Welcome to The Happiest Recap, a solid gold slate of New York Mets games culled from every schedule the Mets have ever played en route to this, their fiftieth year in baseball. We’ve created a dream season that includes the “best” 139th game in any Mets season, the “best” 140th game in any Mets season, the “best” 141st game in any Mets season…and we keep going from there until we have a completed schedule worthy of Bob Murphy coming back with the Happy Recap after this word from our sponsor on the WFAN Mets Radio Network.
GAME 139: September 9, 1969 — METS 7 Cubs 1
(Mets All-Time Game 139 Record: 20-28; Mets 1969 Record: 82-57)
Tuesday night. Shea Stadium. A black cat appears.
Is that all she wrote?
With apologies to Homer the Dog and Mettle the Mule (and, for that matter, George “The Stork” Theodore), the unnamed black cat that crossed in front of the visitors’ dugout when it was full of Chicago Cubs is the most famous animal in New York Mets history. He was plainly working for the home team when he seemingly sought out — depending on whose version you believe — Glenn Beckert, Ron Santo or Leo Durocher, and irreversibly altered the luck quotient of the 1969 pennant race. The Cubs who came to town as the holders of the longest-lived lead the National League East had ever seen (in, granted, the first year there was a National League East), would be leaving with their proverbial tails tucked between their hind legs.
And the Mets were clearing their collective throat to roar the roar of a fresh, new frontrunner.
It was a night to say hello to one legend and bid a derisive adieu to another.
Foregoing the question of where that cat came from anyway, who was he intending to spook? The whole Cubs team, broadly, but specifically? A wire-service photo that appeared in papers nationwide the next day identified the Cub in the on-deck circle past whom the Flushing feline of the moment padded as second baseman Beckert; his face and uniform number were obscured, but he was the second batter in visitors’ lineup, and since the episode is generally recalled as occurring as the game got underway, Glenn was a logical candidate. Later accounts, however, fingered the victim of furry misfortune as Santo, and, indeed, the third baseman turned announcer definitely created a sideline from autographing copies of the image in retirement.
Rick Talley, in The Cubs of ’69, meanwhile, deduced the kitty had another target in mind:
“Somebody released the feline in front of the Cubs dugout early in the no-contest, and while some players chuckled as the cat ran back and forth in front of the bench as if trained, Leo the Lion stared straight ahead. Perhaps the King of Beasts knew.”
On whomever he set his gaze, the black cat was recognized immediately as bad luck for one team, and not the other. Richard Dozer in the next day’s Chicago Tribune described a first inning in which “the frightened feline reversed his course and dashed under the stands to safety on the other side, next to the Mets’ dugout.” And years later, Shea’s head groundskeeper Pete Flynn recalled in the book, Moments in the Sun, “He looked in the dugout and gave them the jinx. The cat came from behind home plate and went in front of the Cubs dugout. It was a bizarre moment.”
Most bizarre of all, at least from the perspective of past performance, was how the Mets had making their own luck dating back to August 16. They’d won 21 of 27 entering the Night of the Cat, while the Cubs didn’t need any superstitions gone awry to tell them things weren’t going their way any longer. Since August 20, they’d lost 12 of 19. The table-turning had placed the Mets only a game-and-half-back before the cat reared head (depending on your allegiance) adorable or ominous head.
Once the cat had his say, it was the Cubs who were put out. In the bottom of the first, after Chicago had gone down in order, two Ferguson Jenkins walks set the stage for Ken Boswell to double home two runs and give Tom Seaver as much lead as he’d need. Seaver was money by this point in the 1969 season. Certainly his manager thought so. As Bob Sales of the Boston Globe noted, Gil Hodges’s neatly printed on his lineup card, as the Mets’ ninth-place hitter, “$eaver – P”.
