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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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The Last Ace from the Deck

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

I’m getting the feeling I came in at the end. The best is over.
—Tony Soprano

From June 7 through June 11 in 1977, the Mets’ starting rotation turned like this:

Tom Seaver
Jerry Koosman
Jon Matlack
Craig Swan

That would be the last time we’d have that particular group of pitchers working in succession on our behalf. On June 15, 1977, Tom Seaver was traded to Cincinnati, as that’s the sort of thing the Mets did in 1977. During the offseason following 1977, Jon Matlack was shipped to Texas in a four-team transactional extravaganza that also directed John Milner to Pittsburgh. And after the 1978 season, the Mets acceded to good ol’ Jerry Koosman’s wishes and sent him home to Minnesota.

When 1979 started, only one-quarter of the aforementioned armed quartet was left in New York. You wouldn’t have willingly cast off Seaver, Matlack or Koosman for the sole purpose of keeping Swan, but if you were limited to only one of the four, Craig Swan was by no means a bad remainder. Come 1979 and into the early 1980s, Swannie stood as tall in contemporary Metsian perception as any member of the erstwhile foursome, because in 1978, Craig Swan had made a name for himself.

In 1978, Craig Swan turned himself into the ace of the Mets’ staff — a legitimate ace, one even a team that hadn’t lost 96 games would be happy to have. The righthander, who had been drafted in the third round in 1972 and overwhelmed the International League in 1975, but had struggled as he sought to keep up with the Toms, Jons and Jerrys through 1977, captured the National League’s earned run average title by clocking in at 2.43 and beating out a whole cluster of notable pitchers. Steve Rogers finished second at 2.47. Tom Seaver finished tenth at 2.88. Crammed in between were the starry likes of Pete Vuckovich, Bob Knepper, Burt Hooton, Gaylord Perry, Vida Blue, Steve Carlton and Ed Halicki. You see Hall of Famers there. You see sensations, Cy Youngs, World Series starters, playoff participants. You see a guy in Halicki who once threw a no-hitter against the Mets in a game where his opponent was the highly touted yet still rather raw Craig Swan.

For one season, pitchers whose baseball cards you’d think twice before risking in flipping all took a back seat to this guy from the Mets. The Mets made hardly anybody take a back seat to them in 1978, but when it came to earned run average, all you hurlers can just be quiet back there. Mr. Swan is driving.

League ERA leaders in 1978, from right to left: Craig Swan of the New York Mets; some other guy.

Being best in the senior circuit constituted hot enough stuff. What makes the feat just as impressive from a parochial perspective is where that 2.43 stood in the Met annals at the moment Swannie registered it. Here are the ten lowest title-qualifying single-season ERAs in Mets history between 1962 and 1978:

Tom Seaver: 1.76 (1971)
Tom Seaver: 2.08 (1973)
Jerry Koosman: 2.08 (1968)
Tom Seaver: 2.20 (1968)
Tom Seaver: 2.21 (1969)
Jerry Koosman: 2.28 (1969)
Jon Matlack: 2.32 (1972)
Tom Seaver: 2.38 (1975)
Jon Matlack: 2.41 (1974)
Craig Swan: 2.43 (1978)

For approximately five-and-a-third seasons, from Matlack gaining a foothold in his rookie year of 1972 until Seaver was traded, we as Mets fans took enormous pride in our dynamic trio, the best darn pitching threesome in captivity as far as we were concerned. Judging by ERA, the most sophisticated of mainstream pitching metrics (only an expert could teach you to calculate it), Craig Swan was literally the next best thing.

Which, in a land bereft of Seaver and Matlack, with Koosman pining for the chill of the Twin Cities, is a pretty commendable position to stake. Swan’s 1978 would maintain its claim on our statistical consciousness for a while longer. It wouldn’t be topped (or bottomed) by another Mets starter until Doc Gooden rolled his unforgettable 1.53 in 1985. To this day, Craig’s 2.43 is the fifteenth-best single-season ERA in Mets history, and to this day the only Mets to win ERA titles are Seaver (three times), Gooden, Johan Santana, Jacob deGrom and some guy named Craig Swan.

