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Live To Tell

Welcome to Flashback Friday [1], 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.

Maybe DiamondVision was right. Maybe when it infamously and prematurely congratulated the Boston Red Sox on winning the 1986 World Series, it didn’t jump the gun. Maybe that big screen had Omnivision — or at least could see into the future.

History, we’ve been told, is written by the winners. But too often in the retelling of the cataclysmic events of late October 1986, the winners are reduced to lucky-bastard bystanders. The real story of that fall classic has been portrayed time and again as a tale emblematic not of joy, but woe; not of achievement but disaster; not of winners, but losers.

Congratulations 1986 Boston Red Sox. The biggest loser seems to have received the lion’s share of the lines in history’s script.

I thought it was behind us after 2004. I thought once Doug Mientkiewicz clutched the final out of that World Series that we could finally let go of the myth that rose up years after 1986 (even if Minky could never let go of the actual final out). I thought the first Red Sox’ world championship in 86 years would diminish if not completely erase the failure to secure the first Red Sox’ world championship in 68 years.

But myths die hard, especially if they have caretakers keeping them on life support.

A couple of nights ago, my blog partner and I were invited to a screening of a new film called Game 6 [2]. A period piece set in New York in the autumn of 1986, it could only be about two things: the Mets vs. Houston or the Mets vs. Boston.

Surprise, surprise, it’s not about the Mets vs. Houston. Movies don’t get made about the NLCS apparently. Movies don’t get made about the Mets either, at least not about the Mets in their absolute greatest moment of triumph.

It’s about the Red Sox. Or a Red Sox fan, one who lives in New York on October 25, 1986. We are meant to feel his pain, for it is the Red Sox who represent…

Ah, crap, you don’t even need to see the movie — trust me, you don’t — to know where this is going. All literary men are Red Sox fans, said John Cheever (whoever he played for). All metaphors and perhaps half the similes are Red Socked as well. Oh, the Cubs stand for a different strain of disappointment and the Yankees get their props from lazy writers who need an overbearing symbol now and then, and the Dodgers did leave Brooklyn, sniff, sniff, but honestly, what would baseball be without the Boston Red Sox?

It’s like it would just be a game or something. And that’s hardly good enough. It wasn’t good enough for Ken Burns, the prime villain, by my reckoning, in the twisting of 1986 from a parable of perseverance, faith and miracle to one of haunted houses and black nights and did somebody say curses?

Ken Burns’ Baseball, presented in nine parts or “innings,” was magnificent in many respects. It was beautifully and thoughtfully produced. It bled for its game, and its timing, appearing as it did on PBS’ air in September of 1994, was a stanch of stanches for the deepening wound that was that year’s strike. It introduced the world at large to Buck O’Neil. It unearthed the full version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”. It made Billy Crystal surprisingly tolerable.

But it choked big-time in the bottom of its own ninth.

The 1986 Mets were the most captivating team [3] since at least the Reggie Jackson Yankees. No club that excelled in the 1980s or early 1990s — not the Phillies (Burns went 18+ hours and never mentioned Mike Schmidt) or the Tigers or the A’s or the Jays could match the charisma or the climb or the climax of those Mets. Within the context of their times, they were every bit the historic touchstone that the Gashouse Gang or the Boys of Summer were. And Ken Burns gave them no love. None.

The mid-1980s Mets existed in Burns’ world for one thing: to benefit from the skewed karma of Boston. It was the Red Sox’ dratted fortunes rearing their ugly head yet again that was the story of October 1986. Some stupid team from New York just happened to be the recipient of somebody else’s fallout. They never should’ve sold Ruth. They should’ve given Jackie Robinson a legitimate tryout. Woe art the Sox! Bill Buckner was of course the logical conclusion of all that.

Who won again?

In the eight years prior to 1994, the story of 1986 was told as at least a twofold tale. Sure the Red Sox were screwed, but look who screwed them. Look at those guys who never gave up. Look at what a team like that does when its back is so close to the wall that its uniform numbers are obscured by blue paint. The Red Sox lost that World Series because the Mets beat them. The Mets won that World Series.

Except at Ken Burns’ hand. A Red Sox fan himself (don’t suppose that had anything to do with the skewing and screwing), Burns dropped the notion that there was an effective antagonist in his version of the drama, and never mind that he recast the Red Sox as the protagonist. All this would be a matter of a public broadcasting documentary and “so what?” except the tide turned from 1994 forward. The achievement of the 1986 Mets was sapped because, you know, the Red Sox blew it.

That’s not how it happened. The 1986 Mets were tremendous from first pitch to last. They didn’t just happen to be in the right place at the right time. They were not bit players in somebody else’s psychobabble. The bottom of the tenth (of the sixth game of the World Series, that is) required two to tango. That one dancer tripped over his feet is the way it goes sometimes.

Flash forward to 2002. Major League Baseball and MasterCard are asking fans to vote on the Ten Most memorable Moments in baseball ever. The ballot included thirty choices. One of them was this:

The New York Mets come back from a 3-2 series deficit to win Game 6 and Game 7 against the Boston Red Sox and clinch the World Series.

Yeah, that pretty much describes why it was so memorable.

Of course the moment boiled down in the public consciousness to “Buckner,” but MLB couldn’t accentuate the negative. To describe it properly would take a little honesty and depth.

Down to their last strike, the New York Mets stage a breathtaking two-out, three-hit rally, three-run rally, aided by a wild pitch and an error, and surge past the Boston Red Sox in the bottom of the tenth inning to win the sixth game of the 1986 World Series, 6-5, and force a seventh game.

