Baseball is really something, y’know? A six-month, 162-game haul that can take us on an emotional rollercoaster that makes the Coney Island Cyclone look like a kiddy ride. And if your team is having a bad season, it can be a horrible slog. The trick is to find joy in the game itself. Over the one-sixty-two, there are bound to be some games that warm the heart and cause a shout: the law of averages dictates that. As Mets fans, of course we have seen our share of bad seasons, but rabid fans – especially younger ones – have a way of remembering how high the highs were, even amid a Sargasso Sea of loss and mediocrity.
1980 was a watershed year in Mets history. The team had been sold by its longtime owners, the Payson family. There were a couple of dynamic, young businessmen running things now. Fred Wilpon was all of 43 years old. His new partner, Nelson Doubleday, not quite 46. They bought the team on the eve of spring training and immediately set about updating its image – “rebranding,” in today’s argot. They hired a smart GM, Frank Cashen, to spearhead the resurgence. Having taken over so late in the game, though, there wasn’t much Cashen could do in a short time frame to upgrade the roster. So the Mets started 1980 with largely the same cast as 1979, which saw them lose 99 games and have to have a six-game winning streak at the end of the season to reach even that lofty perch. But there was something different about these guys. Whether it was a new coat of paint on creaky Shea Stadium, the energy of the new owners or simple hopes for the future, the Mets appeared to have shaken the cobwebs and start playing some good baseball. It wasn’t evident at first: they found themselves 12-20 after a May 20 loss to Houston at home. But something clicked after that. They started winning games with a lot of nerve and small-ball. From May 21 through June 12, they went 14-7 to climb within a game of .500. The Mets hadn’t been that close to dead-even since Tom Seaver was around! On June 12, the Mets beat the Dodgers at Shea with a late-inning rally built around a bunch of singles, groundouts and LA errors. The next day, Friday, the San Francisco Giants were due in and the town was nuts. They were expecting big crowds in Queens. The local news even sent a crew to cover the re-birth at Shea. Instead, Vida Blue and the Giants thoroughly shut down the Mets on four hits. They now faced the daunting prospect of a weekend sweep, which would sweep the fans right out of the ballpark all over again. It didn’t appear to get any better the next day.
John Montefusco took the mound for the San Franciscans and immediately picked up where Blue had left off, retiring Mets in order inning after inning. For his part, Mets’ starter Pete Falcone wasn’t up to the challenge. A couple of singles, a walk, a wild pitch and a three-run home by second baseman Rennie Stennett staked the Giants to a 4-0 lead before the top of the first was over. Falcone couldn’t make it out of the second, when he gave up another run on a single and a double. It looked for all the world like 1979 – rather than the “Magic” – was back. The Mets were being no-hit and thoroughly stifled. They got their first hit in the bottom of the sixth – by which time they were now trailing 6-0 on a scratchy run given up by Falcone’s replacement, Mark Bomback – a leadoff single by the light hitting Doug Flynn. After a foul out, first baseman Lee Mazzilli reached on an error by Stennett and shortstop Frank Taveras dragged a bunt single to first and suddenly, the bases were loaded. Recently acquired slugger Claudell Washington followed with a sacrifice fly and the Mets were on the board.
Bomback was replaced by Ed Glynn, “the Flushing Flash.” Glynn was a local kid and had been a peanut vendor at Shea when he was a teenager. As was the Mets’ wont, they picked him up on the cheap when he was released by Detroit. This night, he earned his nickname. In the seventh and eighth, he completely throttled the San Francisco attack, not allowing a base runner. In the bottom of the eighth, the Mets wormed out another run on singles by Mazzilli, Taveras and left fielder Steve Henderson. Still, there wasn’t a lot of hope heading to the ninth.
Rookie reliever Jeff Reardon took over for Glynn and continued to stifle the Giants. So here it was, bottom of the ninth. With one out, Flynn hit a bunt single to second base. Jose Cardenal grounded out and Flynn moved on to second, where he scored on Mazzilli’s base hit. That made it a 6-3 game. If Taveras could get on, the heart of the order would be looming with a chance to win it. Taveras walked. Washington knocked a single up the middle and Mazzilli scored. 6-4 now and the mob out at Shea was shaking the rafters, everyone up on their feet and howling. Henderson stepped in. He took a ball, then a strike. Another ball. Then a foul. On the fifth pitch, he hit a rocket to deep right that landed in the back of the bullpen. He’d done it. You’d have thought it was a game 7. The place went nuts with torn up paper and strangers hugging.
The rest of the year would not be as good. The Mets went on a seven-game losing streak after this mini-miracle. Later on they had a 12-game loss skein. They finished four games better than ’79.
But for one night? Hoo, boy…
Follow me on Twitter @CharlieHangley.