Best Mets Of All Time: No. 21 Cleon Jones
When it comes to the storied past of the Mets turning the corner from losers to World Series contenders, Cleon Jones is as an important figure as nearly any other Mets player on that team. Really, Jones was in the middle of everything which happened on those teams.
For a while, it didn’t seem like that was going to be the case. Even with his finished fourth in the 1966 Rookie of the Year vote, he had not done much to distinguish himself. Then, in 1967, the Mets got a manager in Gil Hodges who believed in him, and at the end of the year, the Mets obtained his close childhood friend Tommie Agee. With them in the fold, Jones would turn the corner in a big way in 1968
In that 1968 season, Jones, now a left fielder, had the type of breakout year you desperately want to see from 25 year old players. He set career highs in nearly every offensive category. Mostly, he made the transition from promising young player to reliable everyday player. He would then have one of the great seasons in Mets history in 1969.
In 1969, Jones would post a 7.0 WAR. At that time, it was easily the Mets single-season record. It was a record which stood for 27 years. Fifty-one years has passed since that season, and with players like David Wright, Carlos Beltran, and Gary Carter, that mark has dropped from one to seven. Even if numerically it ranks seventh, Jones’ 1969 season still remains the greatest single-season a Mets position player has ever had.
During that year, Jones would make the All-Star team, becoming the Mets first left fielder to accomplish the feat. He would hit .340/.422/.482 with 25 2B, four 3B, 12 homers, 75 RBI, and 16 stolen bases, and he led the team in nearly every offensive category. He would then power the Mets in the NLCS. In that three game sweep against the Braves, he ranked second on the team, trailing just his friend Agee, in OPS.
While Jones had a great NLCS, he will forever be remembered for the World Series. It may not be as remembered now, but Jones really struggled in that series against the Orioles great pitching. It wasn’t until Game 5 that he really had an impact. In the famous shoe polish play, Jones was the batter hit by the pitch, and he was the one who began arguing he should go to first.
Jones being awarded first would allow him to score on the Donn Clendenon homer pulling the Mets to within 3-2. They’d tie the score later, and it was Jones with a lead-off double in the sixth which began the series winning rally. In fact, it’s a footnote lost in Mets history, but Jones is the first Mets player to score a World Series winning run. Even if he’s not recognized as such, we all know it was him who caught the final out:
In Mets history, we talk about Art Shamsky and Endy Chavez, but if you really think about it, that might really be the greatest catch in Mets history. Yes, it was a routine fly ball off the bat of Davey Johnson, but it was the catch which secured the final out of what remains the greatest upset in World Series history.
Jones remained a good and productive player for the Mets for a few years, but he would never again be able to repeat his 1969 success. That is even with him having a very good 1971 season where he had a 4.8 WAR. In that year, he set a career high with six triples. However, it would not be until the 1973 season we would see his next truly impactful play in Mets history. It was called the “Ball on the Wall” play.
On September 20, 1973, the Mets were attempting their improbable run to a division title, and they trailed the first place Pittsburgh Pirates by 1.5 games in the standings. Entering this five game series, the Mets had trailed the Pirates by 2.5 games. Even after dropping the first game, they could claim first place by sweeping the remaining games.
The Mets took the next two games, and they rallied to force extra innings in this game. In the top of the 13th, Pirates rookie Dave Augustine hit what looked like a go-ahead two run homer. However, much like Todd Zeile‘s ball in the 2000 World Series, it hit the top of the wall and came back into play.
Jones tracked the play perfectly, and he made a perfect relay throw to Wayne Garrett, who got it there in plenty of time to get Richie Zisk out at the plate. It was about as well executed a relay as you will ever see, and the Mets would win the game on a walk-off single by Ron Hodges. Much like other times in Mets history, Jones’ other contribution was overlooked with his hitting an RBI single which first got the Mets on the board.
The Mets finished off the Pirates in that game and that series. They took first place, and they never looked back. Of note, Jones hit six homers over the course of that final month of the season which saw the Mets go from 5.5 games back to their second ever division title. Again, Jones was good in the NLCS hitting .300/.364/.400 in the Mets five game upset of the Big Red Machine.
Jones saved his best for last. In the winner-take-all Game 5, he was 3-for-5 with a run, double, and two RBI. One interesting fact is after scoring the winning run of the 1969 World Series, Jones would drive in the winning run of the 1973 NLCS meaning he was involved in the winning runs in consecutive series.
Jones was very good in the World Series. In fact, he was second to just Rusty Staub in team OPS. Unfortunately, despite his efforts as well as those from his teammates, the Mets would lose that series in seven games.
Jones had a good 1974 season before things got so bad it was past the point of reconciliation. There was an incident during his rehab from knee surgery, and despite charges being dropped, M. Donald Grant levied the largest ever fine in Mets history against him. Things deteriorated, and after a 1975 altercation with Yogi Berra, he was released.
That wasn’t his first altercation with a manager as he was infamously lifted from a game in 1969 by Hodges, but things only improved from there. For some reason or another, probably Jones’ knee or Grant being Grant, that was it.
When Jones left, he was definitively the best left fielder in Mets history, a title he still holds to this day. He won a World Series and another pennant with the team, and he played a vital role in both. He is prominent in the Mets record books including his having the fourth most hits, 10th most doubles, and fourth most triples. He is in the Mets Hall of Fame, and he is the best Mets player to ever wear the number 21.
3. Curtis Granderson
4. Lenny Dykstra
5. David Wright
6. Wally Backman
7. Jose Reyes
8. Gary Carter
9. Todd Hundley
10. Rey Ordonez
11. Wayne Garrett
12. John Stearns
13. Edgardo Alfonzo
14. Gil Hodges
15. Carlos Beltran
16. Dwight Gooden
17. Keith Hernandez
18. Darryl Strawberry
19. Bob Ojeda
20. Howard Johnson