It’s natural for fans to have favorite players and it follows that there will be athletes that do not invoke feelings of sympathy. I like to think that in the last decade or so that the people on the Mets that I detested all earned those feelings from me by their performances on the field. There was Rey Ordonez and his inability to hit. There was Guillermo Mota and the gas can he brought to the mound with him when he pitched. And there was the cult of Jeff Francoeur.
But my hatred of Richie Hebner was not quite so rational.
If Hebner played now, there’s little doubt that he would be a fan favorite and the mention of his name would not make my skin crawl. You frequently hear hard workers described as “blue collar guys” and it’s hard to think of a professional baseball player in the late 20th Century who fit that description better than Hebner. During the offseason, Hebner worked as a grave digger and it’s difficult to imagine a more blue collar job for a pampered athlete than that.
On the field, Hebner was a solid hitter who really hit well against RHP but probably should not have been allowed to face many lefties. He made good contact throughout his career and generally did a good job of getting on base. He didn’t have great over-the fence power but he posted ISOs over .200 in three consecutive seasons and finished with a respectable .162 career mark in the category.
So then why all the disdain, from me and countless others, for poor Richie Hebner? If you were there, no explanation is needed but if you weren’t it’s not really that much of a mystery. Hebner committed the one Cardinal Sin of a ballplayer, one that if he was playing in the 21st Century, either he or his agent would have had the required media savvy to prevent from happening.
When the Mets traded for him, he made no secret that he didn’t want to be on the team.
Now, it’s hard to blame Hebner for wanting to be somewhere, perhaps anywhere else, besides Queens in 1979. He’s a guy who grew up playing with Clemente and Stargell and made the postseason five times in eight years with the Pirates. Then he went to the Phillies, joined Carlton and Schmidt and made the playoffs both years he played in Philadelphia. Then he joined a Mets team coming off a combined record of 130-194 the past two seasons, one that did not have any stars, either in the majors or high minors, and a team that was disorganized both in the dugout and the front office.
Hebner looked at his situation, came to the only rational conclusion and then voiced his displeasure. Now, if this situation happened in 2011, the ballplayer would talk about being grateful that his new team wanted him, he would talk glowingly about one or two teammates, praise the knowledge of the fans and immediately instruct his agent on getting him out of Dodge ASAP.
But in 1979, Hebner came out and said the obvious and the fan base had an understandable reaction – Hey, what’s so bad about us? So, the Mets tried everything in their (limited) power to woo Hebner. He had more PA in 1979 than he had in any of the previous four years, he batted cleanup and if he did anything that remotely helped the team win a game, it was highlighted to ridiculous lengths.
“We love you Richie! Please don’t go.”
Now, I’m sure that might have worked on some people who thrived on having their ego stroked. But it was mentioned above that Hebner was blue collar and he was less likely than most to have this attempted flattery work. In the words of Josh Wilker, Hebner seemed like a guy who “just roasted one in the parking lot with a couple of buddies while cranking some Styx on the eight-track.”
Despite his desire to be on a team that would play meaningful games after the All-Star break, Hebner got off to a good start with the Mets in 1979. He had a four-hit game with two doubles and a HR on Opening Day. He had strong months in May and June and in games through July 10th, he posted a .284/.375/.412 line – perhaps a little less power but generally right in line with what he had done previously in his career.
And then to the average fan, it seemed like Hebner just gave up. In retrospect, I have no doubt that it was merely a slump. But in 52 games and 194 PA, Hebner posted a .190/.281/.256 line. The Mets went 13-39 in that span and it should be pointed out that they won the first three games of Hebner’s slide. Over the previous two seasons, fans had been accustomed to seeing some rotten, uninspired play. But that stretch right after the All-Star break seemed even worse than what had become accepted as normal.
Hebner, the guy we gave up popular Nino Espinosa to get, the guy who didn’t want to be here, the guy who had been praised beyond all reasonable limits earlier in the season – seemed to be the biggest reason why the team was extra lousy.
Then, just for one final kick in the pants, Hebner turned it up for the final few weeks of the season. It’s like he figured out that if he continued to stink that no team would have him as a starter in 1980. In his final 13 games, Hebner went 22-48 with 3 HR and 14 RBIs. That worked out to a .458/.500/.771 line.
It felt like a two-handed, one-finger salute to the fans on his way out the door.
Today is Richie Hebner’s birthday and he’s now 64 years old. Maybe it’s the influence of the McCartney song that references Hebner’s current age – “Indicate precisely what you mean to say…” – but it’s time to bury the hatchet and not directly in his back, either. I’ve hated this man I’ve never met for over 30 years now and I don’t want to do it anymore.
As my birthday present to this senior citizen, I’m taking Richie Hebner off of my personal “On Notice” board. Happy Birthday, Mr. Hebner – let’s both pretend that the 1979 baseball season never happened.