Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Long Island native Evans Killeen was a favorite of Stengel in Mets first spring training

Fifty years ago in February, the New York Mets opened spring training with a hodgepodge of players cast off by their respective organizations, some looking to prolong their careers, others looking to start theirs.

One of those upstarts was a local product, Evans Killeen; a 26-year-old right-handed pitcher from Elmont, N.Y. Killeen had seen action in four games with the Kansas City Athletics in 1959, winding up in Mexico before the Mets gave him another lease on his baseball career after pitching in a local semi-pro league.

Evans Killeen
“I had been with Kansas City in the AL in 1959,” Killeen said from his home in Long Island. “I hurt my leg in my fourth game in the major leagues; I stepped on a catcher’s mask backing up a play in home plate in Cleveland. In 1960, I played in the Mexican League, just going through the motions. In 1961, I was home and people talked me into playing semi-pro baseball again. I guess I dazzled them out there. St. Johns coach Jack Kaiser saw me pitch against his team and recommended me to the Mets.”

Killeen was part of a group of pitchers that arrived early to spring training that included high-priced signings such as Jay Hook and Bob “Righty” Miller. Despite not being one of the Mets prized recruits, manager Casey Stengel liked what he saw in Killeen.

“It’s got at least five promising youngsters … who will make it big in the future. When we started I didn’t think we had a single prospect. But I liked what I saw in Evans Killeen,” Stengel said to the New York Times.

He quickly gained the favor of Stengel by combining with Roger Craig to throw the first shutout in Mets history, when they blanked the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-0 on March 13th. Killeen threw four no-hit shutout innings in relief. His performance not only earned him a headline in the New York Times, but more importantly the praise of his 72-year-old manager.

“Wasn’t he great? He was fast, all right, but I was particularly pleased with his slow curve. Yes, sir, that young fellow’s got a chance around here,” Stengel said.

Just as Killeen’s stock was rising, he encountered a cruel twist of fate the day after his sparkling performance. A wayward foray into his grooming supplies gave a sudden u-turn to his spring training progress.

“I had a freak accident; God must have wanted me not to be a ballplayer,” Killeen laughed. “I reached in my shaving bag and cut my right thumb. I cut it pretty good and was bandaged most of spring training.”

Killeen was relegated to short relief after his injury, pitching well enough to stay with the club until they broke camp. Just as they were to travel north, he was notified he was going to Syracuse.

“The handwriting was on the wall.” he said. “You knew they weren’t pitching you. … It was a money thing. … I had a minor league contract and they had a lot of money invested in all of those players they got in other organizations. I got caught in a numbers game.”

Killeen spent the 1962 season between Syracuse and Quincy before calling it quits. His frustrations after his ambitious spring training were mounting from the pressures of his family for him to move on.

“I didn’t even want to play after I left spring training," he said. "I asked myself, “What am I doing here?’ I was 26 years old, making no money. You couldn’t ask a girl to marry you. It’s terrible. All my friends were becoming doctors and lawyers. With all of these things, how can you hang in there? What kind of confidence do you have to want to play ball?”

The final straw came at the end of the 1962 season courtesy of general manager George Weiss.

“What kicked me in the face, George Weiss offered me to come back the next year with a contract for $700 [a $100 reduction from the prior season]," he recalled. "[After that] I said to myself, ‘I’m done, that’s it.’”

Despite leaving the Mets organization soured by Weiss’ offer, his fond memories of that inaugural spring training season have persisted a half-century later.

“It was phenomenal, just the people that were there, from Gil Hodges, to Richie Ashburn, Gus Bell, Casey Stengel, Rogers Hornsby, etc. The whole fanfare was so exciting, so tremendous.”

As the Mets dedicate the 2012 season to celebrating the 50-year history of the franchise, Killeen would welcome the opportunity to get together with his teammates.

“It would be nice, [even though] I didn’t play on the main team, to be invited to a Met reunion for their 50 years. They forgot about guys like me. We’re forgotten people. I would love to see the guys again.”

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