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.
Who should bat second, Lo Duca or Beltran? Lo Duca doesn’t strike out much, which will help Reyes steal bases. But Beltran has historically thrived more out of the two-hole than batting third, where he tends to put pressure on himself. And will Reyes learn to take more pitches batting leadoff than he did last year?
Boy, it’s gotten complicated. Twenty years ago, it was simple.
Lenny Dykstra batted first.
Wally Backman batted second.
That’s how I remember it. That’s how I think we all remember it, even if both Lenny and Wally were only part of the story at the top of the lineup. They were platoon partners, and not just to each other in the batting order. When a lefty started, Lenny and Wally sat in favor of Mookie Wilson and Tim Teufel.
Why don’t we think of Mookie and Teuf the way we think of Lenny and Wally?
You have to ask?
C’mon. Lenny and Wally were more than tablesetters. They were the between-meals snack that spoiled your dinner but you didn’t mind. They gave you frequent chances to score and just as many opportunities to annoy the opposing pitcher. It was a lot of fun to watch them. A lot.
Lenny Dykstra and Wally Backman were our way of life. Never did two men so small loom so large in the Metsopotamian consciousness. Or as Houston Astros coach Yogi Berra said in October of 1986, “It’s always some little guy who beats the hell out of you.”
They were dirty and scruffy and lovable, Lenny more than Wally where lovable was concerned, but Wally more than Lenny where the rubber met the road, at least at that stage of their development.
Leonard Kyle Dykstra and Walter Wayne Backman…doesn’t it surprise you to learn they had middle names? What for? It’s not like they stopped between first and third.
Individually, they were outstanding. Together, they were quintessential. Partners in grime they were called. The Dust Brothers. Pig Pen come to life times two (no reflection on their off-field hygiene).
If I had to guess, I would assume that each player’s on-base percentage in 1986 was about Always. In fact, it wasn’t even .999. Wally got on 34.4% of the time, Lenny 37.7%. The proto-statgeeks might have had a field day with this, letting us know that these were not optimal rates for the top of the order, that the Mets must immediately insert John Gibbons and his .545 OBP in the leadoff slot (or Randy Niemann — 2 for 6 with a walk).
Balderdash! That’s not my argument. That’s the sound Lenny and Wally made as they raced around the bases.
They were the perfect sparkplugs in the era before your lyin’ eyes were trumped by pesky numbers. Seems Tim Raines led the NL in OBP in ’86 (a shade ahead of Mex). Raines was an awesome player, but I’ll take Lenny to lead off twenty years ago. I’ll take him to find his way on and pester the poor sap who thinks keeping him close to first is doable. I’ll take him to take off and take Wally to slap the ball through the hole to right.
Hey, look! It’s first and third, nobody out, with Mex, Kid and Straw up next. No wonder we won 108 games.
Though it is sadly conventional, there is statistical proof that Lenny and Wally enjoyed something like career-to-date years in 1986, something not many of their teammates could claim (even if the franchise could). Wally, totally: batted .320, 45 points above his final lifetime average. Lenny, partially: His Phillie phuture a phar-phetched phantasy, he burst out of his rookie season and into his first full year by raising his average 41 points. Pressed into full-time duty after Mookie had that scary spring incident when his sunglasses shattered, Lenny batted .327 in that 13-3 April. Talk about leading off effectively.
They were our dirty little secrets for a while. Not everyday players, not picked as All-Stars (stupid Whitey), we grew to know them and love them in the way fans do when things are going well. We knew Wally was from Oregon, a place whose immense distance from everywhere became one of those cute little facts when he flew back from the break just in time to catalyze a rout of the Astros in Houston. His main concern? Not that he nearly missed the chance to post 5 RBI but that “I missed all the card games. I missed dominoes.” We knew Lenny had an odd effect on women, at least one of whom donned a wedding gown and followed him around ballparks hoisting a sign urging him to MARRY ME LENNY.
