By Joe Rini
After a week where nearly everything went wrong for the Mets, on the seventh day, they commemorated a year where everything went right.
After a devastating loss on Sunday June 23 in Chicago, subsequent disappointing play on the field and distractions off it, the Mets and their fans turned their attention to 1969 and paid tribute to the champion “Miracle” Mets, highlighted by the festivities on Saturday June 29 at Citi Field when 15 returning players were honored with a parade, keys to the city of New York, and a ceremony before the Mets – Braves game.
The weekend’s festivities began on Thursday morning when the Mets and New York City officials publicly unveiled the new address of Citi Field as 41 Seaver Way in honor of the greatest Mets player of them all, Tom Seaver. The Mets Hall of Famer was represented by his daughters Sarah and Anne and their families since it was announced earlier this year that the 74-year old Seaver was retiring from public life because he was suffering from dementia.
The key to city ceremony attracted politicians from across the political spectrum including Mayor Bill de Blasio and Congressman Peter King. Along with the moon landing and Woodstock, the mayor recalled a time when, “A team from Queens won the hearts of not just the city, but the heart of America.” A former Brooklyn Dodger fan, Congressman King recalled to me that he (like my Dad and many others) embraced the Mets in 1962 after the Dodgers and Giants moved to California and he followed the 1969 World Series as a young attorney in Manhattan.
The genius of manager Gil Hodges was his melding of stars, platoon players, and role players into a championship team and after they received their keys to the city, I had a chance to speak with a cross section of former Mets, namely Bobby Pfeil, Jerry Koosman, and Art Shamsky, about their experiences.
“We were a team but Gil created that team. Everybody played,” Pfeil, a utility infielder, said to me. Recalling how Gil would ask him questions on the bench, Pfeil said, “I liked that he communicated with the guys who weren’t playing a lot…he made sure you were ready.” Pfeil was initially called up to the majors to replace Bud Harrelson for two weeks after spending eight years in the minor leagues and when the two weeks were up, Pfeil recalled Hodges telling him, “‘They (the front office) don’t want you here but I do and you’ll be here the rest of the year.’ He appreciated me but I think he appreciated all of the players, but that made me feel special.”
Koosman was one of the stars of the 1969 team and won two World Series games on his way to 222 career wins. In talking about catcher Jerry Grote, Koosman said, “He was the best defensive catcher in the game. He did such a great job defensively, it was like him knocking in a couple of runs every game.” Laughing as he recalled Grote’s prowess at throwing out would be base stealers, “You better get your butt down (as a pitcher) because that ball was coming right by your head.”
“We had a good working relationship,” he said of Grote. Koosman recalled a game where he wanted to throw 10 change-ups and Grote called for 10 change-ups. “We were that close in our thinking.” Koosman pitched 16 complete games in 1969 plus a complete game victory in closing out the World Series so I had to ask if he’d like pitching today when starting pitchers may only go six innings. “No,” the 76-year old lefty laughed, “I’m too old now!”
In recalling the enthusiasm of the fans and the effect the Mets victory had on the city and the country during a time of turmoil, Art Shamsky, who hit an even .300 platooning in rightfield with Ron Swoboda, said, “I’ve had people over the years, people not even wanting an autograph, they just wanted to say thank you,” for how the 1969 helped them as Viet Nam veterans or through financial or health issues. “We made people feel better and you can’t ask for anything more as a professional athlete or a person.”
Amidst the cheers and happy recollections, there was a twinge of sadness at Seaver’s forced absence and the passing of many beloved members of that historic team, including manager Gil Hodges and players like Tug McGraw, Donn Clendenon, and Ed Charles (all of whom had family members take part in the ceremony). Fifty years may have stooped some of the shoulders or slowed the steps of the 1969 champions at Citi Field on Saturday but for their accomplishments a half century ago, they will forever stand tall and proud in sports history.