The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Mets”

Meet the Matz

Yesterday afternoon in Queens, New York, starting pitcher Steve Matz, making his Major League debut against the Cincinnati Reds, watched as the first batter he ever faced, Brandon Phillips, smacked a lead-off homer over the left-field wall.

The home crowd of 29,635 could never have guessed what would happen next.

Matz, apparently, had the Reds right where he wanted them.

The Long Island lefty, who grew up a Mets fan, quickly recovered his composure and shut down the Reds the rest of the way (other than a Todd Frazier solo homer in the 4th) on two runs and five hits through seven and two-thirds innings pitched.  Matz fanned six while walking three.  Of his 110 pitches, he threw 72 for strikes.

That manager Terry Collins let Matz go out and start the eighth inning after Matz had already thrown 90+ pitches through seven innings had as much to do with the Mets tired bullpen as it did Matz fine performance.

Or maybe it was Matz’s bat that Collins did not want removed from the game.

Matz became the first pitcher in the past hundred years to produce three hits and four runs batted in during his Major League debut.  His double in the second inning over the outstretched glove of Billy Hamilton plated the Mets first two runs of the game.  Matz also singled in the fifth inning, then lashed another single to center in the sixth-inning, driving in yet two more runs.

Neither Matz hitting nor his pitching performances in this game can easily be written off as flukes.  Before his call-up, Matz was batting .304 in Triple-A Las Vegas, and his earned run average through 14 starts this year was 2.19 with 94 strikeouts in 90 innings.  Said Vegas manager Wally Backman, “Matz is just bored down here.”

Just a few years ago, however, yesterday’s amazing performance was not an event that anyone would have readily predicted.  In 2010, Matz underwent what these days seems to be the inevitable Tommy John surgery.  It took him nearly two years to fully recover.  While many pitchers tend to recover and return to full health, surgery on a young arm is surgery, and no two cases will ever turn out exactly the same way.

So it was with great joy yesterday, for his family and friends in attendance as well as for Mets fan everywhere, that all of Matz’s hard work over the past few years has paid off with such unexpected dividends.

The Mets, who now enjoy one of baseball’s finest young rotations (if not the best) of Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob DeGrom and now Steve Matz (as well as veteran lefty Jon Niese and Jabba the Bartolo Colon), along with the currently recovering from T.J. surgery, Zack Wheeler, have Mets fans everywhere giddy over what the future may hold for New York’s senior circuit franchise.

While it is obvious that the Mets need to go out and get a bat, in the meantime no one could blame manager Terry Collins if he is tempted to use Steve Matz as a pinch-hitter.

That the 40-37 Mets (who have now won four home games in a row after enduring a terrible road seven-game losing streak) are still in the playoff hunt nearly halfway through the season is a testament primarily to their fine pitching.

Historically, this has nearly always been the case with the Mets when times are good.  Steve Matz and his mates in the rotation could take this team further than anyone, including this writer, would have predicted at the beginning of this season.  This might not be ’69 or ’73 all over again, but God knows it’s not 1963, 1981 or 2014, either.

That Matz was born and raised less than fifty miles from, and shares a birthday with this writer only makes me want to root that much more for this 24-year old phenom.

The only question is, what could he possibly do for an encore?



Ten Facts About Mets Ace Matt Harvey

Matt Harvey, who has begun his 2015 comeback campaign with a perfect record of 5-0, is certainly a candidate to win the N.L. Cy Young award this season.  Through his first 34 innings pitched, he has struck out 34 batters while walking just four.  He is currently averaging 8.5 strikeouts per walk, and (having been slated to make just 30 starts this season) is on pace to walk fewer than 30 batters this year.

So, yeah, he’s pretty good.

Here are ten other things you might not be aware regarding Matt Harvey:

1)  He has never been charged with an error in his career.

2)  He has never surrendered a grand slam homer in his career (and only one three-run homer.)

3)  He has never been charged with a balk.

4)  Only once has he ever intentionally walked a batter.

5)  He grew up as a Yankees fan (well, no one’s perfect.)

6)  He was the seventh pick in the first round of the 2010 amateur draft.  The first six players selected before him were, in order, Bryce Harper, Jameson Tailon, Manny Machado, Christian Colon, Drew Pomeranz, and Barret Loux.

7)  According to, the pitcher whose career, through age 24, most closely resembles that of Matt Harvey is Hall of Famer “Big Ed” Walsh of the early twentieth-century White Sox.

8)  His father was a collegiate athlete, playing both baseball and football at the University of Connecticut.

9)  Harvey shares a birthday (March 27th) with Hall of Fame manager Miller Huggins, and with teammate Mike Cuddyer (though Cuddyer was born a decade earlier.)

10)  The 1,067 batters who have faced Matt Harvey have hit a combined .191 against him.

Harvey’s next scheduled start is Friday, May 8th, in Philadelphia.


Top Ten Things For Which Mets Fans Can Be Moderately Satisfied

Though I’ve been a Mets fan since 1974, and have been writing this blog for nearly five years now, I don’t often indulge myself in all things Mets (probably because there’s not a great deal for which to indulge.)  Yet, given the declining interest among the fan base (do they still make Mets fans?), I thought I would do my best to try to cheer up my fellow refugees here in Mets-Land.

English: Citi Field with Shea Stadium's Home R...

English: Citi Field with Shea Stadium’s Home Run Apple (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To that purpose, here is my list of the top ten things for which Mets fans can be moderately satisfied:

1)  Through 276 plate appearances, Curtis Granderson has not yet hit into a single double-play this season.

2)  Jon Niese’s 2.67 ERA ranks 8th-best in the N.L., and his 1.15 WHIP ranks 11th in the senior circuit.

3)  Compared to the San Diego Padres (210 runs scored), our offense (273 runs scored) looks like the ’27 Yankees.

4)  Through 274 plate appearances, Mets prospect Brandon Nimmo has an outstanding .449 on-base percentage in Single-A for the St. Lucie Mets in the Florida State League.

5)  Matt Harvey is still undefeated this year.

