Updated: Apr 23, 2021
On September 30, 1962, Felix Mantilla of the New York Mets walked back to the dugout after flying out to end a 5 to 1 loss to the Chicago Cubs. Mantilla, an eight year veteran at the time, had made many outs and had achieved moderate success as a major league ballplayer. This Sunday afternoon, however, as he packed his bags to conclude another season, he may or may not realized that he had just lived through the worst baseball season in the twentieth century. The New York Metropolitans, named after an obscure nineteenth century club, were the new expansion team in the National League and on that afternoon at Wrigley Field had just lost their 120th game against only 40 victories. As manager Casey Stengel so aptly put it “ I’ve been in this game a hundred years, but I see new ways to lose’em that I never thought existed”.
It may seem strange to start a book on baseball’s inspirational stories with a team that set the standard for sub-standard performance. Not since the Cleveland Spiders of 1899 with 134 losses did a major league suffer such a horrendous season. But the story of the New York Mets is like the story of you and I. We do not often start out on top. We do things wrong until we learn to do them right. Most “overnight successes” that you read about, aren’t. Across town from the Mets, the New York Yankees had defined success over the previous 40 years. From 1922 to 1962, the New York Yankees were in the World Series 25 times, winning 19 of those World Series, including 1962. Entire books have been written about the New York Yankees success and the dynasties that have been built in the “house that Ruth built”. No book of baseball inspiration would be complete without the stories of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, of “too-old” Casey Stengel leading the Yankees to seven championships in twelve years, or of the amazing Jim Abbott and his 1993 no-hitter. I will tell those stories in this book, however, I am not necessarily writing this book to the “Yankees” of the world. I am writing it to the “Mets”, to the people who wake up every morning and have to battle the procrastination bug, who fight to survive and who want a better world for themselves and their families.
Baseball writer Roger Angell summed it up this way “ The Mets were human….there is more Met than Yankee in all of us. What we experience day to day in our lives is much more losing than winning, which is why we love the Mets.” Baseball fans concurred with Roger Angell. The loveable losers drew 922,530 fans, short of the Yankees attendance, but still among the top half of all 1962 teams. So if we identify with the Mets so much, where is our redemption? Where is our “win”. Over the next five seasons, the New York Mets did not give the loyal fans much to cheer about. 120 losses in 1962 was followed by 111 in 1963, 109 in 1964, 112 in 1965, and 95 in 1966. The fan base grew, however, to a peak of 1,932,693 in 1966, more than 800,000 more than the Yankees. People truly did identify with the Mets.
Behind the scene things were happening for the New York Mets. Wise draft choices and timely trades began to develop the Mets into something more than a laughingstock. Players such as Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan, Tug McGraw and Cleon Jones were brought up through the Mets farm system. In 1968, little indicated that the Mets were about to turn the baseball world upside down. Former Dodger great Gil Hodges took over the managerial duties from retired Casey Stengel and steered the Mets to a 73-89 record, good for ninth place, 24 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals. A change to the structure of the National League to two six team divisions did little more than assure the Mets fans that their team could no longer finish lower than sixth.
1969 was a new year. For us that identify ourselves as more “Met” than “Yankee” it was the sign of hope. Through the first 42 games of the season, the Mets were an ordinary team, 4 games below .500 and 9 games behind the division leading Cubs. On May 28, 1969, the Mets played a game at home against the expansion San Diego Padres. Pitchers Clay Kirby of the Padres and Jerry Koosman of the Mets matched shutout innings through the ninth. With the score tied 0-0 in the bottom of the eleventh, shortstop Bud Harrelson delivered a basehit, scoring Cleon Jones with the winning run. It was a win that would start the New York Mets on an almost unheard of streak of winning. What event will be your catalyst? What day will be the day you snatch a win from the grip of another bitter loss? The win for the Mets that day ended a five game losing streak and began an eleven game winning streak. From May 29th on, the Mets won 81 games while losing only 39.
At this point, we hold hope. We see the Mets going from 120 game losers to a 100 win season in 7 years. The Mets won the National League East that season and faced the Atlanta Braves in a best of five series. The Atlanta Braves had dangerous hitters such as Rico Carty, Orlando Cepeda and Henry Aaron. The Mets, however, had destiny. In a three game sweep that cannot even be considered close, the New York Mets advanced to the World Series against the powerful Baltimore Orioles. Even at this point, the story would inspire us. Through hard work, diligence in training and trading, and patience, the New York Mets had developed a respected pitching staff and a solid, if not overpowering lineup. Hard work paid off and by any stretch the 1969 Mets would be considered winners. But, as you may already know, the New York Mets of 1969 have gone down in history as the Miracle Mets. After losing the best of seven series opener 4-1, the Mets chalked up four straight commanding victories over the defending World Champion Orioles, allowing only five runs in those four games. At the tender age of 7, the New York Mets were World Champions.
Like the Mets, you are a champion. You have the dominating stuff of winners already inside of you. But like those Mets of an earlier era, it is hidden behind inconsistency, procrastination, mental errors and lack of focus. Throughout these pages, through the sport which I love, I will share stories to touch your heart, and light the flame of success in you. Stories of overcoming great adversity and showing remarkable dependability and longevity. There is a champion in everyone of us. Today may not feel like a championship day, but it could be your May 28, 1969. As the legendary Babe Ruth said, “ Every strike brings me closer to the next home run”.
I hope you enjoy this trip around the bases with me. I hope it enlightens you and inspires you. But most of all, I trust that it will help you to find your own championship season and pursue it with all of your heart.