Monday, April 28, 2014

The Most Important Season Series of 1973


All Mets fans know of the legendary Ball On The Wall Play from 1973. You've heard the story. You've seen the clips. Or maybe you were fortunate to live it. Even reading about it in the papers the next day would count. Seeing it on TV as opposed to live, like a ball dribbling through Buckners legs, did not diminish the impact. To anyone not familiar with the pennant race in '73, it's hard to impart how amazin' and miraculous a play it was. It was reality conforming to a wish.

Thousands of Met fans watching at Shea and on TV
all united in one thought. PLEASE BALL, DON'T GO OUT!

But this long drive off Dave Augustine's bat isn't the beginning of the story. It is the climax. The Ball On The Wall Play really has to be seen in context to be fully appreciated. To some younger Mets fans it's just a freaky rare play. But in the context of the series and its significance in the '73 race for the pennant it's so much more.
This special MFC season series set hopes to achieve the lofty goal of showing just how important it was that that ball should hit that wall.

And then bounce backwards.

These digital cardsimiles commemorate a five game 2 part home and home series in September 1973 with the 4th place New York Mets against the first place Pittsburgh Pirates. The game cards are done up in 1973 Topps post season card style. The Players Of The Series, loosely based on the '73 Topps All Time Leaders cards.____________



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This turned out to be the most important scheduled series of the 1973 season, possibly the biggest of the entire decade of the '70s.
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The New York Mets season so far:
New York went 12-8 in April and ended the month tied with the Chicago Cubs for first place. Injuries to John Milner, Jerry Grote and Willie Mays from late April into May began to eat away at the teams forward momentum.



At the end of May the Mets (9-14 in May) were in 2nd place, now tied with the Pirates, and the Cubs were in first with a nice 5.5 game lead.

Addition injuries to Cleon Jones, Bud Harrelson and Jerry May in June sapped most of the hope Mets fans had for this season. Key players were going down like dominoes.

They went 11-17 in June. The team dropped to 12 out and they plodded on , winning 12 and losing 18 in July.

Then in August things started to turn. It started with Tug McGraws now famous You Gotta Believe rant during a clubhouse meeting.


Then injured players began returning all rested and ready to go. New York finally was healthy again for the first time since the end of April. The team went 18-14 during the dog days and the rest of the N.L. East was floundering through the month. By the 31st of August the Mets had closed to within 5.5 games of first.
Sept 12th

The first two weeks into September New York went 10-4 and were in 4th place but only 3.5 games out. The Pirates had found their way to first place and the Expos...THE EXPOS!, leapfrogged the bunch to jump into second place. What a crazy season this was becoming. Didn't anyone here want to win this thing?
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The National League East season so far:

The other N.L. East teams all had their problems. The St Louis Cardinals, in first place in August, had lost 20 of their first 25 games. They were able to climb back into it.

Early on the Pittsburgh Pirates were able to stay a few games within first place, but soon started falling back due to lackadaisical play, according to Bucs manager Bill Virdon.



The Chicago Cubs took a turn in first place, at times with a nice 5+ game cushion, but these were the Cubs. I would never believe the Cubs could win anything until they won it, so I didn't figure they would be there come September. The standings and team play did not reflect it, but most felt that the team to beat in the East were the Pirates.

The 1973 Pittsburgh Pirates had their heart and soul ripped from them with the tragic loss of All Star right fielder Roberto Clemente, who had died in a plane crash during the off season. Note that in the illustration opposite, which was the cover of the Pirates 1973 yearbook, includes Clemente at the top, facing away from us.

In the very center, the new heart of the Buccos, Willie Stargell.

Still a very formidable opponent without Clemente, the Pirates were known nationally from their consecutive post season appearances in 1970,'71 & '72. Since they also made the playoffs in 1974 & '75 you could simply call this an off year in retrospect.


In '73 the Pirates play was erratic and somewhat lost, as if they were struggling to find their new identity.