Tom didn’t give up anything for three innings, long enough for the Mets to increase their margin, thanks to a botched Cubs pickoff attempt that didn’t erase leadfooted Art Shamsky at second and a succeeding two-run homer from Donn Clendenon. The Cubs manufactured one run in the top of the fourth, but Seaver personally got it back when he doubled in the bottom of the inning and came around on a fielder’s choice and sacrifice fly. A Shamsky home run and a Jerry Grote RBI double eventually elevated the Mets’ advantage to 7-1.
Which wasn’t enough to bring out the cat for an encore but was plenty of cue for the 58,436 in attendance (51,448 paid) to serve as Hallelujah! chorus behind Seaver. They took out handkerchiefs, they waved them in the general direction of the third base dugout and they serenaded the Chicago manager with a new twist on an old favorite.
We hate to see you go!
It was splendid accompaniment to Seaver’s 21st win of the season, as was Karl Ehrhardt’s extraordinarily topical sign held aloft in the box seats no far from where the serenadee sat and fumed:
TOOTHLESS CUBS —
JUST A LOTTA LIP
“These fans,” Durocher was heard to grumble as he was heckled en route to the team bus, “they’re not goin’ after any maiden.” Yet in other, seemingly distant lifetimes, Durocher was one of them. He had been a New Yorker. He played (albeit without distinction) with Babe Ruth on the Yankees. He cajoled the Dodgers to the 1941 pennant, Brooklyn’s first in 21 years. His guile was behind the miraculous Giant comeback of 1951. Now, however, Leo the Lip was on the wrong side of the field and the wrong end of a miracle in the making. The usually garrulous manager had only this to say to reporters after Seaver completed the 7-1 defanging of the once proud Lion and sliced what was left of the Cubs’ divisional lead to a fragile half-game:
“No comment. No fucking comment.”
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 7, 2006, the fastest set of wheels in the National League showed what they could do upon accelerating. The suspicion was they — and the team for whom they revved so effectively — couldn’t be stopped.
In the bottom of the sixth on a Thursday night at Shea, as the Mets led the Dodgers, 4-0, Jose Reyes shot a Brad Penny pitch up the right-center field gap with two on. The ball eluded Matt Kemp, so Jose just kept going. Kemp tracked down what seemed likely to become Reyes’s 17th triple of the season.
It was destined to be more. In this year of Ho-ZAY! HozayHozayHozay!, three bags just weren’t enough for the speedy Met shortstop. He rounded third and headed for home well ahead of the relay throw that had no chance of catching him. Reyes slid headfirst, bellyflopping onto the plate for no better reason than it appeared to be fun.
Jose Reyes was nothing but fun by this point of the 2006 season. His three-run inside-the-park home run gave the Mets a 7-0 lead they’d hold for the rest of the game and put them 35 games over .500 for the first time since 1988, the last time they won the N.L. East. Appropriately enough, the win reduced the Mets’ magic number for clinching another division title to the one on Reyes’s back: 7.
GAME 140: September 10, 1969 (1st) — METS 3 Expos 2 (12)
(Mets All-Time Game 140 Record: 24-24; Mets 1969 Record: 83-57)
The Mets were going to ascend into first place sooner or later. It’s just that nobody would have ever bet on sooner.
Ever…at least not the ever that started in 1962 and rolled on until a few weeks before, when the Mets were improved, but still a light year or two from first. But that was all ancient history now. The New York Mets who couldn’t be mentioned in the same sentence with first place no longer existed. They’d been replaced with a couple of dozen fellows who wore uniforms eerily similar to that of their predecessors, but the resemblance ended once these Mets took the field and deposited their results in the standings.
This was a franchise for whom finishes above last place were news, and there were only two of those in seven seasons. Precedent indicated that would be a reasonable Met goal again. In 1969, the birth of the first expansion team in their time zone since them figured to guarantee the newly created six-team National League East’s basement would be furnished with Montreal Expos paraphernalia. Sure enough, the Mets didn’t spend any time in sixth.
More aspiration? The Philadelphia Phillies — featuring a disgruntled Richie Allen and little else — loomed as pretty crummy; the Mets finished only three games behind them in 1968. The Phils fell into fifth to stay by late May. That meant one last and next-to-last were occupied by teams who weren’t the Mets.
