Forty years ago today, the Eastern Division champion Mets were hosting Cincinnati, tied two games apiece with the Western Division champion Reds in the National League Championship Series…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)…
It was a good day to quit, to give up, to throw in the towel…but that applied only to those who played their games in Washington. In the nation’s capital, this Wednesday would be marked by a historic resignation. Spiro Agnew, the Vice President of the United States, under grand jury investigation for tax evasion, cut a deal and vacated the post to which he’d been re-elected in a landslide less than a year earlier.
In New York, however, the thought of quitting never crossed anybody’s mind, certainly not in Flushing where the Mets, unlike Agnew, had been toughened by autumn’s adversity. Why shouldn’t they have been? They were losing the National League East by the kind of landslide that had buried George McGovern the previous November, yet turned a midsummer 12½-game deficit into a 1½-game mandate to govern their division. It was the kind of stuff kids were taught about in social studies class…Mets-in-first destiny, if you will.
But that was just the primary. In the playoff series projected by DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN-style gun-jumping pundits to exist exclusively in a Red state, the party of blue and orange was locked in a race that was too close to call. Four of five precincts had reported. The Mets had won two, their opponents two. The time had come to cast the deciding vote.
Yogi Berra’s choice for Game Five was perfectly clear: Seaver Now, More Than Ever. That one was obvious enough. Of course Tom Terrific was going to start the Mets’ first-ever postseason win-or-go-home game. But the manager had another decision to make. After writing in the same eight position players in the same eight spots in the batting order for four games, Yogi was deprived of his cleanup hitter. The injury Rusty Staub absorbed in his right shoulder the day before0 prevented him from swinging a bat or throwing a ball (Staub batted left but threw right). Without one of the rocks of his lineup, the skipper had to scramble.
The answer he came up with was the one that had been available to Met managers longer than any other in the history of the franchise.
Ed Kranepool hadn’t started a game since September 15, when he spelled John Milner at first base. He hadn’t started a game in the outfield since taking a turn in right on July 16. But Berra wasn’t asking him to play right. He instead moved Cleon Jones, the better outfielder, from left to right in deference to Sparky Anderson deploying a left-leaning lineup against righthanded Seaver. Krane was thus stationed in left, terrain with which he wasn’t completely unfamiliar, having started there thirty times when Yogi was clustering whatever healthy Mets he could find when he was strapped for his usual starters before September.
There wasn’t any terrain at Shea Kranepool couldn’t have known by 1973 seeing as how he had been a part of the team longer than the stadium had stood. He was the one Met who could claim to have been a part of every Met squad since the first one, in 1962. He was just a kid then, 17 and getting his first taste of the bigs under Casey Stengel that September in the Polo Grounds. Krane persisted across the ’60s, never achieving the stardom the Mets wished for him, but remaining relatively young and relatively useful. His investment of time as a Met — and the Mets’ investment in him — paid off when he contributed significant base hits as half of Gil Hodges’s first base platoon in 1969.
By the middle of 1970, Kranepool was a Tidewater Tide, not hitting and not happy to be Met property. He was presumed gone when he was put on waivers, but no other team scooped up his services and he returned to the major league club before long. Having experienced the near-death of his professional career, Ed underwent a renaissance in 1971, putting up the best numbers of his life and getting back into Hodges’s good graces. He was less effective in 1972 and less effective, still, in 1973, but he was on the roster, he knew how to play the outfield and nobody had ever been more of a Met than Ed Kranepool.
“I’ll be out in Pete Rose’s Rose Garden,” the crafty Bronx-born veteran promised upon learning of his assignment. “I just hope I bloom.”
After Tom Seaver avoided a patch of proverbial crabgrass in the top of first and escaped a bases-loaded jam, Ed Kranepool’s hope came true quickly. Against Jack Billingham, the Mets filled the sacks on singles from Jones and Felix Millan and a walk to Milner. The Krane was up next and he delivered a two-run single to left. The Met who’d been around longest put the Mets on the board first.
Down in Washington, the buzz over Agnew was overriden in at least one branch of government. Found among papers released five years after the 1999 death of former Supreme Court justice Harry Blackmun was a note handed to Blackmun by fellow justice Potter Stewart, dated October 10, 1973. The note was jotted down by Stewart’s clerk and delivered to him while the highest court in the land was in session:
V.P. Agnew just resigned!!
Mets 2 Reds 0
Back in Flushing, the honorable George Thomas Seaver presided over the 2-0 lead with liberty and justice for all…or guts and guile, at any rate. This wasn’t quite the Seaver of the preceding Saturday when he blew away most of the Reds in a losing cause. Going on three days’ rest, he had to rely on his offspeed arsenal and the guidance of his catcher, Jerry Grote. The combination got Tom through the third with a 2-1 lead after Dan Driessen’s sacrifice fly halved the Mets’ advantage, and it functioned effectively through the fifth despite Tony Perez singling Pete Rose home from second to knot the score. Billingham was doing his share of presiding as well, as the Mets’ offensive drought reached arid proportions. From the fifth inning in Game Three through the fourth inning of Game Five, encompassing twenty innings in all, the Mets had scored only three runs.
Change, however, was at hand. It started with Wayne Garrett — so hot in September yet ice cold in the playoffs — doubling to lead off the bottom of the fifth. Millan bunted to Billingham, who had a play on Garrett at third. He threw to Driessen who stepped on the bag for the force…which was a rookie mistake at the worst possible moment for Cincinnati because the force wasn’t on. It meant Garrett was safe at third while Millan took first. Wayne dashed home and Felix ran to third when Jones doubled to put the Mets back in front, 3-2. Anderson pulled the righty Billingham and went to a lefty, Don Gullett, seeking to gain an edge on lefty-swinging John Milner. But Milner didn’t have to swing; he walked to load the bases.
