May 07

Robin Ventura Returns To Face Mets

One of the players I most enjoyed covering was Robin Ventura for those two years he played for the Yankees. In that clubhouse full of stars and egos, Ventura was a voice of calm, reason and humorous relief.

VENTURA: In town tonight.

VENTURA: In town tonight.

I enjoyed stopping by his locker to shoot the breeze for a minute or two, talking about things other than baseball. Very smart, clever and possessing an insight on numerous issues. When there was the inevitable blow up or moment of absurdity, Ventura was always there to put it into perspective with a quip as short and hard-hitting as his swing.

Once I asked him about his fight with Nolan Ryan, and his response was he knew he had made a mistake halfway out to the mound, but couldn’t turn around. You’ll even notice in the video he slowed down.

Was it an embarrassing moment? Yes, but years later he handled it with humor. He even joined with Ryan to autograph photos of the brawl.

When I covered the Orioles and he was with the White Sox, I’d make time to go over to his clubhouse for a few moments. He was accessible to anybody who would take the time to ask a question.

I am sure there will be a lot of questions for Ventura pre-game tonight when he brings his White Sox into town. There will be rehashing about his time with the Mets and Yankees, about being in New York during September 11 and what he remembers about Mike Piazza’s homer the first game back in the city.

He’ll also get a question or four about his grand-slam single against the Braves in the 1999 playoffs.

That night is one of the greatest team displays of enthusiasm outside of winning a championship I have ever seen. That, and I suppose, the Piazza post 9-11 homer. Both were amazing to watch.

Ventura wasn’t a five-tool player, but was consistent and clutch. With a runner in scoring position you wanted him at the plate because he’d usually make contact.

Ventura was a .267 lifetime hitter and only once hit over .300, that being .301 in 1999, his first season with the Mets. Considering his 66-game hitting streak in college, I always wondered if he thought he should have hit for a higher average. He also hit 32 homers with a career-high 120 RBI in his first year with the Mets.

What the Mets wouldn’t give for a player with that production now.

Ventura had three solid years with the Mets, who, during that span had arguably one of the best defensive infields in history. Few balls got by Ventura, Rey Ordonez, Edgardo Alfonzo and John Olerud.

Both Olerud and Ventura would later play for the Yankees. When they left the Yankees, I believed I’d see both again managing in a major league dugout. I’m still waiting on Olerud.

May 06

Amazin’ Moments: Eric Valent Hits For The Cycle

Contributed by Gerry Silverman of MetsMerizedOnline.com

Hitting for the cycle has always been one of the more singular batting feats in baseball. It is a relatively rare occurrence but not one that guarantees anything in particular for the team of the player who achieves one beyond a mention on the sports page. Granted, it involves getting four hits (a good thing) with three being for extra bases (a very good thing), but from a pure baseball perspective one could propose that if a batter had four singles in a game, he might well provide a greater benefit to his team than a cycle would, provided those singles occur with runners in scoring position.

In other words, a cycle is a feat we regard with admiration primarily because it is COOL. It is so COOL that it even has a more refined version, the so-called “natural” cycle (single, double, triple, home run in order). This unique quality allows a cycle to actually transcend the game itself, remaining COOL even if your team loses the game in which it occurs, kind of like a consolation prize.

At this point in baseball history, only two teams remain cycle-less: the San Diego Padres (who also hold the distinction of being the only franchise not to have recorded a no-hitter) and the Miami Marlins whose relative youth as a franchise functions as something of an excuse. By way of contrast, the Red Sox have pulled off the feat an impressive twenty times.

eric valentSeven Mets had achieved the cycle prior to the day in July, 2004 when Eric Valent got one of his infrequent starts, spelling regular left fielder Cliff Floyd in a game against the Montreal Expos. Valent was a 27 year-old outfielder/first baseman who had been a late first round draft pick by the Phillies in 1998. After a couple of uneventful cups of coffee with the Phils, he was dealt to the Reds for catcher and future Met Kelly Stinnett in August of 2003. That winter, he was left off the Reds’ 40 man roster and was selected by the Mets in the Rule 5 Draft.

The Mets timing was fortuitous, as Valent was about to turn 27, the apparent “magic” age for certain players when whatever baseball skills they possess coalesce long enough to produce some evidence to support their place on a major league team. The 2004 season would mark Eric’s high water mark as a player as he produced a respectable .267/.337/.481 slash line in 270 AB’s spread out over 130 games. He would hit all of his big league homers that season, including one that day in Montreal.

Facing Expos starter Rocky Biddle, Valent collected a single in the second inning and a double in the third. He then homered off reliever Sunny Kim, launching a shot that clanked off one of the speakers suspended from the roof of Olympic Stadium. That left him a triple short of achieving a cycle, generally regarded as the toughie of the bunch.

