Apr 26

Summer of ’73 Series: Matlack Takes One On The Head

My series on the “Summer of ’73: The Lost Year,” continues today with a book excerpt from talented author Matthew Silverman, whose work should be familiar to all Mets fans.

Silverman joins us today with a piece on Jon Matlack from his newest book, “Swinging ’73: Baseball’s Wildest Season. You can purchase his works at www.amazon.com

“When the 1973 season is referenced by Mets fans, it is usually only the miraculous finish that comes to mind, how the team that began the last day of August in last place wound up clinching a division title on the first day of October. But how did the Mets, three years removed from the 1969 world championship, get themselves into the kind of jam that required a miracle to rescue them? There was a lot of bad luck, a lack of foresight, and too much forehead in the case of a second-year southpaw named Jon Matlack.” - Matt Silverman

 

After dropping the May 7 series opener to the Mets, 7–2, the Braves stood at 9?17, last in their division and second only to the 5?19 Cardinals for the worst start in baseball. The next night looked to be a rerun, with the Mets holding a 3–1 lead in the seventh with Jon Matlack, one of the game’s top young lefties, on the mound. Atlanta’s lineup had firepower, but Marty Perez wasn’t one of the big guns. In 310 career games to that point, he was a .230 hitter with a slugging percentage of just .294. Batting in front of the legendary Aaron in manager Eddie Mathews’s lineup, no one was going to pitch around Perez, especially with the bases full, two outs, and Matlack holding that two-run lead with a light rain falling. Perez worked the count to two balls, two strikes, and Matlack threw a curve that he thought the batter went around on. The umpires said no. Here comes the payoff pitch . . .

51m8pXGhKWL“I’m trying to nail down this game,” Matlack recalls. “I overthrew the next pitch. It was a fastball, and I landed really hard when I threw it. I lost sight of the ball to the plate. I could see him swing and hear the bat crack, but I don’t pick up the baseball until it’s right on top of me. I barely got the fingers of my left hand in front of my face. It hit my fingers [on the mitt], hit my cap, and it hit me just over the left eye. They tell me—I don’t know because I couldn’t see it—but it went from my forehead into the dugout. It cost me two runs and ultimately cost me the ballgame.”

The sudden tie fell to secondary importance during this frightening moment at Shea Stadium. Right fielder Rusty Staub, shaking his head at the memory of it years later, summed up his teammates’ reaction: “We were just all thrilled that he wasn’t dead.” Dee Matlack wasn’t even sure of that as the trainer came out and pulled a tarp over her prone husband’s body as the rain fell.

“They’re messing with me, and it’s raining,” he thought as catcher Jerry Grote and his teammates gathered around him. “My wife thinks I’m dead because they cover me up with a tarp.” Still conscious and bleeding from his head, the dazed pitcher thought he’d been struck in the mouth until things came into sharp, painful focus. “I can see my forehead at this point. I can see it literally swollen up to where I can see it. I had a whale of a headache and felt very weak.”

First baseman Ed Kranepool stood over Matlack as he was attended to at Shea. “You think about Herb Score,” he said, recalling the sensational Indians southpaw hit in the face with a line drive against the Yankees in 1957. “It changed his whole career. Matlack was very fortunate.”

Like Score at the time of the injury, Matlack was a 23-year-old southpaw and recent Rookie of the Year winner with seemingly unlimited potential. Matlack had been the lone ray of sunshine to emerge in the wake of the Nolan Ryan trade. As a rookie taking Ryan’s place in the rotation in 1972, he won 15 games, threw 4 shutouts, and compiled an ERA (2.32) more than half a run per game better than ace Tom Seaver’s. Matlack also had better luck than Score, who came back a year after being hit but left baseball by age 28.

“That’s the first I hear his name,” says Matlack of Score. “I was reading the paper the next day in the hospital—there’s my picture and this guy I don’t recognize. It tells me about how Herb Score got hit and never came back and all this kind of stuff. I can’t say I wasn’t apprehensive about the whole thing, but I was of the belief that the only reason I got hit was because I was unable to track the ball. Had I been able to see the ball, one of two things would have happened—I would have defended myself, caught it or otherwise would have been able to get out of the way. Through lack of seeing it was what caused me to get hit. That’s what kept me moving forward, thinking that when I got back everything would be fine because I was going to see the ball. I wasn’t going to overthrow fastballs, so I was going to be OK.”

Matlack was going to be OK, but he sustained a fractured skull—and that was how it went for most of 1973 for the Mets: peculiar bounces, painful injuries, bad luck. With Matlack on his way to the hospital, the Braves scored five more runs in the inning, saddling the southpaw with a 10–6 loss as well as a throbbing, swollen head. The Mets found all kinds of ways to lose both games and players for most of 1973.

