New York Mets greatest forgotten players: LF Bernard Gilkey

26 Jun 1998: Bernard Gilkey #23 of the New York Mets in action during an interleague game against the New York Yankees at Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York. The Yankees defeated the Mets 7-2.

When fans think of great one-hit wonders, Bernard Gilkey’s name never comes up. New York Mets fans should know better after his legendary 1996. 

Kyle Newman

The New York Mets were a mess in the early and mid-1990s. The Mets had gone just 69-75 in 1995. That was good enough for second place in the NL East, but it was also eight games out of a playoff spot.

They weren’t ready to be contenders, but that’s not how they treated the 1995 offseason. They went out and acquired two new outfielders, benched young Edgardo Alfonzo, and got Mark Clark to be their ace.

The moves to get Bernard Gilkey, Lance Johnson, and Mark Clark may not seem like much, but it was clearly an attempt to boost the team. To the Mets’ credit, all three moves worked out brilliantly for the 1996 season. The three players combined for 17.7 fWAR, but it didn’t end up mattering much.

The team was 52-26 after July. That didn’t stop the Mets from making an absurd trade, sending a young Jeff Kent to the Cleveland Indians for Carlos Baerga.

Bernard Gilkey was a big reason why the Mets felt they had to make a win-now move at the deadline in 1996. His phenomenal season was too good to pass by without even an attempt at a playoff run. At least, that was the ill-fated idea.

One of the greatest seasons in New York Mets history

The New York Mets traded Eric Ludwick, Erik Hiljus, and Yudith Ozorio for Gilkey prior to the 1996 season. The Cardinals gave up the 29-year-old Gilkey who had been up and down in his career. He had a few good years, but the majority had been most below-average starter production.

Gilkey was coming off a decent 1995 season when the Mets traded for him. He was brought in to be a replacement for Joe Orsulak in left field. It would have been hard to do worse than Orsulak who had been worth a combined -2 rWAR in 1994 and 1995.

Gilkey was supposed to be an improvement, but a modest one. He took those expectations and shot them to the moon. Gilkey came into the season hot, slashing .302/.363/.519. That wasn’t enough to earn him an All-Star appearance, he can thank teammate Lance Johnson for that.

Missing the All-Star game seemed to light a fire under Gilkey. He tore the National League to shreds in the second half, hitting .336/.430/.617. It’s one of the greatest halves of baseball the Mets have ever seen.

By the end of the season, Gilkey had played in 153 games and hit .317/.393/.562 with 30 home runs, 44 doubles, 117 RBIs, and 17 stolen bases. He also led MLB in outfield assists with 18. That earned him 7.6 fWAR, which was sixth-best in the majors behind only Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Chuck Knoblauch, and Jeff Bagwell.

Gilkey’s 44 doubles set a Mets franchise record that still stands. David Wright, Howard Johnson, and Edgardo Alfonzo are the only other Mets with more than 40 doubles in a season. His 117 RBIs was a franchise record until Robin Ventura had 120 in 1999. Gilkey’s 7.6 fWAR was also a Mets record at the time, it wouldn’t be broken until Carlos Beltran had 7.8 in 2006.

Despite his unbelievable performance, Gilkey finished 14th in MVP voting. The award went to San Diego Padres third baseman Ken Caminiti in a unanimous vote. Gilkey also didn’t win the Gold Glove in left field despite leading the league in outfield assists, the award went to Barry Bonds for the sixth time in seven years.

It was a magical year for Gilkey, but it didn’t amount to much for the Mets. The team won just 71 games and finished fourth in the NL East in 1996.

A return to normalcy

The Mets were exceedingly optimistic heading into the 1997 season. They had the pieces to make a run and only added to it with additions like John Olerud. Every major move they made in 1996 had worked and they thought they were a playoff team.

Things didn’t go quite as planned. Gilkey slotted in as the starting left fielder for the 1997 team and he came back down to earth. Gilkey had a dreadful first half hitting .211/.311/.350. He didn’t resemble the breakout star from 1996. He didn’t even resemble the player he was before the breakout.

His defense kept him in the lineup, but he was awful at the plate. The Mets didn’t let that disappointment distract them. They chugged ahead having their best season in years. Then something clicked for Gilkey after the All-Star break.

He found his groove again and hit .294/.371/.496 over the second half of the season. He was a dominant force as the Mets made a push for the playoffs, but a disastrous deadline day deal and an awful bullpen cost the Mets their season. Gilkey ended up being a decent player in 1997 hitting .249/.338/.417. He was worth 2.4 fWAR, which was on par with the player he was before 1996.

The Mets won 88 games in 1997 and missed the playoffs by just four games. It was a disappointing finish to a breakthrough season for the Amazins’.

Things fell apart for Gilkey in 1998. The now 31-year-old left fielder had nothing left in the tank. He was the Mets’ starting left fielder until the trade deadline, but that was simply because they didn’t have anyone to replace him.

Gilkey hit just .227/.317/.330 over 82 games for the Mets. He was traded on deadline day to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Jorge Fabregas, Willie Blair, and cash considerations. The Mets would again win just 88 games and miss out on the playoffs.

Gilkey would have an excellent season coming off the bench for the Diamondbacks in 1999 helping them to 100 wins. He would face off against the Mets in 1999 NLDS, the Mets won three games to one.

Gilkey started two games for the Diamondbacks in that series. He didn’t reach base a single time in either game. His career never got back on track after that. He would retire after the 2001 season.

The greatest one-hit wonder

It’s safe to say that no player had a greater single season in Mets history than Bernard Gilkey. Some players have had greater short-term impact, and some have certainly been better long-term. Gilkey will forever have a special place in Mets history.

Gilkey came in and he made Queens his city. He dominated the baseball scene and just as quickly as he appeared he vanished. He wasn’t the same player in 1997 and by 1998 he was washed up.

Only one player can challenge Gilkey for the franchise’s greatest one-hit wonder, his teammate in 1996 Lance Johnson. The two put together one of the most surprisingly dominant outfield combinations in MLB history.

Two players who had never found much success suddenly becoming one of the best outfields in MLB. It’s truly astonishing, yet it led to nothing.

Like many one-hit wonders, Gilkey has become a fascinating footnote. One of those guys that fans had completely forgotten about until his name is brought up. Bernard Gilkey deserves better.

His dominance may not have been around for long, but it meant something. His 1996 season was one of the greatest seasons a New York Mets’ player has ever had, and it should be treated as such.

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