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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Back to Where We Once Belonged

“Essentially, though, these were young men, seizing the opportunity to make the careers all normal ball players yearn for — victory, earning power, fame, respect. They were no different from the dozens of other young clubs that had suddenly found themselves, all through baseball history, in some dramatic season. The comic origins of the name on their shirts did not really relate to them.

“However, what was untrue for the players was true for the hard core of old Met fans. For them […] it really was fulfillment after seven years in the desert. In their memories and emotions, there was an unbroken line back […] — and the glory now within reach was anything but sudden. They, it was true, were the lowly raised high — but only after several agonizing eternities.”

The above could have been written 45 minutes ago, but it dates back 45 years, with the bracketed ellipses inserted today to purposefully conceal the passage’s true vintage. The author was Leonard Koppett, from the book, The New York Mets: The Whole Story, originally published in 1970 to reflect (and cash in on) the touchstone events of 1969, such as the first night the Mets spent in first place.

We still touch its mystical properties more than four-and-a-half decades later when contemporary circumstances so dictate. We still haul out as talisman the single sentence that lit up the Shea Stadium scoreboard on the evening of September 10, 1969, one of the most definitive directives ever issued in the entire history of the star-crossed franchise we call our own.

LOOK WHO’S NO. 1

That’s what it said once the Mets eked past the Cubs by percentage points, having captured the first game of their twinight doubleheader against Montreal. It was just percentage points’ worth of difference and the situation couldn’t have been more provisional, given that Chicago’s contest in Philadelphia remained in progress and the Mets and Expos had a nightcap penciled onto their dance card. But because it was 1969, all the decimals continued to fall into place. The Cubs lost. The Mets won again. The night ended with New York one full game ahead of their rivals, sitting atop the standings of the National League East.

The Mets had never sat atop any standings before. They would stay atop these for the duration of 1969. The would now and then return to that position in the dozens of seasons ahead, sometimes for a moment, sometimes for keeps. The slate is wiped clean every year, so no one maintains it on a permanent basis.

But when you initially arrive there late enough in a given season so that it’s deemed competitively significant after you haven’t been there for a very long and arid stretch, you can’t help but light up like that scoreboard of yore.

Look who’s No. 1 now!

Go ahead, look!

Why, it’s the New York Mets!

The most famous attainment of first place in New York Mets history remains the first attainment of first place in New York Mets history, September 10, 1969. It will always be preeminent in our thoughts on nights like Monday’s in Miami. But nights like Monday’s in Miami should also be kept somewhere where they can be readily accessed and referenced and treasured. Nights like Monday’s in Miami don’t come around nearly enough.

The New York Mets pounded the Miami Marlins in Miami on Monday night, 12-1, while the Arizona Diamondbacks were holding off the Washington Nationals in Washington, 6-4. The combination of results untangled the virtual tie the Nats (winning percentage .52427) and Mets (winning percentage .52381) found themselves knotted in at the close of business Sunday night. Being sort of in first place in early August wasn’t exactly a knotty problem of baseball compared to where the Mets were stuck the previous six Augusts of their lives. From 2009 to 2014, if you wanted to find them around this time of year, you’d start scanning at the bottom and end no higher than in the middle. After being nowhere near the entrance ramp to the last half-dozen pennant race stretch drives, virtual definitely had its virtues — though not so many when you’re mentally good and ready to get back…get back…get back to where you once belonged.

We finished first the first year there was a National League Eastern Division. The Mets’ pursuit of and ascension to No. 1, during the September when I was six, represents my first specific memory of what our team can do and, therefore, my unshakable exemplar of how a pennant race is meant to unfold. Several agonizing eternities notwithstanding, you’ll never convince me first place isn’t our virtual birthright.

Standards and expectations transform in a flash when you find yourself angling for the lead. After this past weekend — the best weekend Citi Field has ever seen — it was difficult to fathom that the team from whom few of us had expected anything beyond recurring frustration dotted by occasional heartbreak wasn’t already the best team in the world, let alone the best team in the East. They raucously and joyously took three of three from the Nats, serving notice to onlookers everywhere that a new broom was poised to keep sweeping its way up the divisional pecking order. All that needed to be tidied up were those nasty little fractions of percentage points.

