatever he could to get plunked intentionally, including getting a mirror involved.  Hunt went on to say:

"I worked and practiced in full uniform in a mirror to make sure it was perfect.  I'd stand right on top of the plate.  An inside pitch had to be right on the corner, or it would hit me.  The umpires never called me for being hit on purpose."

There were just sixteen National League players who reached base at least 1,400 times from 1968 to 1974.  Nine of them are in the Hall of Fame (Lou Brock, Billy Williams, Tony Perez, Joe Torre, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Willie Stargell, Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey).  Six of the others (Pete Rose, Rusty Staub, Bobby Bonds, Jimmy Wynn, Don Kessinger, Willie Davis) combined to make the All-Star team 37 times.  The sixteenth player is Ron Hunt, who reached base 1,437 times during those seven seasons.  Unfortunately, by the time Hunt had becoming one of the best OBP-men in the National League, the Mets had long since traded their long-time second baseman, although Hunt was still playing for mostly non-contending teams while the Mets had become perennial contenders in the NL East.

When looking at Ron Hunt's overall numbers with the Mets, nothing really jumps out at you.  In four seasons with the team, he batted .282 and had a .344 on-base percentage, which rank 12th and 21st, respectively, on the Mets' all-time lists through the end of the 2013 season.  Hunt also produced 78 doubles, 13 triples and 20 homers, while driving in 127 runs and scoring 207 times.  Again, none of those numbers place Hunt in the team's all-time top ten lists.  But Hunt was exceptional at the intangibles of the game.

Hunt didn't need to lead the league in hits to be a table setter for the Mets, as evidenced by the 41 times he was hit by a pitch during his tenure with the team - a lifetime figure that has yet to be surpassed by any Met (although David Wright has since tied Hunt with 41 HBP, even though it took Wright ten seasons to do what Hunt did in four).  Hunt was also one of the toughest Mets to strike out in team history, as the second baseman fanned just 133 times in 1,887 plate appearance, averaging a strikeout every 12.7 at-bats.  A total of nine Mets players have struck out at least 135 times in a single season, or two more whiffs than Hunt combined to produce in four years with the team.

The biggest names in franchise history are the ones who filled up the stat sheet with gaudy numbers.  They're also players who played for some of the best Mets teams.  Ron Hunt was neither.  But he was a key contributor to the few successful moments the Mets had as a team during their formative years.  Hunt was a scrappy player who was tossed aside by the Milwaukee Braves, only to become a two-time All-Star and a near-Rookie of the Year who received MVP consideration for a team that finished the year with a 53-109 record.  Hunt was the best he could be on a team that played as bad as any team could play.  And he still has the bruises to prove it.

                                     "Some people give their body to science.  I give mine to baseball."  -- Ron Hunt                                     (Photo by Whitney Curtis/NY Daily News)

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
January 27, 2014: Steve Trachsel
February 3, 2014: Rico Brogna
February 10, 2014: Skip Lockwood

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dirk Jitters Has The Balls To Know When It's Time To Retire

At Studious Metsimus, we take pride in our Mets-themed posts.  On those rare occasions when the topic of a blog post veers in the direction of Philadelphia or the Bronx, we make sure it's not complimentary in any way, shape or form.  When we've written pieces on Cole Hamels, we've made sure to use a photo of his identical twin brother.  And when we "honored" Mariano Rivera last year, we made sure to include a special video tribute.

So now it's time to write something special on one of Rivera's former teammates, who announced earlier today that he will be retiring from baseball at the end of the 2014 season.  It's a player whose name we promised would never be uttered in a Studious Metsimus blog post, so as always, we've changed his name to protect the guilty.  This is our special "tribute" to the one and only Dirk Jitters.

To paraphrase ZZ Top, "he's got balls; he knows how to use them."

