This is a collaborative effort of words, numbers (Chris & Jon DeRosa) and original artwork (Ben DeRosa) dedicated to the memory of Joseph DeRosa, our grandfather, who pretty much hated every personnel move his beloved New York Mets ever made.
In Parts 1 and 2, we relived the meat of the Mets championship years. We now revisit the end of the 70s, when the Mets, disco and SkyLab succumbed to the inevitable pull of gravity.
1976 – 2nd Place NL East
Anticipation for the first ever Bridge & Tunnel Series ran high as the Mets had their best club since 1973, and Yankees were charged up under new skipper Billy Martin. Each led their divisions into September, but the while Yankees went wire-to-wire by a stride, the Mets couldn’t shake Philadelphia. Rallying behind former Mets fireman Tug McGraw, the “You Gotta Believe” Phils snuck ahead at the finish line. Cincy beat the Phils and then swept the Yanks for their second straight title. The disappointment got the best of M. Donald Grant and, believing the team needed a spark to get back to the top, replaced manager Yogi Berra with veteran third baseman Joe Torre (“Joe Who?” wondered the writers accustomed to the Mets being managed by heroes of ‘50s New York baseball scene). Shocked and hurt to be cast aside despite his successful record, Berra did not return to Shea Stadium for Old Timer’s Day for another ten years.
1977 – 2nd Place NL East
New York survived the first winter of free agency intact, but it cost them millions of dollars in raises to Seaver, Jackson, Ryan, Matlack, Otis and Singleton. This was money they could have spent to fill the widening holes in the roster, but instead had to go to the beloved championship core. The tri-state-area rival Yankees made an especially determined pitch to Jackson, but he barely entertained Steinbrenner’s offer. “New York is the greatest city in the world. It has the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Studio 54, Carnegie Hall and Reggie Jackson,” opined The Straw. “New Jersey has a Turnpike that connects my fans to our games against the Phillies. I’m not saying this was an easy decision, but…” The Yankees signed Joe Rudi instead.
The Mets notched 93 wins but staggered in eight games behind the Phillies. Ken Singleton won the NL MVP Award, hitting .341 with 25 homers, 103 RBIs, and 113 walks, though Cincy fans denounced “New York bias” in the voting (George Foster had hit 52 homers).
Some insiders, meanwhile, wondered if money was ruining the Mets. Midway through the season, a controversy erupted when Dick Young of the Daily News wrote that Nolan Ryan’s wife was jealous of Tom Seaver’s lofty new contract. This went too far–fierce blowback from the fans hastened the venerable scribe into retirement—even tenured members of the writer’s fraternity were ill-advised to mess with the Kings of New York. But Mrs. Ryan may have been onto something: as a result of the top-heavy roster formation, New York was becoming known as a team that “forgot how to do the little things.” They had a collection of superstars, but the supporting cast was deteriorating.
1978 – 1st PLace NL East
Under pressure from the front office, Torre overcame his preference for veterans, replaced his aging double-play combination, shifted Ken Singleton to first base, and gave left field to the Mets’ young heartthrob Lee Mazilli. Torre’s moves broke up the famous outfield that had been together for seven years. But it also meant that the Mets could afford to stay out of a proposed multi-team trade that would net them first baseman Willie Montanez in exchange for Jon Matlack, who was coming off a poor year.
The shakeup worked. Mazilli bloomed (and guest starred as Poncherello’s ball-playing brother indebted to a loan shark on a ChiPs epsisode) and Matlack came back. The newspaper strike gave Torre some breathing room for once, and he embraced the Mets’ characteristic patience with young players. The team repeated at 93 wins, but this time that was good enough for their sixth division title, beating out the Phillies by 3 games. After downing the Dodgers for their fifth pennant, they won their fourth championship in one of the most famous World Series of all time against the Boston Red Sox.
