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.
One win. That’s all I saw at Shea Stadium in a span of time covering more than six years. One win. Although I would go on to leave Shea with a comfortable lifetime regular-season record of 218-184, and have christened The Log II with a 17-5 start at Citi Field, I am forever haunted by what went on after July 2, 1975 and before August 15, 1981.
Losing. Nothing but losing for the longest time. Then a break. Then more losing.
My record — that is the record of the Mets in games I attended — for the aforementioned period was 1-12.
I went to thirteen games. The Mets lost twelve of them.
How is that even possible? I understand seeing the same lousy team when it’s stuck in a rut and experiencing a string of losses. That happened to me in August and September 2002 when the sinking Mets went 0-6 for me. I understand a poor run of luck in a slightly less compressed time period. That happened to me between June 10, 1994 and July 4, 1995 when the Mets went 0-8 for me. But to show up over the course of six discrete seasons, see no more than three games per year and bat .077?
That’s not Wilson Valdez (.208) bad. That’s not Ramon Martinez (.167) bad. That’s not even Argenis Reyes or Angel Berroa (.118 apiece) bad.
That’s Tim Redding’s batting average thus far in 2009. That’s what being successful once in thirteen attempts is.
I don’t know how Redding has even one base hit and, in retrospect, I don’t know how the Mets won even one game for me back then.
Sure, the Mets were usually the dregs of the National League from the middle of 1976 to the second half of 1981. Chances are if you went to Shea to root for the Mets you weren’t going to go home happy. Their home records in the full seasons bracketed by the first and last loss in the 1-12 skid.
Throw in the 22-19 with which they finished their Shea schedule in 1976 and the 10-18 that comprised the first half of 1981 plus Opening Night II after the strike, and the Mets’ overall home winning percentage while I was racking up my .077 was .425. Processed through the prism of a 162-game schedule, it was as if the @home Mets were a 69-93 club over the course of five or so years.
Which is more or less what the Mets were on the whole in that era. Yet for me, they were, extrapolating my .077 in full-season terms, a 12-150 proposition.
Put another way, every time I went to see the Mets, they were substantially worse than the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. The 1899 Cleveland Spiders compiled a record of 20-134. The 1899 Cleveland Spiders were so bad, there were no 1900 Cleveland Spiders. The National League squashed them like a bug and ended their life at once as if deciding in the 20th century, we’re going to have some standards.
But I didn’t. I was a Mets fan in the late ’70s and early ’80s. As many chances as I had to see the Mets in those junior high and high school days of limited personal autonomy, I was going to go…even if my .077 winning percentage was no match for the 1899 Cleveland Spiders’ home winning percentage of .214.
The Spiders, incidentally, played only 42 home games in 1899 because Clevelanders stayed away en masse and the rest of the N.L. refused to drop by. Spider paid attendance at League Park their final year: 6,088…total.
Makes the 1979 Mets, their 788,905 paying fans and their knack for playing worse at home (28-53) than on the road (35-46) look…well, I was going to say not so bad, but I didn’t live with the frigging 1899 Cleveland Spiders. I’m sure if I had, I would have been out there at League Park, rationalizing away ownership’s sinister syndicate ways (they transferred the good Spiders to the original St. Louis Browns — precursors to the Cardinals — and operated Cleveland as a loss leader) and figuring out how they might make up the 84-game deficit that separated them from the first-place Superbas or maybe just the 35-game gap between them and the old Senators.
But I wasn’t around in 1899. I didn’t need to be. I had the 1979 Mets, hard on the heels of the 1978 Mets, who picked up where the 1977 Mets left off. They weren’t Spiders. They were more like cockroaches. They gave you the creeps but they somehow survived.
And for one day, if only one day, they flourished with me bearing first-hand witness.
They won. The Mets won while I was there.
They didn’t do that for me in 1976 while they were still technically a decent team. They didn’t do that for me in 1977 or 1978 when they were positively indecent but still won on 68 other Shea occasions. They didn’t do it in two previous 1979 shots, they wouldn’t do it when I’d press my 1979 luck one more time and they refused to confirm the Magic as either Back or Real in my first six attempts of the 1980s.
