Wednesday, August 24, 2011

#234 - John Milner

This guy was a huge fan of Hank Aaron and for a while the big hope in NY was that he would BE the next Aaron. John Milner adopted Hank's nickname, played first and the outfield, and hit at least a few towering home runs. He also picked up Hank's ability to barely move for his first few baseball cards. Night Owl caught this initially, so I will defer to his commentary on that (linked to here). 1973 would be a mixed sophomore season for John. He came out of the gates blasting the ball and in late April was hitting .330 with 13 RBIs. Then he pulled his hamstring stretching for a low ball at first and was the first Mets regular of many to go on the DL, he for three weeks. It was a big deal because he was the only Met outside of Teddy Martinez who was hitting well and NY went promptly into a swoon. When John returned later that spring the homers started coming and even though the average fell hard, he nearly doubled his RBI total, hitting especially well down the stretch. In the post-season he wouldn't exhibit much power but he did get on base at an almost .400 clip as the Mets nearly stole the show. For now let's just say that John was NOT the next Aaron and didn't really come close. But he won as many Series rings as Hank did.

Like his idol, John Milner was a southern kid from out of East Point, Georgia. A multi-sport star in high school, he was drafted by the Mets in '68 and his first two seasons in Rookie and A ball ripped the ball posting high averages and OBA's in the mid-.400s. In '70 (Double A) and '71 (Triple A) the averages came in but the power upticked and by the end of that second year he was in NY for good. In the minors John moved between first base and the outfield and he would continue to do that up top. During his rookie year the Mets got another guy to do that as well whose name was Willie Mays and the first few months of the season when John was the starter he was booed at home because the fans wanted to see Willie. Scoring runs that year was tough for NY and though the ribbies didn't exactly fly of his bat, John's numbers were good enough to get him selected to Baseball Digest's rookie team - Tommy Hutton got that spot on the Topps one - and third place in NL ROY voting.

In '74 Milner had another 20-homer season as he played strictly first but the Mets were pretty bad that year and although it would be his only season of over 500 at bats his RBI totals came in. Then in '75 more hamstring injuries and a horrible start got him on the bench while new Mets Dave Kingman and Joe Torre grabbed time at first. John revived in '76 posting his best numbers in NY - .271 with 78 RBIs and a .362 OBA in 443 at bats - and in '77 would post discounted numbers as the Mets began their slide back to truly awful.

In December '77 Milner was part of a big complicated trade that saw him go to Pittsburgh, Jon Matlack to Texas, and the Mets obtain Willie Montanez from Atlanta and Ken Henderson from Texas. For this John it would prove a beneficial move as he got away from high expectations and fan disappointment in NY and setltled in to manager Chuck Tanner's busy platoon system, splitting time in the outfield with Bill Robinson, and backing up Willie Stargell at first. In '78 his numbers were nothing special but in '79 he tapped the ball pretty well, hitting .276 with 16 homers and 60 RBIs in 326 at bats. In the Series that year he hit well against Baltimore and had an OBA over .450. In '80 his stats retreated a bit and after an injured and not much used start to the '81 season he was traded to Montreal, ironically for Willie Montanez. There he backed up at first down the stretch and then finished things up in '82 playing rarely for the Expos and then back with the Pirates. For his career John hit .249 with 131 homers and 498 RBIs and a .344 OBA. In the post-season he hit .231 with a .367 OBA.

When Milner finished playing he returned to Georgia and for a couple seasons appeared in both Pirates and Mets old-timers games. But his low profile was interrupted when in '85 he was called to testify at the Pittsburgh drug trials where he revealed details of his cocaine and other drugs usage. Granted immunity, he was not punished, but his testimony did serve to sort of blackball him in the baseball world and he went back to East Point where he again went under the radar. He was generally not heard from again on a national scale until 2000, the year he passed away after years of battling lung cancer. He was 50.

In '70, John posted a .422 OBA. He could definitely jack the ball. A lean, muscular guy, John crowded the plate and had very quick wrists. On a Mets fan site, there are remembrances of him hitting one out that was still rising when it hit the scoreboard. There are also lots of posts indicating he was was very willing to give autographs and chat with fans. It seems that despite his issues he was a generally nice guy.

Let's use a fellow first baseman for the hookup:

1. Milner and Dave Kingman '75 to '77 Mets;
2. Kingman and Jim Barr '71 to '74 Giants.

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