Nolan Ryan was one of the many Mets honored before Saturday night’s game at Citi Field during the celebration of the 1969 World Championship team. It was his first return to Flushing in a Mets uniform since the ill-fated trade to the California Angels on December 10, 1971. Would Mets history have been different if the Mets weren’t in such desperate need for a third baseman that they were willing to part with the young righthander and other players? Let’s go back in time to see what might have been had Nolan Ryan remained a Met.
It was 1971. The Mets had made an improbable run to the pinnacle of the baseball world just two years earlier. Although they were unable to defend their championship in 1970, they were still able to produce a winning record when they finished 83-79. They replicated that record in 1971, but finished in third place both seasons in the six-team National League East.
Wayne Garrett was the primary third baseman in 1970. He finished the season with a .254 batting average, picking up 12 HR and 45 RBI. However, he spent the first half of 1971 on military duty. In his stead, Bob Aspromonte (Who? Exactly…) played third base and was ineffective, producing a .225 batting average with 5 HR and 33 RBI. Garrett was not much better when he returned to the team in July, finishing the season with only one HR and 11 RBI to go along with a paltry .213 batting average. Even in the offensively-challenged early 1970s, a corner infielder had to contribute more than their combined 6 HR and 44 RBI.
At the same time, Nolan Ryan was starting to blossom as a starting pitcher. He started 26 games in 1971 and produced a 10-14 record in 152 innings of work. He also averaged nearly a strikeout per inning but was very wild, with an average of nearly seven walks per nine innings. Coupled with the fact that the native Texan was not happy playing in the vastly different metropolitan area, he began to ask for a trade out of New York.
The Mets’ general manger at the time was Bob Scheffing. Mets fans began calling him by the last six letters of his name after that fateful day on December 10, 1971 when he traded away Mr. Ryan. Needing an offensive boost at third base, Scheffing traded Ryan along with catcher Frank Estrada, pitcher Don Rose and outfielder Leroy Stanton to the California Angels for infielder Jim Fregosi. Fregosi had his best season in the majors as a shortstop in 1970 when he hit .278 with 22 HR and 82 RBI. However, he had an injury-plagued 1971 season that saw him produce a .233 batting average, with 5 HR and 33 RBI, numbers that were eerily similar to Bob Aspromonte’s ’71 campaign. However, Gil Hodges thought it would be a good trade and no one questioned Gil’s knowledge of the game. He did not want to give up Ryan but the Angels saw the potential in Ryan that he had not yet fully realized in New York. Plus, Hodges was a “win now” manager and believed Fregosi would be more instrumental to the Mets making a run in 1972 than Ryan would be.
It was one of the few times Gil Hodges was wrong in a Mets uniform, as Fregosi went on to a forgettable career in his 1½ seasons at Shea Stadium. He never became the great third baseman the Mets expected him to be. How did Nolan Ryan do after leaving the town he was uncomfortable playing in? Allow me to reveal a snippet of his long list of personal achievements:
- 324 victories pitching for mostly mediocre teams
- 27 seasons pitched in the major leagues (a major league record)
- 5,714 strikeouts (a major league record)
- 7 no-hitters (a major league record and seven more than the Mets have had in their 48-year history)
- 1 Hall-of-Fame induction
Could Ryan have achieved these numbers in New York despite the fact that he was not fond of playing there? Perhaps, perhaps not. One thing is for sure. Jim Fregosi was NOT the answer at third base. Other than Howard Johnson in the 80s and 90s and David Wright today, the Mets have had a revolving door at third base. Had Ryan remained in New York, the Mets’ pitching staff of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack (NL Rookie of The Year in 1972) and Nolan Ryan would have been a dominant force that should have been able to overcome their offensive shortcomings at third base. Pitching wins championships and the Mets could have won quite a few had they trotted out that starting four year after year.
Nolan Ryan won his only championship ring (shown above) while as a member of the New York Mets in 1969. Had he not left New York, he and his teammates might have been fitted for more of those beautiful rings. However, he did go on to achieve many personal records after he left New York. I wonder what he cherishes more. His name all over the record books or his precious piece of jewelry that very few men can claim to possess. That’s a story that only Nolan Ryan can tell you.