The Bucs lost five games in a row 4 times only 55 games into the season. The closest Pittsburgh had been to first place before August was on June 2nd when they crept up to second place, 4.5 games out behind the Chicago Cubs.

July found the Pirates in the same boat as the New York Mets, 10.5 games out of first place, 8 games under .500 in fifth place (2 games ahead of New York). That same month the Pirates picked up Dal Maxvill from the Oakland A's. They felt a experienced veteran was needed to anchor the infield.

Bill Virdon's real '73 Topps card.
Pittsburgh began to show improvement throughout August and by the end of the month the Pirates had pulled to within one game of the first place St Louis Cardinals.

You would think this upsurge would make Buc manager Bill Virdon secure in his job. Over the first week in September the Buccos tried to hold tough but they slipped to two games out, and instead of being commended for the teams run toward the top, Virdon was fired.

This was a shocking move to shake up the team. The man who Virdon replaced as manager before the 1972 season, Danny Murtaugh, now replaced him in his second stint as Pirates manager.

Pirate slugger Willie Stargell stepped up to lead the team and how fortunate they were to have this man take the reigns. Stargell only had the best offensive season of his illustrious career and led by example at 32 years old, playing banged up through much of the stretch run. At the 1973 All Star break Pops had already amassed 30 home runs.

He didn't top .300 for the season, batting .299 with 156 hits. He didn't break Babe Ruths 60 HR record either but amazingly 87 of his 156 hits were of the extra base variety. His 43 doubles, 44 home runs and 119 RBI led the National League. Pop Stargell's slugging% was a blistering .646 and his OPS was a fat 1.038.

Willie would come in second in the NL MVP voting having been edged out by Cincinnati's Pete Rose. I believe if the Pirates had made the post season this year Stargell would have won it. Pop would win an MVP award, but not until 1979 when he became the oldest player ever to win won at age 39.


Metropolitan historical notes:
On April 17th 1964 Willie Stargell hit the first home run at Shea Stadium. This also was the first base hit and first RBI in Shea history, a solo shot into the right field bullpen in the second inning.



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Lets the series begin!
Click play for Meet The Mets opening TV theme from mid 70s.

_______________________________________________________________ _______________________________________________________________ Game 1: Monday, September 17, 1973, 8:05PM, Three Rivers Stadium
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Tom was off for an early shower and Ray Sadecki took over in the 4th. Sadecki pitched a solid 4th and New York rookie pitcher Craig Swan would take the mound for the 5th. Swan was one of our pitching prospects we had high hopes for. He was a righty who had a windup that looked like Seaver's. Lots a low leg drag action.

He didn't look like the classic Seaver today. He looked more like the Seaver who pitched the first 3 innings of this game as he gave up a single, 2 doubles, a triple and a homer, four runs total, all in two innings. Buzz Capra would close out the depressing loss after surrendering a solo round tripper to Milt May. _______________________________________________________________
 It didn't matter who we had on the mound to face the great Willie Stargell on this day.



New York Mets rookie outfielder Dave Schneck was the Schaefer Met player of the game with two singles in four at bats. Schneck also scored a run in the fifth on a Bud Harrelson triple.
More Game one action from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: _____   Game Notes: Attendance: 15,000 / Time of Game : 2:24 /                This was only the third time this season Seaver had allowed 3 runs in one game. The loss made Tom 14-2 against the Pirates from 1968 to 1973.              There was a 75 minute rain delay at the start of the 5th inning. __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________ 
Game 2: Tuesday, September 18, 1973, 8:05PM, Three Rivers Stadium   
If the Pirates thought that knocking out Tom Seaver was a knockout blow to the Mets, they were wrong.
We Metropolitan fans, of course, thought the worst because we felt this was a must win game for Tom and an ill omen of things to come. We knew we had good pitching overall but whenever Seaver lost a big game like this we went into a tail spin. This is not going to go our way. We were wrong as well. If this Mets team was anything it was resilient, and it had to be, since injuries during the season cost 8 regular players a total of 183 games.

