Mets History: The minor signing of Rick Reed that became a major impact

7 Sep 1999: Rick Reed #35 of the New York Mets pitches the ball during the game against the San Francisco Giants at Shea Stadium in New York, New York. The Giants defeated the Mets 7-4. Mandatory Credit: Ezra O. Shaw /Allsport
7 Sep 1999: Rick Reed #35 of the New York Mets pitches the ball during the game against the San Francisco Giants at Shea Stadium in New York, New York. The Giants defeated the Mets 7-4. Mandatory Credit: Ezra O. Shaw /Allsport /

When the New York Mets signed Rick Reed in 1995, they didn’t realize they were getting much more than expected.

When Rick Reed signed with the New York Mets in November of 1995, the former 26th-round draft pick had reached 100 innings just once with four organizations, all of whom let him pass through without a second thought before Mets GM Joe McIlvaine signed the 31-year-old pitcher. Only people scouring the transaction page even noticed the deal.

Two other free agents named Reed (not related) were free agents that autumn: Jody, signed by San Diego, and Jeff, by Colorado. These journeymen were like superstars compared to Rick Reed.

Reed landed in the right place, though. Assigned to Triple-A, he became the most reliable starter for Norfolk Tides manager Bobby Valentine and pitching coach Bob Apodaca. Reed’s 8-10 record was not special, but his 3.16 ERA was solid—as was his team-leading 28 starts, 128 strikeouts, and just 33 walks. His 182 innings were the most in the International League. Though not an especially hard thrower, he was around the plate and had good movement.

He turned 32 after that season and was as old as any member of the Norfolk Tides, but he had the right people in his corner: Valentine and Apodaca had moved to New York about the time the Tides season ended.

The 1996 team Valentine inherited was the antithesis of most Mets teams before it: Big on offense, poor in pitching. The Mets needed arms that could soak up innings and Valentine was especially interested in a fifth starter who could work in the bullpen when needed. “Here’s the one thing about Rick Reed that I know,” Valentine told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel midway through spring training in 1997. “When he gets through pitching, the next day he’s ready to pitch.”

There was a key issue that came with Reed, however. When players were still on strike during 1995 spring training, Reed was asked by the Reds to be a replacement player. It was a difficult offer for a struggling minor leaguer to reject: $50,000 to cross the union picket line. Reed needed to help his struggling family back home in West Virginia. He accepted the money—and the consequences.

Valentine, a former player representative, asked Mets team leaders—including Lance Johnson, Todd Hundley, Bernard Gilkey, and reliever John Franco—about Reed joining the team out of camp in 1997. “I heard everything from ‘I’ve forgotten about it’ to ‘Well, I still may need a little time,’” Valentine said. “But I never heard, ‘I’ll be the first to burn his uniform.’”

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There was some hostility, especially from Franco, a union-first son of a New York sanitation worker, but Reed went north with the Mets. He threw seven shutout innings in his first start.

Four days later—after the Mets tied the game in the ninth—he threw five innings in relief at Dodger Stadium. The inning after Reed was batted for, the Dodgers won. The Mets got off to a 3-9 start, but Reed was key to the team’s turnaround.

His first win as a Met was a complete game at Shea, and after one month he had a 1.07 ERA in 42 innings. His ERA rose above 3.00 in the final week of August and he brought it down to 2.89 with a superb outing in his last start.

With the Mets battling the Marlins for the Wild Card on the club’s final road trip, Reed tossed a season-high 121 pitches and left with a 2-1 lead. Mel Rojas got the last out to save Reed’s 13th win. The Mets lost out on the postseason, but Reed won over the ballclub as well as the fans.

Tampa Bay’s Wade Boggs broke up Reed’s perfect game bid at Shea Stadium on June 8, 1998, and after the game, the future Hall of Famer called Reed a “scab and career minor-leaguer.” Franco, surprisingly, came to Reed’s defense. “For most of us, that’s in the past,” the Mets’ player rep told the Chicago Tribune. “I can tell you everyone in the clubhouse supports him. I’d go to war with him.”

Reed was 16-8 with a 3.27 ERA in 187.1 innings over his first 27 starts of 1998, making the All-Star team, striking out 139, and issuing less than a walk per start. Like his team, however, he staggered down the stretch. His final start was disappointing, going five innings in a 6-5 loss in Atlanta to open the final series of the year. It was the third of five straight losses to end the season and doom the club’s postseason chances.

