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 that includes the “best” 151st game in any Mets season, the “best” 152nd game in any Mets season, the “best” 153rd 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 151: September 22, 1988 — METS 3 Phillies 1
(Mets All-Time Game 151 Record: 20-27; Mets 1988 Record: 94-57)
Love, according to lyricist extraordinaire Sammy Cahn, may be sweeter the second time around, but what of clinching your second division title in three years? How could an event that replicates something that was so sweet and so longed-for just two seasons earlier possibly hold up by comparison?
Consider the reactions of the team’s co-captains, Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez, as captured in New York magazine by Eric Pooley:
“Was it sweeter in ’86?” Carter asked rhetorically. “No. It’s just as sweet now. Just as sweet.”
“Actually, it’s kind of anticlimactic.” Hernandez countered. “I mean we have a lot to be proud of, but we played some terrible baseball this year. This doesn’t rate with ’86. Then, the team had been through all those lean years, and we brought it back. This time, we’ve won it before, and we expected it to win it again.”
So at the crest of the 1988 club’s season, things were as good as they ever were…and they couldn’t possibly be that great. Ask Carter, ask Hernandez, ask a Magic 8 Ball. The answer might as well be, “Reply hazy, try again.”
To enjoy what the Mets did in September 1988, it is, perhaps, best to put aside all they did throughout 1986…and try not to think about what lay ahead in October 1988. It should be enough to appreciate the finishing kick the Mets put on to get the Thursday night at Shea when the Mets put away the Phillies, 3-1, to officially eliminate their last competition for their fourth National League East crown.
After surging to a 30-11 start, the ’88 Mets stalled, sputtering through the summer at a 41-41 clip. They allowed the Pirates to sail practically right up alongside them in the standings in July. And though they always managed to hang on to their divisional lead, the Mets left their fans with the sense that it could all go awry at any minute. Except for Darryl Strawberry and Kevin McReynolds, they weren’t hitting. In general, they were lethargic. The Mets were ripe for the taking, perhaps by the Pirates, maybe even by the Expos.
Then they weren’t. In a veritable blink, the Mets lived up to their hype. They started winning at the end of a West Coast trip in August and they refused to lose thereafter. Gregg Jefferies came up. Mookie Wilson went into the everyday lineup. David Cone proved invincible. Everybody began to hit. Entering the potential clincher, the Mets had been on a 22-7 roll.
The roll continued against Don Carman and Kent Tekulve with single runs in the fifth, sixth and seventh, handing Ron Darling the 3-1 lead he dearly wished to pitch to its successful conclusion. “To my thinking,” Ronnie would write in his aptly titled career retrospective, The Complete Game, “it was complete game or bust. If I didn’t finish the game and we still managed to win, I supposed I would pop a bottle of champagne and celebrate with my teammates, but it wouldn’t be the same.”
It wouldn’t be a worry by the ninth, when the Mets still led by 3-1. As Darling faced Philadelphia’s 4-, 5- and 6-hitters, SportsChannel’s Fran Healy and guest commentator Jack Lang of the Daily News suggested there were nothing but blue and orange skies ahead for the team they covered:
Fran: Jack, [can] you believe that the Mets right now will win their second division under the regime that took over in 1980?
Jack: That’s right. And what a machine they’ve built. This won’t be the last of these we’re gonna see from them. Not with that pitching staff.
Darling, 28, and headed for a 17-win season was as good a sample of that arsenal as anybody. He and Cone and Dwight Gooden would be leading these Mets into the National League Championship Series. Cone wasn’t even here in 1986. Nor was Jefferies. Nor, except for cameos, were Randy Myers, Dave Magadan and Kevin Elster. These Mets were more loaded than their championship predecessors. GM Frank Cashen had indeed built a machine. Hernandez and Carter might not be Mets forever, but the talent was in place to make sure the Mets would be in this kind of position on a going basis. They’d be on the verge of great things.
Von Hayes struck out. Juan Samuel grounded to Darling, who threw to Hernandez. And on a 1-2 pitch, Lance Parrish couldn’t check his swing. It was strike three and the Mets’ were champions again. Carter no doubt thought the ball he held in his mitt represented something sweet — and the 45,000-plus in attendance certainly evinced a sense of ecstasy — but Darling was particularly appreciative of how the seconds after the third out unfolded:
“Kid was the first one to reach me, and he came at me with his right hand extended. I remember thinking it was such a professional, businesslike approach. Every other time I’d seen a pennant-clinching game, there were hugs and high-fives and backslaps all around. Guys were jumping all over one another. But here Kid just walked purposefully to me with a congratulatory handshake, his eyes wide with excitement.”
