- The Washington Times - Monday, October 16, 2006

In left field, Cleon Jones got into position and waited for Davey Johnson’s fly ball. “Come to me, baby,” he said. “Come to me, baby.” When it did, he squeezed it in his glove, fell to one knee on the Shea Stadium greensward and closed his eyes in wonderment and possibly prayer.

The date was Oct. 16, 1969 — 37 years ago today — and the New York Mets, of all teams, had won the World Series.

The New York Mets!


That’s what Casey Stengel, their famed manager, had called them in 1962, when the Mets were created from has-beens and never-wases in the National League expansion draft and went 40-120. It was not a compliment. Burdened by guys called Vinegar Bend, Choo Choo, Hot Rod, (un)Marvelous Marv and two pitchers named Bob Miller, the Mets lost their first nine games and then got worse.

“Amazin’,” the venerable Stengel would mutter as his team found various and often ludicrous ways to lose ballgames. And then he supplied author Jimmy Breslin with the perfect title for his chronicle of that sorry season by inquiring, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

Nor were subsequent campaigns notably better. Over the next six seasons, with Stengel, Wes Westrum and Gil Hodges as managers, the Mets’ average record was 59-103. Fans starved for National League baseball in New York after the Dodgers and Giants fled to California in 1958 adored their lovable losers. Others laughed at them.

And then, in 1969, somebody somewhere waved a magic wand. With former Dodgers star Hodges calling all the right shots, the Mets erased the Chicago Cubs’ large lead to win the NL East championship with a — gasp! — 100-62 record. They swept the highly favored Atlanta Braves in the first National League Championship Series. And as enormous underdogs, they stared down the Baltimore Orioles in one of the most astonishing World Series ever.

That might have been the Orioles’ best team, a 109-53 juggernaut that won the American League East by 19 games. Power aplenty was provided by Boog Powell (37 homers, 121 RBI), Frank Robinson (32 and 100), Paul Blair (26 homers) and Brooks Robinson (23 homers). B. Robby was the best third baseman in baseball, of course, and the pitching staff featured starters Mike Cuellar (23-7), Dave McNally (20-7), Jim Palmer (16-4) and Tom Phoebus (14-7). From the bullpen, second-year manager Earl Weaver could summon Eddie Watt (1.65 ERA), Dick Hall (1.92) and Pete Richert (2.20).

The Mets? Well, let’s see … Jones batted .340 in a career year, Tommie Agee had 26 homers and 76 RBI, Tom Seaver went 25-7 and Jerry Koosman 17-9 on the mound and Tug McGraw sported a 2.24 ERA as closer. Did somebody, or maybe everybody, say “mismatch?”

And at its start, the World Series seemed just that. Orioles leadoff man Don Buford smacked Seaver’s second pitch over the Memorial Stadium fence, and when Baltimore added three runs in the fourth inning, Cuellar was home free with an ultimate 4-1 victory. Ho-hum.

But then the Mets remembered they were miracle men. They won the second game 2-1 behind Koosman, the third 5-0 behind journeyman Gary Gentry and the fourth 2-1 as the resurgent Seaver — aka “Tom Terrific” — spun a 10-inning six-hitter.

The baseball universe reeled, and a stadium record throng of 57,397 crowded into Shea for Game 5. Many undoubtedly sobbed into their suds in the third inning as Orioles pitcher McNally hit a solo homer off Koosman and Baltimore added two runs for a 3-0 lead. Did Sheer Magic have an expiration date?

But no — in the sixth inning, Jones was awarded first base after showing the umpire a dab of shoe polish on the ball that proved McNally’s pitch had hit him instead of the ground, and Donn Clendenon homered. In the seventh, little Al Weis, who would hit only seven regular-season home runs in his 10-year career, went deep to tie it. In the eighth, as the nation watched the Amazin’s in amazement, they scored two more on a hodgepodge of two doubles and two errors by the understandably rattled Orioles for a 5-3 lead.

Then it was 3:17 p.m. on the greatest day in Mets history, Cleon Jones was clutching a baseball, and bedlam erupted.

Thousands of fans charged onto the field, ripping up pieces of turf as members of New York’s Finest watched them benevolently. In Grand Central Station, screams and cheers drowned out the sounds of approaching trains. In Times Square, a group of teenagers chanted, “Gil Hodges for mayor!” Around the U.N. building, streamers thrown from office windows soon covered trees.

On Wall Street, traders waded through ankle-deep piles of confetti. Bosses everywhere let employees off early. And everywhere you looked and listened, people were trying to find words to describe the miracle.

To a country torn apart politically by the Vietnam War, famed violinist Isaac Stern suggested, “If the Mets can win the World Series, anything can happen — even peace.”

Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was more concise: “Today everybody is a Met.”

This was only the middle act of the greatest sporting period in New York’s history. The previous January, Joe Namath’s Jets had stunned the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. The following June, Willis Reed’s Knicks would defeat the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. But for many, the Mets’ rise to the top always would be the triumph of triumphs.

Because it was, of course, simply Amazin’.

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