Monday, March 27, 2017

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets: Jerry Koosman

"We're No. 2!  We're No. 2!"

Those are words you will never hear at a sporting event.  In baseball, like in any other sport, the object is to come out on top, not ride someone else's coattails.  But for one Mets pitcher, being No. 2 became second nature.

He was the first runner-up in the Rookie of the Year vote in 1968.  Eight years later, he finished second in the Cy Young Award ballot.  And for over a decade, he was No. 2 in the starting rotation behind the team's first Hall of Famer.

But when the stakes were highest, it was this perennial second fiddle who became the team's top banana.  He was on the mound when the club won its first championship in 1969 and helped fuel a miraculous late-season run to the postseason four years later.  Just imagine how drastically different the history of the franchise would have been had it not been for the pitcher who wasn't "The Franchise".

Jerry Koosman strikes a pose at Shea Stadium.  (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Jerome Martin Koosman might never have been a Met if not for his catcher in the Army.  After he was drafted to serve in the military in 1962, Koosman went to basic training and was eventually transferred to Fort Bliss in Texas where he could play baseball.  His catcher at Fort Bliss was the son of an usher at the newly-opened Shea Stadium.  Word of Koosman's pitching prowess eventually traveled from the mouth of a catcher to the ears of an usher to the office of farm director - and future general manager - Joe McDonald, who sent scout Red Murff to watch Kooz perform on the mound.  Murff loved what he saw and offered Koosman a $2,000 bonus to sign with the Mets.  Wanting more money, Koosman rejected the offer, only to eventually sign when the amount of the offer went down by 20 percent.

Koosman's first year as a pro in 1965 was mostly forgettable, as he combined to go 5-13 with a 4.61 ERA between Single-A Greenville and Double-A Williamsport.  The southpaw was nearly released by the Mets after his subpar season, but the team decided against it.  It wasn't because they thought Koosman would turn a corner in his second professional campaign; it was because he owed the team fifty bucks.

In 1966, Koosman - with his newly-learned curveball - showed tremendous improvement on the mound (and supposedly settled his loan), going 12-7 with a brilliant 1.38 ERA at Single-A Auburn.  As Koosman was fulfilling his potential, future teammate Tom Seaver was toiling at Triple-A, completing a .500 campaign with an ERA north of 3.00.  Despite the varying degrees of success from Koosman and Seaver in the minor leagues, the dynamic duo made their major league debuts one day apart in April 1967, with Seaver starting the second game of the season for the Mets and Koosman pitching in relief the following night.

Seaver remained with the team the entire season and became the first Met to win the N.L. Rookie of the Year Award.  Koosman, on the other hand, made just three starts and six relief appearances in 1967, with the Mets losing each of Koosman's nine games.  However, because he spent most of the season in the minors (he was demoted to AAA-Jacksonville in mid-May and wasn't called back up until early September), Koosman retained his rookie status for the 1968 campaign.  And under new manager Gil Hodges, Koosman got every opportunity to shine as a full-time starting pitcher.

In 1968, Koosman was tabbed by Hodges to be the team's No. 2 starter.  After not having appeared in a Mets victory in 1967, Koosman pitched a complete-game shutout at Dodger Stadium in the team's second game of the '68 campaign.  Koosman's next start took place in the Mets' home opener on April 17.  A delighted crowd of 52,079 witnessed Koosman's second shutout in as many starts, as well as the first-ever victory by the Mets in a home opener.  Koosman went on to pitch five more shutouts in his rookie year and his ERA didn't rise above 2.00 until his next-to-last start of the season.  He also had a brilliant 12-inning performance in which he allowed no runs to the San Francisco Giants but was saddled with a no-decision because the Mets couldn't find a way to cross the plate in their 17-inning, 1-0 defeat.  The lack of run support would become a common theme for Koosman throughout his career.

