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” 160th game in any Mets season, the “best” 161st 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.
Fasten your seatbelts…
GAME 160: October 1, 1982 — Mets 1 PHILLIES 0 (10)
(Mets All-Time Game 160 Record: 27-19; Mets 1982 Record: 65-95)
One-hitters are Mets fans’ no-hitters, more so than no-hitter flirtations that wind up being something less than one-hitters…though in the Mets fan mindset, they tend to blend into the same disappointment-tinged stew that’s been simmering on the back of the franchise stove over the course of fifty years.
Pitcher keep a no-hitter going into the seventh but then give up a hit? That’s a one-hitter, unless he gives up another hit. Unless the result of the game desperately matters, what seems to get remembered is a no-hitter appeared within some pitcher’s grasp. If it ends up as a two-, three- or whatever-hitter, the headline is it wasn’t a no-hitter.
But a lack of differentiation would be unfair to the 35 one-hitters in Mets history, even if not every one-hitter was a no-hitter flirtation. Sure, you might be the kind of Mets fan who starts thinking “this could be the night” if the first pitch of the game is called strike one, but generally speaking, there is a psychic Rubicon that needs to be crossed. Five innings seems serious. Maybe four if the starter really has something on the ball. Maybe three if there was a stupendous catch behind him.
Maybe called strike one.
Anyway, there is a distinction to be made between the one-hitter in which the one hit comes from the sixth inning forward versus the kind in which the one hit fell in when you weren’t necessarily paying attention to the “H” column on the scoreboard. For example, let’s say there’s an uninspiring matchup between a lousy Mets club and another team with nothing much on the line late in a season…and let’s assume you’re watching or listening to this final Friday night game at all under those circumstances. If the Mets starter was plugged in at the last minute — he hasn’t started all year — and he’s walked a couple of guys in the third, would you necessarily notice that the first hit he surrendered didn’t come until there was one out in the fifth?
In 1982, maybe not. In 1982, the Mets had only been no-hitter starved for just under 21 years. By the end of 1982, the desperation for a no-hitter was mostly trumped by desperation for 1983 and something better than the current, godforsaken season to come along.
So maybe it wasn’t a huge deal that Terry Leach went 4⅓ before allowing Luis Aguayo to plop an artificial turf triple onto the splotchy rug covering the Veterans Stadium outfield. Or maybe it was. Maybe there was every reason to believe it was kismet that Leach, a late replacement for blister-impaired Rick Ownbey and a generally overlooked middle-innings eater up from Tidewater twice since June, would be The One. That maybe the undistinguished Leach would succeed where the likes of Seaver, Koosman and Matlack never did.
But then Aguayo’s on third with one out in the fifth, and it hardly matters. The no-hitter’s gone. Yet Ivan de Jesus’s grounder to third means Aguayo has to hold. And opposing pitcher John Denny strikes out to end the fifth. Thus, after five, Terry Leach is pitching a one-hitter. Same as Denny, come to think of it. All he’s given up hitwise is a single to Dave Kingman (breaking an 0-for-23 schneid) in the second. Nobody’s scored, and both hurlers are tossing one-hitters.
They keep it up, too. The Mets can’t do a thing with Denny, who is previewing the form that will win him the National League Cy Young Award a year later. And the Phillies, a disappointment in terms of not winning the division, but a formidable foe with 87 wins and two seemingly surefire Hall of Famers in their lineup — they can’t do a thing with Leach. The great Pete Rose is 0-for-3 after striking out in the sixth. The great Mike Schmidt is 0-for-3 after grounding out to start the seventh. Leach runs into a bit of wildness after that, sandwiching an intentional walk with two bases on balls he didn’t mean to issue but escapes a sacks-full jam when he strikes out Denny again.
After seven, Leach, like Denny, still has his one-hitter. Denny has walked three and struck out five. Leach, working with an assortment of sinkers and sliders, has permitted five walks to match his five strikeouts in the longest outing of his major league career, though that’s not saying much. He pitched 20 of 21 games in relief during 1981’s second season and his 20 previous appearances in 1982 were out of the pen as well. Besides, the Mets of 1982 have begun placing their trust in younger arms to carry them to a brighter future. A little more than three months earlier, the Times suggested the Tide rotation of Ownbey (24), Scott Holman (23), Brent Gaff (23), Walt Terrell (24) and Ron Darling (21) could be on the verge of becoming the mid-’80s equivalent of “Seaver, Koosman, Ryan, Gentry and McAndrew”.
“It’s as good a Triple-A staff as I’ve ever seen,” gushed longtime Tidewater GM Dave Rosenfield, and indeed, the staff’s midseason ERA was almost a run better than anybody else’s in the International League. Four of the five starters mentioned — everybody but Darling — would make the Mets in 1982 and were supposed to make Mets fans salivate over 1983 and beyond.
Terry Leach, 28, drew no mention at all in the Times article. He had just been recalled to New York, where he was in the process of throwing eleven consecutive shutout innings of relief. He didn’t throw hard or conventionally. His submarine delivery made him stick out as much as his age made him fade into the background. But through eight appearances covering 18 innings, he was close to flawless. His next nine outings were less so: 17 earned runs in 12.2 innings pitched. Leach was sent back to Tidewater (helping the Tides win the IL pennant while the Mets set off on a 15-game losing streak in his absence). Terry returned to the Mets in mid-September, back in form. In three relief stints, he totaled five innings and allowed zero runs.
