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” 46th game in any Mets season, the “best” 47th game in any Mets season, the “best” 48th 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 046: May 31, 1977 — METS 6 Expos 2
(Mets All-Time Game 046 Record: 25-26; Mets 1977 Record: 16-30)
Managing the Mets was a tough task, but not so tough that the next guy in charge couldn’t theoretically find time to play a little baseball while holding down his presumed full-time job. Chairman of the board M. Donald Grant and GM Joe McDonald must have thought so, for they announced on a Tuesday night at Shea that the man who was about to assume the office of Mets manager would be Joe Torre — as in Joe Torre, player-manager.
Unlike the seven skippers who preceded him, Torre was not long retired as a player. Time would prove that something of a trivial detail, however. Joe’s playing days weren’t completely done come the end of May 1977, but they were getting there. He’d insert himself into two games as a pinch-hitter before hanging up his spikes on June 17. More pertinently, the Mets were getting nowhere as the tenure of Joe Frazier came to a skidding halt, so why not try the Brooklyn boy who grew up to become not just an All-Star all around the diamond — catcher, third base, first base — but an acknowledged clubhouse leader. Two of the Met veterans who counted the 36-year-old Torre as a friend were Tom Seaver and Dave Kingman, both embroiled in salary-driven disputes with the Met front office when Joe took his new job.
Two stars looking to get out of town, on top of the 15-30 record that had landed Frazier’s Mets deep in last place, was a ton to toss on the rookie manager’s desk, but Joe took the daunting circumstances facing him in stride. “I am here to manage the team on the field,” he said before helming his first club. “Tom Seaver has made it known he wants to be traded and Dave Kingman wants to play out his option. I’d like to think they might change their minds. My office is open to them.”
As for the unit he figured he’d have at his disposal, Torre predicted, “We’re going to win a lot more games than we have. We’re not as bad as we’ve been playing and should be a representative team.” The representing started right away, as Torre led his charges to a victory immediately, a 6-2 win over the same Expos who the afternoon before had swept the Mets a Memorial Day doubleheader and put the final nail in Frazier’s managerial coffin. Part of Torre’s plan was to institute a set lineup, topped by recently acquired handyman Lenny Randle at third base, batting leadoff. Randle responded to his new status by singling, doubling, walking twice and scoring two runs.
There was a spark at the top of the order, and the Mets as a whole heated up under Torre’s tutelage. “It makes an awfully long year if you quit in May,” the manager said. The message was received ASAP: the Mets won seven of their first eight games with Joe as their leader. It wouldn’t last, and Torre’s relationship with his discontented stars didn’t make much difference even in the short-term, but when the man who would go on to win 2,326 regular-season games and four World Series titles enters the Hall of Fame as a manager, it will have to be recalled how it all began for Joe Torre: cleaning up Joe Frazier’s mess and attempting to set the Mets on course in what was rapidly becoming their most wayward season ever.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On May 27, 2009, an uncommon run of Met luck continued in a realm where they had proved curiously invincible. Four times previously in 2009, including thrice in the four games before this Wednesday night affair at Citi Field against the Nationals, potential Met home runs became subject to Major League Baseball’s new video review rule. In every instance, the decision that followed the second look — whether it confirmed the call on the field or reversed it — went in the Mets’ favor. This one, however, was going to be a tougher sell. In the sixth inning of a 3-3 tie, with Gary Sheffield (who had benefited from a video confirmation two nights earlier) on first, Daniel Murphy stroked a fly ball to right field off Jordan Zimmermann that…what? Did it land on the warning track of its own volition? Or did it scrape the unhelpfully yellow and white Subway Sandwich ad that fronted the Pepsi Porch overhang, which would make it a home run by the reckoning of the new ballpark’s ground rules? Washington right fielder Adam Dunn played it as if it was a live ball and threw it to the infield to eventually cut down Sheffield at the plate. Sheffield, on the other hand, played it as a home run and thus wasn’t running all-out. It was initially called a home run, but television replays on SNY seemed extremely inconclusive. Three members of Larry Vanover’s umpiring crew, however, spent several minutes out of sight examining all angles and decided the initial call should stand. It was a two-run homer for Murphy, allowing the Mets to take a 5-3 lead en route to a 7-4 final.
