Anthony McCarron, SNY.tv | Twitter |
The three outfielders made an agreement before Game 5 of the 1969 World Series. If this was it, the day they finished something, well, amazing, they'd all dash toward the right-field bullpen to leave the field together.
Considering the tight bonds the '69 Mets enjoy to this day, that seems a fitting exit.
Cleon Jones camped under a fly ball hit by Davey Johnson of the Baltimore Orioles - yes, that Davey Johnson - and caught the final out of the Mets' improbable championship. But, Jones recalls now, "(Ron) Swoboda and (Tommie) Agee had already gone."
He adds with a chuckle: "That showed how much confidence they had in me to catch that ball."
By the time he turned around, Shea was bedlam. Fans streamed onto the field. Jones rushed back to the left-field bullpen, but the gate was closed. "I didn't have any choice," he says. "I had to jump over the left-field fence and go around. It might've been a smart move - Rod Gaspar stayed out to enjoy the celebration and they tore his uniform off, they took his glove, his shoes.
"He looked like he'd been in a fight with 20 men."
Jones' circuitous return to the Mets clubhouse meant he perhaps had a unique post-game celebration. He missed the initial hugs and joined in on pouring beer and champagne on his teammates in the clubhouse after they'd already begun. This weekend, though, he'll be there from the start as the Mets fete the '69 team in honor of the 50th anniversary of their World Series victory over the powerful Baltimore Orioles.
"We'll have a lot of laughs over those things, but we have other things in common, too," Jones says. "Family, being a complete team, caring about one another, doing things off the field. We cared enough to try to win for each other.
"That's what I treasure most - that we were a close-knit team. A family. I attribute that to Johnny Murphy, the GM at that time. What he put into it and what Gil (Hodges) put into it, that made all of that happen. Guys play together now on the same team, they're not even friends. We cared about one another."
Still, Jones acknowledges that this weekend will have melancholy moments, too. "When you lose some of the pieces of the puzzle, then it's kind of sweet and sour," he says. "You think about Ed Charles, Cal Koonce, (Don) Cardwell, Agee. All of the coaches except (Joe) Pignatano are gone. It's kind of bittersweet.
"When you look back at that year, it was a roster win. Not one person, not two. A whole roster committed to winning and able to pull it off. You're hopeful everyone can share in it, but it's been 50 years and we understand. All of us have to go at some point in time. It's unfortunate that all of us can't be there."
For Jones, it was the finest season of his 13-year career. His strong 1968, in which he batted .297, good for sixth in the National League, was a springboard to stardom in '69.
Jones batted .340, finishing third in the NL behind Pete Rose (.348) and Roberto Clemente (.345). He had a .904 OPS, made his only All-Star team and finished seventh in the NL MVP voting. He also batted .429 in the NLCS sweep of the Braves.
"I'm going to say this and I don't often say it - I would've won the batting title that year had I not cracked three ribs," Jones says.
Late in the summer, he had twisted to avoid colliding with Buddy Harrelson on a pop fly and fell. He didn't realize until later he was hurt. "It slowed me down quite and bit and I had been hitting the ball as well as I could've," Jones says. "I had never quite been in that zone before."
Neither had these Mets, who finished ninth in 1968 at 73-89. Until '69, that stood as the best record in the fledgling franchise's brief history.
"Gil told us in spring training that we were better than we think we are and that it would be proven during the season," Jones says. "Especially after June, we weren't making mistakes to beat ourselves.
"Gil, had he lived, the Mets would've won more pennants and perhaps more World Series."
Jones, who is 76, devotes much of his time nowadays to rebuilding Africatown, the Mobile, Ala., neighborhood where he was raised. It's called Africatown, Jones says, because the last slave ship that came to America landed there. Some of the people stayed and founded a community.
When Jones was growing up, 10,000 or so folks lived there. "Now it's only 1,800," he says. "Half of those are over the age of 55, 60. We're kind of a dying community. We want to bring in young people."
Jones is trying to raise money to start building two new homes there by the end of the year. He's got a charity golf tournament and gala planned, with the proceeds going toward the building effort.
"We need donors," he says. "We need people to come forth and volunteer and share."
The date? October 16. That might sound familiar to Mets fans, but Jones first jokes that he picked then because it's the birthday of his wife, Angela.
"She's sitting right here," he says over the phone, laughing.
It's also, of course, the 50th anniversary of Game 5 and Jones' catch that ended the World Series, so it's a meaningful confluence for Jones.
"It was a fun year," Jones says of 1969. "It's the kind of year that every athlete should have during their career. It showed what teamwork is all about and the results that come from it.
"Ours was a world championship."