Kids from 1 to 92 who are Astros fans or White Sox fans are going to remember 2005 as long as they live depending on what happens tonight through sometime next week. They will look back on 2005 and grow tingly at the mere mention of the year. It will be a four-digit code for eternal elation.
How can it not be? It will be the first world championship any of them remember. If the AsSox repeat, there will be a lot of Houcagoans who will say, “this time it’s even sweeter,” but it won’t be. There’s nothing that can compare with the first overpriced, ill-fitting, thin cotton t-shirt that you break your neck to be among the first to overpay for because that top confirms that your team is tops once and for all, but most importantly, once.
The rest of us, praise the lord, haven’t waited as long as the Pale Stros for that sensation. In our tribe, depending on one’s vintage, we have one to two World Series to remember. 1969 and 1986 were spread far enough apart to make the second one feel as fresh as the first one. I imagine if you’re a Tigers fan old enough to remember 1968, then 1984 was pretty close to being on the same level. Ditto for the Pirates fan who went from ’60 to ’71 to ’79. Their teams were away from the ultimate prize long enough so that when it came back around again, it was just as ultimate.
My rule of thumb is five years. Two championships within so short a span means you’ve been blessed beyond reason. One championship means you should mostly not whine about anything for a half-decade even though you will (you’re a fan). Once five years has gone by, it’s a different story. On the night the Twins and Braves faced off in their scintillating Game 7, 10/27/91, I was keenly aware that it was the fifth anniversary of our scintillating Game 7 against the Red Sox. At that moment, I knew it had gone from just happened to long ago. Too long ago.
I doubt Yankees fans appreciate anything, but how on earth could have their 1999 World Series victory have meant more than bookkeeping to them? They had ’96, the first ring (baby) in 18 years. OK, that October would figure to be a big moment of redemption for all those long-suffering Yankees fans who had lived and died with their team since that September. Then they got ’98, which was total gluttony, but if forced to, I could make the case that that was a historic season, what with the 125 wins in 175 games, several of which came after everybody else in the world stopped counting them as one unit. But they’re the Yankees, so they’re entitled. (Excuse me…barf.)
But ’99? Ho-hum, we’re the team of the century. What was the rallying cry that year? Win One for Bob Costas? Let’s Validate Roger Clemens’ Weaseling His Way Out of Toronto? Chad Curtis is a Tool and is Therefore a True Yankee? No, that’s one ring (baby) too many. The only thing gaucher than three world championships in four years is four in five.
Anyway, I’ve never lived a Mets season that wouldn’t have been enhanced by a billowy white banner shimmying up the Shea flagpole. Imagine 44 of those bad boys fluttering in the Flushing breeze. LaGuardia-bound pilots would circle the stadium just so everybody on board could get a better look.
But life doesn’t work that way and as a result we’re at two and holding. It’s not a dreadful deal. Though my memories of ’69 are scant to scattered, ’86 still feels tangible like I can reach back and grab it. Should we all go to our respective rewards (and I don’t mean a third-place finish) without ever experiencing another one, that would be nearly tragic, but at least those of us who were around for that one would have that one.
My ever-thoughtful brother-in-law gave me as a Chanukah gift in 1985 a small plaque that acknowledged the Mets were World Champions 1969. When Joel saw it, he shook his head. “1969…y’know, that was a long time ago.” It seemed even longer after ’84 and ’85 drew us close and closer to the another rendezvous with destiny. That’s a forgotten reason that just winning the division in ’86 was a megadeal.
If you should ever come across Channel 9 video of that night against the Cubs, forget the impending stampede by the fans and listen to Steve Zabriskie. Despite phumphering his call (“The dream season…isn’t over…”), he makes a big point about how big this is in light of ’84 and ’85. Whitey Herzog said something typically gracious in ’86 to the effect of “they think they won it the last two years anyway,” but we hadn’t won anything. Slaying the near-miss ghosts was not an inconsiderable feat.
Then of course came the Astros and the Red Sox and you know the rest up through Marty Barrett’s swing and a miss (swing and a miss!). After that, we were set. I didn’t realize it in 1987 because I was so used to wanting to win every single day and every single year, but we got what we needed. We had something to grip ahold of then (10/27/86) and forever. As for the interval in between, 1986 would have to do just as plaques honoring 1969 got me from then to ’86.
As this year’s post-season approached, my man Metstradamus soothsayed which teams would be most and least palatable  to root for. The Angels, he said, looked pretty reasonable except they were managed by Mike Scioscia and he could never, ever forgive Mike Scioscia.
