February 19, 2012

SAY, HEY, ST. PETER:

The Kid (Joe Posnanski, 2/17/12, Sports Illustrated)

Everyone assumed that Gary Carter was going to play college football. He had twice been a Punt, Pass and Kick finalist -- he would always say that he should have won the second time, but he slipped on the ice in the bitter cold of Green Bay -- and he had a scholarship waiting for him at UCLA. He looked the part of the star quarterback; he would say that his dream was to be the next Joe Namath.

But legendary scout Bob Zuk -- who had signed Willie Stargell and Darrell Evans and so many others -- saw Gary Carter play baseball. He was blown away. It wasn't just the talent; anyone could see Carter's strong arm and hitting power. Zuk was an old-time scout, the sort who believed that he could see beyond talent, beyond tools, and peer deep into a player's soul. Carter's soul was there on the surface -- he played baseball with so much energy and life and excitement. Zuk told the Montreal Expos management that they had to see this guy. The Expos drafted him in the third round. Soon after that, he went to spring training and was dubbed Kid. Soon after that, he finished second in the Rookie of the Year balloting. And in time, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Carter was a fabulous player in Montreal, and a very good one for a while in New York. He hit with power -- nine times he hit between 20 and 32 homers, this in times where those home run numbers meant something. He was a smart, tough catcher who could really throw -- three times he led the league in caught-stealing percentage. He might have been the best player in the National League in 1982. He led the league in RBIs in 1984. He made every All-Star Game for 10 years. And, of course, he refused to make the last out of the 1986 World Series, and was one of the key players in one of the most jolting and memorable comebacks in the history of the game.

But for some reason, it always seemed to me, Carter was never quite as big a star as he should have been. The Montreal teams he played on seemed to underachieve annually -- he took blame for that. His clean-cut image and personality did not quite fit in with those wild New York Mets teams -- he took blame for that, too. He played years past his prime -- and for four different teams in his last four years -- which probably led people to lose sight of his greatness. His relatively low batting averages (Carter never hit .300 for a full season) played a role, too.

There was also just this too-good-to-be-true thing going with Gary Carter -- he didn't drink, didn't smoke, seemed to be happily married to the same woman, studied the Bible, gave good quotes, smiled for the camera, smiled for everybody, reached down to pick up garbage he happened to see anywhere near the field. Teammates, many of them, just didn't quite get him. Strangers, many of them, were suspicious. There he was, in late August, still smiling while their bodies ached, still going full speed when the temperature was scorching 100, still the Kid, long after most of the others had grown up.

Certainly the most poignant tributes have come from former teammates like Daryl Strawberry and Wally Backman, who've expressed the wish that they had lived their lives as he lived his.

He was never quite as good as a Met as he had been as an Expo, not atypical for an aging catcher, but he was right in the middle of the two greatest games in Met history, maybe the two best ever:

25 Years Later: Mets And Astros Play The "Other" Game 6 (Ed Leyro, Mets Merized)

Jesse Orosco was called upon to pitch the bottom of the 14th for the Mets, as McDowell had been removed for pinch-hitter Howard Johnson in the top of the inning.  After his five-inning, 58-pitch effort, McDowell was done for the late afternoon/early evening and it was up to Orosco to deliver the pennant.  His first batter was Bill Doran.

Doran was a speedy second baseman for the Astros who made excellent contact and had one of the best eyes in the league.  With 42 stolen bases in 1986, Doran placed fifth in the NL in that category.  He also finished fifth with 81 walks and was one of the toughest batters to strike out (57 Ks in 550 at-bats).  Doran's eye for strikes became even better in the postseason, as he had fanned only once in his first 25 postseason at-bats up to that point.  So what did Doran do as he faced Orosco in what quite possibly could have been his last at-bat of the season?  He struck out on four pitches.

The next batter was centerfielder Billy Hatcher.  Hatcher had just finished his first full season with the Astros after playing in 61 games for the Cubs in 1984 and 1985.  He had never been considered a power threat and was not a top candidate to get on base, as evidenced by his eight home runs in his first 641 career plate appearances and his .297 on-base percentage.  Hatcher had gone 5-for-23 in the series and should have been an easy out for Orosco, as he had never gotten a hit off the Mets' reliever in four career plate appearances.  But with a full count on him, Hatcher hit one of most memorable home runs in postseason history, crushing Orosco's offering to deep left field.  The ball was hit far enough, but would it stay fair?  That question was answered as the ball hit the screen attached to the foul pole, rolling down said screen, washing away the Mets' 14th inning pennant hopes.  The game was now tied, 4-4, and Orosco's save situation had now turned into a "let's get out of this inning alive" situation.

With the three and four hitters coming up, including the dangerous Glenn Davis, Orosco had to settle down or else a seventh game against Mike Scott would become a shocking reality.  The Mets' veteran got back on the mound and promptly retired Denny Walling and Davis on a weak grounder to first and a pop-up to second, respectively, to end the inning.  The game, which had already reached epic proportions, would go on.

Stunningly, despite his best efforts to blow the game for the Astros in the 14th inning, Aurelio Lopez was still on the mound for the 15th, but this time he fared better against the Mets, allowing only a two-out single to Gary Carter.  With Darryl Strawberry at the plate, Lopez threw a 1-1 pitch wildly, but Carter was thrown out at second base by catcher Alan Ashby to end the inning.