Seaver, Gooden, Santana and deGrom all won Cy Youngs at some point in their careers; every one of them, I would guess, has been deemed the GOAT by some enthusiastic tweeter in the modern age. Swan had to settle for the occasional waterfowl pun in newsprint. I’m convinced he went mostly unnoticed in precincts that weren’t Shea Stadium or the 1978 ERA listings. And who knows? If a couple of official scorer’s decisions had been different, maybe Swan finishes second in his category forty-two years ago and then Craig Swan is just…

Well, he’s still Craig Swan to us. That was extremely valuable post-Seaver and pre-Gooden. We had been all about young, homegrown starting pitching before Craig Swan, and we’d be all about young, homegrown starting pitching after Craig Swan. By the time Craig Swan reached his apex as a Met, however, he was pretty much all the Mets had in the way of young, homegrown pitching…with his youth rapidly morphing into baseball middle age the way that’ll happen with pitchers.

Swan had been a young Met and would become a shall we say venerable Met. He surely put in his time to gain his experience. During the course of his Met tenure, beginning with his debut in the second game of 1973’s Labor Day doubleheader, Swan started 184 games. That was more than any Met started from that nightcap forward, until his final appearance (in relief) on May 7, 1984. Within that span, that amounts to 13 starts more than Koosman; 28 starts more than Seaver; 52 starts more than Matlack; and 71 starts more than Pat Zachry, the pitcher who generally filled out the one-two punch we perceived our rotation delivering in the best of times during what was basically the worst of times.

From the time the Mets were founded in 1962 until the last time the Mets played in 2019, Swan started the ninth-most games of any Mets pitcher ever. Those ahead of him — Seaver, Koosman, Gooden, Sid Fernandez, Ron Darling, Matlack and Bobby Jones — each made at least one National League All-Star team. Swan didn’t make any. He made the mistake of being at the top of his game when the Mets were not scoring a whit for him. Halfway to his ERA title, in the eighty-first game of 1978, Swannie threw a complete game five-hitter, striking out thirteen Phillies, the same Phillies who were headed to a third consecutive division title. The only detail missing from this description is a win. Craig got tagged with a couple of late home runs and lost, 3-2. The decision lowered his record to 1-5 despite an earned run average of 2.66.

When Tommy Lasorda was mandated by the rule of law to take some 1978 Met to the All-Star Game, he grabbed Zachry, who was an extraordinarily encouraging 10-3 at the halfway mark, pairing that gaudy W sum with an ERA of 2.90. If choosing between the Met pitcher with the higher win total and the Met pitcher with the lower ERA, there was no doubt which Met pitcher Lasorda would pick. You didn’t have to explain 10-3. In those pre-deGrom enlightenment days, good luck getting somebody to understand how 1-5 merited All-Stardom. I don’t recall a single argument circulating that Lasorda should have taken both Mets, even though I’m ostensibly making it in hindsight.

Zachry’s second half was curtailed when he kicked a batting helmet in disgust after giving up a hit to Pete Rose during his former teammate’s epic hitting streak and, really, Pat never recovered his momentum, not in 1978, not for the rest of his career. Swan, meanwhile, kept his feet on the ground (despite also getting nicked by Rose during the streak), kept reaching for the stars, kept pitching until the Mets’ bats did him the occasional solid. Even with that league-leading ERA, he finished a scant 9-6, which meant going 8-1 with a 2.22 magic number in thirteen starts after the All-Star break for a ballclub otherwise spiraling toward 66-96.

Yet Craig received as many Cy Young votes for his 1978 efforts as he did invitations to All-Star Games. Ten National League pitchers drew at least a point’s worth of support from the baseball writers; none of them was named Swan. It couldn’t have helped the New York Met’s visibility that much of what he did in the second half of ’78 took place during a citywide newspaper strike. Any chance that he’d be the big pitching story in at least the suburban papers or the local newscasts probably wilted in the glare given off by Ron Guidry’s 1.74 ERA across town. Oh, and Guidry was winning 25 games for a high-profile team clinching its division in sudden death versus its archrival; his 25th victory happened to come in Game 163.

The 1978 Mets finished sixth in a six-team division. Perhaps Craig Swan would have preferred playing fourth fiddle behind Seaver, Matlack and Koosman for a rotation that lost a lot fewer games and came a lot closer to winning a flag. Swannie had a taste of what that might be like during his apprenticeship years, making his debut in the heat of the 1973 pennant race and getting a few reps for the 1975 Mets as they flirted with serious contention in August. Once he was fully established as a major league starter, however, it was all he could do to outpitch his circumstances.

I wouldn’t blame Swan if he treated his earned run average title the way Homer Simpson treated his 300 game in the 2000 Simpsons episode, “Hello Gutter, Hello Fadder”. Homer, it will be recalled, milked every ounce of fame out of his spectacular day of bowling, going so far as to stroll on stage uninvited and interrupt an intricate Penn & Teller routine.

