New York had many dark days during the summer of 1977. None were darker than July 13.
That night, three freak lightning strikes at power stations in the area plunged the city into darkness. Those who lived through it certainly remember. Thousands of people had to be evacuated from the subway system, airports and tunnels had to be closed, and neighborhoods hard hit by the national economic downturn and the financial crisis of the city’s near-bankruptcy saw widespread looting and arson.
Many of the 14,626 who were at Shea Stadium that night to watch the Cubs play the Mets have a distinctly different and surprisingly more pleasant memory. The power outage halted the game with the Mets batting in the sixth and trailing 2-1, with Jerry Koosman pitching well. But when the action stopped, the Mets came together to give those who waited — unsuccessfully — for the lights to come back on an entirely different kind of show.
Joe Torre, promoted to player/manager on the last day of May with the team’s record at 15-30, calls what transpired “the pantomime infield.” Second baseman Doug Flynn prefers the term “phantom infield.”
Take your pick, but this is the story . . .
Scary time in NYC
New York that summer looked nothing like it does today. Subway cars were tarnished with graffiti. Empty buildings were pocked with broken windows. Crime and unemployment were high. Gotham’s working class was battered by a financial crisis that led to wage freezes and staff reductions.
And there was fear. Son of Sam — serial killer David Berkowitz — was at large and had killed or wounded 13 people in several neighborhoods across the boroughs.
“New York City was a little bit scary in 1977, especially for me with something like Son of Sam on the loose,” Flynn said in a telephone interview while driving from his native Lexington, Kentucky, to play a round of golf near Cincinnati. “When the lights went out, I wondered if they’d come right back on. Everyone did. When they didn’t, I wasn’t sure if it was some kind of catastrophe.”
“From what I recall, there was confusion,” Torre said. “Today, people’s minds would go to all sorts of places. It wasn’t like that back then. It was a blackout.”
The Mets were not a good team in ’77 and would go on to lose 98 games. A month before the blackout, Mets chairman M. Donald Grant traded Tom Seaver — the most popular athlete in New York — to the Reds after a conflict over salary. Torre recalled, “It had become a rebuilding year and there was a lot of turnover on the roster.”
But the players on the team liked each other and there was a camaraderie — infielder Lenny Randle, in a telephone interview from Rome, called the ’77 Mets “ ‘The Good News Bears’ because we didn’t win, but we were fun” — that proved the catalyst for turning a disappointing night into an entertaining one.
Koosman, who had recorded 11 strikeouts in the first six innings, grounded out to start the bottom of the sixth. Randle was in the batter’s box to face Chicago starter Ray Burris when the lights went off.
“My plan was to fake the bunt, get everyone to charge and then pull it back and slap it,” Randle said. “The lights went out on the pitch and I could still see it and hit it. Even though it was dark, I was running the bases. [Cubs second baseman] Manny Trillo almost tackled me because they’d stopped the game and said, ‘You can’t do that.’ ”
Although Randle hitting the ball eludes the memory of most of his former teammates, Koosman still remembers how chafed he was when the game was halted.
“As the game was going, I was getting stronger and better,” he said in a telephone interview from Osceola, Wisconsin. “I felt I had the stuff to go after the strikeout record [then 19 by Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton]. It was on. Man, was I ticked when the lights didn’t come back on.”
Players entertained fans
As Randle and Flynn remember, it was Bobby Valentine who suggested they put on a show for the fans patiently waiting for the electricity to return. And many of the 14,626 weren’t in a rush to depart for the disabled subway. As Randle recalled, the vendors were giving away ice cream and hot dogs because they’d spoil without refrigeration.
The players’ parking lot was out beyond centerfield, and several Mets went out and drove their cars through the home bullpen and onto the outfield grass, where they dimly lit the infield with their headlights.
“[Bullpen coach] Joe Pignatano got all worked up when they were driving their cars through the bullpen because he had a vegetable garden growing out there,” Randle said. “He kept yelling ‘Be careful of the tomatoes!’ ”
Then the Mets infielders — including starters Flynn, Randle, Valentine, Ed Kranepool and John Stearns — took their spots on the diamond and had an infield practice — without a ball.
“We took a phantom infield,” said Flynn, who’d come over from the Reds in the Seaver trade. “It was all Valentine’s idea and we put on a show. We started making diving stops. Then we decided to turn double plays. We made flips behind the back and through the legs. The crowd really seemed to enjoy it.”
“People didn’t seem to want to go home, so we entertained them with the greatest infield [practice] in the history of workouts,” Randle said. “Flynn and I made it look real, diving to make plays and making circus flips to each other before ‘throwing’ it to Kranepool.
“When it was over, we stayed and signed autographs and the crowd was great. The lights go out and people get funky.”
“Lenny Randle was light-hearted and loose as a goose,” Torre said. “They started doing it and then he really got it going.”
Randle said that when the pantomime infield was over, the players went to fans seated alongside the dugout and told them to all get free ice cream. He described it as “like a party.”
Koosman takes loss
It took approximately 24 hours before electricity was restored to all parts of the city and more than two months before the Mets and Cubs got to finish the game in mid-September.
Koosman begged Torre to let him pitch the completion of the game and then start the scheduled game that day.
“I was still going for a record and so I told Joe, ‘Let me finish and then beat them a second time,’ ” Koosman said.
“Koosie was always one of my favorites,” Torre said. “He was a great competitor.”
But it wasn’t Koosman’s day when the game resumed. The Mets tied it against Burris in the seventh, but Chicago’s Steve Swisher laced a two-run single in the eighth. Koosman came out for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the inning and the Mets lost, 5-2. Koosman finished with 13 strikeouts.
“There weren’t a lot of memorable games from that season, but The Blackout Game was definitely one of them,” Flynn said.
Added Randle: “Every player and all the fans wanted the game to continue, but we all ended up having a good time anyway. Maybe people would look back at that and think it was a bad situation. But everyone went home feeling good and entertained.”