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.
As the institutional kvelling over the 2006 Mets shifts into high gear, I listened to Tim Kurkjian on Baseball Tonight quote an unnamed National League manager on why our team is so thoroughly making this our time. The Mets, he said, have no weaknesses.
Could it be? In all phases of the game, the Mets do seem covered. Starting, relieving, lineup, bench, gloves, speed…not a weak link is apparent to me either.
Except for one. There’s nobody to boo.
Omar Minaya really undermined the roster on this count. When the season began, he had several candidates for mass scapegoating. But look what he’s done:
• Kaz Matsui: Traded for Eli Marrero.
• Jorge Julio: Traded for Orlando Hernandez
• Victor Zambrano: On the 60-day DL, out for the year.
• Jose Valentin: Crossed everybody up by succeeding.
Who’s your target now, boobirds? You don’t know Marrero well enough to be mad at him for anything. Beltran you’ve always loved by now. Trachsel? Not worth the trouble. Wagner? He’s been fairly flawless since his one flawful outing almost a month ago. Nady? I don’t think appendicitis will be held against him. Milledge? Even you can’t turn on a favorite that fast.
I wouldn’t put it past the terminally testy to find a foe, but face it: We don’t have anyone remotely booable right now. Great teams generally lack depth in this department.
Though not in 1986.
If you weren’t around then, would it surprise you to know that the team that romped through the regular season, the team that was setting all kinds of records to the good, the team that won the hearts and minds of everybody who saw it actually had players not named LOOOOOOOOOU but it sounded like it did?
It’s TRUUUUUUUUUE. Mets fans found Mets with whom to be upset. Don’t think Philadelphians cornered the market on expressing displeasure with the Santa Clauses of the world. If the Tooth Fairy had been hitting .205 for us in 1986, we would have kicked her teeth in.
That wasn’t my scene in 1986. I was too in love with the entire unit to pick out a bad guy and make him my bitch, even though there were popular candidates to be voted most unpopular.
I saw no reason to get on Doug Sisk, public enemy No. 39 two decades ago. Sisk was still paying for a meltdown from 1984. I thought he had done his penance and he was almost not bad sometimes.
Though I questioned his absorption of 1/24th of the roster, I never booed Randy Niemann. It would be like booing lint just because it couldn’t pitch either.
In 1985, I booed Davey Johnson’s use of Ray Knight when Howard Johnson seemed the clear third base choice, but by 1986, I was a big enough man to forgive Ray. I’m a big enough man to forgive any Met who homers six times in April.
I never booed Straw, whose treatment that August when he didn’t get a single hit at home makes A-Rod’s current reception in the Bronx sound like a tea party. Straw was going to be my Willie Mays and who’d boo Willie Mays?
And I never saw any point in booing George Foster. How would that help him hit?
Wow, I’m a great guy. I didn’t boo anybody on a team that won 108 games. What do I want, a cookie?
But don’t get me wrong. There was somebody on the 1986 Mets whom I didn’t like. Didn’t hate, but didn’t care for. Didn’t have it in for, but couldn’t particularly get behind. Didn’t want him gone, but didn’t necessarily mind if he were to take off.
Don’t get me wrong. I wanted all the 1986 Mets to succeed. But if there was one 1986 Met for whom I could generate no passion, it was Danny Heep.
What did Danny Heep ever to do me?
Nothing. But he never did anything for me, not viscerally. Though I never articulated it at the time, he was almost certainly my least favorite 1986 Met. Mind you, being a least favorite 1986 Met is nothing like being a least favorite 2002-03 Met. Danny Heep was no Roberto Alomar. He fielded better than Roger Cedeño. He ran better than Mo Vaughn. He struck out less than Jeromy Burnitz. He had better aim than Shawn Estes. He didn’t get as high as Tony Tarasco, Mark Corey and Grant Roberts allegedly did.
He was just…I don’t know. He was Danny Heep. On a team that ran hot and hotter, he left me room temperature. He was just so…Heep.
My mother figured it out first in her own, uncomplimentary way. There was no ramp-up for my mother as a Mets fan. She just kind of jumped on the bandwagon full-force in ’84 and knew what she decided she needed to know right away. She knew she loved Doc and loved Keith and thought Danny Heep looked like “a dunner,” one marked by dullness and drabness in dictionary terms. She threw that word around when she wanted to indicate someone was unnecessarily slow on the uptake. I considered that assessment harsh. Danny Heep didn’t seem like a dunner. But I really can’t argue now with the dullness and the drabness.
Danny Heep was a handy bat to have around his first year after coming over from Houston. Given the shallow state of the 1983 Mets, Heep made us deep, particularly early in the year. He was more or less the starting rightfielder until Darryl was deemed ready for recall. And he was a power pinch-hitter, four home runs that way that year. Between him and Rusty, we had the left side taken care of.
And if that was as far as Danny Heep went, I’d probably tuck him away under Players, Useful. But by being handy, he was handed more than he deserved. Specifically, he was handed starts in left field, which is where he began to bug me.
George Foster did not have a great Mets career, but while he was here, he could hit home runs. Not enough of them and not as many as he had with the Reds, but more than most Mets did. In ’83, more than anybody. In ’84, more than anybody but Straw. In ’85, more than anybody but Kid and Straw. He didn’t move well, he didn’t emote much, he didn’t live up to his contract, but he did hit home runs and we needed them. Yet he was never forgiven for his first season, 1982, when he was truly horrendous. Little power, evaporating average, long limo. It was not a recipe for endearment, let alone success.
I’m pretty sure I was at Shea the night the fans turned on Foster for good. It was early June against Atlanta. Phil Niekro knuckled a no-hitter into the eighth, broken up by Bob Bailor. Braves led 3-0 in the ninth when Niekro allowed leadoff singles to Mookie and Stearns. Phil then let loose a wild pitch, something I suppose he did a lot given what he threw. OK, so it’s second and third. After being impotent all night, we have runners in scoring position and our big import, our pricey bauble, our legendary RBI man George Foster coming to bat. This was the first year of DiamondVision and we were all stoked when the screen showed us images of the cavalry coming to our rescue. CHARGE!
Then Foster struck out.
He was booed and booed and booed some more. The booing began on the night of June 2, 1982 and I’m not sure it’s stopped yet. George Foster was a bum. He wasn’t worth the millions (about 10 over five years) he was getting. He wasn’t even worth surrendering Greg Harris, Alex Treviño and Jorge Orta. The Reds weren’t any good without him but they sure seemed to have gotten the best of this deal.
Hence, anybody would have been more of the peepul’s cherce than George Foster. When Danny Heep would fill in for him, he was beloved out of all proportion to his Heepness. When Danny Heep drove in a run when he was in the lineup, he was hoisted on the collective shoulderdom as a hero. When George Foster would return to the lineup and strike out, the call would blare forth from all quarters: START DANNY HEEP.
I still have a slight red spot on my forehead from all the times I slapped it when I heard that. Danny Heep: Nice pinch-hitter. Decent fourth outfielder. But not George Foster. Not even the reduced George Foster. Perhaps I was still so enmeshed in the romance that surrounded the acquisition of Foster that I couldn’t let go of the idea that he was going to shake out of it one week and revert to being the Red menace he once was. Just get off his back and he’ll crush 52 and drive home 149 just like in 1977! Foster never came close to regaining his Cincinnati stature at Shea, but from 1983 until about the All-Star break in 1986, he did what nobody except Carter and Strawberry could do on a recurring basis. He hit home runs. Those are good things to hit.
Danny Heep wasn’t going to do that. That everybody acted as if Danny Heep was a viable everyday leftfielder struck me as delusional. It was the Foster hate talking. It was the booing masquerading as thinking. It was Danny Freaking Heep. Please.
