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50 years later, 1969 Mets still a miraculous story

New York Mets manager Gil Hodges comes to

New York Mets manager Gil Hodges comes to grip with baseball as he returned for spring training opening in St. Petersburg, Florida on Feb. 20, 1969. Vice President John Murphy smiles with approval.  Credit: AP/Harry Harris

Before the Mets became amazing by winning the 1969 World Series, they were just the ‘’Amazin’s’’ -- Casey Stengel’s term for the ineptitude he saw during his managerial tenure in the early years of the franchise, which kicks off spring training this week and will celebrate the Miracle Mets’ 50th anniversary later this season.

The Mets, who started play at the Polo Grounds in 1962, carried a seven-year record of 394-737 into spring training in 1969. They had never finished higher than next to last in the standings (ninth twice, 10th five times).

Gil Hodges had managed the Mets to a team-high 73 victories in 1968, and that brought a smidgen of hope to spring training at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the team trained in those years.

“Losing’s not funny. It’s a sickness,’’ Hodges told the team, outfielder Art Shamsky wrote in “After the Miracle,’’ with co-author Erik Sherman.

Hodges, a former Marine, got everyone’s attention. “Gil was the man. He was the guy that really got us going,’’ Bud Harrelson said from his home in Hauppauge. “He said, ‘You guys are better than this.’ And then a lot of people said, ‘We’re better than we are.’ ‘’

Losing had become habitual. Could they learn how to win?

“Everybody thinks you lose because you get used to losing,’’ Ron Swoboda said. “You lose because you don’t have enough talent to win. It’s like this is as good as you are. It’s not genius. It’s not rocket science. The least predictable thing was us winning the World Series.’’

Ed Kranepool was in his sixth full big-league season but still was only 24. “I don’t know whether you ever get used to losing,’’ he said. “You don’t like it. I think you can become complacent, develop bad habits. When we got to spring training, Gil said, ‘Last year [1968], we played decent baseball. We lost a lot of one-run games. If we can change that, convert some of those into a win, we got a chance to get to .500.’ There was no talk in spring training about winning a pennant because that’s unrealistic. Going from last place to first place? You got to take small steps.’’

Al Weis, who would become known as ‘’Supersub’’ during the championship season and hit .455 in the World Series, wasn’t thrilled with being a Met as he started his second season with the team after being traded from the White Sox.

“All the years I played with the White Sox, we were pennant contenders,’’ Weis said. “Getting traded to the last-place club, the New York Mets, wasn’t a very good phone call that I got. We lost 89 games in ‘68. You go to spring training, you figure if you can play .500 ball, that’s a plus. In my opinion, we don’t have any expectations what was to come in ‘69. I tell everybody that I had an average career but I had two good weeks of baseball, and it came in the ‘69 World Series.’’

Kranepool had the same initial feelings as Weis did about being a Met, just for a longer period of time.

“I wanted to be drafted by the Yankees,’’ the Bronx-born former first baseman said. “I was smart enough to look at [the Yankees’] roster. They had some pretty good players. You read all the articles about guys being lost in the minor leagues.

“But [being drafted by the Mets] did it hurt my career, probably, because I was force-fed to the major leagues at 17, 18, 19. By the time you catch up to the league, they say you’re over the hill. You’re an old man, but you’re right in your prime.’’

The Mets had plenty of pitching and catcher Jerry Grote said, “I had no doubt’’ a turnaround was in store. “When you’re talking about [Tom] Seaver, [Jerry] Koosman, [Nolan] Ryan, [Tug] McGraw, [Gary] Gentry,’’ Grote said, “why not?’’

Righthander Jim McAndrew added, “A majority of us were relatively young and new to the organization. We were too self-centered to be aware of the history.’’

As the season unfolded, the Mets found themselves on an upward trajectory. “We didn’t know what we couldn’t do, so we weren’t limited by anything,’’ Swoboda said. “It was all new to us, so we just rolled with it. The one thing you can have is being a little bit better than conventional wisdom.’’

Stengel had predicted that men would land on the moon before the Mets would win the World Series, and he was correct . . . by about three months.

“When they walked on the moon, we were stuck in Montreal because the plane broke down,’’ Swoboda said of that July 20 event. “That’s how we got to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon on live TV. The irony was we can’t get from Montreal to New York, but there’s a guy putting footprints on the moon.’’

Still, the Mets would reach new heights.

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