“Home runs are over-rated. You don’t have to hit home runs to win. If I don’t get a home run all year, and the team wins, I’ll be more than satisfied.” – Steve Henderson
The Reccoppa family piled into Dad’s burnt orange 1970 Plymouth Duster for the short ride across the bridge on Route 37 to Seaside Heights. A visit to grandma’s summer house, a sure sign school would be out soon.
Anthony, 10, the youngest of three boys and the lone New York Met fan, suffered through his share of summers. “In school, in New Jersey, there were three teams: Mets, Yankee and Phillies,” Reccoppa remembers. “In the late-70’s, early 80’s there weren’t many Met fans and here I was with my Lee Mazzilli t-shirt.”
But this was the summer the misery and suffering would end. This was 1980, the year the Magic was Back in Flushing.
The season lived up to its catch phrase on the night of June 14, 1980, when Pete Falcone hooked up with John Montefusco at Shea Stadium. Playing in front of 22,918, the Mets were in mid-summer form, falling behind early and often.
Falcone couldn’t finish the second inning, allowing five runs, five hits and two walks. He retired four batters. By the sixth inning, the Giants had built a 6-0 lead and the Mets were held hitless through 5 1/3 innings when light-hitting second baseman Doug Flynn singled. Anthony and his father kept one eye on the game as they wandered “in and out of the house” through the evening, preparing for the trip to Seaside. The Mets scratched out two runs to cut the Giants lead to 6-2 as the Reccoppa family climbed into the Duster at sunset.
“It was the first new car my father ever bought,” remembers Anthony Reccoppa. “It was red-orange, black interior, no air conditioning and an AM radio,” but good enough to pick up the Mets flagship station WMCA-AM, where sports director Art Rust Jr. boldly guaranteed the 1980 Mets would be playing October baseball at “Flushing by the Bay.”
Any hope for magic was almost snuffed out, when Mets outfielder Elliot Maddox grounded to short to lead off the ninth. Then, Flynn delivered a bunt single but Jose Cardenal grounded out, advancing Flynn to second base. The Mets were down to their final out, trailing by four runs.
Then, Lee Mazzilli singled, scoring Flynn. Frank Taveras walked. Claudell Washington singled, scoring Mazzilli. With the Giants white-knuckling a 6-4 lead, manager Dave Bristol relieved Greg Minton with Allen Ripley, needing one … more … out.
Henderson had a flair for the dramatic.
Six days after the Seaver deal, on June 21, Mets chairman M. Donald Grant made his first Shea Stadium appearance since his infamous Midnight Massacre. He was greeted by a custom-designed banner that read GRANT’S TOMB.
Henderson bailed out Grant for the moment, smacking his first major league home run in the 11th inning, giving the Mets a 5-2 walk-off win over the Atlanta Braves. The longball became a long-term problem for Henderson.
The Mets adjusted Henderson’s batting style to meet their needs. The team needed power and when Henderson delivered a pair of game-winning home runs against the Braves and the Pittsburgh Pirates (a grand slam off Kent Tekulve), the Mets saw an opportunity.
“After my first season , the Mets changed my batting stance, to make me hit more home runs,” said Henderson. “But [in 1980] I went back to my old stance. I was more relaxed at the plate.”
By mid-June 1980 Henderson was, again, feeling comfortable with his new-old closed batting stance. Coming into the night, he was batting .340 including 17 multi-hit games. On June 8, Henderson went 6-for-8 in a doubleheader against the Pirates.
Henderson, who struck out in his first three at-bats of the night, was now facing Ripley. He took the first pitch. He remembers feeling “tight” and “unable to concentrate,” so he walked back to the on-deck circle loaded his bat with pine tar, took a deep breath and cleared his mind.
Ripley delivered the next pitch under Henderson’s chin, causing him to “jack knife out of the way,” in the words of legendary Mets announcer Bob Murphy.
“I try to keep my temper, but when someone does something like that to me, throwing too close, I sort of turn into a monster,” Henderson would tell the New York Times after the game.
He took the next pitch for strike two. The Mets were down to their final strike. The following is pure speculation, but it would be fair to suggest that a burst of wind stimulated the magic dust surrounding homeplate, landing squarely on the barrel of Henderson’s bat.
Henderson turned Ripley’s 1-2 fastball from improbable, to maybe, to probably and ultimately magic. The ball cleared the right field fence and was caught on the fly by Mets reliever Tom Hausman.
Final score: Mets 7, Giants 6
The Shea Stadium scoreboard in right field began flashing, HENDU CAN DO! Then, HENDU DID DO! Fans coaxed Henderson out of the clubhouse for a curtain call before parading down the exit ramps chanting “Lets Go Mets!”
“My dad was pounding on dashboard and my mother was yelling at him, ‘We’re going to get in an accident,” said Reccoppa.
It was Henderson’s first home run of the season and his first home run since July 13, 1979 (226 at-bats). One month after losing 15-4 to the Cincinnati Reds, the Mets were 9-18. Now, the Mets were 27-28, one game under .500.
“The ones over the Pirates and Dodgers were nice, but this one was unbelievable,” said Flynn later. “You keep busting and busting, then Henderson hits his first home run, and it’s a three-run game winner.”
The Reccoppa family arrived, greeted Grandma with a quick hug and turned on WOR in time to catch Henderson and then Mets manager Joe Torre on Kiner’s Korner.
The Mets would follow that magical night with seven straight losses, followed by an August swoon, losing 14 of 17 games. The 1980 Mets were better remembered for a magic moment.