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The Cardinals - Mets rivalry was the best rivalry

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Harkening back to a simpler time when we all hated the Mets.

Red Sox v Mets Photo by T.G. Higgins/Getty Images

The Cardinals finish up their series with the Mets this evening with a chance of being ten games over .500 for the first time this year. Even if they lose it won’t be a huge deal because the Mets, while gaining some ground on the Cardinals in this series, are likely too banged up to emerge from a somewhat crowded race for the last wild card spot.

Times have changed. There was a four or five year stretch in the 80s where losing to the Mets was always a big deal. Between 1985 and 1988 the two teams swapped titles in the old NL East and established a rivalry that was so bitter it resonates well today even though the two teams as a result of division realignment likely haven’t been considered rivals in over 20 years. (That the Mets faithful still shower Wainwright and Yadi with boos counts for something though.)

Mets players openly trolled the Cardinals. Cardinals fans nicknamed the Mets “pond scum.” You know, the good old days.

Rick Hummel wrote about the lost rivalry earlier this week and spoke to Keith Hernandez, who played for both teams but only experienced the rivalry from the Mets’ side (the rivalry hadn’t yet blossomed when he was with the Cardinals). Hernandez had this to say:

“Those series in St. Louis were just wonderful,” Hernandez said.

“And 1985 was just off the charts,” he said, referring to an epic three-game series at Busch in the final week of the season.

“In 1985, if we had played each other every night, there would have been so many brawls. It would have been unbelievable fun.

“The teams were so different. We had speed and more power. And (the Cardinals’) Jack Clark was the best cleanup hitter who ever came down the pike. He was the best that year that I ever played against or with. It was just a lot of fun.”

Speaking of Jack Clark, in a 2009 interview with KTRS-AM radio, he was, to put it mildly, less diplomatic about the rivalry than Hernandez. Deadspin was there at the time to track all of the pertinent quotes (and if you’re curious, the Cardinals had lost their 38th game at the time this post from Deadspin went live in 2009):

Clark on having to play with Mets in the All-Star game:

“I wanted to let them know I wasn’t glad to be there with them and their teammate, didn’t want to be on any team or be a teammate with them, and we were going to battle.”

On Gary Carter (who died a few years after Clark’s interview):

"He couldn't stand it. Whoever was talking to somebody else, he'd have to go over there to the media, and try to get in there because he wanted to be the one that the whole game was all about. Which was pretty sickening and disgusting to everybody else. ... We didn't have to see him with his white shoes on, being sad and acting like he was somebody special ... He talked his way more into the Hall of Fame than actually deserving it."

When asked if underrated 80s slugger Howard Johnson’s bat was corked:

"Yeah, it was. That just goes to show those guys were trying to cheat, you know, and it didn't end up working for them anyhow. If his was corked, I'm sure a few other guys' over there were corked, also. It didn't make any difference to us."

Sheesh.

Clark sounds like a jerk (and it wouldn’t be the last time), but I hated those Mets teams. We all did. The Cubs are the Cardinals’ rival in perpetuity but until recently have operated on a pretty harmless level. Back then I knew plenty of perfectly pleasant people who were Cubs fans. I was related to some. But the Mets played in a place that was so far away geographically and culturally that I didn’t think of their fans as one of us. My first Cardinals game was in April of 1987 – the Tommy Herr seat cushion game – against these Mets and every fan I saw in New York garb was presumed to be a bad person. (Some of them were - there were at least two ejections from my section in old Busch that night.)

But the Mets were mostly hated because they were so damn good. On an old ESPN Classic Sports Century episode, Darryl Strawberry remarked that had the Mets not played so hard off the field they would have won a few more championship. That’s possibly true but as Hernandez correctly pointed out in Hummel’s piece, they were mostly victims of an era when it was much harder to just make the playoffs.

Their ‘86 championship, their lone title during this era (their lone pennant, too), might make the uninitiated wonder what all the fuss was about, but between 1984 and 1990, the Mets won 666 games (mmhmm), which was good for a .588 win percentage and 34 more wins than any other team in MLB (Toronto was second with 632 wins), and a staggering 75 more wins than the next NL team (our very own Birdos). And yet, they only went to the postseason twice in this span. In fact, in the five years of this stretch that they didn’t make the postseason they averaged 92 wins per season which would have qualified for extra baseball every year under the current playoff format. But back then winning 100 games sometimes wasn’t enough, let alone 92.

Two of these years were 1985 and 1987 when they were bested by the Cardinals who finished just a game short of a World Series title each year.

In 1985, the Cardinals and Mets entered a three game series at Shea in early September tied atop the NL East. The Mets won two of three with each game being decided by one run. In the first game, the Mets scored all five of their runs in the first inning (an inning which saw the benches clear.), aided by a Howard Johnson grand slam and went on to win 5-4.

The next evening Dwight Gooden pitched a scoreless nine innings but John Tudor pitched a scoreless ten (Baseball-Reference doesn’t have the pitch count data, but it was 1985 so just assume it was astronomically high), and the Cardinals won 1-0 on a pinch-hit home run from Cesar Cedeno in the 10th. In the rubber match, Willie McGee hit a home run off Jesse Orosco in the top of the 9th to knot the game at six, but Hernandez ended it in the bottom half with a single to score Willie Mookie Wilson.

The Cardinals left town down one game, but would win 14 of their next 15 games and finish the season with 101 wins - first in the NL Central. The Mets finished 98-64 and were left at home come October. The two teams played a grand total of 18 games that year with 11 of them being decided by a single run and five going extra innings.

The Mets ran away from the Cardinals in 1986, finishing 28.5 games ahead. According to Hernandez’s account in Hummel’s story, they were convinced they were the better team in 1987, by which time, according to Mets reliever Ed Lynch, the rivalry was based in “real hate.”

On September 11 of that year, the Mets were an out away from cutting the Cardinals’ division lead to half a game, when this happened:

That was as close as the Mets would get in the standings the rest of the year. The Cardinals ended the season with 95 wins, and just like in 1985, finished three games ahead of their rival. Also similar to 1985, the two teams played eight games in 1987 that were decided by one run or in extra innings.

That was the last time the rivalry truly sizzled. The Mets continued their winning ways for a few years while the Cardinals slipped into an eight-year stretch of mediocrity. And by 1993 the Mets were the worst team in baseball. I was 14 and it was the first time I had learned that they were allowed to be bad, which is why #LOLMets has never quite registered with me.

The two teams renewed the rivalry to some degree in 2000 and played possibly the most exciting game of my lifetime in 2006. And over the last ten years the Cardinals have feuded with every team in the NL Central and had fleeting moments with the Dodgers and the Giants. But from a truly competitive and entertaining standpoint, none of that has topped what they once had with the Mets.