Benny and the Mets

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.

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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.

Broken

Dickie Thon described it this way: “It was like a boom … a dead sound. Like a thud.”

Today, the boxscore reads HBP (hit by pitch) but, for Thon, it was more than that. The Astros All-Star shortstop had been hit by a pitch major league pitches four times prior to April 8, 1984. No. 5 — a fastball by New York Mets pitcher Mike Torrez — fractured Thon’s orbital bone around his left eye, changing his life and career.

A fuzzy 30 year old video shows Thon frozen at the plate as the baseball exploded off his left ear flap and grazing his temple before striking his eye. Harvey said Torrez’ fastball started out waist high, then suddenly took a sharp right. Thon crumbled. The Dome went quiet as Thon slowly rocked back-and-forth, his right arm covering his face. Home plate umpire Doug Harvey leaned over and saw that Thon was still conscious. Jose Cruz, who was in the Astros’ on-deck circle, Torrez and Astros manager, Bob Lillis circled around him.

”The first thing I thought of is that I want to make it, I want to live and see my family again,” said Thon.

Nothing was the same after that moment.

Thon spent the next week in the hospital and underwent surgery to have a small piece of bone realigned.

Torrez called Thon the next day to apologize.

“I don’t blame Mike Torrez,” he told the New York Times. “I blame myself. I think, ‘Why did I let this happen?’ I just stood there.”

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In the weeks and months following his surgery, Thon said he remembers waking up each morning and he’d lie still and look around the bedroom. He would try to focus on an object — the alarm clock, a light bulb, a photograph — testing his ability to see clearly. He struggled.

Thon’s eyesight went from 20/20 before the pitch to 20/150. Over time his sight improved to 20/40. Still, tracking a moving sphere traveling towards him at 90+ mph, was much more challenging.

Thon attempted to take batting practice, but the white sphere was a blur coming at him.

“I still had a blind spot in my left eye,” he said. “I had to concentrate on seeing the ball.”

As time passed and Thon healed, a new challenge arose; scar tissue was forming around the retina in his left eye, further blurring his vision and impeding his depth-perception.

”I drive home and I can’t always tell how far the traffic light is,” he told the media.

Thon and the Astros came to realize there was no chance he would return in 1984. His season was over after just five games. So, instead of playing, Thon watched in uniform from the bench.

After two fitful seasons of ups-and-downs, Thon arrived in Kissimmee, Florida in the spring of 1987 optimistic and ready for a fresh start. But he struggled early and often both in the field and at the plate, going 0-for-8 and committing three errors in the three spring starts.

Thon walked out of camp hours before a scheduled. Frustrated by his struggles he was ready to quit baseball. He was no longer the same player — the 1983 All-Star — that hit .286/20 HR/79 RBI/34 SB). The Astros brass encouraged Thon to see a doctor. He underwent more than two hours of intensive eye exams.

Team doctors cleared Thon, but his performance deteriorated and his playing time dwindled. He played in 32 games during the 1987 season, hitting .212 in 83 plate appearances.

“When I got hit, I was a .280 hitter, and I went down to .240-something,” he said. “I learned to play the best I could … I couldn’t see the ball very well after I got hit in my left eye. I had to make adjustments. It’s tough to do that in the big leagues, but I did manage to play 10 [more] years.”

Thon signed a free agent deal with the San Diego Padres in 1988. Over his last five seasons he jumped from team-to-team including stints with Philadelphia, Texas and Milwaukee before retiring after the 1993 season.

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