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.
Where were you when the lights went out on the 1986 pennant race?
Of the 162 regular-season games the Mets played 20 years ago, I managed to attend, watch or listen to at least a portion of 160 of them. One of the two I missed encompassed the undisputed pivotal moment of the entire year.
Moral: Never miss a pitch. And try not to leave the state.
I was somewhere between North Miami Beach and Hallandale, Fla. when Howard Johnson turned on a Todd Worrell fastball and buried the 1986 Cardinals. HoJo came up in the top of the ninth with the Mets down by two. George Foster was on second. There was one out. Worrell had an unhittable fastball.
And then he didn’t. HoJo, who was fast losing ground to Ray Knight in the third base platoon (he had pinch-hit for Santana earlier and stayed in at short), confirmed his reputation for handling heat. With one swing, he tied the game, pierced Worrell’s perceived invincibility and nipped in the Bud Busch Stadium’s hopes of flying another flag after winning the previous year’s. It was only a matter of time — one inning, when George Foster drove in the winning run — before the Mets would prevail that night.
Or so I’ve read. Like I said, I wasn’t watching.
I was in Florida for two reasons:
1) Passover with my family. My parents had a condo in Hallandale, which lies roughly between Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Instead of coming back to New York at the end of winter for a seder, we went down there. First me, then Suzan and Mark. Even Mark’s parents showed up. The seder itself was not at the condo, but rather at the Newport Hotel on Collins Avenue. No need to ask why that night was different from all other nights. On this night, I was missing the Mets. (Given the superstation status of WOR, I thought I could actually have seen it if there hadn’t been all those darned time-consuming questions — four of them! Turned out it was on SportsChannel, nowhere to be found in Florida.)
2) I wanted to revisit some friends in Tampa. I was a year out of college and missing the old gang. It wasn’t exactly St. Elmo’s Fire (God forbid) and I surely wasn’t the Rob Lowe character who wanted to get a job on campus to hang out like in the good old days six months ago until he realized they only wanted him back because he dealt all the good drugs, which hurt his Rob Lowey feelings. But I did look forward to ditching my family after all the matzoh was crumbled and taking a cheap flight across the peninsula.
The night before I flew to Tampa, I missed another game in Hallandale. Guess we all went out to dinner and even though Channel 9 was readily available, WHN wasn’t. No earphones, no way of knowing until after it was over that Doc tossed a rather effortless 9-0 shutout, the best kind.
That was it. I wouldn’t miss any more, not even in Tampa, because…
1) The Mets and Cardinals were popular and important enough to merit back-to-back Game of the Week broadcasts, Saturday on NBC, Sunday on ABC…or have you forgotten Sunday Afternoon Baseball?
2) Did you really think I was going to allow myself to miss another Mets-Cardinals game?
There are adventures in life that as you undergo them, you’re sure they’re so indelible that you’ll remember every detail of them forever, that you’ll be able to refer back to them beat-for-beat for the rest of your days, that they will withstand whatever deterioration your memory is subject to. That weekend in Tampa was one of those adventures.
Yet I don’t remember all that much about it. I was 23 then. I’m 43 now. Who knew that two decades changes perspective and fades details? Who knew that things would happen after you’re 23 that actually would blot out what happened then?
What I do recall was thinking it was a pretty wild two days, so I guess it was. Understand that my idea of wild is a lot different from other people’s. Probably all other people’s. On the other hand, how about those Mets?
Like I said, they were on TV right there in Tampa, something I was hardly ever treated to during my college years (from ’81 to ’85, it was Braves Radio for me…ugh). The question was where was I going to find a TV? I had a friend named Tony with whom I always stayed when I came to town. But he had a family obligation of some sort (not a seder), so he had to mutter his regrets. There was Chuck who also had an alibi. That left my third Tampa connection, Kathy. She liked baseball more than Tony or Chuck.
But she hated the Mets.
