If you’re still trying to make sense out of a senseless act thirty years after the fact, then it’s Flashback Friday at Faith and Fear in Flushing.
The Mets seem to be mired in utter disarray as we speak, losers of five in a row, nine of their last ten, all four of their most recent series, each against a quality contender. They couldn’t be playing any worse. And they couldn’t be playing anybody hotter than the Yankees, three games this weekend, at Yankee Stadium.
It sounds like hell. Yet I can handle it standing on my head.
I can handle a whole host of Met hell because I’ve lived through the ultimate Mets detonator. I lived through the blowing up and immolation of the New York Mets. I lived through June 15, 1977. I was in the house when the house burned down.
I stuck around and waited for contractors to show up and start rebuilding. Not everybody did. Many fled to higher ground. Those who would define their interest in a baseball team as some kind of leisure activity related they saw fit to wash their hands of the whole mess. Why would I want to devote myself to a pastime that would make me miserable? these souls asked. They got out of baseball, certainly out of the Mets. Those who stayed with baseball and not the Mets? They will have their own Hell to deal with eventually.
Oh them of little faith and virtually no character. Silly ex-fans. Mets are for life.
Thus here I am, exactly thirty years later, alive and willing to recall the grisly particulars. So do me a favor and try not to use phrases like “I’m out on the ledge” near me to illustrate your displeasure with something as pedestrian as a five-game losing streak or an unfavorable upcoming schedule. Losing five is nothing. Losing 41 was everything.
Thing is we knew this was coming. This was in the air for a long time. In the very last edition of The Long Island Press, on March 25, 1977, Jack Lang reported it was inexorably en route:
Contrary to their denials, the Mets have promised Tom Seaver they will trade him if they can work out an equitable deal, The Press learned today.
The Press died the next day. But the talk of a deal lived on. Lang’s exclusive was the Mets would send Seaver to the Dodgers. That didn’t happen. But it was out there. The idea that our best player ever — then as now — could be swapped mainly out of management pique did not materialize without notice.
If you can ever be prepared for your one and only baseball hero to be sent somewhere else, you could have seen this coming. The ’70s in general and free agency in particular had stripped us of our native innocence. We were a cynical lot, we adolescents of 1977. Never mind Vietnam and Watergate (though those didn’t help). Sports had become a big, nasty business on our watch. If you were barely old enough to remember 1969, you were plenty old enough to have witnessed intense labor strife in and around the seasons that followed: strikes threatened, games cancelled, dynasties dismantled, contracts voided, options played out, clauses no longer reserved, checkbooks brandished, superstars dispatched over money, uniforms exchanged with alarming suddenness.
The Oakland A’s were no more, not really, by 1977. It wasn’t that I was an A’s fan. I wasn’t. But this was the dynasty of our age. This was the defending world champion we took to seven games in 1973 and felt little shame over losing to because they were the finest conglomeration of pitching, hitting, running, fielding and moxie we’d ever see operate over an extended period. But the A’s, the Swingin’ A’s who grew mustaches and challenged penurious authority, scattered to the four corners of the baseball map by ’77. Catfish Hunter got out on a technicality. Reggie Jackson wouldn’t sign so he was sent to Baltimore. Vida Blue, Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers were sold to deep pockets, albeit temporarily when the commissioner ordered Charlie Finley to cut it out. Didn’t matter. Free agency took care of just about every Athletic still in Oakland after 1976.
If the perennial champion A’s could go every which way but on, what was the likelihood that a perpetually middling 83-79 type outfit like the Mets would be immune forever? Money and player freedom and the possibility of more money were three elements that eluded the understanding of Mets management by 1977. It was their misfortune to employ the greatest pitcher of his era, one who could command compensation every bit as handsome as he appeared on all those Mets yearbook covers.
Tom Seaver wanted the Mets to spend more money. Some on him. Some on his team. The Mets were going to do no such thing. They didn’t care for the idea of this ingrate not appreciating that they had lowballed him before free agency took hold. They didn’t think much of Tom Seaver’s 182 wins between 1967 and 1976, his three Cy Youngs, his strikeout and ERA titles, his role in leading one miracle team to a world championship and another to the cusp of a second.
