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The Happiest Recap: 037-039

Welcome to The Happiest Recap [1], a solid gold slate of New York Mets games culled from every schedule the Mets have ever played en route to this, their fiftieth year in baseball. We’ve created a dream season consisting of the “best” 37th game in any Mets season, the “best” 38th game in any Mets season, the “best” 39th game in any Mets season…and we keep going from there until we have a completed schedule worthy of Bob Murphy coming back with the Happy Recap after this word from our sponsor on the WFAN Mets Radio Network.

GAME 037: May 24, 1973 [2] — Mets 7 DODGERS 3 (19)
(Mets All-Time Game 037 Record: 24-27; Mets 1973 Record: 20-17)

How much coffee was brewed in the name of staying up to catch every last pitch of a West Coast start that became the Mets’ longest win to date? An extra three hours on top of an extra ten innings…Postum wasn’t gonna getcha to the postgame.

Someday Mets fans would rise with five o’clock in the morning approaching to take in a pair of season-opening games from Japan. But that was 27 years into the future. For now, it was enough to hang in there until 4:47 AM to watch the end of a Mets-Dodgers game that didn’t have its first pitch thrown until after 11 PM New York time Thursday and showed few signs of finishing before sunrise Friday.

Tom Seaver faced off against Tommy John, though neither would last past the seventh inning, which is when the Mets, down 3-1, began ensuring a long night would ensue for everybody. Buddy Harrelson doubled home George Theodore to pull the Mets to within 3-2. An inning later, with Pete Richert pitching, the Stork singled home Cleon Jones to tie it.

That was in the top of the eighth. The score would stay rigid for quite a while, though the basepaths would get a workout, starting with the bottom of the eighth. Tug McGraw replaced Phil Hennigan and found himself pitching with the bases loaded and one out. L.A. could go ahead and put the Mets to sleep early, but instead, Bill Russell grounded to Harrelson, who threw home to Duffy Dyer, cutting down the Dodgers’ elusive fourth run. Tug would get out of it.

The theme would be revisited in the tenth. Two Dodger singles and an intentional walk started the home half of the inning, a tangle from which it would be tough for Tug to emerge unscathed. But emerge he did: twice! First, he drew Ron Cey into a 5-2-3 DP that snuffed out Willie Davis at the plate. Yogi Berra ordered a second intentional walk, and it worked again, with pinch-hitter Chris Cannizzaro grounding to Wayne Garrett.

One more chance arose for the magical McGraw to make a Dodger rally disappear, in the twelfth. Hits by Joe Ferguson and Willie Crawford were followed by an unintentional walk to Cey. There was one out. A golden opportunity awaited…and was wasted when Russell touched off yet another play at the plate, another 5-2-3 double play that nailed Ferguson coming in from third.

Thus ended the long evening for the Tugger. He pitched five innings, the eighth through twelfth, gave up four hits, walked five men (two intentionally) and had to overcome a Willie Davis steal of second — with Davis taking third on Dyer’s throw into the outfield — but somehow he went unscored upon. Three plays at the plate all went in the favor of the New York defense.

Tug also singled in the tenth and landed on second on a poor throw by Russell, but was left stranded there.

McGraw did all he could for five, and now the Mets’ portion of the affair was handed over to George Stone for the next six innings. Seven Dodgers reached base between the fourteenth and seventeenth — including two who made it to third — but nobody scored. Stone had pitched only seven innings in 1973 to that point, yet it took a marathon to put him squarely on his skipper’s radar (in California…same state as Oakland [3]).

“You have to give their pitchers credit for the way they got out of all those jams,” said admiring Dodger manager Walt Alston. Meanwhile, Charlie Hough and Doug Rau both kept the Mets at bay as night became day on both coasts and all the players were noticing just how late it was getting.

“I wore out two gloves,” Harrelson reported. “My regular glove and the golf glove under it.”

Rosters were stretched thin, too. Berra used every Met except for a handful of pitchers. Jon Matlack was called on to pinch-run for John Milner at one point, but Matlack, like every other Met, proved allergic to advancement home. On the Dodger side, Davis racked up six base hits in nine at-bats to equal a franchise record that dated back to Cookie Lavagetto in Brooklyn. Manny Mota, on the other hand, might have preferred a rainout. Starting in left field, the pinch-hitting specialist took a size 0-for-9 collar. For the Mets, Garrett was 1-for-2 by the third inning, 0-for-8 thereafter, striking out four times.

