After the stench of last year’s odious mess at Shea Stadium, fans of the New York Mets should be excused for excessive hyperventilation this spring. For the first time since the pennant-winning season of 2000, the Mets have a team that borders on the likeable. More importantly, they may have the makings of a club that can set a reasonable goal of competing for the National League’s wild card berth. Yes, it’s amazing what can happen when a new front office adds one of the game’s three best defensive center fielders, finds a powerful rookie shortstop who resembles nothing close to the feeble limitations of Rey Ordonez, and fortifies a shredded bullpen with a playoff-tested veteran and a group of hardball-humming youngsters.
At the very least, the Mets will be a much improved defensive team in 2004. Mike Cameron, who’s used to playing spacious outfields, should have little trouble making the transition to the tricky winds and mind-numbing airplane noise of Shea Stadium; the Mets can point to pages of statistical analysis that declare Cameron as the game’s best defensive center fielder. With Japanese sensation Kaz Matsui and sophomore stud Jose Reyes (assuming his hamstring problems don’t become chronic) manning the middle infield, the Mets may have the kind of athleticism and range that the rival Yankees can only dream about at second and short. (Let’s just hope that Super Joe McEwing receives a minimum of playing time this summer.) The decision to flip-flop Mike Piazza and Jason Phillips is long overdue, improving the team’s catching while doing minimal damage to first base. And if Shane Spencer and Karim Garcia end up platooning in right field, they’ll be more than adequate (and better than wrong-way Roger Cedeno); both are limited in range, but are surehanded and can throw, with Garcia possessing one of the game’s most underrated outfield arms.
All of the past transactions aside, the Mets may have some options on the trading block for future improvements. Several teams have called to inquire about the availability of Vance Wilson, one of the National League’s better backup catchers. The Mets are saying no for now, but they’ll change their minds for the right price, knowing that they have both Phillips and Piazza available to catch immediately, with top prospect Justin Huber primed for arrival in 2005. The Mets also have depth in their bullpen, thanks in part to the luring of ex-Marlin Braden Looper, which is always a nice springtime commodity. Some members of the Mets’ brass would like to make room for 26-year-old Orber Moreno, who has resuscitated his career after suffering a torn labrum during his days with the Royals. (And no, he’s no relation to “Omar the Outmaker,” the original O. Moreno.) The much improved Grant Roberts is one pitcher who has drawn interest from other teams; he could end up as the Mets’ fifth starter, in the bullpen, or in some other major league market during the season. Tyler Yates is another attractive commodity to rival clubs, but the Mets have no intention of trading the hard-throwing right-hander, who will probably start the season at Triple-A Norfolk.
With catching and pitching to spare, what do the Mets want in return? They’re still on the lookout for outfield help and have talked to the Blue Jays about Jayson Werth, who’s out of options but is still only 24, and to the Pirates about Sabermetric favorite Craig Wilson, who just can’t seem to win the favor of manager Lloyd McClendon. Both Werth and the underrated Wilson would make sense in right field, either as everyday players or in a platoon with Garcia. Another possibility is Baltimore’s Jay Gibbons, who can be had for the right package of young pitching. A left-handed swinger, Gibbons could platoon with Spencer, who has never mastered right-handed pitching (a .313 OBP and a .371 slugging mark over the past three years)—and probably never will.
Like hundreds of other professional teams, the Mets are also interested in bolstering their starting rotation. They’re not convinced that Roberts, Aaron Heilman, or Scott Erickson are answers as potential fifth starters, but also realize that the springtime market for starting pitching is about as thin as Kent Tekulve’s waistline at diet time. If the Mets can establish themselves as an early-season contender, they might think seriously of putting together a package that could bring them someone like Montreal’s Livan Hernandez or the Dodgers’ Hideo Nomo later in the summer. A rotation featuring either Hernandez or Nomo, along with Al Leiter, Tom Glavine, Steve Trachsel, and Jae Seo, might be good enough to let Mets fans breathe even more heavily in the humid summer air of Shea Stadium.
The Rumor Mill
Two interesting trade scenarios made the rounds last week, both of the interleague variety. According to the St. Louis Cardinals newsletter (www.thestlcardinals.com), the Redbirds have had talks with Anaheim about a six-player deal that would land Adam Kennedy, Darin Erstad, and Jarrod Washburn in St. Louis, with Bo Hart, Woody Williams, and another player downloading in Southern California. Unless that third player is one of the Cardinals’ top-notch prospects, the “ST.” in St. Louis should signify STEAL. Kennedy, who is only 28, is a much better hitter and defender than Hart, who has struggled in the spring after a sensational debut in 2003. The athletic Erstad could fill the Cardinals’ gaping hole in left field, or take over in center, allowing Jim Edmonds to slide over. While Erstad is really not suited to batting leadoff, he’s better than the Cardinals’ current leadoff options, which are currently nonexistent (and weren’t helped by the recent acquisition of Tony Womack). The Williams-for-Washburn part of the deal might give the Cardinals some cause for hesitation, but the 29-year-old Washburn is eight years younger than Williams and would provide some balance to an all-right-handed rotation… Another interesting rumor involved the Dodgers and Royals, who were said to be discussing a swap of Carlos Beltran for LA’s two top prospects, pitcher Edwin Jackson and first baseman James Loney. While Beltran would do wonders for the Dodgers’ moribund offense, there’s no way that Los Angeles can surrender two minor league studs (one of whom, Jackson, is ready to pitch in the majors) for a player who might be nothing more than a one-year rental. As Baseball Primer’s Eric Enders points out, the Dodgers could reasonably expect to give up either Jackson or Loney, but certainly not both, in trying to lasso one of the game’s great center fielders.