GAME 047: June 10, 1966 — METS 5 Reds 0
(Mets All-Time Game 047 Record: 25-25-1; Mets 1966 Record: 18-29)
You want out-of-the-box success? Then you want Dick Rusteck. No Mets starting pitcher was ever better sooner than the 24-year-old lefty from Chicago. And, judging by the relatively few households in which his name became enduringly recognizable, no Mets starting pitcher of surpassing promise ever disappeared quite so quickly.
But nobody envisioned that while Rusteck was doing his thing…his one and only thing, just about.
The Notre Dame graduate was having a fine year in Triple-A Jacksonville (pitching alongside first-year pro Tom Seaver) but “didn’t expect to get called up,” he told author William Ryczek. “My record was 4-0, then 5-0, then 6-0 and I wasn’t called. Then I lost one and I got hit by a batted ball [in BP, but Suns teammate Bud Harrelson] — and I couldn’t throw. I was sure they wouldn’t call me up.”
Perhaps it was the Metsian way of doing things to wait until a prospect was incapacitated to give him his big break, but Rusteck was ready for the big time, as personified by the Cincinnati Reds of Tommy Harper, Pete Rose, Vada Pinson, Deron Johnson, Tony Perez and Leo Cardenas. “I wasn’t nervous,” the kid said. “I just tried to force myself to pitch the way I did at Jacksonville.”
A Friday night at Shea, in front of nearly 34,000, and Rusteck treated the whole scene as if it were just another outing in the International League. He no-hit the Reds for four innings and maintained his poise after Perez broke up his bid for immortality with a leadoff single in the fifth. That would be one of only four hits the Reds would collect on the night, all of them singles. Backed by two Eddie Bressoud homers, Rusteck cruised to a complete game 5-0 shutout in his major league debut, the only Met starter to achieve that kind of instant success (Grover Powell threw a shutout for the Mets in his first big league start in 1963, but he had pitched several times in relief before that). Dick struck out four and walked only one in defeating Cincinnati ace Jim Maloney.
The reviews were raves. Ralph Kiner, watching from the Mets’ broadcast booth, said, “His fastball moves. A couple of times the ball jumped more than half a foot as it came up to the plate.” Home plate ump Ed Sudol testified that Rusteck’s fastball “has a tendency to rise at the last instant. It had the batters off balance and was probably the main reason they popped up so much.”
Because baseball is baseball, and baseball is rarely predictable and only occasionally fair, Dick Rusteck’s debut shutout was his last win in the majors and 1966 was his only season in the bigs. “Four days later,” he would recall for Ryczek, “I tried to pick up a ball and I could hardly lift my arm. I had a real sharp pain in my shoulder. They pleaded with me to start, because after pitching a shutout, how could you possibly not come out for your next turn?”
Rusteck was bombed by St. Louis in one-plus innings of ill-advised work in that second try. One more start, in early July versus the Pirates, didn’t go much better. There’d be a trip to the Disabled List, a few games out of the bullpen and a return to Jacksonville in 1967…and 1968. Rusteck would bounce around the minors clear to 1977 when he wound down his career on the unaffiliated Salem Senators of the Northwest League. His left shoulder healed, but his left elbow went bad, as did his luck. One day in Rochester, for example, a piece of glass fell from a building and cut his non-pitching shoulder badly enough to require seventeen stitches.
