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Fifty years ago, an MLB playoff series nearly ended in a riot

When the New York Mets upset the Cincinnati Reds to win the National League pennant 50 years ago this month, players from both teams sprinted off the Shea Stadium field to avoid thousands of Mets fans who were flooding onto it. In the tunnel leading to the visiting clubhouse, Reds players stood guard brandishing bats in case the unruly mob came for their star outfielder, Pete Rose.

“I had 15 guys waiting with bats ready to protect me,” an appreciative Rose said after the Mets won the fifth and final game of the 1973 NL Championship Series. “But nobody touched me. I got out of there fast.”

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The chaos and violence that afternoon seemed to capture the vibe of crime-ridden early-1970s New York, just two years before The Big Apple nearly went bankrupt.

Rose had a target on his back for three days, dating from Game 3 of the NLCS on Oct. 8, when he plowed into 146-pound Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson on a hard slide to try to break up a double play. That sparked a brawl, and when Rose returned to left field in the bottom of the fifth inning, fans at Shea pelted him with beer cans, garbage and even a whiskey bottle.

“One guy actually threw a Jack Daniel’s bottle from the third deck that landed about five feet from me,” Rose recalled in an interview this month. “They threw everything. You’re talking about beer cans, hot dogs, hamburgers, wrappers and cartons for drinks. How’d you like to get hit on the head with a Jack Daniel’s bottle coming from the third deck of Shea Stadium?”

Two days later, the fans kept up the abuse in Game 5, and the vaunted Big Red Machine had to quickly assemble an ad hoc security force. “Our first concern was Pete’s safety,” catcher Johnny Bench said after the series. “I thought someone might try to kill him. … If the cops weren’t going to stop these maniacs, we would.”

There were 300 uniformed police officers, according to reports, but they did little to control the fans.

“If those were policemen standing around there, I’m going out and start robbing banks, because they did very little to keep order,” Bench complained.

The Reds escaped from New York unscathed, but 30 fans needed first aid at the ballpark and five were hospitalized. The mob went to town on the Shea Stadium field, ripping up chunks of the turf and whisking away the bases.

“It’s unbelievable to me,” Reds Manager Sparky Anderson said. “I just can’t believe they don’t have better control over the people. It makes me ashamed I’m in this country, but I’m not too sure New York is in this country — not after this week. Can you imagine, in the United States of America, this happening?”

The criticism wasn’t limited to the visitors from the Midwest. “The whole country saw the New York ball fans as they really are — a bunch of obnoxious, uncontrollable and immature hoodlums,” a New York resident wrote in a letter to the editor of the New York Times.

On the final play of the series, Mets reliever Tug McGraw fielded a throw from first baseman John Milner, stepped on first base and didn’t break stride as he darted through a throng of crazed fans to the safety of the first base dugout. Coming in from every direction was a celebrating and vandalizing stampede that left a rising cloud of infield dirt in its wake that made Shea Stadium look like a scene out of a Western movie.

Six weeks earlier, it didn’t appear the Mets had a prayer of making the playoffs. On Aug. 30, they were in last place in the NL East, but channeling McGraw’s “Ya Gotta Believe” rallying cry, they stormed back to win the division title — albeit with a paltry 82-79 record.

Things were so scrunched up at the end of the season that going into the final scheduled day, Sept. 30, there was a possibility of a five-way tie in the six-team division. The next afternoon, playing a makeup game at Wrigley Field in Chicago, ace Tom Seaver posted his 19th win to clinch the division title.

There were only two divisions in each league and no wild-card teams, so the Mets and Reds met in a best-of-five NLCS. Four years after the Miracle Mets won the 1969 World Series, it appeared they would need another miracle to defeat Cincinnati and return to the Fall Classic. The mighty Reds, the defending NL champions, won a baseball-best 99 games in 1973 and took the season series against the Mets, 8-4. Three regulars hit over .300, including Rose, the NL MVP, who won the batting title with a .338 average.

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If the Reds were a big machine, the Mets were the little engine that could, despite an anemic offense. They hit just .246, 11th in the NL. Collectively they slugged an NL-worst .338 — equal to Rose’s batting average. But they had a fantastic pitching staff, anchored by Seaver, who won the Cy Young Award while leading the league in ERA (2.08), complete games (18) and strikeouts (251); along with fellow stalwart starters Jerry Koosman (2.84 ERA), Jon Matlack (3.20) and George Stone (2.80).

The Mets and Reds split the first two games of the NLCS in Cincinnati, then the series shifted to Queens for the final three games. In Game 3, played on a Monday afternoon, the Mets jumped all over the Reds’ pitchers, scoring in each of the first four innings. By the top of the fifth, they led 9-2, thanks in part to Rusty Staub’s two home runs. But that’s when the fireworks really started, after Rose — an aggressive, hair-on-fire type player nicknamed “Charlie Hustle” — slid hard into Harrelson.

“I did a pop-up slide, and when I did that, I kind of hit Buddy,” Rose said this month. “He was a competitive guy, and he called me a c—sucker. I was caught off guard and I said, ‘Well, Buddy, you don’t know me that well.’ ” Rose grabbed Harrelson, a move captured in an iconic photo that shows the Cincinnati base runner’s muscular forearms overpowering the svelte New York shortstop. Their teammates rushed in from the dugouts and bullpens for a fracas in the middle of the diamond. Amazingly, no one was ejected.

