It's hard to think of anything positive relating to the New York Mets these days, but there is one positive to come out of this dismal 2009 baseball season. It's the 40th anniversary of maybe the greatest baseball underdog story ever.
So in the middle of this disappointing debacle of a season in Queens, Mets fans were given a moment to remember on August 22, as six members of the legendary 1969 team, Yogi Berra, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Jerry Koosman, Jerry Grote, and Duffy Dyer, returned to Flushing for a 40th anniversary celebration at Citi Field.
Since seeing those Mets legends on August 22, I have been struggling to write a fitting tribute to what is arguably the greatest Mets team ever. Being only 31 years old, the only championship I have witnessed was in 1986, as an eight year old boy who was convinced that one day he would one day be roaming centerfield at Shea Stadium, helping the Mets to multiple championships.
I know how much that 1986 World Series championship meant to me. It made fall in love with the game of baseball, and with the Mets. It changed my young life forever.
So how could I give the 1969 Mets a fitting tribute? No matter how many highlights I see, articles and books I read, or documentaries about that team I watch on SNY, I will never know what it felt like to be a fan in 1969. I will never fully understand what that first championship meant to the people of New York.
While I was not around in 1969, I do know a Mets fan who was.
My great-uncle David, was 18 years old in 1969 when the Mets won it all, and has been lucky enough to witness the entire Mets history. His father, my great-grandfather, was originally a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and eventually became a Mets fan, and my uncle followed suit.
My uncle David is the most knowledgeable Mets fan I know, and I guy who I love talking baseball with whenever I get the chance. He still lives in New York and still follows the Mets religiously.
I decided to email my uncle David a few questions about that miracle 1969 season, so that maybe some younger Mets fans on Bleacher Report (including myself), could truly get a feel for what it was like to be a Mets fan in 1969. Enjoy.
What was it like being a Mets fan during the 7 years leading up to 1969?
It was exciting being a fan from the very birth of a franchise, something no Yankees fan alive can state. Of course those same Yankees fans used to get ragged on us Mets fans even after the Bronx Bombers hit the skids in 1965 (The only "bragging rights" we had that first season was that the Mets' Frank Thomas out-homered the Yanks top HR hitter, Roger Maris, one year after Maris set the new single-season HR mark. The following year, the 51-111 Mets outdrew the World Series-bound Yanks, which really galled Yankees fans).
On a personal level, the Mets were the one thing that my father and I truly bonded over. He had been a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, which I was too young to appreciate, and from 1958-61 he would watch the Yankees and root for the other team, so I never sensed his passion for baseball until the Mets were born.
Was there any indication during the preseason that the Mets would contend for a championship?
I think we were confident that the Mets would finally put together a winning season. They were a young team with some rising stars—including two bona fide aces in Seaver and Koosman—that had lost 36 one-run games in 1968; if they had converted half of those to wins, they would have won 91 games that year.
So there was reason for optimism and certainly Hodges, Seaver and Grote were outspoken about the team's potential—some would say expectations—to contend.
What is the one memory of the 1969 season you will never forget?
It was the first year I ever attended the Opening Day game. Ironically the Mets and Tom Seaver lost to the newly minted Montreal Expos, a team they would feast on en route to the pennant, which may have lowered my expectation just a tad.
It was the only game I saw at Shea that year, being preoccupied with school, community theater and the opposite sex. Of course, on TV I thrilled to Seaver's near no-hitter, reaching first place for the first time ever, the "black cat game," clinching the pennant, etc.
Did anyone really believe the Mets could beat the Orioles?
Mets fans certainly wanted to believe it and were sure our big three (Seaver, Koosman and Gentry) could go toe-to-toe with Palmer, McNally and Cuellar, but Baltimore, on paper, had a huge advantage on offense.
After the Mets exploded for 27 runs in sweeping the Braves in three games, we knew anything was possible. My father never doubted it for a moment.
Who was you favorite player back then?
Bud Harrelson. He was home grown (as was almost half the '69 team) and I identified with him because I never was much of a hitter but I always imagined myself the scrappy, slick-fielding type (although I wasn't any great shakes with the glove, either, and at least 20 pounds overweight).
The game was different then; Harrelson and Grote (the true leaders of the '69 Mets) made they All-Star team that year despite stats that in today's inflated offensive environment would render them late-inning defensive specialists. Neither ever drove in more than 40 runs in a season.
6. What do you think was the turning point for the Mets season, and was there a certain moment that made you realize the Mets were a team to be reckoned with?
First, they had the best month in their history in June, going 19-9 and surging from two games under .500 to 12 games over. Then in July they proved they could beat the team they HAD to beat, the superior-on-paper Cubs, taking 2 out of three at Shea and then doing the same at Wrigley Field the following week.
Was there a moment during the World Series where you thought the Mets may have been in trouble?
I think we couldn't help feeling the bubble had finally burst when the Orioles put up a three-spot in the 4th inning of Game One off 25-game-winner Tom Seaver (who was also hit hard in his NLCS start vs. the Braves) and the Mets could only scratch out one run (on a sac fly by their "secret weapon," Al Weis).
That brought us down to earth a bit. Of course, they HAD to lose that first game make to eventual outcome seem all the more miraculous.
Was there a moment during the world series where you thought "oh my God, we are actually gonna win this thing"?
Winning Game Two was HUGE—a sterling pitching effort by Jerry Koosman (with Ron Taylor getting the last out with the tying run in scoring position and winning run on first) and Al Weis of all people driving in the game-winning run.
This knotted the series at 1-1 with the next three games to be played at Shea. The rest was one unbelievable thing after another—Agee's catches and (more incredibly) Swoboda catch, Cleon Jones' "shoe polish" ball, light-hitting Al Weis's, HR and JC Martin's game-winning bunt in which the umpires—and, unbelievable, Earl Weaver—failed to call an obvious interference. That stars were truly aligned for the Mets that year.
More impressive win 1986 or 1969, why ?and which one do you cherish more personally?
1969 was more impressive, because the Mets were overwhelming underdogs and had only won 73 games the previous season. Ron Taylor was the only Met with postseason experience (and that was five years earlier).
I cherish it more personally because it was the only championship I would share with my father (he passed away in late April of 1986, with the Mets already in first place to stay, and when Jesse Orosco struck out Marty Barrett to clinch the championship, I jumped up, shouted "Yes"—and then cursed them for not winning it all the year before for my dad).
It's ironic that the underdog 1969 Mets steamrolled through the post season and always seemed to be in command, while the clearly superior 1986 team that won its division by 21.5 games was continually on the brink of disaster throughout the post season and made us sweat through 13 post-season games
Once again I would like to thank my uncle David for taking the time to participate in this article. He really did a great job.