6)  If it’s true that with age comes wisdom, then Mets G.M. Sandy Alderson (66), manager Terry Collins (65), and team owner Fred Wilpon (77), are Major League baseball’s version of the Oracle at Delphi, if the Oracle at Delphi featured poor infield defense, and looked at lots of 2-1 fastballs down the middle.

7)  The Mets home attendance average of 27,823 fans per game (17th-best in MLB), means that there is normally plenty of leg and elbow room for the fans who actually do show up, not like out in San Francisco, where the park is 99.5% filled to capacity.  Being a Mets fan attending a game at Citi Field is, then, like enjoying a first-class deck cabin on the Lusitania.

8)  Mets third baseman David Wright still has a perfect driving record.  And, according to another blog I read recently, Wright plays baseball “above the neck.”  That might put him at a competitive disadvantage, however, in a league where most other players use their hands, feet, legs and arms.

9)  No Mets pitcher appears to be on track to match the team record of 24 losses in a season accumulated by retired Mets pitchers Roger Craig and Jack Fisher.  Zack Wheeler currently has just seven losses to lead the team, so he’ll have his work cut out for him if we wishes to join Craig and Fisher in the pantheon of Mets infamy.

10)  With just six triples as an entire team so far this season, the Mets appear to be on pace to at least match the all-time team low of 14 triples the team legged out in 1999.  But at least management will have to spend less money on footwear during the next off-season.  No doubt they’ll put that money to good use signing marquee free agents for the 2015 season, and beyond.






Baseball Summers Long Gone

By the time my brother Mark and I were ten and twelve-years old, respectively, our summers had settled into a comfortably predictable pattern.  Wake up to a sultry, summer morning, have some Hawaiian Punch fruit drink (5% real fruit juice!), King Vitamin cereal, throw on some old clothes, then head out to round up our friends.

Scott, Johnny, Tony, and occasionally the Jelleff brothers comprised our small, stable group.  In later years, my older cousin Jimmy would sometimes come all the way over from Stratford to flesh out our crew.

Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s had just finished a remarkable three-year run as World Champions.  Now the Big Red Machine, as relentlessly efficient and mechanical as The Terminator, dominated the baseball diamond.

I was a Mets fan.  My brother Mark was a Braves fan because he liked their logo.  Scott was an A’s fan, and Johnny liked the Yankees.  Tony, a quiet, wiry Portuguese kid, kept his loyalties to himself.

Stopping first at Scott’s house just down the street, we might first trade some baseball cards (Tony Perez for Bert Campaneris straight up), then Scott would show us his latest Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath record.  Eventually, we would gather up our uncertain assortment of bats, gloves and balls before sauntering down Maplewood Avenue to collect Johnny and Tony.  They lived side-by-side in identical gray two-family houses with no yards, front or back.

Tony’s black-clad grandmother was always sweeping the sidewalk in front of their house.  Her smile offered us a view of her few remaining teeth, each one a sentry guarding her ironic, foreign laugh.

Johnny was once again in trouble with his dad, as his younger sister would always gleefully announce to us upon opening the back door to their modest home.  Johnny was a tough little nine-year old with a keen sense of humor.  He would back down for no one.  Slow as Ernie Lombardi wearing a ball-and-chain, Johnny could hit and field, but if a ball got by him, you knew you had yourself at least a triple.

For some reason, it never occurred to us to bring any water along as we trekked over to middle-class Fairfield to play ball.  The thirty minute walk wasn’t so bad in the late morning, although the burnt orange sun was already high in the sky.

Playing in Fairfield was always a crapshoot.  Sometimes, you got lucky and would be able to play uninterrupted for most of the day.  But as often as not, a station-wagon full of pampered, interchangeable suburban kids would invade our field like chubby white locusts.  This would usually happen, of course, in the middle of a game.

Someone’s overbearing dad – they always looked vaguely like either Robert Conrad or Lee Majors – would gruffly announce that they had “reserved” the field.

We knew this was bullshit, of course, but in those days young boys generally didn’t argue with adults.  And we never happened to have a handy grown-up of our own tagging along to provide us cover.

Johnny would just mutter, “Aw shit,” to himself, and we’d trudge off back up and across King’s Highway past Caldor and the County Cinema Theater (some movie about a man-eating shark was very popular that summer.)

Back in Bridgeport, we would inevitably stop off at the family owned and operated A&G Market where I bought my first pack of baseball cards in 1974.  We would purchase a lunch of RC Cola (look under the cap to see if you’re a winner!), and a bag of funyuns.

Fortified with this food pyramid-busting meal, we would climb a chain-link fence and spend the next several hours running, shouting, hitting and throwing on the hot black-tar pavement.

We took the game deadly seriously.  Every pitch, swing, and tag was grounds for an argument.  Scott, hot-tempered as a drunk Red Sox fan at a Yankee game, would throw his glove to the ground, yelling in his nasally, pre-pubescent voice about what total crap the final call was.  Johnny would just laugh at Scott’s antics, which pissed Scott off even more.  Eventually Tony or I would have to step between them to get the game going again.

If not interrupted in late afternoon by someone’s mother or young sister coming by to collect one of us for some unsavory, real-world task (Johnny needs to take out the garbage; Scott needs to come home to watch his two brothers; Mark and I need to go to church:  “Christ mom, on a Wednesday afternoon?  You’ve got to be kidding”), we would play all the way up to suppertime.  As if triggered by some ancient primordial reflex, mothers all over the neighborhood would start shouting out the door for their children to come in and get washed up for supper.

Exactly when all of this ended, I can’t really say.  It must have been around 1978 or ‘79, but I can’t be sure.  One day I was just a kid playing ball with my friends.  Then, without warning or regret, it just stopped.  Someone may have moved away.  New friendships were forged at new schools.  Girls suddenly popped up like dandelions on a spring lawn.

I’m quite sure, though, that I had no idea then that the most important time of my life — the period that essentially shaped the man I have become – had disappeared for good, and would one day, many years later, try desperately to avoid being pinned down and recaptured by mere words.



