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By Neil Shalin
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2011 Neil Shalin
All rights reserved.
1. Keith Hernandez
2. Carlos Delgado
3. John Olerud
4. Ed Kranepool
5. Dave Magadan
6. John Milner
7. Eddie Murray
8. Dave Kingman
9. Donn Clendenon
10. Ike Davis
We've got a Hall of Famer in Eddie Murray in seventh place. Does that mean that the six guys ahead of him belong in the Hall of Fame?
While Hernandez, Delgado, and Olerud all have their Hall of Fame supporters, they rank at the top of the list because they contributed more to Mets winning teams and they played in New York longer than Murray, who was only a Met for two years. Kranepool gets fourth place by virtue of the fact that he was a Met forever and made considerable contributions over the years. Magadan was a good spray hitter who started at first base and spent one year at third in the late '80s and early '90s.
Milner was a promising slugger when he came to the Mets but never developed the consistency that allowed him to make that next step.
Murray held down first base for two seasons toward the end of an illustrious career that was spent mostly with the Orioles. Kingman alternated between first base and the outfield, wherever it was thought he could do the least damage at any given time.
Clendenon was there only three seasons but was a key player on the 1969 Miracle Mets and the MVP of the World Series. And Davis, who should recover from his season-ending 2011 injury and go on to a long and fruitful career, enters the list at No. 10, with the potential to rise rapidly in the next few years. If he does, he'll be the first outstanding career first baseman, as everyone on this list but Kranepool had their best years with other teams.
Maybe the '69 Miracle Mets weren't such a miracle after all.
We know they overtook the Cubs over the second half of the season before sweeping through the league championship series. Those were great achievements, and the Shea Stadium nine should be given its due.
And then, after losing the first game of the World Series to the "heavily favored Orioles," the Metsies swept the next four games.
It was a great victory, and it was an incredible improvement for one team to make after finishing ninth the year before. In fact, in their first seven years of existence, the Mets never finished higher than ninth.
But a combination of extraordinary circumstances turned the Mets into a damned-good team that year, and they were just better than everyone else. There's nothing miraculous about that.
First, they had good pitching. Most of the hurlers — namely Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry, Tug McGraw, and Nolan Ryan — were young and ready to enter the prime of their careers.
If a team has to be strong up the middle, the Mets certainly were. They had a savvy veteran catcher in Jerry Grote and a sharp-fielding shortstop in Bud Harrelson. Add Tommie Agee in center field and few teams could match their central defense.
Agee and his old friend, Mets veteran Cleon Jones, both had great years, so the outfield did have some pop.
While there may not have been outstanding players at the other positions, they were talented enough to rise to the opportunity presented by manager Gil Hodges' lefty-righty platoon system at first base, second base, third base, and right field.
And, as it turned out there was enough depth around the field, in the rotation, and in the bullpen to give the manager flexibility and the fans a different hero every day in the chase for the pennant.
And then there was the addition of the missing ingredient. That little bit of spice that made the recipe work. On June 15, the Mets traded for an established big-league slugger in a three-way trade with the Astros and Expos.
For years, Donn Clendenon had been the starting first baseman in a powerful Pittsburgh lineup that included Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell. He was expendable because of some young talent coming out of the Pittsburgh farm system. He was sent to the Expos but only lasted there a few months until he was sent on to the Mets.
Clendenon, who averaged about 23 homers and 80 RBIs a season in Pittsburgh, was platooned with Ed Kranepool at first base. He hit 12 home runs and knocked in 37 runs during that amazing drive to overtake the Cubs.
He gave the Mets a big bat in the middle of the lineup, and he helped give them attitude.
"He was the catalyst on our team," said outfielder Art Shamsky to author Stanley Cohen for his book, A Magic Season. "You can talk about our pitching, which was great, and whatever else, but until June [we] were just a potentially good team."
In that first year of division play, the Mets were nine games behind the Cubs in the NL East when Clendenon joined the team.
After a slow start, the new first baseman got hot at the end of August. He hit a 10th-inning home run to give the Mets a 3–2 win over the Giants, helping the team pull to within 2½ games of the division leader by the time the Cubs came to Flushing for a two-game series on September 8.
The New Yorkers swept the series to pull within a half game, with Clendenon hitting a two-run homer in the second game.
The Mets increased their winning streak to 10 in a row, which put them 3½ games ahead of the Cubs. Then, on September 24, Clendenon hit a pair of homers in a game against the Cardinals, and the team clinched the NL East.
The Mets won 39 of their last 50 games and ended the season with a 100–62 record, eight games ahead of the Cubs.
Clendenon was not used in the three-game sweep in the first-ever NLCS, but he did play in the World Series, which became the lasting memory of his career.
