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Darren Reed, the Mets’ beast of spring training

The spring training superstar could never catch a break.

Darren Reed
Photo courtesy of Darren Reed

Darren Reed’s inability to stay out of the doctor’s office ultimately short-circuited his career in baseball, and he’s still fighting to stay healthy today. Now 51, the former Mets outfielder best remembered for hitting spring training home runs is preparing for a medical challenge that rivals any of his numerous trips to the disabled list. Soon, he will undergo dual hip replacement surgery.

Persistent pain in his legs, hips, and back led him to have an MRI, after which the doctors gave him sobering news.

“They’re like ‘You have some degenerative discs but that’s not the issue, look at your hips’,” Reed said by phone March 15 from his home in Fresno, California. “’They’re shot; they’re completely bone-on-bone’,” he said they told him. “‘You’re gonna be in a wheelchair in five years’.”

“I’m 51 years old and I need both my hips replaced.”

He will have the surgery later this year, which will require an entire year of rehab in 2018.

“Hopefully after next year I’ll have a whole new life,” he said.

That would be a welcome change. Injuries dogged him throughout his pro career, costing him two full seasons just when it seemed he was finally getting a chance in the big leagues.

Reed was 22 and the key return for the Mets in the five-player trade that sent shortstop Rafael Santana to the Yankees after the 1987 season. He’d hit .321 with 28 homers and 95 RBIs between Double-A and Triple-A the year before, but found himself blocked behind Kevin McReynolds, Darryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra, Mookie Wilson, and Lee Mazzilli.

If Yankee Stadium was The House That Ruth Built, then the Mets’ spring complex—renamed First Data Field this year—might be called The Place That Reed Built, with a nod to all the homers he hit there.

“I loved Port St. Lucie, we were there in 1988 when the stadium opened,” he said. “I always had great springs.”

Did he ever.

From 1988 to 1991, Reed batted .337 with seven home runs and 28 RBIs, earning him nicknames like “Mr. March” and “Mr. Spring Training” among Mets fans. But it was never enough for Davey Johnson or Bud Harrelson to bring him north for Opening Day.

“Why am I not on this team right now?” he said he would ask himself. The response from the Mets was always the same: Go down to Tidewater and stay ready.

He finally did get the call early in 1990, striking out as a pinch-hitter on May 1 in a 5-2 loss to the Braves.

“I remember walking out on the field in Atlanta and the top of my head tingling and it was like I was on a cloud,” he said. “All these years of dreaming this dream and I’m standing here right now. It just blew my mind.”

His first big league hit came at Shea Stadium when he doubled off Mark Thurmond of the Giants in a 4-1 win on May 8, a dunker down the left-field line just out of the reach of a diving Kevin Mitchell.

“He jammed me a little bit,” Reed said.

He soon returned to the Tides and produced solid numbers, batting .265 with 17 homers, 74 RBIs and 16 stolen bases in 104 games. He proved to be a weapon on defense as well; his 19 outfield assists led the International League.

Reed was called back up in August and began to hit. His first homer, his only one as a Met, came against the Cubs at Shea Stadium on September 30. He went 3-for-4 that day and fell a double short of hitting for the cycle.

He found himself embroiled in a pennant race—the Mets were just 1.5 games behind Pittsburgh after taking both games of a two-game series with the Pirates in New York on September 12 and 13. But they ultimately fell short, going 9-10 the rest of the way while the Bucs went 11-7.

By the time the Mets went to Pittsburgh on October 1 for a three-game series to finish the year they were five games back and playing for pride. Reed batted leadoff all three games and went 3-for-4 with two doubles on the last game of the year.

“I put so much pressure on myself, but after I settled down I started to relax and right at the end of the season I was just going off,” he said.

It was common knowledge by then that Strawberry was going to leave as a free agent, and Reed acknowledged that the thought of replacing him in 1991 as the Mets’ right fielder occasionally crossed his mind.

When Strawberry signed with the Dodgers, the Mets brought in Vince Coleman and Hubie Brooks, leaving Reed to compete for a backup role.

Out of options and stuck behind Mark Carreon on the depth chart, the Mets dealt him on April 2 to the Expos. He was told he was very much in Montreal’s plans.

“They had literally traded for me to platoon with Larry Walker in right field,” he said.

With a week to go before Opening Day, Reed found himself playing an exhibition game against the Mets. Disaster was waiting to greet him.

“I got hit by my old teammate Alejandro Pena and that broke my arm,” he said.

The errant pitch cost him the entire season, during which Walker batted .290 in 137 games, launching his career. When Reed returned to the Expos the following spring, the opportunity for playing time was no longer there.

