Given the many, many variables which go into building a baseball team, and given how long it takes to build a winner, there aren’t all that many true Cinderella stories in the national pastime.
Baseball has had its share, of course. The 1914 “Miracle Braves” may have been the prototype “where the heck did THEY come from?” story in professional sports. The 1950 “Whiz Kids” Phillies are often mentioned as a Cinderella team. In recent years we have seen our share of worst-to-first clubs, most notably the 1991 Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins. But while there are several teams one can talk about as a Cinderella story in Major League Baseball, there can be no doubt that the greatest Cinderella story in the history of the game is the 1969 Mets.
An expansion team in 1962, the Mets set the standard for baseball futility right out of the gate by going 40-120 in their first season. They’d lose more than 100 games the next three seasons after that, 95 in 1966 and another 101 in 1967. In 1968 their loss total was down to a “mere” 89, but they still finished in ninth place out of ten teams in the National League and no one considered them a competitive team entering 1969. No one at all. Even after seven seasons as a franchise, the Mets were most famous for their former manager, the great Casey Stengel, and his habit of giving his team humorous backhanded compliments. As a point of conversation they were laugh-inducing. As a baseball team they were a laughingstock.
The 1969 season started as usual, with the Mets digging themselves a nine-game hole by the end of May. Their record — hovering around .500 — was a bit better than it had been in recent years, but they still stood in fourth place, scaring no one. Then, suddenly, manager Gil Hodges’ men began to make a move.
Young outfielder Cleon Jones heated up and talented young starters Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman came into their own. Seaver more than came into his own, actually. He began to dominate. Thanks to contributions from rookie starter Gary Gentry, outfielder Tommie Agee, and a stronger-than-expected bullpen, anchored by Ron Taylor, Tug McGraw, Nolan Ryan, and Jack Dilauro, the Mets began to climb up the standings. By early June they were still a good distance behind the first place Chicago Cubs, but they had jumped two teams and were ensconced in second. Throughout July and August, the Mets would wax and wane, climbing to within four games at one point, then falling back to ten behind, raising eyebrows but never seeming able to find that extra gear.
In late August the Cubs began to crumble, however, and the young Mets caught fire. New York overtook them for first place on September 10. They’d never fall out of first again. After defeating the Atlanta Braves in the first League Championship Series in history, the Mets had won the National League pennant.
The pennant was nice enough, but most didn’t think they stood a chance against the American League Champion Baltimore Orioles, who had won 109 games that year and featured the most impressive array of talent in all of baseball. Many of the Orioles players were still around from when they won the 1966 World Series and most of them would be on the club when it would go on to win the World Series in 1970 and another pennant in 1971. But the Amazin’ Mets — a nickname given to them as a joke by Stengel when they were far from amazing — would not be denied. They took true ownership of the “Amazin'” moniker and beat the fearsome Orioles in five games, becoming the stuff of legend. Truly, and without question, baseball’s greatest surprise in history. It’s greatest Cinderella story by far.
I’m talking about baseball’s greatest Cinderella story for a reason today. Over in the English Premier League, soccer fans are bearing witness to what may not only be the greatest Cinderella story in EPL history, but perhaps the greatest Cinderella story in the history of sports. Leicester City was one of the worst clubs last year, just barely avoiding relegation. Entering the current season, oddsmakers made them 5000-1 long shots to win the league title. I would guess that not even the 1962 Mets were such long shots, let alone the 1969 Mets. Leicester City’s odds of their being relegated? Far, far more likely. Yet here they are now, nearing the end of an astounding season, positioned to win it all. It’s truly a fantastic story.
A lot of baseball fans also follow the English Premier League. The seasons are complementary goods, with English soccer coming to the fore when baseball goes to sleep for the winter and the season ending just as MLB is heating up. Those of you who do are getting quite a treat this year. You’re watching a club that, even if it’s not your rooting interest, you will always remember. A club about which NBC’s Premier League play-by-play announcer Arlo White has said, “If they manage to seal the title, they may well be the most universally popular Champions in Premier League history.” That’s high praise indeed.
You might even say it’s . . . Amazin.’ Maybe even amazin’ enough that you too will want to jump on the Leicester City bandwagon.