Every now and then you come across certain players who do something on or off the field who make you want to root for their success. Sometimes those players are on the Mets, sometimes they’re former Mets and sometimes they wear the uniforms of other teams. I’m sure we all have our sentimental favorites for one reason or another, but here’s my list of a handful of the good guys and defining moments that meant more than merely winning or losing:
He was always the type of solid player I respect – a slick-fielding, left-handed power hitter with occasional stolen base potential, Monday patrolled centerfield for the A’s, Cubs and Dodgers during his 19 year big league career. He was twice named an All-Star but he was never a superstar-caliber player. However, he’s forever in baseball history for his “incredible catch” that had nothing to do with a batted ball. During a 1976 game in Dodger Stadium while playing for the Cubs, a father and son duo ran onto the field to burn an American flag as a protest. Just as they soaked it in lighter fluid 6-year Marine Corps Reservist Monday ran down and snatched it from them, handing it over to Dodger pitcher Doug Rau, immortalized in this video.
Over a year ago I devote a whole column to Fidrych’s strange legacy in baseball, but he was a guy who danced to the beat of a different drummer. His antics on the mound, his total dominance (before arm injuries derailed his career), and his tragic accident that ended his life make him a larger-than-life figure to me and someone who seemed to enjoy the game more than most people do.
I apologize for repeating myself as I’ve told this story many times, but it made a lasting impression on me. As a child one of the rare bonding moments I had with my father was attending three consecutive Mets Welcome Home Dinners at some Manhattan hotel where the night just before the home opener you would have the opportunity to see all of the players and watch presentations about the upcoming season by Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy and Ralph Kiner. After these dinners ended, the players showed their athleticism by exiting the room as quickly as possible. The only player who lingered behind to give autographs to the kids in attendance was Le Grande Orange. He calmly took off his sport coat, rolled up his sleeves and announced, “I’ll stay here as long as there are folks who want to meet me. All I ask is that you form an orderly line.” Having had my foot stomped by Wayne Garrett on his sprint out of the ballroom, this proclamation was music to my young ears. Years later I took one of my employees to lunch to deliver her performance review at Rusty Staub’s on Fifth. The big man himself came to our table to ask how we liked our food and I told him what his simple act had meant to me as a child. He seemed genuinely touched that I would even remember such a thing.
There was a period during which the stocky Filipino (by way of Hawaii) was a favorite of Bobby Valentine who used him with great regularity in the Mets lineup. Valentine was fond of sending him to steal bases, something that may not, in retrospect, have been playing to his strengths as he was not particularly effective in doing so. He did have some home run power and sported a career .274 average in the majors. He then followed Valentine to Japan where in 2004 he starred for the Chiba Lotte Marines, slugging .315/35/100 to lead them to their first title in over 30 years. He’s perhaps best remembered for an embarrassing gaffe in which he mistakenly thought there were 2 outs when he fielded a ball in left and handed it to a young fan in the stands. Realizing that there was only 1 out at the time, he rushed back to towards the stands, snatched the ball from the kid and hurled it to the infield. The rules stated that the ball was dead once the fan touched it and two runs scored for the Giants. Fortunately the Mets came back to win the game. I fondly remember sitting in the Shea picnic area bleachers and chatting amiably with Agbayani as he warmed up in left field. He’s another player who genuinely seemed happy being on the field.
One of the great human achievement stories, not just in the baseball realm, Jim Abbott was born without a right hand, yet it didn’t stop him from having a successful major league baseball career. He stepped right from the campus of the University of Michigan into the California Angels pitching rotation as a rookie, posting a respectable record and finishing 5th in the Rookie of the Year voting despite never having played a single game in the minors. He followed that up two years later with a dominating 18-11 season with a 2.89 ERA that saw him finish 3rd in the Cy Young Award voting. His greatest achievement immortalized in Cooperstown, however, would occur during his first year pitching for the New York Yankees when this man hurled a no-hitter in September against the Cleveland Indians. When interleague play began people wondered how he would fare, yet he managed two hits during his year playing for the Milwaukee Brewers using just his left arm to swing the bat. His story of overcoming adversity is truly inspirational.
What collection of anecdotes about ballplayers creating positive moments that extended far beyond baseball would be complete without referencing the first post-9/11 baseball game in New York City? The City was still reeling from the devastation of the planes hitting the World Trade Center, the thousands of lives senselessly lost and the fear everyone had about accumulating in large numbers anywhere that could be construed as another target. Baseball itself had stopped with planes grounded nationwide, but eventually it resumed and on September 21st it returned nervously to Shea Stadium where over 40,000 people tried to bring some semblance of normalcy back to their lives. The Mets were five games back of the Braves and tried to keep their slim playoff hopes alive in a game during which even the broadcasters confessed they were sleepwalking through its entirety until the magical moment in the bottom of the 8th. Trailing 2-1, Edgardo Alfonzo worked out a walk off Steve Karsay and Valentine substituted speedy Desi Relaford to try to play for the tie. Up strode Mike Piazza who, on the second Karsay pitch, lined a rope over Andruw Jones in left for a two run homer. In one brief moment everyone forgot to be scared, forgot the new normal, and life was as it has always been – a September pennant race with a come-from-behind victory becoming a reality. Have a look.
So who were your special players or what special moments do you recall that transcended this game we love so much?