The Cubs have been the Mets’ fiercest foes at various intervals in our history. And the Braves have been our enemies and obstacles for what was, until a couple of months ago, a very frustrating decade. But our only true sustained rivalry was the one we dug in for against the St. Louis Cardinals.
It doesn’t exist as a meaningful going concern anymore, but from 1985 to 1988, Mets-Cardinals games had extra juice, thanks primarily to the Cardinals’ success in the odd years. We’d take our revenge in ’86 and ’88, blowing them out of the Mississippi early and often, but ’85 and ’87 were duels to the divisional death. And we died both times.
Find a Mets fan who was sentient in the middle to late ’80s and you’ll find a Mets fan who has never quite gotten over those two N.L. East races that didn’t go our way. Never mind that 1986 built on 1985 and gave us, as the video says, a year to remember. Never mind that the Mets recovered quite nicely from their failure to repeat in 1987 by lapping the field in 1988. For those who remember it — and those who never forgot it — the Cardinals occupy a psychic space as wide as the hole on the left side of the infield during a Carlos Delgado at-bat.
It was a long time ago. A very long time ago. I didn’t see Willie McGee patrolling center against the Padres Sunday night or Todd Worrell challenging Mike Piazza in the eighth or Jack Clark handling the final out that sent St. Louis back into our world starting Wednesday night. The Cardinals who made us miserable in two out of three seasons when we were at our franchise best no longer exist. No Whitey Herzog checking bats or juggling relievers. No Tommy Herr stunning us with unprecedented power. No Vince Coleman stealing unabated on Gary Carter. No John Tudor grimly striking out Darryl Strawberry. No Cesar Cedeño or Dan Driessen emerging from the scrap heap to stab us in the heart with the final shards of their expiring careers.
No Terry Pendleton.
It was a long time ago. And it doesn’t matter. But c’mon…you thought about it. The first words that came to mind after the Cardinals advanced — at least after Pujols…sheeeeyit — probably involved some aspect of the two years whose shortfalls prevented us from touching genuine dynasty status.
I spoke to a friend after we beat L.A. Saturday night, one who pointed out the possible trifecta of revenge looming. By defeating the Dodgers, he said, we got even for 1988. Now, if St. Louis advanced to the LCS, we could get even for 1985 and 1987 and then, if it’s us and Oakland in the World Series, there’s a chance to make up for 1973. Um, yeah, I said, but we already did that in 2000, didn’t we? We won the pennant over the Cardinals six years ago. I know we did. I was there. My friend supposed so.
I understood. We came within a total of four games — two against them in ’85, two against them in ’87 — of winning four consecutive division titles back when that sort of thing was nearly impossible. McDowell gets his sinker down; Jim Kaat doesn’t tip off the White Rat that Cedeño could still hit; John Mitchell keeps it together for one more inning on Monday Night Baseball; Kid gets around on Jeff Lahti…take your pick. That area above the rightfield wall could be very crowded had just a few more things gone right.
Yeah, it was close in ’85 and ’87, but the only Garcia y Vegas in sight were the ones given away on Channel 9. It was tough enough hearing our salt-of-the-earth heroes labeled Pond Scum by the allegedly civilized Midwestern masses, the same ones who booed Keith Hernandez (nice trade, pretty boys) and dumped beer on Lenny Dykstra. It was much worse being the Pond Scum that didn’t rise to the top. With due respect to years when we missed the playoffs at the hands of the Cubs, the Braves, the Pirates, even the Marlins, missing the playoffs those two times because of the Cardinals remain the craw-stickingest misses of them all.
Mind you, that hole in our history is indisputably irrelevant as we attempt to accomplish ever greater feats in the here and now. The Busch Stadium we’ll enter this weekend isn’t that Busch Stadium anymore. Realignment has made us strangers on a train, with us visiting them and them visiting us just once per annum. And the revenge fantasy should have been sufficiently quenched in the five games that won us a flag in 2000.
Yet, it’s the Mets and Cardinals playing for the biggest prize immediately available. We hated them. They hated us. I imagine everybody who watched then can figure out how to do that now. And aren’t we, at least the fans, the sums of all the seasons that have come before?
So welcome back, Arch rivals. Here we Scum again.