Roger Metzger by David Skelton

Roger Metzger
By
David Skelton

 

Roger Metzger By David Skelton is nothing less than a masterpiece biographical contribution to baseball history. As a lifelong fan of baseball, the Houston Astros, and shortstop Roger Metzger, our Pecan Park Eagle interests are both humbled and honored to present David Skelton’s  fine work and dedication to honest reporting as a gift to the appetites of our readers. At a little more than 3,200 words, Skelton’s work is longer than your normal daily Eagle offerings, but give yourself the time – or a break – to finish later, if need be. We think you will find it worth your time.

And please give both David Skelton and The Eagle some feedback here too. If you would like to see more longer articles like this one, once in a while, please let us know.

David Skelton’s E-Mail address is dsbaseballfan@yahoo.com

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The comment section, which we encourage everyone to use for sharing all your thoughts and questions, is visible below, immediately following each column.

Thank you very much.

Bill McCurdy, The Pecan Park Eagle

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ROGER METZGER

By David E. Skelton

 Two decades before the celebrated “Killer B’s” of Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, et al, the Houston Astros looked anxiously to the letter “M” as rising prospects Marty Martinez and John Mayberry were expected to join All Star infielders Denis Menke and Joe Morgan and bring success to the woebegone franchise. Another name in the mix was shortstop Roger Metzger, whom Astros assistant general manager John Mullen tabbed as a “Pete Rose type of player.”[i]

A seemingly bold projection for a lifetime .231 hitter, Mullen had considerable support for this opinion. In 1973, Pittsburgh Pirates scout Howie Haak claimed there was “no better shortstop in the field in the National League than Roger Metzger.”[ii] Two years later Astros manager Preston Gomez, who skippered a roster that included sluggers Cesar Cedeno, Jose Cruz and Bob Watson, declared Metzger the “backbone of this club.”[iii]

Roger Henry Metzger was born on October 10, 1947, the eldest of three children of Bruno A. and Evelyn (Petsch) Metzger, in Fredericksburg, Texas, 70 miles north of San Antonio. He was the great-grandson of German immigrant John Peter Metzger who, as a small child, arrived in the Texas Hill Country with his parents in the 1850s. Two decades later, John married Gertrude Hartmann and supported his growing family through farming. Whereas John’s son Albert continued in agriculture, his grandson Bruno, Roger’s father, pursued a career in carpentry both before and after his stint in the U.S. Army during the Second World War. In 1946, Bruno married Evelyn Petsch and, a year later, welcomed their first child. Shortly afterward, the family moved to San Antonio.

The children attended Holy Cross High School, a Roman Catholic college preparatory school located on the west side of San Antonio. Though Roger played prep school baseball, he was overlooked by major-league scouts when he graduated from high school in 1966. This soon changed after he enrolled at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. Under the guidance of Tom Hamilton, the university’s athletic director and a former major league first baseman, the wiry shortstop’s career blossomed after converting from a natural left-handed hitter to a switch hitter. “I owe [coach Hamilton] so much,” Metzger said years later. “He gave me the chance to play in college and worked with me a lot. He was a kind of a father away from home for me.”[iv] In 103 at-bats for the St. Edward’s Hilltoppers in 1969, the college junior batted .447 with three homers and 24 RBIs to earn selection as The Sporting News’ College All-American shortstop. Scouted aggressively by, among other clubs, the St. Louis Cardinals, Metzger was selected by the Chicago Cubs in the first round (16th pick overall) of the June amateur draft. He joined the club during the team’s June 13-15 weekend series in Cincinnati before being assigned to the Triple-A Tacoma Cubs in the Pacific Coast League.