At least that’s how it seemed from here. I was probably more accepting of the idea of Tom Seaver being traded in the days leading up to June 15, 1977 than I am now. It makes no sense now. It made…well, it didn’t make any sense then either, but you understood it. No, actually you didn’t understand it, but you got it. At the very least you saw it coming.
It was everywhere. It was, sadly, all that was keeping anybody’s attention on the Mets in the spring of ’77. It is perhaps forgotten that prior to trading Tom Seaver to Cincinnati and similarly embroiled Dave Kingman to San Diego and, for weird measure, Mike Phillips to St. Louis on June 15, the Mets were not exactly Camelot.
1977, based on April and May, was already the first godawful year I experienced as a Mets fan. They lost 91 games in ’74, but there were injuries (the Mets were always injured in the ’70s) and residual goodwill from ’73 and, quite frankly, I kind of zoned out that summer. 1977 was way worse. Last place was achieved May 4 and maintained steadily thereafter. Make no mistake: We would finish last without Seaver and Kingman and Phillips but we would have likely finished last with them.
Would have been nice if we could have found out.
There was no goodwill to be had that grim spring, no equity allowing anybody the moral standing to tell anybody else they gotta believe. Since 1974 we had watched Tug McGraw, then Cleon Jones, then Rusty Staub marched beyond our borders. We saw Yogi Berra take the fall in ’75 despite putting his team and his legend over the top two years earlier. Against that backdrop, what chance did Cobra Joe Frazier have?
The manager who eventually succeeded Berra was offed before his second May in the job was over, removed from office after a 15-30 start despite bringing home a pretty decent 86-76 finish the year before. It was inevitable with Frazier, and not just because he had no relevant Major League experience and not just because by comparison Art Howe really did light up a room. Nobody’s head was safe by 1977. It was shocking when Yogi was axed because he was Yogi. It was more shocking that Frazier was ever hired. There wasn’t anything surprising about his no longer managing the Mets.
Under player-manager Joe Torre (sure, why not?), the Mets briefly righted their ship, winning seven of eight into early June. That made the Mets 22-31. Alas, they were still the ’77 Mets. Swift Lenny Randle punched out Frank Lucchesi in Texas (is it any wonder we were cynical?) and wound up our third baseman. He was having a good season. And Seaver raced to his usual sublime start, racking up seven wins in his first ten decisions…his last ten decisions of local consequence, it would turn out. I don’t remember anybody else on that roster excelling.
Unraveling in the shadows of Seaver’s staredown with M. Donald Grant and Grant mouthpiece Dick Young was the Met tenure of Dave Kingman. Kingman was not Seaver. Seaver was homegrown. Kingman was purchased from San Francisco when Horace Stoneham was broke and drunk. Seaver was as well-rounded a pitcher as one could imagine. Kingman was a one-trick pony. But, oh, that trick. Whereas Seaver’s craft became what the Mets would be known for, Kingman’s single skill — the ability to occasionally launch majestic, awesome, cloudburst home runs — was an anomaly. But what a delicious anomaly on a team forever starved for power or offense of any kind. Yeah, Kingman struck out when he wasn’t homering (he left town at .209) and didn’t exactly take extra fielding practice and maybe never finished in the top percentile of his charm school class, but he was Dave Kingman. In the schoolyards of 1977 New York, Dave Kingman equaled slugger. You swing for the fences? Who do you think you are…Dave Kingman?
The Mets couldn’t afford to lose anybody who was identified with anything positive, but now zero hour was at hand. SkyKing was relatively small potatoes, no matter how tall he stood. Seaver was The Franchise, the best nickname ever assigned any Met, maybe anybody. Tom Terrific wasn’t bad either. His mind was supple, his motion was exquisite. Just by going to the mound every five days he taught a generation to pitch.
But who needed to make every effort to hold on to that? Not the Mets of M. Donald Grant and Dick Young. They were content to chase Seaver far from New York and, if the dust pulled Kingman along, that’s fine. We’re the New York Mets. We won two pennants when nobody thought we could. We had a good record in August and September last year. Who needs an All-Star slugger and a Cy Young winner?
This is the publicly articulated front-office thinking we as 14-year-old-or-thereabout Mets fans were up against as the clock neared midnight on June 15, 1977 and as I woke up for school the next morning to collect the bloody details of the instantly dubbed Wednesday Night Massacre from the radio. It may has well have been an assassination bulletin. M. Donald Grant murdered our team.
