Along one wall of the Orient Service Center, owner Bill Hands has a series of autographed black-and-white pictures. They’re portraits of four baseball legends.
“Best wishes,” reads a shot of St. Louis Cardinals legend Stan Musial, one of the most revered hitters of all time.
“To my friend Bill, best always,” reads another, written in scratchy cursive by Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, who was so beloved as a Chicago Cub that a Sun-Times fan poll voted him “Greatest Cub Ever” in 1969, two years before he even retired.
The men in the other two pictures — pitcher Robin Roberts and manager Leo Durocher — were Cubs, too. But Mr. Hands isn’t just any Chicago superfan.
He himself was once a Cub and a starting pitcher for more than 180 games in his Major League career, with the majority of those contests coming with two-time National League MVP Mr. Banks standing right behind him at shortstop.
As the Cubs and New York Mets, who play in two of the country’s three largest media markets, squaring off in this week’s National League Championship Series, a lot has been written about the long-ago rivalry from the teams’ years competing against each other in the original alignment of the league’s eastern division. Much of that coverage has focused on the Miracle Mets’ pennant race against the collapsing Cubs in 1969.
It was among the most painful seasons in Chicago sports history. It was also the most successful of Mr. Hands’ career. At 29 years old, the 6-foot-2 righthander won 20 games that season, tying him with five other pitchers for fifth best in the league that season — behind Hall of Famers Tom Seaver, Phil Niekro, Juan Marichal and his own teammate Fergie Jenkins.
The Cubs were in first place for 155 days that season, only to lose 17 of their final 25 games and fall well behind the Mets, who would go on to win the World Series after finishing in one of the bottom two spots in the N.L. standings in each of their first seven seasons.
Owning an automobile shop on Long Island’s eastern tip certainly leads to a bit of heckling from longtime fans of the Amazin’s, who are well aware of the history. And now, with the 97-win Cubs facing a 3-0 deficit against the 90-win Mets Wednesday night — it seems everyone around him is eager to rekindle the past.
“People remind me of ,” the 11-year big leaguer said Monday while bravely sporting a Cubs cap for all his customers to see. “They’re proud of their team and they want to give me a little elbow in the ribs. For the most part, they think it’s a good story.”
In a different life, Mr. Hands might have become a Mets fan. He grew up in New Jersey and spent summers in Orient rooting for the New York Giants, from whom the Mets inherited their orange team color, before they moved to San Francisco in 1958.
Although he made four appearances with those Giants in 1965, his first big-league season, Mr. Hands was traded to the Cubs the very next year. Once he took the mound at Wrigley Field, he was hooked on a new franchise.
“I enjoyed Chicago,” he said. “I enjoyed the people. They are deserving.”
His son, Billy Hands III, works alongside his old man at the Orient shop, and he’s just as much a Cubs fan — after all, he went to virtually every summer home game while his dad was a player. The Hands men say they didn’t mind the Mets “until they beat us in 1969.” Now, with the first-ever playoff series between the two teams, father and son are on their toes.
“One guy who works for us came walking in [the morning after the Mets won game 2, 4-1],” the younger Mr. Hands said. “Before he even opened his mouth, I said, ‘Don’t say a [expletive] thing. I don’t want to hear it.’”
Mr. Hands spent seven years with the Cubs. In 1969, it was pinpoint command that led him to his best-ever season. He finished with a 2.49 earned run average, ninth-best in the National League. According to the modern-day statistic of wins above replacement, which measures a player’s value to his team among others who played the same position, Mr. Hands was the fifth-best player in the league that year.
On Sept. 8, 1969 — the day before the infamous Black Cat game, in which the Cubs were jinxed by a feline that made its way onto the field — Mr. Hands took the mound at Shea Stadium in his 35th start of the year. Facing the Mets on that damp, misty night, he threw a complete game, giving up five hits and three earned runs — which, statistically speaking, is a “quality start.”
“But I’m not supposed to give up three runs,” he interjected.
The Cubs fell by a score of 3-2 that day. Two days later, the Mets would move into first place and never look back.
More than four decades later, Mr. Hands is reserved when discussing that storied summer. Time has passed; he wonders matter-of-factly about whether a lack of rest contributed to the Cubs’ slide. Unlike many fans, he dismisses the superstition surrounding the black cat and the fabled curse of a goat named Murphy.
Mr. Hands still admits that it stung to fall short all those years ago, especially for a team that hasn’t won the World Series since 1908.
“I probably harbored a little resentment,” he said. “I don’t think you ever get rid of the disappointment that you had.”
Since then, he’s seen former Mets Bud Harrelson and Ed Kranepool, along with several other ’69 Mets, at golf outings or at his shop in Orient. Naturally, they tend to tease him.
Despite it all, there’s no switching allegiances. So as he reached for his hat before heading into work Monday morning, Mr. Hands grabbed the familiar blue cap with the big red “C” on it.
“Well, I have to wear it now!” he joked.
Top Photo Caption: Orient Service Station owner Bill Hands won 20 games as a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs in 1969. It was the most successful season of his 11-year career but also one of the most painful for fans of the franchise. For many, this year’s National League Championship Series between the Mets and Cubs has evoked that season’s pennant race. (Credit: Chris Lisinski)