Mets' 1969 championship team reunion bittersweet for surviving players
In body and spirit, here come the 1969 Mets, the team that astounded the baseball world by transforming a laughingstock franchise into a World Series champion in less than a decade.
It’s the 50th anniversary and maybe last call for reunions when the surviving players appear Saturday afternoon at Citi Field and perhaps take a final bow in front of those who saw them and others who wish they had.
The scheduled attendees include Ed Kranepool, who is in good spirits and in improved health after his recent kidney transplant; Jerry Koosman, Ron Swoboda, Art Shamsky, Jerry Grote, Cleon Jones, Bud Harrelson and a supporting cast from the most heralded group of a franchise that began in 1962.
These Mets may never come this way again. The clock is ticking, and throughout the monthslong buildup to the reunion, the players’ thoughts have been on their ill teammates and, especially, the ones no longer alive.
“They’ll be the missing men in the formation,” Swoboda said. “I talked to people about this. We ain’t all here. It dims the light in your eyes a little bit. It’s going to be a celebration of us. But the missing men will be felt.”
Manager Gil Hodges, who died at 47 in 1972, tops that list.
“He was the engineer that put the product together,” former pitcher Jim McAndrew said. Davey Johnson of the 1969 Orioles said the Mets’ World Series victory was miraculously fate-appointed. Hodges’ son, Gil Jr., had a snappy reply, saying, “I wish we would have known that ahead of time.”
Hodges Jr. got some backup for that sentiment from none other than Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who surveyed the names and accomplishments of the ’69 Mets Thursday during a ceremony outside Citi Field honoring Tom Seaver and said, “In my book, it could hardly be considered a miracle.”
Hodges, the manager and former Bronze Star Marine, was the platoon leader in every sense, stern when he had to be and innovative in his in-game management. He was highly successful platooning righthanded and lefthanded hitters.
He also had unwavering faith in his players.
The late Tug McGraw was one of them. “Tug had a mediocre year in ’68 as a starter,” McAndrew said. “He came to camp in ’69 and Gil basically walked up to him and said, ‘You’re my man in the bullpen,’ basically instilling confidence and believing in Tug.”
Diane McGraw, Tug’s widow, said her husband told her he loved playing for the New York fans and “loved being around Tommie Agee and Donn Clendenon.”
Jones’ voice lowered when asked about Agee, his teammate and boyhood friend, who died in 2001. “He was the right shoe, I was the left shoe,” Jones said.
The brilliant catches that centerfielder Agee made in the World Series did not surprise Jones.
“I’d seen those kinds of catches forever,” he said. “I saw his potential as a great outfielder. Nothing he did came as a surprise. I’d say he had a Willie Mays-like instinct in getting a jump on the ball.
"Tommie won’t be here, Clendenon, [Don] Cardwell, Ed Charles. But life goes on, we’ll try to move forward.”
Pitcher Cal Koonce and coaches Yogi Berra, Rube Walker and Eddie Yost also are deceased.
Family members of the deceased players will be at the ceremony.
“It probably means as much to me to be able to meet the people who continued to play long after my father retired, and I now have a relationship with those people,’’ said Edwin Charles, son of the third baseman.
“We were hoping to get him here, but his health said something different. But I think he was totally satisfied that his work on this side had been accomplished. His time on this side was complete.”
Seaver, the Hall of Fame pitcher, will not appear after receiving a diagnosis of dementia in March. Harrelson, the longtime Hauppauge resident who is battling Alzheimer’s, has maintained a public presence despite a decline in his condition.
“This doesn’t belong in the shadows,” said Kim Battaglia, Harrelson’s former wife and one of his caretakers. “People want to know they’re not alone.”