In the AL East, the Red Sox looked like world-beaters for much of the year, but the scrappy, never-say-die Yankees ran them all the way down to a one-game playoff in Fenway Park. Yankee shortstop Bucky Dent homered to put the Jersey Boys on top, but big free agent acquisition Jeff Burroughs went 0-4 and lost a ball in the sun, and the Sox prevailed. Billy Martin got into a fistfight with Burroughs and was fired. “I guess we needed a straw to stir our piss,” quipped Thurman Munson.
The thrilling seven-game World Series made a fielding legend (and fan favorite) out of Tim Foli, Tom Seaver won two games, Lenny Randle tangled with Don Zimmer, and Reggie’s famous homer off Mike Torrez to deepest center in Shea sealed the deal for New York.
The 1978 title, it turned out, was the last hurrah for the Amazin’ Mets. In 1979, the Family-spirited, tight-knit Pirates surged to the title and the bloated-payroll Mets tumbled into the second division. It was a result media and fans alike hailed as a welcome comeuppance for the New York fat cats.
At the dawn of the ’80s, Singleton, Otis, Reggie, and Maz were still playing well, but the pitching was no longer there. Singleton had a great 1979 season, hitting .291 with a career-high 35 homers and 106 RBIs. The press always made him out to be the quiet, underrated Gehrig to Reggie’s brash Ruth, though really, his higher batting averages made him visible, and he probably took Otis’s share of the “underrated” praise as well. Both players have their Hall-of-Fame advocates (outsiders who are sick of the whole thing like to say there is a race to see if the ‘73 Mets or the ‘75 Reds can get their whole starting lineup into Cooperstown first).
Matlack, Seaver, and Ryan mustered only 29 wins collectively in 1979, and the back end of the rotation wasn’t up to par. Bobby Valentine and Lenny Randle proved to be only stopgap players, and the lineup was full of holes the neglected farm system and maxed out payroll couldn’t fill.
The spoiled Mets fans turned on Nolan Ryan, whose every base-on-balls they lustily booed. They were frustrated, and Ryan’s endless rejection of the strike zone became a convenient target, especially as his record paled in direct comparison to Seaver, the senior member of the 1-2 punch. The fans’ ugly mood probably made it easier for Ryan to sign with the Houston Astros for the 1980 season. Later, sabermetricians pointed out that when taken out of Seaver’s shadow, Ryan’s record was actually very strong—arguably even good enough to place him amongst the top 30 pitchers of all time. Despite widespread mainstream criticism of Ryan’s allegedly “selfish” pursuit of the strikeout record, the analysts’ view eventually prevailed, and he went into the Hall of Fame, where he joined Reggie Jackson and Tom Seaver, who went in together in 1992.
But in the meantime, the Mets had to start over. The NL East was suddenly hypercompetitive as rivals scrambled to keep up with New York’s free-spending ways. Because they’d done it before, the Mets knew what they had to do: draft a new Straw. Reggie was a part-time role-player by the time Darryl Strawberry took his mantle in right field, the cleanup slot, and the hearts of the New York fans, but the culture of winning and professionalism he established with Amos Otis, Ken Singleton, Tom Seaver, and Nolan Ryan was alive and well. “What you learn from Reggie is that winning is more fun than partying,” said Strawberry, the renowned ‘80s clubhouse enforcer. It was all about the “Metstique.” Reggie and Torre taught that team how to win. Their mentoring was an essential precondition for the Mets’ 1986 title, as the sportswriters have reminded us ever since.
Would a team built around Jeter, Rivera, Williams, Pettitte and Posada brought a championship to the marshlands of East Rutherford? Maybe even two? Here at queenskibitz.com, fans of the only team in New York, we’re free to speculate with impunity. But if there was some kind of Bizzaro reality, where the Yankees remained in New York and a bronxbicker or banter.com had emerged in our stead, we might be Yankee fans and we might take it a little more personally.
Win Shares from Bill James & Jim Henzler, Win Shares (2002); ersatz Met stats derived from Baseball Reference’s cool neutralized stats feature.
To see more of Ben’s artwork, check out inkstink.
And one more time, just because it is so awesome…
Sorry to see this series end. A pleasure from start to finish.