The Untold Story of John Stearns vs. Chief Noc-A-Homa

No discussion of John Stearns ever gets too far without mentioning he’s the Mets catcher who took out Chief Noc-A-Homa with an open-field tackle. He was a four-time Mets All-Star and famously to me at least set a stolen-base-by-catchers mark in 1978 that got him hios own record-breakers card but his propensity to run down mascots–and rogue fans–are one of those things that will be mentioned in his obituary.

At the same time, while all Mets fans seem to know of these encounters with the Braves’ mascot, there’s a remarkable lack of specificity as to when this event actually happened. After all, tackles aren’t an official stat in the same way the uniform number is not really a stat: We associate with them, we tend to remember them, but only us geeks bother to commit it to the record. This guy mentions the very same phenomenon when it comes to Stearns’ fan encounters: I happened across that today while looking up the Noc-A-Homa situation.

A lot of online accounts say the Noc-A-Homa-Stearns brewhaha took place in 1977. Longtime Mets PR maven Jay Horwitz said it happened in 1984–which is highly unlikely given the catcher’s fragile physical condition then. I couldn’t substantiate either of those dates but I did find something interesting: There wasn’t one encounter but two:

The first took place in 1975, this poorly written and laid out Daily News piece shows (the lines are reversed at one point, a cut-and-paste back when they actually cut-and-pasted newspapers.

 

Then in 1981, Stearns gets his man a second time:

 

 

 

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Meet the Mets, Beat COVID-19

You may have seen Bobby Valentine do a spirited performance of “Meet the Mets recently. I’m not sure but that may have inspired this guy who played the woodwinds and brass in a zoom show.

Next thing I know my musician friend Kenny “tags” me in a #MeetTheMetsChallenge only this one has a COVID-19 charity associated. So while we suffer through a baseballess baseball season and with the world needing a lot more support for treatment and a cure than it’s getting, I got some help from my wife and son and performed the Subterranean Homesick Blues inspired version below and made a donation of Relief International, which isn’t just Satoru Komiyama’s job description but a charity. Consider yourself challenged!

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“Whomp, Whomp, Whomp”

Today is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, and also, the anniversary of Tom Seaver’s dominant outing at Shea Stadium where he whiffed 19 batters including the final 10 Padres in a row. Tom Terrific had the benefit of a sizzling fastball but also, effects of a bright sunny afternoon which enveloped the San Diego hitters in shadow by the late innings. The Padres managed just 2 hits and 2 walks off Seaver that day. Al Ferrera hit a second-inning solo home run to left field; and Dave Campbell bounced a single off Joe Foy’s glove at third base for a single in the fourth inning. The Mets won 2-1.

Though some 30 years before “pitch counts” became a thing, an account in the Daily News indicated Seaver threw 136 pitches that day–91 for strikes, and 81 fastballs. It notes that two change-ups were thrown for strikes. The 19 whiffs broke a club record of 15 strikeouts that had been set just four days before by Nolan Ryan, triggering a round of ribbing by teammates that the droll Texan took in stride. “That’s what they’re there for,” he said. Catcher Jerry Grote also set a record that day with 20 putouts.

Seaver himself hadn’t realized the roll he was on until the scoreboard informed of the team record–the News account indicated neither had manager Gil Hodges. Tom confessed afterward the game was “exciting, but not quite as exciting” as the near no-hitter he’d pitched vs. the Cubs a year before.

Ed Kranepool, who played first base that afternoon, had the best take. “He was like a machine out there: Whomp, whomp, whomp.”

WFAN will be rebroadcasting the game this evening beginning at 6:30. Happy Earth Day.

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The Bat Boy

Many moons ago, MBTN supporter Ed A. mailed me a copy of this book and for whatever reason I dug it out and read for the first time.

The book, published in 1967, is a first-person account, aimed at teen readers, describing what it was like to be a Shea Stadium bat boy (and ball boy) mainly in 1965 and ’66. It’s quirky and personal, and there are a ton of photographs. We learn not only Dom’s close-up observations about baseball, but about his Beatles records, his prom date, his misadventures camping, and some enlightening thoughts on draft-card burners (Dom’s 1966 season is interrupted as he reports to the US Air Force). There’s no real uni-number content (ball boys back then literally wore no numbers) but I learned the following things:

1.There was a hierarchy to the “boy” employees: back then at least, you started as a ball boy, graduated to visiting bat boy, then became home bat boy.