Consider those whisked away, too.

Fate in the form of Kirk Nieuwenhuis’s pinched nerve rescues Michael Conforto from a demotion to the minors, and the rookie rescues the Mets right back with his first major league home run, good for an almost-immediate 3-0 lead. Yoenis Cespedes reveals what the fuss is all about with three doubles, four ribbies and a medallion nearly as large as his presence in the batting order. Travis d’Arnaud (2-for-5) emerges anew. Curtis Granderson (3-for-5) stays steady. Bartolo Colon goes eight innings for his tenth win. At 10:14 PM, it is official.

Washington is first in war, first in peace and second in the National League East.

The romp that vaulted the Mets past the Nats by a full game was a team effort worthy of a first-place team, and it included a single, a run and a pair of particularly professional third base plays (each cutting down the nettlesome Dee Gordon) from Daniel Murphy, who rates a mention here not merely for the sake of issuing gold stars to one and all.

On the night of September 10, 1969, that night of LOOK WHO’S NO. 1 legend, Ed Kranepool took two turns batting in the second game against the Expos after he pinch-hit for Donn Clendenon. Krane didn’t do anything of note, but that was all right. The Mets were already well on their way to the 7-1 win that sealed their standing. In Koppett’s summation, where I edited in those bracketed ellipses, the sentences that were printed actually read like this (italics added):

“For them, as for Kranepool, it really was fulfillment after seven years in the desert. In their memories and emotions, there was an unbroken line back to 1962 — and the glory now within reach was anything but sudden.”

Thirty-nine years later, on Friday night, September 19, 2008, Murphy — in his second month in the big leagues — was inserted by Jerry Manuel to pinch-hit against Julian Taverez at Turner Field in a 5-5 game. Carlos Delgado was on second. Argenis Reyes, safe on an error committed by Brave second baseman Kelly Johnson, was on first. There was one out. Young Murph saw one pitch, a slider, and he lined it into left-center to score both runners. The Mets led, 7-5, and were on their way to winning, 9-5. Combined with a Philadelphia loss to the then-Florida Marlins, the Mets moved into first place.

For the last time relatively late in a season until August 3, 2015.

Kranepool had seen most everything the Mets had to offer from when he joined a relentlessly tenth-place club in September of 1962 to the moment it all began to pay off in September of 1969. Most everything the Mets had to offer was mind-boggling and not until very recently the least bit successful. “If I could have seen ahead in 1962,” Ed admitted seven years he broke in, as the Mets approached their maiden divisional title, “I would have signed with another club.”

Murphy is the current Mr. Longevity on the active roster. If he’s ever felt any regret about remaining a Met through the bad and the worse that followed September 19, 2008, he’s kept it to himself. He, too, has seen it all since the Mets fell out of first place on September 20 seven years ago. At least he probably thought he had until the last week or so of wonders that he, like us, has been experiencing in a state of blue moon gobsmack. In fact, he was just asked if he has previously witnessed an array of events and emotions akin to those that have accompanied the Mets on their merry way to first place.

“No,” he said after Sunday night put the Mets on the precipice of sole possession. “To answer your question in the simplest terms, I have not.”

The team to which Murphy was promoted in 2008 was similar to the one Kranepool was called up to in 1962 in name only. The 1962 Mets were the shakiest of construction projects, to put it kindly. The 2008 Mets were built to contend. They were supposed to play for first place. When they entered it on September 19, they had only last vacated it on September 16. It was less a cause for celebration than relief when they moved back in after a three-day absence. You know: standards and expectations.

One can infer from how soon the Mets were gone from first again and how long it has taken them to get back to where they once belonged that we should appreciate every second of our stay at the top. It may last from here to October 4. It may be over on August 4. There’s every decent chance we and Washington will swap places multiple times between now and the end of the season.

