Fractured Prospect

Terry Collins remembers flying back from the team’s complex in the Dominican Republic. It was February 2009, and the future New York Mets manager was feeling hopeful about Fernando Martinez. Collins watched Martinez play pain-free in the first game of a doubleheader before catching his flight back to the States. Maybe, just maybe, this was the turning point in the career of the Mets top prospect.

“When I got off the flight I had a message: he’s hurt again,” Collins shook his head in disbelief.

The injury was not the first Martinez suffered, and in hindsight, wouldn’t be the last. Since signing with the Mets in July 2005, a deal that included a $1.4 million signing bonus, Martinez has been on the disabled list nine times. His afflictions could be tallied by the body part – knee, elbow, hand, hamstring, lower back.

The $1.4 million question became: Could Fernando Martinez stay healthy long enough to play?

”That’s the goal, to keep him on the field,” said Buffalo manager Tim Teufel. “We know he has talent; it’s just a matter of keeping him healthy.”

The Mets and Martinez were hopeful a fresh start would bring good health and good fortune. The following spring, Martinez played in 10 games, batting .333 (8-for-24). Still, the Mets wanted him to prove he could perform at a high level and, more importantly, stay healthy. He carried his hot bat north to Buffalo with a four-hit game the first week of the season. One week later, Martinez was sent back to the disabled list with a sore hamstring.

“It’s not that you doubt the talent,” said assistant GM John Ricco. “It’s getting the [at-bats]. If not, that’s in the equation. Angel Pagan was a similar case. Everybody knew he had the talent, but you start to say, ‘OK, how long can we go?’ At some point he’s going to have to stay healthy.”

“He’s worth every penny,” Sandy Johnson, Mets’ VP for scouting, told the Times. “He’s a complete player.”

Baseball America ranked Martinez the No. 20 prospect. By last season he was at No. 77 on the list and headed south. One injury after another, year after year, deflated Martinez’ stock value. The Wall Street Journal called him “the forgotten prospect … no one is frothing over him anymore.”

“Sometimes I say, ‘Come on, what happened?’” Martinez said. “What happened to me? I play very hard. I’m young. Maybe all the injuries will stop one day.”

The injuries left him hobbled by arthritis in his right knee, a history that presents potential problems in the future. Ken Oberkfell, who managed him in Buffalo for two years said, “It’s been a leg issue with most of the stuff, so it’s slowed down his defensive development and his offensive development. You use your legs a lot to hit and obviously you use your legs a lot to play the outfield.”

“It’s really hard to project what these guys are going to be, whether or not they’re going to stay healthy,” said Paul DePodesta, the Mets’ former vice president of player development and amateur scouting. “To be honest, we’re not real good at it as an industry.”

The waiting game ended in January 2012, when the Mets released Martinez. He never played a full season, at any level, due to recurring injuries. Since making his major league debut in 2009 (at age 20), he Martinez played in 99 major league games, compiling 282 career at-bats and a .206 batting average.

###

POST SCRIPT: Martinez was signed by the Houston Astros, where he parts of two seasons before be traded to the New York Yankees. Six weeks after the deal, Martinez was suspended 50 games by the MLB for violating its drug policy. Today he plays for the Estrellas Orientales, the team from San Pedro de Macoris in the  Dominican Republic.

Locker Room Real Estate Values

You can learn a lot about a baseball team from its locker room. The clubhouse is where relationships form, character is revealed and leaders speak out (or not). For the major league rookie, clubhouse real estate is valuable — sometimes priceless. Imagine being the rookie who spent eight months out of the year next to Sandy Koufax? Roberto Clemente? Lou Gehrig? Tom Seaver? These were model athletes, wise and humble men, who used their talent to teach.

Danny Frisella and Tug McGraw were in heated competition for fame and fortune from the outset of the 1972 season. The late Gil Hodges remembers both pitchers begging for their manager to pick them when he signaled to the bullpen. If Frisella was selected, and won the game, McGraw would give Frisella the “cold shoulder.” If McGraw got the nod (and won) Frisella would mimic the gesture.

