As the almost inevitable injuries accumulate, the Mets stay on course. It’s time to be grateful for our fine, deep bench. Every great Mets team has had its great bench players. There’s something about bench players: tough, ready, and irregular, that has always seemed to define the essence of the Mets.
Think of Endy Chavez. His great catch in the seventh game of the 2006 NLCS assures him of a permanent place in Mets history. He’s one of the best defensive outfielders in the game. Last year, he hit .306. This year, he’s hitting .371. He’s a cool guy with an unusual, compelling name. He’s got an amazing smile that takes up three-quarters of his face. However long or short his Mets career will be, you’re never going to forget Endy.
Think of Damion Easley. He’s a part-time player, a fill-in for our injured second baseman. Yet he’s second on the team in home runs, first in slugging percentage, with 7 homers through a quarter of the season. 7 in just 74 at-bats. His at-bat per home run ratio puts him in a class, not with regular second basemen, but with Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds. How does something like this happen?
Think of Ramon Castro. He looks like Shrek and comes to the plate to the Darth Vader theme. You feel like you’re in the multi-plex eating your popcorn, as he drives a double to the wall and wins the game for you.
Julio Franco is the oldest position player ever to play major league baseball. Every time he comes to the plate, he is the oldest person ever to do whatever he does. He’s the epitome of the old-guy Mets bench player, like Mays or Berra or Torre or Staub. He sends the young ones forth in battle, but when it is his time, he can still lift and throw the spear.
You see what I mean? Mets bench players are not just weaker than average major league ballplayers, like bench players usually are on other teams. They are remarkable people and remarkable players often with great, if generally narrow talents. They have personality. They give style and dimension to the team.
It’s always been this way. In the early years, bench players were particularly important because the starting lineup wasn’t very good. Occasionally wonderful streaky bench players like “Hot Rod” Kanehl, Joe Christopher, Jesse Gonder, and Greg Goosen were rays of hope, suggesting that it might be possible someday to have hitters in the first half of your lineup who could hit more than .220 and hit more than 5 home runs.
Then, in 1969, bench players were a major part of the miracle. Only one player on the 1969 Mets (Agee) had more than 500 at-bats. When people think of that championship team, they think of Al Weis, our backup shortstop and World Series hero. They think of our elder statesman and poet, Ed Charles, who was not in fact our regular third baseman. Because of Gil Hodges’s love of the platoon, many of that team’s best players, like Donn Clendenon, Art Shamsky, Ron Swoboda, and Eddie Kranepool, were crosses between regulars and bench players and that often gave them a bench player’s drive. They weren’t secure. They couldn’t be limp. They were always trying to crowd their way into the spotlight.
The pattern continued. The Met who wouldn’t leave, Eddie Kranepool, finally found his true calling as a trusty bench player. We had on our bench great stars of the past, like Willie Mays and Joe Torre, and great starts of the future like Amos Otis, Ken Singleton, and Kevin Mitchell. We’d have these fine fielding or hitting but not-ready-for-prime-time fourth outfielders, Endy’s ancestors, guys like Mike Vail, Bruce Boisclair, Danny Heep, Timo Perez, and Benny Agbayani. We’d have the pinch-hit specialists, like Kranepool, or Rusty Staub when he came back, or Dave Magadan, Lenny Harris, or Tony Clark. We’d have the always surprising second catcher, Ramon’s antecedents, guys like Ron Hodges and Todd Pratt. We’ve had the clutch-hitting beloved jack-of-many-trades like Matt Franco, Melvin Mora, Joe McEwing, or Chris Woodward. Every one of these guys made his contribution to the performance and the character of the team. It is impossible to imagine the history of the Mets without them.
Bench players represent the essence of the Mets. They don’t get as much respect as the regulars. They have to fight for what attention they do get. They are perpetually underestimated yet every once in a while they’ll come through like gangbusters. They’re interesting. They’re rarely bland. They’re fun. They’re exhilarated and exhilarating. They always go particularly nuts in champagne celebrations, or on the field, hugging and high-fiving after a walk-off win. They are the ancient, ragtag, surprising Stengelese soul of our team. We get a new bunch every few years. But they are always with us, jumping up and down when the good stuff happens, part-player, part-fan, so so happy to be who they are and to be the Mets.