I was at a New York City eatery with SportsDaughter2 last night, when I seized on a unique opportunity. Her phone was out of juice and she’d just returned from the ladies room (so in other words, she had no immediate escape route) when I pounced, regaling her with the story of the 1973 NLCS, when our Buddy Harrelson took on the hated Pete Rose in a memorable brawl behind second base.
The Rose-Harrelson dust up led to a discussion of some of the better baseball brawls I’ve witnessed through the years. This is a dialogue that must include the time Robin Ventura foolishly rushed the mound on Nolan Ryan. Watching Ryan headlock Ventura and repeatedly pound him on the top of his head is must-see YouTube viewing for even the most casual of baseball fans.
Uh oh, did dad just mention Nolan Ryan?
She knew it was coming. She’d heard the story so many times before. Yet remarkably, she remained patient, humoring me as I relived yet another painful Mets moment of my childhood. You see, SportsDaughter2 knows all about the famed Nolan Ryan-Jim Fregosi trade that lives in infamy for all Mets fans. So she knew the safest bet was to let me get the whole story out of my system (again) before offering me a tidbit of welcomed genius (out of the mouths of babes, as they say…):
“Hey dad, it seems like the Mets have made more bad trades then any other team, so why don’t you write a blog post about all of their worst ones?”
Always on the lookout for a fresh idea for SportsAttic, I decided that rather than chronicling all of the soul-crushing trades in the Mets glorious history (even I am not capable of a post of that length), why not come up with a starting nine of the best players we traded away for little to nothing in return?
As noted, this is an extensive list, so to make the post more manageable for readers and writers alike, I’ll break it down into three separate posts, featuring “The Locks” today, “The Bad With a Silver Lining” next, and “Worst of the Rest” later this week. Grab the Advil, because here goes.
Starting Pitchers: Imagine what the Mets rotation might have looked like with Tom Seaver and Ryan leading the front end of the rotation from the late-’70’s into the ’80’s. Forget “Spahn and Sain,” this would have been beyond legendary!
It wasn’t to be, of course, with the Ryan for Fregosi debacle remaining the poster child of history-altering deals even today, nearly 50 years later. We all know the headline by heart here — Ryan breaks every imaginable strike out record, authors several no-hitters and rides the Ryan Express all the way to Cooperstown. Fregosi flops mightily in his year-and-a-half as a Met, the latest installment of washed up former stars plugged into the franchise’s gaping sinkhole at third base.
However, my favorite aspect of the Ryan deal was that somehow the Angels had wanted more than just Ryan to part ways with the great Fregosi!
And the Mets obliged, sweetening the deal by adding Leroy Stanton, once one of the top outfield prospects in the Mets system, in order to get the trade done. As a footnote, Stanton slugged 12 HR’s in his first year in Anaheim, seven more than Mets starting left fielder Cleon Jones posted in that same 1972 campaign. In the “if only” category, think about how history would have been altered “if only” the Mets had refused to part with Stanton, thus killing the deal? Oh well, we caved, and it wasn’t altered.
Part of what makes the Ryan trade so challenging for Mets fans to handle, even today, is that we experienced so little of his greatness during his years as a Met. In the case of Tom Seaver, at least we had his Rookie of the Year campaign, the 1969 World Series, the multiple Cy Youngs, and the near miss in ’73, before he moved along to the Reds on that dark, June day back in 1977.
Yet even those glory years don’t make the meager haul the Mets got back for the franchise’s best player in history any easier to stomach. Of course, much of the blame for the poor return falls at the feet of M. Donald Grant, the stingy Mets President, who had feuded publicly with the star right-hander leading up to the deal. With such little leverage in negotiations, it’s no wonder that all the Mets got in return from the Reds were Pat Zachary, a starting pitcher in his second year in the majors; Doug Flynn, a great-glove/no-bat utility infielder; and two minor league outfielders — Steve Henderson and Dan Norman.
It was Henderson and Norman that the Mets tried hardest to sell to the fans as the awesome prospects we’d received to bolster our future. Unfortunately, neither amounted to much, despite the annual spring training news article, always quoting someone in the Mets organization describing Norman as “the next George Foster.”
Zachary appeared to have the potential to develop into a number 2 or 3 starter, but broke his foot kicking the dugout steps during his first year in New York. Foot injuries are never a good thing for young starting pitchers, and Zachary was never the same. Flynn started at second for a few years on some God-awful Mets teams, completely living up to his reputation as a guy with a great glove who would never learn to hit major league pitching. And Seaver further tortured us all (like we knew he would) when he finally threw the no-hitter we had all so eagerly anticipated, while wearing a Reds uniform.
