Miracle Baby

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Gary Gentry

In his first major league season, Gary Gentry pitched for a championship team: the 1969 Miracle Mets. He was an integral part of the New York Mets’ triumph that season. And pitching for a team for which no success was anticipated, Gentry’s success, so early in his career, was miraculously instant. Continue reading

Met Hit Machine

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Cleon Jones

The New York Mets’ “miracle” of 1969 was assembled one piece at a time … a pitcher here (like Tom Seaver or Jerry Koosman), a center fielder there (Tommie Agee), a veteran first baseman who didn’t want to go to Houston (Donn Clendenon) and a manager to pull it all together (Gil Hodges).

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Cleon Jones was the leading hitter for the 1969 World Series champion Mets. His .340 batting average in 1969 was third-highest in the National League.

Another integral piece to this pennant puzzle was a hit machine patrolling left field named Cleon Jones.

Jones was signed by the Mets in 1963. He got his first big league hit that same season and made the Mets’ roster permanently in 1966, when he batted .275 with eight home runs and 57 RBIs. He batted .297 in 1968 (sixth best in the National League). In 1969, Jones came up with his best season in the Mets’ miracle year: .340 batting average, 25 doubles, 12 home runs and 75 RBIs.

After hitting .277 in 1970, Jones batted .319 in 1971 with 14 home runs and 69 runs batted in. In the next three seasons, he averaged 10 home runs and 53 RBIs while hitting for a combined .264. A knee injury limited him to 21 games in 1975 before he was released by the Mets in July. Jones signed with the Chicago White Sox in 1976 and appeared in 12 games, batting .200, before retiring at age 33.

In 13 major league seasons, Jones posted a career batting average of .281 with 1,196 hits. He was a member of the National League All-Star team in 1969.

 

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Pinstripe Heat

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Al Downing

When he first came to the big leagues, Al Downing lived and died on the heat of his often-unhittable fastball. And like so many pitchers who experience the inevitable decline in velocity that comes with age, Downing learned to evolve from thrower to pitcher.

But while he was a New York Yankee, what a thrower he was.

As a rookie in 1963, Al Downing averaged 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings, the highest strikeout ratio in the league.

As a rookie in 1963, Al Downing averaged 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings, the highest strikeout ratio in the league.

A New Jersey native, Downing was signed by the Yankees in 1961 off the campus of Rider University. By 1963, he had worked his way into the Yankees’ starting rotation, an important addition to an already formidable pitching staff. In his rookie season, Downing went 13-5 with a 2.56 ERA. On a Yankees staff that featured Whitey Ford (24-7), Jim Bouton (21-7) and Ralph Terry (17-15), Downing finished second on the staff in shutouts (four) and strikeouts (171), while leading the team (and the league)  in strikeouts per nine innings (8.8). He was the starter (and loser) in Game Two of the 1963 World Series, as the Yankees were shut out by Johnny Podres and the Los Angeles Dodgers 4-0. (The Dodgers took the 1963 World Series in four games.)

Downing won 13 games in 1964, while leading the American League in strikeouts (217) and walks (120).  As the Yankees’ fortunes tumbled, so did Downing’s won-lost record: to 12-14 in 1965 and 10-11 in 1966. He rebounded to a 14-10 record in 1966 with a 2.63 ERA, 10 complete games and four shutouts. But pitching 200-plus innings per season took its toll on Downing the flame-thrower, and he was limited to a combined record of 10-8 over the next two seasons.

Following the 1968 season, Downing was traded by the Yankees with Frank Fernandez to the Oakland Athletics for Danny Cater and Ossie Chavarria. His stay in Oakland lasted only two months, and he was traded again, this time with Tito Francona, to the Milwaukee Brewers for Steve Hovley. His combined record for both teams was 5-13 with a 3.52 ERA. The Brewers traded Downing to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Andy Kosco.

With the Dodgers, Downing had the best season of his career in 1971. He went 20-9 with a 2.68 ERA. He pitched 12 complete games with five shutouts, the most in the National League. He tied with Steve Carlton and Tom Seaver for second in wins (Fergie Jenkins won 24 for the Cubs). And he finished third in the Cy Young voting (behind Jenkins and Seaver). He was named Comeback Player of the Year for the National League.

Downing pitched six more seasons for the Dodgers, compiling a 26-28 record over that period. He retired during the 1977 season with a career record of 123-107.

