The Mets clinched their second ever National League East division flag on the second to last day of the 1973 regular season. Under Yogi Berra, who had taken over managerial duties after the passing of Gil Hodges, the Mets finished with an 82-79 record.
The Hammer, John Milner led the team in 1973 with twenty three home runs and seventy runs batted in. Felix Millan’s .290 batting average was tops on the club. On the mound, Tom Seaver posted a 19-11 record with a league leading 2.08 earned run average. His 251 strikeouts and eighteen complete games also led the league. Tom Seaver’s efforts won him his second Cy Young award. And of course, team closer Tug McGraw served as motivational and inspirational leader of the team that season. He appeared in sixty games, and pitched 118.2 innings. Tug posted a 5-6 record and finished the regular season with a 3.87 earned run average. He earned twenty five saves and struck out eighty one batters. He famously championed the phrase – “You Gotta Believe!” which history says helped propel the Mets into the National League Championship Series against the Cincinnati Reds.
The Reds, better known back then as The Big Red Machine, won the N.L. West division over the second place L.A. Dodgers with a 99-63 record. Cincinnati’s line-up boasted four future Hall of Famers. Pete Rose, who would later become Baseball’s all-time hit king, won the 1973 National League MVP ten years after winning Rookie of the Year. He led the league in hits with 230, and also led the circuit with a .338 batting average.
Like Pete Rose, the Reds catcher won the 1968 Rookie of the Year award. Entering the 1973 NLCS, Johnny Bench was already a two time National League MVP. Till this day, he remains the greatest all-around catcher I ever saw play the game.
In his second season with the Reds, second baseman Joe Morgan would go on to win back-to-back MVP’s for his efforts during the 1975 and 1976 seasons. In 1973, he finished third in MVP voting. He hit twenty six home runs, drove in eighty two runs, scored 116 runs, stole sixty seven bases, and drew 111 walks. And for good measure, he won his first Gold Glove award.
Tony Perez never led the league in any category, but from the sixth inning on, he was Mr. Devastation. Tony Perez was the nail in the coffin. If a team suffered delusional dreams of a comeback, or felt they had life heading into the latter part of the game, Tony Perez ended all of it.
Before there ever was the Tony LaRussa way of manipulating a bullpen, there was Sparky Anderson. They called him Captain Hook. In an age when managers like Baltimore’s Earl Weaver was demanding his starters pitch nine innings, Sparky Anderson began the practice of mix and matching. He had no choice. If the Big Red Machine had a weakness, it was at starting pitching. The Reds bullpen was reliable enough. But Sparky relied on them maybe too much.
In Game One of the 1973 NLCS played in Cincinnati, Tom Seaver was opposed by nineteen game winner, Jack Billingham. Tom Seaver struck out thirteen Reds, as the Mets nursed a 1-0 lead heading into the eighth inning. Pete Rose hit a home run off Seaver to tie the game. Then in the bottom of the ninth, Johnny Bench homered as well to win it. The Mets managed three hits all game. Their lone run scored off a double by Tom Seaver.
Reds ace (in my opinion) Don Gullet started Game Two for the Reds and was opposed by the Mets 1972 Rookie of the Year, Jon Matlack. The Mets pitcher mastered the Reds pitching a two hit shutout. The Mets won 5-0, as Rusty Staub collected his first home run of the series.
The series shifted to Shea Stadium for Game Three. Jerry Koosman started for the Mets. After just two innings, the Mets gave their pitcher a 6-0 lead to work with. Rusty Staub hit his second and third home runs of the series. Then mayhem broke out in the fifth inning. Shortstop Buddy Harrelson took exception when Pete Rose slid hard into second base in his attempt to break up a double play. A brawl ensued, and the Shea faithful proceeded to litter the field with everything at their disposal. The Mets eventually won 9-2 behind an eleven hit attack.
Game Four was a home town heart breaker. Felix Millan gave the Mets a 1-0 lead in the third with an RBI single. George Stone started for the Mets. He pitched six shutout innings. Then in the seventh inning, Tony Perez connected on a home run to tie the game at one. Tug McGraw put in 4.1 innings of scoreless relief. In twelfth inning, Pete Rose homered off Harry Parker, giving the Reds a 2-1 win. The series was now tied at two games apiece. During this game, Rusty Staub dislocated his shoulder crashing into the right field wall.
The decisive Game Five at Shea Stadium featured the rematch between Tom Seaver and Jack Billingham. This time around, the Mets supplied The Franchise with plenty of support. Eddie Kranepool drove in the Mets first two runs in the bottom of the first. The Mets scored four more times in the fourth inning. The Amazins touched Jack Billingham and the Reds bullpen for thirteen hits overall, and seven runs. Tom Seaver pitched 8.1 innings for the win. In securing the Mets 7-2 final, Tug McGraw picked up his second save.
To coin a modern phrase, the 1973 National League Championship flag was – In The Books.
The Mets faced the Swingin’ A’s in the World Series and damn near pulled off another upset. The series took seven games to decide, but Oakland got to four wins before the Mets did. However, 1973 will always go down as the year the Mets dismantled the mighty Big Red Machine.
“Ya Gotta Believe” - Tug McGraw; 1934-2004