Higher up the food chain were the Pittsburgh Pirates, a sub-.500 team the year before and, despite the dangerous bats belonging to Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell, not considered pitching-laden enough to be a serious contender heading into ’69. By June, the Mets had put the Pirates in their rearview mirror.
The St. Louis Cardinals were a heavy favorite to contend for their third consecutive league championship — or divisional championship, anyway. But the Redbirds were grounded early. Save for a brief Cards resurgence in mid-August that coincided with the Mets groping to find themselves, St. Louis was not a direct challenger to ascendant New York. The Mets spent the bulk of 1969 ahead of the once-formidable Cardinals.
Sixth place? Not the Mets.
Fifth place? Not the Mets.
Fourth place? Not the Mets.
Third place? Not the Mets.
Second place? That was the Mets most every day from June 3 through September 9. It was a helluva accomplishment considering the humble beginnings that never completely shook off their humility for seven years. The Mets were better than everybody in their immediate sphere except for one team: the mighty Chicago Cubs.
But the Cubs, as the Mets had just witnessed, were no longer mighty by September. Leo Durocher had brought them to Shea for two games and they left town with two losses. The separation between Chicago and New York in the standings — which, when the Cubs were running away with the division, felt like the 789.4 Rand McNally miles — was down to a half-game.
A half-game? That’s a day’s work as baseball math goes. You win and your prey loses, you’ve got it. You’ve got first place. The Mets couldn’t take on the Cubs directly, but they could make a pretty significant push on their own, as they were playing the last-place Expos twice this Wednesday evening at Shea. True, the Cubs were down in Philadelphia, taking on a the next-to-last place Phillies, but in their case, other teams’ positions hardly mattered.
The Cubs had met the enemy, and it was as much them as it was whomever they were playing. They were also going up against the specter of the Mets, who suddenly couldn’t lose, and the surging relentlessness of the schedule. That the Cubs had to play anybody was bad news for them. That the Mets would have two shots at the Expos…let’s just say moving day loomed.
The Mets made their move first. Their doubleheader started well ahead of the Cubs’ single night game at Connie Mack Stadium. To add a little drama to the prevailing trends, the Mets and Expos — knotted at two from the fifth inning on — needed to go to extra innings in their opener. Until they had a final, the standings couldn’t budge even temporarily…no matter how much they were plainly dying to.
In the bottom of the twelfth, after Bill Stoneman got two quick outs, Cleon Jones singled and Rod Gaspar walked. Ken Boswell came to the plate. Here is how Ralph Kiner described the climactic swing:
“The pitch is hit through the middle, it’s gonna go into center field, a base hit and the Mets will win it! Coming around to score is Cleon Jones, and the Mets have won the ballgame, three to two, on the base hit.
“So for the first time in the history of the New York Mets, they have gone into first place!”
The standings, as of September 10, 1969, 8:43 PM Eastern Daylight Time, couldn’t have been more provisional. The Mets and Expos had another game to play, while the Cubs and Phillies were still in progress down the New Jersey Turnpike. Nevertheless, the fans knew they were in on an unprecedented moment, declaring, in case anybody missed it…
WE’RE NUMBER ONE!
WE’RE NUMBER ONE!
WE’RE NUMBER ONE!
Their assertion was confirmed by the Shea scoreboard:
LOOK WHO’S NO. 1
It wasn’t the Cubs anymore. The NY METS were listed as having WON 83 and LOST 57. That information was posted one line above the record of the CHI CUBS, who had WON 84 and LOST 58. The all-important PCT. was included to let every Sheagoer and the entirety of the free world know the Mets held an advantage of .593 to .592.
That was it. It would be referred to as one percentage point, but technically it was one one-thousandth of one percent. In the jargon of Chesterfield Cigarette ads of the day, the Mets’ winning percentage was no more than a silly millimeter longer than the Cubs’. But it was longer. And larger. And bigger. And better.
