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Simply amazing
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Forsyth County News
Amazing. Simply amazing.

Forty years later, they remain the most amazing baseball team I’ve ever seen. Forty years later, I can recall the details of their incredible, implausible season as if they were still unfolding right before my disbelieving eyes.

The 1969 New York Mets. Amazing.

The Mets always had an aura about them. They were always awful, but their fans adored them. They’d be down by five runs in the eighth inning, get one runner on base, and the Shea Stadium faithful would break out in a “Let’s go Mets!” chant.

Their inaugural team, in 1962, managed to lose 120 games. But 1966 marked a turning point: the Mets thundered out of last place for the first time. They finished ahead of the Cubs. They returned to form in 1967, losing 101 games in finishing last.

That led to the hiring of a new manager for 1968, a tough ex-marine, ex-Brooklyn Dodger named Gil Hodges. The Mets won a franchise record 73 games and again roared into ninth place. But they were still tough on a manager. Hodges suffered a mild heart attack in Atlanta on September 24.

They had assembled some young pitchers with great potential. Tom Seaver arrived in ‘67, Jerry Koosman a year later, Gary Gentry in ‘69. They had a hard thrower named Nolan Ryan, and a solid bullpen led by Tug McGraw and Ron Taylor.

And they had a few good, young, everyday players like Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee, Bud Harrelson and Jerry Grote. Hodges maximized his talent by platooning at most positions.

Nothing prepared anyone for anything that happened in 1969. Especially after Opening Day, when the Mets participated in the first major league game ever played outside the United States. They managed to lose to the expansion Montreal Expos, 11-10.

But by May 21, when Seaver shut out the Braves, the Mets evened their record at 18-18, the first time they had been at .500 so late in the season. Previous best: 4-4 in ‘67. Then things really got crazy.

On June 1, Joe Gibbon of the Giants walked four Mets in the ninth inning, walking in the tying and winning runs in a 5-4 game. Three nights later, a rookie just called up from Tidewater, Jack DiLauro, shut out the Dodgers on two hits in his major league debut. As he stood on the mound to start the ninth inning, the Shea faithful game him a standing ovation. DiLauro stood on the mound stunned, tears in his eyes. The Mets won, 1-0, in 15 innings, on an error by Willie Davis.

Those games were part of an 11-game winning streak that convinced the Mets they were for real. They convinced management as well, the suits swinging a deal at the June 15 trading deadline for some needed power in the person of Donn Clendenon. They sent the Expos four prospects in return. Imagine!

By early July, the Mets actually hosted a big series against the first place Cubs. They managed only one hit off of Cubs ace Fergie Jenkins over the first eight innings, then scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth to win, 4-3.

The next night, Seaver retired the first 25 Cubs he faced in what he still calls his “Imperfect Game.” A ninth inning single by Jimmy Qualls was the only Cub hit as the Mets won, 4-0. A week later, in the return series in Chicago, Al Weis beat the Cubs with a three-run homer. Al Weis! He blasted four home runs in four years as a Met.

On July 20, the Mets reached the all-star break — 4 games behind the Cubs. Stranded in Montreal’s airport, they watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon. Suddenly, anything seemed possible.

The Mets could beat anybody — except the Astros. After losing their sixth straight to Houston on August 13, the Mets found themselves in third place, 9 — games behind. Well, it was fun while it lasted, all observers agreed.

Little did anyone suspect that the fun was just beginning. From that point on, the Mets won 38 of their final 49 games. Very few were won in a conventional manner, and every day brought a different hero: Bobby Pfeil, Rod Gaspar, Ken Boswell, Jim McAndrew, Wayne Garrett, Ed Kranepool, J.C. Martin. Not a star among them, but everyone contributed at some point in a big way.

The Cubs returned to Shea on September 8 with a dwindling 2-game lead. Bill Hands decked Agee with his first pitch of the game. In his next at bat, Agee hit a two-run homer, then hustled around the bases after another hit to score the winning run in a 3-2 game.

The next night, Seaver beat the Cubs, 7-1 while 58,436 fans sang “Goodbye, Leo!” to the Cubs manager, and a black cat lurked outside the Cubs dugout.

And on the very next night, between games of a doubleheader, the Shea scoreboard flashed “Look Who’s No. 1” as the Mets went into first place for the first time in their history.

By this point the entire New York metropolitan area was up for grabs. A populace known for never getting enthused over anything was suddenly agog over a baseball team. Everywhere you went, talk was of the Mets and whether they could keep on keeping on.

Turns out they could. On Sept.12, Koosman and Don Cardwell each shut out the Pirates in a doubleheader sweep, which each pitcher driving in the only run of the game.

Three nights later, Steve Carlton struck out a record 19 Mets; the Mets won, 4-3, on a pair of two-run homers by Ron Swoboda.

And so it went. They wound up winning 100 games, two years removed from losing 101.

They swept the Braves in the first NLCS. They lost the World Series opener to the mighty Baltimore Orioles, and then beat them four straight.

Suddenly, the World Champions were a bunch of guys that had never finished above ninth place, or won more than 73 games.

Amazing. Simply amazing.

When not practicing his avocation, Denton Ashway practices his vocation with the law firm of Ashway and Haldi in Cumming.