Although Koosman finished the 1968 season with 19 wins, a 2.08 ERA (fourth in the N.L.) and 178 strikeouts (tenth in the league), not to mention earning a save in that summer's All-Star Game, he failed to become the Mets' second consecutive Rookie of the Year, as Johnny Bench and his just okay numbers (.275, 15 HR, 82 RBI) edged out Kooz by a single vote.  But just as Bench didn't succumb to the sophomore slump, neither did Koosman.  In fact, Koosman did far more in 1969 than anyone could have imagined.

Koosman pitches with bunting adorning the Shea Stadium walls.  And no, it wasn't Opening Day.  (Bettmann/Getty Images)

After making four starts in April, Koosman missed nearly a month of action with an injury.  But in his second start following his stint on the disabled list, Koosman became the first Met to strike out 15 batters in a game, as he pitched ten shutout innings in the Mets' 1-0, 11-inning victory over the San Diego Padres.  Koosman didn't earn the win - there goes that lack of run support again - but the team did, and that hard-fought effort kicked off a franchise-record 11-game winning streak that instantly made the Mets contenders for the first time in their brief history.  

Koosman's performance against the Padres began a six-start stretch in which he was practically unhittable and virtually unscored upon.  Kooz allowed just 32 hits and two earned runs in 53 innings, with the Mets winning five of those six starts.  (The one loss came in a game in which Koosman allowed no earned runs.)

In July, the Mets hosted the Cubs at Shea Stadium in a series remembered for Seaver's Imperfect Game (Seaver retired the first 25 batters before allowing a single to Jimmy Qualls).  But it was Koosman who provided the opening act to Seaver's headlining effort, as Kooz outdueled future Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins to earn a complete-game victory.  Three months later, Koosman delivered another statement to the Cubs, one that let Chicago know that the Mets weren't going to be anyone's pushovers.

The Mets had pulled to within 2½ games of the first-place Cubs when the North Siders made their final trip to Shea Stadium in early September for a two-game series.  Once again, the memorable moment occurred in Seaver's start, as Tom Terrific was on the hill when a black cat wandered onto the field and walked in front of Chicago's dugout.  The cat may have been given credit for delivering the knockout punch on the Cubs' season, but it was actually Koosman who supplied the first blow to Chicago in the series opener.

In the bottom of the first, Cubs' manager Leo Durocher wanted to set the tone for the series and ordered pitcher Bill Hands to throw at Mets' leadoff hitter Tommie Agee.  Hands threw a fastball that was up and in to Agee, but did not hit him.  Not liking what he saw, Koosman retaliated in the top of the second, drilling Ron Santo with a pitch.  Koosman's message to Durocher kept the Cubs on their heels all game, as the lefty went on to strike out 13 batters - the second-highest total of his career - in the Mets' 3-2 victory.

Four days after Koosman's victory over the Cubs, the Mets swept a doubleheader from the Pittsburgh Pirates, winning both games, 1-0, with Koosman and fellow moundsman Don Cardwell driving in the only runs in each game.  Cardwell's feat wasn't totally unexpected, as the veteran right-hander knew how to handle a bat.  Entering the game, Cardwell had amassed 15 homers and 51 RBI in 749 career plate appearances.  But Koosman was the definition of "automatic out" at the plate, as he was just 10-for-161 with 102 strikeouts for his career up to that point.

"Kooz kept telling me he hit a line drive," Cardwell said of the rare occurrence.  "I checked with the other guys and they said, 'Cardy, he hit it off the end of the bat, it was a blooper.'"

The face of a man who doesn't hit bloopers.  (Focus On Sport/Getty Images)

Of course, Koosman was convinced the ball was hit solidly off his bat, even if it wasn't.  But no one needed to be convinced that the Mets were about to clinch their first postseason appearance.  Koosman's 1-0 win over the Pirates was the first of three complete-game shutouts he pitched in September, helping the Mets coast to the first-ever N.L. East title.  Koosman finished the regular season - his second as an All-Star - with a 17-9 record, 2.28 ERA, 180 strikeouts (despite spending most of May on the disabled list) and a career-best 1.058 WHIP.

