h1

Gregg Jefferies

December 28, 2009

This Christmas, just like the last one, happily, I got a gift of a stack of thrift store baseball cards from my wife’s aunt. She also gave me four large microbrewery beers and a game called “Classic Baseball” that included about 50 cheaply produced 1989 baseball cards, a small cardboard game board in the shape of a baseball diamond, a die, and three Parcheesi-esque game pieces. There were no directions on how to play the game, but on the back of each card, below statistics that show the player’s 1988 output and his career totals, there are five trivia questions labeled S, D, T, HR, and R. After Christmas my wife used the cards to quiz me, and I stumbled along at a 50/50 pace at first and then, after polishing off most of the microbrews, I started to heat up. I came up with the correct answers for all the questions on the back of this Gregg Jefferies card, though I had to take a couple stabs at the third question before getting it right.

S (T-F) Carl Yastrzemski appeared in at least 3000 M.L. games.

D I was the last player to hit 50 HRs in a season. Who am I? [Note: Remember, the cards were produced in 1989.]

T Who was the Career Strike Out King, prior to Reggie Jackson?

HR Name the only M.L. player killed by a pitched ball?

R Dwight Gooden is sometimes referred to as whom?

I don’t know what to do with the game board and die and game pieces, but the cards will be going into the shoebox with all my cards from my childhood. I like these new arrivals, as they throw light on a section of baseball history that is otherwise not represented in the box of cards that stopped growing in 1981. And even after I stopped worshipping the gods, I still relied on baseball to measure my life by. So seeing players from the late 1980s and early 1990s, which is where the players in the thrift store stacks from Aunt Celia are always from, brings back that time in my life, when I was edging into my twenties, leaving college, starting to see what the world had in store for me.

Gregg Jefferies occupies a small but key place in my internal baseball-compassed map of the world. By the time I started living in New York, fresh out of college, in 1990, Jefferies (just a few months my senior) had already begun gathering blame for the flagging fortunes of the New York Mets.

Jefferies had been drafted in the first round by the Mets in 1985, the same year the team arrived as a force in the National League, winning 98 games behind a young, talented core that seemed destined to lead the team to championship contention for years to come. The promise of the team arrived the following year, the Mets winning 108 games and a World Series title. That year, Jefferies, just 18 years old, blitzed the minors at the A and AA levels with a combined .353 batting average with 32 doubles, 11 triples, and 16 home runs in 125 games. He hit .367 in the minors the following year, earning a late-season cup of scorching coffee (3 hits in 6 at-bats) with the big club, and in 1988, the year depicted in this “Classic Baseball” card, he came up to the Mets in late August and sparked the team to a dominating 24-7 finish to the season by hitting .321 with 8 doubles, 2 triples, and 6 home runs in 29 games. The 20-year-old kept up the hot hitting in the playoffs, playing in all seven games of the team’s series loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers, in which he hit .333 with a .438 on-base percentage. Despite the loss, the future still seemed bright for the Mets, in large part because of the great expectations created by the young switch-hitter.

As the would-be dynasty of the Mets began to unravel due to poor trades, drug problems, and aging, the spotlight of fan hopes for the team fell on Gregg Jefferies, and Gregg Jefferies proved to be something less than the sawed-off shotgun version of Mickey Mantle that he had first appeared to be. Unfortunately for him, the disappointment around his failure to meet nearly impossible expectations was compounded by his being something of a polar opposite of the Mets at their 1986 peak. Compared to those Mets, who collectively had spilled over with the volatile, abrasive, magnetic personality of a band of outlaws, Jefferies seemed almost robotic. Worse, his dogged pursuance of a metronomic consistency in his game came across as bordering on selfish, as if all he cared about was the health of his batting average and not about “doing the little things” it took to win. Also, he was well short of being a wizard with the glove, and his inability to put an ironclad claim on a fielding position added more marks against him in fans’ minds. As he bounced from position to position he kept supplanting the incumbent at the position, and it was almost as if he was an eraser, removing one player after another who had been on the 1986 team. I don’t think this is actually how it went down, i.e., that as he switched from position to position he sent one after another ’86 champ packing, but I’m pretty confident that I’m getting the general subjective view of Jefferies correct: he replaced the ’86 Mets. It was hard for Mets fans to look at Gregg Jefferies’ youthful, slightly pudgy face and his underwhelming batting average and not feel a little cheated.

