The Most Disappointing Season For … The New York Mets
The 1970 New York Mets
Record: 83-79 (3rd NL East, 6th out of 12 in NL)
Pythagorean Record: 88-74
Runs Scored: 695 (9th in the NL)
Runs Allowed: 630 (1st in the NL)
Prior Season Record: 100-62
Manager: Gil Hodges
Scott Fendley, the Spitter’s Crank Historian said, “Balderdash to the best! Baseball is about disappointment for 29 teams and victory for one. Let’s celebrate disappointment!”
Fendley selected The Most Disappointing seasons for each franchise (and did a separate one for the Expos, because they should still exist) in the Expansion era (1961-present). Next up in the series: the Mets.
Hype: A young Mets team won the World Series in 1969. There was no stopping this team in dominating the NL for years to come.
The Gory Details: They say good pitching can beat good hitting, and that pitching is 75% (80%, 90% or some other number) of baseball, or other tales from the old wife.
If that’s so true, then what do you make of the 1970 Mets? They allowed the fewest runs in the NL in 1970. They led the NL in ERA, fewest hits allowed and strikeouts.
The offense, as they say, is the rest of the story.
After their improbable World Series win in 1969, the Mets made few changes. They didn’t need to. Most every regular was young. The biggest change was acquiring vet Ray Sadecki, releasing vet Ed Charles and trading two young players (one being Amos Otis, whoopsy) to the Royals for third baseman Joe Foy.
Of course, everyone was going to gun for the young, brash winners. No other club had Tom Seaver. No other club had the assortment of arms behind Seaver either (Gary Gentry, Jerry Koosman and bullpen stalwarts Ron Taylor and Tug McGraw). They also had potential stars in Tommy Agee and Cleon Jones, and good players all around the diamond like Donn Clendenon, Ken Boswell and Art Shamsky.
The Mets, though, seemed to be stuck in first gear during April and May. Jones had a horrible May and was hitting just .219 through May after hitting well over .340 the year before. Agee was also down, hitting just .232. The pitching was holding its own, but they were 25-23 at the end of May. However, they were just two games behind the Cubs in the NL East.
All they needed was a hot streak and they got one in June. After a five game losing streak they surged, winning 15 of the next 20 and ending June in first up two games on the surging Pirates, with the Cards and Cubs lurking about.
This was the way the team was supposed to play, everyone in the baseball world thought. The Reds were tearing up the NL, but come playoff time, the Mets were battle tested. They’d certainly beat those upstarts if they got to the playoffs.
July saw the lead swap between the Pirates and the Mets. The Cubs were back a bit and the Cards dropped off. When August 1 rolled around, the Mets were 55-46, a half game ahead of Pittsburgh and two ahead of the Cubs. Seemingly having their offense back in gear, they were in a good position. Last year, they had a great finishing kick, and the New York press were expecting a repeat performance.
Not this year.
It started when they were swept in a doubleheader by the Padres scoring just two runs against the likes of Danny Coombs, Tom Dukes, Ron Willis and Dave Roberts. They split two games with the Cubs, then went on a 13-game road trip including stops in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. They survived the trip at 6-7 and emerged just three games back going into August 18th. But every game counted – that doubleheader loss to the freakin’ Padres…ick. That would haunt them.
The nine game homestand to follow would be the Mets time, fans and media thought. The Reds were in for four, but the other teams shouldn’t be a problem. They split with the Reds, which was good, but split with Houston and lost two of three to the Braves. Then they lost three in a row at Houston before winning on August 31st at St. Louis. Not good, not good at all.
The NL East was tight. The Mets were 1 ½ games behind, but in third behind the Pirates and Cubs.
They survived trips to St. Louis and Chicago without hurting themselves, then swept the Expos and won two of three from the Phillies. At 76-67, they were tied for first. This was IT, now. All they needed was to maintain the hot streak.
The Cards took two of three to finish the homestand. Then they went to Montreal and lost two of three to the Expos. The freakin’ Expos, as Sal from Queens would have said.
Back home, they started a four game set against the Pirates sitting two behind at 78-71. They needed to score some runs.
Steve Blass beat Jim McAndrew 3-2. Luke Walker beat Gentry 2-1, falling to third. They won game one of a Sunday doubleheader behind Koosman. Seaver was starting the nightcap against someone named Fred Cambria. Cambria had started just four games in the bigs, and was 1-2 with a 3.81 ERA. No contest.
They did score three runs off of Cambria and chased him in the sixth. Unfortunately, the Mets scored three in the sixth (and five total) off of Seaver and he was done in the sixth as well. The Mets tied it in the 7th when they plated two against John Lamb with help from Joe Gibbon and Dave Giusti. It was relief ace against relief ace, tied at five entering the 10th.
