“So many years gone by…” — J.C. Martin.
Fifty years ago, J.C. Martin won a World Series with the New York Mets, the one-time bumblers whose ridiculously unlikely championship remains the stuff of baseball lore.
Fifty years ago, I was a 16-year-old kid on Long Island whose mom let him eat dinner off a TV tray in the den so he could watch this fairy tale come to life.
J.C. is partly right. So many years have gone by. The summer of ’69 seems forever ago. And yet here we are on a Saturday afternoon at his apartment in a retirement community in Matthews, the former Met and the former teen-ager swapping memories of a team and a time that will not fade.
All summer, fueled by my chronic sentimentality, I was caught in the hoopla surrounding the ’69 Mets. My parents grew up near Yankee Stadium, and I grew up 20 minutes from Shea Stadium. I rooted hardest for the team having the better season. In 1969, that was the Mets.
I read “After the Miracle,” right fielder Art Shamsky’s account of a pilgrimage to see the great Tom Seaver, homebound in northern California with dementia. I followed coverage of the reunion in New York in June that welcomed Mets legends like Cleon Jones and Jerry Koosman and lesser-knowns like J.C., a reserve catcher and son of a cop from Martinsville, Va. He and his wife, Barbara, went to the reunion and came home with a No. 69 replica jersey. “Living guys who are still breathing signed it,” he told me.
But the kid in me didn’t come alive until I read a Where Are They Now? piece in the New York Post. Tug McGraw, who made “Ya Gotta Believe” part of our vocabulary, died of brain cancer in 2004. Bud Harrelson, all field and little hit (much like my Little League career) is living with Alzheimer’s on Long Island. And J.C. Martin, 82, whose World Series sacrifice-bunt-gone-awry will outlive him, is retired in Matthews
Better than finding your old baseball cards in the attic is finding out that one of the Amazin’ Mets lives nearby. And so here I am on the eve of the World Series, sitting in his home with J.C. and his shrine of a den, talking about heroes like Koufax and Musial and characters like Stengel and Berra. He remembers facing Sandy Koufax once in spring training. Once was enough. “Good gosh, he threw me a hunk of Charlie,” J.C. said. That’s slang for a curveball Martin couldn’t hit in a million years.
Here in the den is where he and Barbara watch the game he barely recognizes. Forget about the hit and run, he grouses, “It’s swing, swing, swing.”
Here’s where he revisits his baseball life through the dozens of framed photos from yesteryear that grace the walls. His wife and daughters did it, for Dad. There are three front and back pages of the New York Daily News chronicling the Mets’ world championship. And there’s the black-and-white photo of J.C. racing to first as his sacrifice bunt wins Game Four of the Series against the heavily favored Orioles (Frank and Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, et al).
That moment made J.C. more than a footnote in Baseball Encyclopedia.
It’s an October afternoon 50 years ago this week. J.C.’s at the plate in Shea Stadium. The Mets are up 2-1 in games. Game 4 is tied 1-1 in the bottom of the 10th. The Mets have men on first and second, no outs.
Manager Gil Hodges sends J.C. to the plate to sacrifice bunt. It would be his only at-bat of the Series. On the first pitch, a fastball up and in, he lays down a perfect bunt and takes off. J.C. runs like a catcher. Orioles relief pitcher Pete Richert decides to take the sure out at first. Only his throw hits J.C. on the left wrist and caroms into no man’s land. Pinch runner Rod Gaspar races home from second to win the game. The Mets go up three games to one. The devastated Orioles go down in five.
The Daily News photo of the play hangs on his wall, the centerpiece of his baseball gallery. It, and 50 years of grainy footage, appear to show J.C. running illegally inside the first-base line, blocking the throw to first. The rule book states that the ball is dead and the runners return to their original bases if the batter runs inside (to the left of) the foul line and the umpires rules he’s interfered with the fielder taking the throw at first.
But that’s what the rule book says. As J.C. is quick to note a half-century later, the umps said there was no interference. Then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn backed them up, saying it was a judgment call that can be argued but not protested. Anyway, J.C. maintains to this day, “Every runner runs inside that line.”
The run scored. The Mets won. Now and forever, J.C. has The Bunt. Long after the Series, he ran into Orioles manager Earl Weaver on a cruise. Weaver was still cursing the play.
Then as now, J.C. just smiles.
Glory, like summers past, is fleeting. J.C. was traded to the Cubs the following year. He retired after the 1972 season. Over 14 seasons with the White Sox, Mets and Cubs, his career batting average was .222.
He and Barbara moved to the Charlotte area three years ago to be closer to their three kids and their families. They have seven grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and the usual assortment of ailments that comes with age.
J.C. and Barbara remain ardent church-goers. The story goes that some of the Mets who spent Sunday morning sleeping off Saturday night got a kick out of trying to get J.C. to curse. He laughs when I bring that up. He’s still in touch with his 1969 roommate, Al Weis, another Met with a moment: His seventh-inning home run in Game 5 against the Orioles helped win the Series. It was one of seven home runs Weis hit in his career.
It’s time to go.
But before I do, I ask Barbara to take a photo of the two of us in front of the wall of memories. I’ve looked at that picture dozens of times on my phone, the Met and the teenager, 50 years after the miracle.
Forever young? Upon further review, maybe so.