The Mets were No. 1. By the end of the night, the Phillies downed the Cubs, 6-2, and the Mets (behind Nolan Ryan’s complete game, eleven-strikeout three-hitter in the nightcap) swept Montreal, 3-2 and 7-1. That translated to a full one-game lead for the Mets.
The first-place Mets, that is.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 8, 1970, what was once the stuff of miracles was now mired in the relatively mundane business of defending what had been previously, if miraculously, attained. Then again, the concept of a title defense in baseball is more myth than reality. Once the season after a championship begins, everybody is even. Everybody is Oh and Oh. Everybody has to start from scratch and attempt to build a new championship.
That’s what the 1970 Mets were doing in September…almost desperately. They dropped out of first place in early August and had been clawing to get back on top for more than a month. They closed in on their 1969 perch against Montreal this Tuesday night at Shea when they put five runs on the board in the eighth inning, extending their lead to 10-2. The key blows were a three-run double from Ken Boswell and a three-RBI single off the bat of reliever Tug McGraw. McGraw replaced starter Gary Gentry in the fourth and had tamed the Expos ever since. He’d stay in the game in the ninth, but after surrendering a three-run homer to Bob Bailey, Gil Hodges called on recent pickup Ron Herbel to get the final two outs and preserve the 10-5 win.
Also starring for the Mets was Cleon Jones, whose season to date was a far cry from the All-Star campaign he put up in 1969. His 3-for-5 evening (a triple and two doubles) allowed the .340 hitter from the year before to build his hitting streak to 15 consecutive games. By the time it was over, on September 15, Cleon would make it 23 straight to establish a new club record. But even with the recent surge, Jones was batting only .277, or more than 60 points lower than his 1969 average.
As for the Mets as a whole, the triumph over Montreal, combined with a Pirate loss, lifted them to within a half-game of first place. They would forge a tie with Pittsburgh the next night and share a piece of the penthouse as late as September 14, but 1970 was destined to provide nothing of a championship nature for the Mets, save for the rapidly fading memories of what had been so miraculous so recently. They’d finish in third, six games out.
GAME 141: September 7, 1984 — METS 10 Cubs 0
(Mets All-Time Game 141 Record: 19-29; Mets 1984 Record: 79-62)
So close. So gosh darn close. Even for the annals filled with the darnedest, closest attempts to carve into the record books the very first no-hitter ever thrown by a New York Met, this one was excruciating.
But this effort had a twist. Most of the not-a-no-hitter heartbreak stems from longevity. The longer a no-hit effort goes, the harder the fall when the first hit falls in. But here, on a Friday night at Shea when a massive crowd was dying for as big a Met moment as possible, it wasn’t closeness to the finish line that nailed their dreams. It was how close the one gosh darn hit came to being an error.
Which nobody could be blamed for thinking it should been scored.
Rookie Dwight Gooden had already been magnificent in 1984. Now, pitching to the first-place Cubs, against whom the Mets were making their last desperate lunge (from seven games out), he turned almost invincible:
• No hits and two strikeouts in the first.
• No hits and two strikeouts in the second.
• No hits and two strikeouts in the third.
Sense a pattern? With Mookie Wilson and George Foster each driving in three runs by the bottom of the third, the Mets didn’t have to worry about offense. And with Doctor K on the mound, pitching wasn’t a concern.
History, however, was growing on everybody’s minds. The appetizer came in the second when Doc passed Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander for the National League rookie strikeout record. That rated hearty applause from the more than 46,000 on hand, but it felt like there could be more…like there should be more. In the fourth, the feeling escalated as Gooden set down the Cubs in order again. By the fifth, the Mets had a 7-0 lead (on Mookie’s fourth ribby), and the buzz intensified.
Dwight Gooden, so good…but no-hitter good?
The leadoff batter was Keith Moreland, an earlier strikeout victim. This time, though, he made contact…if not a lot. He rolled a grounder up the third base line. It rolled like Moreland ran: slowly. Third baseman Ray Knight, playing deep, had to charge it. He fielded it, but by no means cleanly. Knight couldn’t and didn’t make a throw.
