Jeff McKnight

Jeff McKnight

For a player with so brief a career (404 AB), there is no shortage of material available on Jeff McKnight:

It isn't the sight of a player from a
losing period that raises the ire of most
Met fans, but the sight of the regrettable
swoosh added briefly to the front of the
Mets jersey.
But it's going to be a small chore to expand on all those details in one narrative. I'm going to jump around a lot to keep this essay going, like Jeff jumped around to keep his career going.

One of the challenges that makes it difficult to write about Jeff McKnight is that one of the most remarkable things about his Met legacy is that he wore more uniform numbers, in his brief career, than any other Met in history, which has earned him his own page at Mets by the Numbers, one of the top Mets websites on the World Wide Web. The author of the page has done much of my work for me, and a large part of my task is to at least elaborate on his work, rather than be merely redundant.

Jeff (his name means "Chief"), doffs
his glasses for the camera.
Numbers are a good place to start, though, as Jeff was a 13 (though as an Oriole, not as a Met). Thirteens are an interesting breed — the number is frequently taken as a defiant anti-whammy by players who’ve run into a stretch of bad luck of one degree or another. The MbtN page will tell you that four of the top six number-switchers in Mets history wore 13 at one point in their career. I have no record of McKnight’s thinking, but the other three — Roger Craig, Lee Mazzilli, and Clint Hurdle — acknowledged such motives. (On his return to the Mets, Mazzilli actually took 13 while rejecting the honor of his old 16 being offered back to him by Doc Gooden). Neil Allen, another 13, switched from 46 after a string of gopher balls moved him to spit in Lady Luck’s eye.

Lest there be any remaining doubts that 13 is a number for players who have senses of both superstition and irony, please consider that Turk Wendell — a poster child for those traits if ever there was one — wore the number with the Cubs and Phils, and had accepted 99 in New York only after finding 13 unavailable.

McKnight would certainly fit the part of the ballplayer resorting to a desperate anti-superstition superstition, having done everything he could, and played everywhere on the field he could, to keep his career going. Though the Mets frequently designate an "emergency catcher," it’s rare that a player without significant catching experience has ever been put back there. Joe McEwing still hasn’t, despite a gung-ho Jack-of-all-trades approach of his own. But McKnight has.

Jeff always seemed to gravitate toward the 13 he wore with Os, though he could never corner it with the Mets. But close inspection suggests what he was trying to pull off instead. Having started his career in number 15, he was reassigned to five and wore gradually higher numbers — seven, 17, 18 — after that, perhaps trying to get the average number on his back during his career to equal 13.
Jeff McKnight
by Position
Pos. Met
App.
Tot.
App
p 0 0
c 1 1
1b 22 39
2b 33 38
3b 13 13
ss 33 34
lf 0 10
cf 0 0
rf 1 6
DH 0 5
I can’t quite pinpoint on which date in 1993 he switched from seven to 17, but if it occurred exactly halfway through his 180 plate appearances that season, it would make his average number during his career to be 10.8. Perhaps he underestimated his eventual career length, and should have dialed the number change up a few notches.

Just as this column was going to press the generous staff at Mets by the Numbers gave us a motherlode of additional interesting numerical facts: But numbers, while great fun, are a novelty, and Jeff's story is more than that. To look at his career without paying special attention with the versatility that kept him around would be to ignore the story. To the right is a table of his appearances by position.

His page at Mets by the Numbers describes him as a “double-switch specialist." Isn’t this remarkable? I find it remarkable. It’s an accurate description, of course, but I’ve never known anybody else particularly described that way. Who gets used frequently in double switches? Utility infielders and utility outfielders, of course, but Jeff was both. How many utility infielders are also useful outfielders? One in four perhaps? Then, of course, he could hit a little, which is always important considering the idea of a double switch is to make a pitching change, but have a reasonably good hitter bat early the next inning instead of the pitcher, and not kick yourself later for rotating a starter out of the game. How many utility infielders are reasonably good hitters? Two in five perhaps? Then, additionally, he was a switch hitter, so he would never be overmatched by a pitching change, allowing a manager to insert him without particularly worrying about a counter move by the opposing manager trumping him. How many utility infielders are switch hitters? One in three? If my estimates are accurate at all, Jeff’s particular utility in the double switch occurs in perhaps one in thirty utility infielders. Truly he is correctly named as a double-switch specialist.