Jitters made his major league debut in 1995, and his first two seasons were an absolute joy to watch, mainly because interleague play did not exist until 1997.  Once the Yankees and Mets began their regular season rivalry, Jitters became a one-man wrecking crew.  In games against the Mets, Jitters is the Yankees' all-time leader in hits (127), doubles (19), home runs (13), runs scored (66), RBI (43), stolen bases (19) and total bases (189).  Jitters has so dominated the boys from Flushing that no other Yankee is even halfway to his career total versus the Mets in hits (Alex Rodriguez has 62) and stolen bases (Alfonso Soriano has nine), and Jitters has almost twice as many runs, doubles and total bases as the next-closest Bronx Bummer.

But you can rejoice about one thing, Mets fans.  Jitters' .368 career batting average against your fav'rit team is not the highest of all-time.  You can thank Rico Carty (.380) and Don Slaught (.376) for that.  Of course, Jitters' batting average doesn't include his .409 mark against the Mets in the 2000 World Series.  He kinda also won the MVP in that series as well, but that's not important right now.

In 2013, Jitters spent almost the entire year on the disabled list for various maladies.  It was almost as if Ray Ramirez was his personal trainer for the season.  That came on the heels of his worst season against the Mets, as Jitters hit just .200 with no extra-base hits and no RBI against his crosstown rivals in 2012.  It was the first time Jitters did not drive in a single run against the Mets in a season series.  (Jitters hit .190 against the Mets in 1999, but he made his few hits count, managing a double, a home run and three RBI.)

Jitters may tell you the reason he's retiring is because he's accomplished everything he can on a baseball field and also because he'd like to start a family, but we know better.  He's leaving the game because he finally stopped hitting against the Mets, following in the footsteps of Pat Burrell, who hit 42 career home runs against New York's National League team, but none in his last 18 games versus the Mets.

Congratulations to Dirk Jitters, who is retiring upon the completion of his 20th season with the Yankees in 2014.  He had a career worthy of first-ballot enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, and also made a career of beating the Mets every chance he got.  It's nice to know Jitters and his balls will no longer be stepping into the batter's box against the Mets after the upcoming season comes to a conclusion.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Best On The Worst: Skip Lockwood

When the New York Mets won the World Series in 1969, the trophy they received was quite unique.  In addition to it being the first World Series trophy handed out to a team that had to win a league championship series before winning the Fall Classic, it was also the only trophy to feature a pennant for the Seattle Pilots.

The Pilots were an American League expansion team in 1969, joining the Kansas City Royals as Junior Circuit neophytes.  But after just one season in the Pacific Northwest, the team packed its bags days before the beginning of the 1970 season and headed to Milwaukee to become the Brewers.

Only four players who were members of the 1969 Pilots ended up joining the Mets after their short time in Seattle.  One was Jim Gosger, the only non-pitcher to play for the 1969 and 1973 Mets who never appeared in a postseason game for either team.  Two others were pitchers Jack Aker (1974) and Mike Marshall (1981), both of whom never appeared in a major league game after their one season with the Mets.  The fourth former Pilot who eventually touched down in Flushing as a member of the Mets had a far more respectable (and longer) career in New York.  In fact, he became one of the few dependable relief pitchers on a team that needed more than just a little relief.

The bespectacled Skip Lockwood had an eye for being a great relief pitcher for the Mets.

Claude Edward Lockwood (or "Skip" as he was better known) was a career American Leaguer prior to becoming a Met in 1975.  After his one season in Seattle, Lockwood was used mostly as a starting pitcher by the Brewers from 1970 to 1973, then became a full-time reliever as a member of the California Angels in 1974.  Lockwood spent one miserable season with the Halos (2-5, 4.32 ERA, 1.39 WHIP) and was then traded to the Yankees, who released him prior to the start of the 1975 season.  One week after he was let go by the Yankees, he was signed by the Oakland Athletics, but Lockwood never pitched for the A's, as Oakland sent the six-year veteran to the minor leagues, where he remained until he was purchased by the Mets in July.