Though the Mets won four straight immediately after Matlack went down, the team stumbled to a 34?51 mark over the next three months that saw the manager nearly lose his job while players continued to go down with bizarre injuries. Eight different Mets hit the disabled list in 1973—the most in franchise history to that point—and that figure didn’t even include Matlack, who didn’t go on the DL after getting hit. He missed just two starts, fractured skull and all.

Matthew Silverman is author of 10 books on baseball. He blogs regularly at metsilverman.com and tweets @metsilverman.

Sep 24

Wright Hoping For Strong Finish To Salvage Season

David Wright was in full salvage mode yesterday, both from a team and individual perspective, After a blazing first half in which he carried the Mets, he’s fallen off dramatically and with his fall so has his team.

There have been numerous times during the Mets’ dreadful second half when they could have turned things around, but failed.

WRIGHT: A frustrating second half. (AP)

Now mathematically eliminated and after being ripped publicly by their manager, the Mets now have one more opportunity to wash out the foul taste in their mouths created by going from eight games over .500 to 14 games below.

I’ve mentioned several times how the Mets have a chance to become next year’s Orioles, who won 11 of their last 16 games last season and rode that momentum into 2012.

Wright noticed, too.

“It’d be nice to finish on a strong note,’’ Wright said. “You look at, for example, what the Orioles did, they finished strong last year and it kind of carried over into this year. It’d be nice to do that. And I think there’s a lot of individuals that want to finish strong and we as a team and an organization would like to finish strong.’’

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Sep 20

Mets Matters: R.A. Dickey Switched In Rotation

Trying to get the most out of R.A. Dickey, both on the field and at the gate, the Mets moved him from Sunday’s start to Saturday. The switch allows him to start the home finale next Thursday instead of in Atlanta the next night.

It might not be much with the way the Mets are drawing, but he could be going for his 20th win in the finale which would be a good send off.

Chris Young flips with Dickey and will start Sunday against the Marlins.

Dickey, 18-6 with a 2.67 ERA, will get three chances to win 20 games. About his Cy Young chances? The Nationals’ Gio Gonzalez might be ranked ahead of him, but working in his favor is being 12 games over .500 for a team approaching 20 under overall.

As somebody who has voted for the major awards, pitchers on losing teams get more consideration for the Cy Young than MVP candidates on losers.

The Mets said several times they anticipate signing Dickey to a contract extension.

More Mets Matters:

* Jordany Valdespin was tossed last night for arguing a strike three call. Although Valdespin has been electric as a home-run bat off the bench, he does have somewhat of a short fuse and has loafed several times. That’s something young players can’t afford to do.

I’m figuring Valdespin will come to spring training, but can’t see him winning a starting job.

* Jeremy Hefner (2-6, 4.99) hopes to avert the sweep by the Phillies tonight, going against rookie Tyler Cloyd (1-1, 4.95). Hefner will compete for a job in spring training, but will likely open the season at Triple-A Las Vegas.

* Tonight’s game will be broadcast on 1130 AM as WFAN will carry the Giants’ game in Carolina. With the Giants on local TV and the Yankees in a pennant race, I’m curious as to tonight’s crowd at Citi Field.

* Some awful numbers: The Mets are 4-25 at home and have scored three or fewer runs in 15 straight games. In contrast, the 1962 Mets, losers of 120 games, won 10 games after the break in a similar point in the season. Yes, they are amazing.

* Frank Francisco has elbow tendinitis. Francisco does nothing for me and if the last few games in a lost season are for learning, I’d like to see somebody else get the chance to close a few games. What would it hurt?

* David Wright is five hits away from tying Ed Kranepool for the franchise lead in hits with 1,418. Although I still believe Wright will be re-signed, I’d hate for him to fall short and then go elsewhere. It would be a shame.

 

Jun 18

Mets All-Time Team

Basically, the announcement of the All-Mets Team was a SNY/MetsBlog production, another way of saying it could have been done better. There wasn’t the build-up or suspense I would have liked to have seen. It would have been great to invite and introduce the team before a game, perhaps as part of a special ceremony.

When?

Perhaps there could have been a 50th anniversary weekend. Honor the great moments and players. It could have been done. The Mets surely did it on the return after 9-11 and the closing of Shea Stadium. During those events they proved they know how to throw a party.

All of a sudden, there was this announcement. To do it on a Sunday afternoon seemed like an afterthought. Could have been done with more flair.

Anyway, here’s the team:

CATCHER: Mike Piazza.

Comments: A no-brainer. Piazza might also be the author of the greatest regular-season moment in franchise history with his post 9-11 homer against the Braves. Gary Carter undoubtedly received consideration, but Piazza was an offensive force. Carter was a key piece in putting together the team of the 1980s, but Piazza carried the Mets while he was here and was still a player in his prime during his tenure here.

