Friday, June 15, 2007

June 15, 1977: A Day That Will Live In Infamy

It was 30 years ago today that one of the most infamous trades in baseball history occurred. I didn't know it at the time, but it would have an incredible impact on my life, and would change my rooting habits as a baseball fan forever.

The Mets traded Tom Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds for pitcher Pat Zachry, infielder Doug Flynn, and minor league outfielders Steve Henderson and Dan Norman.

Seaver was "The Franchise," the man who put the Mets on the road to respectability when he joined the Mets in 1967 and won the NL Rookie of the Year Award. He had an absolutely incredible season in 1969, winning the Cy Young Award with a 25-7 record and leading the Mets to an improbable World Series championship that year. He would win two more Cy Youngs with the Mets, in 1973 and 1975. He tied the record for strikeouts in a game against the San Diego Padres on April 22, 1970 by fanning 19, and the last 10 in the game, which set a record for consecutive strike outs in a game that still stands.

Seaver won 20 games for the Mets four times, and holds the record for 200 or more strikeouts in consecutive seasons with 10. He was arguably the most popular athlete in New York in the early 1970s, and he was one of my favorite baseball players in my youth, as I was a huge Mets fan.

But in 1977, there were huge problems with the Mets team he was on. They got off to a bad start that season, and fired manager Joe Frazier and hired infielder Joe Torre as player/manager. Mets management did very little to improve the team after 1976. Free agency had just come into baseball, and the Mets did nothing to attract any of them, especially Reggie Jackson, who was the big prize on the market. The Yankees would sign him to a huge contract, and they added him to a club that had just won the AL pennant the year before.

The Yankees were taking back New York, and the Mets management took the brunt of the criticism, especially from the fans. Back in 1975, owner Joan Payson had died, and it was one of the worst things to happen to the team. She was a passionate baseball fan who owned the team since Day 1, and cared deeply out the Mets. But her husband did not, and the team was eventually turned over to her daughters, who basically gave Mets chairman of the board M. Donald Grant a free hand to run the club.

Tom Seaver was one of his most vocal critics, about how the team refused to spend money to stay competitive. They wouldn't go with the times, and it led to a lot of hard feelings. Grant's biggest supporter was a sportswriter from the NY Daily News named Dick Young. He was an institution in the city. But he became Grant's mouthpiece, writing negative pieces about the star pitcher.

But he pushed Seaver over the edge in early June when he wrote a column about how Tom's wife Nancy was "jealous" at Nolan Ryan's wife and the bigger money he was making. Seaver was incensed, and demanded the Mets trade him. I remember the rumors going around that June (the trading deadline was June 15 back then) that Seaver could be traded, but few people thought the Mets would actually do it. I remember going to bed late that night thinking he wasn't going anywhere.

I woke up the next morning, and Tom Terrific, the face of the Mets franchise, was gone.

It shook New York like an earthquake. No Mets fan could believe it was true. He had been traded to Cincinnati, and everyone thought the Mets had been fleeced. They got none of the Reds' best players, while the Mets traded the best player they ever had. The Mets' fans reacted with vitriol directed at Grant and Young. I remember Grant complaining about how he had gotten death threats from angry fans. (Mets fans brought many negative banners to Shea afterwards with slogans like "GRANT'S TOMB." They were immediately confiscated.)

The Mets also traded disillusioned slugger Dave Kingman to San Diego that night as well. (One of the players they got in that deal was an outfielder named Bobby Valentine.) They had a whole different look, and it wasn't for the better. They fell into last place in 1977, and stayed there. The Seaver trade totally backfired on them. Zachry had some decent seasons, but never reached any kind od stardom. Flynn was a terrific second baseman, but didn't have the stick. Henderson also had a decent career, but Norman never made it. Seaver would win 21 in 1977, and would return to the Mets in 1983, but would leave again after the White Sox selected him as a compensation pick after losing a free agent that winter (that system has since been disbanded). Seaver would close out his brilliant career as a member of the 1986 AL Champion Red Sox, but a knee injury kept him on the DL for the postseason. (They sure could have used him.) He would be elected to baseball's Hall of Fame in 1992.

I was really angry and betrayed. I was 15 and couldn't support a team that treated their fans so shabbily and disrespectfully as the Mets just had.

At the same time, the Yankees were in a great divisional race with the Red Sox and Orioles in the AL East. I had always been a Carl Yastrzemski fan, ever since I got a "YAZ" hat back in the 1960s. (I think I still have it buried in my house somewhere.) I also remember watching the Red Sox on TV on the "Game of the Week" on many Saturdays, and I always thought Fenway Park was such a cool place. The race went down to the final weekend, and I remember pulling hard for the Red Sox to upend the Yankees.

The Orioles beat the Red Sox on the last Saturday of the season, 8-7, and the Yankees won the division that day. Little did I realize that day, October 1, 1977, but I had officially converted over to Red Sox Nation. And it was a game the Red Sox lost.

That would have implications I could never have possibly imagined at the time.

The Mets would have a string of last place finishes, and would not get out of the basement until 1984. They lost New York to the Yankees, who won World Series in 1977 and 1978. I kept my vow to stay away from them until they were sold, and in early 1980, Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon bought the team, and they had my support back as my National League team. Grant and Young would eventually go into obscurity, and not be heard on the New York sports scene again.

June 15, 1977 was a dark day in the history of Mets baseball, one of the worst in their history. It would have long ranging effects on many people, and especially me.

1 comment:

Michael Leggett said...

Young died in '87:

Grant in 1998;

My "M. Donald Grant" List is up in the April Edition of this blog;

I was at Shea Stadium on June 16th, 1977. Zachry pitched & was gone in 2 2/3 Innings. The Place was "Grant's Tomb" all right. It was like a Funeral.