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Charles in Charge

I watched an auto race yesterday as part of my job, supposedly it was an important one, though I wouldn't know any better because that's not a sport I follow. Apparently hundreds of thousands of people gather in this section of Florida, one that's better known for this big event than for the former Met who was born there.

The story of Daytona Beach native Ed Charles is one of perseverance, dedication, and yes, walk-offs. Born in 1933, Charles signed with the Boston Braves in 1952, after they spotted him playing semi-pro ball, but since he was a third baseman for a team that had Eddie Mathews manning the position, Charles got stuck in the minor leagues. There's more to the story, as described in Maury Allen's book "After the Miracle" as Charles believed there was a quota for black players in the Braves organization and he didn't make the roster because of it.

The Braves traded Charles to the Kansas City Athletics in December 1961 and his career began the same year that the Mets did, 1962. Charles was nicknamed "The Glider" for his speed and smooth play, and "The Poet" for his love of the written work. He is described on Baseball-Reference.com as similar to the likes of Melvin Mora and Joel Youngblood which isn't too bad a combo for a big leaguer. He had his best season as a rookie, hitting .288 with 17 home runs and 20 steals.

By the time Charles was traded to the Mets, in the early part of the 1967 season, he was 34 so his skills had slowed down a bit. But he was still a useful player, at a position at which the Mets had a history of being unable to find a regular.

The baseball went dead in 1968 and batting averages suffered. On May 20, Charles was hitting just .218 and was listed seventh in Gil Hodges lineup against the Pittsburgh Pirates that day. The game turned into your typical 1968 contest, with neither team able to do much offensively. Rookie lefty Jerry Koosman was terrific for the Mets and Pirates southpaw Bob Veale was equally brilliant. Both struck out 10.

The Mets loaded the bases in the second and couldn't score, but did manage to take the lead in the fourth when Charles homered- his first hit in more than two weeks. The Pirates got the run back quickly, tying the game in the fifth on an RBI single by future Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski.

We headed to the ninth still even and the Pirates nearly took the lead then. Tommie Agee's error on Manny Mota's single gave Pittsburgh a runner on second with one out, but Koosman snared Donn Clendenon's line drive and turned it into an inning-ending double play.

Charles led off the last of the ninth and perhaps on another day, Hodges would have pinch-hit and tried to manufacture a run. But The Glider was 2-for-2 with a walk and Hodges let him bat. The result was, for lack of a better term, poetry in motion, or in this case, a walk-off home run. It gave the Mets a 2-1 triumph and perhaps restored Charles' confidence. Yes, he went 1-for-7 the next day (in another walk-off win that we'll review another time), but soon after that, he was hitting like his old self. He finished with a .276 batting average and 15 home runs.

That meant that the Mets would keep him around for the 1969 season, which allowed Charles to become a significant part of team history. He only hit .209 that year but was entrusted to play third base when it most counted, in the World Series. Charles scored the winning run in Game 2. He can be seen in the background of pictures of Koosman leaping into the arms of catcher Jerry Grote after the clinching win in Game 5 and heard on the Fleetword album commemorating the championship season screaming "It's a wonderful feeling! Oh, mercy!"

That turned out to be Charles' last big league game as he was released a few weeks after the series. It wasn't the best of parting gifts, but Charles was too cheerful a person to remain bitter for long. He later worked for the Mets, became a regular participant in their fantasy baseball camps and a willing autograph signer at baseball card shows. He's 73 now, which is rather frightening to people like my dad and others who followed the team in that era. They remember him as young (relatively speaking) and enthusiastic.

The best thing about the Daytona 500 is that it's over and now the residents of Florida can go back to focusing on what's important- baseball. Spring is in the air there and there's a spring in every step. Hopefully they'll glide through it nicely, just like Ed Charles would.

True Metgliders know...Ed Charles went 3-for-3 that day. That's the best out/error-free performance by a Mets hitter in a game in which he got the walk-off hit (ie: no other Met has ever gone 3-for-3, 4-for-4, or 5-for-5 in a game in which he had a walk-off)

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