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Mets Stage Impromptu 1973 Tribute

You don’t gotta believe or anything crazy like that, but you gotta take stock of what’s been going on in the National League East since May 26:

New York 15-14
Miami 14-14
Atlanta 15-16
Washington 14-15
Philadelphia 14-17

If that’s not 1973 in miniature, I don’t know what is.

We bemoan the lack of a 40th anniversary tribute from the organization that directs our favorite baseball team. We cringe that they seem oblivious to the resonance of one of the most uplifting achievements in franchise history [1]. We’d love to cheer those who blessed us and defined us and made us demi-miraculous, but at this point we’d settle for a commemorative logo emblazoned on a “Collector’s Cup”.

But the current players themselves — only one of them even born when Tug and Rusty and Tom and Wayne and Cleon and Jon and Kooz and Buddy and Willie and Ron (Hodges, of course) were making indelible history — have taken it upon themselves to stage an homage to 1973, assisted by four divisional cohabitants who have expertly played the proper supporting roles.

For those of you who haven’t committed partial National League East standings from four decades ago to everlasting memory, they looked a lot like the set above did, except these records were compiled after nearly five months of limp competition:

St. Louis 68-65
Pittsburgh 63-65
Chicago 64-67
Montreal 62-70
Philadelphia 62-71
New York 61-71

The names have changed (he says with a touch of lingering melancholy for what once was but hasn’t been for quite a while) yet the premise was largely the same: a division that could be viewed as vigorously contested…or a bunch of mediocrities who couldn’t get out of each other’s way. To the juncture at which the above snapshot was taken in 1973, through the action of August 30, the Mets hadn’t been in anybody’s way. Ten games below with thirty to go while stuck in last place would indicate a) a pretty lousy season just dying to get done and b) no hope whatsoever for what remained.

Ah, but look at what transpired from August 31 onward, as delineated by Baseball-Reference:

New York 21-8
Montreal 17-13
Pittsburgh 17-17
St. Louis 13-16
Chicago 13-17
Philadelphia 9-20

And when you added it all up once wet grounds and common sense postponed the second half of a makeup doubleheader at Wrigley Field on October 1:

New York 82-79
St. Louis 81-81
Pittsburgh 80-82
Montreal 79-83
Chicago 77-84
Philadelphia 71-91

That’s a division title right there. That’s as unbelievable as it gets when a short-term brushfire blazes through acres of mediocrity. And that, my brothers and sisters, is why we still remind one another that You Gotta Believe whenever we’re given the slightest morsel of evidence that our faith is merited.

Is it now? Probably not.

So is being the best team in their division for a month — the only one with a winning record, for Grote’s sake — more a comment on the indifferent performance of their N.L. East rivals than it is on how not bad they’ve been in this span if you forget the part where they lost ten of twelve, including five of five to the stupid Marlins?

Probably and who cares? The pesky overarching truth is that while the Braves, Nationals and Phillies have spun their wheels from late May up to now, the Mets look good mostly because they were buried in mud prior to May 26 and have only recently reached the wheel-spinning phase of their season. It would have helped the 1973 Reincarnated scenario immensely had the Mets not lost 29 of their first 46 games. Last I checked, those count, too.

But we already knew that. What we didn’t know was this particular edition of the New York Mets could make us tingle just enough to forget how implausible they are — and if you didn’t tingle in the shadow of a setting Colorado sun Thursday night, then you should get something in your soul checked.

The 1973 Mets burst into contention once their lost battalion of injury victims marched off the disabled list and into active duty. Conversely, the 2013 Mets have risen from dismal to whatever they are now by systematically eliminating a surprising proportion of players on whom they counted. Removed from the roster by choice or physical necessity since May 26, either temporarily or permanently:

Niese. Tejada. Davis. Turner. Duda. Baxter. Carson. McHugh. Cowgill. Atchison. Burke. Ankiel.

Miss them?

It’s an unfair question. First off, there’s a good bit of chronological overlapping where those guys and recent success — 8 wins in 12 tries most recently — are concerned. Second, when you win, the circumstances surrounding victory make all the sense in the world no matter how little sense they actually make. For example, the Mets won in Denver after Terry Collins chained David Wright to the bench for the first time all season. He didn’t start, he didn’t pinch-hit, he didn’t come in for defense. Third base was handed over for one late Mountain Time Zone afternoon to Zach Lutz, making him the 150th Met ever to man the hot corner (a count few bother to keep up since David, at No. 129, rendered the mythic “the Mets can never find a regular third baseman” narrative [2] inoperable). With Zach Lutz in for David Wright, the Mets prevailed in stimulating fashion, 3-2 [3]. Thus, according to the reliable Zach [Squared] minus David [Rested] formula, the Mets are better off with Lutz over Wright.

Yeah, sure they are. But Zach didn’t hurt the Mets in his cameo, not even when he and Josh Satin teamed up on some comical pre-May 26 defense to help shove the Mets in a 2-0 hole early. Lutz didn’t look back a runner and Satin thought Lutz was covering left field. One could sense from two-thirds of a continent away the imminent rationalizations that it had been a good trip and this scheduling was very difficult and the important thing is we gave David a blow and whodaya think the Mets are, anyway — the best team in the National League East for the last month?

Ah, but that’s stinkin’ thinkin’ of a pre-5/26 (or, really, pre-Decline of Western Civilization [4]) mindset. The Mets were ill, not dead. Then they lived long enough to cobble together one of the slowest developing runs you’ll see in the course of a ballgame, as a Satin walk, a Lutz single, a beautiful Lagares bunt, a questionably conceived fielder’s choice on a Recker groundout and a Hefner non-DP got the Mets on the board. And oh, by the way, Jeremy Hefner is more or less the second-most dependable starting pitcher the Mets have these days, which, unimaginably, is not intended as a disparaging assessment of Mets starting pitching.

Hef went six. Forty-year-old LaTroy Hawkins — who we’ll infer cheered the Mets toward their 1973 pennant from his crib — took care of the seventh. Marlon Byrd did all the heavy lifting thereafter, first via a two-run homer (didn’t home runs used to be the norm at Coors Field?) and then via an absolute peg from right to nail a salivating Michael Cuddyer at second in the ninth. Scott Rice and Bobby Parnell assisted in the win as well. So did Daniel Murphy. And I wouldn’t discount Eric Young, Jr. Or Omar Quintanilla. Or anybody else on the Mets as we speak. Team ball. Team effort. Team with the best record in the National League East since May 26. Team that just won ballgames in four different cities away from Flushing and didn’t lose any of the series in which they were played.

Team clearly descended from the 1973 Mets, if just for a moment or a month.

You gotta believe that I was thrilled to join Jay Goldberg for the Bergino Baseball Clubhouse [5] podcast Wednesday night and honored by the attendance of those Mets fans and readers who dropped by to hear more about The Happiest Recap [6]. Jay has posted the interview and Q&A session [7] that followed for your listening pleasure. And if you are enamored of this game of ours, be sure to visit Bergino when you’re in the vicinity of 67 E. 11th Street. You can even pick up a signed copy of First Base: 1962-1973 there!