Talk about being unprepared? Benny Ayala stepped off a plane at LaGuardia airport just hours before first pitch and raced across the street to Shea Stadium. While his teammates finished batting practice, Ayala found his locker and, for the first time in his life, put on a Major League Baseball uniform.
“I was nervous,” said Ayala, during a phone interview from Puerto Rico. “I had to rush in late in the afternoon. I didn’t have time for food before the game. I just got there and put on my uniform.”
Then, Ayala looked at the lineup card and swallowed some butterflies. That’s as close as he’d get to dinner until after the game. Mets manager Yogi Berra had already penciled Ayala in the No. 6 spot, between Wayne Garrett and Ron Hodges. One day earlier he was playing for the Tidewater Tides in Norfolk, Virginia, now the 23-year old rookie was starting his first major league game for the New York Mets in place of Cleon Jones, who injured his knee a day earlier.
The only familiar faces in the Mets locker room that day were Mets pitcher Ray Sadecki and Berra. “He (Berra) came to see me play in Puerto Rico,” remembered Ayala. “We talked and I later signed with the Mets.”
The Yauco, Puerto Rico natives offensive statistics led to scouts and media labeling him as a potential “superstar.” On defense, Ayala’s throwing arm was drawing “comparisons to (Roberto) Clemente.”
Without batting practice, Ayala stepped to the plate in the bottom of the second inning on an empty stomach, in a half-empty stadium, in a new uniform, against an unfamiliar pitcher, gripping an unfamiliar bat.
“I used Joe Nolan’s bat, he used to be a catcher with the Mets,” said Ayala. “I didn’t have no bats.”
Nolan had a short stint with the Mets in 1972. He was long gone by the time Ayala arrived in August 1974, but a handful his bats were still lying around the clubhouse. His uniform number “48” was still on the handle of the bat.
Veteran Astros catcher Milt May had no idea who Ayala was, what to call or how to position Lee May, Larry Milbourne, Roger Metzger or Doug Rader in the infield. For Ayala it was awkward and uncomfortable, like walking into a party and not recognizing a single face in the crowd.
Tom Griffin was on the mound for the Houston Astros. As he mounted a two-strike count, Griffin figured the rookie couldn’t – and wouldn’t – catch up with a major league fastball. Wrong.
Ayala crushed Griffin’s fastball two-strike fastball, depositing it into the second deck down the left field line at Shea Stadium. The crowd of 20,934 erupted as Ayala rounded the bases without fanfare. “I hit so many home runs in Puerto Rico and the minor leagues, it was no big thing to me,” he said.
Ayala became the first in New York Met history to homer in his first major league at-bat, the first Puerto Rican born major league player to home run in his first at-bat and the first National League player since Cuno Barragan in 1961. Since then three other Mets have accomplished the feat: Mike Fitzgerald (1983), Kaz Matsui (2004) and Mike Jacobs (2005).
Ayala said when he returned to the Mets dugout, there were handshakes, smiles and wisecracks waiting for him.
“They said I was going to go for the Hank Aaron record,” he remembered.
The next night, Ayala’s parents had arrived from Puerto Rico. He was back in the Mets starting lineup, going 2-for-4 with a walk and a run scored in a 3-2 loss. But Ayala would have a more memorable games against the Pirates and, ironically, a more memorable home run.
As a member of the Baltimore Orioles, Ayala crushed a two-run home run off Pirate left-hander John Candelaria in Game 3 of the 1979 World Series, helping give the O’s a 2-1 series lead, a series they would eventually lose.
In 1983, Ayala delivered a pinch-hit game-tying single off Steve Carlton in the seventh inning of Game 3 of World Series. Ayala would later score the go ahead run, and eventual game-winning run. The Orioles won the Series in five games and Ayala has a ring to prove it.
Those may be wonderful memories, but he never kept the bats as a keepsake, like he did when he hit homered in his first major league at-bat. It’s not in a glass trophy case or a safe deposit box, no, the bat sits idle in his home in Puerto Rico, a reminder of the day No. 18, hit No.1 using No. 48.