Thanks to everyone who came out to Amazin’ Tuesday this week at Two Boots — it was the best of all the Mets-related events they’ve hosted this year. Those who came got a live version of the following long-awaited contribution to the 10th Anniversary Spectacular: The Top 10 No. 6’s in Mets history.
A reserve first baseman by the name of Jim Marshall was the first player to wear Number six in Mets history. The 1962 season was only a few weeks old when they traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Vinegar Bend Mizell, a veteran pitcher who unbeknownst to the Mets had won the last game of his major league career a few weeks earlier – against the Mets.
On the same day they traded Marshall, the Mets flipped Don Zimmer to the Cincinnati Reds for Cliff Cook, a beefy country slugger whose resume included a Most Valuable Player award from the American Association the year before. Cook arrived, was given the No. 6 jersey, and installed as the regular third baseman until bad hands cost him his starting job and a bad back ended his year. By July, he’d surrendered the No. 6 jersey to Rick Herrscher, a middling utility infielder whose entire major league career would began and end as a 1962 Met.
One year into their history and the Mets had issued Number 6 three different times to three different players. And until this day, it’s their most frequently issued uniform number ever.
Number 6 would be issued to multiple players again in 1964; 1966; 1967; 1990; 1997; 1998;2004; 2008 and 2009. In 1962 and 1990 three men wore the No. 6 jersey. In 2004, and again in 2008, a record-tying four different guys wore the jersey.
Altogether 38 men have worn No. 6, well ahead of the next most popular number in Met history — 29, with 33 issues. The roster includes two Ricks, a Ricky and a Rich; two Carloses; Two Marshalls; two Jims; and three Mikes. There’s Wally, Melvin and Ruben. There’s Johnson and Nixon.
Narrowing this group down to a top 10 is especially difficult for the very reason so many candidates exist: Popular numbers are the realm of unpopular players. Wedged between Wright and Reyes; between Olerud and Kranepool, six is the official address of the Met scrub.
Now on with the countdown.
10 (tie): Jeff Keppinger and Ruben Gotay. I’m including these two together not only because they were traded for one another, but because the two of them help illuminate how lame the second base situation for the Mets has been since they told Edgardo Alfonzo to beat it back in 2002.
No matter whether they spent big for guys like Kaz Matsui and Luis Castillo, the Mets in this era always wind up giving a ton of innings to easy-come, easy-goers like Keppinger and Gotay. These two however could actually hit: by batting average in fact Gotay ranks second and Keppinger third among all guys ever to wear No.6 for the Mets.
9: The man who ranked first for all time highest batting average as a Met No. 6, Bob Johnson. The Mets have had two Bob Johnsons – I’m referring to the infielder in 1967, not the pitcher of 1969. This guy, Bob W. Johnson, was scooped up on waivers from the Orioles in May of ’67 and proceeded to hit .348 over 246 plate appearances that season while filling in at all four infield positions.
Bing Devine, the general manager who acquired Johnson, was shrewd enough to know he couldn’t count on a repeat performance in 1968 and so did a most un-Metly thing trading him while his stock was high, that October, to the Reds for Art Shamsky.
Number 8 is Mike Marshall, not the pitcher of 1974, the outfielder/first baseman of 1990. There was almost nothing redeeming to the Mets career of Mike Marshall, other than being notable for the guy we got for Juan Samuel in a trade, which was good, and the guy who replaced Keith Hernandez at first base, which was, obviously, very bad. Marshall played so poorly he was benched, had it out with manager Bud Harrelson, then after getting off the disabled list with gastrointestinal inflammation, was shipped off to Boston for a few warm minor league bodies. It troubles me to admit he reminds me in some ways of Jeff Francoeur: A tall, right-handed white guy with a dangerous but unreliable bat.
Darryl Boston, who began his Mets career wearing No. 7 but switched to wearing No. 6 whenHubie Brooks was reacquired in 1991, comes in at number 7.There is nothing particularly notable about Boston, other than that whole rape allegation thing, but he was competent outfielder and that alone makes him notable among Mets.
At number 6, we have a throwback player, Joe Orsulak, who looked like he was thrown back to the 19th century. Manning a corner outfield slot for three years on a semi-regular basis, Orsulak compiled 17 home runs and 114 RBI wearing no. 6 – the second-most in both categories among Met No. 6s, believe it or not – but was best-known as a Jersey guy with a reckless style and maximum effort. If Al Leiter was the Mets’ Bruce Springsteen, than Orsulak was its Southside Johnny.
The previously mentioned, first No. 6 ever, Jim Marshall, comes in at No. 5. This guy had only 35 plate appearances by the time the Mets traded him, but whacked three home runs and a double in that period. He was slugging 656 when they traded him, no Met No. 6 has ever come close. Marshall by the way hit just 220 for the Pirates and slugged only 350, the rest of the ’62 season, his last as a big-league player. The Mets would encounter him next as the manager of the Chicago Cubs in 1974, 75 and 76.