2. The ball boy along the third-base line is stationed in the visiting clubhouse; and the first-base ball boy in the home clubhouse. This makes sense but I never gave it any thought before.
3. Pay was about $5 a game
4. The Mets would take the bat boys on 1 road trip a year. Amazin’.
5. Ron Hunt never wanted to receive a bat by hand; he preferred to pick it up off the ground himself.
6. Jerry Grote ate black licorice rather than chaw, but wouldn’t share the game stash he kept in the dugout.
7. Casey Stengel was aloof and distant, had a separate dressing room for himself and his coaches, and the players didn’t like him (I knew some of that). Wes Westrum moved the staff in with the guys and was more personable.
8. Rob Gardner, who was a pitcher, preferred his bat stay cool when he hit, so he had his stored behind the water cooler instead of in the bat rack.
9. Dennis Ribant was called “Weasel” by teammates because he couldn’t sit still. Ron Hunt was known as “Pig.”
10. The author comes off as a strong believer in his co-workers but even his wild optimism has him imagining the Mets as a “first division” unit “in five years.”
All good stuff, right? It’s a little dated and by this I mean, it’s a lot dated, but there’s so little pretension that it serves as a nice little artifact of the perspective of a teen on the verge of cultural and baseball revolution.
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Blas From the Past

It’d been bothering me for a few days now that after assembling the below list of Met 34s, I’d come across yet another instance where our humble record here and the posted info as Baseball-reference came into conflict.

This time? It’s Blas Minor, identified as having worn No. 55 for the Mets in 1995.

I’m going dispense with the mystery right here and now and say it: This never happened.

Minor was wearing 34 for the Mets when 1995 camp broke, he wore it for three innings on the mound in Denver for opening day, and coach Frank Howard occupied No. 55 not only for all of that year but for the entirety of Minor’s career as a Met.

The Record newspaper season preview, April 23, 1995. Opening day was April 26.

Well why then? As we’ve noted in the past bbr seems to have imported their uni-data from Jack Looney’s book NOW BATTING NUMBER. That work literally has about 12 pounds of impressive research but it’s not nearly as precise as it could be. Multiple number issues in a season aren’t presented in sequence, for example. In Minor’s case, the 55 reference in the book is noted as (INJ), or injured. This could refer to the period that season that he spent on the disabled list or perhaps in a minor league rehab start, but there’s no record of that either. He never wore 55 in a Mets game.

It’s a Minor error, for sure.

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Meet the Mets’ All-Time Top 10 34s

Elbow surgery will cost Noah Syndergaard whatever becomes of this season and quite possibly much of the next, but if he never throws another pitch for the Mets, you can probably already make a rock-solid argument for Thor as the greatest Met ever to wear No. 34.

The big righty needs just four victories to claim the most wins by a Met 34: That title still belongs to Mike Pelfrey and his 50-54 career won-loss record in New York. Fans can dismiss Pelfrey as underperforming their expectations, but when he departed in 2012–ominously enough as a result of early-season Tommy John surgery–Pelfrey had long since vanquished the career marks of most all of his predecessors in the 34 jersey. That’s the way this number has pretty much gone: Set-up men, lightly regarded reserve hitters and as you’ll see below, a few disappointing starters.

Syndergaard in the meantime has racked up a career 47-30 record over five seasons (a team-best .610 winning percentage for guys with more than 10 decisions), and a massive lead in strikeouts with 775 in 716 innings over Pelf’s paltry 506 K’s in 869.1 innings. Both Pelfrey and Syndergaard cut imposing figures on the mound and came armed with good fastballs, but their careers look vastly different.

