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Over By Any Measure

Repeatedly as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Mets, I get slightly irked. Not by the celebration or the feat celebrated but by a tiny detail that is continually reported inaccurately. Those Mets, it keep getting said, fell ten games behind the Cubs in the National League East in mid-August before turning their season around and forging the miracle we all adore.

No, that didn’t happen. The turning around happened, the miracle happened and the Mets happened, but they never fell ten games behind the Cubs. Not really. Growing up on the legend of ’69, I’d read and heard constantly that the Mets trailed Chicago by 9½ games shortly before the weekend that twinned Woodstock with consecutive doubleheader sweeps of the Padres. Nine-and-a-half was the touchstone. Baseball with its half-game tic [1] makes a figure like that very memorable.

So where did this “ten-game” deficit come from? Simple. The mostly infallible Baseball Reference, which isn’t technically wrong but doesn’t tell the full story. If you (as many producers of commemorative films and such apparently have) scan through the 1969 daily standings on BB-Ref, you see the Mets 10 GB on August 13. That total takes into account the Cubs’ 5-4 win over the Reds in the second game of a doubleheader at Crosley Field on June 15. Thing is, as Retrosheet carefully delineates in a section devoted to precisely these happenstances [2], that nightcap was suspended after seven innings by predetermined curfew agreement (the Reds had to fly to San Francisco for an afternoon game the next day) and thus wasn’t completed until September 2. With Chicago not putting that win in the books, a.k.a. the standings, for another 79 days, it was never part of the equation during August of 1969.

This means you never would have picked up the LATE CITY FINAL edition of any paper as the Mets stumbled in and out of Houston between August 11 and 13 and seen them as many as ten back. The real-time margin was 9½, as told by Lindsey Nelson, Ralph Kiner and Bob Murphy forever after. Retroactively, yes, you can plug in the June 15 result, same as once in a great while a player can be said to have made his major league debut in a game in June despite not being called up until two months later because he enters the completion of a suspended game (this is Jeff Reardon’s story [3]), yet you can’t alter history from when it was becoming history. If the Mets didn’t know they were ten behind the Cubs, and the Cubs didn’t know they were ten ahead of the Mets, then there’s no way the difference between them was ever ten games, except after the fact.

During the fact, the extra half-game becoming official when it did represented a godsend to the Cubs. Their momentum was curdling through summer, but on the second day of September, author Rick Talley wrote in The Cubs of ’69, “they rejoiced, winning twice, first successfully completing two innings of a game suspended from June,” then capturing their regularly scheduled contest versus the Reds. “I got the save in the suspended game,” reliever Ken Johnson recalled for Talley, “and after the sweep, I remember the reporters coming up and saying, ‘Well, you’ve just wrapped up the pennant.’” The Cubbies indeed appeared to have their bearings back. As of August 27, Chicago’s 9½-game lead from August 13 had been reduced to two. Now, on September 2, thanks in part to that little Crosley Field time-lapse bonus, they were on a five-game winning streak — six, if you looped in the June 15 result — and had extended their lead over the Mets to five games.

“Then I don’t know what happened,” Johnson said. “Nobody does.”

Perhaps the Cubs were still bewildered by the September that awaited them in 1969 when Talley came around to interview them individually in the late ’80s, but the rest of us know what happened. A five-game lead on September 2 was whittled down to 2½ by September 7. The next night, the Cubs visited Shea Stadium and only disbelief was suspended. First, Koosman stood up to Hands and Santo; then Agee slid past Hundley. Mets 3 Cubs 2, Chicago’s lead down to a game-and-a-half. One night later, two indefatigable icons of Metsiana did the Cubs in: a black cat and Tom Seaver. Mets 7 Cubs 1, Chicago’s lead down to a half-game.

After which, the Cubs, like Marty McFly’s family, began to disappear altogether from the snapshot. Chicago loses in Philadelphia, the Mets sweep the Expos at Shea, we could LOOK WHO’S NO. 1 [4] and never have to look back. We do, of course. We look back a lot. We look back at big pictures and overarching themes, but we also look back at those tiny details. The Mets would go on to overtake the Cubs so decisively — by eight games after 162 were played — that the Cubs eventually winning that June 15 game on September 2 and its misfiling by posterity would get glossed over by everybody save for the occasional blogging obsessive.

But the Mets were never ten back in 1969. It just needs to be said.

Also needing to be said: the Mets, 39-49 after losing to the Phillies Friday night, are ten under in 2019. They’re not yet ten back in the Wild Card race, though they are in tenth place for a playoff spot, or one place lower than they finished 1968, when ninth place was considered a monumental achievement. It is not considered anything like that today. They are fourth in the National League East, 13½ behind the Braves. Fewer teams to climb over than in the Wild Card derby, a tangibly taller ladder necessary. I don’t know if anybody still keeps Bobby Thomson-sized ladders in stock.

