March 26, 2020 was supposed to be MLB’s opening day. Weeks ago all baseball fans learned that the 2020 season would be delayed due to the novel Coronavirus. Still all day on the 26th I was thinking about how much I wanted to watch baseball games. Not just my team – the New York Mets, but any games I could watch or listen to. Sadly, all we had yesterday were the memories of seasons past.
I am also working on a piece about the 1920 baseball season. One of the most amazing and yet tragic seasons in the history of the game with a batter being hit in the head and subsequently dying a couple of days later – the only player to die on an MLB field. For those interested his name was Ray Chapman.
My friends and family tell me I have a good memory for sports trivia. I take that as a compliment while at the same time knowing there are so many people who are much better at sports trivia than I am. I do have many vivid memories and I’m sharing this one.
The year was 1975 and the place was Shea Stadium. An August 24 doubleheader without the Mets playing an inning. It was between the New York Yankees and the California Angels. I went with some friends from high school (and oddly enough I cannot exactly recall who was with me!), and as a teenager living on Long Island I don’t recall how we got there since I was not yet of driving age but maybe one of my friends drove. I don’t believe we went by Long Island Railroad but it’s possible.
Wait you say, why were the Yankees playing in Shea Stadium? Well in 1974 and 1975 the Yankees played all of their home games in Shea Stadium while Yankee Stadium – the house that Ruth built, was being renovated. After all, the original Yankee Stadium was built in 1923.
I remember it was not a nice weather day with rain intermittent throughout the day. I do remember that Nolan Ryan (former Met) started game 2 of the doubleheader. And I will remember it as the day I became a huge Graig Nettles fan. There was much about that doubleheader that, once I went back and looked at the Baseball Reference Guide, I did not remember about the games. James Thurber (and I thought it was Ring Lardner) had it right when he said, ‘You could look it up’. So, look it I up I did.
The up and coming 1975 Yankees were above .500 at 64-63 at this late point of the season. The oft-moribund Angels were 59-71 coming into the doubleheader and the division was ruled by the Oakland A’s and the rising Kansas City Royals. In fact, the following season it would be the Yankees and the Royals that would play an exciting AL Championship series highlighted by Chris Chambliss’ walk-off, series ending home run. (The Yankees would go on to be swept in the World Series by the Big Red Machine. Hey, I told you I was a Met fan).
Besides Nolan Ryan, who the Mets unceremoniously traded in 1971, (for Jim Fregosi in one of the Mets worst trades ever and they’ve had some bad ones), the Angels had another terrific starter in Frank Tanana who later on in his career would pitch for the Mets. On this day Tanana was at the top of his game leading the Halos to a 9-0 complete game shutout of the Yankees. Rudy May started for the Yankees and did not make it to the 4th inning.
There were a number of notable players in that doubleheader for both teams. For the Angels, future Yankee Mickey Rivers (Mick the Quick), and future Met manager Bobby Valentine were in the lineup for game 1. The Yankees featured some very good players, Bobby Bonds leading off, Sandy Alomar batting 2nd, Thurman Munson behind the plate, Lou Pinella in the outfield, the aforementioned Chris Chambliss and Graig Nettles, (I never could figure out why it was spelled that way as it always seemed like a mistake to me. Did his parents mean to call him Greg or Craig?), and it even featured a pinch-hitting appearance by 1970 MVP Alex Johnson. I’ll bet you forgot all about Mr. Johnson. But on this day Mr. Tanana was too good.
Game 2 stats show that the announced crowd was 30,000 but in 1975 single admission doubleheaders counted the fans in place for the first game and did not bother to recount the second game. If there were 10,000 people left in Shea for the 4pm start to game 2 I’d be surprised but sadly in this case, you cannot look it up. For this reason, my friends and I were able to move down into the field box seats off of third base. We didn’t even have to grease the seat usher as it was kind of misty and just not nice and there not many people even in the field boxes. We thought this was the greatest thing ever to get to sit right near the field and watch Nolan Ryan fire 100 mph heaters.
Tippy Martinez (players had better nicknames back then IMO), started and went 7 1/3 innings for the Bombers, with lefty fireman Sparky Lyle coming in to pitch the last 1 2/3 innings. Ryan was his usual impressive self in striking out 8 in 6 innings yielding 6 hits, 4 walks and only one earned run. But the one of the random reasons I love baseball happened in this game and I am certain to never forget it.
The Yankee third baseman, All-Star Graig Nettles was a renowned power hitter smashing 390 career home runs, driving in over 1300. His lifetime .248 hurts his HOF chances. Yet more than anything Nettles was a terrific fielder. He was up with the very best in the league and that included an aging but still very good Brooks Robinson for the Orioles. Nettles would win back to back Gold Gloves in 1977 and 1978. However, this second game of what was a literal slog, was probably the worst defensive game of Nettles’ career. He made not one, not two, but three fielding errors! In fact, in the 5th inning he booted consecutive ground balls for two errors on two plays! He topped that off with yet another error on a grounder in the 7th. The field was chewed up enough that the Yankees as a team made 6 errors that day.
But for Nettles, the errors were almost inconceivable and a fan just a few rows away would not let Nettles hear the end of it. Using quite consistently colorful language highlighted by ‘Nettles you suck’ which he must have said twenty times, everyone and I mean EVERYONE could clearly hear the fan, (no doubt including Nettles) berating Nettles who kicked the dirt a couple of times after booting one of the ground balls that came his way.
As a result of the miscues the Yankees trailed for the entire game and when Nettles came to bat to lead off the bottom of the 8th inning against veteran pitcher Dick Lange the Yankees trailed 4-1. Our perturbed fan was at the top of his lungs screaming at Nettles about how MUCH he sucked. My friends and I all thought this was incredibly funny.
What happens next still gives me a thrill. Nettles leads off, digs in, and blasts the first pitch of the inning far over the right field fence – a no-doubter home run. On his slow trot around the bases he starts heading toward third base of course facing all of us and with just the right amount of flair, smirks, and flips off the berating fan as he approaches third base rounding for home. We went absolutely nuts! As did the other 30 or so fans (it seemed) sitting nearby. I’ve been to some special moments at baseball games – game 3 of the 1969 World Series, Game 6 in 1986, and this moment is as indelibly etched in my memory as any I’ve ever been to.
After Nettles’ dinger, apparently, (while I was there I did not remember what happened after) a back-up catcher named Ed Hermann (no not the actor) also hit a home run bringing the Yanks within a run but alas that was as close as they would get that day as the Angels swept a pair from the Bombers.
So, one of the most memorable days I’ve ever had at a ballpark was NOT watching my team play, and it was not about the winning or losing a ballgame. It was the game within the game and that day Graig Nettles of whom I was not a fan prior, became a big winner in my eyes and I was a fan of his forever after. Kudos Graig, kudos.
Here’s hoping the sound of ‘Play Ball’ will be heard on MLB fields by Memorial Day. I really miss the games.