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Flashback Friday: 1985 (The Exciting Conclusion)

Inane software space limitations force us to bring you Flashback Friday: 1985 in two parts. You may link to Part I [1] if you haven’t seen it. What follows here is the second part.

The Mets were alive, no matter what Newsday had said the day before. Their task was by no means easy, but it was simple enough. Win three games against the Cardinals and be tied for first with three to play. Then it’s anybody’s race…and we have home-field for a one-game playoff.

First game: Tudor vs. Darling. Not Gooden. Darling. Mets fans actually sent telegrams to Davey Johnson and told him, no, you’re doing this all wrong. Warm up Darling in the pen and make Whitey think you’re going to start him. Then, out of nowhere, Doc enters the game. It was as crazy as it sounded, but not without some sanity to it. Doc was 23-4 and the best pitcher in the world. This was the biggest game the Mets were playing in more than a decade. But Davey avoided the temptation to take his cues from Western Union. Darling did not disappoint. Nor did Tudor. It was another scoreless duel. Ronnie went nine — Davey wasn’t pushing his young starters in any game to do anything superhuman; these pitchers had futures. Tudor again pitched ten shutout innings against the Mets. In the eleventh, Ken Dayley entered for the Cards. And Darryl Strawberry, whose absence with the thumb injury is probably what made this a race to begin with, took him deep. How deep? Very deep. How deep? Clock deep. It was 10:44 Central Daylight Time when Darryl put the Mets up 1-0 in the top of the eleventh inning. He hit it off a clock on the facing of the grandstand in right field. Orosco saved it and the Mets were within two games of first place.

Second game: Gooden vs…. didn’t matter. It was Gooden. It was 1985. It wasn’t really that easy. There were some hard-hit balls. But in the end, it was Dwight Gooden winning his final game of the year. The numbers would be entered into the ledger for the ages: 24-4, 268 K’s, 1.53 ERA. That was Dwight Gooden in 1985 at the age of 20. That was the lowest ERA in baseball since the mound was leveled to encourage more hitting. That was a pitcher who was in his second year and, it followed, could only get better. That kid, two years my junior, was the human being I thought most highly of. The Mets were within one game of first place.

Third game: I watched this one, as I had the previous two, with my parents and the entire Metropolitan Area. Channel 9 reported record ratings for each night of this series. I wore, again, my lucky glasses. But I didn’t like what I was seeing. The Mets nicked Cox for a run in the first but Foster, who had the opportunity to prove every Mets fan wrong, only confirmed our worst suspicions about him. With the bases loaded, he bounced out and the Mets came away practically emptyhanded. Rick Aguilera, in the biggest start of his (or almost anybody’s) life, let the Cards tie it in the second. Then the home team, spurred on by their obnoxious fans who dumped beer on Lenny Dykstra and referred to the Mets as “pond scum” (a Lettermanism), pulled ahead. St. Louis was up 4-2 after six. And after seven. In the eighth, the Mets got a run back, HoJo singling home Straw. There could’ve been more but Davey was reduced to using Ray Knight and Ron Gardenhire and in 1985, they were not keys to success. The Mets entered the top of the ninth down one run and one game. This was it. This was the season. This was what my whole life was leading up to.

Two outs came and went. Then Keith Hernandez, formerly of the St. Louis Cardinals, came up. He was booed. He was hated. He was reviled for being a big, bad New York Met and, not incidentally, for testifying with immunity at a big, bad baseball drug trial in Pittsburgh that, while a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, he was a user of cocaine. He flew to Shea from that trial for the earlier Cardinal series and was welcomed home a hero. Not at Busch. Whatever punishment he’d be meted by the commissioner, it wasn’t coming now, so he’d have to take his medicine this way. Keith Hernandez had come to town to try to steal a division title from his old team. He had been a user. The fans kept booing. Keith kept hitting. Keith had already, in this game, the one my whole life had led up to, collected four hits.

Keith Hernandez singled off of Ricky Horton. He was 5-for-5. My mother was thrilled. My father was thrilled. I was thrilled. New York was thrilled.

Whitey Herzog, the sneering rat, made a pitching change. Horton out. Jeff Lahti in. Gary Carter up.

This was it. This was truly it. Our best player, the National League’s Player of the Month for September three days into October, the guy who started 1985 in December 1984 while I was still in college by being traded to us, the guy who shooed away Neil Allen and all the medflies on Opening Day, the guy on the poster, in the Ivory Soap commercial, in all the commercials, our very own superstar catcher, our cleanup hitter, our future Hall of Famer, the only one — it would turn out — from this team.

Gary Carter came up with two out and one on, the Mets down by a run. If Gary Carter could take Jeff Lahti over the Busch Stadium wall, the Mets would lead 5-4. They’d be three outs from being tied for first place with three games remaining in the 1985 season, the best season of my life, the best season of everybody’s life.

Gary Carter hit a fly ball to right field. Not a big fly. Just a Met fly.

