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Ball on The Wall Remembered

September 20 marks the 32nd anniversary of one of the most famous walk-off wins in Mets history. During the 1973 pennant race, the turning point came in a Mets-Pirates game at Shea Stadium. As I was not born until 16 months afterwards, I didn't feel I could do the game justice by rewriting the details. So I've brought in a guestwriter today. Barry Federovitch is a sportswriter/copy editor at the Trenton Times. This game has a special meaning for him, and I'll let him explain...

Thirty-two years later, Met Nation is beaten down.

Another September of Atlanta supremacy, of Yankee backpages. Another fall without the postseason, of autumn fades and bullpen implosions.

How long must it go on? Whose soul was sold and for what to suffer this fate?

They are called Amazin's, but what does that mean? Is it a joke for a tortured fandom?

Static-filled WFAN programs fill depressed nights and then we remember when those Met flags on the pole were earned. They were not just pennants, but new definitions of euphoria, unique ways to win the unwinnable. And we do not waver.

This was never a bully franchise; that's for the Bronx. That 1986 team that won 108 games in the regular season had to revert to its roots in the postseason with a Buckner moment. No four-game sweeps for this club.

After 120 losses in 1962, there was 1969. The big ruse followed. There would be no dynasty built on the great pitching. The great offense would never arrive. Injuries, disillusionment and 3.5 seasons later, one wondered if 1969 ever happened.

And then came the play that defined us, more than the Buckner play, deeper than the Agee and Swoboda catches, more surrealistically than a Seaver or Ryan pitch.

September 20, 1973, Shea Stadium. On the day when the magical Willie Mays announced his retirement following the end of the season, we were given the most magical of Met moments in the literal sense.

It's been called the Ball on the Wall Play or the Ball on the Wall Miracle, but others might've dubbed it 'The Relay' or 'The Corner of the Fence Play' or even '358 Degrees of Separation.' Who cares? Miracles aren't defined by names, but by spirits. Mets fans have long been accustomed to being second-best most of the time; that too didn't matter. The quality of the glory would outweigh the quantity. That one big fish would outdo the other guy's boatload of fish and that's the way we liked it.

On September 20, 1973, the Mets went fishing for a victory in the heat of a five-team N.L. East pennant race and hooked a legacy. Down 2-1 in the eighth, they score one to tie. Down 3-2 in the ninth, with two outs, Duffy Dyer (he of the .185 batting average that season) doubles to tie it.

And then, like Marciano landing that big shot on Wolcott, came the lucky 13th round.
The Mets' Ray Sadecki on the mound. The Pirates' Richie Zisk on first with two outs and rookie Dave Augustine at-bat. Augustine lines Sadecki's pitch to left and it looks like a homer. Cleon Jones turns his back to the plate to watch it go into the visiting bullpen, right over the 358 sign.

Close your eyes. You've imagined it so many times before. The ball is speeding towards the inevitable Pirate pennant until...

In your mind, what do you hear? Bang? Thud? Clang? At that moment, all is frozen in time at Shea Stadium and the ball, like a ball of yarn yanked by a cat, reverses course after striking the very top of the fence. The yarn spins back to Cleon, who is perfectly positioned to catch it. His relay to Wayne Garrett is perfect. Garrett's relay to Ron Hodges is even better.

Zisk, a mere mortal caught in the vortex of surreal energy, is too stunned to offer a collision in anger. He is out and so are the Pirates. No team on Earth could have beaten the Mets at that moment.

The Mets win the game, take the N.L. East 11 days later and then the pennant too.

Rationalists minimize the overall effect when the Mets come up a game short in the World Series vs. Oakland. Not enough hitting. Too many injuries. Too good an opponent.

Thirty-two years later, however, it is still there, the magic of a Thursday night in New York, the glass-is-half-full realization that fractions of inches can make all the difference in life, gusts of wind or ounces of strength toeing the line between success and failure.

Through the decades, we are occasionally reminded by a Steve Henderson or a Grand-Slam Single. We are brought to our feet by 10-run rallies and today's Matt Franco. We are usually let down, but it is OK because every so often we have our miracle.

We have won the unwinnable and the ball is just now coming down off the wall to Cleon. This is who we are.

Can you hear it?
- Barry Federovitch is a sportswriter and life-long Mets fan, who grew up in Roselle Park and Howell, New Jersey and now lives in Hamilton. On Sept. 20, 1974, a year to the day of "Ball on the Wall," his father Frank Federovitch was suffering from throat cancer and went in for surgery. During the surgery he was given the wrong blood type and was dead for five minutes; he pulled through the surgery and lived almost another 23 years. He never stopped believing in the magic of the Mets.

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Comments

Awesome!

I watched that game! I was 9 in 1973 and it was the first year I followed the team intensely, watching games on a black and white TV in my room or listening to WHN on my transistor radio.

That ball hit the top of the fence and bounced right to Cleon! You couldn't plan that scenario in a million years.

Great post.

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