Gregg Jefferies’ career with the New York Mets is difficult to put into words. As a man he has been described as “petulant … self-absorbed … immature … selfish …” As a player, Jefferies was described far differently; he was labeled by scouts as a teenage “phenom” and the late, legendary L.A. Times baseball columnist Jim Murray described his swing as “equal parts pancake syrup and butter.”
Somewhere in the space between, where the drama, conflict and jealousy fall away, the real Gregg Jefferies is revealed.
“Everything about me has been blown out of proportion all along,” said Jefferies. “How good my offense was, how bad my defense was, how weird my relationship with my father was. The media went beyond the bounds in how it portrayed me.”
His professional career started with less humility and a healthy heap of media hype. Jefferies was 17, a senior at Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, California, when the Mets selected No. 1 pick (20th overall) in the 1985 June amateur draft. The 1985 draft was loaded with future major leaguers including Barry Bonds, Will Clark, Barry Larkin, Rafael Palmeiro, John Smoltz, Mark Grace, David Justice, Randy Johnson, Tino Martinez and B.J. Surhoff , the No. 1 overall pick.
Jefferies lived up to the hype during his first two seasons in the Mets’ minor league system. In the first of those seasons, he combined to hit .353, 16 home runs, 111 RBIs and 57 stolen bases in 125 games (including stops at Columbia, S.C., Lynchburg, Va. (A) Jackson (AA). .In 1987, Jefferies hit .367, with 20 homers, 101 RBIs and 26 stolen bases in 134 games for the Jackson Mets. Baseball America selected Jefferies as Minor League Player of the Year back-to-back years.
But off-the-field Jefferies struggled to adapt. He was homesick from the moment he arrived in Kingsport, Tennessee to play for the Mets of the Appalachian League. “I was lost and depressed,” he said. “I was alone, living in a Sheraton.”
Jefferies’ parents arrived two days later. The short visit turned into a 10-week stay. “When I had a bad night at the ballpark, I’d go stay with my folks,” he said. “They were my support system. They helped me cope with disappointments.”
He was 19 — still a teenager — on the day he was promoted by the Mets. Jefferies arrived at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego to join the team and stadium security officials refused to let him into the clubhouse because, they said, he looked like a kid trying to scam security.
Jefferies made his major league debut on September 6, 1987 as a pinch-hitter against the Dodgers at Chavez Ravine. “When Davey [Johnson] told me I was going to hit, I wanted to, but I didn’t want to,” he said. “After I popped out, people yelled that I was overrated; I should go back to Jackson.”
It wouldn’t be the last time he’d hear those words. But, for the time being, Jefferies didn’t care. A couple days later he collected his first major league hit against the Phillies.
The following spring Jefferies arrived at Mets camp in Port St. Lucie, Florida amid more hype, greater expectation and unprecedented attention. The New York Times labeled him “arguably the best baseball player not on a major league roster.”
The hype worried the Mets front office. They had seen what New York did (and was still doing) to Darryl Strawberry. “The hardest thing to deal with is the New York media attention,” Strawberry said in hindsight. “All those writers, every single day. Nothing can ever prepare you for that. You can’t compare a 20-year-old kid to a Hall of Famer because he’ll only disappoint.”
The Mets didn’t want its prized prospect crushed by the Big Apple. The final week of spring training the Mets made it official: Jefferies would start the season with the Tidewater Tides, the Mets Triple-A affiliate in Virginia.
“Some players are labeled ‘can’t-miss,'” said Mets manager Davey Johnson. “He is ‘inevitable.’ I hate to send a kid down I enjoy watching playing.”
In late August, the Mets promoted Jefferies after a sore hamstring sidelined Wally Backman and a viral infection crippled Dave Magadan “forced our hand,” said Joe McIlvaine, the Mets’ vice-president of baseball operations.
Jefferies singled and doubled in his Mets season debut against the San Francisco Giants. One night later, he was back in the starting lineup for the series opener against the San Diego Padres at Shea Stadium. Jefferies wowed the modest crowd of 16,444, collecting three hits — a double, triple and home run — in a 6-0 win.
