Sunday, September 16, 2012

50 Years in Cards: 1997

Part 36 of our 50-year Home Run Record...
What is it: 1997 Topps #145, Todd Hundley

What makes it interesting: Another nice-looking issue from Topps in '97. Although the matte names and glossy photo is a bit gimmicky, it's still OK with me, particularly considering that it's enough of a difference from the good '96 design, and far enough away from the lousy '94 design.

It's hard to remember, particularly considering the magnitude of his replacement, but as the starting Catcher for the Mets through much of the 90s, Todd Hundley was as much a Mets Lifer as anyone. Hundley was somewhat rushed to the Majors just shy of his 21st Birthday in 1990. Known primarily for his defense, and not much for his hitting, Hundley didn't disappoint. In fact, throughout his first several seasons, Todd provided first-rate defensive play, but very little otherwise. The result was that he bounced between the Minors and Majors a bit before sticking for good in 1992. Though he did have some pop occasionally, that was about it, as he never managed to hit any higher than .237 through the 1994 season. He also began to have some injury problems, particularly in 1994 and 1995, when a nasty wrist injury knocked him out for several weeks. Lost in this, though, was the fact that Hundley was actually beginning to develop into a solid hitter to match his defense. He went .237/16HR/42RBI in 1994, and .280/15HR/51RBI in 1995. Not eye-catching numbers for a full season, but consider that he only had 566 At Bats between those two years. Put it together, and Hundley had numbers that translated to 31 HRs and 93 RBIs, to go with a .257BA.

Not many people took notice of this, which is why it was so monumentally jarring to see Hundley develop into an All-World talent, almost overnight. Healthy all season, Hundley started the '96 season on a power binge that didn't let up, and put a full-scale assault on the Mets Record Book for HRs in a single season, and the Baseball record book for HRs by a Catcher in a single season. He also made his first All Star team, and the darling of all Mets fans who watched him grow up. Were it not for that Catcher playing for LA who would eventually become Hundley's replacement, Hundley was probably the premiere Catcher in the National League. By September, Hundley made his mark on the record books, first becoming the first Met ever to hit 40 HRs, and then later passing Roy Campanella's mark for HRs by a Catcher with his 41st. Though his average wasn't great at .259, his 41 HRs and 112 RBIs cemented Hundley as a force in the middle of the Mets lineup.

1997 saw Hundley continue where he left off. He made his second straight All Star team and even began to raise his batting average a bit. But after a hot first half of the season for the resurgent Mets, an elbow injury began to slow him down and sap his power. Hundley would eventually be shut down for Tommy John surgery, rare for a Catcher, in September, but his 30 HRs and 86 RBIs were still good enough to help the Mets remain in contention until the final weeks of the season.

1998 would prove to be a year of rehab and turmoil for Hundley. Knowing that they would be without their anchor for a majority of the season, the Mets tried their damndest to cobble together a lineup. This involved a Catching platoon of Alberto Castillo and Tim Spehr, and also included appearances by journeymen such as Rick Wilkins and Jim Tatum. The Mets were, needless to say, languishing. But despite the sudden availability of that other Catcher from LA, the Mets maintained that they would stay loyal to Hundley. Until they didn't. On May 22nd, the Mets swung a deal to bring in that other Catcher. So, now, the Mets had two of the Best Catchers in Baseball on their roster, and they both wanted to Catch. Hundley was clearly unhappy, but did his best to be diplomatic. Something was going to have to be done, and eventually, it was decided that Hundley would be the one to move, switching from Catcher to Left Field. Todd Hundley returned to the Mets Lineup on the 10th of July as their new Left Fielder. It was an experiment, and Hundley gave his best shot, but it was clear that he was neither cut out to be an Outfielder, nor fully recovered from his elbow operation. Hundley played 34 games in Left Field, and committed 5 errors during that time. His offense also tailed off sharply. Unable to hit for much power, or much at all, Hundley hit .161 with only 3 Home Runs (though his final one did win a key game in Houston). At the end of the season, the Mets re-evaluated the situation. Hundley couldn't play the Outfield, that much was clear. Ultimately, the other Catcher was given a lucrative new contract, and Hundley was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a confusing 3-team trade that brought Roger Cedeno and Armando Benitez to the Mets. Hundley went on to have some successful, if uneven seasons with Los Angeles and, later, his father's old team, the Chicago Cubs. But he never again reached his lofty, dominant numbers of '96 and '97.

Todd Hundley was a raucous fan favorite while he was with the Mets, and remained so for several years after he left. Many Mets fans would not warm to the other Catcher for years, because he had pushed Hundley off the team. Hundley's career would also be tainted in 2007 when he was named in the Mitchell report as a Steroid user. But, then again, so many of his peers were also Steroid users, so who could legitimately damn him. Hundley provided a great deal of thrills for some moribund Mets teams, and for that, we remain grateful.

Card back:

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