Can you imagine how good the Mets had to be to have a girl in Florida despise them? She was originally from Philadelphia, but it wasn’t Phillie Phever at work. She just hated the Mets. Not only that, her mother didn’t like them either. Together, they particularly detested Keith Hernandez.
But they liked me, so they let me stay over. Figuring I’d see them at some point, I brought a gift: a Sports Illustrated Keith Hernandez poster that I purchased at Gerry Cosby’s. I taped it to their front door but scribbled an unkind remark about what the white powder on the foul lines represented as a peace offering. (Sorry Keith.)
Toldja it was wild!
Kathy and I settled into her living room to watch the Mets score four first-inning runs and never give me any concern that I’d eat crow. In fact, despite a bit of a scare in the ninth in which the Cardinals pulled to within 4-3 and had the winning runs on base, I ate only corn. Kathy’s mother’s boyfriend barbecued that night and grilled some corn on the cob. Best corn I ever had.
Next day I was handed off to Chuck who was returning to his dorm for the end of the term. He lived down the hall from a Yankees fan named Danny who had a TV, thus making him a handy person to have around. There was some not quite good-natured ribbing between me and Dan, with me ending all conversation by tossing out the phrase “Britt Burns”. Britt Burns? He was the best example of everything that was wrong with the mid-’80s Yankees: a pitcher who had seen better days, came to the Yanks, revealed an injury, never pitched for them.
Dan and I forged a truce via a bizarre ritual of fellowship. We briefly exchanged baseball caps. He put on my Mets cap. I put on his…ah, you know. Only time I ever wore one of those…things. Not for more than a pitch or two. I swear I felt a rash coming on.
Crazy! And a little unclean.
Somewhere amid all this male bonding, Kevin Mitchell and Tim Teufel homered while ex-Red Sock lefty Bobby Ojeda outpitched ex-Red Sock lefty John Tudor. John Tudor was bulletproof in ’85. He was just more Met bait by April 27, 1986.
The Mets won Sunday’s game. They won Saturday’s game. They won Friday’s game. They won Thursday’s game. They swept all four games from the Cardinals, the team they needed to win just one more against on October 3, 1985 and couldn’t. Old story. New story: the Mets were 11-3, four up on the second-place team, and that team wasn’t even the Cardinals.
A couple of months later, Whitey Herzog conceded the division. They had fallen apart and the Mets ran off and hid. On the subject of Met arrogance (the sort Kathy and her mother were hung up on) and the early countdown to a Met clinch (which drove Danny to distraction), Herzog said something like, “If I were Davey Johnson, I’d be drinking champagne every night.”
I don’t remember doing any drinking that weekend. Once the Sunday game ended, Chuck and I met up with the returned Tony. Kathy came over, too. They were going to rush me to the airport so I could get back to Hallandale. In a very dramatic sequence of events, somebody (Kathy, I think) drove really fast, we ran into the terminal and I decided, “I can’t leave you people!” So I called my parents, made up some phony excuse about forgetting to turn the clocks ahead and hung out some more. I spent the night in Chuck’s dorm, keeping strange hats off my head and relishing the demise of St. Louis.
Monday he and I swung by Tony’s and the three of us went out for subs. I almost walked away with mine without paying and the cashier let out a big “HEY!” as if I were trying to pull a fast one. Between you and me, I thought Tony was picking up the tab.
That wasn’t terribly wacky, but it was already Monday and I had a flight to Fort Lauderdale to catch.
It’s 20 years later. Chuck is still my best friend, non-wife/non-cat division. Kathy and Tony I’ve lost touch with. I have a vague idea that they each live in the general vicinity of where we were all last together, not all that far from where Chuck has relocated. I loved their company then. Loved the Mets, too.
Some things you move on from in life. Some things you don’t. I’ve managed to attend, watch or listen to at least a portion of the last 227 games the Mets have played. I haven’t set foot in the state of Florida in well over seven years.