When miracle workers re-convene

2019-05-02 AfterTheMiracleBack in 2001, three 1940s Red Sox—Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, and Dominic DiMaggio—planned a road trip to visit their Hall of Fame teammate Ted Williams one last time. Friends since their playing days, the trip’s only disruption was Doerr unable to make it after his wife suffered her second stroke.

Fifteen years later, one of the 1969 Miracle Mets, outfielder Art Shamsky, decided it was time to do something similar in visiting his Hall of Fame teammate Tom Seaver, after long-term, lingering manifestations of Lyme disease began curtailing Seaver’s travel away from his Napa Valley, California home and vineyard.

The Pesky-DiMaggio trek and the lifetime bond between them, Williams, and Doerr were recorded lyrically by the late David Halberstam in The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship. Until Harvey Araton’s Driving Mr. Yogi—about the bond between the late Hall of Fame catcher and a later Yankee pitching star, Ron Guidry, as spring Yankee instructors—there was no better chronicle of baseball friendships and their sometimes impenetrable bonds.

Shamsky rounded up pitcher Jerry Koosman, shortstop Bud Harrelson, outfielder Ron Swoboda, and baseball historian Erik Sherman for the journey to Seaver. And he’s  produced (with Sherman) After the Miracle: The Lasting Brotherhood of the ’69 Mets. (New York: Simon and Schuster; 325 p.; $28.00/$18.30, Amazon Prime.) Unlike the Halberstam and Araton books, Shamsky takes the weight of chronicling the final journey upon himself, from the inside, with Sherman’s help. And he delivers it as precisely as Seaver once delivered fastballs.

Shamsky, Koosman, Harrelson, Swoboda, and Sherman didn’t pile into a car and drive east to west for their trip as the old Red Sox did for Williams. The whole thing began over lunch between Shamsky and Sherman, pondering the coming 50th anniversary of the 1969 Mets. And, knowing Seaver—who has since retired completely from public life, after his family announced him diagnosed with dementia—wouldn’t be able to travel for any commemoration in New York.

When Sherman suggested bringing a reunion to Seaver, Shamsky pounced. All he needed was to pick the teammates for the trip. He wanted Harrelson desperately, since the former shortstop himself deals with the memory issues of Alzheimer’s disease. He also wanted Seaver’s rotation mate Koosman, “one of the most gregarious characters I’ve ever known”; and, Swoboda, with whom he competed for playing time in right field as a ’69 Met. “He’s liable to say anything, at any time, anywhere,” Shamsky writes admiringly.

When he told Seaver he wanted to bring that trio with him, Seaver was all in. “We’ll sit around, laugh a little bit, reminisce,” Shamsky told Seaver, “and tell the same old lies—the balls that we barely hit over the fence that are now five-hundred foot blasts—those kinds of lies.”

“Ahh,” Seaver replied with a chuckle, “but those are good lies.”

Swoboda hesitated at first, in the wake of his wife’s surgery to remove a malignant tumour, but went all in as well. Koosman was eager from the outset so long as he was free when the others could go. Harrelson was in, too, though his former wife (with whom he maintains a close friendship) first thought the tickets sent him for the trip came from a baseball card show promoter. Realising it wasn’t, Kim Harrelson left Shamsky one instruction: take lots of pictures to help him remember the journey.

The group was forewarned by Seaver’s wife, Nancy, that they were taking a small gamble. “We just don’t know how he’s going to feel—he gets foggy sometimes,” she advised. She knew the visit would be good for Seaver and for Harrelson, as well, “but just understand that some days are good and some days are not too good. Every day is different. It’s really a roll of the dice.”

They’d fly across country and have only one day to spend with Seaver. But it turned out to be the winning roll. The four Miracle Mets recalled the key days and nights of their unlikely trek to the World Series championship and some of the details involving their acquisition of several key pieces to it.

They enjoyed remembering things like first baseman Donn Clendenon’s wicked humour (his nickname was Clink), third baseman Ed Charles’s spirit, spare infielder Al Weis’s coverup of the bat logo on the souvenir bat he insisted on using in the Series (it was an Adirondack the feel of which he liked though he was signed with Louisville Slugger), the circus clinic the Mets outfielders put on in the Series, manager Gil Hodges’s deftness at using his entire roster, and, of course, the atmosphere around the team and its unlikely (to everyone but themselves) accomplishment.

Including the atmosphere of the city and the country during the Series. With unrest over the protracted Vietnam War achieving fever pitch, one demonstrator outside Shea Stadium hoisted a sign: BOMB THE ORIOLES–NOT THE PEASANTS! In baseball terms the peasants did indeed bomb the Orioles—not to mention out-pitch and out-catch them—to win the Series in an unlikely four straight following a Game One loss.

Koosman remembered entertainment legend Pearl Bailey stopping him as he paced nervously before his Game Five start. “Kooz, settle down, settle down,” Bailey told him. “I see the number eight, and you’re going to win.” Indeed. Weis’s unlikely blast in the bottom of the seventh, tying the game at three, was only the eighth home run the middle infielder ever hit in the major leagues. And, the last.

