Then there was 1972, which was devastating and, actually, the beginning of the end. It began before the calendar even turned to 1972, when the Mets traded away Nolan Ryan for a washed-up, former All-Star shortstop, Jim Fregosi. Then, on April 2, 1972, Gil Hodges died after a playing a round of golf with his coaching staff. Three days later, the Mets would announce a trade bringing Rusty Staub to the Mets in exchange for three prospects – Tim Foli, Mike Jorgensen, and Ken Singleton. And in May, Willie Mays was brought back to New York.
The Fregosi trade or, rather, the Ryan trade, would turn out to be a disaster. The Staub trade would not pay the dividends expected, as Rusty would play only 66 games in his first season as a Met. Bringing back Mays was a nice sentimental move, but it came with a cost. And it wasn’t worth it. For the most part, though, the Mets would play the ’72 season with the same core that they had back in ’69.
The most damaging blow for the New York Mets would be the loss of Gil Hodges.
Hodges was the backbone of the team, the strength of the organization. The only one who could stand up to M. Donald Grant. And he had the respect of everyone around him. Yogi…was a character. He knew baseball. But he could never convey any knowledge the way Gil could…and he certainly could never command the respect.
On top of all of that, the Mets were struck with so many injuries that they had to suit up all three catchers in the starting lineup in a July game. It’s amazing that the team finished above .500 with another third place finish in the Eastern Division.
It was all an illusion. And, yet, management would stand pat and start the 1973 season with the same cast of characters with two big exceptions - Gary Gentry and Tommie Agee. Added to the mix was second baseman Felix Millan and southpaw George Stone. Each would play a huge role in the Mets ’73 season.
Once again, much like the ’72 season the year before, injuries would take down key members of the team including Cleon Jones, John Milner, Bud Harrelson, and Jerry Grote. There would be two huge scares on the field.
The first would be on May 8, 1973, when the Atlanta Braves Marty Perez hit a come-backer, a lined shot, off the forehead of Jon Matlack. Matlack went down immediately and had to be carried off the field and hospitalized for days with a hairline fracture of his skull. The second occurred on July 7, 1973 when George “The Stork” Theodore, playing left field, collided with centerfielder Don Hahn while both were chasing down a fly ball. They were both injured but it was Theodore who endured the worst of it, dislocating his hip, and he, too, had to be carried off the field and was hospitalized.
The Mets would be in last place on July 8, 12 games under .500, and still be in last place as late as the end of August. Yet, they somehow rallied past five teams to eke out the Eastern Division title with a record of 82-79.
The Eastern Division was truly weak in ’73…even though there were some stars who could still produce.
The Cardinals had a few Hall of Famers in Ted Simmons, Lou Brock, and an aging Bob Gibson, but they were only able to break even at 81-81 for second place. The Pirates had the Pittsburgh Lumber Company with Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Richie Zisk, and Al Oliver. A truly fearsome lineup…but they lacked any kind of reliable pitching. The Montreal Expos, led by Ken Singleton, Mike Jorgensen, and Tim Foli, made a strong bid for the Eastern Division title, but fell short by three games and finished fourth. Three Hall of Famers – Billy Williams, Ron Santo, and Fergie Jenkins, couldn’t elevate the Cubs higher than fifth in the division. The Phillies had a brutal season as Steve Carlton followed up his 27-win season by losing 20 games with a 3.90 ERA in ’73. Mike Schmidt was just getting started, hitting .196 with 18 homers in his rookie season. It added up to a last place finish.
There are a lot of things to remember about 1973. The devastating injuries on the field. The Ball on the Wall play. The brawl between Peter Rose and Bud Harrelson, between the Reds and the Mets, Pedro Borbon taking a bite out of Buzz Capra’s cap. The World Series against the A’s dynasty, falling just short of a second title. But, most of all, nobody could ever forget Tug McGraw and “Ya Gotta Beelieve!”
It all makes for a wonderful story. If it didn’t end the way it did. And if it didn’t signal the end of what should have been a climb up in the baseball world instead of a fall down the elevator shaft. Anyone who witnessed the demise of the Mets beginning in the mid ‘70’s knows the pain. But, yet, 50 years later, ya still gotta beelieve.