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The Future of Innings Not Yet Melted

Years ago, a friend of mine and I were making lists of the best players who played for each of our favorite teams.  Mine, of course, was the Mets.  His was the Red Sox.  We made our lists in the L.L. Bean warehouse, Zone 21, amidst the cardboard dust and broken yellow straps that littered the floor.  We had another two hours until the end of our shift.  No windows through which to notice the snow.

His list had many of the predictable names:  Teddy Ballgame, Yaz, Fisk, Clemens…he even added Babe Ruth to his pitching staff.  I granted him that one.  The old pig-farmer was once a kid lefty with promise.  Then, panic-stricken into silence, I noticed that his list of the greatest Red Sox of all-time included Tom Seaver.  He had shoplifted Tom Terrific right out of the store under his coat, much as the Reds had done in ’77.  This couldn’t stand.

Yagottabefuckinkiddinme, I blurted out.  Seaver?  He threw what, maybe 90 pitches in his entire Red Sox life?  That’s like me accidentally walking into a wedding ceremony, and emerging with a ring.  It just don’t work that way.  I slowly crossed Seaver’s name off his list.  Looking up at him, I said, “try again.”  I wrote, “Calvin Schiraldi” in small, neat letters over smudged Seaver.

But rules are rules, and we had none when we set up our lists.  My friend saw the loophole, and pounced.  That’s how winners happen.  When the Reds scammed Seaver from the Mets for a broken harmonium and a box of confiscated Turkish porn films, Mets fans knew they’d been had.  But losers always find a way to lose; it’s as irresistible as running a tongue over a broken tooth.  Still, Dan Norman?

Up to that point, I had left Nolan Ryan off my list of Mets, along with Ken Singleton, Amos Otis, and Paul Blair, as well as Snider, Mays, and Ashburn. I topped off my updated list with Bret Saberhagen.  But then so did he.  Going for the kill, I scribbled Jimmy Piersall’s name down, Mets class of ’63.  Clearly, that was below the belt.  My friend groaned.

Nothing left to do but gloat as I leaned on the pallet jack, waiting for the fork-truck driver to come back around.  Forty more cases of fleece jackets to load, then home to an Old Thumper and some chow.  Should be about 4:30 by now.  Not that it mattered.  The cold apartment on Spring Street was dialed up to December Maine Cold, frost on the handrails and black-slick death ice on the stairs.

The click of cleats on hardwood floors was still months away.  Leather glove smell of organic dirty perfume hidden in closet under box of wide-ruled college notebooks, stats of ’73 Mets in the margin of Sociology 101 scribbles.  Invertebrates and Mollusks in red notebook between columns of stadiums I’d meant to see.  Most are gone now, but the notebooks remain, hostage facts squeezed and forgotten in boxes.

My friend on my second-floor landing now, semaphore scorecard waving like a warning, his evidence of a 1986 Houston Astros ballgame.  Mike Scott and his vanishing split-finger optical illusion.  Beat the Mets twice in the playoffs. Not pitching, but counting coup.

I added Mike Scott to my list.  Drafted by the Mets in 2nd round, 1976.

My buddy just shook his head, but he had brought along an extra pair of six-packs and some egg rolls, so we were good for the evening.  Steel winter morning was still twelve hours away, and the inside of our souls were calm with pencil-mark scorecards and dog-eared almanacs, becalming order to the ordinariness of existence, waiting for the next hot prospects to melt in toaster-oven future, promise of a 44-double season mounting with the death of each winter day.

Was spring really true?  Who could say?  Future inning snow-flakes shadowed the night sky, blinding us from the moon’s faint light.  Floating to earth, all of next season, a snow carpet, tranquil and smooth, yielding nothing but the quietness of expectation.





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Sandy Alderson the Opaque

Following every utterance that emerges from the mind of Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson is somewhat like waking up disoriented after a night of drinking heavily at a party in a stranger’s house.  Whose cat is that sitting on my chest?  If this is the living room couch, then why is there a toilet in here?  Are those my feet, or someone else’s?  And on and on until you locate your pants and jacket, finally find the exit (I’m on the third floor?) and make my way back downstairs.  My car nowhere in sight, I simply start walking in the general direction where I believe I left home several hours (days?) earlier.

“This is something that happens once every 30 years, … It’s an unusual situation. Would it be better if we were one of the other four teams in the division at the end of the year? I don’t think so. I’d rather be a footnote to history than not in history at all.”

The context really doesn’t matter.  Alderson-speak is sort of like that word-game you may have tried back when you were in the 4th grade where you scatter a bunch of words on the floor, then try to rearrange them into a coherent sentence.  “The angry dog sharpened the sponge.”  Or “The boy flew the hot soap home.”

A couple of days ago, the Mets were supposedly very interested in pitcher Bronson Arroyo.  I, for one, think it would be a decent move for the Mets to make.  They could use a durable veteran arm and an unflappable personality like Arroyo on their team.  Then we learned that the Mets “May or may not meet the pitcher.”  Well, that about covers all the possibilities, doesn’t it?  Granted, it was a Mets “high-ranking official” who made that opaque proclamation, but Alderson-speak is ubiquitous in Mets-Land these days.

“What I mean by that is setting up a situation where we could be aggressive every year.  We want to be in the market every year.  Will we be in the market aggressively this year?  Unlikely.”

I was a hall monitor for one awful semester at a high school in a small town in rural Maine.  One morning, a teenage girl came waltzing down the hall without a pass.  I asked her where she was supposed to be.  She responded, “My jacket is all wet.”  To which I, in turn, responded, “But where are you supposed to be right now?”  She looked at me for a second or two, clearly perturbed that I was deigning to question her right to wander the halls at will (I hated doing this job, mind you.)  She blurted out, “God, why do adults have to be so annoying?”  A rhetorical question, to be sure, but one that ended up earning her an after-school detention.

“If the world ended when it was supposed to on Saturday, we wouldn’t have to worry about all these issues.”

When I was a young boy, my dad would take me for walks in Mountain Grove Cemetery, where P.T. Barnum is buried.  There were two ponds in the cemetery.  I liked walking all the way to the back where the second pond was because it always had large frogs in it sitting on lily pads.  As we walked by the head stones over the graves, and past the musty mausoleums which contained the remains of Bridgeport’s once more prominent citizens, my dad would say to me, “Billy, this is where it all ends.  Life is cheap.  Man is just another species of insect.”

