Hall of Fame Weekend 2013: a look at Jerry Koosman

If you’re asked to name the greatest right-handed pitcher in the history of the New York Mets, the answer comes to mind easily and immediately: Tom Seaver. If you’re asked to name the top left-hander, you might have to take a second longer, but you’re almost certain to come up with the answer of Jerry Koosman.

Along with longtime Mets teammate Jerry Grote, Koosman is in Cooperstown this weekend to participate in one of the signings that have become a staple of Hall of Fame Weekend. While Koosman wasn’t quite a Hall of Famer, he was just a tier below, a very good pitcher who won 222 games over a 19-year career. With Seaver entrenched as the Mets’ ace from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, Koosman became the perfect No. 2 starter. With a moving fastball in the low 90s and a good overhand curveball, Kooz would have rated as the ace of many staffs that lacked a Hall of Fame talent like Seaver.

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Yet, at one time, it didn’t appear that Koosman would even make the major leagues. At first, he endured a stint in the Army during the Vietnam War, which delayed his professional career. And then after his hitch in Vietnam ended, he struggled in the minors. During a rather famous meeting, the Mets’ talent evaluators were ready to release Koosman, but then someone realized that he owed the front office some money. That’s because Koosman had become involved in a car accident and needed to borrow $75 to help buy another vehicle. The Mets, notoriously thrifty at the time, did not want to let him go until he paid back the money.

Koosman took advantage of the reprieve. After a good season at Single-A Auburn, Koosman made the double jump to Triple-A Jacksonville, where he completed 14 of 25 starts and held the opposition to a 2.43 ERA. Along the way, he made an adjustment, adding a curve ball to his repertoire.

The Mets brought Koosman to the big leagues in 1967 and watched him struggle in a nine-game trial. But then came 1968, the Year of the Pitcher. Koosman threw seven shutouts, won 19 games, and actually compiled an ERA that was better than Seaver’s, 2.08 compared to 2.20. For his efforts, Kooz made the All-Star team, received a few votes for the MVP, and placed second in the Rookie of the Year balloting to a fellow named Johnny Bench.

On a lighter note, Koosman showed almost no ability as a hitter. He came to bat 91 times, striking out on 62 occasions.

While his hitting providing unwanted comedy, Koosman did impress scouts on several fronts, not only with two highly effective pitchers, but with a deceptive pickoff move and a willingness to work quickly. Perfectly willing to back off his fastball in order to throw strikes, he consistently worked ahead in the count.

With Koosman and “Tom Terrific” anchoring the staff, the Mets won 73 games, a 12-game improvement over the disaster of 1967. By 1969, the Mets were ready to win. So was Koosman, who posted 17 more victories, made his second straight All-Star team, and again received some support for the MVP Award.

It was also during that 1969 season that Koosman became involved in a famed incident. After Cubs manager Leo Durocher ordered Bill Hands to hit New York’s Tommie Agee with a pitch, Koosman needed no prompting from his own manager, Gil Hodges. Kooz drilled the Cubs’ Ron Santo, sending a message to Durocher that the Mets would not be intimidated. The Mets would end up winning the series and moving within a half-game of first-place Chicago.

After surprising the Cubs in the pennant race and sweeping the Braves in the first National League Championship Series, the Mets stunned the Orioles in the World Series. It was Koosman who pitched the clinching Game Five, winning a 5-3 decision against an Orioles lineup that featured an array of tough right-handed hitters in Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson and Dave Johnson.

Koosman’s performance looks even better in retrospect considering that he pitched most of the season in pain, bothered by a knot in his shoulder and a bone spur in his heel.

Koosman’s World Series heroics made him a household name, and helped him earn a spot on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s 1970 baseball preview issue. Except for an injury-curtailed 1971 and a poor 1972, Koosman remained a durable and effective starter. He helped the Mets win the division title in 1973, before picking up two wins during a strong postseason run against the Reds and world champion A’s.

Kooz continued to pitch well through 1976, when he won a career-high 21 games and finished second in the Cy Young Award voting to the soft-tossing Randy Jones. He did all of that despite having to deal with the death of his father in March.

Then came the struggles of 1977 and ’78. The 1977 trade of Seaver put Koosman in the uncomfortable position of becoming the Mets’ ace, replacing “The Franchise.” Koosman didn’t pitch particularly well those seasons, but also suffered some horrific luck, received little run support, and endured shoddy defense behind him. He went a combined 11-35 over those two miserable summers. He also turned 35.

Convinced that Mets management had no dedication to winning, Koosman demanded a trade. He said that if the Mets did not deal him, he would retire. He was actually bluffing, but the Mets decided to take no chances. They peddled him to the Twins for minor league pitcher Greg Field and a player to be named later, who turned out to be Jesse Orosco.

In the short term, the trade turned into a steal for the Twins. Rejuvenated by the switch in leagues and organizations, Koosman emerged as a 20-game winner and as a Cy Young candidate while logging 263 innings. No longer a hard thrower, he compensated with control and his curve ball. The following year, his performance slipped a bit, but he still won 16 games.

It was not until the 1981 season that Koosman lost his spot in the Minnesota rotation. Moving to the bullpen, he became Doug Corbett’s setup man and an occasional closer. Off the field, however, Twins management grew irritated with Koosman, the team’s player representative and an active member of the Players Association. Koosman’s outspoken complaints on labor issues did not sit well with an owner like Calvin Griffith. The Twins claimed that Koosman was a bad influence on their young players.

So in August the pennant-contending Twins shopped Koosman to several teams, including the Yankees, before trading him to one of their division rivals, the White Sox. The Twins received relatively little in return: outfield prospect Randy Stuart Johnson (not to be confused with the pitcher) and two fringe minor leaguers.

The trade infuriated the Twins players. “I don’t like it… It’s a dumb move,” right-hander Roger Erickson told The Sporting News. Catcher Butch Wynegar was even less diplomatic. “The deal stinks,” said Wynegar. “Along with Doug Corbett, he’s our bullpen. We didn’t get any players we can use this year. I think it was the worst.”

But it turned out well for the White Sox. Over the next two-plus seasons, Koosman became an effective combination pitcher, working both as a starter and late-inning reliever. Highly intelligent, he served as a kind of unofficial pitching coach, offering advice to the younger pitchers on the staff. He also contributed in more tangible ways, winning 11 games for Chicago in 1983 and helping the White Sox win the Western Division title.

It turned out to be Kooz’ last hurrah in Chicago. In February of 1985, the Sox sent him to the Phillies as the player to be named later in the trade that had brought Ron Reed to Chicago. Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf would call his approval of trading Koosman one of his worst decisions. Returning him to the rotation fulltime, the Phillies watched Koosman put up a 3.25 ERA and 14 wins. The following year, he recovered slowly from knee surgery and pitched in only 19 games. After the season, the Phillies released him, ending his career at the age of 42.

Koosman has remained out of baseball since his retirement, but not out of trouble. In 2009, he was sentenced to a short stay in prison on charges of federal tax evasion. Lured in by the fringe anti-tax movement, Koosman had become convinced that federal taxes did not apply to him. That decision cost him six months of freedom.

Thankfully, Koosman has put those problems behind him. He’s out of prison, and in Cooperstown for a reunion of sorts with Grote this weekend. They’ll be signing at Paterno Brothers Sports and reliving those glory years of 1969 and 1973, when Koosman ran a pretty good second fiddle to Tom Terrific.

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