Tall Met lefty Jon Matlack would start game 2 and things looked even worse.  The first two innings went smoothly for Jon but in the third the wheels  fell off as Matlack walked 3 and gave up 3 hits including a 2 RBI double  by Manny Sanguillen. The southpaw, like Seaver the day before, would not make it to the 4th inning. Ray Sadecki once again would come on for  middle relief. ________________________________________________

Pirate pitcher Bob Moose worked through some wildness to get in 6.1 innings. He surrounded four hits with six walks and still held New York to just one run. Moose would hit a wall with one out in the 7th when Wayne Garrett and Felix Millan put together back to back singles.
 Buc manager Danny Murtaugh decided to call on Ramon Hernandez to put out the fire. This was the same Ramon Hernandez who broke Jerry Grotes arm with a pitch earlier in the season, knocking him out of commission for 3 months. ___________________________________________ ___________________________________________ ___________________________________________



The Mets were going into the ninth down to the Pirates by a score of 4-1. New York fans hope of a split here in Pittsburgh were beginning to dissolve into vapors. Then this happened:

 






__This game was the turning point. It was simply the most important game of the season and to pull off a comeback win in the 9th on the road fired up New York, who would play the next three games against Pittsburgh on their home turf.
Metropolitan Historical Notes: Met pitcher Bob Apodaca made his major league debut in this game. Asked if he was nervous about playing in his first MLB game in the middle of a heated pennant race Apodaca replied: " I think scared would be a better word."                



 GameNotes:   Attendance: 12,336 / Time of Game: 3:13.    Game box score and play by play here at Baseball Reference.    
More Game two action from  The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette> __________________________________________________________ ______________________________________________________________
Game 3: Wednesday, September 19, 1973, 8:05PM, Shea Stadium   

Metropolitan fans were hoping for 2 out of 3 here at Shea, which would keep us close and still in the running. But as every Mets fan knows, you gotta believe take one game at a time. Remember Atlanta Braves pitcher George Stone? In 1972 he hit Rusty Staub with a pitch that would derail his first season in Met pinstripes, breaking his hand and sending him to the DL for over a month. Coming aboard in 1973, Stoney was a pleasant surprise.___________

 

__________ New York pitcher George Stone was also known for his bat. An able hitter, he again helped his cause on the offensive side. Jerry Grote led off the bottom of the 5th with a drive to left that looked to be over the orange line in the corner for a homer. The umpires did not see it that way and awarded Jerry with a double.

Bud Harrelson then tried to lay down a bunt to move the runner to third but the ball was misplayed by Buc pitcher Nelson Briles (he fell) for a single. The Mets had runners on the corners and no outs. Stoney came up next and hit a sharp grounder in the hole at 2nd. Pirate second baseman Rennie Stennett could only get the force and Jerry Grote scored on the play making it 4-2 New York.



This was a big out. That run would have tied the game. You would think it would have made Zisk a little leery on the bases after that. 'Lil bit. But we all know it didn't.





____  For the last three innings of the game both teams used their bullpen aces. Tug McGraw had just gone through the worst stretch of his career and had turned it around and was now in one of his best. It was just the opposite for Bucco Dave Gusti. He was having a helluva season out of the pen when suddenly he lost it. He was hit hard and his decline was costly down the stretch. Guisti was to the Pirates what Tug was to the Mets. A guy who could be called on in any emergency. A stopper. While Mets fans were enjoying the good fortune of McGraws resurgence, Pirate fans were panicking because they knew that without Guisti doing what he does their post season chances were plummeting.