After the departure of Tug McGraw following the 1974 season, the Mets turned to Bob Apodaca to close out games for the team in 1975.  Apodaca had a wonderful season for the Mets in '75, saving 13 games and posting a stellar 1.49 ERA.  But he had two stints on the disabled list during his first season as the team's closer, which included a one-month stay on the DL that kept him off the mound until late July.  Needing a dependable and healthy arm in the bullpen, the Mets turned to Lockwood, who surprised himself and the team by dominating National League hitters over the season's final two months.

Lockwood pitched in 24 games for the Mets in 1975, allowing just 28 hits in 48⅓ innings.  Opposing hitters batted just .174 against him and he matched Apodaca with a 1.49 ERA.  But what was more surprising was the number of strikeouts Lockwood was recording.  From 1969 to 1974, Lockwood fanned 450 batters in 810⅔ innings, an average of 5.0 K/9 IP.  But in less than 50 innings for the Mets in 1975, Lockwood struck out 61 batters, averaging 11.4 K/9 IP.  In 14 of his 24 appearances, Lockwood fanned three or more batters, despite pitching two or fewer innings in nine of those 14 games.  Perhaps his greatest effort came in the season's final game, a game in which he was called upon to pitch the Mets to a winning record, and help Tom Seaver win his third Cy Young Award.

The Mets went into Game No. 162 with an 81-80 record, needing a win to secure its sixth winning season in seven years.  Tom Seaver entered the game with a 21-9 record and 2.29 ERA.  But San Diego's Randy Jones had also recorded a 20-win season in 1975 and was leading the league with a 2.24 ERA.  Jones also had three more complete games and one more shutout than Seaver.  The one thing Seaver had going for him was that he was leading the league in strikeouts, while Jones pitched to contact, as evidenced by his 108 Ks in 285 innings.  Seaver was not very good in his final start of the season, allowing four runs in five-plus innings against the Philadelphia Phillies.  Seaver was pitching in and out of trouble all game, allowing four hits and five walks.  After allowing the first four batters to reach base against him in the sixth inning, manager Roy McMillan pulled Seaver for Skip Lockwood.  Lockwood retired all 12 batters he faced, striking out six of them, allowing the Mets to hold on for a 5-4 victory over the Phillies and preserving Seaver's league-leading 22nd victory.

Lockwood's perfect four-inning performance in the season finale earned him a save, but he saved more than just the game.  He saved Seaver's bid for the Cy Young Award, which he earned by just ten votes over Randy Jones.  He also saved the Mets' quest for a winning season, allowing the team to finish an otherwise mediocre season with an 82-80 record.

When the 1976 season started, new Mets manager Joe Frazier decided that Lockwood was going to be the team's primary closer, with Apodaca pitching earlier in games if he was needed to do so.  Lockwood responded to his new role brilliantly, going 10-7 with a 2.67 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and a team-leading 19 saves.  With 10 wins and 19 saves, Lockwood became the first pitcher in team history to reach double digits in both categories in the same season.  Only Jesse Orosco (1983, 1984) and Roger McDowell (1986) have been able to match Lockwood's feat.

Skip Lockwood circa 1976
Lockwood also recorded 108 strikeouts in 94 innings in 1976, making him the first Mets relief pitcher to strike out over 100 batters in a single season.  (Tug McGraw struck out 109 batters in 1971, but he started one game that year, striking out nine batters in that start.  Therefore, he recorded exactly 100 Ks in relief in 1971.)  The only Mets reliever since Lockwood to have at least 108 Ks in one season is Armando Benitez, who whiffed 128 batters in 1999.

Once again, Lockwood was virtually unhittable, as he held opposing hitters to a .186 batting average in 1976.  That gave Lockwood a combined .182 batting average against him in 1975 and 1976.  According to, that made Lockwood the hardest pitcher to hit of all pitchers who threw at least 100 innings in '75 and '76.  Only three other pitchers (Dave LaRoche, Mark Littell, Charlie Hough) held opposing batters to a sub-.200 batting average over those two seasons, but all of them allowed a batting average of .192 or higher.