Koosman's first postseason start didn't go according to plan, as he allowed six runs and was knocked out of the game in the fifth inning.  But the Mets bailed him out by doing what they had rarely done before in a Koosman start; score a plethora of runs.  In fact, the Mets' 11-6 victory over the Atlanta Braves in Game Two of the NLCS marked the first time in Koosman's 70 career starts that the team reached double digits in runs scored.

Kooz's next playoff start was a complete turnaround from his first.  After the Mets lost Seaver's start in Game One of the World Series, Koosman carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning of Game Two before Paul Blair singled to lead off the frame.  Blair later stole second and scored the tying run on a single by Brooks Robinson.  The Mets retook the lead in the eighth on a run-scoring hit by Al Weis and Koosman and closer Ron Taylor did the rest, keeping the Orioles off the scoreboard in the ninth to tie the series.

After Koosman got the Mets back on the winning track, New York returned to Shea Stadium and promptly won Games Three and Four.  Manager Gil Hodges then gave the ball to Koosman for Game Five, hoping the lefty would pitch the Mets to a championship.  Koosman got off to a rough start, allowing home runs to pitcher Dave McNally and slugger Frank Robinson.  But after Robinson's blast, which gave Baltimore a 3-0 lead, Koosman settled down, retiring 19 of the next 21 batters to face him.

In the sixth, the Mets began their rally with a little help from Koosman's foot.  Cleon Jones, who had just two hits in 18 at-bats in the World Series, led off the inning by appearing to get out of the way of a ball in the dirt.  But manager Gil Hodges convinced home plate umpire Lou DiMuro that Jones had been hit by the pitch, presenting a ball stained with shoe polish as evidence.  DiMuro agreed with Hodges, sending Jones to first.  Koosman, though, had an idea whose shoe polish was on the ball.

"(The ball) came to me," Koosman recalled.  "I wasn't sitting but a couple of yards from Gil and he says 'slide it on your shoe and throw it here' and I did it.  And he took it and he walked out to the umpire with it.  And there was shoe polish on the ball.  Whether it was mine or Cleon's is debatable.  I didn't have time to look (to see if there was shoe polish on it), it all happened so fast.  Hodges was way ahead of me.  He was a genius."

Hodges' quick thinking gave the Mets a base runner.  One batter later, it gave the Mets two runs, as Donn Clendenon followed Jones' phantom HBP with a lead-slicing home run.  As Koosman continued to mow down Orioles' hitters, the Mets proceeded to take apart the Orioles' pitchers.  Light-hitting Al Weis tied the game in the seventh with a rare home run.  The Mets then took the lead an inning later on a run-scoring double by Ron Swoboda and an an error by first baseman Boog Powell.  This time, Koosman wouldn't need relief help from Taylor, as he pitched a scoreless ninth, retiring Davey Johnson on a fly ball to Jones to end the game and give the Mets an improbable World Series victory.

The No. 2 pitcher in the Mets' rotation was No. 1 after defeating the Orioles.  (Walter Iooss Jr./Getty Images)

Alas, neither Koosman nor the team couldn't repeat the success from 1969 in subsequent seasons, as the Mets won exactly 83 games in each year from 1970 to 1972.  Koosman dealt with nagging injuries in the first two seasons following the team's championship, missing three weeks in 1970 and over a month in 1971, then was relegated to the bullpen by new manager Yogi Berra after a poor start to the 1972 campaign.  After going 36-21 with a 2.18 ERA in his first two full seasons in the majors, Koosman was a disappointing 29-30 with a 3.41 ERA from 1970 to 1972.  Koosman entered the 1973 campaign determined to turn his career around.  It nearly took him the entire season, but Koosman kept his promise and delivered one of the most memorable stretch runs in franchise history.