“It may not yet be manifest to the average fan, the average person, but I think we are more active than we were last year.”

I’ve lost 20 pounds since last year.  Or, I’ve been working on doing so.  You may not have noticed how much I’ve been working out, especially during those times when we’ve been together.  You can’t always tell just by looking, but it’s been a lot of work, the effort of trying.

“I do think there will be a combination of more proactivity internally as well as a willingness in some instances to wait and see not whether the market changes, but what’s available to us later.”

  • Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. – Donald Rumsfeld, 12 February 2002

“Beyond alarming.  We have a crisis.”

Sandy, I couldn’t have said it better myself.

My Baseball Predictions: A Look Back

Now that the final pitch of the 2013 World Series has been thrown (and congratulations to the Red Sox), it’s time to revisit the predictions I made for the season way back in March.  As to be expected, I got some things quite right, and some other predictions very much wrong.

Let’s start with the good news, or, at any rate, those predictions that I got right.  It gives me no pleasure to tell you that I picked the Mets to win 74 games this year, which is exactly how many games they ended up winning.  I had predicted them to finish in 4th place behind what I thought would be a 3rd place Phillies team.  But somehow, the Mets edged the Phillies for 3rd place.

I predicted that Matt Harvey could have a very big year, and he did, up until he suffered his season-ending injury.

I predicted that Rangers pitcher Scott Harrison, who won 18 games in 2012 while posting a 3.29 ERA, would be a bust in 2013.  Harrison got hurt early on, and pitched just 10 highly ineffective innings all year.  I didn’t predict the injury, but I still think he was on his way to a poor season anyway.

This is what I wrote about the Braves off-season acquisition of outfielder B.J. Upton:

Cue Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell” because Upton does like to run, but also because it’s what you should do when his name comes up in your Draft… his plate discipline has all but disappeared, and that he is one of baseball’s most prolific out-machines.  Last year, he batted .246 with a pathetic .298 on-base percentage.  In fact, he hasn’t batted above .250 in any of the past four years.  Upton might get off to a quick start, but at some point during the season, his lack of plate discipline will catch up to him.

B.J. Upton finished the year with a triple slash line of .184 /.268/.289.  Ouch.

I stated that the Yankees acquisition of Kevin Youkilis would be a non-factor in 2013 because he’d probably spend about half the season on the D.L.  Youkilis ended up playing just 28 games for the Yankees.

I predicted that the Cubs starting pitcher, Edwin Jackson, was the best bet to be baseball’s next 20-game loser.  Jackson led the N.L. with 18 losses.  Oh, so close.

As for Kyle Lohse, I wrote:

Lohse led the N.L. in win-loss percentage last season (.842) by losing just three of 33 starts.  You want to bet the farm that this veteran pitcher can do that again?  His relatively low K rate, his fly ball tendencies, his low BABIP and his career history point to a correction in the offing.  Don’t be the last man standing when the music stops on this song.

While Lohse didn’t have a terrible year, he finished with a record of 11-10, with a 3.35 ERA.  Compared to 16-3, 2.86, a correction certainly did take place.

On the Nationals’ pitcher, Jordan Zimmerman, I wrote:

Zimmerman averaged over 3 1/2 K’s per walk last year, and is entering his age 27 season.  Likely to receive plenty of run support, while probably reaching the 200 inning pitched level for the first time in his career, Zimmerman could be primed for a very impressive season.  He won 12 games last year, but could win half a dozen more this time around.

Zimmerman posted a record of 19-9, leading the N.L. in wins, and posted a 3.25 ERA in 213 innings.

Of a potential breakout season for Arizona Diamondbacks First Baseman, Paul Goldschmidt, I wrote:

The 25-year old Goldshmidt started slowly last season, but hit 18 homers over the last four months of the season, including five homers in a seven-game span.  The right-handed batting first-baseman actually led the Majors in line-drive rate last year.  If just a few of his 43 doubles turn into home runs this year, Goldschmidt could be on his way to 30+ homers, along with about a .280 batting average.

A fly ball hitter (Goldschmidt led the league in Sac. Flies last year) who plays his home games in one of the best hitter’s parks in the league, is off to a fine start in spring training posting a .429 average to date.  Also, he’s not merely a slugger, but an athlete who stole 18 bases in 21 attempts last year.  Goldschmidt is one of this generation’s most promising young baseball talents.  He could become a right-handed swinging Jim Thome.

Goldschmidt should finish in the top five in N.L. MVP voting later this off-season.  His final stat line for 2013:

He led the league in both 36 homers, and RBI, 125, while batting .302.  He also led the league with an OPS+ of 160, in total bases with 332, and in slugging percentage at .551.  Truly a fantastic breakout season.

I predicted that the Tampa Bay Rays would win the A.L. East with about 95 victories.  The Rays won 92 games and ended up winning one of the two  Wild Card slots.  Not too far off.

I predicted that the Yanks would miss the playoffs, and were, at best, an 85-win team.  The Yanks finished tied with Baltimore for 3rd in their division with 85 victories.

I said that the Royals would finally finish over .500 this season, if only by a couple of games.  The Royals did a little better than I expected, posting a record of 86-76.

I stated that the Dodgers would win 95 games and the N.L. West title.  They won 92 games and the N.L. West title.

I predicted the Rockies would finish last in the N.L. West with 71 wins.  They finished last with 74 wins.

Moderately close to being correct, I predicted the Reds would win the N.L. East with 92 victories.  They did win 90 games, but that was good for just 3rd place, and one of the two Wild Card slots.

Now, how about all of my misses!

I predicted the Red Sox to finish in last place again in 2013.  Oops.

I stated that Mets first baseman, Ike Davis, would have a productive season, with around 30 homers, 80-90 RBI, and a .260-.270 batting average.  Davis, as every Mets fan knows, was a huge bust, posting a triple slash line of .205/.326/.334.  He hit just 9 homers, and drove in just 33 runs.  Unbelievably, it looks like there’s a chance the Mets might bring him back again in 2014.  Apparently, there is no bottom line at Citi Field.

