Welcome to The Happiest Recap, a solid gold slate of New York Mets games culled from every schedule the Mets have ever played en route to this, their fiftieth year in baseball. We’ve created a dream season consisting of the “best” 22nd game in any Mets season, the “best” 23rd game in any Mets season, the “best” 24th game in any Mets season…and we keep going from there until we have a completed schedule worthy of Bob Murphy coming back with the Happy Recap after this word from our sponsor on the WFAN Mets Radio Network.
GAME 022: May 9, 1967 — METS 3 Reds 2 (11)
(Mets All-Time Game 022 Record: 27-24; Mets 1967 Record: 9-13)
The distance that got everybody’s attention when it was over was the distance from home plate to somewhere past the 371-foot mark on the left field fence at Shea Stadium. That’s how far Tommy Davis’s eleventh-inning, game-winning homer off Cincinnati reliever Mel Queen traveled, thereby allowing the Mets to beat the Reds 3-2 on a Tuesday night in 1967. Also of interest was how far Davis had come in the previous four years.
Tommy Davis was one of baseball’s best players as a Dodger in 1962 and 1963. He was darn near the MVP of the National League in ’62 when he drove in 153 runs, and won batting titles in both seasons. Then things took a downward turn as Davis endured a broken ankle, a dislocated leg and a reduced role in Los Angeles. In the 1966-67 offseason, the Dodgers sent the Brooklyn native back home, or one borough over. A fresh start awaited Tommy in Queens, and he was happy with what he was experiencing in the early going.
“This,” he said after his walkoff clout, “is the first time I’ve had anything to cheer about since 1963.”
If the heartwarming ending — and the transcontinental journey — belonged to Davis, something else about distance needed to be said for that night’s winning pitcher. The Mets’ Jack Fisher kept his team in the game the entire game…all eleven innings of it. Jack gave up two runs (one earned), six hits, three walks and struck out five. But the most impressive thing about his line was his IP. He pitched a complete game victory.
Fisher didn’t come out in the eighth even after pinch-runner Dick Simpson, inserted for Reds pinch-hitter Art Shamsky, scored the tying run on a John Sullivan passed ball. Wes Westrum left Jack in to pitch a 1-2-3 ninth as well as a tenth that saw him give up a leadoff single to Leo Cardenas but then erase it on a ground ball double play. When the Mets got runners on first and second with nobody out in the bottom of the tenth, Westrum sent Fisher to the plate to bunt them over. The strategy didn’t work to perfection (lead runner Tommie Reynolds was gunned down at third) and the Mets didn’t score, but Jack went back to the mound to pitch the eleventh. He gave up a leadoff single to Vada Pinson, but then induced three consecutive fly balls from Pete Rose, Tony Perez and Lee May. Center fielder Cleon Jones snagged them all.
One starting pitcher; eleven innings. Unimaginable today, isn’t it?
Yet it wasn’t unprecedented in Mets history to that point. Six times a Met starter had gone at least (at least!) that long in a game. The most recent incidence took place exactly a week earlier, and it was committed by the very same Jack Fisher, who went 11⅔ against the Giants. Unfortunately, Fisher (known maybe not entirely endearingly as Fat Jack) threw his last pitch to Willie Mays, which Mays belted for an RBI single, causing Westrum to remove Fisher in favor of reliever Don Shaw (who retired Willie McCovey and vultured the win when the Mets scored twice in the bottom of the twelfth).
But against the Reds — with a mighty assist from Davis — Fisher accomplished something no Met pitcher had done before: win an eleven-inning start. Jack’s 3-2 victory over the Reds set a record for the longest complete game win in Mets history, and it’s never been exceeded. Bob Shaw managed to match the feat a month later, and though there would be nine starts of that length or longer between 1968 and 1983 (including four by Tom Seaver and three by Jerry Koosman), no Met starter has won a complete game of such impressive distance since 1967.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On May 14, 1966, the Mets had their hitting shoes on, but they forgot to plug them in…in other words, no power. But no problem! The Mets unleashed on the Giants at Shea a Saturday barrage of singles: 17 of them. Cleon Jones, Ron Hunt and John Stephenson produced three apiece. Nine different players, including starting pitcher Jack Fisher, recorded at least one single. But nobody doubled, tripled or homered. Singles, however, were all the Mets needed to construct their 11-4 romp. Two San Francisco errors, four walks by Giant pitchers, a Ron Herbel wild pitch and a couple of Eddie Bressoud sacrifice bunts didn’t hurt, either. Seventeen hits of exclusively the single-base variety added up to a team record for, shall we say, the most successful power outage in Met history. It’s a singular mark that’s been equaled only once, in a 1982 6-3 Mets win over the Dodgers.