In his book, Darling describes a picture of that exchange as his favorite image from his tenure with the team. “[I]n that one freeze-frame moment,” he wrote with Daniel Paisner, “was everything I knew and loved about those Mets teams of the 1980s. There was our thoroughgoing professionalism. There was a sense that we were expected to win, and to carry ourselves as winners. And there was a sense of pure joy about to burst forth.”
The joy burst through soon enough. The champagne would pop and the Mets would drink some and douse more. As it occurred, nothing could have been sweeter. It’s easy to overlook just how sweet it was when compared to the celebrations of two years earlier and the lack of any more of them in the month ahead.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 18, 1973, the rallying cry “You Gotta Believe!” was picking up new users every day, probably because it was gaining credence in every way. The Mets hadn’t shown the slightest inclination toward getting involved in a pennant race through most of the season, but in September, as exemplified by Tug McGraw’s power of positive thinking, they were making their move.
Now came the time for them to turn it into a great leap forward.
The night before, belief could have taken a hit. Tom Seaver pitched at Pittsburgh and was battered, with the Mets losing 10-3, sticking the team 3½ back, leaving them in fourth place. But the key phrase there is “3½ back”. It was anybody’s division with a dozen games to go. It could be the Mets’, as it was the Pirates who sat in first place and the Mets were about to play four more games against them: one more at Three Rivers Stadium, three directly thereafter at Shea.
Seeing their ace get spanked and watching their momentum frozen could have seemed like a bad sign to Metsdom, but that’s where that positive thinking comes in. That’s what Tug’s mantra was all about. Tug hadn’t been going well in the middle of summer, either, but he had been convinced by no ordinary Joe that he could turn his season around.
The Joe was Joe Badamo. As Tug put it in Screwball, “He sells insurance. Insurance and motivation.” Tug knew Joe through Duffy Dyer, who, along with some other Mets, was introduced to him by the late Gil Hodges. He may not have been a guru, but Tug was willing to follow what he had to say.
“We rapped a while and decided there wasn’t anything wrong with me physically,” Tug wrote (with co-author Joe Durso). “But first we had to get my confidence and concentration back. The only way to do that, Joe kept saying was to believe in yourself. Realize that you haven’t lost your ability. Start thinking positively. Damn the torpedoes, and all that jazz.
“When he said, ‘You got to learn to believe in yourself,’ I said: ‘You gotta believe. That’s it, I guess, you gotta believe.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you gotta believe, start believing in yourself.’”
From one conversation with one person, a movement was born. Tug threw “You Gotta Believe” to a few fans and they threw it back to him like in a game of catch. He brought it into the clubhouse, and it caught on. Without thinking, he blurted it in the middle of a pep talk delivered by chairman of the board M. Donald Grant (and later had to convince the stodgy executive he wasn’t mocking him). “You Gotta Believe” took root in July, when the injury-riddled Mets were still in last place, when Tug was still in his epic 1973 slump.
Yet it was ready to bloom come September when the Mets and their fans were brimming with belief that a team in the last place on the next-to-last day of August could roar from behind to win the division. Before the Pirates beat Seaver, the Mets had taken 12 of 17. In a year when nobody could gather a head of steam and take control of the N.L. East, the Mets could still be the ones to do it. They just had to, per Joe Badamo and Tug McGraw, believe.
And start beating the Pirates head-to-head immediately.
Game two of their five-game series loomed as a turning point either way. For eight innings, it appeared to be turning clearly in the direction of where the Allegheny and the Monongahela met to form the mighty Ohio. Pittsburgh took a 4-1 lead off Jon Matlack in the third inning, knocking out the talented lefty one night after having their way with Seaver, and the score remained unchanged through the eighth. Ray Sadecki and McGraw had pitched well to keep the Mets in the game, but New York hadn’t done anything with Pirate starter Bob Moose or his successor Ramon Hernandez, who stood two outs from victory when he fouled out Bud Harrelson to start the Met ninth.
Ed Kranepool was due up next, but Yogi Berra pinch-hit with Jim Beauchamp, a righty batter versus lefty pitcher decision. It worked, as Jim singled. Then Wayne Garrett, in the midst of a career month (OPS 1.015) doubled. Felix Millan, who would establish a new franchise record for hits in 1973 with 185, got his most important to date: a two-run triple that cut the Mets’ deficit to 4-3. After Hernandez walked Rusty Staub, Danny Murtaugh pulled Hernandez in favor of his fireman Dave Giusti.
