Monday, March 9, 2009

My Favorite Team

Last week, I started what I think will become a recurring series here, digging into my collection of Mets Baseball Cards and posting them here. There are two reasons behind this, I suppose. 1) I think that this is where my fandom began, at least from the standpoint of I really wasn't so into Baseball before I started collecting, and 2) I'm a complete lunatic. I doubt I'll get into doing this so regularly once the season starts and there are more, tangible things to talk about regarding the Mets. Right now, you could hash and re-hash the glaring issues the Mets have, and I do that often enough. Spring Training is a good time for re-acclimation and this is one way to do it.

Last week, I wrote about the 1987 Topps Mets team set, which was the first set I put together, way back in my youth. This week, we're going to take a trip back 10 years, to what was probably my favorite Mets team. The year, of course, is 1999. Over the past two years I've been writing this, I have probably written about the 1999 Mets more often than any previous Mets team (not including the current seasons' team), through Lost Classics and the 20 Days In October series. Now, we'll look at the '99 Mets through the eyes of Topps.

#13 - Edgardo Alfonzo

After running massive, 792-card sets for most of the 80s and early 90s (peaking at 825 in 1993), Topps returned to much smaller sets in the late 90s, probably in response to the aftereffects of the 1994 Strike. From 1996 to 2000, Topps sets didn't number higher than 504, and they didn't even make a Traded set between 1996 and 1998. They also produced, in my opinion, some of their nicest set designs. 1999, however, was not one of them. After the 1998 set had a really nice gold-bordered design, they returned to the gold border design in 1999, but made the front much plainer. It's a pretty bland set, all things considered. Fonzie kicks things off for the Mets this year. It's a good way to start, considering how important a role Fonzie played for this particular team. After a breakout year in '97 and a regression in '98, Fonzie would embark on his two finest seasons in '99 and '00. Not coincedentally, the Mets had two of their best seasons. Fonzie is still loved by every Mets fan. How loved, you ask? Well, a couple of months ago, I was talking with El Guapo about the Mets over a beer. Fonzie's name came up, and we stopped and immediately toasted him.

#32 - John Olerud

I had Olerud on my Fantasy team in 1998, and he had a pretty good year that season. Of course, he did it in his usual, unassuming fashion, to the point that you almost forgot he was there half the time, but he really carried the Mets most of the way, particularly through moments where they were woefully undermanned. His .354 BA that season stands as a Mets record, without a truly close challenger. He continued as a steady presence in the #3 spot in the order through 1999, by which point he'd firmly established himself as probably my favorite player on the team.

#53 - Rick Reed

Topps, unlike competitors Fleer, Upper Deck and Donruss (who by 1999 had lost their license with MLB), signed individual contracts with players, rather than contracts with the MLBPA. We all, by now, know Reed's story about being a replacement player and being booted out of the Player's Union. Benny Agbayani had a similar issue. It's because of this that the only place you'll find cards of Reed in a Mets uniform is in a Topps set. It's a shame, because Reed blossomed as a pitcher during his 4 1/2 seasons with the Mets. After emerging out of nowhere to win 13 games in 1997, Reed was, perhaps, even better in 1998, twice taking perfect games into the 7th inning and even making the All-Star team. Though he regressed to a 4.58 ERA in 1999, he came up big when it was needed most, and his last three games were a testament to his guile on the mound.

#106 - Butch Huskey

Huskey was always a case of unfulfilled potential. The 1996 Spring Training show was just the start. In 1997, Huskey hit .281 with 24 HRs and 81 RBI as a 25-year old. But in 1998, Huskey couldn't come anywhere close to those numbers. His season was cut short by a hamstring injury in August and he was dealt to Seattle in the offseason. Though Huskey's 1999 Fleer card also pictures him in a Mets uniform, it lists him as a member of the Seattle Mariners with a little "Traded" stamp on the front. This card, not so much.

#167 - Masato Yoshii

Yoshii was fairly unremarkable in his two seasons with the Mets. I don't think there's much more to say than that. Though, he is the answer to one of my favorite Mets trivia questions; one which people get wrong much more often than you would think. On October 5, 1999, the Mets played in their first playoff game in 11 seasons. On the mound for the Mets was Yoshii. Yoshii also started the Grand Slam Single game, though his 3+ innings were a distant memory by the game's end.

#176 - Bobby Jones

Bobby Jones led the Mets in wins in the 1990s, which is impressive in its own right. Jones also made three Opening Day starts for the Mets in the 90s as well. However, injuries and inconsistency undercut his 1999 season, keeping him off the postseason roster and knocking him into a mopup role out of the bullpen during the latter part of the season. He would make up for this in 2000, however.

#194 - Rey Ordonez

To break up the monotony of photos taken at Shea Stadium, here's a nice photo of Ordonez in Florida (Alfonzo's card is taken in Florida as well) doing what he did best: avoiding a takeout slide to complete a DP against the Marlins. You can tell it's in Florida because of the teal, not so much because of John Cangelosi. There's no camera coverage of the 4 people in the stands at Pro Player Stadium (I believe it was called Pro Player Stadium in 1999).

#268 - Matt Franco

Though the Topps sets were smaller in these years, they still managed to sneak a card of Matt Franco into the set. I'm not necessarily sure, following Franco's .273/1HR/13RBI output of 1998, that Franco merited a card in the set, but considering how well he made his lone HR count, maybe he earned it. He certainly earned it after his strong showing as a top-flight pinch-hitter during the 1999 season.