The tipping point came in the top of the nineteenth when the Mets’ offense finally loosened up. Jones led off with a single. Rusty Staub doubled him home with his fifth hit of the evening/morning. Pinch-hitter Ken Boswell (batting for Stone) picked up Rusty up and suddenly, after all these hours, runs were coming cheap. The Mets were up 5-3, then 7-3 when Ed Kranepool doubled in a pair.

Jim McAndrew came on for the bottom of the nineteenth, recorded two quick groundouts, gave up a single to pinch-hitter Von Joshua but then induced a grounder from Davey Lopes to Felix Millan. Millan was a 1-for-9 batter on the night, but blissfully surehanded here, feeding Harrelson for the 114th out of the game, five hours and forty-two minutes after it began. The Mets, with 7 runs, 22 hits and 3 errors, defeated the Dodgers, who totaled 3 runs, 19 hits and 3 errors. An estimated 1,000 Angelenos — or 26,000 fewer than showed up in the 8 o’clock hour — were on hand to witness the conclusion of what became George Stone’s first Met victory.

At 1:47 AM Pacific Daylight Time and 4:47 AM Eastern Daylight Time, the Mets had secured their longest win. They had been on the wrong end of a 23-inning score in 1964 and were shut out 1-0 over 24 tedious innings in 1968. For Mets fans who pried their eyes open clear to the end as Friday dawned, that morning’s last or perhaps first cup of coffee tasted anything but bitter.

ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On May 11, 1997 [4], Mets fans pinched themselves, so to speak. Trailing 4-3 in the top of the ninth at Busch Stadium, Bobby Valentine called on Carl Everett to pinch-hit with one on and one out against Cardinal closer Dennis Eckersley. Everett came through as much as any pinch-hitter could, by belting a two-run homer to right. Butch Huskey came up next, also to pinch-hit. And Huskey also homered off Eckersley. In a span of three pitches, the Mets notched two pinch-hit home runs and three pinch-hit RBIs. John Franco came on and preserved the 6-4 lead to give Cory Lidle his first major league win; finish off a three-game sweep of St. Louis; and, most fortuitously, raise the Mets record to 19-18. After starting the 1997 season at 8-14, Valentine’s club got rolling and had suddenly — almost as suddenly as Everett and Huskey struck — taken 11 of 15 games to claim a winning record. The Mets had ended every one of the previous six seasons a sub-.500 club, and entered ’97 with no expectations that would change. But it was changing, and rising to one win above .500 this deep into the year offered tangible evidence.

GAME 038: May 25, 1981 [5] — METS 13 Phillies 3
(Mets All-Time Game 038 Record: 23-28; Mets 1981/1 Record: 12-25-1)

In what spreads out before a baseball fan as an incredibly long season, sometimes you have to practice self-delusion. If you see anything that looks uncommonly encouraging, you don’t write it off as an aberration — you convince yourself it’s the new normal.

The old normal had nothing to recommend itself where the 1981 Mets were concerned. After 32 games, they were a mind-bogglingly bad 8-24 (yet not in last place, thanks to the even worse 5-26 Cubs). Then, for the first time in what seemed like ages, progress presented itself in the form of four games that resulted in three Mets wins.

For other teams, that’s three out of four. For the 1981 Mets, that was the start of something big…maybe.

But why look a quasi-hot streak in the mouth? On Memorial Day, the defending world champion Phillies visited Shea, and all any one of the blue and orange ilk could ask was that the Mets make it four of five and, perhaps, make visions of a sunny summer not wholly hallucinatory.

Son of a gun, that’s what those heretofore ragtag 1981 Mets did on a brilliant Monday in Flushing. Peer through the box score and you could very easily be blinded by the light.

