Thursday, April 26, 2007

Old Time Mets - Luplow, Stahl, and Elliot

I don't remember if the mid -'60's Mets' careers of Al Luplow, Larry Stahl, and Larry Elliot overlapped at any point, because they were all virtually the same player. Lefthanded hitters with good speed, good power (when the pitcher made a mistake, anyway) and good enough range to play centerfield. Unlike Cowan, Lewis, and Bosch, they were all obtained in cash deals, so the fans' expectations weren't all that high. All were around 26 years old when the Mets got them, beyond the prospect stage, but not old enough to be characterized as veterans. It was kind of like "they must be better than what we've got". And statistically, they weren't terrible, batting in the .240 range, which was a lot better than the Mets had been getting from the likes of Billy Cowan, Danny Napoleon, and Hawk Taylor, who struggled to hit .200.

None was a regular with the Mets, not even on a platoon basis. They would get an occasional start, but seemed to be used more often as pinch-hitters and late inning defensive replacements. They all represented a "threat" at the plate, but my most vivid memories of all three was that in a clutch situation when a bloop single or even a sac fly was needed, you could almost always count on them to strike out.

Luplow had been a semi-regular with the Indians, Elliot a big minor league home run hitter in the Pirates' organization who had no chance to win a spot in Pittsburgh's outfield, and Stahl was an extra outfielder with the Kansas City A's who had a reputation for hitting some long home runs, though not on a consistent enough basis to cause much excitement.

I can't remember a single highlight for any of them, and I guess that's telling. But they were there, they were Mets, and Luplow and Stahl managed to find job with other big league teams after their Mets' days were over, so I guess they weren't all that bad.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Old Time Mets (1966) - Bob Friend, Bob Shaw, and Ralph Terry

In 1966, in the days before Seaver, Koosman, Gentry, and Ryan, when the Mets' young pitchers were named Selma, Rusteck, Sutherland, and Gardner, the Mets tried to provide some veteran presence on the staff to help carry the team to respectability while the young pitchers developed.

In the early '60's, you could make up a pretty good core of a major league rotation with the likes of Bob Friend, Bob Shaw, and Ralph Terry - all workhorses who each had one outstanding season, and some other pretty good ones. Couldn't they help the Mets ? Well, Shaw and Friend did, but only in the short term and when a team goes on to lose 95 games, maybe it would have been better to look at some younger pitchers. Still, it made sense to take a chance on these veterans to help stabilize the pitching staff. After all, the Mets were willing to pay the "big" salaries that came along with these pitchers, even though their best years were behind them. They were each acquired in cash transactions, so no prospects (or non-prospects) were sacrificed to get them.

On June 10th of 1966, the Mets purchased Bob Shaw from the Giants. The previous season, he had gone 16-9 with San Francisco, but was off to a shaky start at 1-4 in '66. Shaw was 34 years old at the time but proved he still had one good season left in him. From the time he arrived, he was arguably the Mets' best starting pitcher, going 11-10 in 25 starts. After a 3-9 start in 1967, Shaw was sold to the Cubs. Shaw always seemed like the type of guy who had to be doing a good job in order to keep his place on any team. I don't remember exactly why, but I seem to recall that he was pretty set in his ways and not exactly the easiest person to get along with.

Five days later, the Mets purchased veteran Bob Friend who had previously starred with the Pirates, but at the time was with the Yankees. At age 35, having thrown a ton of innings when he was in Pittsburgh, his career was at its tailend. He managed to post a 5-8 record with the Mets that season, but the Mets were 6-6 in the games Friend started, not bad for a team that would finish 66-95.

On August 6, 1966, the Mets purchased former Cy Young Winner Ralph Terry from Kansas City. A 23-game winner for the Yankees in 1962, Terry was never quite the same after that, with unsuccesful stints with Cleveland and Kansas City. The A's gave him 10 starts in 1966, where he went 1-5. By the time he came to the Mets, he was little more than a mopup man, although the fans and the organization were probably hoping for a lot more, since Terry was still only 30 years old. Terry made the Mets' roster again in 1967, but appeared in just 2 games and was released in May. That was the end of his baseball career.

Of course, throughout their history, the Mets (and in general, every other basebll team), tried to mix in some veterans along with younger pitchers. For the Mets, it finally clicked in 1969, when pitchers like Cardwell, Taylor, and Koonce were integral parts of the staff along with younger arms like Seaver, Koosman, Gentry, Ryan, and McGraw.

The 1966 edition was nowhere as successful, but the Mets did manage to escape the cellar that year for the first time and certainly part of that could be attribued to the contributions of Shaw and Friend.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Old Time Mets - Larry Bearnarth

With all the posts I've done about pitching prospects of the early years, I'm a little surprised I completely overlooked Larry Bearnarth. But then again, based on his 2-13 record with a 6.67 ERA in his only minor league season, it was hard to even consider him as a prospect. The Mets signed Bearnarth out of St. John's and sent him to their AAA Syracuse farm club in 1962 where he had, at least statistically, an awful season.