I have to admit that in my entire October 2002 ride aboard the Anaheim express it never occurred to me to hold the events of October 9, 1988 against the man most responsible for executing them, and until Metstradamus brought him up, I hadn’t made the connection at any point this year. Yes, Scioscia pulled the trigger, but when I think of that excruciating Game 4, I blame Lasorda (for yelling at Jesse Orosco and generally being his usual phony self), I blame Gibson (for stealing the MVP from Darryl; never mind that the playoffs had nothing to do with that), I blame Hershiser (though I granted him a dispensation in 1999), I blame Davey for not having Myers in the game, I blame Doc for not getting Scioscia out, I blame Teufel for not getting Carter home from third (he tripled, for cryin’ out loud) with nobody out in the sixth, I blame Doc again for hitting into a DP with one out in that same inning (our bad-kneed catcher tripled!) and I blame McReynolds for popping up against Hershiser with the game on the line when Hershiser should’ve been too tired to get him out.
Am I blocking something out here? Is this another 1973-Oakland repressed memory for which I shall require extensive therapy ? Nah, I don’t think so. Yes, it sucked and continues to suck that we didn’t win the pennant in 1988. I don’t agree that that ninth-inning home run by the Dodger catcher turned around the fortunes of the organization as has been suggested by some (we were in the race in ’89 and ’90), but it was a bummer of humongous proportions. We were a better team than Los Angeles until we weren’t — to say you’re better, you better go out and beat those over whom you claim supremacy — and it was all there for the taking. If Oakland got clobbered by those Dodgers in five, can you imagine we couldn’t have taken them in four?
In all the legend and lore that surrounds our triumphs and even our sympathetic misfires, does anybody ever bring up 1988? They don’t. Too bad. It was a very good year.
• We had the best record, 100-60, in the National League for only the third time in our existence.
• We had our second-best winning percentage ever, with two rainouts assuring ’88 an .008 advantage over ’69.
• We won our fourth division title in twenty years, making our pace once every five years which means we technically were winning more than our share in a six-team division. (And, oh yeah, it’s still our most recent division title.)
• We set the NYC record for attendance that year and that was when they counted turnstiles, not tickets sold. If they counted the latter, we would’ve been hundreds of thousands past 3 million, according to reliable contemporary sources.
• We had a 30-11 start and a 29-8 finish. That’s roughly half the season played at a 123-win pace (out of 162 games, not 175).
• We finished 15 games ahead of the youthful and talented Pirates, knocking them off stride in every showdown series we had with them. They’d get close but they’d never get close enough.
Our record was shy of ’86’s, but what was quietly impressive was how so many new players emerged and excelled.
• A pitcher who was barely known when the season started went 20-3.
• A rookie shortstop established himself as an everyday constant.
• A phenom infielder showed up almost unannounced and electrified the league for five weeks.
• A leftfielder advanced from being a nice player to one of the best around.
• A promising closer fulfilled his potential.
• A backup corner guy proved no Met was irreplaceable when he took over for the injured stalwart first baseman.
David Cone, Kevin Elster, Gregg Jefferies, Kevin McReynolds, Randy Myers and Dave Magadan each had, in one form or another, a breakthrough season in 1988. None of them was a major contributor in ’86. The Mets were suddenly seamless. After we won two years earlier, I remember Davey Johnson saying that as good as this year has been, the year I’m looking forward to is ’88. We were that capable of replenishing ourselves and it showed. Combine that with Darryl Strawberry truly coming of age as an offensive force, high-teen win totals for Doc and Darling, a bushel of shutouts for pre-hedges Ojeda and Mookie’s September spurt and it was a year to remember.
So why isn’t it remembered all that much? Why, besides the obvious matter of losing the NLCS, isn’t 1988 spoken of in terms remotely as reverential as the other years commemorated above the rightfield wall? For a team that’s only made the post-season six times, we seem collectively cavalier about writing off one-sixth of them.
I have a theory. While the Mets were very good to great in 1988, the season was atypical. There was a certain soullessness to the whole thing and not a little bitchiness. In the middle of that great start and fantastic finish was a dreary middle. The Mets were 41-41 when they weren’t 59-19. Great starts make for great cushions but I recall a great deal of communal kvetching over a lack of hitting — every other night was a Strawberry moonshot and/or a shutout; if it was “or,” we lost — and our inability to definitively shake off Pittsburgh until September. We never fell out of first but the mere idea that we hadn’t clinched in August wore on everybody. This was the first full season of WFAN so there was round-the-clock riling up from Opening Day on. And the 3 million-plus who passed through the gates weren’t there for a love-in. After the Mets put away the Expos at Shea when Montreal was briefly a threat, Howard Johnson actually said something to the effect of “that should shut the animals up for a while.”
If none of this sounds Metlike, it wasn’t. In fact, the more I think about it, it was Yankeelike and thus the rub of 1988. Expectations had soared since ’86. 1987 was viewed as a fluke, winning only 92 games instead of our usual 108. 1986 was viewed as the norm. Hell, we’re the Mets. We’re supposed to win every year. It was a heady time to be a Met fan, maybe too heady. Perhaps Pendleton in ’87 and Scioscia in ’88 were the gods’ way of putting us in our place or, I’d like to believe, doing us a favor in helping us comprehend just how rare and beautiful a world championship is supposed to be. If it took settling for one per generation, then one it would have to be and one that would have to be cherished.
Carter on third, nobody out and they didn’t bring him home. Ah, fudge.