Thursday, December 14, 2006

The 41 Greatest World Series Ever Played: #41

1969 - Amazin'

Since their inception in 1962, the New York Mets were the laughing stock of baseball. In 1962 they were the worst team to ever play, winning only 40 of their 160 games. They endured a lovable loser tag for years, until 1969. In the summer of '69, the Mets overcame a poor start to make a push for the playoffs. The Chicago Cubs, however, still led the division in mid August by 9 1/2 games. They were playing so well, shortstop Ernie Banks remarked that the Cubs should play extra games just for fun. "Let's Play Two" doomed the Cubs, who completely fell apart in September, clearing the way for the Mets to blow past them on their way to an 8 game lead in the brand new National League East. In the first ever NL Championship Series, the "Amazin's" swept the Atlanta Braves, 3 to 0, and were headed to an improbable first World Series appearance.

Baltimore's road to the World Series was quite different. Just three years earlier, the O's had won the 1966 World Series and then established themselves as the prominent team in the American League. They cruised to an AL West championship by 19 games, winning 109. Like the Mets, the Orioles swept their opponent in the ALCS 3-0. Heading into the Series, the Orioles were the clear favorite to win the title.

Game one saw a matchup of Cy Young winners, Mike Cuellar, who won 23 games, against New York's young ace, Tom Seaver, himself a winner of 25. However, on Seaver's second pitch, Orioles rightfielder Don Buford launched a home run to right field. As he rounded 2nd base, he told Al Weis, "You ain't seen nuthin' yet." With a lineup that featured stars Boog Powell, Frank Robinson, and Brooks Robinson, Buford had good reason to be confident. Cuellar pitched well and Baltimore cruised to a 4-1 win, prompting many to predict a short, quick series. They would be right.

In game two, the Orioles sent out their other 20 game winner, Dave McNally. Like game one, the Mets were sending out a young gun, this time Jerry Koosman. Like Seaver, he was in his third season. Like Seaver, Koosman's inexperience was supposed to work against him. McNally was on target, but Koosman matched him unexpectedly. Mets OF Donn Clendenon led off the 4th with a home run against McNally while Koosman stifled the O's, not allowing a hit for 6 innings. In the 7th, however, Baltimore struck, tying the game. In the 9th, McNally's dominance ran out. He gave up 3 straight singles and Ron Taylor shut the door on the O's with a scoreless 9th. The O's had managed only 2 hits in the 2-1 loss, and the series was tied heading to New York.

The Orioles put their trust in young star Jim Palmer in game 3. Unfortunately, they weren't ready for the Tommie Agee show. Agee did his best Don Buford impression and led off the game with a home run. Mets starter Gary Gentry helped himself out with a two-run double in the 2nd, and he wouldn't allow a hit until the 4th inning. In the 4th, however, the Baltimore all-star lineup threatened, putting runners on 1st and 3rd with two outs. Ellie Hendricks ripped a shot to center, but Agee came from nowhere to make a stunning snowcone catch.

Three innings later, Agee would match the feat, making a diving catch with runners on to bail out Gentry yet again. Agee's play in game 3 was arguably the turning point of the series, leading New York to a 5-0 victory and a 2-1 Series lead.

Game 4 saw a rematch of Cuellar and Seaver, and Tom "Terrific" lived up to his nickname, scattering 6 hits and holding the O's scoreless for 8 innings. In the 9th, however, with only a one run lead, Seaver ran into trouble. Back to back singles left runners at the corners with future Hall of Fame 3B Brooks Robinson at the plate. Robinson hit a line drive to right, but Ron Swoboda was there, making a diving back-handed catch. Frank Robinson would tag up to tie, but the catch saved the inning as Seaver got out of the jam. Seaver came back out in the 10th and continued to baffle O's hitters. In the bottom half of the 10th, Don Buford misplayed a Jerry Grote hit which allowed him to reach second. It wouldn't be the end of Baltimore's defensive struggles. With two men on, pitcher Pete Richert fielded a sacrifice bunt and skimmed the runner with the throw, sending the ball into right field. The go-ahead run came around, Earl Weaver argued to no avail, and the Mets were suddenly up 3-1 in the series.

Game 5 featured a rematch of game 2's talented starters, McNally and Koosman. The Orioles got to Koosman early when McNally hit a 2 run homer in the 3rd, followed up by a Frank Robinson solo shot. McNally cruised until the 6th, when a famous play took place that changed the course of the game. Cleon Jones jumped out of the way of a shoestring pitch, but immediately claimed it hit him. After examining the ball, evidence of shoe polish was found, and Jones was awarded first base. Donn Clendenon, the next batter, hit a two run homer to get the Mets back into the game. In the 7th, 2B Al Weis homered (don't you think he wished he could've jogged by Don Buford at that moment and smiled?) to tie the game. In the 8th the Mets scored twice on doubles and a key error by Boog Powell. Koosman remained on the mound and finished out the 5-3 win, finishing what was seen by many to be the closest thing baseball had to a miracle. The "Miracle Mets" not only beat the Baltimore Orioles, but did so in 5 games.

Why was this series great? The key defense of the Mets, the underdog story, the great pitching on both sides.

Why not as great as others? The games weren't particularly close or didn't come down to the last atbat very much. The Mets won by 3 games, so there was never a sense of shared urgency out on the field. That said, this is the greatest 5 game series ever played. Amazin' indeed.


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