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Few and Chosen Mets
Defining Mets Greatness Across the Eras
By Rusty Staub, Philip Pepe
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2009 Daniel Staub Phil Pepe
All rights reserved.
1. MIKE PIAZZA
2. GARY CARTER
3. JERRY GROTE
4-T. TODD HUNDLEY
4-T. JOHN STEARNS
It is altogether fitting and proper that I begin selection of my all- time Mets team with the catchers, because a catcher was the very first player selected by the Mets in the 1962 expansion draft and because the Mets probably have had more outstanding players at catcher than any other position.
The expansion draft to stock the two new National League franchises, the New York Mets and the Houston Colt .45s (later the Astros), was held in Cincinnati on October 10, 1961, the day after the final game of the 1961 World Series between the New York Yankees and Cincinnati Reds.
Houston had won a coin toss and was awarded the first pick in the draft. With it they chose shortstop Ed Bressoud off the roster of the San Francisco Giants. With their first pick, the Mets chose another Giant, Hobert Neal (Hobie) Landrith, a 32-year-old catcher, the veteran of 12 major league seasons. The selection of Landrith gave birth to a memorable and oft-quoted comment by Casey Stengel, who, when asked why the Mets made a catcher their first pick in the draft, replied, "You gotta have a catcher or you're going to have a lot of passed balls."
Alas, Landrith's career with the Mets was short-lived. He had played in 23 games, had 13 hits, one home run, seven runs batted in, and three passed balls when, on June 7, he was sent to the Baltimore Orioles as the "player to be named later" in an earlier trade that brought to the Mets Marv Throneberry, who was born to be a Met (his birth name: Marvin Eugene Throneberry). Writers covering the Mets sarcastically pinned the nickname "Marvelous Marv" on Throneberry, who would come to be the symbol of the fledgling team's bumbling futility.
In later years, the Mets would thrive at the catching position. Among those who wore the so-called "tools of ignorance" in a Mets uniform were two Hall of Famers — including Yogi Berra, whose body of work with the Mets is a sampling so small (four games, two as a pinch hitter, two behind the plate, two singles in nine at-bats) as to disqualify him as a candidate for the all-time Mets team — another certain future Hall of Famer who is baseball's all-time record holder for career home runs by a catcher, a man who set the single season record for home runs by a catcher and the Mets' single-season home run record, and a defensive stalwart who artfully guided the phenomenal pitching staff of the "Miracle Mets" of :969.
With such a formidable array of talent from which to choose, my selection of the number one catcher in Mets history is Mike Piazza, who gets the nod, albeit a slight one, over Gary Carter.
Piazza and Carter are similar in that each came to the Mets in well-publicized, much ballyhooed trades, some :3 years apart, when each was at the peak of his career. Their arrival immediately changed the culture around the Mets and lifted them to another level. They were the missing pieces to a puzzle that led to the Mets' run as a National League power.
Carter is deservedly in the Hall of Fame. Piazza will be when he becomes eligible. I give the edge to Piazza based on his longevity with the Mets (eight seasons compared to Carter's five) and his career offensive production (a .308 average compared to Carter's .262, 427 homers to Carter's 324, 1,335 RBIs to Carter's 1,225, and 2,127 hits to Carter's 2,092).
Mike Piazza is the poster boy for what can be achieved when hard work, determination, opportunity, and a little bit of luck. Mike was so lightly regarded as a player at Phoenixville (PA) High School and Miami-Dade North Community College that he might never have gotten his opportunity were it not for the fact that he was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, the hometown of Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, or if Piazza's dad had not been a friend of Lasorda.
The Dodgers, at Lasorda's request and presumably as a favor to Piazza's father, drafted Mike in the 62 round of the June 1988 amateur draft, the 1,390 pick in the country out of the 1,433 players chosen. Among those drafted in the first round that year were Andy Benes, Steve Avery, Gregg Olson, Robin Ventura, Tino Martinez, Royce Clayton, and Brian Jordan, all good players who had successful major league careers, but the only way any of them will get into the Hall of Fame is by buying a ticket.
Five years after he was drafted, Piazza was the Dodgers' number one catcher, batting .318, hitting 35 home runs (a major league record for home runs by a rookie catcher), and driving in 112 runs. He was unanimously chosen for National League Rookie of the Year.
By 1998, Piazza was a five-time All-Star, a career .334 hitter, a three-time 100-RBI man and was generally regarded as the game's best-hitting catcher. He was a full-fledged star, and he felt he should be paid accordingly. A contract dispute arose with the Dodgers, who resolved the situation by trading Piazza to the Florida Marlins in a seven-player deal on May 14, 1998.
The Mets saw this as their opportunity to land the power hitter they desperately needed to move to the next level. Eight days after Piazza landed in Florida, he was on his way to New York in a three-for-one trade. In exchange for Piazza, the Mets sent the Marlins outfielder Preston Wilson and pitchers Ed Yarnall and Geoff Goetz.
