Jon Matlack re-lives iconic World Series near-miss before entering Mets Hall of Fame

On Saturday at Citi Field, the Mets will revive their Hall of Fame – induction-free since 2013 – when they elect infielder Edgardo Alfonzo and pitchers Ron Darling and Jon Matlack in a ceremony prior to the team’s night game against the Reds. The late, great Al Jackson also will receive a “Mets Hall of Fame Achievement Award” for his contributions to the organization. Fans are encouraged to be seated by 6:45 for the start of the ceremony, which was originally scheduled for last year before COVID-19 kept crowds away.

Last week, I spoke with Matlack, the oldest of the honorees, about his honor. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation in Q&A style a la Steve Serby, only without the three dinner guests.

Q. Congratulations on getting in the Mets Hall of Fame. When did they notify you? Was it early last year, before the pandemic?

A. Yeah, I can’t tell you the exact date, but I can tell you I was driving down the road in my car and I got a phone call. I answered it hands-free in the car. A female voice said, “Can you hold for Fred Wilpon?” and I said, ‘I certainly can,’ and I nearly drove off the road. I had to pull over real quick so I could speak to Mr. Wilpon without changing lanes without thinking about it.

Q. That’s a wonderful call. That’s great. Could you just tell me what it means to be inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame?

A. It’s very special. I can’t tell you it was something that was expected. It’s a humbling experience that I’m very grateful it’s taken place.

Q. You were drafted fourth overall in 1967, which is pretty good. Growing up in West Chester, Penn., were you a Phillies fan? What were your baseball loyalties?

A. I had no baseball loyalties, and in all reality, I was a doer, not a watcher. The only guy I watched when it was possible was (Sandy) Koufax, and it was rare that I got to see a game televised that he was pitching. I probably saw maybe five or six big-league games before I actually played in one.

Jon Matlack pitches for the Mets in 1976.
Jon Matlack pitches for the Mets in 1976.
Getty Images

Q. Wow. Game of the Week, World Series, stuff like that?

A. It was very infrequent. My friends and I, we were always out playing something. If it wasn’t baseball season, it was basketball or football or something. But we were always involved in a sport somewhere, and I wasn’t a watcher. I was a guy who went and did it.

Q. Do you remember much about the draft? Obviously it was a different universe. Nowadays there would be all the speculation about who’s picking who, but did you have a sense you would go that high?

A. I did not. We were discussing – the family, my dad and I – what options would be best for me and decided that if I were picked fairly high, signing would probably be OK and if I wasn’t, that I should take one of the scholarship offers that I had to school and see where that led us. And I was at graduation practice actually, out on the football field, when my baseball coach Charlie Perrone came running down through the stands and out across the field (saying), ‘You’ve been picked!’ to give me the news. It was really fun.

Q. That’s great. Do you remember how much your signing bonus was? 

A. My signing bonus was a grand total of $63,000, and that’s the first time I’ve spoken it to anybody. Well, publicly, anyway.

Q. (For) 1967, that’s not bad….Had you committed to a college at the time?

A. I hadn’t really committed, but I had offers from Wake Forest, University of Alabama. Actually had an appointment to (visit) West Point, which I probably wouldn’t have taken because it was going to be nine years out of my professional career, if there was going to be one, before I would even have a shot at it. …There was a guy from the Phillies, I forget his name now, he was a scout, who wanted me to tell people that I was committing to school or that I was going to go to school because I guess he thought that I was going to go higher than I did. They were hoping to keep me in the draft until it got around to them (the 14th pick). But it went the way it went. 

From left: Jon Matlack, Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman.
From left: Jon Matlack, Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman.
Getty Images

Q. What is your favorite Mets memory?

A. Oh, golly, it’s hard to pick one, but I guess if I had to, it would probably be Game 2 of the (National League) Championship Series against Cincinnati (in 1973). 

Q. A shutout, right? A complete-game shutout?

A. Yeah. Following on the heels of the game (Tom) Seaver pitched the day before, striking out (13) guys. He pitched phenomenally. He gave up two solo home runs, one to (Pete) Rose, one to (Johnny) Bench, we lose 2 to 1, and I chart that game because I’m pitching the next day. I look over that thing, I said “I don’t know how you do any better than he just did.” And then it was sort of a daunting feeling coming into that next day. It made it very special to be able to compete as well as I did on that day.

Q. What was the key that day?

A. I don’t know. It was sort of the way I tried to approach most games, which was a single pitch at a time. Looking for friendly contact and an out. Trying to make quality pitches, get feedback from the hitter, repeat the process and just stay in the moment. I was able to do that. Rusty Staub told me before the game, he said, ‘I’ve got a tell on (Reds starter Don) Gullet. Before the day is over, I’m gonna get him. You keep this close.” And darned if he didn’t do it (with a solo homer in the fourth)

Q. So the way things fall in the NLCS, that sets you up to start Games 1, 4 and 7 of the World Series. As we’re talking now, 48 years after that World Series, what dominates your thoughts about that World Series?