As playoff seedings aren’t awarded or denied based on who beat who on August 3, this isn’t quite the occasion to break into a victory lap. But do feel free to add a spring to your step clear to 7:10 tonight. You’re a fan of a first-place team in August after not having been a fan of a first-place team in August or September for seven years. Per Koppett’s timeless assessment of the Metsian condition, the glory that is now within reach has been anything but sudden. Given the unbroken line we have walked, a little jauntiness is surely in order.

25 comments to Back to Where We Once Belonged

  • Michael G.

    Murph told me his greatest game as a Met was the next-to-last-game of the 2008 season when Santana spun a masterpiece to keep the Mets in the chase. Alas, they lost the next day and were eliminated, and have not sniffed late-season contention till now. I think Murph will have a new greatest game by the time this season concludes.

  • Rochester John

    Thanks, Greg, for spotlighting Murph’s journey with these good to not so good to terrible and back to good Mets. As we get excited with the exploits of the current batch of rental players, let’s remember that Murph has been the only close to consistent performer over the last seven or so years. Let’s watch the joy with which Murph celebrates his and his teammates’ successes. And let’s be aware of the irony that, because of various teammates’ success, and his own consistent ability as a major league hitter, we may be witnessing the last couple of months of Murph’s Mets career. Like the Mets, Murph has been, at times, exciting, and at others, exasperating. I’m sure I’m not the only one who will miss him. Before it gets lost in whatever hoopla lies ahead for these guys, let me say thanks, Murph.

  • Giovanni D'Amico

    Every day, my routine is the same. I load up ESPN.com’s MLB standings – typing in the beginning of the web address and letting it autofill, for some reason, instead of bookmarking it, probably for the ritual of the thing – and see how many games back we are in the NL East, then promptly click over to the Wild Card standings in order to see how far back we are there, given whatever has transpired in the NL West in the waning hours of the previous night. I did it today, and even though I knew what I’d find, I clicked over to the Wild Card standings and just stared. No mention of “New York.” No Games Behind number to note. No Wild Card race, at least for one day. At that point, there was nothing to do but to click back to the divisional standings, smile, and close the browser window.

  • Art Pesner

    I am down in Florida for the Marlins series. Was on the field for BP last night. Amazing the amount of Mets who were walking around with smiles on their faces.
    Conforto’s HR by the way was absolutely crushed and a no doubt about it homer off the bat.

    • Eric

      I was concerned the road trip, especially the 1st game in Miami, would be a letdown after the “rowdy” (the apparent go-to word by Collins and players to describe the weekend crowd) home series, like a pitcher who promptly loses the lead the inning after his team takes a lead.

      Instead, the Mets steamrolled the Marlins. I’m impressed the team rose to the occasion.

      Now, it looks like the road trip to Florida is just the thing for the Mets to settle down after a tumultuous 2 weeks and set their bearing for the pennant race.

  • Bob

    Another great one Greg!
    Now when the Mets win a DH by scores of 1-0 (Sept 1969) with winning run driven in by pitcher–Cardwell was one Met pitcher–we’ll know something really special is in air!
    Old # 7 Ed Kranepool–when he hit a HR in World Series in 1969–I knew there was justice!
    For the first time in years, watching games from Queens,I get the feeling (all the way in LA) of being back @ Shea–last time I was @ Shea was Game 3 of 2000 WS.
    There is HOPE!
    Let’s Go Mets!

  • Metsfansantamonica

    Giovanni – same here.
    Greg – you are my favorite writer
    Universe – please find a way to make the hours between 10pm and 7:10 the next day disappear so we can just watch Mets baseball every second of the day. (and since I’m on the west coast, can you let my boss know I’ll be leaving work at 4 from now through October?)

    Mets Fan in Santa Monica

  • Eric

    Solid perspective piece, Greg.

    Your post is a better expression of what I was thinking about this morning, namely, that Wright deserves to be in the middle of the 2015 pennant race after enduring the fall of the mid-2000s Mets and the dark age that followed.

