Three Days In September

My 12th birthday, Monday September 8th, 1969. Why in hell does it have to be a day game today? I agonized as my mom drove me to school. As I sat in Mr Greenleaf’s home room that morning I cursed and muttered under my breath: “Koos is going against the Cubs today at Shea, AND it’s my birthday, AND we’re only two-and-a-half games behind that collection of whining crybabies from Chicago, and breathing right down their necks! Can you feel our hot stinky breath Ernie Banks? Here we come. So tell me something Pete. What the HELL are we doing sitting here in home room? At 9:05 am? Listening to Greenleaf drone on and on? We’re in a PENNANT race, and game time is 2:05!” Oh, the whoa of being a seventh-grader.

I got out of school at 3, and after dodging a bunch of unsavory characters who claimed to have unfinished business with me, I arrived at home 1.2 miles away, in about four minutes and twenty seconds. And that was only because I had to stop for crossing guards. I was like a skinny little blur racing along the sidewalk. But by the time I got home, and warmed up the old black and white Zenith, and turned to channel 9, it was already the top of the 4th! Crap! After a few minutes, Lindsey Nelson had gotten me up to speed in the game, and here’s what I had already missed:

After a scoreless top-of-the-first, Tommie Agee led off for the Amazins and stepped in against the Cub’s number three starter, right-hander Bill Hands. Playing a game of intimidation, Hands buzzed the tower throwing a fastball right at Agee’s head, which caused our beloved hero to sprawl on his back in the dirt in a very undignified fashion. Unfortunately the Mets couldn’t come right back and score and make the evil Hands pay for his ill-advised Agee “chin music.”

Cubbie captain third-baseman Ron Santo, the same guy that would do a stupid little jig every time the Cubs won at home which really pissed off the other teams, led off the second inning against Koosman. Koos wasted little time sending a message to the Cubbies, and the rest of the National League as well. The message was simply, “don’t mess with our players or we will come hunting for your heads.”

His first pitch struck Santo squarely in the wrist, and if his reaction was any indication, Santo must have been in a lot of pain. Awwwwwww! He began to jump, and spin, and hop, and cry, and squirm, and grimace, and curse. He screamed at the umpire, demanding blind justice! He yanked his hand away angrily when the trainer tried to take a look. He pissed and moaned and acted like a two-year-old all the way down to first base. But he was fine, he stayed in the game and played the next day, so what was the song and dance all about?

Anyhoo, not much happened until Agee stepped to the plate for the second time, with no score in the bottom-of-the-third inning against the evil Hands. Grote had led off and been retired. Buddy Harrelson singled, but Koos was unable to get him over, so Agee stepped to the plate with one on and two out. He took Hands deep, depositing a prodigious shot over the left-centerfield wall, for a 2-0 Mets lead.

Those whining crybabies would come back against Koosman and the Mets in the sixth. The table-setters, lead-off hitter and shortstop Don Kessinger, would get on to lead off the inning followed by number two hitter, second baseman Glenn Beckert. Left-fielder Billy Williams would single in Kessinger, and Santo would hit a sac-fly for his 113th RBI of the season. Cubs 2, Mets 2.

The Cubs glee would be brief however. In the bottom-half-of-the-sixth, Tommie Agee would bat yet again against the evil Hands. The man who had rudely, and unceremoniously dumped him on his derriere’ in the first inning, and although Agee had already hit a two-run homer for revenge, he wasn’t quite finished making the evil Hands pay for it. He drove a pitch deep into the alley and stoked his way into second base for a double, without so much as a glance in the evil Hands’ direction. Agee would never show up another player, even if that player had it coming to him. Instead, he let his teammate, number two hitter and rookie third-baseman Wayne Garrett, speak for him with his bat. “Red” lashed a single to right scoring Agee, and giving the Mets a 3-2 lead.

Koosman would go on to pitch a complete game to nail down his 13th win of the season against 9 losses. In 9 IP that day he surrendered 2 runs on 7 hits, and 2 walks, hit one batter, and struck out 13. The 3-2 win pulled the Mets to a game-and-a-half back of the Cubs, with game two of the two-game set scheduled for tomorrow night. Seaver against Ferguson Jenkins! Oh boy oh boy oh boy! Right after Koos nailed down the final out the phone rang. It was my big sister calling me to wish me a happy birthday, and to tell me something. “What did you want to tell me Laura?” And she replied, “Just that we are going to see the game tomorrow night at Shea! Happy Birthday!” Oh boy.

The day after my 12th birthday, September 9, 1969, Shea Stadium, Flushing, NY. Me, my sister, and my brother-in-law in the field level, left-field boxes. Great seats, there’s Cleon Jones right in front of me. Today the Mets hope to pull within a half-game of first-place with a victory against the Cubs ace, Fergie Jenkins. The Mets counter with their own ace, who is looking for his 21st victory of the season, Tom Terrific.

I was truly hoping for a heart-stopper like the game the day before, but that was not to be. This one was a trouncing, a blow-out, a massacre. The final score was Mets 7 and Cubs 1, but it really wasn’t even as close as that. Seaver was masterful, precise, economical, and totally dominating. Jenkins on the other hand simply didn’t have it that night, he was hit hard and often by the Mets’ lefty swinging line-up. The moment of the game came when the infamous black cat made it’s unscheduled appearance to the delight and joy of the 51,448 screaming fans at Shea that night. That wonderful feline circled Ron Santo in the on-deck circle and then had a quick staring match with Cub’s skipper Leo Durocher, before disappearing under the stands. Leo was never the same after that.