But for one night, at 24, Dick Rusteck had pitching successfully in the major leagues all sewn up.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On June 4, 1985, the Dodger Stadium mound served as the operating table as baseball’s most skilled surgeon extricated himself and his team from a most critical jam. The matchup that attracted 49,386 to Chavez Ravine on a Tuesday night was the same one that stirred Shea Stadium ten days earlier: Fernando Valenzuela vs. Dwight Gooden. The showdown at Shea was a disappointment to Mets fans, as their beloved Doctor K fell 6-1 to L.A., dropping Gooden’s record to 6-3, but this late-night West Coast rendezvous was a different story. The phenomena emeriti (Valenzuela ’81, Gooden ’84) hooked up in a pitchers’ duel worthy of the phrase. Fernando had limited the Mets to five hits through eight innings, one of them a solo home run by Ray Knight. But he was matched on the scoreboard and outdone stylistically by Doc. Through seven, Gooden had also allowed five hits and one run (a homer by Pedro Guerrero) but had struck out nine Dodgers. Trouble, though, beckoned in the bottom of the eighth. Steve Sax singled, as did Ken Landreaux; Sax raced to third while Landreaux moved up to second on the throw in from the outfield. Davey Johnson opted to have Gooden intentionally walk Guerrero, loading the bases with nobody out. And this is where the operation gets serious: Doc strikes out Greg Brock, pops up Mike Scioscia foul to Gary Carter and strikes out Terry Whitfield. So much for the Dodgers’ bases-loaded threat. Come the top of the ninth, the other duelist dropped his weapon, as Valenzuela allowed three Met runs. Gooden, of course, came out for the ninth and finished his own gut-check masterpiece, a 4-1 eight-hitter, featuring a dozen strikeouts.
GAME 048: June 4, 1969 — METS 1 Dodgers 0 (15)
(Mets All-Time Game 048 Record: 33-18; Mets 1969 Record: 25-23)
There was Jackson Heights. There was Brooklyn Heights. There was Washington Heights. But nobody was scaling the heights in New York like the Mets were in the late spring of 1969. With one increasingly characteristic thrilling victory, they reached all kinds of new peaks and didn’t appear intent on stopping their climb anytime soon.
It had already been a homestand like no other in Mets history. After salvaging a split of a two-game set with the expansion Padres, the Mets swept three from the Giants for the first time in their relatively young lives. Then the Dodgers came to Shea and the Mets beat them twice. On getaway night, they attempted to fully eradicate the ghosts of their other ancestral oppressor.
Gil Hodges assigned this task to 26-year-old lefthanded rookie Jack DiLauro, making his first start that Wednesday night after a handful of relief stints. “Gil told me I’d be starting two or three days in advance,” the former Tiger farmhand recalled for author Stanley Cohen nearly twenty years later in A Magic Summer, “but it felt more like a month. I was really nervous, and it took me a couple of innings to calm down.” Yet DiLauro appeared every bit the serene veteran across nine innings as he fired shutout ball at Los Angeles. Jack struck out five, walked two and, aided by some slick defense, allowed only two hits.
Bill Russell reached DiLauro for a first-inning double, “and I came within a couple of inches of giving up more. Buddy Harrelson saved a run with a great play at short” on a liner by Wes Parker, “and Cleon caught a drive at the wall that held up” in the second. When Jones hauled in that fly ball from Russell, DiLauro “took a deep breath; from that point on, I was all right.” Better than all right — after walking Andy Kosco with two out in the third, the rookie retired the next sixteen batters he faced, taking him through nine.
DiLauro received a standing ovation after Bill Sudakis flied out to end the top of the ninth. “That was the biggest thrill of my career,” Jack told Cohen. “I had been pitching in the minors for six years, trying to make it to the big club. And now, after my first start, to get an ovation like that from a New York crowd…it’s a moment I’ll never forget.”
Only problem for the Mets was Bill Singer, who would win twenty for the Dodgers that season, was just as effective, and a lot more overpowering. Singer struck out ten Mets while walking no one and giving up no hits through six innings. Harrelson became the first Met baserunner by singling to open the home seventh. A sacrifice bunt, a hit batsman and a fielder’s choice grounder landed the Mets runners on first and third with Ed Kranepool up to give the Mets a chance to take the lead. But Dodger catcher Tom Haller picked Buddy off third to end the threat. An Art Shamsky single with one out in the ninth was the only other offense the Mets generated versus Singer.
