Well, here we go, Jimmy. The tough guys are heading out to the field. During the pregame warmups John Stearns overthrew Wally Backman, and Bud Harrelson had to intervene to maintain order. Shades of Foli/Kranepool!
Who will head to the mound to take the ball?
First off, if you are a first-time reader of this series, we are not just picking the best players. If we were, this would be a brief post. I would write the words “Tom Seaver.” We have had some fabulous pitchers over the years, but there is no doubt he is the greatest.
And you do not have Seaver’s career without intestinal fortitude. But as much as I love Seaver (I own one Mets jersey and it’s not Justin Turner‘s), he also had a killer fastball and wonderful slider. Seaver worked hard for sure, but he had a lot of gifts too. I can’t go with Tom. For this team I am thinking more of a gutsy guy who got by without the big stuff. The first guy I thought of was Bob Ojeda.
Surrounded by more talented pitchers, on a loaded staff, Ojeda kept pace with everyone. He gutted out big wins on big Met teams in big games. And down 2-0 in the 1986 World Series, after Gooden and Darling had lost, Ojeda took the hill in Boston and shut the Red Sox down completely.
Later, we all know, he cut off a piece of his finger on his pitching hand. After surgery he came back and continued his pitching career. I actually know a guy who did the same thing to his finger a year ago. He keeps telling me it is absolutely nuts that Ojeda was able to pitch again, that his pain threshold had to be off the charts. I still have all of my digits intact so I don’t know firsthand, but it makes sense to me.
But I know we have had a lot of pitchers over the years, Jimmy, so I’m interested in who you have been thinking of as well.
The life of a ballplayer after he retires will sometimes affect our perception of him as a player. Or at least as a character.
Look at Joe Morgan, who was once the best player on the planet, now he’s a punchline. Seaver went off to be alone in the worst place in the world, a vineyard full of grapes. You spend your summers swishing a glass and sniffing the bouquet. Then there’s Bob Ojeda on SNY. After some games, maybe he’s annoyed by something he saw, and it pisses him off, and then you see it — THE CRAZY EYES! Bob’s clearly disturbed on some level, and that’s a good thing because it translates into passion. He’s fiery. Competitive.
Ojeda wrote a terrific, honest article in The New York Times, “The Glory and the Pain of Pitching,” that’s essential reading. You can also download a 20-minute interview he did on the topic with the fabulous Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” So, yes, great choice, Mike. Bob was a tough cookie. But the guy I love more than any other is Jerry Koosman. He pitched great, tough as hell, and he would knock your ass down, period. Koosman had his teammates’ backs like no other pitcher in Mets history.
I know you loved Jerry. But as we both know, my favorite player of all time was certifiable tough man Ron Hunt. When we did second base, could you just give me Hunt? No, you had to start digging up Wally Backman videos and calling for votes. I’m still a little bitter about that. In other words, I’m not going to roll over on this without some discussion.
I’m sorry, Mike, I didn’t realize how much Ron Hunt meant to you. It was hurtful of me, I was insensitive to your feelings, I should have — hey, wait a minute. When did you become my wife? It’s Wally at 2B, we had a vote. Get over it, sister.
Now to be fair (my trademark), I do remember a clear example of Koos protecting his teammates, and it was a huge moment in team history.
On September 8, 1969, the Cubs came into Shea for a two game series, leading the NL East by two and a half games. Leo Durocher was the manager of those Cubs and he was known for believing in old-school intimidation. Sure enough, the Cubs pitcher, Bill Hands, fired a wicked fastball at the Mets first batter that night, Tommie Agee. Agee had to dive to the ground to save his life, and the Mets went quietly in the first.
Ron Santo led off for the Cubs the following inning and Koosman absolutely drilled him in the hand. The message was clear, NOBODY messes with my guys. He followed that up by striking out 13 in a thrilling 3-2 Mets win. To add to the karma of it all, Agee homered and doubled as the eventual offensive star of the game.
Seaver took care of business for the sweep the next day, and on September 10th the Cubs lost again and the Mets swept a twi-night doubleheader against the Expos to take over first place for good.
All started with a statement from Koosman.
So yeah, I get that Jerry has to be in the conversation but I’m not just going to carry your water here. Go for it, Jimmy, close the deal.
Here’s a fact you might not know: the Mets won all six post-season games started by Koosman.
Here’s another: as a Little Leaguer pitching for the Elks in 1970, I modeled my delivery after Koosman’s. I handled the lefty part pretty naturally, and brought my hands together high above my head, but the big leg kick took some work. So, yeah, he’s always been my guy. I also loved him on Kiner’s Korner, there was joy in that easy laugh.
Let’s also remember the 1969 World Series. After the Orioles beat Seaver in Game One, it looked like the forecasters might be right. It was going to rain on the Mets parade. But Koosman went out and pitched six hitless innings before giving up a single in the 7th to Paul Blair. “Kool Koos” went 8 2/3 before yielding to Dr. Ron Taylor, who got Brooks Robinson for the final out. Mets win, 2-1.
Even better, in some respects, was a moment in the Mets dugout during Game 5. Koosman did not have his best stuff that day, and the Orioles went up 3-0 in the top of the 3rd. I was eight years old and in the stands that Thursday afternoon (that’s my ticket up there in the header), fighting back tears. A home run by Dave McNally? The pitcher? What the hell?! But according to Bud Harrelson’s book, Turning Two, Koosman stormed into the dugout after that 3rd inning and announced [sic], “That’s it, no more runs.” He held the line right there, the team fought back, and Cleon caught that final out in deep left.
Jerry had that big rolling curveball, but he’d come inside and bust bats all the time. In a bit of irony — or poetry, I’m not sure — Koosman was traded to Minnesota for Jesse Orosco, who would later become the other Mets pitcher standing on the hill when Mets took the World Series. In ’86, I think it was.
Koosman will always be remembered as a class act. He came in 2nd behind Johnny Bench for Rookie of the Year in ’68, should have been the Series MVP in ’69, got screwed out of the Cy Young when the voters went for Randy Jones in ’76, and always toiled in Seaver’s shadow with the Mets. But that ends now. Jerry Koosman gets the ball as our starter for the “2 Guys” team.
Alright, fine. I give. I suppose I’m proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that I will never be voted “Tough Guy” blogger. Don’t tell my wife!
Congratulations to Jerry Koosman, our “2 Guys” Team starting pitcher.
Is that Armando Benetiz I see warming up in the bullpen? Uh, oh, Jerry better be able to go nine, or perhaps we need to keep looking around.
Don’t worry, Jerry can go nine. But let’s find a reliever anyway — we’ll only need one.