November 19, 2008

GOING OUT OF THEIR WAY:

Worst Baseball Team Ever: The description may seem harsh, but as the tragicomic face above shows, the New York Mets are a sore burden to a man and a city accustomed to winning. For some unaccountable reason, they are still loved—and not just by those who beat them (Jimmy Breslin, 8/13/62, Sports Illustrated)

Figures, of course, are notorious liars, which is why accountants have more fun than people think. Therefore, you just do not use a record book to say the Mets are the worst team of all time. You have to investigate the matter thoroughly. Then you can say the Mets are the worst team of all time.

"I never thought I would have an argument," Bill Veeck says. "I was always secure in the knowledge that when I owned the St. Louis Browns , I had the worst. Now it's different. You can say anything you want, but don't you dare say my Brownies were this bad. I'll prove it to you. There are still a few Browns in the major leagues and this is nine years later. How many Mets do you think are going to be around even two years from now? I'm being soft here. I haven't even mentioned my midget, Eddie Gaedel ."

Reporting from Philadelphia is Pat Hastings, proprietor of the Brown Jug bar and a man who has sat through more bad baseball than anybody in America . For consistency, Philadelphia baseball always has been the worst. On nine occasions during Pat's tenure at old Baker Bowl and Shibe Park, both the Phillies and A's finished in last place.

But Pat, who has viewed the Mets on several occasions this season, refuses to put any team in a class with them. "The 1916 Athletics had Stuffy McInnins, you got to remember that," he says. "And some of them Phillies teams could hurt you with the bat pretty good. There was players like Chuck Klein, Virgil Davis, Don Hurst. I seen 'em all. Why, we used to make jokes about Buzz Arlett. He played right field for the Phillies in 1931. People used to go out and get drunk if they seen him catch a fly ball. I feel like writing the fellow a letter of apology now. Why he done more fielding standing still than some of these Mets I seen do at full speed."

In Brooklyn there is Joseph (Babe) Hamberger, who once associated with the old Dodgers and vehemently denies he ever saw a Brooklyn club as bad as the Mets .

"When Uncle Robbie [ Wilbert Robinson ] was managing, he didn't even know the names of the players," Babe says. "But he won two pennants and was in the first division a couple of times. Casey was over here, too. Ask him. He'll tell you. It got rough, but never like now."

Now all this is not being pointed out as an act of gratuitous cruelty. Quite the opposite. The Mets are so bad, you've got to love them. Name one true American who could do anything but root for a team that has had over 135 home runs hit against it. In New York a lot of people root for the Mets . They are mainly old Brooklyn Dodger fans and their offspring, who are called the "New Breed" in the newspapers. They are the kind of people who, as San Francisco Giant Publicist Garry Schumacher once observed, never would have tolerated Joe DiMaggio on their team at Ebbets Field . "Too perfect," Garry said.

The Mets are bad for many reasons, one of which is that they do not have good players. The team was formed last year when the National League expanded to 10 teams. ("We are damn lucky they didn't expand to 12 teams," Manager Stengel says.) The other new team, the Houston Colt .45s , has done a bit better than the Mets . It's in eighth place, 11� games ahead of New York . For players, the Mets were given a list of men made available to them by the other eight National League teams. The list was carefully prepared and checked and rechecked by the club owners. This was to make certain that no bona-fide ballplayers were on it.

"It was so thoughtful of them," Stengel says. "I want to thank all of them owners who loved us to have those men and picked them for us. It was very generous of them."

Actually, the Mets did wind up with a ballplayer or two. First Baseman Gil Hodges was fielding as well as ever before a kidney ailment put him in the hospital. Center Fielder Richie Ashburn , at 35, is a fine lead-off hitter, although he seems to be on his way to setting some sort of a record for being thrown out while trying to take an extra base. If Jim Hickman , an outfielder, ever learns to swing at good pitches he might make it big. Here and there Al Jackson and Roger Craig produce a well-pitched game. And Frank Thomas can hit. But all this does is force the Mets to go out of their way to lose.