 

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Believin’ with Every Tug of Your Heart

 

Oh, What a Relief: Tug McGraw

Tug McGraw was the bullpen ace of the 1969 New York Mets, his arm and attitude essential ingredients in that season’s miracle at Flushing Meadows. When he took his arm to Philadelphia in the late 1970s, the inspiration went with him, and more miracles followed.

Tug McGraw struggled early in his career as a starting pitcher, but found lasting success working out of the bullpen. He was 9-3 with a 2.24 ERA and 12 saves for the New York Mets in 1969.

Tug McGraw struggled early in his career as a starting pitcher, but found lasting success working out of the bullpen. He was 9-3 with a 2.24 ERA and 12 saves for the New York Mets in 1969.

McGraw was signed by the Mets in 1964 and debuted with the club at the beginning of the 1965 season.  He went 2-7 as a starter during his rookie season. His second victory was the franchise’s first ever over Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In 1966, after a 2-9 start to the season, McGraw began a tour of minor league seasoning that carried him through 1968. When he returned to the Mets in 1969, the starting rotation was set with proven aces such as Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. McGraw moved to the bullpen full-time, and excelled there. That season he was 9-3 (8-2 in relief) with a 2.24 ERA and 12 saves.

From that point on McGraw emerged as one of the premier relievers in the National League. He went 11-4 in 1971 with a 1.70 ERA. He posted a 1.70 ERA again in 1972, winning 8 games and saving 27. He saved 25 games for the Mets in 1973. He was outstanding in the 1973 World Series against the Oakland Athletics, winning one and saving another game, with 14 strikeouts in 13.2 innings.

Tug McGraw’s best season with the Mets came in 1972. In 54 appearances, he was 8-6 with 27 saves and a 1.70 ERA.

Tug McGraw’s best season with the Mets came in 1972. In 54 appearances, he was 8-6 with 27 saves and a 1.70 ERA.

Following the 1974 season, McGraw was traded by the Mets with Don Hahn and Dave Schneck to the Philadelphia Phillies for Mac Scarce, John Stearns and Del Unser. He spent the next decade in the Phillies’ bullpen, winning 49 games and saving 94. His best season in Philly came in 1980 when he went 5-4 with a 1.46 ERA and 20 saves. In the 1980 World Series against the Kansas City Royals, McGraw appeared in four games, going 1-1 with two saves and a 1.17 ERA. He finished fifth in the Cy Young voting for that season.

McGraw retired after the 1984 season. His big league career lasted 19 seasons, producing a 96-92 record with 180 saves and a 3.14 career ERA. He was an All-Star twice.

 

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The Miracle

 

Lights Out: Jerry Koosman Pitches the New York Mets to a World Series Championship

When: October 16, 1969

Where: Shea Stadium, New York, New York

Game Time: 2:14

Attendance: 57,397

 

Looking back now, maybe we should have been able to predict how the 1969 season would end.

The New York Mets of 1969 would not be denied their miracle. The franchise that redefined on-the-field ineptitude in the early 1960s won it all by the end of the decade, and did so by beating a Baltimore Orioles team that, had it won the 1969 World Series, might have been recognized as one of the best teams of all time.

A 19-game winner during the regular season, Jerry Koosman won both of his starts during the 1969 World Series, including the decisive fifth game.

A 19-game winner during the regular season, Jerry Koosman won both of his starts during the 1969 World Series, including the decisive fifth game.

That Orioles squad was loaded. The team had power, was solid defensively and featured outstanding pitching depth, both in the starting rotation and in the bullpen. The Orioles got big seasons out of Boog Powell (.304, 37 home runs and 121 RBIs) and Frank Robinson (.308, 32 home runs, 100 RBIs). The Orioles fielded four Gold Gloves (Paul Blair in center field, Dave Johnson at second base, Mark Belanger at shortstop, and, of course, Brooks Robinson at third). And the pitching staff was led by Mike Cuellar (23-11), Dave McNally (20-7) and a 23-year-old Jim Palmer (16-4) on the verge of becoming a perennial 20-game winner.

The 1969 Baltimore Orioles won 109 games during the regular season and, in the first American League Championship Series, swept the Minnesota Twins in three games. They entered the World Series as seasoned favorites.

The odds might have been in their favor. Fate wasn’t.

The Mets didn’t exactly limp into the World Series. They won 100 games during the regular season (27 more than they had won in 1968). They swept the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series. And they had two of baseball’s best young pitchers in Tom Seaver (25-7, 2.21 ERA) and Jerry Koosman (17-9, 2.28 ERA).

