Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What If the Mets Had Drafted Reggie Jackson?



Note: This originally appeared in the March 26, 2010 edition of Uncle Mike's Musings, as a challenge from Jon Lewin, the Met half of the blog Subway Squawkers. (See link to the right.) Be careful what you wish for...

In 1966, the Kansas City Athletics -- soon to move to Oakland -- chose outfielder Reggie Jackson of Arizona State University with the 2nd pick in the Major League Baseball draft.

The first pick belonged to the Mets, who chose Steve Chilcott, a catcher just out of high school in Lancaster, California, outside of Los Angeles.

Why? Not because of original Met manager Casey Stengel's advice: "You gotta have a catcher. If you don't have a catcher, you'll have all passed balls."

No. According to legend, a legend Reggie was told at the time and continues to believe, it was because Reggie was black and had a white girlfriend.

Actually, Reggie's girlfriend, Jennie Campos, was Hispanic, the daughter of Mexican immigrants born and raised near Arizona State's Tempe campus. They eventually married... and divorced.

How could the Mets be so racist? Well, there's a line that has been attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Napoleon Bonaparte and Robert A. Heinlein, which I first read from the late great anthropologist and Yankee Fan Stephen Jay Gould: "Never ascribe to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity." With the Mets, always think stupidity before malice. Maybe the reason Reggie believes he was passed over by the Mets due to racism is that his agent wanted to soften the blow, by providing an explanation that, however false, and however vile if it had been true, made sense -- when there appears to have been no explanation that makes any sense. Make sense? As Bernie Kopell would have said on Get Smart at that time, "Zis is ze Mets! Ve don't make zenze here!"

Or maybe Reggie just wasn't ready for New York. Even in 1977, there were times when it didn't seem like he was ready. Sure seemed like it by September of that year, though. Definitely in October.

What happened to Chilcott? Well, he played 6 years in the minors, but injury kept him from reaching the majors. He had invested his $75,000 signing bonus in real estate, and that proved to be a far wiser decision than the Mets drafting him.

Only Chilcott, Brien Taylor (1991 Yankees) and, for the moment, Matt Bush (2004 Rays) have been Number 1 MLB Draft picks who never reached the majors.

Ironically, the Mets won the World Series in 1969 and the National League Pennant in 1973 anyway, with Jerry Grote -- not much of a hitter, but a good catcher -- behind the plate. So maybe they didn't need what Chilcott could have become if he'd stayed healthy.

But what could Reggie's booming bat, which hit 563 homers in RL, have done with the Mets? True, Yankee Stadium had that short right-field porch, and Shea Stadium was a pitcher's park. But he also played a lot of home games at the Oakland Coliseum and Anaheim Stadium, neither of which is a hitter's park.

So let's imagine that the Mets had done the right, and smart, thing...

*

1967: Reggie debuts with the Mets.

1968: Reggie is the Mets' starting right fielder, meaning that Ed Kranepool now plays a lot more first base, and Ron Swoboda gets traded. Swoboda ends up on the Oakland Athletics.

1969: The Mets win the Pennant, but lose Game 4 of the World Series when Reggie -- in the place we remember occupied by Swoboda -- not only doesn't make a great catch on Brooks Robinson's 9th inning liner, but does what we remember him doing at Fenway Park on June 18, 1977, "not hustling" in Billy Martin's words. The Orioles win that game, 3-2, win Game 5 3-0 (they did lead by that score until the 6th), and take the Series in Game 6 in Baltimore. Reggie hit 38 home runs, a Met record that will stand until 1996, but he is remembered as the goat of the Series.

1971: Unhappy with Reggie's contract demands following a strong '71 season, M. Donald Grant trades Reggie to the Chicago Cubs, whose owner Philip K. Wrigley not only is willing to pay Reggie the $120,000 a year he wants, but has some of Reggie's friends on the team: Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins, and the recently-retired Ernie Banks. Banks joins Negro League legend Buck O'Neil on the Cubs' coaching staff. The Cubs' manager (although, as it turns out, he gets fired the next season) is Leo Durocher, who managed Reggie's idol, Willie Mays, and until Leo is fired, they get along. Good situation for Reggie.

1972: The A's win their first World Series since 1930, when they were in Philadelphia, beating the Cincinnati Reds in 7 games. (Remember, Reggie was hurt and didn't play. I suspect Swoboda may have hit a home run in that Series.)

1973: Reggie Jackson is the Most Valuable Player of the National League, and the MVP of the World Series. First, the Cubs win the NL East. Then, in Game 3 of the NL Championship Series at Wrigley Field, Reggie slides into third base safely, and Pete Rose tags him in the face. Reggie clobbers Rose. Shocked that someone would not only stand up to him but beat him, Rose is never the same player. The Cubs take the Series the next day. Reggie homers off Oakland's Ken Holtzman in Game 7 of the Series, and the Cubs, Pennant winners for the first time in 28 years, are World Champions for the first time in 65 years -- the first World Championship for either Chicago team in 56 years. The Yankees remain the only franchise ever to win three straight World Series. (The A's, with Reggie, did so in 1972-74, and remain the only other one to do so.)

1974: The Cubs slump as Billy Williams and Ron Santo are getting older. The Orioles beat the A's in the American League Championship Series and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, for their 4th World Championship. (1966, 1969, 1970, 1974. That's one more than they've won in real life, as they add a 5th in 1983.)

1975: The Boston Red Sox beat the A's to win the American League Pennant, but lose a classic World Series to Willie Stargell and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates win the Pennant by beating the Reds, as Rose goes hitless in 11 at-bats.

