Well, there are certain players who are so distinctive in one area of the game that it never leaves you. Eventually, they become part of your language; they become living, breathing examples. In a singular way, iconic. Someone doesn’t just throw well, they throw like Clemente. Or run like Reyes. You see a player you associate so much with one thing that he becomes the benchmark you use to judge all others. The first player who became a benchmark player for me, a living simile — Jesse Gonder.
There was a nice article written by Barry Duchan on Metsmerized Online, and I learned a lot about Gonder that I did not know. Gonder played for the early terrible Mets of my childhood; he was a catcher on the 1963, 1964, and 1965 squads. When you look up his statistics, they were not too bad for back then, especially when you consider the teams he played for. But for me, Gonder became forever associated with one thing. Jesse Gonder was slow. How slow? If Gonder was racing the hare, he could have slept as long as Rip Van Winkle and still have won the race. Gonder didn’t so much run as he lurched forward. It was painful to watch. And so, Jimmy, I had my first benchmark player. To this day I never call a player slow. Instead, “Jason Phillips runs like Jesse Gonder.”
I recently read a funny line about a slow player. A scout said, “He runs like he’s waiting for his blockers.”
Yeah, I understand what you are getting at. In our own private language — something that only you would instantly understand — I might comment that Justin Turner is “Our Towel Guy.”
Yes, Lenny Harris. He was, to me, the iconic bench player who was supposedly beloved in the clubhouse, essential for team morale. The pinch-hitting specialist who couldn’t hit; the player who couldn’t run, or field. We always asked, Why is that guy still on the team? What can he actually do? And the answer was always, “He’s a great clubhouse guy!” Waving those towels, slapping those backs.
Another guy I give you credit for making larger than life is none other than Masato Yoshi! In 1999, pitching adequately, he won 12 important games for the Mets. You loved him. The lesson was that a team’s #5 pitcher is never going to be great, but he can be immensely valuable if he’s better than the other team’s #5. The back end of the rotation may not get the headlines, but it can make a huge difference in a team’s won-loss record. In 2013, I think Dillon Gee could be our Yoshi.
For me another singularly iconic player is Craig Swan. Poor Craig had it bad in two ways. An excellent pitcher, the NL E.R.A. champ in 1978, Swan was stuck playing on our miserable mid-to-late 1970’s teams. Worse, he could never stay on the field.
Will Carroll has oftentimes remarked that staying healthy is a skill. Well, it is a skill Craig Swan did not possess. Now, to be clear, Swan didn’t have one major recurring injury. Swan’s problems were everything. The guy just didn’t seem to have the correct body to be a major league baseball player. The following is a list of injuries that landed Swan on the disabled list in the years he played for the Mets:
- Appendectomy followed by peritonitis,
- Stress fracture of elbow,
- Muscle strain behind shoulder,
- Torn rotator cuff,
- Fractured rib (when Ron Hodges hit him with a throw to second!),
- Discomfort in right shoulder.
Watching all this unfold from Shea, I coined a phrase I use to this day, Craig Swan’s Disease, which means, frankly, you are not built for a lifetime in sports. A recent example of usage — “Fernando Martinez will never make it. He has Craig Swan’s Disease. “
I could go on, there are so many skills and talents to appreciate or denigrate by association. Another beautiful thing about the game of baseball.
I’m sure everyone has their own standard bearers.