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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Born Again

Welcome to Flashback Friday: I Saw The Decade End, a milestone-anniversary salute to the New York Mets of 1969, 1979, 1989 and 1999. Each week, we immerse ourselves in or at least touch upon something that transpired within the Metsian realm 40, 30, 20 or 10 years ago. Amazin’ or not, here it comes.

They — 17 writers contributing notes, observations and asides to editors Dick Schaap and Paul Zimmerman, that is — wrote a book about what happened 40 years ago this week. It’s called The Year The Mets Lost Last Place, but its focus is on the middle of July 1969. In fact, it came out before the season was over, so it doesn’t even mention how the whole thing turned out (though a paperback edition does).

What a moment in time. “Nine crucial days,” the book calls them. It starts with July 8, 1969. It was more than the beginning of a series with the Cubs. It was more than the beginning of a chapter. It was, in terms of creating the world in which we live, the big bang.

It was when the Mets were born.

I know what the birth certificate says: April 11, 1962. I acknowledge that and I respect that. The Mets were born then. Seven years and three months later, however, they were born again.

July 8, 1969 is when this franchise experienced a new birth…the rebirth of slick — the Mets, Amazin’ without Casey Stengel’s sarcastic overtones, were cool like dat. Their second time was clearly the charm.

Gone as of July 8, 1969 were all traces of the old Mets. Well, the roster didn’t change in the dead of night, but then again, it didn’t have to. Throughout the first half of 1969, we were only waiting for their moment to arise.

Waiting and winning. Those were the Mets by July 8, 1969, in second, 45-34, 5½ games from first place. Same margin as they are just over 40 years later, come to think of it, but it’s worlds different now. Now there are, generally speaking, expectations. Then when you spoke about the Mets, it was Mets whose birthright was loss and last place. Those Mets shed that unwanted skin in April and May and June of ’69. Those Mets ceased to exist somewhere between Spring Training, when Gil Hodges suggested 85 wins was doable for a team that had never lost fewer than 89, and July 8, when the second-place Mets prepared to host the first-place Cubs.

It was a whole new ballgame.

On “the day the Mets became a contender,” as TYTMLLP put it, the world was ready and waiting. New York sat at the kitchen table with a knife in one hand, a fork in the other and a napkin tied around its neck, hungry for a baseball team like this. A Mets team like this. “Ever since 1965, when they outdrew the Yankees by half a million spectators, the Mets have been the baseball team in New York, and the Yankees have been the other team,” the book said in real time. Problem was the Mets were locally pre-eminent without portfolio. National League baseball was the preferred variety, but what the people really wanted was winning National League baseball, a commodity absent since the heyday of Don Newcombe and Dusty Rhodes. Now they were getting it. “For the first time in at least five years,” TYTMLLP reported, “New Yorkers by the millions were talking baseball.”

Mets baseball. Talking about it, relishing it, mainlining it. The laughs were of the “with us” rather than “at us” nature. Everybody was in on the joke that the Mets were no longer a joke.

Everybody included Joseph Ignac of Elizabeth, 65 and without a team to take seriously since the Giants won in ’54. He took two hours of buses and subways to be first in line at Gate E for a general admission seat the morning of July 8. “As he heads for the park, Ignac is looking forward for the first time to watching his team fight to become a pennant contender.” The boxscore says 55,095 other Mets fans had the same notion that Tuesday afternoon.

Everybody included Jerry Koosman of Minnesota, summering at a rented house near LaGuardia Airport. He stepped into his backyard and was gratified that it would be “a beautiful day for a ball game. Just the way I like it — not too hot, not too cool.” Thirty-seven years later, in the runup to the 2006 playoffs, Matt Yallof of SNY asked Kooz to reflect on what it was like to pitch in New York in October 1969. I always liked pitching in cool weather, Kooz answered literally and practically. Over four decades, whatever the season, Jerry Koosman always kept his cool.

Everybody included Frank Graddock, settled in front of his television in Ridgewood throughout the game, one that commenced at 2:05 PM. The action on Channel 9 was far along by 4 o’clock (this was 1969; nine innings took only 129 minutes), but it wasn’t over. Mrs. Graddock — Margaret — only knew 4 o’clock meant the serial Dark Shadows was coming on Channel 7. Dark Shadows was a huge show then. My sister watched it every afternoon. Frank Graddock’s wife watched it every afternoon. This, however, wasn’t just any afternoon in 1969. There were no VCRs, no DVRs and apparently Frank did not consider radio an option. As TYTMLLP chronicles, a battle over which channel the Graddock TV would be tuned to ensued and it would turn fatal. While the Mets were being reborn, Frank Graddock was drinking. Drinking plenty, apparently.

