If you can find your way to the six holdovers (not that hard), they're willing to talk '69 with you, sign your crumbling 50-cent yearbook, let you snap a picture on your iPhone. If it's ever been a burden for them to be captured for all time in your head, they don't let on. You might see Joe Pig, who turns 80 in August, at the Bridgeview Diner in Bay Ridge. Yogi at Yankee Stadium, where he goes for one game per home stand, staying current with the pastime. Shamsky at the Grand Central Terminal post office in midtown Manhattan, where the author of The Magnificent Seasons collects his mail. (Seaver, now the owner of GTS Vineyards, does the same in a different setting, making a daily stop at Box 888 in the bucolic California town of Calistoga, in the heart of Napa Valley wine country.) You might see Kranepool, a salesman of credit-card services, at his Long Island office cluttered with notes and leads and messages. Harrelson at his office, the home field of the Long Island Ducks, an independent minor league team, for which he's a part owner and the first base coach. Ed Charles on Northern Boulevard—the melting-pot main street of Elmhurst—running errands.
Charles has a place in Manhattan but spends most nights in an apartment off Northern Boulevard, caring for his frail and elderly aunt. He was the soul and the poet of the club, and after finishing errands one recent day, he invited a '69 witness to his aunt's apartment for a Coke and a poetry reading. Before long, he was singing The Five Stairsteps classic:
Ooh-oo child, things are gonna get easier
Ooh-oo child, things'll get brighter
The apartment is small, with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. sharing wall space with a poster of the '69 Mets. Charles was 36 then and 76 and retired now. The Glider was on the field when the last out of the '69 Series was made, the final game of his career. In 1970 he took a job as a promoter for Buddha Records. He'd visit New York City radio stations and persuade them to play Buddha songs. He loved Ooh Child the first time he heard it, and he knew it would be a hit long before the band did. "Songs then had more melody," Charles said. He was wearing a crisp orange golf shirt with the Mets' logo. On his lap was a scrapbook of his poetry, prized letters and photos. He grew up in Daytona Beach when it was segregated. He has seen the world change and change again. "The words had a better message." In a manner of speaking, the '69 Mets and Ooh Child represent nearly the same thing: promise.
Joe Pignatano, bullpen coach, grew up in Brooklyn when it was largely Jewish, Irish, Italian and black, and one day last month in a booth at the Bridgeview Diner he told a story about being seated next to Joseph Colombo, a mob boss and a Brooklynite, at a bar mitzvah dinner. Colombo wanted a box of major league baseballs for a camp. Pignatano wanted nothing to do with the mafioso. Still, he knew that you ignored Joe Colombo at your own risk. He took a box of balls from the Shea equipment room, dropped them on the outside steps in front of Colombo's office, rang the bell and ran.
Pignatano, who grew tomatoes and peppers and pumpkins in the brick-dust soil of the Shea bullpen, drove Hodges to the ballpark almost every day for four seasons, '68 through '71, and he thought of the man as a brother. (Seaver saw him as a father figure and "the person who had the greatest influence on my career.") The manager's fatal heart attack came in spring training, following an April golf game in West Palm Beach with his coaches, Eddie Yost, Walker, Pignatano and Berra, who succeeded Hodges as manager. Pignatano never got over Hodges's death. "He spent his 48th birthday in a casket at a viewing," Pignatano said of Hodges, a cold cup of decaf at his fingers, shaking his head, staring off into nothing.
Yogi loves Piggie and invites him to play each summer in Berra's big charity golf tournament at Montclair Country Club. Over the years Yogi has heard just about every bullpen story Pignatano has, including the time Hodges called Piggie in the middle of a game, wanting Ryan to warm up for a relief appearance. Pignatano looked and looked and couldn't locate his lanky righthander. He had lost a pitcher! Finally he found him on the floor of the bullpen bathroom, sound asleep. Yogi, Piggie, Hodges, Walker—everybody knew Ryan would become a frontline pitcher. But they thought he'd quit baseball if he had to play out his career in New York. All these years later, Ryan (who doesn't recall any bullpen napping) says that for a young married guy from small-town Texas, the "congestion" of Queens required a "cultural" adjustment. But in his 27 seasons Ryan won only one World Series ring, and he ranks the '69 season among "the top five of my career, and maybe higher than that."
Berra was a coach in Houston in the late '80s when Ryan was pitching for the Astros. Yogi, so famously a Yankee, spent 11 seasons wearing Mets uniforms, as a player (nine at bats in 1965), coach and manager. He guesses that maybe 5% of the questions people ask him are about the Mets. To him there's no great mystery about the '69 team. "The pitching, the pitching," Yogi said a couple of weeks ago, wearing a Yankees windbreaker and sitting in a clubhouse meeting room at Yankee Stadium. He puts his hand on your arm to make a point. "Seaver. Jerry Koosman. Gary Gentry. Nolan Ryan. Lefty out of the pen, Tug McGraw. Righty, Ron Taylor. Good pitching." Good memory too. Yogi's 84.
Ron Taylor is still in the game, as the team doctor of the Toronto Blue Jays. Nolan Ryan is the president of the Texas Rangers. Gary Gentry is the director of a retirement home in Phoenix. Koosman, who had an outstanding 19-year career, lives in Osceola, Wis., where he splits wood, goes fishing, plays poker and golf—and sorts through his IRS problems. He pleaded guilty in May to federal charges of tax evasion, after failing to file returns in 2002, '03 and '04.
Shamsky, silver-haired, thin and wearing his World Series ring, sat in a Starbucks in midtown Manhattan the other day, talking about Koosman's superb sense of humor and the letter he wrote to the sentencing judge in support of his old teammate. Shamsky has had a rough couple of years, too, as his nasty divorce from his wife, Kim, whom he married in 1994, has played out on the pages of the New York Post. Still, he and Koosman and nearly all the others—Kenny Boswell, Rod Gaspar, Wayne Garrett, among others—are expected to be at Citi Field on Aug. 22 for a reunion of the '69 Mets. Tom Terrific, now Tom the Vintner, will be there too. He says nothing he did in his 20-season Hall of Fame career matches the joy and excitement of 1969, when he was 24 and in his third year in the bigs.
Harrelson and Kranepool will assuredly be at the reunion. To New Yorkers, especially, Buddy and Steady Eddie are the '69 Mets. Kranepool played his entire career, from 1962—when he was a 17-year-old September call-up—through 1979 with the Mets. Kranepool was at Shea last year for its final game. He has the stadium records for most hits, most plate appearances, most games. The spot where he stood at first base is now a parking lot. He's not a sentimental man. "It served its purpose," he said of the old place last month, sitting in his office, his hair long and gray, his voice pure Bronx. He was wearing a pink polo shirt, with the tail out. He's happy to talk about the '69 Mets on sales calls, he says, "but it's not like I'm out on a street corner talking about it."