While it wasn’t Heep’s fault that fans chose him out of a lineup to be in the lineup, he wasn’t doing much in those spot starts to engender that much enthusiasm. He did next to nothing in 1984, 12 RBI in 199 AB (let’s be precise — “nothing” is what Jerry Martin did, so “next to” shone by comparison). When Darryl went on the DL for half of May and most of June in ’85, we saw more Danny. It was dutiful fill-in work, nothing more. But people loved Danny Heep because he wasn’t George Foster and he wasn’t Darryl Strawberry. Foster and Strawberry had the capacity to disappoint. You expected little from Heep and if you got that much, it was a good day.
Did you know, according to Bats, Davey Johnson’s coaches wanted to insert Heep as pitcher in the 19th inning of the 19-inning game of July 4-5, 1985? Davey, who had been ejected, vetoed the idea. It would have been interesting, but it would have been so, so wrong.
Instead, Danny Heep’s most memorable moment from 1985 came facing Nolan Ryan. He went down as the Express’s 4,000th strikeout victim. When you saw video of triumphant Nolan, you saw helpless Heep. He had the company of 3,999 other victims, but there he was, over and over again, going down. Bad enough to see a Met get posterized. But the pitcher…not again. Nolan Ryan was a living, breathing, fireballing reminder of one of the worst trades in history, a Mets trade.
Oh, and so was Danny Heep!
It didn’t appear that way in 1983 when Heep was pinch-hitting helpfully and the guy we traded to Houston to get him was struggling to find the plate. But somewhere between 1983 and 1986, that pitcher we gave up, Mike Scott, learned the splitfinger fastball. He may have gone to Ace Hardware to do so — special on sandpaper — but he mastered it. While we were swooning over our extraordinary young pitching, Scott, a washout in New York in the early ’80s, was becoming the single most devastating hurler in all of baseball. In the second half of 1986, not Gooden, not Clemens, not anybody was more frightening to face than Mike Scott.
He was on the Astros, the team we’d have to go through to reach the World Series. And the Astros had him because we gave him to them. For Danny Heep.
It is remembered that the 1986 National League Championship Series was the very best the genre had to offer. It is also remembered that the nexus of that set was the extra-inning Game Six bloodfest the Mets just had to win even though they were leading three games to two and the untouchable Scott, looming as the unmovable object in a potential Game Seven. But it is not well remembered that we were put into extra-desperate straits that afternoon because, with the bases loaded, the score tied and Astro closer Dave Smith completely wild, the Mets sent up a pinch-hitter in the top of the ninth. All the pinch-hitter had to do was stand at the plate and hold his bat completely still. Since Smith had entered, he had walked Carter, walked Strawberry, surrendered a sac fly to Knight and walked Backman. He had accomplished nothing.
Facing Danny Heep, Smith was still missing the strike zone completely. But Danny Heep swung. He swung at ball four. He swung at ball five. I’ll have to check, but he might have swung at ball twelve. With the bases loaded and the pennant one disciplined JUST STAND THERE! away, Danny Heep swung and missed. The score stayed tied and the Astros were given a reprieve. Yes, we eventually won, and yes it’s a better story because it went sixteen innings, but Danny Heep came very close to costing us the entire 1986 season because he couldn’t lay off Dave Smith’s erratic, pathetic fastballs.
But we won and we made it to the World Series, and in the World Series for the first time, the designated hitter would appear in only the American League venue (from ’76 to ’85, the DH was permitted/required in even years in both parks; in odd years, they played baseball). That meant the Mets needed a DH, and who was more suited for DH than ol’ D.H. himself? It could have been Mazzilli or HoJo. If you weren’t a lefty/righty nut, it could have been Mitchell or Teufel. But, the first designated hitter the Mets ever used in a game without grapefruits was Danny Heep.
I detest the DH. Most National League fans do. Most American League fans, if they looked inside their souls, probably do, too. It’s a gimmick whose novelty wore off more than 30 years ago. But now the DH was invading the sanctity of the Mets’ lineup and it would fall to Danny Heep to bear the scarlet letters. Perfect.
