This Year's Yankees-Mets Face-Off Caps a Long, Weird History
Since baseball inaugurated interleague play in 1997, the Yankees and Mets have dueled 98 times during the regular season, with the Bronx Bombers holding a 56-42 edge. This season offers an added bonus: two additional games resulting from the teams' divisions being matched in interleague play in 2015, leading to the earliest-ever face-off between the clubs, from April 24 to 26 in the Bronx.
If the annual Subway Series has become more hype than novelty — though very lucrative hype; witness the inflated prices on StubHub and other secondary ticket sellers — remember that there was a time when watching New York's teams do battle in games that count was an unrealizable dream. (Thirteen previous "Subway Series" had matched the Yankees against either the New York Giants or Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series, but the Mets and Yankees never faced off until 2000.) Before 1997, the Mets and Yankees only played each other down in Florida during spring training, with one exception during the teams' early years: the annual Mayor's Trophy Game.
The Mayor's Trophy Game actually dates back to 1946, when the New York Giants and Yankees agreed to play a best-of-three exhibition during the season to benefit sandlot baseball programs, with the winner to receive a trophy from Mayor William O'Dwyer. The best-of-three format lasted one more year before switching to a single-game event each season, with the Yankees opposing either the Giants or Dodgers until both teams left for the West Coast after 1957.
The series was revived in 1963, the Mets' second year of operation. The Yankees, coming off their thirteenth World Series appearance in sixteen years and twentieth championship since 1923, were the most successful professional franchise in American sports, playing in one of the most recognizable stadiums in the world. They meant business on the field, and their fans expected nothing less than a pennant each year.
The Mets, on the other hand, were lovably inept. As an expansion team in their second season, their roster was littered with other teams' castoffs and players either way past their prime or never having experienced one. The loss of the Giants and Dodgers left a huge hole in the New York baseball scene, and for a certain segment of fans, the Mets were the logical replacement to root for. Their fans skewed younger, and this "New Breed" of New York baseball fan developed the tradition of bringing homemade banners fashioned from bedsheets to the Mets' first home stadium, the Polo Grounds.
The clash of franchise ideologies was evidenced quite quickly, as Mets fans who tried to bring banners into Yankee Stadium in support of their team had them confiscated at the turnstiles. More than 50,000 fans saw Mets manager Casey Stengel, relieved of his duties as Yankees skipper at age 70 after losing the 1960 World Series, manage this game like it counted, even using top pitcher Carl Willey for the final four innings to secure a 6-2 Mets win.
The tradition would continue through the Sixties and Seventies, usually drawing well: At least twelve of the nineteen games boasted attendance over 30,000. As the years went on, though, the games became a bit of a nuisance for the teams and their stars — the last thing many regulars wanted to do was spend a rare off day at the ballpark, leaving the teams to call up minor leaguers for the day just to play in the exhibition. In 1978, according to teammate Sparky Lyle's book The Bronx Zoo, Yankee third baseman Graig Nettles allegedly attempted to throw the game as it was dragging through extra innings in front of fewer than 10,000 fans by fielding a Ron Hodges bouncer and launching it over the head of Chris Chambliss at first. The Mets couldn't bring Hodges home from second, though, and the Yanks eventually won 4-3 in the thirteenth. (Nettles later denied that his error was intentional.)
The series was suspended again briefly in 1980, before a two-year swan song in 1982 and 1983. The winning pitcher in the final Mayor's Trophy Game was a Yankee farmhand named Ben Callahan, one of those one-day call-ups; it turned out to be Callahan's only appearance on a big-league mound in a Yankee uniform, as he was traded two months later to Oakland.
Regular-season contests between the Mets and Yanks were inaugurated with the advent of interleague play, something that had been proposed as early as the mid-1950s (by Hall of Fame outfielder and then–Cleveland Indians part-owner Hank Greenberg) and was finally introduced in 1997 to resuscitate fan interest in the aftermath of the strike-shortened 1994 season. The subsequent interleague games have included many memorable moments: the Yankees defeating the Mets by identical 4-2 scores in both ends of a day-night doubleheader held in two boroughs (2000); Mets second baseman Luis Castillo dropping a seemingly routine game-ending popup to turn an 8-7 lead into a 9-8 loss (2009); and Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez intentionally walking the bases loaded in the ninth to bring up Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, then unintentionally walking Rivera as well to force in a run — what would turn out to be the only RBI of Rivera's career (2009).
Expectations for the coming season are moderate at best for both teams. The American League East is wide open, with no clear favorite, but Joe Girardi's club will be in its first season A.J. (after Jeter, with the shortstop position now manned by the light-hitting Didi Gregorius) and has a starting rotation full of pitchers coming off of injuries. Over in Flushing, the Mets have playoff hopes with the return of Matt Harvey to join 2014 National League Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom (who debuted during last year's Subway Series), but the roster is plagued by injury concerns (young ace Zack Wheeler is already down for the count, and David Wright and newly signed left fielder Michael Cuddyer have a history of fragility) and defensive shortcomings (Cuddyer again, plus newly anointed starting shortstop Wilmer Flores).
Given that the first Yankees-Mets series is so early this year, it will be hard to tell just how good these teams are when they meet in the Bronx. Of course, neither team will have played itself out of its respective pennant race by then, either. Will they still draw well if the April weather, and the teams, are less than thrilling? If nothing else, with no clear favorite for the first time in years, fans of both teams can hope to take home the city crown — even if there's no longer an actual trophy to go along with it.
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