Feb 14

Jim Fregosi Dies; Always Part Of Mets’ Lore

It was sad to hear the passing of Jim Fregosi, 71, Friday in a Miami hospital. Fregosi, a long-time All-Star shortstop with the Angels and 1,000-game winner as a manager, will always be a part of New York Mets lore.

When the Mets’ worst trades are revisited, the trade to acquire Fregosi for Nolan Ryan goes down as one of the two worst, with the dealing of Tom Seaver to the Reds as the other.

Fregosi (c) with Ken Boswell (l) and Wayne Garrett (r).

Fregosi (c) with Ken Boswell (l) and Wayne Garrett (r).

When Fregosi’s 146 games played with the Mets in 1972-73 are compared to Ryan’s combined 324 victories and 5,714 strikeouts, it understandably goes down as one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history, but in fairness, a trade must be examined with the circumstances of the time.

It is never black and white.

After the 1971 season, they were two years removed from their Miracle Mets season and trying to regain their spot among baseball’s elite. They already had the foundation with a solid rotation of Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry, Jon Matlack and Jim McAndrew.

What the Mets didn’t have was right-handed power and a third baseman, of which they used six different from 1969. Fregosi, 30 at the time, was supposed to fill those voids, and all it would cost the Mets was Ryan, who owned a combined 19-24 record and was coming off 10-14 season in 1971.

Off the field, Ryan also had a dislike of New York City, and on the mound a propensity for wildness and a lingering blister problem. With their rotation, Fregosi’s background and Ryan’s baggage and disappointing numbers, it was easy to see why the Mets made the deal.

The Mets reached the World Series in 1973, but by that time Fregosi’s skills had deteriorated and he had become a role player. He played in 31 games that year before his contract was purchased by Texas in July.

Nobody could foresee the career paths of Fregosi and Ryan, but at the time, it was good and necessary gamble for the Mets to take. Who would have thought Ryan would go on to win 305 games?

After leaving the Mets, Fregosi played five more seasons with Texas and Pittsburgh but never approached his All-Star status, and then embarked on an 18-year managerial career with the Angels, White Sox, Philadelphia and Blue Jays, compiling a 1,028-1,094 record that included taking the 1993 Phillies to the World Series.

“Everyone in the Phillies organization is deeply saddened about the news of Jim’s passing. We, and so many others in the game, have lost a dear friend,’’ club president David Montgomery said in a statement. “He’ll be remembered for his vibrant personality, wisdom and love of the game.’’

That personality and wisdom was evident during spring training, as he became a fixture in ballparks throughout Florida as a scout. Fregosi, who suffered a stroke during a Major League Baseball alumni cruise Thursday, was preparing for another spring training as an assistant with the Braves.

Spring training, which begins this week, was Fregosi’s time as he entertained fellow scouts and club executives with his stories, and informed writers from his 50-year career.

Whether it was in the stadium lunchroom, press box or on the field, if you wanted to laugh or know something, you sought out Fregosi.

 

Apr 26

Summer of ’73 Series: Matlack Takes One On The Head

My series on the “Summer of ’73: The Lost Year,” continues today with a book excerpt from talented author Matthew Silverman, whose work should be familiar to all Mets fans.

Silverman joins us today with a piece on Jon Matlack from his newest book, “Swinging ’73: Baseball’s Wildest Season. You can purchase his works at www.amazon.com

“When the 1973 season is referenced by Mets fans, it is usually only the miraculous finish that comes to mind, how the team that began the last day of August in last place wound up clinching a division title on the first day of October. But how did the Mets, three years removed from the 1969 world championship, get themselves into the kind of jam that required a miracle to rescue them? There was a lot of bad luck, a lack of foresight, and too much forehead in the case of a second-year southpaw named Jon Matlack.” - Matt Silverman

 

After dropping the May 7 series opener to the Mets, 7–2, the Braves stood at 9?17, last in their division and second only to the 5?19 Cardinals for the worst start in baseball. The next night looked to be a rerun, with the Mets holding a 3–1 lead in the seventh with Jon Matlack, one of the game’s top young lefties, on the mound. Atlanta’s lineup had firepower, but Marty Perez wasn’t one of the big guns. In 310 career games to that point, he was a .230 hitter with a slugging percentage of just .294. Batting in front of the legendary Aaron in manager Eddie Mathews’s lineup, no one was going to pitch around Perez, especially with the bases full, two outs, and Matlack holding that two-run lead with a light rain falling. Perez worked the count to two balls, two strikes, and Matlack threw a curve that he thought the batter went around on. The umpires said no. Here comes the payoff pitch . . .

