Change of scenery works for Hidalgo
by Jerry Crasnick
PHILADELPHIA—Tony Perez' Hall of Fame induction came as an affront to voters who parsed the numbers and concluded that his portfolio, while impressive, was less than Cooperstown-worthy. Those critics focused strictly on stats and discounted the endorsements of Perez' former teammates and opponents.
Art Howe, now manager of the Mets, began formulating a picture of the ideal No. 5 hitter in the 1970s, when AstroTurf was still in vogue and Howe was young enough to remember carrying a comb. No player then or since fit the description better than Perez.
"He was an RBI machine," Howe said. "Every year, 90-plus. You knew he was lurking, and you had to make quality pitches to the two guys in front of him. Whatever was left on, he cleaned up."
Perez, who drove in 1,652 runs in the majors and totaled at least 90 RBIs 12 times when it actually meant something, went by the nickname "Doggie." It was an offshoot of the "Big Dog," a term of endearment given him by former Reds manager Dave Bristol and embraced by his teammates.
Richard Hidalgo, Howe's new No. 5 hitter, also goes by the nickname "Doggie." When Hidalgo arrived in Houston in 1997, fans had a hard time pronouncing his name. Hidalgo morphed into 'Dalgo, which eventually took on a more canine flair. Each time Hidalgo came to the plate, the public address system played "Who Let the Dogs Out?"
Hidalgo, in some respects, displays qualities similar to the ones that teammates so admired in Perez. He's unassuming and ego-free, and routinely showed up at the ballpark each day in Houston and went to work while Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman and Jeff Kent got all the attention. His fellow Astros enjoyed having him around.
But Hidalgo's inconsistency eventually wore out the Astros' front office. Some years he was Best in Show. Other years, he performed like an early-round bow-out. The Astros finally decided they'd had enough and traded him to the Mets. Much to Howe's delight.
On June 17, Houston sent Hidalgo to New York for middle reliever David Weathers and fringe righthander Jeremy Griffiths. There was little reason for the Mets to say no, given that Houston assumed a sizable chunk of what remains of Hidalgo's $12 million salary this season.
"It was a relatively low-risk trade for us, with real high upside if he ever gets close to what he was," Mets general manager Jim Duquette said. "We needed offense, and you can't get that type of player if he's swinging the bat well. They're not available."
The payoff was immediate and pronounced. Hidalgo, who hit four home runs in 199 at-bats in Houston, went deep eight times in his first 66 at-bats as a Met. He was barely in town two weeks when he set a franchise record with homers in five consecutive games against the Reds, Yankees and Phillies.
In the first 21⁄2 months, Howe used Mike Cameron, Shane Spencer, Jason Phillips, Karim Garcia, Todd Zeile, Ty Wigginton and Eric Valent in the fifth spot in the order. Hidalgo's arrival lengthened out the Mets' lineup and gave opposing clubs someone else to worry about after Mike Piazza and Cliff Floyd.
"This looks like one of those 'change of scenery' deals," said a scout. "Sometimes a guy gets such a negative force around him in a place that it hurts his performance. He starts thinking, 'I'm not loved here,' or, 'I'm not the guy.' I'm not so sure that isn't what's happening right now in Boston with Nomar (Garciaparra)."
The Astros had felt an emotional attachment to Hidalgo since Andres Reiner signed him out of Caracas as a 16-year-old in 1992. Howe remembers traveling to the team's Venezuelan academy in the early '90s and being wowed by this stocky teenager with a gun for an arm.
But Hidalgo sure could be a puzzle between the lines. He looked like a star in 2000 when he hit 44 homers, joining Tony Armas and Andres Galarraga as the third Venezuelan-born player to crack 40. The Astros rewarded him with a four-year, $32 million contract, and Hidalgo arrived at camp 20 pounds overweight. One bad year led to another, and Hidalgo had to deal with the realization that he was overpriced and underachieving.
Just when he bottomed out, Hidalgo recovered. He hit .309-28-88 in 2003 and was named Most Valuable Astro by the Houston baseball writers.
This year Hidalgo was a walking Frank Sinatra lyric—flying high in April (.341) and shot down in May (.202). Manager Jimy Williams responded by telling him to check the lineup card every day to see if his name was on it. Hidalgo, understandably, didn't care for that piece of advice, and things went downhill from there.
When the Astros moved Hidalgo, his teammates lined up to shake his hand and express their regrets. "I'm a little disappointed just because there's been no bigger backer of Richard than myself," Bagwell told reporters. "I think Richard's a hell of a player and a great, great kid."
Hidalgo's first game as a Met came on Mike Piazza Appreciation Night, and he felt a bit overwhelmed. Then he glanced into the stands and saw a young fan holding a sign reading "Right Field Loves Richard Hidalgo."
The team's veterans, particularly Joe McEwing, went out of their way to make him feel welcome. Hidalgo also found a new hit doctor in Mets coach Don Baylor, who examined his swing and found that Hidalgo, perhaps overly conscious of the short left field at Minute Maid Park, had been rolling over his right wrist. That flaw produced a slew of weak groundball outs.
It didn't take long for things to click.
"The first three to five games, I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere," Hidalgo said. "I felt lost a little bit. After that, everything changed. Now I feel so happy here. They've got a great group of players on this team."
Mets fans suddenly have a reason to pay attention. The Phillies and Marlins failed to take control of the National League East before the All-Star break, and now it's a four-team race (as the Braves have also heated up).
"I knew he was a lot better than what he was doing in Houston," Floyd said of Hidalgo. "Everybody's entitled to struggle. Now he's relaxed and enjoying himself again, and his talent is surfacing. That's good to see, because a lot can happen in New York City. This city can swallow you up and spit you out."
So far, not even close. Forget the love notes. As a tribute to Hidalgo and a public service to National League pitchers, Mets fans might want to start bringing "Beware of Dog" signs to the ballpark.
Jerry Crasnick is a contributing baseball writer for ESPN.com. You can contact him by sending e-mail to [email protected].