Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Old Time Mets - John Stearns

In the 1973 Amateur Draft, right after the Texas Rangers selected the highly regarded and ultimately ill-fated David Clyde with the first pick, the Phillies used the second selection to take catcher John Stearns out of the University of Colorado. The next two picks both turned out to be hall-of-famers, Robin Yount and Dave Winfield. Since Bob Boone was just starting what would turn out to be a long tenure as the Phillies' #1 catcher, it's a little hard to understand why they would have taken Stearns over Yount and Winfield. Stearns, of course, never achieved anything close to HOF level, but after being traded to the Mets, he had a pretty good career. He might have fit in even better with a contending team, but the Mets were awful during Stearns' entire tenure as catcher, while the Phillies with McGraw as bullpen ace and Boone as catcher were perennial contenders in the '70's and early '80's.

The December 3,1974 trade that involved Stearns and Tug McGraw was an interesting one. McGraw had some shoulder trouble during the 1974 season, and the Mets had some doubt whether he would return to form. So, trading McGraw along with two nondescript outfielders for Stearns, one of the best young catching prospects in the game, Del Unser, an experienced centerfielder and well-regarded leadoff hitter, and Mac Scarce, a lefty specialist who looked like a cinch to win a spot in the bullpen seemed almost like a no-brainer.

Stearns wasn't quite ready for big league duty, but by 1977, he became the team's number one catcher and despite a string of injuries, was good enough to represent the Mets in the All-Star game 4 times. Stearns was solid all-around with exceptional speed for a catcher being his trademark, but he never really became a big star and certainly wasn't in the class of Yount or Winfield. Also, Stearns was injury-prone leading to a lot of missed time and ultimately a shortened career, and in retrospect, his numbers weren't all that good, although they were better than what most of his teammates produced.

Stearns will be remembered as a hard-nosed, hustling player on some terrible Mets teams. Unser and Scarce were both disappointing, so the trade will ultimately be remembered as McGraw for Stearns, so Stearns was in effect, "replacing" a true Mets' hero and one of the game's great personalities, and it was kind of unfair to put that onus on him.

John Stearns later served as a coach and minor league manager with the Mets. He is still managing in the minor leagues, and who knows, may yet become a big league manager. Like so many young players who came to the Mets in trades, the fans had high hopes for him which were never quite fulfilled, but Stearns was solid and did put in a few good years with the team.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Mets Trades Of The Past - Dumping The Heroes of '69

The 1969 Miracle Mets inspired dozens of books and for those of us who were Mets fans then, they represented an iconic team that will live in our memory forever. What made them so special was that pitching aside, they were primarily a very ordinary team of journeymen, disappointments, and discarded veterans who came together for one great and totally unexpected season. I can assume that nearly every Mets fan has at one time or another seen the video of this series and the amazing catches made by Tommie Agee, a talented outfielder and Ron Swoboda, who was regarded as a less than adequate one.

Now, no one plays forever (with the possible exception of Satchel Paige and Julio Franco), but it seemed to me that both Agee and Swoboda should have ben effective players for a few more years, and while I'm not one to say that someone should be untradeable, I remember how disheartened I was when both Swoboda and Agee were traded away. Had they brought back legitimate young prospects (several years later, a seemingly fading Jerry Koosman did bring back Jesse Orosco), it might have softened the blow, but I remember how hard I tried to justify the players the Mets received in exchange, knowing all along that they weren't very good.

Prior to the 1971 season, at the age of 26, Ron Swoboda, at one time the shining hope for a legitimate power hitter in the Mets lineup was traded along with minor league infielder Rich Hacker to the Montreal Expos, for of all people, Don Hahn. Now the fact is that Swoboda never got any better after leaving the Mets, but at the time, despite the fact that he wasn't living up to the potential everyone thought he had since he first burst on the scene, this looked like an incredibly awful dumping of a still young player who was clearly a fan favorite. His contribution to the 1969 Miracle team keeps his name alive, but that aside, yes, he was clearly a major disappointment. But to trade him for Hahn, a good outfielder with zero power, and little hope of being anything more than a defensive replacement was a real downer. And plus, it was the Mets who had to throw in a player to make the deal. The fact is that the trade did little to help either team, but at the time, it seemed utterly ridiculous from a Met fan's point of view.

A couple of years later, Agee, for no reason I could figure out, had seemingly lost his centerfield job to a combination of 40-year old Willie Mays and the aforementioned Don Hahn. The Mets traded him to Houston for the uninspiring pair of outfielder Rich Chiles and pitcher Buddy Harris. Now, Agee had a poor year in 1972, but he was still barely 30 years old, and it wasn't like the Mets had someone like Amos Otis ready to replace him. They had Mays, Hahn, and maybe Dave Schneck. The Mets, no doubt, would have been better off keeping Otis and trading Agee after the 1969 season, but that was all water under the bridge. So, when I heard the deal, I kept trying to convince myself that maybe this guy Chiles was really going to be a star. Both Chiles and Harris had some impressive seasons in the minors, but had been busts when given a shot in the majors.

Well, Chiles had maybe 3 hits for the Mets before they dumped him and Harris never even played for the team. It turns out Agee WAS just about done, and he didn't even last a full season with the Astros, but that hardly softened the blow for Met fans.
Remember at the time of these trades, most Mets fans thought that Agee and Swoboda were still pretty good and in Swoboda's case, still young enough to get better. As it turned out, the Mets might have been right about them, but to me, these trades really hurt at the time.