April 6, 1972 began as a sad one for members of the Mets organization, as former manager Gil Hodges was laid to rest in Brooklyn's Holy Cross Cemetery just four days after suffering a fatal heart attack during a spring training golf outing with his coaches. When the ceremonies were complete, team officials returned to Shea and held a press conference during which two transactions that helped shape the Mets' fortunes in the middle part of the decade were announced.
The first was that Yogi Berra had accepted a two-year deal to replace the late Hodges. Said Berra to the assembled members of the press, "We left a good man today and I hope I can fill his shoes." Considered the heir apparent to the Mets managerial position since the waning days of Casey Stengel's tenure, Berra was the logical choice to take over the clubhouse in light of Hodges's abrupt and tragic passing. The second bit of news, though, came as a surprise.
"My other announcement," added Mets chairman M. Donald Grant "is that we have made a trade for 'Le Grand Orange,' Rusty Staub." An incredibly popular member of the Montreal Expos, Staub came to New York for a high price. To acquire him, the Mets relinquished three prospects: Tim Foli, Mike Jorgensen, and Ken Singleton. All three turned into productive major leaguers. Singleton, in particular. He blossomed after leaving the Mets, making three All-Star Games and finishing in the top ten in MVP voting four times during his 15-year career.
While the timing of the trade announcement was shocking enough, that the Mets even made a win-now move was unexpected as well. As Grant later said during the press conference, "we're not traders by nature." However, GM Bob Scheffing believed "a man who can knock in runs" was a perquisite to making a return trip to the World Series. In a sense, he was right. Staub got off to a hot start in 1972, but suffered in June forced him to miss most of the summer and the Mets finished in third place with an 83-73 record, albeit with the run differential of a 72-84 team. One year later with a healthy Staub, the Mets won the NL East, albeit with an 82-79 record and the run differential to match.
- Wayne Graham, an infielder who hit .091/.091/.121 in 20 games for the 1964 Mets before disappearing from the majors, turns 77. As evidenced by the sub-Mendoza line, Graham found little success on the field. He's been incredibly successful in the dugout, though. In 1992, Rice University made Graham the head coach of its baseball program and he promptly turned the Owls into a national powerhouse. Under Graham's tutelage, the team has never posted a losing season and twelve Rice alums have been selected in the first round of the amateur draft. That number that includes Philip Humber, who the Mets took with the third overall pick in 2004.
- Andy Phillips is 36. Another light-hitting infielder who later turned up in the college coaching ranks, Phillips picked up one hit in five at-bats with the Mets during the 2008 season. Three years later, the University of Alabama hired him to be the Crimson Tide's hitting instructor.
Games of Note
The Mets went 9-1 on Opening Day during the 1970s with the one loss coming on this date in 1974. They came pretty close to winning that one, too. New York led 4-3 going into the bottom of the ninth at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium. Tug McGraw, starting his second inning of work, allowed a leadoff single to pinch hitter Tony Taylor. Bob Boone moved the runner to second with a sac bunt, which brought up number eight hitter Mike Schmidt. Smitty proceeded to make his manager Danny Ozark look dumb for playing for one run and batting him so low in the order by lining a limp Tug McGraw offering over the left field fence for a game-winning homer.
The Mets would get a modicum of revenge against the Phillies 367 days later by staging their own walk-off on Opening Day 1975. With two on and nobody out in the the ninth, Joe Torre slapped Steve Carlton's final pitch of the day into left for an RBI single. That made a winner of Tom Seaver and started a streak of nine straight Opening Day victories for the Mets. That remains an NL record to this day.
Amazin'-ly Tenuous Connection
There were a mere nine sports on the schedule at the first modern Olympic Games, which opened in Athens on this date in 1896, and baseball wasn't one of them. The National Pastime wouldn't make its Olympic debut until the 1904 games in St. Louis and it would be another 88 years before the IOC recognized baseball as a medal sport. The U.S. finished fourth at the 1992 Summer Olympics, losing 8-3 to Japan in the bronze medal game. Team USA would earn some hardware at the centennial games in Atlanta, however, thanks to the pitching of a 21-year old R.A. Dickey. The rising Sun God won both his Olympic starts and helped the Americans run up a 6-1 record in tournament play, though they'd have to settle for bronze after another loss versus Japan in the semifinals (Kris Benson, another future Met, took the L).
Dickey would later write in Wherever I Wind Up that receiving the bronze was "the most bittersweet moment of my sporting career." Also causing some bittersweetness for R.A. that summer was a photo of the Team USA pitching staff that ran on the cover of Baseball America. When Texas Rangers officials saw it, they noticed Dickey's right arm crooked in comparison to his rotation mates. That led the team to run the litany of tests that revealed R.A. was born without an ulterior cruciate ligament, a revelation that hastened his development into a knuckleballer.
So, in an amazin'-ly tenuous way, you can say that we should PRAISE the founding of the modern Olympics because without them, we Mets fans would never have gotten three years of incredibly entertaining baseball from R.A. Dickey. MAY HE BE FOREVER PRAISED.