Welcome to Flashback Friday, a weekly feature devoted to the 20th anniversary of the 1986 World Champion New York Mets.
Twenty years, 43 Fridays. This is one of them.
Let’s kick off the proceedings with one very simple question: Was 1986 the best year ever?
That’s not a snarky VH-1 formulation. It is a sincere inquiry. Was there ever a better time to be a Mets fan than 1986?
During that summer, Newsday, presumably running out of angles related to the National League East standings, dared to consider that it wasn’t or that at least by the second half a certain tedium was setting in. I remember a story by Marty Noble bemoaning that whereas 1985 brought day after day of pennant race tension, 1986 with its double-digit leads and surfeit of certainty was kinda…boring. Future Snighcaster Ron Darling and Rafael Santana agreed, each looking back on the heated, ultimately unsuccessful hand-to-hand combat against St. Louis almost wistfully. A year later, the Cards and everybody else in the division were smote early and often. We had gotten everything we wished for, the article seemed to say. Should have we been careful?
When I read that, I nodded. Yes, first place as a way of life was and is highly aspirational, but in 1986 I was already missing 1985. As the notion that the ’86 Mets represented the pinnacle of baseball existence was hardening — even as that season was in progress — I wondered if the breath-holding we had collectively undertaken less than 12 months earlier would be overlooked for the ages. The only thing not marvy about ’85 was the Mets’ inability to win a couple of extra contests versus the Cardinals and the refusal of the Wild Card to materialize as a second-place option for another decade.
History loves a winner and occasionally dotes on a highly memorable loser. What does it do with a phenomenally well intentioned runner-up?
Forgets it a little too soon, I fear. You play, a football coach has said, to win the game. By extension, you execute a baseball season to garner titles in the division and the league and the World Series. You win 98 games, as the ’85ers did, and then go home with nothing more than goosebumps and something in your eye. Without a line in the almanac, did a year like that even happen outside of your mind?
A mind, of course, is a terrible thing to waste, so what goes on there endures forever. Perhaps 1985 wouldn’t and didn’t get its due from historians who don’t have time nor space in their nine-part documentaries for nuance, but no Mets fan who lived through it would dare forget it or skip over it. Every discussion of “what’s your favorite season?” I’ve ever come across in online Mets talk almost always gravitates to oh-so-close 1985 rather than land definitively on run-and-hide 1986. It’s almost that the year that is represented by no flag and no decal above the rightfield fence cries out for the extra attention. ’85 was no pathetic Charlie Brown Christmas tree, but there seems to be implicit agreement that it does need a little love in order to flourish for eternity. (I believe the same principle guides the general fan consensus that 1999 beat 2000 even if 2000′s results outdistanced 1999′s.)
Quite simply, there is no 1986 without 1985. Without the frustrating no, there is no pleasurable yes. There is no nearly guaranteed promise of a championship without the agonzing lunge that came up short. There is no fan base on the edge of its collective couch between October 6, 1985 and April 8, 1986 waiting until it can’t wait any longer for the next pitch to be thrown. There is no Davey Johnson obliterating the rule about providing material for the other guys’ clubhouse bulletin board. When Davey matter-of-factly insisted the Mets would not just win but dominate, that was confidence built on 98 wins from the year before and the knowledge that most of the talent that procured it was coming back even hungrier.
1985 was a magnificent year to be a Mets fan. It was necessary in terms far deeper than chronological to set up 1986 and, in its way, it was more fun than 1986.
But let’s be serious. 1986 was the best year ever.
1986 was da bomb before that expression exploded into consciousness. It was the highest of highs. What ’85 was to heavy petting, ’86 was to climaxes. Every morning that a Mets fan woke up in 1986 was the best day there ever was to wake up a Mets fan. To live in New York and to be a Metsopotamian citizen of baseball in 1986 was to hover above everything and look down and laugh because, damn it, we’re the Mets and we’re in first place by eight, ten, twelve and counting games at any given instant.
How did that feel?