When Rose took his position in left field in the bottom of the inning, enraged Mets fans turned on him in a way that would have made the hard-boiled crosstown Yankees fans blush. “They threw everything in sight at him,” The Washington Post’s George Solomon recounted in a story at the time. “Bottles, vegetables, fruit, beer cans. Everything.”

“You know Mets fans,” Harrelson told Newsday years later. “They were protective and looked at it as a David-and-Goliath situation.’’

Rose recalled that the umpires suggested that, for his protection, he move to center field, where there were no bleachers and he would be out of the fans’ firing line, but Anderson refused to go along with that idea. Instead, he waved his players off the field, and the Mets made a public-address announcement that unruly fans were in danger of causing a forfeit.

It took a Mets peace delegation of Manager Yogi Berra and key players to calm things down. In a remarkable midgame procession, Seaver, elder statesman Willie Mays and outfielders Staub and Cleon Jones joined Berra as they walked out to left field and appealed for calm. The gambit, suggested by NL President Charles “Chub” Feeney, worked, and the game resumed.

Anderson said it was the “most vicious crowd I’ve ever seen in baseball. I’m sorry it happened. It seems to be symptomatic of our country — no respect for anything, not even for a baseball game.”

That night, Reds management told Rose not to go out to dinner. So he ordered a steak from room service. “The steak was an hour late and burnt to a crisp — compliments of the cook, who happened to be a Mets fan,” Rose wrote in his autobiography, “My Prison Without Bars.”

The next day, Reds General Manager Bob Howsam asked if Rose would meet Harrelson at home plate for a handshake and a show of good sportsmanship. “Hell no,” Rose replied. “I ain’t shaking hands in the middle of a playoff series. I don’t care how it makes me look. I came here to win a series — not a popularity contest.” Rose wrote that the gesture would have been phony anyway. “And the one thing New York people hate is phony.”

He said in the interview that he and Harrelson later became good friends.

Rose got a measure of revenge in Game 4, hitting a game-winning homer in the 12th inning — his second home run of the series after hitting just five all season.

“I ran the bases like I owned them and then stomped on home plate with both feet just to defy the bastards,” he wrote.

‘The disgrace of baseball’

That set up the deciding fifth game at Shea, with Seaver going against Jack Billingham, who was no slouch himself. Billingham had gone 19-10 with a 3.04 ERA and outpitched Seaver in the series opener. But Rose was the star attraction, the perfect villain.

Fans held banners that read “Rose is a weed,” and when he lay sprawled out on the warning track after failing to catch a Seaver smash that fell for a double, a fan threw a cup of beer on him. “I was getting dizzy after three innings of smelling that beer. I don’t drink it,” he quipped later, adding, “They got the fans in the zoo and took them out to the ballpark.”

The pressure clearly didn’t get to him — he went 2 for 4 with a double and finished the series with a .381 batting average.

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The Mets broke open a 2-2 game with a four-run fifth inning, and by the ninth, when they had a 7-2 lead, it was clear that pandemonium was imminent. A crush of fans pushed forward along the first base line, collapsing the wooden front of a temporary section. Some fans took the opportunity to go onto the field, with Rose at the plate and two men on base.

The umpires stopped the game, and once again Seaver had to try to get the fans to behave. But this wasn’t a peaceful plea — he yelled at them to get back to their seats. “I told them we still had to finish the game, but at that point they couldn’t have cared less about the game,” he said, according to the New York Times.

Fans on the third base side started to push forward, in a section behind the Cincinnati dugout where some of the Reds’ wives and team officials were sitting. Fans knocked down and stepped on the wife of the Reds’ team physician, and others in the party got jostled; for their safety, they were let into the dugout. A young fan atop the dugout reached over and grabbed the hair of one of the women, prompting Reds utility infielder Phil Gagliano to punch the fan.

“These people are nuts,” Gagliano said after the game. “This city is nuts. We came here to play baseball, not be trampled.”

“It was quite an experience to say the least,” Rose said in the interview, his tone still incredulous a half-century later. “And it was a bad experience for me simply because we end up losing the damn game and losing the playoffs in five games. And we had a much, much better record than the Mets did.”

Rose said New York fans “are in a league of their own, and especially Mets fans. But I made it through. I lived through it.”

“And I like New York fans. I think New York fans are great,” added Rose, now 82. “But, like all fan bases, there’s always a handful or so that are bad fans. And I’m not going to bad-rap the New York Met fans because of the action of the people who threw objects at me in left field in ’73.”

In the postgame celebration, New Yorkers left behind craters in the infield and debris across the entire field, and they made off with sections of the outfield fence. Mets management had to replace 1,200 square feet of sod ahead of the World Series, which New York lost to the Oakland Athletics in seven games. Newspapers outside New York denounced the rampaging fans as “animals,” according to a Times story.

But Dave Anderson, writing in the paper’s “Sports of the Times” column, was just as unsparing.

“When a celebration occurs at Shea Stadium, the only rule is mob rule,” he wrote. “Tragedy is inevitable some day. When it occurs, it will be on the conscience of the New York Mets management. … The shame of Shea Stadium is the disgrace of baseball.”


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