Card Corner—Everything in Repoz
In this week’s segment, I’ll pay tribute to Baseball Primer’s historian extraordinaire and collector of obscure references, “Repoz” (AKA Darren Viola), by featuring one of the Topps cards for the original Repoz—the lyrically named Roger Repoz (pronounced re-POZE). Thirty-five years ago, Topps issued its 1969 card (No. 103 in the set) for the California Angels slugger, who was at one time a top prospect in the Yankees’ organization. Regarded by some as the next Roger Maris, the hawk-nosed Repoz settled for a career that was more like that of Roger Freed or Roger Cedeno (well, perhaps not that bad). As if the Maris comparisons weren’t stressful enough, many writers and fans began referring to Repoz as the “next Mickey Mantle,” in part because of the blonde crew cut and powerful pull swing that he and Mantle shared. Playing for the Toledo Mud Hens and employing a newfound batting stance in 1965, Repoz emerged as a top-flight Yankee prospect, prompting manager Frank Verdi to call him the best everyday player in the International League and soon earning him a mid-season promotion to the Yankees. (Curiously, the Yankees made room for Repoz by sending mediocre infielder Horace Clarke to the minor leagues; that exchange itself should have been a harbinger of doom.) Repoz seemed like a can’t-miss superstar in waiting. An excellent defensive outfielder with the speed to play center field, Repoz also owned the kind of left-handed pull hitter’s swing that made him a perfect fit for Yankee Stadium… So what happened to Repoz? Using a smooth, picturesque stroke but often changing his batting stance, Repoz struck out too much, tried to pull the ball too frequently, couldn’t touch left-handers, and struggled to lift his average above the .220 mark. Quickly realizing that he would never transform himself into Mantle or Maris, the Yankees traded Repoz to the Kansas City A’s, who soon sent him to the Angels for pitcher Jack Sanford and outfielder Jack Warner (not the actor). Repoz’ fortunes continued to flutter in Anaheim, but he did play better for the Angels than he had for the Yankees. In 1968, the year before this Topps card was issued, Repoz put together his finest season, an ironic occurrence given the development of “The Year of the Pitcher.” He batted a not-so-terrible.240 and reached career highs with 13 home runs and 54 RBIs, totals that would have been even higher if he had not missed nearly 30 games while serving as a private first class in the National Guard. In assessing his 1968 breakout, Repoz gave much of the credit to his use of an Exer-Genie, an exercise machine developed by NASA for astronauts who needed to work out in the confined quarters of a spacecraft… After a miserable 1969 season—the only bright spot was a career-high 60 walks—Repoz rebounded in 1970, launching a career-high 18 home runs in 407 at-bats. The Angels rewarded his power surge by trading for Gold Glove center fielder Ken Berry (again, the ballplayer, not the actor who played on F-Troop), which made him the odd man out in the Angels’ outfield. With Berry flanked by Alex Johnson in left and Tony Conigliaro in right, Repoz’ days as an everyday “Angel in the Outfield” had come to an abrupt end… By 1972, Repoz’ career reached a crossroads. Now sporting some of the worst sideburns in the game (see his final Topps card in 1972) and no longer in California’s plans, Repoz found himself traded to the Orioles’ organization, where he resurfaced in minor league Rochester. Playing for the Triple-A Red Wings, Repoz earned the nickname “Rocket Man” because of the lengthening distance of his home runs. In August, he took a backward turn, enduring a 4-for-45 slump that resulted in a barrage of boos from Rochester fans… Repoz’ 1972 struggles convinced him to seek employment in another country. He signed an incredible contract for $123,000 with the Taimeiyo Lions of the Japanese Leagues, making him more highly paid than many established stars in the major leagues. Of course, the big 1973 contract brought a new set of expectations in Japan, where fans no longer anticipated that he’d become the “next Mickey Mantle” but merely expected him to emerge as the “next Sadaharu Oh.” Yeeesh… By the way, the current-day “Repoz” should be writing a column of his own. Send him an e-mail and tell him the same thing.