Under the Friday night lights in Philadelphia, Denny goes to the eighth having made no substantial mistakes. He could afford one, however. Though he’s finishing up a miserable year (6-13 between Cleveland and Philly), he’s been pitching in the majors since 1974. He’s established. Leach goes to the eighth having made no substantial mistakes, and it’s a damn good thing he hasn’t. He’s been pitching mostly in the minors since 1976, ignored in the Braves system until 1980, when the Mets picked him upon his release by Atlanta. He finished strong at Jackson, earned a post-strike shot a year later but then got squeezed off the roster as 1982 got underway.
If Terry Leach wants to be considered for a spot on the 1983 Mets, he’d be advised to not make any more mistakes in what’s left of 1982. So he doesn’t. Just as Denny is perfect in the eighth, so is Terry. Just as Denny is perfect in the ninth, so is Terry once more. We’re through regulation in a 0-0 game and both starters have just thrown nine innings of one-hit ball.
Phillies manager Pat Corrales blinks first. He removes Denny after nine: one hit, three walks, seven strikeouts. His replacement is Porfi Altamirano. The righthander walks Kingman to lead off the tenth. Rusty Tillman comes in to pinch-run. Gary Rajsich singles Tillman to third. Hubie Brooks drives a fly ball to Garry Maddox in center. Ralph Kiner has made Maddox — about to win his eighth Gold Glove — famous for his defense. “Two-thirds of the earth’s surface is covered by water,” Ralph likes to say. “The other third is covered by Garry Maddox.” Sure enough, Maddox covers enough of the planet to haul in Hubie’s fly, but he can’t stop the world from turning long enough to prevent Tillman from scoring the game’s first run.
The Mets leave Rajsich on first by making two quick outs. Leach returns to the Vet mound to pitch the tenth. He allows his sixth walk of the evening, to Aguayo, to start things badly, and rookie Julio Franco bunts Aguayo to second. Terry is facing trouble…but he stares it down by grounding George Vukovich to first and popping Maddox to second.
With Brian Giles’s grab of the 30th out, the Mets have won, 1-0, and Terry Leach has pitched the first and only ten-inning one-hitter in Mets history. It’s also the only one-hitter the Mets have won in which they themselves scraped together no more than two hits. And the pitcher who upheld their honor while John Denny was holding down their bats was someone making his second major league start.
Leach didn’t inject primary drama into his storyline. That would have required at least six innings of no-hit ball, maybe seven. His effort wasn’t a one-hitter of the emotional magnitude of Tom Seaver against the Cubs (one out in the ninth) in 1969 or the Padres (two out in the ninth) in 1972. There was little heartbreak associated with a fifth-inning triple, not even the hindsight heartbreak that the fifth-inning single in the next Met one-hitter — Dwight Gooden against the Cubs, 1984 — brought to mind once it became a one-hitter and the one hit could have very easily been ruled an error. But Leach’s one-hitter was indisputably the longest, definitely the least offensively supported and, save perhaps for Bobby Jones in the clinching game of the 2000 NLDS, the most surprising.
Considering all the variables, it surely ranks among the very most impressive one-hitters in Mets history.
That he won the game shouldn’t be taken as a given. Jim Maloney no-hit the Mets for ten innings in 1965 but then lost in the eleventh. Future Mets pitching coach Harvey Haddix perfect-gamed the Braves in 1959 but then lost in the thirteenth. Even Seaver, the master of the Met one-hitter, with five between 1969 and 1977, couldn’t keep a sixth going. Tom Terrific was locked in a scoreless duel against Rick Reuschel of the Cubs with two out in the bottom of the ninth on September 24, 1975, when Joe Wallis — a.k.a. the second coming of Jimmy Qualls — broke up his no-hit bid. Even if Seaver had retired Wallis and placed nine innings of hitless ball under his belt, he wouldn’t have been able to claim a no-hitter; the Mets forgot to get him a run. Seaver came out to pitch the tenth and gave up a couple more hits.
He lost the no-hitter in the ninth, the one-hitter in the tenth, and Skip Lockwood lost the game in the eleventh on a bases-loaded walk, proving yet again how difficult it is to match length with utter mastery. But Leach did it. Leach threw a ten-inning one-hitter in which he was provided virtually no cushion by his teammates. Rose wound up 0-for-4. Schmidt wound up 0-for-4. Every Phillie wound up 0-for-Something, except for Aguayo, whom Leach stranded at third.
And what did it get Terry Leach? Sent back to Tidewater for the entirety of 1983; traded to the Cubs ahead of 1984; traded from Chicago back to Atlanta soon thereafter; released by the Braves organization within two months; and re-signed by the Mets in May of ’84, less than twenty months after his Veterans Stadium star turn. A combined 11-4 Triple-A mark between Richmond and Tidewater earned him no callup during the Mets’ return to contention. Terry’s first appearance in a major league uniform after the night he shut out the Phillies on one hit over ten innings didn’t come until June 21, 1985.
“Whether I start or relieve doesn’t matter,” Leach said after his 1982 one-hitter, “as long as I have a job.” But who would have dreamed four seasons would have to pass following his masterpiece to achieve job security?
