Monday, January 30, 2006

Every Signature Tells a Story: Mickey Lolich, the Reluctant Met

I used to get way too attached to players when I was a kid.

And I had trouble grasping the whole concept of trading players. It seemed like the ultimate act of disloyalty. How could a guy be a Met — a hero — once day, and the enemy the next?

Naturally I got a little older and wiser as to how the game works. But I must say there was one Mets trade that horrified and befuddled me at the time. And 30 years and one month later, I can’t say I understand it much better.

That would be the Dec. 12, 1975 deal that sent hero Rusty Staub and minor leaguer Bill Laxton to the Detroit Tigers for Mickey Lolich and outfielder Billy Baldwin.

Staub was 31 and a star of the 1973 near-miracle. He was a fan favorite and seemed a perfect fit for the Big Apple.

Lolich, meanwhile, was 35 and coming off a year where he lost 18 games. The Mets still had Seaver, Koosman and Matlack — plus a young Craig Swan — in the rotation, so pitching wasn’t an issue.

It’s not that Lolich was a bum. The MVP of the 1968 World Series, Lolich was the all-time leader in strikeouts by a left-hander when he came over, though soon surpassed by Steve Carlton.

He got stiffed on two Cy Young Awards. He had 25 wins and 308 strikeouts in 1971, but lost to Vida Blue. And the next year he had 22 wins and a 2.50 ERA but lost to Gaylord Perry.

It probably didn’t help his career that Billy Martin decided a bullpen was unnecessary and dragged 376 innings out of his arm in 1971.

Lolich didn’t fare that well, posting a decent 3.22 ERA but a nasty 8-13 record. He retired after the season, sitting out all of 1977 before playing two years for the Padres.

Staub, meanwhile, went nuts in the bandbox in Detroit. He was the starting right-fielder in the 1976 All- Star Game and in 1978 drove in 121 runs and hit 24 bombs. For a guy who was supposedly injury prone, Staub seemed durable in Detroit, playing in 161, 158 and 162 games in his three full years there.

I was always curious about the trade, both why the Mets would make it in the first place and why Lolich hung ‘em up after that one season.

He’s still very popular here in Michigan and for years ran a doughnut shop in Lake Orion on the fringes of the Flint Journal’s circulation area. He used to be a regular signer on the card show circuit. I saw he was signing at a show at Madonna College near Detroit in the early 1990s and wanted to get him to sign my Mets book.

I placed it in front of him, and he smiled. He isn’t asked to sign too many Mets items.

I asked if he liked pitching in New York.

"Absolutely hated it," he said. "I’m just a big ole country boy. I never felt comfortable there.

Apparently there were some other issues, too. He’s interviewed on the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Website and spoke of disagreements with the Mets coaches.

"But I did have some troubles with the way the Mets wanted me to pitch. A good pitcher controls or calls his own game, and I didn't know the N.L. hitters. It didn't bother me too much because I figured they'd have to hit my fastball or curveball, and they were both pretty good. But the Mets wanted to sort of control the way I pitched, and I was used to calling my own game. It was difficult for me to adjust. Also, my wife and family were back in Detroit, and I didn't know anybody in New York, so it was a tough season. So after the season, I decided it was time to get out, and I retired."

Lolich’s struggles didn’t hurt the team too much. The 1976 Mets finished third with 86 wins. Of course, it was the year before all the wheels came off, the midnight massacre occurred and the team went into its second period of despair.

In Other Words...

My cousin Mike is one of New York's Finest and just started a cool blog, "Large Coffee, Cream, Four Equals." Check it out here


G-Fafif said...

So Lolich was kind of a proto-Mike Hampton, country boy lost in the big city. We don't think of that when we're 13.

He managed to come back with San Diego after "retiring," so I guess maybe he got over his homesickness.

Funny, a 35-year-old pitcher in 2006 would seem a little advanced but not ancient. In 1976, it was positively over the hill, at least where Lolich was concerned. Of course training regimens have changed since Lolich's day.

There's a straight line if I've ever heard one.

Mets Guy in Michigan said...

I think it shows just how messed up Mets management was at the time. Here's a guy who is so unhappy that they'd make him sit out a year to get out from under his contract instead of just trading him. Even if they got a low-level prospect, it's better than having him sit at home, Rusty kicking butt in D-Town and having exactly nothing to show for it!

Denise said...

Hey Dave.. It is Denise.. Great seeing you all this year. I have finally gotten around to checking out your blog. Very cool. I meant to tell you... Bill's boss... last name...Magadin (sp?) Claims his brother was big on the Mets in the 80's. Know anything about that? Talk to you soon!!!