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100 Things Mets Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die
By Matthew Silverman
Triumph Books LLCCopyright © 2016 Matthew Silverman
All rights reserved.
First Off, Bill Buckner
Bill Buckner killed the Mets. After he became a Cub in 1977, Billy Buck hit .332 with 43 RBIs against the Mets over his first six years in Chicago, with four homers and 18 knocked in during 1982 alone. He petered out a little the next year against New York and was traded to the American League for Dennis Eckersley. Mets fans may have wondered, whatever happened to Bill Buckner?
With Buckner batting third in a veteran lineup, the Red Sox took the first two World Series games at Shea Stadium in 1986. The Mets powered back to win the next two at Fenway Park. Boston won Game 5 to reach the brink of its first world championship since 1918. The Red Sox beat New York's ace, Dwight Gooden, and that was Doc's last start of the Series ... and his second loss.
Bob Ojeda, hated by his Red Sox teammates (and vice versa) prior to his off-season trade to New York, was on the mound for his second Game 6 in 10 days. With the Mets having to win in the NLCS or else face nemesis Mike Scott in Game 7, Ojeda started at the Astrodome ... and promptly gave up three runs in the first inning. The Mets won in an epic 16-inning marathon. This time he looked in for the sign with Buckner at the plate in the first inning when every eye at Shea suddenly turned skyward. Michael Sergio, an actor from the soap opera Loving, parachuted onto the field near first base. A couple of policemen matter-of-factly collected Sergio, his parachute, plus his "Go Mets" banner, and led him off the field. Pitcher Ron Darling gave Sergio a high five on his way through the dugout. Buckner flied out, but a single, a walk, and then a double by Dwight Evans made it 1–0. Boston added another run in the second.
The Mets tied it against Boston's ace, Roger Clemens. Ray Knight had an RBI single, and Danny Heep, batting for shortstop Rafael Santana in the fifth inning, brought in the equalizer on a double-play ball. Knight's error in the seventh allowed Boston to take the lead. It stayed a one-run game when Jesse Orosco replaced Roger McDowell with the bases loaded in the eighth and retired Buckner on a fly out to center.
The Red Sox made a pitching change of their own in the bottom of the eighth, replacing Clemens with Calvin Schiraldi, Boston's key figure in the Ojeda deal with the Mets the previous winter. The pitcher made a bad throw to second on a sacrifice, and the Mets had two men on with none out, instead of one on and one out. The Mets tied the game on Gary Carter's sacrifice fly on a 3–0 pitch.
The tense game passed through the ninth and into the tenth inning with New York's bullpen and bench taxed. The Mets were on their third shortstop of the night, Howard Johnson (a third baseman by trade), and had gone through their top two relievers. Rick Aguilera, a starter during the season, allowed a home run to Dave Henderson to snap the tie, and then a two-out single by Marty Barrett made it a two-run lead. Buckner was hit by a pitch, presenting manager John McNamara a chance to replace the hobbled veteran with Dave Stapleton as he'd done throughout the postseason in games Boston led. But Buckner remained at first base and stayed there for the bottom of the inning. He wanted to be on the field for the celebration.
The Mets had had everything go their way all season and now this. Shea Stadium grew despondent as Wally Backman and then Keith Hernandez flew out against Schiraldi. Gary Carter was the last hope. Brought over from Montreal in an effort to finally win the World Series, Kid pulled a single into left field to keep the game alive. Rookie Kevin Mitchell, who would have a long and interesting career, carved his name into Mets lore by reaching base with a line single. Knight followed with a single to center to make it 5–4 with Mitchell going to third and Schiraldi out of the game.
Bob Stanley came in to face Mookie Wilson. Wilson had played for Mets teams that finished an average of 23 games out of first place his first four years as a major leaguer. Now here he was facing Bob Stanley, who'd pitched in Boston's 1978 one-game playoff loss against the Yankees. Something had to give.
Wilson fouled off Stanley's best stuff and watched two pitches off the plate for balls. Stanley made one bad pitch, a darting slider at Wilson's feet, but Mookie jackknifed out of the way and, as catcher Rich Gedman chased it, Mitchell scored the tying run. Shea was deafening. And it wasn't over yet.
Knight led off second base and headed for third mechanically when Wilson rolled a grounder right at Buckner. The first baseman bent down for it and was ready to do what he did as well as anybody in baseball: flip the ball to the pitcher covering. Bothered by ankle problems, especially in 1986, he had led his league in assists four of the past five years. Only this time the ball missed his glove completely and kept rolling until it stopped several feet behind him on the grass. Right through his legs. He started after it and then stopped. Knight, on the other side of the field, threw his hands up and danced home in disbelief. Mets fans have seen the replay and have heard the radio call countless times. It never gets old. It never will.
Bill Earl (Stone Ridge, NY)
Nobody Move or It's All Over
That the 1986 Mets were going to win the National League East wasn't news — even after a four-game losing streak, they still led by 18 — but that it had taken five days longer than expected made it must-see baseball. Bill Earl, a senior at Francis Lewis High School next door in Fresh Meadows, bought distant upper-deck seats at Shea the night of September 17 with a few classmates. "You walked into the stadium knowing it was the night, you just knew," Earl recalled. "Gooden was on the mound. It was a party from the first inning. It was definitely a party in the upper deck."
Earl and several thousand others worked their way down to the field level for the ninth inning. "When the last out was made, it was like the whole stadium emptied onto the field," he said. While he watched fans tear up the grass, Earl, a future high school baseball coach, thought about the field: "I kept thinking, they have another game tomorrow."
The field was in fine shape by Game 6 of the World Series. "A friend of mine who worked there over the summer sort of knew someone who knew someone who helped lift a gate open and we went in. I don't think you could do that now with all the security," he said. "We sort of floated around, hit or miss, and when we got to the field level, first-base side, we didn't want to leave because we weren't sure we'd get back down there."
Just when it looked like it was all going to be for naught, Gary Carter's single kept the Series alive. "At the same time my friend and I both said, 'Don't move.' The third guy we were with didn't know what we were talking about. There was no time to explain baseball superstition, but we told him he couldn't move because the whole World Series could change if he did. Keith Hernandez was sitting in the clubhouse smoking a cigarette; he didn't move either."
Three stiff bodies and a reliever later, Mookie Wilson lined a ball just foul. "In my heart, I thought, 'Crap, that was the one.' And then you get the wild pitch and the place went absolutely bananas and you never heard anything ... well, I can't say that because when the ball went through Buckner's legs, that was the loudest sound I can ever remember."
He was in the upper deck for the Game 7 comeback and culmination, but that almost felt anticlimactic. "It's weird to say, but to me it felt like the World Series ended in Game 6. There was no way they could lose Game 7," he said. "It was either the curse of the Red Sox or someone steering the Mets' fate. One thing or another."
Or maybe it was someone sitting very still. Waiting. And Orosco's pitch to Barrett ...CHAPTER 2
Standing the World on Its Ear
The 1969 season began like all others before it: with a Mets loss. This time they lost to a team that had never even played a game before. The Montreal Expos won their inaugural game over the Mets, 11–10. Tom Seaver allowed a home run to pitcher Dan McGinn. Relief ace Ron Taylor surrendered a three-run home run to the first batter he faced in '69: Coco Laboy. It was the first major league hit for both Expos.
Yet from early on, there was something different about these Mets. When Seaver blanked Atlanta's Phil Niekro to put the Mets at 18–18 on May 21, eager writers cooed about it being the latest the Mets had ever been .500. The club refused the bait. "What's .500?" Seaver replied. "Let us reach first place. That'll mean something. We're looking far beyond .500."
