Tag Archive for Kelvin Torve

Rickey & Willie

The Mets’ announcement on Old Timer’s Day that they’d retire Willie Mays‘ No. 24 addressed another long-neglected historical oversight of the Wilpon Era. That there was an Old Timer’s Day at all erased a bit of Fred-dom as well.

Both were solid hits with the fanbase, though the Mets as a brand might have gone a step further had they retired 24 for Joan Payson–or Willie AND Joan Payson–as I don’t believe any club has retired a number for a woman before.

For me personally, it was fortuitous timing as I’d just finished reading RICKEY: THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL, a bio written by ESPN’s Howard Bryant. I read a fair amount of baseball books and I thought this one was outstanding as Bryant writes powerfully about an enigmatic subject he argued was often misunderstood, mocked and degraded even as destroyed one all-time baseball record after another and forced his way into the innermost circle of baseball’s greatest all-time players, including Willie Mays.

When Henderson became a Met at age 40 in 1999, he was issued No. 24 for the first time since it belonged to Kelvin Torve and, it was emphasized at the time, with the blessing of Mays. What Bryant’s book revealed was that Mays was the reason Henderson had the odd distinction of batting righthanded and throwing lefthanded: Though a natural lefty, he simply imitated how Mays hit, and Mays was the reason Henderson was best-associated with the No. 24. Bryant also reveals that Rickey actually preferred No. 35 as “his” number–over his 25-year career with nine different teams, including four separate stints with Oakland–he’d worn 35 in Oakland, Seattle and Red Sox.

When the Mets acquired Henderson as a free agent over the 1998-99 offseason, 35 belonged to Rick Reed.

Henderson was born Rickey Nelson Henley in an Oldsmobile in Chicago on Christmas Day of 1958. His father John Henley soon separated from Rickey’s mother Bobbie who relocated to her hometown in Arkansas then moved with the Great Migration of Southern Blacks to Oakland–a destination of thousands of Black families that became the cradle of dozens of accomplished professional athletes with whom Henderson played with as children in the 1960s and 1970s (Mike Norris, Shooty Babitt, Lloyd Moseby, Gary Pettis, Glenn Burke, Dave Stewart and many others). Rickey took the last name Henderson after Bobbie remarried, and grew up determined to play football for the Oakland Raiders but was persuaded by Bobbie and a local scout, Jim Guinn, that baseball was the safer path. Because of his great ability in sports, Rickey was indifferently educated and hadn’t learned to read by the time he first turned pro.

Rickey is quoted, but sparingly—he’d never been trustful or particularly open with writers—but the book seems driven by input from Rickey’s wife, Pamela, who’d been his sweetheart since she was 14. Dozens of players, managers, writers and fans are interviewed, including Sandy Alderson, Rickey’s GM for much of Rickey’s stay career in Oakland and today is the Mets’ president who summed up how baseball viewed Rickey while predictably using the word “optics.”

In Alderson’s view, even the most astute baseball men … seemed preoccupied with the Rickey optics—the delivery, the flash, the personality, the whispers, the moods. Their inability to see through all that thus diminished his obvious ability in their eyes, partly because of their own prejudices, and partly because Rickey made the optics impossible to ignore. Rickey was a great player but, because of his moods and temperament, he was not quite a leading man. When it came to Rickey, baseball men focused on what he wasn’t often more than on what he was.

Although admired by fans for peculiarities that became urban legend (including the facetious John Olerud story, addressed within) Rickey was not a “class clown who reveled in what he did not know,” Bryant asserts. “He was a ferociously competitive, goal-driven athlete.” He never remembered names because that was difficult for him but his determination was such that he never forgot a perceived slight, whether it was money and respect (salary arbitration players who made more money than him, like Jose Canseco, or endorsement deals) or in competition with pitchers or catchers who prevented him from stealing bases) or writers (“The press wanted it have it both ways with Rickey: they wanted him to cultivate and trust them while they simultaneously mocked him,” Bryant writes).

