'Ball on the Wall': Cleon Jones, 1973 Mets recall one of the most remarkable plays in franchise history

Reliever Tug McGraw (L) and Ed Kranepool celebrate with champagne after Mets beat Reds 7-2, to clinch National League pennant.

When the bat cracked, "most everyone in the stadium thought it was going to be a home run and that we were probably going to lose the game," Ron Hodges says.

But what happened next, against the backdrop of an improbable pennant race 50 years ago, became one of the most remarkable plays in Mets history. It’s come to be known as the "Ball on the Wall" and it’s a mix of precise baseball technique and, perhaps, something a bit more undefinable. And it helped the ‘73 Mets further believe they were headed somewhere special.

In the 13th inning of a crucial game against the first-place Pirates at Shea on Sept. 20, 1973, Pittsburgh’s Dave Augustine smacked a ball deep to left off Ray Sadecki with a runner on first and two outs. Instead of going over the wall, though, the ball caromed off the very top of the fence above the 358-foot mark to Cleon Jones, who threw the ball to the cutoff man, Wayne Garrett – playing shortstop, not his usual third base. Garrett relayed the ball home on one hop to Hodges, who tagged Richie Zisk trying to score from first.

The sequence kept the score tied, 3-3. Hodges knocked in John Milner with a walk-off single in the bottom of the frame. The next day, Tom Seaver beat the Pirates, giving the Mets their fourth straight victory over Pittsburgh, and the Mets reached the .500 mark and were in first place for good.

"In my mind," says Hodges, a rookie on that team, "it’s probably the single most important defensive play in the history of the Mets. … Some people might say (Ron) Swoboda’s catch (in the 1969 World Series). And people will argue, one way or the other.

"But this was a fantastic play. That play just re-energized the Mets and led us to the pennant, I think. We had that 'Ya Gotta Believe' atmosphere and to have a play like this happen, that’s the only response you can have, that we’re going to win.

"There were a lot of writers who jumped on the idea that God had taken an apartment out in left field and wouldn’t let anything out there that would hurt the Mets."

To commemorate the play, the Mets are slated to host Hodges, Jones and second baseman Félix Millan Tuesday at Citi Field. (The Mets are in Miami on the actual anniversary). "It’ll be good to be here now to talk about it and be able to see my teammates and reminisce about the good things that happened that year," Jones says. "I still say that play was a turnaround in the ‘73 season."

It certainly set Shea – and beyond – abuzz. "Everybody all over the city was saying, 'Did you see that play? What a great play,'" Jones recalls.

In the Sept. 21 editions of the Daily News, Phil Pepe invoked the spirit of the champion Mets from four years earlier, writing, "The Mets took one out of their 1969 files Thursday night, the one under the letter M – for miracle." He also noted that the man with the game-winning hit had the same last name as the man who had managed the ‘69 team, Gil Hodges.

With the way the '73 season went, it didn’t seem like anyone would be harkening back to the brightest of Mets days. They were beset by injuries to key cogs such as Jones, Milner, Jerry Grote and Bud Harrelson.

They won their first four games, but were under .500 by the end of May. In early July, they were 12.5 games out of first place. On Aug. 17, they were still 13 games under .500.

Things were so difficult that Ed Kranepool says the "Ball on the Wall" play never would’ve happened had the circumstances lined up for it at a different place on the calendar. "If it was earlier in the season, that ball would’ve hit the top of the wall and bounced over," Kranepool says.

Eventually, the Mets got healthier and started playing better. Tug McGraw uttered the rallying cry that still lives – "Ya Gotta Believe!" – and the Mets hung around in an NL East race among mediocre teams. Only the Mets (82-79) finished above .500 and they had to go 21-8 down the stretch to do it, thanks in part to Jones hitting six homers and driving in 14 runs over the final 10 games.

"Toward the end, I was as good at the plate as I’d ever been," Jones says.

The Mets' .509 winning percentage is the lowest ever for a pennant winner. The Mets, who beat the favored Reds in the NLCS, ultimately lost the World Series in seven games to the Athletics.

Losing the Fall Classic still grates on most Mets. "No doubt about it," Jones says. "I think about it all the time. We should’ve won the World Series."

The Mets held a 3-2 series lead and had a pitching choice to make for Game 6: Start Seaver, who had pitched Game 3 four days earlier, or save him for a potential Game 7 and use George Stone, who had not lost since July. Yogi Berra chose Seaver and, while Seaver pitched well in Game 6, the A’s won the final two games, giving them the middle championship of three in a row.

Still, 1973 was special. So was the "Ball on the Wall." Hodges prizes a photo he has of him holding the ball up so plate umpire John McSherry could see it and those Mets know the play was a huge moment, exactly when they needed it.

"It was reminiscent of 1969: 'Here we go again, doing something right,'" Jones says. "But I thought it was a relay the way you’re supposed to play it. Wayne was our third baseman and was one of the unsung heroes of that team and he was at short (Harrelson had been removed for a pinch-hitter). It was his throw that made the difference."

As far as where it ranks in Mets lore, Jones notes that the "Ball on the Wall" was not the same kind of play as an individual moment such as Swoboda’s sprawling catch or the two key grabs Tommie Agee made in the '69 World Series. Maybe there should be separate categories then.

"What makes this play different is that there were three people involved," Jones says. "It’s something you work on your whole career – relays – and it was done 100 percent correctly, on a stage like that.

"This was proper baseball management from three guys that made the difference. I’m happy to be linked with anything that symbolizes greatness with the Mets."