This is the exciting conclusion of 1990. Part I appears in a previous post.
We hung and we clung and still had a shot at the top rung as August wound down. The Mets went out and got the damn Tommy Herr for the stretch drive. A catcher named Charlie O’Brien, too (Mackey Sasser hadn’t been the same since absorbing a hard slide from Jim Presley in Atlanta). For September, the Mets recalled a hot pitching prospect named Julio Valera. Buddy immediately placed him in the rotation, taking Ron Darling’s spot. Ron Darling threw some big games for us in the ’80s, but this was a new day. The callup won his first start.
The era of the Julio Valera Mets had begun. At the moment it happened, it seemed like a good thing.
This was my first pennant race with Stephanie. Slowly she was drawn into my baseball rhythms and found out what it meant to live with all that pressure. We moved into first place on Labor Day, but the next night, the Mets went down 1-0 in St. Louis. So much for being in first place after Labor Day. When that game ended, I made a horrible noise in the living room that brought her rushing in from the bedroom.
“What’s the matter?”
“Lee Smith struck out HoJo. We lost. DAMN!”
Stephanie got used to my noises.
This was also my first pennant race without my mother, at least in the modern era. She was gone but my dad was still in Long Beach. Just because the three of us couldn’t watch games together anymore didn’t mean the two of us couldn’t.
Or so I thought. Still popping Indocin in early September, I drove over to his house to watch a crucial showdown between the Mets and the Pirates. When the season began, I would’ve called it my house and I wouldn’t have felt so strange watching this game. Mom and Dad and I watched all the big ones together in ’85 and ’86 and ’87 and ’88 and what few big ones there were to watch in ’89.
In ’90, I needn’t have bothered. When my mother died, so did my dad’s interest in baseball, practically all at once. He barely looked up from his Wall Street Journal or at the game from Pittsburgh. I didn’t go over to his house for baseball after that. He sold it the following May.
I got used to Dad’s obliviousness. And my mom’s absence, though the fact that she was missing a pennant race bugged me. I found myself one morning before work dropping off a video at Blockbuster. My mind was on the Mets, per usual, and it wandered to John Franco, the new closer. Mom would’ve recognized him as the guy who was always getting us out when he was with the Reds. She didn’t much care for him then. Neither did I. I still didn’t have much use for his suddenly erratic ways (while Randy Myers became a Nasty Boy for first-place Cincinnati), but there was something about him I couldn’t help but root for. Probably that he was from Brooklyn, like my mother. Sitting in that parking lot, I was struck by one thought: Mom would’ve liked John Franco on the Mets.
I cried for a minute and then drove off to the beverage magazine.
The Mets played just well enough to stick near the Pirates so that they still had a reasonable chance when Pittsburgh came to Shea in mid-September for two must-games. This was this year’s version of the Mets-Cardinal showdowns with St. Louis in ’85 and ’87. Actually, since those didn’t go so well, I hoped they were something better.
They were. For a pair of nights in the middle of September, Shea was bursting at the seams and delirious. So was David Cone. He was far-removed from his blunder in Atlanta our first night in the apartment. This was September, and David Cone was a September pitcher. He struck out Andy Van Slyke to end the first and bullrushed the home dugout. He high-fived everybody in sight. In the bottom of the inning, Magadan (.328, best Met average since Cleon Jones; knowing that won me a Mets Extra trivia quiz) doubled home Jefferies and Keith Miller. Two runs were all our nutjob with the Laredo motion needed. David Cone pitched a three-hit complete game with eight strikeouts. Mets won 2-1 and closed in on the Pirates.
The next night, I didn’t get home in time to watch from the beginning. So it was in my 1981 burnt orange Toyota Corolla, barreling west on Atlantic Avenue in Freeport, that Gary Cohen let me know Darryl Strawberry had sent one soaring off Doug Drabek and over the right field fence. Outta here! Three-run homer! Two-zip deficit now a 3-2 lead in the fourth. Bedlam filled my tinny speakers. I honked my horn and high-fived my steering wheel the way Cone had slapped his teammates’ hands the night before. (All at once, my wrist felt fine.)
It was confirmation, as if we needed any, that Darryl was worth the Jose Canseco-type money he’d been demanding all summer, that Frank Cashen would look quite the fool to let a 28-year-old, left-handed slugger (37 HRs, 108 RBIs) who runs well, drips charisma and comes through in games like this take a free-agent hike.
The Mets added another run and handed Doc Gooden a 4-2 lead. He wasn’t as dominant as Cone, but Gooden was — as every other back-page headline since 1984 had blared — good enough. In the eighth, Doc gave way to Franco who didn’t blow it. Mets won 6-3. We were now 1-1/2 back with 19 to play, including those three to finish the season in Pittsburgh. It’s the Pirates who would be chasing us by then.
