Sunday, April 19, 2020

We Can Be Heroes, Just For One Day

Some players achieve greatness in New York sports by sustaining excellence over a long period of time.  The names Seaver, Koosman, Wright, Strawberry, and Gooden are all examples of ballplayers who called Queens home for a good chunk of their career and earned their way into the pantheon of greatness.  Day in and day out over a period of years they became heroes one game-winning homer and one complete game shutout at a time.

Then there's another type of guy. This player did not maintain greatness for any length of time but had a moment so unforgettable that he took a shortcut to eternal glory.  In this case, he was a pitcher who spent one year in American major league baseball, appearing in 23 innings spread over 33 games with the New York Mets in 2005.  He was used as a LOOGY, an import from Korean baseball, and his name was Dae-Sung Koo.  His nickname was Mr. Koo - As I recall, he got that because that was his answer to reporters when they asked what to call him.

If it wasn't for a single game in May of 2005, I'm not sure I'd even remember the guy.  My overall impression of him without looking at the stats was that he wasn't terrible, but he walked too many batters.  Checking the stats verifies that impression, he walked 13 men in 23 innings.  The stats further show he was way better with no one on base than he was with men on.  He was all in all a very unremarkable pitcher.

What won Mr. Koo undying fame was a single at-bat, the second and last of his brief major league career.  His first at-bat came against the Reds on May 16.  The Mets were up big so manager Willie Randolph allowed Koo to hit.  He struck out on 4 pitches looking, the bat never leaving his shoulder.  Pitchers didn't hit in Korea, and Mr. Koo didn't look like he wanted any part of it.

Relievers don't get many opportunities to hit in the U.S. either, and it seemed unlikely that Koo would ever get a chance to take the bat off his shoulder.  But these were the 2005 Mets managed by Randolph.  Strange things tended to happen.

Fast forward five days to the Mets and the Yankees playing at Shea Stadium.  Kris Benson started for the Mets opposed by immortal lefty Randy Johnson of the Yankees. Johnson had been the Yankees' key acquisition the previous off-season in a trade with the Diamondbacks and was supposed to be the missing piece for the next Yankee championship.

The Mets were leading a tight contest 2-0 when Alex Rodriguez led off the top of the seventh with a single.  Mr. Koo came in to face the lefty Tino Martinez.  A-Rod got picked off by Mike Piazza when he tried to advance on a short wild pitch, and Koo retired Martinez and Jorge Posada to get it to the bottom of the seventh.

Willie Randolph in a trademark head-shaking move allowed Koo to lead off the inning against Johnson because he wanted Koo to face the LH Robinson Cano to lead off the eighth.

The game was on FOX, and announcers Tim McCarver and Joe Buck made a few jokes at Koo's expense when he came up to the plate.  What they didn't know was that the other players had teased Koo unmercifully after the strikeout five days earlier and the Korean had vowed to swing if he ever got another AB.

Despite that vow, Koo let the first two pitches sail by, one a ball and the other a strike.  As he prepared to face the 1-1 offering, McCarver made a crack about it being the "biggest give up at bat" of the season.  The words were still leaving his mouth when Koo took a mighty cut at the fastball and drove it over CF Bernie Williams' head.  By the time Williams chased it down, Koo was standing on second base with a double and McCarver was dining on crow.

If that was the end of the story it would have been pretty funny, but hardly something that would live on in baseball history.  But Koo wasn't done.

Willie Randolph made yet another questionable decision by leaving Koo in as the baserunner.  With a slim 2 run lead and a man on second with no outs, I remember thinking to myself, "they're going to call for Willie's head if Koo gets picked off or doesn't score on a play that a real baserunner would."

Whatever four-leaf clover that Randolph had stumbled across earlier that day still retained its magic, however, and in the process, a man became a legend.

Jose Reyes was up next and Randolph tasked him with bunting Koo to third.  Another questionable decision, but again it worked.  Reyes got down an awkward but effective bunt against Johnson which easily advanced Koo to third.  Posada had vacated home plate on the play and Johnson failed to cover.  Koo broke for home (over the objections of third base coach Manny Acta) and it became a race for the plate between two pretty slow runners.  Koo was wearing a warm-up jacket, despite the fact that it was quite warm that day.  Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, there was a heavy weighted warmup ball in the jacket pocket.

Koo dived into home plate headfirst, dodging Reyes' bat which was left in front of the plate.  Posada dove at the same time and might have tagged him, but home plate umpire Chuck Meriwether called him safe, and in those pre-replay days the call stood and a legend was born.

After the fact it was learned that Koo not only hurt his leg on the warm-up ball in the jacket but also his shoulder on the awkward slide.  He pitched ineffectively until admitting the injury and going on the DL. His Met career was essentially over by that point, he would only pitch a few innings before being sent down never to return.  None of that mattered.

Koo isn't only remembered by Mets fans for his heroic actions in the defeat of the hated Yankees and their pricey future Hall of Fame starting pitcher.  All of baseball remembers what has come to be known as "Mr. Koo's Wild Ride." There's a terrific article on that delves into far more detail than I had the time or research to do here. Please check it out.

Dae-Sung Koo. Man. Myth. Legend.  Proof that sometimes it only takes a few minutes to earn a lifetime of fame.

Hope you enjoyed today's trip back to 2005.  Stay well, everyone.  We'll be back tomorrow.

My Series on the 2005 Season:

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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