Nothing didn’t go right, right from the start. After Greg Harris set down Lonnie Smith, Pete Rose and Mike Schmidt to open his second major league start, the Mets went to work on Phils twirler Dick Ruthven. Mookie Wilson walked and stole second. Frank Taveras walked, too. Joel Youngblood singled home Mookie and sent Taveras to second. A struggling Dave Kingman tried his luck bunting, and it worked, at least in the sense that it moved both runners up a base…and that paid off when Lee Mazzilli singled the two of them in. A John Stearns single got Mazz to third, and Hubie Brooks knocked Lee in with another base hit.

Just like that, the Mets were leading the world champs 4-0. Still, maybe there could have been more. Why was Kingman, brought back to New York in Spring Training, bunting? A .200 average will  make a home run hitter look for any way to contribute, though as a rule, manager Joe Torre wasn’t crazy about SkyKing flying so close to the ground.

“I asked Joe in Montreal if I could bunt in certain situations,” Kingman said. “He chewed me out. He told me to swing the bat.”

Torre didn’t discipline Kingman after his sacrifice proved instrumental in building the 4-0 lead. Good thing, too, because in the bottom of the second, Dave came up again, this time with no one out and little opportunity to bunt. Mookie had singled, Taveras had doubled him to third and Youngblood was hit by a pitch. Ruthven had to face Kingman with the bases loaded.

Nope, no bunt this time. SkyKing swung the bat, and the next thing anything saw of Ruthven’s decisive pitch, it was landing fair in Loge. Dave Kingman’s tenth career grand slam had just staked the Mets to an 8-0 lead.

“The way I’ve been swinging lately,” Kingman humbly admitted later, “you don’t even think home run. You just try to hit the ball. I’ve been struggling.”

Not anymore, at least not on Memorial Day. Mets fans had grown accustomed to booing their favorite team as they limped out of the gate and their individual numbers sagged. But it was a new day, and cheering was now in vogue. They cheered Kingman as he crossed home plate. They cheered that new apple in the Mets Magic top hat that rose with every Mets home run. They cheered…well, there was much to cheer as the Mets chased Ruthven and held Dallas Green’s troops in check:

• Mazzilli broke out of his Kingman-like slump with three hits.

• Rookie Wilson scored thrice.

• Fellow freshman Brooks added three hits.

• Youngblood was 3-for-3 and raised his average to .363.

• Mike Jorgensen, brought in to give Kingman a breather at first, made a sensational diving grab of Ramon Aviles’s tailing foul pop, landing headfirst in the just-constructed photographer’s box down the first base line.

• Ambidextrous Harris proved handy with his right arm, allowing the Phillies two runs over 5⅔ innings. Mets fans saluted him by putting together both hands as he exited the field.

• Jeff Reardon saved the kid’s first win by retiring 10 of the final 12 Philadelphia batters.

• And between innings, the San Diego Chicken entertained 20,469 patrons who had absolutely nothing to balk at.

The final was 13-3, with the Mets pounding out 15 hits along the way. They were now 4-1 in their last five. And while it still appeared on paper to be a long season, late May was growing legitimately jaunty at Shea.

Things only looked better when, at week’s end, the Mets announced the acquisition of a second proven slugger who would join Kingman and get that apple really bobbing. They traded for right fielder Ellis Valentine of the Expos, one of those “all-around” players other teams always seemed to have. Valentine had suffered a fractured cheekbone a year earlier and hadn’t yet fully recovered his five-tool form, so Montreal chanced dealing him for much-needed bullpen help in the form of Reardon (plus Dan Norman, a would-be Valentine-type who never panned out). Reardon threw hard and had pitched very well for the Mets, but they had Neil Allen to close games, so it was a good risk for the usually offense-starved Mets to take.

In the meantime, the Mets’ tear extended to 7-3 by the end of the month. They had put more distance between themselves and the Cubs, and were a mere six games behind the Pirates for fourth place…and if a fan really wanted to dream, just ten behind the front-running Phillies.

Would the Mets keep it up? Would they continue to take seven of every ten games? Would Valentine truly fortify the lineup? Would there be reason to regret dealing the 25-year-old Reardon? Nothing could be definitively answered in the transcendent giddiness that accompanies a bad team’s good run, but at least one thing became clear soon enough: 1981 wasn’t going to be a long season. In fact, this section of 1981 was about to go in the books as the shortest on record — though it would take some finagling by the Lords of Baseball to create that particular slice of bizarre reality.

ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On May 16, 2004 [6], Mike Piazza singlehandedly beat Roger Clemens…sort of. He beat him out of a win, even if it didn’t include bloodying him to a pulp (which is what all Mets fans not so secretly rooted for any time the two men were in the same stadium after the notorious events of 2000). Clemens, in his first year as a National Leaguer, had retired to Houston’s Minute Maid Park clubhouse this Sunday afternoon with a 2-0 lead. He had struck out ten Mets over seven innings and was surely counting on collecting his eighth win of the year against zero losses in what had been his eighth Astro start. Although he wasn’t on the mound in the ninth, his old nemesis Piazza ruined his day by blasting a two-out, two-run home run off closer Octavio Dotel. The 2-2 tie meant Clemens — who had won each of his previous eleven regular-season starts, dating back to his presumed final month as a Yankee in 2003 — would not gain another W. Just as sweet for Mets fans, Jason Phillips homered off Brandon Backe in the top of the thirteenth and the Mets went on to a satisfying 3-2 win. The next time Piazza and Clemens would be seen together, it was as the N.L.’s awkwardly aligned All-Star battery at Minute Maid in July. That night, the first time the two foes were thrown together as teammates, American League batters jumped on the Rocket for six first-inning runs. One can only imagine which finger Mike put down when he wanted “his pitcher” to throw a fastball.

GAME 039: September 20, 1981 [7] — METS 7 Cardinals 6
(Mets All-Time Game 039 Record: 18-32-1; Mets 1981/2 Record: 19-20)

To watch the reaction to the stunning climax of this Sunday afternoon at Shea would be to believe you had been invited to the cast party that marked the end of what some would call a forgettable five-year run. Yet nobody who lived through the Mets of 1977 through 1981 — the Joe Torre era, essentially — is capable of forgetting them. It was an intensely memorable time for anybody who stayed with the Mets as they sank, bubbled briefly to the surface and eventually drowned.

But boy, could they toss themselves a goodbye bash. That, in a sense, is what the Mets of the second season of 1981 were doing when they mysteriously crept into an honest-to-goodness pennant race that looked like no other but felt very much like the real thing.

And it was. As odd as it appears that a 39th game of a season could have occurred on a Sunday in September…well, welcome to the second season of 1981. It was different, all right, and for a few weeks, it hinted at greatness.

Mets fans from the Torre era didn’t need any more than a hint, not after five years of being enveloped in cluelessness.

Here’s how we got there:

Unable to reach accord with team owners over free agent compensation, major league players went out on strike on June 12, 1981, freezing the standings in the four divisions. The Mets had played 52 games through June 11 (including one tie). They were hopelessly out of the pennant race, sitting in fifth place with 17 wins and 34 losses. Their predicament was not uncommon. The Mets were one of seven teams at least a dozen games from first place. Thus, when the strike ended and the season was set to resume on August 10, the owners realized they had a problem. It was going to be tough enough to lure bitter fans back to ballparks. To ask them to come see teams that were all but mathematically eliminated with roughly 50 games to go was not one of their marketing skill sets.

So they wiped the slate clean. Baseball declared all games from before the strike constituted a first season of 1981. The teams in first place then — the Phillies, the Dodgers, the Yankees and the A’s — were guaranteed a spot in an expanded eight-club playoff format. They would play the winners of a second season, commencing August 10 and going to October 4 (teams were picking up their schedules as previously assigned).

Thus, when play resumed, the Mets were no longer a godforsaken 17-34. They were 0-0. Everybody was. This second season was totally up for grabs. The Mets theoretically had as good a shot at making the playoffs as anyone.

They took their out-of-the-blue opportunity to heart. After fifteen second-season games, the Mets were 9-6, good for a virtual tie with the Cardinals atop the National League East. The Mets…the Mets who had finished last in 1977, 1978 and 1979, next-to-last in 1980 and were almost certainly going nowhere perceptibly better had 1981 not been torn apart…these Mets were in first place on August 25.

The slate-cleaning was a competitive godsend.