The Mets finished the 1976 campaign with an 86-76 record.  It was the second-highest win total in franchise history after the 1969 World Championship team.  But it would also be the last time the Mets sniffed a winning record until 1983.  As good as Skip Lockwood had been in 1975 and 1976, even he couldn't prevent the Mets from falling to the bottom of the NL East in subsequent seasons.

The 1977 season started off poorly for the Mets.  By late May, the team was in last place with a 15-30 record and manager Joe Frazier was out of a job.  By year's end, the Mets had lost 98 games, as well as top pitcher Tom Seaver (traded to Cincinnati) and top slugger Dave Kingman (traded to San Diego).  The team couldn't hit, finishing dead last in the National League in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, home runs and runs scored.  Additionally, the team's top starting pitchers after Seaver (Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack) combined to go 15-35 with an ERA approaching 4.00.  Skip Lockwood also had what would be a considered a down year for him, but his down year still made him one of the most dependable pitchers on an otherwise inconsistent team.

For the year, Lockwood went 4-8 with a 3.38 ERA and 1.13 WHIP, striking out 84 batters in 104 innings.  Although he was still very stingy against opposing hitters, allowing them to bat just .227 against him, it was the highest batting average recorded against him in his first three years as a Met.  Even so, Lockwood recorded his first 20-save season in 1977 while blowing only four saves.  The never-ending turmoil between the players and the front office seemed to have an effect on Lockwood's performance over the first three months of the season.  Through June 29 (two weeks after the notorious Midnight Massacre), Lockwood had a 4.23 ERA and had lost four out of five decisions.  But from June 30 to September 12, Lockwood pitched like he always had for the Mets, posting a 1.87 ERA in 30 appearances and holding opposing batters to a .196 batting average while recording 11 saves.

Lockwood had a similar season for the Mets in 1978, going 7-13 with a 3.57 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 73 strikeouts in 90⅔ innings.  But Lockwood only recorded 15 saves in 1978, mainly because he had to be shut down with a shoulder injury after making just one appearance in September.  It's not like the Mets needed him during the season's final month, as the team finished in last place with a 66-96 record.

After two consecutive so-so seasons with the Mets, Lockwood was primed for a comeback season in 1979, especially since he was in the final year of a three-year contract he signed prior to the 1977 campaign.  With free agent dollars on the horizon, Lockwood was on a personal mission to succeed, even if his teammates appeared to be on their own missions to fail.  The Mets lost 99 games in 1979, but Lockwood was absolutely brilliant.  Over the first two months of the season, Lockwood was nine-for-nine in save opportunities and posted a 1.49 ERA, matching his earned run average from his first year as a Met.  But after allowing a run on June 6, Lockwood tore a shoulder muscle, ending his outstanding season prematurely, even though the team's physician, Dr. James C. Parkes, originally thought he was not seriously injured.

Skip Lockwood

"He has stiffness in the back of the shoulder.  He pulled some small muscle fibers.  But with heat and massage and rest, he should be ready to pitch Saturday.  We don't think it's serious."

--Dr. James C. Parkes, Mets team physician

The Mets tread water over the next two months without their top reliever, but the lack of an experienced closer came back to haunt them, as the team lost 40 of 50 games from August 5 to September 25, going 2-14 in one-run games over that time period.  Relievers were responsible for eight of the 14 losses, with future Mets closer Neil Allen earning four "L"s.  How bad was the team's relief corps after Lockwood succumbed to his injury in June?  Lockwood's nine saves led the team in 1979, even though he didn't throw a pitch after June 6.

Despite his penchant for losing one-run affairs, the Mets decided to keep Allen as their closer in 1980, waving goodbye to Skip Lockwood.  Allen would go on to save 69 games for the Mets in four-plus years with the team, but he was never as dominant as Lockwood was, posting a 3.54 ERA and 1.45 WHIP.  Allen also lost 40 games and blew 23 save opportunities from 1979 until his departure on June 15, 1983 in the trade that netted the Mets their future captain, Keith Hernandez.