#269 - Brian McRae

I am still floored when I look at Brian McRae's line for the 1998 season and I see that he hit 21 HRs and had 80 RBIs. I watched or listened to just about every game that season and I just don't have any recollection of him being quite that good. He came back to earth in 1999, and by the time he was dealt to Colorado for the much more useful Darryl Hamilton, he was hitting a paltry .221 with 8 HRs. I also remember him using AC/DC's Hells Bells as his At-Bat music, before it was so widely associated with Trevor Hoffman.

#275 - John Franco

Usually the mention of the name John Franco is enough to give me some sort of horrible acid flashback. My enduring memory of Franco in 1998 was on a Friday night in late September, a game at Shea against the Marlins, who were in nowheresville, having lost over 100 games. The Mets were neck and neck with the Cubs and Giants for the Wildcard. Desperately needing a victory, and in front of a packed house, I watched in horror from my dorm room as Franco came in in the 9th inning with a 6-4 lead, and the Marlins proceeded to get dink hit after dink hit, with Franco nibbling and failing to put guys away, and the lead disappearing and turning into a 7-6 loss. Franco was 0-8 for the '98 season. His '99 season was undercut by a finger injury, and by time he returned, he'd been replaced as the closer by the even more frightening Armando Benitez.

#277 - Rickey Henderson

While I was working on the 20 Days In October series, I had gone back and watched my tapes of each game. After watching Rickey's interview with Craig Sager prior to Game 5, all I can think about now, when I hear the name Rickey Henderson, is the phrase, "It's Rickey Henderson Time!"

#282 - Bobby Bonilla


#302 - Hideo Nomo

That Nomo/Yoshii Japanese tandem was charming for a while, but it had very little in the way of staying power. Nomo was for the most part terrible during his half-season with the Mets, and didn't survive Spring Training in 1999 when his competition consisted of Allen Watson. I believe he hooked on with Detroit after his release, which is what makes this card even more perplexing: Topps released their '99 set in two series, the first coming out in December, the second coming out in April. You would think that they would have been able to airbrush him into a Tigers uniform, wouldn't you? Guess not.

#314 - Robin Ventura

Ringleader of the Best Infield Ever. Calm, galvanizing force from the left side of the plate to hit behind Piazza. Grand Slams in both games of a Doubleheader. Author of the Grand Slam Single, among innumerable other clutch hits. The man who brought the Mojo to the Mets. One of the best Free Agent signings the Mets ever made.

If there is only one reason to love the 1999 Mets, Robin Ventura alone should be the reason.

#320 - Al Leiter

Leiter was more or less a microcosm of the team in 1999. Often confusing, rarely consistent, maddening, frustrating and head-scratching. But he always put it all together when he absolutely had to.

Oddly, though Leiter would deliver his signature performance as a Met in 1999, this would be the bad year he would sandwich in between a pair of fantastic seasons in 1998 and 2000.

#340 - Mike Piazza

It's easy to overlook now, considering how revered Piazza is among Mets fans, but there was no guarantee, following the 1998 season, that Piazza would return to the Mets. He had played out his option and appeared ready to test the Free Agent market. He hadn't exactly endeared himself to the Mets fans, and the fans never quite took to him that well either, particularly those who were fans of the popular incumbent catcher Todd Hundley. If Piazza had left, he probably would have ended up being held in the same regard as Bobby Bonilla among Mets fans, another coward who couldn't take it. But Piazza refused to be remembered that way. He wanted the challenge of winning the fans of New York over. He wanted to stay, and he never did make it to the open market of Free Agency. The rest, as they say, is history.

#T37 - Jason Tyner

Topps started plonking some Minor Leaguers and Draft Picks into their Traded Series, beginning in 1999. Previously, the closest they got were cards of Olympic Baseball Players or Team USA. So, here's Jason Tyner's Rookie Card, a year before he would make it to the majors and embark on a career as a light-hitting journeyman outfielder.

#T38 - Mo Bruce

...which is more than you can say for Mo Bruce, a somewhat touted 2B prospect who never saw the light of day as a Major Leaguer.

#T80 - Armando Benitez

Armando came to the Mets in that confusing 3-team deal with the Dodgers that involved Charles Johnson and Todd Hundley and Roger Cedeno. Benitez benefitted from the change of scenery in New York, and responded with one of his best seasons in the Majors, and by the All-Star break had taken over as the team's closer. His postseason struggles, however, continued to confound us all.

#T101 - Roger Cedeno

Originally, Cedeno was the odd-man out in an outfield that included Brian McRae, Rickey Henderson and Bobby Bonilla. But under Henderson's tutelage and benefitting from Bonilla's suckitude, Cedeno took over the Right Field position and ran with it, quite literally. Though he never established himself as a leadoff hitter on a regular basis, he performed well enough in 1999 that the Mets were able to parlay him into Mike Hampton for the 2000 season. At least, this is how we'd like to remember him.

#T113 - Kenny Rogers


#T117 - Darryl Hamilton

Hamilton, much like Cedeno, is one of those Mets who I'd prefer only to remember for their contributions during the 1999 season, if only because they did very little to endear themselves to anyone afterwards. Hamilton lost most of his 2000 season to injury and then pouted over a lack of playing time in 2001.

#T120 - Billy Taylor

Billy Taylor may be one of the most forgotten Mets in team history. After being acquired from Oakland for Jason Isringhausen at the trade deadline, Taylor, a 6'8" sidearming righthanded reliever, was supposed to complement Armando Benitez late in games. His first save opportunity came a week later against the Dodgers, and he butchered it horribly. Taylor would pitch in 18 games with the Mets, and in 13.1 IP, he managed to give up 20 hits and post a miserable 8.10 ERA, while not saving any games. He was left off the postseason roster and was, not surprisingly, not heard from again.