01/05/2004 11:44 PM ET
Mets fondly recall fun-loving Tug
Brain cancer claims popular former Mets reliever
By Kevin T. Czerwinski / MLB.com
The snapshots that come to mind when reminiscing about Tug McGraw's 19 years in the Major Leagues are vivid.
Tug McGraw acknowledges the cheers at Shea as the Mets celebrated the 30th anniversary of the 1969 World Series team on May 2, 1999. (Kathy Willens/AP)
Talk to fans in New York and there's the feisty closer, slapping his glove on his thigh, screaming about how "You Gotta Believe" while exhorting his team to reach what seemed like Herculean heights. Talk to fans in Philadelphia and there is McGraw, jumping off the mound at Veterans Stadium, sealing the World Series for the Phillies, ending decades of heartbreak.
For his teammates, though, the people who really got to know McGraw, there were much more personal images that came to mind. And when news of the southpaw's passing became public Monday evening, a wave of emotions flooded over his old teammates.
McGraw died of complications from brain cancer. He was 59. The disease ravaged his body but never seemed to rob him of his spirit. And it's that spirit that had Ron Swoboda, one of McGraw's oldest and closest friends, wrestling with his emotions.
Swoboda and McGraw came up together as rookies with the Mets in 1965, sharing a house not too far from Shea Stadium with Danny Riley, the man who was the original Mr. Met mascot. The three young men enjoyed the city, enjoyed the game and enjoyed life and that's what Swoboda chose to focus on when he learned of his friend's death.
"He was the first guy from California that I ever spent time with," Swoboda said. "He was always a bright light in a room. Of all the people I played with, he was the guy I cared about the most. I was lucky enough to play with some pretty good people but Tug was the one I cared about the most and it was just because of him being Tug.
"We were rookies together and we had such a complete sense of naiveté when we walked into New York. To be so awed and so uncomprehending about everything we did. I remember the times we had and the stuff we did like it was yesterday."
Swoboda went to visit McGraw last month in Philadelphia at a luncheon. He knew his friend didn't have long but was hopeful that "he could hang on just a little longer."
"He seemed to have good news at that time but this isn't one you beat," Swoboda said. "If you can buy some time, you're a lucky fellow. Maybe it's good that he didn't linger any longer."
McGraw had been fighting the cancer for almost a year, nearly succumbing to the disease last spring. But he battled back through a grueling rehabilitation after doctors removed a pair of tumors from his brain. He made a few appearances during the season, first at Veterans Stadium in May and then again at Shea Stadium in August to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the club's 1973 National League pennant.
"On behalf of the entire Mets organization we send our condolences to the McGraw family," Mets chairman and chief operating officer Fred Wilpon said. "We lost a piece of Mets history tonight. Tug was a battler on and off the field. We know how hard he fought this disease. He'll be sorely missed by all."
He was 47-55 with 86 saves over during his nine seasons in New York but the year that cemented his legacy was '73 when his rally cry of "You Gotta Believe" ignited the team and brought them to within one game of a World Series crown. His best season with the Mets, however, actually came in 1972 when he won eight games, saved 27 others and posted a 1.70 ERA.
McGraw seemed to be at his best in the postseason, winning titles with the Mets in '69 and later with Philadelphia in 1980. He was 4-5 with six saves, posting a 2.24 ERA in 26 playoff and World Series games.
"Any time you hear of anyone dying, specifically from the 1969 team, it leaves a huge hole in my heart," said Mets radio broadcaster and native New Yorker Howie Rose. "When you think of Tug, aside from all the animation and playful histrionics, you think of the prototype for what used to be called a fireman. He'd come into games, sometimes as early as the seventh inning and pitch the eight and pitch the ninth and still manage to throw 100 or more innings every year.
"That's what the art of being a relief pitcher was about and Tug typified what it meant to get into trouble and then pitch his way out. That whole business about him -- slapping his glove on his thigh -- wasn't because he got a save with a three-run lead in the ninth. It was because he got into trouble and worked his way out. It was tough news to hear. I feel the way I felt when Tommie Agee died and when Gil Hodges died 32 years ago."
Swoboda viewed McGraw in the same light.
"It always seemed like he would operate on the edge of chaos," Swoboda said. "Just look at the way he pitched. It was almost liked he needed trouble to function. He had to do this tight-wire act but he the ability to get through it. He was a special guy and this one hurts a lot."
Mets captain John Franco is also a New York native and grew up idolizing McGraw. It seemed only fitting since much of Franco's career resembled that of McGraw's, a pitcher making trouble for himself only to get out of it a few batters later. Franco even wears No. 45 in honor of McGraw.
"He was my childhood hero," Franco said. "When Mike Piazza came to the Mets a couple of years ago, I took Tug's number to honor him. Growing up in Brooklyn, I was a Mets fan mainly because of him. To me he was the essence of what a relief pitcher was all about. I'll never forget a couple of years ago when the team honored me after my 400th save. He rode in from center field on a motorcycle to greet me on the mound. He was one of a kind."
Jerry Koosman had the opportunity to play with McGraw twice, first with the Mets and then at the end of both their careers in Philadelphia. They remained close throughout the years.
"I feel grief and celebration," Koosman said. "Celebration because I was privileged to know him and play with him. We lost a guy way too early in life. He was energetic and enthusiastic on and off the field. Even when you were just sitting there alone, talking to him, he was very positive and always looked to see how he could make things well.
"And when I came back to play for the Phillies, it was like old home week. It was a real reunion. We had a lot of good times in that clubhouse. It was a great reunion after all the time we spent together."
Added Tom Seaver: "Tug McGraw was one of the great characters of the game of baseball. He just had a joy for life and living. But what people sometimes overlook because he was always happy go-lucky was what kind of competitor he was on the mound. No one competed with more intensity that he did."
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.