Continuing MBTN’s 10th Anniversary Spectacular, following are the Top 10 9s in Met history:
10. (Tie) Mark Bradley and Craig Brazell
The honor of being the 10th most Metly No. 9s is shared by two obscure Mets who I saw hit home runs at Shea that I will never forget.
The first time I ever sat in the front row at Shea was an August night in 1983. The seats were a ways down the right-field line but were available that night for walk-up.
Though we’d gone hoping to see rookie Darryl Strawberry, Mark Bradley started in right field instead, in deference to the opposing starter, the Dodgers’ Fernando Valenzuela. Sitting behind us on this night is an Irish guy, who we realize, has never before seen a baseball game. We spent the early innings helping him understand what he was seeing – this is a single, double and triple and home run, etc. At one point the guy asks, “Can a guy hit a home run without the ball going over the fence?” and we said, yeah, but that never happens.
Sure enough Bradley in his next turn bloops one down the right field line and LA right fielder Mike Marshall (yeah, him) makes a comically poor decision to try and catch it, with the ball and a diving Marshall crashing to the ground practically right in front of us. The ball rolls all the way to the wall and by the time Marshall can go retrieve it, Bradley has an easy inside-the-parker that we’d assured this Irish guy he wouldn’t ever see.
It was a weird play in what was a short and strange career for Mark Bradley. The Mets had acquired him from the Dodgers for $100 grand and a couple of longshot prospects following a 1982 campaign when he hit a sizzling .317/.417/.488 with 101 RBI and 50 stolen bases at Class AAA Albuquerque. With the Mets he batted just .202 in sporadic appearances and earned a few fines for flouting George Bamberger’s rules.
When the Mets released him prior to the 1984 season, Bradley was only 27 but his career shows only one more stop, with the Class A San Jose Bees in 1984, an unaffiliated minor league team.
Twenty-one years later, I sat in the Mezzanine behind third base and watched the 2004 Mets glumly play out the string amid thousands of expat Cubs fans treating the a September afternoon at Shea as a coronation at a home away from home.
This was after Art Howe had already been fired but was still minding the store. And after the Mets had torched themselves with the Kazmir trade and coughed up Dan Wheeler for an A-ball outfielder with a steroid problem, and after Matsui at shortstop and Scott Erickson in the rotation and Fred Wilpon on the radio. And on this day, with Aaron Heilman starting on the mound and Gerald Williams leading off and Piazza playing first base, we’re getting completely shut down by Mark Prior and the Cubs fans surrounding me are getting louder and louder and drunker and drunker and my mood is blacker and blacker.
And, I’m a good sport. I have nothing against the Cubs going to the playoffs, not this year at least, but the wreck of this season is weighing upon me and the noise is an affront to what dignity I have left and I’m just about to say something when Victor Diaz hits an opposite-field two-out three-run home run off closer LaTroy Hawkins and ties it up in the bottom of the 9th. And in the 11th it ends when Craig Brazell – Piazza’s replacement at first base – puts one into the bullpen in right field. The Cubs never recover, losing the Wild Card slot to Houston. The Mets do but without Brazell, who turned out to be worth no more than say, Joselo Diaz. Look him up.
9. J.C. Martin
J.C. Martin was the primary backup for Jerry Grote for two seasons but like almost every Met reserve, he made the most of limited appearances in the 1969 postseason.
In the National League Championship Series vs. Atlanta, his two-run pinch single helped the Mets take the opening game. In Game 4 of the World Series, Martin was called to sacrifice the winning run to third base in the bottom of the 10th inning, but wound up getting the runner, Rod Gaspar, all the way home when Martin’s arm was struck by the throw intended to retire him at first.
In both turns he was pinch hitting for Tom Seaver. Martin was traded to the Cubs after the year to make room for Duffy Dyer.
8. Wes Westrum
When Casey Stengel’s managerial career came to an abrupt end following an Old-Timer’s Day mishap in 1965, a number of writers covering the Mets at the time were surprised at his choice for a successor: Wes Westrum, the former Giants catcher who joined the Mets as a first-base coach in 1964.
Westrum served out the remainder of the ’65 season and was hired again for 1966 but not without considerable deliberation – Eddie Stanky and Alvin Dark both waited for the Mets to make a decision before accepting managerial offers with the White Sox and A’s, respectively. There was also some talk of prying Gil Hodges away from Washington.
Though he lacked Stengel’s charisma, Westrum would be the first Mets manager to finish anywhere but last place: His 1966 Mets finished 28.5 games out of first, but 2 games ahead of the dreadful Cubs. And encouraged by a strong second half including a franchise record seven-game win streak in July, the Mets on Sept. 6 announced Westrum had received a $10,000 raise and a contract extension through 1967.
But the Mets failed to make progress in 1967, attendance dropped, another contract offer didn’t arrive, and Westrum resigned in September citing the “strain of managing.”
7. Ty Wigginton
A hard-nosed, unheralded product of the Mets farm system, Ty Wigginton became the bridge between third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo, who left after 2002, and David Wright, who arrived in ’04. He won’t ever be mistaken for either of them, but he’s had a decent career.
It’s a stronger comment about 2003 than about Wiggy, but somebody had to be the Mets’ best position player that year. In a season where injuries and trades and limited most Mets to fewer than 400 at-bats, Wigginton showed up every day, worked hard and by year-end led the team in runs, hits, doubles, triples, RBI and slugging/OPS. Given half the chance, he’d totally destroy you at home plate.
