Mets History: Underrated Edgardo Alfonzo came through in the clutch

9 Mar 1999: Infielder Edgardo Alfonzo #13 of the New York Mets swings at the ball during the Spring Training game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at the Thomas J. White Stadium in Port St. Lucie, Florida. The Dodgers defeated the Mets 11-4. Mandatory Credit: David Leeds /Allsport
9 Mar 1999: Infielder Edgardo Alfonzo #13 of the New York Mets swings at the ball during the Spring Training game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at the Thomas J. White Stadium in Port St. Lucie, Florida. The Dodgers defeated the Mets 11-4. Mandatory Credit: David Leeds /Allsport /

During his time with the New York Mets, Edgardo Alfonzo was a fan-favorite who sometimes when overlooked with how clutch he could be.

“It’s Alfonzo with a ‘z,’ not an ‘s!’” Maybe he said it to himself while looking at the paper in the easychair in his not ostentatious house a couple of miles from Shea Stadium, but you never heard him say it publicly. Even now when you look up “Edgardo Alfonzo” you get 1.04 million results in a Google search; “Edgardo Alfonso” gets 6.7 million results. Maybe Edgardo, who grew up in Venezuela with a ballplaying older brother named Edgar, was used to others getting his name wrong. But as a New York Mets fan, it always made me wince when it happened here. No matter how you spelled it, Alfonzo came out perfectly on the field.

Fonzie always seemed overshadowed by bigger personalities, by being the guy who drove in the tying run, while the bigger name—usually this dude named Piazza—got the headline after the pressure was lessened by the calm and cool Alfonzo. Consider two of Mike Piazza’s biggest home runs as a Met: Piazza’s homer, which capped a 10-run eighth inning and an Amazin’ comeback from seven runs down against Atlanta on Fireworks Night 2000, occurred one batter after Alfonzo tied the game with a two-out single; and a little over a year later, again against the Braves, in the emotional first outdoor event in New York after the terrorist attacks, it was Fonzie who drew the walk on a full count representing the tying run to bring up Piazza for the epic blast that put the Mets ahead and make many New Yorkers smile for the first time in 10 days.

Alfonzo only made one All-Star team despite three years in the top 10 in Wins Above Replacement in the pre-WAR era. He won a Silver Slugger at second base in 1999—and for good reason with 27 HRs, 108 RBIs, 40 doubles, 109 runs, and a sizzling slash line of .304/.385/.502.

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Yet that same year he did not receive the Gold Glove at second base despite making just five errors—all on throws—after moving from third base to cede Robin Ventura the hot corner and solidify what Sports Illustrated called “The Best Infield Ever.” Reds second baseman Pokey Reese got the 1999 Gold Glove, but Fonzie went to the postseason after his home run in the first inning of the one-game playoff in Cincinnati allowed the Mets—and their fans—to breathe a sigh of relief.

It was Fonzie’s single the previous day put the winning run on third in the bottom of the ninth in the tense season-ending game that the Mets needed to win to force the one-game playoff. (This was back when one-game playoffs were rare, earned, and the loser of that game did not get credit for having been to “the postseason.”) After the Pirates walked John Olerud intentionally in game 162, Mike Piazza came up—and watched Brad Clontz’s first pitch sail to the backstop and bring in the winning run.

And the day after the game 163 in Cincinnati, which ended with Fonzie snaring a liner with two men on to end Al Leiter’s two-hit shutout clincher, the Mets were on late night from Phoenix in the Division Series. The first Mets postseason game since 1988 opened with Fonzie homering in the first inning and closed with his tie-breaking grand slam in the ninth inning. In Game Four of the NLDS at Shea, with the Mets facing a possible flight back to Phoenix to play the next day, the Shea crowd was shocked when Fonzie failed to gobble up a grounder that would have ended the top of the eighth—it was ruled a hit.

