It was the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s all over again at Citi Field on Saturday, as the NY Mets honored three illustrious players with postseason glories and welcomed them into the team’s Hall of Fame. Jon Matlack, Ron Darling, and Edgardo Alfonzo are now the 28th, 29th, and 30th members of their immortal fraternity, and now claim bronze plaques hanging in the club’s Museum situated in the Jackie Robinson Rotunda.
While the ceremony was held in this year of vaccination, technically, all three are members of the Class of 2020, as their honor was announced last year, and a ceremony was to be held last summer before Covid-19 shut down the planet.
In a pre-game ceremony, which also was attended by the likes of Ed Kranepool, Mike Piazza, Carlos Baerga, Rey Ordonez, Keith Hernandez, Gary Cohen, and Bobby Valentine, emceed by Howie Rose, the trio of inductees offered their thanks and gratitude for the honor.
Each honoree was feted with a brief video tribute and gave acceptance speeches from an area behind second base. They were backed by oversized cutouts of their days in uniform standing on the grass behind them.
Prior to the event, the trio met the media.
“Back when you’re playing, you don’t focus on things that happen, what it all means,” said Matlack, “but you reflect years later and it takes on a different color. I’m truly honored, very special, no doubt.”
Darling said “I didn’t realize til that call that I do have a place in the history of this organization. You sit back and go, “Wow!” I’m overjoyed. It’s hard for me to get overjoyed, but I’m overjoyed.”
Fonzie became emotional when he got the call last year from the Wilpons with news of his election.
“As soon as I got the call, tears came to my eyes. My wife was worried. Something happened? I said, no, something good happened. This was a dream come true.”
In addition to the triumvirate of plaque-worthy new Hall of Famers, the Mets honored the late Al Jackson with their Lifetime Achievement Award, an honor previously bestowed upon longtime Mets employee Bob Mandt in 2010, longtime head groundskeeper Pete Flynn in 2012, and longtime scout Harry Minor in 2013.
“Little” Al Jackson, an Original Met – having been pulled from the Pirates organization in the National League Expansion Draft in 1961 – spent over 50 years in the Mets organization, as a player, coach, advisor, and all-around beloved human being. The ever-ebullient lefthander, who accomplished the first shutout in team history, and also earned the first victory for the Mets in Shea Stadium in 1964, was a much better pitcher than his record would indicate, and with knowledge accrued on the mound, was adept at imposing those tidbits of wisdom for decades, forever with a smile on his face.
Jackson was one of those individuals who could make you feel like a lifelong friend within moments of meeting him.
“Al changed the path of my professional baseball career,” Darling admitted, “and for that I will be forever grateful.”
“I never saw Al mad,” Fonzie commented. “His sense of humor, even when he was in the minor leagues, was always special.”
For his career, the 5’10” lefty went 67-99, with a 3.98 ERA in 303 games, 184 starts, 1389.1 innings pitched, 738 strikeouts, 1.33 WHIP. As a Met, Jackson was 43-80, 4.26 ERA in 184 games, 138 starts, with 41 complete games and 10 shutouts.
But Jackson had the misfortune of being saddled with an expansion club that spent years searching for the winning formula.
He was there at the beginning, and he was also there at the beginning of the magical year of 1969. He was traded by the Mets in October of 1965, along with Charley Smith, in a deal where the Mets acquired infielder Ken Boyer. He spent 1966 and ’67 with the Cardinals, but came back to the Mets in ’68 in a deal exchanged for Jack Lamabe.
Jackson was sold to Cincinnati in June of ’69, but came back to the organization in 1970 after he retired. And there he remained a Mets lifer from then until the day he passed in August of 2019, at the age of 83.
Matlack was a first round draft pick by the Mets in 1967, the fourth selection overall. The 6’3” Pennsylvania native pitched for 13 years in the majors, seven years with the Mets. For his days in New York, the lanky lefty was 82-81, with a 3.03 ERA in 203 games, 199 of them starts. And would you believe he compiled 65 complete games. Sixty-five! Complete! Essentially, he went the whole nine in a third of his starts.
It was part of his competitive nature. After all, his locker was intentionally sandwiched between fellow hurlers named Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman.
“You didn’t want to be the weak link in that chain,” said Matlack.
Matlack was feted as the Rookie of the Year in 1972. First issued number 35 with the big club, as soon as he could, he requested number 32. All southpaws would prefer to wear 32. As perhaps younger fans might not know, that was the uniform designation of the great Sandy Koufax, considered by many as one of the greatest lefthanded pitchers in the history of the sport.
That’s why Steven Matz was assigned 32, and why Aaron Loup currently enjoys the honor.
“Sandy was the guy I idolized as a kid,” Matlackbeamed. “It was rare that I got a chance to watch him, but when I did, I watched him. He was the guy I emulated. He was special.”
The three-time All-Star – who was named a Co-MVP of the 1975 All-Star game – is still in the team’s all-time Top Ten in Wins, complete games, ERA, innings pitched (1448), strikeouts (1023), and shutouts (26).
A valued member of the famous “You Gotta Believe” Mets of 1973, it was Matlack who hurled a complete game shutout against Cincinnati in that year’s NLCS.
