As originator of the longtime Mets rallying cry "Ya Gotta Believe!", Frank Edwin "Tug" McGraw has a place as one of the more popular cult heroes in franchise history. As a usually effective and often-times dominant relief pitcher, McGraw has a place as one of the more integral on-field performers in franchise history.
The southpaw McGraw signed with the Mets out of high school in 1964 and pitched for them in parts of nine seasons through 1974. Originally a starter, he spent most of his career as a reliever, in part because the pitching-heavy Mets were loaded with Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry and Jon Matlack during his tenure. He was a member of the improbable 1969 World Series Champion team and the oh-so-close "Ya Gotta Believe!" team of 1973. During his best stretch as a Met, from 1969-1973, he compiled 526.2 innings with a 2.56 ERA and 82 saves. He also provided some loopy sound bites along the way. When asked if he preferred the AstroTurf at the Houston Astrodome to real grass, he replied "I don't know, I've never smoked AstroTurf."
McGraw's lone All Star Game selection as a Met came in 1972, after he posted a superb 2.01 ERA and 52/17 K/BB ratio in 58.1 innings in the first half. A true relief ace. He joined teammates Seaver and Willie Mays for the July 25th tilt at Atlanta Stadium, which featured 23 future Hall of Famers. The first five batters for the NL were Joe Morgan, Mays, Hank Aaron, Willie Stargell and Johnny Bench.
The game was a back-and-forth affair which was ultimately decided in extra innings. The AL struck first, when Rod Carew singled home Bill Freehan in the fourth inning. Meanwhile, AL pitchers Jim Palmer and Mickey Lolich kept the NL off balance through five scoreless innings. Palmer started the game and allowed just two hits in his three innings. Lolich allowed one hit in two innings. The NL broke through in the sixth, when Aaron homered off noted spitballer Gaylord Perry with Cesar Cedeno on base to make the score 2-1. It was the last homer hit by an All Star in his home ballpark until Sandy Alomar did it in 1997 at Jacobs Field.
The NL was unable to hold the lead, as Bill Stoneman surrendered a two-run pinch hit home run to future Mets third base coach Cookie Rojas in the top of the eighth inning. Enter McGraw. He came on in the top of the ninth inning with the NL losing 3-2 to face a fearsome bunch of AL hitters. He struck out Reggie Jackson swinging to start things off, K'd the slugger Norm Cash looking, but then allowed a double Joe Rudi. McGraw rebounded to strike out should-be Hall of Famer Bobby Grich swinging. This would have been a fine All Star Game memory in itself, but its stature improved after the NL tied it up at three on a Lee May fielder's choice and McGraw was sent back out in the top of the tenth inning.
McGraw was set to face Sal Bando, Carlton Fisk and Lou Piniella. He retired them one-two-three, striking out Fisk and retiring the other two on groundouts. Joe Morgan singled in Nate Colbert in the bottom half of the frame and the NL had a 4-3 victory, with McGraw the winning pitcher.
McGraw's final line was two innings, one hit, no runs, no walks and four strikeouts. He faced two future Hall of Famers and the combined career Baseball-Reference WAR of the seven players he faced in all is 359.5 (note: that's a lot!). It was a dominant performance which made him a worthy candidate for MVP of the game. However, the award went to Morgan. No bother, McGraw represented the blue and orange quite well regardless.
The Mets lost a family member when McGraw passed away from a brain tumor in 2004. However, the Tug McGraw Foundation was established before his passing, with a goal of enhancing the quality of life of children and adults with brain tumors. The Foundation is going strong today and McGraw's optimistic, fighting spirit lives on.