Forty years ago today, the Mets were visiting Chicago, sitting in first place, 1 game ahead of the second-place Cardinals in the N.L. East with a record of 81-79…and they were about to post one of the 500 most Amazin’ wins of their first 50 years.
From The Happiest Recap (First Base: 1962-1973)…
Never mind that as the Monday after the “final” Sunday dawned in Chicago, 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 gracefully 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 having “more work to do” five days hence at Riverfront Stadium.
After Seaver and Burt Hooton swapped zeroes in the first inning, Cleon 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 Bud Harrelson-Felix Millan-John Milner DP.
Hooton loaded the bases in the fourth on a single to Rusty Staub and walks to Milner and Jones. Perfectly set up, Jerry 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. Wayne Garrett led off with a double. Millan singled him to third. Cub skipper Whitey Lockman (a teammate of Willie Mays’s on the Giants’ championship clubs of ’51 and ’54) pulled Hooton and inserted Mike Paul. Paul 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…a fact the Pirates no doubt wanted to spit 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 wish for 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 Tom Seaver had to be the pitcher to start the game that could put a cap on the 1973 regular season, Tug 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 Western Division-winning Reds. They were division champs for the second time in five years, creating a miracle every bit as incomprehensible as the one from 1969.
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 a clinch of first on October 1. They wrapped things up in 161 games. The stubbornness of this fractured fairy tale of a season may have been taking a nine-inning break, but now it insisted on continuing deep into October. Per Yogi Berra’s summertime pronouncement, it really wasn’t going to be over until it was over.
What happened next?
You’ll find out when you read The Happiest Recap (First Base: 1962-1973).
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