This is a collaborative effort of words, numbers (Chris & Jon DeRosa) and original artwork (Ben DeRosa) dedicated to the memory of Joseph DeRosa, our grandfather, who pretty much hated every personnel move his beloved New York Mets ever made.
Over at the Hardball Times, one of our favorite baseball writers, the estimable Steve Treder, does these fascinating roster reconstructions, speculating on what might have happened if this or that team hadn’t gone through with some pivotal personnel decisions. In one piece, he imagined what might have become of the Braves had they not passed on Willie Mays. In another, he asked what if the Giants had sorted out their talent correctly in the 1960s. The “what if” scenario that most tantalizes Yankee fans is, of course, “what if the Yankees had held onto the group of prospects they produced in the mid-90s?”
What if the Yankees hadn’t given up on Andy Pettitte and dealt him off the National League in 1994? Then they might not have been so desperate for left-handed pitching that they were willing to swapfuture all-stars Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera to Detroit for David Wells. While Mariano has earned a reputation as a postseason choker due to his memorable meltdown in his first and only postseason appearance in 2006, it’s quite possible that with a few more chances he might have sorted things out.
What if the Yankee front office saw the charismatic future star they had in Derek Jeter, and hadn’t traded him to the Reds? Unlikely? Sure. But just pretend for a minute that Tony Fernandez had gotten injured at the outset of the 1996 season, and Jeter had gotten a chance to play in pinstripes.
It is difficult, even in the form of a Marvel Comics “What If?” fantasy, to imagine Bernie Williams starring for the Yanks instead of the Sox—when has George Steinbrenner ever given an unproven outfielder 1300 plate appearances to blossom?—but for the sake of argument, let’s just say that George was somehow suspended from making a premature call on Bernie and he roamed centerfield for an entire decade. What then?
With their actual free-agent signings to buttress this up-the-middle talent core, the Yankees might have had some kind of ballclub in the late 90s-early ‘00s.
To indulge such an exercise, you have to imagine the very same people behaving differently, but even still, it is remarkable that such a thin tissue of attitudes and circumstances means the difference between a great team coming together or not. Go back and check the trade rumors swirling around the NL forty years ago, for instance, and you will see that but for a few key decisions, the Amazin’ Mets dynasty of the 1970s might too have been scattered to the winds.
In 1965, the Mets famously drew the rights to Tom Seaver out of a hat, so it is easy to imagine that one going another way. But you can also construct a plausible scenario wherein the Mets missed out on their offensive cornerstone, Reggie Jackson.
Everyone has heard the story, recently covered by our own Bruce Markusen, about how the Mets’ front office was mortified to discover, shortly after the 1966 Amateur Draft, that Jackson, their #1 pick, had a white girlfriend. Today, it is hard to imagine that the architects of the ‘70s Mets, even if they had known about this beforethe draft, would have been so squeamish as to bypass the Arizona State star for their second choice, catcher Steve Chilcott, but the year was 1966, and club president George Weiss was ever worried about what they’d think in Westchester.
In 1969, Seaver won 25 games with a 2.21 ERA, leading the Mets to 104 wins. Jackson, who finished second in the MVP voting, was on pace to smash the home run record before cooling off and settling for 51 homers and 125 RBIs. Without either Seaver or Jackson, the Mets might still have won the NL pennant in 1969 (though it would have been a miracle pennant). Without both, no way.
That is why it was so unfair that Reggie became sort of a goat in the dynasty’s first World Series. With one out and two on in the top of the ninth in Game 4, with the Mets leading the series 2-1 and the ballgame 1-0, Brooks Robinson blasted a Seaver offering into right-center field. Reggie dove—went fully horizontal—but missed. The ball rolled to the wall as both runners scored and Robinson pulled into second with a go-ahead double. The press was all over him for the dive: “There’s not enough mustard in the world to cover that hot dog,” wrote one wag. They thought that he should have tried to hold Robinson to a single and prevent Boog Powell from scoring from first, but really, the dive was his only play.
The Orioles closed it out in the bottom of the ninth to even the series. Koosman put the Mets back up 3-2 with complete-game victory in Game 5, but the Orioles stormed back to take the final two games. Jackson would be back. But if the Mets had followed through on some of the curious trade ideas of the next couple of years, the image of him sprawling in Game 4 as the Os raced around the bases might have been an enduring one.
1970 – 2nd Place NL East
With Reggie in right, slick-fielding Tommie Agee in center, and batting-title contender Cleon Jones in left, the Mets had nowhere to put fleet-footed rookie Amos Otis. Manager Gil Hodges’s first impulse was to try to convert the talented youngster to third base. That didn’t work, and we now know the Mets considered dealing the apparently superfluous Otis off to Kansas City for infield help. Wisely, however, the front office decided that it would be easier to make Cleon Jones into a first baseman than it was to make Otis a third baseman. Otis was an immediate star, hitting .306 with 40 doubles, 10 triples, and 12 homers, swiping 36 bags and scoring 99 runs. Even still, the Mets took some heat for the move: Jones struggled at the plate and in the field, and they had buried a capable power hitter in Donn Clendenon. Worst of all, they came up short in the NL east, finishing one game behind the Pirates with 88 wins.
1971 – 2nd Place NL East
But if the Mets had given up on Otis, they’d never have been able to establish one of the most famous outfields in big league history. By trading Agee in the offseason, the Mets returned Otis to his natural position in center, and stationed rookie Ken Singleton in left. The fact that both Agee and Jackson were striking out 150 times a year made it an easier call for the Mets—teams could get pretty hung up on a batter’s whiffs back in the ‘70s. The Mets improved to 91 wins, but finished six games behind Pittsburgh. More importantly, the young Mets, so close to winning in 1969 but now seemingly slipping further behind the powerful Pirates, developed a distinct distaste for second place.
Coming up tomorrow… Patience pays off in Revising a Miracle, Part 2: The Kings of New York.
Win Shares from Bill James & Jim Henzler, Win Shares (2002); ersatz Met stats derived from Baseball Reference’s cool neutralized stats feature.
To see more of Ben’s artwork, check out inkstink.