When you’ve got a team winning like the Mets were, almost everything about them becomes public domain. During the postseason, Newsday ran a profile of the lady who actually had MARRIED LENNY. The one who wed Wally, too. “Married to the Mets,” it was called, and it contained this priceless exchange between Terri Dykstra and Margie Backman:
TERRI: Wally and Lenny are so spoiled.
MARGIE: That’s true. Wally can’t do anything. Wally has to have his clothes laid out for him, you have to take off his shoes for him.
TERRI: You take off his shoes?
MARGIE: Well, I don’t expect him to take off his shoes after a game. He’s so exhausted. He comes home and heads straight for the couch and he wants food and he doesn’t want to move.
TERRI: Well, I take off Lenny’s shoes. I feed him, take his shoes and socks off, and when it’s time to go to bed, I pull him off the couch. People are going to think we’re crazy.
To the contrary. Who wouldn’t have wanted to aid and comfort our one- and two-batters by then? They were carrying us on their diminutive backs to the Promised Land.
• Together, they teamed to chase Nolan Ryan to the showers in Game Two of the NLCS, scoring three of the five runs that beat him. Lenny, in particular, showed what the Mets were made of by hitting the deck after a Ryan fastball whizzed by him and hitting the heck out of Nolan’s next delivery. Take that, Mr. No-Hitter!
• It was Wally who set the stage for one of the great ninth innings in Mets history, drag bunting his way on past hapless Dave Smith with the Mets down one in Game Three and it was Lenny who chewed up the scenery with his game-winning walkoff homer. Actually, it was more of a hugoff. Said Keith Hernandez at the time, “It was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.”
• Wally was the catalyst to another all-time memorable inning, the twelfth in Game Five, smashing a single off the glove of Denny Walling and coaxed an errant pickoff throw off of proto-Rocker Charlie Kerfeld. Wally was now on second, implicitly sending Keith to first on an intentional walk (nice managing, Lanier), giving Gary Carter the chance to take a bow. Wally crossed the plate with the winning run, just as he technically tied things up three afternoons earlier.
• Game Six? You mean the first Game Six? No Lenny or Wally in the starting lineup, yet they combined to go 3-for-6 with two runs scored and two runs batted in. So you see, Dykstra (who woke up the Mets with a leadoff, pinch-triple in the ninth) and Backman (who scored the seventh Mets run of the afternoon/evening, the eventual difference by the bottom of the 16th) didn’t just open games. They knew how to close them.
The World Series was another showcase for the little guys. Dykstra went deep twice at Fenway while Backman batted .333. We became champions because they were champions. It wasn’t odd at all that they wound up on the field for the final out even if it was Mookie and Teufel who played in the front end of Game. Lenny and Wally had our backs. They always did.
Their post-Mets careers and after-playing lives haven’t always been smooth rides. Not quite Darryl/Doc difficulties, but dust continues to cling to them, more to Wally than to Lenny. Backman was manager of the Diamondbacks for five minutes before a murky past came to light and his dream job was deleted from his under decidedly tired feet. Lenny? He’s been mentioned in the context of gambling, of steroids, of quitting (a job as a minor league instructor with the Reds), but he remains an imp in collective perception and has been nostalgically embraced by Mets ownership. Wally moves under a cloud. The guy has paid his dues and copped to the part of his past that isn’t as flattering as 1986, but he hasn’t been embraced by the organization he helped make famous.
I hope that’s not the case for much longer. I can still see Lenny and Wally exactly as they appeared twenty years ago.
They were huge.
• Do you know who’s throwing out the first ball on Opening Day? Jesse Orosco. Catching it? Gary Carter. Now THAT’S the way to kick off an anniversary season.
• Will get into it a little more on another Friday, but picked up my ’86 DVD set the night it came out. If you didn’t do the same, run along and get yours right now. The bonus disk alone is worth the price of admission, yet there are eight others to watch as well. Go ahead — I mean it. I’ll wait here ’til you get back…