1978 was a tough time to be a young Mets fan. The first full season without Tom Seaver, the Mets went 66 – 96, finishing last in the National League East, 24 games behind the Philadelphia Phillies. The manager was future Hall of Famer Joe Torre, who had retired as player-manager the prior season to focus solely on managing the team. Future Mets manager Bobby Valentine played for the Mets that season, hitting .269, and his one homer was more than second base starter Doug Flynn. Staff ace Jerry Koosman went 3 – 15, an improvement over the 20 losses he suffered in 1977!
Grandpa took me to lots of Mets games in 1978 though as the club had numerous Veterans Days, where veterans were admitted to the ballpark for 50 cents (two quarters, not the singer). The highlight attending Mets games that season was watching Craig Swan, who over 207 1/3 innings went 9 – 6 with a league leading 2.43 ERA, and a league leading ERA+ (adjusting ERA for league and ballpark) of 143. At home Swan was even better, with a 5 – 2 record and a 1.68 ERA.
The card above, issued as 1979 Topps card #7, commemorated his achievement, showing that cross-town rival Ron Guidry was not the only pitcher in New York who could get major league hitters out. The back of the card showed our New York Mets star had a better ERA than contemporary pitching stars such as NL Cy Young Award winner Gaylord Perry (2.73 with the Padres); Vida Blue (2.79 with the Giants); Steve Carlton (2.84 with the Phillies); and the aforementioned Tom Seaver (2.88 with the Reds).
Craig Swan pitched for the Mets between the highs of the 1973 pennant-winning season, and the 1984 return to contention. The only time Swan was able to pitch in the postseason was in 1965 when, after pitching a no-hitter in the PONY League, he was invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Dodger Stadium before Game 5 of the World Series. Don Drysdale was the Dodgers starter that day.
Chosen in the third round of the 1972 draft, Swan made his major league debut on September 3, 1973 at the age of 22. In just over 4 innings, he gave up 9 hits and 4 earned runs against the Phillies and took the loss.
Stuck in Triple-A for most of 1974 and 1975, Swan broke into the majors for good in 1976. In his first full season, he had a 6- 9 record and a solid 3.54 ERA. The season highlight for Swan was a five-hit complete game shutout with 11 strikeouts against the Braves in Atlanta. His best stretch came in June when over a span of three starts he gave up one earned run in 26 innings (0.35 ERA) with 21 strikeouts. In 1977 Swan improved his record to 9-10, but his ERA did rise to 4.23.
The 1978 and 1979 seasons were Swan’s peak as a pitcher with the Mets. His 1978 statistics were mentioned previously and his 1979 season saw Swan post a career-high 14 wins against 13 losses, with a 3.29 ERA, and a career-high 145 strikeouts in a career-high 251 1/3 innings.
The Mets opening day starter in 1979, his 14 wins that season were more than twice as many as any other Mets pitcher that season as the team lost 99 games. In the offseason, Swan signed the largest pitching contract in team history at that point in time, signing for $560,000.
Again the Mets opening day starter in 1980, Swan beat the Cubs. By mid-June of that season Craig was 5-4 with a 2.21 ERA. Pitching with what turned out to be a torn rotator cuff; Swan lost his last five decisions and was shut down by mid-August.
Swan missed most of 1981 with the same rotator cuff tear, but pitched well in his 1982 return going 11-7 with a 3.35 ERA and finished second to Joe Morgan for NL Comeback Player of the Year. Hoping for another good season in 1983, Swan “felt something pop” in his arm but tried to pitch through the injury. Pitching the 1983 season with what sounds like a torn UCL, Swan went 2-8 with a 5.51 ERA.
In 1984, with the Mets ready to contend and a young Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Walt Terrell and Sid Fernandez ready to lead the team in contention for a division crown, Swan was relegated to the bullpen, where he had an 8.20 ERA before being released on May 9. Finishing his career with a brief cameo with the Angels, Swan finished his career with a 59-72 record and an ERA of 3.74.
After retiring, Swan discovered the technique of Rolfing and enrolled in the Rolfe Institute in Boulder, Colorado and went into private practice. He now practices in his private office in Greenwich, Connecticut. Hardly a Hall of Famer, the card above reminds us all of a time when Craig Swan was one of the best pitchers in New York and one of the few bright spots during some very lean years for the franchise.