Saturday, March 22, 2014

#488) DAMON BUFORD

Damon Buford became a member of the New York Mets when he was traded from the Baltimore Orioles along with Alex Ochoa, and Jimmy Williams in exchange for Bobby Bonilla on July 28, 1995. He had the unusual experience of actually being traded by his father, former major leaguer Don Buford.  The elder Buford held the position of assistant director of player development with the Orioles and had orchestrated the deal with New York. "The trade came out of the blue, but my dad sees it as an opportunity," Damon said. "He's my dad first." It was a chance to return from Triple-A Rochester back to the major leagues.

The Mets inserted Damon into the starting lineup immediately. He made his debut with the team as the left fielder at Shea Stadium that same day. Buford delivered a base hit in the 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The new player found a friend in the Mets veteran center fielder Brett Butler. "The first couple of games I was nervous," Damon said. "I felt like it was spring training all over again. But it was great to be around Butler. I sat next to him on the bench and I talked to him in the outfield. I learned more from him in the past two weeks than I have in the last couple of years."

Buford inherited the leadoff spot in the batting order when Butler was forced to temporarily leave the club to address the death of his mother. Following his return to New York, Brett was later traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 18th. His departure made Damon's move permanent.

On September 13th he recorded the first multiple home run game of his career. Buford slugged two blasts while driving in five runs during the 10-5 win over the Houston Astros at Shea. "I just felt I was in a comfort zone." Damon said. "I felt I could do anything, that if I took a short, quick swing, I could hit the ball out. I've got that feeling at the plate now"

Unfortunately he did not finish the season as strongly. He collected just five base hits in his final 25 at-bats of the year. Damon finished with a .235 batting average, four home runs, 12 RBIs and seven stolen bases during his 44 games with New York.

The Mets traded Buford to the Texas Rangers in exchange for minor league outfielder, Terrell Lowery on January 25, 1996. Damon would play for the Rangers, Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs until 2001.

After baseball, Buford has operated several tanning salons in Arizona with his wife, Sara Neeley-Buford. The couple are also part of 2nd Serving Foundation a mobile food bank serving the Phoenix community. Damon was named their Chairman of the Board of Directors in January 2013.

Damon Buford signed his card in the set through a private signing held by Signatures4U on March 12, 2014.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

#584) RICH RODRIGUEZ

Rich Rodriguez was first a part of the New York Mets organization when they drafted the native Californian out of the University of Tennessee in the 9th round of the 1984 amateur draft. He would pitch as high as Double-A Jackson in 1988 before the Mets traded him to the San Diego Padres for two other minor leaguers on January 13, 1989.

The left-hander returned to the Mets as a major league veteran when they signed him to a two-year, $1.5 million contract in January of 2000. He was officially added to the 40-man roster on February 8th.

Rodriguez made his New York Mets debut during the very unusual "Opening Day" on March 29th at the Tokyo Dome in Japan. He would allow a home run to Mark Grace during his inning of work in the 5-3 loss to the Chicago Cubs. His first appearance at Shea Stadium came days later on April 5th. Rich was effective that game. Striking out four and scattering two hits across three innings of work facing the San Diego Padres.

The southpaw began to struggle with surrendering the long ball after that. He has victimized for three home runs from the Philadelphia Phillies in his next two appearances. "It's only May, and I am going to turn it around," Rodriguez said at the end of the month. "It is going to get better; it will happen soon." Rich had allowed runs in eight consecutive relief appearances before the Mets relegated him to limited bullpen duty. The veteran accepted a demotion to Triple-A Norfolk on June 28th. "After so many years, that adrenaline flow needs to be there to have a real competitive edge," Mets manager Bobby Valentine explained to The New York Times. Bobby felt that the lack of use in critical spots may have contributed to the 7.67 ERA of Rodriguez.

Rich was recalled in July and continued to struggle. That resulted in a return to the Norfolk Tides which lasted until rosters expanded in September. Rodriguez was brought back to a Mets club playing for a postseason appearance. He would pitch in four more games and allow runs in three of those. During the 2000 campaign he threw 37 innings allowing 59 hits with a 7.78 ERA.

The Mets released Rodriguez on March 29, 2001. Exactly one year to the day of his debut with the club in Japan.

He would pitch more effectively with three different American League teams before retiring from professional baseball in 2003 at the age of 40. At that point he began work on the High School level as a pitching coach in California. In January of 2012 he joined Elite Nine Baseball Camps and Clinics as a pitching instructor. He is joined there by fellow former Met player, Gregg Jefferies.

I created Rich Rodriguez's card in the set from an autographed index card given to me by my friend, Jessie through the good people at City Liquidators on March 8, 2014.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

#467) JUAN CASTILLO

Juan Castillo was signed as an international free agent out of Venezuela on May 2, 1988. The 18-year old right-hander would pitch five seasons at Class-A level before becoming a bone fide prospect in 1992.  That season he would post a 1.83 ERA over his final 12 starts with the St. Lucie Mets of the Florida State League. The performance earned him a promotion to Double-A Binghamton for 1993.