So by the time I got to New York City to start my adult life, Gregg Jefferies had become something of a human bad luck charm. If it had been colonial Salem, he probably would have been deemed a witch and tossed onto a bonfire. Nowadays such offenders are shipped to Kansas City. The following season the erstwhile future of the Mets returned to the National League, with the Cardinals, and hit his stride, vying for the 1993 N.L. batting title and hitting over .300 for three years in a row. He kicked around for a few more years beyond this admirable peak, and hung it up in 2000 with 1593 total hits and a .289 career batting average. (A few years later, he somehow even garnered two Hall of Fame votes.) But I’ll always remember him as a young guy who couldn’t get it together back when I was a young guy who also couldn’t get it together. You’d think I’d have thought fondly of him, or at least empathized with his plight, but I razzed him along with everyone else. Even to this day I can’t help looking at this 1989 “Classic Baseball” card of him laying down a bunt and think that he is in the midst of a humiliating failure. In truth, the ball has probably already made contact with his bat, and he has ably carried out his task. But it just seems more fitting to think that the ball is still on its way from the pitcher, and that Jefferies has sorely miscalculated in his gyrations, and in the next moment the ball will punch him in the stomach and he will crumple to the dirt in a heap as mockery and derision rain down from the stands. 

20 comments

  1. So who is the answer to that third question? Rather than look it up, I’m going to guess Mickey Mantle.

    I seem to recall Mets fans around these parts being unhappy with Jefferies when they realized he wasn’t going to hit .350 with 50 doubles every year. If he could have done that, they would have learned to love his non-personality.


  2. I think Willie Stargell was the all time strike-out king prior to Jackson.

    It’s interesting to look back now but Jefferies was the begining of the end to that Mets period of ’84-90. I’ve rooted for the Mets for 35 odd years so I remember this time period very well. Also this was the begining of the 24hr sports talk radio format which added a lot of gasoline to the Jefferies fire.

    I remember the end of ’88 when Jefferies arrived and there such a huge rush of excitement about this guy because he was a very good hitter and he was very young and it looked like he was going to be the cornerstone of this franchise for years to come. I remember there was even caution as to how many at bats he got in ’88 because they wanted to make sure he could qualify for the ’89 ROY.

    There was so much attention being placed on him that there was no way he could ever live up to expectations.

    First they had to find a place for him to play in ’89. There was a lot of talk about trading Howard Johnson for Mark Langston in ’89 but that never came about so I think Wally Backman was traded and Jefferies was given the 2b job which caused a lot of backlash among the veterans.

    This was also the begining of what I call the “Iron Glove” period 1989-1993 for the Mets, quite literally some of the worst fielding teams in BB history. Samuel/Ho Jo in center, Jefferies/Miller 2b, Magadan/HO Jo/Donells/Bonilla-3b, Boston-of, Schofield/Pecota-SS, Coleman-Lf, Carreon/Bonilla-Rf, Sasser-C, 38 year old Randolph-2b, 39 year old Eddie Murray at first.

    Then Jefferies came off as a selfish player which caused more trouble with the veterans. McDowell/Dykstra hated Jefferies and were traded for Samuel because of it.

    Then Jefferies came off as more of a selfish/douche which caused a backlash with the NY fans.

    In hindsight it really wasn’t all Jefferies fault, The Mets had a terrible habit of over-hyping players Magadan/Jefferies/Careon/Sasser/Brogna/Wilson/Izzy/Pulsipher/Ochoa/Escobar all of whom could never live up the expectations the Mets ownership put on them.


  3. Wow, Mark Langston. Remember when everything seemed to center on who would land Mark Langston? Now he’s a forgotten player.


  4. And you were right – Stargell passed Mantle in ’78, then Reggie passed Pops in ’82.


  5. In 1989, Jefferies put up a 106 OPS+ in 508 ABs as a 21-year old. Since 1970, that ranks as the 29th-best season by a 21-year old with at least 400 ABs. The Top 10 on the list (all significantly above Jefferies) is an impressive group, showing how important it is to be able to come up early and perform well. Cesar Cedeno, Albert Pujols, Ken Griffey Jr., Bob Horner, Darryl Strawberry, Rickey Henderson, Miguel Cabrera, Tom Brunansky, Justin Upton and Eddie Murray, who had a 123 OPS+, are the top 10.

    If we limit it to second baseman, here’s the list:

    Delino DeShields – 116
    Roberto Alomar – 107
    Gregg Jefferies – 106
    Willie Randolph – 102
    Lou Whitaker – 101
    Paul Molitor – 89
    Jerry Browne – 87
    Luis Rivas – 79
    Derrell Thomas – 77

    To play full time at 2B at the age of 21 is something that only 9 players have done in the past 40 years. The guy who had the closest OPS+ season to Jefferies is likely going in the Hall of Fame this year.

