This Annotated Week in Baseball History: May 27-June 2, 1969

On May 27, 1969, Todd Hundley was born. What does this have to do with Richard’s high school theory on playing right field and the error total of the 2006 Mets? Read on to find out.

When my coach put me in the lineup for my high school baseball team—which wasn’t often, for reasons which soon will be clear—I was an outfielder. In addition to having a generally accurate but cripplingly weak arm, I was very shaky on figuring out exactly where a fly ball was going to land and being at that spot at the crucial moment.

Since I figured it was better to have a ball fall in front of me than behind me, I had a two-part plan for my positioning. Part one was to examine where the other team’s outfielder was playing and then stand 20 feet behind that spot. At this point, my coach would start yelling for me to move in, which led to part two, wherein I would start backing up until I could no longer hear his shouting. This left me quite a ways from the action, but I’m proud to say I can’t recall a single ball going over my head. Quite a few dropping in front of me, perhaps, but none going over my head.

All of that was a very long way of saying that—relative to the league—I was a much, much better outfielder than Todd Hundley. This wasn’t really Todd Hundley’s fault. When it came to everything else in the baseball skill set, Hundley was better than I by a margin too huge to fathom.

Being that I was even more hapless at bat than I was afield, even Ray Oyler was a far better hitter than I. But Hundley was a better hitter than many of his contemporaries, at least for a while. The son of catcher Randy Hundley, Todd made his debut in 1990 for the Amazin’s. He was installed as the starting catcher by Jeff Torborg, just in time to appear on the “Worst Team Money Can Buy” 1993 Mets. Hundley struggled mightily with the bat during his early years, but the Mets stuck with him and soon were rewarded.

In 1996, while playing for the Mets, Hundley hit 41 home runs, had 74 extra base hits and along with Bernard Gilkey (of all people) pretty much was the Mets’ offense. The 41 home runs is a notable number since it was both the most ever hit by a catcher and the most ever hit by a Met. (Javy Lopez broke the catcher record by one in 2003 and Carlos Beltran tied the team home run record last season.)

Hundley again was hitting like a demon in 1997, but problems were beginning. He got into the first of a handful of public disagreements with manager Bobby Valentine and had problems with his elbow. The elbow problems would become worse and force Hundley out of the lineup for an extended period in 1998. In the interim, the Mets acquired a guy you’ve probably heard of: Mike Piazza.

Knowing he would not push Piazza from behind the plate, Hundley had to find a new position. Unfortunately for him, the Mets were covered at many of the logical places. Edgardo Alfonzo was coming into his own at third base while John Olerud was contending for the batting title while playing first base. Faced with having to put their erstwhile catcher somewhere, the Mets settled on left field.

Oops.

Now, before I get into this, I want to make it clear that best as I could tell, Hundley was always doing all he could in left field. He wasn’t dogging it or anything like that; he was just totally hapless. I’ve seen guys trying to make the conversion to left field, Chuck Knoblauch most notably, but no one who looked as bad as Hundley. If you didn’t know better, the impression he gave was of an exaggerated attempt to act afraid of the ball.

Hundley would run one way, only to see the ball land several feet either in front, behind or beside him. I very clearly remember a play on a fairly routine fly ball on which he broke in, then out, then spun around 540 degrees and watched the ball land five feet behind him. At the time, the Mets had Brian McRae in center field, and he was doing the best he could. But it really would not have mattered if the Mets had had Willie Mays standing on Andruw Jones’ shoulders.

Even when he made the catch, one never got the sense that Hundley was getting comfortable out there, but making the catch was not as frequent an occurrence as one might hope. Despite playing in just 34 games, Hundley made five errors, giving him an .898 fielding percentage.

For sake of comparison, last year’s Mets left fielders—a group that included Cliff Floyd, Jose Valentin, Chris Woodward and Eli Marrero—collectively made just four errors. Expanded across a full season, Hundley would have made in the neighborhood of 25.

To their everlasting credit, the Mets never let it come to that. All said, the experiment lasted around six weeks. Perhaps affected by his daily humiliations in left, Hundley hit just .164 in that period.

He appeared only occasionally for the Mets thereafter, mostly as a pinch-hitter. In the off-season, Hundley was dispatched to the Dodgers as part of a three-team trade with the Orioles He would struggle during his first year in Los Angeles, but bounce back in 2000, earning himself a massive contract with the Cubs, his father’s previous team.

Hundley failed to endear himself to the Wrigley faithful by not hitting and then compounded that by flashing a fan the finger while on camera. He lasted just two years in Chicago before being sent back to the Dodgers, where he finished his career not with a bang but with a whimper in 2003.

While I can’t say for sure Hundley regrets his run-in with the fans in Chicago, his many public spats with Bobby Valentine or anything else about his life, I feel very confident in saying that Hundley regrets having spent that six-week spell as the world’s worst left fielder.

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