GAME 023: April 26, 2002 — METS 1 Brewers 0
(Mets All-Time Game 023 Record: 30-21; Mets 2002 Record: 13-10)
Impressions can form early in a season. Sometimes they grow indelible. Sometimes they are subject to revision. Consider the case of a Mets starter who made a fantastic April impression that would be obliterated by what he didn’t do come June.
You could say something similar of the 2002 Mets, who looked much better before anybody got to examine them very closely, but that’s a broader story of hope and disappointment. For now, we’re thinking about southpaw Shawn Estes and what, if one were to judge by results, should have gone down as his signature Met start.
Estes was a veteran of some standing in the National League and not an altogether unfamiliar presence to Mets fans when he came over in a December 2001 trade with the Giants in exchange for Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Desi Relaford. He was, in fact, San Francisco’s Game Two starter against Al Leiter in the 2000 Division Series. But to Mets fans, he was still mostly a stranger, with all of four Met starts (none of them extraordinary) under his belt entering a Friday night tilt against a far more recognizable face, that belonging to Brewers starter Glendon Rusch. Rusch had been a mainstay of the 2000 National League champions but had been — along with close to half of the 2001 Met roster — purged by GM Steve Phillips in an offseason housecleaning of epic proportions.
These two generally unremarkable starters put on quite a show at Shea. A leadoff single by Roberto Alomar, a two-out second-inning solo home run by Jay Payton and a fourth-inning single by Edgardo Alfonzo were all the hits Rusch would allow. Those and two walks were the extent of the damage the Mets would inflict on their former mate (though, actually, only four Mets that night had played alongside Glendon).
Estes, however, outdid Rusch. He outdid everybody from Milwaukee. Eighteen Brewers came to bat in the first six innings and none of them reached base. The only one who came fairly close was catcher Raul Casanova, who struck a ball off the pitcher’s foot. When it had the good Met fortune to bounce to first baseman Mo Vaughn and Vaughn tagged the plodding Casanova (“it was like two trains,” Raul said later of his and Mo’s “race” to first), the nearly 38,000 in attendance had the sense that maybe they’d lucked into something incredibly special.
Shawn Estes was pitching a perfect game.
Then, as fickle Met luck would have it, he wasn’t. Milwaukee’s leadoff batter, Eric Young — a New Jerseyean who had watched the Mets from Shea’s upper deck in his youth — started the seventh by lining the cleanest of singles to left. So much for the ultimate great game, but Shawn did not let down. Still protecting a slim 1-0 lead, he retired Ronnie Belliard on a fly to Payton in deep center before Vance Wilson threw out Young trying to steal second. When he struck out Jeffrey Hammonds to end the seventh, Estes was pitching a pretty nifty one-hitter.
And that it would remain. The only other blemish on Estes’s mark that night would be a two-out walk to Jose Hernandez in the eighth. He finished with a complete game, one-hit, 1-0 victory over Rusch, who also went the distance in recording his three-hitter loss. The dual CGs were a rarity unto themselves, as it was the first time since 1997 that a Met had engaged in such a duel (and it’s only happened twice since then). Time of game was a swift 1:53, making it the last nine-inning affair the Mets won in under two hours.
To put Estes’s eight-strikeout gem in a little more perspective, his Game Score — a Bill James invention intended to measure just how effective a starting pitcher is in a given assignment — was 92, the highest by any Met in 2002 and the best performance from any Met starter since 1999. That 92 has been matched twice since Estes, but it hasn’t been topped.
“It doesn’t get any better than that,” manager Bobby Valentine said of Estes’s brush with Met immortality, before amending his review. “It gets one pitch better than that, maybe.”