Castillo was summoned from Binghamton to New York on July 26, 1994. Starting pitcher Pete Smith was suffering shoulder stiffness and had been placed on the 15-day disabled list. The scenario set up Juan's major league debut later that night. Castillo was the starting pitcher at Busch Stadium and lasted five innings facing the St. Louis Cardinals. He worked methodically allowing only one hit per inning through the first four frames. The Cards gathered two hits in the fifth, and Todd Zeile would end Juan's night with a three-run home run to right off a high fastball. Castillo earned a no-decision when the Mets rallied to win the game 10-9 in extra innings.

Juan would get one more start before being optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on August 2, 1994. He finished his major league time with a 6.94 ERA in 11.2 innings over those two appearances. Major League Baseball began their most infamous work stoppage on August 12th of that year. The entire season was lost and the World Series cancelled. When things became apparent there was to be no quick resolution teams began to send their players to foreign countries to play winter baseball there. "It's been a little more difficult this year because a lot of Latin-American teams are waiting to see if they can get some of the major league-caliber baseball players to play there because of the strike," said Steve Phillips, the director of minor league operations in 1994. Juan was assigned to pitch in Venezuela along with teammate Edgardo Alfonzo.

Baseball returned once the strike was concluded on April 2, 1995. Starting pitcher, Pete Harnisch had been acquired  during that strike in a trade with the Houston Astros on November 28, 1994. The New York Mets sent Juan Castillo as the player to be named later in that deal on April 12th. He would remain in the Astros minor league system until retiring in 1996.

I created Juan Castillo's card in the set from an autographed index card given to me by my friend Jessie Burke in December 2013.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

#788) RICARDO RINCON

Ricardo Rincon was signed by the New York Mets as a minor league free agent on January 23, 2008. The 37 year-old left-hander had appeared in 557 games over a 10-year career in the major leagues. Rincon had not pitched in the big leagues since appearing in five games two years earlier with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was coming off a torn ACL in his right knee that followed a year that had ended with surgery to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff. The Mets invited the veteran to spring training camp with a chance to become a member of the bullpen.

Rincon surprised many with a fastball that reached 90-91 miles per hour during the Grapefruit League schedule. It was still not enough for him to break into a full roster heading north to New York. The Mets did not choose to option him to Triple-A New Orleans. Instead in an effort to allow Ricardo to remain closer to home, his contract was loaned to the Mexico City Reds of the Mexican League on April 2nd. He would pitch 42 games in Mexico with a 0-2 record, two saves and a 3.82 ERA.

It was time for Rincon to return to the major leagues when rosters expanded at the end of the 2008 season. The Mets brought him to New York to supplement an extremely tired bullpen for a team that was beginning to surrender leads late in games. Ricardo made his debut with the club on September 5th getting the first two outs of the ninth inning during the 3-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies at Shea Stadium.

The lefty would be called upon to preserve the victory during the final start of Pedro Martinez's Mets career on September 25th. Rincon entered the game and surrendered a three-run home run to Chicago Cubs rookie, Micah Hoffpauir on the first pitch. It would be the final pitch that Rincon would throw in his major league career.  The New York Mets granted the veteran free agency at the end of the season. Ricardo ended with eight appearances, striking out three batters while walking one with a 4.50 ERA.

Rincon continued to pitch occasionally for his hometown Diablos Rojos club for a number of years to follow.

Ricardo Rincon signed his card in the set for Ricardo Lopez before a baseball game in Tijuana, Mexico on August 23, 2013.

Friday, February 28, 2014

#404) JEFF GARDNER

Jeff Gardner signed with the New York Mets as an amateur free agent on August 28, 1984. The infielder from California had been selected in that year's amateur draft by the Houston Astros, but elected not to sign at that time.

Gardner worked his way through the Mets minor league system. Impressing many coaches with his strong work ethic along the way. "You need to see him play for two weeks to appreciate him," observed Mike Cubbage, his Triple-A manager in Norfolk. "He's sure-handed, and he turns the double play as well as anyone in the major leagues. He does the little things with the bat–bunts and moves guys over–that helps the team." Jeff was in an unenviable scenario as a middle infielder with an organization full of talent at those positions. "I'm not saying there's no chance of getting to the big leagues, but as far as me being their second baseman of the future, I'm sure they don't see that," Gardner told The Los Angeles Times in 1989. "But that can change."

Jeff continued to play at the Triple-A level and work as a waiter at a San Luis Obispo restaurant during the winter. Believing that continuing to work towards a major league contract would be the best way to benefit his young family. "As long as I still have some chance to make the big leagues, I'll stay," Gardner explained. "If you don't have a chance, I think they'll let you know."

His work paid off when he was promoted to New York as rosters expanded to end the 1991 season. Jeff would make his long awaited major league debut at Shea Stadium on September 10th. Gardner was the starting shortstop during a one-hit gem tossed by fellow rookie, Pete Schourek. Jeff contributed his first big league hit and two runs scored to the 9-0 victory over the Montreal Expos. "I have quite a few memories," Jeff shared in 2014. "I recall driving to the stadium, seeing my uniform and then just walking out on that field for the first time as the most vivid snapshots."