The Graddocks’ domestic dispute yielded dark shadows of its own. Of course Frank Graddock deserved to be charged, as he would be the next day, with the first-degree murder of his wife. Of course it was a heinous response to something as silly as what would appear on the TV screen. Yet every time I read that Margaret Graddock tried to change the channel from 9 to 7 while the Cubs led 3 to 1…I don’t want to sympathize with Frank, but I can’t help but think Margaret could have stood to have missed a few minutes of Dark Shadows.

Jerry Koosman kept his cool while the passions of the Metropolitan Area heated up: 8 hits, 4 walks but only 3 runs against the most dangerous lineup the N.L. had to offer through 9 innings. Ferguson Jenkins, though, was coolest of all. Cleon Jones reached on an Ernie Banks error in the fourth. Ed Kranepool touched him for a solo home run in the fifth. And that was it. For eight innings, Fergie Jenkins was almost perfect. The Mets trailed by two against a pitcher emerging as one of the best of his generation.

Then they didn’t.

Ken Boswell pinch-hits for Koosman to start the bottom of the ninth and lofts a ball that is catchable in a devil’s triangle among the shortstop Don Kessinger, the second baseman Glenn Beckert and an unaccomplished centerfielder named Don Young. Young would have had it had he seen it. He didn’t. Because Beckert and Kessinger had backpedaled on the ball, no one covered second. Boswell stands there with a gift double.

Tommie Agee fouls out. One out. Donn Clendenon steps up. Donn Clendenon stepped up in mid-June as the righty first baseman Gil Hodges required for his platoon with Kranepool. He’s gotten a slew of big hits since he was traded here from Montreal. Now Donn’s batting for Bobby Pfeil. Clendenon steps up for real: a long shot to left-center. Young’s got this one in the webbing of his glove. Then he doesn’t. He hits the fence and the ball squirts loose. Three months later Agee would make a similar play against the Orioles but hold on ice cream cone style. Nobody could know that on July 8, just as Boswell couldn’t know whether Don would maintain control of Donn’s ball. Ken has to be careful and gets only as far as third on the Clendenon double.

Cleon Jones, one of two Mets baserunners during the first eight innings, is up next. Cleon entered the game batting .354. He’s 0-for-3, including reaching on that earlier error. He will end the day at .352, 1-for-4, because he shoots a liner to left. Don Young has nothing to do with this play on which Boswell, then Clendenon score. It is 3-3. The Mets have tied the Cubs.

Jones on second. Art Shamsky up. Leo Durocher orders an intentional pass. Wayne Garrett, a rookie, grounds to second, a second out that moves the runners up. Durocher could walk the next batter, Kranepool, to face light-hitting J.C. Martin. Martin’s starting because he’s a lefty and Jenkins is a righty. It’s not like Jerry Grote, a righty, is a better option for Gil. It’s not like there’s another Clendenon waiting in the wings. (And it’s not like Leo’s making a call to the bullpen; again, this was 1969.) So Leo tells Fergie to face Ed. Ed Kranepool’s a Met from just after the Mets were born the first time, in 1962. Ed has not distinguished himself across the eight seasons he’s been a Met. Ed isn’t old — he’s 24 — yet he’s already ancient.

But Ed Kranepool did hit a home run off Ferguson Jenkins in the fifth inning, the only hit the Mets had most of Tuesday. He collects their fifth, a bloop single to left that scores Cleon from third. The Mets win 4-3. Ed Kranepool was an eternal disappointment and .227 hitter when the afternoon began. He is a hero when it ends.

Jerry Koosman was the winner, but so were the millions who had invested themselves in his team. Joseph Ignac, 65 of Elizabeth, for example. He had a two-hour trip home on the subway and the bus. He could have flown. “Never once, in his eight seasons of cheering for the Mets,” it was written in The Year The Mets Lost Last Place, “has he felt so good. For the first time, he doesn’t miss Willie Mays quite so much.”

Less than seven hours later, the early edition of the Times is on the streets. “The story of the Mets’ rally is on the front page of the newspaper,” TYTMLLP reports. “The Mets have been on the front page before, but only once for winning a ball game, way back in 1962, when, after nine consecutive defeats, they scored the first victory of their existence.”

