The 2016 Mets begin the season trying to do something no other Mets team has done successfully: Defend their National League championship, or even make the playoffs for that matter. It’s a long, hard climb back up that mountain. If you just became a Mets fan last year, welcome aboard, but let this just be a friendly reminder. The year after a World Series appearance can be, and often is, a shockingly cold dose of reality.
It hit me hard as a 12-year-old in 1987 that championships weren’t going to be a given every year. I can pinpoint the moment, actually. After a particularly painful loss to the Cubs at Wrigley Field on a Saturday NBC Game of the Week, the Cubbies beat the previously undefeated side-arming savior Terry Leach, who was 10-0 entering the game, by a 7-3 score. The team was in third, 5.5 games back. I retreated to my room in despair and wrote the words “YOU STINK” (in pencil) on the top of the 1986 Mets World Championship pennant on my wall. My parents suspected my Yankee-fan brother, but I fessed up quickly. What can I say? I was a passionate brat. And that team was pretty good, finishing second to the Cardinals with a 92-70 record.
Let the following cautionary tales from ’70, ’74, ’87 and ’01 serve as a warning. Repeating is not for the faint of heart. It’s not easy being the hunted.
1970: 83-79, 3rd Place 6.0 games back -17 wins from 1969
The 1970 team was competitive, tied for first as late as September 14th, but the 1969 magic just wasn’t there from the beginning. They couldn’t handle the division-winning Pirates down the stretch, losing six out of seven to them between Sept. 18 and Sept. 27.
They set a NY area attendance record that lasted until the 1985 Mets broke it. There were good moments early. The Mets won their first Opening Day game in team history, April 7 in Pittsburgh. April 22 was the famous game at Shea when Tom Seaver beat the Padres 2-1 while striking out 19, including the last ten batters in a row in the late afternoon shadows. However, the team was never more than two games ahead, on June 30.
Manager Gil Hodges may have overused Seaver down the stretch, pitching him on three days’ rest five times in August and September. (He was 1-3 in those games.) Seaver was 17-6 on Aug. 10, but finished 18-12. Jerry Koosman went from 17 wins to 12, and the other starters didn’t hold up either.
Offensively, it was the same story. Culprits included Cleon Jones, who dropped from .340 to .277. Tommie Agee was caught stealing 15 times, including in some crucial September spots. An early omen that the defensive magic of October 1969 was gone was when Ron Swoboda couldn’t sell to the umpire that he had made a catch that he had clearly trapped in an extra-inning loss in the home opener. The sobering truth was that The Miracle Mets of ’69 had become ordinary.
1974: 71-91, 5th Place 17.0 games back -11 wins from 1973
The 1974 team was by far the worst defending NL champion Mets squad ever. They were never in first place, and never above .500 after April 10. Seaver had problems with sciatica and finished just 11-11, and there were many other injuries as well. Koosman managed to rack up 15 wins, but Tug McGraw had only three saves, and departed to the Phillies after the season.
The 1974 Mets are probably best remembered for losing a seven-hour, 25-inning game to the Cardinals at Shea on the evening of September 11th. The winning run eventually scored on an error, which was perfectly symbolic of a long, miserable season. Management understandably cleaned house with the roster after the year, but manager Yogi Berra survived for the time being.
1987: 92-70, 2nd place 3.0 games back -16 wins from 1986
My frustrations as a 12-year old noted earlier, fate wasn’t on the side of the 1987 team. Dwight Gooden started the season in drug rehab for cocaine. Injuries were plentiful. 12 different pitchers had starts, including no-name guys like John Mitchell, Don Schulze and Tom Edens. A game turned against the Mets at Shea in April when Dion James of the Braves hit a routine fly ball headed to left field which struck and killed a bird and dropped in for a double.
The Mets were never in first place again after April 25. The evening I remember as the night hope died that year was Friday night September 11. The Mets were about to cut their deficit behind St. Louis in the standings to one-half game, when the Cardinals’ Terry Pendleton hit a game-tying home run in the ninth against Roger McDowell, and the Redbirds went on to win the game in the 10th. New York was never as close to the division lead again.
2001: 82-80, 3rd place 6.0 games back -12 wins from 2000
The 2000 Mets weren’t given the usual fanfare of a NL champion team, since it was still second fiddle in New York to the Joe Torre Yankees dynasty. 2001 was heading in a 1974-like downward spiral, with the team 54-68 through August 17, but then the team caught fire and almost pulled off a miraculous comeback. The Mets had one of the longest sustained hot streaks in team history, going 25-6 over 31 games. Of course, the run was interrupted in the middle by the September 11 terror attacks, which gave everything a somber feel.
Closer Armando Benitez set a team record with 43 saves (matched by Jeurys Familia in 2015), but I will always remember the two saves he didn’t get against the Braves. On September 23, two days after Mike Piazza hit the famous post 9/11 game-winning homer, the Mets were trying for a three-game sweep of Atlanta at Shea, but Benitez couldn’t hold a 4-1 lead in the ninth, and the Braves prevailed in the 11th.
Six days later in Atlanta was the final nail in the coffin. New York had a 5-1 lead in the ninth this time, but again Benitez couldn’t hold it. The Braves scored seven in the ninth, capped by Brian Jordan’s crushing walk-off grand slam against John Franco for an 8-5 loss. The Mets went 3-6 in their last nine games and fell to third place. They are remembered as a team that gave a great fight down the stretch, but ultimately had too much to overcome.