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Matters of Life and Death (To Flying Things)

I typically pay respect on January 31st to those of baseball fame born on this date- most notably Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks and Nolan Ryan but it occurred to me today that there are some other fine folks who celebrate January 31 with me and I thought it apt to pay tribute to those with a Mets connection.

I offer congrats on another year of life to Rafael Santana, the only player among the regulars on the 1986 Mets not to have had a walk-off hit for the team at some point in his career (though he did win a game via walk-off error). If you were going to salute what I call the "best-worst" Mets of all-time, Santana is a good place to start. His .218 batting average was acceptable for that season because of those who preceded him in the lineup. Santana filled his role legitimately.

After struggling through the first four months with a sub-Mendoza batting line, Santana hit a rather robust .295 in August to bring his numbers to a more respectable level.

It's oft-forgotten that he had an RBI hit in the 7th inning of Game 7, extending what was a 4-3 lead and providing a much-needed comfort zone for the Mets bullpen. Santana has remained in baseball since retirement and was named manager of the White Sox Double-A affiliate in Birmingham two weeks ago. The first line of the newspaper story introducing him to readers acknowledges his participation on the finest baseball team I've ever known. So we wish a happy 49th birthday and a hearty congratulations to Rafael Santana.

We also want to pass along good wishes to birthday boy, Bob Apodaca. While I was busy being born, Bob Apodaca was preparing for the best season of his brief career. In 1975, Apodaca went 3-4 with a 1.49 ERA and a team-high 13 saves. In the history of the Mets, only one pitcher had a better ERA in a season in which he pitched 80 or more innings. (Jesse Orosco, 1.47 in 1983).

After an injury sidelined Apodaca for nearly the entire month of July, he responded with two very stellar months to close the season. On September 20, he notched the first of four career walk-off wins when Ron Hodges beat the Phillies in extra innings with a two-run home run.

Apodaca's career was shortened by arm trouble, with his last major league appearance coming in 1977. Determination paid off for Apodaca, who spent 14 seasons in the Mets minor league system as a pitching coach, then served the same duties in Flushing from 1996 to 1999. He has since moved on, first to the Brewers and now to his present position with the Rockies. Colorado hasn't had a walk-off win against the Mets in more than 10 years, so we have no problem wishing congrats to Bob Apodaca on happy birthday number 57.

For our last congratulatory effort, we harken upon another '86 Met, albeit this one being from 1886. Brooklyn-born Robert Vavasour Ferguson managed the New York Metropolitans, albeit not very well, in 1886 and 1887.

Ferguson, born on this date in 1845, is to be saluted for his other feats, rather than his 54-94 mark at the helm of the ancient Metsmen. That for which he is most often noted is his nickname "Death to Flying Things" for his defensive success in an era of barehanded play (There is actually a baseball blog of this name). A rather feisty fellow (some called him "Fighting Bob"), Ferguson was the captain of the Brooklyn Atlantics team which on June 14, 1870, had one of the most notable walk-off wins in baseball history. Author Stephen Guschov does a fine job of recounting the game in his book The Red Stockings of Cincinnati and we'll provide a brief synopsis

The Atlantics were hosting a legendary Cincinnati team, which had won its previous 84 games. A dispute between Ferguson and a local newspaper reporter was a sidebar to this fine affair, which was tied after nine innings. Upon the conclusion of the ninth, Brooklyn presumed the game to be over, but Cincinnati management wished the contest to continue. After a heated discussion between Ferguson and Hall of Famers Harry Wright (of Cincinnati) and sportswriter Henry Chadwick, the game continued on into the 10th inning.

In the 11th, Cincinnati scored twice and appeared headed to consecutive victory number 85. But in the home half, Brooklyn rallied. Ferguson came to bat with his team down a run and the tying run on base, and in a moment of smart thinking, he elected to bat lefthanded rather than his usual righty. This was baseball's first example of switch-hitting and Ferguson's game-tying hit validated his decision. He would then score the winning run on a smash by George Zettlein past Cincinnati's first baseman (not sure if it was ruled hit or error), much to the delight of the large crowd (some estimates are 20,000) in attendance.

There are other stories about Ferguson, who worked in baseball as player, umpire, manager and league official. Some are good and some are bad, but we like how he is described in an obituary on FindAGrave.com as being "Noted for his character, honesty and judment, he was a shining example of good sportsmanship during a very unruly period of baseball history." That warrants a congratulations and an acknowledgement of year number 162 since his birth.

True Met To Flying Things Know...Fourteen of the 21 position players who played for the 1986 Mets had a walk-off hit at some point in their Mets careers. The seven who didn't are Rafael Santana, Danny Heep, Ed Hearn, Stan Jefferson, John Gibbons, Barry Lyons, and Tim Corcoran.

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