Happy Anniversary, Mets. We Think . . .

Well, it could have been worse. As a matter of fact, for much of the New York Mets’ storied history—if you like your stories to have been written largely by James Thurber, with illustrations mostly by Rube Goldberg, that is—it has been worse. But there’s something to be said when the Mets commemorate their regular-season fiftieth anniversary by permitting Stephen Strasburg and company to shut them out. It shouldn’t happen to an Original Met. As a matter of fact, it didn’t.

Far more pleasurable than thinking that today’s Mets went from 4-0 to 4-2 in almost a blink, far more pleasurable than thinking about managers elsewhere who find things to admire about Stalinist tyrants surviving assassination attempts, the Original Mets did against St. Louis Cardinals starter Larry Jackson what today’s Mets couldn’t against a kid whose changeup was one mile an hour slower than Johan Santana’s best fastball.

The Original Mets, of course, had to be seen to be believed. Come to think of it, their own manager saw it and as often as not still couldn’t believe it. “Come an’ see my amazin’ Mets,” Casey Stengel liked to hector the new club’s fans and observers. “I been in this game a hundred years but I see new ways to lose I never knew existed before.” For Game One, 11 April 1962, in the ballpark formerly known as Sportsman’s Park, St. Louis, it went like this:

The cover for the Mets' first yearbook. Legendary cartoonist Willard Mullin captured it beautifully. Little did he know how much the infant still had to learn . . .

First inning: Jackson dispatched the Mets in order, with Richie Ashburn and Charley Neal sandwiching Felix Mantilla’s ground out to third with a pair of fly outs. What the hey, at least they were getting the bat on the ball. Roger Craig—future pitching guru and World Series-winning manager, then the Mets’ inaugural starter after a few years’ toil for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers—looked like he’d match Jackson when he got leadoff man Curt Flood to fly to center field. Then, alas, it was single, single, RBI single (from Stan Musial, no less), a balk moving runners to second and third, an RBI ground out (from Ken Boyer), and a foul out behind the plate. The Mets had played only one official inning and they were already in a 2-0 hole.

Second inning: Frank Thomas opened by grounding out to shortstop but Gus Bell lined a single up the pipe. Gil Hodges popped out behind third base but Don Zimmer singled Bell to second. Hobie Landrith—the first man taken by either the Mets or the Houston Colt .45s to open the expansion draft that created the two clubs in the first place (You hafta have a catcher, or else you’ll have a lot of passed balls.—Stengel)—popped out behind second base, and pop went the Mets’ first official threat. Come the bottom of the inning, it was Craig’s turn to dispatch the Cardinals in order, courtesy of a punchout (Gene Oliver), a grounder to third (Julio Gotay), and a fly to left (Jackson).

Third inning: This time, it was the Mets’ turn for a little rough stuff, after Jackson opened by punching out his counterpart, Craig. A single (Ashburn, a liner to left), a walk (to Mantilla), a single (Neal, to right, scoring Ashburn and sending Mantilla to third), and a sacrifice fly (Thomas, scoring Mantilla) tied it at two before Jackson retired Bell on a fly to right. The Mets’ first official tie score lasted just long enough for Flood to open the Cardinals’ half with a base hit and a theft of second, Julian Javier to single Flood to third, Bill White to single home Flood, and Musial to double home Javier. The Mets might become renowned soon enough for errors the like of which hadn’t even been invented yet, but this time they nailed White—trying to score behind Javier—at the plate, Bell hitting Neal with a peg and Neal in turn firing to Landrith behind the plate for a neat out. Boyer grounded out and Minnie Minoso (yes, children, that Minnie Minoso) singled Musial home before getting thrown out trying to advance to second on the play, getting himself caught in a rundown after Bell fired in to Hodges, who threw on to Neal, who threw on to Zimmer in from third backing the rundown for the side. And, alas, a 5-2 St. Louis lead.

