Where would baseball lore be without The Unexpected?
When the Mets won the 1969 World Series after seven years of mostly awful baseball, that was totally unexpected. And one of the primary events that helped make that world championship happen is something that former rightfielder Ron Swoboda has never stopped talking about.
It’s called “The Catch.”
It’s now nearly 50 years since that Mets-Orioles World Series that was peppered with magic moments, and Swoboda’s diving backhanded grab of a slicing shot to right by Brooks Robinson in Game 4 certainly is near the top of the list.
“I have fully participated in allowing that to be connected to my image,’’ Swoboda, who turns 75 this month, said proudly from his home in New Orleans. “It’s on the front cover of my book [aptly named “Here’s the Catch”] for good reason. I made a few mistakes in my career, certainly my share or more, but that time I didn’t.’’
For perspective, let’s return to Oct. 15, 1969.
The Mets held a two-games-to-one advantage in the Series and led 1-0 on Donn Clendenon’s second-inning home run off Mike Cuellar as ace Tom Seaver tried to complete the shutout in the ninth. But back-to-back hits by Frank Robinson and Boog Powell put runners on first and third with one out and Brooks Robinson coming to the plate.
Swoboda said he knew Robinson was perfectly capable of hitting the ball to the opposite field. “He was not a dead pull hitter at all,’’ Swoboda said. “He was kind of a left-center, right-center kind of guy. You have to be expecting it. There’s no other way to play the outfield other than for you to anticipate everything’s coming to you.’’
Robinson hit a liner on an 0-and-1 count. Swoboda ran all out and did a full-body dive to the ground, making a backhanded stab in the webbing of his glove.
In his book, Swoboda said Seaver went with a two-seam fastball, down and away. Robinson hit the ball and, Swoboda wrote, “I launched into full bore pursuit with the rapidly rising fear that I wasn’t going to get there on time. In my slo-mo memory, that dread seemed to last a long time . . . I was fully committed in a mad dash down a path that would change my life forever.
“I saw the ball right off the bat and got a tremendous jump . . . I leap, my hat flies off. I have taken the shortest route to intercept the ball, and in a free fall I snag that little [SOB] in the top of my web inches before it finds grass. There’s a hush in the stadium, everybody inhaling at once while I’m rolling, skidding, and then I come up throwing and there’s a shriek and a roar like you can’t believe because I made it — made a catch that changed the game, changed the Series, changed my life.’’
Swoboda added in a phone interview that while he was prepared, he could not foresee the outcome. “I read a ball off the bat, ran as fast as I could, as hard as I could, and 99 percent of the way there, I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it,’’ Swoboda said. “But you can’t stop. I didn’t slow down. When it looked like I needed to lay out, I laid out. When I look back at it now, I go, “Who you kidding?’ There is zero margin for mistake. You were right at a time when being right made a difference in a ballgame and in the Series.’’
WORKING ON HIS DEFENSE
Swoboda’s catch plays on a video inside the Mets’ museum at Citi Field. “I watched it a couple of times,’’ said Swoboda, whose glove also is on display. Swoboda will join his former teammates during a weekend-long celebration of the ’69 team from June 28-30.
Mention of The Catch often has been prefaced by some saying it was all the more amazing because Swoboda was considered a below-average fielder. That was evidenced by 11 errors, second highest in the league by a rookie in 1966. He made 17 in his first two seasons.
“Defensively, I had a lot of problems early on in my career and Shea Stadium was a hard place to play,” said Swoboda, who added that he worked “awfully hard” on his defense with coach Eddie Yost. “[Shea] was a mercurial background that changed with the weather and [fans] moving around. Sun’s in, sun’s out. You have a chance of having tough reads on balls that you don’t really see the way you want to and need to.
“I worked on Yost hitting me line drives, ground balls, left, right, over my head, in front of me. You’re not just reacting to the ball, you’re reading it off the bat. That first read, if you can be more correct, that’s going to make the whole deal work a lot better because you’re going to make a lot fewer false moves.’’
Rod Gaspar had been a defensive replacement for Swoboda during most of the season. “He worked his tail off to become a better defensive player,’’ Gaspar, 73, said from Mission Viejo, California. “Later in the year I never replaced him. I’ve seen Willie Mays’ catches, but Willie Mays was supposed to do those things. Swoboda’s not. Only Swoboda would have dove for that ball.’’
Frank Robinson tagged from third on Swoboda’s catch to tie the score at 1 and Seaver ended the inning by getting Elrod Hendricks on a routine fly ball to Swoboda. The Mets won the game in the bottom of the 10th when pinch runner Gaspar scored after Orioles reliever Pete Richert, a 1958 graduate of Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park, was charged with a throwing error to first on J.C. Martin’s sacrifice bunt.
EVERYTHING WENT RIGHT
The Mets won the Series in five games. “If you were the Orioles, you have to look at it and go ‘you know, somebody up there doesn’t like us,’ ’’ Swoboda said. “The shoe polish ball [in Game 5], my catch, Tommie Agee’s two plays. They have to feel like somebody reached out and snatched it away from them.’’
Powell, 74, was 6-4 and 230 pounds in his playing days. Would he have scored the go-ahead run from first if Swoboda did not make the catch?
“With my blinding speed, of course,’’ Powell said jokingly from Key West, Florida. “I was a big body, but I wasn’t exactly slow. If it gets by, I would have scored. I was quite shocked when he pulled that ball out of his [butt]. If you were to ask him, he’d probably say the same damn thing. But at the same time, I’ll give him all the credit in the world and say it’s one of the greatest catches I’d ever seen.’’
Swoboda said Brooks Robinson “with a wry grin, always insisted that he was responsible for making me famous. He even wrote that in an autograph he once gave my dad in Baltimore. And I always said I should be grateful that he didn’t hit it right to me.’’
Robinson, 82, recalled the moment in an email through his publicist: “We just had to win one game to get back to Baltimore and that catch changed the direction of the World Series . . . Ron made a terrific catch. If he didn’t make that catch, I believe it would have been a 2-run triple.’’
Swoboda actually took some criticism for not playing it safe on the ball hit by Robinson. In his book, Swoboda said first baseman Clendenon called him “a dumb SOB’’ because if the ball had gotten past him, two runs would have scored.
But Swoboda said his feelings were assuaged in a jab by bullpen coach Joe Pignatano: “Swoboda, don’t think,” Pignatano told him. “You’ll only hurt the team.’’
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
The 74-year-old retired from baseball after a nine-year career with the Mets, Montreal Expos and Yankees. The New Orleans resident is promoting “Here’s the Catch, A Memoir of the Miracle Mets and More” .and broadcasting games for the Triple-A New Orleans Baby Cakes. He previously was a sportscaster on New York’s WCBS-TV, Milwaukee and then New Orleans.
BRobby, 82, spent his entire 23-year career with the Orioles, retiring after the 1977 season. He followed with a long career as an Orioles color commentator and holds the title of Special Adviser with the Orioles. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1983.