The Mets lost the first game 4–1 but played well enough to prove to themselves that they could compete with the Orioles.
"I swear, we came into the clubhouse more confident than we had left it," said Tom Seaver years later. "Somebody — I think it was Clendenon — yelled out, 'Dammit, we can beat these guys!' And we believed it ... The feeling wasn't that we had lost, but, 'Hey, we nearly won that game!' We hadn't been more than a hit or two from turning it around. It hit us like a ton of bricks."
Clendenon had two hits in that first game, scoring the team's only run in the 4–1 loss.
And then he came back to hit early solo shots in Games 2 and 4 to give the Mets a 1–0 lead in each game.
The Mets had the favored Orioles of Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, and Jim Palmer on the ropes.
But the O's jumped out to a 3–0 lead in Game 5.
Cleon Jones led off the sixth and was hit by a Dave McNally pitch, but umpire Lou DiMuro said the pitch missed him. Mets manager Gil Hodges argued the call, and when he showed the ump a shoe polish smudge on the ball, DiMuro reversed his call and signaled Jones to take his base.
Clendenon came to the plate and hit a two-run blast to make the score 3–2, and the Mets went on to win 5–2 to complete the "Miracle."
Clendenon finished the series with three home runs and four RBIs, batting .357 to win the Series MVP award. His three home runs set a record for home runs in a five-game series.
"You could count on the big man. We all knew that," outfielder Ron Swoboda said, reflecting on that championship season.
"Clendenon was probably the key to our whole season," Shamsky said. "Because when he came over we really came alive."
In 1970, Clendenon, then 34, had one more big season, giving the Mets 22 home runs, 97 RBIs, and a .288 average, but it is his contribution to the Miracle that is his lasting legacy.
Mets fans caught the tail end of the best of Carlos Delgado, just before age and injuries eroded his once-brilliant skills. When he finally retired after the 2009 season, Delgado had produced 473 home runs and 1,512 RBIs, with a .383 OBP and a .546 slugging percentage over a 17-year career, mostly with the Blue Jays.
But Delgado, who joined the Mets in '06 at the age of 34, was the cleanup hitter in an extraordinary lineup that also included Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, and David Wright. The Mets won 96 games that year, tying them with the Yankees for the best record in baseball. They lost to the Cardinals in seven games in the NLCS.
In '07, he got off to a slow start but still finished with 24 round-trippers and 87 RBIs. He bounced back the following year with 38 homers and 115 ribbies in a season that included a 5-for-5 day with a walk-off RBI against the Cardinals. It also included a game against the Braves in which he hit a pair of three-run homers.
Delgado's last year was almost a total loss due to a hip injury that would force him to retire before the '10 season.
"He was unbelievable for us when he was healthy," said Reyes to the New York Daily News. "And he taught me how to play the right way."
When Delgado retired, former Toronto teammate Vernon Wells lamented that the first basemen fell short of reaching the 500–home run mark and called him one of the great power hitters of his generation.
"He had some of the most impressive pop that you'll see in a ballplayer — to all fields. And when he hit the ball, it wasn't coming down," Wells said.
"The ball explodes off his bat," said Roger Clemens. "It sounds louder off his bat than anybody else's."
Besides his impressive record on the diamond, Delgado is one of those rare players who was admired for his character. Many of his teammates lauded Delgado for his strong personality and the influence he had on their lives.
"Carlos is a great leader — a leader by example and every other way," said former teammate David Wells.
"What separates him from the other superstars is that he doesn't have the big ego," said former teammate Shawn Green. "Baseball really isn't his life. If he had to quit tomorrow, I know he'd find something else as challenging, and he'd be a big success at it."
Former Mets manager Willie Randolph said of Delgado, "He's a man of his word, he's a man of conviction, and he's not afraid to speak his mind. I respect him for that."
Throughout his public life, Delgado has been a passionate supporter of his native Puerto Rico. He's also been open about his political views, which include a consistent stand as a peace activist. He was opposed to the U.S. using the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, as a bombing target-practice facility, and he was against the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
"It's a very terrible thing that happened on September 11," said Delgado to the Toronto Star. "It's also a terrible thing that happened in Afghanistan and Iran. ... I just feel so sad for the families that lost relatives and loved ones in the war. But I think it's the stupidest war ever."
In '04, at Yankee Stadium, he was booed for not standing for the playing of "God Bless America," which he said came to be equated with a war he didn't believe in.
Like his hero Robert Clemente, Delgado was not only open about his beliefs, but he was active in numerous charities and was proud to represent Puerto Rico in the majors.