Not that it should be news to you that the Mets are basically done for 2019. “Basically,” as in they’re not any more than the leastest bit likely to win enough to advance from their present state to just beyond the vicinity of the periphery of the outskirts of possibility of contention. They are seven games away from a Wild Card berth, which is the only thread that doesn’t sound unreasonable to farfetchedly imagine trimming with 74 games remaining, except even if there were a Mets roll about to unspool — and you’d love to believe they are due one — they would also need the following teams to cooperate by not playing adequately for the next two months and three weeks:

The Giants.
The Reds.
The Pirates.
The Padres.
The Diamondbacks.
The Rockies.
The Cardinals.
The Nationals.
At least one among the Brewers, the Cubs and the Phillies.

Not a very sturdy thread, especially when you consider the failure of the Mets to sew up a single victory versus those Phillies in the five contests they’ve conducted against them within the past two weeks. The Mets have led the Phillies in five games and lost all five. I can’t say the fifth, Friday night at Citi Field, was the worst of the lot, because they’ve all been miserable, but I found it the most convincing. It convinced me that the slightest ember of competitive aspirations I maintained for this team is as out as out can be sans mathematical elimination.

I’m down to caveats. You never know. Stranger things have happened. Remember 1969 and 1973. Those caveats are our groundhogs in summers like this one. They poke their heads out, see their shadows and we are consigned to approximately three more months of spiritual winter. Not that the Mets theoretically beating the Phillies to raise their record to 40-48 was gonna cue the confetti cannons exactly, but I could have tended that slightest ember for at least one more game. One more win this weekend, and it could have carried me through the break.

Sometimes, though, you just know. It was slightly over two years ago that I just knew — July 3, 2017, in a season that I rationally understood was going nowhere, yet we were in Washington, Steven Matz was dueling Stephen Strasburg, the Mets had looked pretty good in the previous three series, they were still somewhat the same team that had been to the playoffs two consecutive years…I was 98% certain they were done, but those last two percent die hard.

About 1.99% expired that July 3 [5]. I’d still attempt to infer pathways to potentialities for a few more weeks, looking for soft spots in the schedule here, scrounging to pick up half-games there, but I just knew it was over even if it famously ain’t over until it’s over.

On July 5, 2019, it was over. It didn’t appear it was gonna be. Really. The Mets built a 2-1 lead behind Jacob deGrom. Pete Alonso blasted his 29th homer and later doubled in Jeff McNeil. Your three All-Stars were being a part of some beautiful goings-on. Jerry Seinfeld was on the air cracking up the best booth in baseball. The thread was inching incrementally longer, just long enough to grab onto with our fingernails. Maybe we’re not dead. Maybe we’re not sellers. Maybe we’re gonna need Wheeler not to exchange for prospects but to start Game Two of the NLDS (deGrom would have to pitch and win the Wild Card game; Syndergaard then probably starts Game One).

Ah, but details got in the way. Small details. Big details. There was, most irritatingly, a play at the plate in top of the seventh that was called dead wrong in the Phillies’ favor; it couldn’t be challenged when there were no challenges left, it couldn’t be crew chief-reviewed because it wasn’t a late enough inning, it couldn’t be reversed no way, no how. There went the lead into a 2-2 tie. Somewhere in the darker recesses of his award-winning mind, deGrom must have fancied himself Rocky III, flinging his motorcycle helmet in disgust at that statue depicting his 2018 Cy Young form. Jacob 2019 is Tom Seaver 1970, Dwight Gooden 1986. Still very good, certainly good enough, but not quite last year’s model. As if it matters. The Mets are 16-30 in deGrom’s past 46 starts, few of them dreadful, most of them marvelous. The 1983 Mets commenced their season 16-30 and their manager, George Bamberger, was so distraught he quit to go fishing.

Our ace is made of sterner stuff than whatever Bambi had left by June of ’83. Jakey Balboa regained his eye of the tiger and completed the top of the seventh inning by striking out a tenth Phillie and snuffing out the rest of the opposition’s rally to keep the scored tied at two. Of course he did. If he hadn’t, we wouldn’t have kept some infinitesimal semblance of hope alive.

The game continued tied until the ninth, but it was sticking its tongue out at us from the instant nobody’s personal catcher Wilson Ramos tagged Rhys Hoskins and Brian Gorman ruled him safe anyway. Diaz came on to begin the ninth. Of course he did. Snuffing out some semblance of hope is his job. Given the recent save opportunities he’s kicked to the curb, we forgot Edwin can’t be depended on to pitch with a tie either. Surprise, surprise, the tie disappeared. The tension of a tight game and the last caveat-free wisp of the season’s possibilities went with it. Familia soon entered in relief of the closer who has developed a phobia of doors left ajar. Jeurys was part of those Met playoff teams in 2015 and 2016. He won’t be part of one here in 2019. All kinds of Phillies scored all kinds of runs. I’m pretty sure I saw Jay Bruce knock in the one that put them ahead, but I must have been hallucinating. I mean Jay Bruce…didn’t we trade him to Seattle?

When it was over, the score was Phillies 7 Mets 2. And trust me, whether measured by big pictures, overarching themes or details of any size, it was over [6].