Donn Clendenon’s sixth-inning home run – his second of the Series – brought the Mets to within one run of the Orioles.

Donn Clendenon’s sixth-inning home run – his second of the Series – brought the Mets to within one run of the Orioles.

The Orioles behind Cuellar beat the Mets and Seaver 4-1 in the first game, but Koosman pitched a two-hitter in the second game, with the Mets winning 2-1. Gary Gentry and Nolan Ryan combined to shut out the Orioles 5-0 on four hits in the third game, and Seaver pitched a six-hit gem in the fourth game, beating the Orioles 2-1 with the aid of Donn Clendenon’s home run.

Shea Stadium was the site for the fifth game, pitting Koosman against McNally. The Orioles scored three runs in the third inning on home runs from McNally and Frank Robinson. But Koosman was masterful the rest of the way, shutting down the vaunted Orioles bats with six scoreless innings.

Meanwhile, the Mets cranked up their last miracle of the season. Cleon Jones was hit by a pitch to lead off the sixth inning and Clendenon homered off McNally to cut the Orioles’ lead to 3-2. In the seventh inning, Al Weis hit a lead-off home run to tie the game.

Ron Swoboda’s eighth-inning double drove in Cleon Jones with the go-ahead run. Swoboda later scored on an error by Orioles reliever Eddie Watt. Koosman made the lead stand up with a scoreless ninth inning.

Baltimore’s bullpen ace Eddie Watt came on to pitch the eighth inning. Jones doubled to open the inning, and advanced to third on Clendenon’s ground out. Ron Swoboda doubled to drive in Jones. After Ed Charles flied out to left field, catcher Jerry Grote hit the ball back to Watt with Swoboda running on the pitch. Watt bobbled the ball, allowing Grote to reach first base safely while Swoboda scored. It was all the scoring the Mets would need.

Koosman came out to pitch the ninth inning, facing the Robinsons and Powell, the heart of the Orioles’ batting order. Frank Robinson worked Koosman for a walk. Powell hit a grounder to Weis at second for the force out on Frank Robinson. The Orioles brought Chico Salmon in to run for Powell, but he would have nowhere to go. Brooks Robinson flied out to Swoboda in right field, and Dave Johnson flied out to Jones in left field to end the inning, the World Series, and a decade of baseball like no other.

 

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Often Terrific, Sometimes Miraculous

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Tom Seaver

When the New York Mets lost a modern-day record 120 games in their inaugural season of 1962, it would have been hard to find even a die-hard fan who would genuinely imagine a championship season for the Mets … ever, let alone by the end of the decade.

Tom Seaver’s 16-13 rookie season in 1967 set a New York Mets record for victories.

Tom Seaver’s 16-13 rookie season in 1967 set a New York Mets record for victories.

Yet the Mets did the miraculous in 1969, as the team was carried to the World Series on two young arms: the left one belonging to Jerry Koosman, the right one to Tom Seaver.

A highly recruited high school pitcher and All-American at the University of Southern California, Seaver was signed not once but twice. Originally signed by the Atlanta Braves in 1966, that deal was voided by Commissioner William Eckert and Seaver’s rights went into a lottery … won by the New York Mets. It was a stroke of fate that would change the Mets’ fortunes thereafter.

Seaver spent a single season in AAA ball, going 12-12 with a 3.13 ERA. He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1967, going 16-13 as the first bona fide Mets pitching ace. The next year Seaver again won 16 games, posting a 2.20 ERA with five shutouts and 205 strikeouts. His achievement that year was somewhat overshadowed by Koosman, who went 19-12 in his rookie year with a 2.08 ERA and seven shutouts. While fans debated which of the young Mets aces was the better pitcher, most agreed that the Seaver-Koosman tandem provided the pitching foundation for a genuine Mets contender.

Contend they did, and then some. Led by a Cy Young season from Seaver, the “Miracle Mets” won the East Division by eight games (thanks to the Chicago Cubs’ collapse), swept the Atlanta Braves in the league championship series, and then beat the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in five games to capture the decade’s last World Series.

Tom Seaver was the National League Cy Young award winner in 1969 when he went 25-7 with a 2.21 ERA.

Tom Seaver was the National League Cy Young award winner in 1969 when he went 25-7 with a 2.21 ERA.

Koosman turned in another strong showing in 1969 (17-9 with a 2.28 ERA) and provided some important clutch pitching down the stretch of the pennant race. But Seaver was magnificent from start to finish, ending the year with a 25-7 record and a 2.21 earned run average. He finished second to Willie McCovey in the voting for Most Valuable Player.