A friend and contemporary suggested to me the other day that it was the end of our childhoods. Maybe. I guess. Childhood was no age of innocence if you were paying attention to the front or back pages back then. Like I said, the realpolitik of baseball — undeniably business every bit as much as game for the previous half-decade — was in evidence everywhere. Norman Rockwell was clearly done for.
But Tom Seaver not a Met? Adults took that one pretty hard. Roger Angell: Tom Seaver is gone — no longer a Met, no longer a sunlit prominence in this flattened city of New York. Indeed, what was the point of having the Mets if you weren’t going to have Tom Seaver be one of them? Seaver was angry with Grant and pretty satisfied to be joining the two-time titleholding Reds (I just assumed his presence would mean a resumption of their dominance and that their Big lumber-fueled Machine would assure him of 25 or 30 wins per annum), yet he wasn’t smiling. He cried. Nancy cried. It was on the front page of the Post. My sister had just begun an internship with an advertising agency that had Bausch & Lomb as an account. She clipped the pictures of them dabbing their eyes and mocked up an ad for soft contact lenses to show around the office. She was just being clever, but she picked the wrong week to start mocking Tom Seaver.
We were in the toilet already for ’77. Seaver could pitch his heart out, Kingman could connect on a semi-regular basis, Mike Phillips could do whatever it was that Mike Phillips might have done and we were going to have a tough time topping Montreal for fifth. We were in the toilet, but we should have all gone down together. And who knows? There was always 1978.
At least there would have been. The Mets were over for years to come. Seaver was as Red as they got. On Saturday the 18th, he appeared as if from out of a nightmare on the dingy mound at Olympic Stadium in Cincinnati grays, shutting down the Expos on the Game of the Week. NBC rounded up Marv Albert and Art Shamsky to broadcast. Two New Yorkers announcing that two days after wiping his eyes dry, the quintessential Met had thrown a three-hit, eight-strikeout complete game shutout. You couldn’t not look at Tom Seaver, whatever uniform he wore to work, and not see the Met within. I thought he deserved to have Bench, Rose, Morgan and Foster at his disposal. With hindsight, I thought wrong. Tom Seaver never, ever should have been let go.
What a pity. What a tragedy. Nobody died is the best I can say about it.
Ladies and gentlemen, Queens grew quiet. Again, what was the point? Except for the odd Jacket Day, plenty of good seats became available. The Mets, the locus of New York’s baseball coverage as recently as 1975 and still considered a contending entity as late as March, fell off the face of the city. There was a better chance the lights would go out for 24 hours than there was that you could spot bright faces congregating at Shea Stadium. The action had moved to another borough and would remain there well into the 1980s.
But like I said, I lived through it. Gritted my teeth and lived through it. Sucked it up and lived through it. The house wouldn’t be rebuilt for an eternity, but I hung in. I never stopped idolizing Tom Seaver but I never stopped rooting for his old team, my continuing team. The names were suddenly unfamiliar and the mix wasn’t particularly promising. To paraphrase from a General Washington dispatch dramatized in 1776, I began to notice that many of the Mets were lads under 25 and old men, none of whom could truly be called ballplayers. “Bring Your Kids to See Our Kids” was the Mets’ pitch. Without Seaver, pitching was the last thing they should have tried.
But I was a Mets fan. I couldn’t be one of those people who switched allegiances or swore off this habit. What was I going to do — stare out the window and wait for death? I was 14, but I was fully made. And unlike Tug and Cleon and Rusty and Yogi and Tom and Dave and Mike, made fans never leave the life.
I didn’t care for Tom Seaver’s absence, what it represented as regarded the immediate prospects of my team and how little it indicated management cared about its product or its customers. That Jack Lang story in The Press said the Mets thought they had a shot at Don Sutton. A thorough 30-year retrospective by Brian Costello uncovered Torre’s recollection that future Dodger star Pedro Guerrero was waiting in the wings. Instead Grant and Joe McDonald took the 99-cent store approach to rebuilding: quantity, quantity, quantity, quantity…and so cheap!
I came to pull for Steve Henderson, Doug Flynn, Pat Zachry and Dan Norman in short order. But I never should have had to.
Next Friday: Mighty Casey’s last at-bat.