When he came to the plate in the top of the seventh, the Mets had opened a substantial lead in what would end up a 10-1 win for Al Leiter. Consequently, a discussion on going for a three-bagger had preceded his next plate appearance.  Mets coach Don Baylor had told Valent to expect third base coach Matt Galante to be “waving” him on anything hit down the line or in the gap.

When his subsequent at-bat produced a liner into the right field corner, “I just kept going when I hit it” Valent would say after the game

“When I hit the ball in the corner like that, I knew I was going to third. I just wanted to hit the ball hard. It was cool. There aren’t a lot of guys that can say they hit for the cycle, no matter how long they play. It’s a lot of luck.”

By virtue of that statement to MLB.com, we can trace an awareness of the cycle’s aforementioned “coolness factor” to the players themselves.

Of the ten Mets who have hit for the cycle (the most recent being Scott Hairston on April 27th of last year), Valent could be said to tie with infielder Mike Phillips of the 1975 team for “least likely.” After a few more desultory appearances with the Mets the following season, he was out of baseball, but in the record books. That moment of his career at least, was pretty cool.

Mets Who Have Hit For The Cycle

April 27, 2012, Scott Hairston at Colorado

June 21, 2006, Jose Reyes vs. Cincinnati

July 29, 2004, Eric Valent at Montreal

Sept. 11, 1997, John Olerud vs. Montreal

July 3, 1996, Alex Ochoa at Philadelphia

Aug. 1, 1989, Kevin McReynolds at St. Louis

July 4, 1985, Keith Hernandez at Atlanta (19 innings)

June 25, 1976, Mike Phillips at Chicago

July 6, 1970, Tommie Agee vs. St. Louis

Aug. 7, 1963, Jim Hickman vs. St. Louis

Mets Country

Jun 18

Mets All-Time Team

Basically, the announcement of the All-Mets Team was a SNY/MetsBlog production, another way of saying it could have been done better. There wasn’t the build-up or suspense I would have liked to have seen. It would have been great to invite and introduce the team before a game, perhaps as part of a special ceremony.

When?

Perhaps there could have been a 50th anniversary weekend. Honor the great moments and players. It could have been done. The Mets surely did it on the return after 9-11 and the closing of Shea Stadium. During those events they proved they know how to throw a party.

All of a sudden, there was this announcement. To do it on a Sunday afternoon seemed like an afterthought. Could have been done with more flair.

Anyway, here’s the team:

CATCHER: Mike Piazza.

Comments: A no-brainer. Piazza might also be the author of the greatest regular-season moment in franchise history with his post 9-11 homer against the Braves. Gary Carter undoubtedly received consideration, but Piazza was an offensive force. Carter was a key piece in putting together the team of the 1980s, but Piazza carried the Mets while he was here and was still a player in his prime during his tenure here.

FIRST BASE: Keith Hernandez.

Comments: A slam dunk, no doubt. He’s arguably one of the great Mets of all time. There was no championship without Hernandez. Who else could be considered? John Olerud? Ed Kranepool? Make me laugh and suggest Carlos Delgado.

SECOND BASE: Edgardo Alfonzo:

Comments: I don’t doubt Fonzie’s numbers, but is he really the greatest at the position? There were significant Mets who played before 1975, for example Ron Hunt. Hunt was one of the first legitimate early All-Stars. He played during a different era, but when I think of Mets infielders, I think of Hunt right away.

SHORTSTOP: Jose Reyes.

Comments: Based on stats, but he wasn’t the greatest glove. That would be Rey Ordonez. He’s also not the greatest inspirational leader. That would be Bud Harrelson. Reyes reminds me of the list I recently read on greatest SNL characters, one that didn’t include John Belushi. Reyes was an exceptional player, but his definitive Met moment is still pulling himself out of the last game of the season after securing the batting title last year.

THIRD BASE: David Wright.

Comments: One of the greatest Mets ever. Don’t forget, the Mets used dozens of third basement before Wright stepped in. If there was any other possibility, it would have been Howard Johnson.

LEFT FIELD: Cleon Jones.

Comments: Jones had a good career with the Mets, but personally my pick would have been the widely unpopular Kevin McReynolds. McReynolds could hit, run and play defense and was a steady force on the teams of the mid-1980s. He was not an easy out. The Mets would kill to have a player like McReynolds today.

CENTER FIELD: Carlos Beltran.

Comments: A good choice. Had he been healthy during his entire Mets’ run, he might have gone down as one of the greatest position players in their history. He’ll still go down in the top five. Lenny Dykstra and Mookie Wilson were hugely popular, but were also part of a platoon. Unfortunately, and unfairly for Beltran, he’s mostly remembered for one checked swing.

RIGHT FIELD: Darryl Strawberry.