1976: Charlie Finley breaks up his A's. The Mets that won the Pennant in '69 and nearly the Division in '73 have already been broken up. The Yankees win the Pennant on Chris Chambliss' homer. They lose the Series to the Philadelphia Phillies, who beat the Reds and then sweep the Yankees to win their first World Championship in 94 seasons of trying. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner opens the vault, and signs Reggie. After all, George reasons, if he can help Chicago win a World Series, why not New York?

Then history reasserts itself, until 1980, when the Phillies, who didn't need Rose to win the Series in '76, have the confidence to win it without him in '80.

Well, almost...

1978: The Denver A's debut at Mile High Stadium. This time, Finley completes the sale of the team to Marvin Davis.

1983: Pete Rose retires, shortly after finally getting his 3,000th hit. He is never named manager of a major league team. Ty Cobb remains baseball's all-time hit leader.

1984: Leon Durham scoops up a key grounder, and the Cubs manage to beat the San Diego Padres to win the Pennant. But they lose the Series to the Detroit Tigers.

1986: Former Met ace Tom Seaver comes in to close out the Red Sox' Game 6 win over the Mets at Shea Stadium, 5-3. His last pitch is a strikeout of Kevin Mitchell. (I originally had it as Gary Carter, but in the wake of Carter's death, and all the talk about him absolutely refusing to make the last out of a World Series, I decided to change it to the next batter.) The Sox win their first World Series in 68 years. The phrase "the Curse of the Bambino" never makes it out of Massachusetts. The Mets have never won a World Series.

1988: The Mets win the NL East, but Dwight Gooden meets Mike Scioscia. The Dodgers go on to beat the A's, who have won their first Pennant in 25 years, their first in Denver.

1989: In a World Series interrupted by an earthquake, the A's beat their former cross-bay rivals, the San Francisco Giants, to win their first World Championship in 27 years, their first in Colorado.

1990: The Reds beat the A's in the World Series. It is the Reds' first World Championship in 50 years. Their former star, Pete Rose, serves a short prison sentence for tax evasion.

1992: Seaver is elected to the Hall of Fame, wearing a Reds cap on his plaque.

1993: Reggie is elected to the Hall of Fame, wearing a Yankee cap on his plaque. Cub fans are not pleased, but, hey, it's only been 9 years since they won a Pennant, and 20 years since they won a World Series. The Washington Nationals and the Florida Marlins begin play as expansion teams. (These Nats are not the RL-Montreal Expos, but the RL-Colorado Rockies. Remember, the A's are in Denver in TTL, and the idea of returning Major League Baseball to Oakland doesn't seem so hot.)

1996: Pete Rose, having been briefly imprisoned, but not banned from baseball (since he was never Reds manager and never bet on baseball in such a capacity), is elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his 5th year of eligibility, despite having 3,000 career hits.

2000: The Yankees win the World Series, beating the Mets in 5 games. The Mets have now won 3 Pennants, but never a World Series.

2003: Cubs Hall-of-Famer Reggie Jackson throws out the first ball before Game 6 of the NLCS. The Cubs nearly blow a 3-0 8th inning lead, but hang on to win 3-2, and take the Pennant. The name of Steve Bartman is quickly forgotten, after Moises Alou remains calm after a minor incident. The Cubs go on to beat the Yankees in the World Series, winning Game 6, the last World Series game played at the old Yankee Stadium.

2004: The Red Sox beat the Yankees for the Pennant, but, having won the Series just 18 years earlier, it's a big deal, but not nearly as big a deal as we remember. The Expos, not having a good option to move (the Oakland Coliseum having been renovated to make it football-only for the returning Raiders), remain in Montreal for the time being. Pete Rose sues the makers of the film Mr. 3000, because of the premise of a player with 3,000 hits not making it into the Hall of Fame in his first 4 years of eligibility. The fact that the film's protagonist (played by Bernie Mac) is a black man playing for the Milwaukee Brewers, who is not a switch-hitter, and puts his massive ego aside to make a comeback, appears to be lost on Rose, who eventually loses the case.

2006: Aaron Heilman meets Yadier Molina, and the Mets blow a Pennant.

2007: The Mets lead the Phillies by 7 games with 17 to play, and end up not even getting the Wild Card. They get edged out for it by the Washington Nationals (RL-Rockies), who end up winning 21 of their last 22 games, including the postseason, to win the first Pennant for a Washington-based team in 74 years. But they lose the World Series to the Red Sox.

2008: The Mets lead the Phillies by 3 1/2 games with 17 to play, and end up not even getting the Wild Card.

2009: Following the collapses of the previous three seasons, David Lennon of Newsday publishes The Curse of M. Donald Grant, just in time for the Mets to leave title-less (unless you count the 1968-69 Jets) Shea Stadium for the new Citi Field.

2010: After 2 years of sharing U.S. Cellular Field with the crosstown White Sox, the Cubs move into a newly renovated Wrigley Field, now a modern(-ish) facility with 46,000 seats, but retaining some old touches like the ivy, the brick wall, the bleachers, the scoreboard. A fitting home for a team generally viewed as a winner.

2011: No appreciable change as far as standings are concerned.

2012: The Montreal Expos begin their 44th season of play, under new owners, who agree to build a new ballpark, thus saving the team for Montreal for the foreseeable future.

So the Cubs, Boston, Pittsburgh, Denver and Montreal benefit. The Mets, Oakland and Cincinnati get hurt. Pete Rose gets hurt, but he is better off than in RL, isn't he?

Reggie Jackson? He's a winner with the Cubs and the Yankees. With the Mets? Not so much.

1 comment: