The year was 1975. I was 12 years old.
The world was full of possibilities. I graduated from elementary school and was heading for junior high. I wriggled out of an involuntary tour of duty at Camp Avnet, the last time I’d be bothered with that thing of childhood, and was left to my own devices for the summer. I started to have funny feelings that had nothing to do with Ed Kranepool, but I was 12, so never mind that right now.
Mostly I was enchanted with the possibility that the Mets would win the World Series in 1975. I was taken with the idea that the Mets could have good players, the kinds of players other teams had — actually a bunch of players other teams did have. I was thrilled that several of the players the Mets had had almost since I started watching them were going away.
I was loyal to the Mets, but as for individual Mets, I’d turn almost any and every one of them over if it meant putting behind us the miserable 71-91 record of 1974. That was the first losing season I ever experienced and I sure hoped I would never, ever see another one.
It was as if Monty Hall was asking me to choose between displaying loyalty and eschewing futility. I opted for Door No. 2. For as long as I could remember, the Mets had counted on miracles. I preferred to maintain a solid, all-around team, one with not just pitchers but hitters.
We would have that in 1975. I was certain.
So goodbye old players. See ya later Ken Boswell; see ya now Bob Gallagher. It’s been nice knowin’ ya Duffy Dyer; it’ll be nicer knowing Gene Clines. Ray Sadecki, it was fun, but Joe Torre could be a barrel of laughs and RBIs. Teddy Martinez’s utility was interchangeable with Jack Heidemann’s and we get some minor leaguer named Vail.
Joe McDonald, the new GM, did all that for me in the fall of 1974. Then he went to the winter meetings, an affair I followed breathlessly, and brought us back a professional centerfielder named Del Unser, a stud catching prospect named John Stearns and a relief pitcher I’d heard of, Mac Scarce. We dumped Don Hahn (who never hit), Dave Schneck (who let me down) and, uh, Tug McGraw.
The Mets traded Tug McGraw. I was less than a month from turning 12 when I heard the news. Tug McGraw had led the Mets to their most recent pennant. Tug McGraw had been with the Mets as long as I could remember. Tug McGraw was already a legend.
But I liked the trade. Where the 1975 Mets were concerned, I loved trades. I loved trades more than I loved players. 1969 was a long time ago. I was getting tired of being beaten by the Pirates almost every year. We needed to shake things up and Joe McDonald held my proxy.
Besides, I said to myself, Tug McGraw had only had six good weeks in the last two years. Even as I bought the paperback edition of his autobiography Screwball and wrote what would be the first of three book reports in three years on it, I was confident we wouldn’t miss him. Mac Scarce lived up to his surname but we filled in with Tom “The Blade” Hall, Bob Apodaca (who got hurt), Ken Sanders (who got hit by a throw from the catcher) and, finally, Skip Lockwood. Tug? No longer my concern. The Mets gave his uniform number, 45, to Rick Baldwin and Rick Baldwin’s wife appeared at a fashion show at the TSS in Oceanside. Life went on.
I was more excited entering spring training in 1975 than I ever was before. We had all these new players. And then Joe McDonald went out and got us one more.
He got us Dave Kingman.
Dave Kingman! Dave Kingman of the Giants! He hit home runs! He hit long home runs! He once hit a home run that broke a bus window in the Shea parking lot! This was like acquiring Paul Bunyan.
Wow! Would ya get a load of the new Mets? Getting new players was as much fun as getting new cards, something I did 660 times in 1975. For the second year in a row, I managed to obtain a complete set of Topps by buying and trading and flipping. My parents even took me to my first-ever baseball card show — we heard about it on the channel 2 news — at the Statler-Hilton in the city. Who knew they had such things? I bought a mint 1966 Sandy Koufax for a dollar. My mother laughed that somebody would spend that much for a baseball card. You’ll see, I said. It’ll be worth something. Collecting every baseball I could was crucial to me. It wouldn’t always be, but I couldn’t have known that then.
Don’t get me wrong, I liked the old Mets who remained Mets. Tom Seaver was still around, bouncing back from sciatica (how many medical terms did I learn because of achy Mets?). Jerry Koosman seemed to be getting better. There was one night when Kooz stole second. The announcers were floored (though not as floored as I was to realize Koosman was only five steals behind the team leader, Kingman, at the end of the season). The next night, channel 9 showed Tom presenting Jerry with his base which had been marked up with a big 2 as if he were Lou Brock. As much as I liked getting new guys, I kept a soft spot for the familiar. Seaver and Koosman, Matlack and Grote, Buddy and Felix, Rusty and Krane, Cleon and Yogi.
Cleon and Yogi…two guys who’d been Mets forever, at least my version of forever. In all the baseball preview magazines (it was my first spring of buying every one I could find), Cleon Jones was listed as the starting left fielder. That was before Kingman and before an injury and, most pointedly, before he was found by the side of a road in a van in St. Petersburg in bed with a white woman. That’s how it was reported as if to insert shock value. Much tut-tutting followed. M. Donald Grant forced Cleon to apologize at a press conference with his wife at his side. That didn’t seem necessary. Eventually, with Kingman around, neither did Cleon. He was released in July.
Somewhere between his humiliation and his farewell, a neighbor of ours named Marge, a social studies teacher with a reputation for assuring you she was very right about everything, hired my sister to type up a sample chapter of an American history textbook she wanted to sell to McGraw-Hill. The chapter dealt with “black history”. It included a multiple-choice test on great black Americans. There was one question in which the four choices were something like:
A) George Washington Carver
B) Martin Luther King, Jr.
C) Hank Aaron
D) Cleon Jones
After his roadside affair, my entire family, not normally conversant in baseball, knew who Cleon Jones was. “Cleon Jones” immediately became shorthand around our house for Marge’s utter cluelessness. I never heard if McGraw-Hill got back to her.
Yogi didn’t know from history books, he just knew Cleon refused to go into a game for defense. Yogi got Cleon released. And the Mets’ mediocre play got Yogi fired. Two of the icons of my childhood were replaced within two weeks of each other.
Other teams fired managers. This was the first time I ever saw the Mets do it. No offense, Yogi, but maybe a change needs to be made. And they’re saying Roy McMillan is a lot like Gil Hodges. So let’s see what happens.
As the season wore into August, the Mets kept hanging around, not making a big move but not falling out of the race either. They were definitely close enough to keep me watching, listening and reading every single day. Seaver returned to being Seaver. He would go 22-9 and win his third Cy Young, this one over Randy Jones. Matlack seemed a lock to win 20 (he was the winning pitcher in the All-Star Game, too). Randy Tate, the fourth starter who came out of nowhere, flirted with a no-hitter one night. Took it into the eighth against the Expos until Jim Lyttle broke it up. Tate would lose the game. Tate lost a lot of games but this one seemed particularly unfair. Later on, Ed Halicki no-hit the Mets. And a while after that, Seaver carried a no-hitter into the ninth against the Cubs but he didn’t get it. The Mets lost in ten.
I didn’t like the way this no-hitter stuff was going.
Dave Kingman, however, was as scary as he appeared when he was a Giant. I had waited my whole life for somebody to come along and hit homers the way SkyKing did. He hated being called Kong…and didn’t like to talk about home runs…but they said he was a good guy. There was a game in Florida in March televised back to New York on channel 11, a night game between the Mets and the Yankees in Fort Lauderdale. Tom Seaver vs. Catfish Hunter. Our first prime time look at Dave Kingman. He hit one off Hunter that went an estimated 600 feet. Into the Everglades, it was said. Phil Rizzuto practically fainted. The Yankees may have just reeled in Catfish, but we had captured Kong.
SkyKing, I mean.
Hunter and the Yankees were the big story coming into the season, but they got left in the dust by Fred Lynn, Jim Rice and Boston. The Mets remained top cat in New York as summer dawned. There was a Doublemint Chewing Gum jingle that went, “even those crazy fans at Shea do it!” For the first time, I was one of those fans twice in the same season. On June 28, my sister took me to Old Timers Day — we left in a rain delay; not my choice. Then, having bonded over baseball in the aftermath of Marge the Social Studies Teacher’s history lesson, our family went to our first game as a unit on July 2. Matlack beat the Cubs. Later in the year, when my sister was working in the NYU registrar’s office, she encountered a student named Alfred Matlack. “Any relation?” she queried. Turns out Alfred Matlack was Jon Matlack’s fifth cousin. I was more impressed that my sister recalled the Matlack name at all.
On the other hand, my mother was turned off by the very large man in our section who stole the gigantic mustard dispenser and brought it back to his seat like a trophy. My father was annoyed that somebody messed with our car’s antenna. We never went to another game, the four of us, ever again.
During my brief day camp tenure, there was a group outing to Shea for a Yankees game. I refused to go. Why, I asked, would I want ever to see them?
As for the outcome of those trades from the winter, Bob Gallagher and Gene Clines were pretty much no-shows, but Del Unser became one of my immediate favorites. Should’ve been an All-Star. So should’ve Rusty, en route to becoming the first Met to drive in more than a hundred runs. Joe Torre, a Brooklyn boy, seemed at home as a Met, but he couldn’t play third anymore. Couldn’t run either. There was a game against the Astros in which Felix Millan singled four times and was wiped out by Torre on four double play grounders. Don’t blame me, Torre told reporters afterwards. Blame Felix for getting the hits. The Mets lost. Everybody laughed. But Joe still couldn’t play third. He moved to first and the Mets resorted to Wayne Garrett.
The Mets were always trading for old third basemen and falling back on Wayne Garrett. Wayne Garrett depressed me greatly. I looked forward to the day the Mets could bring up their own great third baseman. I looked forward to the day the Mets could bring up Roy Staiger. Roy Staiger was tearing up Tidewater. I knew.
As a reward for graduating sixth grade, my father bought me a copy of The Sporting News. The Cubs’ “Three M’s” were on the cover: Bill Madlock, Rick Monday and Jerry Morales. He told me it was The Bible of Baseball and he wasn’t kidding. It became as essential to my existence as Baseball Digest (I got a subscription for my birthday) and Sportsphone (a brand-new service that I called every ten minutes; I even won the Quickie Quiz one night). The Sporting News had statistics for every Major League team and, better yet, every minor league team. I began to buy it every week to monitor the Tides and see who our future stars would be. I was sure, from reading the Bible, that I knew, absolutely knew, who was going to be a big-time Met. I couldn’t say that before 1975, but now I could.
History would show that I was wrong about Roy Staiger being the one to come up and turn the Mets around. The first Tide from 1975 to roll into New York and create a wave was Vail. Mike Vail. The throw-in from the Heidemann deal. While Jack Heidemann didn’t stick (he was essentially replaced by another utilityman from somewhere else, Mike Phillips), Mike Vail was the real deal. The Mets brought him up in late August and, with this Tide in tow, they started to make their move.
I got really excited right before Labor Day. The Mets were on the verge. We’d be talking 1969, 1973 and 1975, I just knew it. My family went up to the Catskills for the weekend, but I could still get the Mets on WNEW and buy the Post up there. Saturday, after Friday night’s rout of the Dodgers — we scored six in the first, Kingman hit a three-run homer and Matlack won his 16th — the back page headline blared, THE GUNS OF AUGUST.
That put us nine over .500 for the first time all year and I was giddy. I’d tell anybody who cared and several who didn’t how the Mets were going all the way. At the Homowack (what a weird name for a hotel), they made you sit with other people for meals. “Family-style” dining. One of the guys at our table was a man from Quebec named Claude. An Expos fan (poor guy). I was just telling him that Seaver and Matlack are both going to win 20.
Labor Day is September 1. School starts the third. Junior high. I’d rather not think about that. What I’m focused on is the Mets are playing the Pirates at Shea. They’re in first place, five ahead of us.
But this is the game that can turn it all around. Driving home from the Homowack, I’m sitting in the backseat with my transistor. Everything is going the Mets’ way. Seaver is not only winning his 20th game, but he’s struck out 10. That means he’s struck out 200 or more for eight years in a row. From a hurting hip to a live arm. Tom Seaver is healthy and the best pitcher in baseball again.
With Seaver pitching, and Vail homering for the first time and hitting in his eighth straight game and Bud Harrelson off the Disabled List (he always seems to be on it), the Mets win 3-0. Now we’re four back and, clearly, on a roll.
Well, Vail was anyway. He’d go on to hit in 23 consecutive games, a Mets record and a rookie record. And Kingman set a team high for home runs with 36, nudging aside, at last, Frank Thomas from 1962. But that was about it for September. Roy McMillan wasn’t Gil Hodges and 1975 was neither 1969 nor 1973. I kept taking books out of the library about those years and suddenly 1975 felt sadder than I ever thought it would.
It hadn’t occurred to me while it was in progress that THE GUNS OF AUGUST and Labor Day might very well be the high point of the season or that Matlack wouldn’t win another game in 1975 or that the Mets would fall apart down the stretch and finish barely above .500, tied for third. Just because it seemed right that the Mets should win didn’t mean it was going to happen.
When you’re a Mets fan, you grow up believing the improbable isn’t impossible. The only problem is, it’s still improbable.
The year was 1975, 30 years ago.
I was 12.