Comments: Outside of Tom Seaver, perhaps the easiest choice. Strawberry was one of the few players who made you think a home run was possible with every at-bat. The only other Met who had the same effect was Piazza.

RIGHT-HANDED STARTER: Tom Seaver.

Comments: Who else? Even had Dwight Gooden not tossed his career down the drain, he wouldn’t have touched Seaver.

LEFT-HANDED STARTER: Jerry Koosman.

Comments: The Mets have had several superb lefties, including Al Leiter, Johan Santana, Jon Matlack and Sid Fernandez. But, Koosman, who came a year before Seaver, was the first Mets’ pitcher to give the team a feeling of credibility every time he took the mound.

RIGHT-HANDED RELIEVER: Roger McDowell.

Comments: I have no problem with this choice. Don’t forget, McDowell pitched during a time when saves meant something. More than a few times he pitched two or three innings to get that save. What, you were thinking Armando Benitez or Francisco Rodriguez?

LEFT-HANDED RELIEVER: Tug McGraw.

Comments: Was he named for his numbers or because he coined a phrase? I would have gone with John Franco based on the save totals.

MANAGER: Davey Johnson.

Comments: I’ve heard a lot of people waxing for Gil Hodges, which is understandable, but based more on heart than head. Yes, the Mets first won under Hodges, but their longest run of success came during the time under Johnson. If Mike Scioscia hadn’t hit that homer in the 1988 NLCS for the Dodgers, the Mets might have had a dynastic run.

 

 

Nov 16

2011 Player Review: Josh Thole, C

We began our review of the 2011 Mets by examining their free agents and players the team will consider tending contracts to. We started evaluating the rest of the roster, beginning with infielder Ruben Tejada and continue today with catcher Josh Thole. Tomorrow: Ike Davis.

JOSH THOLE – C

THE SKINNY: Thole turned heads in 2010 with his bat control and ability to work the count. The Mets had a young hitter who could draw a walk and take an outside pitch to left field. Who knew? Defensively, he was new at the position, but the pitchers liked how he handled a game and gave them a consistent low target.

PRE-SEASON EXPECTATIONS: If Thole could make a good impression over 227 at-bats, imagine what he could do over a full season. And, as he developed physically and filled out he might be able to hit for more power. Also, his continued work with the pitching staff should make him even more comfortable behind the plate.

HOW THE SEASON PLAYED OUT: Not according to plan. Thole had 386 at-bats in 114 games, but a fulltime catcher should get more work than that. Ronny Paulino played more as a back-up than expected and that was a reflection on Thole. His defense regressed as he led the National League with 16 passed balls and he threw out just 17 attempted base stealers (21 percent). Offensively, his batting average (.268) and on-base percentages (.345 from .357) dropped. He hit three homers in both years despite having 160 more at-bats. In a word: disappointing.

JOHN’S TAKE: Thole might have benefited by more time in the minor leagues, but that wasn’t the hand he was dealt. He took a step back after a good first impression, but that was to be expected as the league found him out. Since his learning environment has been the major leagues it doesn’t make much sense to change that now. He would benefit from having a veteran back-up, and I don’t know if Paulino is that guy. The Mets will stick with Thole for the simple facts they have confidence he’ll develop and they want to spend their limited resources elsewhere. A tip: Have somebody else catch R.A. Dickey.

JOE’S TAKE: Call it a hunch, but I don’t think Thole is long for this team. The only reason he is still hanging onto his job is because quite simply the Mets positional depth at catcher is in complete shambles, and it has been that way for most of the team’s 50 year history.

On most teams, Thole is a backup catcher – maybe. On the Mets he’s the best they got, which says more about the state of the Mets than it does about Thole who was a good soldier when he was asked to ditch his first base glove and put on what Tim McCarver refers to as the “tools of ignorance.”

Thole has already had a few pitchers jaw about his pitch calling and you don’t need binoculars to see how miscast he looks behind the plate. His instincts are lacking and his offensive game leaves much to be desired. On a team that will have too many dead outs in their lineup in 2012, Thole is the worst one because he can’t field his position at a satisfactory level. When an opposing batter makes it to first base, they start drooling when Thole is behind the plate – even those who run as slow as John Olerud. Thole is a huge problem for the rotation, and for a team that is going to find themselves struggling to score runs and protect leads next season.

Dec 20

Dec. 20.09: On This Date ….

It happened today ....

It happened today ....

In Mets history, in 1996, the Mets acquired first baseman John Olerud from Toronto for pitcher Robert Person. The Blue Jays were forced to make the deal because they needed a spot for Joe Carter.

I saw Olerud play a lot when I covered the Orioles and Yankees. He was one of the more soft-spoken players I’ve dealt with, but he sure did have a sweet swing. And, with him at first, the Mets had one of the finest fielding infields in the game.

Any memories of Olerud?