 Metzger took over Tacoma’s starting shortstop role and immediately provided stability to the club’s leaky infield defense. Moreover, after a difficult start offensively (just 16 hits in his first 88 at-bats), Metzger rebounded to help lead the Cubs to the Northern Division pennant. His hitting continued over the winter in the Arizona Instructional League where he placed among the circuit leaders with a .346 average in his first 130 at-bats. Throughout the offseason, several major-league clubs inquired of Cubs All Star shortstop Don Kessinger (including an aggressive pursuit by the Astros for outfielder Jim Wynn), assuming Metzger would be advanced to the majors. “Someday that might be true,” Cubs GM John Holland said in December. “[B]ut it certainly isn’t now.”[v]

In 1970, Metzger was reassigned to Tacoma where Hawaii Islanders manager Chuck Tanner declared, “He’s the best shortstop in the league and probably the best in Orgazed Baseball.”[vi] In June, Metzger was recalled by the Cubs when Kessinger was briefly sidelined. On June 16, he made his major-league debut at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park as the Cubs starting shortstop. Nervousness was apparent when, in the second inning, the surehanded Metzger bobbled a ground ball that eventually led to an unearned in the Cubs 3-2 loss. He had no more success batting against future Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, grounding out twice before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the eighth. Returned to Tacoma, Metzger concluded his first full season with a .270 average while also placing among the team leaders in nearly every offensive category. But on October 12, in a move that startled many observers, the Cubs traded Metzger to the Astros for utility infielder Hector Torres. Reports suggested that the trade was part of the Cubs purchase of slugger Joe Pepitone from the Astros three months earlier, a claim the Cubs vehemently denied. Shortly after the trade, Metzger reported to Venezuela’s Lara Cardinals where he was teamed with future Astros stars Ken Forsch and Bob Watson. In December, he and Watson were selected to the Venezuelan Winter League All Star team. One month later, Metzger was named the 1970 outstanding Texas-born Minor League Player of the Year by the Houston Chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association.

 To make room for Metzger, the 1971 Astros made several adjustments to their lineup, moving two-time All Star shortstop Menke to first base and shifting first baseman Watson to the outfield. The effort proved worthwhile when Metzger, following a shaky start to the season, committed just one error over 57 consecutive games (603 chances) through July 4. Twelve days later, his grab of a line drive from New York Mets outfielder Cleon Jones initiated the first triple play in Houston franchise history. Astros fans only had to wait two additional months for the club’s second triple killing, with Metzger again playing a pivotal role. He provided the Astros its “best ever [club] defensively” with a club record (and league leading) 275 putouts, 459 assists and 91 double plays by a shortstop while committing only 17 errors (the second fewest in the NL behind Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Larry Bowa).[vii] In an anonymous poll of Houston pitchers taken at the end of the season, Metzger was voted the team’s MVP by an overwhelming margin.

Metzger’s superb defense more than made up for his offensive lags. “I wasn’t hitting the ball at all,” said the switch-hitter after a .212 average in the season’s first half. “I just wasn’t making good contact.”[viii] But greater gain ensued in the second half when, following a three-hit game against the Montreal Expos on July 30, Metzger got 31 hits in his next 101 at-bats. He finished the season with a .235 average in 562 at-bats while his 11 triples tied with teammate Joe Morgan and Kansas City Royals shortstop Fred Patek for the major-league lead.

Metzger’s offensive challenges returned in 1972 when he finished April with a meager .109 average. He set a dubious club record by going 169 games without a home run before finally connecting for a dinger against St. Louis Cardinals ace Bob Gibson on May 10. Despite a puny .222 average and an equally scant .288 OBP, Metzger was used primarily as the club’s leadoff hitter where his 23 stolen bases placed among the league leaders. Moreover, his 153 appearances trailed only Pete Rose for the NL lead. Despite a career worst 22 errors, Metzger’s defensive prowess proved crucial to the club’s then-franchise best third place finish. Though identification with Rose had dissipated, Metzger drew favorable comparisons to Kessinger and Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson, two of the league’s premier defensive shortstops. “Metzger will be the best shortstop in the National League in a year or two,” predicted Astros lefthander Dave Roberts. “He’ll make a few more errors, but he’s got the range and gets to balls other shortstops don’t.”[ix]

In 1973, Metzger’s offensive difficulties continued when he got a mere six hits in his first 68 at-bats. Benched briefly at the end of April after a franchise record 184 consecutive appearances Metzger, at the advice of hitting coach Deacon Jones, began choking up on a heavier bat ala Nellie Fox.[x] The results proved instantaneous as Metzger produced a .347/.400/.435 slash line in May. On June 17, he tied his career high with four hits, only to match this yield again a month later. Though slowed in the last weeks of the season, Metzger finished with a career high 187 total bases while also establishing a franchise best 14 triples. Moreover, he led all NL shortstops with a .982 fielding percentage to earn his only Gold Glove award. In December, the Houston Chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America selected Metzger as the Astros Most Valuable Player.