The 1987 Mets’ starting rotation — one that included Ron Darling, but none of the other ’82 Tides who had been so highly touted — had to be absolutely decimated by injuries to bring Terry Leach to the forefront of the Mets’ plans. On October 1, 1982, Rick Ownbey couldn’t pitch, so Leach was the emergency starter. In the summer of ’87, the defending world champs were bereft of Bobby Ojeda, Rick Aguilera, David Cone and Sid Fernandez, each of them missing time due to injury, so Leach was plucked out of the bullpen.
He started ten games from June 1 to August 11. The Mets won nine of them. His ERA in a dozen appearances overall in this time frame was 2.99. His own won-lost record was 7-0. He gave up less than a hit per inning and walked a batter only every five innings. No matter what unorthodox motion it took his submarining right arm to rise to the surface, it was clear it was Terry Leach who was keeping the Mets afloat.
The perennially disregarded Leach pitched for the Mets until 1989 and in the majors until 1993. He was a member of the Minnesota Twins bullpen in 1991, where he earned the World Series ring Mets management didn’t see fit to award him for his contributions to the 1986 club. Granted, he pitched only a half-dozen games that championship year, but Ed Lynch pitched in only one, and he got a ring.
Jewelry was apparently reserved for some players. For others, there were jibes. Somewhere amid the releases and demotions, GM Frank Cashen kidded Terry, “Don’t worry, Leachie. You’ll always keep showing back up around here. You’re like a bad penny.” Had Leach’s 1985 Tides teammate Billy Beane been taking notes for his eventual career as a general manager, he might have countered Cashen’s perception. In a more enlightened industry, Terry Leach wouldn’t have been seen as a bad penny.
He was a classic undervalued asset.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On October 1, 1999, the Mets began their Friday night almost dead and ended it in surprisingly vital fashion.
The light that flickered hopefully at Shea when the Mets clobbered Greg Maddux on Wednesday was nearly extinguished on Thursday in an eleven-inning nailbiter lost to the Braves, 4-3. The moment of sheer devastation occurred when right fielder Shawon Dunston failed to corral a Brian Jordan fly ball that became a leadoff triple and eventual winning run, yet the knockout blow was delivered by Chipper Jones after the game. With the Mets reeling and on the verge of elimination, he snottily shrugged that his critics in the Field Level seats could now “go home and put their Yankees stuff on”.
Mets fans were not amused and wished dearly to stuff that remark up Larry Jones’ Chip-hole, but to do so in 1999 would require a reversal of fortunes bordering on the miraculous. The odds were spelled out as the Mets approached their final weekend series of the year: Only one team, the 1962 San Francisco Giants, had been two out of a postseason berth with three to play and actually played in the postseason. That was relevant because the Braves’ defeat of the Mets left the Mets a pair behind both Cincinnati and Houston in the N.L. Wild Card race. One of those two teams would definitely be the Central Division champ. The other had a significant leg up on the Mets.
All the Mets had going for them was they were only almost dead. And as long as you’re still clinically alive, anything can happen…never mind that it’s rarely happened before.
Friday evening at Shea, the Mets welcomed the Pirates and surprisingly few others. After the big ballpark was packed for three consecutive nights against Atlanta, many Mets fans apparently needed a mental-health night. Attendance was less than 30,000 for the game that would determine if the 1999 Mets had any future left in them. Those who showed up were left to wonder how long the future would take to arrive. The present was awfully mysterious about revealing what it had in store for these Mets.
The first seven innings, as prosecuted by Kenny Rogers, trended favorably. Rogers allowed no runs, three hits and struck out nine while guarding a 2-0 lead that was built on solo homers by Robin Ventura and Mike Piazza off Jason Schmidt. On a pitching staff that was always strapped for length, Rogers — acquired from Oakland prior to the July 31 trade deadline — had been close to a godsend, certainly at Shea. Kenny pitched the Mets’ first home complete game of the season on Labor Day, and the Mets hadn’t lost a single game he started there in his six previous starts.
Trouble, however, arose in the top of the eighth when Rogers walked John Wehner to lead off the inning. He made Al Martin his tenth strikeout victim, but then gave up back-to-back singles to Pat Meares and Aramis Ramirez to cut the Mets’ lead to 2-1. Bobby Valentine pulled Kenny and brought in Turk Wendell. After striking out Kevin Young, he walked Chad Hermansen to load the bases. Out went Wendell. In came John Franco. And in came Meares to score when Warren Morris scratched out a single. It might have been worse, except Franco got a very generous borderline strike call on a 3-2 pitch with the bases loaded to retire Adrian Brown and slither out of the eighth.
The team that couldn’t afford to lose was now tied. Another bases-loaded situation materialized immediately, this time for the Mets. A Darryl Hamilton single, a Rey Ordoñez walk and a Meares error on Bobby Bonilla’s grounder to short set the Mets up to break the tie. But with two out, Melvin Mora, the .138 hitter who had replaced Rickey Henderson for defense when the Mets were up by two, forced Shane Halter (pinch-running for Bonilla) at second.
An hour behind, in the Central time zone, the news was mixed. The Dodgers had taken an early lead on the Astros, and rookie starter Eric Gagne was keeping Houston in check. But from Milwaukee, the out-of-town dispatches were less encouraging. Mike Cameron and Greg Vaughn had each homered and the Reds had taken a 3-0 lead into the sixth. A win by either Cincinnati or Houston combined with a Mets loss would take put that team beyond the Mets’ reach. Wins by both of them, combined with a New York defeat, would simply eliminate the Mets altogether.
