The great Pete Hamill, whose death at the age of 85  was announced this morning, expressed a necessary baseball truism during Spring Training of 1987 within the essential profile of Keith Hernandez  that he wrote for the Village Voice. After revisiting the instantly legendary mound summit among Hernandez, Gary Carter and Jesse Orosco from the sixteenth inning of NLCS Game Six (“if you call another fastball, I’ll fight you right here”), Hamill jerks us back into the then-present:
“That was last season. This is the new season […] When you are a champion, you have to defend what you’ve won.”
In the Spring of 1987, the Mets were indeed a champion, dating back to October 27, 1986. They would always be the World Champions of 1986. No, that couldn’t be taken away from them. Or us. But the concept of defending the championship, as the season approached, began to perplex me as I realized that once the flag was up the pole and the rings were distributed on Opening Day, they weren’t exactly defending what they’d won in 1986. They were out to win anew in 1987.
We haven’t had any relevant experience with that sensation since, but during baseball’s long March-July delay I found myself thinking about the concept from the other side. The Mets were supposed to play the Washington Nationals on Opening Day and the Nationals were the reigning world champs. We would have been reminded heavily that our division rivals had attained what we wanted, ripped the bandage of awareness off our thin skin and gotten on with the season. But with no season for so long, the Nationals’ championship lingered in the baseball atmosphere. Sooner or later, we’d confront their recent success and…
And what? If there wasn’t much utility to being a defending world champion once our team took the field in 1987, was there any in 2020? And as the team that isn’t defending anything, how would it matter to the Mets? Has it ever mattered?
So I looked it up. From 1962 through Tuesday night, the Mets have taken on the defending world champs 32 times. That is, they’ve played the team that won the year before for a first time the season after that team won it all. Obviously they would go on and play a series of games against that team and, usually, multiple series, but I figured there’s something to the first time you come face to face with the title holder. Or I wondered if there was.
Was there? Depends on the title holder, the time of the season, the relationship between us and them, how good a job the defending champion was doing defending its championship, if one can be said to be defending a championship.
The first time the Mets punched up at the reigning world champions in a regular-season game, the Mets lost. The year was 1964. The opponent was the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Mets lost a lot c. 1964 to everybody, but the Dodgers were a particular obstacle to progress. We’d gone 4-32 versus the erstwhile Brooklynites (the ballclub that abandoned Pete Hamill , among others). In the aftermath of their 1963 World Series sweep of the Yankees, the Mets wouldn’t project to present much of a challenge for L.A. And they didn’t. The Mets lost at Dodger Stadium on May 19, 1964, 6-4. They fell behind early and fell short late. It didn’t matter that the Dodgers weren’t en route to repeating (they came into the game 14-19 and would finish under .500). It didn’t matter that Koufax and Drysdale had the night off (Phil Ortega was the starting and winning pitcher). It didn’t matter that the Mets were facing the champs (the Mets wouldn’t win a season series from anybody in 1964).
The Mets lost their next initial encounter with a reigning world champ, on May 11, 1965, to the Cardinals. Future Hall of Famer Bob Gibson outlasted future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn en route to a 4-3 St. Louis win at Shea. Like the Dodgers the year before, the Cardinals were wallowing in eighth place, so there wasn’t much recent past glory propelling them to present success. Still, the Mets weren’t ready to take anything away from the defending title holders and, worse, it was the Cardinals who took something away from the Mets. It was in this game that Redbird baserunner Phil Gagliano ran into Ron Hunt and knocked the All-Star second baseman out of action for the next three months.
Overall, the Mets lost their first four matches with a defending world champion (including a second shot at the Dodgers, which resulted in a 4-0 defeat on May 27, 1966), though the fourth time they took their best shot, they were showing progress. It couldn’t have been known that the pitchers’ duel of May 6, 1968, was another Hall of Fame preview: Gibson versus Tom Seaver. The game went eleven innings. Both pitchers pitched complete games. When it was over — St. Louis persevering, 2-1 — both starters’ ERAs were microscopic. Gibson was down to 1.31, Seaver to 1.56. It wasn’t only the Year of the Pitcher, it was the year before the Mets’ pitchers would take the next step.
When the Mets finally beat a defending world champion in the next season’s first meeting, it was literally the season’s first meeting. Opening Day 1972 had the Pirates visiting Shea Stadium. A little (very little) like this year, Opening Day was delayed, to April 15, 1972. Then, it was a strike holding back baseball. Then, it was Seaver on the mound, blanking Dock Ellis and the Bucs, with three frames of relief help from Tug McGraw. It was the first time the Mets were challenging a world champion from their own division, divisional play not coming into existence until 1969 (the year that set the Mets up to be others’ world championship target in 1970).