The 1973 season began with Koosman almost being traded to the San Francisco Giants for slugger Dave Kingman, but general manager Joe McDonald turned down the deal because the Giants wanted Jon Matlack instead.  With Koosman still on the team, the Mets got off to a great start, going 12-8 in April and ending the month on a high note, as Koosman pitched a complete-game shutout in the month's final game.  The victory earned Koosman (4-0, 1.06 ERA in April) his first N.L. Player of the Month Award.  Koosman eventually ran his record to 5-0 before losing 14 of his next 17 decisions.  Once again, Koosman was victimized by poor run support during his rough patch, more so than any of his pitching brethren.  From May 27 to August 14, the Mets scored one run or fewer 25 times; 11 of those games were started by Koosman.  So if the Mets weren't going to score for Koosman, he would have to keep opposing hitters from circling the bases.  He did just that, and in doing so, helped the Mets go from last to first in the span of six weeks.

On August 19, the Mets were 12 games under .500 and bringing up the rear in the mediocre N.L. East.  Then Koosman defeated the Cincinnati Reds, 2-1, with the Reds' only run scoring on an error.  After allowing the unearned run to cross the plate, Koosman proceeded to toss 31⅔ consecutive scoreless innings, setting a new franchise record that wouldn't be broken for nearly four decades.  As Koosman was putting up zeroes, the Mets were reeling off wins, and by the time Koosman allowed his next run on September 7, the Mets had leapfrogged over two teams and were just four games out of first place.  Incredibly, New York continued to win and chip away at the deficit.  When the Mets faced the first-place Pirates at Shea Stadium on September 20, they were just 1½ games out of first.  And that's when "The Ball on the Wall" became part of the Mets' lexicon, which of course, happened in a game started by Koosman.

Koosman pitched eight solid innings, allowing just one earned run and four hits, but got a no-decision because, you know, run support.  In the top of the 13th inning, the Mets kept the Pirates off the scoreboard when Cleon Jones fielded Dave Augustine's double off the top of the left field wall, then fired to shortstop Wayne Garrett, who made a perfect throw to catcher Ron Hodges to nail Richie Zisk at the plate.  Hodges then delivered the game-winning hit in the bottom of the frame.  A day later, the Mets completed the sweep of the Bucs to move into first place by half a game.

Once the Mets took over the lead in the N.L. East, they never gave it up, as Koosman made two starts in the season's final week and failed to allow an earned run in either of them.  For the second time in five seasons, the Mets were N.L. East champions, and Koosman was one of the main reasons why the team was playing in October again.  In his final ten starts, Koosman went 6-1 with a 1.30 ERA.  That included a start on September 11 in which he allowed six runs to the Phillies.  Take out that start - his only loss during the season's final six weeks - and his ERA was just 0.65.

The Mets' opponent in the NLCS was the Cincinnati Reds, who were attempting to win their third pennant in four seasons.  Koosman refused to be intimidated by the Big Red Machine, even after Pete Rose and Buddy Harrelson started a bench-clearing brawl at second base in the fifth inning.  Despite the long wait for the fight to settle and for the fans to stop throwing things at Rose when he took the field in the bottom of the fifth, Koosman was not rattled, allowing no runs and only two hits the rest of the way.  His complete-game victory gave him a 3-0 postseason record in four starts, with the Mets winning the game in which Koosman earned a no-decision.

The Reds could only watch from the dugout as Koosman defeated them in the NLCS.  (Focus On Sport/Getty Images)

The World Series against the Oakland A's did not have the happy ending the Mets were hoping for, as the Mets dropped the series in seven games.  Koosman started two of the three games won by New York in the series and put the Mets within a victory of the title pitching on short rest in Game Five.  The A's may have led the American League in runs scored in 1973, but none of that mattered to Koosman, who shut them out for 6⅓ innings in the critical fifth game.  Short rest clearly didn't affect Koosman in his Game Five victory.  The same could not be said for Seaver and Matlack, as both pitchers fell behind early in Games Six and Seven and the team couldn't recover.  Koosman could only watch from the bullpen, where he was warming up to come into Game Seven in relief had his manager deemed it necessary.

