Thursday, November 10, 2005
Every Signature Tells a Story: Gregg Jefferies, A Little Too Uptight
I was as wrapped up in Gregg Jefferies hype as anyone after his explosive call-up at the end of 1988, confident that he’d have a future of stardom and a plaque waiting in Cooperstown lacking only an inscription of his glories to be.
But maybe the scene at a baseball card show appearance that winter should have tipped us off that things wouldn’t quite work out that well.
Jefferies was the Mets first-round pick in 1985 and was a three-time minor-league MVP. The hype was already building — his Fleer and Donruss baseball cards were selling for more than $5 right out of the pack, obscene for the time — when he arrived for the 1988 pennant stretch.
He looked as good as advertised, hitting .321 with six homers in 109 at-bats. I remember the Mets were even talking about limiting his at-bats in the last couple weeks to keep him eligible for the 1989 Rookie of the Year Award.
So I was pretty excited when Jefferies made the rounds of the autograph shows during the off-season. I went to see him at a show in West Haven, Conn. and was standing on line to buy tickets when there was a bustle at the door.
Jefferies and his entourage arrived, and apparently thought they were walking in a back door only to find themselves in the main lobby.
What was strange was the Gregg was surrounded by four goons — and I mean that literally. They were huge. Two stood in front of him, two behind. They were on him like Velcro. In fact, the two in behind were holding him by the shoulder pads of his coat, pushing him.
They were all so close it looked like they were one 10-legged creature, all with wide-eyed looks of dread when they saw all the fans in the lobby.
It was so strange that there was a brief awkward silence, as people stood there in disbelief. It seemed like the security people expected some kind of Beatlemania scene of crazed fans rushing the young star.
But no one stepped off the line. I think there was some applause and maybe some "Hey, Gregg!" type of calls.
I remember thinking, "What’s with the goons? Do they think we’re going to hurt the guy we expect to be our biggest star?"
Jefferies overestimated his need for security. Then again, it soon became apparent he overestimated a lot of things.
The Mets moved 1986 hero Wally Backman to install Jefferies as the team’s starting second baseman. But he seemed to become derailed by a horrible slump and finished with a modest .258 with 12 homes and 56 RBI. He finished a distant third in the Rookie of the Year balloting, losing to Jerome Walton, who I don’t think has been heard from since.
He also seemed to go into tantrums after making an out and couldn’t get along with his teammates or the media. He never looked like he was having fun playing baseball, like every groundout added to the weight of crushing expectations.
The next two years were better, but not too much, hitting .283 with 15 homers and 68 RBI in 1990, a long way from the mega-star we all expected.
It didn’t take too long for the Mets to tire of his act, and shipped Jefferies and Kevin McReynolds, another disappointment, off to the Kansas City Royals for Bret Saberhagen in December 1991. I was stunned that the Mets gave up on this guy so quickly, but it’s not like he did much to prove them wrong either.
Jefferies finally found some success in St. Louis, hitting .342 in 1993 and .325 in 1994, making the All-Star team. But instead of staying in St. Louis, where fans loved him and he thrived under Joe Torre, he chased the dollars and signed with the Phillies as a free agent, irked that the Cards wouldn’t throw a no-trade clause in his deal.
He wasn’t as good in his four seasons with the Phils, bounced to the Angels in 1998 and then again to the lowly Tigers in 1999.
When I saw him in Detroit that year he looked pudgy, slow and older than he should have looked — nothing like the kid I remembered.
Jefferies retired at 33, completely unimaginable to those of us standing on line in New Haven that day. Then again, it was obvious that day that something wasn't quite right.
Flippin' Sweet Griffins Update:
I was still worked up after my rant about the Napoleon Dymanite fiasco at the Grand Rapids Griffins hockey game, so I fired off an e-mail to the team.
I've only written a letter like that twice before. I didn't expect to hear back from the team, figuring the staff there didn't give a darn.
Well, that's not the case. The team's vice president for marketing responded within an hour, asking me to call him, which I did the next day.
He explained that the evening had quite gone as planned from the team's perspective either. he said he actor who played Kip arrived just as the gates opened, was not feeling well and had not eaten. He said the team couldn't control people cutting in line, and tried to make good by asking the actors to sign later in the game.
The gentleman said he's not sure what happened with the shirts, and perhaps workers started distributing them early to people who were standing in the lobby before the gates opened.
He offered to have us come to another game as guests of the team, which is very nice. And the next day a "Vote for Pedro" shirt appeared on my desk at work.
I still think there were some things that could have been handled better that night, but I was impressed that the team responded so quickly and wanted to make things right.