It felt like President Josiah Bartlett’s explanation of ancient Rome:
Did you know that two thousand years ago a Roman citizen could walk across the face of the known world free of the fear of molestation? He could walk across the earth unharmed, cloaked only in the words ‘Civis Romanis’ I am a Roman citizen. So great was the retribution of Rome, universally understood as certain, should any harm befall even one of its citizens.
It felt like Henry Hill’s definition of being made:
It means you belong to a family and a crew. It means nobody can fuck around with you. Also, you can fuck around with anybody, as long as they aren’t also a member. It’s like a license to steal. A license to do anything.
It felt like this at the close of business, April 30, 1986:
x-New York 13-3, .813, 5 GA
Long before the Wild Card provided a potential virtual bye into the playoffs, it felt like we had one by May Day.
The tense moments that October would bring kept us honest and characteristically Metlike — damp hankies, novenas, booze…you name it — by the time it was all over. For storyline purposes, it made for better drama. Otherwise, we’d be the ’84 Tigers or the ’89 A’s, vaguely recalled as a one-year champion that was really good, but we don’t really remember you that well. The postseason that shook the Mets to their Amazin’ roots also added a dash of the lovable to what outsiders saw as huffy and haughty.
Not that we cared. Maybe we were huffy and haughty thanks to a pile of wins that reached the sky, a presumptuous if catchy World Series Shuffle video and a once-in-a-lifetime sense of entitlement bubbling up through our veins like so much RC Cola, but we knew we were the good guys. When the last glove was flung in the air, the good guys — no matter what you might have read elsewhere — won.
By the same one-dollar subway token, the conniption fits that accompanied our penultimate and ultimate competitions with Houston and Boston, respectively, skewed the truth. We were not Amazin’ for the balance of 1986. We were simply amazing. We marauded. We stomped. We swept all four games of three-game series. That’s how good we were.
That was fun, too.
The only other Mets year that can be reasonably compared to 1986 is 1969. Only one was instantly legendary to the world at large and remained so. That was 1969.
George Burns as the title character in Oh, God! claimed his last miracle was the ’69 Mets. More than a quarter-century later, Ray Barone and his sad-sack cop brother Robert — his dog was named Shamsky — drove to Cooperstown to commune with seven of their childhood heroes. “Do they know who we are?” asked Tommie Agee during that Everybody Loves Raymond episode. It was the most rhetorical of queries — the whole world knew the ’69 Mets. Some weird ham radio netherworld knew them, too, as demonstrated in the 2000 film Frequency. A modern-day fireman saved the day three decades earlier by getting in touch with his late dad in Queens who was alive sitting at home smoking too many cigarettes as the Mets were about to throw down with the Orioles…honestly, it was a pretty stupid movie, except for the ’69 Mets playing backdrop, which made it a pretty awesome movie.
The 1969 Mets may be the stuff of legend, but the 1986 Mets were better. They were greater, and not just because 108 is more than 100. Maybe their bottom line accomplishments were equal (they both won a World Series — and the ’69ers essentially rampaged through the postseason at 7-1), but I can’t discount the prevailing dominance factor. If nothing was as uplifting as the underdogs of 1969 rising up to shame Chicago, addle Atlanta and bean Baltimore, there’s nothing in Mets history that matches us playing the role of overcat and playing it to the hilt. There’s always been an element of ’69 in every good thing the Mets have accomplished, but 1986 has thus far served as precedent for feats to be named later. The only ’86 successors who whispered at that kind of success were the 1988 Mets and they morphed into the ’69 Orioles at the absolute worst time.
My very first Mets memories are of 1969, so I don’t dismiss it lightly. Hey, I don’t dismiss it at all. It was a wondrous season. It is to be cherished and held with the family jewels for as long as there is a New York Mets franchise. The 1986 bauble, however, is just that much shinier. Call it the Every Morning Factor. Every morning that we woke up in 1986, our team was the best team in baseball.
That’s the greatest feeling there is.