McGraw faced off against Willie Stargell, and Stargell clobbered one against McGraw, putting the Pirates up. After a single and a sacrifice, McGraw exited after 3 1/3 innings. He basically tried to save their season and almost did. Stargell could whack one against anyone.
But the Mets had no one left in the pen they trusted. Ron Taylor and Ron Herbel were out with tired, sore arms. Danny Frisella was a rook and didn’t look that great against the Pirates earlier in the series. Don Cardwell and Rich Folkers were questions rather than answers. Nolan Ryan was going to start the next game in Philly.
The season came down to…Dean Chance. The one time all-star was purchased on the 18th of September from Cleveland because of the issues with Taylor and Herbel. His all-star days were behind him, but he was a vet. Except that his arm was gone, too and he had no fastball, and didn’t adjust very well to the fact that he couldn’t just blow it past people anymore – which is why he was available. Other than that…
His first appearance as a Met started with an intentional walk. He faced Gene Alley, not anyone’s pick to click (Hawkeroo). Fastball. BAM! Triple. Two runs scored. Then, to add insult to injury, Giusti pulled off a squeeze bunt scoring Alley.
That was it. The whole season, gone, with one swing of the bat by a meek hitting shortstop. Instead of down one against a tiring reliever, they were down 9-5, and fell by that score. They half-heartedly played out the string, the zest out of their game, and finished third, six games behind at 83-79.
The big problem was that they could not score runs, especially in late and close situations. They also were horrible hitters when they were ahead, with an 89 OPS+ in those situations.
Some members of the team, like Clendennon, Agee, Shamsky and Wayne Garrett, played well. Jones had a decent season, but was a big disappointment as his average dropped almost 70 points from the year before. The rest of the team was a sinkhole, with the big blame resting on Foy, who had a low BA and only six home runs. It was kind of unfair, since he had the highest OBP of the regulars, but no one cared. You gotta blame someone, and blame the third baseman was a familiar tactic in Mets-land.
Seaver pitched his ass off, as was normal, and had an ERA+ of 143 and 19 complete games. In fact, almost the entire staff except for Folkers, Caldwell and Chance had ERA+ over 100.
The Mets never did get back to their heady plateau of 1969 with this bunch. They eked out a World Series appearance in 1973, and looked decent in 1976, but it wasn’t until 1984 when the Mets were the talk of New York again.
Chicken Wolf All-Stars: Tom Seaver (6.4 WAR) was probably the fourth or fifth best pitcher in the league, and had the 10th highest WAR in the league as a whole in another dominating year. Agee had a 5.4 WAR as well.
Honorable Mention Team: The 1991 Mets followed up a year when they went 91-71, made a big free agent signing in Vince Coleman, and flatlined to 77-84. Of course, aging was a factor as well.
Bad Blast from the Past: This is another expansion franchise, so let’s take a trip to 1890 and the New York entry in the Players League. On paper, that was a great team with Buck Ewing, Roger Connor, George Gore, and Orator Jim O’Rourke and a staff with Tim Keefe and Cannonball Crane. Sadly, this team was beset by internal squabbles and accusations that Buck Ewing was a double agent for the NL magnates (more details in books about the Players League; there are several good reads about that year) and they finished third, never really threatening the winning Boston Reds.
According to Roger Angell in “the Baltimore Vermeers” (his 1970 essay in The New Yorker, collected in “The Summer Game”), Seaver was booed off the mound. “A sound I never expected to hear directed at him.” Where in 1969 Seaver had responded to the Mets’ shift to a 4-man rotation by going from 15-7 to 25-7 down the stretch, here he was plummeting from 17-6 to an eventual 18-12, beginning with a late-inning disaster in Atlanta. Angell thought he was overthrowing, pressing too hard.
It wasn’t all Tom’s fault (the loss at Houston was down to two critical errors by Joe Foy, who was apparently high on marijuana), but it was symptomatic of a team that couldn’t beat very beatable opposition. The Cubs stayed in the hunt despite a 10-game losing streak, only to choke the season away against the Phillies in the Expos in the last week, as Ron Santo proved why he didn’t deserve to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
And Gene Alley’s “triple” was hardly that; Tommie Agee and Rod Gaspar collided going for the ball, “near the site of Agee’s second catch” in the World Series the year before. Which, to be fair, means the ball did reach the warning track, and was thus a pretty good shot by Alley’s standards, but apparently it should have been caught. (Not that it mattered; Willie Stargell’s tie-breaking HR would have been enough to win, anyhow.)
Ironically, Gaspar had come into the game in the 10th for defense, replacing Art Shamsky after Art popped out to end the 9th. I guess Gil Hodges figured that his bullpen was so shot he had to win the game in the next couple of innings, anyway, so he put Gaspar in for defense and hoped his batters could finish it off before Shamsky’s clean-up spot came back around. He was correct, but not in the way he would have hoped.