"I never got into that ballgame," Koosman said.  "That's the game I remember most, being in the bullpen and just so ready to come in."

The Mets needed seven wins in the 1973 postseason to win the championship.  They managed just six, with Koosman starting half of the team's victories.  In fact, between 1969 and 1973, Koosman made six postseason starts for the team.  The Mets won all six.  On a team with two former Rookie of the Year Award winners (Seaver, Matlack), it was Koosman who became their most dependable postseason pitcher.  A year later, he became the team's best pitcher.

With Seaver enduring the worst season of his eight-year career in 1974 (11-11, 3.20 ERA), it was Koosman who carried the load for the team, winning 15 games for the first time since 1969 and pitching a career-high 265 innings.  Unfortunately, the rest of the club couldn't follow Koosman's lead.  Kooz finished the year with a 15-11 record.  The team's other pitchers were a combined 56-80.  It was New York's first losing season since Koosman's rookie year.

The Mets recovered to win 82 games in 1975, winning the final game of the season to finish above .500.  Koosman had a strong finish for the team, pitching to a 2.41 ERA in his final ten appearances, which included two saves in a couple of rare relief efforts by the lefty.

In 1976, the Mets got off to a poor start and were out of contention by the middle of June.  On the morning of June 23, the Mets' record was 33-37 and they were 14½ games behind the first-place Phillies.  Koosman was also off to a mediocre start, as he was 6-6 with a 4.36 ERA.  But just as the Mets found their second wind as spring turned to summer, so did Koosman.  The Mets went 53-39 in their last 92 games, with Koosman being the team's main contributor, going 15-4 with a 1.79 ERA in 20 appearances (19 starts).  The year ended with the Mets winning 86 games - the second-highest total in franchise history at the time - and Koosman posting his first 20-win season.  Koosman finished the year with a 21-10 record, 2.69 ERA, 1.096 WHIP and a career-high 200 strikeouts.  But just as he did eight years earlier when he finished behind Johnny Bench in the Rookie of the Year vote, Koosman had to settle for second-best on the 1976 Cy Young Award ballot, as the Padres' Randy Jones took home the prize as the league's top pitcher, even though Koosman had a higher winning percentage, lower ERA and more than twice as many strikeouts as Jones had.

The 1976 season signified the last hurrah for Koosman and the Mets, as the dawn of the free agent era caused the team to count its pennies rather than use them to bring the top tier of talent to Flushing.  As a result, the team plummeted in the standings in 1977.  By the time the trade deadline arrived in mid-June, the Mets were ten games under .500 and mired in last place.  They were also a team of disgruntled players, as several veterans were becoming well aware that if they were going to continue playing in New York, they would have to do so earning far less money than if they were playing somewhere else.  Tom Seaver was the first to go.  He would be followed by Dave Kingman, who became a Met just two years earlier without the Mets having to trade Koosman or Matlack to acquire him.  Two months later, catcher Jerry Grote was dealt away, followed by Matlack and Harrelson during the off-season.  Needless to say, Koosman was not happy with the state of the Mets.

"How could they trade him?" Koosman said about his long-time pitching mate.  "Tom was one of the first, and after Tom we kept dropping like flies.  (General manager Joe) McDonald was making trades that just did not make sense.  We were not getting better.  We were getting worse.  It was like every general manager in the league was taking advantage of us."

"Pssst, Jerry.  We're trading you next."  (William N. Jacobellis/NY Post Archives)

Through all the tumult, Koosman remained, even though he had just followed up his first 20-win campaign with his first season of 20 losses.  Koosman finished the 1977 campaign with an 8-20 record, despite having a respectable 3.49 ERA and a league-leading 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings.  But on a team that finished dead last in batting average, on-base percentage, runs scored and home runs, it should come as no surprise that in 16 of Koosman's 20 losses, the Mets scored no more than two runs.