I thought the Giants would win one of the two N.L. Wild card slots with around 87 wins.  They won just 76 games, tied for 4th in their division.

I predicted that the Nats would win between 95-100 games, and easily top the Braves in the N.L. East.  The Nats underachieved all year, and somehow won just 86 games, a full ten games behind the Braves.

I said the Pirates would finish under .500 again.  They finished with the 3rd best overall record in the entire N.L. with 94 victories, and a post-season appearance.  I’m glad I was wrong about this one.

I picked the Angels to win the A.L. West, and to represent the A.L. in the World Series.  They won just 78 games.  (Is Albert Pujols really finished?)

I suppose I’ll have another go at it next March for the 2014 baseball season.  Hopefully, I’ll get at least a few things right.

Those Who Caught the Great Pitchers: Part 2 – Jerry Grote

This is the second installment of this series.  You can read Part 1 here.

As a young boy growing up a Mets fan in the 1970’s, I always liked Jerry Grote.  Looking at the back of his baseball card, I realized he wasn’t going to ever win a batting title, but watching him play on WOR-Channel 9, I watched him catch enough to know that he was a true professional behind the plate.

Even with the advances made in modern statistical calculations, including dWAR, it is difficult to put a real value on how much a catcher like Jerry Grote was worth to the Mets while he was their primary catcher from the late ’60’s through the mid ’70’s.  Thumbing through a copy of the 1974 Mets yearbook, I found this entry:

“Fortunes of Mets continued to revolve in great measure around availability of bulldoggish, fiery competitor ranked with elite N.L. receiving corps; Shea troupe’s decline began to set in after Ramon Hernandez pitch fractured his right arm bone in Pittsburgh May 11, while pennant push coincided with return to steady full-time duty July 21.”

Perennial stolen-base leader Lou Brock considered Jerry Grote the toughest catcher he ever tried to steal off of, and Johnny Bench himself once remarked that if he’d been on the same team as Grote, he (Bench) would have been relegated to third base with Grote being the regular catcher.

Joe Torre, who both played for and managed the Mets, once compared Grote to Johnny Bench and Ted Simmons.  He said that while Bench and Simmons were hitters that caught, Grote was a catcher who hit.  While that may have been an oversimplification of the abilities and careers these three fine players enjoyed, it does reflect on the high level of respect accorded to Grote by his contemporaries, especially concerning his defense.

Tom Seaver worked with a total of 25 catchers during his MLB career, including Grote, Bench and Carlton Fisk.  No catcher caught Seaver more than Grote did.  Grote was behind the plate for a Seaver start 239 times.  Bench was a distant second at 94 times.  Mets backup catcher Duffy Dyer caught Seaver 55 times.  Seaver made 395 starts as a Met.  Grote was behind the plate in 60% of those starts.  It’s hard to imagine Seaver developing quite the way he did without the defensive prowess of Jerry Grote.

Grote was the Mets starting catcher 1,105 times during his 11 1/2 seasons as a Met (1966-77.)  During that time, he was named to two All-Star teams, led N.L. catchers in putouts in 1970 and ’71, in Range Factor / Game six times, and in Fielding Percentage once.  He never led N.L. catchers in runners caught stealing largely because most base-runners just wouldn’t test his arm.

A .252 career hitter with just 39 career homers, Grote was never a great hitter, but he always viewed his defense as his primary job.  With Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack and, a bit earlier, Nolan Ryan to catch, the question is, was his reputation partly enhanced by having the good fortune to catch those excellent pitchers, or were those pitchers so highly productive at least in part because they were lucky to have Jerry Grote behind the plate?

Certainly, a young pitching staff has a lot to learn, and a catcher as assertive and competent as Grote could only have reinforced their development.

Grote’s toughness behind the plate was legendary.  Out of San Antonio, Texas, Grote was an old school guy who was not afraid to call out Seaver or any of the other pitchers when they made a mistake.  He often had run-ins with umpires who earned his wrath, including one alleged incident when he allowed a pitched ball to hit an umpire in the mask.

Pitchers who shook him off could expect him to come barking out from behind home plate, so it didn’t happen very often.  And in 1988, seven years after he’d retired as an MLB catcher, Birmingham Barons manager Jerry Grote inserted himself into a game as his team’s catcher when no one else was available.  At age 42, it was the final time he suited up for a game.

Perhaps we should allow Tom Seaver to have the final word regarding the career of Jerry Grote.  Seaver once remarked on national television that even having had Bench and Fisk behind the plate at one time or another in his career, the finest catcher he ever enjoyed as a battery-mate was Jerry Grote.

If Jerry Grote  was good enough to win high praise from none other than Tom Seaver, who are the rest of us to judge?

Mets vs. Yankees: A Unique Look at a Crosstown Rivalry

Growing up as a Mets fan, there haven’t been that many seasons where I’ve had the pleasure of being a fan of the better team in the New York area.  I’m aware, of course, that the Yankees have enjoyed many more World Championships than have the Mets since I started following baseball in the mid-’70’s.  But it occurred to me that I’d never really taken a look at each of the teams’ respective best players on a year-by-year basis.  I wondered if perhaps the Mets actually had the better player (measured by WAR) as often as not over the past half-century.