And once past these people, the Mets present an array of talent that is startling. Most of those shocks Casey talks about come when his pitchers throw to batters. There was a recent day in St. Louis when Ray Daviault threw a low fast ball to Charley James of the Cards. James likes low fast balls. He hit this one eight rows deep into left field for the ball game.

"It was bad luck," Daviault told the manager after the game. "I threw him a perfect pitch."

"It couldn't have been a perfect pitch," Casey said. "Perfect pitches don't travel that far."

One of Casey's coaches is the fabled Rogers Hornsby . Rajah was a batting coach during spring training and for the early part of the season. But all of his work now is done with prospects out on the farms. Which is good, because Hornsby hates to lose. Oh how he hates to lose! One day he was sitting in the dugout at the Polo Grounds before a game and you could see him seething. The Mets had been losing. So was Hornsby . He couldn't get a thing home and he was in action at three or four different major tracks around the country.

"You can't trust them old Kentucky bastard trainers," he confided.

The general manager of the Mets is George Weiss, who was let go by the Yankees after the 1960 season because of his age. He is 68 now. George spent all of last year at his home in Greenwich, Conn. As Red Smith reported, this caused his wife, Hazel, to announce, "I married George for better or for worse, but not for lunch." She was pleased when George took over the Mets this year and resumed his 12-hour working day away from home.

The Mets also have many big-name sports reporters who write about them. This may be the hardest job of all. As Barney Kremenko of the New York Journal-American observes, "I've covered losing teams before. But for me to be with a non-winner!"

There are some people, of course, who will not stand still for any raps at the team. They say the Mets have a poor record because they lose so many one-run games. They point out that the Mets have lost 28 games by one run so far. However, this figure also means the Mets lost 51 other games by more than one run.

One who advances the one run theory is Donald Grant, the Wall Street stockbroker who handles ownership details for Mrs. Joan Payson, the class lady who put up the money for the Mets . It is Mr. Grant's job to write letters to Mrs. Payson, explaining to her just what is happening with the Mets .

"It is annoying to lose by one run, but Mrs. Payson and I are pleased with the team's progress," Grant says. "She is perfectly understanding about it. After all, you do not breed a Thoroughbred horse overnight." Grant obviously doesn't know much about horse racing.

Whether the Mets lose by a run or by 14 runs (and they have done this, too), it doesn't matter. They still lose. They lose at night and in the daytime and they lose so much that the only charge you can't make against them is that their pitchers throw spitters.

"Spitters?" Stengel says. "I can't get them to throw regular pitches good."

Basically, the trouble with the Mets is the way they play baseball. It is an unchanging style of walks, passed balls, balks, missed signs, errors, overrun bases and bad throws. You see it every time. It doesn't matter what day you watch the Mets play or if they win or lose. With this team, nothing changes. Only the days.

On July 22, for example, the Mets were in Cincinnati for a doubleheader. They not only lost both games, but they also had four runners thrown out at home plate in the course of the day. Nobody could remember when this had happened before—probably because it hadn't. What made it frightening was the ease with which the Mets brought the feat off. You got the idea that they could get four runners thrown out at the plate any day they wanted to.

In the first game Choo Choo Coleman was out trying to score from second on a single to left. In the second game Stengel jauntily ordered a double steal in the second inning. He had Cannizzaro on first and Hot Rod Kanehl at third. Cannizzaro took off and drew a throw. Kanehl broke for the plate. The Cincinnati shortstop, Cardenas, cut it off, threw home, and that took care of Kanehl. In the fourth inning Elio Chacon tried to score from first when the Reds messed up a fly in the outfield. But Vada Pinson finally got to the ball, and his throw home beat Chacon by a couple of steps. In the fifth inning Jim Hickman was on third. He broke for the plate as Rod Kanehl hit the ball. Kanehl hit the ball square at third. The throw had Hickman by a yard.