PENN: Now before my partner Teller hits the shark-infested water, I’ll need to borrow someone’s crossbow. […] Now to save my partner’s life, I’ll need complete —

HOMER: Hello, everybody! Did somebody say, “a perfect game”?

But Craig Swan has never done anything of the sort as far as I know. He certainly didn’t coast on his achievement in 1979. The Mets’ Opening Day starter — the first one not named Tom Seaver or Jerry Koosman since 1967 — notched a win that afternoon at Wrigley Field. Damned if he wasn’t going to gather up all the decisions he could, going 14-13. We haven’t had too many Mets garner as many as 14 wins and be saddled with as many as 13 losses in a given season lately. The only pitcher of ours to do so in this century has been Bartolo Colon (twice).

Unfortunately, winning five games more for another last-place Mets club didn’t bring Swan any greater distinction among those who decide who’s an All-Star or a Cy Young candidate. His ERA trended up, to 3.29, but at least he took the ball every time Joe Torre planned on handing it to him. Craig’s 35 starts were by far a career high, not a small detail for a pitcher forever nagged by injuries and maladies. (Only three Mets have started as many as 35 games since 1979: Gooden, Darling and Frank Viola twice.)

Swannie’s timing in demonstrating durability made him a desirable commodity on both coasts. The Angels took notice and worked out a trade proposal, preparing to send two everyday players of promise to New York, slugger Willie Mays Aikens (21 homers at age 24) and shortstop Dickie Thon (a .339 batting average in 35 games at age 20), in exchange for 30-year-old Swan. California was coming off a division title and this move might finally catapult the pitcher into serious contention. It might have helped the Mets’ offense, too.

But in her last act before selling the team, Lorinda de Roulet vetoed the trade. Aside from claiming she didn’t want to make such a big move on the eve of finding new owners, she allegedly wondered, how GM Joe McDonald trade her ace for Thon, “just a baby”.

Well, baby, Swan, with free agency looming on his horizon, had himself some leverage. The new owners, Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon, couldn’t afford to lose their pitching staff’s veritable meal ticket, and making a goodwill gesture to secure the fans’ confidence as their massive rebuild began couldn’t hurt their image as genuine go-getters. It wasn’t the same management that refused to pay Tom Seaver what he was worth in 1977, but it was the same ballclub with the same understandably sensitive following. Thus, in the spring of 1980, the Mets gave Craig Swan a five-year contract worth $3.15 million, a figure that was enormous where the Mets of those days were concerned, but could be construed as fair for a pitcher who’d carried the load as he had for two seasons: 23 wins, an ERA under three.

Frank Cashen and Joe Torre looked to Craig Swan for more big things after signing him to a five-year contract. Only Cashen would be around in five years’ time.

Naturally, our mustachioed hero’s hard-earned durability disappeared. Swan started Opening Day in 1980 and won, just as in ’79. Then he’d go out and win four more decisions, the last of them on June 11 (a complete game, ten-inning, six-hitter captured via Mike Jorgensen’s walkoff grand slam). Swan got hurt in mid-July and missed a month. He started twice more in August and then was shelved, disappearing onto the DL with a 5-9 record and a 3.58 ERA. Nineteen Eighty-One was worse, as he started only twice before the strike and once after it.

Just as he remained following the departures of Seaver, Matlack and Koosman, Craig Swan stayed put on the Mets amid the comings and goings of Zachry, Falcone, Bomback, what have you. It would have been difficult to trade his contract by 1982. The new manager, George Bamberger, sent him to the bullpen in April. Having succeeded in relief, the ex-ace was reinstated in the rotation in June. It turned into another pretty good Swan year for another terrible Mets team: 11-7, 3.35 ERA; 65-97, last place. Nineteen Eighty-Three saw Swan and the Mets in sync, with both parties posting dreadful lines. The pitcher was 2-8 off an ERA of 5.51 for a team that again finished last, this time at 68-94. Except in ’83, whereas Swan was done pitching by the end of August, the Mets were just finding themselves late in the season. They had called up Darryl Strawberry in May, traded for Keith Hernandez in June and were slotting starts for promising youngsters Walt Terrell and Ron Darling. The Mets’ arrow was subtly pointing up.

