Justin Turner “Un-Vail-ed”

It seems like a lot of people have sent the Justin Turner bandwagon into overdrive. From #JustinTurnerFacts on Twitter (tip of the blue Mets cap to The Daily Stache for creating what has become a trending topic on Twitter) to this guy who’s written too many blogs on him recently, Justin Turner seems to be on everyone’s mind. Even a certain renowned writer who has an equal amount of “faith” and “fear” in his team has weighed in on Turner’s recent accomplishments.

Needless to say, I noticed a connection between Justin Turner and Rusty Staub that has nothing to do with their hair color. Unfortunately, it’s not one most Mets fans would want to make.

Let’s hop into the DeLorean and set the time coordinates to 1975. At the time, the Mets were in a transitional phase. Yogi Berra was fired in August, replaced by Roy McMillan. 1969 World Series hero Cleon Jones was released outright. However, the Mets did produce their highest team batting average to date (.256), saw Dave Kingman belt a franchise-record 36 home runs and watched Rusty Staub become the first player to drive in 100 runs in a single season.

That team also produced a young outfielder named Mike Vail.

Mike Vail was a hitting machine at AAA-Tidewater in 1975, hitting .342 in 115 games. He was also a clutch hitter, driving in 79 runs despite hitting only seven home runs for the Tides. On August 18, he made his major league debut as a pinch-hitter. He singled in his first at-bat. Two days later, he made his first start and went 0-for-5. He wasn’t held hitless again until September 16, when ironically, he did not collect a hit in an 18-inning victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, going 0-for-7 in the extra-inning affair.

Vail’s 23-game hitting streak set the franchise record, unsurpassed until 1984 when Hubie Brooks hit in 24 consecutive games. After hitting .302 in 38 games in 1975, Vail made Rusty Staub expendable in the minds of the front office, who traded Le Grand Orange to the Detroit Tigers for the rotund and past-his-prime Mickey Lolich.

The Mets did well in 1976, finishing with the second-most wins in franchise history at the time (86), but that proved to be the final respectable season for the team until 1984. Rusty Staub went on to average 106 RBI per season for the Tigers from 1976-1978 (no Met drove in as many as 106 runs in a season until Darryl Strawberry collected 108 RBI in 1990). Mike Vail went kaplooie after being anointed as the “player of the future” following the 1975 season.

A basketball injury sustained during the off-season kept Vail on the disabled list for most of the 1976 season. Upon his return, Vail struggled, hitting only .217, scoring eight runs and driving in nine in 53 games. He performed slightly better in 1977, but still only produced a .262 batting average with eight home runs and 35 RBI in 108 games.

The “player of the future” helped send the Mets back to their losing past. After being an excellent contact hitter in the minors, Vail struck out 114 times in 584 career at-bats for the Mets. He attempted eight stolen bases as a Met and was thrown out all eight times. Vail also made Jeff Francoeur look like a walking machine. From 1975-1977, Vail drew only 34 bases on balls, never walking more than 19 times in a single season for the Mets. This continued throughout his major league career, as Vail walked a mere 81 times in 10 big league seasons.

Now let’s get back into the DeLorean, fire up the flux capacitor (anyone have a spare piece of plutonium lying around?) and return to 2011. Justin Turner just set the Mets’ rookie record by driving in at least one run in his seventh consecutive game. Prior to his streak, Turner had only driven in six runs in his major league career.  But like Vail, Turner was also an outstanding contact hitter in the minor leagues, hitting .309 and striking out only 279 times in 2,202 plate appearances.

Justin Turner is also playing third base, filling in admirably for the injured David Wright, who drove in over 100 runs last season. With just about every Met having the “untradeable” tag removed from them, could it be that history is about to repeat itself?

Let’s hope not. Justin Turner is on quite a bit of a roll, but he will never be David Wright, even when the longtime third baseman reverts to his David K. Wright persona. At best, Turner will platoon with Daniel Murphy at second base until Terry Collins decides that one of them has won the job outright.

Justin Turner is a nice player whose 15 minutes of fame have stretched into a second week. He’s not David Wright just like Mike Vail was not Rusty Staub. Let’s enjoy his hot streak while it lasts, but let’s not make the mistake the front office made in 1975 by anointing him “the player of the future”. For now, Justin Turner is a player of the present. We’ll let the future take care of itself.

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