    And then we add to the fact that Jefferies did this with a .264 BABIP, making the achievement all the more remarkable. Most players put up a BABIP between .290 and .310 (Jefferies career mark in the category was .291).

    Jefferies was not a no-good player that the Mets overhyped. He won Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year award in both 1986 and 1987. The latter year he batted .367 with 20 HR as a 19-year old who spent the entire season in Double-A. Just imagine how all of the prospect hounds would act today if someone did that.

    What the veterans on the Mets, the front office, the media and the fans combined to do to Jefferies is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen as a fan of the team. What he did those two seasons in St. Louis (a combined .335/.401/.487 line) is what he should have done for a dozen years or more in New York.

    That Davey Johnson allowed this to happen is even more mind boggling to me. The man who made a career out of focusing on what players could do, rather than what they couldn’t, and who was one of the more progressive, stat-friendly managers around – that he sat around and let Jefferies be ostracized by his teammates, deemed a failure due to his “fundamentals” and virtually run out of town (yes, the trade happened after Johnson left but the conditions which led to it all happened on his watch) has got to be one of the biggest black marks in his otherwise outstanding career.

    It would be interesting to hear Johnson’s take on this situation with the value of hindsight.


  6. The Expos won the Mark Langston sweepstakes by trading Gene Harris, Brian Holman, and another guy to Seattle, and Montreal fans lived happily ever after.


  7. I will never forget the Strat O Matic cards for those Mets teams of the late 80’s. Everybody seemed to be playing out of position (so there were a lot of 3’s and 4’s). The trades the Mets were bad. After ’86 Kevin Mitchell was shipped to SF where he won the MVP. David Cone was shipped in the last year of his contract to Toronto for Ryan Thompson and Ed Hearn!One of the first of the “get something instead of nothing” deals. Dykstra was shipped to Phily where he won a batting title and almost another Series. Not a good era for the Mets front office. They should have won more than one Series with the talent that they had at the major and minor league level.


  8. I may be wrong, but I think the Mets also got Jeff Kent in that David Cone deal (though he didn’t stick around for very long).


  9. Yeah, it was definitely Coney for Kent & Thompson. They *got* Cone from KC for Ed Hearn.

    It was not a blast to be a Yankee fan in Port Washington in those days. A lot of the Met players lived in town and often were seen living the high life in a certain local watering hole (Finn MacCool’s). Port Washington is where Bobby Ojeda trimmed his finger along with his hedges, not far from the home of Times sportswriter George Vecsey.

    I do happily recall Doc Gooden living in a small rented apartment near the LIRR station in his rookie year, and Strawberry soon thereafter living in a nice, but modest house across the street from one of my best buddies. This was before things went South for those two.


  10. Bjoura,

    Good points about the Mets mishandling the Jefferies situation. What they really should have done is make sure he was set at position before trading a popular veteran and then insisting that this brash rookie hold the job.

    Also, I don’t think the Mets front office was prepared to deal with a 24 all talk sports station in New York and I think Jefferies was one of the early whipping boys for that station.

    Jefferies could hit but he was a horrible fielder. IN 1988 he had a (-12) Total zone fielding so that basically negated any of the good he did with the bat. ’89 wasn’t much better with a (-10). What he really should have been was a DH or a 1b/lf which they didn’t figure out until Joe Torre had him in ’93.


  11. The Mets always seemed to be chasing hitters who ended up seeming like a disappointment because they played in a pitcher’s park. Now in a new park, it looks like it’s David Wright’s turn.

    God, I didn’t realize how bad those 1990-era Mets were in the field. That’s quite a Murderer’s Row of gloves. Between all the bad vibes and the Gooden/Strawberry mid-air collision, it’s amazing the Mets managed to squeeze in winning it all in ’86. Take out ’69 and ’96–two very notable exceptions, granted–and that looks one very cursed franchise. Not a lot of warm-and-fuzzy stuff coming from the Mets organization.

    That’s why I respect Mets fans, though; it’s easy to root for the Yankees, you have to be a real fan to root for the Mets.


  12. Sure, that’s true now (and has been for most of the time from 1962 until now), but there was that moment, from, say ’84-’92, when every bandwagon fan in the Metro area was a Met fan. The Yankees were even good through ’88, but it was Mets everywhere you turned. I think the ascendance of WFAN and 24-hour sports talk radio hurt and helped the Mets more than the Yankees for that reason. In 1991, no one was talking about the Yankees, so the non-stop ranting was almost entirely directed at the Mets.

    I’ll still never understand how the ’88 Mets failed to win the NLCS.