The day before that, Roger Craig , the team's version of a big pitcher, had gone over to Stengel and volunteered for relief pitching in the doubleheader, if he were needed. Stengel nodded. It was nice of Craig to say he would work between starts. And the next day the Mets certainly did need Craig . Going into the ninth inning with a 3-3 tie against the Reds, Stengel called on Roger to save the day. Roger took his eight warmup pitches. Then he threw two regular pitches to Marty Keough of the Reds. Keough hit the second one eight miles, and the Reds won 4-3.

Two days later in the first inning of a game in Milwaukee , the Braves had runners on first and second. Henry Aaron hit the ball hard, but Chacon at shortstop made a fine backhanded stop. As Chacon regained balance, he saw Roy McMillan of the Braves running for third. Chacon yelled to Felix Mantilla , the Mets ' third baseman. He was going to get McMillan at third on a sensational play. Mantilla backed up for the throw. Then he backed up some more. By the time Chacon threw, Mantilla had backed up three yards past the base and when he caught the throw all he could do was listen to the crowd laugh. McMillan had his foot on third.

The Mets fought back, however, and had the game tied 4-4 in the 12th. Casey called on a new pitcher to face the Braves in this inning. He was R. G. Miller, making his first appearance as a Met. At the start of the season, R. G. was managing a car agency and had no intention of playing baseball. Then Wid Matthews, the Mets ' talent scout, came around to talk to him. Miller, Matthews had found, needed only 18 days in the major leagues to qualify as a five-year man under the baseball players' pension. R. G. had spent a couple of years with Detroit before deciding to quit.

$125 a month

"Go to Syracuse for us," Matthews said, "and if you show anything at all we'll bring you up. Then you can put in your 18 days. When you reach 50, you'll get about $125 every month until they put you in a box."

Miller went out front and spoke to the boss. The job would be waiting for him after the season, Miller was told. So Miller went to Syracuse . He pitched well enough to be brought up. Now he came out of the Mets ' bullpen to take on the Milwaukee Braves .

Miller loosened up easily, scuffed the dirt, looked down and got the sign and glared at Del Crandall , the Milwaukee batter. Then Miller threw a slider, and Crandall hit a home run. Miller, with his first pitch of the year, had lost a game.

"He makes the club," everybody on the Mets was saying.

Marvin Throneberry , the fast-running first baseman, has had his share of travail this year, too. In fact, anytime you meet some oldtimer who tries to bore you with colorful stories, you can shut him up quickly with two Marv Throneberry stories for every one he has about players like Babe Herman or Dizzy Dean .

Throneberry is a balding, 28-year-old who comes out of Memphis . He was up with the Yankees and once even opened the season as a first baseman for them. After that, he was with the Kansas City A's and the Orioles . Throneberry is a serious baseball player. He tries, and he has some ability. It's just that things happen when he plays.

Take the doubleheader against the Cubs at the Polo Grounds early in the season. In the first inning of the first game Don Landrum of Chicago was caught in a rundown between first and second. Rundowns are not Throneberry's strong point. In the middle of the posse of Mets chasing the Cub, Throneberry found himself face to face with Landrum. The only trouble was Marvin did not have the ball. During a rundown the cardinal rule is to get out of the way if you do not have the ball. If you stand around, the runner will deliberately bang into you, claim interference and the umpire will give it to him.

Which is exactly what happened to Marv. Landrum jumped into his arms and the umpire waved him safely to first. Instead of an out, the Mets now had to contend with a runner on base—and that opened the gates for a four-run Chicago rally.

Marv had a big chance to make good when the Mets came to bat. With two runners on, Marv drove a long shot to the bullpen in right center field. It looked to be a sure triple. Marv flew past first. Well past it. He didn't come within two steps of touching the bag. Then he raced toward second and careened toward third. While all this violent motion was taking place, Ernie Banks , the Cubs' first baseman, casually strolled over to Umpire Dusty Boggess.

"Didn't touch the bag, you know, Dusty," Banks said. Boggess nodded. Banks then called for the ball. The relay came and he stepped on first base. Across the infield Throneberry was standing on third. He was taking a deep breath and was proudly hitching up his belt when he saw the umpire calling him out at first.


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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 19, 2008 7:32 AM
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