This was an odd season for the Mets and an equally odd experience for me. Several teachers from my grandmother’s school in Howell, New Jersey, had organized a trip to see the Mets on a Friday evening. School had to already have been in session. My grandmother had purchased tickets for my brother and me as well as for herself and my grandfather. Looking back, it now seems inconceivable that my grandparents at 57 and 62 years of age, respectively, would have even considered a two-hour ride to Flushing, Queens on a bus each way along with a long walk to the upper deck of a dirty stadium. It’s another pleasant reminder of the sacrifices they made for us.
I remember a little about the bus ride. Most of the participants were younger male teachers who brought several cases of Rolling Rock beer for the ride. Several of the teachers were asking each other trivia questions. I recall realizing that one of them was wrong about one of their answers. He was clearly not happy with my attempt to correct him. It was a long time before I corrected an elder again. Somehow, I was able to shake off the experience, as I have no qualms about doing it now.
Fortunately, this group of teachers had picked the right game. The Mets entered the evening under .500, but were only half a game out. As a matter of fact, the fifth-place Cubs were only three games out at the time. The Mets had split a two game series with the first-place Pirates earlier in the week. Both teams then came to Shea where the Mets took the first two of a three game series. The Pirates were a paltry 75-75, but were still the team to beat.
This was near the end of the season where reliever Tug McGraw had coined the phrase “You gotta believe!” The phrase caught on and was everywhere and the Mets were on a roll. I watched the previous night’s game and it had a typically crazy Mets finish. The Mets were down 2-1 going into the bottom of the eighth. They tied the score on a timely hit, but immediately allowed the Pirates to retake a one run lead in the top of the ninth. Manager Yogi Berra sent up Duffy Dyer to pinch hit with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and the tying run on second. Dyer was in a terrible slump, but somehow doubled in the tying run.
Neither team scored over the next three innings, but things took a bad turn for the Mets in the top of the thirteenth. Richie Zisk singled with one out. After Willie Stargell was retired, Dave Augustine hit a long ball to left field. Zisk had been running on the pitch and seemed certain to score. The ball hit the top of the fence in front of Cleon Jones, who now had his back to home plate. The ball seemed likely to bounce over for a two run homer and at the very least, stay in the park for a tie-breaking double.
Miraculously, the ball caromed back toward the infield directly into Jones’ glove. He turned and fired to Wayne Garrett at short, who in turn threw to Ron Hodges at the plate to cut down Zisk and end the inning. The Mets scored in the bottom half on a single by Ron Hodges. To this day, I’ve never seen a play like it and certainly not in such a tight situation.
Arriving at the stadium, I was in awe of the immense building with blue and orange rectangles on the outside along the ramped concourses. I must have seen it nearly a decade earlier when my grandparents took me to the World’s Fair. Our seats were in the upper deck, in fair territory behind left field. These seats had a rather steep pitch, something that my grandparents must have been concerned about. There were very few upper deck seats in fair territory, and they were at the edge of the open end of the stadium. During the entire life of Shea Stadium, only one ball was ever hit into the upper deck in fair territory (It was by Tommie Agee in 1969). This is significant because the stadium was full and it was the biggest game of the season to date. The stands were actually shaking during the entire game. It was both frightening and invigorating.
I wish that I remembered more specific information about the game. For example, I have no recollection of Tom Seaver pitching and going the distance for his eighteenth win. I do have specific memories of each of the three home runs by John Milner, Wayne Garrett, and Rusty Staub. All three were line drives into the right field bullpen. Each was followed by the most thunderous roar that I had ever experienced.
I cannot imagine that this evening was very pleasant for my grandparents. I cannot appreciate enough what they did for me. I do know that the Mets took over first place from the Pirates on this night, and that eleven days later they would be the Eastern Division champs of the National League. They would have been in fourth place in the West, just a half-game ahead of the Houston Astros and sixteen-and-a-half behind the champion Cincinnati Reds. No matter. They would defeat the Reds in five games before going on to lose the World Series to the Oakland A’s in seven games. And I got to be a part of it.