Before Interleague play disturbed the rhythms of the schedule, you knew you weren’t going to play the defending world champions if the World Series trophy had fallen into American League hands, thus there wouldn’t be another regular-season matchup for the Mets with the reigning champs (the 1973 World Series notwithstanding) until 1976. It was the Mets and Reds, and a piece of franchise history was made by the Met who’d been making history longer than any Met. In the seventh inning of the Mets’ eventual 5-3 win over Cincy at Shea on May 4, 1976, Ed Kranepool recorded his 1,189th hit for the Mets. That put Ed one ahead of Cleon Jones on the all-time list. Ed would elevate his total to 1,418 over the next three-plus seasons and stay Mets hit champion until 2012.
Fans of foreshadowing had to admire the doings of May 20, 1977, even if they weren’t likely to admire what was foreshadowed. The Reds were again the defending champs. Unlike in ’76, they weren’t on their way to repeating. Sitting in second place in the NL West, four under .500 and a dozen behind the surging Dodgers, Cincinnati knew it had to make an enormous move. Perhaps it was on this particular Friday night at Riverfront that they were sold on the idea of trading for the opposing pitcher from New York. True, Gary Nolan beat Tom Seaver, 6-2, but if you could add the Franchise to your franchise, why wouldn’t you? Fewer than four weeks later, they did. (The Reds’ last run on the evening was driven in by Doug Flynn, maybe giving Joe McDonald an idea as well.)
The 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates were Fam-a-lee, per the Sister Sledge song they adopted as their theme en route to winning the World Series. The first time the Mets faced them in 1980, television viewers got to meet a new member of our family. He’s someone who’d endure on the level of Ed Kranepool. During a rain delay at Three Rivers Stadium on May 30, 1980, with the Mets ahead, 5-1, in the sixth, Ralph Kiner and Steve Albert invited the club’s recently hired PR director into the television booth. His name was Jay Horwitz and it is no exaggeration to say the man was a trip. Jay, formerly the sports information director at Fairleigh Dickinson University, burst through the screen with enthusiasm for the slate of players he wanted the world to know about. Craig Swan, I’m pretty sure he said, was big into gardening. Kiner and Albert were speechless but not laughless. Later in the season, Albert referred to this rainy night in Pittsburgh as “the night the earth stood still”. If it produced Jay Horwitz, still going strong as Mets director of alumni affairs and author of the memoir Mr. Met , it was certainly a momentous night. Meanwhile, the rain kept falling and the Mets were declared winners. Talk about good PR!
The world championship stayed in the NL East for a second consecutive year in the fall of 1980 (the only time that’s happened), meaning that in 1981, when the Mets took on the world champs from the year before, it would be a familiar foe in their line of sight. Enter Pete Rose’s Phillies, debuting on the schedule relatively late, on May 25, 1981. The Mets apparently had used the long lag time to prepare for them, for the Mets ambushed the world champions at Shea, 13-3. Every good thing the Mets could muster in the first half of 1981 was on display. Dave Kingman blasted a grand slam. Rookie sensations Mookie Wilson and Hubie Brooks chipped in four runs apiece. Ambidextrous Greg Harris put his arms to good use in pulling down his first major league win. Jeff Reardon pitched enough innings for a save. It would be his last as a Met. He’d be traded to Montreal later in the week and have a spectacular career ahead of him. The Phillies would recover from the shellacking and go back to the postseason because they were in first place on June 12, when a players’ strike hit, touching off the circumstances that gave us the split season that was, until 2020, the most bizarre setup in modern baseball history. Anyway, it was always fun to cream Pete Rose’s Phillies.
A golden age of National League World Series play was underway. The senior circuit would take care of business twice more, extending the NL streak to four (we haven’t had that spirit here since 1982). The Mets got a semblance of revenge for all those beatings they took in the 1960s by beating the defending champion Dodgers in Los Angeles on May 3, 1982. It took twelve innings to subdue the Angelenos, but it was worth it. Less worthwhile was the early-season revival of hostilities between the Mets and Cardinals on April 9, 1983. (Hadn’t we just seen these guys at Al Lang?) Between steady raindrops that postponed games at Shea on Friday and Sunday, the Mets and Cardinals got their Saturday game in, much to the detriment of Mike Torrez, who gave up five runs in the seventh inning. Joaquin Andujar went the distance for the 5-0 win. Little noticed was St. Louis first baseman Keith Hernandez singling as part of the winning rally. The next time the Redbirds alighted in Flushing, Keith would be on the scene, but he’d be in a different nest.