"As for his charity work, Delgado often visited hospitals in his hometown, bringing toys to hospitalized children. He formed the nonprofit organization Extra Bases, Inc. to assist Puerto Rican youth, donated video-conference equipment to allow a Puerto Rican hospital to link with a Boston hospital for remote diagnosis through telemedicine, and he's been a generous contributor to the Puerto Rican public education system.
In '06, Delgado was awarded the Roberto Clemente Award, which goes to the player who best exemplifies humanitarianism and sportsmanship.
"Carlos has the same stature as Roberto Clemente," said former major leaguer Cookie Rojas. "Roberto always tried to help the Latin players and people and wanted to leave something behind. He wanted to make people better. Carlos has all the same dignity and the same pride."
Perhaps former Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said it best: "If you had a son, you'd like him to be like Carlos."
1. Dave Kingman led the NL in homers as a New York Met in 1982, with 37, but he led all of baseball in 1979, with a career-high 48. What team was he playing for at the time?
2. Donn Clendenon was the Pirates' first baseman through most of the 1960s. Name three of his teammates — all of whom are position players and starters — who are in the Hall of Fame.
3. Ed Kranepool graduated from James Monroe High School in the Bronx. Which Hall of Fame first baseman was also a Monroe graduate?
4. In 1993, John Olerud won the AL batting crown, hitting .363 as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays. Who finished second?
5. Who was the National League batting champion in 1993?
6. Keith Hernandez batted .344 to win the NL batting title in 1979 as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. Who finished second?
7. Who was the AL batting champion in 1979?
8. Which one of these players never played first base for the Mets?
a. Rico Brogna
b. Mo Vaughn
c. Butch Huskey
d. Ferris Fain
9. Who was the starting first baseman for the Mets on Opening Day in their inaugural year, 1962?
10. Keith Hernandez was the Mets' Opening Day first baseman every year between 1984 and 1989. Who was the team's Opening Day starter in 1990?
1. Chicago Cubs
2. Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, and Willie Stargell
3. Hank Greenberg
4. Paul Molitor (.332)
5. Andres Galarraga (.370)
6. Pete Rose (.331)
7. Fred Lynn (.333)
8. d. Ferris Fain
9. Gil Hodges
10. Mike MarshallCHAPTER 2
1. Felix Millan
2. Wally Backman
3. Jeff Kent
4. Ron Hunt
5. Greg Jefferies
6. Ken Boswell
7. Doug Flynn
8. Carlos Baerga
9. Tim Teufel
10. Roberto Alomar
The New York Mets need a second baseman. They've always needed a second baseman. Our top 10 has some pretty good ballplayers, but none who were able to grab the job and hold on to it for a decade.
Millan had a nice career with the Braves, and then spent five years with the Mets. Backman was a tough little scrapper who served the team well in the years surrounding the '86 championship, but he often platooned with Teufel.
Kent was a slugger who was traded away before he really blossomed into a power hitter elsewhere, and Hunt was the team's first homegrown star, but he spent most of his career on other NL teams.
Jefferies was a great prospect as a Met but never really found a position. Still, he was good, although not as good as he was touted to be.
Boswell, the starting second baseman on the '69 team, was never really a full-timer in his eight seasons with the club. Flynn was a steady fielder who held the job for a number of years on bad teams, but his offense was a liability. Baerga saw better days with other clubs, and Alomar certainly did not look like a Hall of Famer when he played for the Mets.
We're still looking for our first star second sacker.
Hunt holds a particularly warm place in the hearts of old Mets fans because he was really the first young star they had to root for.
He was a scrappy 22-year-old when he came up in 1963, and he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting that year to Pete Rose. Charlie Hustle was a second baseman with the Growing Red Machine during his first three years, before he was moved to other positions to make room for Joe Morgan, who was acquired in a trade from Houston.
Rose hit .273 and scored 101 runs that year, while Hunt hit .272 with 10 homers and 42 RBIs. They had an identical .334 OBP, and neither was noted for his range in the field.
The following year was key to the argument that has raged over succeeding generations. Who was better: Rose or Hunt?
In '64, Hunt was voted to the NL All-Star Game, which was held at brand-new Shea Stadium in Queens. He finished the year with a .303 average to Rose's .269. All of Metdom was convinced at this point that it had the better of the two promising second sackers.
The Mets infielder, in his attempt to get on base any way he could, also started to show a penchant for getting hit. In his first year he took 13 for the team, followed by 16 in his second season.
The Flushing Faithful stopped paying attention to the Hunt vs. Rose debate after that. They had seen enough.
Hunt had some injury problems in '65 and would play only one more year in New York before moving on to the Dodgers for a season, the Giants for three, and the Expos for four before finishing up with the Cardinals.
Excerpted from Mets Triviology by Neil Shalin. Copyright © 2011 Neil Shalin. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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