Great Arms, Sour Days at Shea

There surely must have been a support group for pitchers like Jon Matlack. Come to think of it, the original group could have been founded by the 1976 New York Mets starting rotation. Maybe it was called Pitchers without Run Support.

Matlack, Tom SeaverJerry KoosmanMickey Lolich and Craig Swan — five hurlers — each pitched their heart out in 1976. On paper, no major league team was better. The Mets team ERA was the lowest in baseball (2.94). Still, the Mets finished 86-76 in third place in the National League East, 15 games behind the Philadelphia Phillies.

It took a complete game, four-hit shutout for Matlack to win his first game that season. On April 10, the Mets beat the Expos 1-0 at Shea Stadium. The only run was scored when Bud Harrelson tripled, followed by an RBI double by Felix Millan in the fourth inning. There’s your run Matlack, the rest is up to you. It was a sign of things to come for the entire Mets staff.

The team’s hitting was anemic. The Mets batted .246 as a team, with an on-base percentage of .317 and a slugging percentage of .352. The only team in the National League with a lower team batting average was Montreal (.235).

They couldn’t hit the long ball either. Dave Kingman hit 37 home runs, while John Milner (15), Ed Kranepool (10), Del Unser (5) and Joe Torre (5) combined to hit 35. Speed? Not so much. Harrelson led the Mets with nine stolen bases, while the team stole 66 total bases (worst in the NL).

Slow and powerless is no way to secure a division title, a league championship or a World Series title.

In May, Matlack shut out the Reds through 9 2/3 innings, allowing six hits. The Reds would finally score two runs in the 11th inning to win 2-0. On July 6 at the Houston Astrodome, Matlack pitched to 33 batters, allowing five hits and no runs in nine innings. The Mets lost 1-0 in the ten innings.

On August 22, he pitched a complete game six-hit shutout. The Mets scratched out one run in the seventh inning when Torre reached first on an error. Pinch runner Pepe Mangual advanced to second on a balk. Moved to third on a sacrifice and finally scored on a double by catcher Jerry Grote.

“I always felt like I was doing it by the skin of my teeth,” he said. “It wasn’t like walking out there and sailing through. I had to work for it, every pitch, every out, all the way down the line.”

Matlack’s next start against the Dodgers in New York, he pitched a three-hit complete game, but didn’t win it until the Mets scored a run in the bottom of the ninth.

Whoever said pitching wins championships didn’t live to see the 1976 New York Mets.

In Spring Training 1969, Matlack’s first camp, he debuted against the Boston Red Sox. After three innings of Seaver and three more of Nolan Ryan, Matlack took the ball. After pitching one scoreless inning, he gave up three home runs in his second inning facing major league batters.

“I came off the field, and (Gil) Hodges was the manager,” remembered Matlack. “He just shook his head and said, ‘Welcome to the big leagues kid.’”

Matlack did not get another taste of major league experience until September 1971.

Then, in the off-season, Nolan Ryan was traded to the California Angels. Matlack hoped to fill the void.

On the final weekend of Spring Training 1972, Matlack sat in front of his locker at Miller Huggins Field in St. Petersburg, counting lockers. From a distance, Hodges watched the rookie as his head bobbed and mouth moved, counting lockers and players.

“That’s right kid, you made it,” Hodges said, walking by Matlack.

“I wanted to crawl under the carpet,” Matlack said. “I was scared to death of him.”

Days later Hodges suffered a fatal heart attack on a Florida golf course.

“I was lost,” he said. “Gil was the only manager I knew at the major league level.

“He was in tune, he anticipated every possible thing that could happen. He kept you in the game. He would look down the bench during a game and ask you what the count was …”

With Hodges gone, Matlack was left in good hands. He was surrounded by Seaver, Koosman, Gary Gentry and Jim McAndrew. In the locker room Matlack was sandwiched between Koosman and Seaver.

“It was a good location to be,” he said.

“Pitching is a science and an art and Tom (Seaver) was the master,” said Matlack. “I watched him pitch a one-hitter in San Diego. He didn’t throw anything but fastballs. It was the most awesome display of sheer power and location I’ve ever seen. He was a student of the game.”

Matlack made 32 starts and pitched 244 innings his rookie season, winning 15 games. He threw eight complete games and four shutouts to win the National League Rookie of the Year honors.

“I was locked in,” he said. “I was in my own little cocoon.”

He also collected one other dubious honor his rookie year, surrendering Roberto Clemente’s 3,000th career hit and the final his of his career.

