Saturday, June 29, 2019

Less Than Miraculous: An Ode to the 1979 Mets

EVERYONE LOVES A WINNER and few winners are more beloved than the Miracle Mets of 1969. Sad sacks, lovable losers and ultimate underdogs, they rose from historic ineptitude to world champs in just eight seasons.

This weekend, those legendary Mets are being honored, revered and remembered at Citi Field. So, fĂȘte away 50th anniversary celebrants, this weekend is yours!

The 40th Anniversary
For me, 2019 is a more personal anniversary, I'm commemorating the Mets' return to awfulness, 1979 -- my first year as a dyed-in-the-wool, watch-every-game fan -- the year the Mets had the lowest full-season attendance in franchise history: 788,905 including me, thrice.

It was the year of Maz, Swannie and The Grave Digger, of The Flushing Flash and Kelvin Chapman. It was the swan song for Ed Kranepool, who joined the team as a teenager during its woeful first season in 1962, partook in the miracle, stayed through the downfall, and -- after a brush with death -- will appear at Citi Field today.

At 9-15, the '79 Mets fell to last place on May 7th and never got up. It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.

With the death of founding owner Joan Whitney Payson in 1975, control of the team passed first to board chairman M. Donald Grant and then, ultimately to Payson's daughter, Lorinda de Roulet.

Grant and de Roulet ran the club as cheaply as possible, dealing away rather than rewarding those who had kept them competitive for most of the 1970s, including Miracle mainstays Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. While the cross-town Yankees were signing the likes of Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter, winning three straight pennants and back-to-back world series, the Mets were decorating the National League East cellar.

Parity with the Yankees, at least on cardboard.
The '79 season dawned with the my naive expectation they'd somehow outperform their shoestring budget.

Their pitching staff was anchored by Craig Swan, whose 2.43 earned run average led the league in 1978. Battery-mate John Stearns had set a big league record for most stolen bases in a season by a catcher, 25, while first-baseman Willie Montanez drove in 96 runs.

Veteran infielder and off-season grave digger Richie Hebner was acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies after their signing of Pete Rose made him expendable. The price was pitcher Nino Espinosa, whose 11 wins led the staff in '78. His departure would leave a void the team failed to fill.

The brightest star on the Mets roster by far was Brooklyn-born centerfielder Lee Mazzilli, 24, who emerged a bona fide big league talent in '78, batting .273 with 16 homers, 61 RBIs and 20 steals. With his Italian good looks and tightly-tailored uniforms, Maz was a matinee idol on the rise.

The matinee idol, from the '79 yearbook
But he couldn't pitch and the club sorely needed pitching.

The Mets brought to camp then declined to sign veteran Nelson Briles and went north with a rotation including Swan and Seaver trade piece Pat Zachry, Brooklyn-born Pete Falcone and rookies Neil Allen and Mike Scott. In the bullpen: Koosman acquisition Jesse Orosco, 22, starting a career that would see him pitch in a record 1,252 games.

They also brought up Chapman, an infielder attempting to jump from AA to the majors after impressing in camp. He'd open the season at second base, pushing incumbent Doug Flynn to short and veteran Tim Foli to the bench.

The rookie stroked two hits and scored two runs in the Mets' 10-6 opening day win over the Chicago Cubs. Hebner went 4-for-5 with a homer and Swan picked up the victory. Mazzilli's three hits the next day keyed a 9-4 win. It was all down hill from there.

Rookie Kelvin Chapman, from the '79 yearbook
Chapman had four singles and a double in his first 16 at bats, then went ice cold, mustering just one more hit in April, by which time the Mets had dealt Foli to the Pittsburgh Pirates for the fleet-footed though erratic-fielding Frank Taveras, relegating the rookie first to the bench and then to the AAA Tidewater Tides.

Hebner, who'd made the post-season seven times as a member of the Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates, was a miserable Met. His streakiness at the plate and apparent carelessness in the field wore on the fans and they on him. Despite batting .268 with 10 homers and a respectable 79 RBIs, he'd last just a single season in Queens before being shipped to the Detroit Tigers.

Montanez utterly failed to hit and in August he was traded to the Texas Rangers.

A freshly-minted Met, from the '79 yearbook
Scott and Orosco struggled and were returned to the minors. But for an injury, Allen would have joined them. As he healed, closer Skip Lockwood went down with a bad shoulder. The righty Allen was sent to the bullpen where he formed an effective short-relief tandem with lefty Ed Glynn, a one-time Shea Stadium hot dog vendor nicknamed The Flushing Flash.

They combined for 15 saves, but those opportunities came few and far between.

When an elbow injury sidelined Zachry, the Mets were forced to go outside the organization for help, acquiring veteran Dock Ellis -- who once pitched a no-hitter while high on acid -- and swingman Andy Hassler. Neither could stanch the bleeding.

After 156 games, the Mets record stood at 57-99. The club seemed destined to lose more than 100 games for the first time since 1967. Yet somehow they didn't, reeling off a season-best six-game winning streak to end the year.

Swan went a career-best 14-13, with a 3.39 ERA, hurling 251.1 innings over 35 starts while no other Mets starter won more than six games.
By 1979, he had seen it all.

Utility man Joel Youngblood Wally Pipp-ed the starting right fielder's job away from rare free agent-signee Elliott Maddox, emerging as a viable everyday player with moderate power and a strong, accurate throwing arm.

Still, the year belonged to Mazzilli, who batted .303, with 15 homers, 79 RBIs, and 34 stolen bases. Selected to the National League All Star team, he stroked a game-tying pinch-hit home run, then coaxed a game-winning walk from the Yankees' Ron Guidry an inning later.

The 63-99 season was the last for the Mets' original ownership group, who sold the team to Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon for $21.1 million that winter.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

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