He batted .400 during his first two weeks and won the National League Player of the Week honors going 11-for-25 (.440) with three HRs, nine RBI, eight runs scored and a .960 slugging percentage.
“Who would have thought he’d come up and do this?” said Johnson. “The kid is creating some problems here.”
The day after he went 3-for-5 against the Dodgers in an 8-0 Mets win, Jefferies was sitting at his locker talking with Keith Hernandez when Strawberry walked up and handed him an envelope.
“Here, you deserve it,” he said.
Inside the envelope: Strawberry’s pay check.
But, not everyone in the Mets clubhouse was as overjoyed by Jefferies arrival and success. The New York Times suggested a “handful of insecure infielders [felt] threatened” by his talent and attention.
“There simply shouldn’t be those kinds of petty jealousies,” said Hernandez. “We’re here to win. People have no business making a kid feel unwanted. If you are unhappy, you take it to Frank Cashen or Davey Johnson. It wasn’t the kid’s decision to be called up or to play. And there’s no worse feeling than rejection. It can’t make him feel good.”
When the news was brought to Davey Johnson’s attention, he responded with a sheepish grin of approval adding, ”Guys create tension by competing.”
Jefferies played 29 games in 1988 for the Mets, batting .321 with six homers and 17 RBI. He continued his success at the plate in the postseason, starting all seven games at third base and batted .333 (9-for-27) including three multi-hit games in the 1988 National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“There was a lot of jealousy,” Gary Carter said years later. “He might have been one of the reasons we didn’t win it all in ’88. Davey [Johnson] put him at third in the playoffs against the Dodgers. When Jefferies was given that opportunity, there was a separation on the team.”
One would think that Jefferies success on the field would translate to peace in the clubhouse and joy in the bleachers. But, no such luck. The 1989 season was hijacked by turmoil on and off the field.
Throughout the winter talks centered on the idea of the franchise building the team around Jefferies; the suggestion created controversy. Could an unproven rookie carry New York baseball?
“Last year Gregg was a caddie,” said Bob Ojeda. “He was a pretty good caddie, but we can’t really say he’s a big addition yet, not until we know how he can play the position.”
Ojeda’s words proved to be prophetic. Jefferies – and the Mets – stumbled out of the gate. The Mets rookie batted below the Mendoza line until almost mid-June. He didn’t hit a home run until June 15. But the Mets stuck with him, hoping Jefferies would turn it around. He didn’t – really. Jefferies finished the 1989 season with a .258 batting average and a couple scraps and cuts.
The strife hit its peak one afternoon while the Mets were on the road against the St. Louis Cardinals. During the pre-game workout he was instructed to return to the clubhouse. When he arrived, Jefferies found one of his bats broken to pieces.
Jefferies was known to protect his bats. He would keep them separate from his teammates and reportedly “rubbed his bats down with alcohol,” so he could see where the ball hit them, like his idol Ty Cobb.
He collected the splinters and sat down beside his locker. Quietly, he contemplated quitting. “I asked myself if I actually wanted to do this,” he said. “I came close to saying no. I came close.”
When the Mets fell out of contention in late September tempers flared and, ultimately, exploded on the final play of the season when Jefferies and Roger McDowell exchanged words after the final out. Jefferies charged McDowell as both benches emptied.
“There were 30 of our guys rooting for Roger and 20 of theirs rooting for him too,” said then Phillies manager Nick Leyva.
“Gregg’s been through some tough times this season,” McDowell told the media. “There’s been a lot of pressure on him, and maybe it all got to him. I never disliked him, but I don’t think we’ll be exchanging Christmas cards this year.”
The following spring Jefferies arrived in Port St. Lucie hoping to turn over a new leaf and win back the trust and respect of his teammates. “I’m not a pouter, but I guess it looked like I was,” he said. “I brought a lot of it on myself. I’m sorry. I’ve learned. I’ve matured.”
