Although New York Mets Opening Day in 1972 was marked by sadness, the memory of Gil Hodges will live on forever.
The year was 1972 and the New York Mets were only three years removed from their Miracle of 1969. But two days before their opener, they lost their leader—Gil Hodges—who was tragically stricken by a heart attack in Florida that would take his life.
The Met manager had a chronic heart condition that first surfaced in late September of 1968 when he had to leave the team to deal with the issue. Chronic cigarette smoking was something he could not battle and it had a profound influence on that April morning when he succumbed to his death at a West Palm Beach golf course.
Baseball was in the midst of a labor struggle that would delay the start of the season, plus the Mets were in the middle of completing a trade with the Montreal Expos for Rusty Staub but all this mattered little to me. I was only 11 years old and that news that came out of Florida crushed me. I remember my parents trying to console me but I felt like my right arm was taken from my body. I grew up a Met fan in the Bronx and even my 11-year-old heart knew this was a devastating blow.
My parents decided it would be helpful if we all went together to the opener where he would be honored prior to the game at Shea Stadium and I remember it well. On the way to the ballpark, my parents tried to explain to me that death is part of life and remembering the people we love after they are gone is so important. The night before on the news, we heard the words of Met players like Tom Seaver and Tug McGraw and it helped to see both of them in the human condition of sadness. It showed me that even adults could feel the pain I had been feeling for days.
The ceremony was very moving and as I felt tears streaming down my face as both my Mom and Dad held my hands. The game vs the Pirates was a good game as the Mets got a win on Opening Day. And I know current Met fans think the Mets ALWAYS win on Opening Day but in reality they never won an Opener till 1970 which is when they started their mastery of openers.
On the way home My Mom and Dad told me how proud they were that we all sat there together honoring a man that taught me the wonders of baseball. These days I cover the Mets for ESPN and it is an absolute honor I walk through The Hodges Gate every day I cover a game. But that day I realized even as a youngster that baseball would always be part of my soul forever and it was because 2 Ex-Marines–Tom Seaver and Gil Hodges–taught me how to love the game from afar.
That day at Shea also helped me later in life dealing with the death of close family and friends because it taught me those memories never die. And the fact that nobody will ever wear that Met uniform No. 14 is something I think about whenever I am at CitiField. And I also think it is very appropriate that the Nos. 14 and 41 are interchangeable. It makes perfect sense because those two great men define what it means to be a New York Met.
We are in the midst of very tough times right now and for the past few days, I thought a bunch about that day in 1972 when I grew up realizing life can be hurtful but at the same time memories in life are there forever. And even if the people in those memories are gone, they forever remain in your heart and soul.
We will get through this coronavirus pandemic but when we do and return to CitiField, take a look at those pictures of Gil Hodges at CitiField right by the elevators inside the Hodges entrance. It could help you understand the greatness of a man who deserves a spot in Cooperstown.
I never met Gil Hodges but not a day passes by where I don’t remember something about him. As Tom Seaver has said on numerous occasions, he always told us the one thing we could control is our level of professionalism and I try to remember that every single day. Being at Shea Stadium on that dark cloudy April day solidified that concept in my soul and it has never left.
Thank you, Gil Hodges. We miss you and will always love you.