- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

The Big Four-Oh

They called him Sudden Sam McDowell because he threw fast, not because he tended to put his team in the deepest hole imaginable as quickly as possible, but that’s what the hard-throwing lefty the Giants obtained from Cleveland did to his new team on May 14, 1972. The San Francisco starter walked the first batter he saw in the bottom of the first that Sunday. Then the second. Then the third. Then he gave up a home run to the fourth batter, creating a 4-0 deficit. Perhaps McDowell could have given up four consecutive home runs to achieve the same score, but this was a feat more in character with his methodology. Sudden Sam had led the American League in strikeouts five times…and walks five times. He went with only one of those core competencies versus his first three batters.

Then it was time for No. 4 on the home team’s side of the scorecard to do his thing. No. 4 in this case was the fourth batter of the game for McDowell’s opponents, the New York Mets. He was Rusty Staub, the primary preseason acquisition of his team heading into 1972. Normally we’d say offseason, but Rusty was grabbed just ahead of the new campaign, imported during the post-Spring players’ strike from Montreal in exchange for Ken Singleton, Mike Jorgensen and Tim Foli. The baseball exchange rate with Canada was severe in those days, but you didn’t protest it much because you were receiving Rusty Staub in trade. No matter what you were giving up in Singleton, Jorgensen and Foli, each of whom would flourish in the futures market, Staub was producing fair return in the present. The cleanup hitter was a major reason the Mets were in first place heading into May 14, 1972, and appeared to be the main reason they’d grip their stratospheric standing tighter heading out of it.

McDowell, on the other hand, wasn’t the most glittering get out by the Golden Gate. San Fran had swapped a pretty well-credentialed starting pitcher of its own, righty Gaylord Perry, to obtain McDowell. Perry cottoned to the American League just splendidly and would be the junior circuit’s Cy Young winner in 1972. McDowell, who made his struggles with alcohol and drug addiction public as he sought rehabilitation in retirement [1], simply wasn’t the same pitcher in the NL as he was in the AL (except for ranking in the Top Ten in walks once he arrived), especially from that first inning at Shea Stadium forward. Sudden Sam had built a 5-0 mark with an ERA of 2.57 coming into that Mother’s Day matchup versus the Mets. He’d lose eight of his final thirteen decisions in 1972, as his ERA rose to over four.

There’s that number again: four. Four batters, four runs, courtesy of No. 4 batting fourth. That’s the uplifting early part of the story from the Mets’ perspective. What could be more inspiring to take away on the 47th anniversary of Rusty Staub’s first-inning grand slam than Rusty Staub’s first-inning grand slam? What could have been the most apropos way, on May 14, 2019, to commemorate Le Grand Slam that instantly put the Mets ahead, 4-0, on May 14, 1972?

How about by echoing it?

Precisely 47 years after Staub stuck it to McDowell, there was another Mets first inning, this one in Washington. The opposing pitcher was Jeremy Hellickson, the 2011 American League Rookie of the Year. His career since his impressive debut had effected a far lower profile than McDowell’s at its peak. On a staff fronted by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, Jeremy is, in 2019, a quintessential fifth starter. Against the Mets on Tuesday night, he began his outing looking like someone who’d be happy to get through a fifth inning. His first batter, Jeff McNeil, lined a ball to center that required a splendid diving catch from Victor Robles to turn into an out. Amed Rosario followed McNeil with a sharp single to right. A would-be inning-ending double play disintegrated when replay confirmed first baseman Gerardo Parra (not really a first baseman) couldn’t complete the putout on Robinson Cano. The Mets were still alive, meaning Hellickson would have to stay on the mound.

Not a good place for the righty to remain. Pete Alonso singled. Michael Conforto worked Hellickson for eight pitches before walking and loading the bases. Up stepped Wilson Ramos [2], former National and recent offseason upgrade for the Mets. Or so it was assumed in the offseason. After a few big initial hits, Ramos has been one of the reasons the Mets have seemed so stubbornly ordinary [3] when not playing the Marlins. Not that games against the 10-30 Marlins don’t count, but if you subtracted the Mets’ 5-0 record versus Miami, the Mets came into Tuesday night at Nationals Park six games under .500 themselves. Ramos wasn’t hitting and his catching was mostly catch-as-catch-can. When a team is disappointing, many contribute to the malaise. Wilson was surely a contributor.

Batting against Hellickson, however, Ramos recovered his past National form, which is to say he hit Hellickson like he used to whack Met pitching. In this particular at-bat, he pulled the second offering he saw into the left field stands for a grand slam. Like Staub, he had created a 4-0 lead in the first inning. But Wilson wasn’t wearing No. 4. Jed Lowrie [4] is assigned No. 4 on these Mets. Jed Lowrie has yet to play for these Mets. Jed Lowrie was reportedly close to returning from the injury that has kept him out since the dawn of Spring Training, except he aggravated a hamstring and will stay sidelined a while longer. For all intents and purposes, In M*A*S*H terms, Jed Lowrie is the Jonathan Tuttle of the New York Mets [5], a figure Brodie Van Wagenen made up for his own purposes one day, and we all just kind of go along with the idea that he exists (why, Todd Frazier insists he was just taking infield with the man).

