Remember the old six team National League East? You know, the one before the league realigned to three divisions? Did you ever wonder why the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals were in the East, when the more eastern cities of Cincinnati and Atlanta were represented in the West? It was all the Mets’ fault. It’s a little known footnote in the history of the team, but it was a move that might have changed the course of the franchise, for the good and the bad.
When the league went from 10 to 12 teams in 1969, it was logical to split them up into two divisions along geographic lines. But the Mets had a major problem with the plan. That’s because Los Angeles and San Francisco would naturally be in the West, meaning the Mets would lose some home dates with them. They were the team’s biggest draw – just ten years after they defected from New York, there were still plenty of Dodgers and Giants fans – and haters – in town.
To compensate for the loss, the Mets demanded to be in the same division as the reigning NL power, the Cardinals. The league agreed. But then the Cubs made a demand of their own – they wanted to be in the same division as the Cards, their most hated rivals. So the league acquiesced, and the Reds and Braves were moved out west.
Big deal, you might say. So they had different teams in their division. Well, let’s take a look at Mets history, and see how things might have been different if the East were aligned in the original way.
Let’s start in the very first year of divisional play, that magical season of 1969. Well, if the Mets didn’t open their mouths, the Miracle Mets may never have been. The Braves, oddly enough, were the winners of the West that year, with 93 wins. The Mets, of course, had 100. And they did sweep the Braves in NLCS. So perhaps they still would have beaten out the Braves for the division. But the Braves were a superb team, led by Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Orlando Cepeda. There is always a possibility the Mets would have lost a few more games if they had to play the Braves more during the regular season. Perhaps not. But just consider for a moment what Mets history would be like without 1969. Not a pretty thought.
Now we jump ahead to 1973, when the Mets staged their last-to-first run that nabbed them the division with a medicore 82-79 record. The winners in the West? – the Reds (funny how this is working out). The Reds were clearly the class of the NL, winning 99 games, yet they somehow lost to the Mets in the NLCS. So you can say with virtual certainty that the Reds would have won the East that year, and the Mets would have been sitting home in October instead of losing to the A’s in the World Series.
The Mets stunk for the rest of the 70s into the mid 80s, so there would have been no difference who was in their division. But the Mets climbed out of the doldrums in 1984, shocking the league with 90 wins. They finished second in the division to – drumroll please – the Cubs. The Braves and Reds won 80 and 70 games respectively that year, so it’s conceivable the Mets would have won the division in 1984 had the Cubs been in the West like they were supposed to.
In 1985, the Mets won 98 games. But the Cardinals – it’s about time that fourth team got involved in this saga — won 101 to take the East. The Braves won just 66 games, the Reds 89. So once again, the Mets might have won the East had the Cards been out West.
No one was beating the Mets in 1986. The following year, the Cards beat out the Mets again, and again the Mets had more wins than the Braves and Reds. The Mets won the division in 1988. In 1989, they lost out to the Cubs again, but had more wins than the Braves and Reds.
So it’s possible the Mets might have had a six year run atop the NL East if they didn’t oppose the initial realignment, perhaps with a few more World Series championships. Imagine what the history of the franchise would be like if they had had such a stretch of dominance. Of course, we might have had to sacrifice 1969 to get it, so maybe it wouldn’t have been worth it.
The Mets were lousy in the early 1990s, and then in 1994 the leagues realigned again, doing it right this time. The Braves moving to the East ended up creating a new rivalry for the Mets to compensate for the loss of the Cubs and Cards to the new Central division. But it is odd how all four teams – Cubs, Cardinals, Braves, and Reds – ended up playing prominent roles in the history of the team.