When Piazza arrived, the Mets had gone 10 years without making the playoffs. They had finished fourth in 1996 and third in 1997. Piazza immediately changed the culture around the team almost single-handedly. After a decade of malaise, they became relevant again. People once more cared about the Mets. Fans returned to Shea Stadium largely because of him.
Piazza became the greatest position player in Mets history and, during his eight years there, he was the face of the franchise. His name appears on the team's career top 10 lists in virtually every important offensive category. He's first in slugging percentage, second in home runs and RBIs, third in total bases and extra-base hits, fourth in batting average and doubles, fifth in on-base percentage, sixth in hits, and eighth in runs.
In Mike's first season with the Mets, they missed making the playoffs by one game. The following year, they made the playoffs as the National League wild-card, and in 2000, they won the National League pennant and made it to the World Series for the first time in 14 years.
As a Mets player, Piazza batted .296, hit 220 home runs, and drove in 655 runs. Meanwhile, the three players the Mets traded away never lived up to their potential. Preston Wilson had a decent 10-year career with six teams, batting .264 with 189 homers and 668 RBIs, Ed Yarnall won just one major league game, and Geoff Goetz never rose above Class AA, so this trade is one of the best, if not the best, in Mets history.
In 2004, Mike hit his 352 home run and passed Carlton Fisk for the most home runs in baseball history as a catcher.
Of the 13 catchers currently enshrined in the Hall of Fame, only Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, and Buck Ewing have lifetime batting averages higher than Piazza's .308; only Fisk and Yogi Berra have more hits than Piazza's 2,127; and only Berra and Johnny Bench have more RBIs than Piazza's 1,335.
Mike gets a bad rap for his defense. I'm not saying he's in a class with Gary Carter, Jerry Grote, or some other Mets' catchers when it came to throwing runners out, bouncing on the bunt, and blocking home plate, but he certainly wasn't as bad as everybody made him out to be.
My first reaction was to make Jerry Grote number one at catcher on my all-time Mets team because he was such a tremendous defensive catcher and I have such a high regard for his work behind the plate. But when I examined the numbers more closely, because of his tremendous offense, Piazza cannot be overlooked. His numbers are incredible. They are far superior to any catcher who ever played for the Mets and are as good, or better, than any catcher in history. He was a run producer. He hit for average. He hit for power. And he was a big-game player.
One of the most memorable and most dramatic moments in Mets history was Piazza's two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth against the Braves on September 21, 2001, a blast that not only gave the Mets a 3 — 2 victory, but also lifted up an entire city, even a nation, in the first game at Shea Stadium after the tragedy of 9/11.
I have no doubt that when his time comes, Mike will be elected to the Hall of Fame and he will be regarded as the best offensive catcher in the history of the game. There isn't any catcher that I know of who can compare with what Mike has done. Fisk played a long, long time and he had a great career, but he doesn't have the numbers Piazza has. There are others, such as Yogi, Johnny Bench, and Bill Dickey, who played for great teams and deserve all the credit in the world. But to me, Mike Piazza is special.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a strong parallel between the arrivals of Mike Piazza in 1998 and Gary Carter 13 years earlier. Both came to New York in well-publicized trades in the prime of their careers and with excellent résumés, Piazza in six seasons with the Dodgers, Carter in 10 seasons with the Expos.
The Expos had signed Carter to a seven-year contract after the 1982 season but two years later decided they could no longer afford him, so they started bringing up his name in trade talks.
By 1984, the Mets were on the road to recovery after a seven- year drought in which they failed to have a winning record. I was in my second tour of duty with the Mets, and I watched as Darryl Strawberry joined the team in May 1983, Keith Hernandez arrived in a trade a month later, and Davey Johnson took over as manager in 1984. The Mets were getting better (we would win 90 games and finish second in 1984), but we still had a long way to go.
On December 10, 1984, the Mets completed a trade with the Expos, sending four young players to Montreal in exchange for Gary Carter, a seven-time All-Star, who was hailed as the final piece of the puzzle that was expected to bring a championship to the Mets. Carter, "the Kid," immediately endeared himself to Mets fans by smashing a tenth inning, game-winning, walk-off home run in his first game as a Mets player, the opening game of the 1985 season, beating the Cardinals 6 — 5 and sending 46,781 Mets fans home deliriously happy. We would improve by eight games over the previous season, but our 98 wins left us three games behind the Cardinals for the National League East title and out of the postseason. The best was yet to come.
The next year, Carter lived up to expectations. He hit 24 home runs and drove in 105 runs, third in the league, as the Mets won 108 games and finished 211/2 games in front in the National League East. They then beat Houston in six games in the National League Championship Series and the Red Sox in seven games in the World Series — the one in which Bill Buckner booted Mookie Wilson's easy ground ball in the tenth inning of Game 6.