 The 1974 season ushered in glasses after Metzger, who his teammates nicknamed “Trout” because of his passion for fishing, discovered he was nearsighted in one eye. This proved to be the least of his worries when, during pre-game drills on April 29, he was knocked unconscious following a violent outfield collision with teammate Don Wilson. The quick actions of catcher Johnny Edwards and third baseman Doug Rader prevented Metzger from swallowing his tongue. He was carted off the field and sent to a hospital where it was learned he had also sustained a chipped bone in his left thumb. It was this latter injury that sidelined Metzger over the next few weeks. “I’m just glad to be here,” he said in classic understatement following his near-death experience. “Somebody up there must like me.”[xi] Following a strong start to the season, Metzger carried a .271 average through July before faltering in the last weeks of the season. He finished with a .253 average in 572 at-bats with a career high 18 doubles.

Except for a 33-for-82 surge in May 1975, Metzger struggled with a .184 average in his first 217 at-bats of a largely forgettable season. Moreover, the solid fielder inexplicably committed 10 errors in the club’s first 35 games. On June 3, during a 4-3 loss to the Mets in Shea Stadium, Metzger connected for the last home run of his career. It was during this or another trip to New York that Metzger’s possessions were stolen from his hotel room (the first of two straight years in which he was robbed in The Big Apple). In July, Metzger was sidelined with an elbow injury that he reaggravated a month later, resulting in his making just 36 appearances throughout the season’s second half. Despite the time missed, Metzger participated in exactly half of the club’s 166 double plays turned—a franchise record that stood for 24 years.

In 1976, following a then-franchise worst .398 winning percentage, the Astros made a radical turn toward youth in which nine players exceeded the rookie limits (three others who did not exceed the limits made a combined 34 appearances during the season). Amid this youth movement Metzger continued his steady play. For the second (and last) time in his career, he led all NL shortstops in fielding percentage while establishing a major league record 59 consecutive games without an error at his position (a record that stood for 13 years). In September, for the first time in his major league career, Metzger played some place other than shortstop, moving to second base while graciously yielding his spot to 20-year-old Alex Taveras as the Astros eyed possible future pursuits. “I’ll even volunteer to catch if it’ll keep me in a ball game,” Metzger said.[xii] During the offseason Metzger’s name surfaced in several trade rumors, with the most aggressive suitor being the New York Yankees before they acquired Bucky Dent from the Chicago White Sox two days before the start of the 1977 season. When nothing came of the other trade rumors, Metzger reported to the Astros training camp the following spring.

 But Metzger’s imminent departure remained a constant over the next 18 months. After missing nearly two months of the 1977 season with a fractured fibula, reports emerged of Metzger’s diminished range at shortstop. Nor was his cause helped by an 0-for-20 slump through July 1 that contributed to a .186 season average. Despite these struggles, Metzger successfully fended off challenges from a host of contending shortstops in 1977 and again during the following spring. “I’ve always felt I had to battle for my job,” Metzger said in March 1978 when facing stiff competition from newly acquired infielder Jimmy Sexton. “I don’t feel any more pressure than any other spring.”[xiii] On April 6, Metzger raced out to his position on Opening Day, the eighth consecutive year in which he did so in an Astros uniform.