Rickey became as Met only months before this site was launched. At the time  my enduring impression of Rickey was that shared by many white guys who’d seen his career form afar: He was a buffoon who diminished his own stolen-base record by declaring he was “the greatest” on the same day Nolan Ryan pitched his seventh no-hitter and reacted with “class.” On that day, May 1, 1991, I was putting together the sports page for a small daily newspaper and had my own aspirations to one day be a big leaguer in that field. I was certain then I was right and would have said then race hadn’t a thing to do with it. I was wrong about that, and Bryant’s book reminded me so. So did a resplendent season in 1999, perhaps Rickey’s best late-career year.

Here’s something else I’d forgotten about Rickey, he was a Mets’ coach in 2007.

Go buy Howard Bryant’s book.



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The Legend of Kelvin Torve and the Say-Hey Kid

Art: Superba Graphics

Below is a reprint of an interview with Kelvin Torve I’d done nearly 13 years ago and first published here. In light of the Willie Mays announcement yesterday it’s just as relevant but I want to note here the phrase I used in the headline then, “Accidental 24” I’ve come to believe was more of a clandestine experiment than a goof. I’ll have more to say about the Willie Mays situation soon.

Kelvin Torve was a journeyman ballplayer whose brief career with the Mets is remembered as much for his uniform as for his game. But his moment in history reveals much.

A 10-year minor-league veteran when called up to the Mets to replace an injured Kevin Elster in August of 1990, Torve became the unwitting victim of a procedural screw-up that gave him temporary custody of a uniform number that was supposed to have been kept under guard for one of the team’s immortals. For reasons unexplained to this day they gave him No. 24, a uniform that hadn’t been issued to a player since Willie Mays finished his career with the Mets in 1973.

Joan Payson, the Mets’ original owner and unabashed fan of the Say Hey Kid dating from his career with the New York Giants, had promised Mays the Mets wouldn’t issue No. 24 following his retirement. The succeeding Met ownership, however, never got around to officially retiring the number, leaving 24 in an uncomfortable state of limbo just waiting for a situation like Torve’s to arise. (They should retire it in honor of Mrs. Payson, is what they ought to do). Embarrassed as public outcry grew, the Mets shortly re-fitted the South Dakota native in No. 39.

Torve, who today [as of February 2018] works as a salesman for a packaging company and teaches at youth baseball clinics around his Davidson, N.C., home, for his part remains a good sport about his accidental casting in a freaky Met episode. In the following interview, parts of which were conducted for, and included in, the Mets by the Numbers book, Torve discusses his career including his moment as an overnight sensation in Willie Mays’ clothes.

Tell me about your career leading up to the Mets.
I was drafted by the Giants and played four years with them. I was traded to the Orioles and played three years with them, making it all the way to AAA. Signed as a free agent with the Twins and played two years with them, mostly in AAA and part of 1988 with the Twins in Minnesota. After that, I spent two years with the Mets.

When you played, were you mostly an outfielder or a first baseman?
Mostly, I was a first baseman. I dabbled in the outfield, mostly if there was a chance to get another first baseman who hit lefthanded into the game. I also went to Instructional League with the Twins to learn how to catch, but that lasted about six weeks, and I was never to darken the doors of catcherdom again.

I guess that was not all that unusual for a player like yourself who was in the game for a long time and trying to be as useful as you can be.
Right. And I appreciated the Twins for giving me that opportunity. I learned a lot, but it didn’t work out. The ultimate goal would have been for me to be a third catcher with somebody, be a pinch hitter, play outfield and first base and in an absolute emergency go back there and put on the catching gear.

In your minor league career, you were a pretty good hitter [.303/.392/.453 in AAA Tidewater in 1990].
I hit well enough to be employed for 13 years. I was a good AAA hitter and had one good year in the big leagues with the Mets. My bat was what kept me in the game. I had a few opportunities but when you’re a minor leaguer for as long as I was you really have to make a splash immediately if you want to stay. The first year with the Mets, I did, and I got quite a few at-bats. The second year, I think I had only 8 at-bats. I hit the ball hard but didn’t get the breaks. That’s the way it goes.

You were a first baseman who didn’t hit many home runs.
That was the knock on me. I was a first baseman who didn’t hit enough home runs. But the Mets at that time had a guy at first base, Dave Magadan, who didn’t hit many home runs either. They at least had the foresight to challenge that stereotype. In baseball, like in a lot of careers I suppose, if you get a label like that, it’s hard to lose.

