Today is the last fiftieth anniversary of any day in 1968, the last year whose baseball season I don’t personally remember. No memories whatsoever. When I think of the 1968 baseball season, I think of sitting on the edge of my bed in some undetermined year a few years later studying a New York Times-sponsored sports record book my parents gave me for my birthday in 1969, which was forty-nine years ago today, but never mind 1969 for the moment (or the fact that I’m about to have baseball memories measuring a half-century in length). We’re on the cusp of the fiftieth anniversary of 1969 and will be reveling in it in 2019. But this topic for these first few paragraphs is 1968, which was the subject of that sports record book. It had “1969” in the title, so I assumed it had very current results, like how the Knicks did the night before. I didn’t know how publishing worked (and, honestly, still don’t). I didn’t know they sometimes put next year’s year on the cover before next year becomes this year. I would learn that when I became a devoted World Almanac reader, which I would be for a very long time, but not yet.
Despite the “1969” sports record book sponsored by the New York Times not having last night’s Knicks game or this morning’s NBA standings in it, I tore into it. It had sports in it, all of them. It had statistics. It had a lengthy section on the most recent baseball season that had been played, 1968. Everything I first knew about 1968 I got from that book. I learned Denny McLain won 31 games. I learned Bob Gibson registered a 1.12 ERA. I learned Carl Yastrzemski led the American League in hitting with a relatively low-sounding .301 average. And I discovered that Jerry Koosman, whom I considered pretty good but not great as I sat on the edge of my bed gleaning, had a great rookie season: 19-12, 2.08 ERA. Those were practically Seaver numbers to my early 1970s mind. Yet the Mets themselves had been 73-89 and in ninth place.
Ninth place? Thirty-one wins for one pitcher? How did the pitcher who had the 1.12 ERA not have the 31 wins? How could only one batter in an entire league hit above .300? What was this Year of the Pitcher all about? How come the Mets couldn’t get Koosman a twentieth win? How could Koosman not have won Rookie of the Year? It was the pitchers’ year. I knew who Johnny Bench was. I knew he was nonpareil, even if I didn’t know the word “nonpareil”. But Johnny Bench didn’t win 19 games.
What a bizarre world the 1968 baseball season must have been. It might as well have been 1868 from where I sat on the edge of my bed.
The Tigers were world champions. Denny McLain wasn’t the big hero, though. It was Mickey Lolich, three wins in the World Series, 17-9 in the regular season, same as Koosman in 1969. Lolich and Koosman were second fiddles to McLain and Seaver, respectively. Koosman also had a bigger World Series than Seaver, though that I picked up on later. It wasn’t included in that 1969 sports record book. It went to press too soon for that.
All of this raced through my head as I sat on the edge of my bed some sunny morning, shades closed, lights off, probably home sick from school, a few years after December 31, 1968, the end of the last year whose baseball season would have to exist exclusively for me on pages practically falling out of a paperback book. The cover had come off pretty quickly. That’s how much I handled that sports record book. That’s how much I yearned to learn about baseball from right before I got to baseball.
Today is the last fortieth anniversary of any day in 1978, the last year whose baseball season I couldn’t fully follow every last day. When I say “fully follow,” I mean that from August 10 to the end of the season, there was a New York newspaper strike, meaning the game stories and columns I was used to weren’t there. No Post. No News. No Times. Newsday published; a suburban paper from Jersey showed up at our local luncheonette on Long Island; and there were a few thin strike papers that were mostly day-old wire copy, but it wasn’t the same. My well-developed baseball habits — watch the Mets game tonight, read about it the next day — were unmoored. The games went on, but without the stories and the columns, it just wasn’t as textured. Still, I stayed attuned. John Stearns was breaking a stolen bases record for catchers. Jerry Koosman remained snakebitten. That was a term Bob Murphy used for a pitcher who pitched well but never seemed to win (he used it a lot for Lolich when he became a Met). Willie Montañez was piling up RBIs. The Mets weren’t doing very well after a reasonably good start — 23-24 in late May — but at least it wasn’t as depressing as 1977 when we traded Seaver. At least I don’t think it was. It was hard to be sure without the newspapers.
