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There wasn’t always a postseason safety net

Well, you have to give us credit. New York is not a one-dimensional baseball city. In the space of a couple of weeks we can feel completely bulletproof and utterly impotent. We can ooze pure confidence and leak oil. Both sides of town. There was a time Yankees fans and Mets fans couldn’t wait for the next game — or as they might call it, “the next win.”

Now both sides pray for rain.

OK. Maybe it’s not quite that bad. But it’s close. The past few weeks, as the Braves and the Rays have continued to chase the Mets and the Yankees and have eaten away almost all of what was a combined 26 games worth of leads between the two (the Yankees’ highest was 15 ½, the Mets’ 10 ½), baseball has become something of a chore to watch.

Both teams.

Both sides.

Still, it could be worse, and fans of both teams know perfectly well it could be worse. This isn’t the Old Days — for the purposes of this column, “Old Days” is defined as 1962-92 — when it was an all-or-nothing proposition. If old-time baseball rules — meaning only first place gets to go on to the postseason — were still in place, then Baseball New York would already be lying in state, catatonic with disappointment.

But here is a cold, hard fact:

The Mets’ magic number for qualifying for the playoffs, entering Saturday, was 10. The Yankees’ magic number was 15. That is the prize to keep the eyes affixed to. Getting in. That might not be perfect. That might not be ideal. But there is barely a fraction of a chance the teams won’t do that.

Pete Alonso's Mets and Aaron Boone's Yankees have struggled in September, but they still have a wild-card playoff safety net, unlike some other hard-luck past New York baseball teams.
Pete Alonso’s Mets and Aaron Boone’s Yankees have struggled in September, but they still have a wild-card playoff safety net, unlike some other hard-luck past New York baseball teams.

It’s worth remembering: It wasn’t always this way. Time was, there was no safety net. And both sides of town are still smarting from past disappointments, ones that resonate even now, so many years later. Here are a few of the worst of times.


The Mets and the Yankees both suffered and bled, pursuing teams (the Cardinals and Blue Jays) that were resilient and persistent and, ultimately, uncatchable. There was one remarkable day — Sept. 12, 1985 — in which the Mets beat the Cardinals at Shea in the afternoon and the Yankees beat the Jays at the Stadium at night. The Mets were a game up, the Yankees 1 ½ back, and visions of a Subway Series were beginning to dance in all the boroughs …

But both fell short. The Mets won the first two games of a must-sweep series in St. Louis, but lost the third game, 4-3, so 98 wins was only going to be good enough for runner-up to 101-win St. Louis. And though the Yankees pulled a miracle in their own season-closing three-game series in Toronto — with Butch Wynegar hitting a game-tying homer in the ninth, followed by the winning run scoring on a dropped fly ball — even that wasn’t enough. The Yankees won 97 games. The Jays finished with 99. And that was that.


The Mets had been so wretched for so long, and by rights shouldn’t have won 90 games since they were outscored for the season, 676-652. But Davey Johnson had arrived, and so had Doc Gooden, and the Mets enjoyed a fall-out-of-the-sky season as their lead in the NL East grew to as much as 4 ½ games on July 27.

But the Cubs were too much that year, and won seven straight over the Mets at one point. It was the first of six straight years when the Mets finished first or second, which with a wild-card would’ve meant more shots at the crown. But there was no wild card then.


The Yankees hadn’t been in the postseason in 10 years, but they battled Baltimore right to the final weekend before a heartbreaking loss to Milwaukee on the next-to-last day of the season. That 89-73 team was followed by an increasingly successful group of Yankees, capped by the 1977-78 back-to-back champs.

But ’74 held a special place for a lot of Yankees fans because Bobby Murcer was still on the team then, and because even though they were playing home games in Queens, Yankees fans had come to embrace Shea Stadium as a terrific home-field advantage, and banners declaring “YES WE CAN” started appearing every game.

Bobby Murcer in 1979
Bobby Murcer in 1979
MLB Photos via Getty Images


Remarkable thing: None of the five straight Yankees champs from 1949-53 that coincided with Casey Stengel’s first five years ever won 100 games. The ’54 edition won 103 — and finished eight full games behind Cleveland, which went 111-43 and won the American League going away. The Yankees spent just five days that year in first place, the last on July 20, and though they were terrific, it never mattered because Cleveland never faltered.

Vac’s Whacks

OK. I did it. I really did. As I pledged last week, I found five wins for the Jets — I’m calling 5-12 — and five wins for the Giants — softer schedule, more winnable games, so we’ll make it 6-11. Now can we just fast-forward to the draft, aka the New York Super Bowl?

Our world changed forever 21 years ago Sunday. Al Leiter, John Franco and Todd Zeile, all members of the 2001 Mets, have pledged never to forget, which is why they continued their September ritual this week and visited Engine 33 in Manhattan.

On the day Queen Elizabeth II was born, Babe Ruth had hit just 310 home runs. Of all the fun facts compiled in the wake of her passing this week, that’s the one I enjoy most.

Barry Pepper played Roger Maris in "61*".
Barry Pepper played Roger Maris in “61*”.
Courtesy Everett Collection.

In the spirit of the season, I rewatched “61*” the other day. And more than ever, Billy Crystal’s loving and painstaking attention to detail — plus the fact that both Barry Pepper (above) and Thomas Jane look just like the M&M Boys — make that movie hold up very, very well.

Whack Back at Vac

George Corchia: Giants fans are sooo used to the 0-and-something starts to the NFL season. It’s just a question of guessing the total number of losses before the first win: 0-2, 0-3, 0-4 … ?

Vac: You know what I miss? I miss confident Giants fans. I never thought I’d miss confident Giants fans (and confident Yankees fans), but I do. I really do.

Christopher Sheldon: Aaron Judge’s chase for the record is impressive, but I want him to hit 61 in 154 games. To me, that would be a record that even The Babe would tip his cap to.

Vac: I’m not here to diminish what Maris did, not a bit, and it was a disgrace to stick him with an asterisk all those years. But that doesn’t mean Babe Ruth getting eight fewer games than Maris shouldn’t at least be PART of the conversation, right?

@infinite1555: I get that both New York football teams playing at 1 p.m. slot is a demotion in this market, but as a fan I don’t mind it.

@MikeVacc: Giants fans will watch the Giants and Jets fans will watch the Jets, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I go back to my house as a kid where we watched every minute (barring TV blackouts) of both teams, which you can’t do when they’re head-to-head. Maybe mine is a lonely voice on this one.

Jeffrey Cohen: Often seen in the past where no-name players — including ones brought up from the minors — can spark a team, like Al Weiss. Do the Mets have anyone in the wings who might do the same?

Vac: Unfortunately the two most likely candidates — Francisco Alvarez and Brett Baty — are both on the IL now.

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