Tug McGraw — who once showed up to a March 17 exhibition game with his Phillies uniform dyed green — is famously responsible for introducing St. Patrick’s Day to Phillies spring training, which later spread across Major League Baseball.
McGraw broke into the big leagues with the Mets on April 18, 1965, when he was just 20 years old. He had a respectable rookie campaign, tossing 97.2 innings with a 3.32 ERA (106 ERA+). He tossed his last game of his rookie campaign on Sept. 22, 1965, and the very next day he reported to Parris Island to fulfill his military service obligation. He would serve six years as a reserve rifleman, or as he proudly called himself “a trained killer.”
PHOTO GALLERY: Baseball celebrates St. Patrick's Day
On July 31, 1969, the 55-44 (.556) Mets sat in third place in the National League, 6.5 games back of the first place Cubs. The Mets — later be dubbed the Amazin’ Mets — went on a tear, finishing the season with a 45-18 (.714) record to claim first place. McGraw was an instrumental bullpen piece for the Mets, giving up just two earned runs in his final 19 games (38 innings – 0.47 ERA). The Mets would go on to win the 1969 World Series, but unfortunately for McGraw, he never appeared in a game. Despite this, McGraw looked back on 1969 fondly, saying, “Everything changed for me in 1969, the year we turned out to be goddamned amazing, all right.
McGraw fortified himself as a staple in the Mets bullpen from 1970-72, tossing 307.2 innings with a 2.16 ERA (165 ERA+). And then in 1973, McGraw coined his renowned battle cry, “Ya Gotta Believe!” as he helped lead a Mets team that was sub-.500 as late as September 20th to the National League Pennant. After a heartbreaking loss in the 1973 World Series to the Athletics, Tug struggled mightily in 1974, setting a National League ‘record’ by surrendering four grand-slams in a season.
McGraw began his ‘second career’ with the Phillies in 1975, putting his rough 1974 campaign behind him. He finished his first season in Philadelphia with a 2.50 ERA (126 ERA+). From 1976-78, McGraw coupled with Ron Reed mastered a bullpen that helped the Phillies to three straight first place finishes, though they never made it to the World Series. After three consecutive years of playoff disappointment, the Phillies struggled in 1979 — finishing just fourth in the National League — and so did McGraw, posting a 5.16 ERA (74 ERA+).
In 1980, the team founded as the Quakers in 1883 won its first ever World Series. They were led in large part by their closer, McGraw. McGraw finished fifth in Cy Young Award voting with 20 saves and a 1.46 ERA in 92.1 innings that season. He fittingly made the final out of the clinching game of the Phillies' first World Championship, striking out Willie Wilson with the bases loaded — claiming his status as the storied franchise’s greatest folk hero as he iconically jumped with both arms in the air celebrating the long awaited victory.
McGraw’s heroic efforts were awarded with four year, $1.5 million deal, which he signed in December 1980. When Tug was asked how he would spend his newfound wealth, he responded, "Ninety percent I'll spend on good times, women, and Irish Whiskey. The other 10 percent I'll probably waste." Tug pitched well over the course of his contract, but never quite returned his 1980 glory. He would retire on Valentine’s Day in 1985, which he felt was appropriate, stating, “I’ve had a love affair with baseball…the game stole my heart and I was never a jilted suitor.”
McGraw was a rare breed, loved by Phillies and Mets fans alike. He was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame in 1993 and was granted membership on the Phillies Wall of Fame in 1999. McGraw was serving as a special instructor for the Phillies in Spring of 2003, but on March 12, 2003, just five days before Tug’s favorite day, he fell ill. He was hospitalized with a brain tumor that would prove to be cancerous and malignant. Tug was given three weeks to live.
McGraw took to his cancer treatment with the same intensity he had on the mound, with the same confidence he has a Marine. More incredible than the Amazin’ Mets of 1969, baring down with greater intensity than when he faced Willie Wilson with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, the stubborn Irishman turned three weeks into ten brilliant months of life – time he used not to sulk in his own misfortune, rather to spread his eternal message of optimism, “Ya Gotta Believe.”
Tug McGraw died on Jan. 4, 2004, but his never-say-die attitude lives on in the hearts of Phillies and Mets fans — one of their very few common bonds. On this St. Patrick’s Day I choose to honor Tug the way he spent his favorite holiday — with baseball in green jerseys, beer and Irish Whiskey, and a personal day off tomorrow.
Sporting News contributor Ryan Spaeder is the creator and owner/operator of the popular Twitter account Ace of MLB Stats (@aceballstats ).