Enough data was delivered through whatever channels were available to let me know that Craig Swan was leading the National League in ERA. You wouldn’t have guessed it from his won-lost record. He wasn’t going to win ten games from the looks of things, but you could still have a low earned run average regardless of how little your team supported you. Swannie’s ERA wasn’t as low as Guidry’s in the American League (TV talked ad nauseum about what Guidry’s team was up to) but it was better than his cohort. The pitchers closest to Craig — Steve Rogers of the Expos, Pete Vukovich of the Cardinals, Bob Knepper of the Giants — didn’t have the biggest names. The pitchers with the biggest names — Perry of the Padres, Blue of the Giants, Carlton of the Phillies, even Seaver of the Reds — didn’t have the smallest ERAs. They were all under 3.00, but they weren’t under Swan.
Which is to say that in the pitching category that counted most if you were aware of snakebittenness, they were all under Swan.
In his final start, Swannie allowed one earned run to St. Louis in seven innings, lowering his ERA from 2.47 to 2.43 and raising his won-lost record to 9-6. Word got around that he won the ERA title. The Post made its own deal and resumed publication in early October, in time for the overly covered ALCS. The News andTimes were out for another month, completely missing the Yankees winning another World Series from the Dodgers, though I wouldn’t say they missed anything. The Mets, who ended up in last place three games behind the Cards, wouldn’t truly be back until 1984, the year they released Craig Swan. He wound up an Angel, which I remember as really strange.
Today is the last thirtieth anniversary of any day in 1988, the last year when the Mets won 100 games in the regular season. It’s not automatically the last where perpetuity is concerned. They are theoretically eligible to win 100 games in any season in which at least 100 are played, certainly when there are 162. But it has not happened since.
Lord, those Mets were good. A tad schizophrenic from a chronological standpoint, but when they were in good mode, they were dynamite. I inevitably split the season into three sectors: the 30-11 start (dynamite); the 41-41 middle (fizzle); and the 29-8 conclusion (dynamite redux). The hitting was the inconsistent personality element. Except for Strawberry. Strawberry carried the offense. He’d homer in the first or second inning and the pitching would make it hold up. The pitching was consistent. Consistently astounding, nobody more so than David Cone, whose leapt from “this guy could be pretty good” to “how did this guy get so great so fast?” in a blink. From 5-6 and rotation insurance in ’87 to en route to 20 wins and near-ace status in ’88. I say near-ace because Doc Gooden was having a fine season and nobody could out-ace Doc in my heart (just as nobody could out-ace Seaver, win totals and ERA crowns in a given campaign be damned).
But Coney was as good a pitcher as anybody during the biggest chunk of the year. Danny Jackson got going sooner (David wasn’t even in the Mets’ rotation when the season began) and Orel Hershiser was grabbing headlines later (something about a shutout streak), but Cone was baffling hitters from May through September, the month when all the Mets asserted themselves. What had been a nervous divisional race with the Pirates evolved into a blowout. Kevin McReynolds joined Darryl as an MVP candidate. Mookie caught fire. HoJo was blazing. Gregg Jefferies, the projected story of tomorrow, became the phenom of today. And David Cone, on Friday night, September 30, threw a two-hit complete game to beat the Cardinals, 4-2, and pick up his twentieth win — 20-3, 2.22 ERA, plus 213 strikeouts.
It was the Mets’ 98th win. On Saturday, Sid Fernandez won his twelfth and the Mets their 99th. On Sunday, Ron Darling won his 17th (notching the same 17-9 record as Kooz had in ’69 and Lolich had in ’68) and the Mets their 100th. Perfect round number. It took them only 160 games. Two rainouts weren’t rescheduled, meaning that from a winning-percentage perspective, we had just finished watching the second-best Mets team ever. Not quite the 108-54 1986 Mets, but .008 better than the 100-62 1969 Mets. The playoffs and the World Series awaited, and once those were won, then we could figure out where to rank this incredibly talented team. Gooden would pitch Game One in the NLCS against the Dodgers, Coney Game Two. You had to feel good about our chances. L.A. had won only 94.
Today is the last twentieth anniversary of any day in 1998, the last year when it had been forever since the Mets had been to the postseason. Psychically, every year when the Mets aren’t in the postseason feels like forever, but one must calibrate rationally. The last time the Mets had been in the playoffs was 1988, when we didn’t beat the Dodgers. We contended legitimately if half-assedly in 1989 and a little more seriously in 1990 but came up short both times. I can’t say “it was OK,” but it had been only two years and when there was only one playoff position to be had from a given division, it was greedy to assume we’d be granted one. The ’80s were over. Greed wasn’t good.
