50 years from the Mets junk drawerby Chris Jaffe
May 14, 2012
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the National League’s first expansion franchises of the 20th century, the New York Mets and the Houston Astros.
As befitting a golden anniversary, it’s a natural enough to look back on the franchises. The Astros we’ll save for later. They're in their final season in the NL after all, so a 50th anniversary retrospect might not be as nice as an NL summation of their days. Let’s focus on the Mets for now.
There is neither time nor space to recount the entire franchise history of the Mets, of course. That would take many volumes. Instead, let’s set a more modest and attainable goal, recounting some of the stranger and more unlikely moments in Mets franchise history—the odds and ends of their first half-century—a junk drawer for the club, if you will.
The following is not intended as any sort of “greatest hits” for the Mets. Far from it. Frankly, listing their greatest moments strikes me as a bit boring. Almost all of the people who have any interest in the Mets can already name them. There’s the 1969 Miracle Mets championship, the 1973 “Ya Gotta Believe” pennant winners, the 1986 “The Bad Guys Win” champions, the clubs that fought memorable postseason battles in 1999, 2000, and 2006, and so on.
That’s not junk drawer stuff. That’s trophy case stuff. Let’s go after the little nuggets one easily can miss. Here they are, submitted for your approval, listed in chronological order.
The junk drawer
May 12, 1962: Mets pitcher Craig Anderson has a nice day in today’s doubleheader. Pitching in relief in both contests, he picks up a pair of wins. I hope he enjoys it while it lasts, because after today he’ll never win another game. He loses 19 straight decisions, including 16 this year, before being drummed out of baseball.
May 2, 1963: Skipper Casey Stengel decides to do something different. He inserts catcher Choo Choo Coleman in the batting order’s leadoff slot. To this day, it’s still the only time any catcher has led off for the Mets. New York wins, 10-3.
June 26, 1963: After all these years, it’s still WPA’s choice for the best one-game performance by a Mets batter when Tim Harkness comes through in the clutch against the Cubs. In a 14-inning marathon, Harkness is 4-for-7, including a perfect 3-for-3 after the ninth. His biggest moment by far comes in the bottom of the 14th. The Mets trail by two runs thanks to an inside-the-park homer by Chicago star's left fielder, but New York loads the bases with two out for Harkness, who promptly hits a walk-off grand slam. His WPA on the day: 1.107. It’s by far the greatest of the 259 games in which Harkness ever plays.
Aug. 9, 1963: Jim Hickman hits a walk-off grand slam for the Mets, an achievement that’s extra special because it ends the 18-game losing streak of Roger Craig, the team’s best pitcher in their early horrible years.
Sept. 12, 1963: Ouch. Juan Marichal is a one-man wrecking crew today. The Giants star not only tosses a complete-game shutout against the Mets, but he also hits a home run along the way. It will take New York many years to solve Marichal, who wins his first 19 decisions over the Mets.
May 5, 1965: In the 20th century, there are only three games featuring: 1) two Hall of Fame starting pitchers tossing complete games against each other, 2) a final score of 1-0, and 3) the only run coming when a Hall of Famer hits a homer. One of those three games happens here as Jim Bunning guides the Phillies past Mets hurler Warren Spahn, 1-0. Bunning truly does guide the Phillies, as he not only tosses a shutout, but is the man who hits the home run. It’s part of a stretch where Bunning allows four runs total in eight complete-game victories over New York.
Oct. 2, 1965: The Mets season ends with one of the greatest pitching duels of all-time. The Phillies and Mets fight each other to a scoreless draw, ending in a 0-0 tie after 18 innings. Both starting pitchers, Chris Short for the Phillies, and Rob Gardner for the Mets, last 15 innings. It’s the only game in the last 90 years in which both starters have a Game Score over 110: 114 for Short and 112 for Gardner.
April 15, 1968: A few years after playing in one of the longest scoreless games ever, the Mets find themselves in the longest 1-0 game ever. They lose to Houston in 24 innings. Even worse, the game’s only run scored on an error, shortly after a balk and a pair of intentional walks.
Sept. 15, 1969: Just five days ago, the Miracle Mets stormed into first place in the NL East, and today they have one of their most unlikely wins in their storybook season. Cardinals pitcher Steve Carlton is utterly dominating, fanning 19 Mets. Despite his brilliance, St. Louis loses, 4-3. Nine days later, Carlton will face this same Mets team again, and the result will be the shortest outing of his 700-plus career starts: 0.1 innings as the Mets readily chase him from the game. In between those Carlton starts, Pirate pitcher Bob Moose no-hits New York.
May 13-15, 1970: Rather famously, after 50-plus years of baseball, the Mets have never thrown a no-hitter. That makes what happens here that much stranger as Met pitchers Gary Gentry and Tom Seaver toss back-to-back one-hitters.