Here, then, are the results:

1962:  F. Thomas – 2.6    M. Mantle – 6.0

1963:  C. Willey – 4.2       E. Howard – 5.1

1964:  R. Hunt – 3.2        W. Ford – 6.8

1965:  J. Lewis – 2.4        M. Stottlemyre – 6.9

1966:  D. Ribant – 3.5      T. Tresh – 5.4

1967:  T. Seaver – 6.7      A. Downing – 4.6

1968:  T. Seaver – 7.0     S. Bahnsen – 5.9

1969:  T. Seaver – 7.2     M. Stottlemyre – 6.1

1970:  T. Seaver – 6.4       R. White – 6.8

1971:  T. Seaver – 6.9     R. White – 6.7

1972:  J. Matlack – 6.1      B. Murcer – 8.1

1973:  T. Seaver – 11.0    T. Munson – 7.2

1974:  J. Matlack – 8.7     E. Maddox – 5.4

1975:  T. Seaver – 8.2      C. Hunter – 8.1

1976:  T. Seaver – 5.3      G. Nettles – 7.9

1977:  L. Randle – 4.1       G. Nettles – 5.5

1978:  C. Swan – 5.5         R. Guidry – 9.6

1979:  L. Mazzilli – 4.8      R. Guidry – 6.5

1980:  L. Mazzilli – 3.2     W. Randolph – 6.6

1981:  H. Brooks – 2.6       D. Righetti – 3.5

1982:  J. Stearns – 3.8       R. Gossage – 4.5

1983:  K. Hernandez – 4.3   R. Guidry – 5.3

1984:  K. Hernandez – 6.3   D. Mattingly – 6.3

1985:  D. Gooden – 13.2     R. Henderson – 9.9

1986:  K. Hernandez – 5.5    D. Mattingly – 7.2

1987:  D. Strawberry – 6.4  D. Mattingly – 5.1

1988:  D. Cone – 5.8             R. Henderson – 6.3

1989:  H. Johnson – 6.9     S. Sax – 4.4

1990:  F. Viola – 6.3          R. Kelly – 5.5

1991:  D. Cone – 4.3          S. Sax – 4.1

1992:  S. Fernandez – 6.2   M. Perez – 6.0

1993:  D. Gooden – 4.2         J. Key – 6.2

1994:  B. Saberhagen – 5.7   W. Boggs – 4.5

1995:  J. Kent – 3.2              B. Williams – 6.4

1996:  B. Gilkey – 8.1        A. Pettitte – 5.6

1997:  E. Alfonzo – 6.2        A. Pettitte – 8.4

1998:  J. Olerud – 7.6       D. Jeter – 7.5

1999:  R. Ventura – 6.7      D. Jeter – 8.0

2000:  E. Alfonzo – 6.4   J. Posada – 5.5

2001:  M. Piazza – 4.4       M. Mussina – 7.1

2002:  E. Alfonzo – 5.0      J. Giambi – 7.1

2003:  S. Trachsel – 4.5    M. Mussina – 6.6

2004:  A. Leiter – 4.7        A. Rodriguez – 7.6

2005:  P. Martinez – 6.5    A. Rodriguez – 9.4

2006:  C. Beltran – 8.2    C. Wang – 6.0

2007:  D. Wright – 8.3        A. Rodriguez – 9.4

2008:  J. Santana – 7.1    A. Rodriguez – 6.8

2009:  A. Pagan – 4.0       D. Jeter – 6.6

2010:  A. Pagan – 5.3       R. Cano – 8.2

2011:  J. Reyes – 4.7        C. Sabathia – 7.4

2012:  D. Wright – 6.9      R. Cano – 8.5

Overall Tally:  Mets 19 wins, Yankees 31 wins, with one tie (1984.)  If you throw out the first five years after the expansion Mets came into existence, the Mets have 19 wins to the Yankees 26.  From approximately 1985-2000, the Mets matched up pretty well overall with the Yanks.  In the 21st century, however, it’s mostly been all Yankees.

If, like me, you were wondering who the hell C. Willey was on the ’63 Mets, Carl Willey was a 32-year old pitcher from Cherryfield, Maine who finished the season 9-14 despite a reasonable 3.10 ERA over 183 innings.  Two years later, he was out of baseball.

The best single season of the group?  Dwight Gooden’s 13.2 WAR in 1985.  The best Yankee?  Ron Guidry’s 9.6 in 1978.

Perhaps with the Mets new emphasis on youth (and perhaps spending some dollars this coming off-season) as well as the obvious aging of the Yankees, the tide may turn.  But one thing Mets fans have learned over the years is, never count out the Yankees.


Mediocrity, and Mets Fans Life: Part 4

So you’ve come back for more.  Welcome to the final installment of this series.  Here are links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, should you feel the need to read them.

Now, boys and girls, away we go with Part 4.

1990-92:  Funny how relatively recent history, even personal history, can sometimes seem harder to recall than events of the more distant past.  When I think of the early ’90’s, I mostly recall my days drinking beer in the Old Port in Portland, Maine, my college classes at USM (I hated “Media and Politics” but loved “History of the Middle East”), sporadically dated a girl named ‘Becca (strange relationship, that one), tagged and shipped thousands of items in the L.L. Bean warehouse, and made two trips to the good ‘ole USSR.

Coat of arms of the Union of Soviet Socialist ...

Coat of arms of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from 1958 to 1991 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I could go on for several thousand words about my two trips to a superpower that was on the verge of disintegration.  What I can tell you are three things:  1)  No one saw it coming  2)  The Russian / Ukrainian people are just like us, and, at the same time, couldn’t be more unlike us  and 3)  I brought a Ukrainian girl home with me.

In May, 1990, on a student exchange with Kharkov University, Kharkov, USSR, I got to live with a Ukrainian family in this city replete with 1950’s Stalinist architecture, about twice the size of Atlanta, for one week.  Kharkov is about 280 miles from the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster zone.

A friend of mine lived with a family whose oldest daughter (let’s call her Valentina) often accompanied our little American / Soviet group on bus trips to various sites. (Gotta love those Soviet field trips.  “Please remember not to take pictures of our railroads or infrastructure!”)

The Russians often tried to impress us Americans with the sheer size of everything in their country.  One day, while passing a humongous factory in our railroad car, our Russian handler told us that this was the largest factory of its kind in the world, but, due to a shortage of spare parts, most of the tractors didn’t work.

Another time, we were shown a cannon in Moscow that was the biggest cannon of its time, used to face-down Napoleon in the early 19th century.  Unfortunately, it was so big, and required so much gunpowder, that it’s barrel cracked after the first time it was fired, so could no longer be used.  Then we were shown a replica of the world’s biggest chandelier, a beautiful, ornate monster that must have weighed as much as a T-34 Tank.  It was so big, we were told, that it couldn’t be hung from a ceiling for fear of it falling down and crushing someone beneath it.

