By Paul DiSclafani:
1969 was a year that in many ways changed the world. Certainly from the eyes of a 12 year-old, it was monumental.
It started with Joe Namath and the Jets winning the Super Bowl in January, then July, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon while the whole world watched on their brand new color TV’s in glorious black and white. There was a music festival in Woodstock, New York that at the time everyone was complaining about that later turned into the greatest music weekend of all time. Oh yeah, I remember hearing something about a war in a place called Vietnam.
Other than the moon walk, which most kids my age were fascinated by, the second half of my summer vacation was all about my first ever pennant race. Not sure if you know this, but up until that moon walk, the Mets were a very bad baseball team.
But that summer was different. The Mets – MY Mets – had done something that no one had ever heard of before. On September 24th, they clinched a “playoff” spot. That’s right, kiddies. For the first time in baseball history, each league was divided into two Divisions and there would now be a need for a “playoff” to determine which of the two teams would represent the National League in the World Series. The Mets and the Atlanta Braves would play a best 3 of 5 in the first ever League Championship Series.
The Mets swept that series (3-0) and then went on to face the mighty Baltimore Orioles for the World Series.
That September, I was starting Seventh Grade in what today’s world is called “Middle School”, but it was “Junior High” back in the day. Of course, there weren’t a lot of Mets fans around (yet), mostly Yankee fans. And yes campers, even back then, they made fun of the Mets. Nobody seems to remember just how bad those Yankee teams were, but they were NEVER as bad as the Mets.
I remember the sheer joy of watching that first World Series game (it was a Saturday afternoon), seeing Tom Seaver take the mound in a completely foreign stadium against a team they had never faced before. And then Don Buford depositing the second pitch he threw over the right field fence for a home run. My goodness…
The next day (on a Sunday afternoon), the Mets got even behind Jerry Koosman after scoring a run in the ninth for a 2-1 win and now they were coming home with the series tied 1-1. Koosman took a no-hitter into the sixth inning.
Gary Gentry shutout the Orioles in Game 3 (Nolan Ryan got the save) thanks to two of the greatest catches you will ever see in a World Series game by Tommie Agee, giving the Mets a 2-1 lead in the series.
Game 4 was full of controversy as Tom Seaver pitched eight shutout innings in protecting a 1-0 lead when Ron Swoboda made his now famous diving grab in the ninth inning of a sinking line drive to right off Brooks Robinson. That turned into a sacrifice fly that tied the game and send it into extra Innings. In the bottom of the 10th, with runners on first and second and no outs, back-up catcher JC Martin came up to bunt and was hit on the wrist by Orioles pitcher Pete Richert as he ran to first base, causing the ball to go down the right field line, allowing Rod Gaspar to score the winning run.
Orioles manager Earl Weaver lost his mind and rightfully so. Martin was clearly out of the baseline, running to the inside of the foul line as he went to first base. Who knows what would have happened if the umpires could have consulted replay?
Thursday October 16th, 1969 brought us to Game 5 and like all the others; it was a day game while 12 year-old kids like me were still in school.
Of course, any self-respecting 12 year-old baseball fan has a trusty transistor radio with him, but back then you weren’t allowed to listen to them in school. You could only do it in the hallways between classes, or during lunch. There is not much you can get from four minutes between classes.
And baseball was a much “faster” game back then, not the marathon four-hour games that we have seen this postseason. World Series games that started at 1pm could be over by 3:30 easily.
So there I was, in my last class of the day, Science. I already knew that the Mets were down 3-0 heading into the sixth inning, but this was going to be the longest 45 minutes of my life. The Science lab/classrooms were separated by a “common” room between them, where all the supplies were for both lab classrooms. It also doubled as a teacher’s lounge.
About 10 minutes into the class that I could not possible concentrate on, a male teacher (I wish I could remember his name) came out of the common room and without saying a word, walked over to the corner of the chalk board and simply wrote:
Baltimore 3 – Mets 2
The class erupted in cheers (led by yours truly) and the teacher disappeared back into the common room. About 20 minutes later, he emerged to update his scoreboard to:
Baltimore 3 – Mets 3
Now the class was bedlam – and we still had 10 minutes left to go before we could be released. The classroom teacher allowed us to listen to the game until the bell rang and we could leave.
The walk from school to my home was roughly 20 minutes (what, you thought we had busses?), but just a few minutes into my journey home, my batteries in the radio died! Now I was traveling blind as the eighth inning was about to start in a 3-3 tie game. I picked up the pace and cut through the Elementary School yard where I encountered a group of High School kids playing hand ball and listening to the game. They saw my Mets hat and let me hang out to listen with them.
When Swoboda doubled home Cleon Jones to give the Mets the lead 4-3, this puny little seventh-grader was high-fiving 10th graders! Who even knew what the hell a High-Five was?
I ran the last two blocks to get home for the ninth inning and found out they had scored another run and it was 5-3. My friend Bobby Olsen came over from across the street and we watched the last three outs together as my mother was getting ready to start dinner. She had the black and white TV on in the dining room and when I came home, I immediately changed the channel because the Color TV took too long to “warm up”. After watching that TV for the first two outs, Bobby and I decided to not jinx it and change to the Color TV. We didn’t even want to move from the chairs we were sitting in.
When Davy Johnson hit the fly ball to left that Jones knelt down on one knee to catch, well, to this day it makes me weepy.
We were yelling and jumping and yelling and jumping. I think we might have actually frightened my mother. We even grabbed a few pots and spoons, then ran outside to bang them like we do on New Year’s Eve at midnight. I may not remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, but I remember that day, that moment in time. I’m sure if I ever run into Bobby Olsen somewhere in this World, he would remember it also.
It shaped me as a sports fan and although I probably would still have this ridiculous love affair with the Mets even if they had gotten swept in the series, I can trace it all back to that moment. That special moment. That first time when you could say, “We are the champions”. And as a 12 year-old kid, that was something else.
October 16th, 1969…
Paul DiSclafani is a featured author at “A View From the Bench”, an official affiliate of MLB.com. “A View from the Bench” is recognized in the Top 100 of MLB.com/blogs.