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.
Harking back to Spring Training 2006, the regular reader may recall one of my intermittent fits of panic regarding our team and my ability to relate to it for another season:
This is the spring of our diaspora. The Metropolitan-Americans seem to have been ruthlessly dispersed, scattered from their homeland, no longer allowed to live as a single, coherent tribe.
At the time, I was annoyed that the World Baseball Classic had plucked about half of our roster from our midst, that the new network allegedly devoted to our franchise had yet to transmit a signal and who were all these new guys anyway?
Blog buddy Jason offered up a pithy reminder that this happened every spring and felt “compelled, by way of reassurance, to point out that every year you get worried in mid-March that you’re just not interested in this year’s collection of Mets, and it always goes away by mid-April.”
Maybe to probably, I thought, but it’s not so much that I fear I’ll suddenly find something else to do or somebody else for whom to root. What it boils down to is I need my getting-acquainted period, a proper courtship phase. I wasn’t getting it in 2006, but once I did, I loved Carlos and Billy and Xavier on a first-name basis just like the rest of them. (The fact that it took maybe 20 innings total to achieve that state proves just how easy I am.)
Same deal in 1986. I had to get to know the guys who were total strangers to me when 1985 ended. They couldn’t just show up on my 98-win team and tell me they were Mets. They had to prove they were worthy, they were worthy.
When MTV rolled the credits for its New Year’s Eve ball during the December/January in between, they cleverly (for them) finished with a graphic that read We 86’d ’85!. In baseball terms, that was going to be a harder job. The 1985 Mets, as I never seem to tire of mentioning, were a very special club, accomplishing everything you could ask for except extending their schedule a few weeks. I’m not at all amazed that ’85 keeps coming up in these discussions of ’86. The two really were of a piece.
But even then in those collusionary days of relatively limited player movement, no team remained the same for consecutive years. Turnover was a part of baseball if not as much as it today. Nevertheless, the 1986 Mets benefited by maintaining almost all of its 1985 contributors.
Who didn’t come back? In a word, Rusty. Rusty Staub, 41, retired after making the final out of the 1985 season. He got into 54 games, had 45 at-bats, hit .267 and made one stupendous catch. We understand fully that his stats don’t nearly tell the story, that he put the flourish on the end of lefthanded pinch-hitter deluxe!. He was almost a luxury, but good teams find way to have Rusty Staubs on hand. The 1985 Mets weren’t just keeping him around to drive Keith Hernandez to the park.
Hard to imagine they couldn’t have continued to save him a spot if he had somehow decided to keep playing, but it’s worth noting again that 1986 was the year the rosters shrunk from 25 to 24. A player whose only core competency by then was pinch-hitting — albeit historically well — would have had a tough time justifying taking up space…not that Rusty Staub ever just took up space. Ah, you know what I mean.
Otherwise, the ’85ers who weren’t around for even a cameo in ’86 never made their absence felt. Who would have been missed? Tom Paciorek? Kelvin Chapman? Ronn Reynolds? Joe Sambito? Gone and immediately forgotten. The very good teams can make you think their 24-man rosters are composed of 42 men. That’s what it felt like in ’86.
Ray Knight returned from 1985 but he was a different Ray Knight. George Foster seemed to stagger from the fourth to the fifth and final year of his contract but during the crucial period when the Mets were building a fortress of a lead, George Foster’s black bat was positively Metsmerizing. Lenny Dykstra was in the house for a full year, as was Rick Aguilera, as was Sid Fernandez (demoted to the Tides to start ’85 after flashing heavy promise in ’84). Obviously the mainstays stayed put as well.
So what was tangibly different about the ’86 Mets from the ’85 Mets? Who gave us what we needed that we didn’t already possess?
That’s easy. There were three newbies whose contributions from the start recalibrated the Mets from very good to awfully great. They weren’t Hernandez and Carter in terms of instant impact. It was more subtle than that. But in their way, they were just as important. It’s not called a team sport for nothing.
The most obvious and beautiful addition was Bobby Ojeda. I’ll plead retroactive ignorance on his qualifications. He was just another pitcher from another team from another league as far as I knew. All the mid-’80s Red Sox arms were a jumble of names to me: Clemens, Boyd, Ojeda, Malone…if everybody knew their name, it was news to me.
Hence, when we traded ’85 underachievers Calvin Schiraldi, Wes Gardner and John Christensen to get Ojeda, I was just glad to have rid ourselves of Calvin Schiraldi, Wes Gardner and John Christensen. Never would’ve guessed that we had added the man who would lead us in victories in ’86 (18-5 overall). On a staff led by Cy Gooden, you had to be kidding. But boy could that southpaw pitch and boy did he show it right away (7-0, 1.70 after six starts and some relief). Or left away. Even though I had watched baseball for going on 18 years in 1986, it was only dawning on me that choice of arm mattered in the scheme of things.
Same could be said for Teufel, another steal. Teuf was had for ’85 flotsam Bill Latham and Billy Beane in a trade Billy Beane would love. To be fair, I didn’t see what the big deal about Teufel was, either as a righthanded peg in a righthanded hole or, for quite a while, as a piece of the ’86 puzzle. I was so in baseball love with Wally Backman that it didn’t really penetrate my batting helmet that his status as a switch-hitter was primarily an honorific, that he was a lefty getting by on outdated Topps information. Tim Teufel was the antidote to all the ’85 platoon stopgaps. Better than Chapman, better than Ron Gardenhire, better than Larry Bowa. All had been on the Mets in 1985, none ever played for anybody ever again.
Teufel performed competently most of the year and spectacularly once, on June 10. He came up with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the eleventh inning at Shea needing to loft a sacrifice fly to break a tie. Instead he launched Tom Hume’s delivery beyond the blue wall. Mets 8 Phillies 4. Mets 5 Phillies 4 would have been sufficient, but it was Tim’s first humongous contribution and if it loosened him up, then that was grand, too.
The loosest rookie I ever saw was ostensible third baseman Kevin Mitchell. He won a job in spring which was significant in itself considering these were the 1986 Mets, locked and loaded with or without a part-time frosh. If Mitchell was intimidated by his surroundings, he never showed it. As late as July 6, he was batting .370, having put on a glove everywhere you could, save pitcher and catcher. With switch-hitting HoJo and Danny Heep handling the lefty pinch-hitting possibilities, righty Mitchell essentially replaced Staub and probably a few others who shuttled up and down from Tidewater in 1985, where All-World Mitchell honed his multiple crafts for the duration despite a cup of 1984 coffee.
The ’86 Mets were a year older, a year wiser, a year better than the ’85 Mets. And they had changed just enough to make the great leap forward. Kevin Mitchell and his surprise versatility was Davey Johnson’s genius. Frank Cashen should get more credit from posterity for acquiring a useful complement in Tim Teufel and a tremendous competitor in Bobby Ojeda. Why Ojeda for Schiraldi, et al (with Schiraldi making his greatest contribution to Mets history in a Red Sox uniform) isn’t routinely mentioned as one of the top trades in team annals is beyond me.
They all stopped being strangers pretty quickly. Just like Carlos Delgado and Billy Wagner and Xavier Nady and all our new pals. I like when my team gives me every reason to get to know them intimately.