This became the basis of a joke that would inevitably lead us to skewer the Soviet political system.  As we joked to ourselves, unkindly mocking our hosts, “We have the biggest cannon, but it is too big to use.  We have the biggest chandelier, but it is too big to use.  We have the biggest factories, but they, too, are too big to use.  And we also have the world’s most liberal Constitution.  Unfortunately, it is so liberal, we can’t use it.”

One thing led to another, and Valentina, a dark and mysterious girl who loved American jokes and jeans, but preferred the fatalism of the Russian soul to what we like to call “American Optimism,” became my girl, for a while.

Last time we met was a low lit room / We was close together as a bride and groom”

On a trip to Brooklyn, N.Y. in late 1991, Valentina was in the car with myself and my friend James, and a Russian dude of unknown origin (she had Russian contacts in America through her dad, a well-placed bureaucrat in the Russian government machine.)

“You led me on with those innocent eyes / You know I love the element of surprise”

On our way over the Brooklyn Bridge, she looked over at the amazing skyline of Manhattan, particularly over at the Twin Towers, and declared, as simply as you might discuss your favorite kind of salad dressing, “Someday, those will be destroyed.  All of this will be destroyed.”  By this time, we’d been together for several months, and she was already becoming more than a little weird to live with, so I wasn’t perhaps quite as patient or diplomatic as perhaps I should have been.  I said, “Honey, what the hell are you talking about?  This is Manhattan.  Who the hell is gonna destroy Manhattan?!”

We ate the food / Drank the Wine / Everyone having a good time / Except you, you were talking about the end of the world.”

I knew that she didn’t mean the USSR would be the culprit.  Hell, she and I both knew by that time what a lame fiasco her nation had become.  But that moment came back to me and froze me in place when I saw the news coming out of New York City on 9/11.

“In the garden I was playing guitar / I kissed your lips and broke your heart / You, you were acting like it was the end of the world.”

Valentina has been out of my life now for 20 years.  I heard she moved out west and joined a cult.  It wouldn’t surprise me.  But whenever I hear mention of Russia, or listen to the song featured in the music video below, I still think of her.

It’s easy to forget that amidst all this travel and confusion, I graduated Summa Cum Laude from USM in May of 1992, after five years of study, with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science.  Now what?

1993:  After the personal and international debacle that was the Soviet Union, I felt a need to reach out and embrace America in the most impractical way possible, I would drive across the entire country by myself.  I set out a couple of days after a monster March snowstorm that shut down the eastern seaboard from Maine to northern Virginia, arriving in Nashville, TN a couple of days later on a freezing, 25-degree morning.  My brother, Mark, was attending Western Washington State U. at the time in Bellingham, WA, a couple of hours outside of Seattle, and I decided to make the 3,000 mile journey out there to visit him and stay a few days.

Driving along I-40 through Memphis, this was the first time I’d ever crossed the Mississippi River.  The desert southwest, where I visited some relatives I hadn’t seen in ten years, was a revelation.  From the pine trees of Flagstaff, AZ down to the desert below, I had never experienced such a variety of climate and terrain in my life.  Some places, such as Kingman, AZ, Barstow and Bakersfield, CA each seemed to be a place I’d once seen in a movie set, perhaps a Sci-Fi monster movie from the 1950’s, (Them!) or a backdrop for an old Bogart film (They Drive By Night.)  I knew one thing.  I’d never be caught dead in any of those places after sundown.

Eventually arriving in Bellingham (Fairhaven, actually), I met my brother in a local coffee shop with his friend, Steve.  This was one of the coolest, most relaxing vacations I’d ever been on.  We were living virtually at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, we drove into Seattle a couple of times, and one day, we drove all the way on up to Vancouver, where I suddenly remembered that I should probably call my boss over at L.L. Bean to let him know where I was and that I’d probably be away from work for a while.  The conversation, as I recall, from a red pay phone booth in Vancouver, went something like this:

“Hey, Russ.  This is Bill Miller.”

“Hi Bill, you calling in sick today?”

“Ah, not exactly, Russ.  I had to make an emergency trip out-of-state.”

“Oh, you gonna be back tomorrow?”

“Not likely, Russ.  I’m in Vancouver, and I’m gonna need a leave of absence for about a week or so.”

“Vancouver, Canada?  Jesus H. Christ!  (Pause)…So there’s no way you can make it back by tomorrow?  We’re really swamped here, what with fishing season just around the corner.”

“Sorry, Russ, I drove out here, so it’s gonna take a while to get back to Maine.”

“You drove out there?  Well, see if you can make it back by next Tuesday or Wednesday.”

“O.K., thanks, Russ.  I’ll see you in about a week.  I owe you one.”

Russ was a good guy, but would have been in over his head in a glass of water.

Twelve days later, I was back in Maine.  My first day back at the L.L. Bean warehouse, Russ came over and said, “You feel like tagging items upstairs in Zone 50?”  “Sure, man,” I responded.  Just like old times.

Meanwhile, over at Shea Stadium, the Mets were on a journey of their own, from excellence to mediocrity, (why stop there?) and on down to awfulness.

In 1990, led by an unbelievable rotation of Frank Viola (2o wins) Dwight Gooden (19 wins) David Cone (233 K’s), Sid Fernandez (just 6.5 hits / 9 innings) and Ron Darling, the Mets won 91 games and finished in second place in their division.  Recall this is the same year as my first happy visit to Russia.

1991:  Gooden and Viola are now just ordinary pitchers, Cone gets zero run support, and Wally freakin’ Whitehurst replaces El Sid in the rotation.  37-year old former Yankee Rick Cerone is our glossy new catcher.  The wheels have now completely fallen off of the 23-year old Greg Jefferies bandwagon.  Dave Magadan is the most boring Mets player of all-time.  Ho-Jo enjoys a 30-30 season that almost no one seems to notice.  Even Hubie Brooks, once shipped off to Montreal in the Gary Carter trade, has now been reunited with the Mets, perhaps to fully recall and embrace the losing years of the early ’80’s.  Outfielder Kevin McReynolds foreshadows Jason Bay by nearly 20 years.

