6: Tuesday, September 23 vs Cubs
Shea Stadium, ladies and gentlemen, has been known as many things through its 45-year life, but one of the most accurate descriptions attached to it is “pitcher’s park,” in deference to its fair dimensions, its symmetry and probably its pitchers in residence. Every Mets pitcher who has succeeded here would be quick to tell you the park was made that much better for pitching by defense.
Pitching and defense…the key ingredients to so many magical Mets moments at Shea Stadium. Though Shea is rightly celebrated for some of the finest pitchers to have toed a rubber anywhere since 1964, tonight we tip our cap to the other part of the equation: to defense, particularly the most memorable defensive plays to unfold right here at Shea.
It is easy enough to be blinded by offense, but defense can mean the difference between winning and losing championships. Consider the great catches that have ensured titles, like the one Willie Mays made at the first home of the Mets, the Polo Grounds, in 1954 when he tracked down one of the longest fly balls imaginable. And consider as well the infamous plays, like the one that took place in the Polo Grounds exactly 100 years ago today.
On September 23, 1908, it was the Chicago Cubs visiting New York, just as it is on September 23, 2008. Then the home team was the Giants. Then leadership for the National League pennant was on the line. Then the winning run seemed to have scored on a two-out, Giant base hit in the ninth — except a young player named Fred Merkle didn’t advance from first to second on the single, a common enough practice at the time. The Cubs’ Johnny Evers got hold of a baseball, stepped on second and convinced the umpires that the game should not be ruled over. Unfathomable controversy ensued with the upshot being the game having to be replayed at the end of the season. The Cubs would beat the Giants for the flag and the legend of Merkle’s Boner — an unfortunate sobriquet — was born.
We digress…perhaps. Let us get on with honoring Shea’s most memorable defensive plays as prelude to removing number 6 as an essential component of the Countdown Like It Oughta Be.
We start in left field with a ball that was surely leaving the ballpark…and with it, most likely, the Mets’ hopes of winning the East. Fate and some airtight execution, however, had something else to say about it. It was September 20, 1973. The batter was Dave Augustine of the first-place Pirates. Richie Zisk was the runner on first. The score was tied at three in the top of the thirteenth inning. Bob Murphy will describe what happened when Augustine swung:
The two-one pitch…hit in the air to left field, it’s deep…back goes Jones, by the fence…it’s hits the TOP of the fence, comes back in play, Jones GRABS it…the relay throw to the plate, THEY MAY GET HIM…HE’S OUT! HE’S OUT AT THE PLATE.
The famous Ball Off The Wall play indeed ended at home when the catcher, a rookie who had started the season at Double-A Memphis, blocked Zisk from scoring and tagged him for the third out. For good measure, that very same rookie catcher came up in the bottom of the thirteenth and drove in the winning run to propel the Mets toward their You Gotta Believe finish in 1973. From that night on, this dependable backstop was a Shea Stadium fixture clear through to 1984. Score it 7-5-2 and welcome back Ron Hodges.
We return to left field for our next play. It is yet another night with everything on the line. The inning is the sixth. The score is tied at one. The runner on first for the St. Louis Cardinals is Jim Edmonds. The batter is Scott Rolen. The setting is the National League Championship Series, the seventh and deciding game. Gary Cohen tells us what happened next:
Perez deals. Fastball hit in the air to left field, that’s deep. Back goes Chavez, back near the wall…leaping…and…HE MADE THE CATCH! HE TOOK A HOME RUN AWAY FROM ROLEN! Trying to get back to first Edmonds…HE’S DOUBLED OFF! AND THE INNING IS OVER! ENDY CHAVEZ SAVED THE DAY! He reached high over the left field wall, right in front of the visitors’ bullpen and pulled back a two-run homer. He went to the apex of his leap and caught it in the webbing of his glove with his elbow up above the fence, a MIRACULOUS play by Endy Chavez, and then Edmonds is doubled off first and Oliver Perez escapes the sixth inning. The play of the year, the play, maybe, of the franchise history for Endy Chavez, the inning is over.
