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.
But this is not your regular memoirist — you’ve bought a ticket for the Flashback Friday equivalent of Lima Time! I’ll try to go five and get us out with nothing worse than a tie.
In 1986 I was 17 years old, a privileged high-school senior with the beginnings of a drinking problem, an overinflated sense of drama and a desperate love for a baseball team. It was an unhappy year, one I look back on with a mix of horror, mild amusement and relief that it’s far, far behind me. And gratitude — gratitude because it all turned out OK, thanks in no small part to that baseball team.
I was in prep school about an hour north of Boston, a Mets fan in the heart of Red Sox Nation. In truth, I’d only recently returned to the fold: Somewhere around the ’81 strike I’d drifted off into rock ‘n’ roll and far geekier pleasures, only to be summoned back by Dwight Gooden and the ’84 team’s desperate run at the Cubs. This was before WFAN or the Internet, let alone blogs put together by fellow crazies, so it was a rare treat to get to see or hear the Mets outside of the very occasional Game of the Week on the dorm TV. I’d rely on the one-paragraph summary and box score in the Globe, or wait up to hear the score mentioned in passing on news radio. Mostly I’d read: There was Sports Illustrated in the school library, and I wore out my copies of Bats and If at First…, mainlining Davey Johnson and Keith Hernandez.
I did get to see the Mets live that year, but it was at Al Lang Field in March — we’d just moved to St. Petersburg, and the Mets hadn’t yet departed for Cliff Floyd’s favorite hole on the other Florida coast. (I don’t remember if that was the year Wally Backman charged off the field in full uniform as I was exiting and spiked my foot en route to the bus while I stared at him in awe and then realized he wasn’t any taller than I was. Oh, let’s just say it was.) Cut off from the vast majority of regular-season games, I watched the Mets through standings and box scores during April, May and June. And then I went away, and things got strange.
I went all the way to Asia, sent there by my grandfather in what he probably saw as a last bid to save me from a uselessly blinkered, loutish existence. He coached me on Guilin and calligraphy and the Ming and Xian and other things I’d see. And I did see those things. But hazily — because mostly I drank. In hotel bars and hotel rooms and restaurants and casinos. On boats and buses and planes. I fell in with a bunch of college kids and made it my mission to outdrink them all: Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore and China were basically one big binge, broken by occasional looks at the International Herald-Tribune. The Tribune didn’t have game stories or box scores, but it did have the baseball standings. And I couldn’t believe what they told me. The Mets were up by nine or so when I left, but every time I peeked at the standings they seemed to be ascending. 13.5 games. 17.5 games. 19 games. That wasn’t possible, I thought — what on earth was going on with my baseball team?
It was possible. But then came the postseason.
By then I was back at school for my senior year, still drinking. I was drinking because I was young and dumb, but I was also drinking because there was a girl — the other half of a ridiculously overdramatic teenage relationship that had gone bad in that ridiculously all-consuming way teenage relationships do. (It didn’t help that I’d become a Bruce Springsteen disciple.) Things had gone awry during the summer, in that helpless way long-distance relationships did before cellphones and email (and perhaps still do — I’m immensely relieved to say I don’t know), but when I returned things were worse. And they were worse at a time when I was supposed to be working on college essays, realizing I couldn’t hack pre-calc, and feeling like I was on the verge of screwing up a decent-sized portion of the next chapter of my life on multiple fronts. (Which, in retrospect, I was.) My reaction to all this was to slowly and thoroughly panic, an unraveling I attempted to hide and wound up accelerating by consuming whatever quantities of booze and pot I could get my hands on. I’d write incoherent drafts of college essays, stay at the school paper abusing substances until absurd hours, somehow avoid or talk my way past campus security in staggering back to my dorm, have ridiculous fights via payphone with my semi-ex-girlfriend, and then start over.
The only thing that made me happy was the Mets, and as the playoffs arrived I clung to them like I was drowning. But that raised the question of whether they’d stay above water.
The team got through Houston, somehow: I spent 16 innings pacing and writhing and hiding behind a scruffy dorm couch until Jesse finally struck out Kevin Bass, then wound up running down the hill into town because dinner was long past over. (Then, I’m sure, I got good and drunk.) Nothing remained but a World Series, against the Red Sox.
