Anthony McCarron, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Yoenis Cespedes is no Donn Clendenon.
Sure, Cespedes' second-half power show in 2015 helped propel the Mets all the way to the World Series after a deadline deal brought the slugger from Detroit.
But Clendenon pushed an even more improbable Mets club -- some have called it miraculous -- to the Fall Classic 50 years ago after an in-season trade. Then he finished the job, winning the World Series MVP Award as the 1969 Mets topped the powerful Baltimore Orioles in five games.
The 50th anniversary of one of the most significant deals in Mets history falls on June 15, the day a pitching-rich team was boosted by the addition of a power-hitting needler who maybe helped the clubhouse culture as much as he did the lineup.
What follows is an oral history of the trade that sent backup infielder Kevin Collins and four minor leaguers to the expansion Montreal Expos in exchange for Clendenon. The four prospects were Jay Carden, David Colon, Terry Dailey (the player to be named later) and Steve Renko. Renko, who pitched in the majors for 15 years and won 134 games, was the only player the Mets dealt who made a big-league splash.
The Mets were 30-26 and nine games out of first place on after losing June 15 to Don Drysdale and the Dodgers. But the Mets had won 11 straight games from May 28-June 10. Maybe there was hope.
WAYNE GARRETT, Mets third baseman: We really had to ham-and-egg it to win as many games as we had up to that time. We had to manufacture a lot of runs. Our pitching was always good. These guys would have three or four good outings before they'd have a bad one. It was, 'If we could just score and hang in there,' and that's what we did until Clendenon came along.
RON SWOBODA, Mets outfielder: We were sort of relevant in the race, and that's when they made the Clendenon deal. In the spring, the Braves were trying to trade Joe Torre and they talked to the Mets. The Braves wanted several of our good young arms, but (Mets GM) Johnny Murphy didn't want to surrender them. The Braves traded Torre to the Cardinals for Orlando Cepeda (on March 17) and I consider that significant. We got to the playoffs and we outscored the Braves there. They did not get the pitching they were after and I think that made a difference. The Mets took some heat from Dick Young and other writers; he suggested Torre would've made us a contender. It's not outrageous. But the Braves didn't come up with that pitching they needed.
JOE McDONALD, Mets director of minor-league operations in 1969: Johnny Murphy deserves all the credit for a wonderful acquisition. It was pretty darn important. We lacked a lot of power. When you run the minors, it hurts when you give up prospects, as you sometimes have to do to get an established player. You have to do it when you are going for all the marbles, which we were, to everyone's surprise. I was a little partial in the case of Steve Renko. I was proud of Steve. He had done a little pitching in college, but we needed a first baseman in the system and he was a first baseman then. That didn't pan out and we converted him. When we put him on the mound, we knew that's where he belonged. … If I helped contribute Collins and Renko in order to get Clendenon, that's OK.
JERRY KOOSMAN, Mets pitcher: Us pitchers were certainly elated about getting him. It was really a big morale booster.
Donn Clendenon Jr. was only 3 at the time of the trade, but his dad, who died at 70 in 2005, talked about it for years. His dad had been taken by the Expos in the 1968 expansion draft and swapped to Houston in January 1969. But Clendenon was unhappy with the deal and refused to report to the Astros, so Montreal completed the trade with different players. Clendenon, already 33, mulled leaving baseball to become an executive with the Scripto pen company but ultimately reconsidered. A few months later, he was a Met.
CLENDENON Jr.: My dad was ready to retire before the Mets. But when the talks started, he took a look at the team and recognized the raw talent and felt he could have an impact. He knew right away they had something -- I don't want to call it magical, he wasn't that type of descriptive person -- but he knew they had talent.
Clendenon batted .252 with a .455 slugging percentage in 72 games for the Mets, and the club was 45-27 in those games. The right-handed hitter had 12 homers and 37 RBIs. Clendenon, like several Mets, lost some playing time initially to Gil Hodges' famous platoon system, though he played more frequently against righties later on. But Clendenon had a previous relationship with Hodges -- Jackie Robinson had once urged Clendenon to ask Hodges for tips about playing first base -- and, like the rest of the Mets, respected the manager.
ART SHAMSKY, Mets outfielder: He was part of the platooning at first with Ed (Kranepool). Gil platooned at four positions. Nobody liked it. It wasn't good for your career. But it was working and all of us accepted it, because of what we thought about Gil. He (Clendenon) was frustrated at times, because he didn't play as much as he wanted to.
GARRETT: He gave you that added dimension of some power. When he walked to the plate, there was potential there, whether he hit one or not. The only potential that we had before that was (Tommie) Agee. He was our only other home-run hitter. Cleon would hit them every now and then, but Cleon hit from foul pole to foul pole. He didn't have that home-run swing, though. He wasn't trying to hit home runs. Clendenon had the swing of the players of today, that uppercut swing. When he'd hit it, he'd get the ball in the air consistently. It made a difference. That's why they got him. It's nice to have that guy who has that potential. Shea wasn't an easy park to hit home runs in.