There is no evidence whether or not the Mets clubhouse manager made an intentional effort to put Frisella and McGraw side-by-side in the locker room, but their adjoining lockers created more fun and competition. The two Mets pitchers would sometimes switch the locker nameplates to appear that the other won the game.

While Frisella and McGraw jockeyed for their manager’s affection, that same season a rookie named Jon Matlack was granted locker space between Tom Seaver and Jerry KoosmanMatlack was named 1972 Rookie of the Year, winning 15 of his 32 starts. He compiled 244 innings pitched, eight complete games and a skinny 2.32 ERA. Coincidence? Possibly. Seaver will tell you, for certain, it meant nothing then and means nothing now.

“Where you lockered really wasn’t that important,” Seaver told the New York Times in 2008. “It didn’t make any difference. Just your own little space; it could have been anywhere.”

For Seaver, locker space was irrelevant. It was a place – and space – where he took out his frustrations after a poor start. “When I make a mistake and beat myself with a bad pitch, then I get kicking mad and go after stools and water buckets,” Seaver told People Magazine.

Other times, Seaver used his locker as a prop. After getting off to a slow start in 1974, a Mets beat writer asked him if he had lost his fastball. Seaver paused, then started rummaging in his locker muttering, “Where are you, fastball? Are you in there somewhere?”

Seaver didn’t need sabermetrics to figure out the 1975 New York Mets were in for a long year. The Mets, a team renowned for their pitching stock, found themselves lacking. That spring, Seaver sat on a stool in front of his locker and looked up at the adjoining lockers. SEAVER. KOOSMAN, MATLACK.

Who are the rest of these guys? Seaver thought.

“That’s Nos. 1, 2 and 3. Where are 4 and 5?”

He rolled his eyes in frustration.

He knew, if something doesn’t change (and it didn’t), the Mets would not compete. The Mets were within four games of the lead in the National League East on September 1, 1975; then the bottom fell out on the season. They finished in third place 10 ½ games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates.

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Seaver’s real estate at Shea Stadium was the site where many of the organizations proudest moments were celebrated. He sprayed champagne over the heads of his teammates in 1969 from that “little space.” Seaver helped the Mets win another National League title from thathole in the wall. He encouraged and mentored Matlack, Jackson ToddBob MyrickGeorge Stone and many others within earshot.

In one respect Seaver is right; a locker isn’t important. There’s nothing glamorous about an athlete’s locker. It’s literally a hole in the wall. For the common man, a locker is a lot like an office cubicle, a place to store your personal effects while you go take care of business. But, location is valuable, sometimes educational.

“I learned an awful lot from having my locker room stuck between Koosman and Seaver,” said Matlack. “”It was a very, very good location to be in.”

Seaver’s locker was physically unique, well, maybe for its modesty. Former Mets beat writer Marty Noble described the space this way: “there was no locker to the immediate left, just a three-foot-wide panel. A trash can was placed there.” Seaver’s “little space” was nondescript. Seaver, himself, was so Seaver was so impervious to his surroundings that, to this day, he is unsure whether he had the now famous locker space his rookie year of 1967.

Over time, Seaver’s locker took on a life of its own. After he we traded in June 1977, Bud Harrelson asked if he could move in. Not happening, said Mets equipment manager Herb Norman. The locker would be assigned to Seaver’s successor, Pat Zachry.

Seaver returned home, and to his “little space” in 1983, then, Ron Darling assumed the space from 1984-1991, followed by David Cone (July 1991-August 1992), John Franco (1992-2003), Steve Trachsel (2004-2006) and Aaron Heilman (2007).

“That locker did have history; more than any other in that place,” said Franco. “Nobody made the kind of history here that Tom Seaver made. It doesn’t matter how long anyone had it, it was always Seaver’s.”

“It doesn’t matter [who preceded Seaver],” added Darling. “It’s his.”

In some ballparks, because of some professional athletes, lockers can become hallowed ground. When Lou Gehrig died, his locker was sealed and sent to Cooperstown. Before Shea Stadium was demolished after the 2008 season, Seaver’s locker was preserved and put on the block for a cool $41,000.

