Since the Mets last appeared in the World Series in 2000, there’s no greater cult favorite Mets player than Endy Chavez. By the time he was signed by the Mets following the 2005 season, Chavez had played for the Royals, Expos, Nationals, and Phillies and posted a .659 OPS. His signing, understandably, flew under the radar, especially since the Mets had signed Billy Wagner just a couple weeks earlier.
It didn’t take long for Mets fans to realize how valuable Chavez was as a defender in the outfield, but he added to that value with what easily still stands as his best season at the plate. He hit .306/.348/.431 in 2006 and seemingly had a knack for coming up with hits when they counted the most.
I was at Shea Stadium on May 31, 2006, when the Mets played host to the Diamondbacks. Pedro Martinez and Brandon Webb lived up to their reputations, throwing eight and seven scoreless innings, respectively. Both bullpens kept the game scoreless into the thirteenth inning, but Jose Valentin led off the bottom of the inning with a double. He advanced to third on a ground out, and Chavez came up and hit a very long single to plate Valentin and give the Mets one of their several dramatic wins of the season. Shea Stadium wasn’t packed that night, but it sure as hell got loud.
There were plenty of other good moments for Chavez throughout the 2006 season, the last of which was, of course, his unbelievable catch in the sixth inning of Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. I was lucky enough to be at Shea Stadium for that play, too, which cemented Chavez’s place in Mets history despite the fact that the team wound up losing the game.
Chavez wasn’t quite as productive in the 2007 and 2008 seasons and didn’t play nearly as often as he did in 2006, but that didn’t affect his cult favorite status one bit. The Mets sent Chavez to the Mariners after the 2008 season with a slew of other players to bring back J.J. Putz, but he hasn’t been stuck on irrelevant teams since then. Last year, Chavez gave me reason to pull for the Texas Rangers, and this year, he’s one of many reasons that I was rooting for the Orioles.
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Washington Nationals — Wil Nieves
This one is easy. Wil Who? The cult of Wil Nieves was born from exactly three seconds of a commercial that aired repeatedly during the Nats' 2009 campaign which had "regular fans" telling the story of their favorite Nationals moments from previous seasons. [Full Disclosure: I auditioned for these spots, but didn't realize it was a literal casting call, and went into a room where three people asked me to act out my 'story' as they watched. Yeah, no. I read it off the paper thanked them and left.] One particularly memorable fan recounted the story of Wil Nieves's April 25, 2008 walk-off home run against the Cubs. An opposite-field blast, it was Nieves's 1st MLB home run. Exciting stuff to be sure, but it was his delivery during the commerical that really inspired fans to rally behind Nieves.
Fan: "Bottom of the ninth moment. The Nats and Cubs are tied. Who comes up?"
Fan: [answering himself]: "Wil Nieves."
Fan: [responding to his own answer]: "Who?"
Fan: [answering himself emphatically]: "Wil Nieves!"
Every time Nieves's name was mentioned on TV or radio for the rest of his time in D.C., the response from Nats fans was a delightfully ironic, "Who?" If you repeated his name you were just playing into their hands. It helped that Nieves was a great guy, but that commercial really drew attention to him. Or maybe it was just the guy in the commercial's mustache that everyone loved.
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Oh, Matt Diaz. He’ll get into 0-2 counts with two of the worst, most awkward-looking swings that’ll make you wonder if he’s really just a left-handed batter “trying something new.” He’ll stand in the same patch of grass in left field as Carlos Gonzalez does and expect to cover the same amount of ground. And he’ll occasionally strike out swinging at the high cheese with the bases loaded in the 7th inning. But darn it, I love Matt Diaz. If you didn’t know who Matt Diaz was, you probably wouldn’t imagine him to be a professional athlete if you saw him on the street. Matt Diaz epitomizes the irrational and Matt Diaz is what is romantic about baseball.
Sometimes, Matt Diaz dumps an 0-2 pitch into the gap in right-center, and sometimes Matt Diaz slides six feet on his butt to make an improbable catch in left field. Sometimes Matt Diaz might take a bases-loaded scenario, and drop a bunt instead of swinging away, and force a two-base error that leads to a win, because there is never a play where Matt Diaz doesn’t hustle, doesn’t run hard, and doesn't give his all. Matt Diaz is fantastic with the media, and great with the fans. Except in Philly. Regardless, if you’re a Braves fan, and don’t like Matt Diaz, you probably don’t like baseball either.
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“Stairs rips one into the night, deep into right, way outta here...” —Joe Buck
If the much-maligned Joe Buck has a single redeeming call, it’s this one, of the pinch-hit, two-out, two-run home run by Matt Stairs off Jonathan Broxton in the 2008 NLCS against the Dodgers.
Stairs, who subsequently explained his appreciation for getting his “ass hammered by guys,” was launched, just like Broxton’s fastball, into the cult hero stratosphere in Phillies lore.
When he was acquired from Toronto late in the 2008 season (for Fabio Castro), Stairs was still an everyday player, albeit as a mediocre designated hitter (he was also an amateur hockey coach in the offseason, eh). He quickly blossomed into an extraordinary bench bat for the Phillies, and even provided some relief at the corner outfield spots. In 19 plate appearances with the Phils, Stairs socked two home runs and a double and finished with a 1.022 OPS. In the postseason, he went 1-for-4 with the aforementioned home run.
Stairs returned in 2009, where his cult hero status initially brought more playing time. His offense suffered, however, as he managed just a .735 OPS through the end of the year. In the playoffs, he had just one hit, an RBI single off A.J. Burnett.
Matt Stairs was never the best Phillie. His tenure as a Phightin’ never had the flashy swagger of Jimmy Rollins, the bat of Chase Utley or Ryan Howard, or the defense (or beard) of Jayson Werth. In fact, he accrued only 0.5 WAR in red pinstripes while earning nearly $2M, a fact which would, under normal circumstances, earn him the wrath of the blogetariat at The Good Phight.
But he broke Jonathan Broxton, and for that we are forever grateful.
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Jeff Conine is nicknamed "Mr. Marlin" for a reason. That reason is not necessarily related to his play on the field, though he is certainly one of the best Marlins in team history. It is, however, almost certainly tied to his status as one of the best early Marlins in team history, as he was part of the inaugural team and one of the club's initial expansion draft selections.
More so, however, Jeff Conine is "Mr. Marlin" because of his role in the team's two World Series victories. During their first title run in 1997, he was just another cog among a collection of good players the Marlins had acquired in recent years. He was not the anchor of any lineup, and indeed he began splitting time at first base that year with late-season acquisition Darren Daulton, of all people. But he was present for that year and earned a ring as an original Marlin, and that was something special to the fan base.
Years later, in 2003, Conine was involved with another winning Marlins club. The Fish had acquired him in late August in a trade with the Baltimore Orioles. He was the hometown hero returning for a second tour of duty, and the fact that the Marlins ratcheted up their performance in September — the team went 18-8 that month — was attributed in part, rightly or wrongly, to the re-acquisition of Conine. And when he won a second World Series ring with the Fish, that cemented his legacy, no matter how good he really was (and he was good) as the true Mr. Marlin.
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