Tonight, the Yankees will play the Mets in spring training on a date of great significance to the teams' rivalry: March 22nd. On this date in 1962, the two teams played each other for the first time in an exhibition game of surprising intrigue. In retrospect, the game represents the larger relationship between the Mets and Yankees over the years, which should be as interesting as ever in 2016.
Although the game played on March 22, 1962 was the first between the Yankees and Mets, the rivalry started before the first pitch was thrown. Friction between the two teams stemmed from several sources:
- Rogers Hornsby, who was serving as a coach for the Mets during their first season, had released a book in the offseason titled My War With Baseball, and a passage from the book took unmistakable shots at Yankees slugger Roger Maris, who had just broken Babe Ruth's single season home run record the prior season. Hornsby noted that Ruth hit for a much higher average the season he hit 60 while Maris used a significantly lighter bat. This caused Maris to deny a photo opportunity with Hornsby, who was insulted enough to call Maris a "bush leaguer."
- The game took place at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, which served as the Yankees' exhibition ground for 31 years. With the addition of the Mets, some of the residents who had been longtime Yankees fans decided to switch their allegiance to the club from Queens.
- Most interestingly, legendary Yankees skipper Casey Stengel managed against his former team after losing his job following the bizarre outcome of the 1960 World Series. Now managing the Mets, Stengel would have his first opportunity to exact revenge on the team that forced him out amidst a youth movement (Stengel was about to turn 70). The same youth movement had also claimed the job of former Yankees GM George Weiss, who was made President of the Mets while he still earned a consultant's salary from the Yankees.
The game was an interesting tilt when perhaps it shouldn't have been. The Mets' 5-7 exhibition record actually belied the roster's lack of talent, while the Yankees were 10-1 so far after winning the 1961 World Series in impressive fashion. Mets starter Roger Craig had pitched well so far that spring while Yankees starter Bill Stafford had pitched 12 hitless innings across three games.
The game started slowly, but sloppy play by the Yankees led to a 3-2 Mets lead going into the top of the ninth inning as Stengel deployed his the best pitchers he had in an effort to beat the Yankees. Tom Tresh, who pinch-hit for Ralph Terry, tied the game up before the Mets took last licks. Joe Christopher hit a triple and two batters later, Stengel pinch-hit Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn for Howie Nunn, resulting in a walk-off single.
Following the 4-3 Mets victory, Stengel (ever the promoter) reported that he had never been so excited by a game "in all [his] years in baseball." Although the Mets would go on to lose 120 games in 1962, more than any team in history, while the Yankees would record their second consecutive championship, Stengel briefly had his revenge.
The Yankees-Mets rivalry has evolved over the years, but much remains the same. Beginning in 1963, the Yankees began to play the Mets in the Mayor's Trophy Game, which had been previously played against the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The in-season exhibition game benefited the Amateur Baseball Federation and initially drew substantial attendance. By the early 1980s, however, attendance dropped in part due to teams' unwillingness to waste major league pitchers in a relatively meaningless game, and the game was discontinued. The Yankees finished with a 10-8 record against the Mets in those games with one tie due to a rain delay in 1979.
The rivalry was reignited shortly after interleague play began in 1997, as the Yankees were in the midst of a dynasty while the Mets found themselves successfully reloading following a brutally poor stretch in the early-mid 1990s. They finished with more than 90 wins in 1999 and 2000 and fought their way to the first World Series of the new millenium, a Subway Series against the Yankees, who had finished with seven fewer victories than the Mets in the regular season. The Yankees took the series in five games and the Mets would not return to the postseason until 2006.
Jump forward 10 years to 2016 - the rivalry burns bright once again. The Mets likely possess the best starting pitching staff in baseball while the Yankees have arguably its best bullpen. For the first time since the mid-1980s, the Mets carry much more star power than the Yankees, with marquee players such as Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Yoenis Cespedes, who helped them to a World Series berth in 2015. On the other hand, the Yankees have undergone a youth movement that will shed $100 million from their books in the next couple of years without jeopardizing their ability to compete in the meantime.
Indeed, 2016 is as healthy a time as any in the Yankees-Mets rivalry that so infuriates talk radio callers while delighting generational New York sports fans. March 22nd is as good a date as any to look back and reflect on some of the most interesting storylines in the rivalry's history, some of which began before the two teams ever took the field against one another.