Andy Van Slyke caught it.

Cardinals 4 Mets 3. The Mets were two games out of first place.

It was over. Having seen enough, I threw my lucky glasses on the floor.

“Don’t do that to your glasses!” Mom and Dad admonished in unison. Great. At the moment I needed to be with Mets fans, they reverted back to being parents.

I went upstairs and found a Whitey Herzog card. I brought it downstairs with a thumbtack and began defacing it in the kitchen. I handed the tack to my mother and she joined in.

Eight years earlier, she decided to surprise me with a little change bank shaped like a miniature Mets batting helmet. Except (and my father attempted to point this out to her), it wasn’t a Mets batting helmet. Let’s just say the NY confused her. By then I was old enough to twist my words into a pretzel so as not raise her ire. I tried to seem grateful for the gift but she realized she screwed up. Nobody won.

Now I was grown up. And she was grown up. And we had just stood together for the first time hating the Mets’ mortal enemy as if he was one of the neighbors we couldn’t stand. We took turns, my mother and I, destroying Whitey Herzog.

So 1985 wasn’t a total loss.

No, of course it wasn’t. It was a wonderful season. The competitive portion may have ended that night in St. Louis, but three games did remain and even at 22 I was an old hand at getting the most out of the string. You know, the one the Mets were always playing out.

Elimination came Saturday. I watched on TV as the Fan Appreciation Day crowd got the word on the scoreboard that St. Louis had clinched. Did they boo? No, they stood and they applauded. They twirled their giveaway scarves. They gave ovations to every batter who came up. They demanded curtain calls. The Mets, the burgeoning, full-of-themselves Mets who came up literally a day if not a dollar short, looked a little embarrassed yet not a little moved.

Joel and I, getting better at planning, had bought tickets in advance for the final Sunday. This, we figured, could be even bigger than the Gooden-Tudor matchup we missed out on. This could settle the division. Of course it didn’t, but it was something else.

It was chilly. It was, after all, October 6. But it was warm, too. We were playing the Expos. Hubie Brooks, the third baseman we traded to get Gary Carter ten months earlier, was Montreal’s shortstop. He had 99 RBIs. When he got his hundredth against us, making him the first shortstop since Ernie Banks in the late ’50s to do so, we all gave him a big ovation.

The Expos took a lead, but so what? We were seeing a pretty obvious B-team. Gooden would’ve started on short rest had it mattered, but it didn’t. So we got Bill Latham. It was his last game as a Met. Time would reveal that it was also the last Met appearance for the likes of Bowa, Gardenhire, Tom Paciorek, John Christensen, Ronn Reynolds and an outfielder named Billy Beane. It was the first for Randy Myers. And with two out in the ninth and the Mets down a run, Davey Johnson sent up, as a pinch-hitter, Daniel Joseph Staub, Rusty. Rusty was a hero in the field on my Graduation Day. We knew this was it for him. He said so. It was his 23rd season. His first was 1963, the first season I was alive for. Ten years after that, he played in the last World Series at Shea Stadium.

Rusty hit a sharp grounder to second. The ball was too sharp. The batter was too slow. A long career and an eternal season ended with a one-run loss.

The Mets finished 98-64, three games behind the Cardinals. That should’ve been that, but 1985 was too good to let go of so quickly.

Our attention was directed to DiamondVision where a highlight montage set to Frank Sinatra’s “Here’s to the Winners” unspooled. The whole season literally flashed before our eyes. We couldn’t help but applaud the immensity and the texture of the thing. Blue and orange balloons went up into the Queens sky. The 1985 Mets — Doc, Darryl, Mex, Kid, Wally, Lenny, Mookie, Roger, Jesse, Rusty…the whole bunch of ’em — stepped out of the dugout and on to the field to wave once more. It was a group curtain call demanded for finishing a close second.

Then they threw their caps to the fans in the nearby field box seats.

Now we could go home.

Channel 9 ran a commercial on a Saturday night in the middle of that November. I only saw it once. There was a guy on a subway platform leaning up against a post reading the News while waiting for his train. He looks up from his paper and the picture dissolves into Gary Carter hitting a home run against the Astros. We see the guy again and he’s smiling. “Thanks Mets” was the tagline.

By then, I was well into my second month of lying awake trying to figure out how the 1985 Mets didn’t win. That’s a ritual about to reach a milestone anniversary. I feel almost crass mentioning it in light of them giving me so much of everything else back then. Sure, a longer October would’ve made it even better, but honestly — how much can a baseball fan ask from the season his whole life had been leading up to?

So, yeah…thanks Mets.

Thanks forever for that season.

The year was 1985, 20 years ago.

I was 22.

Flashback Friday [2] is a weekly tour through the years, every half-decade on the half-decade, wherein a younger Mets fan develops into the Mets fan he is today. Previous stops: 1970 [3], 1975 [4], 1980 [5]. Next stop: 1990.