It was the Mets first World Series victory in 17 years, and they did it without me. I would have liked being a player on that World Series championship team, but my playing career had ended. However, I was general manager Frank Cashen's assistant that year, so I still felt a big part of that team.
After winning it all in 1986, most people felt the Mets should have won another World Series or two, but they didn't. Part of the reason is that the years of wear and tear of catching began to take their toll on Kid. His production began to decline after 1986. He would play three more years with the Mets, then one year each with the Giants and Dodgers before returning to Montreal to end his career where it started.
When his brilliant career was concluded, Kid had played 19 seasons and caught 2,056 games, the most in National League history, which is remarkable for someone who never caught a game until he became a professional.
Unlike Piazza, when Carter graduated from high school, he was highly recruited, for both baseball and football. In football, he was a high school All-American quarterback coveted by hundreds of big- time college football programs. He had agreed to go to the University of Southern California, where he was reported to be their quarterback of the future. But when the Expos selected him in the third round of the June 1972 draft and offered him a handsome bonus, Gary declined USC's offer and opted for baseball.
Like Piazza, the Kid, who had never caught in Little League, high school, or American Legion ball, put in a lot of hard work to become one of the greatest catchers in major league history. The Kid was the whole package as a catcher: receiving, calling a game, blocking home plate. He had a great arm and was a big-time power hitter. He played only five years with the Mets and he had some good years. His greatest years were obviously with the Expos, and it was as an Expo that he went into the Hall of Fame. But you can't deny the numbers he put up with the Mets.
I go back farther with Jerry Grote than any other player I have known. We were kids together with the Houston Colt .45s, before they became the Astros. I was signed right out of high school as a free agent on September 11, 1961, before Houston had even played a game in the National League. I was 17 years old at the time.
Grote signed as a free agent the following June. He was 19.
So Jerry and I sort of grew up together as major league baseball players. We were in the Instructional League together. I joined the team at the start of the 1963 season when they were still the Colt .45s (they would become the Astros in 1965). Grote came up in September '63 and played in three games.
At the time, Houston had four young catchers: John Bateman, Dave Adlesh, John Hoffman, and Grote. All were terrific young prospects. They couldn't keep them all, so the geniuses who were running the Colt .45s picked Grote as the one to go. After the 1965 season, they sent him to the Mets for cash and a player to be named later who turned out to be pitcher Tom Parsons, a guy who never pitched another major league game. Bateman had a pretty good major league career of 10 years, six with Houston. Adlesh was a backup catcher for the Astros who came to bat only 256 times in six seasons. Hoffman got into only eight major league games.
Meanwhile, Grote played 16 seasons with Houston, the Mets, the Dodgers, and Kansas City and was, to my mind, as good as there ever was at executing all the things a catcher has to do on defense. Granted, he had great pitching staffs to work with — Tom Seaver, Jon Matlack, and Jerry Koosman and before that Gary Gentry and Nolan Ryan. Pretty good talent always makes a catcher look better, but somebody has to take credit for handling that talent.
Somebody with the Mets also has to get credit for choosing Grote over the other Houston catchers. I regret I don't know who that somebody was, but whoever it was, he certainly made the right choice.
Grote had a reputation of being ornery, but he really wasn't that way out of uniform. Jerry was two different guys, one on the field and another off the field. On the field, he played as hard as anybody, and I came to admire the work that he did behind the plate. I was happy the way he matured and became the great catcher he was.
Grote had a reputation of being ornery, but he really wasn't that way out of uniform. Jerry was two different guys, one on the field and another off the field.
The offensive side of the game always is going to be the dominant vote in making the Hall of Fame or being rated as the number one catcher in the history of any franchise. Grote didn't have the offense to go with his great defense — a .252 lifetime batting average, 39 home runs, and 404 RBIs — so he's not going to get the full recognition he deserves. That's the reason — the only reason — I have to rate him behind Piazza and Carter when it comes to picking the best catcher in Mets history.
I can't choose between John Stearns and Todd Hundley for fourth place among all-time Mets catchers, so I'll hedge a little here and pick them in a tie for fourth place.
Stearns was a little better defensively than Hundley. He was a tough guy behind the plate, a former football player who was drafted as a defensive back by the Buffalo Bills out of the University of Colorado. He was also drafted by the Phillies as the number two pick overall in the June 1973 amateur draft and, like Carter before him, decided to forgo football for baseball.
Stearns came to the Mets in a trade that sent Tug McGraw to the Phillies and John became the Mets' number one catcher, where he stayed for eight years until a broken finger and elbow tendinitis shortened what should have been a much longer career. When he was healthy, he was an outstanding catcher, a four-time All-Star and a line-drive hitter who had a career .260 average with 46 home runs and 312 RBIs. He also set a National League record for catchers in 1978 when he stole 28 bases.
Excerpted from Few and Chosen Mets by Rusty Staub, Philip Pepe. Copyright © 2009 Daniel Staub Phil Pepe. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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