What could be better than No. 4 batting fourth and swatting a grand slam to elevate his team to a 4-0 advantage? Given that No. 4 is presumably occupied in surgery (either performing it or receiving it), how about No. 40 — that’s Ramos in your overpriced program — turning a 0-0 game into a prospective 4-0 romp on one swing? Such digital synchronicity appears unprecedented in Mets history. According to 2016’s revised edition of Mets By The Numbers [6], the only home runs hit by Mets wearing No. 40 through 2015 were launched by Robinson Cancel, Tony Tarasco and Al Moran. As Jon Springer’s and Matthew Silverman’s essential reference source was shipping to stores, Bartolo Colon famously added his four bases to the uniform number’s power annals. But none of those 40s slammed home four in any inning, let alone a first inning. The current 40 broke the mold as surely as he broke Hellickson’s heart.

Hence, we can comfortably declare Wilson Ramos’s feat unprecedented. Save for a hyphen (or an en-dash if you’re a copy-editing stickler), he wore the score he created on his front and back.

If you’re an attention-payer of some tenure, your Met antennae probably rose frantically when you saw the earlier description of that game in which Rusty Staub hit a first-inning grand slam, for you recognized that May 14, 1972, did not go down in franchise history as “that game in which Rusty Staub hit a first-inning grand slam”. Cleverly, we omitted the identities of the runners who walked to set up No. 4’s four-RBI shot off McDowell. The fella who came home from first, just ahead of Rusty, was Tommie Agee. The fella who arrived ahead of Agee and Staub was Buddy Harrelson. And leading the charge to the plate, crossing with the first run and positioning himself to congratulate his three teammates was none other than leadoff batter Willie Mays. Mays had just made his first plate appearance as a Met, for May 14, 1972, was the day of his New York debut. Well, his second New York debut. Willie Mays, the old New York Giant, had just become the newest New York Met, traded in a fit of fiscally driven sentimentality from his longtime employer Horace Stoneham to the warm and generous embrace of Joan Payson, not to mention legion of fans who felt for him as she did. It was a pretty big deal bringing Willie home from exile/San Francisco. Emotionally, it was an even bigger deal than trading for Rusty Staub. He was Willie Mays; nine days since his 88th birthday, he still is.

And being that he was Willie Mays, May 14, 1972 — the Mother’s Day that was slated to bear Staub’s signature — inevitably turned into a happy Willie Mays day for all the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and only children out there.

McDowell didn’t give up any more runs as he hung in through four innings. In the top of the fifth, after Giants catcher (and future Sportschannel stalwart whether we wanted him to be or not) Fran Healy walked, Charlie Fox pinch-hit for his pitcher with a lad named Bernie Williams, himself destined to require the addendum “not that Bernie Williams”. It was the right tactical move. Williams tripled home Healy. Chris Speier directly proceeded to double in Williams, and Tito Fuentes homered on the heels of Speier’s extra-base hit. In a four-batter span, Ray Sadecki had given back all four runs Staub has furnished him. McDowell was off the hook as the game turned to the bottom of the fifth.

Which was when it became the Willie Mays Game. There were quite a few of those celebrated across 22 seasons in New York and San Francisco, but this one was truly exquisite. Leading off again, Mays took reliever Don Carrithers over Shea’s left field wall to give the Mets a 5-4 lead they (behind five sterling innings of Jim McAndrew relief) would not relinquish; every Mets fan extant a memory that would last a lifetime; and Rusty Staub little more than a supporting role in the afternoon’s retelling [7] forever more. Of course Willie’s exploits drew the lion’s share of the attention afterwards. Staub understood his magnificent blast would have to settle for secondary billing.

“It was Mays’s day,” Rusty told reporters on Sunday, May 14, 1972. The slugger could recognize an irresistible storyline [8] just as he could discern an ideal pitch to take deep.

As for Tuesday night in Washington, May 14, 2019, we definitely would have come away remembering Ramos’s grand slam — 4-0 from 40 — as the primary highlight had Wilson’s four in the first not been overshadowed by Thor’s first five. Noah Syndergaard [9] had a no-hitter going there for more than half a game, and with Ramos putting down the proper fingers and setting an appropriate target, there seemed a decent chance the pitcher’s masterpiece would usurp not only his catcher’s thunder but make whatever happened to the Knicks in the NBA draft lottery fodder for the inside pages of ye olde sports section. Alas, the no-no bid was broken up in the sixth and Noah had to settle for going eight and recording a relatively stress-free 6-2 win [10]. The reporters who surrounded Ramos in the visitors’ clubhouse could thus ask Wilson about his own exploits rather than pump him for insights about what made Thor so thunderous.

“I’ve been working really hard in the cage to try to get my timing back,” was Ramos’s explanation for the slam whose timing couldn’t have been grander. Wilson’s first homer since April 16 constituted not only quite the power surge, but it made his manager look like a visionary. Mickey Callaway had taken some Twitterfied ribbing for having bragged on the Mets’ winning percentage in games Ramos had started, as if that matters much in the analytic scheme of things. Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn’t. Ramos definitely did on Tuesday night.

Meanwhile, Noah, speaking on behalf of his own work, said, “Pitching is a lot more fun when you just go out there and you don’t think.” Sometimes that’s what a pitcher relies on a catcher for…that and a four-run lead when he takes the mound to start the bottom of the first.