Orosco also went back to the hill for the bottom of the 15th, and he did even better than Lopez, striking out Kevin Bass and Jose Cruz to start the inning, before getting Alan Ashby to ground out to Wally Backman for the final out.  The 16th inning was upon us, only one day and 2,000 miles after the Mets and Astros had played 12 scintillating innings in New York.  Something had to give after 27 innings of pulse-pounding baseball.  Something did give when the Mets came to bat in the top of the 16th.

After his relatively easy 15th inning, Lopez was given the ball again to start the 16th, but this time he wouldn't be so lucky.  Darryl Strawberry, who was given a fresh turn at-bat after Gary Carter ran his way into the final out in the previous inning, led off the 16th with a double.  He was followed by Ray Knight, who delivered an opposite field single to score Strawberry from second.  That was it for Aurelio Lopez, who was removed from the game for Jeff Calhoun.  With Wally Backman at the plate and an 0-2 count on him, Calhoun uncorked a wild pitch, sending Knight to third.  Backman fought back from the 0-2 hole and was able to draw a walk.

Next came Jesse Orosco, who was allowed to stay in the game to sacrifice Backman over to second.  On the very first pitch to Jesse, who had already squared around to bunt, Calhoun threw another wild pitch, scoring Ray Knight and moving Wally Backman to second.  The Mets were now up by two runs in the 16th, but they were not done yet.  Orosco laid down a successful sacrifice, with Backman taking third on the play, and Lenny Dykstra drove him in with a single to right, giving the Mets a 7-4 lead.  Even though Mookie Wilson ended the inning by grounding into a double play, the Mets surely had to be happy with their three-run lead.  This time, they weren't going to give up the lead like they did in the 14th, especially with the Astros riding on fumes, right?  Unfortunately for the Mets and their fans, those fumes had one more rally left in them.

The bottom of the 16th began as the 14th inning had, with Jesse Orosco striking out the first batter (in this case, it was Craig Reynolds) to bring the Mets within two outs of winning the National League pennant.  But then Orosco started showing fatigue of his own, allowing the next three batters to reach base.  Pinch-hitter Davey Lopes started the rally with a walk, followed by consecutive singles by Bill Doran and Billy Hatcher.  The latter single scored Lopes from second base and put the tying runs on base for Denny Walling.

Davey Johnson could have taken Orosco out of the game there, especially since both singles by Doran and Hatcher were hit on the first pitch, but the Mets manager stayed with his veteran closer, hoping he would reward his faith in him by getting the final two outs of the game.  It seemed as if Orosco would get out of the jam and deliver the pennant to New York when Denny Walling hit a ground ball to Keith Hernandez, who attempted to start an inning-ending double play.  However, the ball wasn't hit hard enough and the only out the Mets could get was a forceout of Billy Hatcher at second base.  The Astros now had runners on first and third and Glenn Davis was coming up.  A home run by the Astros' slugger would give Houston the improbable victory, adding more suspense to an already tense moment.  Although the left-handed Orosco didn't give in to the right-handed Davis, he still wasn't able to send him back to the dugout, as Davis produced a run-scoring single to center, scoring Doran and moving Walling to second base.  The game was now 7-6, and the tying and winning runs were on base for Kevin Bass.

Bass had already committed a mistake in the game way back in the first inning (hence the "more on him later" 21 paragraphs ago) when he got tagged out by Bob Ojeda trying to score on a failed double steal attempt.  Had Bass not made that gaffe, the game might have ended after nine innings.  Instead, the Mets and Astros were playing on into the Houston night in a game that seemingly did not want to end.

Baseball is a game of redeeming features, and Bass was being given a second opportunity to make up for his costly first inning baserunning error.  Orosco was one out away from giving the Mets a hard-fought pennant, but was not making it easy for himself or his team.  After going to a 3-2 count on Bass, Keith Hernandez came over to the mound to deliver an ultimatum to Orosco.

"If you throw him another fastball, we're going to fight."

With those words, Jesse buckled down, looked in at catcher Gary Carter's signs and threw Kevin Bass a full-count slider.  In a moment that will forever live on in the minds and hearts of Mets fans, Bass flailed wildly at the pitch, striking out on the 3-2 offering and touching off a wild celebration on the Astrodome mound and on the streets of New York.

If I recall correctly, Hernandez was actually speaking to Carter, who was trying to preserve his pitcher's aching elbow.

Fighting To the End: New York's No-Nonsense Approach To Baseball (Ash Marshall, 3/10/10, Bleacher Report)

In the bottom of the 10th inning, Eric Davis--pinch running for Pete Rose--stole second and then slid hard into third, getting into a fight with Mets third baseman Ray Knight. The benches emptied and the teams brawled: Kevin Mitchell raced in from right field, and Reds' pitcher Mario Soto, the losing pitcher from the day before, also got involved. 16 minutes later, Ray Knight emerged from the pile, bodies strewn everywhere.

All four men were ejected, forcing Davey Johnson to play All-Star reliever Jesse Orosco in right field for three innings, reliever Roger McDowell in both left and right field, and catcher Gary Carter at third base (for four innings, no less) for just the second time in his career.

But the excitement didn't end there. In the bottom of the 12th inning, with the game still tied at 3-3, the Reds had runners on first and second with nobody out, threatening to win the game. Carl Willis, who had just retired the Mets one-two-three in the top of the frame, looked to move the winning run 90 feet away, but he bunted into a double play, first-to-third.

The Mets went on to win the game in the 14th inning when Howard Johnson hit a three-run home run, and Roger McDowell, who had recorded three outs in the 11th inning before playing the outfield, came back in to get three ground ball outs to seal the victory.



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Posted by at February 19, 2012 9:03 AM
  

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