Clendenon was a force in the clubhouse, too. He'd already had success in the majors, so he brought a certain gravitas to what was mostly a young Mets team.
KOOSMAN: He had a kind of a towering, thundering voice. When he said stuff, you heard him across the clubhouse. He could instigate, pick on people, do jokes -- in a good way. If he thought somebody could've done better, he'd say it, no matter who he was on the club. He'd come up with something that would get a laugh, but there was meaning behind it. He took over and became one of the leaders of the club. He was a guy that people listened to. Sometimes he might've seemed like he was a little bit of windbag, but he always backed it up.
SHAMSKY: I had hit four home runs in a row when I was with the Reds and he was on the Pirates. (Shamsky slugged homers in four consecutive at-bats against Pittsburgh in 1966, three on Aug. 12 and one on Aug. 14.) When Donn came to the Mets, every day he would get on me, telling me how they should've hit me, knocked me down. That's how he was. He was good to have in the locker room. He'd really get on guys, your uniform, how it fit. Your clothes. The next day, after an error, he'd be on you. He was that kind of voice.
CLENDENON Jr.: He was the older guy on that team, the veteran. He was big, too, stature-wise. (Clendenon was 6-foot-5, 225 pounds.) Out of all the guys, the only one who did give it back to him when I was around later was (Tom) Seaver. Seaver had a stellar career after my dad retired, so my dad felt it necessary to put Tom in his place. He was one of the guys, when the banter would start, Tom would give it back to him. Dad would say, 'Why can't you be like Nolan (Ryan)? You know he's stronger than you.' They had a quiet, rivalry love, Tom and my dad.
GARRETT: When we'd do appearances after we retired, he'd come up to my wife and say, 'Have you been to the eye doctor lately? I just want to know if you can really see who you married.' That was Donn. He always had something to say. That's what my wife always remembers of him.
On Sept. 24, the Mets clinched the National League East, quite a feat considering that they never had a winning season before and had been 10 games back at one point in mid-August. In the 6-0 victory over Steve Carlton and Cardinals, Clendenon homered twice, including a three-run shot that gave them a 3-0 lead. They swept the Braves in the first-ever NL Championship Series.
Clendenon did not get an at-bat because Atlanta used three righty starters, and Hodges hewed to his platoon system, starting Kranepool. But Clendenon blew open the World Series, batting .357 with three homers, four RBIs and a double. He had an absurd 1.509 OPS before anyone thought about OPS. He scored the first run in Mets World Series history in Game 1, homered in Games 2 and 4 to give the Mets early leads and then helped the Mets rally from a 3-0 deficit in Game 5. After Cleon Jones got to first base in the sixth inning thanks to a smudge of shoe polish pointed out by Hodges, Clendenon smacked a two-run homer to pull the Mets within a run in a game they'd eventually win 5-3.
There were other good candidates for MVP, though. Koosman was 2-0 with a 2.04 ERA in two starts and threw a complete game in the clincher. Al Weis batted .455 and knotted the score at 3 in Game 5 with a homer. Swoboda made his crucial full-extension diving catch and batted .400. Agee batted just .167, but made two sensational catches of his own.
KOOSMAN: He beat me out of the MVP award and beat me out of the car (a Dodge Challenger that came with the trophy). I told him I should at least get to drive the car one out every three days. We always had fun.
SWOBODA: Stood tall, didn't he? He was never better than in that World Series -- the home runs, the MVP. It all came to him, as it should have. I had some friends of mine who said, 'Why not you (for MVP)?' C'mon, man, look at what he did, when he did it. They gave the MVP to the right guy. I don't think there's a second's worth of second-guessing at all. Not by me. I never heard any. I think it was obvious.
CLENDENON Jr.: It was, obviously, the pinnacle of his career. He considered it meaningful to that team and New York. He didn't get choked up very often, but when you hear him talk about the MVP, you could tell he was humbled by it.
It was a remarkable achievement in a remarkable life. Clendenon, who had been friendly with Martin Luther King Jr. while attending Morehouse College and had been such a star athlete that pro football and basketball were options, became a successful businessman after his baseball career. He earned a law degree from Duquense. He tumbled into drug addiction, sought treatment and emerged to become a drug counselor. And he'll always have a place in the Mets pantheon.
SHAMSKY: When you talk about that team over these 50 years, the legacy is about all the guys who contributed and it became contagious. Donn coming over gave us an impetus. Once we started playing well, we were unbeatable. We were lovable losers a few years earlier, but we were as good as anybody then. When you're known as a bad team, to win it all against a terrific Baltimore Oriole team, that resonated over the years. Donn was right at the top of the list of the reasons why.
And here's the reason why Cespedes is no Clendenon:
SHAMSKY: The big difference is, they (the 2015 Mets) didn't win and we did.