Of course, there’s a reason the pre-strike Mets were 17-34. They weren’t very good, and the edition that took up the second-season cause was comprised of mostly the same players. Same old Mets, in other words. They fell out of first, drifted below .500 and, by September 18, were barely entertaining any notion of contention…even jury-rigged contention. The only thing the Mets had going for them was the Cardinals, still in first, were coming into Shea for three games. If the Mets could somehow sweep them, they’d pull within 2½ of the top spot in the National League East with two weeks to go.

It was a longshot, but these were the Mets of the early 1980s. A long shot was far better than no shot at all.

The Mets won Friday night, 8-1. They prevailed again on Saturday, 6-2. The margin between them and St. Louis was 3½, and the Metsies had edged into third place. Yet it would all be for naught if they couldn’t take the final game of the series. But if they could…

That was the thing. You just didn’t know. You didn’t know this second season was coming in the first place. So why couldn’t first place come when this second season was done?

Seriously, why not?

Well, maybe because the Mets chose this sunny Sunday to leave runners on base like they were empties for the milkman. Except nobody was picking up anything in the early going, and that trend seeped uncomfortably into the game’s squishy middle. Through five innings, the Mets had nine hits and no runs. Eight Mets were stranded. It was Gilligan’s Island out there between first and third.

In the meantime, Pat Zachry — whose arrival in exchange for Tom Seaver was still symbolic of all that had gone wrong for the franchise since June 15, 1977 — came up amazingly small in this do-or-die mission. Zachry surrendered a two-run double to Dane Iorg in the first and a three-run homer to George Hendrick in the third before Torre removed him. The Mets trailed 5-0.

Finally, the Mets’ hits became timely. Ron Hodges and Mookie Wilson each connected for run-scoring doubles in the sixth and the Mets pulled to within 5-2. An inning later, John Stearns, Doug Flynn and Rusty Staub each drove in a run to tie the game at five. Though Zachry had spit the bit, the Mets’ pen had held the fort brilliantly from the third inning on: Ray Searage, Mike Marshall, Jesse Orosco and Neil Allen kept St. Louis scoreless until the ninth.

But in the top of the ninth, after Wilson caught two flyballs, Tito Landrum sent a third over his head. Worse for the Mets, Mookie could not find the handle as it lay on the warning track. Landrum never broke stride, and circled the bases. It was ruled a triple and an E-8.

“Shadows were tough and the ball stayed in the sun an extra second,” Mookie said. “Once I got to the ball, I just dropped it and he kept going.”

So, apparently, would the shadows of failure in which the Mets had been consumed for five long years. The Mets were behind 6-5 going to the bottom of the ninth. For all intents and purposes, three outs remained in their season.

Bruce Sutter came on to close out the win for the Cardinals. His split-finger fastball was working per usual and he grounded Flynn to short and flied pinch-hitter Alex Treviño to center. Now the Mets were down to their last out and their last ounce of hope. The batter was Frank Taveras.

Taveras stroked a line drive to short left for a single. But wait — Taveras, perhaps inspired by Landrum, also never broke stride. St. Louis left fielder Gene Roof gathered the ball and fired to second, but too late to catch Taveras. He could have run himself and the Mets out of contention. Instead, Frank put himself in scoring position.

The next batter was Mookie Wilson, the same rookie center fielder who let Landrum score. “All I was trying to do,” he’d say later, “was keep the rally going once Frank got on base.” Tying the game was Mookie’s goal: “Taveras really hustled to get that double and I just wanted a hit. You have to tie it before you can win it, and that’s all I was trying to do.”

Mookie Wilson tied the game before he won it, but make no mistake about it. He won it. Or as Bob Murphy put it on Channel 9 in his last year broadcasting television as well as radio:

“Home run! Home run! Home run by Mookie Wilson!”

Home run by Mookie Wilson, indeed; the Mets’ 22nd hit of the day. He got hold of a Sutter delivery and sent it over the right field fence at Shea, into the Mets’ bullpen (where it was caught by Hodges, who had been removed earlier for a pinch-runner). Taveras scored for the tie…and Wilson, with four hits in six at-bats on the day, scored for the win.

