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” 34th game in any Mets season, the “best” 35th game in any Mets season, the “best” 36th 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 034: May 11, 1996 — METS 7 Cubs 6
(Mets All-Time Game 034 Record: 22-29; Mets 1996 Record: 15-19)
What if they threw a day for you and then threw you out? That doesn’t sound very hospitable.
In a way, all of John Franco Day was backwards. The Mets’ longtime closer was being honored before a game for what he did at the end of games, for saving them 300 times. True, almost half had been in the service of the Cincinnati Reds, but Johnny was a Brooklyn boy and had wrapped himself effectively in the colors of his childhood team since coming home to pitch for them six years earlier. Thus, when he closed out the Expos on April 29 to reach his milestone save total, the Mets wanted to do something special for Franco.
It all looked pretty standard pre-game on his sunny Saturday. That’s when John made his uncharacteristic early appearance, receiving gifts and laudatory remarks and an uncommonly positive reaction from the Shea crowd. The only topper Franco could possibly have asked for was the opportunity to raise his save total to 301 nine innings hence. Doing so would move him into seventh place all alone on the all-time save list, one ahead of Bruce Sutter. Maybe today, against Sutter’s old team, the Cubs, he’d get his chance.
He’d get no such thing, but it was not a matter of Dallas Green’s game strategy or the Mets not providing a three-run (or fewer) lead to protect. This Saturday, John would get into the action much earlier than the ninth, even though his name never appeared in the box score.
John was minding his own business in the bottom of the first, as closers tend to do, when the stage for what was to become of his Day was set. The Mets had two on with one out when a little chin music was played in Todd Hundley’s honor. Cub starter Kevin Foster swore later his inside fastball was meant only to back the Mets’ slugging catcher (Todd had eight homers already) off the plate.
Hundley, who ducked, didn’t take it as such. Neither did Met starter Pete Harnisch, who conveniently found Foster’s elbow when his opposite number batted in the second. Tensions began to simmer a little more, particularly after Harnisch exchanged words with Cubs catcher Scott Servais, his former teammate with Houston. Foster would be out of the game in the third as the Mets built a 5-0 lead, but it was clear the two teams were on a collision course.
The flashpoint came in the home fifth, when Cub reliever Terry Adams threw a pitch in the general direction of Harnisch’s knees. Home plate umpire Greg Bonin finally issued a warning to somebody, Adams. As the Times’s Jason Diamos put it, “He should have warned the batter and catcher.” Harnisch and Servais went at it. Benches emptied. Bullpens emptied. It was an old-fashioned basebrawl the likes of which the Mets haven’t engaged in since.
“That was a donnybrook,” Green said, not without a touch of admiration. “No question about it. That was a dandy.”
How dandy? Fighting took place on the mound and all over the infield. The game had to be delayed 16 minutes and the teams had to regroup minus nine of their uniformed personnel. Four Cubs were ejected: Servais, Leo Gomez, Scott Bullett and Turk Wendell. Five Mets joined them, so to speak: Harnisch, Hundley, Blas Minor, coach Steve Swisher…and, on John Franco Day, John Franco.
“I’m too old to be doing that kind of stuff,” admitted the heretofore guest of honor. What bothered the 35-year-old southpaw the most was not getting caught up in defending his teammates’ honor but not being around at the finish when his services would have come in handy. The Mets held a 6-3 lead at the time of the ejections, but relievers Dave Mlicki and Doug Henry couldn’t hold it. Henry, filling in for Franco as de facto closer du jour, gave up a two-out, two-run single to Jose Hernandez in the ninth to allow the Cubs to tie it at six.
In the bottom of the inning, what had been John Franco Day and then Saturday Afternoon at the Fights became a standout moment in the Met career of Rico Brogna. With one out, the first baseman — who had driven in three runs off a collar-heated Foster in two at-bats — blasted a one-out Doug Jones delivery over the wall in right field for an exhilarating 7-6 Met victory.
Rico had reasons for ebullience besides totaling two homers and four RBIs on the day. He was as much a part of the melee as any Met, finding himself pinned against the wall of the Cub dugout. His right forearm was bruised, but by taking the walkoff swing, he could raise it in triumph.