Jon Matlack pitches in Game 4 of the 1973 World Series.
Jon Matlack pitches in Game 4 of the 1973 World Series.
Getty Images

A. The end of the season and the playoffs were more nerve-wracking. Being in the World Series was, I wouldn’t say it was a walk in the park by any stretch, but it was more fun than it was nerve-wracking. Looking back on it, I don’t know if there’s a lot I’d change. I hung a curveball to Reggie (Jackson) in Game 7 that you probably could have hit out. I tip my hat to Campy (Bert Campaneris) because he hit a pretty good curveball the other way for a home run in the same game. And that pretty much turned that one around. The rest of the time, Felix (Millan) makes an error in the first game, but I give up the hit to (A’s starting pitcher Ken) Holtzman of all people, that (sets up the winning rally). So if I get Holtzman out, …who knows what happens in that game? We may win that one. I don’t know. The strangest thing about that series was I felt like we outplayed them for six games and only won three of them. Game 7, they were equal to the task, they came to finish the job. I wasn’t able to hold them down. That was the way it went.

Q. Would you agree that ‘74 was your best year, personally?

A. Yeah. Hands down. Hands down. ‘74 was as good as I can be, I think, throughout the course of the season. A lot of innings. A lot of complete games, shutouts. Very few home runs. It was my best effort all-told, I’d have to say, but it didn’t pan out in wins and losses. When it came time to negotiate a contract, that’s what the Mets pointed to: “Hey, you’ve got to win more games.” I said, “It takes more than just me to win the ballgame.” It was an interesting conversation.

Q. So fast-forward, the trade (in which) you went from the Mets to the Rangers was a blockbuster. Bert Blyleven, Al Oliver. Just an insane trade, right?

A. Yeah, absolutely crazy. Four teams, 11 players. They were all over the place. It was very, very, very weird and I was totally blindsided by the fact that, now it’s a business. It’s no longer loyalty and all that kind of stuff. If you had asked me to name one player on the Texas Rangers the night I got traded, I might not have been able to do it.

Q. That was after the ‘77 season. Obviously they traded Tom in ‘77. Clearly they were going to lose for a few years. You still were disappointed to leave the Mets at that point? 

A. Absolutely. I was a little vocal during the year…I don’t remember the exact timing, but what I was trying to (convey) was, “We have a good nucleus here of pitching and defense. If we can generate a few more runs, we’re going to win a lot more ball games.” And I talked a little bit about that to some of the press, and I think the front office took that as me being disgruntled…I was asked that directly by the front office and I told them no, I was just looking for additional support and that’s what I was voicing. It must have fallen on deaf ears or they thought they were getting the better end of the deal. I don’t know….The way it was presented to me on the phone was, (Mets general manager) Joe McDonald called and said, “I’ve got good news and bad news. We’ve made a trade. The good news is we’ve obtained Willie Montanez and the bad news is we traded you to get him.”

Q. And then you had some pretty good years in Texas, too. You weren’t done.

A. No. I felt like I did OK down there. It was a different atmosphere. First year, I did very well. Second year came up with bone chips and had some issues there. The strike year (1981) was a tough year, I was a player rep and we were out for 80-some-odd days. But it was hot, it was different. The league was different. The strike zone was different. You weren’t facing the pitcher. The strategy was different. Certain adjustments needed to be made.

Q. What connection do you feel to the Mets organization as you prepare for this ultimate honor?

A. It’s a good connection. I spent a lot of years there. I got drafted there at 17 and was there through 27. I was with them for 10 years. It took me a while to find my way through the system and get to the big leagues, but I think it was an apprenticeship well spent because when I got there, I was prepared for what was coming. Put in a group of other guys who were able to help me through some of the rough spots. It was a very good experience and I’m very thankful I was able to have it.

Q. Now you’ll get your day in the sun.

A. That’s a little more nerve-wracking than facing the Reds. 

Thanks to Jon Matlack for his time. Here’s betting he overcomes his anxieties to crush his speech.

This week’s Pop Quiz question came from Anthony Piantieri of Riverdale: When Sonny beats up Carlo in the 1972 classic film “The Godfather,” a ballgame can be heard on the radio. What legendary player is up at bat?

Baseball podcasts don’t get any better than Major League Beginnings, a simple premise executed flawlessly: Hosts Mark Sweeney (the former big-league player), Mike Pomeranz (a broadcaster) and Barry Axelrod (a longtime player agent) chat with former big leaguers about their careers, with a focus on their beginnings. I recently listened to the conversation with Bret Saberhagen who, in addition to discussing how he made it big with the Royals, was characteristically forthright about his time with the Mets.

Your Pop Quiz answer is Joe DiMaggio. If you have a tidbit that connects baseball with popular culture, please send it to me at [email protected]