Mets 7 Cardinals 6. It was the sweep the Mets needed to stay alive in the September no one could have seen coming. They were 2½ out of first place with fourteen games remaining. Never mind they were only 19-20 since play resumed in August. Forget completely that they were 36-54 when you factored in April, May and June. None of that mattered now. The only thing that mattered was the downtrodden Mets of the Joe Torre era had just captured a must win in the midst of their first deep-September pennant race in nearly a decade.

It had been “the most exciting game of my life,” Wilson, 25, declared in the clubhouse. “It was definitely a game to remember. I still haven’t come down. I’m as high as I could possibly be. This was something.”

Something else was even more worth remembering if you were a Mets fan in 1981. The home run itself was amazing. The win was amazing. The circumstances surrounding the standings were totally amazing. But for as excited as the players themselves were — and they all greeted Mookie at the plate — the fans who dared to believe in the second-half Mets of 1981 were beside themselves with joy.

Shea was beset by “pandemonium,” said Murph. A siren could be heard amid the celebration. “Shades of old times at Shea Stadium…like the thrills of ’69 and ’73, the crowd not wanting to leave. They’re enjoying it so very, very much.”

Bob Murphy wasn’t exaggerating. There may have been only a paid crowd of 13,337 at Shea that Sunday, but every Mets fan in attendance understood the stakes. They understood a gift pennant race fell into their laps and they were going to savor every last bit of it.

As Murph continued to wrap things up, much of the crowd was still standing at their seats. Still clapping. Still exulting. This was a year before DiamondVision, before orchestrated cheering began to take hold. This was truly a completely organic explosion of love and gratitude for Mookie, for the Mets, for the assurance that being a Mets fan didn’t necessarily consign a person to a lifetime of futility. It hadn’t felt like this since 1973. It was impossible to know when it might feel like this again.

So why leave?

Murph: “The crowd is just staying here. They don’t want to go home. It’s unbelievable!”

Mets fans had waited so, so long to arrive in a moment like this. Of course they didn’t want to go or let it go. Eventually, though, the moment would be gone. The Mets didn’t capitalize on their sweep, though the Cardinals certainly rued it. The three losses to the Mets would prove devastating, as the Montreal Expos surged past St. Louis to win the second-season crown by a half-game (the Cardinals had the best composite record in the N.L. East in 1981, but by not winning in either half, that was nothing more than trivia). When the second season came to an end, the Mets were in fourth place, and GM Frank Cashen proceeded as if his team hadn’t had its moment.

The Joe Torre era ended. The manager was fired. His coaches were let go. Mainstays Taveras, Flynn, Treviño and Lee Mazzilli would all be gone before Opening Day 1982. The cast was being broken up, and in the long run, there wasn’t much to mourn in that development. Nevertheless, Mets fans who had been winding down, say, eighth grade when Tom Seaver was traded were now in college. The four full seasons and the two demi-seasons in between had been almost uniformly beyond dismal. But during that critical period of life, those Joe Torre era Mets — they were the Mets as this fan base knew them. Taveras. Flynn. Treviño. Mazzilli. Zachry. Swan. Youngblood. Stearns. Allen. All any Mets fan, whatever age he or she happened to be from 1977 to 1981, dreamed of was that group coming together and fighting for a championship.

For one sunny, shadowy Sunday afternoon at Shea Stadium, they did.

ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On May 27, 1986 [8], the Mets officially became a team opponents didn’t want to screw around with. In the sixth inning at Shea Stadium, with the Dodgers already trailing 3-1, Tom Niedenfuer replaced Bob Welch with the bases loaded. George Foster greeted him with a grand slam. Niedenfuer, whose life hadn’t been too keen since the previous October when he gave up tide-turning home runs to Ozzie Smith and Jack Clark in consecutive NLCS games, took out his frustrations on the next Met batter. It was a really bad idea, since the batter was Ray Knight and Knight was a former boxer and fulltime badass. Knight charged the mound and both teams poured on the field. After a few punches were thrown, two inalterable facts remained: The Mets were winning by a lot and the Mets didn’t take crap from anybody. None of that changed en route to an 8-1 New York victory.

Immense thanks to FAFIF reader LarryDC for providing broadcast video from the games of May 25, 1981 and September 20, 1981.