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ANALYSIS : In These Dog Days for Mets, Memories of 1969 Are Flowing

July 20, 1994|JOE GERGEN | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — At the time, the civic monument was not an empty domed stadium but the world's largest drug store. That was entirely appropriate to the age of the population, which interrupted its schedule of shuffleboard games to attend spring training games. Long after he retired as New York Mets manager, Casey Stengel remained a matinee idol in St. Petersburg, Fla.

There was a bench outside the one-story clubhouse at Huggins-Stengel Field where the Old Man would take the sun and talk baseball with anyone who happened to say hello. At the end of the day's activities, he would be at the bar in the team's hospitality suite at the Colonial Inn, a two-story motel. It was March, 1969, the best spring of my working life.

Perhaps it would have been the same with any major-league team. After all, this was my first beat, my first full-time assignment for this newspaper. It was exciting even if the Mets didn't look like much, a ninth-place team with the nucleus of a solid rotation and little else. But what they appeared to lack in talent, they compensated with personality.

Tug McGraw introduced himself during an intra-squad game on that picturesque field, with a pond out beyond the center-field fence. He jogged off the mound one day, built up a head of steam and let out a blood-curdling scream as he leapfrogged a bench on which were seated members of the press corps. Surveying the scene of scattered reporters, notebooks and pens, he said, "Hi, guys," or words to that effect.

In such an informal setting, even tight-lipped manager Gil Hodges was relaxed. He enjoyed hitting fungoes to the outfielders and every once in a while would pop one into the palm trees.

Many of the Mets stayed on the beach, especially in the community of Pass-A-Grille where Nolan Ryan recruited writers to hit with his wife, Ruth, on the municipal tennis court. She had been a high-school doubles champion in Texas. The promising but erratic right-hander didn't dare challenge her for fear of hurting his arm.

Hodges walked in the mornings that spring to strengthen his heart, and several of the players met in the evenings to fish. But there was no sense of what was to come, the great drama that was to unfold. There were several trade rumors, one of them involving Richie Allen, but nothing came of them. The team started the season, its eighth, without a legitimate cleanup hitter.

Twenty-five years after the '69 Mets became a metaphor for hope, they gathered for a reunion at Shea Stadium Sunday. Not only were they the first champions in the history of the franchise but they were the most surprising and the most beloved. "They are our 'Boys of Summer,' " announcer Bob Murphy said privately before introducing members of the team over the public-address system.

As ever, McGraw was the most ebullient. Not only did he throw hard for an inning and rap his glove on his thigh as he walked across the foul line but he proclaimed that team a national treasure. "If the Cubs had won," he decided, "it would have been good for Chicago. If the Braves had won, it would have been good for Atlanta. If the Orioles had won, it would have been good for Baltimore. But when we won, it was good for the country."

America's Team? Well, the Mets' rise to .500, a division title, a National League pennant and a world championship in one season was an indication that anything was possible. Or at least, as Ron Swoboda noted, that nothing was impossible. Still, he said, it was a humbling experience to reach the moon at the age of 25, or thereabouts.

"Seaver went on (to the Hall of Fame),"he said. "Ryan went on (to compile a Hall of Fame record). McGraw went on (to a championship in Philadelphia). But for most of us, that was our defining moment."

One worthy of a celebration a quarter-century after the fact. Seaver did not attend yesterday's old-timers game between the Mets and a team of former opponents, sponsored by the Upper Deck card company, but there were plenty of familiar faces and a very familiar ending.

The final score Sunday was 1-0 in favor of the home team. The Mets played 14 games that ended 1-0 during the 1969 season, winning nine. Two occured on a Friday evening in Pittsburgh in what may have been the most remarkable development of the season. The starting pitcher drove in the winning run in each game of the twinight doubleheader at Forbes Field.

"We had to," said Don Cardwell, who won the second game with help from McGraw after Jerry Koosman posted a shutout in the opener. Indeed, they did. Cleon Jones was injured and Art Shamsky was observing Yom Kippur. The Mets' lineup was a patchwork affair.

Cardwell took pride in his hitting. Koosman was less formidable. But the sweep almost was denied in the bottom of the ninth when Agee ventured far into darkened centerfield (the Pirates having given up replacing burned-out bulbs at a ballpark ready for demolition) to catch a Willie Stargell blast. "About 440 feet," Koosman estimated yesterday.

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