Perhaps the greatest rookie card in Topps’ history is the 1968 Jerry Koosman/Nolan Ryan card. And in Mets’ rookie card history there were plenty of examples of the card containing a player that went on to achieve great success. But to me, this rookie card is just bursting with potential. And while fate kept all three of these players from becoming what they might have in an alternate universe, all three made the majors and played multiple seasons, putting it far ahead of many rookie cards for the Mets, say, like the 1964 version that had Bill Haas and Dick Smith.

Ron Gardenhire was going to be the offensive shortstop that the club never had. But he could never stay healthy and hamstring injuries were a particular source of pain. Still, he played five seasons in the majors and then went on to a lengthy managerial career, one which saw him notch 1,068 wins and reach the postseason six different times.

Terry Leach was one time a power pitcher who threw in the mid-90s. But an elbow injury greatly reduced his velocity and he became a sidearmer. He played in an independent league, hooked on with the Braves and was picked up by the Mets when Atlanta gave up on him. Leach made his MLB debut with the Mets and appeared in 42 games over the 1981-82 seasons, including a 10-inning, one-hitter, 1-0 win over the Phillies.

But he spent the next few years bouncing around, first in the minors with the Mets until he was traded to the Cubs. They tried to get him back to throwing overhand and when that didn’t work, he ended up back with the Braves. And again the Braves cut him, with the Mets bringing him back. In his second stint, Leach pitched parts of five seasons with the Mets, including 1987, when he went 11-1. In all, Leach pitched 11 seasons in the majors and in 700 IP, notched a 120 ERA+.

Which brings us to Tim Leary.

This was going to be the next guy in the Mets’ rich pitching history, the heir to the Seaver-Koosman-Matlack throne. The second-overall pick in the 1979 Draft, Leary made the club out of Spring Training in 1981 and he started the club’s third game of the season, in lousy weather conditions in Chicago. He threw two hitless innings with three strikeouts but had to leave the game with an arm injury. He didn’t pitch again in the majors until the tail-end of the 1983 season.

He split time between the majors and minors in 1984 but by this time he had been passed by several pitchers and was more of an afterthought than a star. Maybe he was never going to be able to live up to the hype. Maybe he was never the same after the injury. Either way, the Mets dealt him before the 1985 season in a 4-team trade that netted the club … Frank Wills. Ouch. Wills never pitched for the Mets, as two months after they acquired him, they traded him for … Wray Bergendahl. Double ouch. Bergendahl never made it passed Double-A.

Leary spent most of 1985 in the minors. But he made 30 starts for the Brewers the following season, which was enough for the Dodgers to trade for him in time for the 1987 season. That was a forgettable year. However, he had his career-year the following season, as he went 17-11 with a 2.91 ERA for the eventual World Champions. Leary posted a 4.7 fWAR in 1988. He had solid seasons the next two years, putting up a 2.3 and 3.0 fWAR campaigns. He bounced around for four more seasons, finishing with a 13-year career in the bigs.

There’s a lot of talk about the Mets building up their farm system and there’s no better example than what the Mets were pumping out in the early-to-mid 1980s. Here’s a look at the two previous Mets rookie cards from Topps:

1980 – Jesse Orosco, Mike Scott
1981 – Hubie Brooks, Mookie Wilson

Unfortunately, Topps got away from team rookie cards after this 1982 one. A 1983 card could have had Ron Darling, Darryl Strawberry and Walt Terrell. A 1984 card could have had Sid Fernandez, Dwight Gooden and Kevin Mitchell. A 1985 card could have had Rick Aguilera, Roger McDowell and Randy Myers.

Instead, Topps opted for a Rookies/Traded update set released later in the year. It was nice to get individual cards of Strawberry, Gooden and the rest. And you can certainly make the argument that it was a good idea to get away from the rookie cards that ended up with two or three duds. But the duds were the ones that made the great ones like Koosman/Ryan even more special.

And this one with Leary makes me long to see an alternate reality where he didn’t suffer that early arm injury.

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