Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Bad Yankees stories remind me of Mets’ worst years

Some time back, New York Times writer Dan Barry wrote about the horrors of being a New York Yankees fan in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Before “Der Boss” – George Steinbrunner – picked up the team for a song and turned it into a contender in most years, things went pretty badly for the Yankees.

Their crosstown rivals, the Mets, were ascendant, and it seems that if one team is up, the other is down. In 2000, though, there was a World Series – a subway series – that left the Mets humiliated. It was the last series the Mets have been in.

Barry recited the list of woes, from players like Horace Clark and Mickey Mantle in his declining years to the infamous Fritz Peterson-Mike Kekich family swap. And remember Phil Rizzuto’s broadcast horrors?

Look, I hate the Yankees, but here is a list of Mets’ nonachievements to while away the time while waiting for the Yanks to steal win another World Series.

The Mets’ world started to fall apart after the team’s loss to the Oakland A’s in the 1973 World Series. Through 1974 and 1975, there was a steady decline in the team’s quality and performance, and the real fall began after pitcher Tom Seaver was traded in 1975.

It sounds strange today with the era of free agency, but back then people associated the Mets with Seaver, and vice versa. He was No. 41, a reliable starting pitcher for whom every opening day at Shea was reserved. Tom “Terrific” had his ups and downs, but his spectacular 1969 season (25-7) and performances in the following seasons had cemented his reputation in New York. Rarely did he ever receive boos for his performances, even when he pitched poorly.

The idea that our beloved Seaver, dubbed “The Franchise” by many, could be traded away, and to the enemy Cincinnati Reds, no less, especially after the fighting that happened in the 1973 NLCS, boggled the mind.

The old Mets guard was going away. Owner Joan Payson had died, the old “perfesser” Casey Stengel was gone, and the team was in the hands of Payson’s baseball-naïve daughters and chairman of the board M. Donald Grant. Seaver had demanded a trade because he couldn’t get the pay he wanted, and he got it.

It just seemed that the Mets got players in return who really did precious little for the Mets. Pat Zachry was an underwhelming pitcher, and the other players barely are worth a mention. In the Mets’ 25th anniversary tape, star pitcher Jerry Koosman said the trading of Seaver cheapened the value of the rest of the players. If they could get rid of Seaver, they could get rid of anyone.

In these down years, the Mets seemed unable to do anything right while the Yankees found success again.

Look, let’s characterize the down years with two words: Junior Ortiz. Here was a catcher who had been acquired from Pittsburgh, and no doubt they were glad to see him leave. He was multi-untalented: He could not hit, field, throw, catch or run. Sometimes, it seemed like he could have gone to the plate without a bat, and only did so because he might look silly.

In the announcing booth, one of the radio announcers was so inept, he had a habit of calling home runs this way: “It could go … It may go … It might go!” If a member of the Mets hit a fly ball to the outfield, he’d give the call this way: “There’s a long, long drive to left, but Harrison has room. He makes the catch.”

One player the Mets had was a catcher named John Stearns. He was actually fairly decent at the game, but there was one game where most people just lost patience with him.

The Mets had lost the first game of the batting helmet day doubleheader, and had just started the second game. They were in the middle innings when the Mets managed to somehow load the bases with two out.

Mind you, these were the punchless Mets, who might manage a run or two per game, and almost never had more than one man on base. Now they had three. It was like 1969 all over again.

Stearns came out of the dugout to pinch hit.

It looked like the Mets were on the verge of a breakthrough, but Stearns swung at the first pitch … and popped out to the catcher. Inning over.

People began to leave Shea Stadium, and some smashed their batting helmets against the outside wall of Shea in frustration.

A joke went around that Stearns had “warning-track power,” meaning that was the farthest he could hit the ball, but a lot of Mets had warning-track power then.

Other winning players from that era included George “The Stork” Theodore (really? Really), a guy named Ike Brown who came up with high hopes and was a hero – for one game – and a burned out ex-Detroit Tiger, Mickey Lolich.

My father told me that one day, the camera was panning the dugout and Pat Zachry, not knowing the camera was on, gave the camera the finger. Another time, Zachry, upset over yet another “brilliant” pitching performance, kicked the wall of the dugout and broke his toe.

There was a guy who used to hold up signs, and one day he got ejected for holding up a sign that said, “Welcome to Grant’s Tomb!”

Shea itself was a hole, and players said they hated playing baseball to empty seats. I mean, why pay to see the Mets lose when you can watch it on TV for free?

The terrible doldrums of the mid- to late 1970s and early 1980s finally seemed to be coming to an end, though. New ownership came in with a plan to re-energize the Mets and favorable draft picks brought some bona-fide future stars into the system. Strategic trades started bringing in quality players like home run hitter George Foster, who still had a few good years left, and by 1984 the nucleus of a contender was forming.

The names sound like a roll call of the Mets’ greats: Mookie Wilson, Hubie Brooks, Wally Backman, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and many more. To me, the biggest trade was Neil Allen to the Cardinals for Keith Hernandez. Suddenly, first base wasn’t a position where you stuffed a catcher with burned-out legs, but a true artist of the position. Best of all, Hernandez was a dangerous left-handed hitter and a team leader.

With Gary Carter at bat and behind the plate, the 1970s and early 1980s were forgotten, and suddenly the Mets weren’t a team you read about in the papers because you liked slow-motion disasters, but a team that could stand with the greatest teams of all time.

Maybe the Mets’ success in the late 1980s was built upon those brutal years, but if you had to live through them and watch games in which ineptitude was the order of the day, you’d wonder if things would ever get better.

Today, the Yankees are considered contenders again. Their up years were bitter ones for Mets fans, and it seems like every year the Yanks are expected to contend and win. It’s good for them, but as I’ve seen, those high expectations can be shattered, and there are plenty of teams going through a 1970s Mets era of their own right now.

Maybe the Yankees will be next.

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April 11, 2012 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , ,

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