This edition of MMO Flashback goes back to December of 2008 when Rob Silverman who you all know as Tie Dyed, penned a heartwarming tribute to one of the all time great Mets, Tug McGraw. Enjoy!
Throughout our storied history, we’ve had more than our share of characters and colorful figures. The fist-pumping curtain calls of Gary Carter have been replaced by the dancing of Jose Reyes. But if Tom Seaver was the heart of the Mets and Mike Piazza the soul, then Tug McGraw was the spirit of our team.
It is impossible to think back to that memorable 73 season without hearing the rally cry of Tug’s ‘Ya Gotta Believe’ and seeing the image of him triumphantly walking from the mound, pounding his glove on his leg. What became a catchphrase has transcended time and spanned three and a half decades. Even now, in late 2008, as we fought to dethrone the Phillies, fans still harkened back to the words of Tug. Ya Gotta Believe.
Tug was not a Hall of Fame pitcher. His stats are not earth shattering. Over a 19 year career, his record was 96-92 with a 3.14 ERA. In the nine years he pitched for the Mets, he only led the team in saves twice. But yet, he remains a beloved figure in Mets folklore, a larger-than-life icon.
Born Frank Edwin McGraw on August 30, 1944 in Martinez, CA, he had no intention of a baseball career. After graduating from St. Vincent’s HS in Vallejo, McGraw enrolled in barbershop college. He lacked the skills necessary to become a successful barber. He was so bad, in fact, that he earned the nickname ‘Tug’ from ‘tugging’ on customer’s hair.
Tug was signed by the Mets on June 12, 1964. He made no huge splash in New York. As a matter of fact, he drowned. He spent 2 years as a starter where he compiled a miserable record of 2-12. One of his two victories, however, came against legend Sandy Koufax. It was the first time the Mets had ever defeated him. In 67, McGraw still struggled and after piling up a 7.79 ERA, he was sent down. He would spend all of 68 in the minors. He returned to NY in 69, armed with a Screwball, and accrued 12 saves but did not pitch in the World Series.
Statistically, his best seasons in NY were 71 and 72. He won 19 games in relief, whiffed 201 batters in 217 IP, achieved a 1.70 ERA and recorded 35 saves. He also was the winning pitcher in the 72 All-Star Game.
It was 73, however, when Tug would create the mantra that Mets fans still live by. The Mets were going nowhere quickly. Injuries to Rusty Staub and Jerry Grote only dampened spirits. Mets GM M. Donald Grant came into the clubhouse one summer day and gave a pep talk to the players. He voiced his belief that the Mets were a better team than they were showing and that they needed to ‘believe’ in themselves. Always outspoken and energetic, Tug began shouting, screaming, ‘Ya Gotta Believe!’ At first, Grant was offended. He thought Tug was mocking him.
It was hard to ‘believe.’ On August 30th, the Mets were 61-71, in last place in the NLE and Tug, the Mets closer, was harboring an inflated ERA of 5.05 (Aaron Heilman territory) But the players started to believe, the fans started to believe and soon, the NL started to believe. The Mets went 21-9 down the stretch, defeated the Big Red Machine in a 5 game war, but fell short to the A’s in a 7 game classic.
The following season, 29 year old Tugger started having some minor injuries and after the season, the Mets unloaded him. Tug was traded to the Phillies along with Don Hahn and Dave Schneck in exchange for Del Unser, John Stearns and Mac Scarce. When it was learned that Tug had a cyst on his shoulder, the Phillies accused NY of trading ‘damaged goods.’ However, the cyst was removed and Tug would pitch another 10 years.
Few athletes ever receive the admiration that was bestowed upon Tug. But what made Tug unique is that as much as we loved him, he became equally loved in Philly. In 1980 he helped lead the Phillies to their 1st championship. His 1.46 ERA that season was the lowest of his career. He appeared in all 5 NLCS games and went on to strike out Willie Wilson for the final out of the World Series, one of 10 K’s he recorded in 7 2/3 innings. He would spend the last 3 years of his career as a set-up man in Philadelphia. Tug retired in 1984 with 180 career saves, 8th in history at that time. He was the last active Major Leaguer to have played for Casey Stengel.
In 2003, Tug was working as an instructor for the Phillies during spring training when he was hospitalized with a brain tumor. Surgery revealed that the tumor was malignant and inoperable. Doctors gave him three months to live. Tug lived for nine. He died on January 5, 2004 in Brentwood, TN. Before Game 3 of the 2008 World Series, one of his sons, country music star Tim McGraw, scattered some of Tug’s ashes on the mound at Citizens Bank Park.
Tug was popular on and off the field. As much as fans loved him and teammates cherished him, opponents respected him. He was a good pitcher, a true ‘gamer’ whose famous quotes and unique style captured the hearts of fans. Occasionally, when loosening up before a game, McGraw, a lefty, would warm up throwing right handed, leaving fans to wonder who was wearing Tug’s number 45. He once stated, “90% of my salary I’ll spend on good times, women and Irish Whiskey. The other 10% I’ll probably waste.” When asked if he prefers artificial turf to grass, he replied, “I don’t know. I never smoked artificial turf.” He also claimed, “10 million years from now, when the sun burns out and the earth is just a frozen snowball hurtling through space, nobody’s going to care whether or not I got this guy out.” And he also said, “Ya Gotta Believe.”