Before 1969, the Mets were bottom-dwellers. No one thought they could go anywhere.
When they return 50 years later in June, their message will be the same as it was when they stunned the baseball world by winning the ’69 World Series: Don’t stop believin’. Hold on to that miracle.
The remaining platoon of the late manager Gil Hodges is intent on going forward — even if it may be with more sadness than celebration.
About 18 former players are expected at Citi Field for the weekend of June 28-30. Until the last few months, the Mets hoped that Tom Seaver, the linchpin of that team, would be able to attend. Thursday’s announcement that Seaver, 74, recently was diagnosed with dementia removed that possibility.
The team hopes Nolan Ryan, whose Hall of Fame career started with the Mets, will accept its invitation.
“I think it’s a celebration of memories,’’ Jerry Koosman said. “We’re not the first or last team to celebrate 50-year anniversaries. It’s good for everybody, it’s good for the fans, it’s good for us. It’s good for baseball.”
With mounting age and illness, the anniversary can’t come soon enough.
Seaver’s former roommate and close friend, Bud Harrelson, who is battling Alzheimer’s disease, is scheduled to attend.
“The Mets realize this is the last hurrah,’’ said Ed Kranepool, who has been seeking a kidney donor. “They’re not going to have a 75th anniversary.’’
The Mets captivated baseball that season, especially in New York.
“I saw some video that was taken of Times Square during a couple of the [World Series] games,’’ said catcher Jerry Grote, 76. “People moved from store to store, pitch to pitch, watching the game on TV. It was interesting because they moved blocks of people.”
Grote was the hardest of hard-nosed players, a man who came to and left the park with a scowl. But he was the unflinching, all-business individual Seaver needed to direct his game.
When the Cubs’ Jimmy Qualls spoiled Seaver’s perfect game in the ninth inning on July 9 that year, Grote didn’t visit the mound and pat Seaver on the rear. He told him to finish the game.
Grote wasn’t one for sentiment, but he’s all about returning to stand with his team now.
“They often said I didn’t have a heart,’’ he said. “They found out I did.’’
The Mets have not said how the ceremonies will unfold in what will be an ultimate Old-Timers’ Day. Koosman said he hopes the fans won’t be disappointed in seeing the boys-to-elderly men version of that team.
The late Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner, a longtime Mets broadcaster, was uncomfortable attending such gatherings. “Fans picture us being forever young,’’ he said. “We destroy that freeze frame when they see us now.’’
Yet there is a certain immortality for the ’69 Mets.
“I had shoulder surgery, and when I came out of the operating room, my left arm is in a sling and I was asked for an autograph,’’ said Kranepool, 74. “People still want autographs, they want to talk about things. It’s great that fans still recognize you 50 years after the fact. You caught New York, the country, by surprise in ’69. You had Woodstock, you had men walking on the moon. You had the Mets.’’
The celebration will pay tribute to Seaver and honor the memory of those who have died, including pivotal members Tug McGraw, Tommie Agee, Ed Charles and Donn Clendenon.
“We’ve lost guys that were really important to us,’’ said Ron Swoboda, 74. “We understand how fragile this whole thing is at this point. If you’re reasonably healthy in your 70s, these are the good times . . . I’m really lucky. I take none of it for granted. It all feels like a bonus. Fans come up and tell you about all the moments you created for them that are important in their lives. How lucky can you be?
“What’s the peak of your life? The ’69 Mets is a really hard act to follow with that immense joy and achievement in your life. You’re going to have a hard time duplicating that. I was in the television business for 20 years. I tried hard and I scuffled and I was lucky to be in it, but the best day I ever had on television barely reaches up to batting practice.’’
Swoboda recalled something he heard about another team — the 1974 Philadelphia Flyers and coach Fred Shero — that he has applied to his Mets.
“A blackboard in the locker room before the deciding game read ‘Win this one tonight and we can walk together forever,’ ” Swoboda said in tears. “That is so beautiful because it’s true. We’ve been walking together now for 50 years. You’re in the books. Those names, you can read that roster forever. People will put you together forever. You’re in that group for as long as anybody cares to remember it. It’s beautiful, especially as we get older and our numbers are shrinking.’’
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