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One team that does not have a third baseman approaching the caliber of George Brett is the New York Mets. Not now, not 10 years ago, not ever. What the Mets have had is a lot of third basemen. Let's go back to the beginning, 1962, the year the Mets were born. Don Zimmer, No. 1 historically and No. 67 alphabetically, was at third when the season opened and he started reasonably well, with three hits in 12 at bats. Then he went 0 for 34 and was benched for Felix Mantilla, No. 2. Zimmer reappeared after a few days and got a couple of hits but was traded to Cincinnati for Cliff Cook, No. 3.
Cook showed up with some bad news for the Mets. He had a bad back, which made bending over difficult. Not that Cook was much of a third baseman when he could bend over. Are you starting to get the point?
The Mets have been in existence for almost 19 years, and in that time 67 souls, most of them unfortunate, have played third.
Until Lenny Randle, who was available only because he had just punched out his manager, hit .304 in 1977, no Mets third baseman had ever hit higher than .276, which Ed Charles did in 1968. Until Richie Hebner drove in 79 runs last year, while desperately pleading to be traded (which he was last October to Detroit), no Mets third baseman had ever driven in more than 62. There have been bumblers, bunglers and stumblers. There have been names that would excite only devotees of trivia. Unsurprisingly, the two worst trades the Mets ever made involved third basemen.
The incumbent is Elliott Maddox. Oddly enough, he can play. He may be the best centerfielder on the team, but if he isn't run over by a bus, he will finish the season as the best-fielding third baseman the club has ever had. When the season began, Manager Joe Torre, who was No. 48 himself, planned to spell Maddox with Phil Mankowski, acquired from the Tigers in the Hebner trade, another wretched deal for the Mets. Mankowski became No. 64 on April 15, a cold gray Tuesday at Shea Stadium.
The game's first batter doubled and the game's second batter bunted the ball to Mankowski, who threw it away. Charlie Neal would have appreciated that. Neal was the Opening Day third baseman in 1963 and he threw the first ball he got into the stands. One batter later, Mankowski got his first ground ball, a tricky little devil that went through his legs for another error. Now that's a man who has a deep and abiding concern for history. Mankowski went on the disabled list April 29 and hasn't returned.
No. 65 was a quiet little rookie named Mario Ramirez. He became No. 65 by playing one inning at third on May 22. The next day he was in Triple A and Jose Moreno, another rookie, was in Flushing.
Moreno also had a concern for historical continuity. He became No. 66 one bright sunny day at Candlestick Park, June 18 to be exact. The first ball hit to him was a pop foul which he never saw. He had forgotten to put on his sunglasses. God bless you, No. 66.
The Mets became a national phenomenon because, in the early years, they lost creatively and humorously and the writers covering the team refused to take them seriously. Casey Stengel wouldn't have let them if they tried. Jack Lang has covered the Mets since Day One, first for the Long Island Press, now for the New York Daily News. He has become, in effect, the team historian, and, as the scope of the catastrophe became clear, it was Lang who would proudly announce the correct number when a new third baseman showed up. Belatedly recognizing that history consists of defeats as well as victories, the Mets now keep their own master list.
Maddox, who grew up in New Jersey and used to play centerfield for the Yankees, knew about the Mets' third-base problem when he was a kid. "I don't know why nothing's happened to me yet," he said recently. "Hopefully, I can be there a while." Several days later he pulled a hamstring and Bill Almon became No. 67.