Matlack’s Mets career ended when involved in a crazy, four-team, ten-player trade at the Winter Meetings in 1977. In retrospect, it was a lousy deal for the Mets, but hey, you can’t change history.
The Braves sent Willie Montanez to the Mets. The Rangers sent Tommy Boggs, Adrian Devine, and Eddie Miller to the Braves. The Rangers also sent Tom Grieve to the Mets and future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven to the Pirates. The Pirates also sent Nelson Norman and Al Oliver to the Rangers. To complete this carousel of moving parts, the Mets sent John Milner to the Pirates and received Ken Henderson from the Rangers the following spring as the player to be named later.
Boy, wouldn’t Mets fans want to take a time machine to go back and alter those transactions.
Today the 71-year-old Matlack is enjoying retirement living in the Adirondacks in upstate New York, not far from the Canadian border.
“They finally found a way to get me out of the woods!”
Darling, now in his 16th year as a highly regarded member of the Mets SNY broadcast team, was originally drafted by the Texas Rangers in 1981. He was traded by the Rangers, along with Walt Terrell, to the Mets for Lee Mazzilli in April of 1982. Thanks, Maz!
The 6’3” righthander made his major league debut with the Mets in September of ’83 at the age of 23. He threw 6.1 innings, gave up just five hits and one earned run, but took the loss against the Phillies in a 2-0 shutout. In a bit of irony, Tug McGraw earned the W.
Darling was fifth in the voting for Rookie of the Year in 1984, was an All-Star in ’85, and was a major factor in their rise to the Championship in 1986, going 15-6, 2.81 ERA and 1.19 WHIP. He finished fifth in the voting for Cy Young.
The native Hawaiian, later raised in Massachusetts, and a Yale grad, was a Met until July of ’91, traded to Montreal, along with Mike Thomas, for Tim Burke. He lasted just two weeks as an Expo, when he was dealt to Oakland for a pair of prospects. The man who made that deal for Oakland was current Mets President Sandy Alderson.
For his career, Darling went 136-116, 3.87, in 382 games, 364 starts, 2360.1 IP, 1590 Ks, 1.33 WHIP. As a Met, Darling impressed a 99-70 mark, 3.50, 257 games, 241 starts, 1620 IP, 1148 Ks, 1.29 WHIP.
Darling is fourth in the team’s all-time wins bracket, and remains in the Top Ten in complete games, innings pitched, strikeouts, and shutouts.
He won Game 4 in the 1986 Fall Classic in Boston, which evened the series and guaranteed a return to New York for the eventual champagne bath.
He also owns a Gold Glove for his fielding in 1989.
“I played during a golden time here in New York when you’re playing in front of 40, 50 thousand people every night,” Darling said in regards to his New York moments and his relationship with the fans. “When you’re playing, you know they are there, but you don’t really think about the fans. You think about how to get guys out.
“My relationship with the fans is more so now. So they have no problem coming up and talking. It’s come full circle for me.”
Alfonzo is still first in team postseason history in hits(26), runs (15), and RBI (17). He homered in the one-game playoff of ’99 that propelled the club into the full postseason, and banged out a Grand Slam in Game 1 of the NLDS against Arizona.
The native Venezuelan’s status in the team’s Top ten of offensive categories include hits (1136), runs (614), doubles (212), RBI (538), OBP (.367), total bases (1736), and batting average (.292). He won a Silver Slugger in ’99, and was an All-Star in 2000.
And he will always be remembered as one-fourth of what no less than Sports Illustrated dubbed with a cover story as the greatest defensive infield in baseball history in ’99, along with John Olerud at first, Rey Ordonez at short, and Robin Ventura at third. Between them, the quartet allowed just 21 errors the entire season.
“I was never much for individual goals,” Fonzie admits. “I just wanted to help us win. But I am so proud to receive this honor. This is something I never thought possible.”
The Alfonzos were longtime residents of New York, living not far from his old stomping grounds, but recently moved to Florida.
Nostalgia and remembrances reigned, and the current Mets sent their fans home with a happy recap with a 10-inning, 5-4 walk-off win against the Reds.
The next scheduled night of nostalgia is slated for Aug. 28, when jerry Koosman’s number 36 is officially retired.
The Mets Hall of Fame: Mrs. Joan Payson (inducted 1981), Casey Stengel (1981), Gil Hodges (1982), George M. Weiss (1982), Johnny Murphy (1983), William A. Shea (1983), Ralph Kiner (1984), Bob Murphy (1984), Lindsey Nelson (1984), Bud Harrelson (1986), Rusty Staub (1986), Tom Seaver (1988), Jerry Koosman (1989), Ed Kranepool (1990), Cleon Jones (1991), Jerry Grote (1992), Tug McGraw(1993), Mookie Wilson (1996), Keith Hernandez (1997), Gary Carter (2001), Tommie Agee (2002), Frank Cashen(2010), Dwight Gooden (2010), Davey Johnson (2010), Darryl Strawberry (2010), John Franco (2012), Mike Piazza (2013), Jon Matlack (2020), Ron Darling (2020), Edgardo Alfonzo (2020).