The Mets scored two in the first, two in the third, and single runs in the fourth, fifth, and seventh. The Cubs managed their only run in the fourth on a double by Beckert, and a single by Santo. Seaver went all 9 IP, allowing just the one run on five hits and a walk, while striking out five, and improving his record to 21-7. Home runs were hit by RF Art Shamsky, his 13th, and 1B Donn Clendenon hit his 9th since being acquired by the Mets on June 15th of that year.

As Tom Terrific put the finishing touches on the win that night, retiring the Cubs in the top-of-the-ninth, a very strange and unusual sound began to emanate throughout Shea. It started very faintly, very quiet, and began to grow in volume and intensity, almost like the people making the sound couldn’t believe what they were chanting. As we joined in we began looking around just to make sure this was really happening, that we weren’t dreaming. After all, this chant had never been uttered in the confines of Shea before. This was a first for all of us, and as I began to chant too, and add my voice to the growing chorus, I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all, Mets fans, all of us chanting “we’re number one, we’re number one,” over and over again.

After the game the Cubbies left town like whipped dogs with their tails between their legs. Even Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks wasn’t smiling. With their wounds fresh and still stinging, they were no match for the Phillies the next day at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia. The Phillies’ Rick Wise would eat the Cubbies’ lunch on September 10th for his 13th victory of the season, throwing a complete game while allowing only one earned run on 3 hits and a walk, and striking out 8. Five different Phillies had an RBI in the 6-2 Chicago loss. Without taking what the Mets do on September 10th into account, the Cubs loss puts them in a first-place tie with New York.

Meanwhile, the Amazins are slated to play a good old-fashioned double-header at Shea, against the expansion Montreal Expos the same day. It was a beautiful day for baseball and the first game came down to a fierce pitcher’s duel. The Montreal starter Mike Wegener pitched 11 innings that day, surrendering 2 unearned runs, on five hits, seven walks, and 15 strikeouts. Jim McAndrew pitched for the Amazins, and he also threw 11 innings that game, giving up two earned runs and four hits, 5 walks and 7 strikeouts. Expos starter Bill Stoneman came on to replace Wegener and surrendered a run in the bottom-of-the-12th inning to lose the game for Montreal. The Met victory, combined with the Cub loss, puts the team a half-game into first place for the first time in their 8-year history.

The nightcap of the double-header pitted right-hander Howie Reed for Montreal against a 22-year-old right-hander for the Mets named Nolan Ryan. Reed was a journeyman reliever playing for an expansion club, and was asked that year to start 15 games for the ‘Spos, acting as a swing-man. He didn’t have much on this particular occasion and was knocked out of the box with one out in the third inning. His line: 2.1 IP, 4 hits 5 ER’s and 2 strikeouts, and he takes the loss. Ryan notched his sixth win against one defeat, by throwing a complete game, 9 IP, 1 ER, 3 hits, 4 walks, and 11 strikeouts. The Mets hitting star for the double-header was second-baseman Ken Boswell who went 5 for 10 on the day with a triple, a run scored and 2 RBI’s. The win put the Mets up on the Cubs by a full game in first place, a lead they would never relinquish on their way to the division crown.

On August 16th, the Cubs W-L record was 75-44, and they were ahead of the second place Mets by 9 games. On September 2nd they had amassed a record of 84-52, but the Mets had gained 4 games in the standings and were only 5 back, at 77-55. In the Cubs final 25 games in 1969 their record was 8-17. In the Mets final 30 games of 1969, they would win 23 of them, and finish 8 games up on the Cubs for a 171/2 game swing in the standings over the last quarter of the season. In all the Cubs ended that year with a record of 92-70, while the Mets went 100-62 in the regular season, before winning seven-out-of-eight games in the post-season to clinch the World Championship.

1969 was a strange year. It was the 100th anniversary of Major League Baseball. It was the first year of divisional play in the majors. It was the first year for four new expansion teams in baseball, the Padres, the Expos, the Royals, and the unforgettable Seattle Pilots. It was the year we landed on the moon. The Viet-Nam War was in full swing, with no end in sight. This country was building some kick-ass cars. We, as a nation, were still reeling from the tragic losses of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, a year before.

For Mets fans in particular it was a strange year too, besides obviously the fact that our team was good for the first time. Besides all those shenanigans with the Cubs, like Seaver’s almost perfect game on July 9th. Or the September 15th game when Steve Carlton struck out 19 Mets, but the Mets still managed to win the game 4-3, on not one but two, two-run home runs by you guessed it, Ron Swoboda. Swoboda couldn’t even believe it himself. There was the September 12th double-header against Pittsburgh at the old Forbes Field where the Mets won both games by a score of 1-0. What was even stranger was each run was driven in by the Mets starting pitcher on a single up the middle, Jerry Koosman in the first game, and Don Cardwell in the second. Remember Koos had just thrown a nine inning win on September 8th, and then the Mets had two double-dips in three days. On September 12th, with three days rest, Koosman beats Pittsburgh 1-0 by going 9 innings again, and only giving up 3 hits and 3 walks with 4 strikeouts. Amazing.

The first N.L. Divisional Playoff that year was weird too, in that the pitching rich Mets were underdogs, and supposed to succumb to the Braves’ sluggers and their unstoppable firepower. The Braves did crush Mets pitching in the series, but the Mets beat the Bravos at their own game, out-slugging them, and taking the best-of-five series, three games to none. The World Series too was won in outlandish fashion with each Met victory becoming an instant WS classic! And who can forget that raucous post-game celebration?

But I always remember back to those three days in September. The 8th, 9th and 10th. Those days when we finally caught up to, and surpassed the Cubs. The first days a Met fan could truly be proud. Those days when Mets fans learned to run for the first time. Learned what it felt like to fly. It was an innocent time. A wonderful time. The beginning of a brief moment in history when the Mets and their faithful fans could emerge from the darkness, and allow themselves to dream.