2019-05-02 TomSeaverJoanPaysonArtShamsky

Seaver (left) and Shamsky (right), flanking original Mets owner Joan Payson in 1969.

The group also remembered the ribald prank Koosman hatched with a radio bug and a Mets television director named Jack Simon, the latter impersonating sportscasting legend Howard Cosell so dead on it shook Seaver to flip his radio on and hear he was being traded to the Astros—with Mets chairman M. Donald Grant in earshot. That was a prank, but Grant’s eventual purge of Seaver after a contentious contract renegotiation broke the Mets and their fan base in half eight years later.

They reveled with Seaver in his pride over his vineyard and indulged the one habit former ballplayers can never avoid when they reunite at all, never mind renew such friendships as these and other 1969 Mets share—an out-of-the-dugout version of bench jockeying. Consider this exchange, recalling a tough play for Swoboda on a rare day playing left field, with Harrelson in his customary habit of gunning out from shortstop on any short fly as Swoboda shot forward for it.

Swoboda: “I see Buddy and he ain’t stopping. But I didn’t even have time to make the call to say I had it.”

Seaver: “I remember that, too. I was pitching!”

Koosman: “Yeah. Cheech caught the ball and about three seconds later, you ran over him!”

Swoboda: “I know I did. But you didn’t want the ball to fall in, did you? I didn’t know what to do.”

Seaver: “Did anybody bother to use the English language out there?”

Harrelson today looks as grandfatherly as a former athlete can look and admits to writing notes to himself to help with his stricken memory. Koosman, who credited Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax for teaching him a better and more variable curve ball, resembles a portly rancher rather than the machine designer and pilot he became after baseball. Only Shamsky’s gray betrays his age; he still looks like a tapered ballplayer as well as the broadcaster he was and realtor he still is. Swoboda, a longtime broadcaster post-baseball, looks more like a former footballer now but does colour commentary for the telecasts of the minor league New Orleans Baby Cakes (AAA).

They swapped stories about Berra (a Mets coach from 1965-72, before succeeding Hodges as manager following Hodges’ fatal heart attack) and other coaches, including bullpen coach Joe Pignatano. (“Piggy was Hodges’s spy,” said Koosman about the coach Shamsky describes as having one job: “to keep control of the pitchers out in the bullpen who were out of control.”) And they reminded each other that age’s betrayals didn’t have to obstruct life.

Even as they miss the earthly presences of those among their 1969 fraternity long gone. Hodges, Charles, Berra, and Clendenon. (“Hey, remember the Caesar’s Palace act we had after the Series? Donn Clendenon would have himself paged every five minutes just to hear his name.”)

Outfield acrobat Tommie Agee, veteran pitcher Don Cardwell, spare infielder Kevin Collins, spare relief pitcher Cal Koonce, co-closer Tug McGraw. (“I’ll tell you one thing,” Seaver said of the flaky but effective lefthander, “I want him right here in my foxhole, I’ll tell you that!”) Third base coach Eddie Yost. (“I used to tease him all the time,” Shamsky says, “by saying, ‘Eddie, you really look like a ballplayer. You look like you could still play!”) Pitching coach Rube Walker. (“I’d call him even during the winter,” Koosman says. “He had a way of putting up with our BS and still have a smile on his face—just always glad to see you the next day.”) All long gone to the Elysian Fields.

2019-05-02 TomNancySeaver

This Bloomberg photo shows Tom and Nancy Seaver amidst their Napa Valley grapevines in 2017.

Seaver now looks the part of a veteran wine grower especially when he’s paired with Nancy, his wife of almost 53 years, to whom age has been a little more kind. When having a private moment among the grapevines with Shamsky, Seaver admitted quietly that he’s had to ward off anxiety attacks since his condition became more acute than when he first battled Lyme disease while still living in Connecticut.

“I was so frightened,” Seaver recalled about such an attack, while with his wife en route visiting a former Mets announcer. (Seaver himself spent a few years as a Yankee announcer, teamed with Phil Rizzuto and Bill White.) “Man, it just made me breathe heavy like this. We turned around and went home. I mean, this Lyme disease ain’t fun. It can be absolutely frightening. The more cardiovascular I do, the better off I am. And drinking wine helps. I drink about half a bottle of wine per night. I haven’t had a beer in about eight years. But the traveling, no. I just can’t anymore.”

Meaning Seaver can’t be present when the Mets commemorate their first World Series winner come June. Or, at the Hall of Fame, in July, when Yankee relief legend Mariano Rivera, Yankee/Oriole ace Mike Mussina, Mariners hitting clinician Edgar Martinez, the late mound marksman Roy Halladay, longtime relief ace Lee Smith, and longtime outfielder Harold Baines will be inducted.

But you can get Seaver’s presence, and the bond of the biggest surprise champions of the 1960s, in this amiable book, mourning those absent, thankful for those still present, and quietly contented that their baseball fellowship melted into something more enduring than the transience of even the most transcendent World Series triumph.

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