NEW YORK ( Associated Press) — As a big leaguer, Joe Pignatano’s career was more than remarkable: He played his last game at Ebbetts Field, knocked out three future Hall of Famers at home, and made a triple play with his own. I entered. Final swing in the Major.
It was in the bullpen of Shea Stadium, where he held the relief pitchers and tomatoes for the 1969 Miracle Mets, where Pignatano’s legacy really grew.
“He was pretty committed to caring for his tomatoes,” former Mets pitcher Jim McAndrew told the Associated Press.
“It was Joe,” he said. “Lots of love and effort and TLC.”
Pignatano, who rose to the majors as a catcher and longtime coach with his hometown Brooklyn Dodgers, died Monday at 92.
The New York Mets said Pignatano died at a nursing home in Naples, Florida. He was suffering from dementia.
Pignatano was the last surviving coach of the 1969 Mets, scoring a remarkable run under manager Gil Hodges to reach the World Series and then stun Baltimore and the baseball world to their first championship.
He remained as their bullpen coach until 1981.
“To me, he was Uncle Joe. He loved the city and loved talking about his days with the Dodgers and Gill. He was a baseball lifer,” said former Mets star Lee Mazilli.
Pignatano made his major league debut with Brooklyn in 1957. On September 24, he took over for future Hall of Famer Roy Campanella and caught the final five innings in a 2–0 victory over Pittsburgh. This was the Dodgers’ last home game before they competed with Brooklyn for the West Coast.
In 1959, Pignatano had his biggest hit. In the second game for the NL pennant against Milwaukee in a best-of-three playoff, his two-out single in the bottom of the 12th at the Coliseum set up the winning run scored by Hodges as Los Angeles earned a World Series spot.
The Dodgers won the championship, and Pignatano had a brief appearance behind the plate in a six-game victory over the Chicago White Sox.
After stints with the Kansas City Athletics and the San Francisco Giants, he joined the 1962 expansion Mets in midseason. The Mets were terrible, setting a modern major league record for losses in going 40–120, and wrapped up their season in outrageous fashion.
In their final game of the season, against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, they went 5–1 when Sammy Drake led the eighth inning and Richie Ashburn took second on a single.
Pignatano was ahead and sent a liner towards right field – “the ball was labeled as a base hit from the moment it came off the bat” as described on Mets radio.
Instead, Chicago second baseman Ken Hubs went back and caught the ball and threw it to first baseman Ernie Banks, who relayed to shortstop Andre Rodgers for a triple play.
It was Pignatano’s last batting in the Major.
A career .234 hitter, he played 307 games and scored 16 home runs. Among the pitchers he tagged in for Homers were Robin Roberts, Warren Spahn, and Jim Catt, all Hall of Famers.
In 1965, Hodges was managing the Washington Senators when he asked Pignatano to join his coaching staff. In 1968, Pignatano went to the Mets with Hodges.
During the 1969 season, Pignatano discovered a stray tomato plant growing in Bullpen, a field right in Shea, and kept it healthy. As the Mets continued to win, the plant became a good luck charm and Pignatano’s garden took root.
“It was his home away from home,” McAndrew recalled Monday. “He was there with his tomatoes for five or six hours a day. He really took care of them. While we were on the road, the ground crew helped out. He had water.”
Over the years, ripe, red tomatoes grew and so did the stories about Pignatano’s green thumb. He was always happy to talk about his garden.
But let others enjoy his harvest? No, McAndrew said he never got to taste a single juicy tomato.
“He didn’t share them. They were just for him,” McAndrew said with a laugh. “He was going to reap his bounty.”