A star, not a starter

For an All-Star, Joel Youngblood of the Mets spends a lot of time on the bench
August 23, 1981

In this strangest of seasons Joel Young-blood of the Mets has done the strangest of things: He has become an All-Star and one of baseball's leading hitters without being assured a starting position. Not playing regularly isn't new to the 29-year-old outfielder. His baseball lot—some might call it his pigeonhole—has always been that of the supersub. The Mets consider his versatility to be a blessing; Youngblood calls it a curse. Says Manager Joe Torre, "It's a manager's dream." Replies Youngblood, "Don't tell me, 'You're too good to start.' I don't want to hear it. I want to play."

Supersubs aren't born; they evolve. When Youngblood, then an outfielder, joined the Reds in 1976 after six seasons in the minors, he found himself on a championship team with All-Stars throughout the lineup. So, when both Cincinnati catchers were unavailable one April day, the young 'Blood happily strapped on borrowed pads. The next day he got his first big league start, in rightfield, and went 4 for 5. But he had only 57 at bats in 55 games that year.

The next spring Youngblood was with St. Louis, which used him primarily at third base before trading him to the Mets in June. In his first 3½ seasons in New York Youngblood played as many as six positions a year and batted .327 (18 for 55) as a pinch hitter, including .538 (7 for 13) last year.

After batting .276 overall last season, Youngblood came to camp this spring hoping to nail down a starting position. The Mets offered him a shot at third base, perennially the team's weak spot, but after working out there a few weeks he asked to return to the outfield. "Everybody talks about mental preparation in this game," he says. "Well, for so long I didn't know where I was playing, what I was playing, if I was playing. So I told Joe I didn't want to play third. I'm not comfortable at that position. I don't even want balls to be hit to me when I'm in the infield. Joe said, 'O.K.' And he said I wouldn't get to play very much."

When the season opened, Youngblood was on the bench and rookie Mookie Wilson was in rightfield, the position Youngblood has always preferred. "I was worried," admits Youngblood. "I went to Joe's office on Opening Day in Chicago and told him I was physically and mentally ready to do whatever he wanted me to do." A few days later he repeated his original demand: that "whatever Torre wanted" couldn't include third base.

Youngblood might have been buried and forgotten at this point, but he got the chance he wanted when Wilson started poorly. In went Youngblood, and off went Youngblood on a hitting tear. At the time of the strike, he was the National League's unofficial leader with a .359 average. In addition, his four home runs and 23 RBIs were second on the Mets to First Baseman Dave Kingman's totals. But Youngblood wasn't all that happy. On May 29 he had left a game with back spasms. That same night the Mets acquired talented—but also injured and troubled—Rightfielder Ellis Valentine from Montreal. "I thought, 'Oh, no! Oh, no!'—you can use exclamation points there—'Here it goes again!' "

While Valentine certainly was a source of concern for Youngblood, his immediate problem was the spasms. He treated them with care for a week, playing sporadically. Then, in Houston, a hard slide into third took out the inner ligament in his left knee and put him on the 15-day disabled list. A week later, all critical decisions were deferred by the strike. "At least I was fortunate enough to be able to recuperate while we were off," he says. Youngblood spent the 50 days worrying, wondering and rehabilitating. He even talked about being traded, an idea the Mets ignored. When the strike ended, he demanded to know if he was still a starter. The Mets seemed intent on playing Valentine in right, the revitalized Wilson in center and Lee Mazzilli in left. Torre stressed the importance of depth in the outfield and kept refusing to commit himself to his team's leading hitter and only All-Star. As it happened, Youngblood did not start on Opening Day II, but that had to do with the air-traffic controllers' strike, an exhausting five-hour commute from Cleveland to Chicago and a day game (of course) at Wrigley Field. Youngblood sat out the first 10 innings of the second season, but in the 11th he pinch-hit for Mazzilli—the first time Maz, batting .210 at the time, had ever been lifted for another hitter. After flying out to center, Youngblood stayed in the game and in the 13th he doubled and scored the game-winner on a hit by the guy who had taken his job in right, Valentine.

Youngblood started the next four games in leftfield before leaving the lineup when he slightly reinjured his left knee against Philadelphia. Even though Youngblood might have played, Mazzilli took over the position and got two hits in each of his first two games. Youngblood, whose average was down nine points to .350, was out of a job again. "I want to be the leftfielder," says the man who for most of this year wanted to be the rightfielder. "And I'm not. Period."

To hear Torre tell it, he doesn't really have a leftfielder. Nor a rightfielder, nor a centerfielder. "To me, my whole outfield's day-to-day. Ellis could go bad, Mookie could go bad. And with a guy of Mazzilli's caliber also available, the team doesn't have to die when one guy slumps."

People around the team translate that managerspeak as follows: Only Mazzilli and Youngblood are day-to-day. Valentine, who has won two games with his bat since joining the Mets, would have to go very bad indeed to be benched. And at the end of last week, Wilson had hit in 20 of the last 25 games and was batting .299 to help the team into second place in the NL East.

So that leaves leftfield, and two players feeling left out. The erstwhile Italian Stallion, Mazzilli, had been a dour horse around the clubhouse before returning to the lineup. He wants to find the old swing, and he knows he must play every day to find it. And Youngblood, as always, wants a job. In addition to being bullish about his hitting, Youngblood also knows he's a good fielder—his arm is accurate and strong. "What do I have to do?" he asks.

Youngblood says he's a better ballplayer than he was a year ago and that his hitting success is no fluke, but that other people don't believe him. He credits much of his success not to a new swing, but to less swing in a new life-style. "I remarried last December 26," he says, "and my wife, Beckie, has helped a lot. This year's different than the others. If you're a single guy in New York, it's somewhat difficult to play ball well. The new life has definitely helped."

Youngblood's new life includes a home in suburban Greenwich, Conn., where he and Beckie plan to live even if he's traded. He also runs a farm in the Catskills, where he likes to hunt deer with a bow and arrow. But his main interest is his career, and of that he says, "It's time to get serious." Next season is the last on his $300,000-a-year Met contract, and he has determined that if he can't find happiness in a New York outfield, then he'll go elsewhere.

"You only have so much time in this game," he says. "I feel my time is now, and I'm going to do whatever I can, and go wherever I must, to reach my objective. I've sat on the pine before. Now I want to play."

PHOTO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)