MLB.com Columnist

Marty Noble

Mets facing first rivals, with plenty of history

Mets facing first rivals, with plenty of history

NEW YORK -- The Cubs were the Mets' first enemies. They were not merely opponents -- they were rivals, some would say bitter rivals. It started as a fight to stay out of the National League cellar, and by the end of the decade they were fighting for the first NL East title.

The expansion Mets naturally had a normal share of tight pitches, hard slides and staredowns with other teams in their inaugural season of 1962 and thereafter. But the first generation of New York Mets developed an uncommon dislike for one team only, the Chicago Cubs.

Dress for the NLCS with Mets gear

Game Date Matchup
Gm 1 Oct. 17 NYM 4, CHC 2
Gm 2 Oct. 18 NYM 4, CHC 1
Gm 3 Oct. 20 NYM 5, CHC 2
Gm 4 Oct. 21 NYM 8, CHC 3

That first Mets team lost 120 games, but if not for manager Casey Stengel's Amazins, the Cubs' 59-103 record would have put them in last place in the 10-team National League.

"We just didn't like them," said Frank Thomas -- no, not that one, the first one, who played 16 years in the bigs from 1951-66. "It couldn't have been Leo [Durocher]. Nobody liked him, but he wasn't with 'em then. Richie [Ashburn] and I played with the Cubs [in 1961] before the Mets picked us up. They had Ernie [Banks] and Billy Williams and Dick Ellsworth. Good guys. I liked playing there. But by the end of our first season in New York, we couldn't stand them."

The relationship became quite strained in 1969, of course. That was the summer of the black cat, Tom Seaver's Imperfect Game against the Cubs at Shea Stadium and the tension of early September when the Mets were squeezing -- and catching -- Leo's Cubbies. The Cubs and their vast and passionate constituency still have bruises sustained in that late summer and fall.

It wasn't until years later when the two clubs had something to fight about again. In 1984, the eventual NL East-champion Cubs put down the upstart Mets in early August and denied them games of bona fide significance in September before losing to the Padres in the NL Championship Series. But that rivalry was rather short-lived and mostly a fans' thing.

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Yet the Mets were sufficiently motivated to win 14 of 18 games against the Cubs in '85. And when Larry Bowa, a member of the '84 Cubs, joined the Mets late that season, he acknowledged to his new colleagues that the Cubs had the Mets' signs the previous season and benefited from their surveillance.

The Mets' run at the 1989 Cubs, who won the NL East before falling to the Giants in the NLCS, was mostly a charade -- the Mets finished second, six games behind -- and prompted little animosity in either direction.

And now the franchises are pitted against each other in October for the first time, and memories of '69 and '84 are resurfacing. The time to renew the rivalry has arrived. See NLCS Game 1 at Citi Field on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, TBS).

The Cubs had their way in each of the seven games they played against the NL East champions this year. The best-of-seven NLCS, at this point anyway, will be about baseball -- pitching, slugging, the Cubs' extended absence from the World Series and New York's intention to repeat the 1969 scenario with Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz playing the parts of Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry and Don Cardwell of 46 years ago.

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No equivalent to Durocher exists. Indeed, Cubs manager Joe Maddon appears to be appreciated by the masses. At the same time, the quest of his Mets counterpart for a first World Series appearance is a compelling storyline. Chances are the other in-uniform participants know little of black cats and the clicking heels of Ron Santo.

But the memories stir some of us, particularly the recall of 1969. That summer brought us the Moon Walk, Woodstock, Chappaquiddick and the horrid tales of the Tate-LaBianca murders and Charles Manson. Yet the races for the first-ever playoff berths competed with those events for space in the newspapers and minutes of kibitzing at the dinner table and in saloons in the Big Apple and the Second City.

Durocher, the most irascible and cantankerous manager in the league, had moved into Wrigley Field in 1966, and his first team duplicated the 59-103 scenario. But the Cubs' produced winning records in '67 and '68, and Durocher had them in first place for most of '69.

"I just remember they had a big lead on us [nine games on Aug. 13], and then we started to cut into it," Koosman said Friday afternoon from his home in Minnesota. "I guess they didn't like the idea of somebody doing that. I've always thought the Cubs felt that it was going to be their year, and we were interfering."

The Mets' footsteps had already become quite audible in early July. They trailed the Cubs by 3 1/2 after Tom Seaver came within two outs of a perfect game vs. Chicago on July 9, and by four games seven days later when they completed another three-game series against the Cubs. The teams didn't meet again until Sept. 8 at Shea Stadium.

The Cubs were 2 1/2 games ahead of the Mets when Cubs starter Bill Hands knocked down leadoff man Tommie Agee in the first inning of the first game of a two-game series in New York. The Mets, certain Durocher had ordered the knockdown, were outraged. Santo led off the Cubs' second, and Koosman drilled him in the forearm.

To this day, many folks believe Santo's arm was broken; it wasn't. The man who jumped and clicked his heels after Cubs' victories -- "We didn't like that at all," Koosman said -- remained in the game. But the Mets still believe the pitch broke the Cubs. It may have.

"They got the message that we were pretty serious," Koosman said chuckling.

Koosman struck out Banks, Jim Hickman and Randy Hundley to finish the inning. The Mets won that night and the following night, the second victory highlighted by the appearance of a black cat in front of the Cubs' dugout as Santo stood in the on-deck circle. The Cubs would lose four more games after the black cat.

"We were the better team," Koosman said. "The cat might have spooked them, but we were going to win anyway ... I don't know about now, tomorrow night. The Cubs look like they hit. And the Mets have that young pitching, like we had. Do you know, is anyone planning to bring a black cat?"

Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.