Tuesday, June 28, 2005

My Polo Grounds Memories

Before Shea Stadium was built, the Mets played 2 full seasons at the Polo Grounds, which was right across the river from Yankee Stadium. I went to a handful of games and over 40 years later, these are the memories that linger.

First, there was the Memorial Day doubleheader against the Dodgers that attracted a packed house and although I had never sat in the bleachers before and didn't plan to that day, I had no choice if I wanted to get into the ballpark. Well, the bleachers were very, very, far out and this happened to be an unusally foggy day, so at times, all I could see was centerfielder Jim Hickman's head. I think Sandy Koufax pitched one game and I'm pretty sure the Mets lost both ends.

Another time, I asked for a seat "downstairs" and got this seat in the lower deck in rightfield that actually faced AWAY from the field, so I had to twist my neck all game to see the action. I think I left after 6 innings with the Mets 8 runs down.

Bad seats were very common in the Polo Grounds. If you were lucky enough to get one that wasn't behind a post, there's a good chance that it would be broken. Maybe if you could afford $3.50 for a box seat and bought it in advance, you didn't have to put up with this, but it always seemed that I did - oh well, suffering was definitely a part of being a Mets fan !

The player I remember most vividly was Jim Hickman. In retrospect, he probably symbolized the entire history of the Mets as well as any player could. He played more than any other outfielder because he had decent range and could hit the long ball, but struck out too much and appeared disinterested and lazy much of the time. Most Mets' fans were convinced that as soon as the Mets dumped him, he'd be back in AAA where he belonged. Surprisingly, Hickman later became an all-star and a .315 hitter for the Chicago Cubs. I attended a game where he hit for the cycle for the Mets - single, double, triple, homerun in that order in a game he started at third base to make room for newly acquired centerfielder Joe Hicks.

My final memory of the Polo Grounds occurred in one of the last games ever played there, late in the 1963 season. Near the end of the game, the Mets inserted a very young player named Cleon Jones into centerfield. The immediate reaction was "who?", but as an avid reader of The Sporting News, I knew Jones just had a solid season at Class B Raleigh and was touted as a top prospect. Was he ready ? No, it would be at least a couple of years, but of course, once Cleon arrived for good, he became the first real hitting star developed by the Mets and forty years later, still remains one of the best.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Trades From The Distant Past - Part 4 Tommie Agee

Ask any Met fan under 40 with a sense of the past about Tommie Agee and he'll probably tell you that Agee was the terrific center fielder who helped the Miracle Mets win the 1969 World Series. And he'd be right. But, as trades for centerfielders go, after his first season with the club, Agee was right up there as a failure with his predecessors, Cowan, and Bosch.

The Mets traded Tommy Davis, probably their best all-around hitter, and Jack Fisher, their former #1 starter to the White Sox for Agee, Al Weis, and minor league catcher Buddy Booker. Agee was a former rookie of the year, a solid centerfielder with great speed and outstanding power who struck out an awful lot. Kind of like Billy Cowan. Except that Agee already had a ROY season behind him.

Agee promptly started spring training by getting hit in the head with a Bob Gibson fastball and struggled all season to get his average over .200. His final numbers, a .218 batting average with 5 homers and 17 rbi for the entire season were disastrous. But both the fans and manager Gil Hodges admired Agee's positive attitude and constant all-out hustle and their faith was rewarded when Agee had a super year in 1969 (and a better one in 1970) giving the Mets the gold glove defense, power hitting, and clutch play they were looking for in a centerfielder. Unfortunately, Agee only had a couple of good years with the Mets and he was later sent away for a couple of nonentities. But, if Agee's day in the sun was short, it was certainly bright and his play throughout the 1969 season and especially in the World Series (coupled with Al Weis' incredible hitting in the Series, especially for someone with a reputation as good field-no hit) made this one of the best trades during the Mets' formative years.

