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Yankee Rose

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.

It’s a sportscast from just about any night in 1986. Let’s join it in progress.

Carter scores, Strawberry scores, Knight winds up on second with a double. The Mets took a four-nothing lead and never looked back. Another win for Bobby Ojeda and another game up on the Expos in the standings.

In other baseball, the Yankees lost again. Now what about that weekend forecast?

That, my children, was more or less the way it was when you were young, maybe not even born. Swear to Gossage it was.

The Mets get all the attention. The Yankees just sort of exist in the background. Think of the way all of us think and then extrapolate it to the world at large.

This year’s Subtext Series has changed. It’s more like ’86 than ’98 or ’03 or any of the other Interleague years. We’re not hearing anybody serious remind us of how far the Mets have to go to catch up with the Skanks. It’s no longer an accurate barometer of how baseball works in New York. If we win these games this weekend, that’ll be fun. If we don’t win enough of them, I won’t deny it will be annoying, but it will also be highly irrelevant.

Like the Yankees were in 1986.

Let me not overstate the case too much. The Yankees sucked (because YANK EES SUCK!) but not in the way we suck when we really suck. The worst part about the reign of Steinbrenner is that he has never let them completely go to seed or, just as important, recede from the general consciousness. When we disappear from sight, we’re not even a speck in the collective rear view. They, on the other hand, never fell off the face of the Earth, but their unbalanced hitter-to-pitcher ratio combined with their manager/coach carousel served to make them the most pathetic perennial high-80s, low-90s win-total team imaginable. I didn’t mind them receiving a few back pages for that honor.

Nowadays, when the Yankees fall apart, it means they lose in the first round of the playoffs. There was no Wild Card in the 1980s, but if there were, I imagine the Yankees would have grabbed a couple. Happily there wasn’t and happily they didn’t. That they generally managed a winning record kept them in at least a fraction of the public eye. And as King George knew how to make noise, they could count on the occasional screaming headline. But in 1986, that stuff just didn’t have very long legs.

Let the record show that the New York Yankees in 1986 were a first-place club clear to May 14. A split season along the lines of 1981 [2] might have helped them immensely. But nothing was decided in mid-May of ’86. Well, the National League East was in our pocket by then, but the AL East was up for grabs. On the 14th of May, the Boston Red Sox pulled into a first-place tie with their archrivals, both with records of 21-12. Boston would keep winning. The Yankees would start losing and stop pitching.

That was all she wrote for the 1986 New York Yankees.

Not a big deal to us or New York. We both had the Mets to delight in. The Yankees had their followers, but they had gotten used to things going wrong on a fairly regular basis. Their team hadn’t been to October since ’81. While the owner ranted and dismissed at will, their remade Bronx Burners zoomed to a losing record in 1982, crumbled in August of ’83, stumbled irreversibly in April of ’84 and choked away chance after chance in September of ’85.

The Yankees not winning anything in 1986? Just force of habit.

They had talent. Don Mattingly really deserved all the nice things that have been said about him based on his first few years in the bigs. A fine defensive first baseman — not as fine as Keith, but quite capable — he was enchanting to watch at bat. So hard up for anything to revere, the Yankees escalated him onto a pedestal, eventually retiring his number. They were making up for his lack of a ring (baby), I guess.

The 1986 Yankees had Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield and the Met-killer Mike Easler, obtained for Don Baylor before the season started. It was a trade that benefited the Red Sox greatly and helped the Yankees not at all; yes, those things did happen. Willie Randolph, now a co-captain in the mold of Everett Scott and Roger Peckinpaugh (among others), was gamely holding down second base and there seemed to be some satisfaction in referring to third-sacker Mike Pagliarulo as Pags.

Those Yankees could hit. Couldn’t pitch much, though. That was always their downfall. It was as if they were designed to fail in that manner so they’d have an excuse when it was over. “Except for pitching, the Yankees have a great team,” was a common explanation by their small, dedicated core of alibiers. Yes, except for 75% of the game, you guys rock. Good luck with time of possession.

Dennis Rasmussen won 18 games with an ERA near 4. He was the only double-digit winner. Ron Guidry started to age in earnest, going 9-12. Joe Niekro was far older and also won 9 games. So did Bob Tewksbury, who’d be traded to the Cubs a year later for Steve Trout. Tewksbury would become one of the best control pitchers in the NL. Steve Trout would remain Steve Trout. Doug Drabek went 7-8 and was traded after the season to Pittsburgh where he’d win a Cy Young. Dave Righetti collected 46 saves, a record then, but the game I remember best was one he blew to Toronto. So mad was Rags that he threw a ball into the upper deck.

On the other hand, Rags rhymed with Pags.

I have two other particularly fond memories of those Pasquarrific Yankees. One is that they were home, same as us, on the night of September 17. We were clinching the National League East in front of a full house. They were losing to the Orioles among family, friends and felons. Sport that he was, Steinbrenner allowed a congratulatory message to go up on the scoreboard…to the Mets, not the Orioles.

My other was my first Yankee game. Excuse me if that implies there was a bushel that followed. To date, I have returned to their particular stadium four more times. But the contest of May 26, 1986 is the only one I hold dear. As Billy Crystal or Bob Costas could tell you, you never forget the magic of your first in-person Yankee loss.

It was the prototypical Yankee defeat of its time. The Bombers hit. They scored seven runs. Easler blasted a three-run shot off Mike Witt in the first. Ron Hassey tagged him for a two-run job in the seventh. Problem was, when it came to pitching, the Bombers bombed. Four Yankee hurlers — Niekro, Al Holland, Bob Shirley and Brian Fisher — worked the sixth, the inning when the Angels scored five runs. But all looked great for the home team when the extraordinary Mattingly drove home Bobby Meacham from second with the go-ahead run. They might have gotten more, but Brian Downing threw out Randolph at third base.

The crowd of 30,000 was certainly stirred. It was the most excited I’d seen them all day. Yankee Stadium in 1986 did not strike me as that happy a place. Perhaps it was fitting that I chose Memorial Day for my first visit. The Mets were not playing and I was talked into going by two friends, one of whom was a genuine Yankees fan and another who gave up on them when they gave up on Sparky Lyle. What the hell, I thought. Let’s see how the other half lives.

Lives? The place barely had a pulse. This was the big, imposing Yankee Stadium I’d been hearing about for so long? We purchased field level seats behind first base at the box office no more than a half-hour before first pitch. The place was close to dead. Defeated. Maybe five years of Steinbrenner and no playoffs would do that to a fan. Before Mattingly’s RBI, I swear the biggest cheer was for Thurman Munson. Munson died in 1979, but they showed a grainy tribute film on their grainy version of DiamondVision. I was told they did this every single game. No disrespect to the deceased, but at some point, don’t you have to move on?

I sat there with no fear of expressing myself. Bought an Angels cap inside The Stadium and cheered almost obnoxiously for the visitors. Saw a couple of Mets caps in the crowd and those who wore them didn’t seem to hear any taunts. Why should they? The Mets were out in front in the NL East. Yankees fans had enough to worry about on their own.

Shouldn’t have, though. Dave Righetti came on to close out the Angels in the ninth. Should have been easy enough. He was Dave Righetti after all. He was on his way to 46 saves.

But not on Memorial Day. With two outs — one out from victory! — Downing singled and rookie sensation Wally Joyner hit a sensational homer. Angels 8 Yankees 7. Rags resisted the temptation to reach the upper deck on his own.

Witt started the ninth (after giving up seven runs; gotta love the DH) but was taken out after Rickey reached him for a single. Terry Forster, lampooned by David Letterman the previous year as a “fat tub of goo,” waddled into a bit of trouble, allowing the tying run to get to third, but retired Butch Wynegar to end the game.

Yankees lose! THUUUUUH YANKEES LOSE! Didn’t get the impression the home team fans expected different. That’s how the other half lived back then.

Beautiful. Just beautiful. Perfect weather. Perfect result. Then it was out of The Stadium and on to The Parking Lot, taking care not to arouse any ire from The Inmates as we stepped lively past The Bronx House Of Detention. Say what you will about our chop shops, at least we don’t have to hustle past a jail right outside of Gate E.

My experience at Yankee Stadium in 1986 probably bears little resemblance to what it’s like there today. I haven’t been back since 2003 and have no plans to return. Certainly the attention the Yankees have gotten — earned, I will grudgingly admit — is different today, too. But one thing hasn’t changed.

Even then they were full of themselves. The fans may have been downcast, the players as individuals weren’t altogether hateful, but plucking the program I bought that day from my archives makes me both laugh all over again and remember all over again why I instinctively hated this franchise from the moment I heard about them.

Go right to the scorecard portion where the active roster is generally listed. It seems helpful enough at a glance. Hassey, for example, wore No. 12. Shirley was No. 29. No. 3 was listed as Ruth, Babe.

Ruth, Babe?

Yes, the Yankees were so full of themselves that they listed EVERY RETIRED NUMBER in their scorecard as part of their roster! Hence, if Mattingly, Don needed a day off, manager Lou Piniella (who had replaced Billy Martin who had replaced Yogi Berra who had replaced Billy Martin who had replaced Clyde King who had replaced Gene Michael who had replaced Bob Lemon who had replaced Gene Michael all in the previous five years) could always insert Gehrig, Lou in his place. DiMaggio was listed. Mantle, Dickey, Rizzuto…what a bench!

To be fair, Gene Autry, No. 26, was listed among the Angels. Autry’s number was retired in tribute to his long tenure as California owner. It was an honorary thing, the 26th man. I don’t have a California Angels program from 1986, but I’ll bet it didn’t list him on their roster.

Since there wasn’t much sizzle in the way of recent success to sell — and the most hyped prospects included future superstars Mike Christopher, Troy Evers, Bill Fulton and Steve George — the 1986 Yankees program reminded the reader again and again (and again and again) just how great the team used to be. Those pants your 1986 Yankees wear? They’re part of the “same uniforms” their predecessors put on, presumably one leg at a time. Seeing as how Ruth and Gehrig were immortal enough to maintain space on the same roster with Rags and Pags, maybe they jumped into their trousers via a flying leap. We were invited to learn more about those on-hiatus ghosts at Memorial (not Monument) Park, “a smorgasbord of Yankee tradition”.

Only the Yankees could hype a veritable mausoleum like it was an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Tradition is a great way to distract your customers from the dissatisfying present. Thus, there were features on Joe McCarthy and Roger Maris and Vic Raschi and experienced coaches like Jeff Torborg (“an excellent teacher to Yankee pitchers and catchers…it’s no wonder he’ll be back for his eighth year in Pinstripes”), but my favorite article in the program was a reminiscence by a fan named Sam Wharton. Wharton was remembering how awesome it was to catch a foul ball hit by Tony Kubek in 1963. Aw, that’s sweet. But there’s more:

I was no longer a mere participant in the present. Kubek played with Mantle who had played beside DiMaggio who had played with Selkirk who had played with and had taken over right field from Babe.

It was enough to make me want to throw up into my Dellwood Yankee Thermos, but to do so, I’d have to come back on July 23 for Dellwood Yankee Thermos Day. No chance. I’d had enough of seeing how the other half lived in 1986.