But Giusti only enflamed the Mets’ rally, giving up a pinch-single to Ron Hodges to tie the game at four. Teddy Martinez ran for Hodges. Cleon Jones followed with a walk. And Don Hahn, who played more center field than any Met in 1973 despite never being fully entrusted with the full-time job by Berra, singled in Martinez and Jones.
The Mets led the Pirates, 6-4, heading to the bottom of the ninth. Clearly, the tide had turned away from the Three Rivers and toward Flushing Bay. But first, a little business would have to be taken care of. Three outs had to be nailed down, and this was where Tug and his Belief would come into play.
Except Berra had to pinch-hit for Tug in the eighth. So he went to as untested an arm as he had: 23-year-old Bob Apodaca, a righty being asked to make his major league debut in the makest-or-breakest situation imaginable.
Apodaca nearly broke the Mets. He threw eight pitches: four to Gene Clines, four to Milt May. Each was a ball. The Pirates had two on and none out. Dack’s trial by fire had burned Berra, so he took out the kid and brought in a slightly more seasoned hand, 25-year-old Buzz Capra.
Would there be a feelgood, Capraesque ending from all this maneuvering? Well, Dave Cash bunted the runners over. Al Oliver grounded to the right side to score one of them. Willie Stargell was intentionally walked, then pinch-run for by rookie Dave Parker. Richie Zisk walked.
The bases were loaded. There were two out. The Mets led by one. The dangerous Manny Sanguillen stepped to the plate. It was all on Buzz to keep the Mets alive. Could he?
You had to believe it was so. Capra, whose strategy was “go with my fastball and make sure he hit it,” flied Sanguillen to Jones in left and the Mets held on, 6-5. They were now 2½ behind the first-place Pirates, but they had three more shots at them, and all of them would come at Shea.
Cue the power of positive thinking.
GAME 152: September 19, 1973 — METS 7 Pirates 3
(Mets All-Time Game 152 Record: 20-27; Mets 1973 Record: 75-77)
If you’re going to have momentum, there’s no sense in waiting around for the optimal moment to use it. The Mets came out of Three Rivers after winning a thrilling come-from-behind victory the night before, so who better to bring with them to Shea but the same Pirates they had just beaten?
Strange schedulemaking, but there it was and here they were, the Mets and Bucs, now locked with the Cardinals and Expos in a four-way battle to determine who, if anybody, was going to emerge as National League East champion for 1973.
These two contenders go back and forth in the early innings. The Pirates strike first on a leadoff home run by Rennie Stennett off George Stone. Cleon Jones one-ups Stennett by smacking a two-run homer off Nelson Briles in the second. Advantage Mets. Stennett returns with a vengeance in the third by tripling and scoring on Dave Cash’s single to left. Advantage Pirates? Felix Millan grabs back the momentum on behalf of the Mets when he singles home the .271-batting Stone, who had led off the inning by helping his own cause (something decent-hitting Mets pitchers were known to do for much of the first half-century of Mets baseball).
The Mets’ 3-2 lead grew by a run in the fifth when Jerry Grote doubled, Bud Harrelson singled and Stone grounded to second. That insurance policy became a smart buy when Stone was befallen by an act of Pops: Willie Stargell, who hit more home runs against the Mets than any opponent in the team’s history, delivered per usual. Luckily, Stargell’s sixth-inning blast was a solo job, so the Mets still held a 4-3 lead when George let after six.
Stone’s successor was Tug McGraw, Yogi Berra’s favorite reliever in September — everybody’s favorite reliever in September, but it was Berra who wouldn’t or couldn’t wait to use him. Firemen, as closers were known then, weren’t saved for the ninth. McGraw came bounding onto the mound in the seventh and wasn’t particularly sharp. He walked pinch-hitter Gene Clines and surrendered a pinch-single to Fernando Gonzalez. The runners wound up on second and third with one out, but Tug stiffened as he almost always did in September 1973, popping up Stennett and grounding out Cash.
Tug encountered a bit more trouble in the eighth, allowing a leadoff single to Al Oliver, but two ground balls — the second of them a 5-4-3 double play — resulted in three outs and kept the Mets ahead by a run. Finally, some breathing room emerged in the eighth when, against Dave Giusti, Rusty Staub singled, John Milner walked and Jones homered for the second time on the evening. With his third, fourth and fifth RBIs of this Wednesday evening, Cleon had put the Mets up 7-3. Tug mowed down the final three Buc batters in the ninth and the Mets moved into a third-place tie with St. Louis, a half-game behind Montreal for second and a game-and-half from first-place Pittsburgh, with two more games against those Pirates at Shea.