Tommy Davis had a long career as a DH in the American League. Fisher never did much once he left the Mets. But if Weis and Agee weren't long term-solutions for the Mets, their contributions to the 1969 Champions will long be remembered by Mets fans.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Trades From The Distant Past - Part 3 Don Bosch

Since Johnny Lewis wasn't the next Willie Mays and Billy Cowan wasn't the next Mickey Mantle, the Mets were still going to need a long-term centerfielder. Maybe the search for a superstar wasn't the right approach. So, how about just getting a great defensive centerfielder who'd hit some line drives, beat out bunts, and get tons of infield hits while dazzling the fans with defense to compare with the greatest outfielders of all time ?

Don Bosch was the man. His AAA manager, Larry Shepard, compared his defensive abilities to Willie Mays. He was the International League's all-star centerfielder and a major winter league star in the Dominican Republic. Maybe he wouldn't hit a lot of homeruns, but another Bill Virdon would be just fine.

So, the Mets traded for Bosch, in what, ironically, actually turned out to be a good deal for the Mets. But Bosch, himself, became a joke the day he reported for spring training and stayed a joke until he became a pathetic disappointment and was dumped to Montreal, from where he soon faded into oblivion.

The trade was Dennis Ribant (the first Mets' starter to actually have a winning record at 10-8) and throw-in Gary Kolb for Bosch and veteran back-of-the-rotation starter Don Cardwell. Cardwell became a very important cog in the rotation for the Mets' 1969 World Champs (that still sounds good), while neither Ribant nor Kolb became anything more than journeymen. But, from the Mets' point of view, the trade was first and foremost about Bosch.

Who was this Bosch ? Remember, in those days, there wasn't in-depth coverage of the minor leagues in Major League cities, so no one seemed to know even what Bosch looked like. It turned out that he had grey hair and appeared so small that any bat he used looked bigger than him. He looked kind of like the scared little leaguer who had to take his at bat against the biggest and strongest pitcher in the league, knowing from the start that the best he could do was avoid getting hit by a pitch that would really hurt and hope if he swung hard, maybe he'd make contact and beat out an infield single. It seemed ludicrous that he was even playing in the big leagues. As it turns out, he hit .140 over the course of the season, and this alleged great centerfielder did absolutely nothing with the glove that couldn't have been duplicated by almost any minor league centerfielder. A year and a half later, failing even as a defensive replacement, he was sent packing.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Trades From The Distant Past - Part 2 Altman for Cowan

Roger Craig was the Mets' #1 starter in 1962 and 1963. He valiantly went out there every 4th or 5th day and lost 46 games in 2 years. Craig was probably good enough to be a 4th starter with most good teams (back in the days of the 4 -man rotation) and it was only a matter of time before the Mets would find a trading partner who would give them a big bat in exchange for Craig. The Cardinals complied by trading George Altman, who had put up big numbers for the Cubs, but was a 1-year disappointment for St. Louis, to the Mets for Craig. Well, Altman was an even bigger disappointment for the Mets in his one year with the team.

The Cubs knew that Big George was at his best in Wrigley Field and offered their multi-talented rookie centerfielder, Billy Cowan, in exchange. Now, Cowan had put up some big numbers in the PCL, he had speed and power and was considered a good centerfielder. He was also considerably younger than Altman. This HAD to be a good deal for the Mets. Sure, Altman was capable of another solid year or two at Wrigley, but Cowan would be the Mets' centerfielder for years, a combination of speed, power, and glove. Cowan's only drawback was his propensity to strike out. But 25 HR's was not out of the question and if he could just hit .260 or so, this was going to be a great trade. WRONG AGAIN.