    I forgot Murphy played his heart out as a rookie in the last days of the 2008 Mets. Niese and Parnell were also on the 2008 team.

    The Mets careers of the remaining members from the 2008 Mets are setting. Even the Captain. Wright’s bad back, afflicted with the same condition that felled Mattingly’s playing career, is the beginning of the end.

    The holdovers from the 2008 Mets are worn-and-torn, diminished versions of their 2008 selves and due for replacement. They’re living reminders that the window for the opportunity to contend is never guaranteed. The time is now.

    2015 is likely Wright, Murphy, Niese, and Parnell’s last chance to contribute meaningfully to a Mets contender. The young stud starters, (hopefully re-righted) young stud closer, and latest additions to the team have given them this opportunity to redeem 2008. I’m rooting for Niese tonight.

  • argman

    Greg, I knew that quote was from Koppett’s book after the first few words. I received that book as a Bar Mitzvah present in 1970, and it became more of a sacred text than anything I learned in Religious School. It is still on my bookshelf of course. Thanks once again for perfectly capturing the essence of being a Mets fan. Let’s hope this wonderful ride continues!

  • Kevin From Flushing

    I know August 4th is far too early, but I did throw on “Back in the High Life Again”, thinking of Closing Day 1986 (an event I did not attend, I only know of the song pairing thanks to FAFIF).

    Perhaps the 2015 Season will be a microcosm of Harvey’s first start back at Citi Field this year: stunning at the get-go, followed by lots of annoyance & frustration, plus injuries to Wright & Cuddyer, until it got so zany that we just have to sit back and enjoy the ride. We won that game, though not without a late scare. Can we petition the laws of time & space to somehow not have 17 games remaining at any point in September should we be in first place?

    Also: anyone else notice we made up 4 games the moment Wright got back in the dugout? Coincidence I’m sure, but still…

  • Eric

    http://natsbaseball.blogspot.com/ looks like a good place to follow the Nationals fans’ view of the race. Any others?

    Giovanni D’Amico, Metsfansantamonica: Me, too. Before the Mets win and Nationals loss last night, the banner on ESPN’s Mets page still showed a 2nd place team, the Mets were listed below the Nationals in the division standings, and both teams were listed in the wildcard standings with the Nationals on top. Today on ESPN? The banner says 1st place team, and the Mets are on top of the division standings and off the WC standings. I knew what I’d find this morning, but I enjoyed the proof of it like a breath of fresh air.

    Nevertheless, I’m still tracking the WC race: 1.5 games behind the Giants and 2 games behind the Cubs. The Mets and Nationals are tied in the loss column. I don’t expect either team to run away with the division. I expect the division lead to change hands until it’s decided on the field in the last series of the season.

    As for last night’s win:

    Nice bounce-back game by Colon, but that’s not new. He’s been more-or-less alternating good and bad starts since June. Colon needs to string together solid outings from here on out because he’s not going anywhere. Pennant race or not, the Mets need Colon to eat innings.

    Most importantly, Colon’s 8 innings and the blowout win gave the bullpen an extra day of rest following Syndergaard’s 8 innings on Sunday.

    Cespedes playing center field makes the trade better. Conforto, Cespedes, Granderson is better than an average-hitting outfield.

    Conforto should bat higher than 8th, but a line-up where a hitter like Conforto batting 8th makes some sense is a potent line-up.

    Murphy’s hitting is down and I wonder whether he’s still playing hurt. If he is, Uribe, Johnson, and Flores should play more until Murphy recovers.

  • Patrick

    Brilliant stuff. Been a while for me as I needed to decompress from the blogs and the twitter and such.

    That Murphy triple is still so painfully vivid. As was walking through The Great Escape a year earlier receiving text messages confirming the mess in Queens in a sad lopsided sweep.