 

Tugger was so pumped he did that ^ before the pop up to end the ballgame settled in Bud Harrelsons glove. McGraw would strike this pose again years later for a team that was not the Mets. _____________________________________________ GameNotes: Attendance: 29,240 / Time of Game: 2:22           Willie Stargell's home run was his 86th extra base hit for the season tying a team record set by Kiki Cuyler.  
Game box score and play by play here at Baseball Reference. _______________________________________  _____________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________
Game 4: Thursday, September 20, 1973, 8:05PM, Shea Stadium
 On the afternoon of September 20th 1973 the great Willie Mays called a press conference to announce his much anticipated retirement. I'd like to think all of the ghosts of baseballs past who were in the vicinity attended the event. Maybe Gil was there. Maybe Gil stayed to watch the ballgame, in case the guys needed a helping hand. Mets fans felt that the team could use some divine assistance.
The National League East pennant race had come to a furious boil at this point. Only 4 games separated five teams with just over a week to go. New York could hang tight here, or fall behind. The ball could drop either way.
Jerry Koosman would get the start in game four at Shea Stadium.
Jerry had epitomized his team’s up-and-down season, first being named NL Player of the Month for April with a 4-0 record and a 1.06 ERA, then losing 14 of his next 18 decisions including eight of nine; much of it due to a woeful offense. The Mets were shut out three times in those eight losses, and scored three runs or less in seven of them.
The lefty's season turned again, however, on August 19, when he began a streak of 31 2/3 scoreless innings, not allowing a run through September 7, a Mets' record that still stood until R.A. Dickey broke it in 2012. The streak included a 10-inning complete-game victory over Juan Marichal. Koosman won six of his last seven decisions, ending the season at 14-15 with a 2.84 ERA and 12 complete games.
The Kooz pitched a great game on this night. He kept Pittsburgh bats quiet through 6 although walks were an issue, and it was a walk to Willie Stargell in the 4th that came around to score (on a rare Bud Harrelson error) for the first run of the game. Unfortunately for New York, Pirate Jim Rooker was pitching a better game than the Kooz. The first Met hit came in the 3rd from 3rd baseman Wayne Garrett. He was forced at second to end the inning and the New York went silent again until the sixth inning.  ___________________________________________ __
It didn't look good for New York as 
          they came to bat in the last of the ninth. But.................
_______ After Duffy Dyer tied the ballgame with the the most clutch hit of his life, New York turned to Ray Sadecki to hold the Buccos down. Ray was one of those unsung part-time heroes of the Met teams of the early 70's.
His full-time starting days behind him, Ray won 20 games for the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals in 1964. A shrewd lefty, he came to the Mets for the start of the 1970 season and re-invented himself as a “swingman”— a relief pitcher and spot starter. Overall he was a decent pen guy for the Mets. In 1973 Ray was serviceable, going 5-4 with a 3.39 ERA. On this night he would pitch multiple innings and we would need him to keep Pittsburgh in check. All he did was pitch 3 perfect frames, 9 up, 9 down with 4 Ks. He would extend that to 6 when he struck out Willie Stargell to start the 13th. We Mets fans thought that was the big out in the inning. Ray didn't only not let Pops beat us, he wiffed him. Now Sadecki had to get past Buc outfielder Richie Zisk to get to the bottom of the line up. Things looked good until...
___ The New York Mets had pulled off a most improbable comeback victory in the biggest series of the season. Three times the Pirates had the lead and three times the Mets took it back. After the victory Mets fans stayed at Shea, chanting "Let's Go Mets!" until the lights began to go out.  It took every member of this 1973 team to get to this point. They only needed one more from the Pirates and they'd move into first place.
GameNotes: Attendance: 24,855, Time of Game: 3:53         Rennie Stennett pulled a muscle in his ribcage in the third inning and had to leave the game.                Game box score and play by play here at Baseball Reference.
LifeNotes: On this day singer songwriter Jim Croce was killed when his plane crashed on takeoff in Louisiana. The following day, September 21, 1973, Croce's hit single I Got A Name is released.
video
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One teams miracle is another teams bad luck
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Game 5: Friday, September 21, 1973, 7:05PM, Shea Stadium
