Saturday, August 22, 2020

By Any Other Name

1970 was my second season rooting for the New York Mets. It was the year that I began to learn the harsh reality of what it truly meant to be a Mets fan. After the Mets had won the World Series in my first go-round as a fan, I was expecting another title and some more 1969-like magic. At age 11, I was due for one of the first rude awakenings of my life.

The Mets pitching staff continued to feature Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman at the top of the rotation, along with holdovers Gary Gentry, Jim McAndrew, and the promising but frustrating Nolan Ryan. Unfortunately, while Tom Seaver was still Tom Seaver, injuries began to chip away at the rest of the starting staff. Because of that, an unfamiliar pitcher began making starts for the Mets in May, a southpaw named Ray Sadecki. In fairness, he didn't do a bad job in those starts, but he wasn't as good as Seaver and Koosman. With my limited knowledge of the game at that time, I just couldn't understand why those two guys couldn't make all of the starts for the Mets. I remember how I felt cheated when I turned on Channel 9 to watch a game and discovered that this Sadecki guy was pitching again.

On the other hand, my grandmother, who I wrote extensively about in this piece, just loved the guy. Not for any baseball reason, of course, but because she loved the way his last name sounded, and she loved to say it out loud while she was cheering for him. Not that she ever pronounced it correctly. For Ray Sadecki's entire time with the Mets, she invariably referred to him as "Radicky". I remember listening to countless cheers of "c'mon Radicky," as she did her best to vocally support him through difficult innings with men on base.

I remember correcting her countless times during that 1970 season on the correct pronunciation of Ray Sadecki's name, but I eventually bowed to the reality that she liked her own version of it and would never concede to pronouncing it any other way. In my memories of that time, "c'mon Radicky" has become as iconic a piece of the '70s experience as Harvest Gold appliances and tight polyester double-knit pants.

Eventually, I got over my aversion to Sadecki's starts, forgiving him for not being Seaver or Koosman. He did a good job as a starter in his first year with the Mets, going 8-4 with a 3.64 ERA. It wasn't good enough to elevate the club out of mediocrity, however. The 1970 Mets followed up on their 100-win season of 1969 with a much more pedestrian 83-79 record, finishing 6 games behind the Pirates in third place. I didn't love Sadecki with the same fervor that my grandmother did, but the success of his initial season with the Mets won me over as a fan.

With only one year of watching baseball under my belt and no internet to tell me differently, it would be many years before I would realize that Ray Sadecki's story didn't begin in that first year with the Mets. His baseball story began over a decade earlier in Kansas City, Kansas, where Sadecki was a standout high school phenom, nabbing a huge (at the time) $50,000 bonus to sign with the Cardinals.

In 1960, as a 19-year-old, Sadecki made 26 starts for St. Louis, going 9-9 with a 3.78 ERA. The following season he pitched 222.2 innings at age 20, going 14-10 with a 3.72 ERA. He tried to hold out and negotiate a larger contract the following spring, then struggled early in the season. He wound up spending most of the second half of the year in the minors. He regained his spot in the Cardinals' rotation in 1963 and won 20 games for them in their World Championship season of 1964.

He struggled in 1965 and 1966 and was traded to San Francisco for Orlando Cepeda in May of 1966. Sadecki was a mainstay of the Giants rotation in 1967 and 1968, pitching quite well but in some hard luck. In 1968, in particular, he achieved a career-high in innings with 253.2, a career low in ERA (2.91), but wound up with a 12-18 record for an 88-win Giants team.

Sadecki lost his spot in the Giants' rotation in 1969, struggling in the role of reliever and spot starter. I may not have known it, but by the time he came to Mets in 1970 as a 29-year-old MLB veteran, he had already amassed over 1,700 career innings in 321 Major League games.

Heading into 1971, Sadecki's role was to be a bullpen guy and spot starter. Thanks to injuries, however, Sadecki made 20 starts and pitched to a 2.92 ERA. That was only good for a 7-7 record with that low-scoring club, as they repeated 1970's 83-79 record and third-place finish.

Jon Matlack arrived on the scene in 1972, a season that saw Sadecki's lowest usage in his Mets tenure. To the continuing dismay of my poor grandmother, "Radicky" only made 2 starts for that team. Appearing in an additional 30 games as a reliever, Sadecki's 75.2 innings pitched was the lowest total of his career to that point.

When he began the 1973 season pitching in a "mop up" long relief role, the 32-year-old southpaw looked like he was approaching the end of his career. He had plenty left, as it turns out, stepping into the starting rotation in July and holding his own, but Sadecki's enduring fame from that "Ya Gotta Believe" season came as a reliever in a crucial stretch of 5 games against Pittsburgh in late September. He relieved in 3 of those games, allowing no runs and pitching the last 4 innings for the win in a 13-inning nail-biter that featured this legendary play:

Sadecki continued his solid pitching in the World Series that year. He appeared in 4 games against the A's and was effective, allowing an earned run in 4 2/3 innings. He had a save in Matlack's Game 4 victory.

Sadecki came back to the Mets in 1974, but all of the belief in the world couldn't keep that team from losing more than 90 games. It was a sad preview of dreadful years yet to come in the late '70s and early '80s. The team was very bad, but Sadecki was quite solid in his accustomed spot starter/reliever role. Over 10 starts and 24 relief appearances, he went 8-8 with a 3.41 ERA, not allowing the dreadfulness of that team to affect his performance. I was honestly sorry to see him go when he was traded back to the Cardinals for Joe Torre following that season. "Radicky" had really grown on me as a pitcher in his four seasons in New York.

Ray Sadecki bounced around in 1975 and 1976, pitching for St. Louis, Atlanta, Kansas City, and Milwaukee. The Mets signed him in 1977 as a lefty relief option, but that reunion only lasted for four games. The Mets, destined to lose 98 games that season, released Sadecki in order to bring up a younger, cheaper pitcher. I don't remember how my grandmother took the news, most likely by that point she had moved on and showered her undiscriminating love on other ballplayers.

When the Mets cut the 36-year-old southpaw in May 1977, it was too late for him to catch on with another team. Ray Sadecki retired from baseball, going to work with an office supply company and spending time in the early '90s working for the Cubs and Giants in their minor league systems.

Sadecki was honored by having a ballfield in his native Kansas City named after him in 2002 and was inducted into the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame in 2007. He died in 2014 from complications of blood cancer.

Ray Sadecki never pitched in an All-Star Game or earned Cy Young votes, but he had an extraordinary Major League career, amassing 2,500 innings pitched and winning 135 games. It still seems almost impossible to me that he only spent 4 full seasons pitching for the Mets. It's a function of how young I was during that time that it still seems to me that he pitched here for a decade. If it's very quiet and I close my eyes, I can still hear the echoes of my grandmother cheering "c'mon Radicky", taking me back to a time before disappointment and cynicism eroded my belief that another World Series victory for the Mets was just around the corner.

Okay, I'm out for today. Please stay safe, be well and take care. I'll be back with a new post tomorrow.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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