Our history teacher was a World War II vet with visible, ghastly war wounds who’d begin each class with a disquisition on the Sox, their long, storied and tragic history, and their current chances for escaping that history. I was too scared of him to trumpet my Mets fandom and too ignorant to understand why the kid next to me came in for particular needling during these sessions. (Eventually I realized he was a Doubleday. Oh.)
I would definitely mix it up with my Red Sox friends, though. I heard Game 1 on car radios and watched it on TV at the house of a day student’s parents: I was the lone guy screaming in drunken agony amid whooping Sox fans as the ball went though Teufel’s legs. Game 2 grew more and more awful as I glowered at it from a dorm couch. Then the games in Boston: Game 3 felt different from the second Dykstra snuck one over the fence. One of my dormmates went to Game 4; when he returned he just shook his head and muttered, “Gary Carter hit the longest home run I’ve ever seen.” Game 5 ended with me hiding under the covers listening to the radio, having retreated to my own bed in a desperate effort to change the luck. (Everybody remembers Hurst in Game 5, but nobody seems to remember Lenny ended the game as the tying run.)
And Game 6. Game 6 fell on Parents’ Weekend; I high-tailed it back to my parents’ motel with my friend Pete in tow. (A pass letting you off-campus for the night was a welcome change of pace even if it was just to a motel in Lawrence.) My dad fell asleep. So did Pete. My mom and I didn’t — we wound up sitting on the edge of our respective double beds screaming and howling at the TV, in pain and then in disbelief and finally in amazed glee. Then Game 7, back in the dorm basement. With the Mets down 3-0 and things looking dire, Pete chuckled and mentioned that the Mets never won if he was watching. Realizing he’d fallen asleep shortly before Buckner’s flameout, I immediately threatened him with whatever bodily harm I could do to him unless he went the fuck upstairs right now. He did and we won. (To be fair, Pete hasn’t always been bad luck.)
The next day our history teacher had written “Confucius says: ‘Wait till next year’ ” on the blackboard. (He died long before 2004, I’m sad to report.) At lunch a Bosox fan of my acquaintance — who’d taken great pleasure in mocking me and the Mets after Game 2 — arrived sheepfaced and invited me to take my best shot. “There’s no need for that, Betsy — the Sox played a great Series,” I assured her. Then I paused and let the needle slip in: “You should be proud to be a fan of the second-best baseball team on the planet.”
And then I stopped drinking and smoking pot and shaped up and…well, no, I didn’t. In fact I’d get busted for drinking just a couple of months later, the thump at the end of a long, exhausting spiral. But it was different after October 27. I was still a mess, but I had a little euphoria to cushion me. Somehow, amid binges and gratuitous stupidity, I wrote my college essays. Somehow I managed not to flunk pre-calc. Somehow I realized a confused semi-ex-girlfriend shouldn’t be granted such power over my emotions. Somehow I managed not to get kicked out of school. A lot of that somehow came from the fact that my baseball team had won the World Series. It wasn’t a smart gamble to let my sense of well-being get hijacked by a baseball team, but it paid off.
Years later I was a few weeks into a new job in lower Manhattan when I read that Mookie Wilson was signing autographs at the Winter Garden, just a short walk away. I rushed over there and found Mookie, his rounds almost done, talking patiently with a couple of Met fans. I wound up being the last guy, and stuck out my hand, which vanished into his.
“Thanks for getting me into college,” I said.
That startled Mookie: I told him a highly abbreviated version of the above tale. He looked taken aback, maybe a bit annoyed. (And justifiably so: Mookie Wilson dealt with a lot more and worked a lot harder for his own college education than I did.)
“That’s a lot to put on a person,” he said finally, smiling a bit.
Yes, it was. But it was a lot more taken off young, stupid me, who’d had too much to carry and left it up to the Mets to bear the load for us both. However improbably and excruciatingly, they did. That winter they were the World Champions; I was pretty far from that, but I’d hit bottom and started to find my way back up.