As we count the days until the start of spring training, we Met fans employ an age-old defense mechanism whereby we approach the upcoming season with high hopes and low expectations. Throughout the years our ownership shied away from spending on first rate free agents, instead opting to pursue the cheaper, second tier players hoping to catch lighting in a bottle. It rarely worked, and when coupled with neglecting to effectively build up our farm system, it left us without sufficient prospects to trade for strong players to bolster our MLB roster. That recipe left us lagging the competition as each season rolled on. It is hard not to be excited about this year’s team, especially with an owner who will spend whatever it takes to bring us a title.
For those of us who have been following and agonizing over this team for what seems like forever, and for some of us almost since their inception, there is genuine hope that the Mets are on a brand-new trajectory to becoming a competitive team year in and year out in the same mold as the Dodgers, Braves, Cardinals, and yes, even our cross town rivals. Unlike us, it seems those other teams always had multiple star players and players down on the farm that were ready to step in when they got the call.
I was first introduced to the Mets by my grandfather who was happy to have a new national league team to replace his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers who, along with the NY Giants, had headed out for the west coast. We watched games on an old black and white TV and his excitement for the Mets was infectious. Thankfully, I was too young to understand how bad they really were and happy that this realization did not hit me until years later when analyzing stats were a favorite pastime. So, let’s take a short trip down memory lane of the Met’s first decade.
When the Mets came into being they chose the nostalgic combination of the Dodger and Giant colors, and in a desire to drive fans into the ballpark their expansion draft selections were loaded with aging players who were once fan favorites. While it accomplished reintroducing baseball to starving NYC national league fans, the decision to go “old” hindered our progression for years. To be fair, the expansion Houston Colt 45’s (they became the Astros three years later) took a different tact bringing in younger talent, but that approach did not make them any more successful. We finished last with a 40-120 record with a roster that included Gil Hodges, Richie Ashburn, marvelous Marv Throneberry, Roger Craig, Al Jackson and Frank Thomas, whose 34 HRs was about the only highlight of that season. We drew 922K fans to the old Polo Grounds which was good enough for sixth place out of 10 teams in this our first year.
In 1963 we kept a strong hold on last place, but our record improved to 51-111. We added another former Dodger star in Duke Snider and although he cracked 14 HRs and drove in 45 runs, he was a shell of his former self. Meanwhile, attendance rose to over a million fans, good enough for fourth among NL teams.
The first team I really remember rooting for was the 1964 team who finished with a 53-109 record, just slightly better than the previous year. Perhaps the highlight of that year was Jim Bunning’s perfect game against the Mets on Father’s Day. They drew 1.7 million fans in 1964 which placed them second in the NL attendance that year while continuing to be at the bottom of most offensive and pitching categories.
In 1965 the new fan favorite was a young Ron Swoboda, who only hit .228 but cracked 19 HR. Teamed with steady Ed Kranepool, who hit 10 HRs and knocked in 53 runs, there was hope for improvement. Under the radar call ups included Buddy Harrelson and Cleon Jones, who did not do much with their cups of coffee. No one had an inkling that the 1965 team would be worse than the previous year but we finished with a 50-112 record. Once again, the Mets were near the bottom in team offensive and pitching categories but drew 1.7 million fans again, good for third place in NL attendance. Any good news was a bright spot for Met fans.
1966 resulted in a 66-95 record, and a move out of the usual last place finish they had achieved since the start. Jerry Grote joined the team as did veteran Ken Boyer, but they could still not shake being last in most offensive and pitching categories. 1966 was also the first appearances by Tug McGraw and Nolan Ryan, two players who would certainly play a pivotal role just three short years later. They finished second in attendance, drawing 1.9 million fans. If you are detecting a pattern here, it would be that the team was awful, but people were still coming out to see them.
In 1967 they brought in aging Tommy Davis who added some thump with 16 HRs and 73 runs batted in. Their pitching staff included Don Caldwell, Jack Fisher and a rookie named Tom Seaver who went 16-13 with a .276 ERA and tossed 251 innings. The left side of the infield had Harrelson at short and Ed “the Glider” Charles at 3B. Not surprisingly they continued to finish near the bottom in nearly every offensive and pitching category. They also managed to climb back into last place with a 61-101 record and their attendance dropped by nearly 400K fans.
In 1968 under new manager Gil Hodges, they took a big step forward with a 73-89 record that was still only good enough to get them just out of last place. Attendance was back up to 1.8 million and fans were likely seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for the first time. Tommie Agee joined the team and while he did not hit much, he gave us stellar defense in CF. Combined with Harrelson and Ken Boswell up the middle and Jerry Grote behind the plate, the team’s defense took a major step forward. Rookie Jerry Koosman went an amazing 19-12 with an era of 2.08 and 17 complete games but lost out on rookie of the year to some kid from Cincinnati named Johnny Bench. Seaver again won 16 games. Other pieces of the puzzle were being assembled with Art Shamsky, Al Weis and JC Martin joining the team.
That brings us to the 1969 season that cemented so many of us as lifetime Met fans. Much as been written about the miracle Mets and their pitching staff of Seaver, Koosman, Gentry and Caldwell, along with Ron Taylor, McGraw and Ryan coming out of the pen. While they still finished near the bottom of most offensive categories, the emergence of their pitching staff, the strength of Gil Hodges at the helm, their improved fielding and some very timely hitting allowed them to win it all. The 1969 Mets can truly be described as a team of destiny as they swept the mighty Braves in the NL championship, and then disposed of the powerhouse Orioles in five games. It seems good pitching still beats good hitting.
My most memorable game at Shea that season was July 9, 1969, watching Tom Seaver almost throw a perfect game against the Cubs. The crowd of 50K plus was on their feet from the sixth inning on and the sound was deafening. When slow footed power hitting catcher Randy Hundley bunted for the first out of the ninth inning, it seemed the Cubs were willing to be part of history. Little known Jimmy Qualls was next, and that history went out the door with a sharply hit single. A one hit shutout was still pretty gratifying. While doing some decluttering, I came across my scorecard from that night and got to relive the experience all over again.
Proud to be rooting for the Mets for more than 60 years!