51m8pXGhKWL“I’m trying to nail down this game,” Matlack recalls. “I overthrew the next pitch. It was a fastball, and I landed really hard when I threw it. I lost sight of the ball to the plate. I could see him swing and hear the bat crack, but I don’t pick up the baseball until it’s right on top of me. I barely got the fingers of my left hand in front of my face. It hit my fingers [on the mitt], hit my cap, and it hit me just over the left eye. They tell me—I don’t know because I couldn’t see it—but it went from my forehead into the dugout. It cost me two runs and ultimately cost me the ballgame.”

The sudden tie fell to secondary importance during this frightening moment at Shea Stadium. Right fielder Rusty Staub, shaking his head at the memory of it years later, summed up his teammates’ reaction: “We were just all thrilled that he wasn’t dead.” Dee Matlack wasn’t even sure of that as the trainer came out and pulled a tarp over her prone husband’s body as the rain fell.

“They’re messing with me, and it’s raining,” he thought as catcher Jerry Grote and his teammates gathered around him. “My wife thinks I’m dead because they cover me up with a tarp.” Still conscious and bleeding from his head, the dazed pitcher thought he’d been struck in the mouth until things came into sharp, painful focus. “I can see my forehead at this point. I can see it literally swollen up to where I can see it. I had a whale of a headache and felt very weak.”

First baseman Ed Kranepool stood over Matlack as he was attended to at Shea. “You think about Herb Score,” he said, recalling the sensational Indians southpaw hit in the face with a line drive against the Yankees in 1957. “It changed his whole career. Matlack was very fortunate.”

Like Score at the time of the injury, Matlack was a 23-year-old southpaw and recent Rookie of the Year winner with seemingly unlimited potential. Matlack had been the lone ray of sunshine to emerge in the wake of the Nolan Ryan trade. As a rookie taking Ryan’s place in the rotation in 1972, he won 15 games, threw 4 shutouts, and compiled an ERA (2.32) more than half a run per game better than ace Tom Seaver’s. Matlack also had better luck than Score, who came back a year after being hit but left baseball by age 28.

“That’s the first I hear his name,” says Matlack of Score. “I was reading the paper the next day in the hospital—there’s my picture and this guy I don’t recognize. It tells me about how Herb Score got hit and never came back and all this kind of stuff. I can’t say I wasn’t apprehensive about the whole thing, but I was of the belief that the only reason I got hit was because I was unable to track the ball. Had I been able to see the ball, one of two things would have happened—I would have defended myself, caught it or otherwise would have been able to get out of the way. Through lack of seeing it was what caused me to get hit. That’s what kept me moving forward, thinking that when I got back everything would be fine because I was going to see the ball. I wasn’t going to overthrow fastballs, so I was going to be OK.”

Matlack was going to be OK, but he sustained a fractured skull—and that was how it went for most of 1973 for the Mets: peculiar bounces, painful injuries, bad luck. With Matlack on his way to the hospital, the Braves scored five more runs in the inning, saddling the southpaw with a 10–6 loss as well as a throbbing, swollen head. The Mets found all kinds of ways to lose both games and players for most of 1973.

Though the Mets won four straight immediately after Matlack went down, the team stumbled to a 34?51 mark over the next three months that saw the manager nearly lose his job while players continued to go down with bizarre injuries. Eight different Mets hit the disabled list in 1973—the most in franchise history to that point—and that figure didn’t even include Matlack, who didn’t go on the DL after getting hit. He missed just two starts, fractured skull and all.

Matthew Silverman is author of 10 books on baseball. He blogs regularly at metsilverman.com and tweets @metsilverman.

Apr 23

John Buck: From Trade Bait To Indispensable?

Several times this season John Buck’s fast start fueled speculation that with Travis d’Arnaud’s promotion the Mets might deal him at the trade deadline.

After all, who doesn’t want a hot-hitting catcher who calls a crisp game behind the plate? Most every team would and that includes the Mets, who, along with Buck exceeded early expectations.

BUCK: Proving very valuable.

BUCK: Proving very valuable.

It’s not as if Buck has gone from trade bait to indispensable, but he isn’t going anywhere any time soon. And, that has more to do than with d’Arnaud’s broken foot that will keep him out for two months. Buck is simply the Mets’ best offensive weapon and has been solid behind the plate, drawing raves from Matt Harvey and Jon Niese.

However, manager Terry Collins said it best: “John Buck seems to be in the middle of everything that’s good right now.’’

Buck homered in the Mets’ 2-0 victory over Washington Sunday, a comprehensive display of the fastest start of his career. There was the homer, giving him seven and a league-high 22 RBI, but also his defense and the game he called for Dillon Gee.

The Mets’ pride is their young pitchers, and Buck could be the same steading influence Jerry Grote once was to Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack.

Harvey has been the darling at 4-0 and a sub-1.00 ERA, swears by Buck. There’s no way the Mets break up that duo.

