Anatomy of a Franchise: New York Mets, Part V: Grant's Tomb
The above picture is Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia circa 1974.
1974 was a big transition year for me. For the first time in my 29 years I was venturing out of the safety net of the New York City, Connecticut, and New York state area and venturing into new, uncharted Philadelphia Phillies territory down the New Jersey Turnpike to Exit Four, better known to most as Cherry Hill.
We actually didn’t live there but close enough so that when people asked me where I lived, that was the most recognizable. Later, after just a few months there, it became simply known as South Jersey which in reality is a state all of its own.
Unlike North Jersey that has a healthy selection of New York Mets fans, in 1974 there was only one New York Met fan in South Jersey: Me. And here I was starting a new job, in a new area still only 90 miles away, that seemed like another continent.
South Jersey starts just below Trenton, goes east to the Jersey Shore to Seaside Heights, and south to Cape May. It is completely, 100 percent Philadelphia fans in every sport out there and maybe some time, somewhere in the future during football season, I will tell a similar story about the Eagles, but for this series the Phillies ultimately play a pivotal role in my life.
The Mets were coming off a pretty surprising season ending to 1973. The won the National League Pennant beating the Big Red Machine and went to Game Seven of the World Series before losing out to the Oakland Athletics.
Hopes and aspirations were high for the Mets and I was as excited. In those days being a fan was just that. I believed everything I read and I saw nothing but positives in the world around me. (Are you listening both Nicks and Mike Kent?)
The Mets were good the year before so why think they would be anything less.
Here’s their 1974 opening day lineup.
1. Wayne Garrett 3B
2. Felix Millan 2B
3. Rusty Staub RF
4. Cleon Jones LF
5. John Milner 1B
6. Jerry Grote C
7. Don Hahn CF
8 Bud Harrelson SS
9. Tom Seaver P
Not a bad lineup. Nothing scary like a Big Red Machine, but pretty solid offensively with a sound defense, and the pitching staff of Seaver, Koosman, and Matlock—that wasn’t too shabby.
Should have made a pretty decent year, yes? NO! The Mets finished with a 71-91 record and a fifth place finish.
The “Big Three” were terrible. Seaver went 11-11, Koosman went 15-11, and Matlack was 13-15. Tug McGraw went 6-11 in relief with three saves.
Cleon Jones had the highest batting average for the starters at .282 and John Milner lead the team with 20 home runs and 70 runs scored. Rusty led the team with 78 RBI’s. The team just plain stunk.
I had the misfortune not to travel back to the NYC and see Mets' home games at Shea and that began a 20-year period where I only made five trips to see the Mets at Shea Stadium.
However, I had the opportunity to go to over 100 games against the Phillies and others at Veterans Stadium which I’ll say at this point in time was one of, if not, the worst baseball parks to watch a game that I have ever attended.
As bad as it was, it was still a chance to watch my team for better, and mostly worse, at this time as a visitor in a foreign land.
The Mets got off to a terrible start that year and never recovered. By June 1 they were eight games below .500 and by the All-Star Break they were 13 games below and done for the year. I went to two games that year with Ellen and I wondered if her streak would now continue on the road as well.
The first game was on June 22, and even then some faithful Met fans would travel down from the city but nothing like it would be in the mid-'80s when the Mets got back on top.
The Phillies took a 5-0 lead into the fifth inning and the game was over. Mike Schmidt had a hit, Larry Bowa had three, and Dave Cash had two.
I could tell then that they had the makings of a special team but that would really come into play during the next five years. The final score was 5-2. We didn’t talk on the way home.
The second game we went to that year was in September, the first of a three-game series. There was virtually no one there since the Phillies would end the season going 80-82.
When the Phillies didn’t win they hardly drew big crowds. So we sat right over the Mets dugout about four rows up and the Phillie Phanatic, who was just getting hit feet wet then, was the most entertaining part of the festivities.
Once again, this time by the fourth inning, the Mets were down 4-0 but they scored two runs in the fourth. It wasn’t enough as Steve Carlton won his then 16th game of the year, and once again Larry Bowa had three more hits.
I was beginning to wish that my team could have the likes of a Larry Bowa, Mike Schmidt, and Greg Luzinski.
Little did I know or recognize at the time that the Phillies were coming into their own and I was intrigued by their play and the personalities on their team.
So now Ellen’s losing streak had increased to 11 straight Mets losses and I was having more misgivings about having such a bad luck charm waking up with me everyday. So, was the die cast? Not quite, that wouldn’t happen until we hit 20 but that’s getting a little ahead of myself.
