There’s nothing like a sports team to bring people together, and through good years and bad, the Mets have done just that. When you root for the home team here, there’s no question that it’s the Mets.
After making the dilapidated Polo Grounds their home for the first two years of their existence, the Mets moved into Shea Stadium, their new home, on April 14, 1964, a week before the World’s Fair opened next to it in Flushing Meadows Park.
Shea Stadium was an architectural marvel. Unlike older ballparks, it did not have any poles in the stands, which could obstruct a fan’s view of the playing field. The outfield did not have any bleachers, so when a home run was hit, the ball really did go out of the park. Left field bleachers were added about 20 years ago, but Shea still has an open, airy feel to it.
Mets fans certainly have experienced high peaks and deep valleys during their team’s 42 summers at Shea. For their first two years in Queens, victories were rare, but the Mets were entertaining and did play some memorable games. On May 23, 1964, the Mets played a 23-inning game with the San Francisco Giants that they lost 6-4. That was the second game of a doubleheader (yes, most teams scheduled Sunday doubleheaders in the 1960s), which meant that the Mets took the field at 1 p.m. but did not leave Shea until almost midnight.
That would not be the Amazins’ last marathon. The Mets would go on to play a 24-inning game against the Astros in April 1968 and a 25-inning affair with the Cardinals in September 1974. They lost both of those games as well.
On June 20, 1964, the Phillies’ Jim Bunning (now a U.S. Senator from Kentucky) tossed a perfect game against the Mets. In May 1965, Cincinnati Reds ace pitcher Jim Maloney threw a nine-inning no-hitter against the Mets. Unfortunately for him, the Reds failed to push a run across the plate either. In the 10th inning Mets outfielder Johnny Lewis belted a home run to give the Mets a very strange 1-0 win.
While Mets fans and the sporting press could chuckle at the antics of Manager Casey Stengel, there was little to cheer about talent-wise at Shea during the Mets’ first three seasons there, except for the play of the team’s only legitimate all-star, second baseman, Ron Hunt, and an occasional blast of power from outfielder Ron Swoboda. The Mets’ sad on-field fortunes were reflected in the pitching records of Al Jackson and Jack Fisher, who regularly lost 20 games a year but were far better pitchers than what the final statistics showed.
The image of the Mets finally changed when future Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver joined the team in 1967. Seaver did not see anything humorous about losing, nor did his manager Gil Hodges, whose serious demeanor was a stark contrast to Stengel’s frivolity.
No matter what the Mets accomplish in their history, nothing will ever top the miracle year of 1969, when the Mets, led by Donn Clendenon, Tommie Agee, Jerry Grote, Bud Harrelson, Jerry Koosman and Tom Seaver, were baseball’s world champions. Las Vegas oddsmakers had given them a 100-1 chance of that happening at the beginning of the year and most bettors felt that the odds should have been even more astronomical. Then again, 1969 was the year that men first walked on the moon so anything seemed possible.
The 1970s, however, were mostly a bleak decade for the Mets. Hodges died of a heart attack at the all-too- young age of 47 at the end of spring training in 1972. Yes, the Mets did win the National League pennant in 1973. That was a fluke since every team was mediocre as the Mets’ 83-79 record (which was the Mets’ record in 2005 coincidentally) attested. What was most memorable about that season was Tug McGraw’s rallying cry, “Ya gotta believe!”
Mets President M. Donald Grant was a penny-pincher and that cost the franchise big time. In a fit of pique he traded Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds after a salary dispute. The Mets got little in return. Under Grant’s stewardship the Mets refused to partake in free agency, which was a new concept to baseball. Thus Mets fans had to make do with Lee Mazzilli and Joel Youngblood, while new Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was signing the likes of Jim “Catfish” Hunter and Reggie Jackson.
By 1979, Shea Stadium had become a ghost town as the annual attendance had shrunk below 800,000. Weary of losing money, the Payson family sold the team to a partnership led by publisher Nelson Doubleday and real estate developer Fred Wilpon for a reported $20 million, a figure considered quite high at the time. The end of the ’70s also meant the end of first baseman Ed Kranepool’s 17-year career with the team. “Steady Eddie” was also part of a rival syndicate that tried but failed to purchase the Mets.
Doubleday and Wilpon moved quickly to repair the damage by hiring former Orioles General Manager Frank Cashen and Manager Davey Johnson. Some trades such as those made for Ellis Valentine, George Foster and Dave Kingman did not produce the desired results, but at least Mets fans saw that management was trying. In 1983, the Mets’ fortunes finally reversed when Cashen acquired first baseman Keith Hernandez from the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Mets really hit paydirt, however, when they were able to get the Montreal Expos to trade all-star catcher Gary Carter to them in exchange for Hubie Brooks and prospects in 1984. The Mets, led by Hernandez, Carter, and such promising young talent as flame-throwing pitcher Dwight “Doc” Gooden and slugger Darryl Strawberry, had intimidating talent. Yet, it took a Mookie Wilson ground ball, which found its way through the legs of Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner, for the Mets to win their second, and so far last, world championship in 1986.
Many expected those mid-’80s Mets to be a dynasty but it was not meant to be. The Mets won the NL East title in 1988, but were beaten by the Dodgers in the league championship series. By the time 1989 rolled around, Gooden’s cocaine addiction was getting the better of him and Hernandez and Carter were aging at an accelerated pace. When the Mets hit a bad slump in June of that year, Cashen, who had made so many great trades, blundered when he dealt centerfielder Lenny Dykstra and relief pitcher Roger McDowell to the Phillies for strikeout-prone outfielder Juan Samuel.
When Strawberry departed for the Dodgers as a free agent in 1991, the stage for the Mets’ early 1990s decline was set. The Mets tried to replace Strawberry with Bobby Bonilla and Vince Coleman, but both players left a lot to be desired both on and off the field. Bonilla threatened a sportswriter; Coleman threw firecrackers at fans; and finally, pitcher Bret Saberhagen threw liquid bleach at media members after a frustrating loss. Managers Bud Harrelson, Jeff Torborg and Dallas Green were not the right guys to run a team in Flushing.
An upswing occurred when Bobby Valentine was hired to manage the Mets in 1996, but things really got brighter when the Mets acquired catcher Mike Piazza in 1998. The Mets finally made the playoffs again in 1999 and met the Yankees in the 2000 World Series to whom they lost in five well-played games.
After going through another low period under manager Art Howe in 2003 and 2004, the Mets hired Willie Randolph to run the show in 2005. The Mets showed marked improvement, although they are still quite a ways from being an elite team.
Mets owner Fred Wilpon’s goal is obviously for the Mets to keep improving until they open their new stadium in 2009, which will be adjacent to the current Shea Stadium. A new home will also mean that the Mets will surely host their first All-Star Game since 1964, Shea’s inaugural year.