In a lot of ways, as Grote recalled this past Saturday while he and his ’69 teammates re-united at Citi Field, it was ’69 Super Bowl hero Joe Namath’s “major prediction” earlier that year that kick-started all the magic: “When he went out and did what he did… what Joe pulled off in the Super Bowl… it made a whole lot of people in this town believe in sports here.”
Yes, as historians, and fans of a certain age, will no doubt recall – by the time the METS showed up at Wrigley Field for a two-game series to conclude that ‘69 season, the METS had long ago left the Cubs in the rear-view, an embarassing eight games, in fact, behind the upstarts from Flushing.
“People called us the Miracle Mets, but nothing was impossible when you played for Gil Hodges,” Hall of Famer pitcher Tom Seaver told an adoring Citi Field crowd at Saturday night’s pre-game reunion of the World Champs.
“His presence, his physical presence changed what was going on immediately, and then when he spoke, it changed even more,” Seaver reminisced. “Gil brought that presence to what we did and that approach to how you play the game and go about your business.”
To a man, those gathered for the weekend took every opportunity to profusely laud the late Hodges, the former Marine who was already a fan-favorite here from his playing days with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and who joined the METS as their manager in 1968. “For forty years we’ve talked about Gil – and Gil was the key,” shortstop Bud Harrelson pointed out. “Gil knew our talents… he’d never ask anybody on that ballclub to do something they couldn’t do. He was a really good baseball person.”
Even Cleon Jones, leftfielder for the ’69 METS, was quick to affirm Hodges’ imprimatur on the team’s success. “Without Gil Hodges, we wouldn’t be sitting here today talking about these 1969 Mets.” And Jones should know probably better than anyone – because Hodges’ long walk to leftfield to pull him from a late-summer game against Houston is one of the more legendary examples of player motivation ever in the annals of the game.
“I was leading the league by about 20 points at that time,” Jones recounted, “and if Gil can walk on the field and tell me to bring my ass off the field, everybody else looked around and said ‘We’d better pucker up, we’d better get to rolling’… and we started to play good baseball.”
“Get to rolling” those METS certainly did, finishing their season with a remarkable 30-10 run. Which they then followed with a three-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves for the National League pennant. “I don’t remember that being a real difficult task,” recalls Seaver matter-of-factly regarding the Braves’ series. “I didn’t feel like it was really a difficult series.”
Days later, the METS were clearly World Series underdogs against the AL’s vaunted Baltimore Orioles, but even moreso as far as the Orioles themselves were concerned. “What are you doing here? You don’t belong on the same field with us?” an Orioles pitcher told lefthander Jerry Koosman at batting practice before Game One. And just an hour or so later, as he was rounding the bases after homering off of Seaver’s second pitch of the game, Baltimore’s Don Buford had the nerve to shout out to Harrelson at short, “You aint seen nothing yet!”
“He was right,” Harrelson recalled with a laugh Saturday, as it proved to be the only game Baltimore would win, eventually falling to the METS four games to one.
For a year that included Namath’s prophetic Super Bowl prediction, a moon landing, and a game-changing summer music festival, the “Miracle Mets” World Series championship earned them a rather special place within pop culture’s historical timeline, as well. Still, despite the momentousness of their achievement, and despite the forever place they hold in this city’s hearts, what the ’69 METS most prized about their 40th anniversary celebration last weekend, was the poignant reunion it provided them. Especially the opportunity to once again laud, and to celebrate, those who are no longer with us.
“We’re a small club that’s getting smaller – we’ve lost Tommie Agee, we’ve lost Donn Clendenon, Don Cardwell, Tug McGraw,” noted Ron Swoboda, one of the more gregarious of the group assembled this reunion weekend. As he took in the sight of teammates that time and distance unfortunately keep him from visiting with on a more frequent basis, the former rightfielder added with a smile, “My life was changed by this, and it’s changed every day, because I was lucky enough to be on this team.”
For video footage of the METS sharing their recollections of the 1969 season, please check out http://newyork.mets.mlb.com/media/video.jsp?content_id=6243939&c_id=nym&topic_id= (The 1969 Mets remember their stellar season)