This week’s tribute to the 1973 Mets profiles Jerry Koosman, perhaps the greatest left-handed pitcher in the history of a franchise known for its pitching. He was the ever-capable Robin to Tom Seaver’s Batman, the quintessential sure thing in the rotation that assured the team they wouldn’t have to pray for rain after every one of Tom Terrific’s starts. For 12 of Koosman’s 19 seasons in the bigs he called Shea Stadium home, and over those 19 seasons he amassed 222 wins against 209 losses, a 3.36 ERA, and 2,556 strikeouts.
Jerome Martin Koosman, the pride of West Central School of Agriculture in Morris, Minnesota, was signed by the three-year-old New York Metropolitans on August 27, 1964. Army service in Vietnam and some rough years in the minors delayed his ascension to the majors, but a quick turnaround (and some personal debt to a front office member) led to his big-league debut in the middle of 1967. Kooz formally introduced himself to the National League in a big way during the Year of the Pitcher, finishing his rookie season at 19-12 with a 2.08 ERA and losing out Rookie of the Year only to Johnny Bench. He was just as good in 1969, winning 17 games in his second of his only two All-Star seasons and pitching masterfully in the World Series. In the Fall Classic, he came within one out of a Game 2 complete game, and then finished the job in a complete Game 5 victory.
Koosman quietly continued his success over the next three years, even if his record never showed it. He finished with ERAs of 3.14, 3.04, and 4.14 from 1970 to 1972, but posted a 29-30 mark due to a lack of run support from his less-than-Amazin’ offense. While 1973 was more of the same for Jerry in terms of wins and losses (14-15), the numbers from his 30-year-old season speak volumes as to the quality pitcher he was: a 2.84 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 12 complete games, and three shutouts in 263 innings. His complete-game victory over the Cubs at the back end of a September 30 doubleheader was crucial in the Mets’ successful quest to win the NL East, and his dominance of the Reds a week later in Game 3 of the NLCS was helped the team move on to the World Series. The Oakland A’s knocked him out early in Game 2, but Koosman battled back to win Game 5 and put New York up 3-2 in the Series. We all know what happened that weekend, so there’s no need to talk about that again.
Jerry had himself solid campaigns in 1974 and ’75, but it wasn’t until 1976, at age 33, that he had the best statistical season of his life. In a year where he finished second in the Cy Young voting behind Randy Jones of the Padres, Kooz went 21-10 with a 2.69 ERA (his best since ’68), 17 complete games, three shutouts, and 200 strikeouts. Two of Koosman’s rotation mates finished in the Cy Young voting that year (Jon Matlack was sixth and Seaver eighth), but even with that pitching the Mets couldn’t finish higher than third in an ultracompetitive NL East; their 86 wins that year put them 15 behind the division-winning Phillies. The team’s disastrous turnaround in 1977 was reflected in Jerry’s record, as the 20-game winner became a 20-game loser despite a solid 3.49 ERA. After becoming head honcho in wake of Seaver’s and Matlack’s departures, he finished an awful 3-15 with a not-awful 3.75 ERA in 1978.
In December of 1978, the franchise that lured Koosman from his home sent him back in a trade to the Minnesota Twins (the player to be named later the Twins would later send with minor-leaguer Greg Field turned out to be none other than Jesse Orosco – another legendary lefty). It was back in Minnesota that Kooz had the last great season of his career: a 20-13, 3.38 ERA campaign in 1979 that propelled him to sixth in the Cy Young voting as a 36-year-old. Though his numbers declined with age in the 1980s, he never experienced the steep falloff that most older ballplayers eventually face: he played another season and a half in Minneapolis/St. Paul and was traded to the White Sox in 1981. In 1984, he returned to the National League with the Philadelphia Phillies, retiring after the 1985 season at the age of 42.
With 140 wins for the orange and blue, Koosman trails only Seaver and Dwight Gooden in that category in franchise history. He was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame in 1989, and remained out of the headlines for almost 20 years. He got into some trouble in 2009, when he was sent to jail for six months on misdemeanor federal tax evasion charges. But Koosman served his time and resumed his life in March 2010, and most recently was signing autographs with fellow Met Hall-of-Famer Jerry Grote last weekend in Cooperstown.
With his durability and reliability, Jerry Koosman played a crucial role in bringing about the first Golden Age in New York Mets history. For his contributions to the World Series winners of 1969 and the NL pennant winners of 40 years ago, Kooz earns himself this week’s Rising Apple tip of the cap.