Three out of four times a reigning Cy Young winner has been traded that offseason, the Toronto Blue Jays have been on one end of the deal. The Jays brought in David Cone from Kansas City just after baseball’s most recent strike ended in 1995. Roger Clemens went from Toronto to New York after two straight titles in 1997 and 1998. And on Monday afternoon the Mets shipped R.A. Dickey north of the border for a boatload of prospects. Today on “Glory Days,” we profile a New York import who spent five of his most productive years calling the former SkyDome home: Roberto Alomar.
Dateline: April 14, 2002. The Mets had the Montreal Expos in town for Mr. Met’s birthday party and were looking for a way to jump-start one of their prized offseason imports. Roberto Alomar came to New York from Cleveland in December; he and Mo Vaughn were supposed to be the two missing pieces of the puzzle that would get the Mets to the World Series for the second time in three seasons. Not so much so far: Alomar was only batting .176 entering the game and the Hit Dog got injured four games into the season. On this day at Shea, however, it would be Alomar who would fill the team’s power shortage.
New York’s Steve Trachsel blew through Montreal in the top of the 1st. In the bottom of the frame, Timo Perez led off with a single, and Mark Johnson drew a walk off the Expos’ Tony Armas. On the first pitch he saw from Armas, Alomar woke up the Home Run Apple with his second round-tripper of the young season, giving the Mets an early 3-0 lead.
An ugly error by shortstop Joe McEwing allowed the visitors to score one in the top of the 2nd. In the next inning, the Expos pounced on Trachsel: walk, sac bunt, run-scoring double by Vladimir Guerrero. Three batters later and with runners on second and third, future Met Brian Schneider laced a double of his own to score both men. All of a sudden clear skies turned to Montreal gray in Flushing as the Mets went down 4-3.
But who would chase the clouds away not one inning later? Mr. Glory Day himself: on a two-out, 12-pitch at-bat, Alomar blasted his second home run of the day to tie the game at 4-4.
Not much happened until the 6th inning when the Good Guys rallied off a tired Armas. Johnson walked and Alomar singled to right; he lost a step and was thrown out trying to stretch it into a double, but the lead man went to third on the play. On an 0-2 pitch, Mike Piazza came through in the clutch, as he so often did, knocking a groundball single to score the go-ahead run. In an even stranger turn of events, Piazza the catcher was thrown out trying to steal second base during Jeremy Burnitz’s plate appearance; Burnitz walked but John Valentin flied out to end the threat. So take away those two baserunning miscues by Hall-of-Famers (soon-to-be or otherwise), and a 5-4 Mets lead could have turned into so much more.
Luckily for the home squad, the miscues didn’t come back to bite them this time: they added another unearned run in the 7th, and the relief combination of Mark Guthrie, Scott Strickland, and Armando Benitez combined for 2.1 hitless innings in relief. End result: Mets 6, Expos 4, and 45,646 very happy fans leaving Shea Stadium (let’s also note that’s more fans than the Expos would see in a month by this time). Roberto Alomar was (finally) the star of the game, going 3-4 with 2 HRs and 4 RBIs. At this point, Mets fans put their concerns about their new second baseman aside; sure he had a rough start, but he was playing in a league he hadn’t seen since his San Diego Padres days of 1990. Surely now he would pick up the pace and be the .336/20/100 man he had been in Cleveland the year before.
Alas, the 34-year-old would never again suggest such brilliance in a New York uniform: aside from the first three games, he would never hit higher than .282 in the season. He finished 2002 with a .266 average, a 70-point drop from 2001. His OPS dipped from .956 to .708. The sure-gloved Alomar fans came to expect got stranded on the 7 Line all year, and he failed to grasp his 11th Gold Glove in 12 seasons. His 2003 season was even worse, and on July 1 he was dumped on the Chicago White Sox for chump change. He would retire at the end of the 2004 season and was inducted into Cooperstown on second ballot in 2011, going in as a Toronto Blue Jay.
Alomar’s Amazin’ April 14 is bittersweet because it reflects what could have been; in the end, his season reflects the major disappointment that was the 2002 New York Mets: already underachieving at 58-57 on August 9, the team went on a 12-game losing streak to fall completely out of contention. The Mets finished 75-86 in the cellar of the NL East, costing beloved manager Bobby Valentine his job. The 2003 edition was even worse: a last-place 66-95 showing under former Oakland skipper Art Howe. As the faces of these two dreadful finishes, Roberto Alomar and Mo Vaughn found themselves on this dishonorable list in July.
April 14. A good day for Eddie Cicotte in 1917 (tosses a no-hitter against the St. Louis Browns, one of his 28 Ws for the world-champion White Sox) and Cal Ripken in 1990 (began streak of 95 errorless games and 431 errorless chances, the most ever for a shortstop). Also a good day for John Steinbeck in 1939 (The Grapes of Wrath is first published). A bad day for Great Plains farmers in 1935 (“Black Sunday Storm,” the Dust Bowl’s worst, blows through) and Oscar bookies in 1969 (Katherine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand tie for Best Actress). A great day for Roberto Alomar in 2002.