Swan’s was pointing out the door. Most of his ten relief appearances in 1984, under Davey Johnson (his seventh manager), served as a reminder that all those injuries had taken a toll. His ERA — his signature stat from six years before — had bloated to 8.20. Dwight Gooden was in the rotation now, alongside Darling and Terrell. The Mets were getting better as they were getting younger. Swan wasn’t even trade bait. There’d be no getting a reasonably decent package of Zachry, Flynn, Henderson and Norman for him à la Seaver, no quadruple-play that would land an RBI machine like Willie Montañez as the dispatching of Matlack did, not even a young, unknown quantity like Jesse Orosco, who came from Minnesota in exchange for Jerry Koosman. Forget about anybody on the level of Aikens or Thon. The Angels had traded both of them long before ’84. But California would scoop up Craig a couple of weeks after the Mets swallowed what was left of his salary and released him. The SoCal native made two appearances as a Halo. One was a start. Neither was encouraging. One more trip to Spring Training, in 1985, convinced both him and the Angels that he was done.

Craig Swan’s Met legacy is primarily that 1978 ERA title. That’s a helluva thing to leave behind. There’s also the lingering sense, if you watched him for a decade, that he was an oxymoron: a constant who had a hard time staying on the mound. As his first manager, Yogi Berra, might have said, Swan was always around, even when he wasn’t. You couldn’t start naming Mets without naming Swan. Hell, I can remember a story that appeared somewhere c. 1980 that a family on Long Island was keeping a swan as a pet and they named him…

Whaddaya think they named their swan? Not Ron Guidry or Pat Zachry.

Sail on down the line, indeed.

Over those eleven full or partial seasons that Craig Swan the person was a Met, he compiled a record of 58-71, with an earned run average of 3.74. “It’s hard to be proud of a record that’s not at least .500 record,” Swan admitted in article published in the Mets’ 1981 program, adding that he dreamed of a 21-7 or 23-10 type of season that he could look back on in satisfaction when he was retired and sailing around the world. He never got anything close to those numbers, but I hope he’s as fond of that 2.43 from 1978 as I am. It meant a lot coming down what passed for a stretch that a Met — a homegrown Met — was competing to lead the league in something that significant.

Nevertheless, while he pitched for the Mets (or rehabilitated in hopes of getting back to pitching for the Mets), Craig Swan was truly more than his numbers, no matter how good or bad the numbers might be this year or that. Maybe it was the fact that he loosely filled Seaver’s shoes — he lived in Greenwich like Seaver and the two were known to have become close — that made Swan seem a little extra special in a period when little about Mets’ starting pitching was distinctive. On the other hand, he got himself in the kind of trouble you couldn’t ever imagine Tom Terrific courting. For example, disgusted that the Mets had to fly commercial from St. Louis to LaGuardia in 1982 (the flight was delayed), Swan got into it with traveling secretary Arthur Richman and a succession of authority figures, clear up to coach Frank Howard, who towered over the not inconsiderably built Swan. Unsurprisingly, Bambi sided with his brain trust. “If he wants a charter flight,” Bambi huffed of his pitcher, “let him charter it.” The Washington Post reported there was “no evidence of hard punches, but Swan’s shirt and tie were ripped off.”

“I’ve been verbally spanked,” Swan admitted in the aftermath.

Swan was usually more media-savvy than that. He was always a good guest on Kiner’s Korner, which counted for something, considering how rare it was for a Met to be star of a game in the late ’70s. Not only did he introduce Mets fans to the concept of rolfing as a potential remedy for so much that ailed him, Swan took it up himself in retirement. Last year, on Jay Horwitz’s Amazin’ Mets Alumni Podcast, Swannie revealed he enjoyed a long career pursuing the alternative medicine and had lately retired from his practice.

That iota of information stopped me cold. Craig Swan was retired from the thing he’d been doing since he retired from baseball? Like he’s retired retired? And now he’s seventy years old? The kid who came up behind Seaver and Koosman and Matlack and persevered until the dawn of Darling and Doctor K? The National League Earned Run Average Champion of 1978?

Sail on down the line, about forty years or so…

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962: Richie Ashburn
1964: Rod Kanehl
1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1969: Donn Clendenon
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1977: Lenny Randle
1981: Mookie Wilson
1982: Rusty Staub
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1994: Rico Brogna
1995: Jason Isringhausen
2000: Melvin Mora
2002: Al Leiter
2003: David Cone
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Angel Pagan
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Wilmer Flores

19 comments to The Last Ace from the Deck

  • Dave

    Ever so close to being a Mets lifer, just like John Stearns, who caught so many of his starts. Swannie could bring the heat, and a team with him as a 4th starter should have been pretty damn good. But…

  • eric1973

    Back then, during that era, at the beginning of every season, I always thought we had a chance to go all the way. I mean, with a rotation of Swan, Zachry, Bomback, Hausman, and Dwight Bernard hanging around somewhere, how could you not? And then when Sadecki returned, that really was going to be the icing on the cake!