  13. sb1902,

    The Mets are a very hard team to root for sometimes. To me they’ve always had a sort of indentity crisis because they’re the “new kid” in town even though the Franchise has been around for about 50 years. And they will never be as successful as their “big brother” in the Bronx. It’s kind of like having an older brother that’s won all these awards and championships and you’re just trying to keep up.

    They’ve also had this bad habit of signing or trading for “former” established stars in the hope that they will perform well for the Mets. Almost in the need for instant credibility. For every 1 that works out like Keith Hernandez there seems to be about 15 that never work out: (Fregosi, Torre, Lolich, Valentine, Foster, Samuel, Bonilla, Coleman, Baerga, Alomar, Vaughn, Burnitz,) just to name a few off the top of my head.

    Then the stars that work out for at least a few years, (Staub, Carter, McReynolds, Viola, Franco, Piazza) usually cost a lot of young talent in trades.

    That 1984-1990 period reallly should have been more successful than just 1 WS and a division. To me there was far too much talent on those teams not to be more successful but it seems that for every good move Cone-Hearn they made about 15 bad moves or at best 15 neutral moves.


  14. Let’s be honest, though – Bolivian marching powder and booze had as deleterious effect on the 80s Mets as bad roster moves did.


  15. “They’ve also had this bad habit of signing or trading for ‘former’ established stars in the hope that they will perform well for the Mets. Almost in the need for instant credibility. For every 1 that works out . . . there seems to be about 15 that never work out: Fregosi, Torre, Lolich, Valentine, Foster, Samuel, Bonilla, Coleman, Baerga, Alomar, Vaughn, Burnitz. . .) ”

    Another name for the list?
    http://www.boston.com/sports/baseball/redsox/extras/extra_bases/2009/12/report_bay_to_s.html


  16. Bjoura,
    The Wilpons still aren’t prepared to deal with 24 hour all talk sports stations.

    Blankemon,
    I will never forget the look on Davy Johnson’s face during game 7 when it was apparent that the Mets were going to lose. He also could not understand how that ’88 team failed to win the NLCS.


  17. Here’s a good article by Rob Neyer about the Met habit of not establishing home grown players and constantly looking to the free-agent market to fill their voids.

    http://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot

    The article brings out an amazing fact: since 1985 the Mets have only developed 5 players that would play in an all star game in a Mets uniform: Wright, Reyes, Hundley, Alfonzo, and Bobby Jones.


  18. Jefferies wrote an open letter to the fans which was printed in the NYTimes I think in ’91. This seemed to be the final straw in having the tide turn against him permanently with the fans. WFAN hosts read the letter on the air in a derisive fashion and made a mockery of Jefferies.

    Also, any big mets fan will remember the excitement the day Jefferies, McReynolds, and Keith Miller were traded to KC for Saberhagen(the bleach master) and Bill Pecota.


  19. Somehow, Jeff Torborg and Bill Pecota and the Mets’ season were all doomed that day with these words uttered to the press with boy scout enthusiasm by skipper Jeff Torborg: “Just wait’ll you see Bill Pecota.”


  20. First, I HAVE that Classic game from 89! It’s in climate-controlled storage with a ton of other baseball cards and memorabilia from my 30-some years of collecting the markers from the game I love. I remember being excited to see “Hobbesy,” as he was known in the minors, come to play for my (then) Tidewater Tides in 1988. It was the summer after my first year in college ball, having spent almost the entire year in shoulder rehab, and I was looking forward to seeing the guys that would bolster a great Mets team in September of that year. He was a solid hitter but I could see that his fielding would be a concern as well as his odd body. He was closer to 5’9″ than his listed 5’11” and slow, with heavy legs and a thick rear-end, reminding me when he walked of a pitbull. His astounding numbers upon being called up to the Mets in the fall only helped to ensure Met fans’ disappointment. I note that someone above thought he’d have been better off as a 1b/dh type but he simply lacked the power necessary for that position. By all accounts a great kid, Hobbesy joined a LARGE fraternity of really good players that never quite lived up to the hype. As injuries derailed my once-promising career in this great game I can only say that playing great for a short time in the bigs and being called a “disappointment” ranks a little higher on my list than being a somewhat successful lawyer and “never-was” ballplayer. Every spring brings the possibility of another Hobbesy, another Nolan Ryan, another Reggie Jackson or another Carl “Tuffy” Rhodes or Bob Geren (no offense meant to either). Hope springs eternal and I still love the game. I am happy I stumbled upon this site and look forward to reading all of it.



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 125 other followers

%d bloggers like this: