Okay, up front: I’m not mistaking Terry Collins for Bobby Valentine. That would be like mistaking a Tom Collins mixer for a mason jar of Kentucky bourbon. But after watching Bobby Abreu perform capably (so far!) for the 2014 Mets, I’m reminded of Rickey Henderson’s terrific (and unexpected) season for the 1999 Mets. At the time, I thought it was one of the best managing jobs of a single player I’d ever seen. I was convinced that Bobby Valentine squeezed the absolute best out of 40-year-old Rickey Henderson.
It was an unexpected success. And Rickey was squeezed dry in 1999. He hung around baseball until 2003 but it was his last successful season.
I decided to take a look back at the season, through the Rickey Lens. Rickey was, of course, one of the greatest to ever play the game. If you’re not convinced, just ask him. But he was 40 years old in the year he came to the Mets, coming off a 1998 season with the Athletics where he played 152 games with 670 PAs. The slash line was .236/.376/.347. Even so, amazingly, he stole 66 bases and walked 118 times, leading the AL in both categories. Rickey was a man on a mission at that time, but not a team-oriented one. He needed 232 runs to pass Ty Cobb on the all-time list. He was third in walks behind Ted Williams and Babe Ruth. Rickey wanted to be on top in both those categories, and the only way to do it was to play, a lot. Admitted Rickey, “That’s why I keep going, I want to go out and challenge Ty’s and Babe Ruth’s record. It makes you want to keep playing.” Rickey signed with the Mets for 1 year at $2.3 million, with an option for 2000. At the news conference, the Mets even wheeled out a birthday cake with 40 candles. By all reports, Rickey blew ‘em out easily. The previous season, Mets leadoff hitters had a OBP of .321 with only 15 SBs. The signing of Henderson was a direct attempt by GM Steve Phillips to address that area of weakness. In fact, it had been a busy offseason overall:
The Mets have been one of the majors’ busiest teams in the off-season, spending $163.9 million to keep Mike Piazza, Al Leiter and Dennis Cook, and sign Henderson and Robin Ventura. They have also made two big trades, getting Bobby Bonilla and Armando Benitez and dealing away Todd Hundley and Mel Rojas.
Rickey perceived himself as an everyday player. Bobby Valentine had other ideas. The Mets manager understood that the season was more important than the game — something that to date has been lost on Terry Collins.
That team had a dynamite infield and a great hitting catcher, but the outfield was something of a mess. Brian McRae, Roger Cedeno, Benny Agbayani, Bobby Bonilla, Daryl Hamilton and the 40-year-old Rickey. One thing is that other than Henderson, who had a gigantic ego, the rest of those guys didn’t have the resume or promise to demand any playing time. Valentine, who loved to tinker anyway, was a great fit for that team. He certainly got the most out of the group, and Henderson had the best season of any of them.
BV had the fortitude to stand up to Rickey, who wanted to play everyday. Or, perhaps, BV had the salesmanship to get Rickey to understand that, with regular rest, he’d perform at a higher level. Rickey concluded the season with .315/.423/.466 in rate stats. He played quite a bit, too, 121 games overall, or 3 out of every 4 games.
By the way, I have to add our very own beloved Met, Bobby Abreu, put up a pretty awesome season back in the way back of 1999. At age 25, Bobby hit 20 HRs and stole 27 bases. Abreu’s astonishing slash line: .335/.446/.549. Pretty darn good.
But in order to get the most out of Old Man Abreu, Terry needs to rest him before he gets exhausted. And in order to get Abreu into semi-regular games, he’s going to have to sit Chris Young much more often, a player whom I shall now refer to as Mr. Fifth Wheel. (Or not.)
I repeat: Chris Young must sit much more often.
As we’ve seen all season so far, outfielders go down to injuries, get assigned to the DL. There’s always opportunities for guys to play. I just hope that Terry takes a page out of BV’s book and seeks to maximize Abreu impact across a full season through regular rest and judicious matchups.
The fact is that so far the signing of Abreu has worked out well for the Mets. Whether he can hold up over time, no matter how he is utilized, remains to be seen. But Abreu has always been a very talented player, and maybe, just maybe, we can squeeze out a nice surprise year from Bobby in 2014. As you pointed out, it has happened before.