Top 10 7s

Our Countdown of Countdowns continues this week with a recap of the top 10 Metliest players ever to wear No. 7. As you can see the pickings are especially thin before a marked improvement in quality – at least, Met-quality – once we get to the top 5. The encouraging if scary thing is that we’re seemingly nearing at a point at which it won’t ever get any better.

Don’t forget, this Wednesday the 25th  I’ll be at theBryant Library in Roslyn, 7:30 pm, to discuss books and baseball and uniforms and other stuff. Stop by if you can… and tell your friends!

10. John Christensen

7John Christensen wasn’t destined to last with the Mets. He was assigned a pitcher’s number – 35 – upon his promotion as a rookie outfielder in 1984 and assumed a player’s number only afterJoe Sambito arrived in 1985 and requested he wear 35.

Christensen possessed decent right-handed power and a pretty good eye at the plate but didn’t make contact enough – with the ball or the Mets’ starting lineup – and the team met his desire for a new start by including him in the 8-player deal for Bobby Ojeda following the ’85 season. The Red Sox would later include Christensen in their trade for Dave Henderson, assuring Christensen would play a small role in assembling both sides of the 1986 World Series combatants.

 

9. Chico Fernandez

The Mets acquired veteran infielder Chico Fernandez to back up rookie starting shortstop Al Moranin 1963 but neither mentor nor protégé had a year to remember. Born in Cuba, Fernandez came up with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956 and had since played with the Phillies and Tigers (where he clubbed 20 home runs in 1962) but by 1963 had suddenly lost it. The Tigers swapped him to Milwaukee when rosters were cut down and the Braves passed him along to the Mets for pitcherLarry Foss.

Fernandez was traded from the Mets’ minor league system early in the ’64 season for Charley Smith.

 

8. Amado Samuel and

7. Juan Samuel

There’s nothing out there I’ve seen that indicates the Mets’ only two Samuels — not counting Sammy Drake and Sammy Taylor — are related, but both were middle infielders hailing from San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic.

Amado Samuel, who played briefly for the Mets in 1964, is old enough to be the father of Juan Samuel, who played in for them in 1989, and in one sense, he is – Amado is noted as the having been the very first of the more than 50 players from San Pedro de Macoris to play in the major leagues. The town has since become famous for producing shortstops like Penn State produces linebackers, as well as stars like Sammy Sosa, Pedro Guerrero, George Bell and Juaquin Andujar.

When he broke in with the Phillies in 1984, Juan Samuel looked like he had a chance to be better than all of them. His combination of power and speed made him an exciting player to watch even though closer analysis revealed he made way too many outs to be an effective leadoff hitter and wasn’t much with the glove.

None of that deterred the Mets in June of 1989, when they sent their own flawed leadoff man, Lenny Dykstra, along with reliever Roger McDowell, to Philly for Samuel in a deal that was supposed to electrify the team. Instead, it was a trade they would regret almost immediately. Samuel was used to wearingNo. 8 and playing second base, but the Mets dressed him in 7 and played him in center field (all Samuel’s jewelry were adorned with the No. 8). He stole 31 bases for the Mets, but reached base and hit for power abysmally, and they unloaded him the first chance they got after the season.

Amado Samuel simply didn’t have the ability to stick with the Mets beyond part-time appearances in ’64.

 

6. Elio Chacon

No memory of Elio Chacon ever gets very far before the “Yo La Tengo” story is retold for the 10 millionth time. And nothing against that story, but telling it over and over seems to have obscured the untold story of why the Mets held Chacon in such poor regard.

Whatever Chacon did to get on the bad side of Casey Stengel it’s a pity, because, without overselling his modest credentials, Chacon was the kind of player the early Mets didn’t see nearly enough of. A speedy Venezuelan shortstop selected from Cincinnati in the expansion draft, Chacon was the first player to wear No. 7 for the Mets. Though he hit just .236 with little power, he drew 76 walks in just 449 plate appearances in ’62 – fifth in the National League that year – and the most walks by a Met shortstop until Bud Harrelson in 1970.

His defense was much derided – the Yo La Tengo story probably contributed to that perception – but the stats show he played every bit as well as the average shortstop in 1962. And despite staying in the Mets’ farm system for years, Chacon never appeared with the big club again, tagged by Stengel among those players who “failed here before” and not welcome back again.

 

5. Todd Pratt

To me the great shock of Todd Pratt’s signature Met moment wasn’t that he provided it but that Steve Finley failed to prevent it.

Sitting that afternoon in deepest, highest right field we were treated to the realization that Finley failed to come down with that ball an instant before the rest of the stadium did, and to be shouting at the top of your lungs with glee only to be joined by another 50,000 voices was one of the most intense sensory experiences of my lifetime.