I wonder if you can set the scene for me. You’re called to the Mets in 1990 and issued a jersey for the first time. What do you recall about it?
24Nothing out of the ordinary. I just got there and saw a locker with my uni in it, No. 24. I didn’t give a second thought to it. I don’t know who assigned the number, it might have been Charlie Samuels but I’m not sure. I guess they didn’t give much thought either.

They didn’t ask you if you had a preference?
Oh, no.

So you’re in a situation where they take what they give you.
Yes. I had spent a long time in the minors. I was just happy to be there. I would have taken two-point-four if they’d asked me to.

When do you become aware that there’s some kind of outcry?
When I was called up we had a homestand with the Phillies and I think, the Cubs. Then we went on the road, to California, and while we were out there Charlie came up to me and said, “Listen, we made a mistake with your number. Some people have been calling in and writing in. So we’d like to change your number.”

I just said, “Shoot, that’s fine with me.” I didn’t want to be a pain about it. And I guess they wanted to keep it low-key, not make a big deal about it. So I just started wearing No. 39 from that point on.

Did you have any preference as to what number you would have wanted?
Not really. I’d played so long in legion ball and college and the minor leagues. I think I’d worn every number there was. I didn’t have any preference at all.

Did you hear anything from the fans, or pick up on it, while you were at Shea?
No, I didn’t. That’s not to say they weren’t yelling at me – just that I didn’t hear anything. The first time I was aware of it we were on the road and Charlie came up to me in the locker room and told me that’s Willie Mays’s number, so we have to change it. And I said, that’s fine.

I looked it up, and you were batting better than .500 in the No. 24 jersey.
Hopefully I did OK in it, because I know Willie Mays did it proud as well.

You played briefly with the Mets again in 1991, then to Japan, correct?
Two years, I played for the Orix Blue Wave. It was a good time. I’m nostalgic when I look back on that time, but while you’re over there it can be frustrating the way they play the game. It’s different than in the United States, and you’re a long way from home. But after leaving Japan, reflecting on it, I realize how much I did enjoy my time there, what it a blessing it was.

I was a teammate of Ichiro over there. When I was there he was a rookie. He was so young he rode his bicycle to the games!

Could you tell at the time he would accomplish as much as he has?
Yes, though back then nobody from Japan was coming to the United States. Watching him play you would say, it’s too bad they don’t because this kid could play in the big leagues. He was 18 at the time and the only thing he couldn’t do well then was throw, and he’s obviously gotten a lot better throwing since then. You could tell he was going to be really good.

What about your time with the Mets do you remember most?
I recall it as a good time because I was in the big leagues. My first at-bat, I got hit by a pitch. My second at-bat, I hit a double that knocked in a few runs [pinch-hitting in a contentious game featuring a Phillies-Mets brawl]. The morning after that I get a call that there’s some policemen waiting to see me in the lobby of the hotel.

Turns out a sports talk radio show had talked about me getting called up, being a kid from the prairie in South Dakota, and being in the big city for the first time. These New York City cops heard that and showed up at my hotel and gave me an escort to the ballpark! They said, we hear you might need help. It was all good natured. I got to be good friends with one of those cops and his family, a guy by the name of Al Weinman. We kept up with Al for years after that.

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Where There’s Smoke

49Long-suffering minor-league reliever Josh Smoker got the call yesterday as the “26th man” on the roster, as dictated by double-header rules but the lefty failed to make an appearance as the Mets split Tuesday’s twinbill with the hated Cardinals.

PiazzaPatchSmoker — a one-time top draft pick whose ascent was interrupted by injuries and a stint in independent ball — headed back to Laguardia following the game  but maintained his spring-training assignment of 49 in his non-appearance.

As you know by now the Mets will officially retire Mike Piazza’s No. 31 in a ceremony on Saturday, and reveal the digit in its new location in the left field corner. The club is also expected to wear ceremonial uni and hat patches for the event as pictured here. Mike looks a bit like a cartoon character here but to be fair his home runs often looked like something out of a fertile imagination themselves.

