Fifty years ago Sunday (July 9), a Mets slogan was born. And though “Ya gotta believe” may have had awkward origins, it bloomed into a war cry for the Mets’ improbable rush to the 1973 National League pennant. It also became a signature phrase for Tug McGraw, the garrulous, talented reliever who coined it, and an enduring worldview for a fanbase that still quotes it today.
Midway through that memorable season, the ‘73 Mets were beat-up, mired in last place in the NL East. Injuries had clipped their lineup — Jerry Grote, Bud Harrelson, John Milner and Cleon Jones were among those who missed time — and their high hopes were dwindling. Some had already written off the Mets and there were rumors about Yogi Berra’s job status as manager.
M. Donald Grant, the Mets chairman, entered the Mets’ clubhouse, looking to talk to the players. “No one knew what to expect, him coming in with a business suit, shirt and tie,” recalls Ed Kranepool, who batted .239 in 100 games that year.
Turns out, Grant wanted to offer encouragement. As he urged the Mets to believe, McGraw leapt off his stool and “started to get a little carried away with himself,” Kranepool says. “That was typical of Tug. He’d scream and yell, anything that came to his mind. It created a stir.”
As Grant spoke, McGraw bellowed over him, “Ya gotta believe!” Some Mets didn’t know whether McGraw was making fun of the corporate bigwig, which wouldn’t be a great look for a struggling reliever who had a 6.20 ERA at the time. Kranepool, worried that his road roommate had gotten himself in trouble, advised McGraw to seek out Grant.
“When he left, he probably wasn’t enthused,” Kranepool says of Grant. “But when Tug told him what he was trying to do, he was OK. They shook hands. Tug wasn’t trying to embarrass Mr. Grant. He was just trying to get everyone excited and into this thing.
“And for whatever reason, it worked.”
It certainly wasn’t easy, but the 1973 Mets ended up as the pennant-winner with the lowest winning percentage (.509) ever. They were 12.5 games out of first in early July, a big deal in the pre-Wild Card Era. While they started playing better following McGraw’s rallying cry, they were 61-71 on Aug. 30, back in last place and 6.5 games behind.
But the Mets went 21-8 the rest of the way and when they beat the Cubs, 6-4, on Oct. 1, they clinched with the pedestrian record of 82-79. No wonder the bizarre division race was a punchline all year. “NL Least,” anyone?
Along the way, McGraw turned his season around, recording a 2.21 ERA following his phrase-making moment. The Mets leaned on their tremendous pitching, which included NL Cy Young Award winner Tom Seaver, plus Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack and George Stone.
The Mets were the second-worst scoring team in the league, but did enough. Cleon Jones, for instance, hit six home runs — more than half his season total — in the final 10 games. John Milner led the team in homers with 23 and Rusty Staub led in RBI (76). At 42, in his final season, the great Willie Mays was no longer the player he was in his heyday, but he was a sage clubhouse presence.
“The way we had been playing, many thought we were never going to make it, but we showed people wrong,” says Félix Millan, the second baseman who had been acquired with Stone before the season. “Everybody contributed and we had a great pitching staff — we knew they’d come through when we needed it.”
Berra was a steadying force, too. His Yogi-ism of “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” sprang from that season, even though it appears he did not utter those exact words.
Still, there was debate over whether he’d last the season. In July, Phil Pepe wrote in the Daily News of a rumor that suggested Lee MacPhail, the Yankees’ GM, could replace Met GM Bob Scheffing, who would replace Berra as the manager. Berra would become a scout.
Berra kept his job and the Mets kept going. On Sept. 20, a crazy play at Shea — “The Ball on the Wall” — kept them alive in a crucial game against the Pirates, who were in first place.
With two out and a runner on first in the 13th inning, Pittsburgh’s Dave Augustine drilled a ball to left that appeared headed over the fence. But it struck the top of the wall and bounced to Jones, who threw to Wayne Garrett, who relayed home to Ron Hodges in time for Hodges to tag a sliding Richie Zisk.
“I’ll never forget that,” says Hodges. “The roar of the crowd, John McSherry [the umpire] hollering, ‘Show me the ball!’ That play rocked the whole stadium. I promise you, it woke up some people in downtown Manhattan.”
The play preserved a 3-3 tie and Hodges hit a walk-off single in the bottom of the inning in what was the third of four consecutive wins over Pittsburgh that put the Mets in first place for good.
Angel in the outfield? Maybe. “God is looking after us, I said, when the ball hit the fence,” Millan recalls.
The Mets faced the heavily-favored Reds in the NLCS and most thought they were the appetizer before a rematch of the ‘72 World Series between the Big Red Machine and the Oakland A’s.
Seaver was brilliant in Game 1, striking out 13, but gave up a tying homer to Pete Rose in the eighth and a walk-off shot by Johnny Bench in a 2-1 loss. Matlack, charting pitches, was in awe of Seaver’s stuff and recalls thinking, “If he lost, how the hell am I going to put us in a position to win [Game 2]?”
Matlack was even better, though, throwing a two-hit shutout to even the series. He got a boost from Staub, who told Matlack that he’d picked up a tell in Don Gullett’s delivery. “You keep us close,” Staub said. “I’m going to get him.”
Staub homered in the fourth to give the Mets the lead in a 5-0 victory. “Rusty was a master at that stuff,” Matlack says.
Koosman won Game 3, which is forever remembered for the brawl between Harrelson and Rose at second base. The benches cleared and, afterward, several Mets remember Pedro Borbón of the Reds mistakenly putting on Buzz Capra’s hat.
“Someone pointed it out to him and he took a bite out of it and fired it back at our dugout,” Matlack says.
In Game 4, Rose homered in the 12th to force a deciding Game 5. But Seaver was terrific again in the finale, a 7-2 Mets win that created celebration bedlam at Shea and a meeting with the mustachioed, dynastic A’s.
Though the Mets were underdogs again, the A’s scouting staff offered Oakland a warning in their pre-Series scouting report, a copy of which is on display at the Mets Hall of Fame & Museum at Citi Field. In it, scouts wrote, in part, “Individually, this team does not impress you, but collectively — together — they have come on and developed…It would be foolish, should you defeat them in (an) early contest, to get a false sense of security.”
All these years later, several Mets say they should’ve won that World Series.
“It was ours to win. I honestly believe we outplayed them for six games and the score didn’t reflect it in three of them,” says Matlack, who lasted only 2.2 innings in the final game. “In Game 7, they showed up and I didn’t.”
Kranepool wishes that Berra hadn’t started Seaver on three days’ rest in Game 6 in Oakland with the Mets leading the best-of-7 series, 3-2. “I think Yogi made a mistake,” says Kranepool, whose memoir, “The Last Miracle,” is coming out in August.
Berra could’ve used a rested Stone, who was 12-3, and then backed up Seaver with Matlack in Game 7. Instead, both Seaver and Matlack started on three days’ rest, something each had done only a handful of times that season.
“We didn’t have to win Game 6 — they did,” Kranepool says. “If Yogi pitches George Stone in Game 6, then the best pitcher in baseball is ready for Game 7.”
Seaver allowed only two runs in seven innings, but after losing Game 6, “We were deflated,” Kranepool says.
Even so, ‘73 is one of the best seasons in Met history. It was their second World Series berth — the franchise has five total — and would’ve been a nifty follow-up to 1969′s miracle had they won.
Now, perhaps, that team can be something to aspire to for this year’s Mets team, which is also trying to resurrect itself mid-season.
“That’d be a great thing to happen, in the 50th anniversary year of ‘73,” says Hodges. “I look at the box scores every day.”
Ya gotta believe.
Source: Berkshire mont