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July 13, 2009
SOUL OF THE CITY In a year of turmoil, good news came out of the Big Apple, where the '69 Series champs surprised the world and became heroes forever
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July 13, 2009

Miracle Mets

SOUL OF THE CITY In a year of turmoil, good news came out of the Big Apple, where the '69 Series champs surprised the world and became heroes forever

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Maybe you were in New York that summer and fall, rooting for the Mets, the lovable (cue team jingle here) M-E-T-S Mets. You've been an optimist ever since. Of course you are. The club was a baseball comedy act from the year of its premature birth, 1962, right through 1968, losing an average of 105 games a season. And then came the surprise of '69. Elsewhere it was a horrible year, but New York witnessed a miracle: the Mets winning 100 games in the regular season, then beating the Baltimore Goliaths in the World Series. The miracle of Flushing Meadows, Queens.

Art Shamsky had no idea how lousy a year it had been. Not then. Shamsky, sharing duty with Ron Swoboda, patrolled Shea Stadium's rightfield, the first swath of green you'd see coming off the number 7 train. Shamsky was in his own little world that baseball season, 40 years ago, when Tom Seaver was a rising pitching god and Nolan Ryan a wild-armed reliever and spot starter and Jerry Grote, Texas badass, caught them both. Shamsky was a Jewish kid from suburban St. Louis, living in Manhattan, hearing kids (you?) scream Art Shamsky! as his big old Lincoln Continental entered the Shea Stadium players' lot, then going out after the game with the brothers—Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee—listening to jazz, wearing shades and long sideburns and striped pants, sipping house reds. It was many years later that he started making regular trips to the New York Public Library, in midtown, researching a book, twirling microfilm, making lists, catching up.

Good News, 1969: Man on the moon.

Bad News, 1969: Vietnam War, Manson murders, Hurricane Camille, the Chicago Seven trial, Chappaquiddick, inflation....

Shamsky is the unofficial class secretary of the '69 Mets, a regular when his teammates come together for parties, reunions, fantasy camps, golf tournaments, barbecues, card signings. Weddings. Funerals.

They gathered to bury Agee, centerfielder and leadoff hitter, in 2001. Agee—who'd almost single-handedly won Game 3 of the Series with a first-inning homer and for-the-ages catches on drives by Elrod Hendricks and Paul Blair—died of a heart attack, age 58, in his office on Second Avenue in midtown Manhattan, where he worked in the title search business. Shamsky was best man at Tommie's second wedding, in 1985, when he married Maxcine Green, a New York schoolteacher. O.K., not precisely best man. Best-man-on-deck, ready to pinch-hit if Cleon didn't show, and for the longest time that day it looked as if Cleon wouldn't show. But then he slipped in, cool as ever, saying, "Told you I'd get here." Rest in peace, Tommie.

RIP, Rube Walker, pitching coach of the old school. (In 1992, age 66, lung cancer.) RIP, Cal Koonce, relief pitcher, father of Kerry, Kim, Kelly and Chris. (In 1993, age 52, lymphoma.) RIP, Tug McGraw, beloved reliever, early believer. (In 2004, age 59, brain tumor.) RIP, Donn Clendenon, first baseman, World Series MVP, team elder and cleanup hitter, who after baseball became a lawyer, a drug addict, a recovering addict and a drug counselor. (In 2005, age 70, leukemia.) RIP, Don Cardwell, mentoring righthanded pitcher who hit 15 career home runs. (In 2008, age 72, dementia.)

And, of course, the first to go, the most shocking of all the passings: RIP, Gil Hodges, iconic Brooklyn Dodgers first baseman in the '50s, the quiet architect and fatherly manager of the young '69 Mets. (In 1972, age 47, heart attack.) Hodges brought a patina of those old Eisenhower-era Brooklyn teams to the franchise that replaced them, but his death meant something else: that the Mets never became part of an era. The '69 club is a one-off, charmed and charming, the unlined faces of their players frozen in time.

That makes seven deaths from the Mets' World Series roster and leaves 23 survivors, including three coaches. Of those, six remain in greater New York, the ultimate keepers of the flame, bumping into remember-the-time fans on a daily basis. There's Bud Harrelson, feisty shortstop, who lives in Hauppauge, N.Y., on Long Island. There's Ed Kranepool, Bronx-raised first baseman, in Jericho, also on Long Island. There's Ed (the Glider) Charles, smooth third baseman, who lives in Elmhurst, Queens, less than two miles from the new Shea, otherwise known as Citi Field. There's Shamsky, still in Manhattan. There's Yogi Berra, first base coach and accidental philosopher, in Upper Montclair, N.J. And there's Joe Pignatano, bullpen coach, in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Also, and not to be overlooked: Mrs. Gil Hodges (née Joan Lombardi) on Gil Hodges Way (née Bedford Avenue), in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

Joan and Gil had three daughters and a son, Gil Jr., who was 19 when he sat in the visiting manager's office in Baltimore before Game 1 of the World Series, looking at the Orioles' roster. Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Mike Cuellar, Jim Palmer. Earl Weaver at the helm. Gillie said to his father, "How are you possibly going to beat these guys?" His father, a Brooklynite by way of coal-mining Indiana, lifted his enormous index finger to his mouth and said, "Shhhh—I've got 25 guys in that room who think they can." Twenty-five guys in the visitors' clubhouse, and a few million more faithful on Long Island, Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens, plus parts of north Jersey, among other places. You know who you are.

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