No-hitter flirtation remained in the air, as the next day Pedro Astacio, another of Phillips’s offseason imports, took a no-no bid of his own into the seventh. The Mets would win that game and thrust themselves into first place, a position they held off and on in 2002 until the end of May. By mid-June, though, they were slipping under .500 and from contention, as the promise associated with the revamped ’02 Mets faded quickly. It was then, against the Yankees and Roger Clemens, that Estes pitched the game for which most Mets fans recall him. But that, too, is a broader story of hope and disappointment…to say nothing of hits and misses.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On May 4, 1991, the Mets trailed the Giants 4-2 to start the bottom of the ninth when Buddy Harrelson went to his bench. Boy did his bench respond. First, he sent Mackey Sasser up to pinch-hit for Charlie O’Brien against San Francisco closer Jeff Brantley. Sasser launched Brantley’s fourth pitch over Shea’s right field fence to bring the Mets to within a run. Next, Harrleson called on Mark Carreon to swing for pitcher Alejandro Peña. Swing he did — connecting for a homer to left. The back-to-back cameo clouts tied the game at four and sent it toward extra innings. The teams played until the twelfth that Saturday afternoon when, with Rick Cerone on first, Howard Johnson, a mundane regular in Buddy’s lineup, whacked a two-out pitch from Mike LaCoss over the blue fence in right-center, producing a power-packed 6-4 Mets win.
GAME 024: May 14, 1972 — METS 5 Giants 4
(Mets All-Time Game 024 Record: 22-29; Mets 1972 Record: 17-7)
If Willie Mays had spent nearly fifteen seasons in California exile as a Los Angeles Dodger rather than a San Francisco Giant, then perhaps a Hollywood ending would have been scripted when Mays came home to New York in 1972 to play his old team. Yes, that’s it — Willie would have won the big game by lashing a home run with two out in the bottom of the ninth to beat Dem Bums he used to call his own.
But that would’ve been too much and too obvious. Willie merely coming home, a decade-and-a-half after being swept up by the westbound Giants, and donning a uniform representing the New York (N.L.) franchise that took their place…that was the drama right there. Anything else would have been too Hollywood, and goodness knows sophisticates connected to New York — and San Francisco, for what that’s worth — would turn up their noses at such obvious audience pandering.
We had Willie Mays as a New York Met all of a sudden. It was at first a mirage. How could it be? How could Jack Lang’s scoop in the Long Island Press be more than a crazy rumor? How could the Post’s big block, four-inch type headline — MAYS A MET — be 100% accurate? How could the best player in all of baseball for so long, if not so much anymore, have wound up on the Metsies?
It made sense on paper. The Giants owner needed someone else to pay Mays’s freight and the Mets’ owner maintained a special interest in doing so. It also clicked in the souls of former New York Giants loyalists like Village Voice writer Joe Flaherty, for whom “no matter how Amazin’ the Mets were, a part of our hearts was in San Francisco.” Restoring Mays to the city where it all started was, Flaherty wrote, “a lover’s reprieve from limbo”.
Hence, Horace Stoneham and Joan Payson made a deal. The Giants would get a serviceable pitcher named Charlie Williams and a bulging envelope of cash. The Mets would get Willie Mays — the very same Willie Mays who was a New York Giant from 1951 through 1957, back when the very same Mrs. Payson was a minority owner of those very same New York Giants.
Little was very same as it ever was by 1972, but Mays as a Met was no mirage. He was a vision. A very real vision, wearing a New York (N.L.) home uniform again, sporting that trademark 24 on its front and back (courtesy of Jim Beauchamp, who graciously and immediately switched to 5) and, once all was official and relatively comfortable, inked in as the Mets’ first baseman and leadoff hitter versus the…oh yes, San Francisco Giants on an overcast Mother’s Day afternoon at Shea Stadium.
If any mother ever knew how to land herself the perfect gift, it was Met matriarch Joan Payson.
“We have always wanted Willie Mays ever since the Mets were formed,” board chairman M. Donald Grant said in announcing the most instantly celebrated midseason acquisition in Mets history. “We repeatedly have advised Horace Stoneham of our desires. Our offers have been constant and continuous.”
Mrs. Payson may have finally gotten her man, but was Mays the perfect fit on those 1972 Mets? Could a 41-year-old part-time center fielder, part-time first baseman and full-time legend possibly be? Mays may have been viewed as a godsend to the nostalgically inclined fans of New York, but new manager Yogi Berra could be forgiven for thinking he’d just come down with Excedrin Headache No. 24. This was no spare part, no mere savvy veteran who might pinch-hit here, fill in there and, as Tom Seaver put it hopefully, “be of tremendous help to us”. This was Willie Mays. Yogi Berra was a legend, too, yet his luminescence couldn’t hold a candle to the Say Hey Kid’s…no matter that said Hey Kid had clearly aged and was batting .184 at the time of the trade.