Harvey said he’s shaken off Buck maybe five or six times this year ins describing the same instinctual chemistry a quarterback would have with his best receiver.

“He already knows what’s coming,’’ Harvey said. “It’s really fun every time I take the mound and see him back there. It’s just positive energy. It’s more fuel.’’

It’s not luck or coincidence that has Buck putting down the correct fingers. It’s the culmination of hard work spent in the first nine years of his career. He keeps copious notes on his pitchers and opposing hitters, and they complement the game plan drawn up by pitching coach Dan Warthen.

On the day of the game Buck meets early with Warthen and the pitcher to go over the scouting reports and film. Later, he’ll meet with the pitcher privately. However, he talks to all the pitchers throughout the week, not just on the days they start. The communication is constantly flowing.

Harvey said Buck’s preparation is inspirational to the point where he’ll incorporate what he’s learned throughout his career.

“He knows what the hitters are going to do,’’ said Harvey. “The studying that he does and the video that he watches and the plan that he comes up with for each individual pitcher, it’s something that I’m learning still. And it’s awesome.’’

Buck and d’Arnaud’s lockers were side-by-side in spring training, and it wasn’t by accident, either.

“I like to pick his brain,’’ d’Arnaud said this spring. “He’s very easy to talk with and I’ve learned a lot from being around him.’’

Buck said in spring training he understood he was brought here to help d’Arnaud and that attitude hasn’t changed despite the latter’s injury. It’s not as if when he heard the news he moved out of his apartment and bought a house.

“My stance is still the same,’’ Buck said. “I truly feel if I do good, then he does good. I’ve been around too much to take positive thoughts out of something bad happening to someone else. … Until someone tells me otherwise, I’ll just keep going about my business.’’

Nobody will be telling Buck otherwise any time soon.

Please follow me on Twitter @jdelcos

Apr 05

Mets Summer Of 1973: The Birth Of “Ya Gotta Believe.”

gal-70smets-13-jpg

TUG McGRAW: Coined one of the best slogans ever.

As far as team slogans go, the 1973 Mets’ rallying cry “Ya Gotta Believe’’ may not rank with Knute Rockne’s “Win one for the Gipper,’’ but it stood the test of time, lasting far longer than Reingold beer’s “Ten Minute Head.’’

Had it been a movie, the late and great Roger Ebert would have given it a thumbs down for it’s corniness.

Going into the season, the 1973 team was arguably more talented than the 1969 Miracle Mets, with the additions of Rusty Staub, Jon Matlack, John Milner and Felix Millan. This was a team to be feared and sprinted out of the gate at 4-0, and was in first place by late April. However, overcome by injuries, the Mets nose-dived into the cellar, 7 ½ games behind by July 26. They dropped to 12 games below .500 with 44 games to play on August 16.

Even so, they were still within shouting distance in the mediocre National League East. It would be tough, Mets Chairman of the Board M. Donald Grant thought, but there were all those tickets to home games in September that needed to be sold.

MCGRAW: You win with heart, too.

MCGRAW: You win with heart, too.

Grant addressed the team and told them not to quit because there was time to turn things around. After all, he had had recent history to fall back on as the 1969 team overcame an eight-game August deficit to the Cubs.

That’s when closer Tug McGraw stood up and shouted, “that’s right, we can do it, Ya gotta believe.’’ It was a moment of “was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor,’’ exuberance that stuck with those Mets.

The Mets, Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs tripped over each other for much of September, but Yogi Berra’s team was the most consistent, and had to be considering the ground it had to make up.

The Mets won 24 of 35 games to make up those 12 games and move into first place on Sept. 21, with a 10-2 rout of Pittsburgh behind Tom Seaver.

It was a fragile lead as only 2 ½ games separated them from fifth-place Chicago.

“We’ve been hot,’’ Berra said at the time. “But I have to say it’s still wide open.’’

The Mets swept a two-game series with St. Louis and split a two-game series with Montreal before heading into Wrigley Field that final weekend with a one-game lead. On Friday the Mets were rained out, but Montreal beat Pittsburgh. The scenario repeated itself on Saturday.

By now, St. Louis leapfrogged Pittsburgh and trailed by 1½ games going into Sunday. The Mets split a double-header to go to 81-79 while the Cardinals were 81-81.

That set up another double-header for Monday with the Mets needing a split to win the division title, which Seaver gave them by winning the first game.

This might have been the Mets’ grittiest team, and it’s soundtrack being McGraw screaming “Ya Gotta Believe,’’ as he slapped his glove on his thigh.

Although McGraw repeated the slogan with the 1980 Phillies, and Philadelphia fans tried to resurrect it several years ago, it didn’t have the same impact as it did when it woke up New York, the team and the city, during the Summer of 1973.

ON DECK: Jeremy Hefner and lineups.

 

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.