Mets winning season was more than a wild prediction

Mets catcher Jerry Grote leads the way for Mets catcher Jerry Grote leads the way for winning pitcher Jerry Koosman as fans pour on the field during the World Series at Shea Stadium, New York. Photo Credit: Newsday Photo / Stan Wolfson

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People would have called Jerry Grote crazy if anyone had taken him seriously enough to remember what he had said. Grote told The Sporting News during spring training of 1969 that the Mets, having finished 10th five times and ninth twice in their seven-year history, could finish first.

Recalling his interview with Long Island Press beat writer and Sporting News correspondent Jack Lang, Grote said, "I told him we had the chance because we had the pitching and the defense. We just needed one more person in the lineup to drive in some runs."

The Mets were discussing a big trade with the Braves for just such a hitter, Joe Torre. But the Mets refused Atlanta's insistence that Grote - like Torre, a catcher - be included in the deal. At the time, Braves executive vice president Paul Richards said, "I never knew the Mets had so many untouchables. I'm surprised they didn't win the pennant."

Gradually, the idea of the Mets winning the pennant became more than a wild prediction or a sarcastic jibe.

Some 1969 Mets point to the 11-game winning streak in late May and early June. Many of them cite the June 15 deal that brought in Donn Clendenon, the type of hitter Grote had said they needed.

Wayne Garrett, the rookie third baseman in 1969, recalled last month, "I knew that in the past the Mets were cellar dwellers. What I noticed after playing all the teams was that there was a difference. When we made that complete circuit, then I knew: We could stand toe to toe with anybody in the league."

They held their own with fate, too, in a season filled with omens, oddities and ironies:

The Mets watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon July 20 from a Montreal airport bar because their plane, no Apollo spacecraft, had mechanical troubles.

On July 8, in what was considered the first big game the Mets ever played, Ed Kranepool (a team member since 1962) hit a run-scoring single against future Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins in the bottom of the ninth. It concluded a 4-3 win over the first-place Chicago Cubs. One night later, Tom Seaver carried a perfect game into the ninth before the Cubs' Jimmy Qualls hit a single.

A black cat raced from the catacombs of Shea Stadium and pranced ominously in front of the Cubs dugout, seemingly taunting manager Leo Durocher, on Sept. 9.

Having trailed the Cubs by 9 1/2 games on Aug. 13, the Mets moved into first place on Sept. 10.

They swept a doubleheader Sept. 12 in Pittsburgh, a pair of 1-0 games in which pitchers Jerry Koosman and Don Cardwell drove in the only runs.

Steve Carlton of the Cardinals struck out 19 Mets on Sept. 15 but lost, 4-3, on two two-run home runs by Ron Swoboda. And the Mets clinched first place on Sept. 24, in a 6-0 win over the Cardinals.

To this day, Kranepool doesn't view this as all smoke and mirrors. He considers it the oldest strategy in the book. "You look at Newsday every day and those [1969] boxscores," the Jericho resident said of the daily series, "and you see that everyone contributed. It was a team."

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