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Manic Monday

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.

Has there ever been a more eventful first week of a Mets season than 2006? The first week isn’t even over yet and we’ve already seen…

• A bang-bang play that decided the Opener called incorrectly in our favor

• A game-ending play that sealed the Opener called incorrectly in our favor

• A new rightfielder set a team record for most hits at the start of a Met career

• A rookie righthander flirt with a no-hitter

• A game get away from the new high-priced closer two days after he closed successfully

• A dust-up arise from the music the closer enters games to

• A dust-up arise from Mets pitchers dusting Nationals hitters

• A pair of fantastic plays from the great-gloved second baseman.

• A whole lot of nothing from the hapless-hitting second baseman.

• A couple of no-doubt dingers from the imported first baseman.

• A stream of ill-mannered boos for the centerfielder.

• A vengeful sit from the centerfielder who refused a curtain call for his home run

• A veteran of veterans pushing the centerfielder to bow

• A hyped third baseman living up to his pub

• A speedy shortstop reminding us why he was hyped

• A return to apparent health by the ace

• A brand new network, for better or worse

• A brand new ballpark, for better, most likely

And there’s 159 more games of this? Wow!

The start to the 1986 season wasn’t quite like 2006. The Mets won a game in Pittsburgh and then were postponed by weather. Then they went to Philly and won. Then they lost (ugly). Then they lost again. The Mets returned home 2-2.

The second week of the 1986 season then proceeded to be at least a little like 2006. There was hype, there was setback, there was controversy, there was overreaction. The resulting mishegas wasn’t as sprawling as this week’s has been (unless Jesse Orosco was nailed for stealing “Jesse’s Girl” from Dave Righetti), but it was tangible.

And it all boiled down to one game, the Home Opener on Monday, April 14 against the Cardinals.

You can understand how that would be big. Home Opener, sure. But the Cardinals magnified it. You’ll remember the Cardinals from such films as If We’re Pond Scum, What Are They?; I Don’t Know What I Ever Saw In Herr…Or Herzog; and Beat Me In St. Louis. The 1985 season didn’t technically die at Busch Stadium but it was memorably and irrevocably kicked into a casket there that October 3.

That was all history by April 14. It was too recent to be ancient, but we figured it was time to render it irrelevant. Yes, the Cardinals would be our fierce rivals again. All their evildoers — Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, Tommie Herr, Jack Clark, Ozzie Smith, John Tudor, Danny Cox, Ken Dayley, Todd Worrell — were back for another session of torture. Only Mike Heath, catching, was new to the starting lineup and given his Yankee pedigree I could find something to hate in him, too. The White Rat was back with his lineup card and the whammy he seemed to hold over Davey Johnson. Ricky Horton was back and more prominent than ever. Ricky Horton was a lefty relief pitcher who grew up a Mets fan and grew into a Mets killer. He started three games in 1985, but Whitey gave him the ball on April 14 just because his rep was for giving us fits. Horton faced 16 Mets down the stretch in ’85 from out of the pen and gave up but 3 walks (one intentional), 1 hit, 1 hit-by-pitch, 1 inherited runner scored, 0 earned runs. Now he was starting. What a rodenty move.

We started Dwight Gooden. Gooden vs. Horton. It shouldn’t have been a fair fight. But it was. (Curse you, fairness.)

To insinuate myself into this showdown, this was the first year I was home in New York for the beginning of a baseball season since I had been in high school. I was still kind of floating around without enough to do as a freelance writer, which is significant to our story because, 1) I was technically available to watch the game; and 2) I wasn’t as available as I liked because as a freelance writer just starting out in 1985, I realized I owed the government a few bucks.

Yes, it was April 14. That meant in addition to trying to focus on the Mets and the Cardinals, I’d be attempting to take care of the needs of the Internal Revenue Service (and their pals in Albany).

Any responsible person would have gotten started way sooner than the day before taxes were due. Count me out, then. To this day, I have an allergy to taking care of pressing matters in anything beyond a barely timely fashion, particularly if faceless bureaucrats are going to shake me down. So Monday, April 14, the day before April 15, would see me racing all around Nassau County to libraries, post offices and government buildings searching for the right forms to account for a self-employed (underemployed, really) practitioner who had changed residences from a non-income tax state to one with…and whaddaya mean I was supposed to be making estimated payments?

It was all new and daunting to me. But at least I had a Walkman on WHN to keep me company at my various stops once I dragged myself away from the television.

47,752 people more responsible than me were at Shea and had to be pleased with Doctor K. He was pretty much his usual (which is to say 1985) self, giving up nothing but a double to Smith in the first three innings. Of course, Horton of Poughkeepsie was similarly impenetrable. We nicked him for a run in the third (and I mean nicked — it took two walks, a sac bunt, another walk and a sac fly), but he was essentially Goodenesque. Or Gooden was Hortonian. Ricky, who would leave the Redbird rotation after April and not reappear within its feathery confines until August, went seven, giving up two hits and no more runs. Doc lasted eight, striking out five, walking one, surrendering five hits and two runs, the second of them manufactured Whiteyball-style on a hit-and-run single to 1985 Met spare part Clint Hurdle. Rodent!

Ricky Horton had outpitched Dwight Gooden in the Home Opener of the year we were supposed to ditch the Cardinals. And I was bouncing from Long Beach to Rockville Centre to Hempstead to Mineola in search of forms, stamps and bucks. It was the fifth game of the season and I was frazzled already.

I learned ATM kiosks interfere with AM reception that day as I tried to follow the ninth inning in which the Mets would attempt to come from behind to, if you can believe this, take the Doctor off the hook. It worked, in its way.