The starting pitchers exited and extra innings arrived. Tug McGraw held off L.A. in the top of the tenth as fellow screwballer Jim Brewer did the same to the Mets. McGraw and Brewer would give way to teammates Ron Taylor and Al McBean, respectively, and the zeroes would continue to flow. In the top of the fifteenth, however, things got very sticky for the Mets. With pinch-runner Billy Grabarkewitz on third (after a Jim Lefebvre double) and Russell on first, Willie Davis chopped a ball up that seemed headed up the middle for a run-scoring base hit. Taylor, luckily, stood in the way.
“It hit the back of my glove,” the reliever said after the game. “When it did, I thought it was by far a hit.” But the deflection altered the course of events long enough for second baseman Al Weis to lunge for the ball and make an off-balance throw to the plate. Jerry Grote took it on a short hop and tagged Grabarkewitz for the second out of the inning.
“It was the greatest play I’ve ever seen on any team I’ve ever played for,” the Mets’ catcher marveled.
After escaping the top of the fifteenth when Parker fouled out to third (L.A. batters had left a dozen men on base and had gone 0-for-14 with runners in scoring position), it was the Mets’ turn to make the Dodgers sweat. Walt Alston’s new pitcher, Pete Mikkelsen, made things difficult on himself immediately by walking Harrelson. A Tommie Agee grounder forced Buddy at second. Up stepped rookie third baseman Wayne Garrett, who stroked a single to center. Davis — who had three Gold Gloves in his future — charged the ball…but the ball charged right past him. As it rolled toward Shea’s center field wall, Agee came all the way around from first to score the winning run, as the Mets beat the Dodgers in fifteen innings, 1-0.
It was a great win by any measure, but what made it extra special was all the ways it could be measured:
• The Mets had won their seventh consecutive game, matching the franchise record previously achieved in 1966 and ending this eight-game homestand 7-1.
• The Mets had engineered what Leonard Koppett referred to as “the longed-for double sweep of the Giants and Dodgers”. How longed-for? Consider that the former New York City representatives of the National League teamed to slap around the baby Metsies 58 times in 72 opportunities in 1962 and ’63 and had never been fully avenged…not until late May and early June of 1969, that is.
• The Mets raised their record to 25-23, two games above .500, a modest apogee to the naked eye, but one the Mets had never seen in nearly seven and one-third seasons of playing baseball. And as they jetted to the Coast to take on the California teams on their turf, the Mets would do so as sole proprietor of second place in the National League East — another first.
“It was June,” Dana Brand wrote in Mets Fan, “and my eye didn’t need to look for my team at the bottom of the list. They were in second place. And for the very first time in my eight years of looking at the standings, the two-digit number on the left was larger than the two-digit number on the right.”
More than a plane took off for the West Coast after that win over the Dodgers. Hope did, too.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On May 31, 1982, the Mets reached an era’s high-water mark, though that wasn’t the idea. Overall improvement was in evidence since the ’82 season had started, and achieving a record six games above .500 was supposed to be a steppingstone to maybe reaching seven…or eight…or more over the break-even mark. But being safely on the happy side of .500 was achievement enough in the judgment of Mets fans when their long-downtrodden team took a bite out of Joe Torre and the Western Division-leading Atlanta Braves. While Torre — making his first trip back to Shea since being dismissed the previous October — had been riding high in Dixie, Met partisans could be satisfied by the progress that had transpired under the guidance of new manager George Bamberger. Bambi was supposed to be a marvel with pitchers, and his starter this Memorial Day at Shea, Charlie Puleo, a 27-year-old rookie who had languished in the Blue Jay system since signing out of Seton Hall in 1978, was surely blossoming under George’s wing. The New Jersey native baffled the Braves until there were two outs in the eighth, striking out ten batters along the way. Bamberger removed Puleo with an 8-3 lead that reliever Craig Swan protected en route to a 10-4 Met victory. Charlie’s record rose to 5-2. Ellis Valentine banged out four hits, including a two-run homer. John Stearns went 3-for-5, stole a base and drove in three. The Mets were 27-21, easily their best record at any point in any season since 1976…and ultimately their best record at any point during any season in that fallow period until 1984.