Letter from America: The ’69 Mets and lessons for today

Baseball and other sports are not only about wins and losses and statistics.

Citi Field baseball stadium in New York, home field of the New York Mets (photo credit: LUCAS JACKSON / REUTERS)
Citi Field baseball stadium in New York, home field of the New York Mets
(photo credit: LUCAS JACKSON / REUTERS)
The articles we read in The Jerusalem Post and other news sources can be daunting, leaving us with a feeling of hopelessness and a debilitating sense that the conditions of the world are only getting worse.
From the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, which seems intractable, to climate change, to endless strife in the Middle East, to an assault on the institutions of, and belief in, democracy, to the worldwide rise of antisemitism, xenophobia and racism, to name but a few, the odds appear against us.
Fifty years ago the New York Mets began the baseball season with 100 to 1 odds against the scenario they would win the World Series. Before the 1969 season they had won a total of 394 games and lost a staggering 737 games since they first started playing in 1962. A sense of gloom pervaded the team. But in 1969 they would win 100 games, and this year’s World Series marks the 50th anniversary of the final out in game five against the favorite and imposing Baltimore Orioles led by Frank Robinson and Boog Powell.
Baseball and other sports are not only about wins and losses and statistics. On a deeper level, sports are a metaphor for life and a holder of lessons for life. The ’69 Mets are no different for us today.
THE 1969 SEASON did not begin with a stellar start for the Mets. By the end of May they were continuing to lose more than win, with a record of 18-23.
I attended my first major league baseball game on June 19, when the Mets beat the Phillies in Philadelphia at the old Connie Mack Stadium, 6-5. Member of the tribe Art Shamsky went four for four, including two home runs, and pitcher Tom Seaver stole second base!
Three weeks later Seaver would pitch two outs short of a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs, as the Mets moved within 3 games of the division-leading Cubs.
Change seemed at hand, but change is rarely perfectly linear. By mid-August the Mets had fallen 10 games behind the Cubs. But then the Mets took all the accumulated and invaluable lessons from the losses of those previous seasons and applied them to win an incredible 38 of their last 49 games, and win the Eastern Division of the National League.
That is the thing about baseball. A good batting average is .300, which means that 70% of the time a good player fails when he is at bat. Players will tell you they take all the lessons from their previous at bats every time they are in the batter’s box, with most of those lessons coming from failed experiences.
In addition, baseball is the only sport where the team on offense, the team at bat, does not have the ball. Rather, the team on defense pitches to you. That dynamic makes the encounter more difficult, but batters know those are the conditions they operate within.
The Mets would go on to sweep baseball legend Hank Aaron and the Atlanta Braves in the National League playoff series and then face the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. They would win the Series by tenacity, hustle, a strong work ethic, smart baseball, and that factor out of our hands, serendipity.
On the second pitch of the first game of the World Series, Don Buford hit a home run off Seaver, and the Orioles would go on to win the game. After that game many felt that an Orioles sweep of the Mets was a very good possibility. The tenacious Mets had other ideas, and went on to win the next four games in a row to become the champions.
In game two, their oldest member, Ed Charles, 38, came through, batting, and helped end the game with a difficult and brilliant throw to Donn Clendenon at first base.
Game three was all about two magnificent running catches by center fielder Tommie Agee. The first, with two runners on base, was caught in the webbing of his glove, the white of the baseball protruding from the glove, while the second diving catch was made with the bases loaded.
Game four the Mets won because the correct call was not made. J.C. Martin bunted in the bottom of the 10th inning and ran to first base on the wrong side of the first base line. Because of that, Oriole pitcher Pete Richert’s throw hit Martin’s wrist and the ball rolled to the ground, allowing Rod Gasper to score the winning run. Martin should have been called out, but he was not.
The final game was won by the Mets because of smart, creative and detailed thinking by Mets manager Gil Hodges. In the bottom of the sixth inning, with the Mets trailing 3-0, Dave McNally’s pitch to Cleon Jones went low and ended up in the Mets dugout. Umpire Lou DiMuro ruled the ball had not hit Jones. Hodges then emerged with the baseball showing a smudge of shoe polish on it. Jones was then awarded first base, and the next batter, Donn Clendenon, would hit a two-run homer, and the Mets would go on to win the game, 5-3.
THE CHALLENGES we face can feel disheartening. We may feel like the Mets before the ’69 season began, when the past suggested 100 to 1 odds against a different and better outcome. But change did happen. Fifty years later, that uplifting lesson should not be lost on us.
We are also reminded of that lesson in the Bible, where Moses’s last speech to the people is a poem. We see in the life of Moses – who 40 years earlier said to God, “I have never been a man of words... I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10) – someone who develops from a poor orator to a master of prose and poetry.
That which appears to be insurmountable may be difficult to overcome, but as Babe Ruth said, “Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.” The batter’s box awaits.
The writer, rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont, teaches at Bennington College and the Kibbutz Ketura campus of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.