Part of the beauty of baseball rests in the occasional symmetry of its history and its today. The Mets are crossing one such intersection, and a member of their coaching staff is uniquely familiar with the then and now.
On Sept. 5, 1969, the Mets trailed the Cubs by 4 1/2 games in the National League East. Phil Regan was a reliever for Chicago, appearing in 71 games.
As the Mets woke up Thursday — Sept. 5, 2019, exactly a half-century years later — they trailed the Cubs by 4 1/2 games for the last NL wild card spot. Regan is the interim pitching coach for the Mets.
The 1969 team rallied to become World Series champions, of course, and is forever remembered as the Miracle Mets. The 2019 team’s fate is to be decided.
As Regan helps the modern-day Mets pursue the same improbable goal, the memories of the Cubs’ collapse 50 years ago follow him.
The sting, Regan said, “is still there.”
“But a lot of them are friends of mine now,” Regan, 82, said of the 1969 Mets he has gotten to know. “So it’s all right.”
Monday is a particularly famous anniversary from that pennant race: the so-called Black Cat Game.
On Sept. 9, 1969, in the top of the fourth inning of Cubs-Mets, a black cat appeared on the field at Shea Stadium. It walked behind Ron Santo in the on-deck circle, crossed in front of the visitor’s dugout, stared down manager Leo Durocher and skedaddled down under the stands.
“A lot of people think the Mets let it out of their dugout,” Regan said this week. “But I don’t know about that.”
The Mets, already up when the feline showed itself, beat the Cubs, 7-1. Future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver outpitched future Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins. The game went down in baseball lore for the superstitious wackiness — a black cat being a symbol of bad luck, especially if it crosses in front of someone — but the Cubs didn’t look at it that way.
By that point, the Cubs’ sky was already falling. Their division lead over the Mets, a season-high 10 games less than a month before, was down to a half-game when the Black Cat Game ended. The next day, the Mets became the NL East leaders and never looked back.
“I really don’t believe it was the cat that did that, but it was just kind of funny,” Regan said. “We didn’t really think about it. We still felt we had a chance of winning because we had a good ballclub and we thought any day we’d turn it around.
“It was like the team got tired all of a sudden. Balls that we would [normally] catch we miscommunicated on. We didn’t pitch good. And things become magnified when you’re losing.”
Reminders of that late-summer nightmare have been plenty for Regan. A decade ago, when the Mets hired him as a minor-league pitching coach, Regan walked into the clubhouse at the team’s Port St. Lucie facility and down a hallway to the coaches’ room.
“I look up,” Regan said, “and the first sign I see is the World Champion 1969 Mets.”
In June, a week after the Mets promoted him to work with the big-league club, the organization celebrated the 1969 team during a weekend series against the Braves. That included an on-field ceremony on a picture-perfect Saturday afternoon. Ed Kranepool gave a speech from a stage on the infield. Regan watched from the dugout thinking: well, damn.
“That’s was us,” Regan said.
And now Regan’s Mets are chasing the Cubs. The challenge is daunting: In addition to the Cubs, the Mets also have to pass the Phillies, Diamondbacks and Brewers. They have 23 games to go.
The Mets’ 10-game homestand, which starts Friday, is another tough one: Phillies, Diamondbacks and Dodgers. But after that, the final two weeks of their schedule are soft: three bad teams (Rockies, Reds, Marlins) and one team that might not have anything to play for the final weekend of the regular season (the NL East-leading Braves).
If the Mets are going to get to the playoffs — if they are going to catch the Cubs, again — they will need a miracle something like the one Regan’s team became the victim of 50 years ago.
“Maybe we’ll catch them, maybe we’ll get there,” Regan said. “Maybe we oughta bring a black cat out.”
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