NY Sports Day

They got it right. They got it so right.

The 50th Anniversary of the ‘69 Mets was wonderfully celebrated at Citi Field on Saturday, and all aspects of the event succeeded on every level. Even the weather cooperated. Threats of rain held off until a half-hour interruption of precipitation during the regularly scheduled game between the Mets and Braves.

Kudos to Jay Horwitz, the club’s VP of Alumni Public Relations, who helped organize the event and brought everyone together. Just about everyone associated with the ‘69 club who was able to make it to Citi Field were honored and on the field for the ceremonies.

Fifteen members of the ‘69 club were able to attend, and the event started as they packed the players into a series of vintage Mustang convertibles, parading them slowly down the newly christened Seaver Way, simulating the ticker tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes fifty years ago.

The returning Champions included: Jack DiLauro, 76, Bobby Pfeil, 76, Rod Gaspar, 73, Wayne Garrett, 71, J. C. Martin, 82, Duffy Dyer, 73, Jerry Grote, 76, Art Shamsky, 77, Ron Swoboda, 74, Jim McAndrew, 75, Ron Taylor, 81, Bud Harrelson, 75, Cleon Jones, 76, Jerry Koosman, 76, and Ed Kranepool, 74.

They gathered in the press conference room where NYC Mayor Bill deBlasio honored them with Keys to the City, the city’s highest honor, and one they also received back in 1969 from then-Mayor John Lindsay.

“1969, my friends, was a year unlike any other,” said Presidential hopeful deBlasio. “A year of miracles – first man on the Moon, Woodstock changed the course of this country’s history, so many things. But the one I remember so clearly was when this team won not only the heart of the city but the heart of America. There’s a reason they call them the Amazin’s. What a lovable group of guys. The ultimate underdogs. New York City has never stopped loving you.”

Mets CEO Fred Wilpon was on hand to greet each player personally, reminiscing briefly with every handshake, while Kranepool and Swoboda opted for hugs.

Krane is particularly grateful to the organization where he played for 17 years for their support as he waited patiently for a kidney donor. Nearly two months after the transplant, Kranepool is doing quite well.

The players then met the media, who also welcomed them warmly.

Grote, who chose to drive the entire way from mid-Texas to NY for the week’s worth of celebrations with his lovely wife, Cheryl, summed up succinctly why the ‘69 club is still embraced after all these years:

“Number one, it was New York. It was the first World Championship for a team that wasn’t supposed to do anything. And we did it all.”

Grote first broke in with the Houston Colt 45s in 1965, and it was there he learned what he needed to know that helped him years later at and behind the plate.

“I had five guys – Pete Runnels, who was a batting champion; Nellie Fox, who would get 200 hits every year – of course 199 of them were singles, but he would get his 200 hits; Al Spangler, Bobby Lillis, and Eddie Kasko, and everywhere we’d go, we’d end up in the bar and talk hitting. What to look for with men on base. What to look for with no one on base. Ahead in the count, behind in the count. I learned more from them then than with anyone else in my career.”

DiLauro remembered what would happen when he crossed up Grote with a breaking pitch when a fastball was called.

“He came running out! I never had a catcher come running out to the mound before, and he yelled, ‘Don’t you EVER do that again!’ I didn’t.”

Koosman, who threw the last pitch of the ‘69 World Series and earned the victory, was asked if he was worried as the ball came off the bat of the final hitter, someone who would make his own mark in Mets history years later, Davey Johnson.

“I was worried cause there was so much noise in the stands. Normally, you can judge how hard a ball is hit by the crack of the bat, but there was so much noise you couldn’t hear that.

“So I had to turn around and put my eyes on Cleon to see how he reacts. When he started going back, it was kinda like your heart stops. Then he stopped at the edge of the grass and I knew it wasn’t going out of the ballpark. All I could think of was, Cleon, don’t drop it.”

Dyer commented on the friendly rivalry Koosman and Tom Seaver had – as hitters.

“They were always on each other as to who was the better hitter. They were both terrible.”

To a man, there were two themes that ran consistently through every interview – one, that they all wished Seaver could have joined them in the celebration and the importance he had to the team (more than one became quite emotional in their remembrances), and two, that skipper Gil Hodges belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Hodges is scheduled to have his case debated once more by a Veteran’s Committee later this year, and perhaps with a little campaigning, that wish may become a reality.

There is a website campaigning for Hodges to get into the Hall of Fame. It doesn’t carry any official weight, but if you’d like to sign the petition – hey, it couldn’t hurt to have a grass roots campaign which might become a valid resource, click on: www.baseballhistorycomesalive.com

It was time for the official on-field event to begin. Hosted by longtime radio Voice of the Mets Howie Rose, the players were brought on golf carts and onto platforms around second base where the ‘69 World Championship trophy was on display next to the podium.

Positioned under blowups of their Topps baseball cards from ‘69 or ‘70, they all turned and watched a wonderfully edited highlights video of the ‘69 season.

Details like the baseball card displays were all part of a very well-coordinated event. The music generated on the house PA was either pure organ music – a salute to original Shea Stadium organist Jane Jarvis – or the rock and r & b hits from the era, including classic tracks by the Stones, The Who, Cream, Billy Preston, the Bar-Kays, Jackie DeShannon, et al.

They paid homage to the old ballpark as well. For the entire weekend, the scoreboard display in right field above the Shea Bridge replicated the look of the old scoreboard at Shea Stadium.

The families of those members of the ‘69 club deceased, or those who couldn’t attend due to other limitations were also honored, as the Mets saw fit to have Mrs. Joan Hodges and her son, Gil, Jr., on the field, as well as Larry Berra – Yogi’s son, then-owner Mrs. Joan Payson’s relatives, family members of Eddie Yost, Joe Pignatano’s son, the daughters and grandsons of Tom Seaver – who threw out the first pitch to Grote, Dyer, Koosman and Jones – Donn Clendenon’s children, GM Johnny Murphy’s son, Tug McGraw’s children, Ed Charles’ son, the widows of Cal Koonce, Don Cardwell, Tommie Agee (Maxcine Agee, a longtime friend of the Mets who still resides in the area), and if anyone has been overlooked, apologies.

Kranepool was called upon to speak on behalf of the contingent.

“Speaking for my fellow teammates who are here on the stage, we’d like to thank the Met organization for bringing us back. We’ve had the opportunity to spread all the lies, which have gotten bigger over the years, the home runs have gotten longer.

“After fifty years, it’s been amazing to see all the fans who have supported us over the years. We certainly wouldn’t have gotten to first place without you.

“My only regret is when I look at the roster, there are a number of players who aren’t here today. We’ve lost quite a few, including our leader, Gil. And we just want to tell Tom Seaver, and his wife, Nancy, that we all took the ride down Seaver Way. It was a great feeling cause he was The Franchise.

“The Amazing Mets were a team and there was no “I” in that team. Hodges brought us home. It was his dedication and leadership that led us there. It was the promised land and we were all there to take the ride. It changed our lives.”

As the event broke up, Mets manager Mickey Callaway made it a point to have his team line up in front of the dugout to greet each of the returning Champions, a kind gesture of support, and maybe a little of that ‘69 Magic will rub off on the current squad. After all, Callaway did admit on the radio this week that it would take a miracle for his club to get back in the pennant chase.

Kranepool had tagged his comments from the podium with said wishes:

“I want to wish the current Mets good luck. Maybe they can do it like we did. You’ve got to believe in yourselves. You gotta believe. We’d like to wish you the best so we can celebrate in October.”

Just like ‘69, Eddie. Just like ‘69.

Andy Esposito