By Barry Duchan
Editor's Note: We will publish a post from Barry Duchan every Sunday covering some aspect of Mets history. - M.S.
In 1975, Rusty Staub had his best year for the Mets, driving in 105 runs. Then, in the offseason, for reasons few fans could understand, the Mets traded Staub to Detroit for veteran lefthanded pitcher Mickey Lolich. Actually, the trade was Staub and AAA pitcher Bill Laxton for Lolich and AAA outfielder Billy Baldwin.
I remember thinking that maybe this guy Baldwin was some super prospect (he wasn't) because otherwise, this trade was hard to justify. Trade Staub? Maybe not unthinkable, because the Mets thought they had his replacement in the much younger Mike Vail. But for Lolich? Was that the best they could do?
Mike Vail came to the Mets as a throw-in minor leaguer in an otherwise inconsequential swap of utility infielders with the Cardinals. But Vail quickly established himself as a superior hitter on the AAA level, and was a sensation when the Mets brought him up, with a 23-game hitting streak that made fans and team officials think they had found a future long-term fixture in right field.
So, Staub could be a valuable trade commodity to a team that had a solid starting 3 in Koosman, Seaver, and Matlack, but needed an established 4th starter. Lolich was the pitching star of the 1968 World Series, but by 1975, he was still a workhorse, but a 35-year old, terribly out of shape workhorse who had lost 39 games in 2 seasons and didn't figure to get much better. Would a change of leagues return Lolich to glory?
Well, Lolich went 8-13 for the Mets and soon departed, while Staub continued to hit for years. Fortunately, Rusty returned to the Mets a few years later where he became baseball's premier pinch-hitter.
And Vail? He injured his knee playing basketball in the off-season, leaving a gaping hole in the Mets' lineup and when he returned, he never lived up to his potential with the Mets, although he hung around with a few other teams for a while as a 4th outfielder and pinch hitter.
The 1976 Mets finished 86-76 with neither Vail nor Lolich making many positive contributions. Could the Mets have been a legitimate contender if they had kept Staub? We'll never know.