Strong parallels between Rays, '69 Mets
Clubs have more in common than improbable run to Fall Classic
Chances are no one in New York enjoyed Pete Rose's 44-game hitting streak in 1978 more than a member of the Mets' community relations department. Once Rose extended his streak to 33 games, no one stood between him and the late Tommy Holmes, a gentle and admired member of the Mets' staff who had established the National League record of 37 games 33 years earlier.
Even before Holmes surpassed the modern record of 33 games, established by Rogers Hornsby in 1922, all reports of Rose's run mentioned him and the streak he had produced as a member of the Boston Braves in 1945. And he reveled in his renewed celebrity.
Holmes proudly thanked Rose for breaking the record and "making people remember me."
In much the same way, the Rays' presence in the World Series has prompted a generation of fans to rediscover and gain an appreciation for and a perspective on the World Series champion Mets of 1969. The most endearing and celebrated losers in the game's history, the Mets moved from ninth place in the NL to the World Series in one year. And the Rays have moved from last in the American League East -- though they were last among merely five teams -- to the Fall Classic, following a path that seemingly has intersected with the one the Mets took 39 years ago.
"There are some similarities, right up to losing the first game of the World Series," said Ron Swoboda, who saw differences, too, "But I think, in our case, there were more floors between the outhouse and the penthouse."
A right fielder with the Mets in 1969, Swoboda went so far as to link the home runs hit in the first innings of the two Game 1s. Chase Utley hit a two-run home run against the Rays in the first Wednesday, and Don Buford led off the Orioles' first with a home run. And both were to right field.
"I let Buford's fly ball become a home run," Swoboda said.
No such lament came from Rays right fielder Ben Zobrist on Wednesday. But a home run in the first is a long ball in the first. This Rays-Mets thing, therefore, is undeniable. The teams must have been separated at birth.
So much of the game, particularly in the postseason, is watched and studied through the prism of the past. The game charms us that way. Specific parallels always can be found. And the current Rays and the Mets of 39 Octobers past have left some similar footprints to this point. Why, Tropicana Field is located in the very city, St. Petersburg, in which the Mets conducted their Spring Training camp from 1962-87.
And if the parallels aren't as conspicuous as we'd like ... well, we'll embellish them a little.
So it is that someone in the media, after painstaking examination, determined that not only are Rays and Mets four-letter words, but Joe Maddon and Gil Hodges, the respective managers of then and now, have three and six letters in their first and last names. Indisputable evidence that the teams must share DNA.
Wayne Garrett, one of the Mets' third basemen in 1969, and Evan Longoria, the near-legendary third baseman of the Rays, played in the World Series as rookies. Undoubtedly, Longoria has one red hair or a red-headed relative that will make the link to Garrett even stronger.
Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman, the Mets' primary starting pitchers then, were 24 and 26 years old, respectively, when they beat up the favored Orioles. Scott Kazmir and James Shields, the Rays' equivalents of Seaver and Koosman, are pitching against the Phillies at ages 24 and 26. And wait. Koosman and Kazmir begin with K, and Seaver and Shields with S.
|"Good defense, like theirs, means you can pitch to any point in the strike zone. You're not telling yourself, 'I can't let the ball be hit to right' or 'I don't want the ball hit to third.' Anyone who can use the entire strike zone should be better."|
|-- Tom Seaver|
And each club has employed Don Zimmer -- albeit 40 years apart -- though Zimmer never went hitless in 22 at-bats with the Rays.
It is, of course, the broader strokes that connect the Miracle Mets and the Exorcized Rays (the Devil has been cast out).
The Mets reached the World Series within months of man's first steps on the moon. The Rays, with a roster young enough to embrace MySpace, have boldly gone where they'd never gone before. Moreover, some folks have likened The Trop to an interplanetary vehicle -- at least from an aerial perspective.
Perhaps someone out there or up there has been at work.
"The man upstairs might have nudged the team for the National League in '69," said Ed Charles, the Mets' other third baseman. "And since people called it a miracle, maybe he thought there should be one in the American League now."
Charles, who more than dabbles in poetry, may create some verse and rhyme if the Rays prevail. His interest goes beyond the generic World Series and whatever Rays-Mets connections emerge. He grew up in St. Petersburg, a Ryan Howard home run from the site of The Trop. Family members still live in the locale.
