Three Days at Shea: All Heaven Broke Loose


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October 23, 1969, Vol. XIV, No. 54

Three Days at Shea: All Heaven Broke Loose
by Joe Flaherty

It is no small wonder that H.L. Mencken was a cranky fellow. Living in Baltimore can do that to a man. Its proximity to New York is so close, yet so far. Beer is big in Baltimore. So are hardboiled eggs in a bowl behind the bar and Polish sausage.

The last time I was there, some suet types were bitching about “that nigger lover, Lyndon Johnson,” while they kept a cautious eye on the kitchen door, terrified that the black dishwasher might appear and give their pseudo-bad ass a thumping. What can be said for a burg that even has minor league racists?

And now the jock world has turned against them. The Bullets and their imitation Pearl lost in the play-offs to the Knicks. Their undefeated Colts-with-the-mighty-defense couldn’t contain the Jets’ gimpy Thor in Miami. And here is the ignominious end of ends — losing to the Mets, which is a little like losing a brawl at a drag ball.

Baltimore is now to be cloaked in a national shroud. Its name will find its way into comedians’ routines, and the very mention will produce gales of derisive laughter. Baltimore has become Pismo Beach East.

One had thought the outcome would be different this time. The Mets had no Namath, and the Orioles were awesome. Speed afoot and power at the plate, combined with the shock that their pitching staff had a lower ERA than the Mets, spelled triumph. It was a team that won 109 games during the regular season, but there was a pause here, for the Mets had won 100. One hundred games in a league populated by the Braves, Giants, Cubs, and Cards; not by the Twins, Athletics, Red Sox, and the Senators.

Nonetheless, on that state side it was all Orioles. But the romantic remembered. Could a statistic ever truly explain an Eddie Stanky or a Billy Martin? And, too, my baseball education had come from Topps penny bubble gum picture cards, not from the likes of McGraw-Hill’s new $25 computer-produced encyclopedia…

Tuesday was a sullen, sunless day. The sky was bruised and sulky, and the stadium lights were on…The pitchers were lanky, fast Jim Palmer for the Orioles and Gary Gentry for the Mets. At 23 Gentry, with his small, pinched face and straight hair looked like he should be a pin-up for the hubcap stealers of America. There was no way to know if this signified punk or audacity. Good or bad omens couldn’t be determined until the wind blustered and pigeons were forced to land on Shea’s roof. Possibly a bad day for birds?

Of course, there was the home stadium itself and its fans. She has longer fences than Baltimore, and that favored the Met pitchers. Moreover, those legendary Met fans were an unbelievable psychic plus…

Agee hit a two-one pitch out in the first inning, and the Mets were off. Besides a fast ball, Gentry had a good change-up which had the Birds popping up. In the Mets’ half of the second with two on and two out, Palmer did the unmentionable by letting Gentry double and drive in two runs.

In the fourth, Baltimore had their turn: two on, two out. The catcher, Hendricks, drove the ball up the power alley in left center, and Tommy Agee made a miraculous backhand catch on the run. It stuck in the webbing of his glove, ever so precariously. A climax for the Mets, a tease for the Orioles.

Ahead, 4 to 0 in the seventh, Gentry’s control deserted him. With two out, he walked three men straight, bringing the tying run to the plate in the person of Blair. Hodges, with the somnolent style he would carry through the Series, removed Gentry. Gary was about to pout, when Hodges stared, and father and son left the mound.

In came Nolan Ryan. Like the old Dodger, Rex Barney, Ryan brings his own drama with him. Will his fast ball be fat or invisible? Will it be in the strike zone or in the stands behind the plate? Today he had his control, maybe a little too much. After two quick strikes, he grooved again, and hit it to the warning track in right center. Enter a sliding Agee, and it was three out, instead of three runs. A routine repertory for one of the Amazin’ ones. The final 5 to 0 didn’t properly reflect the palpitations.

Wednesday. A glorious day. Sunshine and please for peace filled the air. With our ace, Tom Seaver (a critic of the war) going, one was tempted to equate a Mets victory with a step for peace. But romance affects only romantics. Nixon is an American League fan. A dark conjecture was that a Met victory might move him in nastier directions. We scored in the second on Donn Clendenon’s home run, and Seaver held the Birds at bay for eight innings. Blair led off the ninth and flied out to Swoboda. Frank Robinson and Boog followed with singles, and it was first and third with one out. Brooks Robinson hit a vicious liner to Swoboda’s right, and the dolt of the dancing class became Nijinsky and levitated an inch above the grass, his body stretched to rack dimensions, and caught the ball. One waited for a chorus of “I Believe” on the organ. Robinson scored after the catch, and the game was tied with two out. Hendricks flied out to Swoboda to end the inning. All thee outs in the inning were made by Swoboda, the same man whose fielding tactics in the past had reminded one of wagon trains under attack — circle and pray.