Didn’t happen. Doc kept up his part of the bargain. He wound up 19-7, perhaps his bravest year. But Buddy couldn’t manage. Viola unraveled down the stretch and Franco was no help. Junior Noboa of the Expos reached him for a deadly RBI one night. Junior Noboa! Everybody stopped hitting. The Expos in particular killed us. We lost a doubleheader to them when their starting pitchers were Brian Barnes and Chris Nabholz. Brian Barnes! Chris Nabholz! Darryl claimed a bad back. McReynolds, growing more lifeless and joyless by the day, was also hurting. One night late in the race, the starting leftfielder was Keith Miller and the starting rightfielder was Pat Tabler, the bases-loaded but little else guy. They weren’t the answer. Julio Valera wasn’t the answer. Nor was Tommy Herr who never stopped being a Cardinal.
Charlie O’Brien was just one of many to not man his position satisfactorily. The Mets went through seven catchers in 1990. Merrrrcado was mellifluous but otherwise unmemorable. Mackey got more and more confused, the mound as far away as Alabama in his mind. Dave Liddell got one at-bat, one hit and disappeared, though not as mysteriously as Barry Lyons. He was thrown overboard late in the Johnson administration and was never heard from again. Randy Hundley’s son Todd had a cup of coffee before being shipped back to Jackson. Alex Treviño alighted briefly without warning or impact like a mirage from the early ’80s. Ron Hodges didn’t but probably could have. The Mets never did get around to replacing Gary Carter that year.
There were no easy answers, except perhaps that I had to change the way I rooted. Despite the Mets’ perennial contention and my previously unshakable confidence, we were still chasing the Pirates. I had been cocky as recently as 1988 when I was sure the Mets would beat Orel Hershiser and the Dodgers in the playoffs. That sense of Mets-in-first Destiny had turned shaky ever since. By September ’90 — after Noboa, after Barnes, after Nabholz, amidst Valera — my default position shifted, at last, from chest-beating bravado to karma-tending humility. The baseball gods became my prime constituency. Appeasing them would become my daily burden.
Perhaps this change of sensibility was working. They were giving me a break. Despite their foibles, the Mets were somehow still breathing with a week to go. They were four out with four to play, the last three scheduled for Pittsburgh. If they could win their final Sunday game at Shea (the season ended in mid-week because everything was pushed back by that spring lockout) and the Pirates lost, the Mets could still win three in a row and force a playoff. It wasn’t much, but it was hope.
Beverage obligations being what they were, I would have to find out second-hand. I was due in San Francisco for a meeting of beer wholesalers. I left Stephanie instructions to follow the action and have a score ready for me when I landed.
As soon as my captain turned off the fasten seatbelt sign, I hustled off the plane, marched to a pay phone and called my fiancée. Stephanie, who via my yelps of victory and groans of defeat, had been truly indoctrinated into the franchise in earnest, had her report ready.
And even if they hadn’t, the Pirates of Bonds and Bonilla (I wondered if we could ever get one of them) won. They were the division champs. We finished 91-71, four games out, second place. Fifth time in seven years we were the runner-up.
Unlike the Mets, Stephanie came through like a champ at the end of September. Not only did she track the score for me, but she taped “Mets Extra” for me if I wanted that, too. As Chuck (a.k.a. Carlos) said many times on her behalf, “¡Que mujer!”.
Losing to the Pirates hurt, but there was always 1991. The Mets were good every year, right? Besides, it was life-affirming to have someone to share the ups and downs and everything else with day after night after day. I couldn’t say that before 1990, but now I could.
Maybe it was good karma that got me into the lobby of that hotel with the two names in 1987. Maybe it was just dumb luck. Whatever it was, I gladly took it and ran with it. I’d have preferred a woman I loved who loved me coming along in conjunction with a first-place finish, but one miracle at a time.
To console me over not winning the East, Stephanie bought me a trinket, a tiny windup baseball with feet and a Mets cap. Wind him up and he walked deliberately, not unlike Dave Magadan. As consolation prizes go, it was very sweet. Unfortunately, she was also the bearer of more bad Mets news. One Friday morning in November, she awoke me with a bulletin: Darryl Strawberry, our biggest boy of summer, was going west. He had signed with the Dodgers.
Without a word, I trudged out into the foyer of our apartment, wound up my toy and allowed it to walk off the edge of its flat surface and onto the floor. Then I went back to bed to sulk.
Stephanie didn’t think that was silly at all.
The year was 1990, 15 years ago.
I was 27.
Flashback Friday 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, 1975, 1980, 1985. Next stop: 1995.