  • Lenny65

    Oh my God…Craig Swan and rolfing. I actually remember this and I have a clear mental image of a photograph featuring Swan actually doing it but I have no idea where I saw it. As horrendous as they were I never stopped loving those Mets from that era, back then being a Mets fan was like being in a secret club where we spoke our own language. I love this whole series in general but I especially enjoy reading about that era, I’m actually looking forward to seeing 1979, which I remember as being especially awful.

    I also vividly remember Pat Zachary kicking that helmet and ruining his career over Pete Rose, of all people. Man, that jerk was inescapable back in 1978. The Mets even held a Pete Rose Poster Day, which was the ultimate indignity, as Rose was the Chase Utley of his day. As much as I disliked Gene Garber (a lot) he’ll always hold a special place in my memory for ending Pete’s obnoxious streak.

    • It was fun without being a good time, wasn’t it?

      Rose gave the least gracious thank you speech on his poster day. I went back to not standing him after sort of admiring him for the hitting streak.

      • Lenny65

        To be a Mets fan back then you had to genuinely love them. It was extra tough thanks to the other NY team with their titles and wacky antics getting all the attention. I LOVED going to Shea back then, being 12-13-14 years old and having full run of that place really was great fun.

        Pete Rose Poster Day…it still makes me cringe. As awful as current ownership may be it could and has been worse.

  • open the gates

    Swannie was my first ace – I became a fan in ’77, so I missed most of Seaver. And he was every inch an ace when he was on the mound, worthy of his association with Seaver, Koosman and Matlack. Unfortunately, his acehood foreshadowed those of Pedro and Johan – defeated more by injury than by opposing players. And he retired a couple of years too late. As with too many Mets, he was a victim of injury and poor timing. (Your mention of John Stearns was apropos – he’s the other Met of that era that I think of in those terms.) In any case, I always had fond memories of Swannie, and hope he’s enjoying his retirement.

  • open the gates

    Just re-scanned your post and realized that you didn’t actually mention John Stearns. Oh well – my point still stands.

  • mikeski

    Happy Bobby Bonilla Day, everybody!

    Another $1.19M down. Only 15 more years to go.

  • open the gates

    I debate the propriety of placing the adjective “happy” in close proximity to the phrase “Bobby Bonilla Day”.

    And since we’re off topic anyway, welcome back to New York, Melky Cabrera, who gets to join fellow ex-Bummers Robbie Cano and Dellen Betances on our side of the Whitestone. Don’t forget what your friend Curtis Granderson said about who the real baseball fans are in this town.

    • mikeski

      Huh. Maybe “It’s” or “Yet Another” is a better formulation.

    • Bobby Bo, in his first stormy but non-deferred go-round, hit homers on July 1, 1992, and July 1, 1994, each time helping lift the Mets to victory.

      So Happy THOSE Bobby Bonilla Days!!

    • Daniel Hall

      Melky Cabrera?? Why?? Worst Defensive Outfield No Money Can Buy with Dom Smith and Solar Bear? Dom plays center. And somewhere, I hear, there’s a Cespedes that still has all his limbs attached…

      Mets are aching for a cool moniker. Like, TEAM. The Egregiously Arthritic Mets.

      Ugh. This team.

  • eric1973

    Maybe our Madoff-inspired owners can conspire with our Attorney General, and somehow get the remaining years of this contract voided. The Mets pay enough money to guys who do not play.

  • open the gates

    Melky’s 35 and signed a minor league contract, which means that he’s basically this year’s Rajai Davis. Not such a big deal. I will admit, I wouldn’t have minded seeing our other recent Cabrera instead. I doubt Melky will be tossing too many bats after walkoff home runs, although I’d love to be proven wrong.

  • […] 1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice 1969: Donn Clendenon 1972: Gary Gentry 1973: Willie Mays 1977: Lenny Randle 1978: Craig Swan 1981: Mookie Wilson 1982: Rusty Staub 1991: Rich Sauveur 1992: Todd Hundley 1994: Rico […]

  • Amazin’ how much he looks like Magnum P.I. (the original) on a boat in Hawaii.

  • […] Fitzmaurice 1969: Donn Clendenon 1972: Gary Gentry 1973: Willie Mays 1977: Lenny Randle 1978: Craig Swan 1981: Mookie Wilson 1982: Rusty Staub 1991: Rich Sauveur 1992: Todd Hundley […]