From 1983 through 1987, the World Series was either won by the American League or, most delightfully, the Mets. Therefore, the next time the Mets took on the champs, it was May 15, 1989, with the Dodgers again presenting the challenge at hand. That was a familiar sensation, not only because it had been Mets vs. Dodgers in this circumstance three times prior, but because it had been Mets vs. Dodgers in the NLCS the October before. It could be argued the only reason the Dodgers were the defending champs was because the favored Mets weren’t. In the first postseason rematch between the Mets and a team that had gone through them to win it all, the final result was a cruel reminder, with the Dodgers winning, 3-1. We would take the season series, seven games to five, but neither we nor they would make it back to October.
Come June 4, 1991, the momentum that spurred the Reds from wire to wire to win the 1990 World Series was a memory. When the Mets took on these defending champs for the first time, the Reds were a .500 club and the Mets had problems of their own. One of them shouldn’t have been David Cone. Coney went eight innings, struck out thirteen and lasted 147 pitches (there were five walks at the dawn of the pitch-counting era) en route to a 4-2 win. But manager Bud Harrelson wasn’t too crazy about Cone shaking off a pitchout call and Cone barking back in the dugout. As the Times captured it the morning after, “Televised replays showed Harrelson and Cone screaming at each other, and in the ensuing escalation, Harrelson was seen violently poking his finger into, and apparently even shoving, Cone in the chest more than once.”
With such emotion boiling to the surface, perhaps the Mets needed a few years before collecting themselves to face a defending world champion. They waited five seasons (the strike that cancelled the 1994 Series didn’t help) until they had another opportunity. It came on June 3, 1996 at Fulton County Stadium. Atlanta was preparing to host the Olympics. Before turning over what would become Turner Field, the Braves made predictable use of their almost-extinct ballpark to beat the Mets, 5-4. The Mets had taken a 4-1 lead over John Smoltz, but the Braves rallied in the seventh, with young Chipper Jones igniting the trouble with a single. Another name we’d come to know, albeit in a happier context, would appear in the box score as the winning pitcher. Or have you forgotten Brad Clontz?
Facing the defending world champions became a whole other task starting in 1997 when Interleague play materialized and, wouldn’t you know, it was the first year since 1979 that the defending world champion came out of the Bronx. Just in time for this unasked for wrinkle, too. Ah, but those who rooted the Mets on in so-called meaningless Spring Training victories and Mayor’s Trophy triumphs over the Yankees would be rewarded with something so tangible you could taste it. June 16, 1997, it was the Mets beating the defending world champion Yankees, 6-0, at Yankee Stadium. We know and cherish it as the Dave Mlicki Game (an eight-strikeout shutout). Though the outcome was treated as a surprise by the pinstripe-blinded press, it should have been remembered the Mets beat the Yankees in their very first Spring showdown in 1962 and that inaugural Mayor’s Trophy exhibition in 1963; both those times the Yankees were defending world champions, too. Having gone three-for-three in dispatching the Bronx Bombers as they occupied their laurels, we really should have refused any further intracity entanglements, for it was never gonna get any better.
When the Mets played the defending champion Yankees, the status of New York (A) was mentioned a time or two-thousand. When the Mets played the defending world champion Florida Marlins on May 26, 1998, the technical status of the Fish was for the birds. The Marlins had traded away practically ever player who carried them to the 1997 world championship, so the Mets were taking on a shell of the title holders at Pro Player Stadium. The most intriguing element of the matchup, won by the Mets, 10-5, was the presence of an ex-Marlin on the Mets: Mike Piazza, who hadn’t been part of the world champions but was essential to dumping several ring-bearing contracts. Piazza had been a Marlin for about a week. When the Mets visited Miami, he’d been a Met for a few days. But the Mets hadn’t lost since he’d arrived and, we’d learn, he wasn’t going anywhere soon.
No Marlinesque downturn in fortunes for the Yankees of the late ’90s. They returned to the World Series in 1998 and won it, meaning that when we were granted another Subway Series audience on June 4, 1999, it was another scuffling Mets vs. the reigning champs storyline. Damn thing played out that way, too, with the Metsies blowing a 2-1 lead, the Yankees going up, 4-3, and Mariano Rivera locking it down. Those with long, specific memories took note that the Yankees’ starting pitcher was the Mets’ starting pitcher eight years earlier when the Mets took on the champs. David Cone was no-decisioned, but didn’t get shoved by Joe Torre.