The next batter scheduled was another lefty, Kranepool. If the longest-serving Met could deliver one more blow, it would give 50,323 fans an emotional jolt. But what if the oldest Met were to come through here? Not just the oldest Met, but the most highly decorated player in all of baseball in the dimming twilight of his storied career?
Willie Mays hadn’t played since September 9. He’d announced his retirement, received an outpouring of affection on a night dedicated in his honor on September 25 and was in every way but official done as a player. Except he was on the active roster and he was still Willie Mays. So Yogi told the Say Hey vet — a righty, in case anybody’d forgotten during his lengthy period of inactivity — to grab a bat and hit for Kranepool.
The crowd loved it. How could it not? As Anderson’s next reliever, Clay Carroll, came on for the righty-righty ritual, anticipation built. Could the man who’d hit 660 homers since 1951 add to his bulging portfolio of legendary moments? Might the last of the New York Giants perform once more in a larger-than-life capacity?
Let’s just say that unlike Spiro Agnew, Mays wasn’t ready to quit. He attacked Carroll’s first pitch and sent it…oh, inches when measured on a line, but as high as it needed to be. It was a Baltimore chop practically straight up off the plate. By the time it came down, everybody was safe. Millan scored from third, Jones moved up from second, Milner replaced him there and, with the final hit he’d record in National League competition, Willie Mays made it to first base.
Twenty-two years and one week after standing in the on-deck circle as a nervous rookie while Bobby Thomson won the pennant for the Giants, Willie Mays extended the Mets’ lead in a potential pennant-clinching contest, 4-2…the same sequence of numbers that nowadays constituted his age.
Two more runs would score in the fifth to give Seaver a 6-2 lead. Jones moved from right to left. Don Hahn moved from center to right. And Mays stayed in to play center, where he’d catch the final out of a 1-2-3 sixth. In the bottom of the inning, Seaver led off with a double and scored on a Jones single. His lead was 7-2 when he started the seventh. He kept it as such then, and again in the eighth.
Finally, it came down to Tom Seaver and three outs for the pennant. It was an ideal setup, especially after Cesar Geronimo led off by lining out to Millan to start the ninth. But it wasn’t an ideal environment to complete such an Amazin’ story. Unsavory elements of the restless crowd began trickling onto the field. Play had to be halted a couple of times, impeding Seaver’s rhythm. While Tom attempted to cope, pinch-hitter Larry Stahl (a Met teammate of Seaver’s in 1967 and ’68) singled. Another pinch-hitter, Hal King, walked. Then Rose did the same to fill the bases with Reds. The lead was still five runs and the pitcher was still Tom Terrific, but now was the time for neither arithmetic nor reputation. Yogi knew he’d gotten plenty out of Seaver. He also knew how to pick up the phone and ring the bullpen.
In came Tug McGraw, the signature Met of the improbable drive that had brought this team to this juncture. It wasn’t just good strategy to have him go for the last two outs. After Kranepool and Mays set the stage for a pennant-clinching, karma almost demanded Tug’s presence on the mound to finish the job.
Joe Morgan, the dangerous second baseman with two MVP awards in his not-too-distant future, popped to Bud Harrelson at short for the second out.
Driessen, the callow third baseman who wore the defensive goat horns from forgetting to make a tag, grounded to Milner, who flipped the ball to McGraw.
In a six-week blink, the Mets earned the championship of the National League. In a much more condensed time frame, Shea’s playing surface was stormed as if Bastille Day II had been declared. Observers universally agreed this was a far less innocent display of joy than the ballpark had been engulfed by in 1969. The Reds, running for their lives, suggested New York was hardly a part of America and that these people coming after them might have felt more at home in a zoo. The Mets were forced to take quick cover, too, and didn’t much indulge the baser instincts that were let loose by their triumph.
“Eerie,” Tug described the reaction. “These people,” Tom asserted, “don’t care anything about baseball, or that we won. It’s just an excuse to them to go tear something up.”
In the safety of the victorious clubhouse — and wherever millions of true Mets fans celebrated in sincerity — the tenor turned suitably upbeat. All agreed there was something to this power of positive thinking McGraw kept disseminating and to not being resigned to your supposed imminent demise, no matter the assessments set forth by the nattering nabobs of negativity. Agnew’s pet phrase, as coined by speechwriter William Safire, referred to his strawmen in the press, though the now former VP could also have been talking about the poll that ran in the Post during the summer. The survey asked readers who should be fired for the disaster the Mets had become: board chairman Don Grant, GM Bob Scheffing or good old Yogi.
At this moment, all were gainfully employed and swimming in champagne.
Beyond bromides about never giving up or giving in, it might have also been worth noting that when you have pitching like the Mets showed in this series, there was no logical reason to think you couldn’t hang with and ultimately defeat the best of them.
In five games against the humble 82-79 Mets, the mighty 99-63 Reds of Rose, Morgan, Perez and Bench accumulated a grand total of eight runs. Berra’s starting rotation of Seaver, Jon Matlack, Jerry Koosman and George Stone permitted 26 hits in 41⅓ innings while McGraw threw five shutout frames of relief, entitling him, as the team’s indispensable fireman down the stretch and into the playoffs, to bellow for the record the most famous last words uttered on behalf of the 1973 National League champions:
“YOU GOTTA BELIEVE!”
And the rest of the story? How it began? Where it went from here?
You’ll find out when you read The Happiest Recap (First Base: 1962-1973).
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Pick up The Happiest Recap and get the whole Amazin’ story of the Mets’ most unbelievable stretch drive ever…and everything else.
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