Best of luck to Syndergaard, who for some reason is getting elective surgery in New York this week. To help him recover, here’s my list of the Top 10 All-Time Met 34s as ranked by my proprietary mix of science and Met-ness:

  1. Syndergaard (2015-present). For what it’s worth, Thor is also 2nd all-time among home runs by guys who wore 34 (6).
  2. Bob Apodaca (1973-1977): An undersized, undrafted righty, Apodaca rode a mean sinkerball and his wits to set-up success for some awful Met clubs. 26 saves and a 2.84 ERA, a post-career stint as a wise Mets’ pitching coach and one of the greatest quotes of all time: After a white-knuckle, opening-day save in his first-ever appearance, Apodaca remarked to the New York Times that shaking Jerry Grote’s hand afterward was the greatest feeling he ever had “except maybe sex.”
  3. Mike Pelfrey (2006-2012) A top draft pick who ultimately shared more in common with the guys at 8 and 9 on this list than the ones above him. I like to re-imagine Pelfrey’s career were he a short reliever. Somehow managed to give up a home run to the first batter ever to appear in an official game at CitiField.
  4. Chico Walker (1992-93) A bargain for the “Worst Team Money Could Buy” Mets, Walker was a versatile role player who mostly on the strength of his 1992 year, grabbed all-time club records for games, at-bats, runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, and RBI by guys who wore 34 that still stand today.
  5. Danny Frisella (1968-1972) Righhanded set-up reliever with a terrific forkball had an absolutely dominating season out of the pen in 1971 (8-5, 12 saves, 1.99) and was fairly reliable at other times. Tragically died in dune-buggy accident in 1977 while his career was still going.
  6. Cal Koonce (1967-1970) Yet another heavily-used right-handed set-up reliever, Koonce gets bonus points for his presence if not performance for the 1969 world champs. Was much better in ’68.
  7. Junior Ortiz (1983-84) Have you noticed that reserve catchers who can’t actually hit are invariably described as having a rep for handling pitchers? That’s our Junior, who stopped in on his way to a 13-year career. Wore No. 0 with the Pirates and Twins. Distinctive beard.
  8. Kris Benson (2004-05) Acquired in controversy, discarded in disgrace, and hardly worth all the fuss he caused in between, Benson was an average starting pitcher who fooled everyone into thinking he was a superstar.
  9. Pedro Astacio (2002-03) One of those veteran acquirees who starts off really strong before reminding everyone why he’s a journeyman. Astacio was actually one of the better pitchers in the league in 2002 through August, when he completely lost it.
  10. Blas Minor (1995-96) Occasionally effective right handed setup man, somewhat carelessly traded to Seattle for a minor leaguer after a rough start in ’96.
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The Matlack Mets Murder Mystery of 1970

Jon Matlack, the nasty lefty whose stuff was way more effective than his record ever reflected, is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

Matlack, from SABR: https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/c0ddd500

The Mets announced earlier this year that Matlack was among three deserving new enrollees in the club’s oft-neglected Hall of Fame: Edgardo Alfonzo and Ron Darling are the other two.

The starting rotation onto which Matlack earned his way in 1972 wasn’t an easy one to crack. The 17-year-old first-round draft pick out of West Chester, Pa. in 1967 (4th in the country that year) had the mixed blessing of coming around at a time when slightly older contemporaries like Seaver, Koosman, Gentry and Ryan were just establishing themselves as big-league youngsters with the Mets and so he spent nearly three full seasons at AAA waiting his turn.

Interestingly Matlack got a look with the September callups of 1970, but never appeared in a game. What number did he wear then? Well, that depends on where you looked–and when.

The Daily News announced his arrival on September 3 that year and indicated that Matlack had been assigned No. 27.

As often accompanies these mysteries the Mets were on the road at the time in St. Louis and en route to Chicago, where sure enough Matlack appeared on a scorecard roster from that series in Wrigley– only this time listed as No. 50:

Back in New York, a scorecard accompanying the Sept. 10 game at Shea lists Matlack wearing neither 27 nor 50, but 35. We’ve has this record for some time and consider it the unoffical official record: Matlack was in uniform and active but simply didn’t appear.

Interestingly if you read the Daily News clip above–one hell of a notes column with Cool Papa Bell making an appearance–you’ll also get the whisper that GM Bob Scheffing was in the process of shopping for an unnamed veteran pitcher who needed to clear waivers. This is because the defending world champs were in a dogfight for a division crown at the time with Pittsburgh and Chicago. The Mets reportedly were seeking Yankees’ veteran lefty Steve Hamilton but they were blocked when the White Sox made a deal for him. Instead they scooped up Dean Chance from Cleveland.