At number 4, a Venezuelan soccer player who arrived with the Mets by way of Houston and Taiwan: Melvin Mora. In his 1999 rookie year he had a hand in more critical plays than might ever have been expected of a defensive replacement hitting .161: He scored the run that forced a one-game playoff with Cincinnati. His throw from left field to nail Jay Bell at home plate in the eighth inning of the decisive Game 4 of the Division Series against Arizona proved one of the most pivotal defensive plays in Met history.
The Mets however never seemed to know what to do with Mora, whose ability to play so many positions undermined his efforts to establish himself at one and forever tempted the Mets to put him where he’d be better off not venturing. When Rey Ordonez was injured in 2000, the Mets called on Mora to fill the hole at shortstop, only to lose their confidence in him when he made a crucial error to cost them a game, and send them scrambling to trade him for surer hands. Mora of course went to Baltimore for Mike Bordick, who never solved the Mets shortstop void. Mora in the meantime is still playing for the Orioles, still wearing No. 6, and has averaged 19 home runs and 80 RBI a year for 9 straight years.
Our No. 3 all-time Metliest No. 6 arrived just as suddenly as Mora, and like Mora, would play an important role in a Met playoff drive. But no amount of abrupt heroics will ever redeem Timo Perez for loafing around the bases in Game 1 of the 2000 World Series, getting needlessly thrown at home plate in a play that does not get nearly enough credit in the annals of all-time baseball fuckups. There’s not a fan of either team who doesn’t believe to this day that the momentum in that series was established on that very play. I’m still angry about it.
Then there was Al Weis, who gave the Mets four seasons of suboptimal regular-season play, and a single resplendent World Series. Weis, who came over from the White Sox in the Tommie Agee trade, was a skinny reserve middle infielder who rarely showed any power, or much else. His OPS + in 1969 was 53, meaning, he was 47% below comparable player ranks. And that was his best regular season.
He nevertheless hit the game-tying home run in the seventh inning of the Mets’ decisive Game 5 of the 1969 World Series, and was 5-for-11 with a homer, three RBI and four walks in the series – that’s 455 .563 .727 1.290 in slash numbers. After the series Weis was presented with the Babe Ruth Award, a World Series MVP given each winter by the New York baseball writers chapter that is separate from the traditional Series MVP presented after the final game; Donn Clendennon took the better-known Series MVP prize in ’69.
That leads us to the all-time Number 1, No. 6, filthy little second baseman Wally Backman, who, were it not for exceptional grit and a champion in manager Davey Johnson, might well have suffered the same fleeting fate of the 37 other men who have worn the No. 6 jersey.
After hitting .548 as a 17-year-old high school shortstop in Beaverton, Oregon, the Mets selected Backman in the first round of the 1977 amateur draft (Mookie Wilson went in the second round). Listed at 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, Backman relied on hustle, a good batting eye and nominal switch-hitting skills — he consistently struggled from the right side — to reach the majors by 1980. But physical calamities and his own fiery temper kept him from staying there.
He debuted in September of 1980 (wearing No. 28), hitting .323 as a replacement for the injured Doug Flynn at second base, but he railed at being stuck behind veteran Frank Taveras at shortstop in 1981, and briefly staged a retirement when sent to the minors that season. In 1982, Backman split time with Bob Bailor at second base but was lost for the season after breaking his collarbone in a bicycle accident — at least that’s what the papers said. In 1983, frustrated at backing up the smoother-fielding yet weaker hitting Brian Giles, Backman was yo-yo’ed between New York and the Tidewater farm club three times in the season’s first two months and publicly campaigned for a trade.
Yet that demotion, in may of 1983, turned out to be the break his career needed, pairing him up at Tidewater with Davey Johnson, a believer in offense who would become the Met manager in 1984. “The Mets sent down Backman and Ron Gardenhire and kept Brian Giles and Jose Oquendo,” Johnson said, “and I thought they improved my ballclub and hurt theirs.”
With Johnson installed at Shea Stadium in ’84, Backman finally got a chance to play every day and rewarded his manager’s faith with the best stretch of his career during the Mets best era. Paired with Lenny Dykstra atop the Met lineup, the two diminutive speedsters terrorized opposing pitchers while setting up the big guns that followed. Though often platooned – Backman was a .164 hitter as a Met from the right side as opposed to .306 from the left – he always seemed to find his way into a key spot in a tight game. Traded to Minnesota following the 1989 season, Backman left behind a .283 career batting average and a .353 on-base percentage over nine years with the Mets.