The 1973 season is remembered as the second time the New York Mets made it to the World Series. But after winning the Series in 1969, the ’73 season is often remembered as the Mets failing to capture the title against the Oakland A’s.
What most tend to forget is that it is truly amazing what the Mets accomplished in 1973. I, for one, don’t believe the Mets even belonged in the post season. After all, they struggled to win 82 games. But they came back from being 12 games below .500, in last place on July 8, and as late as the end of August, to blow past five teams to get into the playoffs. And they bumped off a powerful Cincinnati Reds in the National League Championship Series before falling short against the A’s during the second of their three-year World Series run.
Although it was a frustrating summer, things eventually began to come together somewhere along the way, and there are three incidents that are truly memorable and are identifiable when you think about the Mets 1973 season.
The New York Mets unveil the famous rally cry Ya Gotta BEELIEVE!
On July 8, the Mets had just lost their third game in a row, and 17 out of their last 23 games. They were sitting in last place with a record of 34-46, 12 games under .500. Chairman of the Board M. Donald Grant walked into the clubhouse to give the team a “pep talk.”
Grant was not very well respected, and not very well liked. Most Mets snickered when he walked past. So when Grant made the statement, “you have got to believe…” Tug McGraw shouted out, “Yeah…YA GOTTA BEELIEVE!” And while he said it in what most have said was in a mocking way, the attempt at humor directed at Grant, inadvertently became the famous rallying cry that everyone seems to remember.
It’s not a coincidence that once the key players who were injured began to return to the lineup – Cleon Jones, Bud Harrelson, John Milner, and especially Jerry Grote – the team’s fortunes began to turn around.
The Mets went 48-33 the rest of the way, moving past five teams in front of them to capture the National League’s Eastern Division title.
The New York Mets got a lucky bounce off the wall
On September 20, 1973, the Mets were dueling the Pittsburgh Pirates in extra innings. Spot starter and long reliever Ray Sadecki was holding the Pirates at bay after Jerry Koosman had pitched a gem for the first eight innings before giving way to Harry Parker for the ninth. Sadecki started off the 13th inning by retiring the leadoff batter before allowing a one-out single to Richie Zisk.
After he retired Manny Sanguillen, an obscure outfielder who would have a mere 29 at bats in the Major Leagues, Dave Augustine, blasted a Sadecki pitch over the head of left fielder Cleon Jones. Jones turned around and looked at what appeared to be a home run, but the ball hit the very top of the fence and bounced back right into Jones’ mitt.
Jones turned and fired to Wayne Garrett who had replaced Bud Harrelson at shortstop (and luckily Garrett was not out as far as Harrelson would have been to get the cut off). Garrett turned and relayed a throw on the money to Ron Hodges who blocked Zisk trying to score.
Instead of Augustine becoming to the ’73 Mets what Jimmy Qualls had become to the ’69 Mets, the Ball on the Wall play became a part of Mets lore when, after Hodges had successfully prevented Zisk from reaching home plate, he then drove in the game winning run in the bottom of the inning.
The New York Mets battle the Big Red Machine in the 1973 NLCS
The Mets were huge underdogs going into the National League Championship Series against the Big Red Machine. The Cincinnati Reds were a scary lineup featuring future Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and Joe Morgan, as well as soon-to-be superstars Davey Concepcion, Ken Griffey, and Dan Driessen. Oh yeah…and there was also that other guy, Pete Rose.
The Mets had snuck into the post-season, winning the NL East title with a mere 82 wins. Meanwhile, the Reds captured a much stronger NL West with 99 wins, beating out a 95-win Dodgers team. The Mets would have been no better than fourth place in the West. So when the Reds were not able to get the machine rolling over the Mets pitching, the Reds, and Rose especially, got frustrated.
The Mets pitching had neutralized the Reds hitters. And after Jon Matlack had shut the Reds down and won Game 2, Bud Harrelson, referring to Matlack, was quoted as saying, “he made the Big Red Machine look like me hitting today.” Harrelson, although it was really self-deprecating, gave the Reds locker room fodder. As the Reds took more offense to being compared to Harrelson’s hitting prowess, or lack thereof, than he did himself. Apparently they didn’t see the humor.
Rose, who was known to be reckless, in everything he did, took it upon himself to send a message. He was on first with a one-out single, when Morgan hit a ground ball to Milner at first who started a very routine 3-6-3 double play. But after Harrelson completed the relay back to Milner, Rose slid in hard, coming in with his forearms up, and barreling into Harrelson, upending him.
Harrelson let him know that he was not happy with Rose’s actions and, within seconds, all hell broke loose. I was sitting with my grandfather some rows behind the first base dugout and I clearly saw Wayne Garrett come running over from his third base position and diving into action. It was sheer bedlam.
There were multiple altercations all over the field. Most memorable was relief pitcher Pedro Borbon grabbing Buzz Capra’s cap and tearing it apart with his teeth!
There was pandemonium in the stands. My grandfather was not afraid of anything, he was the toughest guy I ever knew, and someone who could handle himself, in any situation. But, for the first and only time, I saw the terror in his face when he lifted me up and wanted to get me out of the fracas taking place in the stands. I begged him not to leave and he relented, as things calmed down. At least for a while.
When play resumed and Rose went out to his position in left field, things got ugly. The fans taunted Rose unmercifully, and they threw anything that was within their reach down upon him. Eventually, Yogi Berra, Cleon Jones, Willie Mays, and Rusty Staub - after he returned to the dugout to get a batting helmet - walked out to the left field area to plead with the fans to stop throwing things onto the field at Rose, or else the game would stop and be forfeited to the Reds.
The Mets would win that game, and the Series, in a way that truly summed up how they had to fight and claw their way to the top during the 1973 season.