This is notable for our tale because Chance was assigned No. 27. He also played a crucial role in the Mets’ ultimate shortcoming in that pennant race. Chance’s first Mets’ appearance came in the 10th inning of game 2 of a doubleheader with division-leading Pittsburgh on Sept. 20. The Mets won Game 1, but Dean blew his Chance, so to speak. Called on to relieve Tug McGraw with a runner on second, one out and 1 run in giving the Pirates a 6-5 lead, Chance intentionally walked Dave Cash, gave up a 2-run triple to light-hitting Gene Alley, then a squeeze bunt from Dave Guisti. The 4-run rally was more than enough and the Mets never got closer in the race.

Matlack, presumably wearing No. 35, watched it all from the bullpen and wouldn’t participate in meaningful Mets baseball until a star turn in the 1973 playoffs. In spring training of 1971, Matlack was again wearing No. 35:

But by the time he got a call to the Mets in July, 35 was on the back of teammate Charlie Williams and so Matlack was issued No. 32, with which he made his big-league debut and would wear to a Rookie-of-the-Year performance in 1972, the aforementioned dominance in the 1973 postseason, and All-Star appearances in 1974, 1975 and 1976, before the diminishing Mets traded him to Texas following a disappointing performance in 1977. Matlack spent six seasons in Texas including an excellent 1978 (15-13, 2.27, 270 innings and 18 complete games), and later went on to star in the Senior League in 1990, and coach for several organizations.

Forty-three years later, Matlack is coming back to where he belongs.

 

 

 

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The Name of the Game

As disappointed as we all are to learn the start of the baseball season has been delayed as part of the economic wreckage of incompetent U.S. preparedness for the coronavirus, perhaps there’s a silver lining in not immediately experiencing how dumb it’s going to be when new rules requiring relief pitchers throw to at least three batters takes effect. And the March 26 opening date seemed obscenely early anyway. I don’t often bother to show up in Flushing until May, given that place is guaranteed to be 20 degrees colder and twice as damp as anywhere else in the five boroughs, but let’s hope they get it going by then.

How are we going to pass the time though? I’d been suffering through the Islanders season and now that’s done too. So we’re rewatching The Wire on the stream, and reading some books.

Around here we care primarily about the number on the back of the jersey but much of what needs to be said about the letters above them is addressed with wit, insight and just the right mix of respect and humor in HALL OF NAME, a new book coming out any day now from D.B. Firstman.

I’ve known D.B. primarily through SABR and the Twitterverse for some time now, and they were gracious to offer an early copy, which I’d been eating piecemeal for a few weeks.

That’s in fact one of the cool things about this book: You can open it to any of its 312 pages and find something fun and interesting. The book includes short biographies, trivial facts, anagrams and vague sound-alikes for 100 of baseball’s “most magnificent monikers” from Boof Bonzer to Coco Crisp to Joe Zdeb.

Even more precisely than numbers, D.B. notes, names lend a uniqueness to the game’s characters that’s part of the fun; but what I enjoyed the most was the revelation of a little bit more than just the stats accompanying those names that would make you briefly pause and admire while thumbing through the Baseball Encyclopedia (Rivington Bisland, Jennings Poindexter, Orval Overall); uncommon commons revealed in a pack of Topps cards (Mark Lemongello, Greg Legg, Biff Pocoroba); or references that never fail to elicit a giggle (Johnny Dickshot, Rusty Kuntz, and Pete LaCock, the latter all lovingly written up in a section helpfully called DIRTY NAMES DONE DIRT CHEAP).

There’s a little Met content too, with J.J. Putz, Lastings Milledge, Angel Pagan, Razor Shines, Ambiorix Burgos and Xavier Nady among those featured.