Chicago’s Ernie Banks gets an eighth-inning single off Gentry on May 13, and after the Mets enjoy a day, off Philadelphia catcher Mike Compton singles against Seaver in the next game. Compton has just 18 career hits. Seaver had a more famous one-hitter the year before when Cub scrub Jim Qualls scratched a ninth-inning single to ruin a perfect game. But as obscure as Qualls is, he still managed 13 more career hits than Compton.
Aug. 7, 1972: Apparently, there is always a new way to lose a ballgame, as the Mets discover when they fall, 3-2, to the Cardinals in 13 innings on the rare walk-off inside-the-park home run. Ted Sizemore is the man who scampers around the bases to end it.
Aug. 21, 1972: Happy birthday, Jim Beauchamp! The veteran backup celebrates his 33rd birthday in style. At the tale end of a middling career that’s seen him hit nine homers in over 300 games, Beauchamp knocks out homers in two consecutive at-bats, including a game-winning walk-off shot. He’ll homer again tomorrow, too, before transforming back into a pumpkin.
July 21, 1975: Mets third baseman Joe Torre has a knack for hitting the ball to the wrong person today, as he grounds into a record four double plays, helping the Mets lose to Houston.
Sept. 5, 1975: For one day at least, Jerry Grote has a knack for hitting the ball to the right person. The Mets catcher ties a record by reaching base three times against St. Louis, all on Cardinals errors. Those are the only errors St. Louis makes on the day, as the Mets win, 5-2.
Sept. 16, 1975: Since 1950, quite a few baseball games have ended on a walk-off walk, but none have happened as late as this one. The Mets top the Expos 4-3 when Montreal’s Don DeMola walks Del Unser with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 18th inning.
Aug. 15, 1976: It’s the greatest day of Bud Harrleson's life. Before today’s game against the Reds, he gets married. During the game, he scores the only run in a 1-0 Mets win.
May 5, 1978: In the ninth inning, Lenny Randle does the impossible for the Mets, hitting a triple on a count of four balls and two strikes. Randle, his Mets teammates, the umpiring crew, and the official scorekeeper all lost track of the count. Phillies pitcher Tug McGraw realizes what’s going on but isn’t going to complain. Randle makes him pay anyway with his triple. The Phillies win anyway, 9-4.
June 30, 1979: The Mets top the Cubs, 9-8 in 11 innings. It was just 3-3 after 10 innings, and then the Mets scored six in the top of the 11th and unexpectedly had to hang on for dear life in the bottom of the frame.
Aug. 4, 1982: The Mets help Joel Youngblood make history. First he gets a hit for New York in a day game at Wrigley Field. Then the club trades him to Montreal. He joins the team that day, and gets a pinch-hit for them in Philadelphia that night, becoming the first person to get hits for two teams in one day.
Oct. 1, 1982: It might be the best pitchers' duel of the 1980s. After nine innings, not only are the Mets and Phillies locked in a scoreless tie, but pitchers Terry Leach and John Denny are each twirling one-hitters. The Mets get a run off a single against a reliever in the 10th for the 1-0 win.
April 28, 1985: This begins a pattern for the mid-1980s Mets, improbably wild marathon games they end up winning. They top the Pirates 5-4 in 18 innings. Both teams run out of position players along the way. Pittsburgh uses starting pitcher Rick Rhoden as a pinch-hitter, and New York uses aged pinch-hitter Rusty Staub in the outfield for the last several innings.
July 4, 1985: The Twilight Zone comes to Atlanta. In a 19-inning game bordering on the surreal, the Mets take until 4 AM to top the Braves, 16-13, despite numerous Atlanta comebacks. Most bizarrely, at 3:30 AM in the 18th frame, the Braves are down by a run with two outs, and the pitcher is due up. Because they have no position players left, career .074 hitter Rick Camp comes to the plate. After two quick strikes, he hits an unlikely game-tying home run. The Mets score five in the top of the 19th and hold off another Atlanta rally. The game ends with Camp at the plate again representing the tying run, but this time striking out.
July 27, 1985: The Mets top the Astros, 16-4. Despite scoring in four separate innings, all 16 Mets runs are unearned, thanks to five Houston errors.
June 10, 1986: Boom! Tim Teufel hits a walk-off grand slam for the Mets, allowing them to win 8-4 in 11 innings.
July 22, 1986: Time for another weird extra-inning game. Due to a series of early-game pinch-hitters and later-game ejections, the Mets end up with just seven position players, two of whom are catchers. So they put Gary Carter at third base, and let relievers Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco alternate between pitching and playing a corner outfield slot. This unorthodox defensive alignment beats the Reds, 6-3. After all the weird extra-inning wins in 1985-86, we shouldn’t be so surprised the Mets won the Game Sixes in the 1986 NLCS and World Series.