He took his frustration out on opposing pitchers, blasting four homers with eight RBIs in 33 at-bats that spring. It earned him a bench role, and he broke camp as a big leaguer for the first time in his career. But after hitting .173 in 42 games, he was traded to the Twins on August 31.

Unhappy in Minnesota, Reed told the Twins that he wanted to play in Japan in 1993 and asked to be released. But then the Mets came back into the picture.

“I got a call from (Baseball Operations Chief) Gerry Hunsicker and he said ‘Darren, we’re gonna get you back, are you in favor of that?’” he recalled. “And I said ‘C’mon Gerry, you know better than that, I’ll play for the Mets.’”

The Mets then reacquired Reed in exchange for outfielder Pat Howell.

“I thought after the 1990 season Reed was ready to emerge as a solid, regular major league player,” Hunsicker said after the trade.

It seemed like things were going to be different for Reed that spring. His .262 batting average, with 11 hits in 42 at-bats over 19 games, didn’t include a single homer, but right before Opening Day, disaster struck yet again.

Reed suffered a severe hamstring injury on March 28 during a game against the Braves at West Palm Beach, just as the Mets prepared to head north.

It wasn’t a pull or a strain, he said; the tendon had torn completely from the bone.

“(The doctors) said that usually happens to sprinters, or somebody who does a lot of lifting,” he said.

He said his cleats caught in the batter’s box as he started toward first on a hit, causing the injury. He then spent the entire season on the disabled list in New York doing all he could to come back.

“I was driving to Long Island every day to a rehab place; I don’t think anyone at that time knew the severity of the injury,” he recalled.

Reed said that Dallas Green, who replaced Jeff Torborg as manager after the team lost 25 of its first 38 games, wasn’t buying it and rode him pretty hard.

“We got into a fight right in the middle of the manager’s room that Gerry Hunsicker had to break up,” he said.

For the second time in three years, Reed never appeared in a game.

He signed with Pittsburgh in January 1994 and was up to his old ways during spring training, going 3-for-10 in nine games with all three hits home runs. But it wasn’t enough, and he was reassigned to minor league camp on March 19.

He began the year on the disabled list with Pittsburgh’s Triple-A club in Buffalo, and was activated on April 14. “I was playing on one leg, I was still trying to make it work,” he said.

Injuries continued to dog him—“I stepped in a hole in right field in Omaha and jarred my back,” he said—and he was let go after hitting .256 in 12 games.

“When I came back they said ‘Oh by the way you’re released’,” Reed said.

He finished the season in the Mexican League before signing a contract with the Braves’ Triple-A team in Richmond for 1995. He then played for Duluth-Superior in the independent Northern League in 1996, where he hit .345 while reinventing himself as a third baseman.

Reed said that Hunsicker, by that time the general manager of the Astros, called to say they were interested in bringing him to Houston in 1997.

“Stay healthy, you’re gonna be an Astro next year,” Reed said Hunsicker told him. “A week later, I ruptured my Achilles.”

That was the end for Reed. Mr. March, Mr. Spring Training, was no more.

“I said that was enough, it was a complete rupture,” he said. “I was done, I’d had enough at that point.”

He then left the game and bought 150 acres of land in Kentucky, where he got into farming.

“We were leasing out property to cattle owners, and sold topsoil and lumber,” he said. “I was trying to make the land work for us, and it did.”

He eventually moved back to California with his wife, Gloria, and son Hunter, now 17, though he hopes to get back to Kentucky one day.

He still pays attention to the Mets whenever he can.

Reed spoke of his time with the Mets to his son when they caught a glimpse of Noah Syndergaard during Grapefruit League play.

“Just the other day I told Hunter ‘Hey check this out, this crap wouldn’t have flown at all when I was playing’,” said Reed. “I said ‘Look at how long this guy’s hair is.’”

Reed said he showed up to training camp in 1990 with long hair in protest to getting sent down the previous two springs and was told to get it cut or not take the field.

“My hair wasn’t even that long and they told me I couldn’t even go on the field unless I cut it,” he said.

Those who assume Reed regrets the injuries that waylaid his career, or the lack of opportunities he received, might be surprised by his take on the subject.

“The one regret that I have now—I wish my son could have seen me then, and could have been a part of my life then, because I would have been so much better and so much more intense,” he said.

“When you’re playing against somebody who’s playing for their family, their motivation goes to a completely different level, [as opposed to] someone like me who was single and was just playing because I wanted to be [a ballplayer].

“I think if I would have had him with me, not only would I have been a better person off the field, I would have been way more intense on the field.”