Tuesday, August 18, 2009

1969: Cubs - Mets (Part 1)

OK, before we go any further, there's probably something that you REALLY should know about me first ...

I have NEVER been a Cubs fan.

I discovered baseball ... and The Chicago White Sox ... in 1963 ... and have been a fan of this team ever since.

I don't even know what it is about the Cubs that made me not like them ...

I was never really part of any inter-city rivalry between the two clubs ...

(although, quite honestly, there DID seem to be some sort of unwritten law growing up in Chicago that you couldn't like both teams ... you had to like one or the other) ...

But, in all fairness, I can ALSO honestly say that nobody TAUGHT me to hate The Cubs ... or to like The White Sox ...

I just did!

In fact, I remember as a kid my Dad taking me to half a dozen Sox games and then insisting that we make just ONE visit to Wrigley Field so I could better appreciate the fact that Chicago was home to TWO major league teams.

I hated it ...

With a passion!!!

I STILL hate ANYTHING to do with Wrigley Field and that whole area ...

Not the LEAST of which is the parking situation.

Doesn't matter WHEN the game ends ... you can STILL be boxed in a parking lot for the next four hours while the patrons visit the neighborhood bars of Wrigleyville.

And when I say "boxed in", I mean boxed in ...

They literally have parked me rear view mirror to inter-locked rear view mirror ...

where there was absolutely NO way to get your car out without doing some type of damage to it.

To this day, I will ONLY go to Wrigley Field if The Cubs are playing against The Sox ...

And even then, I'll only go maybe once every three or four years.

Suffice to say ... quite emphatically ... I have NEVER been a Cubs Fan.

That being said ... the closest I ever came to BEING a Cubs Fan was 1969.

That was the year that they nearly won it all.

I had never seen them put a better team on the field. The line-up was nothing short of amazing:

Catcher Randy Hundley ... First Baseman Ernie Banks ("Mr. Cub" ... he of "Let's Play Two" fame back in the day when they regularly scheduled double-headers as part of the baseball season) ... Second Baseman Glenn Beckert ... Shortstop Don Kessinger (who would go on to manage The White Sox a few years later) and legendary Third Baseman Ron Santo. This was a Hall-Of-Fame caliber infield that for SOME reason (short of Banks) has managed to elude induction for all these years.

The outfield consisted of Billy Williams, one of the nicest guys in baseball, Don Young and Jim Hickman ... and high-quality reserves like Al Spangler, Willie Smith, Oscar Gamble and Adolfo Phillips.

And how about that pitching staff? Fergie Jenkins Bill Hands and Ken Holtzman ... between these three starters, they won 58 games that year ... and the team won 92 under the leadership of scrappy Leo Durocher. The bullpen was led by Ted Abernathy and Phil Regan and for MOST of the season these guys could do no wrong. Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins would ultimately join "Mr. Cub" Ernie Banks in The Cooperstown Hall Of Fame ... and Ron Santo STILL ranks as one of their greatest omissions. The truth is, they were nothing short of amazing ... but soon that very adjective ... and the division lead ... would move some 800 miles east and into the hands of The New York Mets.

How sudden and extensive was the collapse?

On August 19th, The Cubs held a 9 1/2 game lead over The New York Mets. Up to this point, The Cubs had spent 155 days in first place ... it was a foregone conclusion that they were the best team in baseball that year and were on their way to winning their first pennant in nearly 25 years. They started the season by winning 11 out of their first 12 games ... but once September hit, they dropped 17 out of 25 games (while The Mets went 23-7) and this ultimately sealed their fate. (In fact, The Mets won 39 out of their last 50 games of the season ... and earlier in the year had put together an 11-game winning streak!) When the dust finally settled, it was The Mets finishing over The Cubs by a margin of eight games ... a total spread of 17 games during the last six weeks of the season!

I cannot tell a lie ... there was a part of me that rejoiced at the collapse of The Cubs (as a number of Sox fans did ... you just KNEW they were gonna blow it!) ... and the outcome of this season has haunted the team ever since. (The Cubs hadn't made it to The World Series since 1945 ... and they STILL haven't; The Mets, on the other hand, had only been in existence for seven short seasons ... and literally went "From Worst To First" after being a complete laughing stock under previous manager Casey Stengel.) In 1962, The Mets lost 120 games, a record that still stands today as the most games ever lost by a major league team in a single season. How consistently bad were they? Incredibly, other than 1966, The Mets had NEVER been over the .500 mark in ANY season past the third game of the season prior to winning it all in '69! (To paraphrase Time Magazine, if, as they say, baseball is a game of inches, then The Mets were missing by YARDS!!!)

Their line-up wasn't really the stuff that legends are made of either ... I paid particular attention to former White Sox players Tommie Agee (one of my all-time favorites), catcher J.C. Martin and infielder Al Weis (now used primarily in reserve, Weis had hit a grand total of seven home runs spread out over the past ten seasons ... but then hit one in The World Series as a Met and became a national hero!!!), Cleon Jones (remember the shoe polish controversy?!?!?), Ed Kranepool, Bud Harrelson, Jerry Grote, Rod Gaspar ... hardly household names some 40 years later ... but the pitching staff boasted a couple of young newcomers named Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan and, along with starter Jerry Koosman and relief ace Tug McGraw, The Mets put together a team ERA of 2.99. Led by Seaver's 25 wins, The Mets won 100 games that season. (In fact, Seaver one-hit The Cubs that season, too! Sports Illustrated Magazine named him Sportsman of the Year, 1969.)

Join us tomorrow as we present memories from the perspective of BOTH dugouts, as recalled by some of the fans who witnessed this incredible season! They'll recount their joy and jubilation ... or reveal some emotional scars that STILL haven't healed, even after 40 years.

By the way, former Cub (and White Sox) Don Kessinger recently wrote the forward to a book called "The Miracle Collapse of the 1969 Chicago Cubs" ... you can find it here ... interesting reading for sure if you're stuck in 1969 like WE have been all month long!!!

Click here: http://www.amazon.com/Miracle-Collapse-1969-Chicago-Cubs/dp/080322026X