6. Todd Zeile
For a guy who played for a zillion different teams, it’s odd how Todd Zeile became such a … Met. But he is, isn’t he? I mean did John Olerud parade around Shea on the final day of the 2008 season? No, but his poor man’s replacement was right there. And Zeile, let’s not forget, not only made to the World Series as a Met but played pretty well in it: I’m not above admitting that while a home run would have been a lot sweeter, I was only hoping that Piazza could somehow extend the inning for Zeile when that fly ball found Bernie Williams’ glove in Game 5. Or maybe it didn’t. I turned it off before it did. But Zeile was on deck.
His biggest at-bat that postseason became a signature Met moment in itself. Game 1, and his long drive to left field hits the top of the Yankee Stadium fence and bounds back into play only to turn into devastating instant karma. Like Zeile itself, one long inch from greatness. Zeile slumped badly in 2001 (10-62-.266), but returned for a final go-round in 2004, though by then in No. 27.
5. Joe Torre
Joe Torre came with a solid reputation as future managerial material, and that’s just what left with, four-and-a-half years later.
He was named manager (player-manager, actually) only days before the Tom Seaver trade, and stuck around for a long stretch of darkness. By the time the Mets might even dream about being good again, he was long gone, building up a managerial resume that would one day make him the king of New York.
This has nothing to do with his Met-ness, but the furor over Joe’s recent tell-some book about the Yankees seems a little over the top. I mean, they’re a bunch of losers just like Joe said. No?
4. Jim Hickman
Who was the first Met to hit for the cycle? Who was the Mets’ all-time home run king through mid-1969? Who was last surviving Expansion Draftee in Mets history? Who was the last Met to homer in the Polo Grounds? Who was the first Met to hit three home runs in one game?
For an answer to a lot of trivia questions, Jim Hickman isn’t a name that’s thrown around all that much in Met lore. Drafted from the St. Louis organization in the Expansion Draft, “Gentleman Jim” was one of the few from that class not to have made his big-league debut yet. He revealed himself as big country slugger who struck out a little too often but had some ability, but didn’t put a great season together until after the Mets had given up on him. Check out his 1970 season with the Cubs.
3. Gregg Jefferies
“I don’t believe anyone can deny the fact that I have consistently taken it on the chin for the last three years,” wrote Gregg Jefferies, in an infamous 1991 fax recited amid uproarious laughter to listeners of WFAN. Jefferies penned the “open letter” in a desperate attempt to have the fans see his side in an ongoing battle with teammates but instead it only served to illustrate why teammates found him such a tool.
Given a little more maturity, a little more humility, and a much more supportive work environment, Jefferies might have been the great player he was pegged to be after tearing through the Mets’ minor leagues, twice winning recognition as Baseball America’s minor league Player of the Year. The team had rarely produced a better hitter. He arrived, however, to a clubhouse with a low tolerance for golden boys and quick to resort to derisive anonymous quotes and humiliating pranks. And in stark contrast to his hitting, Jefferies had shoddy defensive skills assuring that wherever he was positioned, he replaced a more capable fielder (and, it was assumed, a better teammate). That further poisoned whatever relationship he might have with his teammates, and he left an unhappy casualty of his own hype.
2. Todd Hundley
I was kind of anti-Piazza when it happened. I thought he was all Pert Plus and outrageous contract demands and a pretty boy who’d never be the kind of a teammate Todd Hundley was. Hundley was loyal, tough, hard-drinking, tattooed, a smoker and a brawler. An unsavory son of a bitch, you might say, who gave the fans some things to cheer about when there wasn’t much only to find himself too banged up to help when they really could have used him.
Hundley gamely but lamely attempted to reestablish his career as an outfielder, but was shipped to Los Angeles following the 1998 season.
1. George Theodore
One of the few things I’m not quite sure about in Met uniform history is precisely when George Theodore stopped being an 18 and started being a 9, but thanks to help from readers we’ve more or less been able to narrow it down to a small window early in the 1973 season.
But when it came time to commit the data to a book, I couldn’t be comfortable if I hadn’t at least exhausted all the potential places I might find this information, so one afternoon I looked up a George Theodore in Utah, left a phone message, and hoped for the best. Turned out I had the right guy: He got back to me right away, he was every bit as nice and down to earth as I’d hoped – who could look like that and have an attitude? – but his memory of events, at least as his uni number went, didn’t turn out so good.
I was able to pick up this tidbit: Theodore shed 18 for 9 as a tribute to Ted Williams, whom he considered a boyhood idol (“I thought it would help my batting,” he said). Although a longshot prospect who didn’t arrive in the big leagues until age 26, Theodore actually was a fine hitter, particularly as a minor leaguer, and made a name for himself as part of 1973 Mets with a combination of regular-guy looks and freaky charm (he discussed poetry, philosophy and metaphysics with writers). In a July game against the Braves at Shea Stadium, which as a 7-year-old fan in the left field stands I could never forget – Theodore sustained a broken hip when he collided with centerfielder Don Hahn as both pursued Ralph Garr’s drive to the gap in left center. Both players left the game on stretchers! The right fielder, Rusty Staub, had to field the ball which had rolled all the way to wall in left. Theodore bravely returned to active duty in late September and went to the World Series that year.
He hit just .158 in limited action in 1974, but knew getting back would be difficult after learning the Mets had acquired Joe Torre – the longtime and next No. 9 – shortly after that season ended.
Nevertheless, Theodore, with fewer than 200 turns at bat, is the Metliest No. 9 of all time. Congrats, Stork!