The Mets win just 77 games, good for 5th place.

1992:  The Mets are now fully locked into their “Lose Now” strategy.  They sign free agent Bobby Bonilla in the off-season to shore up their offense, and he repays the Mets confidence with 19 homers and a .249 batting average.  The grounds crew unearths a pair of fossils on the right side of the infield.  It is later determined by forensic experts that they were once Eddie Murray and Willie Randolph.  The Mets slide down to 72 wins.   Recall that this is the year both the USSR and my relationship with my Soviet-era significant other disintegrate.

1993:  I’m thousands of miles away from Anthony Young, and his 1-16 record, so I consider this year a success on my part, even as it’s an unmitigated disaster at Shea Stadium.  The Mets have hit bottom (again), and my time at L.L. Bean is also nearly done as well.  The good news is that I join my first fantasy baseball league with a couple of friends from L.L. Bean’s.  The league lasts 15 years before finally disbanding.

1994:  Is my last year at L.L. Bean.  To this day, the seven and a half years I spent at Bean’s are the most I have ever worked at any one single location in my life.  I had studied in the ETEP (Extended Teacher Education Program) through USM to be a teacher during the fall / spring of 1993-94.  So in early August, 1994, just as the baseball season ground to a tragic halt due to management-labor strife, I quit L.L. Bean and moved up to a little town called Penobscot along the Maine coast (Northern Bay) to be a sixth grade public school teacher.

As it turned out, one year in a small Maine town far from friends and family, was enough for me.  But I must say that working in a school where nearly every single teacher had a basement bar in their home certainly did help me get through the long winter.  I managed to get food poisoning once from eating a tainted raw clam, and I used up two entire cords of wood heating my small, rented home.  The year was quite an experience, but not one I’d be anxious to repeat.

1995:  A period of general flux and instability.  To continue to teach, or not to teach?  A year away from teaching convinced me that I wanted to get back at it, and as soon as possible.  Meanwhile, through my friend Steve and my brother Mark, I started working part-time at a place called Advanced Systems in Measurement in Dover, NH, overlooking Cocheco Falls, while I was now living in Gorham, ME., about an hour away.  We scored, using a rubric, the standardized tests taken by children in grades four, eight and eleven from various states around the nation.  Coffee, reading, grading, more coffee, reading, grading, etc.  Not a bad deal.  Low-stress work for which we were paid a “competitive” wage.

In a shortened, 144-game season, the Mets finished just six games under .500, but manager Dallas Green was already on his way to destroying the arms of three fine young prospects:  Paul Wilson, Bill Pulsipher, and Jason Isringhausen (“Isringhausen”, it turns out, is German for “elbow inflammation.”)

1996-97:  Another year and a half at Advanced Systems.  By the late summer of ’97, I knew two things:  1)  I was going to start teaching again in the fall and 2)  I really liked the girl who kept approaching me to double-check the student papers she was scoring.  She would feign confusion over what to make of a particular paragraph written by a student so that she could come and visit me over at my table two or three times a day.

I was now “Table Leader” of a group of six people, surely the least impressive middle-management job in the nation.  For some reason, this young woman seemed to take a liking to me, and couldn’t quite figure out what to make of me, since I so obviously couldn’t care less about the job, yet seemed to take it reasonably seriously.  (This has been the undercurrent of a good portion of my adult life.)

Meanwhile in 1996, the Mets win their normal 71 games.  But in 1997, the year I go back to teaching, and, more importantly, begin dating my future wife, Christa, the Mets really begin turning things around.  The ’97 Mets, with Bobby Valentine at the helm (before he completely lost his Goddamned mind), turned it around with a respectable 88 wins.  Better years were ahead.

1998-2000:  Christa and I date for a couple of years, then I propose to her in a little park in the North End of Boston, and we are married in the fall of 1999.  We get ourselves a little apartment in Sanford, Maine, I nearly punch out my redneck neighbor who makes a pass at my wife, and we have one snowstorm that lasts three full days.  I’m a special education teacher at Gorham High School, and Christa is working at the University of New Hampshire in the computer lab.

It’s a good life, and we’re happy.  No kids yet, plenty of money, and enough time to have fun together.  My job as a special ed. teacher is extremely challenging, but I grow to love my kids.  We are saving money for a house, and looking forward to starting a family together.  It took me a hell of a long time to get to this point, but it was worth the wait.

The Mets again win 88 games in 1998, then accumulate an impressive 97 wins in 1999.  They make it to the playoffs in ’99, where they lose to the Braves, 4 games to 2.

In the year 2000, New York has its first Subway Series in many decades.  Unfortunately, only one team comes to play baseball, and it’s not the Mets.  The Mets win just a single game to the Yankees as ‘Roid Rage Roger Clemens throws a piece of broken bat at Mike Piazza after Piazza’s bat shatters and a piece of it nearly hits Clemens.  Piazza looks at Clemens as if Clemens has lost his mind.

If only Piazza had charged the mound that day, it might have lit a fire under the Mets collective asses.  Still, a trip to the World Series, and an N.L. Pennant does not a bad season make.  Who knew that from that day to this, the Mets would enjoy only one more trip to the playoffs (2006), and no more visits to the World Series?

Over the past dozen years, I have been a very fortunate man.  I taught at the high school level for a dozen years.  My own family has grown and prospered.  We moved from snows of Maine to relative warmth of South Carolina about three years ago.  While America has experienced horror upon horror over the past decade, one tragedy almost appearing to lead somehow to the next, I have settled into a middle-aged man’s emotional toolbox of  regret, bemusement, and acceptance over the things I’ve done, the things I’ve left undone, and the short time I may have left to do the things worth doing.

My family is my strength, and my reason for being.  I am thankful for the friends I’ve made, even for the ones I’ve lost along the way, and for the ones I’ve met through this blog.

Thank you, all of you, for reading, for caring just a bit, and for listening.

I hope this series has been worth reading.  It has been, in an unexpected way for me, a necessary and useful investment of time and energy which I intend never to repeat.

Cheers, Bill

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