Reed won the Mets’ first game of 1999, beating the Marlins in the second game of the year, but in his next start he tore a calf muscle after hitting a double in Montreal. He tossed six solid innings to beat the Astros in his first start back in May, but the suddenly overpowering second-year Diamondbacks handed him an ugly defeat. He rebounded well, winning seven straight decisions between June and August to go to 10-4 on the year. He even played an inning in right field during a 16-0 loss to the Braves, after reliever John Franco injured his finger and infielder Matt Franco took over on the mound.

But on August 8, Reed injured his middle finger in the second inning at Shea. That game also ended with Matt Franco mopping up the ninth inning.

After missing a month—and responding, “Hell no!” to reporters’ questions about moving to the bullpen after his layoff—Reed looked rusty. His ERA, which never recovered from the pounding in Arizona, exceeded 5.00 during a late-season visit to Coors Field.

Reed pitched superbly in his next two starts, but the Mets lost both games in Atlanta and Philly—part of a poorly-timed seven-game losing streak that saw the Mets fall out of the Wild Card lead heading into the season’s final series. The Mets won the first game against the Pirates at Shea and Reed took the hill the following night, exactly two months after his last victory.

The Reds lost that afternoon, so the Mets could pull into a tie if they beat Pittsburgh. The game was still scoreless in the sixth inning, but two Pirates errors helped the Mets plate a pair of runs. Yet the Mets kept squandering opportunities to blow the game open, stranding eight men in scoring position.

Reed got a big hand as he batted in the eighth with runners on second and third. He got the big hit the Mets needed with a two-run single, and he then scored in the six-run inning. He completed the three-hit shutout and the Mets were tied for the lone wild card spot. The Mets won the next day and captured a one-game playoff with the Reds the next night.

Reed started the first playoff game at Shea since 1988. Normal batterymate and big bat Mike Piazza was out with a hand injury. Arizona had roughed up Reed in his lone start against them in ’99, but he was sold in Game Three of the Division Series. Reed won, 9-2, and the Mets claimed the series the next day on a clinching home run in extra innings by Piazza’s stand-in, Todd Pratt.

With the Mets down to the Braves three games to none in the NLCS, Reed held a 1-0 lead in the eighth until Mets killers Brian Jordan and Ryan Klesko hit consecutive homers off him. The Mets rallied in the bottom of the inning, though, and kept the series alive. The Mets went through their entire staff the next day, but as the Mets rallied in the 15th, Reed was warming up in the pen, ready to go in until Robin Ventura’s grand slam single made the point moot.

After falling short of the World Series in 1999, the Mets began the next year in Japan. Reed took the hill in the second game of the season-opening series in Tokyo. “The Poor Man’s Greg Maddux” allowed a run on four hits on just 90 pitches in eight innings as the Mets won. He ended the year with the same line—and only one more pitch thrown—against Atlanta to earn the clinching victory that put the Mets in the postseason for the second straight year. It was not his finest season—a 4.11 ERA with an 11-5 mark—but he was solid in October.

Reed pitched Game Three in each of three postseason series: a no-decision against the Giants in the NLDS, a loss to the Cardinals in the NLCS, and six solid innings in the first World Series game at Shea since 1986. It was the only game the Mets beat the Yankees in the Subway Series. In an offseason remembered for Mike Hampton bolting for Colorado and the Mets not pursuing Alex Rodriguez, Reed was rewarded with a three-year, $21.75 million contract.

Valentine got to pick the All-Stars the following July and he chose Reed, though he kept him in reserve should the game go extra innings. It didn’t, but the NL won. Reed and Mets fans were stunned later that month when he was shipped to the Twins for outfielder Matt Lawton. Reed later called it the day “baseball kinda died for us, my wife and I… There’s no place like New York.”

Lawton was a Met for fewer than 50 games as he was shipped to Cleveland that fall by GM Steve Phillips. Reed helped pitch the Twins to a division title and Championship Series berth in 2002, going 15-7 with a 3.78 ERA in 188 innings. Consistently pitching around the plate, Reed was prone to the longball. He allowed 32 homers—a career-high and fourth in the AL. His last major league appearance came in New York—at Yankee Stadium—getting two outs in Minnesota’s lone win in the 2002 ALDS.

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Reed remained in his hometown of Huntington, West Virginia. He served for a time as a pitching coach at his alma mater, Marshall University. After years of not being able to conceive a child, Rick and Dee Reed adopted two children. He is third on the Mets all-time list for fewest walks per nine innings (1.6). He won 96 games all told in the majors—not bad for someone who didn’t make the big leagues for good until he was 32.

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