I’ve got work to do, but here I am getting misty writing about Gene Michael — a New York Yankee no less! But his passing last week jolted me back to a time when my baseball allegiances were new and muddled thanks to the insistent, dulcet tones of Lindsay Nelson, Ralph Kiner and Bob Murphy.
I was born in Stoughton, Massachusetts in 1964. Soon enough my father’s corporate work life moved our family to New Jersey, then to California, and then, in 1969, back to the northern Jersey suburb of Upper Montclair. It was there, in the mammoth penumbra cast by the New York City sporting scene, that I first took a shine to baseball. Yeah, I played it in the streets of Waterbury Road, and I collected baseball cards, but this is when I first started watching games en masse, in the early 1970s, via WPIX Channel 11 (Yankees) and WOR Channel 9, where Mets broadcasters Nelson, Kiner and Murphy plied their trade.
My family would move to suburban Boston in 1973, and there my dad would chuck his corporate odyssey for some stability in a town my parents were loath to leave. That move meant I could, from that point forward, seamlessly pass myself off as a legitimately rabid Sox fan with impeccable historic and geographic credentials.
But that would be a lie.
The first teams I truly learned and observed closely were the Yankees and Mets of the early 1970s, and that’s why I was moved by thoughts of Gene Michael, the Yanks’ light-hitting glove man at shortstop. (He and Baltimore’s Mark Belanger were pretty good comps.) Not every game was televised back then but many were and I watched the man called Stick play dozens and dozens of them beside second baseman Horace Clarke, behind pitchers Doc Medich, Fritz Peterson and Steve Kline, taking cut-offs from Bobby Murcer and Roy White. New York was a terrible team at this time. It confused my 7-year-old brain that the Yankees had, apparently, been so dominant once — but had nevertheless come to suck so bad.
Convenient to my eventual Sox fandom, I much preferred Bud Harrelson’s Mets to Michael’s Yankees. I don’t remember the Miracle Mets of 1969. But I did enjoy those NYM teams of the early 1970s, and any mention of Gene Michael, or Dave Schneck, or Thurman Munson or Tommy Agee summons the memory of just how hard and quickly a 7-year-old boy can fall for the game.
I watched those shitty Yankee teams because they were the only thing on.
But I developed a real attachment to those Amazin’ Mets.
Let me say right here that no Google has been deployed in the writing of this blog item. As such, here’s the whole Met team from 1973, the guys who nipped St. Louis and a great Pirates team (World Series champs in ‘71) to win the old Eastern Division (with just 82 wins!) before handling the 99-win Big Red Machine to capture the NL pennant: Jerry Grote and Duffy Dyer at catcher; the inimitable and original Met Ed Kranepool at first; Felix Milan and Ken Boswell platooning at second; feisty Bud Harrelson at short; Wayne Garrett at third; John Milner, Don Hanh and my favorite Met of all, Cleon Jones, patrolling the Shea Stadium outfield.
Everywhere but the mound, this was a pretty darned different team from the shock World Series champions of ’69. Only Harrelson, Kranepool and maybe Grote held over from Miracle Mets. But the pitching was a constant. It was Seaver, Matlack and Koosman who made the Mets of this entire era so very formidable. Just to shore things up, a young Tug McGraw closed. And who did the Mets pick up late in 1973 to give them a bit o’ pop? Only a 40-year-old Willie Mays and Le Grande Orange, Rusty Staub.
Still, come October, those Mets were not expected to trouble the Oakland A’s, a dynasty at its peak. But what a series I watched from my new home in Boston during the fall of 1973, surrounded by people who could not have cared less. The Mets went down valiantly, in 7 games, after having led the series 3-2. Lefthander Kenny Holtzman didn’t just win the finale; he got the big hit off opposing starter Jon Matlack to turn the tide. Bert Campaneris hit a home run to seal it. I was mighty disappointed.
The ’73 Series would prove the end of contention for this generation of Mets; the club would fall into disarray before regrouping in time to put a stake through my heart in October 1986. Gene Michael would retire in 1975 (right before the Yankees got good again), manage the Cubs, and eventually serve in the thankless role of Yankees GM under George Steinbrenner. Stick would hold his nose long enough to build the great Yankee teams of the late 1990s.
And now he is gone, another withered petal on my fading flower of youth…