That’s some valuable real estate.

In 1984, the New York Mets were on the rise. Jesse Orosco and Doug Sisk anchored the Mets bullpen on the field, roommates off the field and lived out of adjoining lockers during the team’s championship run in the 80s.

“We’re just a couple of ordinary guys who get along, and have no professional jealousy,” said Sisk. “We’re both fairly serious, but we have different personalities. But we’re not rivals. You can’t be rivals. It won’t work.”

When it does work, the team benefits – at least that’s what Mets manager Terry Collins had in mind when he placed Zack Wheeler and Matt Harvey side-by-side in Port St. Lucie. Collins told the media he intentionally put Harvey and Wheeler at adjoining lockers to give Wheeler the opportunity to ask questions and “soak up” the experience like Harvey did last season.

“Having lockers next to each other, we’re both baseball players who have the same mindset,” said Harvey. “Getting along, I don’t think, is going to be very tough.”

Wheeler had prime real estate in Port St. Lucie. Like Harvey in 2012, he will receive a valuable education a lot by watching and listening. Harvey described the experience as “eye-opening.” watching veterans Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey prepare for a major league baseball season.

“That’s something that I’ve never seen,” Harvey told ESPN.com. “Watching the preparation that those guys had in order to throw 200 innings … Sometimes it’s stepping back and realizing, ‘Hey, this is a long process. Throwing until the end of September is a long time from now.’”

The same opportunity to learn and grow await Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman.

Spring Training is always an intriguing place for reporters to take stock in how and where players are positioned. The nameplates begin to disappear as February turns to March and the minor league players are dispatched for reassignment. The last days of March mark the time for final cuts. The veteran invited to spring training is playing his heart out and biting their nails in one corner of the clubhouse while the fresh-faced 20-something is bouncing off the walls hoping this will be his year.

As Opening Day creeps closer, locker room real estate values will increase.

Gregg Jefferies’ Rotten Apple

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.”

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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.

THE LETTER

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,

Gregg Jefferies

“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 JefferiesKevin 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).

One Play, Two First Basemen and the Elusive Third Out

Even in hindsight the story is hard to fathom. The New York Mets came to bat in the bottom of the 10th inning, at home, trailing the Boston Red Sox 5-3 in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. They were three outs away from losing the Series. Hold on, this isn’t the story you’re thinking it is.

Wally Backman led off the inning slicing a line drive into the glove of Dave Henderson. One out. Keith Hernandez then hit a hard line drive to centerfield for the second out. The Mets were, as Len Dykstra would later tell Peter Golenbeck in Amazin’, “one out away from wasting the whole f—ing season.”

As Hernandez circled back to the dugout, the Mets first baseman — always intense, always encouraging his teammates to keep their heads in the game — never stopped. He went down the steps, into the dugout, down a second set of steps into the tunnel underneath Shea Stadium and straight to the team’s locker room. Game over, he thought. Depressed, disgusted, disappointed, Hernandez later confessed he just couldn’t bare to see the Boston’s celebration unfold on his field, in front of  his fans.

 

“I went into Davey’s [Johnson’s] office and took a beer out of his fridge,” he told then Washington Post reporter (and Mets fan) John Feinstein and author of One on One: Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game.

Hernandez said he was dehydrated and downed a Budweiser in seconds. He proceeded to crack open a second beer, paying little attention to the television nearby. Hernandez sat down in his manager’s office, lit a cigarette and drank another beer.

His counterpart, Bill Buckner, was standing off the line at first base, anticipating what the spray of the champagne would feel like; seeing a beaming smile on Mrs. Yawkey’s face, and witnessing the bedlam that would ensue in Boston’s clubhouse. The entire Sox dugout was like a mass of small children ready to rush the tree and begin tearing open presents on Christmas morning.Buckner was 36 years old; his body was 75. The decade leading up to this moment were successful, yet painful, for Buckner. His body took a beating. Through the years Buckner tried acupuncture, herbs (DMSO) and holy water — yes, holy water (1978, Chicago, look it up). In 1986, he was given nine cortisone shots as he literally limped through the season.