All the Mets could do was concentrate on beating the Pirates, a team in the midst of a seven-year non-winning streak. Pittsburgh entered this game at 78-81, so they hadn’t clinched a losing 1999 yet. It may not have represented much motivation for the Bucs, but knocking out a contender certainly loomed as a consolation prize. Whatever was keeping them going, the Pirates weren’t going as quietly as the Mets needed them to.
Armando Benitez came on in the ninth and struck out Keith Osik, Dale Sveum and Martin in order. That could have provided a lift for the Mets, but given two chances to build a winning rally in the bottom of the ninth, the Mets wasted them both. Edgardo Alfonzo’s walk was erased when John Olerud grounded into a 4-6-3 double play, and the gift Piazza received when Meares booted yet another ground ball was revoked when Ventura struck out.
Extras beckoned. While Pat Mahomes went about keeping the Pirates at bay — working around a leadoff single by Meares — Central developments were tilting the Mets’ way. The Astros were indeed going down to defeat, 5-1. And the Brewers had tied the Reds: Jeff Cirillo had doubled in one run in the sixth and singled in two runs in the eighth. Events at the Astrodome had been kind to the Mets and County Stadium was potentially following suit. Mostly, though, their fate depended on what happened at Shea.
Hamilton, Jay Payton and Ordoñez each produced a groundout in the bottom of the tenth versus Scott Sauerbeck, a former Met farmhand who became a Buc in the 1998 Rule 5 draft. Mahomes then chilled the Pirates in the top of the eleventh, lining out Brown, flying out Osik and freezing Sauerbeck on a called strike three. Pittsburgh manager Gene Lamont so liked what he was seeing from his pitcher that he left him in to bat for himself.
Back on the mound, Sauerbeck dug a quick hole, surrendering a leadoff single to Dunston. Mora bunted Shawon to second. Fonzie was intentionally walked, leading to runners on first and second…who went to second and third, respectively, when Olerud grounded out to the right side. The open base was filled when Lamont ordered Piazza walked.
This brought up Robin Ventura with the bases loaded, which three times during the 1999 season was a surefire recipe for the finest cut of salami available. Grand slam threat aside (he had 13 in his career to date), Ventura was simply lethal that year with the bags juiced. He’d batted nineteen times with the bases loaded, going 8-for-16 and walking three times. Plus he’d hit the homer that put the Mets ahead in the fourth.
True, Piazza had gone deep in the sixth; and true, Piazza was Piazza; and just as true, Robin’s Mojo had been dipping of late (he’d batted .187 in his previous 21 games), but choosing to pitch to Robin Ventura with the bases loaded seemed like a helluva way to keep the Mets in the Wild Card hunt.
And so it was. Ventura lined a single into center, bringing home Dunston and giving the Mets a 3-2 win that was as crucial to their 1999 destiny as any. Not many minutes later, they won as bystanders, too. In the top of the tenth at Milwaukee, Marquis Grissom robbed Eddie Taubensee of a two-run extra base hit with a sensational diving catch…and in the bottom of the tenth, Ronnie Belliard singled home Mark Loretta to defeat Cincinnati, 4-3.
The Mets were one behind the Astros and the Reds with two to play. They were far more alive heading into Saturday than they had been when they came out of Thursday.
GAME 161: October 1, 1973 — Mets 6 CUBS 4
(Mets All-Time Game 161 Record: 26-19; Mets 1973 Record: 82-79)
For a pennant race that came along all at once, the lunge for the 1973 N.L. East flag sure got stubborn about getting over with. But by the time this unfathomable season was reaching its inevitable conclusion, even recalcitrance couldn’t stop the New York Mets.
First, the weather over Chicago, where the Mets were slated to play their final series, wouldn’t budge. After a scheduled off day Thursday, it poured Friday, knocking out one game. It poured Saturday, too, taking out a planned doubleheader. As of Sunday, they hadn’t played since Wednesday. The Mets left their last homestand with a record of 80-78 and a lead of a half-game over second-place Pittsburgh. Sitting inactive for three days hadn’t exactly damaged them. They were still 80-78, but their divisional lead had increased to a game-and-a-half, though it was now the Cardinals who were their closest competitor.
That’s indicative of the other element that wouldn’t get a move on in the Mets’ world: the race. Like the rain, it wouldn’t go away. Everybody who was ever a contender in 1973 remained a contender as the final scheduled day of the season commenced. Five teams — five! — were still mathematically alive that Sunday. Taking into account makeup dates that still loomed as playable for Monday, the following scenario was, at the very least, conceivable on September 30:
• The Mets could drop two doubleheaders to the Cubs and fall from 80-78 to 80-82; the Cubs, in turn, would correspondingly rise from 76-82 to 80-82.
• The Cardinals could lose to the Phillies and drop from 80-81 to 80-82.
• The Pirates (79-81) could lose to the Expos — who would complete their schedule at 80-82 — but then beat the Padres in a makeup game and move up to 80-82.
That would create the first five-way tie for first place in the history of baseball, and there weren’t enough coins in the Federal Reserve to toss to determine how a quintuple-tiebreaker might work. It wasn’t very likely the National League East would come down to that daffy a conclusion, but the fact that the possibility existed spoke to the unhinged nature of the 1973 stretch drive.
