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Good Times I Remember

Happy 1975 everybody! No, I’m not daft, but I realize with less than one day left in 2015, the opportunity to write a milestone remembrance of one of my favorite Met years is about to expire. I could write about 1975 in 2016, but that would be the 41st anniversary and even though 41 is an awesome number in Met circles, it just doesn’t work that way.

So because 1975 + 40 is about to end — and because today is my birthday (the 40th anniversary of the one when I turned 13) — I’m going to celebrate what the Mets did in 1975.

Tom Seaver [1] won 22 games.

Tom Seaver won the Cy Young [2] award.

Tom Seaver struck out more than 200 batters for an eighth consecutive year.

Tom Seaver was my favorite player and the best pitcher in baseball.

Randy Tate [3], whom I’d never heard of before 1975 and who’d never pitch in the majors again after 1975, won five games, not including one in which he nearly threw a no-hitter. He went 5-13, but I’m still thinking fondly of him four decades later.

Jon Matlack [4] was the All-Star Game co-MVP. He shared it with Bill Madlock [5], which seems like a typographical precaution.

Jerry Koosman [6] saved two games, stole second base once and lost as many games as Randy Tate. He went 14-13.

The Mets went 82-80 (I like how pitchers and teams “go” and “went”), which was an eleven-game improvement from 1974, which was the first losing season I ever experienced and, maybe not coincidentally, the last season that I have significant holes in my specific recollections of. I decided to be very excited about 1975 in advance and stayed immensely engaged in their activities for 162 games.

The 1975 Mets subtracted Duffy Dyer [7], Ken Boswell [8], Ray Sadecki [9], Teddy Martinez [10], Don Hahn [11], Dave Schneck [12] and Tug McGraw [13] before it ever became 1975. They added Gene Clines [14], Bob Gallagher [15], Joe Torre [16], Jack Heidemann [17], John Stearns [18], Mac Scarce [19] and Del Unser [20] as a direct result. That’s what got me excited.

Then they added Dave Kingman [21] as Spring Training was beginning. Now that was exciting.

Dave Kingman broke Frank Thomas [22]’s single-season Met home run record. It had been 34 since 1962. I accepted that 34 home runs by a Met was the equivalent of 48 hit for a player on a team that hit home runs as a matter of course…which was something the Mets simply didn’t do. The idea that 34 could be exceeded was as mind-boggling in its day as it was that any Met — Randy Tate or otherwise — could throw a no-hitter.

Tom Seaver nearly threw a no-hitter in 1975, but he lost it with two out in the ninth to Joe Wallis [23] and, besides, the Mets hadn’t scored yet, so even if was a no-hitter, it wasn’t necessarily going to be a no-hitter.

Dave Kingman hit 36 home runs.

Dave Kingman played first, third and the outfield. He was what was considered versatile. He played none of those positions gracefully or particularly skillfully. But who cared? He hit more home runs than Frank Thomas.

Rusty Staub [24] drove in 105 runs. Another inconceivable total. Donn Clendenon [25] had held the team record of 97. Rusty shattered it.

Kingman: 36 homers! Staub: 105 RBIs! Seaver: a conceivable/excellent 22 wins!

Why were the Mets only two games over .500?

Ah, it doesn’t matter 40 almost 41 years later. What matters is Unser (batting close to .300 at midseason) should’ve joined Seaver and Matlack at the All-Star Game; that Felix Millan [26] played in all 162 games; that Ed Kranepool [27] batted .400 as a pinch-hitter; that Bob Apodaca [28] was a better closer in the first half than McGraw was for the Phillies; that Mike Vail [29] — a throw-in with Heidemann — hit in 23 consecutive games as an August callup; that Mike Phillips [30] (a .342 hitter in his first 22 Met games), Jesus Alou [31] (.350 as a pinch-hitter); Ken Sanders [32] (who was terrific out of the pen before and even after getting hit in the eye by Stearns’ errant return of a warmup pitch), Tom Hall [33] (who wasn’t terrific out of the pen for very long, but was a former Red, and they were good) and Skip Lockwood [34] (a 1.49 ERA in 24 appearances, including a save in the team’s 82nd win, which clinched them a piece of third place and a memorable World Series share [35]) all came along as the year progressed. They were veterans I’d heard of and their presence made me think the Mets couldn’t help but get better…just as I was sure Heidemann and Gallagher and Clines and so on were going to improve the Mets something fierce.

They were improved. They won eleven games more than in ’74. They stayed relatively close to first place during the summer and edged to within four games of first in early September. It didn’t take, but I believed.

I was 12 going on 13, so you couldn’t tell me different.

I was 12 and watching or listening to the Mets every day and reading about the Mets in everything I could find and thinking about the Mets most of the time.

Just like when I was 52 going on 53, I suppose.

And 42 going on 43.

And 32 going on 33.

And 22 going on 23.

I’m either in kind of a rut or Amazin’ly consistent.

It’s always been fun, but it was, on some level, as fun as it ever was or would be in 1975. Give me an OK Mets team that has kind of a chance and a handful of players doing extraordinary things and I’ll still be warmed by their very existence 40 going on 41 years later.

There was a song out that season: “Old Days” by Chicago [36]. It was reflective of somebody else’s nostalgia. I was too young for nostalgia. To my mind, I was living in the greatest baseball season I’d ever lived through, all things considered, yet I identified with “Old Days” immediately. Maybe I was taken by the lyric that listed “baseball cards and birthdays” among the things the narrator wistfully longed for.

My birthday wouldn’t be until December 31, but by the time I first heard “Old Days,” probably in May, I’d managed to secure most of the 660 cards Topps had released in 1975. Baseball cards were at the center of my life and now they were mentioned on the radio at regular intervals.

The world was coming around to my way of thinking.

The day 1975 ended, the day I turned 13, I might have had an inkling it was never going to be the same again. That wasn’t to say it wasn’t going to be fine — it would just be different. “Twelve years old” had a ring to it. “Thirteen,” impending Bar Mitzvah notwithstanding, was supposed to be unlucky. Once 13 got going, it was all about getting to 14. I had my first facial hair at 13, the slightest hint of a mustache. People expected you to know more and more things as you got older. At 12, knowing about baseball was enough.

Plus, just before I turned 13, the Mets traded Rusty Staub for Mickey Lolich [37]. The world was definitely getting more complicated.

Twelve became Old Days pretty quickly. I asked for one birthday present at 13: The Sports Collectors Bible [38] by Bert Randolph Sugar. Thing is, I never collected baseball cards with quite the same enthusiasm again. I wouldn’t be quite so optimistic about how the Mets were going to do in the season ahead for almost another decade. By then, former youngsters Gary Carter [39] of the Expos and Keith Hernandez [40] of the Cardinals were grizzled Mets. Mike Vail, who never exceeded his late 1975 exploits, was retired. Rusty Staub was somehow back with the Mets but not driving in 105 runs. Tom Seaver somehow wasn’t a Met and had never again won as many as 22 games in a single season or another Cy Young.

The next time I was incredibly optimistic about the next Mets season, it was 1985, which was 30 years ago and is about to be 31, which is also a pretty special Met number, but those are other stories for other times.

I hope this time that we’re in now, 2015 going on 2016, is breaking records for all of you. I really hope that some Mets fan who was 12 this year that the Mets improved by eleven wins (from 79 in 2014 to 90 in 2015) finds himself down the road looking back and remembering how great it was then, that year the Mets won the pennant.

And when he’s down that road, I hope he still finds himself excited over how great it can be every year.