Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

ron santo black catWhen I think about the New York Mets, some obvious things come to mind – the “big brother” Yankees, the talented young pitching, the uneven history – but I mostly think of two things:

(1) In recent years, I’ve felt a kinship with Mets fans because of their situation. Consider that they are a big market club, trying to rebuild mostly internally with loads of young talent, and they are restricted from spending as much as they might otherwise like to because of external financial factors beyond the control of baseball operations. Sound familiar?

(2) The 2004 Cubs.

What do I mean on that second one? Well, I think about that late September stretch when a loaded Cubs team dropped seven of their final nine games to plop away the Wild Card.

That stretch started in New York, and it started with a walk-off loss in 11 innings, precipitated by a blown three-run lead in the 9th inning on September 25th. Remember Victor Diaz? Who hit a three-run, two-out homer in the bottom of the 9th to tie that game. Remember Craig Brazell? Who hit a walk-off homer in the 11th?

It was a miserable game.

The next day, Kerry Wood gave up three runs in the first inning to the Mets, which was enough to propel them to a 3-2 win. The Cubs’ collapse had begun. Or at least that’s how I remember it feeling.

But here’s the thing on that: I don’t connect that all in a negative way to the Mets. It just happened that the start of the slide began in New York. In other words, when I think of the ugly end to the 2004 season, sure, the Mets are part of that story, but my beef is with the Cubs’ failings, not the Mets’ success.

Before that, I didn’t have any personal animosity for the Mets because I was born in 1981.

I understand there are those, however, who still consider the Mets a significant rival for the Cubs, tied to the pre-Wild Card days, the early years of the divisional era, and, perhaps most specifically, to the 1969 season.

That year, the Cubs led the Mets (and the Cardinals) in the NL East by nine games in mid-August, but the Cubs limped the finish and the Mets got blazing hot, besting the Cubs by eight games when it was all said and done. A particular bad stretch took place from September 3 to 11, when the Cubs lost eight in a row, including two in New York at Shea Stadium. One of those games was marked by the now-iconic image of a black cat running onto the field, and past Ron Santo, as he stood on deck waiting to bat for the Cubs. People said things about curses. Especially after more unsuccessful years passed. That’s how these things happen.

But, as was true with the 2008 Cubs, and even moreso here, these Cubs are not those Cubs. These Cubs are completely unburdened by history or curses or pressure. It goes without saying that they were not alive in 1969 – not even David Ross. (Heck, Joe Maddon was just starting high school then.) These Cubs are young, talented, and ready to compete against this version of the Mets.

Speaking of which, you’ll hear it from all corners, but it’s true: the Mets the Cubs will play are not the same Mets that the Cubs swept in seven games earlier this year. Sure, the Cubs are different, too – these two were among the best few teams in baseball in the second half – but the Mets are fundamentally different. They’ve got Yoenis Cespedes. They’ve got a healthy David Wright. They’ve got a healthy Travis d’Arnaud. They’ve got Michael Conforto. They’ve got Steven Matz. They’ve got a more polished Noah Syndergaard.

I could go on, but you get the point: to the extent you were inclined to feel confidence because of the Cubs’ earlier success against the Mets, I would submit that fact has little more to do with what is to come than black cats in 1969.

Much more on the Mets, and the impending NLCS match-up, to come.

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