On the distant horizon sat the Cubs. They came into Shea Stadium on July 8 with a 51/2-game lead and the best record in the National League. Chicago had won five of the first six meetings between the clubs. The Mets had, however, swept a doubleheader in their last visit to Wrigley Field and were 34–20 since then. Jerry Koosman, who'd missed a few starts with an arm problem early in the year, was right as rain as he beat Fergie Jenkins. The next night Seaver was perfect — or as perfect as a Met was ever going to get — retiring the first 25 batters before Jimmy Qualls spoiled it with a single. Even after Chicago's Bill Hands won the third game at Shea and the opener at Wrigley the next week, the Mets took both series. As the Mets headed back home for the All-Star break five games behind, they watched a man walk on the moon on television at the Montreal airport. Stars would be in their eyes the whole second half.
It was a little cloudy for the first few weeks though. Second baseman Ken Boswell fulfilled his military service while Bud Harrelson returned and was a little off. The Mets played like a team that had never been in contention before, going 9–12, including sweeps both home and away by the Astros. The low point came when manager Gil Hodges walked out to left field and removed Cleon Jones, who'd been the All-Star starter and was contending for the batting title, in the middle of an inning when he did not hustle after a ball during a rout.
On August 13 the deficit was 10 games. The Mets weren't even in second place anymore. In truth, the Mets had the league — and especially Chicago manager Leo Durocher — right where they wanted them.
The Cubs, playing .632 ball at the time, went 18–27 down the stretch while the Mets were 38–11, a .776 clip. Using the Hodges platoon system at three infield positions and right field, plus Rube Walker's five-man pitching rotation, the Mets were rested and unbeatable. Durocher's veteran-laden Cubs used a four-man rotation and the same lineup day in and day out. Catcher Randy Hundley caught 30 out of 31 games in a 34-day span. Ernie Banks and Ron Santo missed two starts each in that period, right fielder Jim Hickman missed one, while Glenn Beckert and Billy Williams, who would set the National League record with 1,117 consecutive games, played every day. After averaging 4.7 runs per game through the first 117 games, the Cubs averaged 3.6 after that. Chicago's ERA was 4.16 over the final 45 games. It had been 3.08 up to that point.
New York's offense was inconsistent yet opportunistic. The Mets set a still-standing franchise mark for wins in a month, with 23 in September 1969, even though they scored fewer runs than they had in July or August. And their batting average was the lowest of any month all year (the Mets were even no-hit by Pittsburgh's Bob Moose on September 20). The thing was, the pitching staff surrendered just 70 runs all month, only 65 of which were earned, for a 2.15 ERA. The staff allowed three home runs in 30 games, something you might've expected in the Dead Ball Era 50 years earlier. And the mound had actually been lowered in '69.
Seaver won 25 games, including his last 10 decisions, allowing just 14 earned runs over those 11 starts. The Mets tossed 21 complete games out of their last 48 starts. On those rare occasions the starters needed a little help, the bullpen did not disappoint. Southpaw Tug McGraw allowed two earned runs over his last 19 appearances (38 innings), while Taylor, the righty, surrendered five in his last 18 outings (25 innings). The pair combined to go 7–2 with 11 saves and a combined ERA of 1.00 down the stretch.
Even after Chicago's collapse was official and newspapermen tried to come up with new adjectives and superlatives to describe what was happening, the Mets kicked it up another notch and put the thing away. Following three straight losses to the Pirates — the third being Moose's no-hitter — the Mets won nine in a row, including the division clincher. This was on top of a 10-game winning streak earlier in the month. The Mets finished with 100 wins. Amazin'.
More amazin' was the ease with which they dispatched the Braves in the first NLCS. The opener saw the Mets take an early lead, fall behind, tie it in the eighth, and take the lead when two Atlanta errors accounted for four unearned runs. The Mets took a big early lead the next day, but Koosman couldn't get through the fifth; New York pulled away, 11–6. With no off day, Game 3 in New York saw the best pitching of the series by the Mets, but it wasn't by starter Gary Gentry. The rookie was knocked out in the third inning, and Nolan Ryan entered with men on second and third, none out, and the Mets trailing 2–0. Atlanta didn't score. The Mets, meanwhile, took the lead on homers by Tommie Agee and Boswell. Ryan allowed a two-run home run by Orlando Cepeda in the fifth, but he singled to start a rally in the bottom of the inning. Rookie Wayne Garrett, snagged from the Braves in that year's Rule 5 draft, hit a two-run homer for the lead, and Ryan finished off Atlanta. Fans destroyed the field again, but by then everyone wanted a piece of this 100–1 shot that was now in the World Series.