“My emotions were stirred up,” Brogna said. All the Mets’ were, though Franco’s were tinged with regret as he was still thrown by getting thrown out long ahead of his traditional and preferred ending: “I could have been out there in the ninth.”
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On May 16, 1970, Jerry Koosman put an emphatic period at the end of this sentence: “Boy do the Mets have good pitching.” Kooz had just completed perhaps the most remarkable three-game stretch of pitching his team has ever unfurled. First, there was Gary Gentry taking a no-hitter into the eighth against the Cubs at Wrigley Field and coming away with a one-hit, 4-0 victory. Then, in their next contest, at Connie Mack Stadium, Tom Seaver held the Phillies to one hit in nine innings (a third-inning Mike Compton single), striking out 15 en route to another 4-0 win. Koosman’s performance, by comparison, was almost pedestrian…but only by comparison. Jerry four-hit the Phillies, striking out ten of them as the Mets put a 6-0 Saturday night win in the books. That made it three complete game shutouts in three games. Gentry, Seaver and Koosman allowed all of six hits — five singles and one double — in 27 innings while striking out 32 batters.
GAME 035: May 14, 1994 — METS 11 Braves 4
(Mets All-Time Game 035 Record: 21-30; Mets 1994 Record: 19-16)
Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show sang of every rocker’s dream in 1973 when they saluted “the thrill that’ll getcha/when you get your picture/on the cover of the Rolling Stone.” For athletes, there’s a parallel level of excitement — or dread, depending on how you take your curses — to landing on the front of the latest issue of Sports Illustrated.
There has to be. Maybe the stirring of the soul wears off if you’re Tiger Woods (30 times on), Muhammad Ali (38) or Michael Jordan (the most, at 56), but if you’re there, it generally means you’ve accomplished something noteworthy, something national, something nice. It’s something you can frame, you can autograph, you can dine out on for years.
Or you can kind of cringe that that’s you there, because you’re not on the cover of Sports Illustrated for doing anything you wish to have illustrated.
Consider the case of John Cangelosi, cover boy on the issue of May 23, 1994. Well, Cangelosi and former Met Charlie O’Brien shared the honors, though not in some McGwire-Sosa or Stargell-Bradshaw “Sportsman of the Year” tableau. It wasn’t that friendly. It wasn’t friendly at all. O’Brien was in full Atlanta Braves catcher’s gear and clearly had the drop on Cangelosi, who had his back to the camera. The Braves were on top in this situation; the Mets were going down — an unfortunate if unintended commentary on the National League East standings ever since Atlanta was geographically rejiggered into the Mets’ division.
In pugilistic terms, it looked like the Mets were lightweights.
Who the hell was Charlie O’Brien and why was he about to put John Cangelosi down for the count? And what was Terry Pendleton, the ghost of pennant race nightmares past, doing rushing in from the corner of the cover? Was tag-team wrestling coming back to Shea for the first time since 1980? And why, in an era when cover story glory was going to be hard to come by for any Met, was it John Cangelosi, journeyman outfielder, carrying the flag (sort of) on the front of a magazine that used to feature Met icons like Casey Stengel, Tom Seaver and Darryl Strawberry?
The cover line says Enough Already, though it doesn’t seem tied into the Mets fan thought process, which would have been, “Enough with the Braves in the N.L. East, that can only be bad news in the long term. Enough with embarrassing situations and embarrassing photos one year after Vince Coleman was flinging firecrackers at little girls and Bobby Bonilla was offering tours of New York’s northernmost borough. Enough Charlie O’Brien, we saw too much of him when he was a Met, he couldn’t hit the ball, so now he’s gonna hit our spare outfielder?”
Of course a closer reading of the fine print indicates the cover story won’t really be about the Mets or Braves at all: “Another round of ugly brawls gives baseball and basketball a black eye.” The two players are supposed to be SI’s “tut-tut” example of how not to behave on the field of play (in two sports, no less). But if a picture tells a thousand words, five that come jumping off the full-color page seem to be, “The Mets can’t fight either.”
