It wasn’t the most reviled deal the Mets ever made — sending Tom Seaver to the Reds tops that list — but history showed that dealing Nolan Ryan to the Angels for Jim Fregosi couldn’t have turned out worse for the New York team.
As Ryan, 72, prepares to return to Flushing for a reunion of the 1969 world champions the weekend of June 28, major league baseball’s all-time strikeouts leader and Hall of Famer still wonders what might have been had he remained with the Mets.
“I would have liked to have had the opportunity to pitch an extended period of time with Tom,’’ Ryan said in April from his home in Round Rock, Texas.
Ryan said it was Seaver’s leadership that helped set him on the course to 324 wins, seven no-hitters and 5,714 strikeouts over 27 seasons. The two righthanded legends totaled 635 major league victories
“I give Tom a lot of credit for having an impact on my career,’’ Ryan said. “He was the first guy that I was around who was truly focused on his career and had goals and set out to achieve those goals. His work ethic and just being around and observing him had a very positive influence on me.’’
Unfortunately for the Mets, they did not reap the benefits.
The 22-year-old Ryan went 6-3 with 92 strikeouts in 89⅓ innings during the 1969 season in which the Mets had a miraculous world championship run. Though he allowed only 53 walks, he often found himself working out of unfavorable counts.
He was, to say the least, a project for manager Gil Hodges.
“Nolan always had great stuff and when he was on was unbelievable,’’ recalled teammate Jim McAndrew, 75. “When he had trouble finding the strike zone, it drove Gil crazy. Nolan made him an old man early.’’
Ryan spent two more seasons on the Mets’ staff, finishing his tenure with a 29-38 record, a 3.58 earned- run average, 493 strikeouts and 344 walks in 510 innings.
In 1971, he struck out 137 but walked 116 in 152 innings, a 1.18 strikeout-to-walks ratio. Ryan blamed his erratic control on missing time because of a military obligation.
“I was in a top-priority reserve unit, so I was going back to Houston every other weekend,’’ he said. “Because of that, it didn’t allow me to stay in the rotation and because of that, also I think the inconsistency of my schedule, contributed to my control problems.”
In 1971, at 24, Ryan was sent to the Angels for Fregosi, a respected third baseman.
“We’ve had him three full years and although he’s a hell of a prospect, he hasn’t done if for us,’’ Mets general manager Bob Scheffing told the New York Times after the deal. “How long can you wait? I don’t rate him in the same category with Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman or Gary Gentry.’’ Scheffing died in 1985.
Hodges, who died before the 1972 season, reportedly agreed with the trade. “He hadn’t done it for us and the Angels wanted him,’’ he told the Times in 1971. “I would not hesitate making a trade for somebody who might help us right now, and Fregosi is such a guy.’’
Fregosi hit .233 in 1972 and part of 1973 before being traded to the Rangers. Fregosi, who later became Ryan’s manager in Anaheim, died in 2014. Ryan blossomed almost immediately after the trade, becoming a 19-game winner with 329 strikeouts and a remarkable 2.28 ERA in 1972.
“I said he’d become a superstar,’’ former Mets catcher Jerry Grote, 72, said from Belton, Texas. “One reason. The strike zone. He pitches upstairs. They won’t give him that strike here. In the American League, he’ll get it, guys will be chasing balls over their head.’’
In all, Ryan led his league in strikeouts 11 times, his best being 383 in 1973, when he was 21-16 with a .287 ERA and finished second to Baltimore’s Jim Palmer in the American League Cy Young Award voting. It was the closest he ever came to winning the coveted award.
That same year, Seaver won the National League Cy Young with a 19-10 record, 2.08 ERA and 251 strikeouts for the Mets, who reached the World Series but fell in seven games to the Oakland A’s.
Imagine if the Mets had had both that season — or any season during both of their primes.
“That would have been a pretty strong 1-2 combination,’’ Ryan said.
Consider this: In 1970, Ryan tied a Mets record by striking out 15 against the Phillies, only to have Seaver surpass it four days later when he set a record with 19 against the Padres.
Ryan was a big factor in the 1969 National League Championship Series, throwing seven innings of relief in Game 3 against the Braves for his first playoff victory. He also saved Game 3 of the World Series, his only appearance in the Fall Classic.
The fact that Ryan won his only World Series ring with the Mets is something he never forgets.
“That very much means a lot to me,’’ he said. “Anytime you win with an organization and a group of guys, that always has a special place in your heart.’’
- Seaver was traded — at his insistence — on June 15, 1977 to the Reds for Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson and Dan Norman in a deal that would have set the Twitter universe on fire if it happened today. But it still was monumental at that time. “When you pick up a newspaper and it says ‘Midnight Massacre,’ it kind of gives you an idea,’’ Flynn, a banking executive in Louisville, Kentucky, said in 2017. “I can understand what was going through the minds of the fans. They were getting rid of The Franchise.
- Seaver came back to the Mets in 1983 but was snapped up as a compensatory pick by the White Sox in 1984 when the Mets failed to protect him on the roster. Then-GM Frank Cashen said it was his mistake. “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,’’ he was quoted. Seaver got his 300th victory on Aug. 5, 1985 at Yankee Stadium. His last appearance came for the Red Sox on Sept 19, 1986.
- Ryan, a Texan at heart, signed a free-agent deal with the Astros in 1979, and the Rangers in 1988, finishing his career with that team in 1993. He pitched four no-hitters for the Angels, one for the Astros and two for the Rangers. Besides the strikeout record, he owns the MLB record for career walks with 2,795.
- Seaver was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1992. His plaque was the first to bear a Mets cap.
- Ryan was elected in 1999, a Rangers cap on his plaque.