Skip Lockwood pitched his last game for the Mets on June 6, 1979.  He signed a free agent contract with his hometown team, the Boston Red Sox, prior to the 1980 season, but never saw eye-to-eye with manager Don Zimmer, who constantly misused him.  The Red Sox released him after the season came to an end.  Lockwood then signed a minor league contract with the Montreal Expos, but his career came to an end during the 1981 players' strike without ever playing a game for the Expos.

When you look back at the numbers posted by Skip Lockwood during his 12-year major league career, it appears as if Lockwood was a less-than-ordinary pitcher.  He had a very low winning percentage, going 57-97 as a starter and reliever.  Lockwood also had a 3.55 ERA and 1.31 WHIP, numbers that were fairly average for the era in which he pitched.  But during his five years as a Met, Lockwood was as good a relief pitcher as the team had ever seen.

From 1975 to 1979, Lockwood pitched in 227 games for the Mets, all in relief.  In those five seasons, Lockwood recorded 24 wins and 65 saves, posting a 2.80 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and striking out nearly a batter an inning (368 Ks in 379⅔ innings).  What made this all the more impressive was that the Mets' combined record over those five seasons was 361-449.  In other words, Lockwood pitched beautifully on a team that played horribly.

On a team that has had its share of great pitchers over the years, Skip Lockwood's name is usually overlooked.  However, of all pitchers in Mets history with at least 300 innings pitched for the team, Lockwood ranks very highly in several categories.  Through the 2013 season, Lockwood is among the team's all-time leaders in ERA (2.80; 4th all-time), WHIP (1.11; 4th), batting average against (.213; 4th), on-base percentage against (.285; 5th), slugging percentage against (.319; T-4th) and strikeouts per nine innings (8.72 K/9 IP; 2nd).  Also, his 65 saves rank him 9th all-time in Mets history.  Prior to becoming a Met, Lockwood never allowed opposing batters to finish a season with an on-base percentage under .300 against him.  In five years with the Mets, his opponents' year-by-year OBP against him was .287, .265, .288, .298 and .292, respectively.  Basically, Lockwood had opposing hitters on lockdown once he became a Met.

Skip Lockwood became a Met after spending six seasons with the Pilots, Brewers and Angels - teams that never posted a winning record during his time with them.  He played a key role in helping the Mets to a winning record - his first as a major leaguer - in 1975.  He then became the team's top closer in 1976, also a winning season for the Mets.  But Lockwood never got to play for a winning Mets team again, as the team spiraled its way to the bottom of the division.

Lockwood was one of the greatest and most unheralded relief pitchers in the history of the Mets franchise.  It's a shame that he never got to experience the thrill of a pennant race with the team.  But then again, when you're one of the best players on some of the worst Mets teams, that kind of deal comes with the territory.

You can't discuss the best closers in Mets history without mentioning Skip Lockwood.

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
January 27, 2014: Steve Trachsel
February 3, 2014: Rico Brogna

Saturday, February 8, 2014

A "Best On The Worst" Side Story: When Mark Grace Punched Me In The Face

Earlier this week, I shared the story of Rico Brogna, who played with the Mets from 1994 to 1996.  Brogna never played for a winning Mets team, but in his short time with the club, he became a beloved figure with the fans.  One of his many big moments with the team came on Saturday, May 11, 1996, when Brogna delivered a walk-off home run to defeat the Chicago Cubs, 7-6, at Shea Stadium.

But the story of the game wasn't the Brogna blast that erased a four-run Cubs rally.  It was the bench-clearing brawl in the fifth inning that started when Mets starting pitcher Pete Harnisch and Cubs catcher (and good friend) Scott Servais got into a heated argument at the plate.  And before the 15-minute donnybrook was done, Mark Grace had punched me in the face.  Here's the story of how a great contact hitter made some not-so-great contact with my left cheek.
Is this what Mark Grace looked like before his fist came in the direction of my face?

