Forty Years Later and Still Amazin': The 1969 Mets Remembered!!!

Thomas CoglianoCorrespondent IOctober 16, 2009

On October 16, 1969, Baltimore has a runner on base with two outs.  The Orioles are trailing by two runs in the top half of the ninth inning.  They are on the brink of an incredible elimination in the World Series.  Mets' starter Jerry Koosman has his sign and delivers the pitch to Baltimore's second-baseman Davey Johnson.  Johnson swings.  He hits a long and towering fly ball to left field.  Left-fielder Cleon Jones is tracking the fly ball.  He continues tracking the ball back, back, back, almost at the warning track.  Jones reads it.  He opens his glove awaiting the catch, dropping to a knee while reading the ball all the way into his glove.  OUT!  GAME OVER!  WORLD SERIES OVER!  The 1969 World Series champions are the...New York Mets!!!  The Amazin' Mets!

The 1969 Mets in many ways saved Major League baseball from the doldrums of the 1960s.  After 1964, the legendary Yankee dynasty had collapsed with the Bronx Bombers dropping into fifth place in 1965 and never emerging as a pennant contender for another 10 years.  Pitching was so dominant that only one American League hitter actually cracked .300 in batting average for the 1968 season [Carl Yastremski who won the AL Batting Title with a .301 average!!!].  Attendance and fan interest in the game plummeted after the 1964 season.  Granted, economic and social factors were involved, namely the Vietnam War, a terrible economic recession, and a turbulent social front in reaction to both events.  Nonetheless, Major League Baseball tried to reinvigorate the game for the 1969 season.

The 1969 season was an expansion season.  For the first time in MLB history, baseball would be played in Canada.  The Montreal Expos were born.  Also, for the first time in MLB history, the two leagues would be split into two divisions.  And the pennant would be determined, not from a first place finish in each league as had been the case since the first World Series was played in 1903.  The pennant would be determined by a best-of-five League Championship Series. 

For the New York Mets, the team had low expectations for the 1969 season.  After all, they had never had a winning season since the franchise's birth in 1962 when they lost an astounding 120 games [still an MLB record]!  In fact, the Mets finished the previous season in ninth place, winning only 73 games!  And on Opening Day for 1969, the Mets lost to the expansion Montreal Expos!!! 

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The National League East was a division for the Pittsburgh Pirates [with Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, and Bob Moose] or the Chicago Cubs [with Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, and Ferguson Jenkins].  The Mets were never supposed to factor in the division chase.  The Cubs got off to a roaring start and seemed to have the division wrapped up by early summer.  But that was when the New York Mets began their comeback.  It started with a June trade to acquire first-baseman Donn Clendenon.  All of a sudden, the Mets had a power hitter who could slug homeruns! 

In early July, an epic three-game series was played between the Mets and Cubs at Shea Stadium.  Donn Clendenon played the role of the hero spoiling a potential one-hitter by Chicago's ace starter Ferguson Jenkins to defeat the Cubs in the bottom of the ninth.  The following night, Tom Seaver was one out away from pitching a perfect game against the Cubs.  After surrendering a base hit with two away, he retired the following batter to complete the shutout.  And just like that, the Mets won a HUGE three-game series against the Cubs. 

The following week at Wrigley Field, the Mets took two out of three against the Cubs once more.  And all of a sudden, it was a three-team race for the NL East: Cubs, Pirates, and Mets! 

In early August, the Mets stumbled and the Cubs seemed to regain composure.  The Cubs were 9.5 games ahead of the Mets in the standings.  That was when lightning struck twice for the Mets.  From mid-August to the end of September, no team was hotter in MLB in 1969 than the New York Mets. 

The Cubs stumbled out of contention after being swept in a mini two-game series against the Mets from September 8-9, 1969.  The following day, the Mets took first place for the first time that season...and that franchises's history.  They maintained that momentum all the way towards the end of the season and clinched the NL East!  To keep their strong starting pitchers, Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman, well rested, New York pitching coach Rube Walker decided to expand the pitching rotation from four pitchers to five, an unprecedented move in MLB history!!! 