We continued to contend in 1991 until early August. Then we quit cold turkey. It was hard to think of ourselves and the playoffs in the same thought bubble anymore. A makeover prior to 1992 yielded pretty much the same effect: hanging in there until early August, then an utter implosion. Nineteen Ninety-Three was worse than the two previous disasters combined. We were a seventh-place team, which seemed as impossible to grasp as ninth place had been when I first found about it post-1968.
Simply not being as abysmal as 1993 was the goal in 1994 and we achieved it. I thought we’d be much better in 1995, and we were, but not until fairly late in the season when it was too late to cobble together anything resembling a playoff push. Both seasons following ’93 were strike-shortened. If we could have added together the respectable portions, maybe that would have gotten us into a race.
That’s not how it worked in baseball by then, but it was indeed working differently. There were three divisions, not two, in each league. There were two playoff positions attainable. You couldn’t have them both, but if you didn’t win your division, you could be a Wild Card. The encouraging ending in 1995 had me thinking the Mets could be that Card in 1996. Didn’t happen. Didn’t come close to happening. I didn’t come close to thinking Wild Card in August and September. Get a winning record, then we’ll talk. We hadn’t had one since 1990.
In 1997, we had a winning record. Shorn of expectations, we exceeded them. From nowhere we shot into the Wild Card picture. It was real and it was spectacular. It fell a little short (four games), but for the first time in a long time, I could enter the next season with legitimate expectations.
The next season would be 1998. We were taking our 88-74 pepperpot and spicing it up with cast-off world champion Marlins. The Marlins weren’t like other world champions. The Marlins won the Wild Card, then two rounds of playoffs, then the World Series. It was legal. They were entitled to call themselves world champs and defend their title accordingly. They didn’t bother with the latter. Their owner didn’t think even a world championship team was going to attract fans in regularly rainy Miami. He wanted a ballpark with a roof. If he wasn’t going to get one, he wasn’t going to keep his world champions intact. So off they were scattered, trade by trade. Two trades directly benefited us. One was for a dependable lefty reliever named Dennis Cook, the other for an intermittently successful lefty starter named Al Leiter.
Leiter turned into the prize of the offseason and the ace of the next season. He was never better for any team than he was for the 1998 Mets. Control didn’t elude him. Health didn’t much hinder him. Little went wrong when he was on the mound. Plus he was from New Jersey and talked constantly about having been a Mets fan as a kid, loving Seaver, loving Koosman. How could we not love Al Leiter?
How could we not love the 1998 Mets and the prospect that they could make the playoffs? A strong start of 9-4 indicated 1997 was no fluke. They muddled for a bit thereafter while injuries occurred, but come May the Marlins came to their rescue again. Florida had acquired Mike Piazza. They had to if they wanted to rid themselves of Gary Sheffield and a few other well-compensated players. They also wanted to rid themselves of Piazza ASAP. The Mets, to the surprise of many, wanted to add the All-Star catcher, the former Dodger universally recognized as the best hitter at his position since at least Bench, maybe ever.
We got him. We got Mike Piazza. Mike Piazza showed up on a Saturday in late May, caught a shutout from Al Leiter and away we went. Not without obstacles, perhaps, but definitely for real. We were in it to win it, it being the Wild Card. Atlanta, now in the East, was too far ahead for us to touch, but this second playoff spot was really and truly in our grasp. Us, the Cubs, the Giants…it was gonna be one of us.
Why not us? We had Al Leiter. On the penultimate Sunday of the season, Al shut out the depleted Marlins for eight innings, hiking his won-lost record to 17-6 and lowering his ERA to 2.47, third-best in the National League when the regular season was over. Unfortunately, when the regular season was over, so were the Mets. They carried a one-game Wild Card lead into the final week of 1998, yet neither embellished nor defended it. The Mets lost their last five games, including Al’s decent until it wasn’t start in Game 161 at dreaded Turner Field. The Mets were eliminated in Game 162. Their playoffless streak had reached ten years. For the first time since 1988, because it was so very much the goal of the season, it really felt like it had been forever.
Like I said, it always feels like forever, but this one really hurt. I was pretty much ready to give up baseball the way the Mets gave up the playoff hunt. I got over it. I stayed engaged to see the Mets end their drought in 1999. They haven’t gone ten consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance since the end of the 1998 season. They’ve come close, but they’ve snapped to just in time to keep their strings of annual absences in single digits.
This is not a dare, by the way, just an observation.
Today is the last tenth anniversary of any day in 2008, the last season when going to “the Mets game” instinctively meant going to Shea Stadium. I went to Shea Stadium for 44 Mets game at Shea Stadium in 2008. I wasn’t going to let go of it without a fight.