The Mets needed to beat the Pirates this night to take over first place. We had a well rested Tom Seaver on the mound and a team that was finally 100% healthy. After The Ball On The Wall Play we fans now believed. We didn't think it would be smooth or easy but we really thought the team could actually pull this off now. The N.L. East was there for the taking.  In that light game five of this series seemed almost anti-climactic. It was like an epilogue on a 70's T.V. show where the main action had already taken place and there was a nice wrap scene at the end of the episode. Not only was Seaver rested and ready but the offense, sparked by the miraculous event the night before, came out of the gate like Buc-busters, getting to Pirate ace Steve Blass early and often.____________________ ___ So this was it. The most important series of the 1973 season. Maybe the Mets still might have pulled it off without taking 4 of 5 from Pittsburgh considering how the National League East was playing hot potato with first place. But, as it happened, ask any Mets fan about 1973 and they would point right to these five games against the Pirates and call it the turning point. And if pressed for one pivotal game it could be argued game 2 in Pittsburgh or even Tugs game 3 were games that charged up the team. But...,THE BALL HIT THE TOP OF THE WALL! No one will argue that that was not the most crucial play of the season.           Game Notes: Attendance: 51,381 / Time of Game: 2:20        The Mets take first place and reach .500 for the first time since May 29th.        The happy 51,381 fans leaving Shea Stadium were the largest crown there since July 10th, 1972. The game was also televised on WOR-TV9.
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Series MVP             Cleon Jones was the MVP of this series, and also the most valuable everyday player during the September stretch run that culminated in the Mets second N.L. flag. Over the final ten games Jones smacked six home runs and drove in 14.
 The close of the 1973 season, with the possibility of a 3-way tie for first,  provided just as much drama as this series, and that will be addressed in a future post. As will the 1973 NLCS and the World Series. _____________________________________________________
CREDITS:
Centerfield Maz which is a virtual Metropolitan encyclopedia. 
Matthew Silverman's book New York Mets 50 Amazin' Seasons: An Illustrated History as well as Mr. Silvermans almost official site, MetSilverman
The New York Mets 1973 Season Highlight film & video. 
Mike McCann's Field Of Fotos: The picture used to make The Ball On The Wall Play and an earlier foto in this post is from Mikes excellent blog.     
BucsDugout 
The Pittsburgh Post Gazette  & The Pittsburgh Press: Remember the days you had to sit in the library in front of a screen scrolling sideways through microfilm to view old newspapers? 
Brian A. Wright of Amazin'Avenue and his article The 1973 Mets: A Year To Believe 
Irv Goldfarb of the SABR for the linked paragraph on Jerry Koosman & game 4. 
Topps  
A special thanks to batmagadanleadoff of the CPF for suggestions on improving the BOTW diagram card, which have been applied.
_____________________________________________________________   Epilogue: 



The original plan for this single season series thing was to make five cards, one for each game. A 5 card set commemorating the Pirate/Mets series in September 1973, and specifically The Ball On The Wall Play. That was the first card created. I've always loved old baseball pictures where they diagram the action with arrows and name tags underneath the little figures in the photo.

 In 2002 when I made my first digital baseball cards I made a Ball On The Wall card, and you see they are very similar. 

This set evolved from five cards into this fine mess of cards. While researching I would be reminded of a hit or a play and I'd think, Oh, that needs a card, and that, and..before you know it I had 25 cards.                                                                                            

 I could only find one game action photograph (Tug McGraw #15) so I had to create a slew of them. A good number of screen grabs from the Mets 1973 highlight film/video were used. All these games were night games but I was not able to portray all as such. Thanks for viewing and I hope you enjoyed it. I'm taking a break from this blog and will return in June with the 1973 NLCS and the '73 World Series. I will be polishing up older pages and filling requests during this time. Also, I'd like to do one of these season series things for other seasons as well, especially successful campaigns, but I'm not so sure which series to pick. Please leave suggestions if you are interested in seeing a season series done up Fantazy style. Chow4now&LetsGoMets- Z

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