Jefferies’ comments fell on deaf ears. “We’re not going to stand for his antics this year,” Ojeda told the media. “If he starts anything like that, we’ll nip it in the bud. Who’ll nip it? The hierarchy. We don’t hate Gregg Jefferies. We just didn’t like some of the things he did. We didn’t deal with it correctly. I guess we had so many things going wrong last season that this festered.”
Joe Durso of the the New York Times wrote:
The open coldness may have broken and the clandestine character assaults may have abated, but there is still detachment and distance. If there is not personal animus, there is widespread awkwardness, a situation compounded by Jefferies rudimentary social skills …
“What really ticked me off was when Gregg would walk back real slow after making an out, said Davey Johnson. “It bothered me, and I’m sure it bothered the players. I think there was a lot of petty jealousy toward him. The resentment was overdone.”
“He was 21 and he acted as if he had won three batting championships,” said Hernandez.
No words could redeem Jefferies. The damage was done. His last hope was to keep his mouth shut, play baseball and let his performance do the talking, but neither Jefferies or his teammates could hold their tongue.
The final straw came in June 1990. In pure cowardly fashion, the Mets clubhouse anonymously began railing against Jefferies, calling him “a designated hitter playing third base.” When the quote hit the newspapers, Jefferies came unglued. “People, I guess, will always have something to say. I really am tired of being butchered,” he told the media. “I don’t mean to sound like a baby because I’ve been quiet about this for three years. I just want to play baseball. I’m not taking this anymore.”
“There’s too much of this ‘One Met said’ stuff,” David Cone told the New York Times. “If you’ve got something to say, put your name behind it or go to the player and say it.”
Jefferies responded to the anonymous comments with a nine-paragraph letter that he read on WFAN, then the Mets flagship radio station.
Over the past three years, there has been an awful lot said and written about me. All too often, I have been criticized and blamed by some of my teammates. (I don’t believe anyone can deny the fact that I have consistently taken it on the chin for the last three years.)
In those three years, I have always accepted responsibility for my mistakes and errors. I have never made excuses or alibis, or blamed anyone or pointed fingers.
It is my hope that the air can be cleared and that misunderstandings can be corrected. There comes a time when you have to stand up for what is right. I believe it is only fair and right that the fans of New York know my side of the story. Yes, there is another side to what you have heard.
(I have never been accused of not want to win, not caring enough, or not trying hard enough.) If anything, I’ve been accused of caring too much, trying too hard, and wanting to win too much. Is there really something wrong with that?
The core of all the criticism lashed out at me is that, admittedly, a few of my teammates don’t regard me as a friend. It would be great to be friends with everyone, but my main concern is to play good baseball and to help the Mets win. (It is not important that we all be friends, however, it is important that we truly be teammates, all pulling for one another.
When a pitcher is having trouble getting players out, when a hitter is having trouble hitting, or when a player makes an error, I try to support them in whatever way I can. I don’t run to the media to belittle them or to draw more attention to their difficult times.
I can only hope that one day those teammates who have found it convenient to criticize me will realize that we are all in this together. If only we can concentrate more on the games, rather than complaining and bickering and pointing fingers, we would all be better off.
I have never claimed to be the future of the Mets; this was a label that was put on me. I have never asked to play second base or third base, or for that matter, anywhere. I have just followed the requests of the management. What I do want the fans to know is that I give 110% all the time. All I want is for us to win.
Here’s hoping that 1991 will be a championship year for the New York Mets.
My best always,
“He has feelings,” said then manager Bud Harrelson. “He’s conveyed them. Now it’s time to get back to baseball.”
The Mets finished the 1991 season in second place (91-71), four games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates. The season fell apart over a two-week period in early September when the team dropped 12 of 18 games. Harrelson was dismissed and two months later, in December 1991, the Mets traded Jefferies, Kevin McReynolds and Keith Miller to the Kansas City Royals for Bill Pecota and Bret Saberhagen.
“Pure relief,” said Jefferies.
“It was vital that Gregg get out,” said Miller. “Vital.”
“New York was a little too much for him,” said Ron Darling.
Jefferies played 14 MLB seasons, his first five (1987-1991) for the Mets. Jefferies batted .276 in 465 games in New York (.276/42 HR/205 RBI).