Former Met Art Shamsky recounts the journey of the 1969 world champions in his book, “After the Miracle,’’ which is scheduled for release on March 19.
Some of his memories will resonate with Mets fans of a certain age but some are reminders of the ravages of time.
Several principal figures from ’69 have died: Manager Gil Hodges, Donn Clendenon, Tommie Agee, Tug McGraw, and Ed Charles. Several others, including Tom Seaver and Ed Kranepool, have health issues.
Shamsky, 77, spent four seasons with the Mets and has become the flamekeeper of the ’69 team. His stories are familiar but more intimate because he was an eyewitness to the proceedings: Hodges drilling into the team that the “lovable losers” days were over. The black cat at Shea Stadium that seemed to stare down Cubs manager Leo Durocher in the heat of the division race. The buildup to the World Series and ensuing takedown of the Orioles for the most improbable turnaround of a franchise in big-league history.
But Shamsky also goes behind the scenes, notably in his interview with Charles, who died last March. Charles spoke candidly to Shamsky about the racism he endured on his way to the big leagues.
“Days are long, years are short,’’ Jerry Koosman, 76, said from Osceola, Wisconsin. “I still mourn for the ones we lost. When you lose a person, you lose part of your team. In our age group, we’re not getting healthier. We’re coming to the end of our rope.’’
Shamsky builds his book around what became a pilgrimage for him and former teammates Koosman, Ron Swoboda, now 74, Bud Harrelson, 74, and co-author Erik Sherman. They set out on a sentimental journey in May 2017 to visit Hall of Fame teammate Tom Seaver, the epitome of what it was like to be young and a Met. It is a revealing look at The Franchise.
Seaver lives in Calistoga in the serenity of California’s wine country, where he tends to his beloved 116-acre vineyard while coping with a now years-long challenge to his health. “For the one-time fearless power pitcher . . . ,’’ Shamsky wrote, “his limitations are now practically unfathomable.’’
Shamsky wrote that Seaver suffers from short-term memory loss, which Seaver told him can be traced to Lyme disease, a bacterial infection transmitted by ticks, contracted in 1991 when he lived in Greenwich, Connecticut. “Hey, man, once you’ve got it, you’ve got it forever,’’ Seaver said to Shamsky.
It was Harrelson, who had been making regular visits to Seaver, who prepared the group for what to expect from one of the most dominating pitchers in history.
“He can forget things that happened just a few minutes before,’’ Harrelson told Shamsky. “And he repeats himself a lot. But when he gets his rest, he still has a lot of energy.’’
Shamsky had phoned Seaver’s wife, Nancy, and told her he’d like to visit. Shamsky wrote: “She said to me, ‘Listen, Tom is really looking forward to you guys coming out, but I must tell you, if he’s not feeling well, it’s just not going to work. He has good days and he has bad days.’
“We rolled the dice. We don’t know about the weather, we didn’t know about the connecting flights, we don’t know how he’s going to feel.’’
Shamsky assembled his former teammates and Sherman for the trip. Harrelson, Seaver’s former teammate and best friend, already was experiencing symptoms from the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. It was Seaver who had given Harrelson the nickname “Buddy.’’ It became so synonymous with the shortstop during his playing days that when a panhandler once approached him and said, “Hey, Buddy, can you spare some change?’’ Harrelson thought the man had recognized him.
They found Seaver energetic and in good spirits. Given the possibility that Seaver would become disoriented because of his condition, Shamsky expressed some apprehension when the former pitcher offered to drive the group down what Shamsky described as a “steep, winding road’’ from his home into town for lunch, but Seaver made the 10-minute drive with no issues.
“He remains a larger-than-life figure — even to his teammates,’’ Shamsky wrote, “and on this day, he was as gregarious as ever, with a booming voice that filled the house. It was clear to me that he was enjoying one of his ‘good days.’ ’’
Shamsky said of the visit, “We were all kids again.’’
Unlike many of his former teammates, Seaver does not live his life as a ’69 Met. “It’s not that he lost connection with it,’’ Swoboda said from New Orleans. “In a much greater career, it’s a highlight for him.”
Seaver talked some baseball but was much more interested in showing off his vineyard, where visitors, including Sandy Koufax, have sampled his wine. Seaver is not comfortable traveling. A source said he is unlikely to be at Citi Field in June when the ’69 team is celebrated. His wife did not return an email seeking comment on his current health.
As the group reminisced, it was Seaver who voiced what all were feeling: “How the hell did I get to be 72 years old? How did that happen to us, Art?’’
Seaver’s observation of the boys of that summer was a stunning reminder of the passage of time. Seaver will turn 75 in November.
The end of the visit, Shamsky wrote, was a “sobering reminder of our dear friend Tom’s condition. He turned to Erik and asked proudly, ‘Did you come to see the vineyard?’ We knew we would never all be together like this again. It was the lengthiest of goodbyes. Nobody wanted to leave.’’