The article to which the image is tied doesn’t offer a lot of help for anyone curious as to why O’Brien and Cangelosi were mixing it up. It indeed takes a stand against fighting, but the Mets aren’t held up as an example of a new breed of plucky but righteous New York National Leaguers. Jack McCallum wrote that a “nasty bench clearer erupted last Saturday at Shea Stadium after Atlanta Brave pitcher John Smoltz plunked the New York Mets’ John Cangelosi, and Cangelosi charged the mound, provoking the scene depicted on this week’s cover.”
That’s it. That’s all the mention the episode gets. Nothing about O’Brien (6’ 2”, 195), wearing protective armor, pounding an unarmed Cangelosi (5’ 8”, 150). Nothing about the context of the plunking, thereby implying that Cangelosi was given, perhaps, to hissyfits. Smoltz’s “plunk” goes unremarked upon.
Why was John Smoltz plunking John Cangelosi? Because John Smoltz was having an awful day trying to throw the ball past Mets batters on the Saturday in question. Already down 3-0 in the bottom of the fifth, Smoltz retired the first two Mets he faced before giving up singles to Bonilla and Jeff Kent. After a wild pitch and an intentional walk to David Segui, Smoltz tried to extract himself from the jam by taking on Ryan Thompson. It was a bad call. Thompson launched a grand slam to left field, putting the Mets up 7-0 and getting John Smoltz’s goat.
After not getting the best of Thompson (6’ 3”, 200), Smoltz made the modestly constructed Cangelosi his target. And Cangelosi, Brooklyn-born, didn’t take kindly to the choice. Thus, the charging of the mound. Thus, the “ugly” scenario McCallum bemoaned. Thus, O’Brien with the attempted flying body slam on Cangelosi. Thus, the picture that made the cover of Sports Illustrated, the last time a Met would be “featured” on the cover of the nation’s premier sports magazine for a half-decade.
Infamy of sorts for John Cangelosi, but at least it emanated from a rousing 11-4 Mets win, albeit one that went unreported in SI. Some things simply look better before somebody influential goes to the trouble of immortalizing them.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 16, 1981, it was déjà vu all over again for Steve Carlton, who could have been forgiven for wondering whether what he was going through was a re-creation of one of the most paradoxical pitching performances ever. It was in another September, a dozen years before, that Carlton, then a Cardinal, set a major league record by striking out 19 Mets in a nine-inning game. Carlton had a record, but the Mets got the 4-3 win when Ron Swoboda tagged him for a pair of two-run homers, proof that strikeouts, while sensational to pile up, are just outs, and you have to limit the opposition’s hits in between the K’s. Carlton’s career went on to be quite successful over the next decade-plus, and he was still the game’s leading lefty in 1981 when he and the Phillies came to Shea, and the silent southpaw loudly muffled much of the Mets’ attack. In the nightcap of a sparsely attended Wednesday doubleheader, Carlton fanned 15 Mets as he went the distance for a Philadelphia club that was already guaranteed a playoff spot thanks to the split-season format implemented after the midsummer strike. If the Phillies weren’t playing for anything, the Mets were. They were still alive for the second-season title in a wide-open N.L. East scramble, so, just as in September 1969, they couldn’t afford to be set down helplessly by Carlton. And just as in September 1969, they weren’t. Yes, Carlton struck out 15 Mets, but he also walked four and gave up eight hits including a two-run homer to John Stearns in the bottom of the eighth that gave the Mets a 5-4 lead that another former Cy Young award winner, Mike Marshall, would preserve in the top of the ninth. The Mets were still alive in their mini-pennant race…as was the spirit of Ron Swoboda.
GAME 036: May 21, 1969 — Mets 5 BRAVES 0
(Mets All-Time Game 036 Record: 26-25; Mets 1969 Record: 18-18)
This was a big deal in the eyes of some, a complete non-event to those responsible for its execution. There was no denying something was going on that was worth capturing for the ages, but not for the reason those doing the capturing thought.
But that was impossible to know at the time. It usually is.
