The 52nd season of New York Mets baseball kicked off this afternoon, with Jon Niese taking the Citi Field mound to face the San Diego Padres. This is the second time in club history that the Mets have drawn the Friars on Opening Day and, with luck, today's matchup will turn out better than the first clash between the teams. On April 1, 1997, the Mets opened the season at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium. Starter Pete Harnisch was sharp through five, holding the Padres to a pair of singles, while Todd Hundley and Bernard Gilkey continued their torrid hitting from the year before. In the third, Hundley, who set the single-season record for most home runs by a catcher in 1996, put the Mets on the board with a two-run jack. Two frames later, Gilkey, who one year before tied Howard Johnson's club record for most RBI in a season, picked up his first ribeyes of 1997 with a sharp two-run single to right.
Then the bottom of the sixth happened. Shortstop Chris Gomez was the first Padre to solve Harnisch, driving a 1-1 meatball over the wall. Five pitches later, future Met Rickey Henderson pulled one down the left field line and into the stands for a pinch hit homer. Then former Met farmhand Quilvio Veras did the same thing, but to the opposite field. Manager Bobby Valentine yanked Harnisch before he could try for the superfecta, bringing in lefty Yorkis Perez to face the port side-swinging heart of the San Diego batting order. Perez kept Tony Gywnn in the park, but not off the bases, as Mr. Padre stroked a single. After a strikeout by Steve Finley, Ken Caminiti tied things up yet another base knock, the fifth allowed by Mets pitching in the span of six batters.
At this point, Bobby Valentine went back to the bullpen and called upon right-hander Toby Borland, hoping the sidearmer could rain on the Padres' hit parade. The move worked, in a sense. Borland allowed no safeties, but he did walk three of the four batters he faced, including Chris Gomez with the bases loaded to force in the fifth run of the inning. Six more Friars would wind up crossing the plate before reliever Barry Manuel finally recorded the third out. All told, the Padres tallied 11 runs in the frame, en route to a 12-5 victory.
- Vern Hoscheit, the Mets bullpen coach from 1984 to 1987, would have turned 91 today. During spring training in 1986, Hoscheit was one of many who accurately predicted that the Mets would win the National League East that season. What made Hoscheit's prognostication more impressive than the rest is that he correctly guessed the Mets would lock up the pennant on September 17, which they did with a 4-2 win over the Cubs.
- Also celebrating a posthumous birthday is original Met Rod Kanehl, who would have been 79. Hot Rod, as he was nicknamed, spent his entire three-year major league career with New York, serving as a jack of all trades for manager Casey Stengel. Never much of a hitter, Kanehl could play every position and Stengel wrote his name into the lineup card at every spot on the diamond, save pitcher and catcher, at least once during the 1962 season. Kanehl also got his name into the Mets record books that season by becoming the first player in franchise history to hit a grand slam.
- Willie Montañez is 65. Acquired from the Braves in a weird four-way trade that send Jon Matlack to the Rangers and John Milner to the Pirates, Montañez was the Mets' starting first baseman from 1978 to '79. The team would have been better served trotting just about anyone else out there, however, as he was worth -1.6 rWAR over that span of time. Montañez's Mets tenure looks better according to traditional counting statistics, as he led the team in homers and RBI in 1978 with 17 and 96 respectively.
- Irish eyes are smiling on Daniel Murphy today, as it's the Irish Hammer's 28th birthday. In lieu of gifts, Murphy asks that Padres pitchers hang a few sliders that he can Blue Collar Blast into the Citi Field stands.
- Finally, happy birthday to Mets Hall of Famer Rusty Staub, who turns 69. Staub spent nine years in orange and blue. From 1972 to 1975, he served as the team's right fielder and clean up hitter, posting a very respectable .276/.361/.428 line. In 1975, he became the first Met to drive in more than 100 runs in a season, bringing his teammates into score a then-record 105 times. His second stint in Flushing stretched from 1981 until his retirement in 1985. Though limited to part-time duty, Staub still found a way to drive in a record amount of runs. In 1983, he tied the NL mark for most RBI by a pinch hitter with 25. For years, Rusty supplemented his baseball income via a second job as restauranteur. Times food critic Bryan Miller cited Rusty Staub's on Fifth as having "one of New York's better American wine lists" in an 1989 review.
The Mets brought a New York baseball legend back to the five boroughs on this date in 1963, purchasing the contract of Duke Snider from the Los Angeles Dodgers. One of the most beloved Bums of all, Snider was a shell of the Hall of Fame-caliber player who patrolled center at Ebbets Field for the better part of a decade by the time he joined New York's new NL franchise. Still, the 36-year old Silver Fox managed to hit 14 homers in '63 and was picked to represent the Mets at that summer's All-Star Game.
Nineteen years after importing a hometown hero, the Mets traded a homegrown one. On April 1, 1982, GM Frank Cashen sent 1979 All-Star MVP Lee Mazzilli to the Rangers for Ron Darling and Walt Terrell. Darling, of course, developed into an All-Star in his own right for the Mets. Terrell, meanwhile, turned into a trade chip that landed New York future two-time All-Star Howard Johnson. Best of all, Cashen resigned Maz in August 1986 and he, Darling, and Hojo all helped the Mets win their second World Series title ten weeks later.
Game of Note
In addition to the debacle detailed at the top of this post, the Mets have opened four other season openers on this date. The best of quartet occurred on April 1, 1996. Bobby Jones got the start at Shea against the Cardinals and St. Louis batters roughed him up for six runs in three-plus innings. Yeoman-like relief work from Blas Minor and Jerry Dipoto, paired with home runs from Todd Hundley and Bernard Gilkey, helped the Mets shave three runs off St. Louis's lead going into the top of the seventh. That's when rookie Rey Ordoñez would keep the Cards from getting any additional insurance with a jaw-dropping display of defensive prowess. With Royce Clayton on first, lefty Ray Lankford slashed a line drive to the opposite field. The Mets had been playing Lankford to pull, which should have given Clayton plenty of time to motor around the bases before left fielder Bernard Gilkey could get the ball home. Gilkey, a fundamentally sound defender, hustled to the ball and relayed it Ordoñez, an exceptional one. Ordoñez scooped Gilkey's low throw off the outfield grass, and then, kneeling from a spot roughly 15 feet behind third base fired a perfect one-hop strike that arrived at the plate moments before Clayton. Since words hardly do it justice, you can watch the whole play unfold here.
Not seen in the linked clip, however, is the four-run rally the Mets pulled off in the bottom half of the inning. Chris Jones, Lance Johnson, and the aforementioned Gilkey hit consecutive RBI singles to tie the game, while Rico Brogna put New York up for good with a sac fly. Doug Henry and John Franco each chucked an inning of hitless relief to ensure the Mets opened the '96 season with a 7-6 win.
Amazin'-ly Tenuous Connection
April 1st is the worst day of the year when it comes to internet. Say what you will about print journalism, it definitely knew how to do April Fool's Day right. Perhaps the best hoax in the history of sportswriting was hatched 28 years ago today in the pages of Sports Illustrated and it featured the New York Mets. If you haven't yet, read "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch" by George Plimpton and remember TINSTAAPP.