The Mets All-Time “2 Guys” Team infield is beginning to take shape. We have already filled out the left side of the infield with Carlos Delgado and Wally Backman; today let’s take a look at the shortstop position. A few notable tough guys have played shortstop for the Mets. Lenny Randle became a Met in 1977 after decking his manager with the Rangers, Frank Lucchesi. But Randle only played shortstop once for the Mets so he would be getting into this club of ours on a technicality. A more important note: Randle played for Billy Martin right before Lucchesi. If Randle was so tough, how come they never tangled? Word is Billy could be a little confrontational.
Larry Bowa, who played for us in 1985, is known to this day to be a crazy and rough character. But Bowa was hardly a Met. He was passing through on his way to retirement. Thinking of Bowa as a Met is like thinking of Mike Piazza as an Oakland A. So I’m tossing Bowa too. After deciding that I didn’t find Teddy Martinez, Wilson Delgado, or Jose Vizcaino very rough around the edges, I zeroed in on two guys. Tim Foli and Bud Harrelson.
Tim Foli, who had two tours of duty with the Mets, was always known as a fiery guy. His nickname was “Crazy Horse” due to his sometimes out of control temper. Two incidents from Tim’s time with the Mets come to mind. Once in 1971, the high-strung Foli confronted Ed Kranepool and a fight ensued over the quality of his throws to first base during warm-ups. The much bigger Kranepool ended up decking Foli. That’s right, they fought over warm-ups. Hey, Jimmy, can we re-do first base? His next conflict got him shipped to the Expos as he was traded within a few weeks of an ugly shouting match with Joe Pignatano. What do you think Jimmy, is Foli our guy?
It’s easy to confuse “tough guy” with “asshole.” I guess there’s a thin line. I’m not saying that Foli was a jerk, exactly, because frankly I have no idea. But he tangled with Kranepool and Pignatano — those are the wrong enemies. (By the way, I have a Joe Pignatano story for you, if you’ve ever got the time). One player you didn’t mention whom I suspect might have been the toughest of them all was old Roy McMillan, 7th on the all-time list of games played at SS for the Mets. Couldn’t hit a lick. He was all banged up and broken down by the time he reached Shea, but Harrelson revered Roy and followed him around at infield practice. They used to call players like McMillan “the glue” of the infield and it’s something of a lost phrase, but a great way describing the importance of that kind of player. As far as I know, the sabermetricians haven’t come up with a “Glue Index Equation,” so that quality is currently undervalued in today’s baseball. That said, barring a last-minute write-in vote for Kevin Mitchell (24 games at SS, thank you, Davey Johnson!), I think this is a case where the obvious answer is also the best. You know as well as I do, it has to be Buddy. Pete Rose would agree!
I forgot McMillan, that was a good one, Jimmy. Roy had that quiet toughness that I admire very much, a Gil Hodges like quality. Good job there. And yes, OK, in the end I know it is Harrelson who is the pick. We start with the obvious example of his standing tall and taking on big, bad Pete Rose in the 1973 NLCS. But it wasn’t just that one moment. Buddy was a gritty leader on those late 1960’s and early 1970’s teams, an era of Mets squads that was as good as any we have ever had. A great defensive shortstop, Buddy was the best I have seen at tracking pop-ups. He had an uncanny ability to quickly recognize where a ball was going and always took the right angle.
I just breezed through Buddy’s book, Turning Two, which is an entertaining read for a Mets fan looking for a happy recap. Harrelson was the only Met in uniform for both the 1969 and 1986 World Championship teams. He credits Casey Stengel for turning him into a switch-hitter. He played under Hodges and Berra. He roomed with Tom Seaver. As third-base coach, he waved around Ray Knight to score the winning run in Game Six of the ’86 World Series. He managed Gooden and Strawberry. In short: Buddy was there. At Spring Training when the players stepped on the scales, Hodges used to say, “You’re the strongest 147-pound player I’ve ever seen.” Buddy strikes me as an old-fashioned guy — not that there’s anything wrong with that. Loyal to the organization, he’s not going to speak poorly about anyone: Buddy takes his trash out to the curb; he doesn’t publish it between the covers of a book. (Terry Collins is like him in that respect: a company man.) The worst thing that could have happened to Harrelson was the day Frank Cashen asked him, more like ordered him, to take over the reigns as Mets manager. First, he had to follow in the footsteps of Davey Johnson, who should never have been fired. Secondly, Harrelson never wanted the job. He did well after taking over in mid-season, 1990 (71-49 record), but then Strawberry bolted for L.A. and 1991 was just a sad, crumbling affair all around. Harrelson wasn’t cut out to be a manager, hated dealing with the media, just not his temperament, and the team fell apart around him while he stood by and helplessly watched. I think Harrelson’s reputation with the fans suffered as a result. When he caved to management’s demand that he start rookie Julio Valera over Ron Darling in a crucial late-season game, it was all over. Valera bombed and the veterans fumed. In the book, Harrelson poignantly wrote:
I never wanted the job of managing the Mets, and I kind of wish I had never done it. Once you’re a manager and you get fired, you can’t go back (unless you’re Billy Martin and you work for George Steinbrenner). I love coaching, and if I had never managed, I might have become this generation’s Frank Crosetti (who coached for the Yankees for 21 years after playing for them for 17 years). I might still be there as a coach.
Harrelson’s time as manager was painful to watch. He just didn’t have the temperament for the job. WFAN had just started exploding, and I still remember driving into Shea listening to Mets Extra with Buddy and Howie Rose. It was clear Harrelson hated every second of doing it. Eventually he quit the gig.
In the end, things worked out well as Buddy’s involvement with the Ducks has been a great match for both him and that enterprise.
Speaking of toughness, in Turning Two, Buddy tells a great Bob Gibson story. Harrelson was named to the 1970 NL All-Star team. He walked into the clubhouse with Tom Seaver at his side. There’s Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, Willie McCovey, Dick Allen, and Willie Mays. They spied Bob Gibson sitting at his locker. Seaver walked up, said hello, and shook Gibson’s hand. Harrelson extended his, but Gibson didn’t move. Just sat there and glared. He wouldn’t shake Buddy’s hand. Years later, Harrelson finally questioned Gibson about that incident. He said, “You shook Seaver’s hand but you wouldn’t shake mine.”
Gibson replied, “I never shake the hand of a hitter.”