Centerfield: The magnitude of the Ryan debacle was so enormous that it has managed to overshadow over time a trade made by the Mets following their 1969 championship season that was nearly as dreadful. In need of a starting third baseman (sound familiar?) to replace the retired Ed Charles, the Mets sent top prospect Amos Otis to the Royals in return for third baseman Joe Foy.
All Otis did was make the All Star team in his first season in Kansas City, and again in 1971. And in 1972. And in 1973. He went on to be recognized as one of the all-time great Royals, combining the speed, power and defense that had led the Mets front office to describe him as “untouchable” up until the Foy trade.
Foy lasted one year in New York before moving on to the Washington Senators and out of baseball altogether shortly thereafter. Ouch.
If we want to add some depth to the centerfield slot on our squad, we can easily pivot to Lenny Dykstra. Nails, the fan favorite and ’86 World Series hero, was moved to the Phillies out of desperation midseason in 1989, for two-time all-star Juan Samuel. It was a move that fans of that era remember painfully to this day. At the time, the trade appeared to be one of those that would help both teams, with the Mets sensing a move was needed to energize their aging club as their window for success was closing following that 1986 championship.
While we can only speculate on what combination of illegal chemicals coursed through the suddenly brawny Dykstra’s bloodstream while in Philly, he did lead the Phils to the 1993 NL Pennant. He did it by hitting .305, with a highly suspicious 19 HR’s (his career best had been 10 up until that year) and 66 RBI’s, while scoring an off the charts 143 runs out of the leadoff slot. Nails had gone from part-time lefty bat in New York to MVP candidate down the Turnpike in Philly.
As for Samuel, the former All Star (astonishingly to anyone who saw him bungle his way around Shea Stadium that summer of ’89, he would actually make another All Star squad for the Dodgers after leaving the friendly confines of Shea in his rearview mirror) would hit an anemic .228 the rest of the way in ’89, while unsuccessfully attempting to shift from second base to centerfield. This, we all know now, was the precursor to what’s become Mets standard practice — playing defenders out of position and hoping for the best (Dom Smith as our left fielder? Anyone? Anyone?).
Lastly, lest we forget, it wasn’t only Dykstra the Mets had to pony up to acquire Juan Samuel. They also sent along beloved reliever Roger McDowell to get the Phils to bite. Yup, we needed to sweeten the pot to close this deal, too. Ugh…
Closer: A reporter once asked Mets GM Frank Cashen, the man credited with restoring the ball club first to respectability in the early-’80’s, and ultimately the architect of the 1986 World Champs, if there was one deal he regretted. He didn’t pause, responding it was the Jeff Reardon for Ellis Valentine deal he made in 1981 that stung the most.
Heading into 1981, Cashman had two young, hard throwing relievers with the potential to close games, Reardon and Neil Allen. He picked the wrong one to hang onto (although in an upcoming post we’ll take a look at how Allen was a critical piece in Cashen constructing the roster that would one day earn the Mets a parade through the Canyon of Heroes), parting ways with Reardon in hopes of catching lightning in a bottle by revitalizing the slumping Valentine with a change of scenery.
In Valentine, Cashen saw a middle of the order power hitter with a rifle for an arm in right field, coming off a down year, but still in his prime. On paper it seemed to make a world of sense. Problem was, the game was played on grass, not on paper.
At the time of the Valentine trade, Reardon was the proud owner of 10 career saves. Over the course of his career he would amass another 357 of them, while playing a key role as closer on the Twins 1987 World Series winning squad. Three yers later he would save another 21 for the World Champion Reds team of 1990, that swept the Bash Brothers A’s. Quite a career for the guy with the beard before every reliever became required to grow one.
At the other end of that spectrum, Ellis Valentine posted a .207 average in his inaugural season in Flushing, and followed that up with a grand total of eight round-trippers in 1982, before mercifully leaving the blue and orange for the the California Angels. He was out of baseball entirely in 1984 before briefly trying to comeback with the Rangers in 1985, hitting .211 in 38 AB’s. No wonder Cashen regretted this one!
So to recap: for our All-Time Traded Away club, we start with a rotation anchored by Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan. Amos Otis is in center, backed up by Lenny Dykstra (I may shift him to left before we are finished here), and Jeff Reardon waiting in the pen to close out any close ones. And we’ve only gotten through “The Locks” thus far.
Next up we will explore that second tier down of All-Time Bad Trades completed by our Amazins. But beware, this is a long list baseball fans, and will likely take multiple posts before our starting nine is complete.