Fourth inning: Hodges did his best to make sure the Cardinals didn’t feel fat on that lead, opening with a leadoff flog over the left field fence. After a groundout (Zimmer) and a fly to left (Landrith), Stengel sent Ed Bouchee (erstwhile Philadelphia Phillie phenom; he was runner-up to teammate Jack Sanford as the National League’s 1957 Rookie of the Year) to bat for Craig and Bouchee wrung Jackson for a walk before Ashburn grounded out to Musial unassisted to end the half. Reliever Bob Moorehead dispatched the Cardinals in order, almost so quietly you might have feared you missed something if you’d blinked or gone to the hot dog stand.

Ralph Kiner, Bob Murphy, Lindsey Nelson---they'd call the Mets' games on radio and television for almost two decades . . .

Fifth inning: The Mets chipped a little more off the Cardinal lead with one out when Neal lined one over the fence to make it 5-4. The bad news is that that would be the last Met score of the afternoon. They looked like they might have punctured the Cardinals further when Frank Thomas followed Neal’s flog by reaching when Boyer mishandled his grounder at third, but Jackson rid himself of Bell (fly) and Hodges (punchout) handily enough. Boyer atoned for his miscue when he batted in the bottom of the inning and sent a two-out double to the back of right field, but Moorehead settled quickly and struck Minoso out for the side.

"I been in this game a hundred years but I see new ways to lose I never knew existed before . . ."

Sixth inning: Jackson set the Mets down in order on a pair of ground outs (Zimmer, Landrith) and a pop behind shortstop (Moorehead) in the top. In the bottom, alas, the Cardinals put the game far enough out of reach that the Mets would have needed detectives to find it again. With Stengel apparently uncertain of his bullpen otherwise, for now, Moorehead stood in as the pitcher of record for the Original Mets’ first error-abetted deficit and, therefore, the first Met pitcher to be able to say he couldn’t believe what he was seeing, and he was there to see it.

For a Mets pitcher in 1962, only two things were certain. Either he was going to be hit for some of the longest home runs in baseball history, or he was going to have to stand there helplessly and watch his teammates make those amazing plays.

—Jimmy Breslin, from Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?

The first Cardinal out of the inning was a sacrifice fly (by Flood, scoring Gotay). Until then, it had been leadoff double (Oliver), a boot at second base allowing a batter (Gotay) to reach, and an RBI single (by Jackson, of all people) leaving men on second and third. Then Javier singled home Jackson and, with White hitting, stole second and moved on to third, when Landrith’s throw went somewhere other than to the base Javier was trying to steal in the first place, and came home when White lofted another sacrifice fly, before Musial singled but got himself bagged trying to turn it into a double. Unfortunately, the Mets were in the hole, 10-4, and three of the inning’s four Cardinal runs were unearned.

Seventh through the ninth innings: The Mets from there didn’t exactly go down without a fight. But they blew a seventh-inning threat (first and third, one out) when Thomas grounded into an inning-ending double play; and, they wasted a one-out walk (to pinch-hitter Jim Marshall) in the top of the ninth with a fly and a ground out. In the interim, Herb Moford spelling Moorehead survived Oliver’s two-out double in the bottom of the seventh, but Clem Labine—once a beloved Dodger reliever and spot starter—was done in in the eighth with a one-out error (by Mantilla at short) allowing Flood aboard to steal second almost at once, before Javier pushed him to third with a single, enabling him to come home with an unearned run while White was busy forcing Javier at second. That proved the final. 11-4.

He wouldn't know what to call it, but future Hall of Famer Ashburn knew he'd never seen it before . . .

The Original Mets had three of the top five plays in the game and still lost. They pried four runs out of Larry Jackson, who’d prove to be one of their greatest nemeses for the rest of his career (Jackson would retire with a 21-2 won-lost record and a 2.24 ERA lifetime against the Mets), and couldn’t beat him. Future pitching guru Craig had lost the first of the 24 he’d lose in 1962, and even that would prove nothing compared to the eighteen-game losing streak he’d suffer in 1963, before being traded to the Cardinals and being a key extra man (starting and relieving alike) for their 1964 World Series-winning club. The Mets even out-homered the Cardinals in that inaugural game (two to none) and still couldn’t hold on and find a way to win.