FIRST BASE: Keith Hernandez.

Comments: A slam dunk, no doubt. He’s arguably one of the great Mets of all time. There was no championship without Hernandez. Who else could be considered? John Olerud? Ed Kranepool? Make me laugh and suggest Carlos Delgado.

SECOND BASE: Edgardo Alfonzo:

Comments: I don’t doubt Fonzie’s numbers, but is he really the greatest at the position? There were significant Mets who played before 1975, for example Ron Hunt. Hunt was one of the first legitimate early All-Stars. He played during a different era, but when I think of Mets infielders, I think of Hunt right away.

SHORTSTOP: Jose Reyes.

Comments: Based on stats, but he wasn’t the greatest glove. That would be Rey Ordonez. He’s also not the greatest inspirational leader. That would be Bud Harrelson. Reyes reminds me of the list I recently read on greatest SNL characters, one that didn’t include John Belushi. Reyes was an exceptional player, but his definitive Met moment is still pulling himself out of the last game of the season after securing the batting title last year.

THIRD BASE: David Wright.

Comments: One of the greatest Mets ever. Don’t forget, the Mets used dozens of third basement before Wright stepped in. If there was any other possibility, it would have been Howard Johnson.

LEFT FIELD: Cleon Jones.

Comments: Jones had a good career with the Mets, but personally my pick would have been the widely unpopular Kevin McReynolds. McReynolds could hit, run and play defense and was a steady force on the teams of the mid-1980s. He was not an easy out. The Mets would kill to have a player like McReynolds today.

CENTER FIELD: Carlos Beltran.

Comments: A good choice. Had he been healthy during his entire Mets’ run, he might have gone down as one of the greatest position players in their history. He’ll still go down in the top five. Lenny Dykstra and Mookie Wilson were hugely popular, but were also part of a platoon. Unfortunately, and unfairly for Beltran, he’s mostly remembered for one checked swing.

RIGHT FIELD: Darryl Strawberry.

Comments: Outside of Tom Seaver, perhaps the easiest choice. Strawberry was one of the few players who made you think a home run was possible with every at-bat. The only other Met who had the same effect was Piazza.

RIGHT-HANDED STARTER: Tom Seaver.

Comments: Who else? Even had Dwight Gooden not tossed his career down the drain, he wouldn’t have touched Seaver.

LEFT-HANDED STARTER: Jerry Koosman.

Comments: The Mets have had several superb lefties, including Al Leiter, Johan Santana, Jon Matlack and Sid Fernandez. But, Koosman, who came a year before Seaver, was the first Mets’ pitcher to give the team a feeling of credibility every time he took the mound.

RIGHT-HANDED RELIEVER: Roger McDowell.

Comments: I have no problem with this choice. Don’t forget, McDowell pitched during a time when saves meant something. More than a few times he pitched two or three innings to get that save. What, you were thinking Armando Benitez or Francisco Rodriguez?

LEFT-HANDED RELIEVER: Tug McGraw.

Comments: Was he named for his numbers or because he coined a phrase? I would have gone with John Franco based on the save totals.

MANAGER: Davey Johnson.

Comments: I’ve heard a lot of people waxing for Gil Hodges, which is understandable, but based more on heart than head. Yes, the Mets first won under Hodges, but their longest run of success came during the time under Johnson. If Mike Scioscia hadn’t hit that homer in the 1988 NLCS for the Dodgers, the Mets might have had a dynastic run.

 

 

Apr 20

Tom Seaver Wins His First On This Day In Mets’ History

Where did the time go?
SEAVER: Won the first of many on this day.

Forty-five years ago today in Mets’ history (1967), Tom Seaver won the first game of his Hall of Fame career in going 7.1 innings in a 6-1 victory over the Chicago Cubs at Shea Stadium.

Seaver struck out five and was supported by two RBI from Bud Harrelson and one each from Ken Boyer, Tommy Davis, Ron Swoboda and Ed Kranepool.
Seaver went on to win over 300 games (his 300th was with the Chicago White Sox against the Yankees) and be inducted into the Hall of Fame, getting 98.84 percent of the vote, the highest percentage in history.
He’s the only Met in the Hall of Fame wearing a Mets’ cap and is the only player in franchise history to have his uniform number retired. Managers Gil Hodges and Casey Stengel had their numbers retired.
In the 50th anniversary of the Mets coming to being, the team will give away bobble head dolls of some of their greatest players, among them Seaver (this Sunday), Rusty Staub, Keith Hernandez, Edgardo Alfonzo and Mike Piazza.
I would have hoped they’d include Jerry Koosman, Dwight Gooden, Gary Carter and Darryl Strawberry.