Saturday, March 26, 2011

Is Mike Hampton the least popular New York baseball post season hero ever?

Usually post season glory in New York means immortality and a permanent place in the hearts of a passionate fanbase. Somehow that has eluded Mike Hampton.

He retired today. Yeah, it's the same Mike Hampton. This isn't like Mike Stanton where one retired and the Marlins got another one.

This isn't a Steve Ontiveros situation where somehow two people named Steve Ontiveros made it to the majors.

And it isn't the Mike Hampton who played in the Reds farm system in the 1990s.

The same guy who was a stud for the Astros in the 1990s hung up his spikes today. Last September I was stunned to see Hampton was still cashing a check as a member of the Diamondbacks.

So a big league career that began in 1993 with the Mariners ended in the Diamondbacks spring training camp today.

Of course he had incredible injury issues that forced him to miss two entire seasons and he famously (and expensively) flopped in Colorado. But he had a good solid career with a few terrific seasons sprinkled in there.

Along the way, he made a cameo with the 2000 Mets. The Mets sent Roger Cedeno and Octavio Dotel packing to the Astros after the 1999 season to get Hampton, who finished second to Randy Johnson in the Cy Young vote and won the Sporting News Pitcher of the Year award.

He was no slouch with the bat either, batting .311 with a .806 OPS for the Astros in 1999.

He was a free agent to be, but the Mets had a World Series run on their mind and adding Hampton to the rotation could have been just what the doctor ordered to catch the Braves.

He may not have been a Cy Young contender in 2000, but he won 15, pitched 217 2/3 innings and let up the fewest home runs per nine innings in the league.

He out pitched Andy Pettitte in a July 9th win against the Yankees.

The Mets finished a game behind Atlanta but made the playoffs as a Wild Card team. They defeated the Giants and advanced to the NLCS with revenge on their mind for their heartbreaking 1999 loss to the Braves. There would be no rematch as the Cardinals unseated the Braves.

Hampton pitched 7 shutout innings to win Game 1. Then, with the Mets up 3-1 in the series, took the ball for Game 5. The bullpen took the night off as once again, St. Louis couldn't score off of Hampton.

He went all 9 innings and the Mets won the pennant.

The image of Mike Hampton being lifted off the ground in triumph should be a cherished moment in Mets history.

Mike Hampton was awarded the NLCS Most Valuable Player Award for 2000.

He is the ONLY Mets player to win that award. (They didn't have an MVP for the 1969 and 1973 NLCS and Astros Mike Scott won the award in a losing effort for 1986.)

So he is a beloved Met, right?

At least a Met you'd give a standing ovation to, right?

When I wrote my Home Grown Vs. Acquired series a few years ago, I put Hampton on the All Time Acquired Mets Team. My rationale was I tended to honor players who had post season glory. And I didn't expect to get much flak from Met fans about honoring a guy who pitched the team into the World Series.

It was almost unanimous that I was dead wrong.
While the name calling didn't get as bad as this week's barrage from Met fans, they couldn't understand why I was heaping such praise on Mike Hampton.

"He won two games. Big deal!" One guy wrote to me.
Um, the clinching game of the League Championship Series IS a big deal! Or so I thought.

Most people thought I should have included Johan Santana based on his then one season with the Mets. (I wonder how many would still include him.)

But I have yet to hear from a Met fan who shares my praise of their lone NLCS MVP.

Perhaps it had to do with the fact that he beat the Cardinals and not the Braves that made his achievement lack any resonating emotion. (Beating Whitey Herzog's Cardinals in the 1980s would have been bigger.

Maybe it is because he pitched poorly against the Yankees in the World Series that any enthusiasm for his LCS triumph was muted.

Of course he made no friends in New York by leaving after one season and claiming his desire to go to Colorado had more to do with their school system than the fact that he got the biggest contract for any pitcher at that time in history. ($14 million a year should pay for tuition at a good private school.)

Either way it is unfortunate. For one season he pitched well for the Mets and joined a very short list of pitchers who clinched a pennant for the Mets:

Nolan Ryan, Tug McGraw, Jesse Orosco and Mike Hampton.

That should be worth some love.

As for Mike Hampton, I salute you.
16 big league seasons, a Cy Young runner up, 148 wins, 2 All Star Game appearances, a Gold Glove, a 20 win season in 1999, 5 Silver Sluggers, a post season MVP and the experience of being the pitcher who gets mobbed after a clinching game are all things to admire.

$124 million in cashed checks is something we would ALL want.

Money might not be able to buy you love from Met fans... but we here at Sully Baseball will show your greatest highlight.

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