The Mets made some changes in 1975. Joan Payson the principal owner passed away and since no one in the family had any interest in the team or baseball itself, they gave control of the franchise to one M. Donald Grant. Grant had actually been with the Mets since its second year in existence until 1978.
Grant was far from a baseball man. Whitey Herzog who actually was the Director of Player Development when the Mets won the World Series in 1969 told Grant to his face that he didn’t know “beans about baseball."
In later years, like when I first thought of writing this article and I stumbled on this fact, I often wonder what could have happened back when Gil Hodges died if Whitey Herzog could have stepped in and managed this team.
But Grant and the whole Mets organization were still so enthralled with the Dodgers, Giants, and Yankee connections, (sound familiar today?) that Yogi Berra, Roy McMillan, Joe Frazier, and Joe Torre were the next Met managers that followed Gil, while Whitey was leading the St. Louis Cardinals to championships in the '80s.
Grant’s most famous move was the ultimate Met blunder trading “The Franchise” Tom Seaver along with slugger Dave Kingman on the now famous “The Midnight Massacre” on June 15, 1977.
Met fans will never forgive Grant, and this move set the franchise back many years. Shea Stadium attendance was so drastically reduced that it was common for the beat writers to refer to Shea Stadium as “Grant’s Tomb.”
The trading of Tom Seaver was like a dagger in my heart. The Phillies had already reached the playoffs in '76 and would do it again in '77. I rooted for the Mets but it was no secret that I also liked the Phillies and knowing the Mets were going in the wrong direction, once I felt they were eliminated, I openly rooted for the Phils.
I took my son to his first Phillies game that year. It wasn’t against the Mets. That was my first and very costly mistake.
All I remember is that the Phillies won and this team in red had new young fan. What a blunder on my part that I regret to this day, but you’ll see in part VI just how much worse that situation became when I lost my son’s fanhood forever and ever.
In 1975 the Mets finished third with an 82-80 record and in 1976 they improved to 86-76. Ellen and I went to three games in '75 against the Phils. They lost all three.
I went to two other Phillies-Mets games with my son, who was five, and my daughter, who was three. We went 2-0.
Her streak now stood at 14 and she decided that maybe she was bad luck. DUH. 0-14 and she just started to put the pieces together? OYE.
In 1976, the Phillies won the National League East and with Dick Allen, Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa, Greg Luzinski, Bob Boone, Dave Cash, and Garry Maddox.
They were a fun team to watch and heck during the season and the offseason, as much as a week wouldn’t go by before you would run into one of them at the store, in a restaurant, or in a movie. They all lived in South Jersey and this was the local team.
Ellen lost a pair of games that year moving her stellar record to 0-16.
By 1978 Grant was gone, but he left with two more miserable seasons where the Mets went 64-98 in 1977 and 66-96 in 1978. I continued to go to most Phillies-Mets games each year at the Vet but now mixed with Phillies-Dodgers games and Phillies-Reds games.
The next two seasons produced two more 90-plus loss seasons for the Mets, and with the Phillies winning the World Series in 1980 it was no longer a secret that the Phillies were a more enjoyable team to watch.
Although I started each new season with high hopes and expectations for my Mets, I had no trouble at all rooting for the Phillies.
I hate to say this. but if this is a life story then things that happen need to be reported. By 1979, Ellen and I had gone to 23 Mets games and they lost all 23. Now this may sound silly to 99.9 percent of those people reading this, but after 12 years of this streak plus other non-mentionables we split up.
That’s life, it happens and although I have joked about the streak, any marriage breakup where there are small children involved can never have a happy ending.
I had soured on life. My marriage had failed my team stunk up the joint because there was no leadership or identity with the city I loved.
By 1980 I knew that the only way the Mets were going to be a successful franchise was to totally move in a different direction and turn its back on its Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants past.
They needed to establish their own identity like the New York Jets.
So what did they do? The Payson family sold the Mets to Nelson Doubleday for $21.1 million. Doubleday became the Chairman of the Board and turned the team over to Brooklyn born and bred, and lifetime Brooklyn Dodger fan, Fred Wilpon and named him the club president.
Now, 28 years later we still have the New York (Brooklyn Dodger) Mets, and you wonder why I almost left the fold to what has now become our most feared rival since the Braves.
Stay tuned for Part VI, “The Re-Birth, Theirs and Mine”
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