  • ljcmets

    I had the Koppett book for about 35 years (the revised version, updated for the 1973 season). It’s a classic, and as you’ve just so ably demonstrated, Greg, timeless in its themes – as are the Mets themselves of course! When downsizing homes about 5 years ago, I donated to a library but I’d love to have my copy right now. Anyone know if it’s available on Kindle? I find I’m creating a whole virtual bookshelf of Mets literature including of course both Happiest Recaps.

  • eric1973

    Finally came through for Niese!

    The 11-game winning streak was done with smoke and mirrors, but this looks like the real thing!

  • LA Jake

    Nice clutch hitting late. Another terrific outing by Niese (I can’t believe I keep typing that). The team has taken care of business these first two.

    BUT for the love of everything holy, can somebody tell TC nobody should be bunting except his pitchers, and since they hit pretty well, maybe not them either? His insistence on having guys try to bunt is making me crazy.

  • open the gates

    I’ve been watching replays of Cespedes’ doubles. Maybe I’m projecting, but the man seems to exude confidence at the plate. And his swing is a thing of beauty. On top of that, he lid approach seems to be rubbing off on his new teammates.

    Isn’t there a way that the Mets could make him more than a rental? According to reports, Cespedes seems open to the idea.

    • Eric

      Make a pitch-perfect emotional run to the championship, start with the ceiling projection for Cespedes, then pile a few years, a few blocks of 10-million dollars, and other player-favorable contract terms and perks on top.

      If ownership and management were willing, it’s possible the Mets could overwhelm the whole point of Cespedes’s release clause, but highly unlikely. It’s much more likely that Cespedes will move on to the highest bidder in the free-agency auction he’s planned on from the start.

      Take comfort with this thought, though. Cespedes turns 30 this year. He’s a perfect fit chasing the post-season while carrying a big-market team in his contract year. The next 2+, hopefully 3+ month run will likely be the best of Cespedes at his physical peak, most motivated and focused, and on his best behavior like he may never be again.

      The extraordinary measures it will take to keep Cespedes on the Mets would require a large overpay that likely would cost more long-term than the benefit.

      I suggest drinking in the rest of this season greedily with the foreknowledge that the clock will strike midnight on the Mets’ Cinderella run. The Mets will take a step back when the season ends and the rentals scatter, but we’ll still have the foundation of a starting rotation with the potential to be the best ever. Even without Cespedes, that’s a good place to start rebuilding.

      • LA Jake

        I think it would make perfect sense for the Mets to “overpay” for the next few years of Cespedes. Right handed power hitters aren’t so easy to find. Assuming he plays well for 3 years and stinks for 3 years, that gives the team 3 more years to be truly competitive and also allows them to move along prospects and potential replacements at a reasonable pace.

        All long term deals eventually go bad, but that doesn’t mean getting something great for some of it is a bad move.

        • Eric

          I agree Cespedes makes a big difference. We wanted Alderson to improve the Mets offense from the league’s worst to something close to average. With Cespedes as the fulcrum, the line-ups have been better than average. It’s going to be a big letdown when his bat is taken out.

          The Mets do have his ear for the next 3 months. Maybe Alderson can pull off a coup.

  • Gio

    open the gates – anything’s possible. But it’d take a heckuva lot of money and years in the offer to make it happen, it seems, and it would need to happen before the end of the season. And I don’t know that that’s going to happen. Try not to think about it for now.

  • 804NatsFan

    Not sure how I found myself in this article, but what a great perspective. Even as a Nats fan I enjoyed it.

    I’m looking forward to a good race here in the last 2 months. I note on the schedule the Mets host the Nats for the last three (scheduled!) games of the season. Hopefully in that series you all will see some of Storen & Papelbon, unlike this last series!

    • Sounds tantalizing! Thanks for stopping by. We used to have a commenter who called himself Well Meaning Phils Troll, so we accept all good-natured kinds.

  • eric1973

    Try as I might, I can’t help but think of next year.

    Sign Cespedes now, (at a reasonable contract), before he realizes all the rentals (and Murphy) may well be gone next year, and Eric Campbell will be our starting third baseman.