After participating in an Opening Day triple play, followed 15 days later by still another, through 2016 Metzger is the only player in franchise history to engage in four triple plays. Despite this milestone achievement, questions soon resurfaced about the veteran’s diminished range. On June 15, after attempts to acquire Cardinals All Star shortstop Garry Templeton and Pirates defensive specialist Frank Taveras both ended in failure, the Astros got infielder Mike Fischlin from the Yankees in a multi-player swap. That same day, Metzger was sold to the NL West first place San Francisco Giants. The sale was engineered by Giants general manager Spec Richardson who, eight years earlier as the Astros GM, had orchestrated Houston’s acquisition of Metzger from the Cubs. “[I] always liked Roger,” Richardson said after Metzger joined the Giants. “Frankly, I didn’t think we had a chance to get him.”[xiv]

Before Metzger’s acquisition, the Giants primary shortstop was Johnnie LeMaster, a former first round draft pick who, following a reasonably successful minor league career, had trouble adjusting to the big leagues. Platooning with the 24-year-old throughout the season’s remainder, Metzger proved the perfect complement to the club’s needs. “My [only] concern is putting on some weight so I don’t blow away at [the Giants windy] Candlestick [Park,]” said the six-foot, 165-pound veteran.”[xv] On June 21, Metzger got two hits including a game winning two-run double to lead the Giants to a 3-0 win over Cincinnati Reds ace Tom Seaver. Two days later, Metzger launched a 23-for-51 surge that helped the Giants maintain its lead atop the NL West. Anxiously looking ahead to his first (and what proved to be only) chance at post-season, Metzger’s hopes were eventually dashed when the club collapsed in September.

Metzger, Roger  On April 4, 1979, Metzger made his last career Opening Day start as the Giants reveled in a lopsided 11-5 win against Seaver in Cincinnati. After winning six of its next eight games, the club appeared poised to erase the disappointment of the preceding season. But a vastly different outcome resulted over the next 16 days when the Giants limped to a meager 2-12 record. As the losses continued, tensions surfaced among the players as the club rapidly tumbled out of contention. An example of these tensions came on August 21 when Metzger, who had continued platooning with LeMaster throughout the season, was involved in a pre-game scuffle with pitcher Ed Whitson, a much larger player. Beginning on the field, the scuffle continued in the clubhouse, doing little to improve the overall environment. In what proved to be Metzger’s last full season in the major leagues, the Giants finished with a disappointing 71-91 record, 19½ games behind the first place Reds.

The fact that Metzger even donned a uniform the next year is remarkable considering the grizzly November 29, 1979 power saw accident that severed the tips of four of fingers on his right (throwing) hand. Within two weeks of the mishap the Giants, who assumed that Metzger was lost for the season (if not forever), acquired two middle infielders as potential replacements. Two more were acquired in March 1980. But Metzger was determined to overcome the casualty. The headstrong veteran worked hard to relearn how to throw a ball. Moreover, he had trouble gripping a bat and eventually turned to a smaller handled device. The hard work paid off when, following a .333 spring training average, Metzger earned a spot on the major league roster.

But Cactus League gains did not translate to regular season success when the Giants, now fully committed to LeMaster, found sparring use for Metzger. He garnered only 25 plate appearances through the first half and only one official at-bat in July—a pinch-hit single against Pirates righthander Jim Bibby that proved to be Metzger’s last major league hit. He was released on August 16 after the Giants activated catcher Milt May from the disabled list. Metzger was immediately signed to replace coach John Van Ornum, who was granted a leave of absence after undergoing minor surgery. Metzger’s release had come 15 days shy of his 10-year pension eligibility. On September 1, when major league teams could expand their rosters, the Giants reactivated him so that he could reach the 10-year threshold.

Metzger retired to Brenham, Texas, midway between Houston and Austin. Several years earlier married Tamy Rue Bailey, a Houston native one year his junior. The union produced two sons. In 1978, after partnering with his father-in-law in a real estate venture, Metzger purchased a 20-acre spread. It was on this same tract of land that he suffered the power saw injury while building a playhouse for his children. For several years Metzger and his wife owned a restaurant in Brenham before the former ballplayer launched a long career as a high school teacher. In 1996, he was inducted into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame. Nine years later his jersey was retired by St. Edward’s University.