You’re stuck at home with no baseball? Go out and get a copy or have your bookstore deliver one, like I said it’ll be out any day now. And in honor of the book’s publishing, here’s my list of the Mets All-Time Name Team. They may not win much, but you’ll never forget them:

1B: Marv Throneberry

2B: Chin-lung Hu

3B: Pumpsie Green

SS: Adeiny Hechavaria

OF: Darryl Strawberry, Don Hahn, Prentice Redman

C: Greg Goosen, Taylor Teagarden

P: Wally Whitehurst, Ken MacKenzie, Vinegar Bend Mizell, Patrick Strange, Bartolome Fortunato, Roadblock Jones, Al Schmelz

How are you going to make it through? Who makes your all-name club?

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Born in the 50s

The following essay was submitted by longtime reader Edward Hoyt. If you’d like to contribute your own takes on Met uni matters, and especially if it’s up to the level of excellence displayed here, feel free to pitch me at mbtn01 (at) yahoo dot-com.

There’s always an interesting lede when a player returns as a coach to a team he made a mark with as a player. If he was a particularly good player, his homecoming is celebrated with some level of excitement. If he had previously passed through without distinction, it can still be a feel-good story with a potential for redemption.

But after that first day’s story, there’s frequently a minor tragedy — visible on a daily basis — when that player gets his uniform, and it underscores that that whatever value a man might represent as a coach, he is still just a coach. The players get the low numbers and coaches get a number in the fifties … or worse. Leftover numbers.

With most coaches, we shrug. This is their lot in life. But with the coach who had previously played for the team, what heart isn’t touched by the cruel marginalization of seeing Mookie Wilson’s 1 become 51, of seeing Bud Harrelson’s 3 displaced by 53, and Howard Johnson’s familiar 20 being twisted and distorted into a 52 (wtf?)? These fleet youthful birds of yesteryear return to us with the anonymous digits of backup linebackers and special teams long snappers — easy-to-release taxi-squad regulars.

So it is with a ray of spring sunshine that we today see a youthful Jeremy Hefner return as pitching coach (nearly an effing half century younger than his predecessor) in the same 53 he brandished as a player. He had the small grace to come to the team under circumstances no more dramatic than the hiring of a coach (a minor league contract in January 2014), got a number that reflected that, and briefly flourished in it. But when his status upgraded itself to rotation mainstay for about a full season split between 2012 and 2013, his number stayed the same. So his return as a coach in such high digits is not a dim a signal that he can tack on a few more paychecks by cashing in on a large legacy, but that he’s here to add some more substance to a small one — the same guy in the same uniform with the same number on a somewhat different road.

When last heard from in a Mets spring training camp back in 2014, Hef was a bit player in one of those stupid Matt Harvey dustups that always seemed perfectly timed for a day when there was no other news. The team was settling into their spring digs and Harv decided to complain that rehabbing players were not dressing next to the active players training and preparing for games. Now, there are certainly sound arguments for and against keeping everybody integrated even if they’re on a different springtime agenda, but rather than make an internal appeal, Harv decided to take his case to the media. And to make it clear this snit wasn’t about him, he decided to drag poor Hefner into the argument. The Mets are marginalizing me and Hef, the two Tommy John rehabilitation cases, Harvey complained.

Hefner, suitably, seemed embarrassed to be dragged into the story, presumably happy to still be receiving a big league salary that was now existentially threatened — his status even more tenuous than the number 53 implied. And when that status exploded alongside a second UCL tear before his rehab was done, ending his career, the story was about whether the fall of Harvey’s rehab partner would serve as an object lesson for him.

It was always about Harvey.

But now, released from the Angels and finding no suitors this offseason, it is The Dark Knight facing the doorway of oblivion, non-roster infielder Max Moroff getting little attention in Harvey’s old 33, and Jeremy Hefner returning to his 53, ready to build on a legacy that is now all his own. While other players returning as coaches have their light dimmed by a number assignment in the 50s, Hef is shining all the brighter.

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More Spring Data

Last week we published the Mets all-time record in Spring games. This week, our special guest data scientist has provided a detailed breakdown of that record including some stuff that the team’s “official” record, as published in its annual media guide, has overlooked.

Kind of interesting, but the Mets have never played the Cactus-Leaguing spring clubs of the Brewers, Rockies, Diamondbacks or Padres. Here’s the data (click to embiggen):

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