Gardner would appear in 13 games to close the season with six hits in 37 at-bats for a .162 batting average. The Mets traded Jeff to the San Diego Padres in exchange for Steve Rosenberg on December 11, 1991. He would enjoy his best major league season with the Padres in 1993. "I wasn't ready to be in the big leagues no matter how many guys were ahead of me," Gardner offered. "Until after I left the Mets."

Jeff entered the business world after leaving professional baseball in 2005. He gained success in a variety of real estate related occupations. Once his children were through their college years, he returned to the game as a Major League advance scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2014.

He signed his card in the set from an autograph request sent to his office on October 9, 2013.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

#7) AMADO SAMUEL

Amado Samuel joined the New York Mets when his contract and that of Adrian "Smokey" Garrett was purchased from the Milwaukee Braves on October 15, 1963. Samuel was a pioneer with the Braves when he became the first of a string of major league shortstops to come from San Pedro de Macoris of the Dominican Republic. "I am proud of being the majors' first Dominican shortstop," he told Sports Illustrated in 1987. "I guess there are a lot of them now. You know, one reason there might be so many is the ground they play on. You've got to have very good hands to play on those fields."

Samuel made his New York Mets debut as the starting shortstop in the first game ever played at Shea Stadium. He would give the club it's only lead of the day with a two-run double in the eventual 4-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Amado started nine of the first 11 games, but saw his batting average at a lowly .127 by the end of May. The light-hitting infielder tried everything, including wearing glasses, to get his bat going. The Mets acquired Roy McMillan in a second transaction with the Braves on May 8, 1964. New York gave pitcher, Jay Hook and a player to be named later to Milwaukee. That player ended up being Adrian Garrett on June 17th. The addition of McMillan moved Amado to the Mets bench until an on-field injury sent Roy to the disabled list.

Amado took advantage of this second chance. He responded by hitting a torrid .303 over 23 straight starts at shortstop and third base. When McMillan returned Samuel was optioned to Triple-A Buffalo in a roster move. "I didn't play too long after the Mets 'cause I tore up my knee in Buffalo," Amado said. "Missed out on the big bucks, I guess but I'm healthy, doing fine, no complaints." He finished the 1964 season in New York, his last in the majors, with a .232 batting average, and 5 RBIs in 53 games.

He is often mistakenly thought to be related to fellow Mets player, Juan Samuel. "I don't even know him," explained Amado to clear up that confusion in an interview with SABR author, Malcolm Allen in 2006.

After retiring from baseball, Samuel continued to live in his adopted home of Louisville, Kentucky. Amado and his wife Aldetha, who he married in 1962 raised their family there. Samuel worked many years as a refrigerator repairman at the General Electric plant in Louisville. "Me, I haven't played in years," he offered in 1987. "I'll go to a game in Cincinnati once in a while—I said hello to Cesar Cedeño when he was with the Reds—but the Mets are still my team."

Amado Samuel signed his card in the set from an autograph request sent to his home on January 14, 2014.

Monday, February 24, 2014

#88) LARRY STAHL

Larry Stahl joined the New York Mets when his contract was purchased from the Kansas City Athletics on October 17, 1966. "It was a good feeling going to the National League," Stahl remembered. He would make the team as a utility player to begin the next season. Larry made his Mets debut as a pinch hitter at Shea Stadium on April 13, 1967. His first hit would not come until April 27th at Wrigley Field during a 3-0 loss to the Chicago Cubs. The left handed hitter's struggles at the plate led to his demotion to Triple-A Jacksonville in early May. He returned in June, but ended the year with a .239 batting average, one home run and 18 RBIs in his 71 games.

Stahl began the 1968 campaign back in Triple-A. A hot start there saw him raise his batting average to a robust .366. The Mets recalled him to New York in July. Once there he played in 53 games and produced a .235 batting average with three home runs and 10 RBIs.

Larry became one of the "original" 1969 San Diego Padres when he was selected by that club from the Mets as the 13th pick in the expansion draft. Stahl became an everyday player there until joining the Cincinnati Reds in 1973. He was a bench player for the "Big Red Machine" club who lost to the Mets in the National League Championship series. It would be his last year in the major leagues.

Stahl's favorite memory of Shea Stadium was the Old Timer's Game that the Yankees played there in 1975. "I got the old Yankees autographs, including Joe Dimaggio," Larry said.

Larry is best remembered for breaking up a potential perfect game by the Chicago Cubs pitcher Milt Pappas on September 2, 1972. Stahl drew a walk with two outs in the ninth inning. An out by the following batter preserved the no-hitter, but it was the first time perfection had been thwarted in that manner. Pappas argued the pitch he threw was too close to call ball four. "The pitch was outside," Umpire Bruce Froemming defended years later to The New York Times in 2010. "I didn't miss the pitch. Pappas missed the pitch. You can look at the tape."

After baseball he remained in his hometown of Belleville, Illinois where he enjoys spending time fishing and hunting.

Larry Stahl signed his card in the set from an autograph request sent to his home on January 7, 2014.