With the expansion of the pitching rotation, Seaver and Koosman earned an extra day of rest for the final weeks of the season and were fully prepared for October baseball.

The NLCS in 1969 featured the New York Mets and the Atlanta Braves.  Despite three homeruns by Hank Aaron, the rest of the Atlanta bats were silent and the Mets earned a surprisingly easy National League pennant by sweeping the Braves in 3 games!

But, the World Series was supposed to be an impossible feat for the Mets to win.  The American League champions, the Baltimore Orioles, were heavy, heavy favorites to capture the title.  After all, it was essentially the exact same team that upset the Los Angeles Dodgers three years earlier to capture the 1966 World Series!!!  In addition, the Orioles won a significant 109 games that season with two 20-game winning pitchers [Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally], a former Triple Crown winner [Frank Robinson], and six players with double-digit homerun totals for the season!!!

Odds makers were predicting an Orioles victory in the World Series in five games [four games to one]. 

In Game One at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, it appeared the odds makers were right.  On Tom Seaver's second pitch of the game, Baltimore's lead-off hitter Don Buford smacked a solo homerun.  After surrendering three more runs in the fourth inning, Tom Seaver was removed from the game in a disastrous outing.  Baltimore's Cuellar was sensational and the Baltimore Orioles cruised to a 4-1 victory!

But the World Series is best-of-seven.  A team has to win four games in order to win.  The spark for the Mets came in Game Two with Jerry Koosman and Donn Clendenon.  Clendenon smacked a solo homerun off Dave McNally in the fourth inning to give the Mets its first lead of the series.  Koosman took a perfect no-hitter into the seventh inning, and the Mets held on to defeat the Orioles 2-1.  The World Series was now tied at a game apiece!

In Game Three at Shea Stadium, the Mets stole the show with centerfielder Tommy Agee.  He led off the game with a solo homerun off Baltimore's Jim Palmer and proceeded to make two amazing catches in the outfield to rob potential Baltimore runs from crossing the plate.  The Mets impressively took Game 3 by a score of 5-0.

In Game Four, the Mets and Tom Seaver took a 1-0 lead into the ninth inning.  But Baltimore rallied with runners on first and third and only one out.  Brooks Robinson smashed a line drive into right field.  Mets' right-fielder Ron Swoboda dove full body length and made a most spectacular catch saving at least 2 runs from scoring.  Although the catch was made, it was still good enough for a sacrifice fly.  The game was now tied.  In the bottom of the tenth inning, the New York Mets scored the game-winning run when pinch-hitter JC Martin bunted in a sacrifice attempt with runners of first and second but the ensuing throw to first hit Martin the back and sailed into the outfield.  The runner on second scored and the Mets took a 3-1 lead in the World Series. 

Could the Mets clinch the Series in Shea in Game Five?  Game Five was the last chance for that to happen.  If the Mets lost Game 5, they would have needed to win the Series at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, which was no easy task.  It appeared that that was what the Mets would need to do.  Jerry Koosman surrendered two Baltimore homeruns in the third inning [Dave McNally and Frank Robinson]; thus, the Orioles took an early 3-0 lead in the game. 

But, the Mets made a furious comeback, beginning with a Donn Clendenon 2-run homerun in the sixth inning and an Al Weiss solo shot in the seventh.  After plating two more runs in the eighth inning, the Mets took a 5-3 lead into the ninth inning.  With Davey Johnson's fly ball out in the ninth, the New York Mets had achieved the impossible!  They had become the 1969 World Series Champions...knocking out the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in five games and adding a remarkable chapter in the great history of Major League Baseball!!!

Very few teams since then have inspired the way the Amazin' Mets of '69 had done.  Several nominations include the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers and the 2003 Florida Marlins!!!  But no matter how many more of these cinderella baseball teams emerge, the original is always the best!  The 1969 Mets were amazin'...and forty years later, they still are!!!