It was more of the same for Koosman in 1978, as he went 3-15 with a 3.75 ERA and watched his teammates score two runs or fewer in ten of the 15 defeats.  The pitcher who was second in the Rookie of the Year vote, second in the Cy Young balloting and second to Tom Seaver in virtually every pitching category didn't want to spend another second in New York.  At the conclusion of the 1978 campaign, Koosman demanded a trade back home to Minnesota and the Mets obliged, shipping him to the Twins for minor league pitcher Greg Field and a player to be named later, who ended up being Jesse Orosco.  Koosman's departure was bittersweet, but all parties involved ended up benefiting from the transaction.

"It was sad to leave New York, but New York was in a rebuilding process at the time," Koosman said.  "I wanted to move on and play for a club that had a chance to win."

Of course, Orosco became a mainstay in the Mets' bullpen for eight seasons and became as good a postseason pitcher for the Mets as Koosman was, winning three games in the 1986 NLCS and saving two others in that year's World Series, including the seventh and deciding game against the Boston Red Sox.  Koosman, meanwhile, had already retired before the Mets won their second championship, but not before he won 82 more games in the majors, including the second 20-win season of his career in 1979 while he was pitching for the Twins.  Koosman also made a return to the postseason in 1983 as a member of the Chicago White Sox, pitching one game in relief in the ALCS against the Baltimore Orioles.

In all, Koosman won 222 games in the majors, with 140 of them coming in a Mets uniform.  Only Seaver and Dwight Gooden ended their Mets careers with more.  Seaver, Koosman and Gooden are also the answer to just about every trivia question pertaining to the top three starting pitchers in franchise history.  But Seaver and Gooden were right-handed pitchers.  No discussion about the greatest left-handed pitchers in club annals can be had without Koosman being mentioned at the top.  The pitcher who was constantly No. 2 throughout his career with the Mets has no rival among southpaws.

Jerry Koosman played his first game with the Mets on a squad that would go on to lose over 100 games.  When Koosman played his final game in New York, he was on a team that nearly reached triple digits in losses.  In between, Koosman became the greatest postseason pitcher in franchise history despite playing for a team that provided him with very little offensive support.  Koosman also provided many key late-season moments that helped the team qualify for the playoffs.  And of course, Koosman never let anyone intimidate him, always pitching with ice in his veins and a fire in his heart.

With a career that lasted nearly two decades, including a dozen seasons in a Mets uniform, Koosman lived through all the highs and lows a player can experience in baseball, but one of those moments always stood out above the others.  That's what becoming a champion tends to do to a player.

"It is no doubt the highlight of my baseball life," Koosman said.  "Winning the World Series changes your life.  There's a closeness that comes from it, you're kind of like brothers to your teammates.  You have a much different relationship with them when you have that in common."

For a player who had become accustomed to being second-best, finishing on top made it all worthwhile.

Koosman and Seaver will always be linked, especially as champions.  (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Note: The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets was a thirteen-part weekly series (that's "was" - as in the past tense of "is" - because you just read the final installment) spotlighting those Mets players and personnel who experienced the best of times and the worst of times with the team.  For previous installments, please click on the names below:

January 2, 2017: Tom Seaver
January 9, 2017: Mike Piazza
January 16, 2017: Wally Backman
January 23, 2017: Daniel Murphy
January 30, 2017: Frank Cashen
February 6, 2017: Ed Kranepool
February 13, 2017: Doug Sisk
February 20, 2017: Joan Whitney Payson 
February 27, 2017: John Franco and Armando Benitez 
March 6, 2017: Dwight Gooden
March 13, 2017: Bobby Valentine
March 20, 2017: Jesse Orosco


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