With Dayley pitching, Teufel, who hadn’t shown a whole lot in his introduction to us as the platoon 2B, walked. Keith up next. Keith does good things, right? Not so much this time. He forced Teufel at second. So now it’s Mex on first as the potential tying run.

But wait! Davey is determined to manage, pinch-running Wally Backman for Hernandez. Gary Thorne sounded disbelieving between the static and the beeps at Citibank. I trusted Davey. Wally’s faster than Keith, right? I sure hope this pans out.

Worrell came on and Backman stole second. Mission accomplished! Well, partly accomplished. Carter walked. Darryl up, dangerous lefty versus hard-throwing righty (bet Herzog wished Dayley had stuck around; maybe not, given what Strawberry did to Dayley and that clock on 10/1/85). Darryl singled Backman home. We’re tied! I shoved a receipt in my wallet and ran outside to hear more clearly. George Foster, who probably would have crushed the likes of Worrell’s heat in his day, popped up. Howard Johnson, batting for Knight, grounded out.

Extra innings, tied at two. Better than a loss, but now Mex is out of the game. Teufel moves to first (can he play first?), HoJo, natch, to third. Things stay tied as McDowell pitches a second scoreless inning. But Worrell keeps bringing it, dammit. From the bottom of the tenth to the top of the twelfth, runners get on for both sides, but nobody scores.

I’m in a post office somewhere in Nassau County when, in the bottom of the twelfth, Jesse is due up third. He’s not gonna bat. You can’t send a pitcher up in extra innings. So, with two outs, Davey looks down his bench and pinch-hits…

…Rick Aguilera?

Yes, Rick Aguilera. We’d heard this might happen, for this is 1986, the year of the 24-man roster, the byproduct of some desperate negotiating between the players and the owners to wriggle out from the strike that briefly paused baseball the previous summer. I don’t remember what the players got in return but they allowed the owners a gentlemen’s agreement. Twenty-five man rosters would be the legal limit, but everybody would be on their honor and go with 24. (This lasted, I think, until 1989.)

Mets pitchers were always hyped for their ability to swing the bat. Nobody was better at it than Doc, but Doc was gone, baby. Rick Aguilera was the next best option since Davey didn’t want to burn his backup catcher, Barry Lyons, as a PH. It was unorthodox, but this was the Mets and Cardinals in extra innings, so really it was par for the course.

Aguilera walked, so Davey was a genius. And he’s a fucking Rhodes Scholar when a wild pitch advances Aggie to second. Now all we need is a base hit by Lenny Dykstra off of Pat Perry. I lingered at the post office, figuring there might have been some luck in there. C’mon, this would be perfect, a Home Opener win in twelve innings with a pitcher scoring the deciding run.

Too perfect. Lenny flied out. Screw you, Pat Perry.

We had used our future Hall of Fame starter and our two firemen through twelve. It’s the thirteenth. I’m racing home to catch the rest on TV. But I could’ve lingered over 1040s for all it mattered, because Randy Niemann pitched next. And when Randy Niemann pitched, hitters heard “NEXT!” Sure enough, our situational lefty created a situation, giving up a single to McGee and bunt to Herr that moved McGee to second and got his own sorry ass to first. Niemann, who was also a poor fielder, was replaced by the utterly superfluous Bruce Berenyi. He walked Jack Clark.

Bases loaded, nobody out, we’re down to a starter who hasn’t pitched since sometime in spring training. It would take a miracle to get out of this.

And we almost received one. Tito Landrum hit a very calm bouncer to HoJo at third. If he picks it up, he’s got a legitimate shot at throwing home to retire McGee, and then Carter can go to first. Suddenly we’re looking at two outs and a chance to get out of this.

But HoJo wasn’t looking at anything. He took his eye off the ball. Or focused it toward home. Whatever he was seeing, it wasn’t helpful. The ball skipped under his glove and into left. Cardinals 4 Mets 2. The crowd, on the edge of its seats for about four hours by now, treated Howard Johnson as if he were a well-compensated centerfielder who hadn’t gotten a hit in his first two games. That is to say he was booed to within an inch of his life. Don’t tell me the Matsui/Graves/Julio/Beltran treatment is a new thing at Shea. Don’t tell HoJo either, ’cause he heard it that day. Niemann took the loss, but Howard Johnson was made to feel like the real loser that day.

Boo to that now, boo to that then.

Two more runs would score and the Mets would do nothing in the bottom of the thirteenth, by which time I was home facing the self-congratulatory Cardinals on Channel 9 and my taxes for the rest of the night. St. Louis won 6-2. They now led the N.L. East with a commanding 5-1 record. The Mets were buried in a fourth-place tie with the Expos at 2-3. It was noted in the Daily News that the Mets were under .500 for the first time since the end of 1983, before Davey, before Doc, before HoJo.

What, you don’t think it was too early to track the standings do you? There was no WFAN to slam the Mets after the game — only soothing country fare like “Bop” by Dan Seals as introduced by the lovely Sheila York on flagship WHN — but full-scale panic was mounting. The evening news reports shook their collective heads at what trouble the Mets were in. The back pages took them to task. If there were an Internet, it would have sprouted firedavey.com. And with monsoons settling over New York and wiping out the next two Mets-Cards death matches, that 2-3, like Willie McGee, just grew uglier and uglier. I saw a wire-service story that referred to us as “the fading Mets.” Overrated might have been mentioned as well.

The rain would let up by week’s end. And tunes would change.