What was undeniable was Tom Seaver had just fired a complete game three-hitter past the Atlanta Braves in Georgia and won a 5-0 decision over Phil Niekro. Tommie Agee and Ken Boswell each doubled, Buddy Harrelson tripled, Ed Kranepool stole a base (the eighth of his eight-year career) and Cleon Jones drove in two runs as he raised his batting average to .391. The bottom line to the pack of Mets reporters was what happened in the standings because of the Wednesday night victory: the Mets were now a .500 ballclub.
To the scribes, and to many following the doings back in New York, it was no trifling feat. The Mets’ cachet for so long was their losing. It was their bête noire, too. What was framed as adorable, thanks to the efforts of correspondents who had to keep finding ways to make grinding, redundant defeat sound colorful, had become tedious. Mostly it was the norm. The Mets, from 1962 through 1968, went a combined 343 games under .500…and that was after achieving an uplifting mark of 73-89 (a.k.a. not losing 90 games) in 1968.
Their fate was cast early every season, never escaping the first week of a new year above the break-even point, never even sustaining a win-one/lose-one pace beyond eight games, which happened once, in 1967. It was all downhill from there. It was always downhill from there.
So of course when the Mets made it deep into May, all the way to their 36th game of the year with a .500 mark — 18 wins, 18 losses — there was bound to be excitement. What didn’t figure into the calculation was the people least excited by the “achievement” were the New York Mets themselves.
Reporters rushed into the visitors’ clubhouse and looked for a sign of celebration, for the presence of a party, for as much as a toast to provisional good fortune. They found none.
Jack Lang of the Long Island Press, one of the original Met writers, asked Seaver why there was no self-congratulations in the air: “You’re a .500 ballclub. Aren’t you going to celebrate?”
Why, no. Tom had no intention of getting charged up about breaking even. “What’s so good about .500?” he asked the media men. “That’s only mediocre. We didn’t come into this season to play .500 ball. I’m tired of the jokes about the old Mets. Let Rod Kanehl and Marvelous Marv laugh about the Mets. We’re out here to win. You know when we’ll have champagne? When we win the pennant.”
This sudden outburst of youthful hubris struck the reporters as amusing if inappropriate. They knew the Mets were always abysmal. They knew every victory better be savored. They knew Seaver had stuck his foot in it when the Mets promptly went out and lost their next five and fell to 18-23.
Turned out they didn’t know a damn thing.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On May 24, 1980, more than an approximate half-hour drive separated Shea Stadium from the Nassau Coliseum. The 22 or so miles between the two sports facilities may as well have been measured in light years. One jammed 14,995 into its rollicking confines. The other saw less than half that number of patrons pass through its turnstiles, even though its capacity allowed for seven times as many customers. To be fair, there was no comparing the venues when it came to the significance of what was going on in each place that Saturday afternoon. The Coliseum was hosting the sixth game of the Stanley Cup Finals, with the long-striving New York Islanders skating for their very first championship versus the hated Philadelphia Flyers. Shea, meanwhile, had the Mets playing the Braves: two teams that had finished last the year before, two teams maybe with a chance to not finish last this year. But there was this much in common: the Mets went to the tenth inning of their game tied at four, just as the Islanders found themselves in overtime, also tied at four. After Neil Allen set down Atlanta in order in the top of the tenth, Lee Mazzilli singled off Rick Camp, was bunted to second by John Stearns and — following an intentional walk to Steve Henderson and a fielder’s choice groundout by Jerry Morales that moved Mazz to third — scored on Elliott Maddox’s single to right. It made for a pleasant win in a spring span of several pleasant wins: the Mets had taken six of their last nine and were showing their devoted fans, particularly the 7,221 who opted to come to Shea, a little spark. Back in Uniondale, Bobby Nystrom scored a goal at 7:11 of overtime to beat the Flyers 5-4…same score the Mets won by in extras. Nystrom got to hoist one Cup more than Maddox, perhaps, but Mets fans — whether they rooted for that other orange and blue team or not — could resort to a little preliminary celebratory math if they were looking for signposts of progress. The Islanders had reached their ultimate goal six years after first showing their own little spark in the fall of 1974, the beginning of their first season when they weren’t at all bad. 1980 plus six years? There was, just maybe, a subliminal message buried in Nystrom’s winning shot: hang in there, Mets fans…hang in there to 1986, and you’ll be glad you did.