Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Miraculous Mets

I just finished reading Wayne Coffey's They Said It Couldn't Be Done, one of many books about the 1969 New York Mets to come showering down upon readers like confetti at a ticker-tape parade. Like many books about specific years and teams, it is solid enough to stand on its own merit with curious members of the general public, but it means much, much more to partisans, especially those who lived through it.

I'm reporting--in hindsight, of course, as we approach 2020--from the front lines on this one, a bona fide veteran of the 1969 Mets who grew up less than ten miles from Manhattan. Like my parents, I became a Mets fan before the team ever played a game, and it hasn't worn off yet. I go back to Roger Craig's losing streak, "yo la tengo," and Marvelous Marv. In fact, I was at the Polo Grounds the day Marv Throneberry missed first and second base en route to what should have been a triple. That happened in the bottom of the first inning on June 17, 1962; in the top half, Lou Brock became one of a handful of men to slug a home run into the center field bleachers. I remember it all, remember where we sat, high above third base, but not as high as Brock's drive.

Coffey's book is nicely written, covers all the necessary bases, quotes all the right people--including long-time broadcasters Howie Rose and Gary Cohen, who were also there as youths in 1969--and is as plausible as any other book in accounting for what happened in that startling baseball year. It's in a league with Maury Allen's After the Miracle, written for the 20th anniversary of what the Mets did in 1969. Now the events are a half-century distant, but the joy for me in reading Coffey's book was realizing just how vivid those memories are.

One fellow Coffey interviewed mentioned being at a particular Mets game at the Polo Grounds in 1962. He remembered the Mets trailing, 11-1, and making it 11-9 before Don Zimmer made the last out--during his notorious 0-for-34 slump. Wait a second--I was at that game! I thought it was 10-9 and remembered Zimmer taking a called third strike to end the near-miracle comeback. No, it was 11-9. Thanks, Retrosheet.

It was probably the first Mets game I went to, though I had been to the Polo Grounds before the Giants moved away (I'm just old enough to have pulled off that feat). The loss dropped the infant team's record to 1-12. They were already in mid-season form. My mother took me to the day game, where we were joined by Reta Weissbrot, her best friend, and Reta's son, Gary. They lived in Forest Hills, close enough to Shea Stadium for cheering crowds to be audible seven years later.

We had box seats behind the first-base dugout, and when a high popup clearly was headed right for us, both mothers ducked for cover and screamed for their sons to save them. The ball dropped safely a few rows behind us. I wish I remembered the three-run, pinch-hit home run by Ed Bouchee that made the game close enough for Zimmer to send the crowd home truly disappointed.

The memories from 1969 are much more vivid, of course. I graduated from high school that spring and began college in September, where one of my dorm neighbors hailed from Chevy Chase, Maryland. An Orioles fan, he magnanimously offered me 7-5 odds on the World Series. Not long after I collected my five bucks, he dropped out of school.

In his prologue, Coffey notes that in 1969, when two men walked on the moon, 400,000 people congregated in the Catskills to listen to music, and the Mets won the World Series, "The last of these developments was the most unforeseen." I'll go with him halfway on that, which brings me to the actual subject of this blog:

                              WAS IT A MIRACLE OR WASN'T IT?

I agree with Coffey that at the start of 1969, the last development would have seemed the most unlikely. NASA had already sent craft to the moon, so a landing seemed inevitable. A few rock festivals had occurred, most notably Monterey, so something like Woodstock was a possibility in 1969. But you would have been hard-pressed to find more than a few daydreamers who thought the Mets--whose franchise-best season, 1968, brought a 73-89 record but still left them just win out of last place--were a good bet at even the 100-to-1 odds quoted in Las Vegas. Unless you were a member of the New York Mets.

The old cliche, "They'll put a man on the moon before the Mets win a pennant," was coined early in the franchise's existence, though in 1962, those three events were equally unforeseeable. Rock music didn't even exist, and John Glenn had orbited the Earth only a couple of months earlier. That was it. The Mets winning a title was just as unthinkable, and Coffey's point is that seven years later, when the other two events became reality, it was even more unthinkable that the Mets' daydreams were also on the verge of fruition.

But was it a miracle? Coffey carefully uses the word "astounding" to describe the season in the book's subtitle, and he titles his Epilogue Please Don't Use the M-Word. He quotes the OED definition: "an extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency."

Don't tell Jerry Koosman it was a miracle, Coffey warns us. "There's nothing miraculous about us," said Gil Hodges, who went to Mass every Sunday and knew about those things. I know what Coffey means. To the players, to the players involved with the daily fate of the team, the events are quite explicable by natural or scientific laws. The Mets won the 1969 World Series because they worked hard, because Hodges guided them to maximize their skills and found the best ways to utilize them, because they became a smart, opportunistic team, an effect that mushroomed as their confidence was validated--all of which phenomena come under the "natural law" heading--and mainly because they had terrific pitching that lived up to its potential, following the scientific law that good pitching defeats good hitting.

The people involved with the Mets at the time understand that no matter how it appeared, these things didn't just happen. The Mets didn't win despite playing poorly. That would have been a miracle. They didn't receive gift after gift and suddenly, miraculously, wake up one day with a World Series ring. They worked for it. They made it happen, as good an example as there is in baseball history of a savvy manager molding together a team which performed better as a group than they could have been expected to perform as individuals.

And that, as every Mets fan who lived through it knows, is precisely why is was a fucking miracle.

The miracle was that these these players--wearing these uniforms--performed so magnificently. They were much the same group that won 73 games in 1968, and though the corps of young pitchers was clearly formidable, the lineup had averaged barely three runs a game in 1968. As the season began, the brightest thing on the horizon appeared to be a guaranteed rise from ninth place to sixth--the new last place in the six-team East Division.

There's no need to do more than mention a few of the more astounding events that caused George Burns, playing the title role in Oh God!, to note that the '69 Mets were one of his neatest miracles.

  • Ron Swoboda's two home runs defeat Steve Carlton, who strikes out 19 Mets in September
  • Starting pitchers Jerry Koosman and Don Cardwell drive in the only runs in a 1-0, 1-0 sweep of the Pirates, also during the pennant drive, a circumstance unique in baseball history
  • Tommie Agee's two catches in Game 3 of the World Series
  • J. C. Martin getting away with interference on the game-winning bunt in Game 4
  • the whole fiasco with hit by pitches and scuffed baseballs in Game 5
Those were certainly astounding at the time, but less so now. Three of them were just good baseball, and the other two were bad umpiring. Of everything that happened to the Mets in 1969, only one seems to me entirely miraculous, inexplicable, enduringly mystical a half-century later. 

Image result for ron swoboda catch image

You have to appreciate just how bad a fielder Ron Swoboda was to appreciate how impossible is was that HE made this most impossible catch. And you had to see Brooks Robinson smash that line drive to know instantly, with such assurance, that it was a hit, a routine smack, a routine clean single. Swoboda must have been prescient and then some, making an adrenalin-charged, all-out dash and dive, propelled by some unseen force with a swiftness and sure direction that he never displayed before or after, and even then it seemed like the ball found the glove more than the glove snaring the ball just an inch or so above the turf in right-center that would be torn to shreds for souvenirs the following night.

That catch was a miracle. The rest is history.