It was as sensational a catch as it was a call and it will live on as long as anyone remembers Shea Stadium. Score it 7-4-2 and say hi to the left fielder who leapt as no one had leapt before, Endy Chavez.
From left we move to centerfield, another postseason, an ultimately happier ending. Let’s listen to Curt Gowdy and Lindsey Nelson describe the indelible highlights of the third game of the 1969 World Series. First with Elrod Hendricks up and two Oriole runners on in the fourth inning:
The count is no balls, two strikes. There’s a drive into deep left-center…racing hard is Agee…WHAT A GRAB! TOM AGEE saves two runs!
Tommie Agee going all the way to track, look at the backhand stab of the glove, and now he’ll have to brake himself with the bare hand on the wall, a lot of white showing, look at that ball!
Boy he just had that one, Lindsey. Standing ovation for Agee as he comes in.
Next with Paul Blair batting and the bases full of Birds in the seventh:
The count is oh and two. And it is a fly ball, it’ll be tough to get to, and Agee is going and Agee…makes a diving catch, he’s out!
This man has possibly saved five runs in this game. Watch it in slow motion. The wind is blowing out now, and Agee twice has clutched this ball in the webbing of his glove, once against Hendricks with two on and two out, this time with the bases loaded and two out, a skidding sprawl and another standing ovation for him when he came in.
Let’s move one day forward and over to right field as long as we’re in 1969. It’s Game Four, the ninth inning of the tensest of World Series thrillers. Tom Seaver is on the mound leading 1-0. Orioles are on first and third, Frank Robinson the lead runner. Brooks Robinson at bat. Hall of Famers are everywhere, when somebody else enters the picture:
And there’s a drive to right-center. Swoboda…comes up with it. The tag at third, here comes Frank Robinson, the game is tied. Ron SWOBODA making another sensational catch for the Mets; Frank Robinson, the old veteran…they’re going to appeal at third that Robinson left too quickly. But Frank Robinson…here is that grab, look at that, Lindsey!
Beautiful catch by Ron Swoboda…
Beautiful catches all around, beautiful month to be a Mets fan, thanks in no small part to two outfielders whose legends were firmly established in that World Series. Score it 8, score it 8 again and score it 9. Tommie Agee indeed saved five runs on two spectacular grabs in the third game and Ron Swoboda dove across the right field wall and held the Orioles in check to allow Seaver to finish the ninth with the game tied at one. It would be won in the tenth and the Series would be secured by the Mets the next afternoon.
To commemorate those three immortal catches from the most Amazin’ week Shea Stadium ever saw, please welcome the wife of the late Tommie Agee, Maxcine Agee and, escorting her to join Ron Hodges and Endy Chavez as they march toward number 6 around in right, Ron Swoboda.
But they will have company.
No retelling of the great plays in Mets history would be complete without this one. We give you Bob Murphy and Gary Thorne, the tenth inning of the sixth game of the 1986 World Series, Mookie Wilson swinging:
And the pitch by Stanley…and a ground ball, trickling…it is a fair ball…GETS BY BUCKNER! Rounding third Knight! The Mets will win the ballgame! The Mets win! They win!
Unbelievable, the Red Sox in stunned disbelief!
Yes, stunned disbelief…everybody was immersed in it in the early hours of October 26, 1986. The Mets were one out — one strike — from elimination, but a never-say-die rally, capped by a play that would be scored E-6 E-3 and go down in unforgettable baseball history with Merkle’s Boner, forestalled elimination, and by Monday night the Mets would be world champions once more.
One man was at the center of the action in Game Six. His moment in the first base spotlight overshadowed an absolutely brilliant career that deserves to be remembered for 2,715 hits, a batting title, an All-Star berth and a track record of hustle that allowed him to persevere as a Major Leaguer from 1969 until 1990, making him one of the few to ever play in four different decades. It is testament to the kind of man he is that he graces us with his presence tonight, aware as he is of the historical significance of what we’re doing as we close Shea Stadium.
Ladies and gentlemen, heading to right from the most memorable defensive play ever in this or maybe any ballpark, number 6 on the 1986 Boston Red Sox himself, Bill Buckner.
Number 7 was revealed here.
Number 5 will be counted down next Monday, June 2.