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'69 Mets book, 'They Said It Couldn't Be Done,' hits close to home for author Wayne Coffey

The cover of Wayne Coffey's new book "They

The cover of Wayne Coffey's new book "They Said It Couldn't Be Done." Photo Credit: Penguin Random House

The idea for the book was planted – literally – in a backyard in Huntington, shortly after the author had removed a small patch of sod from Shea Stadium as a keepsake.

“I started my research on Oct. 16, 1969,” Wayne Coffey said.

That would be the day the Mets won the World Series, beating the Orioles in Game 5 and prompting Coffey to inform his grandfather he would be leaving their seats and joining the party on the field.

Fifty years later, he has written a book to commemorate that occasion, and that season, on its 50th anniversary, which the Mets officially will celebrate later this month.

Coffey is not unfamiliar with the genre. In 2005, he wrote a book called “The Boys of Winter” about the gold-medal-winning 1980 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team.

But this project struck closer to home for a fan who came of age along with the Mets franchise itself.

“I was a 15-year-old kid from Huntington who was a Met nut and was at Game 5 with my grandfather and was at games regularly and can tell you where I was standing when Jimmy Qualls’ ball hit in leftfield,” he said.

That was the night in July when Tom Seaver lost a perfect game with one out in the ninth inning on a clean single by the Cubs rookie – one of 31 hits in his three-year big-league career.

It’s all there in the book, “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done: The ’69 Mets, New York City, and the Most Astounding Season in Baseball History.”

Art Shamsky and Ron Swoboda, who played for the team, also have books out tied to the 50th anniversary, but Coffey’s has a broader scope.

He said he traveled 20,000 miles or so doing interviews and other research “and dug as deep as I could dig,” but the half-century gone by brings with it challenges.

Many key figures no longer are alive or are not in good health. Coffey said only one front office executive is left, Joe McDonald, who turns 90 next month.

“It just makes it that much more important to cast the net wide,” Coffey said.

So he spoke to batboys, players’ spouses and “whoever I could think of who might be able to bring some fresh material. But just going to see as many of these guys as possible in their own environments made all the difference in trying to bring their stories to life.”

Generally, the healthy alumni were cooperative. Catcher Jerry Grote was the most central figure who declined to talk.

There is one character in the drama who stands far above the rest as told in the book: manager Gil Hodges.

“Hodges was hired and from Day One in 1968 he made it clear the lovable loser stuff was done,” Coffey said. “He went methodically about changing how the Mets perceived themselves and how they went about their business.

“There was a new sheriff in town and things were going to be different, and they were different. I don’t think his impact can be overstated, I really don’t. I didn’t go into this on a journalistic agenda to make Gil Hodges the hero of the story, but that conclusion for me was inescapable.”

Coffey weaves in the back stories of these '69 Mets, notably of the black players who grew up in the Jim Crow South, but he also leans heavily on game details from the NLCS and World Series, which can bog down a historical sports book.

He said such editorial decisions are “a very delicate balance.”

“You have to be judicious in what you do, and I did a lot of it,” he said. “I felt it was important. If I did it artfully enough and selectively enough it would help bring the season back to life and give it an immediacy.”

As for that 3-inch-square section of turf from Shea, Coffey wrote that he planted it between two dogwood trees and mowed it “very carefully” until the house was sold seven years later.

“The new owners negotiated for the washer and dryer,” he wrote, “and had no idea they had gotten a piece of Shea Stadium at no extra charge.”

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