Bleeping Yankees were the defending champs on the Mets’ schedule on June 9, 2000. Bleeping Roger Clemens was their starting pitcher. As it happened, the Mets kicked the ever-loving bleep out of him and them at bleeping Yankee Stadium, 12-2, fueled by a Mike Piazza grand slam and assisted by three hits apiece from Derek Bell and Jay Payton. In the realm of what we were saying in the 1997 paragraph, we really should have stopped playing them in 2000 after the first encounter. It wasn’t gonna get any better.
It’s June 15, 2001. The Mets are not only taking on the defending champion Yankees again, they’re taking on the team that beat them in the World Series. It doesn’t go well, with the Mets losing, 5-4. Let’s get a new defending champion on the schedule already.
Hey, it’s Arizona Diamondbacks, favor-doer to the civilized world from the fall of 2001! Bless you, boys! But first, on April 30, 2002, you have to be on the wrong end of some history. Al Leiter will defeat you in Phoenix, 10-1, supremely noteworthy in that Leiter becomes the first pitcher to beat every one of the current thirty major league franchises. Piazza launches two homers. Roberto Alomar and Mo Vaughn each connect for three hits. The 2002 Mets are another endorsement for quitting while ahead.
In the pantheon of early-2000s American heroes, we should not overlook the Anaheim Angels, winners of the 2002 ALDS and, like their D’Backs predecessors, bouncers of notoriously unpleasant October guests. To thank the Angels in 2003 for knocking out the Yankees the fall before, we more or less repeated how we showed our gratitude the Arizonans in 2002. We beat them. The score on June 13, 2003, was 7-3. Jeromy Burnitz, Timo Perez and Mike Bacsik starred. No, really, they did.
Trivia question: what is the only National League East franchise to have captured two World Series titles over the past quarter-century? If you said “Florida Marlins,” you know your NL East history. If you assume the Marlins of 2004 pulled a 1998 after 2003 the way they did after winning it all in 1997, then you don’t know your NL East history as much as I gave you credit for. Contrary to popular myth, the Marlins remained a competitive entity for a couple of years following their second World Series championship. When the Mets took on these teal title holders on May 28, 2004, the Fish were still for real. They were in first place and everything, and they added to their bona fides by beating the Mets, 2-1, Dontrelle Willis outdueling a then-conventionally spelled Tom Glavine. Most notably, ex-Met Armando Benitez nailed down the win with a save. Before 2004 was over, Benitez recorded eleven saves versus his former team, compiling a tiny 0.68 ERA in 13.1 innings. Armando Benitez never got anybody out is another popular myth.
It was such a big deal that the Mets were to open the 2007 season against the defending world champion Cardinals that ESPN placed their game on the Sunday night before everybody else’s Openers. This, like the Mets and Dodgers in 1989, was another NLCS rematch, except ASAP. With the wounds still fresh from a certain bases-loaded situation in the ninth inning of a certain Game Seven, the Mets flex their muscles on April 1, 2007, hammering the Cardinals, 6-1. We couldn’t beat them as defending champs in 1965 or 1968 or 1983, and we couldn’t beat them for the pennant in 2006, but we beat them this time.
The cockiness that marked the beginning of 2007 would disappear over the way the succeeding two regular seasons would end. By May 1, 2009, not only had the Mets not been back to t he postseason since October 19, 2006, they had a new bête noire in their lives. The Phillies had overtaken the Mets for the NL East titles in ’07 and ’08 and, distastefully, won the World Series in 2008. When we took them and their championship on for the first time in 2009, we were ready to show them what was what, building a 5-0 lead by the third inning at Citizens Bank Park. What turned out to be what was a 7-4 Philadelphia win. They would also win another division and pennant in 2009 plus another couple of divisions directly after that. The Mets of this era, too, would play baseball.
The only good thing one can say about the 2009 world champion Yankees is they knocked off the 2009 National League champion Phillies in the World Series. That cut little ice on May 21, 2010, when the defending champion Yankees visited Citi Field to renew the Subway Series. It was a 2-1 loss for the Mets. I could provide additional details. I shan’t.
Instead, let’s shift our sights westward to a franchise that shifted westward in 1958 yet hadn’t been a defending champion since 1955. Enter the San Francisco Giants, bearing a banner on their return to New York on May 3, 2011. The Giants prevailed in a back-and-forth affair in ten innings, 7-6. The timing was notable in that this was the first game in New York since news of Osama Bin Laden’s death, at the hands of SEAL Team Six, was reported during the Mets-Phillies game of May 1. At Citi Field, the Mets attempted to rev up patriotic fervor reminiscent of the mood on September 21, 2001, when Mike Piazza hit that home runs was never to be forgotten . It didn’t really take .