On NBC, where the game was airing nationally, and throughout Shea, Mets fans awaited the word: Hit? Error? Error? Hit?
Or so the official scorer said.
The groan was palpable. Twenty-three seasons had conditioned Mets fans to recognize a no-hitter as it was getting away from them, and this one shouldn’t have been that. This one was shaping up as the real thing, the one that was going to break the disappointing mold.
“I couldn’t throw it,” Knight said later. “I never got a grip on the ball.”
Doesn’t sound like a hit, didn’t necessarily look like a hit, but it went into the books as a hit — the only Chicago hit in the Mets’ 10-0 win that was swell in terms of the bottom-line result and the necessary inching up on the Cubs, but deflating considering what it could have been. Dwight Gooden struck out eleven batters in going the distance. It was the fourteenth double-digit performance of his young career.
And it was his first one-hitter.
Knight, an August acquisition from the Astros, had no equity with the Shea crowd yet, so he drew boos. The no-hitter-starved fan base probably wouldn’t have acted too kindly toward him, either, had they heard him say, as he did after the game, that he would have scored it a hit, although he did allow, “I’d gladly take an error on it.”
Davey Johnson brushed it off as “a hit all the way,” and the man who came one clean grip and throw from making the most immense Met history imaginable was relatively nonchalant about what he lost while gaining his 15th win of the year. “I’m not disappointed,” Gooden said. “The hit doesn’t matter. I just wanted to win the game.”
Dwight Gooden was a great Mets pitcher. But it was obvious he had never been a Mets fan.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 7, 1973, the long, hard slog from a frustrating last to an improbable first continued in two languages. The Mets traveled to Montreal for a Friday night doubleheader, and if you had to ask anyone to choose which team was the surprise contender at Parc Jarry, the standings would suggest you take a close look at Les Expos, who entered play in second place, three games out. It was the first time the ’Spos — now in their fifth season — were in anything resembling a pennant race. The Mets, on the other hand, had only, in the space of the previous week, tiptoed from sixth to fifth and then fifth to fourth. But if customs didn’t stop them, why would the Expos?
Vous devez croire, incidentally, is a rough French translation of “You Gotta Believe.”
After Jon Matlack, aided by a one-out save from resurgent Tug McGraw, made Wayne Garrett’s leadoff homer hold up for a 1-0 win in the opener, the two teams settled in for a very long Canadian night. Jerry Koosman extended his then club-record scoreless innings streak to 31⅔, before Bob Bailey drove home Felipe Alou in third to give the Expos a 1-0 lead. It held up until the seventh, when a Pepe Frias error and a Mike Torrez fit of wildness (three consecutive walks) allowed the Mets to tie the score.
It stayed tied for a very long time, as relief aces Mike Marshall and Tug McGraw (following Harry Parker’s three scoreless frames) steered the game deep into extra innings. Tug wriggled out of a bases-loaded jam in the tenth by striking out pinch-hitter Clyde Mashore. Marshall, who would go eight-and-a-third, danced through figurative raindrops as well, grounding out Rusty Staub with Mets on second and third to escape the fourteenth.
The big breakthrough came in the fifteenth: John Milner singled, Ed Kranepool doubled and, one out later, Don Hahn lifted a fly ball to push the Mets’ second run across. McGraw would be allowed to bat for himself and he singled home two runs later in the inning, though he’d be thrown out trying to take second.
Yogi Berra, tuned into McGraw’s hot-handedness (going for his sixth win or save in his last six appearances), left him to pitch a sixth inning, but after one Expo run scored, he finally removed him in favor of Ray Sadecki. The veteran lefty retired Pepe Mangual and Alou, and the Mets came away 4-2 winners. They had swept the Expos and climbed to within four games of first-place St. Louis and a half-game of now third-place Montreal in the most fluid pennant race anybody had ever seen. Five teams were within five games of first, yet none of them was more than three games above .500. The Mets, at 68-73, were smack dab in the thick of things.
Vous devez croire, indeed.