This was where the story would end; the glass slipper wouldn't fit. That was the feeling after Baltimore spanked Seaver and the Mets in the opener 4–1. But New York would hold the Orioles to just five runs — and two extra base hits — over the final 39 innings of the Series. Koosman allowed two hits in Game 2, Gentry and Ryan permitted four hits in Game 3, Seaver surrendered six hits the following afternoon, and Koosman allowed five hits in what turned out to be the Series finale. Of course, it took legendary catches by Agee and Ron Swoboda to deprive Baltimore of three extra base hits and perhaps six runs. Shoe polish, a stray wrist, and some good old-fashioned home runs — three by Series MVP Donn Clendenon, one apiece by Agee and Ed Kranepool, and an unlikely game-tying blast by Al Weis in Game 5 — and the mighty 108-win Orioles, virtually the same team that rolled the Dodgers for the 1966 world championship, were done. Seems that slipper was a perfect fit after all, colored orange and blue.CHAPTER 3
In typical Mets fashion, the franchise's greatest pitcher was acquired by pure luck. USC star pitcher Tom Seaver had been signed a few days after the 1966 college season had begun by the relocated Atlanta Braves. Commissioner William Eckert, who did little else in his brief and inconsequential reign, ruled that the Braves had acted improperly and Seaver could go to a team chosen at random if they matched the $50,000 promised in Atlanta's voided contract. The Mets — one of only three teams that bothered to enter the special lottery — beat out the Phillies and Indians. "The Franchise" changed the franchise quicker than anybody would have ever imagined.
George Thomas Seaver was National League Rookie of the Year just 18 months after signing with the Mets. Two years after that he had a Cy Young Award, the first of three he'd win in a seven-season span. But adding up the wins (198) and the accolades ("He's the kind of man you'd want your kids to grow up to be like," said Cleon Jones) never came close to measuring what Seaver meant to the club and to the fans.
Tom Terrific was completely in control of every situation. No opponent could rile him and no one could tell him he was coming out of a ballgame unless he agreed. At age 24 he was a 25-game winner and leader of the most unlikely world champion anyone could remember. He was brash and brave, a leader by example. He told his catcher, acerbic Jerry Grote, what he wanted to throw. Only once in his first 10 years was he not picked for the All-Star Game. He fanned 200 batters a record nine years in a row. In short, he was as close to Ted Williams as the Mets would ever get. And when Williams came to Shea Stadium for a ceremony in June 1999, a month before his poignant All-Star Game appearance, who other than Seaver was qualified to drive Teddy Ballgame to the mound?
Columnist Dick Young, who'd helped promote the term "new breed" for the early 1960s Mets, turned out not to really like the breed itself. With a few angry words on his typewriter, he helped send Seaver to Cincinnati on June 15, 1977 — the day that it officially became a chore to be a Mets fan. When No. 41 returned to Shea on April 5, 1983, the cloud was officially lifted. The team wouldn't be good for another year — after Seaver was inexplicably let go in a compensation snafu — but fans could finally come out of hiding. It was as if the fans had the vote when Seaver was elected to the Hall of Fame with the highest percentage in history in 1992. (His 98.84 percent stood until Ken Griffey Jr. surpassed it in 2016.) The writers' vote seemed a salute to the king of the new breed. Seaver, not yet 30, had once said, "If you don't think baseball is a big deal, don't do it. But if you do, do it right."
Excerpted from 100 Things Mets Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die by Matthew Silverman. Copyright © 2016 Matthew Silverman. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
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