Although Altman didn't quite live up to the Cubs' expectations and later established himself as one of the best hitters in the Japanese League, Cowan was an unqualified disaster. He didn't hit, didn't field, didn't steal bases and seemed washed up at the age of 25. Following a disastrous season, in which his shining moment was when Ralph Kiner called him "the closest I've ever seen to Jimmy Piersall" (if you have nothing good to say about his playing ability, at least talk him up as a character !), he was dealt to the American League for a bag of balls, or their equivalent in minor league talent and was barely heard from again. Centerfield would remain a problem area until the Mets traded for the Amazing Don Bosch ! More about that one in the next installment.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Trades From The Distant Past - Part 1 Stallard for Lewis

While Mets fans debate whether the Mets should be buyers or sellers at this year's trade deadline, I thought I'd begin a series of posts that take a look at some past Mets trades that were considered "major" at the time, but unfortunately, like most Mets trades, didn't help much, if at all. Let's start by going back to the early years when the Mets were trying to build a winner with little or no help from the farm system. We're talking mid-'60's and at that time, Bill Mazer was New York's Sports Talk King on 66 WNBC. So, with no Baseball America, Baseball Weekly or internet to tout prospects, Mazer, who had broadcast International League Games in Buffalo, was always a knowledgeable source about players coming up from the Minors.

Please note that I'm not looking up exact dates or statistics. This is all pure recollection from years gone by.

Back in 1964, the Mets had a very old outfield. The farm system hadn't produced anybody yet and people like Frank Thomas, Duke Snider, Joe Christopher, and a cast of unknowns were playing there. What the Mets did have as trade bait was a bunch of starting pitchers who had terrible records but seemed to come up with the occasional outstanding game that made other teams think that with some support, they could be pretty decent. One of those pitchers was Tracy Stallard who was rescued from the Red Sox scrap heap and who, if I recall, had a record something like 6-17 for the Mets, but 3 or 4 of the wins were excellent performances. So the Mets traded Stallard (who Mazer didn't like because he criticized Joe Christopher's fielding when it cost him a game and Mazer liked Joe Christopher, at least as a person, if not a ballplayer, although Joe did bat over .300 as a regular for the Mets one year) to St. Louis for a top prospect named Johnny Lewis.

Lewis was one of those 5-tool outfielders who could hit the ball hard, had good speed, and a great arm. His stats at AAA were not outstanding, but they were good, he was still young, and he certainly looked like a ballplayer. At the time, Bill Mazer called this a great trade for the Mets. Lewis will be remembered as a Met for one thing and one thing only, that he beat Jim Maloney with a HR in extra innings when Maloney was pitching a no-hitter. Other than that, he was a big disappointment and wound up back in the minor leagues, before rejoining the Cardinals organization as a coach. Stallard, I think, had one pretty good year for the Cardinals before hurting his arm.
And the Mets continued to look for outfielders. Next, Billy Cowan and Don Bosch.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

The Art of The Amateur Draft

Of course, only time will tell if Mike Pelfrey was really the best pitcher available in the draft and a future star. And despite Philip Humber's poor start at St. Lucie, he may be a solid major leaguer someday. Lastings Milledge can still be a good one, can't tell yet. But even if all 3 become stars and Aaron Heilman builds on his solid start this year to become a #2 or #3 starter, the Mets still have an abominably bad history of first round amateur draft picks.

Really, in 40 years, only ONCE did the Mets choose a player in the first round who became better than consensus pre-draft scouting reports would have indicated. That was Dwight Gooden. Sure, Strawberry was a real good one, too, but he was clearly the best prospect in the draft and any other selection would have been a reach. (I've read that the Mets considered Darnell Coles and Billy Beane, who they got later and became another "loser" pick). Hubie Brooks and Preston Wilson were other positive picks.

But, look at the other names : Steve Chilcott, Les Rohr, Rich Puig, Tom Thurberg, Ryan Jaroncyk, Butch Benton, Rich Bengston, Al Shirley, Kirk Presley and on and on. Scouts are often considered underappreciated and underpaid, but frankly, you could make better choices for the cost of a subscription to Baseball America, where they rate the top players overall, by position and by region. Just take the next name on the list and you'd have to fare better than the Mets have. Of course, there was no Baseball America back in the '60's and '70's to help.

St. John's closer Craig Hansen has drawn rave reviews from scouts who say he could pitch in the majors sight now, yet he lasts until the world champion Red Sox' first round pick. How many players picked before him will never make it out of AA ?

By getting the best starting pitching prospect available and another Boras client, the Mets are one team that can fairly say they made a reasonable choice in bypassing Hansen.