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.
If a 1986 Met had high-fived a portion of the crowd after a game-tying home run, it would have become de rigueur behavior. Lenny would have done it. Wally would have done it. Everybody right through the order to Rafael Santana would have done it. If a pitcher had hit a home run, then it would have become the thing for the pitchers to do. They’d all swing for the fences, all hit home runs and all high-five the crowd.
And it would have been great.
If you are one those duddies comma fuddies always looking for reasons as to why baseball isn’t as good as it used to be, I’ve just reluctantly provided you with ammunition for your codgerrific arguments. But the example runs counter to intuition…
Why, back in MY day, players would ingest no substance more performance-enhancing than tree bark. They’d get all barked up and hit natural home runs. Then they’d put their heads down and trot briskly about the bases and wait until they were on the team bus to manfully shake hands with the third base coach.
Bourgeois! Or words to that effect!
I think of myself has someone whose day has not passed, that every day I’m alive is my day. Yes, I enjoy a good flashback every week or so, but I like what’s next even more. I want to believe every season will be the greatest year baseball ever had and, if possible, the greatest year the Mets ever had. We’ve been presented with evidence to the contrary, I suppose, on the sport itself this but we also keep getting good vibes where the 2006 Mets are concerned.
Like Lastings Milledge delivering dramatic home runs and Lastings Milledge delivering dramatic high fives. Both were stunning to watch once I got to see the highlights, but I get the feeling we wouldn’t have noticed the slapping of civilian palms all that much in 1986. Ebullience and exuberance were a part of a game then.
Yeah, there was always some ramrod-assed Red or Astro fuming off to the side, but let ’em, I said. You wanna stop the Mets from being so happy about winning? Beat ’em!
I never got what was supposed to be the problem with the curtain calls. They were our little custom. They didn’t start in ’86. They didn’t even start in ’85. I remember them as far back as 1980 when Steve Henderson hit that eternal homer against the Giants. Last year, Walkoff Mark (happy anniversary, bro!) was kind enough to send me the play-by-play of that at-bat. Bob Murphy described, with no small degree of surprise, that the fans were calling Hendu back onto the field so they could acknowledge him. Steve came out and a tradition was born.
If you look up 1982 in the record books, you’ll find the Mets were in the cutout bin. A miserable 65-97 year it was, but it had its moments. When the Mets got off to a fairly hot start, the curtain call was in full effect, y’all. I specifically remember Charlie Puleo being asked to take a bow after being removed by George Bamberger in the eighth, and Puleo sheepishly complying. The Mets were going well and the Mets fans appreciated all of it with all their might.
Weeks later, far from Shea, Terry Leach wriggled out of a jam left behind by Brent Gaff. Leach pumped his fist on the Dodger Stadium mound. The Dodgers — the defending world champions with a pennant race of their own to worry about — got all huffy about it. Dugouts began to empty. I was stunned. Leach succeeded, Leach was happy, Leach showed it. What’s the fucking problem? That’s what Mets do.
The process works a lot better when you’re not the 1982 Mets. By 1986, the Mets had plenty to celebrate at any given moment and they did.
The high-fiving, the curtain calls, the rally caps, the commercials, the videos, the fights, even the Cooter’s arrests were all of a piece. These were our boys not only playing great but feeding off our energy, a spark generated by how great they played. It was a vivacious cycle. We were, all of us together — players and fans — a power source. We were plugged into each other. Beyond many wins and few losses, that’s what made 1986 so special.
That was also what made Shea Stadium special…and why I still think it is. It’s not the rich architecture, the awesome sightlines or the immaculate sanitation that does it. There’s a real, honest-to-goodness crackle to our summer home. If it’s not always present, it’s easy to summon. When the Mets do well, they are beloved and they are shown that love. The Lastings lunge is only the latest iteration. I know I could feel it in the heart of the Valentine era. No other place produces grand slam singles and such with such surprising regularity.
In whatever form it’s taken, the Met Fan-Met Player paradigm dates to 1962. It crested in 1969. It exploded in 1986. It lives today. It’s what makes baseball worth loving. It makes loving fun.