Seaver. Koosman. Gentry.
That was the mantra for Mets fans 50 years ago as their team made its miraculous run to the World Series championship.
The 1969 Mets were all about pitching.
“When you talk about Koosman, Seaver and Gentry, those guys were all young and they could throw hard,” recalled J.C. Martin, who as the Mets’ backup catcher was on the receiving end of many of their offerings.
“I think the pitching staff was just as good as you could make it,’’ Martin, 82, said in early May from his home in Matthews, North Carolina. “They had three really wonderful starters.”
The three totaled 55 of the team’s 100 victories during the regular season and five of seven during the Mets’ postseason run.
Seaver — 25-7 with a 2.21 ERA — led a strong staff that also included Nolan Ryan (6-3, 3.53), Jim McAndrew (6-7, 3.47) and Don Cardwell.
“He was a great pitcher for us, even though he wasn’t a household name,” Martin said of Cardwell, then a 33-year-old righthander who started 30 games and went 8-10 with a 3.01 ERA.
Out of the bullpen, it was Tug McGraw whom most fans remember, but the Mets’ real closer was 31-year-old Ron Taylor (9-4, 2.72), who closed out 44 games with 13 saves in an era in which saves were awarded much differently.
“Taylor never got the credit that he deserved,” Martin said. “He was a wonderful relief pitcher because he threw the ball sneaky, had good control and his ball moved.
“And then McGraw. He had a tremendous screwball. He would throw that early in the count and then throw the fastball by them. I don’t know how many fastball called third strikes he got because of that pitch.’’
McGraw finished the season with a 9-3 record, a 2.24 ERA and 12 saves. He started four games and finished 26 others.
The Mets never came close to having a winning record until 1969 because of year after year of anemic batting averages (they hit .242 that season).
But because of the pitching, catcher Jerry Grote said he felt confident of a turnaround — even in spring training.
“I had no doubt,’’ said Grote, 74. “I had caught these guys.’’
Seaver already was the unquestioned leader at the start of spring training.
“He became the mainstay of the pitching staff when he came in in ’67,’’ Grote said from Belton, Texas. “I was used to having a rookie come in and, I guess you could say, almost babysitting them to make sure that they didn’t make mistakes or anything. Tom was way ahead of the curve as if he was a third- or fourth-year pitcher. He was ahead of me. It took me half the season to catch up to him.’’
The fastball was Seaver’s calling card, made more effective by the use of a baffling slider, and vice versa. Seaver, 74, could not be interviewed for this story because of ill health. His family said in March that he had been diagnosed with dementia. But Seaver often talked about pitching during his career as a player and broadcaster.
“The thing most people don’t understand is that pitching isn’t the same every time out,” he once said.
The 1969 National League East race is remembered for the formerly hapless Cubs coming out of the gate well and owning a 10-game lead on Aug. 14 before the Mets got hot and Chicago cooled off. The Mets won 38 of their final 49 games to finish 100-62, eight games ahead of the Cubs.
A month earlier, Seaver put on a show that will never be forgotten. He called it his “imperfect game.”
A Shea Stadium crowd of 50,709 watched in awe as Seaver retired Cub after Cub. Fast-forward to the top of the ninth with the Mets leading 4-0 and the Cubs still without a single baserunner.
Randy Hundley bunted back to Seaver for the first out, but
Jimmy Qualls — who would go on to have only 31 hits in his career — lined a single to left-center to break up the perfect game. (Seaver retired pinch hitter Willie Smith on a pop foul and Don Kessinger on a fly to left to close it out.)
Seaver’s reaction? “The very first thing might have been something like, ‘What could have been,’ ” he told Sports Illustrated in 2008. Over the years, Seaver called his “imperfect game’’ possibly the best he ever pitched, including his no-hitter for Cincinnati.
Seaver faced the Cubs six times in 1969 and left a lasting impression on Hall of Fame outfielder Billy Williams.
“Most of the time an individual comes in the game and he’s just a thrower,’’ said Williams, 80. “He knew how to put the ball low, and then he threw some slider.’’
The supporting cast
Behind Seaver in the rotation, and not by much, was Koosman, who in 1968 finished second to future Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench by one vote in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting. The Seaver-Koosman combination produced 42 victories (and 34 complete games) in ’69. “Seaver and Koosman, they dared anybody to swing the bat,’’ spot starter and reliever Jack DiLauro, 76, said from Malverne, Ohio.
Some thought there was a rivalry between the two. Koosman said he and Seaver were the best of friends.
“We had signs amongst each other,’’ Koosman, 76, said from Osceola, Wisconsin. “If I was doing something wrong, I could just look in the dugout and he would point to a part of the body. Sometimes you’re out there and you don’t have all your biorhythms going and you might be off a little bit mechanically. We knew each other well enough that we could be each other’s kind of dugout coach.’’
Seaver and Koosman led the early origin of a five-man rotation. Gary Gentry, whom many thought was a Seaver in the making, was No. 3. “Then, depending on the roll of the dice,’’ McAndrew said from Fountain Hills, Arizona, “it was Don Cardwell, Ryan and myself as far as the fourth and fifth starters.’’
Seaver was 25-7, Koosman 17-9 and Gentry 13-12. (McGraw died in 2004 and Cardwell died in 2008.)
The pitching was so strong that new players were reluctant to join the staff. DiLauro came over from the Tigers’ organization that spring. “My initial reaction was ‘ah, cripes,’ ” he said. “Obviously with Seaver, Koosman, Gentry, Ryan, I was not hopeful. I didn’t get a chance with the Tigers. Now I figured I was back in the dumps again.’’
Ultimately, however, DiLauro, who appeared in 23 games that season and picked up a World Series ring, decided it was a good career move. “Oh, definitely,’’ he said.
Seaver won the first of his three Cy Young Awards in 1969. Koosman was the pitching star of the World Series, winning Games 2 and 5.
“I think about Seaver losing the first game but then coming back and pitching 10 innings in Game 4,’’ Grote said. “And I think of Koosman pitching 17 and two-thirds innings, one out from two complete games, in the World Series against the [Baltimore] hitting staff that everybody raved about and they hit [.146] against us.’’
Reserve catcher Duffy Dyer, 74, who lives in Phoenix, added: “Tom could correct his own mistakes. When he didn’t have his good stuff, he usually knew what he was doing wrong. He didn’t need a pitching coach to come out and tell him. He would have been a fantastic pitching coach or manager or general manager.’’
But Seaver was a pitcher first and the Mets — then and now — realized how much he meant.
“We don’t win it without Tom Seaver,’’ rightfielder Ron Swoboda, 74, said from his home in New Orleans.
Forever The Franchise
Seaver was humble but made no secret of his ambition. “Some pitchers want to be known as the fastest throwers that ever lived,’’ he was quoted during his career. “Some want to win 30 games in one season. Some want to pitch a no-hitter. All I want to do is the best I can, day after day. In other words, I want to prove I am the best.’’