It was a Turn Back the Clock night at Wrigley Field Monday as the Chicago Cubs defeated the New York Mets, 6-1. No, it wasn't one of those games in which the teams trotted out in old-timey uniforms. Instead, it was the visitors doing a pretty spot-on imitation of the 1962 Mets expansion team. The one that won 40 games and lost 120.
It was almost enough to make me feel nostalgic. The six-year-old me, growing up in New York City in 1962, somehow fell in love with the worst team in modern baseball history, an affair that would last for the Mets' first 30 years, until yet another volcanic outburst of self-destructive stupidity by the team's players and management prompted me to walk away forever.
When I reached adulthood, I came to the conclusion that I had adopted the Mets over the dynastic New York Yankees because they were so bad. The mismatch between my love for sports and my inability to play them well was enormous, and I think watching those early Mets fail at every possible aspect of the game must have persuaded my six-year-old brain that I, too, had a future in baseball.
The Mets' devolution Monday produced a rare laugher for the Cubs -- with a emphasis on laughs, especially during the 7th inning in which the Cubs put the game away with four runs that resulted from three pretty spectacular errors by the Mets' fielders.
The Cubs came into the game with a major league-worst record of 24-48, putting them 15 and a half games behind the first-place Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central Division, and were riding a four-game losing streak that included a three-game weekend sweep at Arizona in which they were outscored by a total of 21 runs to 7. The Mets have hung around a notch above mediocrity and came in with a 39-34 record, just 3 and a half games behind the Washington Nationals in the NL East race.
But for one night, at least, the opposing team was the butt of the joke.
The game began as a pitchers' battle between Cubs' lefthander Travis Wood, who was acquired in an off-season trade with Cincinnati, for whom he once was a top prospect, and the Mets' Johan Santana, a lefty who is trying to recover his once-dominant form after missing the entire 2011 season with an injury (and who pitched a no-hitter on June 1 against the St. Louis Cardinals).
Wood, who got off to a bad start this year, pitched well last Tuesday in beating the cross-town White Sox and it carried over, as he blanked the Mets on five hits and a walk through seven innings. The Cubs spotted him a 2-0 lead in the 4th, when Santana, after retiring the first two batters, walked catcher Geovany Soto, who has been struggling mightily at the plate, and served up a two-run homer to utility player Joe Mather (seen crossing the plate here), who made a rare start in center field. It was Mather's fourth round-trip of the season.
The Cubs had a chance to extend against Santana when Alfonso Soriano singled with one out and Jeff Baker hit this double into the right field corner. The Cubs eventually loaded the bases with two outs, but Luis Valbuena tapped out to second to kill the rally.
Santana departed after six innings, replaced in the 7th by reliever Jon Rauch... and then the hilarity ensued. Adrian Cardenas, rocking a .190 batting average, pinch-hit for pitcher Wood and popped the ball about 300 feet -- straight over home plate. But David Wright, the Mets' star third baseman, raced in, inexplicably called off catch Mike Nickaes, and not only dropped the ball but deflected it to the backstop. Cardenas raced all the way to third base on a ball that he hit maybe an inch or two in fair territory.
Reed Johnson, the next batter, added his own comic touch by striking out on a pitch that was technically over his head, but things then quickly got worse for the Mets. Darwin Barney, the Cubs' second baseman, took this mighty swing...
... and hit a blooper to short right field on which three Mets converged. Right fielder Scott Hairston got there first, attempted a sliding catch and dropped the ball, knocking it into foul territory as Barney bolted for third. I suppose I might, among the hundreds of baseball games I've attended, seen two three-base errors in a single inning, but if I did, I can't recall it.
The Mets' infield then got in on the fun. Starlin Castro hit a grounder to Mets second baseman Ronny Cedeno, who made what would have been a great save had he been playing hockey. As the ball rolled away, Barney scored and Castro was safe at first. After Rauch, who fortunately was not carrying a gun, walked Soriano, he was relieved Ramon Ramirez, who allowed the two inherited runners score on a single by Baker and a groundout by Soto. That left the unfortunate Rauch with this unusual stat line: 1/3 of an inning, no hits, one walk... and four runs.
The Cubs ended up coming this close to a 6-0 shutout. Reliever James Russell retired the first two Mets in the 9th, but caught too much of the plate on this pitch, and Ike Davis -- though hitting just .191 on the season -- belted his 9th home run into the bleachers.
No harm, though, as Nickeas grounded out to end the game and allow the unfurling of the "W" flag over the scoreboard, a rare sight this season.
Life sure can change in unexpected ways. The last time I'd seen the Mets and Cubs play at Wrigley was 25 years ago, in 1987. This was just one season after the Mets' dramatic World Series victory over the Boston Red Sox, and I, just six years removed from New York to Washington, D.C., was still a full-blooded fan of the Mets (who happened to lose that day). But the team the Mets built during the 1980s, one that had "dynasty" written all over it, disintegrated. Slugger Darryl Strawberry and pitcher Dwight Gooden, both of whom had Hall of Fame potential, wasted their talents through substance abuse and other off-field problems. The team's inept management made a series of terrible trades and free-agent acquisitions. The team collapsed, finishing last in the Eastern Division in 1991.
I had stuck with the team through its growing pains (the Mets exceeding 100 losses in five of their first six seasons), its stunning rise to the Miracle Mets' World Series championship in 1969, its collapse after future Hall of Fame pitchers Nolan Ryan (after the 1971 season) and Tom Seaver (midway through 1977) were dealt in two of the most catastrophic trades in major league history. But the evaporation of the promise held out by those 1980s teams was too much. I turned my attentions at the time to Baltimore, where Orioles' star Cal Ripken was making his historic run at the consecutive games record long held by Yankees great Lou Gehrig, and as my affection for Chicago grew, adopted the Cubs at an age when I should have been old enough to know better.
Now, sitting in Wrigley as a Chicago resident living just a few blocks away, the fact that they were playing the Mets held no resonance. They were just another team in town to play the hometown Cubs.