In the last of the 10th, Grote hit a fly ball Buford couldn’t find in the sun (I couldn’t find the sun at this hour) and pulled up at second base. Weis was walked, and a second string catcher, J.C. Martin, pinch-hit for Seaver. He sacrificed. A perfect bunt between the pitcher and the catcher. Pete Richert, the Oriole relief pitcher, believes. His throw to first hit runner Martin on the wrist and bounced into the vacated area between first and second. The run scored. Final: Mets 2 — Orioles 1; Seaver winner, Nixon not moved.

Thursday. Not a question of when, but by how much? The sky was a telltale grey, like a flophouse sheet. It was 63 degrees, cold in the park. But there was a built-in charge going through the stadium. This was it. Two lefties — Koosman vs. McNally.

In the Met first, McNally was wild and walked two. It looked like it was going to be a waltz. But McNally shut the door on Swoboda, and they waited. In the third, the O’s shortstop, Mark Belanger, singled; Koosman got sloppy, and McNally homered. With two out in the same inning, Frank Robinson hit it so far out that Agee remained motionless, just slightly moving his head to pay homage to the arc of the ball’s orbit. Not good at all. The Mets were lifeless, and the Administration’s golden geek waited for them to return to Baltimore.

McNally had a variety of stuff, and there was nothing happening for five innings. The park got colder. The fans brooded. Who was to protect their darlings in distant Baltimore?

The sixth and a subtle shift. A pitch bounced in the dirt and ricocheted into the Met dugout. The batter, Cleon Jones, claimed it hit him. The umpire said no. Hodges tiptoed from the dugout spinning the ball in his hand and walked toward the umpire. Baltimore manager Earl Weaver would have charged. It was a Series in which Hodges gave his opposite a silent psyching. The two men discussed the sphere, and both agreed — yes, the smudge was Jones’ shoe polish. Jones took his base, and Baltimore’s whitewashed stoops might not have to be seen again. Clendenon followed. He already had two homers in the Series, and we waited for the accustomed. Met fans have reduced magic to routine. Out it goes, and one couldn’t taste the crab cakes anymore. We were one run away, and every mother’s son present knew they were going to get it. They waited one more inning. In the seventh, Al Weis led off. Weis, the hitter of two home runs all year, both in Wrigley Field, a bandbox of a ballpark. At sprawling Shea, he was a virgin. But today was Weis’ turn to score and out it went — about 380 feet. It was tied.

The Orioles know better. They were impotent. They went through the motions, but it was strictly dry humping.

The Mets were kind and didn’t attenuate the situation. In the eighth, on doubles by Jones and Swoboda and two Baltimore errors, the Mets went ahead 5 to 3. And when Cleon Jones went down on his knee in the ninth to pray Dave Johnson’s fly into his glove for the final out, all heaven broke loose.

Hodges with chilly brilliance had brought his team a Series. Not once did he panic and defer from his platoon system, even when the temptation must have been there after a disastrous first game. Platooned Clendenon and Kranepool produced four home runs from the first base position. Al Weis, who was used against the O’s southpaws, produced five hits in 11 at bats, scored one run, drove in three, received four bases on balls, and sacrificed twice. So after coming to the plate 17 times, Weis had done his job 11 of those times. A lesson to be cherished: inside every two cents plain, there’s a Super Float.

Out on the field there was an ecumenism of ages. Kids and men grappled each other for hunks of turf. A guy with a Melvin Laird head and suit with vest was down on his knees (probably for the first time since he dealt under the counter), stuffing turf into his attache case. A black cat wandered around with a slab of it over his head, looking like a camouflaged soldier on jungle patrol. A New Testament of Graffiti appeared on the outfield walls to attest to the miracle. Other portions of the wall were pulled down and carried about like tablets of stone. Anything that was subject to the law of gravity was yanked up or down.

But there was a bittersweet scent to it all, like when the young Fitzgerald wept atop the double decker bus on Fifth Avenue, because his first novel was to be published and he was with the woman he loved. The old men who had though they would never again see it and the kids who saw it for the first time would never be this happy again.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

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