But on July 28, 1979, I went to a Mets game and the Mets won with me physically on their side for the first time since July 2, 1975. Each victory came at the expense of the Cubs, the only National League team in the midst of as relentlessly a crappy half-decade as us.
Perhaps I should have chosen my opponents more carefully.
Not a single Cub that played that Wednesday night in ’75 took the field for Chicago this Saturday afternoon four years later, but familiar names abounded. Mike Vail was their cleanup hitter, long removed from the 23-game hitting streak that once made him a Met rookie heartthrob. Ken Henderson, a Met on a hot streak before injury curtailed his tenure in early ’78, pinch-hit for them. Ken Holtzman, a nemesis from the Leo Durocher days, had returned to the North Side and was their starting pitcher. Jerry Martin, useless Met-to-be, was in center field. Two players for whom postseason infamy had plans — reliever Donnie Moore and first baseman Bill Buckner — also played for the Cubs that day.
But they were all supporting cast to the big little bear of July 28, 1979: David Arthur Kingman.
Dave Kingman played at Shea on July 2, 1975, as a Met. He was in the midst of the first of two-record breaking seasons then, on his way to 36 home runs, topping Frank Thomas’s 1962, at long last, as the Met king of single-season dinging. Kingman would then top himself in 1976 with 37, which didn’t nearly tell the story of how monstrous he’d become. He’d hit his 32nd home run in the Mets’ 92nd game, led the National League by a wide margin in the power department and was on pace to pass Hack Wilson (56) for most homers ever in a Senior Circuit season.
A Met with more home runs than anybody in the history of the National League? As a Met? Impossible. But it was true…or truly in the sights of Dave Kingman, probably the most anomalous Met we’ve ever had.
Dave Kingman was a one-of-a-kind player where the Mets were concerned. It was the case when he arrived in ’75 and it’s the case all these years later.
We never had a slugger like Dave Kingman. We’ve had sluggers of some renown, but not guys you instinctively identified as “sluggers”. Those guys could generally do other things besides hit home runs.
Dave Kingman could do nothing but hit home runs. Dave Kingman could do nothing but slug home runs, rather. Before Dave Kingman, we had just about nobody who slugged anything. We had Frank Thomas in 1962, taking advantage of the Polo Grounds’ Byzantine dimensions. And after Thomas…basically nobody.
Few sluggers, little slugging.
• The second-greatest home run-hitting season in Mets history between 1962 and 1975, after Thomas and before Kingman, was Tommie Agee’s 26 in 1969. Tommie hit 24 more in 1970, but Agee, even at his best, wasn’t a slugger by trade.
• Donn Clendenon, at 35, was a slugger emeritus by the time he played a full Met season in 1970. He hit 22 home runs in 121 games, driving in a team-record 97 runs (the Mets didn’t have RBI men either). Of course Donn did all the slugging he ever really needed to do in ’69.
• Rusty Staub’s power stroke leveled off in New York, topping out at 19 in ’74 (matching it in ’75 when he became the Met to finally break the 100-RBI barrier).
• Ron Swoboda loomed as a slugger when he made the team as a rookie in ’65 but petered out at 19 home runs that very same season.
• John Milner was nicknamed the Hammer but the most hammering he ever did was 23 homers in ’73.
• All-time homer-hammerers Duke Snider and Willie Mays put a few over the wall as Mets, but they were here mostly to doff their caps to better times and greater exploits.
• Journeyman thumpers like Dick Stuart passed through, but Stuart, four homers in 31 games, was all thumped out (and all thumbs on top of that) by the time he became and stopped being a Met in 1966.
No wonder Dave Kingman seemed so exotic in the spring of 1975 when acquired from the Giants for cash. We knew him from his San Francisco days. The book on Kingman was he could hit home runs. Many home runs. Long home runs. High home runs. They soared. They scraped the heavens. They landed far away and broke bus windshields on the way down.