Boston Globe reporter and Baseball Hall fo Famer Peter Gammons wrote, “it wasn’t unusual to see him before games with ice taped to his ankle, Achilles tendon, lower back, elbow and shoulder … he often looked as if he were running in galoshes.”

Now, Buckner stood alone, limping around first base, pushing dirt in his signature black high top spikes that supported his fragile ankle, hoping for one more out.

The two first baseman — Hernandez and Buckner — couldn’t have been further apart in mind, body or spirit.

Underground, Hernandez watched the monitor as teammates Gary Carter and Kevin Mitchell delivered back-to-back singles.

“I opened a third one,” said Hernandez.

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Ray Knight is reduced to a single strike separating Boston and their first World Series title since 1918, before lifting a single to centerfield, scoring Carter and advancing Mitchell to third base. Hernandez never moved an inch, his eyes locked on the television while he anxiously pulled on his cigarette, beer in hand.

Meanwhile, Buckner and the Red Sox stiffened. The crowd roared, stomping their feet, literally rocking Shea Stadium and leaving Hernandez wondering whether the ballpark would hold up under the circumstances. Sox manager called on relief pitcher Bob Stanley to finish the job.

As Stanley warmed up in the cold late October night in New York, Buckner could only stand by, watching each smoky breathe he took vaporize into the breeze. Back in the Mets clubhouse, Hernandez nervously chain-smoked from his manager’s chair.

Like Calvin Schiraldi did earlier, Stanley reduced Mookie Wilson to a single strike. Twice Boston pitcher’s were one strike away from finishing the Mets. Stanley fired a 2-2 wild pitch, scoring the tying run.

Shea Stadium went ballistic.

“I’m still not thinking that clearly, so I finish the third one,” Hernandez told Feinstein. “That’s when it hit me: the score’s tied and I just drank three beers. I’m buzzed. I was sitting there frozen, trying to figure out how I’d go out and play first base when Mookie hit the ball.”

After Wilson’s ground ball skipped through Buckner’s legs, for a moment he stood with an expression of disbelief near first base, then slowly limped back to the Boston clubhouse.

“How lucky did I just get?” Hernandez asked Feinstein. “Thank God Buckner booted that ball.”

Buckner — not so lucky.

Time has not healed, as it so often does. History skips, like an old 45 record, replaying the moment over and over. And Hernandez and Buckner? The space between them is now eternal.

Forever Young

Don’t, OK? Save your breath – and Anthony Young’s time. Just get to the question. That’s right, the question; the inevitable query about losing. He won’t mind answering because, well, the reply is always the same. I pitched well during the stretch. It just happened. I don’t feel like I deserve it. I will be known for this forever. It was destiny. He accepts his place in history, yet, he reveals nothing about his true feelings.

What irks Young is the mind-numbing process; the back-and-forth, like some silly parlor game, between reporter and former athlete. The Q&A lingers. The questions turn to small talk. How do like coaching? What do you teach young baseball players? He takes a deep breath and exhales his frustration. Minutia, he thinks. Young’s mind is screaming: Ask the question!

Anthony Young has been living in baseball infamy. Two decades ago today he began a historic losing streak that lasted 465 days, across 81 appearances and two seasons; piling up 27 consecutive losing decisions. The long slog finally came to a halt on July 28, 1993.

How can you tell when something bad is about to happen? There was nothing more than circumstantial evidence looking back at the aftermath of the New York Mets 5-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on May 6, 1992. Young pitched six innings, allowing five earned runs and six hits (including two home runs) in his first loss of the season. But it was OK. He won his first two starts of the season. The Mets were 16-12.

“Take away two pitches (gopher balls) and it’s a different game,” Young told the media after the loss. “Those were about the only pitches I didn’t get where I wanted.”

A couple bad pitches led to a few bad games, a disappointing season, a long slump, a full-feature horror flick. The record has grown like an extra appendage to Young. As the losses piled up, he held on to his confidence.

“I’m a good pitcher,” he said. “I believe in myself. The Mets believe in me, too.”