The closest the World Series came to St. Petersburg when Charles was a kid was when the Yankees trained at Huggins-Stengel Field.
"We never thought a team would be playing there, much less a World Series," Charles said Thursday.
Charles, who lives in Queens, found his seat on the Rays' bandwagon in mid-August.
"That's when I started to tune in to see where they were going," said Charles, who recalled how the Mets were considered trespassers in the 1969 postseason. "Baltimore wondered who let us in."
Charles wonders whether a similar sense about the Rays developed among the White Sox and Red Sox.
"You know, you hear, 'In a short series ... ' [The Orioles] are still saying that," said Charles. "Well, I always think you have to be a good team to get into those short ones. Some guys hit .340 all year but don't get it done. Some guys get better. With some guys ... the hotter the kitchen, the better they cook. We had a collection of those guys.
"I don't know a lot about [the Rays], but I like their spirit. I like them. People are talking about what we did because of what they're trying to do. You get to relive it."
Charles watches. So does his third-base partner, Garrett, who lives in Sarasota, Fla., 45 minutes and one bridge from St. Petersburg.
"I see some resemblance," Garrett said. "They're strong defensively. I think we were, too. And they have good pitching. I think ours was much better. But theirs is pretty good. We just had great pitchers.
"I've probably watched more baseball this year than I have in the last 15 years. They've excited the whole area. That's great. If they win, it will have the same effect the Bucs had when they won the Super Bowl. They've caught the imagination of the area, because they're a good team that doesn't give up. Early in the season, they won a lot of games late, and they got off to a good start, so it's been building for months. They're fun for me to watch, because they play it right. They don't get nervous, they don't press. They keep themselves in the game by not making mistakes."
And Swoboda is quite intrigued by the Rays. He had come to know their pitching coach, Jim Hickey, when Hickey worked as the coach for the Astros' Triple-A New Orleans affiliate. Swoboda did color commentary for the team's televised games.
"I think I have some insight into their team, because Hickey is one of the best, more organized baseball people I know," said Swoboda. "I know other guys involved there, and they've done it right.
"The Rays don't have a Seaver or a Koosman, but they've got five guys, and any one of them could pitch in any team's rotation."
Swoboda, more of a student of the game now than when he played, recently enhanced his sense of his Mets. A friend gave him DVD copies of Games 4 and 5 of the 1969 World Series.
"It was fascinating to see how we played, how Gil handled things, how Seaver and Koosman pitched," Swoboda said.
Swoboda admired the slider of Rays rookie David Price. But Swoboda called Seaver's slider "vicious." And he recalled Koosman responding to critical games.
"Our pitchers put us on a different level," Swoboda said. "But these kids know what they're doing. Hickey has the touch."
Not all of the Mets are so up to date. Koosman's first postseason exposure to the Rays was Wednesday night -- he was busy during the two AL series -- and he came away most impressed by Cole Hamels. Koosman, who won two games against the Orioles, wondered about the Rays' pitch selection.
Seaver missed Game 1, but he knows the Rays and, speaking as a pitcher, he enjoys their defense.
"Good defense, like theirs, means you can pitch to any point in the strike zone," said Seaver. "You're not telling yourself, 'I can't let the ball be hit to right' or 'I don't want the ball hit to third.' Anyone who can use the entire strike zone should be better."
And in the broader perspective, Seaver sees his Mets in the Rays.
"[They are] very analogous," Seaver said. "Because of their pitching and defense, and defense up the middle, they're in every game. We were that way. It's a nice story, a great story -- young guys with talent who believe in themselves and have a strong manager."
Some parallels do exist between Hodges and Maddon.
"Gil took the game seriously," Buddy Harrelson said. "I get the impression Joe Maddon does, too. He's not emotional, [and] neither was Gil."
Harrelson, Seaver's shortstop, recently spent time in Venice, Fla. He got stung by the Rays while there.
"I just like the underdog," Harrelson said.
Harrelson noted the Rays' pitching. If a Seaver or a Koosman or a Nolan Ryan was there, Harrelson wasn't certain. Some things can't be linked no matter how well the Rays pitch this month. But he saw how they won.
"They don't give you too many chances," Harrelson said.
And Harrelson did detect one conspicuous difference between his 1969 team and the one he watches now -- Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett.
"He's got too much power for it to be like our team," said Harrelson.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.