Remembering Cleon

I’m a lifelong Mets fan.  Some may be exiting the blog based on that alone.  A diehard, long-suffering, pick an adjective fan of the other New York baseball club.  Two World Series titles since our inception into the league in 1962, as a poor man’s replacement for the beloved and recently departed Dodgers and Giants.

I was born in 1965 and my earliest memories are of games in 1970, so I missed the Miracle Mets season of ’69 and was still a couple years away from the Ya Gotta Believe year of ’73.  When I look back now, I realize I probably became a Mets fan because of that recent championship combined with the fact that the Yankees were in a prolonged period of irrelevance, that I would have enjoyed immensely if I had realized what was to follow in the ’90’s when my personal torture at the hands of the Evil Empire reached it’s pinnacle.

My favorite player was Tommie Agee.  Again, not sure why.  Tom Seaver was the star, and we all liked Seaver, but he was never my favorite.  Buddy Harrelson had his supporters, and young Nolan Ryan (yes, his trade will almost certainly be fodder for a future post) fascinated with the huge fastball and the occasional boxscore that included double-digit walks.  But Agee was my favorite.

And his running mate was Cleon Jones.  Agee in center, Cleon in left, and a rotation of Swoboda, Shamsky, Singleton and others rotating through right.  Much was spoken and written about how Agee and Jones were both from Mobile, Alabama.  Five- and six-year-old me envisioned them having walked to school together and in all likelihood sharing a bunkbed in their New York City apartment that must have been located right next door to Shea Stadium, as I understood the world back in the early-’70’s.  Agee hit home runs, had the famous World Series catches from ’69 that everyone talked about, stole bases and drank beer after the games in his undershirt as a guest on Kiners Korner.  He was easy to like and to this day his number 20 is my favorite in my Mets fan memory.

But what about Cleon? Other than the fact that I found it interesting that he threw left-handed and batted righty, I found him completely unremarkable.  I had read how he caught the final out of the ’69 series (a lazy fly to left hit by future all-time great manager Davey Johnson of the Orioles), and later in life learned that part of the remarkable Miracle Mets run of 1969 included Gil Hodges (Hodges is somehow beyond Davey in the pantheon of Mets managers — immortal?  Too much?  Nah, immortal is right.) pulling him mid-inning off the field after loafing after a fly ball, but beyond that only one thing now stands out about him as I look back on those days — and I blame the mustache.

First, though, to give credit where credit is due, the guy could hit.  He nearly led the league in ’69, hitting .340, which stood for a couple of decades as the best a Mets player had ever posted over a full season.  In ’71 he hit .319.  His home run and RBI totals were subpar for a middle of the order power guy, but always respectable given these were the Mets, who have spent my lifetime losing 3-2 games.  In the World Series of 1973 he led the Mets with 5 runs scored and hit .286 playing all seven games (and yes, Yogi gave the A’s that series by messing up his starting rotation, but we’ll save that for the future, too).  That .286 was second on the team only to Rusty Staub’s scorching .423 playing with basically one arm (another future post). Cleon came back in 1974 to hit .282 with 13 HR’s and 60 RBI’s as the primary starter in left field once again at the age of 32.

But back to the mustache.  The early-1970’s A’s were paid off by their eccentric owner, Charlie Finley, to grow mustaches to add a little old-time baseball panache to the once-moribund team.  When that team then went on their three-peat World Series run from 1972-1974 (beating us in 7 in 1973 — hello, Yogi), the whole mustache thing took on added significance.  It was the ’70’s, with bell bottoms, groovy swingers, Yankee pitchers swapping wives and apparently our Mets felt it, too.  If you take a look at the Topps 1975 baseball card series, previously clean shaven Mets like Gerry Grote, Bud Harrelson and Cleon all popped up with newly minted mustaches.  Cleon and his new mustache unfortunately took this whole embracing the Freedom ’70’s thing one step too far, and as 9-year-old me was pulling a stick of chewing gum off his new baseball card in May of that year, Cleon was getting arrested in St. Petersburg, FL for indecent exposure.  Turns out he had “fallen asleep” in a station wagon down there with a 21-year-old female acquaintance (with marijuana in her possession) when the police came upon him.  He was barefoot (the story he told cops was they met at a party and ran out of gas while driving her home — shocker that one didn’t fly), which triggered the indecent exposure charge, and boy did it make headlines.

The New York media was besides itself over it’s unexpected good fortune, and an unforgiving Mets ownership group (obviously warming up for their upcoming war with Tom Seaver that led to his banishment to Cincinnati — yes, another future post) fined Cleon $2000 (a lot of money, even for ballplayers, in 1975), humiliated him into a public apology and then tortured him by letting him rot on the bench until ultimately releasing him later that season after an altercation over playing time with Mets manager (and future Yoohoo pitchman) Yogi Berra.  He had a cup of coffee with the White Sox the following year, but he was done.

What happened?  Sure there’d been the red flag of the altercation with Hodges in ’69, but beyond that he was a model of consistency, with both his numbers and his just-below-interesting presence.  Had to be the mustache.  He was feeling it.  The sexual revolution of the ’70’s.  The near miss at a second World Series title in ’73.  The A’s were getting all the magazine covers and baseball Annie’s with their colorful unis and their mustaches and he had to get in the act.  And he did it so, so, so…poorly.  I mean, a station wagon?

So it really is a shame.  The guy was our first offensive “star.” One of a handful of guys that started on both of our first two World Series squads.  And when I think back all I remember is “indecent exposure.”  In a station wagon.  What a shame.

Cleon Jones Pic

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