Which, in turn, spoke to how spectacularly the Mets had to play to drive the division into such glorious disarray. It’s fair to say that no 80-78 team has ever sat in first place on the final scheduled day of the season more deservedly.
From 61-71 and last place on August 30, the Mets ripped off 19 wins in their next 26 games to take over the top spot in the East. The theme of their charge was, of course “YOU GOTTA BELIEVE,” as authored by Tug McGraw, but the Tugger’s inspirational value shouldn’t overshadow all he did once he exited the bullpen buggy that fit his personality (and the times) to a tee. From September 5 to September 25, as the Mets took 15 of 19, McGraw made a dozen appearances. Every one of them was a personal and team success: he saved nine games and won three more. Eight of the outings were at least two innings long. The last of them in this stretch was typical in terms of performance and significance: two-and-a-third innings of shutout ball to nail down Jerry Koosman’s 2-1 win over the Expos on September 25th, the Mets’ season-high seventh consecutive victory.
Tug’s pitching that Tuesday night put the usual exclamation point on the Shea festivities, but nothing could have made more of a statement about the magical properties of this Met month than the way the evening began. Hours before Tug bid au revoir to the team from Canada, his most revered teammate was issuing a memorable signoff to a whole other nation.
It was Willie Mays Night, marking the end of a career surpassed by nobody for utter brilliance. Mays began it in 1951 in the same place where the Mets learned to crawl, at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan. Six years and a slew of indelible images later, Willie and his team, the New York Giants, were whisked away to San Francisco. Their departure, along with the Brooklyn Dodgers’, facilitated the birth of the Mets, which was a good thing for the millions wrapped up in total Belief by September of 1973, but old-timers would tell you there was always a little something missing from the New York National League baseball scene as long as the quintessential New York National League baseball superstar was plying his trade on the West Coast.
Mrs. Joan Payson attempted to turn back time and make all right with the world in 1972 when she plied a trade of her own: Charlie Williams and cash to the Giants in exchange for Willie’s homecoming. It was a dramatic success from the Say Hey get-go…though after the euphoria of Willie Mays in a New York uniform settled down, it couldn’t help but be noticed that a season later, the Mets were left with a 42-year-old legend who had never been anything but a legend — but had never been 42 before.
Willie contributed a few timely hits in 1973, but after going 0-for-2 in Montreal on September 9, his batting average sank to a most unMayslike .211, accompanied by six homers, 25 RBIs and a mere 24 runs scored in 66 games (Willie had scored more than a hundred runs annually from 1954 through 1965). He was hurting physically after cracking two ribs on a metal rail at Jarry Park in pursuit of a foul ball, and mentally, not being the Willie Mays whom fans from coast-to-coast idolized and idealized finally caught up with him. Thus, he announced his retirement at a press conference in Shea’s Diamond Club on September 20.
Phil Pepe covered the SRO event for the Daily News, reminding any readers who were perhaps momentarily dismayed by Mays’s descent into cranky mortality — a couple of times as a Met, he hadn’t shown up when and where as expected, making Yogi Berra’s managerial tenure no easier — what Willie represented beyond his 660 home runs, 1,903 runs batted in, 2,062 runs scored, 3,283 base hits and .302 lifetime average. “[It] is not the records or the statistics or the awards that distinguish him,” Pepe wrote. “It is the memory of the way the man played the game, with a zest and a daring, with an excitement that is unmatched.”
“I’ve had a love affair with baseball,” Mays told the media, but acknowledged, “you just can’t play at 42 the way you did at 20.”
The Mets had already scheduled Willie Mays Night before his retirement went official. When they announced their intention to honor him, it was before there was any inkling that it would serve as a sidebar in a sizzling-hot pennant race…or that a pennant race might provide the backdrop to Willie Mays Night. Where No. 24 was concerned, it was unfathomable that he wouldn’t be the main attraction.
Sure enough, a full house of more than 53,000 showed up at Shea to bestow its appreciation on Mays. After a 45-minute tribute in which Willie was showered with all manner of gift and applauded by a veritable Hall of Fame cast of his Giant, Dodger and Yankee contemporaries from the golden age of New York baseball, it was the man of the hour’s turn to speak.
Those who heard what the Say Hey Kid had to say in his baseball twilight will never forget it. He thanked the crowd for remembering him for the player he had been rather than the player time forced him to become: “If you knew how I felt in my heart to hear you cheer and know I can’t do anything about it…” He thanked the visiting Expos for enduring the delay, apologetically explaining to the Mets rivals du nuit, “This is my farewell. I thought I’d never quit.” He thanked the Mets for waiting patiently on such a big night in the course of their own journey: “I hope you go on to win the flag for the New York people. This is your night as well as mine.”
Actually, for as long as Willie spoke and for as long as Willie’s words resonated, it would always belong to him, especially given the sendoff he gave to his own sendoff:
“I see these kids over here, and I see how these kids are fighting for a pennant, and to me it says one thing: Willie, say goodbye to America.”
Was there any doubt after that that those kids — his Mets — would go out and win their seventh in a row? Was there any doubt, either, that Willie’s New York departure was every bit as fortuitous as his introduction? That came 22 years earlier, when the Giants were struggling, far removed from first place until August. Yet with rookie Willie Mays on board, those Giants caught fire, passed the Dodgers and — after Bobby Thomson (in attendance at Shea this night) went deep off Ralph Branca (also there) — won the pennant.