Nevertheless, he was a member of the Mets' pitching staff opening day the following year and remained with the Mets for the better part of the next four seasons. Bearnarth, who featured a sinker and slider, was almost exclusively a reliever, starting only 7 games, but never registered a single save for the Mets. When the Mets started getting better, Bearnarth was sent to AAA in 1967 where he remained for the next four years. He got a brief and extremely ineffective shot with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1971, but later became a successful pitching coach.

As for his major league career, you'd have to say Bearnarth was in the right place (the Mets' organization) at the right time (when the team was in desperate need of pitching). Had he signed with another organization, it's entirely possible he would never have even gotten a shot at the major leagues. I wish I could recall some highlights of Larry's Met tenure, but frankly, I can't. So, I looked it up and here they are :

1. In a game against San Francisco, Stengel went out to talk to Bearnarth with two on, no outs and future Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda at the plate. "Tra-la-la," was all that Stengel said before walking off, leaving a puzzled Bearnarth. On his next pitch, Cepeda grounded into a triple play to end the inning. Bearnarth couldn't wait to ask Stengel what "Tra-la-la" meant. "Tra-la-la, triple play," replied Stengel.

2. In a relief appearance for the Mets on June 14, 1965 in Cincinnati, Bearnarth came on in relief in the 9th. To that point, the Mets had not yet managed a single hit off Jim Maloney, but Bearnarth was able to keep the game scoreless until the 11th, when right-fielder Johnny Lewis broke the no-hitter with a lead-off home run. Bearnarth pitched another scoreless inning in the bottom of the 11th and got the win.

Few pitchers in the Mets' early years lasted as many as four seasons with the team, so that was an accomplishment in itself. However, unlike a lot of other young pitchers, Bearnarth really didn't show a whole lot of promise of getting much better and it just seemed like a matter of time before he'd be displaced.

In retrospect, Bearnarth was a hard working and dedicated student of the game who did the most with what he had, but simply didn't throw hard enough to be anything more than what he was.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Old Time Mets - Jon Matlack

Jon Matlack's career record of 125-126 may be as mediocre as you can get, but Matlack was a much, much better than average major league pitcher. In fact, he was one of the very finest lefthanded pitchers ever developed by the Mets' organization. His other career marks - 3.18 lifetime ERA (better than Steve Carlton, who was considered the best lefty of his generation), 97 complete games, and 30 shutouts attest to the fact that he was a workhorse, who when he was on, was as good as anyone.

Matlack holds several important distinctions as a Met, although not necessarily statistical ones. To begin with, he was the Mets' very first GOOD #1 amateur draft choice. In '65 with the second pick, the Mets selected the forgettable Les Rohr. With the first pick in '66, they opted for Steve Chilcott over Reggie Jackson and we all know how that turned out. In 1967, having advanced to ninth place the previous season, they didn't get to pick until the #4 slot. The first three picks were Ron Blomberg, Terry Hughes, and Mike Garman. The Mets, up next, chose Jon Matlack, a 6-foot-3 lefthanded pitcher out of high school in West Chester, PA. Certainly you could make a case that later first round picks like John Mayberry and Ted Simmons turned out better, but there's no doubt that the Mets' selction of Matlack was better than the three choices that preceded him that year and a whole lot better than most of the Mets' #1's through the years.

Next, Matlack was the first of the Mets' hot young pitching prospects to be brought along slowly, getting 3 full seasons in AAA before being brought up for a cup of coffee in 1971. Prior to his extended hitch in AAA, in his first full year in the minors, 1968, Matlack had a superb year, going 13-6 2.76 with 188 strikeouts in 173 innings for Class A Raleigh-Durham.

Considering how the likes of Les Rohr, Dennis Musgraves, Ron Locke, Tug McGraw, Grover Powell, Tom Seaver, et al were force-fed to the big leagues based on single year minor league performances, you would have almost expected Matlack to be given a shot at the Mets' rotation in 1969 or 1970 at the latest, but starting pitching was the Mets' strong suit and that gave the organization the luxury of nurturing Matlack until he was unquestionably big-league ready. And in 1972, he certainly was, going 15-10 2.32 with the Mets, and winning the National League Rookie Of The Year Award.

Matlack was a solid starter for the Mets for six years, although he never really surpassed his rookie season, so he could be regarded as something of a disappointment i.e. he never became Tom Seaver or Jerry Koosman. Matlack was dealt away to Texas prior to the 1978 season in a bizarre 4-team trade involving a lot of big name players. I won't go into the details here, but I've always wondered how that one came about.

Matlack pitched decently for the Rangers, but was out of baseball before he turned 34. In 1989, at the age of 39, Matlack resurfaced in the late, lamented Senior Professional Baseball Association (topic of a future post here at Metscentric) where he had a solid 10-2 record, making him one of the few well-known players in the league to deliver more than "name value".

Recently, Matlack became the Organizational Pitching coordinator for the Detroit Tigers, and no doubt, was instrumental in helping to develop the talented young staff the Tigers have today. But I'll always remember him as a true quality starter who unfortunately pitched on too many Mets' teams that couldn't score enough runs to make a pitcher with a 3.00 ERA a winner.