May 28, 1989: A walk-off balk? Yeah, a walk-off balk. In the bottom of the 12th, Roger McDowell does just that with a runner on third to cause the Mets to lose, 4-3. As it happens, the Mets will suffer through a second walk-off balk on June 16, 2011 when D.J. Carrasco surrenders one in the 10th inning.
June 25, 1989: The Mets go an entire game without recording a single defensive assist. Extreme flyball pitcher Sid Fernandez is on the mound.
April 23, 1992: Since 1950, there have been only four 1-0 games that ended on a walk-off hit-by-pitch. The Mets win one of them right here over the Cardinals. An added bonus: this was a 13-inning 1-0 game that ends with a walk-off hit-by-pitch.
Aug. 1, 1996: Even the early Mets never looked this bad. The club commits a franchise-record seven errors in a 13-9 loss. Only six runs are earned.
May 11, 1999: There can be only one. Today Mets starting pitcher Bobby Jones faces off against Colorado starting pitcher Bobby Jones in baseball’s first ever match-up of identically named hurlers. The New York Jones has the better career, but the Colorado Jones has the better day, winning 8-5.
May 20, 1999: That’s just Robin Ventura being Robin Ventura. In a doubleheader, the Mets third baseman makes history by belting a grand slam in both games. He’d previously hit a slam on consecutive days with the White Sox and later would famously hit a grand slam single in the 1999 NLCS against the Braves.
June 9, 1999: It’s the most famous moment in Bobby Valentine’s career. After getting ejected from the game by the umpires, he makes a fake mustache out of those eye-black stickers players wear, puts on some glasses and manages the game from the bench anyway. The Mets win in extra innings, and Valentine gets a suspension.
Oct. 1, 2000: It’s not the strangest way to end a game, but since it’s Game No. 162, it also ends the season, giving it extra points. The Mets top the Expos, 3-2, in extra innings on a walk-off error by Montreal. That’s not how you want to enter an offseason.
June 15, 2002: This one belongs because it is an oddity, but the backstory is so well known I’m tempted to leave it out. This is the first game Yankee pitcher Roger Clemens faces the Mets since throwing a piece of broken bat at Mike Piazza in the 2000 World Series. There’s a bunch of talk about whether Mets pitcher Shawn Estes should plunk Clemens. He doesn’t. Instead, he belts a home run and shuts out the Yankees for an 8-0 Mets win.
Sept. 3, 2002: The Mets set a record no one wants when they drop their 15th straight home game. Then they win the second game in today's doubleheader to end the streak.
Aug. 13, 2003: Star catcher Mike Piazza returns from an injury that kept him out for three months, and his timing is perfect as tonight is Italian Night at Shea Stadium. Not only is it Italian Night in the stands, but Piazza makes sure it is on the field as well, belting a homer and driving in five runs in the Mets’ 9-2 win.
June 25, 2005: It’s a record many didn’t even think was possible. In the second inning, the Mets improbably get three sacrifice flies in one inning in an interleague game against the Yankees. They can get three sacrifices because Yankee outfielder Bernie Williams drops one of the flies, giving the Mets an extra out.
Aug. 26, 2007: The Mets have surrendered over 69,000 hits in their franchise history, but perhaps none are as unlikely than this. Leading off the fifth against the Mets, obese 44-year pitcher David Wells lays down a bunt and beats out an infield single. The hit raises Wells’ career average to .121.
June 12, 2009: It’s the Luis Castillo Game. The Mets are one out from an 8-7 win over the Yankees when Alex Rodriguez hits an easy pop-up to second baseman Castillo. Somehow, he muffs it, and because runners were going with two outs, two come around to score for a highly unexpected 9-8 Yankee win.
July 8, 2009: Oops. In a game broadcast on ESPN, New York’s Alex Cora fouls a ball off the chin of sideline reporter Erin Andrews. She goes to the hospital but is released after suffering only some bruises.
Aug. 23, 2009: In the bottom of the ninth against the Phillies, the Mets' Jeff Francoeur hits into the rarest play in baseball, the unassisted triple play.
July 6, 2010: Johan Santana has a pretty nice day. Not only does he throw a complete-game shutout, but he hits his first home run in it, as well.
Aug. 13, 2010: The Mets have zero no-hitters and 34 one-hitters in franchise history, but perhaps none of the near-misses for a no-hitter is as galling as this one. Philadelphia pitcher Cole Hamels gets the lone safety against R.A. Dickey of the Mets.
Sept. 27, 2011: It’s a deeply unpleasant loss for the Mets. After surrendering a go-ahead run to Cincinnati in the top of the 13th, here’s what happens to the Mets in the bottom of the inning: Walk, caught stealing, walk, balk, walk, walk, line drive double play. It’s tough to draw four walks in an inning and not score, but damned if that isn’t what happened.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.