Mets Who Appeared at Catcher
Who Were Not Catchers Primarily
Player Games
Caught
Year Other Pos.
Tommie Reynolds 1 1967 of (72 Games)
3b (5 Games)
Bill Sudakis * 5 1972 1b (7 Games)
Luis Rosado * 1 1977 1b (7 Games)
Tucker Ashford 1 1983 3b (15 Games)
2b (13 Games)
Kelvin Torve ** 1 1990 1b (9 Games)
Jeff McKnight 1 1993 ss (29 Games)
2b (15 Games)
1b (10 Games)
3b (9 Games)
Steve Bieser ** 2 1997 of (21 Games)
Jim Tatum 4 1998 1b (9 Games)
of (4 Games)
3b (3 Games)
Mike Kinkade ** 1 1999 of (17 Games)
3b (3 Games)
1b (1 Game)
* Were primarily catchers in the minors.
** Had significant minor-league experience at catcher.
Plus there is that whole catching thing. See the table at left for Mets who've moonlighted at catcher. (Jeff, even in that select company, still appears to be the most versatile of the lot.) Though he only caught in one game, it was always known that Jeff was available to catch, and would willingly help the bullpen with warm-ups. A manager didn’t need to worry about being down to his last catcher as long as McKnight was available. When your shortstop is available to catch, your backup catchers are available to pinch-hit, and the bench is extended by one. So he didn't have to appear at catcher much in order to make his ability to catch useful.

My point is that you could do worse than to have to have McKnight on your bench. He may have driven equipment managers crazy, and his glasses and goatee made him look more like a graduate divinity student than a ballplayer at any position, but, damn it, he a was useful player.

Hey, here's an oddity! Did you know that you can find a Jeff McKnight at the top of his field in many of your more exotic sports? It's true. I've found a highly esteemed J-Mac among the higher echelons of British cheerleading, curling (check out the winner of the Holiday Inn Challenge), and hawking. You want your kid to hit the big time in some sport? You might want to convince your spouse to consider naming him — or her — "Jeff McKnight." Other probably-not-the-right Jeff McKnights you might stumble upon out there in cyberspace include a beach-patrol cop, a bonsai afficianado, and the bass player for Liftrip.

But let's return to the versatility thing, now that the paragraph above (delightful, but something of a non sequiter) has bought us room room for more tables. Jeff is tied for 39th all-time among Mets in games played at shortstop. He is 38th all-time in games played at second. He wasn't really a middle infielder (or really anything), but if you measure him by the mininum number of games played at both positions, he becomes the 13th most prolific shortstop/secondbase utility man. Hey, I'm just adding to his mystique here.

Have you ever tried to fill out one of those all-irrelevant-factor teams? This is one of those seemingly pointless yet interesting challenges where you try to construct a Met lineup card where all the players share a certain trait that has little or no connection to baseball skill. The All-Connecticut Mets. The All-Insane Mets. The All-Bad-Hair Mets. Here’s a secret — Jeff is great for this game. He’s practically the Kevin Bacon of the Mets. He's got a lot of weird traits to him (see the bulleted list with which I opened this column), and because he’s played everywhere, he can always allow you to man that hard-to fill last position in the lineup. I bring this up as a novelty, of course, but also to help you appreciate what it means to a manager to have a Jeff McKnight on his team.