It all made for very exciting bookkeeping…and it was about to make for so much more.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 21, 1989, Sid Fernandez did everything right. Everything. For one, he pitched a two-hitter, with the hits confined to one inning, the bottom of the fifth at St. Louis. Those hits — a Terry Pendleton triple and a Todd Zeile single — produced a single run for the Cardinals this Thursday night. The other eight innings saw the sometimes maddening, often brilliant El Sid display perfection: no hits, no walks, no Redbird baserunners.
As for the Mets’ offense, it had Sid Fernandez’s imprimatur all over it, too. The Hawaiian southpaw singled and scored in the third, singled in the fourth and homered in the ninth. Fernandez himself outhit the Cardinals, 3-2. When you factor in his not striking out as a batter but striking out 13 batters as a pitcher, then it’s no wonder El Sid prevailed in this most complete of complete game victories, 6-1.
GAME 153: September 20, 1973 — METS 4 Pirates 3
(Mets All-Time Game 153 Record: 22-25; Mets 1973 Record: 76-77)
It was time to carefully remove the m-word from the ark in which it had been kept undisturbed for nearly four years, for the Mets were about to perform the most sacred act their faith allowed.
It was time for a miracle.
But first, the relatively mundane from this about-to-be extraordinary Thursday night at Shea Stadium:
• Jerry Koosman pitched eight innings, struck out eight Pirates and allowed only one unearned run, which unfortunately put him behind 1-0, because Jim Rooker had held the Mets scoreless through seven.
• Jim Beauchamp, making the final regular-season appearance of his ten-year career, pinch-hit for Koosman to lead off the bottom of the eighth and singled. After he was pinch-run for by Teddy Martinez, and Martinez was bunted to second by Wayne Garrett, Felix Millan singled home the tying run.
• Harry Parker, usually a rookie revelation in Yogi Berra’s bullpen, came on to preserve the tie in the top of the ninth but couldn’t quite do the job. Two runners were on when Dave Cash doubled one of them in to return the Pirates to their lead, 2-1.
• Bob Johnson, who pitched two games for the 1969 Mets, was tabbed by Danny Murtaugh to finish off his old team. A win here would erase the Mets’ recent momentum, leaving them 2½ back with a scheduled nine to play. It wouldn’t clinch anything for the Pirates, because others were still alive and contending, but it would put a crimp in the Mets’ plans, no matter much they Believed. But Johnson allowed a leadoff pinch-single to Ken Boswell and a sacrifice bunt to Don Hahn before exiting for Ramon Hernandez.
• Hernandez struck out pinch-hitter George Theodore for the second out of the ninth, but another pinch-hitter, Duffy Dyer, delivered a double, scoring Boswell to tie the game at two.
• The two teams went to extra innings, as Yogi Berra went to veteran swingman Ray Sadecki. Sadecki gave Yogi three perfect innings. The Mets, meanwhile, failed to score against Jim McKee and Luke Walker. The game would go to a thirteenth inning, when Sadecki, with one out, would allow his first hit, a single to Richie Zisk. After he retired Manny Sanguillen for the second out of the inning, he faced September callup Dave Augustine.
This is where The Miracle occurs.
This is where it’s best left to Bob Murphy to deliver The Word:
“The two-one pitch…
“Hit in the air to left field, it’s deep…
“Back goes Jones, BY THE FENCE…
“It hits the TOP of the fence, comes back in play…
“Jones grabs it!
“The relay throw to the plate, they may get him…
“He’s out at the plate!
“An INCREDIBLE play!”
If you’re scoring at home, the interpretation would be 7-6-2, Cleon Jones to Wayne Garrett to Ron Hodges, the rookie catcher who ascended to the Mets’ starting lineup for much of the summer from Double-A Memphis because of injuries. Zisk, the runner from first, tied a piano to his back when he took off around the bases. The man was slow. But The Man Upstairs was quick-thinking. He (or Something) prevented what looked like, on Channel 9, a sure home run for Augustine from landing in the left field bullpen for what would have been his first — and only — major league home run. Had the ball made it past the wall, the Mets would have been down 5-3.