During the “miracle” season of 1969, Seaver nearly pitched a perfect game. On July 9 against the Chicago Cubs, he pitched 8.1 perfect innings before giving up a double to Jimmy Qualls. Seaver won the game 4-0, striking out 11.

By age 24, Seaver had already won 57 big league games on his way to 311 victories in a 20-year pitching career. He would lead the league in victories three times and in earned run average three times, and strike out 3,640 batters to rank sixth all time, leading the league in strikeouts five times.

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One Giant Step Toward Pitching Immortality

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Juan Marichal

During the 1960s, he won more games (191) than Sandy Koufax (137), Bob Gibson (163) and Denny McLain (114) – but never won a Cy Young award.

Juan Marichal won more games (191) during the 1960s than any other major league pitcher.

Juan Marichal won more games (191) during the 1960s than any other major league pitcher.

During the 1960s, he struck out more batters (1,840) than Sam McDowell (1,663) and Camilo Pascual (1,391) – but never led his league in that category.

During the 1960s, he posted a combined ERA of 2.57 — lower than the decade ERAs for Bob Gibson (2.74), Dean Chance (2.77) and Whitey Ford (2.83) — but won his league’s ERA crown only once in a 16-year career.

In any other decade, Juan Marichal might have been the game’s most dominant pitcher. But in the pitching-rich 1960s, he was “simply” one of a group of truly great, Hall of Fame pitchers – and quite probably the decade’s most underrated hurler.

Marichal was a delight to watch, in terms of both style and effectiveness. One of the last of the “high kick” pitchers, Marichal’s delivery encompassed a panorama of release points, from straight over the top to sidearm and all points in-between. He utilized a vast repertoire of pitches, with variations on his fastball, curveball and change-up that constantly kept hitters off-guard.

He could throw hard. He pitched with control. Marichal was a hitter’s nightmare, and his record proved it. A native of the Dominican Republic, Marichal was signed by the New York Giants in 1957. He made his debut with the San Francisco Giants in 1960, pitching a one-hit shutout against the Philadelphia Phillies. He found a place in the starting rotation almost immediately.

In the Giants’ pennant-winning season of 1962, Marichal won 18 games, but that was only third best on the team (behind Jack Sanford’s 24-7 and Billy O’Dell’s 19-14). It was a pattern that would haunt Marichal throughout his career: consistently strong, and sometimes great, pitching performances that would be overshadowed by someone else. He went 25-8 (including a no-hitter) in 1963, the same year Sandy Koufax won the Cy Young Award with a 25-5 season. He followed that in 1964 with a 21-8 record, leading the majors with 22 complete games and posting a 2.48 ERA. However, he lost out on the Cy Young Award to the Angel’s Dean Chance, who had the most productive season of his career at 20-9 with 11 shutouts and a 1.65 ERA.

In 1965, Marichal won 22 games with a major-league best 10 shutouts and a 2.13 ERA. That same season Koufax won 26 games with a 2.04 ERA and his second Cy Young Award. Marichal followed in 1966 with a spectacular season, posting a 25-6 record with a 2.23 ERA. Again that year, Koufax topped him, going 27-9 with league-leading 1.73 ERA.

Juan Marichal recorded 20 or more victories six times between 1963 and 1969.

Juan Marichal recorded 20 or more victories six times between 1963 and 1969.

In 1968, Marichal had his best season, finishing the year 26-9 with a 2.43 ERA. He led the league in victories, innings pitched (326) and complete games (30). But that was the year Denny McLain won 31 games in the American League, and in the National League, Bob Gibson swept both the Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards with a 22-9 record with a 1.12 ERA in leading the St. Louis Cardinals to their second consecutive pennant.

Marichal closed out the 1960s with a 21-11 record in 1969, posting a major-league best 2.10 ERA while leading the league in shutouts with eight. In the Cy Young voting that year, Marichal finished eighth, with the award going to Tom Seaver and his 25-9 season for the World Series champion “Miracle” Mets.

In all, Marichal recorded 20 or more victories in six out of seven seasons between 1963 and 1969. He finished his career with 243 wins and a 2.89 ERA. When he retired in 1975, Marichal’s 52 shutouts put him in ninth place among right-handed pitchers for career whitewashes. A nine-time All-Star (and MVP of the 1965 All-Star Game), Marichal was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983.

 

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