Let the record show that Danny Heep’s first at-bat as a designated hitter was a success. Facing Oil Can Boyd, he singled home Hernandez and Carter as part of the crucial four-run first that roused the Mets in Game Three and got them back into play. That was also his only hit of the World Series. He went 1-for-11, .091.
Not that he didn’t play a role in the biggest game in Mets history. In Game Six, a contest we’ll dissect in more detail at a later date, he was called on to be a hero. After Roger Clemens held us hitless and hopeless for four innings, we mounted a rally, closing to within 2-1 in the fifth. Knight was on third, Mookie on first with none out when Davey pinch-hit Heep for Rafael Santana. Heep rapped into a double play. Knight scored to tie it, but the bases were emptied and there were two outs. A columnist — George Vecsey, I think — referred to it as a professional ground ball. Way too kind. Rafael Santana could have done that much (he had two hits off Clemens in Game Two).
One more thing about Heep and Game Six…and I admit this is really looking for something to pick on, but it’s stuck with me. In one of the countless accounts I have read of the tenth inning, Heep was among the Met personnel who gathered in Charlie Samuels’ office to watch the Mets’ last gasp on television. Samuels, the eternal equipment manager, had a collection of NFL helmets. In this particular telling, each man grabbed a helmet and put it on, sort of like a hard-shelled rally cap with facemask. I don’t remember who else exactly was there, but each donned a helmet of a professional team. Except for Heep. He wore the helmet of the University of Iowa Hawkeyes.
I have no idea why this bothers me, but it does. Maybe Iowa was all that was left. Maybe it had some meaning to Danny. Maybe he’s the one who gave it to Charlie. Maybe nobody was giving it a lot of thought amid a frenzied comeback of comebacks. But when I read that many years after the fact, all I could think was, geez, Heep wears a college football helmet when everybody else goes pro…figures.
Danny Heep and the other Mets took off their protective headgear and won a World Series that Monday night. Heep didn’t play in Game Seven, but he was part of the team. He deserved to celebrate. I imagine he did, though I have a hard time doing so. Did he ever smile? Was he ever happy? Did he ever look like he was enjoying himself? Granted, he hadn’t done anything spectacular since joining the Mets in ’83 and he was never any kind of a full-time player since his arrival in the Majors in ’79, and he was overshadowed by Mazzilli and Mitchell among extra outfielders as ’86 wound down, but geez, Danny Heep, you just won the World Series! What are you going to do now?
File for free agency!
Yes, Danny Heep was out of here on the first plane to greener pastures. There was no effort to keep him and there was no Knightlike hue or cry about him going. Collusion screwed with him a bit, keeping him from making his debut with his new team, the Dodgers, until June 1987. He didn’t do much more with them than he had with us, but he did win another World Series ring in 1988, one that his ex-teammates in New York didn’t: another reason I can’t quite get it up nostalgically for Danny Heep.
He often showed acumen for being in the right place at the right time. He played in the riveting 1980 NLCS for the Astros against the Phillies. He made it to the playoffs with the Red Sox in 1990. And a year later, he was on the burgeoning Braves until mid-season when he was released. Maybe the Atlanta dynasty began to bloom the day he retired, though that’s pure speculation.
There. I admit it. I had a least favorite ’86 Met. But to be the least favorite among ’86 Mets was still to be held in reasonably high esteem, no matter how catty I seem about it now. I sure as hell wouldn’t throw back any of Danny Heep’s hits or homers from that or any other year based on principle or personality defect (mine, not his).
Don’t get me wrong — I never rooted against Danny Heep while he wore the colors (whereas I did go anti-Alomar and -Sanchez toward their tenures’ ignominious ends). I didn’t boo Danny Heep. Never, no way, no how. I don’t boo my own unless I’m strongly provoked. But I didn’t do much of the opposite on Heep’s behalf either. And that was very unusual behavior on my part in 1986.