Mets honor '69 World Series champions

NEW YORK -- Jerry Manuel was 15 when the Miracle Mets came out of nowhere to win the 1969 World Series.

That ballclub didn't really grab the attention of the current New York manager during his impressionable teenage years. Football and other activities were on his radar in those days, but decades later he learned exactly what turned that team from lovable losers into unlikely champions.

Manuel played senior league baseball in Florida in an infield that included Bud Harrelson at shortstop and former Mets catcher Jerry Grote at third base. Manuel marveled from his spot at second base at how competitive and focused on details his older teammates still were.

"Just from that brief experience ... I could see why they were champions," Manuel said Saturday before the '69 Mets were honored 40 years after their title. "You're taking the word 'gamer' to another level, even at the senior league."

The biggest cheers Saturday night were reserved for star pitchers Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Famer who hadn't attended a Mets function since being traded by the team in 1971.

In all, 21 players and coaches -- including another Hall of Famer, Yogi Berra -- lined the arc just behind the infield dirt at Citi Field, which is hosting its first season. The ballpark they called home, Shea Stadium, is gone, reduced to rubble in the parking lot.

But with a full house on hand to celebrate the past, this group of aging ballplayers sure made Citi Field feel like home.

The first and third base lines were adorned with "Mets 1969," and a pennant with a big "69" in the middle was mowed into the center-field grass for the current homestand.

One by one the former players and coaches were introduced to the crowd, which was filled with fans of all ages -- many of whom weren't born when the Mets captivated the baseball world by going from the bottom of the National League to improbable champions in their eighth season.

"People called us the Miracle Mets, but nothing was impossible when you played for [manager] Gil Hodges," Seaver said near the end of the 35-minute ceremony.

Hodges, who died three years after the postseason run against Atlanta and AL powerhouse Baltimore, was fondly remembered by Seaver and the rest of the players present.

"Without Gil Hodges, we wouldn't be sitting here today talking about the 1969 Mets," outfielder Cleon Jones said.

After taking over as manager in 1968, Hodges got to know his club. He stated in spring training of 1969 that he believed this team was better than most people thought -- including those in his own clubhouse.

With strong pitching and good defense, the Mets turned it around. After adding power hitter Donn Clendenon during the season, the making of a champion was complete.

Seaver, the only Mets player to have his number retired by the team, Ryan and Koosman all threw out ceremonial first pitches to catchers Grote, Duffy Dyer, and Berra -- the first-base and hitting coach in 1969.

Ron Swoboda said that being part of that team changed his life. He half-kidded that his career was made -- and remembered -- because of a diving catch in right field that robbed Baltimore's Brooks Robinson of a hit in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the World Series.

"Everybody up here had a better career than me," Swoboda said. "I'm still living off of one catch. It's not meager. It's a privilege, especially this one at 40 years and to have Nolan back here."

Swoboda struck the pose of his dive Saturday when he was introduced, and Jones re-enacted his drop-to-a-knee catch that ended the World Series.

"Every day is different [for me] because I was lucky enough to be on this team," Swoboda said, "and have guys like Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan pitching for you."