Several years after he retired from baseball, Metzger said, “I just regret one thing . . . I was never on a World Series team. But I was able to experience a dream I had when I was a kid. There were some good times for me in baseball, and there were some bad times, too. I guess the good times outnumbered the bad.”[xvi] Metzger garnered a .231 average in 4,201 at-bats over his 11-year major-league career. More importantly, over this time he was considered one of the finest fielders of his generation.

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Ancestry.com and Baseball-Reference.com. The author wishes to thank SABR member Bill Mortell for his valuable research assistance.

Notes

[i] John Wilson, “Astros Tap Hustling Rookie Metzger No. 1 Shortstop,” The Sporting News, January 9, 1971: 48.

[ii] John Wilson, “Cecil Realizes Old Dream . . . He’s Astro,” The Sporting News, May 12, 1973: 16.

[iii] Harry Shattuck, “Maturing Metzger Earns Astro Raves,” The Sporting News, June 14, 1975: 11.

[iv] Joe Heiling, “Metzger Wins Torrid Race for Astro MVP Honors,” The Sporting News, December 15, 1973: 47.

[v] Edgar Munzel, “Deal Kessinger? ‘No!’ Says Cubs,” The Sporting News, December 27, 1969: 35.

[vi] “Rivals Praise Metzger,” The Sporting News, July 11, 1970: 36.

[vii] John Wilson, “A View of N.L. West: Houston Astros,” The Sporting News, April 10, 1971: 10.

[viii] John Wilson, “Roger’s Star-Flecked Glove Lifts Astros to Cloud Nine,” The Sporting News, July 24, 1971: 12.

[ix] “N.L. Flashes,” The Sporting News, May 13, 1972: 28.

[x] Metzger’s record was broken by third baseman Enos Cabell in 1979.

[xi] Joe Heiling, “Rock-Like Roger Sends Astros Into Flights of Oratory,” The Sporting News, August 17, 1974: 16.

[xii] Harry Shattuck, “Metzger Switches to Second, Astros Examine Taveras,” The Sporting News, October 16, 1976: 11.

[xiii] Harry Shattuck, “Astros Line Up Rivals for Metzger,” The Sporting News, March 18, 1978: 52.

[xiv] Glenn Dickey, “Spec Plays ‘Mr. Kleen’ as Trading Giant,” The Sporting News, August 26, 1978: 7.

[xv] Nick Peters, “Giant Newcomers Prove Immediate Hits,” The Sporting News, July 15, 1978: 20.

[xvi] UPI Archives, “There’s Life After Baseball, Says Former Player,” April 11, 1983. Accessed May 2, 2017 (http://bit.ly/2pSsGQW ).

 

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Bill McCurdy

Principal Writer, Editor, Publisher

The Pecan Park Eagle

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5 Responses to “Roger Metzger by David Skelton”

  1. Wayne A Chandler Says:

    When the Astros first got Roger, I remember John Mullen remarking many times, ” OIur pitchers are goiung to love this shortstop.” And they really did. He’d occasionally get an error because he’d get to balls that most shortstops couldn’t reach.
    Buddy Hancken told me one time when Harry Walker was manager, that Metzeger made a trowing error in a close game, and he said Walker said , “There he goes messing up again.” Hancken said he turned to Walker, saying , “Yeah, he made one like that about two years ago!”

    Roger was a great team player, always modest, always a credit to every team for which he played.

  2. Mark W. Says:

    Great article David!

  3. Cliff Blau Says:

    FWIW, the Astros’ Defensive Efficiency Record improved from .009 below league average in 1970 to .009 above league average in 1971. There’s no telling how much of that was due to Metzger.

  4. Tom Hunter Says:

    My two all-time favorite Astros both wore number “14,” Bob Aspromonte and Roger Metzger. I was at the Astrodome and saw Metzger start the first triple play in Houston history against the Mets on July 16,1971. If I remember correctly it was scored 6-4-3-5 (Metzger to Morgan to Menke to Rader). Roger could flash some leather.

  5. Shirley Virdon Says:

    Roger & Tammy were also fine people, respected by his teammates & their wives! Hope the family is doing well—-Best Wishes to them from Bill & Shirley VIRDON

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