'69 Mets: Unexpected players came up big
The 1969 Mets probably would have been a respectable team if each player had merely done the job that had been envisioned for him. Tom Seaver clearly was an emerging star, fellow pitcher Jerry Koosman had won 19 games the year before, Cleon Jones had had a batting average near .300 in 1968. They had a solid supporting cast, too.
But to be extraordinary, the Mets had to be more than predictable. Doing the unexpected was the team's credo, and no one characterized that better than Gary Gentry, the rookie pitcher who wasn't expected to be as good as he was, and Donn Clendenon, the veteran first baseman who wasn't expected to be a Met.
Clendenon had been chosen by the Montreal Expos in the expansion draft, then traded to the Houston Astros for Rusty Staub. Clendenon refused to report and considered himself retired for the first month of the season before another deal had him joining Montreal. Just before midnight at the June 15 trading deadline, the Expos sent him to New York for a package headlined by pitcher Steve Renko.
"Just the idea of playing with the Mets' talent-rich young pitching staff and playing in New York was, in and of itself, really something wonderful," Clendenon wrote in his book, "1969: Miracle in New York," published in 1999, six years before his death.
To this day, his 1969 teammates believe he made an instant and irreversible difference. He gave the Mets a powerful righthanded bat as well as a knack for leading and needling that kept the club confident and loose.
"We called him a clubhouse lawyer, he always had something going on in the clubhouse," Jones said of the player who would become an attorney. "He always had people he picked on. He called me 'Punch and Judy.' I could take that."
It was easy to take ribbing from someone who drove in either the tying or winning run in 16 consecutive games, the same someone who was voted most valuable player of the World Series.
Gentry won what was arguably the most important game of the World Series, Game 3, when momentum still was up for grabs. Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson said recently that Paul Blair, the opposition centerfielder, has told him that the pitcher who confounded the Orioles most was Gentry.
"Their scouting reports on Gentry were wrong," Harrelson said, referring to the fact the reports failed to note the unpredictable movement on Gentry's pitches. The Mets shortstop also recalled that during the season, opposing players said they would rather face Seaver or Koosman than Gentry. The rookie had a clutch streak, having pitched the regular-season division clinching victory.
"I have to tell you, everywhere I had been, we had won," Gentry said at Citi Field last month. "In junior college we won. At Arizona State we won the [College] World Series. I went to Williamsport [Pa.] for two weeks, and we won the Eastern League. I went to Jacksonville [Fla.], and we won there. You looked around and saw the team, and there was never a thought that we couldn't win."
October 1969 is the win that will stay with him forever. "It's always part of who you are because you accomplished something you dreamed of all your life," said the 62-year-old who manages an apartment complex in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Do I think about it every day? No. If I lived here, I might."