Friday, April 4, 2014

What If Gil Hodges Had Lived Longer?

 April 4, 1924, 90 years ago: Gilbert Raymond Hodges is born in Princeton, Indiana.

April 2, 1972: Gil Hodges, manager of the New York Mets and formerly a superb first baseman and powerful slugger for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, dies of a heart attack at spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida.

What if the manager who had engineered the Mets' 1969 "Miracle" had lived longer?


Yogi Berra was promoted from coach to manager after Gil's death. He got the Mets to the 1973 Pennant. But he is often criticized for starting Tom Seaver on 3 days' rest in Game 6 of the World Series at the Oakland Coliseum, instead of saving him for Game 7. The Oakland Athletics beat Seaver in Game 6, and then beat Jon Matlack in Game 7.

But if not Seaver, who would Hodges have started in Game 6? Matlack was not yet available, having pitched Game 4. Jerry Koosman was not available, having pitched Game 5. The Mets' 4th starter, George Stone, had last pitched in relief in Game 2, pitching the 12th inning and getting the win, but allowing a run. Other than that, his last appearance was starting  in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series against the Cincinnati Reds, 11 days earlier, and losing.

No, Seaver was the right pick: At that moment, Tom Seaver on 3 days' rest was better than almost anyone else on full rest. Don't blame Yogi for the choice: Almost certainly, Gil would have made it, too.

So having Hodges still alive in October 1973 doesn't make a difference. What about afterward?

With team owner Joan Payson in failing health, team chairman M. Donald Grant was pretty much doing whatever he wanted, trading away players he felt too expensive or too unwilling to go along with management. The Mets had a bad year in 1974, but finished 3rd in 1975 and 1976, winning 86 games in the latter year, so they weren't terrible.

It all came crashing down in 1977, with the most notable example being Koosman, who went from 21-10 to 8-20 (and then 3-15 in 1978, before he was traded to Minnesota and then won 36 games over the next 2 years). And, of course, on June 15, came the Midnight Massacre, Grant trading Seaver to the Reds for 4 players, and Dave Kingman (who, it should be said, was hitting very poorly at the time) to the San Diego Padres for 2 guys, one being a broken-down, washed-up Bobby Valentine.

Now, imagine that Gil Hodges, still managing the Mets at the age of 53, had told M. Donald Grant, "If you trade Seaver, I will resign."

It was Grant who hired Hodges to manage the Mets in 1968, after he'd been fired as manager of the Washington Senators. Would Grant have listened to Hodges, or called his bluff? With Mrs. Payson dead, and her daughter, Lorinda de Roulet, as owner, he could pretty much do what he wanted without "Linda" (as she preferred to be called) slapping him down. But would he really have wanted to be known as the man who pushed Tom Seaver AND Gil Hodges out of New York?

Grant calls Hodges' bluff: "Go ahead and quit."

Hodges isn't bluffing, and he tells the New York media, which loves him, what happened.

Grant makes Joe Torre the new manager. (Which happened in RL, only earlier in the year, as Joe Frazier -- not the boxer -- was fired.)

The next day, June 16, 1977, the Mets start a homestand by playing the Houston Astros. Only 8,915 fans come out. (This was the attendance in RL.) Two of them bring a banner to Shea Stadium. They unfurl it during the 7th Inning Stretch. It reads:

TOM 41 & GIL 14

Saturday, June 18 -- the same day as the Reggie Jackson-Billy Martin bustup in Fenway -- 52,784 come out to Shea for Banner Day. (As in RL -- the Mets' biggest home crowd the rest of the season, aside from when Cincinnati came in with Seaver, was 24,445. 29 home games had fewer than 15,000 fans. Shea became nicknamed "Grant's Tomb.")

The banners that come out are vicious. "GRANT SUCKS" seems to be a popular theme. "GIL & TOM SI, GRANT NO" reads one carried by a group of Puerto Rican fans. A pair of Italian fans bring a banner calling Grant the profanity "SFACCIM." It gets confiscated, but the guys become Met fan heroes for all time.

Mrs. de Roulet has had enough. She doesn't want anything to do with the Mets anymore. She seeks out a buyer, and finds the team of Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon, and by the close of the 1978 season, the Mets are sold out of the Payson family for the first time. Doubleday and Wilpon immediately fire Grant, and hire Hodges back as general manager.

When Torre is fired at the end of the 1981 season, he is immediately picked up as manager by the Atlanta Braves, so his story doesn't change much. But who do Doubleday and Wilpon hire as Met manager? Hodges. They move him back into the dugout, and hire Frank Cashen to be their general manager.

By early 1984, the Mets are respectable again. On October 27, 1986, the Mets are World Champions. This is the 2nd time, it's happened, and both times, Gil Hodges was the manager.

In 1987, the first time he is eligible through the Veterans Committee, Gil Hodges is elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

He gets the Mets to the 1988 NL Eastern Division title, and takes Dwight Gooden out so that he doesn't get tired in Game 4, and the Mets finish the Los Angeles Dodgers off in Game 5. There is something fitting about the Mets, the spiritual successors to both the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, getting their first chance against the Los Angeles team owned by the O'Malley family and beating them with Gil Hodges as their manager. But they lose the World Series to the A's, as they don't have a clutch pinch-hitter to save them in Game 1 like Kirk Gibson did for the Dodgers in RL.

On April 2, 1989, just before the new season starts, Gil Hodges dies of a heart attack at spring training in Port St. Lucie, Florida. He was just short of turning 65.

The Mets immediately retire his Number 14, joining the 37 of Casey Stengel and the 41 of Tom Seaver. Patches with the letters GRH are sewn onto the players' sleeves. The Mets' new spring-training home at Port St. Lucie is officially renamed Gil Hodges Memorial Stadium. A Statue of Gil is placed outside Shea later that year. The Marine Parkway Bridge is renamed for him. (In RL, this happened in 1978.) Tidewater Tides manager Mike Cubbage is promoted to manage the Mets, but can't maintain the excellence, and is undone by factors beyond his control, especially the injuries to, and aging of, the 1984-88 Met stars.

Before Game 3 of the 2000 World Series, Gil Hodges Jr., a securities executive, throws out the ceremonial first ball. It ends up being the only World Series game the Mets have won since October 18, 1988.

In 2009, the Mets open Citi Field. The Hodges statue is moved to the center field concourse, adjacent to Shea Bridge, much like the one of Richie Ashburn at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.