Today my friend David passed along this photo on social media. It’s Joe Sambito pitching for the Mets, and he’s wearing No. 38.
This does not jibe with our records — and some others — listing Sambito having worn No. 35 for the entirety of his brief Mets career, which lasted a little more than six weeks in 1985.
Solving this mystery doesn’t appear to be too difficult, but I’m calling on the MBTN readership to pull out the magnifying glasses and take a shot with me, and confirm it best we can.
Here’s what we know about Joe, who by the way, turned 66 years old the other day. He was a Brooklyn-born and Long Island-raised lefty fireballer who established himself as one of the National League’s strongest relief pitchers with the Houston teams of the late 1970s and early 80s before elbow and shoulder problems stalled his career in 1982. He wore 35 for the Astros. By the time 1985 came around Sambito was still struggling to get his stuff back. When the Astros asked the veteran to accept a minor league assignment he refused, becoming a free agent and fielding offers from several clubs before accepting a major-league minimum deal from the Mets.
The picture shows Sambito pitching in a day game at Shea. That helps narrow things considerably, as Sambito appeared in just two of those. The guess here is that this was the first of those games, and also, Sambito’s Mets debut, on April 28 against the Pirates.
That was a memorable day. Not for Joe Sambito, who quietly pitched a scoreless seventh inning in a 4-4 game — but because the game was only getting started then. It lasted 18 innings before Mookie Wilson scored on an error and the Mets walked off with a 5-4 victory. In the in between, 41-year-old Rusty Staub, who entered as a pinch hitter in the 12th inning, spent the next five innings in the outfield, switching corner outfield positions with Clint Hurdle depending on the handedness of the batter in a concession to Le Grand Orange’s failing knees. Despite that, Rusty made a game-saving running catch in the top of the 18th to retire Pirate pinch-hitter Rick Rhoden who hit an opposite-field fly (if you don’t remember Rhoden, he was one of the best hitting pitchers of his era). Reliable Rusty also had a double that could have won the game in the 12th, but the inning died on a Ray Knight double-play and a bases-loaded popout by Gary Carter. I remember that game well, as it helped to cement my image of Davey Johnson as a master strategist.
The starting right fielder in that game was John Christensen, who was double-switched out in the 12th when Staub entered. And until that day, Christensen was wearing 35. Our records show Christensen wore No. 7 from that point on, so likely lost in the excitement of that thriller was news that Christensen set aside 35 for Sambito.
Sambito struggled mightily in 35, by the way, was sent to Tidewater in June, and released by the Tides that August. The Mets would see him next in Game 3 of the 1986 World Series, pitching ineffective relief for Boston.
So that’s our working theory, thanks to this picture: Sambito wearing 38 for 1 game; 35 for his other seven Mets appearances. Anyone have further observations or concluding proof? Let us know. And happy birthday, Joe!