That existence was now from another time. The Mets existed on a different plane, in a different context, for different stakes starting July 8. The news was the stuff of the front page of the New York Times, but Don Young didn’t have to wait until eleven that night to read it. He hears it immediately from captain Ron Santo and skipper Leo Durocher. He absorbs the blame for the first-place Cubs losing to the second-place Mets. The Mets are a team coming together. The Cubs are individuals falling apart at the first sign of stress, the first instant they dip from 5½ to 4½ ahead of the team that couldn’t have possibly beaten them but did.

The next night he is benched in favor of an even less proven centerfielder, Jimmy Qualls. The name is instantly familiar 40 years later because Tom Seaver outdoes Ferguson Jenkins from Tuesday, let alone Wednesday’s opposing pitcher Ken Holtzman, on July 9. He’s not almost perfect for eight innings. He is absolutely perfect. The Mets lead 4-0 behind Seaver’s no-hit, no-walk, no-baserunner, 11-strikeout masterwork. Seaver stays perfect for one more batter in the ninth, Randy Hundley (who attempted to bunt his way into infamy but was an easy out at first). It was Qualls, however, who ruined the perfect storyline with a clean single between Cleon Jones in left and Tommie Agee in center. The Mets win anyway. 59,083 are enthralled, energized and enraptured. Amazin’ is once and for all stripped of its sardonicism. The Mets take two of three from the Cubs at Shea. A week later the Mets take two of three more from the Cubs at Wrigley. Much would happen later in the heat of summer and the cool of fall. But that would be for later.

“Now it is 1969,” Mark Mulvoy wrote that July in Sports Illustrated as the dust settled from the Mets’ two series wins over the Cubs, “and in the fairyland of Shea Stadium, the toad has turned into a prince.”

The transformation was official as of July 8. The Mets were reborn as an honest-to-goodness baseball team that was likely beat any other baseball team any day of the week. Nothing would ever be the same. In the short-term, starting with Seaver’s one-hitter on July 9 and fast-forwarding through October 16, 1969, that (save for the fate of the late Margaret Graddock) was all for the best.

Since? All for the best, too, considering you wouldn’t want to rewind to 1962 and its attendant follies but you can only be born so many times. The Mets have fallen and arisen repeatedly these past 40 years, but expectations changed for the Mets that second week of July and they changed forever. The Mets would never get away with losing again. They’d be just like everybody else after 1969.

“It is different now, obviously,” Leonard Shecter reflected once the ride was complete. “Casey Stengel is gone. A pennant has been won, and a world championship. It is a glorious thing, and yet it is somehow sad. For what we feel for the Mets now will never quite be the same as what we felt for them in [their] first two years. We have tasted victory and we shall root not for survival, but for more victory. It was inevitable, we understand now, for this to happen; it’s only that it happened so soon, so swiftly. Still, the Mets are still there (at slightly higher prices) and there is still much joy to take from them.”

Still.

***

The Jimmy Qualls Game received a hellacious callback from Michael Bamberger on si.com this week. Highly recommended reading here. The same can be said for the job Bamberger did in the magazine’s “Where Are They Now?” cover story on the ’69 Mets, which you can link to here but would be better off buying, collecting and keeping. Magazines that go to the trouble of putting Tom Seaver on their cover in 2009 deserve your support.

Another leading actor from 1969, Ron Swoboda, recently gave an Amazin’ interview to The Real Dirty Mets Blog. How appropriate, in that a Shea banner once proclaimed RON SWOBODA IS STRONGER THAN DIRT. You can relive everybody’s contributions every day via Rob Kirkpatrick’s 1969: The Year Everything Changed blog here.

***

MEANWHILE, THIRTY YEARS LATER…

Though it was not the focus of today’s Flashback, I would be remiss if I did not extend Tenth Anniversary salutations to the…

Most

Exciting

Tense

Spectacular

…three hours and forty-seven minutes I ever spent in the Upper Deck of Shea Stadium. Happy birthday to the Matt Franco Game, played to glorious conclusion on this date in 1999. There was much joy to take from the Mets then, too.

***

It would be anything but imperfect if you joined us for the first of Three AMAZIN’ TUESDAYS at Two Boots Tavern on July 21, a Mets night devoted to reading, rooting and Ray Sadecki. Get all the details here. And get your copy of Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or a bookstore near you. Keep in touch and join the discussion on Facebook.

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