Thursday, November 16, 2000

New York Weis Guy Responsible for Big Hit


In our last column, we took a look at some of the more unusual no-hitters in baseball history. In the recently ended Subway Series, there were no such feats, and regardless of how well the Yankees’ Roger Clemens pitched in Game Two, he could not duplicate the perfection achieved in 1956 by Don Larsen. If anything, Clemens may have been paying homage to Ted Williams, inviting the Mets’ Mike Piazza to discuss Teddy Ballgame’s other nickname, the Splendid Splinter. Speaking of hitting, while Derek Jeter was named MVP of the Series, it was the timely hitting of two less celebrated Yankee infielders that won Game One and the Series-clinching Game Five. Mid-season pickups Jose "at least I can reach first base on a throw" Vizcaino and Luis "they should name a neighborhood in New York after me" Sojo delivered the game winning hits in their team’s final at bats in those games. Their performances bring to mind another unheralded New York second baseman from days gone by who made a name for himself during the Fall Classic.

The New York Metropolitans were the joke of Major League Baseball for almost the entire decade of the 60s. From their founding year in 1962 through 1967, the Mets managed to lose fewer than 100 games only once, when they lost only 95 in 1966. After the 1967 season, the Mets sought some additional help at second base, a position that had been less productive for the Mets in ’67 than an Oklahoma farm during the Dust Bowl.

What they found was decent fielding, light hitting second baseman Al Weis, whom they acquired from the Chicago White Sox. Weis was a switch hitter until 1969, which really just meant that he couldn’t hit from either side of the plate. Prior to coming to the Mets, Weis was perhaps best known for colliding with Baltimore’s Frank Robinson on a play at second base in 1967, giving Robinson double vision and causing him to miss 28 games. Red Sox fans should thus include the name Al Weis in any talk of their Impossible Dream season of 1967.

Robinson was the reigning American League MVP when he was hurt. He had won the Triple Crown in 1966, leading the league in batting average, home runs and RBIs, and had led his Orioles to a sweep of the Dodgers in the World Series (where he was also the MVP). He was on his way to a second Triple Crown as well, but his injuries opened the door for the Red Sox’ Carl Yastrzemski, who won both the MVP and Triple Crown himself, en route to guiding the Red Sox to the 1967 World Series, where their Impossible Dream was indeed just that, as they fell to the Cardinals in seven games. The Curse of Weis continues, as nobody has won the Triple Crown since. History would later find Weis putting the hurt on Robinson one more time, as well.

Weis was a career .238 hitter before the Mets acquired him, but hey, the Mets had only hit .238 themselves in 1967, so how could they do any worse? Weis would never come within 20 points of .238 again, and retired in 1971 with a career average of .219. But what happened in between was magical nonetheless. Well, not all of it.

Weis did drop down to .172 in 1968, when he struck out three times as often as he walked. He also had the dubious distinction that year of being the last out in the longest shutout in Major League history, when the Mets lost 1-0 to the Astros is 24 innings. In 1969, he picked up his average to .215 while platooning primarily at second base and shortstop. Magic was in the air that year, however, as the Miracle Mets took advantage of a Chicago Cubs’ collapse (9-17 in the final month) and won the National League East. The Mets then swept the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs, despite home runs in each game from the Braves’ Hank Aaron, to become the first expansion team to make the World Series.

Though Weis had only one at bat during the series with the Braves, he saw the bulk of the playing time at second base in the World Series against the Baltimore Orioles, and he took advantage of it. Weis led his team with a .455 batting average, which included the game winning hit in the ninth inning of Game Two in Baltimore. He saved his biggest hit for Game Five, though.

The favored Orioles came into Shea Stadium for Game Five down 3-1 in the Series. The Orioles had jumped out to a 3-0 lead before the Mets scored two in the sixth inning, thanks in part to Cleon Jones’ propensity for clean shoes. No, they weren’t giving away runs for the best-dressed players. Jones claimed to have been hit by a Dave McNally pitch. His shoe polish on the ball proved that he had been struck, and Donn Clendenon’s subsequent home run brought the Mets within one run.

In the seventh inning, Weis did something that he’d never done before in his career. Weis did have six career home runs going into that game, but he had never hit one before his home teams' crowds in Chicago or New York. Maybe it was the electricity of being a Long Islander playing in Queens. Maybe he could feel the crowd’s excitement for the game (or for a recently opened mall!). Either way, Weis took McNally deep, and tied the score at 3-3. The Mets would go on to win the game and the Series.

The story of the Series would prove to be pitching, however, not hitting. The Mets held the Orioles to five runs in the last four games behind the strong pitching of young phenoms Jerry Koosman, Tom Seaver, Gary Gentry and Nolan Ryan. The great Frank Robinson was barely a factor, as the Mets walked him four times to keep the bat out of his hands. But Robinson and the Orioles would endure, as the O’s reached the World Series again in 1970 and 1971, winning it all in 1970. Weis would have 132 more at bats over the next two seasons before he was out of the game for good. His legacy endures, however, for Bob Costas, keeper of the flame, invokes Weis’ name during every postseason telecast. Maybe next year he’ll say "Sojo." Maybe next year the Red Sox will win the World Series.