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Young entered the 1992 off-season with a sense of hope. But he had a four-month break – to think. Spring Training was a struggle. The media pressed him on the streak. After a relief appearance (2 IP, 4 R, 3 H) in a 7-3 loss against the Houston Astros, Young began to crack. Suddenly, the idea of breaking Cliff Curtis’ 23-game losing streak became a reality. There was enough negative momentum to not even Tony Robbins could save Young’s fragile state of mind.

As Young approached the record the stories turned downright laughable. No. 18 came on a walk-off hit to Mike Lansing of the Montreal Expos. Young, angered by his performance, attempted to kick a roll of toilet paper but missed, kicking a nearby porcelain toilet and nearly fracturing a toe.

Murphy’s Law seemed took over in June, adding fuel to the fire. Young appeared to be on the brink of snapping the streak in Chicago. He pitched six shutout innings against the Cubs; then Mike Draper and Mike Maddux surrendered eight runs in the final two innings. He got a no-decision.

No. 22 was eventful. At Three Rivers Stadium, Young sneezed and snorted his way through seven innings in a 5-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was later reported that prior to the game groundskeepers in Pittsburgh spread a drying substance on the mound to soak up rain. Young took the mound and suffered an allergic reaction to the substance. Apparently the old saying is true: When it rains … oh, nevermind.

Five days later Young tied the record thanks to four Mets errors that led to three unearned runs. He left after six innings and New York’s defense tightened up, causing former Mets pitcher Jeff Innis to comment: “Did you see the plays we made after he left?” he said. “When he goes out there, the whole team feels it. It’s intense.” Young left the Mets clubhouse that night wearing a tee-shirt that read: LIVE AND LEARN.

The tee portrayed a carefree, event hopeful, attitude on the outside, but inside, Young was terrified. “I’ve had four different managers in the three seasons I’ve been around,” he told the media. “Start? Bullpen? “Right now, I’m confused.”

By late June the Mets were buried in last place, 30 games under .500. They had lost four straight and Young was scheduled to start against the St. Louis Cardinals. The night before the game Young went to dinner with Gregg Jeffries, a former teammate. Let’s just get this over with. One way or another, he thought, break the record or break the streak. Less than 24 hours later, it was over. Young gave the 36,911 morbid Mets fans what they had come to see: a loss, and a piece of history. It was one for the record books. He owned the record: 24 consecutive losing decisions. Young was officially branded “a loser.”

The media presence was overwhelming. The Mets moved the post-game press conference to Dallas Green’s office because of the media overflow. As they circled the perimeter and doorway, one member of a camera crew poked a hole in the ceiling, causing plaster to reign down on the media. Young shook his head in disbelief saying, “Everything is over with now. I broke the record; I’m in the record books. Now that I have the record, I hope you all can leave me alone.”

Not so fast Young man. It would be another month (and three more losses) before it was over.

 

Finally, on July 28, 1993, Eddie Murray drove in the winning run at Shea Stadium, giving the Mets a 5-4 victory over the Florida Marlins, ending Anthony Young’s infamous 27-game losing streak. Dallas Green popped the cork on a bottle of champagne. A fan sent roses. The Mets, and Young, celebrated.

“It wasn’t a monkey,” Young told reporters. “It was a zoo … the zoo had been lifted off of my back and we had just won the World Series.”

Two decades later and Young still has the shrapnel stored in his attic in the same box he kept them in at his locker at Shea; letters, cards and notes of encouragement and a videotape from his 1993 appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. In two-and-one-half seasons with the Mets he recorded five wins and 35 losses. Young was shipped off to the Chicago Cubs just days before Opening Day 1994.

“It was initially disappointing because I wanted to have a great season in New York,” he said years later. “Sure enough, Chicago hosted the Mets at Wrigley Field for Opening Day and Karl Rhodes connected on three homers off [Dwight] Gooden.”

It wasn’t all that bad. During one stretch, Young pitched 23.2 straight scoreless innings and over the one year and two-month stretch, he recorded 15 saves. There were moments – but not many.

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.”

Scouts labeled the Yauco, Puerto Rico native 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,” 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 laying 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. 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 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.