By Charlie Vascellaro
It is perhaps the defining moment of the “Miracle Mets.” The moment that made the 1969 New York Mets improbable World Champions over the Baltimore Orioles. It is the moment that remains etched indelibly in the minds of Mets and Orioles fans alike.
It is the image of Baltimore-born Mets outfielder Ron Swoboda’s diving backhanded grab of Brooks Robinson’s sinking line drive to the right-center field gap of Shea Stadium. With the Mets ahead two games to one in the Series with a 1-0 lead in the ninth inning of Game Four, Swoboda made his grab with Frank Robinson on third base and Boog Powell on first. Had the ball gotten past Swoboda, the Orioles would have most likely taken a lead into the bottom of the ninth and perhaps have squared the Series at two games apiece.
The Orioles return to Shea Stadium this weekend for only the second time since the 1969 World Series. (AP Photo/Babe Ruth Museum)
“If I don’t get to it, I don’t know where it goes," he said. "I don’t know where (centerfielder Tommie) Agee is. I used to practice diving for the ball like that. I was a little better outfielder than maybe people thought I was. There was a guy in Baltimore who said ‘the only way Swoboda would make a living with his glove was to cook it and eat it,’ But I had become a much better outfielder."
This weekend the Orioles will be back at Shea Stadium for only the second time since the 1969 World Series and the first time since dropping a pair at Shea in 2000. While 27 years may not be an anniversary of the milestone variety, any time the Orioles and Mets share the field, fans of both teams instantly recall the memorable October clash that still stings like a fresh wound to O’s fans and players alike.
“They got every break there was and they beat us, but I guarantee you -- at least I feel -- that if we played them 100 times we would have beat them at least 90,” said Baltimore’s eight-time Gold Glove centerfielder Paul Blair. “They just happened to beat us those four out of five.”
“I doubt we would have won four out of five if we played 100 games but Blair can be delusional,” said Swoboda in response. “With that lineup that we had, in his heart of hearts he knows that with our starting rotation and bullpen we would have held our own. I don’t know if we would have won 50 but we would have held our own. We had depth and guys that could do it.”
Entering the Series, the Mets were decidedly underdogs to a Baltimore team that steamrolled to the American League pennant with 109 wins and a league-leading 2.83 ERA. The Orioles staff was anchored by 20-game winners Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally, alongside Jim Palmer and Tom Phoebus, all turning in stellar performances. Outfielders Frank Robinson and Blair combined with corner infielders Powell and Brooks Robinson to form the Orioles potent offense.
In the first year of the new divisional format, the Mets played David to the Orioles’ Goliath, winning a hard-fought battle with the Chicago Cubs to capture the National League’s East division.
“We were a good defensive team that year,” said Swoboda, naming a number of possible reasons for the success. “So were the Orioles. They did it in the American League. If we had any advantage, it was that we were a little better than people thought we were. Even though we didn’t have the number of Hall of Famers the Orioles had, we were younger. We were a little better because of our pitching.”
The Orioles did not appear to be very intimidated nor did they consider the Mets a serious threat. Both teams swept their opponents in the league playoffs.
“We didn’t expect to have their respect," said Swoboda. "We didn’t feel we had any obligation but to show up and play the way we had to play. They had all the swagger and reputation but it doesn’t always win the day.”
The Series began in Baltimore and Game One unfolded according to plan for the Orioles. Don Bufford, leading off in the first inning, hit a home run over Swoboda’s head in right field.
“I misplayed the first homer by Bufford. I was nervous. I was paralyzed with anxiety," said Swoboda, who had played in Memorial Stadium as a teenager in the Baltimore Parks and Recreation league. “I was having an adrenaline rush, at the time,” he said. “When you run out on the field for your first World Series, there’s that little kid from Baltimore in there too, the guy you have to get under control. That’s me not catching what was a fly ball I should have caught."
The Orioles cruised to a 4-1 victory in the first game behind Mike Cuellar who scattered six hits with eight strikeouts in all nine innings of work. But the Mets escaped from Baltimore with a split, winning Game Two 2-1 on Jerry Koosman’s two-hit, eight innings-plus performance.
When the Series moved back to New York, the “Miracle Mets” magic began to emerge. Agee made two spectacular plays in centerfield, robbing both Blair and catcher Elrod Hendricks of extra-base hits. He also brought offense to the Mets, knocking a solo homer off of Jim Palmer in the first inning to spark the Mets in Gary Gentry and Nolan Ryan’s combined masterpiece, a four-hitter and a 5-0 victory.
There was more to come in Game Four. Swoboda’s great grab killed the Orioles’ rally and kept the game tied at 1-1 until the Mets put together a double by catcher Jerry Grote and a pinch-hit bunt from J.C. Martin.
Although the Orioles carried a 3-0 lead into the sixth inning of the fifth game, Don Clendenon and Al Weis hit a pair of home runs to tie the game. Swoboda drove in the go-ahead run with a double in the eighth.
Blair says he has not forgotten a single pivotal moment of the Mets' big series.
“We scored a run, but everything was just snowballing,” he said. “Agee made those plays, Swoboda made the play, Al Weis hits a home run, J.C. Martin gets hit inside the baseline and the umpire says he didn’t do it intentionally, but who cares? The rule is he can’t be there. So everything just went against us that Series. That’s all it was,” Blair said.
Conversely Swoboda, who was 25 in 1969, remembers that Series as the defining moment of his career.
“To get to do that one time in your life as a kid and win the thing, that’s completing a circle that very few people get to complete. And we beat the f***ing Orioles,” recalls Swoboda, who used the money from his World Series check to buy 70 acres of land in Harford County, that he says his son uses to go camping.
These days Swoboda lives in New Orleans where he works as color commentator for the Pacific Coast League Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs radio broadcasts.
Swoboda’s family has continued to reside in Baltimore and he says he tries to visit when he can.
The former Met is immortalized in the Maryland Sports Hall of Fame as well as at the Sports Legends Museum. He says he hopes to drop by the museum the next time he is in town.
The 1969 World Series is a troubling memory for most Baltimoreans but the fondest for at least one.
Issue 1.8: June 15, 2006