• Sal Maiorana

The Mets had no idea he would become the Ryan Express

NEW YORK (Dec. 10, 1971) - The New York Mets have given their loyal fans so much to swear about during their 57-year history, but let’s face it, their relentless pursuit of mediocrity is part of their charm.

For instance, on this day in 1971, no one in the Mets organization realized what they had in flame-throwing right-hander Nolan Ryan, so general manager Bob Scheffing pulled the trigger on one of the worst trades, not only in Mets history, but baseball history.

Ryan was traded to the California Angels along with outfielder Leroy Stanton, catcher Francisco Estrada and pitcher Don Rose in return for 32-year-old third baseman Jim Fregosi.

That’s right, in addition to giving up on a pitcher who would go on to become Major League Baseball’s all-time strikeout king and a Hall of Famer, the Mets packaged three other players in the deal to acquire Fregosi, a six-time American League All-Star but a player who was clearly in decline, and would ultimately play just 1 ½ years for New York.

“Only one of the four would have been with the Mets next season, and that was Ryan,” Scheffing said. “I don’t think Stanton could have beaten out our other outfielders, and we have run out of options on him. As for Ryan, I really can’t say I quit on him. But we’ve had him three full years and, although he’s a hell of a prospect, he hasn’t done it for us. How long can you wait? I can’t rate him in the same category with Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman or Gary Gentry.”

It’s true that Ryan had been somewhat underwhelming during his time in New York. He had gone 29-38 with a 3.50 ERA since coming up to the Mets for good in 1968, and he struck out 493 batters in 510 innings. He started and won a game in the 1969 National League Championship Series, the year the Mets stunned the world and won the World Series, but his control problems were a concern.

And yes, there’s no denying that while Ryan set the all-time career record for strikeouts with 5,714, he also holds the all-time record for walks with 2,795. But jeez, the man went on to pitch 22 more years in the big leagues for the Angels, Astros, and Rangers, finishing with a record of 324-292 and an ERA of 3.19, throwing a record seven no-hitters along the way.

“You always hate to give up on an arm like Ryan’s,” Mets manager Gil Hodges said. “He could put things together overnight, but he hasn’t done it for us and the Angels wanted him. I would not hesitate making a trade for somebody who might help us right now, and Fregosi is such a guy.”

Fregosi would play only 146 of his career 1,902 game for the Mets, producing a slash line of .233 average, .319 on-base, .328 slugging, with just five home runs and 43 RBI before the Mets traded him to Texas midway through 1973.

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