Finally the MBTN Hall of Fame has a new member.

An outrageous display of awesomeness.

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Torve Jackpot! Fight Night in Photos

You may have seen a few posts back the exclusive interview with Kelvin Torve, whose “accidental” issue of the 24 jersey in 1990 caused a minor stir among Met fans and a major event in team history when viewed through the numeric prism. Photographic evidence of the event was difficult to come by, to say the least — even a thorough re-examination of Mets Inside Pitch issues from 1990 produced nothing.

That was before MBTN user TommieCleon (aka Paul C) stepped up to the plate, and just like Kelvin Torve on Aug. 9, 1990, smashed one off the wall. Pictured Torve slams a double to the gaphere are videocaps from that historic occassion — not only one of the few games Torve spent wearing No. 24, and not only his best moment — his pinch double drove in 2 runs including the game-winner and made him a hero — but for the lengthy, violent, bench-clearing brawl that occurred only an inning before.

The brawl was precipitated when Phillies pitcher Pat Combs returned fire to Dwight Gooden, then hitting. Gooden earlier in the game had hit Phillies Dickie Thon and Tommy Herr with pitches. Tension between the Mets and Phillies had dated to a year before when Darryl Strawberry and Darren Daulton tangled.

standing at secondGooden charged Combs after the pitch struck him in the leg in the 5th inning. “You go with your first reaction and mine was to get him,” Gooden later recounted. The ensuing melee, a “Pier 6 Brawl” as Bob Murphy might describe it, lasted nine minutes and halted play for 20. Strawberry went after Daulton but was interrupted by Von Hayes and they went at it. An obscure Phillie reliever we’d come to know, Dennis Cook, was yanked from the pack and thrown to the ground by umpire Joe West, and then he really got mad. Met outfielder Kevin McReynolds wrenched his back in the scrum. In all six players (Strawberry, Gooden and Tim Teufel for the Mets; and Combs, Daulton and Cook for the Phils) were ejected, along with Phillies bullpen coach Mike Ryan.

Dwight Gooden: "My first reaction was to get him."Expect this game to be referenced often as talk heats up of the Mets and Phillies renewing hostilities this season.

As for Torve’s role in the number controversy, Paul has this to say:

Based on materials in the public record concerning the Mets issuance of uniform #24, I think that present management is not inclined to retire the number. Of course, this is somewhat obvious based on the simple fact that the Wilpons still haven’t retired the number in the almost 30 years that they’ve owned the ballclub. Still, Kelvin Torve might have been a guinea pig in a calculated ploy to gauge public sentiment over the reissuance of #24. Perhaps there is a better explanation for Torve Dwight throws a right on fight nightas #24, but to me, the notion that either Charlie Samuels or Met management forgot about the significance of reissuing the number is simply implausible, no matter how momentary this alleged lapse in memory was.

The Mets solution to this uni controversy appears to be a compromise; keeping the uniform mostly in limbo is consistent with their own view against retiring the number. By allowing the uni to be reissued to a special player, (e.g. Rickey Henderson, a first ballot HOF’er and one of the two or three dozen best players of all-time), Met brass appears to be minimizing instances of fan disappointment. After all, one would think that the benefits of acquiring that special player would outweigh whatever negativity might arise from having that player wear #24.

Keith Miller is the first to arrive as Gooden gets double-teamed. Good wheels, Keith!As you admire this awesome collection of historic Met bloodshed which Paul was cool enough to provide, give some thought to his points above: What should the Mets do with 24? How cool was this brawl? And how awesome do the numbers look without the awful drop shadow?

Comments below!

Kruk can't hold back Strawberry...






...But Von Hayes can, for now...






Handicap match for Strawberry







What do you mean my haircut sucks?!?






Nine minutes, 6 ejections and a guy wearing 24






Dutch Daulton arrives at the Gooden-Combs match






Daulton throws a right: But who's brain-damaged now?







That's Dave Magadan amid burgandy Ponys and Reeboks







Psycho reliever Dennis Cook tangles with umpire Joe West






Gooden's plunk of Tommy Herr sparked Philly retaliation






The scoreboard tells of the aftermath




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