On June 1, 2012, the Cardinals were back in their role as defending champions. Given that the season was nearly two months old and the Redbirds weren’t exactly roaring through the NL Central, their lofty status from the October before might not have been top of mind entering play this Friday night. By the time the game at Citi Field was over, it felt monumentally irrelevant, for on June 1, 2012, Johan Santana threw The First No-Hitter in New York Mets History. That he did it to the defending champs would have escaped my immediate notice had Ron Darling not added this factoid as a coda to Gary Cohen’s extremely recap at SNY. But, yeah, in addition to defeating five decades’ worth of Quallsian ghosts, Johan no-hit the defending champs. If you’re gonna obliterate a curse, might as well do it in style.
Until 2020, the Mets never waited as long as they did in 2013 to take on the defending champs. Yet the schedule didn’t have our boys playing the big boys, the Giants, until July 8, 2013, in San Francisco. And when we got there, waiting long was the watchword. During a stretch when seemingly every game the Mets played was either an extra-inning marathon or a contest encompassing endless rain delays, this one baked and took yet another cake. It went sixteen innings, outlasting a marquee duel between Matt Harvey and Tim Lincecum and enduring until the AT&T Park seagulls took over the outfield. The Mets used seven pitchers in all, the Giants eight. The seagulls were too numerous to count. The Mets won, 4-3, in sixteen. The gulls did not go hungry.
On June 9, 2015, the Giants were back in their role as defending champions. Given that the season was nearly two months old and the Jints weren’t exactly roaring through the NL West, their lofty status from the October before might not have been top of mind entering play this Tuesday night. By the time the game at Citi Field was over, it felt monumentally irrelevant, for on June 9, 2015, Chris Heston pulled a Johan Santana. Yes, another no-hitter as the Mets took on the defending champs, albeit at the expense of the Mets this time. We lost, 5-0. The lack of hits (our entire offense was three HBPs) seemed somehow predictable given this was the portion of 2015 when the Mets had zero attack, which is why they’d go on to trade for Yoenis Cespedes, who would eventually carry them to a division title and help them to a pennant.
That darn Yoenis Cespedes had the nerve to push the Mets toward a World Series they didn’t win (neither he nor his teammates were particularly sharp in the five-game set), which meant that the Mets all but guaranteed themselves another Sunday night Opener on ESPN to kick off 2016, facing the defending world champion Kansas City Royals. Boo! Hiss! The wound was still open on April 3, 2016, and the outcome — Royals 4 Mets 3 — didn’t help us heal. But a few days later we’d be home raising the NL flag, and that was pretty good.
The 2016 Mets got only as far as the NL Wild Card game, where we’d lose to the Giants, setting up the Giants to lose in the NLDS (it was an even year, after all) and clearing the stage for either a brand new or very old world champion, depending on how you viewed things. The Chicago Cubs won their first World Series since 1908, meaning that on June 12, 2017, the Mets were experiencing a first. They, like every other expansion franchise, had never faced the defending world champion Chicago Cubs. The Mets did so at Citi Field and they did it very well, defeating the champs (and their invading fans), 6-1. Going all the way that night was Jacob deGrom, whose five-hitter was also a sigh of relief. Jake had entered the night with an ERA of 4.75 following two uncharacteristically godawful outings versus non-champions. The stiff competition apparently straightened Jake out. Staring with the start against the Cubs, Jake would pitch to a 2.85 ERA over his final nineteen starts, offering a Cy preview of sorts for what was to come in 2018 and 2019.
The Cubs still haven’t won since 2016. But the Washington Nationals confounded mid-season expectations and took the whole ball of wax in 2019, stampeding the feisty Mets along the way. So finally, on August 4, 2020, for the 32nd time in franchise history, the Mets were taking on last year’s champs for the first time the next year.
The Mets lost , 5-3. Steven Matz , from the 2015 National League champions, got lit up. Jeurys Familia , from the 2015 National League champions, looked better than he had all this short season. Michael Conforto , another 2015 alum, homered. But it was the Nationals, with those obnoxious gold numbers on their backs, who played the part of defending world champions to a tee. Howie Kendrick, the 2019 World Series difference-maker, rapped out four hits, including the home run that gave Game Seven winner Patrick Corbin a lead the Nats would never relinquished. As at Three Rivers in 1980, it rained for a while and, as is custom in 2020, nobody was at Nationals Park (or any park), but it went in the books as the 32nd of these punch-up affairs. The Mets are now 16-16 in the first games of the next year against defending champions from the previous year.
And 0-for-33 at entering the succeeding season as defending champions since 1987.