But it didn’t go quite far enough, at least from a Pirate perspective. It bounced off the very top of the fence and caromed right back into Cleon’s glove. He made a strong throw to Garrett, who made a strong throw to Hodges, who made a strong stand in front of the plate, bringing down an emphatic tag on Zisk.
“The ball hit the corner and it just popped up to me,” Jones recounted. “I didn’t think he hit it high enough to go over. I knew the ball was gonna hit the fence, but it could’ve gone anywhere.”
Garrett, who had moved to shortstop from his usual third base in the tenth after Bud Harrelson had been pinch-hit for, aimed low when he made his relay throw to Hodges. “I wanted it to hit the ground,” Wayne said, and he got his wish. The ball arrived in Hodges’s mitt the same time Zisk was charging into Hodges’s body. The kid catcher held the ball and home plate ump John McSherry held his right arm upwards, signaling the lumbering Pirate runner out.
“It has to be one of the most remarkable plays I ever saw,” Garrett swore.
The Mets weren’t done being remarkable. The aptly named Walker walked his first two batters in the bottom of the thirteenth. Luke walked off the mound. Dave Giusti walked on. He got one out, but that was all. Hodges, having the night of his career, singled, scoring John Milner from second. The Mets had won 4-3 in a game that would be forever remembered for the Ball Off the Top of the Wall and how it bounced in the only direction it could.
Namely, the same direction the Mets were going in.
This third straight win over the Pirates didn’t put the Mets in first place. It didn’t even put them then at .500. But both of those events would happen the next night, when Tom Seaver would throw a five-hitter to beat the Bucs, 10-2. In a four-day span in September, an unprecedented Metamorphosis occurred. The Mets not only picked up one game per day in the standings, they picked up one place per day. From fourth and 3½ out after Monday, they climbed to first and a half-game up on Friday. It had been barely three weeks since they were in last place. Now they were in first place.
They were in first place. The Mets. The 1973 Mets.
You Gotta Believe.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 18, 1975, one Met slugger turned an odometer while another turned a page in the team annals. On a quiet Thursday night in Flushing, with the Mets done contending, their two biggest hitters hit some big milestones. First, there was Rusty Staub swatting a two-run homer off Cub rookie starter Donnie Moore in the fifth. That became the final home run of Staub’s initial tenure as a Met, which couldn’t have been known at the time. What could be ascertained was that Rusty had just become the first Met in team history to drive in 100 runs in one season. The Met who came closest in the previous 13 seasons was Donn Clendenon, in 1970. Le Grand Orange had already taken the record, and now he’d taken it into triple-digits.
In the bottom of the ninth, the score would be tied at five. The Cub pitcher would be a familiar face to Mets fans: Darold Knowles, he who pitched in all seven games against the Mets during the 1973 World Series. Knowles set a record then, but now he’d be on the wrong end of a piece of Met history. Knowles gave up a two-out single to Staub and then had to pitch to Dave Kingman. The pitch didn’t stay at Shea long. Kingman creamed it for a walkoff home run, Sky King’s 35th roundtripper of 1975. That gave Dave the team record, one better than Frank Thomas’s total from 1962.
That Thomas, who was on hand in Pittsburgh when Kingman tied him with his 34th circuit clout of the season, had held the mark for so long with a relatively slight total speaks both to the dearth of Met power bats for most of the life of the franchise to that point and to an anomaly for the ages. Frank Thomas was a fine hitter in his day — he outhomered both Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris to reign as New York City’s home run champion in the Mets’ first year — but how is it possible that something as significant as the franchise home run record could have stayed in place from 1962, a.k.a. the worst season any team ever had, all the way to 1975?
That wasn’t Thomas’s problem, just as it wasn’t Kingman’s. But the two were linked as Dave chased Frank, even if Dave wasn’t making too big a deal out of passing him. “It doesn’t means as much, since we’re out of the pennant race,” Kingman told the media following the 7-5 win his 35th homer secured. “Maybe when I’m 80 and sitting in a rocking chair, it will mean something.”
Thomas, in his 2005 memoir, Kiss It Goodbye: The Frank Thomas Story, gently took issue with Kingman’s attitude from three decades before:
“Kingman was only 26 at that time and it’s hard to imagine old age at that point in your life. When I was 26 and in the prime of my baseball career, being 80 years of age seemed impossible. But here I am, 76 years of age at the writing of this book, and heading fast to 80. And those old baseball records and memories are more and more treasured to me every year that I’m removed from my playing days. I haven’t seen Kingman in years, but I’ll bet he, too, has a greater appreciation for his accomplishments now that he’s only 23 years away from his rocking chair.”