The Mets were celebrating John Franco Day at Shea Stadium on May 11, 1996, to commemorate the reliever's 300th career save.  But Franco was not around to notch a save in this game, thanks to the fisticuffs that took place in the fifth inning of the Mets' 7-6 victory.

The seeds to the battle royale were planted in the first inning, when Mets catcher Todd Hundley had to duck out the way of a errant pitch by Cubs starter Kevin Foster.  When Foster came to bat for the first time in the second inning, Harnisch drilled him with his first pitch.  No warnings were issued at the time by home plate umpire Greg Bonin.

Harnisch expected retaliation by Foster when he came to bat, but fortunately for him, the Mets had two runners on base when he came up to the plate in the second inning and the bases loaded for his next at-bat in the third.  Neither Foster nor relief pitcher Rodney Myers (who came in for Foster in the third) could hit Harnisch with a pitch because doing so would damage the Cubs' chances at a scoreless inning.  Harnisch batted again in the fifth inning, but this time there were two outs and no one on base.  Terry Adams was now on the mound for the Cubs.  It didn't take long for the fracas to begin.

Adams threw his first pitch low and behind Harnisch.  Cubs catcher Scott Servais then started jawing at Harnisch, which caused the Mets pitcher to throw a punch at Servais.  Both benches and bullpens emptied and a violent brawl ensued.  The fight then moved in the direction of the Cubs dugout.  Guess where my seat was that day?

I have always enjoyed taking photos at Mets games.  In 1996, the Mets had a promotion where they gave fans in attendance a disposable Kodak camera.  It was a camera that had no zoom and could only be used for 24 photos before it had to be discarded.  It was as primitive as you could get for a wannabe photographer.  Because the Mets didn't draw well in 1996, I was able to get a ticket three rows behind and slightly to the home plate side of the Cubs dugout.  Because I was so close to the field, I figured I'd use the disposable camera since I wouldn't need a zoom feature from that distance.

Of course, as soon as I saw the mountains of men pushing, shoving and trying to decapitate each other near the Cubs dugout, I ran down to the front row and tried to take a super close-up photo of the action.  That's when Cubs first baseman Mark Grace stepped in.  And my face and my camera checked out.

In his effort to try to separate Mets players from his teammates, Grace accidentally (or at least I think it was unintentional) took a swipe in my direction, landing his fist on my face between my left cheek and left eye.  I dropped the camera in shock, and of course, it broke upon impact with the field level concrete.  The area between my cheek and eye ended up slightly swollen, and it had the appearance of a piece of skin that had just been ripped off with a piece of tape.  Grace had as mean a left hook as he had a sweet lefty swing.  I just had a mean bruise on my face and a broken camera.

After the pugilists were sent back to their respective corners, nine players and coaches had been ejected, including the man who was celebrating his special day at Shea Stadium - John Franco.

The Mets, who at one point had a 6-2 lead in the game, saw their lead whittled down to two runs in the ninth.  With Franco stewing in the showers (he claimed he was unjustly ejected, saying "I'm too old to be doing that kind of stuff"), the Mets needed three pitchers in a failed attempt to protect a 6-4 lead in the ninth.  A two-out, two-run single by Jose Hernandez off Doug Henry tied the game at six, and put Rico Brogna in position to win it in the bottom of the ninth.

With one out and no one on, Brogna delivered a high fly ball deep down the right field line.  Right fielder Sammy Sosa climbed the fence right near the foul pole, but Brogna's blast just cleared the wall over Sosa's glove.  With Sosa still dangling on the wall, Brogna ran gingerly around the bases, having injured himself during the fifth-inning fracas.  It gave Brogna a four-hit, two-homer, four-RBI day and capped a thrilling 7-6 victory for the Mets.

Of course, I have no photographic evidence of this home run because my camera was in pieces thanks to Mark Grace, but I'll always have clear memories of that free-for-all, Rico Brogna's amazing day at the plate, and the shape of Mark Grace's left fist.  It's a good thing he didn't sock me a few inches higher.  My memories might not have been so clear then.