The Nickname Game—Crazy Like A Horse
Earlier this month, Mike Cuellar’s name entered the realm of sports news when Jim Palmer mistakenly referred to him as one of three former teammates and coaches who had died from the ill effects of smoking. (Palmer also mentioned Dave McNally and Cal Ripken Sr. but probably meant to include Mark Belanger instead of Cuellar.) Thankfully, Cuellar is alive and well, and working as an attendant for a golf course in Florida. In addition to being one of the best pitchers of the late 1960s and early 1970s—he had a terrific screwball—Cuellar owned one of the most colorful nicknames of that era; he was referred to as “Crazy Horse” by many of his Baltimore teammates. For an explanation, let’s turn to James Skipper’s wonderfully useful book, Baseball Nicknames, published by McFarland. Skipper cites research done by a man named David Petreman, who uncovered the origin of the nickname. According to Petreman, Cuellar believed strongly in the spirit of a special baseball cap, which he felt that he had to wear in any game he pitched. On one occasion, Cuellar forgot this particular cap and demanded that the Orioles fly the cap back to Baltimore before he would pitch in his next scheduled start. With beliefs like that, the moniker of “Crazy Horse” soon evolved… At least one other major leaguer was known by the nickname of Crazy Horse. Journeyman shortstop Tim Foli was given the appellation during his early days with the Mets, and the label stuck for most of his career, which included stops in Montreal, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, California, and the Bronx. Unlike Cuellar, Foli didn’t possess overly superstitious tendencies, but he did have a feisty temper that bordered on the extreme. Foli’s legendary tantrums made him a logical candidate for the title of Crazy Horse.
Pastime Passings Gene Bearden (Died on March 18 in Alexander City, Alabama; age 83): Bearden compiled one of the most memorable rookie seasons in baseball history, winning 20 games with a league-leading 2.43 ERA in 1948. Bearden’s unexpected excellence, both during the regular season and the World Series, helped the Indians’ organization to its last World Championship. A left-hander with an overwhelming knuckleball, the 28-year-old Bearden pitched a tie-breaking play-off game against the Boston Red Sox on one day’s rest, receiving the nod over expected starter, Hall of Famer Bob Lemon. Bearden’s five-hit performance lifted the Indians to the 1948 American League pennant, setting the stage for a World Series encounter against the Milwaukee Braves. In the third game of the Series, Bearden pitched a five-hit shutout and banged out a double and a single at the plate. He then pitched in relief in Game Six, recording the final five outs of the game to wrap up the World Championship for the Tribe… Unfortunately, Bearden never again matched the success of his rookie season. Often struggling with control of his knuckleball and knuckle-curve, Bearden twice led the league in wild pitches and never won more than eight games in a single season. Later pitching for the Washington Senators, Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Browns, and Chicago White Sox, he finished his journeyman career in 1953, forging a career record of 45-38 with an ERA of 3.96.
Roxie Campanella (Died on March 14 in Woodland Hills, California; age 77; cancer): The widow of Hall of Famer Roy Campanella, Mrs. Campanella helped operate the Roy and Roxie Campanella Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping the victims of spinal cord injuries. The foundation had been established after the three-time Most Valuable Player suffered career-ending paralysis following a 1958 car accident. Even after Roy’s death in 1993, Roxie continued to run the foundation and remained a prominent public figure in her later years, often attending Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Cooperstown, New York, and making frequent visits to Dodger Stadium.
Vedie Himsl (Died in March; age 86): Operating under the Chicago Cubs’ unusual rotating “College of Coaches” in the early 1960s, Himsl was designated to serve as the team’s “head coach” for the first two weeks of the 1961 season. Under his leadership, the Cubs won five games and lost six to start the season. Himsl was then replaced by Harry Craft, but then returned to the head coach’s chair for stints of 17 games and three games later in the summer.
Hersh Freeman (Died on January 17 in Orlando, Florida; age 75): A relief pitcher during the 1950s, Freeman toiled for the Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, and Chicago Cubs. The tall right-hander reached the pinnacle of his career in 1956, when he won 14 of 19 decisions for the Reds and notched 18 saves while logging over 108 innings. Two years later, the Reds traded Freeman to the Cubs for fellow pitcher Turk Lown. After his playing days, Freeman went to work for a juvenile detention home and as a high school baseball coach.
And Another Thing
The Hall of Fame will have a special visitor this spring, as acclaimed actor James Earl Jones comes to Cooperstown to take part in a Legends Series event. A veteran of several baseball films, Jones will be interviewed by film critic Jeffrey Lyons in a program exclusively for Friends of the Hall of Fame members on Saturday, April 17. Jones will discuss his role in three baseball-themed movies, including Field of Dreams (which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year), The Sandlot, and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. Friends of the Hall of Fame members can reserve tickets beginning April 5 by calling 607-547-0397.
Cooperstown Confidential writer Bruce Markusen is the author of three books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which is available at www.amazon.com and at Borders Books. A fourth book, The Kid: The Life of Ted Williams (Greenwood Press) is scheduled for release in the fall of 2004.