“Look at it,” another Willie Mays Night guest, Brooklyn Dodger icon Joe Black, suggested. “It was Willie largely who brought the Giants out of the doldrums and now it’s Willie’s inspiration — in another way — that I think will carry the New York Mets to the National League championship and maybe to their second World Series title.”
What a great storyline for a great night. And what great resilience Willie’s Mets were showing throughout September, all seemingly regaining their health in unison, every one of them stepping up their game as the stakes grew higher. Consider Cleon Jones, who hit the homer to the put the Mets ahead on Willie’s night and made a backhanded catch worthy of Mays to help McGraw bid adieu to Montreal.
Jones’s injury-riddled season was one of the reasons the Mets stalled for so long in ’73. After playing no fewer than 129 games every season since 1966, Cleon was out for chunks of April and May and all of June. The disabled list also swallowed up significant portions of Bud Harrelson’s and Jerry Grote’s campaigns. George “The Stork” Theodore’s rookie year was derailed when he crashed into Don Hahn in July. John “The Hammer” Milner had hamstring issues. Rusty Staub’s hands were still aching from the year before. Jon Matlack absorbed a line drive to the forehead. Constructing a lineup of pain-free Mets was a challenge every night for Berra before September.
But in September, the Mets were well and benefited from running an almost set unit onto the field game after game. Leftfielder Jones was in the full bloom of health, regaining his power stroke down the stretch and slugged six homers over the final ten games. Garrett — having inherited the third base job full-time when the front office’s string of big-name bad ideas (Joe Foy, Bob Aspromonte, Jim Fregosi) finally played itself out — was suddenly Brooks Robinson on both sides of the ball…and a .422 hitter across the season’s last dozen games. Staub began a hitting streak on September 15 that, where 1973’s regular season was concerned, never ended. The rightfielder batted a Le Grand .387 in the Mets’ final fifteen contests. Hahn and Dave Schneck split time tracking fly balls in Mays’s old center field stomping grounds. Harrelson at short partnered with second baseman Felix Millan to restabilize the middle infield. Milner was at first to receive their throws. Grote was calling the shots from behind the plate.
The Mets finally had their team intact, and it was paying off.
And the pitching…always the pitching where the Mets were concerned. McGraw’s revival underscored everything, but the bullpen wasn’t just about Tug. It also featured Harry Parker coming out of nowhere and Ray Sadecki remaining rock-solid. The rotation’s least-known name, George Stone, rolled to a 12-3 record, making the trade that brought him and Millan to the Mets from Atlanta (for Gary Gentry and Danny Frisella) one of the best in franchise history.
But at the heart of the operation, just as in 1969, were three unstoppable starters. That’s what had to give Berra the core of his confidence when the clouds finally parted enough to play two in sodden Chicago that final Sunday, September 30. He tabbed Matlack for the opener, and the second-year lefty did not disappoint, firing a complete-game five-hitter, with nine strikeouts. The only problem was the Mets bats sat idle, perhaps not being notified that the rain, rain had gone away. The Mets scored nothing for Matlack. The Cubs scratched out a solitary run. It was enough to beat the Mets, 1-0. Paired with the last game the Mets had played, a loss to Montreal four days earlier, the hottest team in baseball was suddenly in the midst of its first losing streak of any length since August 26.
Not exactly the juncture a Mets fan would choose for his team to cool off, but another game remained that Sunday, and another stellar lefty, Koosman, was taking the mound. In the nightcap, Jerry was just about as good as Jon: nine innings, six hits, seven strikeouts, two runs allowed…and this time, the Mets’ bats got the memo that the game was on. Led by Cleon’s two-run homer and Rusty’s three RBIs, Kooz cruised to a 9-2 win. With the Cubs defeated, the five-team tie scenario disappeared. And with Pittsburgh topping Montreal, the Expos were eliminated. The Cardinals, however, won their game and stayed in the race, as did the Bucs.
So here’s where the recalcitrant 1973 pennant race stood at the end of the day when it was, on paper, supposed to end: three teams were still alive. The Cardinals, at 81-81, would sit back and monitor what would happen in Pittsburgh, where the Padres’ presence was kindly requested to make up a previously postponed game, and in Chicago, where the Mets and Cubs owed the senior circuit one more twinbill. If the Pirates, at 80-81, won, and the Mets, at 81-79, were swept, a three-way tie would occur. A Pirate loss would make Pittsburgh superfluous, but no Mets win in two games would pit New York and St. Louis in a tiebreaker.
A Mets win would make all the statistical potentialities blissfully academic. And if anybody was capable of erasing the National League East’s overcrowded blackboard once and for all, it was Berra’s starting pitcher for Monday’s opener, George Thomas Seaver.
There were worse options for a manager. There was none better.
Never mind that Tom Seaver was a tired ace pitcher, coming to the end of a season in which he surpassed 250 innings for the seventh time in his seven-year career. Never mind that two of his most recent outings went only three innings and two innings. Never mind that, at 18-10, his standard of 20 wins was out of reach. Tom Seaver, 19-Game Winner might not quite roll off the tongue after he’d won 25, 20 and 21 in three of his previous four seasons, but this was no ordinary nineteenth win sitting on the Wrigley Field table.
“When you get to where Tom Seaver is,” Larry Merchant wrote in the Post, “it doesn’t only matter how many you win, but which ones you win.”