“I threw a pitch off the plate and he reached out and hit it to center,” said Matlack. “The crowd was going crazy and I didn’t know why. So I looked back at the scoreboard and it read, ‘Congratulations on 3,000 hits!’”

In 1973, Matlack had the most frightening experience of his life.

With the Mets leading 3-1 in the seventh inning at Shea Stadium, the Atlanta Braves loaded the bases and Matlack worked the count to 2-2 against Marty Perez. He was one pitch away from getting out of trouble.

The next pitch: contact. First, off Perez’ bat. Second, the ball brushed off Matlack’s glove on his left hand. Third, the ball hit Matlack’s above the left eye. The Mets pitcher spun 180 degrees before collapsing on the mound.

“I heard the crack of the bat,” he remembers. “When the ball was a few feet away I saw it. When it hit me, it was like a flashbulb going off in my face.”

Lying on the mound, Matlack recalls watching the ball roll toward the Mets dugout.

Grote rushed to Matlack’s side.

“Don’t touch anything,” he said.

Mets trainer Tom McKenna yelled for a stretcher.

“They got me into an ambulance to go to Roosevelt Hospital and the driver didn’t know how to get on the Grand Central Parkway,” said Matlack. “He stopped twice to ask for directions. I felt like say, ‘come on guys, let me drive.’”

By then, Matlack was lying in a hospital bed. He never lost consciousness. X-rays showed a hairline skull fracture.

“I had a constant headache for the first 24 hours,” said Matlack.

But the biggest bruise was psychological.

“I worried whether I’d blink or flinch on a pitch,” said Matlack. “I think, more than anything, my fielding slipped. I overreacted on balls hit back to me. I protected myself and then I played the ball.”

A cold spring rain fell on Flushing in May 1977. The Mets-Padres game was postponed. It was perfect opportunity for Matlack to speak face-to-face with GM Joe McDonald.

The Mets had lost six of their last seven games and were mired in last place. Kingman and Seaver, the team’s leaders had already gone public, frustrated with management’s decision not to embrace free agency.

I’m no rebel,” Matlack told the New York Times, “and this has nothing to do with the guys I’m playing with. This has to do with the way the club is being run and promises that were made to me that it would be run better.”

Matlack confessed he was “fed up” with the “people not trying hard enough to win” and asked the team to trade him.

“I thought we had a great pitching staff and could have a good club … ” he said. “So I signed for three years. Well, the time is now – the promises haven’t been kept and I don’t appreciate being snowed.”

McDonald said “he didn’t want it to come to this.”

“It already has come to this,” Matlack replied.

He called the players union and asked if he could demand a trade.

McDonald said he would relay Matlack’s message to management and “see what could be done.” It took six months, but Matlack got his wish.

On December 8, 1977 the Mets, Texas Rangers, Pittsburgh Pirates and Atlanta Braves pulled off an 11-player deal.

The Mets sent Matlack to Texas and John Milner to the Pittsburgh. In return, the Mets obtained first baseman Willie Montanez, outfielder Tom Grieve and a player to be named later.

Spring Training 1978. Matlack sprinted across the grass in Pompano Beach, Florida, the home of the Texas Rangers. It was an odd sight. Mets fans felt a pit in their collective stomachs when they saw Matlack wearing a cap with a capital “T” in bold red on it. The same feeling they had when Seaver put on a Reds uniform.

“It’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Matlack. “When I came to the major leagues, we had the nucleus of a dynasty, with our pitching and defense, we went from the best baseball city in the country to an absolute joke.”

Seaver leads first class of Hall of Famers

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The Eyes Have It

His eyes froze the five year old version of me, instantly. That Christmas morning-type of frozen, when your haul from Santa is witnessed for the very first time in all its glory.

There, peering straight at me, and piercing straight through me, from just above the Mets dugout were the eyes of Bud Harrelson.

They weren’t dark or brown or deep space black, like the eye coloring of everyone else in my neighborhood from downtown Brooklyn. No, these were unrelentingly light. Were they blue? No, that’s too dark. Aqua? Maybe, except Coney Island never had water as transparent as Buddy’s eyes so, scratch that. Were they violet? I don’t know! But if they were, what was violet? With that, I was all out of colors from my Crayola memory bank.

My mental paralysis was suddenly released by the sound of my father’s voice.

“C’mon, John-John. Buddy is waiting to say hello to us. He’ll give us his autograph.”

My father wasn’t lying. Now standing in full view in front of the dugout and smiling, Bud Harrelson was waving at me to come down from Row 5 of the Field Box and meet him at Row 1, so we could interact over the top of the dugout.

