Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Everlasting Mets

"There's a fly ball out to left. Waiting is Jones. The Mets are the World Champions! Jerry Koosman is being mobbed! Look at this scene!" - Curt Gowdy World Series call, 1969.

They are a team forever covered in glory.

When New York Mets left fielder Cleon Jones caught the final out, with his knee to the ground, in prayer, to win the 1969 World Series on October 16, 1969 at Shea Stadium in my birthplace Flushing, Queens, it became the greatest and most improbable upset in World Series history.

The New York Mets, an expansion team that was a Major League Baseball laughingstock for its modern day record of futility, lost 120 games just seven years before in its 1962 debut season. Yet they not only defeated, but dominated the seemingly invincible Baltimore Orioles four games to one.

Those Orioles are likely still numb from what the Mets did to them.

The Mets won with a combination of incredible defensive plays by Tommie Agee and Ron Swoboda, stellar pitching from Jerry Koosman and clutch home runs by true home run hitters and hitters who barely hit their weight. Their manager, Brooklyn's own Gil Hodges, proved a dugout genius.

No one thought it possible. No one at all.

Tonight, as Game One of the World Series begins, the Tampa Bay Rays are poised to become another miracle championship team. But if they defeat the Philadelphia Phillies, it won't compare to what the Mets achieved 39 years ago. Not even close.

The 2008 Philadelphia Phillies? This is not a team feared throughout baseball. No players perform a deer-in-the-headlights with the thought of facing the Phillies. The Mets even won the season series against them before their inevitable, heartbreaking collapse.

The Baltimore Orioles won 109 games in 1969. They had three future Hall of Famers in third baseman Brooks Robinson, right fielder Frank Robinson and pitcher Jim Palmer. Their manager, Earl Weaver, was also destined for enshrinement at Cooperstown.

It featured Orioles who had typical All Star years.

First baseman Boog Powell, the intimidating first baseman who looked like he could hit the pitcher along with the ball over the right field fence at Shea, batted .304, with 37 home runs and 121 RBIs. Shortstop Mark Belanger, "The Blade," won the Gold Glove, his first of eight.

Pitcher Mike Cuellar won 23 games against 11 losses with a 2.38 earned run average, and was the co-Cy Young Award winner. Center fielder Paul Blair, scored 102 runs and won the Gold Glove. And second baseman Davey Johnson, who would go on to manage a Miracle Mets team, was yet another Gold Glove winner and a critical part of the team's success.

The Orioles could do everything on the field, offensively and defensively.

Along slink the lowly Mets. They had never finished higher than 9th place in the ten-team National League. The team was lampooned for their ineptitude, which was personified by "Marvelous" Marv Thronberry.

They couldn't hit.

They couldn't pitch

They couldn't field.

What they could do, was lose. Spectacularly.

"Can't Anyone Here Play This Game?" asked Jimmy Breslin in his book about the team.

Until 1969.

The Mets, predictably, began their 1969 season with a defeat, 11-10 to the expansion Montreal Expos. After 41 games, their record stood at 18 and 23. It appeared to be another dreadful last place finish in-the-making.

And it began. The team won 11 straight games. Beginning with that fateful 42nd game, the Mets finished the season 82-39, for a .678 winning percentage.

Despite their late-blooming outstanding play, and the key acquisition of Donn Clendenon from the Pirates, the Mets were sill mired in third place by mid-August, 9 1/2 games back.

Again, they did not relent. They didn't give up.

The Mets won 37 of their last 48 games to win the National League Eastern Division, comfortably by 8 games over the Chicago Cubs (with an assist from a black cat Flushing resident). They swept the Hank Aaron-led Atlanta Braves 3-0 in the first-ever National League Championship Series.

The only upset in major professional sports history that surpasses the Mets' 1969 World Series triumph is the 1980 "Miracle On Ice" victory by our United States hockey team at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics.

But the Mets remain the gold-standard of underdogs in baseball. If there is a World Series championship team that achieved a more stunning upset, I want to know. I really want to know.

"Come on down, come on down, baby" is what Cleon Jones said to himself while the final out came flying into his glove off Davey Johnson's bat. It's still a thrill to watch that emotional, amazing out.

And no matter what happens in this Phillies-Rays World Series, the 1969 New York Mets will retain their rightful place in baseball history as the Kings of the impossible victory.