The fight was futile. The Mets announced in 2005 that they’d be replacing Shea, began digging up the parking lot to accommodate its replacement in 2006 and had erected the outlines of what appeared to be a ballpark in 2007. It would be called Citi Field and it would be what meant going to “the Mets game” would mean from 2009 until it was decided a new state-of-the-art facility was necessary.
I fumed with resentment over this encroaching affront to my instincts. Never mind whatever was icky or sticky about the incumbent. Never mind my fondness for retro baseball palaces I’d visited out of town. I knew what going to the Mets game meant. You weren’t going to change my meaning on me.
Shea gave 2008 much of its meaning. Johan Santana gave it the rest. Oh my gosh, we got Johan Santana? Who saw that coming? This was like Piazza, but for pitching. He was one of those hypotheticals you floated with friends and strangers, as in “maybe we can get Santana next year if the Twins want to dump his contract,” but we didn’t really think it would happen.
We didn’t really think Shea Stadium’s demise would happen, but it did, so why not Johan? Right around the moment the Giants were preparing to defeat the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII (speaking of things you didn’t think would happen), we got Johan. We got Santana, formerly the best pitcher in the American League, to go with Pedro Martinez, also formerly the best pitcher in the American League, though longer ago. The rest of the rotation was whoever. The important thing was Johan. What a makegood for the way 2007 ended.
We needed more than Johan, actually. He was all right as the season got going, but the Mets stumbled along, posting a losing record into July and getting their manager dismissed in the mediocre process. Then, as if they remembered they were good, the Mets heated up. Our core of Wright, Reyes, Beltran and Delgado (especially Delgado) played like the stars they had been in previous seasons. And our ace reminded us of why were so excited in February. Johan was positively Twinsome. Shea was alive. So were the Mets. We led the East into September. Then, thanks primarily to a barren bullpen — plenty of bodies, but a paucity of ability — another stumble. The Mets were probably competing more for a Wild Card than the division as the schedule wound down. Whatever it took, we would take it, as long as we had Johan.
On the final Saturday of the 2008 season, the final Saturday of Shea Stadium’s life, the formula was foolproof. Those of us who attended will never forget it. I imagine the same could be said for anybody who watched it on television, listened to it on radio or sensed its vibes through any medium. Oh my gosh, we had Johan Santana. Pitching on three days’ rest (which nobody ever did anymore), on a bad knee (which nobody knew about in advance), Johan went nine innings (which everybody understood was essential in light of the bullpen being marked a hazardous waste site). The nine innings were of the shutout variety. Johan, completing a 16-7, 2.53 season that didn’t being to describe how masterful he’d been, scattered three hits and beat the Marlins, 2-0. He didn’t drive in the two runs and he didn’t record every putout, but it feels absolutely accurate to say it was he who beat the Marlins, 2-0. He kept Shea alive and the Mets alive. Johan hadn’t lost a decision since late June and the Mets were 13-3 in his final sixteen starts.
That was Game 161, my forty-third at Shea on the season. It might have been the ideal juncture for us all, Mets included, to stop going right then and there.
Today is the last day in which anniversaries of 2018 can be expressed in no more than months. This is the last day of 2018, also the forty-ninth anniversary of my seventh birthday when I got that sports record book (you do the math). I became a Mets fan fifty years ago this coming season, 1969, but like I said, we’ll talk about 1969 in 2019. This is 2018, the year whose season was the only one we talked about in the present tense. We talked mostly about how this wasn’t a very good season but we had the very best pitcher, Jacob deGrom: 1.70 ERA, 269 strikeouts, all kinds of metrics that have been developed over the decades to further confirm his magnificence. His won-lost mark is more Swannish than is fathomable in light of his other numbers, but when we read all about it these days (rarely in newspapers let alone almanac-style record books), we get that a 10-9 record means only what you want it to.
We generally agreed it meant nothing at all in 2018 when it came to deGrom. We generally agreed we’d never seen anything like deGrom, not even in the Year of the Pitcher…though I already made clear I saw nothing in the Year of the Pitcher. I saw the Year of the Pitcher when it was history. Sometimes, because I studied those statistics so carefully, I feel as if I was there for Koosman’s 19-12, just as I was for Swan’s 2.43, Coney’s 20-3, Al’s 2.47 and Johan’s closing kick. All these years ending in 8s were all years of the pitcher to me.
And all these pitchers have kept me coming back for the years that followed, even when I swore I was done.