Mets All-Bespectacled Team
Mookie Wilson cf
Roy McMillan ss
Lee Mazzilli lf
Vance Wilson 1b
Mike Cubbage 3b
Jeff McKnight rf
Ed Hearn c
Tim Foli 2b
Satoru Komiyama sp*
Bullpen
Skip Lockwood rp
* Komi relieved exclusively for the
Mets, but was primarily a starter
in his career.

(Despite the presence of Mookie
Wilson and Lee Mazzilli, this is not
such a good team, and I'm thinking
of adding George Foster, who wore
prescription sunglasses.)
Mets All-“Mac” Team
Joe McEwing 2B
Roy McMillan ss
Brian McRae cf
Kevin McReynolds lf
Rodney McCray lf
Jeff McKnight c
Terry McDaniel rf
Ryan McGuire 1b*
Jim McAndrew sp
Bullpen
Tug McGraw rp
Roger McDowell rp
Greg McMichael rp
Chuck McElroy rp
Rob MacDonald rp
Ken McKenzie rp
Bob McClure rp
* Ryan McGuire appeared in
the field for the Mets only once
— as a rightfielder — but he has
primarily played first throughout
his career.
I've provided some samples of such squads on both the left and the right. But don't just look at my crummy lineups (although check out that bullpen depth on the Macs!). Build your own team. Jeff can join Kevin McReynolds and Ellis Valentine on the All-Arkansan Mets Squad. (Heck, there's your outfield right there.) How about this one?: McKnight, Masato Yoshii, Charlie O'Brien, Matt Lawton, Mookie Wilson, Butch Huskey? Haven't you figured it out? Why it's the start of the All-Goatee team!! (You should have clicked the links.) Finish that one for me, will you? And don't forget, if you can't fill a position, stick Jeff there.

During his stint with the O's, sandwiched between his Mets' tenures, Jeffy got to touch some history. He was one of 33 secondbasemen — from fellow-Met-alum Manny Alexander to the late Alan Wiggins — to play opposite the legendary Cal Ripken, Jr. at shortstop. If you follow that secondbasemen link, see if you can find the other former Met to partner briefly with Cal.

Jeff was born February 18, 1963. I imagine his pop was just getting packed to report to spring training at the time. Other Mets born on February 18 were Shawn Estes (1973), John Valentin (1967), Kevin Tapani (1964), and Jerry Morales (1949). It's thus far been a lean day for big leaguers to have been born, with the highest profile player born on the Feast of St. Simon likely being Manny Mota.

One lowlight highlight in Jeff's Met history was his start at second on September 8, 1993. The date was a no-hitter for the recently passed Darryl Kile, then a rising star just beginning to establish himself. McKnight's accomplishment that day was scoring a rare run by a team being no-hit, hustling around the bases by reaching on a walk, advancing to second on a wild pitch, and digging for third, at which point firstbaseman Jeff Bagwell, recovering the loose ball, threw wildly to third, allowing the run.

You want more faint praise? Well, a Hall-of-Famer — and an intelligent one at that — once described him as being among "The good second-slot hitters today." Sadly for Jeff, that intelligent Hall-of-Famer was Joe Morgan, who never let the brain he frequently displayed on the ballfield get in the way of him talking and writing seemingly articulate nonsense since the day he retired. Morgan's admiration was — no disrespect to Jeff — unfounded, as this critic correctly and emphatically points out. (If you follow the link, the reference is about 80% of the way down the page, so you might want to finish up here first.)

But certainly some of the highlights of Jeff McKnight's career occurred without irony. He made his big-league debut on June 6, 1989, pinch-hitting for Roger McDowell (his teammate on the Mets All-Mac Team as well), and singling off of Paul Kilgus. He would go 3-12 with two walks during that June call-up, but didn't stick, and, whether by choice or injury, didn't return that September either. In fact, he wouldn't return until 1992 — to a very different Mets team — having served his time in Baltimore first.

