The celebration begins.
For Tug McGraw, life was always fun. Because of that, his passing at the young age of 59 seems all the more traumatic. His signature way of slapping his gloved hand against his right thigh was emulated by little leaguers everywhere. As for his full style of living, nobody could fully emulate that. Tug McGraw was an original, who packed a lot of life, love, joy and baseball into 59 years.
For Phillies fans, the fact that Tug McGraw also pitched for the New York Mets is almost lost in the shuffle. We want him for our own. Truth is though that McGraw left a mark on baseball fans in New York just as much as he did in Philadelphia.
During the Mets 1973 pennant run, it was McGraw who coined the rally cry “Ya Gotta Believe”. It was McGraw, who just as he did in 1980 with the Phillies, helped to keep the Mets ship steady and strong. In a forgotten world where closers did more than pitch one inning, McGraw threw 188.2 innings for the Mets in ’73 and saved 25 games. As a 29 year old, McGraw helped guide his teammates through uncharted waters even though he had been through those waters just once before in the Mets ’69 pennant run.
In 1974, McGraw’s numbers slid and the Mets assumed that he was done. They looked to get what they could for him and Paul Owens, whose own death preceded McGraw’s by just ten days, jumped in to grab McGraw. There were plenty who thought that Owens had gotten damaged goods, but “The Pope” saw that the true spirit of Tug McGraw remained as did his ability to get hitters out.
By 1976, the Phillies were in the playoffs and Tug McGraw was there. From 1976 through 1978, McGraw went 22-16, 2.87 with 29 saves for the Phillies. Another off year in 1979 again had McGraw’s career in jeopardy, but once again, he believed. He believed in his ability to once again come back from the edge. This time, he again lit the fire that helped propel the Phillies to the World Series and a parade down Broad Street.
In all ways possible, perhaps no other player ever was more valuable to his team than Tug McGraw was to the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies. The numbers 5-4, 1.46 with 20 saves stand by themselves. They don’t however, truly speak for themselves. What they don’t show is how McGraw was constantly “out of gas” as he put it, but still found ways to get hitters out. Through the late season pennant run, McGraw was already hurting. Somehow, he found the ability to dominate in the playoffs and World Series. The 29 year old who had led the Mets in 1973, was now a 36 year old leading the Phillies to the only World Series victory in Phillies history.
You almost had to be there to truly appreciate what Tug McGraw did for the Phillies in 1980. Few remember that he was on the disabled list early in the season and returned on July 17th. From that point on, McGraw pitched 52.1 innings and allowed just three earned runs the rest of the way. As the Phillies headed to Montreal for the final weekend of the season, McGraw’s arm was dead tired. Still, he pitched lights out. In fact, mechanically, McGraw was probably better than at any point in his career. The Phillies needed two wins in Montreal on the final weekend to clinch the division. Friday night, McGraw struck out five of the six hitters he faced as the Phillies won 2-1. On Saturday, McGraw recorded the win as the Phillies beat the Expos 6-4 in 11 innings.
Against Houston in the NLCS, McGraw was again dominating. McGraw pitched in all five games of the NLCS and saved the first and fourth games. He pitched in four out of the six games of the World Series, recording a win and two saves, including saving the final game of the series and setting up the dramatic scene of Mike Schmidt leaping into McGraw’s arms after the final out. In eight innings of work, McGraw struck out ten Royals hitters. In the 1980 postseason, McGraw pitched 15.2 innings in 9 games, striking out 15. He saved four games and posted a 2.87 ERA.
In the clubhouse, McGraw kept everybody focused and loose. He talked at length about how much fun it was to be in this situation. Of course, this was a man who early in his career told a reporter “I could have fun in a stalled elevator”.
McGraw had his human side. As a 22 year old pitching in AAA, he fell in love with an 18 year old high school senior. One night of intimacy led to an unplanned pregnancy, which McGraw walked away from. He admitted that he couldn’t deal with having a child because it would interfere with his career. When McGraw first met his son, Tim, the child was an 11 year old. McGraw promised to be a friend to his son, but letters went unanswered. Eventually, the two did become friends and developed a strong father and son relationship. The child, who grew up with the name Tim Smith, even decided to take on McGraw’s surname and is now Tim McGraw. The oldest of McGraw’s four children went on to become a country music icon. Tugger was at his son’s home for New Year’s when he suffered a violent seizure and took a dramatic turn for the worse.
After his retirement, McGraw stayed in the Philadelphia area. He worked as a television sports reporter for a while and was a regular at Veterans Stadium. The Phillies talked him into being a special pitching instructor in spring training. He was always the same, laughing, joking and enjoying life. It was in spring training when McGraw fell ill in 2003. Soon, news of a brain tumor spread through the Phillies family. McGraw underwent surgery and made strong progress. He returned to Veterans Stadium on a few occasions and capped the closing ceremonies with a re-enactment of his strikeout of Willie Wilson. McGraw believed that he would be okay, even though there were hints of pending problems.
McGraw joked about the scars that the surgery had left on his head. He wondered aloud how his brain could possibly have anything on it, let alone something as severe as a tumor. The trademark Tug McGraw smile was ever present. Doctors spoke in glowing terms about McGraw’s recovery, although mild words of caution sometimes filtered into the conversations. This was Tug McGraw. The man who taught generations of baseball fans to believe. As we all looked to him for our cues on how to react to his illness, he smiled. He wore a hat with the signature phrase “Ya Gotta Believe”. Somehow, we didn’t believe. We didn’t believe that our Tug McGraw would leave us before christening the new stadium. Somehow, we didn’t believe that the man who gave us one of the most famous images in all of Philadelphia sports wouldn’t be here to make us believe. While Tug McGraw wasn’t immortal, his spirit is. Part of that spirit will always help us to believe, not just in baseball, but in life.
After learning of McGraw’s passing, Mike Schmidt talked of his photo of the World Series celebration. The one where he is leaping into Tug McGraw’s arms. It’s a cherished momento of a time long gone and Schmidt looks at it often. Now, Schmidt says, he’ll look at it a little longer each day.