But by 2002, the Mets hadn’t done that. They were handed the win. Ken Burns told everybody that and the canard had been repeated endlessly for eight years. No wonder the most memorable moment in baseball history, certainly of this generation, did not make the Top Ten.

Anybody remember what did? No. 10 was Nolan Ryan’s seventh no-hitter. Sure it was. Who doesn’t remember where they were when Ryan beat…uh, who?…on…when?

I’ll skip the rest of the list because it’s mostly insulting [4], as much for what it includes for what it excludes (The Giants Win The Pennant! The Giants Win…Hello? Hello? Anyone home?) But No. 9 bears scrutiny in our conversation:

Kirk Gibson’s pinch-hit homer off Oakland’s Dennis Eckersley with two outs in the bottom of the ninth gives Los Angeles a 5-4 win in Game 1 of the World Series.

Helluva shot. Quite a piece of video. No mean accomplishment. It put the Dodgers up one game to none. After that, the Oakland A’s had no more than six chances to win the Series.

How on EARTH does that make a list like this and Game Six doesn’t? Could it because one was mythologized as a victory and the other as a defeat? And who ramped up the mythologizing?

Ken Burns. Ken Burns, who couldn’t give the 1986 Mets their due, lavished pixie dust all over Kirk Gibson’s gimpy home run. The Dodgers won that game. Dennis Eckersley and the A’s didn’t lose it even though it was one of the more notable blows in the history of relief pitching as practiced by elite closers. The companion book to Baseball has a nice section on Kirk Gibson’s home run. It has next to nothing on the ’86 Mets.

I’m not suggesting a documentary filmmaker singularly sets the agenda for the popular imagination, but I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that, after 1994, Gibson’s historical stock shot up and the ’86 Mets’ faded. There were a lot of budding segment producers watching that September when there was no other baseball. The storylines began to set in stone. It can’t be a coincidence. When the Red Sox began to come close and not win again a few years later, the Buckner thing became their thing whether they wanted it or not. Remember how the Red Sox lost that World Series in 1986? Say, who’d they play anyway?

When that blessed night in 2004 came along to end the Red Sox’ championship drought, I celebrated for any number of reasons (empathetic, humanitarian, Yankees Suck), but primarily because I figured it meant we’d get 1986 back. The Red Sox solipists wouldn’t need it anymore. No matter what befell Boston in some future postseason, Buckner could no longer be the default reference. The Red Sox didn’t deserve that and 1986 didn’t deserve that. Two for the price of one: A championship for them, no more misguided footnote status — *World Series won by Mets — for us.

Then along comes Game 6, the movie.

This is what they call a small movie. A real small movie. Alex Rodriguez gets paid in a week of repelling people what it cost to make this film. Blink, I imagine, and you’ll miss it.

Blink. Miss it. You’ll be glad you did.

Nobody asked this movie to come along now. One senses it didn’t get greenlighted until the Sox became big news to those who don’t follow baseball all that closely. So among its other sins, it’s late.

I wouldn’t blame you if you were tempted to see it. When they make a movie that is nominally about one of the greatest moments of your life, you can’t help but anticipate it. Help yourself, though. It’s not about Game Six of the 1986 World Series, it’s surely not about the Mets and it’s barely about anything. But it does take place on the day the sixth game took place. I’d call that a plot device, but you’d probably need a plot for that assessment to be fully accurate.

The main character is a Red Sox fan living in New York. That’s pretty much all you need to know about where this thing attempts to lurch. The Red Sox fan is tortured because the Red Sox never win, et al, and you can pretty much figure out the rest. What irritated me beyond what would ordinarily inflame my standard limited-perspective bias (How could they remake King Kong and NOT show him breaking that window across the street from Wrigley?) was how Mets fans were portrayed as furniture. The Red Sox fan gets to ramble all over Manhattan muttering about the fates and destiny and Johnny Pesky while Mets fans are reduced to a leaden Greek chorus.

There’s one scene early in which some kitchen workers on a break in a restaurant are discussing the upcoming game (mispronouncing that night’s starter as O-Hey-da, but that was always iffy) and getting pumped up on behalf of the local team when the Red Sox fan interrupts. “I hate the Mets,” he says. A rant follows about how they don’t know how to lose, how it leaves him flat, that they’re not the Red Sox with their torturous ways. The kitchen workers’ response? They just stare at this man who obviously has so much more soul than they do as if he has given them so much to think about.

That’s not any group of Mets fans I could imagine, not in 1986, not in 2006, not at any time in the history of the franchise. Game 6 may have had a minuscule budget, but it doesn’t cost any extra to portray a type accurately. The Mets fan as mute spectator to a Red Sox angstfest? I give you the immortal Leonard Koppett [5] on the Mets fan:

An orgiastic mixture of defiance and futility.

That’s who we’ve been since the Polo Grounds, that’s who we were even when we were kings. If ya can’t get that right in your pretentious, warmed-over, Church of Baseball [6], Red Sox are fascinating, opponents are incidental botching of fact and feel, then how dare you use our Greatest Moment for your 87 minutes of nothingness?

Cherish Game Six, but avoid Game 6. Save your money for the 1986 DVD [7] due out in a few weeks. Watch most of Ken Burns again. Or just rent Fever Pitch. Jimmy Fallon’s wavering New England accent and Drew Barrymore’s romantic comedy bullspit notwithstanding, it’s kind of good.

There’s a great Buckner scene in there.