But he did stick eventually, and in true Jeff fashion, he made that team after coming to camp as a non-roster player. In his return to the team, he pinch-hit against the Pirates, played second, and finished the game 0-2 on August 5. The season was not yet lost, as the team was 51-54 and only 6.5 games out going into that game. But, despite McKnight's best efforts, the team would fade fast from that point, and finish 24 games out. He had a successful pinch-hit appearance two days later, and the end of the Mets hopes that season would also mark the best baseball of McKnight's Mets' career: As noted above, Jeff managed the statistically unfathomable feat of producing the same exact power totals — three doubles, one triple, two homers, 13 RBI — in 1993 as in 1992, in roughly twice the plate appearances. While his slugging percentage dropped, his on-base percentatage went up, although not enough to offset. It wasn't much of a year at the plate for the double-switch specialist, toiling with the last-place Mets and getting out of the box desperately slow (one hit through May 14), but it wasn't without it odd highpoints either.

The six-month study conducted by a dozen longtime Met obsevers ranked Jeff as the 416th-most accomplished Met of all time. I was one of those observers, and I think we may have significantly underestimated Jeff, and I vow to revisit his case as we update the list for 2002. I don't have the splits available, but Jeff had a lot of pinch hits that season. To be honest, most were of the harmless-single variety, and most came in the second half, after a lousy first half largely sealed the team's doom, but a little success is a little success. Nonetheless, when Jeff got off to a second straight weak start in 1994, he was soon to join his dad as an ex-big-leaguer.

Mets All-Legacy Team
Player Pos. Father
Roberto Alomar 2b Sandy Alomar
Brian McRae cf Hal McRae
Preston Wilson lf Mookie Wilson
(Stepdad)
Todd Hundley c Randy Hundley
David Segui 1b Diego Segui
Mark Carreon rf Camilo Carreon
Jeff McKnight 3b Jim McKnight
Dicky Schofield ss Ducky Schofield
Michael James Bascik sp Michael Joseph Bascik
Bench
Brian Giles if George Giles
(Grandfather, Negro Leaguer)
Jerry Martin of Barney Martin
Gary Matthews, Jr. of Gary Matthews
Back to Daddy Jim. Jeff's father wore 15 with the Cubs — Jeff's initial number with the Mets. I don't know that this was some kind of tribute, but the plot thickens, does it not? His two Cubs teams were genuinely bad, finishing seventh out of eight teams in 1960, and ninth out of ten in 1962, behind even the expansion Houston Colt 45s. (One cyberbuck if you can tell me who finished last. Aw, c'mon, try.) He displayed some his son's versatility, playing three positons in his brief career, as compared to Jeff's seven, but he more likely owes his pound of coffee to the Cubs being the Cubs.

It's important to note that Jeff's father died prematurely, in a car accident in 1994 (an informative, if morose, link). Jeff's career unraveled about the same time. So pray for the creep at at The Ultimate Mets Database who wanted Jeff shot for his stuggles. Some people can't appreciate a classic utility guy.

But rest in peace, Jim, for it appears a new generation is taking up the challenge, as the internet search hits for the name "Jeff McKnight" frequently turn up the exploits of an Arkansas schoolboy athlete by that name. Whether it's our Jeff's son, nephew, or coincidental namesake, I dont know, but he's actually a catcher/option-running quarterback. That's a combination you don't see often since the Gary Carter schoolboy days. The kid, while successful (If you search for his name in this report, you'll find a pretty heroic day for Nettleton High buried deep down there), doesn't appear to be a superstar in either sport. If he's going to make it, he's going to have to be versatile. Let's hope he finds it in his genes.

So, as a tribute to the McKnights, and all baseball families, I came up with one more All-Mets-team table, to the left. Not a bad team, either. They even have some bench strength. But they have only one pitcher.

McKnight, get loose!

Special thanks to my kcmets colleague Sharon Chapman and freelance sportswriter Jon Springer for assistance with this column.

Previous columns:

Brent Mayne
Roy Staiger