But each time he smiled and waved and LOOKED at me with those EYES, my terror resumed, as if he had a squad of frothing pit bulls pacing behind him, impatiently awaiting their long-promised 5 year-old boy snack. I could not and would not move. Not today. Not here at Shea. My Dad eventually apologized for my statue imitation, Buddy waved goodbye and then disappeared forever.

As I got older I wondered why I had reacted the way I did that day. I finally realized it’s likely because it was the first time I’d ever viewed a baseball player as a human being. I’d watched them on WOR-TV and caught them taking batting practice back when you could actually watch the Mets take BP. But they were distant figures. Characters. Unreachable Gods.

How many times have you ever looked a baseball player directly in his eyes? If you meet one, chances are they’re signing something or talking to three people at once or distracted in general. They’re not stopping to have a heartfelt one-on-one with you, like Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino in “Heat”. Buddy didn’t talk to me that day but his eyes certainly spoke to me. I learned in that moment he was a living, breathing man and a really nice one at that, just like my Dad.

A few years later, the 10 year-old version of me learned the darker side of eye contact with another beloved Met: Joe Torre.

Let me be clear: Joe did nothing bad or wrong or Dave Kingman-ish to me.

I was being a punk. Period.

Torre was managing the Mets, so this is around ’77 or ‘78 and, as usual, because there were more ushers than fans in the stands, I was able to stroll down to the first row behind the dugout and watch the game from there.

I don’t recall the details of the game or what prompted me to do what I did but as Torre returned from the mound after removing God-knows-who from the game, I hatched a plan.

For the first and last time in my life, I decided to stand up and boo a New York Met. Consider that statement for a moment. As a Mets fan in the 1970s at Shea, booing could have been a full-time gig. Yet, I never booed Richie Hebner (who pulled the shoulder of his uniform more than he ever pulled anything into the right field corner). I never booed Frank Tavares, who could make spectacular plays look easy and make routine plays look like he was fielding a hand grenade loaded with ebola. I never booed Bruce Boisclair for being Bruce Boisclair.

Why?

Joe Torre. That’s why.

The Joe Torre returning from the mound that day obviously wasn’t the warm, cuddly, fuzzy, emotionally-engaged Hall Of Fame communicator we know and love today. No, this was the 37 year-old, hard-nosed, powerful, thick-bodied, hairy-chested, simian-armed Joe Torre.

So, as I’m in the middle of a full-throated, lusty boo of Mr. Torre, he picks up his head and fixes me with a stare that I’m pretty sure killed the entire row of people behind me with a thoroughness rivaled only by the nuclear bomb detonation scene in “The Day After”.  It was a withering, soul-reducing, shrinkage-inducing glare, radiating from eyes that were as black and un-Buddy Harrelson as eyes could ever be.

I froze — again — as our eyes stayed locked, Torre telling me silently, “I don’t need to look where I’m walking, punk. I only need to peer into your soul and take whatever little remains.”

I slowly sat down and stopped booing. Forever.

Over the years, as I’ve awakened with the cold sweats from reliving these images on an endless loop, I came to realize that like Bud Harrelson, Joe Torre was a human too.

I know baseball players have a dream job and they get insane amounts of money for said dream job but my feeling is the great ones always try hard and they sometimes miss, just like all of us do. And, I believe, the not-so-great ones are doing the best they can. So, after the blood returned to my face on that day in Flushing in 1970-something I decided booing was no longer an option for me as a fan.

My Mets are human, just like you and me. I could tell that just from looking in their eyes.

Link: NYC police officer donates kidney to Kranepool

Nolan Ryan had a short, albeit storied, tenure with the New York Mets. In an interview with Newsday, Ryan recalls the 1969 World Series championship year and the impact his teammate and fellow Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver had on him.

Link: Ryan remembers ’69, Seaver influence

Nolan Ryan had a short, albeit storied, tenure with the New York Mets. In an interview with Newsday, Ryan recalls the 1969 World Series championship year and the impact his teammate and fellow Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver had on him.

Growing Up Mets

I grew up in Rahway, New Jersey. Life in my hometown was about as average as you could find in 1962. Rahway basically reflected the national average for race, religion, income and ethnicity for a community in small town America. It was a working-class city. Mothers were homemakers and fathers usually worked in one of the local factories. No group dominated and all groups were accepted, or at least tolerated. This American melting pot was reflected by my neighborhood and even more so by the young fellows who I called my friends.