The Mets blew the lead later that inning with Armando Benitez on the mound—not so shocking. Forgotten, of course, is that Fonzie worked out a walk to start the rally in the bottom of the eighth and scored the tying run on a sacrifice fly—by Roger Cedeno! Everything that happened before the 10th inning was wiped from memory by the series-clinching, walk-off home run by Todd Pratt—even when Piazza wasn’t available, his stand-in took the climactic curtain call.

The point of all this is this: Alfonzo wasn’t flashy. He made all the plays smoothly at both second and third base, he set the table, cleared it when needed, and was the kind of player you had to watch closely every day to truly appreciate. Just 21, Fonzie jumped from Double-A to the majors and soon settled in at third base for a rebuilding Mets club. He debuted in extra innings on April 26, 1995 in Denver—the same night Coors Field debuted. His first hit came May 2 in Montreal and his first home run came a few days later in Cincinnati.

Many fans were still steamed that the strike had wiped out the first few weeks on the schedule—on top of eradicating the World Series in 1994. With Shea a ghost town, Alfonzo developed under the radar. He hit .278 as a rookie with more triples (five) than home runs (four) and walked just 12 times in 356 plate appearances. His bat would get faster and his eye would improve dramatically.

The Mets signed him as he turned 17. According to historian Rory Costello, the Dodgers saw him first but were scared off when his knee swelled up after a workout.  Alfonzo began as a shortstop in the minors, but he excelled when switched to third base. He was a star in the Venezuelan Winter League and that confidence translated to Flushing.

His career transformed along with his team in 1997. The Mets went from 92 losses to 88 wins in the first full year under Bobby Valentine. Alfonzo, a fixture in the two-hole, batted .315 and had more bases on balls (63) than strikeouts (56). His walk totals increased in each of his first six seasons in the majors. An on-base machine, he led the team in runs scored four times in five years, and paced the club in hits and batting average three times apiece. In the Mets’ last ever road trip to the cavernous Astrodome, Alfonzo had his best game—and probably the best offensive game in Mets history—with a 6-for-6 night, three homers, six runs, and 16 total bases.

As good as he was, he was matched—if not bettered—by a similarly inconspicuous Met who put together one of the best three-year runs in Mets history: first baseman John Olerud, who was similarly robbed of a Gold Glove in 1999. But then again, Olerud had the luxury of batting with Alfonzo in front of him and Piazza behind him.

During Olerud’s three years in New York, he drove in Alfonzo 61 times. Alfonzo knocked in a career-best 108 runs in 1999, but in an era of enhanced offense, that number tied for 18th in the league. More indicative of his skill was his 6.0 WAR that was eighth in the league and ahead of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, and John Olerud. Ventura, Piazza, and Alfonzo placed 6-7-8 in the MVP balloting, respectively.

Fonzie’s 2000 slash line of .324/.425/.542 set career bests in all three categories—plus a game-tying single off Giants closer Robb Nen in Game Three of the NLDS that was predictably forgotten in the aftermath of a walk-off homer by Benny Agbayani. Alfonzo’s numbers were off in 2001 as he suffered from back problems. The Mets still offered a three-year deal worth $18 million, but he turned it down. His power numbers were not what they were, and he had hand issues, but his .308/.391/.459 was enough for the Giants to give four years and $26 million to the 29-year-old Fonzie. He had a couple of good years in San Francisco and looked like the Alfonzo of old in the 2003 NLDS against the Marlins, batting .529 in a losing cause.

Fonzie seemed to slow down overnight. Between December 2005 and July 2006, he was sent packing by the Giants, Angels, and Blue Jays. He was with the independent Bridgeport Bluefish when the Mets signed him. Fonzie played for Triple-A Norfolk, but the playoff-bound Mets did not recall him to New York. He played for the Long Island Ducks, as well as in Mexico, Japan, and a couple more tours of the minor leagues, while continuing to play in the Venezuelan Winter League.

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Alfonzo returned to the Mets fold, working with minor leaguers. Like his brother Edgar before him, Edgardo serves as manager of the Brooklyn Cyclones. The 2018 club improved by .217 percentage points over his first year at the helm. Fonzie is still helping the Mets, using those sharp eyes to spot future talent for Flushing.

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