Most days, Finley makes that catch. Seemed like his timing was right, but his alignment was off a degrees and that was that. Pratt we knew, had the power to pop one out now and again, serving five seasons (1997-2001) as a capable backup for superstarter Mike Piazza. I always got a “regular guy” vibe from him. With his doughy build and goofy grin, he could be your drinkin’ buddy were he not playing pro baseball.

4. Kevin Mitchell

If you understood nothing else about Kevin Mitchell, and maybe you didn’t, you knew the guy could hit. He hit as a rookie, he hit as a fat guy, he hit as a shortstop, he hit as a pinch hitter. He hit a liner to shallow center with two out and a man on in the 10th inning then came around to score the tying run in the blessed Game Six. The guy could hit.

That Mitchell became an outstanding bench player for the Mets speaks both to his athleticism – he was passable everywhere if not good anywhere – and to Davey Johnson’s creative genius. Though primarily an outfielder, Mitchell played every position but pitcher, catcher and second base for at least part of the 1986 season. Why? Because he could hit: .277/.344/.466 in 364 plate appearances as a rookie.

 

3. Hubie Brooks

Hubie Brooks was doomed to suffer. He helped the Mets advance from patsies to respectability in the early 80s only to be sacrificed in the Gary Carter trade. And the dynasty he helped establish was in free-fall by the time Brooks returned as an outfielder in 1991 – more or less, as a replacement for departed former teammate Darryl Strawberry.

He was fun to watch and easy to root for, especially in the first go-round. He smacked line drives around the park, played a decent if not value-added third base (and in ’84, shortstop, see Davey Johnson/Kevin Mitchell above) and earned a reputation as a dangerous clutch hitter for a team that was only beginning to establish an offense. I don’t think he particularly enjoyed returning in 1991 after being re-acquired from the Dodgers for Bobby Ojeda, and don’t much blame him.

 

2. Jose Reyes

It’s only a matter of time before Jose Reyes tops all kinds of lists like these but given that he’s still a young man, and that so much is attainable but still before him, I hope the ascent up Mount Kranepool remains a motivating force.

What else can you say about Reyes? Other than, he’s that rare product of the Met farm system who’s been every bit as good as advertised, and probably better, and that’s considering the hype and how he used to worry me. Reyes fought injuries and a botched conversion to second base in 2004, and struggled to reach base often enough to be effective in 2005 before a breakout 2006 (30 doubles, 17 triples, 19 home runs, a .300 batting average and a .354 on-base percentage) and solid play since.

1. Ed Kranepool

When Ed Kranepool hung up his No. 7 jersey for the last time, the event drew little notice (to be fair, a lot of things that happened in Flushing in 1979 were like that). There was no tearful retirement press conference, just a quiet refusal by the Mets to offer a 1980 contract — sentiment subsequently echoed by the 25 other clubs declining to select Kranepool in the free agent draft that fall. “There was talk of giving him a day at Shea Stadium last season,” a Met publicist told the New York Times the following spring, “but nothing ever came of it.”

He was only 34 years old.

Kranepool at the time held virtually every meaningful offensive record in the history in the franchise, including games, hits, doubles, RBI, and home runs; and was a local boy, the team’s first high-profile amateur signee, the only player to spend every year of the franchise as an active player, and the senior player on the team for 13 years running.

Smart-aleck Met fans of the early 1960s once flashed a placard asking whether  Kranepool was over the hill. Who knew? His career as an everyday player might have peaked as a 20-year-old in1965, when he played a career-high 153 games, and was named to the All-Star team for the first and only time. Kranepool had fair power, but was slow afoot, nobody’s idea of defensive wizard, and reportedly, appeared disinterested and surly from time to time.

The Mets for their part seemed to be forever looking to replace him. He’d be displaced as the Met first baseman in 1969, waived and sent to the minor leagues in 1970, only to rebound with his best overall season in 1971 (143-58-.280/.340/.447 in 421 at-bats). From there he became a part-time outfielder/first baseman and effective pinch hitter for the balance of his career, a role for which he finally won the admiration of fans. Kranepool hit .396 as a pinch hitter between1974 and 1978, including .486 in 1974.

Of all the team-leading career statistics Kranepool’s longevity built for him, his safest record is the longevity itself. No Met spent more time occupying the same jersey number than Kranepool, and it’s not even close. Even discounting the 208 games Kranepool played at the beginning of his Mets’ career wearing No. 21 — no, he wasn’t born wearing 7 — his 1,645 games in No. 7 provides a cushion of 323 games over Bud Harrelson’s lengthy tenure in No. 3. That’s nearly two full seasons.

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