“On a purely physical basis,” a skeptical Joe Gergen wrote in Newsday, “the acquisition of Mays should represent an addition. But the entire transaction was conducted in an unreal atmosphere. Emotions surrounding the move were overwhelming.”
Whatever conflict might arise from carrying Mays on the roster wasn’t the main thing on anybody’s mind that meteorologically cloudy but spiritually bright Sunday. All anybody saw was MAYS on the Mets’ lineup card and Willie as he appeared in the mind’s eye from all those seasons before — before his inevitable decline, before he burnished the Golden Gate, before there were Mets, when there used to be a ballpark right there at Eighth Avenue and 157th Street in Manhattan.
The Polo Grounds was gone, but Willie Mays was here…No. 24 about to play in the Mets’ 24th game of the year. It couldn’t get a whole lot better.
Yet it did anyway.
Willie leading off the bottom of the first elicited a standing ovation from the paid crowd of 35,505. They were thrilled to see him standing there, they were even happier when Willie worked out a walk against San Francisco starter Sam McDowell. Bases on balls to Buddy Harrelson and Tommie Agee followed, setting the stage for Rusty Staub (no insignificant recent acquisition himself) to slam McDowell for a four-run homer. The smiles in the stands as Mays crossed the plate with his first New York (N.L.) run since September 21, 1957, made the day seem that much less rainy.
Mays had returned. He had scored. What more could be asked of him?
How about carrying his new team to victory against his old team? It didn’t appear that would be necessary, never mind physically possible, but the Maysless Giants fought back against Met starter Ray Sadecki in the top of the fifth. A Fran Healy walk, a Bernie Williams triple, a Chris Speier double and a Tito Fuentes home run transpired in uninterrupted fashion. Just like that, Staub’s granny had been neutralized, and the Mets and Giants were tied at four going to the bottom of the fifth.
The Mets didn’t need what Mays represented. They needed what Mays could do. And leading off against San Fran reliever Don Carrithers, he did it. On a 3-2 pitch, Mays swung and not so much turned the clock back but set atlases everywhere straight. Willie Mays, New York’s favorite ballplaying son, put the New York Mets ahead 5-4 with a home run to left-center. Willie Mays and New York were synonymous once more.
“It’s a good thing Shea Stadium is made of steel and concrete,” offered Lang in the Sporting News, for the wet and wild Mets fans who were rubbing their eyes in joyous disbelief would otherwise “have ripped the place apart with their enthusiasm.”
A Willie Mays home run to beat the Giants in his first game as a Met in the bottom of the ninth inning would have indeed been too Hollywood. But the fifth? Just the right climax for Off Broadway.
The denouement was, per Flaherty, “the simple tension of watching Jim McAndrew in relief hold the Giants for four innings,” which the righty did. Staub’s grand slam and Mays’s emotional blast stood up to account for all the runs required for a 5-4 win. It was the third in a row for the first-place Mets and the third of an eventual eleven consecutive triumphs, tying the club record set in 1969, back when Mays was still stranded in San Francisco.
Not that Mays didn’t have that kind of magical year on his mind as he circled the bases after hitting the 647th home run of his storied career. “My first hit as a Giant was a homer,” the man of the hour said. “We won the pennant that year, in 1951. My first hit as a Met was a homer. I felt that maybe we’d win the pennant this year. That’s what I was thinking.”
The Mets win the pennant? The Mets win the pennant? The Mets won Willie Mays. Please — one unbelievable ending at a time.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On May 12, 1962, the Mets were bent on stunning the Milwaukee Braves and their fans, in no particular order. After coming from behind in the first game of a Saturday doubleheader at the Polo Grounds — when Hobie Landrith tagged Warren Spahn for a two-out, two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth for a 3-2 Mets win — the expansioneers set out for their first-ever twinbill sweep in the nightcap. It wouldn’t be easy, as a back-and-forth affair ensued, tilting in the Braves’ favor by the top of the eighth when Milwaukee grabbed a 7-6 lead (four of their runs had been driven in by Hammerin’ Hank Aaron). But these Mets weren’t about to let their big chance go by the boards. In the bottom of the eighth, Elio Chacon singled home Rod Kanehl from second base for the tying run, and in the bottom of the ninth, with one out, none other than old Dodger hero Gil Hodges hit the day’s second walkoff home run. The Mets won 8-7, nailing their first doubleheader sweep and making a winner out of reliever Craig Anderson twice in the same day. He was the winning pitcher in both games, a distinction that would be earned by only two other Met pitchers over the next half-century.