McGraw played on the "Miracle Mets" team that won the 1969 World Series. In '73, he coined the popular "Ya Gotta Believe" slogan, as the Mets again surprised the baseball world by winning the National League pennant before losing the World Series in seven games to Oakland.
The next year, McGraw was traded to the Phillies in a deal that sent catcher John Stearns to New York. As the Phillies' closer, he relied on his screwball, a pitch that very well defined the man who threw it. It was also the inspiration for a cartoon that Tug penned called "Scroogie".
When Tugger wasn't in the funny pages, he was making it fun for sportswriters who gathered by his locker every night. He named his fastballs: "Peggy Lee" left hitters asking, "Is that all there is?"; "Bo Derek" had a nice tail to it; "Cutty Sark" was one that sailed; and his "John Jameson" was straight and hard.
McGraw kept the clubhouse and his teammates loose with his humor. Larry Christenson loves to tell the story of the times he was going to be the starting pitcher.
"Tug would walk in the clubhouse and say loud enough for everyone to hear, 'LC, are you pitching tonight?' Christenson said. 'I'd say, 'Yes, Tugger,' to which he would respond, 'Then so am I.'"
Tug was all business between the white lines, but he never forgot that baseball was a game. He showed up for his first St. Patrick's Day game with the Phillies in Clearwater after dying his entire uniform green, telling the umpires it was his teammates who were out of uniform. To this day, the Phillies wear green jerseys on St. Patty's day, and auction them off later for charity.
Things got serious during the 1980 season, as McGraw picked up 20 saves to go along with a glistening 1.46 ERA. In the heart-stopping playoff series against Houston, he pitched in all five games, saving two of them. It was all a prelude to McGraw's World Series heroics against Kansas City. The veteran lefty struck out 10 Royals in 7 2/3 innings, none more memorable than the fastball he threw past Willie Wilson that gave the Phillies their World Series championship.
McGraw pitched mostly as a set-up man in the following four seasons, and his final Major League game was on Sept. 25, 1984. Only a select few Major Leaguers with the combination of great ability and popularity are ever rewarded with a night to celebrate their career, but McGraw might be the only one who was given a night and then wound up supplying his own talent.
On Tug McGraw Night at the Vet, the Tugger did "Casey at the Bat," an act he had previously performed at the Academy of Music with Peter Nero and the Philly Pops. In a darkened stadium, with the spotlight on McGraw in the bullpen, the leprechaun took his baseball leave, a twinkle in his eye and a tear in ours.
McGraw left baseball, but he didn't leave Philadelphia or the public eye. McGraw became a television reporter for WPVI TV doing feature stories on interesting people in the community.
During that time, McGraw also revealed that he had another son in addition to his children Mark, Cari and Matthew. This son wanted to be a country music star, and Tug pitched in by becoming a tireless promoter, taking his son's music to radio stations and asking them to play it. With an early assist from his father, Tim McGraw became a superstar.
Tug was back in uniform in 2003, working with the Phillies in Clearwater, when he learned he had brain cancer. He put up a gallant fight, but never asked, "Why me?" He said that question should be reserved for young mothers who faced similar long odds. Tug died at the age of 59, only a few months after reenacting his famous strike of Willie Wilson during the closing ceremonies of Veterans Stadium.
Near the end of his life, Tug said he had no regrets. He said some players front-loaded their contracts. McGraw front-loaded his life.
No Phillies fan would ever disagree.
* This story appeared in Philadelphia Phillies: An Extraordinary Tradition; Insight Editions, publisher, currently available in book stores or online).