We never had anybody remotely like Dave Kingman, a remote fellow from all accounts. Jack Lang told the story of sharing a five-hour car ride across Florida with Kingman, an amiable trip, lots of chatting, friendly enough. Next day, Jack said hi. Dave just kept walking.
At the bat, he just kept swinging. Not much contact. More strikeouts than hits in 1975 and again in 1976. Played four positions, none of them adequately. It was in left field where his chase of Hack Wilson effectively ended. He tried to catch a fly ball. His body reacted badly, putting him on the shelf for almost six weeks. Within a year, he’d be gone via a contract dispute that got lost in the shuffle as the Mets were busy antagonizing Tom Seaver. Both the Franchise and the slugger were dispatched on the same ugly night.
Seaver remained the Franchise even in exile. Kingman, a boobird target by early 1977 (the strikeouts piled up, the homer slowed, the bad press mounted), morphed into a villain. As he toured the big leagues — Met to Padre to Angel to Yankee (!) in 1977 to Cub in 1978 — he was no longer Our Slugger. He had left us light in the Nikes, so to speak. No Met was hitting 32 home runs by the third week of July anymore. No Met was hitting 20 home runs in the course of 162 games. No Met was making us drop whatever we were doing on the chance that he might change the game or at least the weather.
Dave Kingman hit .231 in 1975, .238 in 1976 and .209 before June 15 in 1977. He struck out 354 times in 1,281 plate appearances, more than once every four times up. He rarely walked. He couldn’t play left. He couldn’t play right. He couldn’t play first. He couldn’t play third even worse. He did lead the Mets in stolen bases in 1975, but with 7, which mostly reflects on how little the Mets ran and succeeded in those days…and he was caught stealing five times. He was described as moody, sullen and difficult and made a case on his own behalf less and less, eventually shutting out reporters altogether. He made it clear he didn’t like being called Kong (Sky King was OK) and he didn’t like to be thought of as a home run hitter.
But he was thought of as a home run hitter. He was the archetype home run hitter. His home runs captured our fancy as few Mets’ home runs ever have. If you swung for the fences in the schoolyards of the Metropolitan Area, you were accused of trying to be a Dave Kingman, as if it were a crime. Only if you succeeded was it a badge of honor.
There was honor in being Dave Kingman. Not a lot of it, but enough of it. The right kind. The only kind. He was a slugger. He was a Mets slugger before slugging could be suspected of chemical enhancement
He was the Mets slugger when we were crying out for one. Dave Kingman will always mean that much to us
On July 28, 1979, in the midst of his one all-around great season (48-115-.288, leading the N.L. in something we didn’t know about yet called OPS), he didn’t mean much more than a threat to our happiness. When he was announced as playing left and batting fifth for the visiting Chicago Cubs, he was booed. When he came up for the second time that day, with one out and nobody on in the top of the fourth, he was booed. When he launched his 33rd home run of the season, he was booed. when he came up again in the sixth, two out, none on and blasted his second home run of the day off starter Pete Falcone, he was booed again. And he when he stepped in against Neil Allen in the same situation in the eighth and did the same thing…
He was applauded respectfully as he rounded the bases for the third time that afternoon.
We could be gracious. We were still ahead 6-4. John Stearns — the only other player on the field who had been part of the action on July 2, 1975 — had earlier hit a two-run homer. Lee Mazzilli, a couple of weeks removed from his All-Star heroics, had done the same. Frank Taveras set a team record with three stolen bases in one game (or 43% of the Mets’ team-leading total for all of ’75). And Neil Allen was en route to recording the first save of his major league career. So of course we could applaud some and cheer some and marvel some.
We just saw Dave Kingman hit three solo home runs in one day at Shea Stadium. It wasn’t as a Met, but he had been a Met. And the Mets won for the 42nd time in 97 attempts in 1979. Me? I could go home happier than I’d been or would be in a very long time.
How could you not appreciate that?