“You gotta have heart . . .”
A video of the 1969 Mets singing those title lyrics from optimism’s anthem closed out Saturday’s 50th anniversary tribute to a miracle. That team, which performed on "The Ed Sullivan Show" stage days after having won the World Series, stands as a tribute to heart and possibility. That is why the '69 Mets have been a big deal for a half-century, and will continue to be.
It was not just that they won the championship because, as emcee Howie Rose mentioned during the ceremony at Citi Field, somebody does that every year. It is that the Mets had been the embodiment of losing and stunningly became the symbol of winning. “They changed people’s lives,” Rose said, summarizing the lesson this way: “No goal is unattainable.”
Ron Swoboda, the rightfielder who sustained the 1969 impossible dream with a near-impossible (especially for him, because he wasn’t all that great as a glove man) catch, said that thousands of times over these past 50 years, people have shared with him one phrase. “If the Mets could win he World Series . . .” And they always completed the sentence in their own personal way, a way that indicated how much that baseball club, that particular year, inspired them.
“I think we did, in a very fractious time of 1969, do something that was so feel-good that everybody could get their head around it and take a positive energy from it,” he said after he and his teammates received individual keys to the city from Mayor Bill de Blasio — himself an heir to the office once held by John V. Lindsay, who said that being photographed in the winning 1969 Mets clubhouse won him an unlikely re-election bid.
Nostalgia usually reflects on a simpler time. Not so with this. The year of 1969 was eventful at best, chaotic at worst. True, there was the triumph of seeing American Neil Armstrong become the first person to set foot on the moon (long before he became father-in-law to Brodie Van Wagenen, the current Mets general manager). But there was the national angst over the Vietnam War and the draft.
As Tom Seaver was pitching and Swoboda was making his famous play in Game 4, in fact, a massive anti-war protest was being held in Bryant Park. In his current book, “Here’s the Catch,” Swoboda said that there was a general loss in confidence in societal institutions, as if the world was on one long losing struck. The '69 Mets emerged from that milieu as torch-bearer for hope.
In the words that the players sang, for Sullivan and in a subsequent stint in Las Vegas: “You gotta have hope/Mustn’t sit around and mope/Nothing’s half as bad as it may appear/Wait’ll next year and hope.”
“I’ve been lucky enough to travel in different countries and different places and you know, people recognize you,” said J.C. Martin, the backup catcher whose bunt brought home the winning run in Game 4, which produced a 3-1 Series lead. “They aren’t even Met fans, but they are in a sense because they loved the accomplishment. It’s so wonderful to see.
“The odds were so great. You’re talking about a ninth-place club to win it all. Are you kidding? Especially the Mets. Come on. They were a bunch of misfits when I came over here from the White Sox. And Gil Hodges took that team and in a short period of time we became world champions."
Manager Hodges’ Mets set out to do the best they could and wound up doing better than they had imagined — i.e. Al Weis, the skinny guy from Long Island became a power hitter for one week at the greatest possible time.
That team grew into a beloved cultural icon. Decades later, Ed Kranepool and Swoboda appeared with the fictional Newsday sportswriter in “Everybody Loves Raymond.” In the 1977 movie, “Oh God,” George Burns as the title character said, “The last miracle I did was the 1969 Mets.”
Do you believe in miracles? Well, Swoboda says the '69 Mets are on the same plateau as the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team in terms of winning a massively unlikely title and capturing a nation’s heart. He has a puck signed by Mike Eruzione at his office at home.
“The definition of a miracle,” Swoboda said, “is you can’t completely explain it. I think we fall right in line with that.”
You don’t have to explain it or understand it. You just embrace it and let it inspire you. How do you do that? You gotta have heart.