He was Tom Seaver. He was the Franchise. He was going to lead the National League in strikeouts with 251, in ERA at 2.08, and in the as yet uncalculated category of walks and hits per innings pitched (0.976). He had the bona fides to match his reputation. And he was ready. “I’m not going to put intangible pressure to bear on myself,” Tom promised. He was just going to try to put his team in the postseason any way he could and then look forward to thus having “more work to do” five days hence at Riverfront Stadium.
After Seaver and Burt Hooton swapped zeroes in the first inning, Jones got the first big swing of the day in, belting one of the Cub starter’s knuckle-curves into the mostly deserted right-center field bleachers (paid attendance in Wrigleyville, where the Mets’ fortunes didn’t elicit much interest: 1,913). The score stayed 1-0 through three, with Seaver’s first brush with adversity — two on, one out in the third — cleared away by a Harrelson-Millan-Milner DP.
Hooton loaded the bases in the fourth on a single to Staub and walks to Milner and Jones. Perfectly set up, Grote lined a single to center to increase the Mets’ lead to 3-0. Seaver gave up two more hits in the fourth, bringing the Cubs’ total to five, but again emerged undamaged.
The top of the fifth appeared to bury the Cubs once and for all. Garrett led off with a double. Millan singled him to third. Cub skipper Whitey Lockman (a teammate of Mays’s on the Giants’ championship clubs of ’51 and ’54) pulled Hooton and inserted Mike Paul. He was greeted by a run-scoring single from Rusty and a sac fly off the bat of the Hammer. The Mets led 5-0, and the division title was so close the Mets could taste it…and the Pirates wanted to spit it out. At Three Rivers Stadium, the score from Chicago flashed as the national anthem was performed. Pittsburgh assumed its fate was sealed.
The only actor not reading from the script was Seaver. Instead of being buoyed by the relative surfeit of Met runs, he struggled. Four Cubs recorded base hits in the fourth, with the last two producing runs. It was 5-2 heading to the sixth. It stayed 5-2 until the seventh when a Ron Santo error allowed a sixth Met run to plate. Tom Seaver and a four-run lead were all anybody who bled orange and blue could dream of three innings shy of a divisional dream coming true.
Nevertheless, at the end of a season that had been so nightmarish for so long, sweet dreams were elusive. The home seventh began with Dave Rosello dunking a single into center. It was the Cubs’ tenth single of the day. Then Rick Monday, Seaver’s teammate almost a decade earlier on the semi-pro Alaska Goldpanners, mined Seaver’s exhaustion for a two-run homer. It was now 6-4. It was now getting dicey.
It was now time to take out one ace and call on another.
If Seaver had to be the pitcher to start the game that could put a cap on 1973, McGraw had to be the pitcher to end it. Like Seaver, he was ready to take the ball.
“I was pretty hot by now,” Tug wrote in Screwball, “all jacked up and believing like hell.”
Sure enough, Tug set down the Cubs 1-2-3 in the seventh…and 1-2-3 in the eighth. His streak was snapped when Ken Rudolph opened the ninth with a single, but he then struck out Rosello. Still leading 6-4, Tug faced pinch-hitter Glenn Beckert with Rudolph on first.
Which brings us, as all Happiest Recaps should, to Bob Murphy:
“Now the stretch by McGraw, the three-two delivery…the runner goes, and a little popup! Milner grabs it — he’ll run to first…double play! The Mets win the pennant! The Mets have just won the pennant in the Eastern Division! It’s all over, the Mets have won it with a magnificent stretch drive. They won nineteen and lost only eight in September, they’ve won their first October ballgame, and with it, they have won the pennant in the Eastern Division.”
The Mets were a 21-8 club dating back to the final day of August, the day they moved out of the cellar. They were an 82-79 team overall, which in every other season to that point in major league history would have meant a ticket home. Instead, in the wild and wacky year of 1973 — when “eternal optimist” Tom Seaver admitted the odds facing the Mets in summer “strained even my eternal optimism” — it was a ticket to the National League Championship Series against the Reds. They were division champs for the second time in five years, creating a miracle every bit as incomprehensible as the one from 1969. Stranger, probably.
In ’69, the Mets materialized as if from thin air, but they did it sooner and grabbed first place earlier. This team took it to the wire and then needed one more day besides. They had four teams on their tail on the supposed last day, two more still hanging around the day after. But now the Cards were done, the Pirates (losing to San Diego) were done and even they could finally take a breath. The makeup doubleheader’s second half was no longer needed, and the umpires didn’t need much of an excuse to defer to the endlessly gray skies that enveloped Chicago’s north side and call it off.
Geez, these Mets had, like McGraw, gotten so hot, that they didn’t even need an entire season to zoom from last on August 30 to first on October 1. They clinched in 161 games. The stubbornness of this season like no other may have been taking a nine-inning break, but now it insisted on continuing deep into October. Per Yogi’s summertime pronouncement, it really wasn’t going to be over until it was over…which was fine with all concerned, one Met maybe more than any other.
In September, when Willie Mays was announcing his retirement, he was already on the sidelines. He never played in another regular-season game after September 9. But he promised that if the Mets were successful in extending their fight for a pennant, he, like all the kids he called his teammates, would be prepared to play.
“If we get into the World Series,” Mays told the reporters, “I’ll be there.”