By the end of 1962, the Original Mets would show a 40-120 record and recollections of a team who played the game as though Bud Abbott was pitching, Lou Costello was catching, the Four Marx Brothers manned the infield (though it’s even money where Zeppo would have played), the Three Stooges patrolled the outfield (I don’t know what to call it, but I know I’ve never seen it before.—Richie Ashburn, who was probably Moe to assorted Larrys and Curlys), the Harlem Globetrotters held down the bench (which may not be fair . . . to the Globetrotters, that is), the Keystone Kops held down the bullpen, and poor Casey Stengel’s coaching staff might as well have been Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Stoopnagle and Budd.

Amazin’ly enough, New York fell in love with the team, anyway. Easy enough to understand. The National League hadn’t been in business in New York since the end of 1957, and come to think of it the Original Mets did seem to have a large enough contingent of former Dodgers and Giants, not to mention playing in the Giants’ old tub, the Polo Grounds, while awaiting the completion of Shea Stadium. The Mets seemed only too human compared to the stiffs who were winning pennants and World Series (so it seemed) annually across the Harlem River. The Yankees seemed too forbidding in their success; the Mets seemed only too accessible, too much like one of us, in their failures. Jimmy Breslin would sum it up neatly enough:

The Mets lose an awful lot?

Listen, mister. Think a little bit.

When was the last time you won anything out of life?

The guy who bellied up to the bar lamenting one after another bad break; the family whose earnestness got them little much more than a cheap apartment and a couple of extra cups of coffee before bedtime; the kid who put his all into his homework while the dimwitted jock traipsed off with the best girls; the girl whose brains got her nowhere near the doorbell when it might ring for the cheerleaders convincing all the hot guys that nothing much mattered behind their skins andb ones. These were the people who could and did claim the Original Mets as their own. The worse the Original Mets did, the more loveable they seemed.

Why, the Original Mets would even go on to set a few records. Many of them have probably been broken since, and I’m not inclined for now to tell you which ones and who holds them now, but this is perverse fun to think of even half a century later: Most games lost in one season—120. (A few have since tried to break it but none have come close.) Most home runs allowed in one season—192. Most wild pitches by staff in one season in the National League—71. Highest attendance for a last place club—922,530. (One record the Mets themselves would break a few times over in the years to come, of course.)

Some individual Original Mets got into the record books, too, not necessarily on the plus side. Gil Hodges hit his 355th lifetime home run in Met silks, a record for righthanded National League hitters at the time. Pitcher Galen Cisco set a record for striking out the most pinch hitters in a game, four. Another Met pitcher, Craig Anderson, lost sixteen straight, and righthander Bob Miller (not to be confused with lefthander Bob Miller—who was also, briefly, a 1962 Met) might have ended the season with no wins and thirteen losses, except that he had to spoil everyone’s fun by beating the Cubs. And, with Craig and Al Jackson (a gutsy lefthander with top flight stuff and smarts but a hapless team for which to pitch) losing 20+ each, the Mets became the first National League team with a pair of 20-game losers since . . . the 1936 Phillies.

Between then and now, the Mets would manage to win four pennants and a pair of World Series (including the 1969 miracle—managed by Hodges), while managing to lose a lot of their sense of humour. When they’ve lost since the Stengel years, it’s been about as funny as the proverbial pickpocket in the nudist colony. There wasn’t much about which to laugh when this year’s Mets went from four straight wins, including a season-opening sweep of the Atlanta Braves, to back-to-back losses at the hands of the Washington Nationals. Who just so happen to be managed by the man who once managed what was, arguably, the best team of Mets ever to wear the uniform and drive people nuts (at home and on the road) at once.

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