As it turned out, Willie became one of the reasons the 1973 Mets would get to the World Series, as the NLCS demonstrated he wasn’t done playing, and his hit in deciding Game Five showed he could still contribute. But before that showdown versus Cincinnati could take on its own legend, there was the matter of getting the Say Hey Kid on the plane out of Chicago.
“Where’s Willie?” Seaver asked amid the raucous clubhouse celebration at Wrigley.
“He took two sips of champagne,” Tom was told, “and he’s passed out on the training table.”
You Gotta Believe it was as fitting a reaction to all that had transpired in 1973 as any.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 27, 2008, Johan Santana…actually, that pretty much describes it. “Johan Santana” earned its place as a synonym for “one player saved an entire team, an entire season and an entire stadium,” even if it was only for one day.
The Mets needed a starting pitcher to keep them viable on the second-to-last day of the 2008 season. They trailed the Phillies by two in the N.L. East and Milwaukee by one for the N.L. Wild Card. Lose on Saturday, and their season was all but over and Shea Stadium would be destined for a meaningless game on its final day the next day. Of course they needed a starting pitcher in order to forestall calamity, but what they really needed one who would prevent their bullpen from doing any more damage to their chances than their relief corps had already done.
No kidding. The Mets’ relievers were a horror show. And their logical options to start with proper rest — raw rookie Jonathon Niese, retreads Brandon Knight and Nelson Figueroa — were not what you’d call stoppers. In a perfect world, they’d turn to Santana, who had given them their last excellent start on Tuesday: eight innings, two runs, ten strikeouts (on 125 pitches) against the Cubs. He even scored a pair himself. Santana was indeed the pitcher for the job, exactly what the Mets had in mind when they shipped four prospects to Minnesota to acquire him and forklifted a metric ton of money into his bank account to keep him around through 2013.
The only problem with the Santana-on-Saturday scenario was Johan would have only three days’ rest. And Johan Santana, two-time American League Cy Young Award winner, had never started a game in the big leagues on three days’ rest.
So why not give it a try now? It’s not like Santana wasn’t willing to do it — he “begged for the chance,” Jerry Manuel said — and it’s not like the manager had a remotely better option. And as far as anybody knew, it wasn’t like Santana wasn’t fully healthy. But in reality, he wasn’t. It wasn’t mentioned publicly, but Johan was going to require postseason surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. It had been aching badly for a month, though Johan being Johan rather brushed it off as an inconvenience.
“He told me that the only way he was not going to finish the season,” Santana’s agent Chris Leible said, “was if they took him to the hospital in an ambulance.”
Let’s back up, then. He’s never gone on three days’ left. He needs surgery. The Mets are desperate in the standings. They have nobody else who can start. They want, at all costs, to use as little of their bullpen as possible. The stadium is about to close forever. And, oh yes, the Mets are still laboring under the burden of having let a playoff spot slip through their fingers at the same time the year before.
Anything else? Anything else to put more weight on Johan Santana’s broad shoulders? Any bold statements — bolder than insisting he be the one to pitch this do-or-die game?
How about, “It’s time to be a MAN”? That’s what Johan actually wrote on a piece of paper and actually hung on the wall inside the Mets’ clubhouse before the Saturday matinee against the Marlins.
Anybody who thought Johan only scribbled a good game had seen nothing yet. On a day with as much on the line as any Mets team had ever encountered, Johan wasn’t a man — he was a team of men. He was from another planet. The Planet Johan, where pitchers don’t worry about adequate rest, joint pain or anything as silly as a pitch count.
How long could Johan go? How long did the Mets need him to go? Whatever it would take, Santana would deliver. Nine innings? Obviously. One-hundred seventeen pitchers? Fine. A complete game, three-hit, nine-strikeout, 2-0 shutout that by day’s end pulled the Mets even with the Brewers for the Wild Card? That’s why they pay the man the millions they do.
That last one isn’t quite fair. The Mets paid Santana an acely sum (six years, $137.5 million) to go out and do the kinds of things he had done for the Twins every five days. Doing them on the fourth day…on the second-to-last day of the season and the stadium…on one good leg…while using one foot to keep the Mets’ bullpen door sealed securely shut…and then triumphantly tossing the ball from the final out (a deep fly to left from Cody Ross, caught by Endy Chavez) to a fan sitting behind the Mets’ dugout?
It was exactly the right time to be JOHAN, in capital letters.
Johan Santana fashioned the last win in the history of Shea Stadium. Sadly, it didn’t coincide with the last game of Shea Stadium and it wasn’t capable of creating more games at Shea Stadium, as in postseason games. By October 1, Johan would be not on a mound, but at the Hospital for Special Surgery getting that meniscus fixed. Whatever ailed the Mets after their second consecutive collapse or implosion or whatever you wanted to call it couldn’t and wouldn’t be repaired so easily. But that was hardly Johan’s fault. Nothing in the wake of the wreckage of another lost September could be left in Johan’s lap except kudos for what, all things considered, might have been the most clutch game a pitcher ever pitched in a New York Mets uniform.
In 2010, a documentary titled The Last Play at Shea was released, centering on the final concert the old ballpark ever hosted, Billy Joel’s second show in July of 2008. Because the Mets failed to make the playoffs, narrator Alec Baldwin declared Joel’s big night — which ended with Paul McCartney sitting in to perform “Let It Be” — “the stadium’s last magic moment”.
Anybody who was blessed enough to watch Johan Santana go the distance two months later would be compelled to not let that rather shortsighted assessment be.